“We’ve been through this before,” Rien said with a sigh. “He’s only a Baron. There’s nothing to be worried about.”
“Yes, but you deal with nobility every day.”
“No I don’t,” Rien protested. “Maybe once every few days…”
“That doesn’t help me any,” Kera answered.
“Just act normal. You did fine with Count Connall.”
“I saw him three times during our entire stay and he got stranger every time.”
“Really?” Rien asked. “What makes you say that?”
“Isn’t it obvious? He’s into swords and archers and duels and contests. He even challenged you to a match! I bet you he won’t live to see thirty!”
“It’s only a hobby. He didn’t appear suicidal to me. Besides, he’s dead already,” Rien said, referring to the news he had heard of the young Count’s head being delivered to the Crown Castle by the Beinison ambassador.
“See, what did I tell you?” Kera laughed. The news of the count’s death during his diplomatic mission to Beinison reached them a few weeks back while they were still in Sharks’ Cove and even in that city, contaminated by crime and corruption to its core, the mood of the people turned dark at this signal of the coming war.
Rien laughed as well, although there was nothing funny about Count Connall’s death. It was a way to relieve tension, as the war had already began. “I don’t consider the Beinisons cutting his head off to be a hobby. Those are the fortunes of war.”
Kera fell silent for some time and the horses continued down the road. After they left Sharks’ Cove in Firil, Rien decided to go to the Duchy of Arvalia to see some old friends, while waiting for the war between Baranur and Beinison to take a definite turn. They were out on the road now for almost two months and according to Rien, less than a days ride from Valdasly Keep, their destination. It appeared that Rien had known Baron ReVell Dower, the man whose lands they now travelled, for a long time, but as always, he neglected to give all the details.
“Who do you think will win the war?” Kera asked.
Rien remained silent for a while. “Will it make a difference?”
“Well, sure. You can be out of a job.”
“You assume that Haralan Tallirhan pays for what I do…”
“Well, even if he doesn’t, if the Beinisons win, we will all be subject to their control.”
“Being subject to someone’s control is a relative thing,” Rien said. “You’re subject to Baranurian control now. A king is a king, a bureaucrat a bureaucrat. What’s the difference?”
“But in Beinison there’s no freedom. They practice slavery…”
“Not the Evil Empire story again,” Rien sighed. “Don’t you think they view Baranur the same way?”
“Well, how’d you like to visit Sharks’ Cove not knowing anyone there? This is a perfect example of a population out of control and the government not doing anything to fix it. Many say that your odds of getting killed in Sharks’ Cove are better than anywhere else on this side of Cherisk. And if a murder takes place out in the streets, the town guard will simply dump the body into the bay unless someone steps forward to claim it and pays them to investigate. Is that how a town guard is to function? What about Nistak in the south of…”
“You support them?” Kera asked, shocked.
“Beinison? Not at all. I don’t support either side. I simply made the point that each side has an opinion which is equally valid. Morality always stood on shaky ground. Who is to say I am more moral than those I fight?”
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
“Who I think will win the war?” Rien fell silent once again. “I don’t know. Wars are unpredictable. Sometimes one man can change the tide of a battle and like I told you, it makes little difference should Baranur lose. Untar won’t be able to enslave two million people. He may make an example of a town here or there, but for the most part life will go on as it always has.”
“Is there someone you want to win?”
“I would prefer Baranur to keep its lands. No change is the easiest change to deal with. Do you have an opinion?”
“I want Baranur to win. It’s my home.”
“An understandable choice,” Rien nodded.
“I’d rather there was no war,” Kera sighed.
That was something Rien could agree with as well. War, no matter for what reason, brought more pain and harm in the long run. If he could, he would try to stop it, but he had not the power to do so. The war was on. Many cities in the east had fallen and before a victor could be declared, many more would fall, perhaps on both sides. All he could do now was go home and make sure that his own tribe would be ready, should the events come to the worst.
“It’s too late for hoping,” he sighed. “Just wish for a favorable outcome now.”
They rode in silence for a while longer, stopping at the crest of the hill over which the road passed. Ahead of them spread a green valley with a small village at the foot of the hills and a stronghold a few leagues across the valley, on the side of the mountain.
“The keep was built almost two centuries ago,” Rien said. “Back then this was the frontier with barbarian tribes coming down from the west and the north. All sorts of things that became legends over the years.”
“You mean like you?”
Rien smirked and looked back into the valley. “Even me.” He examined the dense forest to the south. It covered the valley uniformly, a vast dark green venerable mass, reaching as far as the eye could see. “That’s Charnelwood. The name means `Darkling Forest’.”
Kera reached out to touch Rien. “I’d rather live in a house.”
He put his arm around her, in spite of the awkwardness of doing this on horseback. “It’s my home — I was born here.”
“Why is it called that?” Kera asked.
“The forest?” He looked at her. “Charnelwood?”
Rien took a deep breath. “Legend says that demons roam these lands. Sometimes people will go into the forest and never come back. Some come back years later, as if only a few days in their lives had passed. Locals say that they can hear the demons at night and some even claim to see them.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Kera said.
“I’m not. No one ever walks on the south side of the road. Just look at it. See the way the grass is barely worn there? A generation ago this road was a good ten yards closer to the edge of the forest. To the locals, the legends of demons are very real.”
Kera shivered and locked her arms around Rien even tighter.
They remained quiet for a time, watching over the valley, then Rien raised his arm and pointed off into the distance. “Do you see that mountain with the flat top?”
“The big one?”
“The same. That’s Mount Voldronnai, the only volcano this side of Magnus. It has been dormant for over a century now.”
“Looks just like any other mountain. Why don’t we come back when it’s doing something?”
Rien smiled and kicked Kelsey into motion. “Could be a long wait. Volcanos have been known to sleep for centuries.”
“Then we definitely shouldn’t wait,” Kera guided Hasina after him. “I’ve got things to do… Rien, I still don’t know what to say to the Baron…”
“Just act normal.”
“Cut it out or I’ll leave you in the village.”
Kera sighed. “I’ll just keep quiet and out of sight.”
Two hours later, in late afternoon, they rode into Valdasly Keep on the side of the mountain. Rien and Kera dismounted as a guard approached them.
“Please inform his Lordship Baron Dower that Sir Keegan requests an audience,” Rien told the guard before he had the chance to speak.
The guard froze in place for a moment, considering his options — Rien was not dressed as knight normally would — then quickly returned to the keep.
“Must be new here,” Rien shrugged to Kera. “He forgot to bow.”
“He didn’t recognize the name,” Rien explained. “The name Dower was changed by marriage. The original name was Keegan.”
“So now you want them to bow to you?”
“It’d be nice,” Rien smirked.
“After all that stuff you said about ego…”
“Got to have fun at someone’s expense.”
“You have little amusement value.”
“Then I guess I’ll be sleeping in a different room tonight.”
“I’ll have them not give you blankets.”
“And you think that will bring me to you?”
“I certainly hope so.”
“My price is higher than that of a blanket.”
“That’s good. You do more than just lie around.”
Kera embraced him with a laugh. “What are you going to pay me?”
“I am not paying you. The League will pay you as soon as the war is over.”
“Does it matter which side wins?” Kera’s expression suddenly became serious.
“I don’t think so. It depends on who gets killed, but in the long run I suppose it will…”
Kera sighed. “I don’t know why I keep starting to talk about the war. It scares me like there’s no tomorrow.”
Rien nodded. “Not thinking about it won’t make it go away, either.”
“Neither will thinking about it,” she said.
“Rien!” a voice called to them and they turned to see a tall man in his early forties approaching with the guard.
“ReVell,” Rien smiled and gripped forearms with the man. “It’s been a while.”
“It has indeed,” the man answered, then glanced over at the guard, standing behind him, watching the exchange. “It’s all right, Crane. Sir Keegan is an old friend.”
The guard bowed politely and returned to his post by the wall of the keep.
“ReVell, this is Kera, my apprentice,” Rien introduced his companion. “Kera, meet Baron ReVell Dower.”
They exchanged greetings and then all three went inside the keep, leaving a servant to deal with the horses.
“What’s this with a knight having an apprentice? What ever happened to squires?” ReVell asked in the great hall of the keep.
“This world has too many squires and knights,” Rien said with a sigh. “Enough to justify having a war to reduce the number…”
“Well, it’s true, isn’t it? Untar thinks he has enough. Haralan thinks he has enough. They fight.”
ReVell shook his head. “You know that’s not how it works.”
“We never agreed in our philosophy on politics,” Rien said.
“No, we did not,” ReVell agreed, “but that still doesn’t explain why you have an apprentice instead of a squire.” His voice was strict, as if questioning a child.
Rien looked back at Kera who was walking quietly behind them. “She is not a combatant. She will do better with a normal life.”
Rien threw a sideways glance at ReVell and the Baron laughed.
“I’m sorry,” he said after a moment. “I made an assumption.”
“No, no,” Rien sighed. “You’re quite right…”
They all ascended the staircase in silence and ReVell told one of the servants to show Rien and Kera to their rooms, adding to Rien that spring and summer had become tourist season with every other soldier in Arvalia coming to Valdasly for training. “The castle is almost full, the barracks are almost full. I had to order an extra building built so the soldiers won’t sleep in the barn, not that the cavalry minds…” When the servant was ready to show Rien and Kera to their rooms, the Baron left. “I will be at the Arena,” he told Rien. “Come down when you’re settled. We have much to talk about.”
Rien and Kera followed the servant down the corridor to their rooms, set next door to each other. Both faced south, towards the great green forest that stretched across the valley. Rien paused at the window, looking out at Charnelwood. Kera stood behind him, but did not want to disturb him.
“So is the Baron that bad?” Rien suddenly turned.
Kera shook her head. “He didn’t do more than greet me.”
“I’ll take that as a `no’.”
“Why were you two arguing over whether I should be a squire or an apprentice?”
“The Baron is a soldier first and foremost. He feels the best defense is a strong offense. You will hear a lot about the war from him.”
“It doesn’t sound like you two are very good friends,” Kera said.
“We learned to respect each other’s quirks,” Rien answered, putting his saddlebag on a chair. “I don’t remind him of the harm that war does and he doesn’t comment on how I treat knighthood. Are you hungry?”
Kera shook her head. “I’ll make it to dinner.”
“Then let me show you around,” Rien said.
They walked around the castle for a while, Rien describing the significance of paintings, busts, weapons and armor setup in various rooms and corridors, then they went outside.
“You sound as if you live there,” Kera noted to Rein.
“I did, for a while,” he answered. “Obviously I still visit. Let me show you the Arena as well.”
“The Arena?” Kera asked, hearing the term for the second time.
“A lot of people are trained here for the Duke’s troops. The Baron’s military influence extends over the entire Duchy. He himself became a knight at a relatively young age. Perhaps that’s the reason he’s so deeply involved with warfare.”
“So you didn’t find Count Connall very strange?”
“Not so much strange as frightening. I am concerned that someone so young would worship warfare.”
As they turned the corner on the west side of the building, a large field revealed itself. It was partitioned with small fences and men, alone and in groups, practiced in different areas.
“How did you come to know the Baron if you two are so different?” Kera asked.
“His father introduced us.”
“So he knows you’re not…”
“He does,” Rien answered calmly. “But his son does not.”
A group of a dozen men in armor ran by, heading for the field and Rien pointed to a platform stretching parallel to the keep at the edge of the Arena. “Up there. You’ll see better from above.”
Kera climbed up the narrow ladder leading onto the platform with Rien directly behind her. They walked quietly down the platform, watching the action in the Arena. Below them two heavily armored men entered one of the fenced off areas and drew their swords. Kera watched their match in awe until one knocked the other off balance and the fight ended.
“Hmmm?” he continued looking at the men below.
“What if I want to become a knight?”
He turned his head. “Why?”
“I’ve been thinking about what the Baron said.”
“I meant, what do you expect to gain by it?”
“A silly title, I guess.”
“Silly is right,” Rien turned back as the two men prepared for a second match.
“I’m serious, Rien. I want to learn.”
“To fight? You don’t need a title for that.”
“Why are you against it?”
“I don’t think this is something you need.”
Kera’s eyes blazed with anger. “I am perfectly capable of making my own decisions!” Her exclamation was loudly punctuated by the restarting of the fight below.
“The decision is as much for me as it is for yourself,” Rien said. “I will not have a squire for the wrong reason.”
“Then how do you want me to convince you?”
Rien had to think about the answer he would give. He was very much against Kera’s wish to be a knight, but at the same time, did not want to be unreasonable. She deserved a chance to explain herself and some time to deal with and think about what she needed and what she thought she wanted. “By sunset tomorrow I want you to give me a good reason for me to take you as a squire.”
Kera thought for a moment. “I can give you one right now.”
“If it’s not good, I won’t give you a second chance.”
“It’s good,” Kera said, her voice growing more confident as she spoke. “I want to become a knight because I want to be somebody. Because most great women became great because of the men they stood by! Because I don’t know who my parents are and had to grow up in the streets! I am a commoner with no way to progress in this damn chauvinistic society, other than by an ability to fight!”
“Quite true,” Rien nodded.
“I am not finished!” Kera yelled at him, but did not go on.
“Well, continue,” Rien prompted her. “I apologize.”
“I was going to call you a few choice names,” Kera sighed. “I guess I’m not ready…”
“You do realize there are not a lot of women who choose this path. That attaches a certain stigma to those who do.”
“I know,” Kera nodded. “I’m willing to face that.”
Footsteps sounded on the platform and Rien glanced over his shoulder. “We’ll discuss this later,” he told Kera, straightening up.
“Sir Keegan!” the visitor’s voice boomed. “I’ve heard of your sudden arrival! What brings you here?”
“Sir Brand!” Rien greeted the man.
Kera watched them for a minute, then went further down the platform, watching the field and wondering about her choice. She could tell by Rien’s eyes that he had an answer before she was halfway through her reasons. She turned to look back at the two men, wondering what that decision was. The choice that she made was rash and impulsive, but she also believed in everything she said and that at this point it was one of the few paths open to her.
Rien remained busy the rest of the afternoon and Kera spent her time watching the men practice in the field. They met again shortly before dinner, but before they could talk, Baron Dower walked over to them. He eyed Rien critically, examining his plain clothes — a well worn tunic, pants and dusty boots. “What is this?”
Rien turned, watching the Baron as the man walked around him.
“You look like a peasant! This will never do, Rien. You’re my knight, back home for the first time in two years and look at yourself! You look like a commoner. A landed knight!” He scolded Rien as one would a little boy caught making trouble. “I want you to change into armor, chain in the very least, sword, cape, crest, everything! And don’t bother showing up for dinner before that.”
“Yes, Sir,” Rien muttered as the Baron left, looking after him, clearly unhappy, but not hostile.
“Is that how I have to talk to you to get anywhere with you?” Kera’s voice reminded Rien of her presence.
“You learn to make sacrifices for family,” Rien sighed. “Come on. You may as well look civil, too.”
At dinner, after they changed, Kera managed to spend only a few minutes with Rien before a group of men dragged him off to the far end of the table. She talked some with the people who sat by her, all the while looking to the far end of the table, where Rien sat with Baron Dower and other decorated men. She was both angry that they were separated, but glad she had the opportunity to be alone and think. A lot of the discussion was about the war and the battle plans of Baranur and the cities that had fallen in the east.
Kera hurriedly finished her meal and went up to her room. Before long there was a knock at the door and Rien entered. She looked at him, trying not to betray what she was feeling. Somehow she could not get over the bitterness of their last talk. She wanted to achieve something during her life and he was blocking her ability to do so.
“I’m sorry about dinner,” Rien said, sitting down. “I couldn’t say `no’.”
Kera shrugged. “I understand.” She tried to, any way.
Rien nodded. “About what we discussed earlier today…”
Kera looked up and challenged his gaze. She wanted him to make the decision for her. She knew he was right when he said that women do not often become knights and that it would not be an easy path, but she did want to take it, in spite of the fear and difficulties it held for her.
Rien stood back up to pace, as he often did at times like these. “Do you realize what you asked for?”
“I think so.”
“Do you understand the restrictions? The limitations? The duties?”
“I know it won’t be easy.”
“In training to become a knight you’ll have to learn more than combat. Arts and philosophy are equally important. You will have to understand specific virtues and carry rigid codes of honor and morality.”
“Do you do all of that?”
Rien paused. “I’d like to think of myself as an honorable, moral person. By the standards under which I grew up, anyway.”
“What about the way you killed Sir Quinn?”
“There’s no honor among thieves,” Rien said without hesitation. “This too is a part of the morality. `Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and Good against Injustice and Evil’,” he quoted the Baranurian code of knights. “Sometimes you have to let evil be your good, so your tasks are achieved, and not worry about how you reached your goal until later, when you are judged for your actions. Is this something you can live with? Not being able to turn down a plea for help? Not having the privilege to overlook a wrong?”
“If I don’t try, I’ll never know.”
Rien turned to look out the window at the darkness outside. He felt he was being defensive explaining why he did what he did. He was not the one on trial here. Kera was. It was a decision about her that needed to be made. He knew what he wanted. He feared what he thought was right. He was no knight, although he held the title. He would have acted differently if he believed in the code. He would have done what Arvel had done upon encountering Quinn, but he chose to handle the situation differently — not by honor, but by cunning. He quickly turned, grabbing hold of Kera’s arm and pulled her to himself, embracing and kissing her, much to her surprise. She resisted at first, then put her arms around him, feeling his arms under her tunic. Was this a sign of acceptance? In her arousal she tried removing Rien’s tunic, but he pushed her away.
“You can’t do this if you’re a squire.”
Kera took a few steps back in frustration. Her shocked expression changed to barely visible tears. “Why are you trying to scare me off?”
“Because I want you to understand what it is you asked for. It’s not a romantic dream or a game. You can never go back. As a squire you’ll receive less respect from knights than from a commoner. As a woman you may receive none.”
“But if I make it!”
“You’ll still be a woman knight, never quite as good as a man, never the image of the legend!”
“The Baron doesn’t seem to have the problem!”
“The Baron knows that the value of a soldier is above the value of the soldier’s gender! He doesn’t care who holds the sword so long as they can fight. And fight on his side!”
“Then why can’t you have the same respect for me?”
“Because I don’t want you to make a mistake. I didn’t become a knight because I wanted to. I became one because it was a necessity. You don’t have to live the same life.”
“But I want to!”
Rien sighed. He had no doubt that she did, but he feared what that meant both to her and to him. They were already from different worlds. This would only serve to make them more different. “I’ll ask ReVell to find you a sponsor tomorrow.”
“What about you?”
“I’m personally involved.”
“But you just said it would have to stop.”
“I don’t think I could remain objective.”
“I think you can,” Kera protested. She wanted to be a knight, but she did not want to lose Rien in the process. He saved her from Liriss, something she wanted to happen for years. He took her in and protected her and helped her and taught her new things. She wanted to continue to learn and she wanted him to teach her.
Rien studied Kera. “I’m glad you believe in me, but…”
“No, wait. What are you afraid of? Getting the urge to sleep with me? What about when I become a knight? Would you sleep with a woman knight?”
The question had been forced. “Is our sleeping together normal?”
“Why isn’t it? Men and women who’re attracted to one another do it all the time!”
Rien lowered his head. “Kera, I’ll outlive you by centuries. In twenty or thirty years, when your hair is grey, I will look every bit as I do now.”
Tears appeared in her eyes. “Don’t you think I know that?”
“We’re from different worlds. What kind of a life can we have together? How could this have gone as far as it did?”
Kera sat down. “That night in the forest, after we left Dargon, I wasn’t really interested in you…I just wanted the sex.”
“And after you got it?”
“I don’t know. I was tired of all the damn pity and sympathy I was getting from you. I guess all I needed was a little spark to fall in love with you.”
Rien did not move, still standing by the window where he had stopped. “I can’t permit myself to admit that I care. I’ll only end up hurting you in a relationship such as this.”
Kera turned away from Rien, but she did not try to hide her pain from him. She could hear the pain in his voice and agreed with every word he said, but could not bring herself to face the reality of the situation. Were she giving advice to someone else, she would urge them to forget it and live their own life, but coming to the same decision for herself was almost impossible. She turned back to Rien, not wanting this to be the last day of their involvement. “Can you just turn around and walk away as if this never happened?”
“No,” Rien shook his head. He did not need the time to think. He knew the problem well. “I know better, but I can’t.”
At least he was being honest. “Then what do you want to do?”
“I’d be lying if I said I knew.”
“Then why don’t you take me as your squire and we’ll see what to do next…”
“I don’t like temporary solutions,” Rien said.
“I’m willing to listen to more lasting ones.”
“I don’t have any. None that I want to use.”
“Then why not do it this way and see how it goes?”
“Because it’ll only get harder.”
“I know,” she answered. “I don’t expect it to be simple.” She got up and approached him. “It’s going to hurt us both sooner or later, but I don’t want it to be today.”
Rien studied Kera for a moment longer. “I’ll talk with ReVell. We can have the ceremony tomorrow.”
Kera put her arms around him. “Thank you.”
Rien returned the embrace. “Don’t thank me yet. You may come to hate me for this.”
She turned him and pushed him down on the bed, kissing him again. He did not resist. “One last time,” Kera pulled at his tunic.
“I just don’t understand you,” ReVell Dower complained to Rien.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand myself either,” Rien answered. “I find these days that I surprise myself more often than those around me.”
The two men stepped into the court yard of castle, from the archway leading to the great hall, among the dispersing crowd of people. Rien stopped abruptly and looked back at Kera, standing at the far end of the room. She smiled and he let a ghost of a smile come across his face. It was official now. She was his squire. He quickly turned and hurried after the Baron.
“It wasn’t because of what I said yesterday, was it?” ReVell asked, glancing sideways.
“Not really,” Rien answered, “but I think it hurried the process along.”
“I’m glad you agreed with me,” ReVell said. “It’s unseemly to have a knight followed around by an apprentice. People talk.”
“I know,” Rien sighed. “They did. This was the only viable option.”
“Are you glad you did it?”
“I don’t know. Only time will tell.”
“Rien, there’s one more thing…” The Baron paused, uncomfortable. “This is rather hard for me to say and I realize I have no business bringing it up, but according to my servants you and Kera slept in your room last night.”
Rien looked away. “Look, I can only deal with one problem at a time. Don’t you think I know what the problems are?”
“I think you should think about your position and how you’re using it. Now, if one knight took another’s squire to bed, I would look the other way, but your own squire? Do you realize the magnitude of a scandal you can cause?”
“I know. I’m working on it. It’s not just me.”
ReVell shook his head. “I ordered my people not to discuss it. Please don’t give them a reason to.”
“I won’t,” Rien promised.
“`Thou shalt never lie and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.’”
“I won’t do anything to embarrass you or myself here.”
The two men continued walking along the castle wall.
“Rien, I must talk to you about the war. The Duke has charged me with building and leading the forces he is to contribute to King Haralan’s army in Leftwich and Bivar. I know your skills. I want to assign you a detachment.”
“Please don’t ask me, I won’t accept,” Rien said.
“`Thou shalt make war against thine enemies without cessation’,” the Baron reminded him.
“The Beinison aren’t my enemies. Those who attack my people are.”
“`Thou shalt love and uphold the country in which thou wast born.’”
“My country is the forest south of here,” Rien said.
“You know the country those words words represent is Baranur. They always have, to all who have sworn the oath. `Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.’”
“Stop quoting the pledge to me,” Rien said, realizing he did the same thing to Kera the night before. “The entire staff has been told to stand down. We were all told to leave and stay out of it. I hear some people even went to Duurom to pass the time.”
“Everyone?” ReVell asked, just to be sure.
“Some couriers are still on, but it won’t last much longer. We can’t be expected to keep order in time of war.”
“So you’re here just to visit home?” ReVell said, with some disappointment in his voice.
“Just like I told you yesterday. I’m here to restore old ties and make sure my home will be safe.”
ReVell glanced around and together with Rien moved further from the castle. “Flint Venture is due in any day now. I wanted to ask him to talk with the tribes, find out what we can count on. I pray to any deity that will listen that the war never come this far, but if it does, I want to know that everyone is ready for it. Perhaps it would be better if you talked to them.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” Rien said in a low voice. “I’ll have to arrange everything tonight. I want to be ready by the time Flint arrives.”
Flint Venture was somewhat of a local legend, a commoner hero who one day picked up a sword to right all wrongs that bandits and looters caused in the mountains. With time he attracted a band of men much like himself and restored order to the wilderness roads where town guards and constables did not travel and the Ducal Guard did not often pass. In time he met and became an unofficial liaison between the forest elves and those few outsiders who knew of the tribe’s existence. He and his people now guarded the region for a good decade and in that time came to be friends with the secrets that Charnelwood hid.
“Rien?” ReVell yanked his companion’s arm. “Pay attention.”
“Sorry. I was thinking what can be done if the war comes to Arvalia. I understand Pyridain and Westbrook have already fallen.”
“That’s why it’s so critical that I gather the men for Duke Glavenford,” ReVell stressed. “He wants the troops backing the heavy infantry in Leftwich in two months!”
“Glavenford? Jastrik’s cousin? The short one?”
“The same. Duke Jastrik was killed a few months ago. Haven’t you heard?”
“No. Who was it? Did they catch the killer?”
“I don’t know,” ReVell admitted. “Last I heard, it was being `handled’.”
Rien nodded at the news, not really giving it much thought. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to having to defend Arvalia, but if it does, we’ll be ready. I’ll leave now and let you know what the decision is.”
“Very well. I will see you at dinner, then.”
“I doubt I’ll make it back,” Rien said. “I may have to spend the night in the forest.”
As the lunch time ceremony ended, Kera waited patiently for Sir Bonhan to come for her. She watched Rien and Baron Dower go off to talk in the court yard, deeply occupied in their discussion. Rien turned at the doorway and looked in her direction. Kera smiled and noticed a trace of a smile on his face, but he then turned and walked out of the great hall after the Baron.
She looked about the chamber, studying the faces of the people around her. Someone greeted her. Another person congratulated her on her new status. Finally a stout muscular man to who she was introduced early in the morning walked up to her. “Follow me, Kera.” She did. This was Sir Bonhan, the man in charge of the Arena outside. Rien introduced them at breakfast and told Kera that she will spend the week under his supervision in the fields. Sir Bonhan was in charge of all the squires and men-at-arms and even the knights who used the Arena.
“I want to see how well you can use a sword before I assign you to a group,” Sir Bonhan said as they left the building. He led Kera into the Arena and selecting a fenced off area, drew his sword. “Are you ready?”
Kera drew the sword she had worn to the ceremony, as Rien had instructed she do. It was the sword that had belonged to Garwood Quinn, which she took upon their escape from Phedra. A fine blade of good quality metal, probably a family heirloom.
“Are you ready?” Sir Bonhan repeated.
Kera nodded and Sir Bonhan instantly swung his weapon. There was barely any time to parry the attack. The force of the vibration descended into her arms, almost making her lose her grip on the hilt. She took a step back and blocked the next swing with a little more confidence. It was not as simple an attack, but the blow was weaker. This continued for a few more moments until the knight finally growled, “Swing back, you coward!” She did and soon the match became a more even give and take.
After a few minutes Kera was instructed to stop. She did and replaced the sword in its scabbard. Sir Bonhan did the same.
“Not bad,” the knight commented, “but it’s not good either. You’ll need to do more than be able to beat a peasant if you want to be a knight. You stand like a girl and you swing like a girl. And there’s no muscle in your strike.”
Kera was about to comment, but bit her tongue, thinking it would be better not to anger the knight. Sir Bonhan might have been shorter than she, but he was as wide as he was tall, all muscle by the looks of his arms and he was obviously an expert with the sword. “Yes, Sir,” she sighed.
“Come along. I’ll show you who you’ll practice with.”
As they passed the elevated platform along the edge of the field, Kera noticed Rien standing up above, watching. Sir Bonhan stopped and she stopped behind him. Rien, seeing this, stepped over the railing and jumped down, landing solidly on his feet. Sir Bonhan headed for Rien and Kera stood, waiting in uncertainty. What would a good squire do in a situation such as this? Wait or follow? She chose to wait.
“How did she do?” Rien asked in a quiet voice when the knight approached him. He did not want Kera to hear.
“Rather well, I must say. She has some of your style. Have you been teaching her?”
Rien nodded, maintaining his expression. “We’ve been practicing off and on.”
“I’ll put her with the intermediate group,” Sir Bonhan said, straightening his belt. “But she still has a way to go.”
“Thank you,” Rien answered. “I didn’t want to think I did a bad job, but I’d still prefer someone like you to train her.”
“It will be a pleasure, Sir Keegan.”
Rien turned to Kera who was watching them with curiosity. “I have to leave on business for a while. I should be back tomorrow evening. Stay with your training.”
“Yes, Sir,” Kera answered. She wanted to do more — ask what the business was, where. Perhaps even offer to go with him, but she had to fit the mold of a perfect squire, to live up to what she said she wanted to be. She was there to listen, not question.
Kera spent the day in the field with a group of students, being trained to endure the requirements of combat. At first she feared that she would be clumsier than her seemingly skilled peers, but in time realized that she was not among the worst in the group. Yet, in spite of this, she faced some humiliation, being the only woman in the group and as far as she could tell, in the whole field, but even then she did her best to stand up to bullies which tried to poke fun at her.
The training session lasted until dinner, by which time Kera was too tired to worry about the sword in her hands. She ate dinner, ignoring the usual roar around the table and retreated to her room as quickly as possible. Tired and aching from the workout, she immediately went to bed, wondering about the business Rien had to take care off and what she had gotten herself into. She was not sure how long she could last at these practices or how long the practices themselves would last.
Kera opened her eyes to bright sunlight falling on her from the open shutters. Her arms and legs were sore and her back hurt and she suspected she knew what had caused all this pain. Getting up with a groan, she washed, got dressed and went downstairs to eat. It was about an hour past sunrise, but practice was not to start until after lunch.
She sat down at the long dining table in the great hall, across from the kitchen, with her meal and after rubbing her stiff shoulder, started on the food. Unlike lunch and dinner, breakfast was an informal meal, not held to a rigid time schedule and people drifted in and out at irregular intervals.
One of the men Kera saw in the Arena the day before sat down next to her with his breakfast. “Good morning,” he smiled. “I hope you don’t mind me joining you.”
“Good morning,” Kera answered. She tried smiling, but even the muscles in her jaws ached, perhaps because of all the scowling she did the day before.
“Kiyan Kanne,” he introduced himself, “Sir Hyde’s squire.”
“I’m Kera,” she managed to squeeze out a smile. “I’m with Sir Keegan.”
“I know. I saw the ceremony yesterday. Congratulations.”
“Don’t congratulate me just yet. I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into.”
“Tough day yesterday?”
Kera nodded, attacking her breakfast. “Swinging that sword lunch through diner is not something I’ve done before.”
“It’ll get better,” Kiyan assured her. “It was the same for me when I started training. You’ll build the endurance you need.”
“Are the sessions always lunch through dinner?” Kera asked.
“They’ve been that way for the last two months,” he answered. “Sir Bonhan tortures his own squires in the mornings. I guess he doesn’t want any interruptions.”
Kera smiled. “Tortures?”
Kiyan smiled as well. “I can’t think of a better word. He has them get up at the crack of dawn and suffer out in the Arena. Then in the afternoon they torture us.”
“Really? I thought that man was a knight!”
“I’m sure he’s closer to being one than either of us,” Kiyan said.
Kera spent the remainder of the morning with Kiyan, discussing the training and the Arena and the knights.
After lunch she returned to the Arena for the rest of the afternoon. The practice did not go any smoother, but Kera was better prepared and when one of the bullies tried to show that a woman should not be using a sword, Kiyan tried to stop him and ended up starting a fight.
Sir Bonhan was not pleased when he heard of these happenings and made a general announcement to the students that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated. Men-at-arms or squire, those who went beyond the requirements of their training would be severely disciplined.
After that, the day went a lot smoother.
At dinner the war with Beinison was the topic of the day, something that Kera did not find pleasant to listen to. The latest word was that Pyridain and Westbrook were completely overrun, some talk of a flotilla heading for the Laraka. Casualties sounded like numbers from the King’s treasury. She sighed, trying to pay more attention to her soup than the knight at the other end of the table. If Kiyan were around, Kera thought, she could try talking to him about something else, but for the first time during the day he was conspicuously missing.
When dinner was over, Kera went outside. The atmosphere around the table had gotten her completely depressed and she was hoping that a stroll outside would make her feel better. She took a seat on a fallen tree trunk outside the keep’s walls, looking at the forest in the valley beyond the rolling foothills. All was dark and calm. She strained her sight to see down the hill, hoping for a glimpse of Rien.
Soft footsteps sounded behind Kera and she turned to see Kiyan. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked turning back to the darkness.
“It’s cooler than it’s been the last few nights,” he answered.
Kera instantly remembered that her own vision was much better than that of the people around her. If he was lucky, Kiyan could barely see ten or twenty yards ahead of himself.
“It beats fighting out in the sun,” Kera added. “You didn’t go to dinner?”
“No. Sir Hyde didn’t approve of my being in a fight today. He had me eat alone.”
“I wanted to thank you for helping me out in the Arena today,” Kera said. “I’m sorry if that caused problems.”
“No, not at all,” Kiyan hurried to say. “It was the least I could do. And Sir Hyde just told me to chase skirts on my own time.”
Kera did not answer, not sure what to say. Was he implying something?
“So why would Sir Keegan want a female squire?” Kiyan asked after an uncomfortably long stretch of silence.
“Why did Sir Hyde want a male squire?” Kera asked.
“This is going to sound very bad,” Kiyan started, “but men are the ones who are supposed to fight.”
“You’re right, it sounds bad,” Kera said. “Why shouldn’t women fight? They work in the fields side by side with men, work in markets. One for one, we’re quicker, have better balance and our tempers don’t need work. I once knew a criminal who would only hire women to thief for him.”
“What about physical strength?”
“Oh…I think it’s fine for a man to be a labourer,” Kera laughed.
“I’ve always been taught that men are supposed to protect women, care for them,” Kiyan explained.
“I don’t see why. I’ve been taking care of myself since an early age. I think I did just fine…” She wanted to say more, but feared her past life may interfere with her future and left it at that.
“So why do you want to be a knight? There’s a war on!”
“Because it’s out there, it’s something to do. Because I don’t want to be just another woman.”
“Hmmm… And to think I just did it for fortune and glory.”
“Are you getting any?” Kera asked.
“I think I’ll have to go to war for that,” Kiyan answered. “What do you think about the war? It’s the topic of the day, it seems.”
“Have you ever had the feeling that if you get a good nights rest, all your problems will solve themselves?” Kera asked. “That’s how I feel about the war.”
“I want to go to war,” Kiyan admitted. “It’s selfish, but I want to be a hero.”
“But what if you get killed?”
“Then I’ll know I’ve tried…well, not me. I won’t be around, but others will and that’ll be enough.”
“I don’t understand you…”
“Me or my wanting to do something great?”
“Both,” Kera sighed.
“I guess that puts us on equal footing,” Kiyan said. “I don’t understand why you want to be a knight. You’re a pretty young woman. You can probably have any man you want. Why wield a sword and fight?”
Kera looked away. “Sometimes it’s really tough for me to understand why I do the things I do, much less try to explain them to others. I just don’t want to be dependent on someone else. I spent a large part of my life that way and I don’t want to live that way again.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Kiyan agreed.
Kera got up, dragging her cloak after her. “I’d better get some rest before tomorrow.” She could not concentrate on worrying about Rien with Kiyan present and she still had all the aches and pains from the practice and feared that she would feel even worse when she woke up in the morning.
“I’ll walk you in,” Kiyan offered.
“Sure,” Kera nodded. “Are all the men here training for the war?”
“Just about. A lot are being trained for the regiments Duke Glavenford will be sending to Leftwich and Bivar next month…if they’re still around.”
They crossed the court yard and entered the keep.
“Does Sir Keegan have any plans for the war?” Kiyan asked.
“Not that I know of,” Kera said. “I hope he doesn’t want to join in.”
“If he doesn’t, it’ll give me that much more room to be heroic,” Kiyan smiled.
They reached Kera’s room. “Thanks for walking me in,” she said.
“My pleasure,” Kiyan answered. “Not a lot of women I can do this with around here.”
“Glad I could help.”
Kiyan leaned forward to kiss her, but Kera pulled away, surprised it took her so long to react.
“I’m sorry, I can’t,” she said.
“No, it’s my own fault,” he hurried to say, taking a few steps back. “I assumed I could get away with it. Still friends?”
“Still friends,” Kera agreed. “Good night.”
Kera sprawled out on the bed, wondering if she acted correctly. She was not sure what to expect from Rien anymore, but did not want to tempt fate. If she were to have a choice, she would choose to remain with him. She got up to look out the window, which was barely level with the wall, but not facing in the right direction. Kiyan was a nice young man. Someone she could see herself with, but could he give her what Rien had given her? Perhaps if she got a good nights rest, things would indeed appear clearer in the morning.
With a sigh Kera returned to her bed and quickly fell asleep.
Kera woke up in the morning to someone shaking her awake. She grabbed the arm with one hand, thinking to pull her dagger with the other, but she had left the daggers packed away, it having been a year since she last slept with them.
“You’re a little jumpy,” Rien sat down on the edge of her bed.
“A simple `good morning’ would’ve been better,” Kera relaxed. Her last two days had been very difficult, having to put up with a lot of men trying to prove their superiority to her, half of whom she could take down on a bad day. She was tired and jumpy and was not expecting Rien to show up in her room. It was still dark outside.
“I tried that,” he answered. “Did you wait up for me last night?”
“No. I was too tired to stay up.”
“Is Sir Bonhan running you hard?”
“Yes.” She looked around. By the looks of the sky outside the window, it was still a while before sunrise. “Go away. It’s still dark.”
“It’ll be light within the hour. Get up.”
“Unlike you, I need to sleep,” Kera complained, but sat up in bed, tossing her legs over the edge.
“I’ll wait outside,” Rien stood up.
“Wait. I don’t mind if you stay.”
He walked over to the window and looked out.
“How was your trip?”
“All right. I’ll have to go again in a day or two.” Rien could hear Kera getting out of bed and the floor boards squeak under her feet.
“Why am I getting up now?”
“Because I told you to.”
He turned to her, then looked away while she put on her tunic. “To run down to the village.”
“I get plenty of exercise already.”
“You need conditioning.”
Kera remained quiet for a while. Rien continued to look out the window. He felt uncomfortable in his new position as her knight. He never liked the hierarchy of command and the status levels that were placed on society. Kera was never subordinate to him before. Having it be this way now was unnerving.
“Why did you look away a moment ago?”
“I’m waiting for you to dress.”
“But why aren’t you looking at me? It’s not like you’ve never seen me naked before.”
“You’re my squire.”
“That doesn’t change it! Look at me!”
He turned reluctantly. Kera stood dressed by the bed, arms folded over her chest.
“Let’s go. I want to get to the village and back before breakfast.”
Kera did not move for a moment, still expecting him to give her an answer, but when he opened the door and stepped out, she sighed and followed him.
“The village is five leagues away,” she pointed out, catching up to Rien.
“You’re healthy. You’ll make it.” He walked to the stairs without stopping to wait. “How did your training go?”
Kera wondered if she should answer. “What’s troubling you?”
Rien glanced over at her. “The war. It’s not going well.”
Kera sighed. “Will you be joining?”
“Not unless it comes this far.”
“That’s not it, is it?”
“I’m also uncomfortable with you being my squire.”
“You weren’t uncomfortable when you held me captive in Phedra.”
“Kera, you’re making this harder than it has to be.”
“I’m sorry,” she said without hesitation. She was pushing him to act the way he always did and he was not going to comply.
“How was your training?” Rien asked again.
“Pretty good, I guess. I win as often as I get beaten.”
“I’ll help you practice as soon as I have the time to do so.”
They walked out of the keep and across the court yard.
“Is it safe to go by the forest at night?” Kera paused at the gates as the two guards at it shifted sleepily.
“With me, sure,” Rien smiled. “Are you ready? Let’s see how much endurance you have.”
“You know how much endurance I have,” Kera smiled seductively.
“All right, I’m ready.”
They ran west, down the road into the valley where the village lay cradled between the Skywall Mountains of Arvalia. It started to get light soon after their departure and by the time they made two leagues, it was almost completely light, although the sun had not yet risen over the mountains. The road was the same one by which they arrived three days ago and Kera was already somewhat familiar with the forest on the south side. While it was still dark, the forest appeared as a giant black mass, trees barely distinguishable from the ground and the sky. But with daylight Kera cautiously crossed to the south edge of the road and ran there.
Rien paced her during the entire run, careful to keep to her pace, at times purposely slowing down to force her to do the same, in order not to tire out too soon. The run was easy, down hill the entire way to the village, and he was confident that in her condition Kera could easily make the five leagues. When she crossed the road to run closer to the edge of Charnelwood, Rien glanced at her, then suppressing a smile, also crossed to the south side, a few yards closer to the legends of the demons and spirits that populated the forest.
The sun was above the hills by the time they made it to the village. They slowed to a walk before passing the first hut at the edge of the village, both breathing hard. Kera wanted to sit down to catch her breath and shake some sweat off, but noticed a well directly ahead of them and followed Rien.
“How did I do?” she asked Rien between gasps.
He smiled at her, a happy smile, not the concerned look he had when she first saw him today. “All right.”
Kera smiled also.
“Don’t drink too much,” Rien cautioned her at the well.
“We’re not running back, are we? If you make me run back,” Kera’s breathing was beginning to return to normal, “I’ll never forgive you. I’d rather be tortured.”
“Really?” Rien asked, the smile still on his face. He sat down with his back against the well, face wet with the water he splashed on himself.
“I won’t. I should remember this is your first day and you ran quite a distance.”
Kera slid down next to him, catching her breath. First day. He did not think she could keep it up for more than one, did he?
“Are you doing all right?” Rien looked over.
“Uh-huh,” Kera exhaled. “Why do you want me to run?”
Rien pulled himself up and planted his back firmly against the well. “Fighting will build your muscles, help you develop some agility, teach you to use a sword, but it won’t make you last in combat. Running builds endurance, helps you reach extremes.”
“Sir Bonham won’t have you run. He hates running. Short as he is, almost anyone can outrun him and he hates that. But if you go out early enough, you’ll see him and his squires running around the Arena. He knows what good it does.”
Kera remained silent for a few minutes longer, until Rien asked her again how she was.
“You tell me,” she answered.
“You’re not the best long distance runner I know,” Rien said, “but most people can’t run five leagues, either. Even down hill.”
Kera smiled, but looked away. “I don’t think I could’ve done it before I met you.”
“City dwellers usually can’t.”
“Do you want me to run back?”
Rien looked at her. “Do you want to?”
Kera shook her head. “I don’t think I could make it up hill, especially after just running this distance.”
A woman with a large clay pot approached the well and stopped, looking at the pair.
“Good morning to you, madam,” Rien smiled.
The woman suspiciously walked around to the other side of the well and proceeded to fill her pot there. Kera snickered, but said nothing.
“We’ll increase the distance gradually,” Rien said.
“Not tomorrow. I want to see you run the same distance tomorrow.”
Kera sighed. “You don’t mean every morning, do you?”
Rien nodded. “Every morning.”
“I haven’t seen you run every morning,” she said.
“I haven’t had much opportunity. It’s time I started, too.”
The woman finished getting the water and walked back to her hut, suspiciously glancing over her shoulder at the couple sitting by the well.
“She doesn’t like us much,” Kera noted.
“She doesn’t know we’re from Valdasly,” Rien said. “The Keep is very respected here. Because it’s a garrison, there’s little trouble that happens on this road. If not Flint, then ReVell himself has the bandits removed.”
“Who’s Flint?” Kera asked.
“Flint Venture is hard to explain,” Rien answered. “He lives up in the hills somewhere and sends regular patrols to watch the region. He and his men are self appointed guardians of the villages near here. No one really knows why Flint chose to do what he does, but he’s been doing it for a while and everyone knows of him. Maybe he’ll stop by the keep and I’ll introduce you.”
“This is a strange place,” Kera sighed.
“Stranger than Dargon?” Rien got up.
“Much stranger. Demons, guardians, knights, volcanos.”
Rien laughed. “Arvalia’s a busy place.”
Kera got to her feet and drank some more water from the well. “We’re not going to run, right?” she asked as an after thought.
“We won’t,” Rien promised. “Come on. It’s time we started back.”
They started down the road, quietly at first, then Kera asked Rien about his trip and the one he was expecting to take in a few days.
“I informed my tribe about the war,” Rien said. “Should it ever come this far, Baranur doesn’t know about the life in the forest. They will have to fight for their own land.”
“Will you fight with them?”
Rien nodded. “Remember I told you I was a landed knight? These are my lands,” he pointed to the forest south of the road. “It’s where I was born and I have to defend it.”
“I heard the servants talking about the demons and evil spirits in the forest,” Kera remembered. “Sounded just like what you said.”
Rien smiled. “The tribes like to cause trouble to keep the natives restless. You see, many years ago, long before either of us was born, even before there was a Baranur, there were wars between your kind and my kind. Since then most Eelail chose seclusion as a method of maintaining safety. By playing tricks on the natives, making them believe the forest is haunted, we can set aside a part of this world for ourselves.”
“Why did they fight?” Kera asked.
“I don’t think anyone really knows anymore,” Rien said. “Many say that back in the days of the Fretheod the two races first met at Wudamund, a Fretheod garrison, and the wars began. No one knows why. I heard stories that a fortune teller predicted that when Wudamund falls, so will the Empire and King Althweil believed it and was too scared of the Eelail to let them alone. Others say that the Eelail knew of the legend and wanted to tempt fate and bring Fretheod down to its knees. It’s up to you what you believe, but the Eelail were defeated and fled and within the century the Empire crumbled as well.”
“What do you think happened?” Kera asked again.
“I don’t know. And I don’t think there’s any one old enough to remember, even among my people.”
“What about Eliowy and Teran?”
“My people broke into many tribes, all over the world. I guess Rubel has one of the many tribes. The tribes in Charnelwood have stayed very secluded over the centuries. I’m the first to leave. There’s been no other contact with human civilization.”
“But you’re half human,” Kera protested.
“Don’t you ever stop asking questions?” Rien asked.
He sighed and took a look at the forest. The trees swayed in the light wind and shook their leaves. He knew that the forest watched him, felt himself watched. It was a bond that he could never break, no matter were he went.
Kera, too, looked into the forest. “It’s a creepy place,” she commented. “It gets so dark in there, so quickly.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if no human stepped off the south edge of this road in the last decade,” Rien said. “Certainly no local villager.”
Kera hopped off the road into the dark green grass at the edge of the forest. “I’ll be the first,” she laughed.
Rien followed her off the road. “Be careful. Trackers have been known to get lost mere feet from the edge of the woods.”
“Rien, is that a fairy ring?” Kera asked, looking down.
He glanced down at the dark patch of grass in which Kera stood, surrounded by clusters of mushrooms. “…you demi-puppets that by moonshine do the green sour ringlets make, where of the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime is to make midnight mushrumps, that rejoice to hear the solemn curfew…”
“Oh, didn’t…uh, what’s his name?”
Rien put his finger to Kera’s lips, shushing her.
Oh, well done! I commend your pains,
And everyone shall share i’ th’ gains.
And now about the cauldron sing,
Like elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.
Kera smiled. “You’re good.”
“I only quote what was written almost a five hundred years ago for the Bardic College in Magnus,” Rien replied. “What keeps the curious away is that same superstition.”
Kera suddenly grabbed hold of him and pulled him close, kissing him. Rien resisted for a moment, but then gave in.
“What was that for?”
“I missed you.”
“Just don’t let anyone else see you missing me like that.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Kera laughed.
Rien guided her out of the fairy ring and they walked back to the road.
“What about the fairy rings?” Kera asked as they moved on. “How do they happen?”
“Nature has a lot of secrets,” Rien explained. “We don’t make them, if that’s what you mean.”
“Is it true what they say about what happens to you if you step in one?” Kera asked.
“So many questions,” Rien looked at her. “They just mark our territory and keep the superstitious away. We have other means for keeping the non-fearful at a distance.”
They returned to the keep midmorning, the road being predominantly up hill, and had breakfast, not having a chance to see each other again until dinner.
The following morning Kera was ready when Rien came to her door. She knew he would want her to run and did all she could to insure being awake in time for his arrival.
Rien paused, a little surprised that she was waiting for him. “You’re up early this morning.” He knew well of her tendency to sleep late.
“I want you to take my wanting to become a knight seriously,” Kera answered.
“And how long will that want last?”
“Until I become one or until I no longer have the desire.”
“And what if next month I find you lounging around in bed when there’s work to be done?”
“Then I’ll no longer be your squire.”
Rien studied Kera carefully. There was no light and she could just see the glint of his eyes in the dark, watching her. She wondered who could see whom better, if he could detect the flush building in her face, hear the fear in her voice.
“Do you realize what you’re saying?” Rien asked. His tone remained the same, as if he was blind to all that she felt.
“I’m not going to give you cause to be upset with me,” Kera said. “I will do all that you expect.”
He turned to the door. “I know one of us will be sorry this ever happened. I just wish I knew which one.”
Kera caught up to Rien in the corridor. “What do you mean by that?”
He shook his head. “It won’t be easy for you to get where you want to go. And I’m not the easiest man to get you there.”
“I think you’ll do fine.”
He smiled at her, a faint trace barely detectable in the dark. “I appreciate your confidence, but I fear you may come to hate me long before you get where you want to be.”
Kera took his hand into hers. “I don’t think I will.”
It was shortly before dinner when Rien informed Kera that he would be leaving again in the evening. He could not promise when he would be back this time and she did not press for him to make a commitment. She would stay busy here, training in the Arena, running, doing whatever else was required of her while he was gone. They said their goodbyes soon after dinner and Kera watched Rien, the Baron and another man, who appeared mid-day, select two guards and ride away from the keep on the road towards the forest. She stood in the great hall arch, watching them ride out of the keep, thinking back to the discussion she had with Rien earlier in the day.
“I want you to run every morning,” he told her, “whether or not I’m here, whether or not I can do it with you.”
“For how long?”
“Until I tell you otherwise.”
“Will you be back soon?”
He did not answer for a while. “I don’t know. A council was called. All four tribes together, for the first time in ages. I don’t know.”
“You keep abandoning me,” Kera reproached him.
“There’s a war on out there,” Rien explained. “I may not want to fight in it, but if the circumstances force me, I may have no choice. I have to make this choice much in the same way you made the one to become a squire and eventually a knight. It’s a form of survival for both of us.”
She wondered through dinner what he meant when he said that. Why was it survival? Why was it the same for both of them? He did not have to fight. He could always leave, go where there is no war … and then it began to make sense. He made the choice to take his own choice away. He would stay no matter what, just like she told him she would do all she could to become a knight. They both had the choice to walk away and forget the difficulties they would be forced to face and both decided to confront what may prove to be an extremely difficult path. It was a decision not to give up.
Not giving it another thought, Kera charged down the steps into the court yard and to the stables where Hasina was being held. Practically knocking over a stable boy, Kera leapt on the thundersteed and yanked the rope holding the horse off its hook. “Come on,” she prompted the mare, not even bothering to take the time to saddle her, and charged out of the castle after Rien and the men with him.
It took some time for Kera to catch up to the five individuals ahead of her, on the road towards the village, and when she did, two were dismounted, preparing to enter the forest. She ran Hasina off the road and stood in the tall grass, watching from a distance. She wanted to talk to Rien, but this was obviously neither the time, nor the place. After some time, she saw Rien slap Kelsey’s side and the horse wandered off. The other man preparing to go, the one who came that afternoon, lead his horse beside himself as they entered the forest. Baron Dower and his two guards waited for a while, the Baron pointing to something in the forest while talking to the guards, then they all rode in the direction of the village.
Kera waited in the field, watching the forest and wondering what it contained that had to be so jealously guarded. Were the Eelail so different from humans that wars had to be fought? What did Rien’s people think of the outside world and whose side would they take if the war came to Arvalia? She could not help but wonder how Rien’s own birth came to be.
Something howled in the forest, a long, drawn out eerie sound that carried in the wind and echoed through the hills. Kera, shivered, scanning the edge of the forest, looking for what it was that made the noise. She felt Hasina tense under her, also cautious of the sound. Only the swaying branches of trees greeted her, waving as wind blew through them. Uneasy, Kera turned Hasina and kicked her into motion, guiding her out on to the road and bringing her to a full gallop, wanting to leave behind the portion of the forest that produced the scream, having no wish to meet whatever had made it.
Kera returned to the keep shortly after sunset, worried about Rien and not having had a chance to talk to him before he had gone into the forest. She wondered who that man with him was and where the Baron and his guards were headed.
In the stables Kera dismounted Hasina and led her back to her place. “You have an easy life, right?” she asked.
“I can handle her, Miss,” the stable boy came out of nowhere.
Kera looked at him, maybe eight or nine, skinny, with a dirty face. He looked like a boy, not like the children that Liriss collected, the sickly starved urchins no longer caring about their lives, doing whatever it took to survive through the day. She wondered how she had come to be his ward, who her real parents were. Did they work for him? Where they important to him? Why had he kept her? From the earliest memories she had, she had been with him.
“Miss? It is my job,” the boy said, again asking to help with the horse.
“I believe you,” Kera said, “but I’d like to groom her myself tonight. Thank you.”
After the boy wandered away, Kera found a brush and a bucket of water.
“Maybe you’ll accept help from someone more your age?” she heard a familiar voice, but did not turn.
Kera laughed. “I’ll do it myself, if you don’t mind.” She turned Hasina and tossed some more hay in the stable before her. “But I don’t mind if you stay and talk.”
“I think I will,” Kiyan Kanne came closer and leaned on the wooden inside wall. “I thought that was you I saw on this beast.”
“Hasina’s not a beast,” Kera said. “She just has no manners.”
“Sir Keegan’s. He likes fat horses.”
“A thundersteed’s more than a fat horse,” Kiyan said. “You often ride bareback?”
“Not really. Not on Hasina, certainly. Today was the first time. I just needed to get out fast. She’s rather hard to control without a saddle.”
“I can imagine. The smaller horses are better for that.” He bent down and moved the water bucket closer to Kera, as Hasina shifted away.
“I missed you the last couple of days.”
“I was busy with Sir Keegan,” Kera lied. She still was not sure what to do about Kiyan.
“Listen, about two nights ago…”
Kera looked at Kiyan. “I’m not angry, really.”
He smiled, a slight flush in his cheeks. “I was wondering if there was someone else.”
“Not really,” Kera sighed. “Not anymore.”
“I became a squire.” She really did not want to explain the details of her current situation.
“He didn’t like your choice?”
“Something like that. It made all the difference to him.”
“And you can’t let go?”
Kiyan put his hand on Kera’s arm, drawing her attention. “I like you, Kera. I’m just asking for a chance.”
She shook her head. “I can’t. Not now.” A tear rolled down her cheek. “I hate what he’s doing to me, but I must be patient. I don’t want to lose him.”
Kiyan wiped the tear with his hand. “Don’t overlook those around you in your struggle.”
“I wish things were different,” Kera said. “I like you, too. You were one of the few to accept me here, rather than pressure me for my choice. It’s good to have a friend like you.”
“Come outside,” Kiyan said. “I think we’re disturbing the horses.”
He lead Kera out of the stables, his arm around her shoulders. “It’ll be fine, really.”
“I don’t know. Whatever it is you want. I just have this feeling you were born lucky.”
“I don’t know,” Kera said. She certainly did not feel lucky having lived the childhood that she had.
That night Kera had a hard time falling asleep. She wondered if she was making the right choice and if she would regret making it a year or two down the road. She liked Kiyan, his easy going personality, his willingness to talk and help forget, his ability to just listen. She felt that if it were him she had met just over a year ago in Dargon, she could have had a life with him just as easily as with Rien.
When she first met Rien, it took her a while to realize that he was reaching out to her, giving her a chance to leave Liriss. He did not need her. He simply wanted to help. If she had a chance to relive that part of her life, she would act differently towards him, knowing what she now knew. Back then she did not realize how much trust he put in her and understood it only when they were caught in the store robbery in Tench.
Tench. Before she met Rien, Kera had not been further than a day or two out of Dargon. Now, in less then a year, she had gone through four duchies, some of them more than once. She had a life of adventure with him, a chance to see and experience what so few others could. She knew Kiyan could not give her a lot of that, at least not until well after he would become a knight.
She did like Kiyan. He was her age, full of life and adventure, wanting to change the world by himself. Keeping in mind what Rien said to her a few days before, she knew she needed to make a decision that would effect her the rest of her life and she was not sure what the right choice was.
The sky started to turn light without Kera getting any sleep. She sat up on the bed as a rooster crowed outside, remembering her promise to Rien. No matter what, she intended to go through with that, to become a knight.
She ran the five leagues as she promised, in the large meadow northwest of the keep. She did not want to go near the forest alone, particularly when it was still partially dark outside. She felt the running come easier as she went on. It took longer for her to lose her breath, her feet felt firmer on the ground as she ran, but she still had not noticed any effects on her training in the Arena.
Having finished sufficiently early, Kera went to have breakfast while only a few of the keep’s inhabitants were up. She did not want to see Kiyan so early in the day, having spent the entire night thinking about him and knowing that he tended to sleep late, finished all her chores in the keep early and again left for the meadow where she ran. She wanted to relax for a while, to forget her troubles, maybe even take a swim in the near by creek. Anything to forget what troubled her overnight.
There were no plans for the afternoon as yet. Sir Bonhan cancelled the day’s practice the day before, in favor of pitting two of the three regiments present against each other. She would not participate, but could attend and watch. She knew Kiyan to be a member of the Fourth Arvalian Militia and that they were one of the two regiments to participate in the mock battle.
Baron Dower stood on the Arena platform, arms folded, watching the two regiments clash in the practice field below. The dull clanking sound of padded weapons against metal armor, stomping of feet, yelling and grunting, all carried a long way.
“The Fourth is losing ground,” Sir Bonhan commented. “They didn’t reinforce the middle.”
ReVell nodded, watching the growing bend in the line.
A hand reached out past the Baron and placed a stack of coins on the railing before Sir Bonhan.
“What’s that for?”
“Ten silver the Fourth will win,” Sir Hardin said.
Sir Bonhan thoughtfully looked over at the old knight. “You have much faith in your squires. Ten silver it is.”
ReVell picked up one of the shiny coins. Shapkan silver. “Been to the market again, Clev?”
“Nothing like a new shield to put the sun in the eye of the enemy. So they may see the strength of the Stevene.”
Sir Bonhan grunted. “Why be scared of a dead man?” He slammed his fist on the railing, causing the coins to fall to the ground. “Scare them with Nehru, Saren, J’mirg, Da’athra’a, even their own Amante, Gow, Erida!”
“You cracked the rail again,” ReVell noted.
“I’ll bring you a new one from Tasantil!”
ReVell looked back into the field. The Fourth Arvalian Militia regiment now suffered a deep bow in the middle of the line as the First pushed on. “How soon will the troops be ready?”
“They were ready before Melrin.”
“I mean completely ready,” he said.
“I deem them fit to back any regular light or medium infantry or archer regiment.”
“We must be ready to march as soon as the word is given.”
“Even now, my Liege,” Sir Bonhan answered.
A smile crossed ReVell’s face. “Soon.”
The Fourth pushed an offensive against the left flank of the First, catching them by surprise, crushing the men trying to force their way to the middle of the line. They hooked around the edge, rushing in on the rear of the regiment.
Sir Bonhan leaned forward, watching closely. “Cormack, take note!”
“Yes, Sir!” a voice sounded from further down the crowded platform.
The hook tightened.
“They made a mistake.”
“It’s exercises like this that teach us best,” Sir Hardin said. “Let them make all the mistakes they will right here. The First pressed too hard. They wanted to break the middle. Now they’ll know to guard their flanks.”
The battle was in its last leg.
“They both have good form, gentlemen,” ReVell said as the fighting stopped. “My compliments.”
“There’s still work to be done,” Sir Hardin said. “They’ll be moving against a real army next time.”
“Cormack, get all the company officers to gather in the library. No dinner until we sort this out!” Sir Bonhan barked.
“Don’t be too rough on them,” the Baron advised. “It was a good trial.”
“It won’t be a trial against the Beinison army.”
Two men on horseback, the Senior Captains of the regiments, rode up to the platform and saluted the knights on it.
“Gather your Captains in the library,” Sir Bonhan called down.
“Well, let’s go, gentlemen,” ReVell said. “It was a good show, but I don’t intend to sit through dinner in the library.”
The mass of observers slowly emptied from the platform, everyone talking about the combat at the same time, hurrying to take care of their postponed or neglected duties. The men in the Arena separated out into groups, rubbing their bumps and bruises, thankful that at least this time their weapons were simple padded sticks.
“How did you like it, Kera?” ReVell asked as he passed by her.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, Sir!”
“For your sake, girl, glad as I am you wish to be a knight, I hope you never see real battle.”
“I wish Sir Keegan could’ve seen it,” she said. She knew he would be willing to give detailed explanations, answer questions she did not want to ask the Baron himself.
“I’m sure he’s seen many like it,” the Baron said. “Even the real ones.”
“Will you be going to war?” Kera asked.
“I have to. I’m the Militia Captain for Arvalia. Where the militia goes, they go because I lead them.”
“Have you been in a war before?”
He laughed. “Never in one this big. The largest troop I lead into battle in the past has been a single regiment. This will be a learning experience for all of us.”
They stopped in the court yard, before the archway into the keep, where two soldiers supported a third man in dirty worn leather, barely able to stand on his own.
“Baron!” one of the soldiers called.
The man being supported instantly looked in their direction and struggled to correct himself.
ReVell Dower walked over to them, Kera curiously following him. “What happened here?”
“I have a message for Sir Keegan,” the man said.
“Keegan isn’t here now. I’m Baron Dower. What is the message?”
“I’m sorry, Sir, but I can only give it to Sir Keegan.”
“Sir Keegan left yesterday. He will be gone a few days,” the Baron said.
“Where did he go?” the messenger asked. “I’ll deliver it to him there.”
“You can’t go where he is. You can wait here. Are you sure I can’t be of help?”
“I’m sure, your Lordship.”
“Get the healer and see to his needs,” ReVell said to the soldiers and left to talk to the captains of the regiments.
Kera watched him go, but remained as the soldiers sat the messenger on the ground. “I’ll get Lord Ealhfrit,” one said and left.
“Is there something I can do to help?” Kera knelt down by the messenger. “I’m Sir Keegan’s squire.”
He looked her up and down and smirked. “I ran my horse to near death to get here. I must speak only with him.”
Kera looked towards the main gates, immediately spotting the horse that looked like every dog in the duchy had chased after it.
“The best thing you can do,” the messenger went on, “is bring me to Sir Keegan. Or bring him here.”
Kera looked around, then moved so that the courier was between her and the remaining soldier. “Are you with the trouble shooters? The League?”
His eyes narrowed. “What do you know?”
“I told you, I’m his squire. I’ve been with him for more than a year.”
“It’s very important that the message reaches him and I must give it to him myself!”
“How important? I can go find him, but if I do, I’ll be breaking a promise. Will it be worth it?”
“I think it will. And tell him if I don’t hear from him tomorrow, I’ll have to break the seal.”
Kera stood up as a tall grey haired man in green-brown robes walked down the stairs with the soldier that left minutes before. “I’ll try to find him by tomorrow,” Kera promised. “Wait here.”
She ran to her room, changed into travel clothes, to be more comfortable in the woods, strapped on her sword and inserted a dagger in her belt. She did not think she would need her pack, but the bow? Kera hesitated, looking at the unstrung instrument standing in the corner of the room. She remembered the animal scream from the night before and considered the adequacy of her sword. Yes, she may need the bow.
Taking the keep’s steps three or four at a time, she ran outside, heading for the stables. No time to saddle Hasina. She already knew the mare could be handled bareback. Another few moments and she was ready to go.
She pulled Hasina to a halt just short of the gate.
“Kera!” Kiyan ran over to her. “I’ve been looking all over for you. Where were you all day?”
Hasina snorted, as if sensing Kera’s urgency.
“Kiyan, I need to find Sir Keegan. Congratulations on your victory. We can talk when I get back.”
“I can go with you,” he offered.
“There’s no time,” she answered, kicking Hasina into motion. “I’ll see you soon!”
Kera dismounted Hasina in mid-gallop and left her grazing in the meadow on the north side of the road. She speculated that if Rien left Kelsey, the walk was not all that long and besides, a horse that large could be in quite a disadvantage deep in the forest. She crossed the road to the south side and paused, looking into Charnelwood, listening for any unusual noises, such as the one she had heard the day before. Everything seemed quiet, with just the sounds of birds and the rustling leaves enhancing the peace of the wilderness. Kera threw a glance back at Hasina, peacefully grazing in the meadow. She did not worry about leaving the horse. She knew both Kelsey and Hasina to be trained well enough not to trust strangers and to come when called. Looking around once again, Kera slipped into the green forest.
Everything there seemed as normal as the forests she had gotten used to in the northern portions of Baranur. It was a combination green leaf and pine forest, very dense in some parts, somewhat clear in others, but everywhere she looked, it seemed that a human foot had never disturbed the ground. The forest floor was littered with fallen leaves and branches, without any evidence of footprints, much less a path of any sort.
After a league of walking and over an hour of searching the ground, the only tracks Kera could find were her own. With a deep sigh, she sat down by a tree to rest. She was positive that Rien went by somewhere here. She entered the forest in the same place as he. Were the stories about this forest really true? Did it really swallow people never to be seen again? She refused to believe in the impossible. They had to go somewhere, as did Rien.
She got up and once again proceeded further into the woods. There were still no trails, but she was confident that would not last forever. Somehow, somewhere, there had to be a trace of someone passing. She was not going to give up that easily.
After what she guessed was five leagues of walking, Kera came out to the edge of the forest. She could not imagine it being that short across, but there was a wide meadow ahead of her, the mountains raising on each side, enclosing the valley. Off to the right, where the road angled up hill into the canyon, Kera spotted the fortified walls of Valdasly Keep.
She turned back, angry and determined. She was careful not to make this mistake. She knew she could not have taken such a sharp turn. As she stepped back into the forest, a wild animal scream echoed through the valley. She felt the hilt of her sword, looking around. There was no trace of anything moving. With solid determination Kera walked back into the woods, marching straight ahead, no longer looking for any paths or trails. The animal yell sounded again, all around her, almost on top of her. Kera did not stop. She knew the forest looked equally empty in all directions. She was going to challenge that emptiness now. She felt uneasy and perhaps even scared, but she was not going to give up. Not after making a promise and breaking another.
She paused just long enough to take out the item she found in the cave when escaping from Phedra and examined it again. It was a near perfect square with a floating black and gold arrow inside, always pointing in the same direction, or towards metal. Perhaps the ability of this item — she had no real name for it — to unerringly maintain its orientation, would be of help in this forest.
Turning the item over, Kera examined the other side, containing a series of equidistant black lines, crossed by a red line. The red line changed in size, short some times, long at others. Right now it was long, almost three-fourths the length of the side of the square. It tended to be longer in the day than at night. Perhaps a device for measuring time, but Kera had still not learned to use it.
Turning it back over, Kera determined that the direction she wanted to head in was indicated by the gold end of the arrow, the one that pointed towards Magnus.
The walk lasted for what seemed to be hours, leagues upon leagues of blindly walking straight ahead, constantly checking her direction. At times it appeared as if a straight path through the forest was off to the side as indicated by the arrow and after debating if she should trust her senses or not, Kera would follow the direction indicated by the device in her hand.
Looking up at the sun, barely visible through the branches of the trees above her, and wondering if she should consider turning back before it gets dark in the forest, Kera insistently pushed forward through the thick growths and clearings alike. She did not stop to rest, nor to look around and most importantly, refused to look back. The one effort she consistently made was to walk around the trees in her way. At one such tree, she started to do the same and then froze, standing face to face with a tall blond haired man with sharp features. He wore dark green clothes, tunic and pants, and held a staff in one hand. Close as she stood to him, Kera could not determine where he ended and the tree began. It almost seemed that they were one and the same.
She took a hesitant step back, wondering where he came from and who he was. Her hand jerked to her belt, to draw the dagger, but she stopped herself. The man made no threatening gestured and she did not want to seem aggressive to him.
She noticed that his eyes were crystal blue, just like Rien’s and his almost white hair fell half way down his back, also blending with the trunk of the tree. She stood like that for a long time, examining him, aware that his eyes were tightly focused on her. She took another step back. “Um…hi… I’m looking…”
The man silently pointed further into the forest. Neither his motion, nor expression betrayed emotion or malicious intent. His movements were fluid, almost as if leaves blowing in the wind. Kera cautiously stepped past him, in the direction he pointed. It was not the one the arrow had indicated, but he was the first living thing she met in the forest and for the time being, she was willing to trust his knowledge of the woods.
There was no answer. She swallowed hard, turned her back on him and continued on. She hopped he was not showing her the way back. It was nearing dusk, with sunlight no longer cutting through the branches of the trees, now hanging far to the west, just over the tops of the mountains. The forest was now eerily quiet. There were no sounds of birds or rustling leaves. Most importantly, the animal cries were gone as well. The dead silence, disturbed only by her footsteps, made Kera feel uneasy. It seemed as if the trees had eyes and paused their conversations as she passed, watching her go by them, pretending not to be afraid.
It began to get dark when Kera once again stopped before a large tree in her path. A man stood there. The same man? She was not sure. His clothes were grey, but hair just as white and as long. His eyes were bright yellow, almost glowing in the settling darkness. He stepped forward, separating from the tree and walked past Kera without saying a word. She turned to look, surprised that just a few yards behind her the forest opened into a clearing. She just walked through that part of the woods!
Feeling completely disoriented, Kera followed the man into the clearing where a low fire burned in a small fire pit. Slowly she realized that the clearing was filled with people. They all appeared, in some way, not human. Tall, slender, having either extremely light or extremely dark hair. Their eyes were all focused on her, some almost glowing, almost seeing through her. Many were armed with bows, some carried swords.
Four of them were seated around the fire, three men and a woman. They were looking at her with what seemed to be suspicion and contempt.
“Y ean shipy si’ eels’popa,” the man who brought her said to those at the fire.
A blond man stood up. “Z’I’ il ja. Z’Y’ pee’P iu tee’L zeer.”
The language mixed with the sudden wind, sounding almost as a natural part of the forest. The spirits of Charnelwood were finally speaking. Kera knew that she had found the place.
“Y sheaf’ zeer f’Eeji Ree’N icheepiy,” the man answered. “Ja earb’Epee’P si’ pa s’peavee’L sipiy.” The words passed Kera without making any sense.
As she looked, Kera noticed Rien stand up and step forward.
“Z’I’ il ja,” the man at the fire turned to him. It sounded like a question. Many heads turned.
The voice sounded nothing like Rien. It was soft and flowing, mixing with the natural sounds of the forest.
“Reez!” a harsh exclamation sounded from a woman on the ground. Kera had no trouble guessing she was upset. Rien remained motionless.
“Y ‘Pil s d’Eals si’ shi zonealil zeepia eac’Il,” a dark haired man at the fire said, without getting up or taking his eyes off Kera. She could feel tension build up.
“C’Ees zeer us is zeepia,” the blond man who had stood answered and sat back down.
Rien walked over to Kera, roughly taking her arm and leading her into the forest. “What the hell are you doing?” he hissed as they left the clearing. “You could’ve been killed!” He released her and gave her a shove forward.
“I’m sorry. A courier came. He had a message for you. He said it was urgent and he could only wait a day.”
Lines of concern appeared on Rien’s face. “Wait here. Don’t move!” He disappeared into the almost total darkness, somewhere back where the clearing was. Kera could barely see the traces of the fire and sense the smoke from the burning wood.
The wind continued to blow and leaves and branches rustle, making Kera wonder if that was elven speech. Long minutes passed before Rien returned. He looked her in the eyes and shook his head.
“I’m sorry. I thought this was important enough to come.”
“I hope you’re wrong,” he told her and walked away.
“Rien, wait!” Kera caught up to him. “I’m sorry.”
He paused long enough to let her catch up, but said nothing.
He did not answer.
“Kera, you could have been killed if the Dopkalfar saw you first. The only reason you were permitted to pass and brought to me was because they saw you with me a few days ago. There’s a lot of anger there right now. It may effect the decision they make. The villagers here depend on that decision. If the war comes this far, it may mean the difference between life and death for them.”
“I’m sorry. How many times do I need to say that to make you understand I mean it?”
Rien remained quiet.
“I did what I thought best. If the courier’s rush is any indication of the message’s importance, I feel I did the only thing I could.”
“I hope you’re wrong,” Rien stopped. His eyes seemed as bright as those of the other elves Kera saw. “Because if you’re right, none of our lives may ever be the same again.”
“Sir Keegan!” the messenger stood up as Rien and Kera entered the great hall. He immediately took a rolled up parchment from under his tunic and handed it to Rien.
Kera stopped a few yards short of the courier, not wanting to get in Rien’s way. He was tense the entire trip back, snapping at her and refusing to talk. The messenger’s willingness to stay up and wait only emphasized the urgency of the message and Kera feared what it might be all about.
“Who sent this?” Rien asked, cracking the wax seal.
“Lord Yasarin.” Kera had never heard the name.
Rien unrolled the sheet and read it. Kera wished she could see his face, but did not dare to approach. If Rien’s shifting in place was any indication, the news was not good. It seemed like forever before he put the paper down.
“When did you leave Port Sevlyn?” His voice was hard, tension obvious in the way he spoke.
“On the eighth, Sir.”
“The army was there?”
Rien turned away, looking at Kera. She could not read his expression. It was like nothing she had ever seen.
“Rest tonight. I’ll have a reply for you to take back tomorrow.”
“Take back, Sir?”
Rien looked back at him. “No. You’re to stand down. Stay out of the war.”
“Just do it. Go.”
“Yes, Sir.” The courier turned and left.
Rien leaned on the table, his arms on either side of the letter, seemingly reading it again. Kera waited, not sure if she should interrupt. What could that letter say? What was happening at Port Sevlyn?
“Guard!” Rien called one of the men patrolling the great hall over. “Wake Baron Dower. I will wait for him in the library.”
The man rushed off, up the wide staircase leading to the second floor of the keep. Rien picked up the parchment and rolled it up, turning to face Kera.
He did not look at her. “Come on,” his hand wrapped around her arm and he almost dragged her to the library.
“Yes, I’m listening.”
They walked into the library and Rien closed the door behind them. “Adrea never made it out of Sharks’ Cove,” he muttered.
Kera remembered well the argument Rien and Adrea had about leaving Sharks’ Cove. He insisted that it was dangerous to stay and she argued that there will be plenty of warning in the event of Beinison attack. Had the war finally come to Sharks’ Cove? That was the one thing no one mentioned. All the news of fighting has been coming from the eastern part of the country, the Baranur-Beinison boarder.
“What happened?” Kera asked.
“Sharks’ Cove fell to the Beinison army on the fifth of this month. By now, so did Port Sevlyn.”
Rien sat down, rubbing his eyes. “All of Quinnat is in enemy hands. They are probably at Gateway now…maybe even at Magnus…”
Kera paled. How could this happen so soon? How could the Beinison army get so far up the river so quickly? Sharks’ Cove and Port Sevlyn were major cities. Gateway was a military garrison designed for events such as this. “You can’t be serious…”
“I’m completely serious. When this message was written, the Beinison army was in sight of Port Sevlyn and there was no militia to defend them.”
Kera took a deep, abrupt, breath. “Then we lost without so much as a chance.”
Rien walked over to the bookshelves and studied the titles, then selecting one, picked it up and opened it.
“What are you reading?”
“Baranurian Military Disposition.” He slammed the book shut. “Two regiments!”
The door into the library opened and Baron Dower walked in. Kera was surprised that he still wore his night clothes.
“What is it, Rien?” the Baron asked.
“Sit down.” Rien’s voice was forceful, almost as if giving an order. The Baron paused to look at him, but sat down. Kera expected to hear an argument, or at least a reprimand for Rien’s tone of voice, but none came.
“…Twelve days ago Sharks’ Cove fell to a combined assault of the Beinison army and navy…”
The Baron stood back up.
“…on the morning of the ninth an estimated twenty regiments stood ready to attack Port Sevlyn…”
Kera noticed the Baron’s hands tense.
“…Port Sevlyn only had the local militia to defend with. Two thousand men strong at the most. I have no reason to believe there was no attack.”
“Where did you get that?”
Rien held up the rolled up parchment.
“The courier? He brought this? I told him to give it to me if it was important!”
“He was under orders to deliver it to me.”
“That’s no excuse,” the Baron started, but immediately changed the topic. “Where the hell was our army?” The words were said with such strength that Kera took an involuntary step back.
“About three regiments, all light infantry, were lost defending the bay. Another four, under the command of Lord Morion, didn’t stop at Port Sevlyn long enough to drink their water. Word has it Sir Ailean died in the battle for Sharks’ Cove.”
“They’re marching straight on Magnus!” the Baron exclaimed. He looked at the map on the wall between two book cases. “Gateway’s the next garrison they’ll encounter. Two regiments.”
“Both Royal Duchy Militia,” Rien added. “I imagine that’s where Lord Morion will want to make his stand.”
“Six light and medium infantry regiments against twenty?” the Baron asked. “They’ll never make it!”
“If that’s what he’s doing, I don’t think he wants to win the battle. His goal at Gateway would be to win time.”
“Time for what? There are only seven regiments in Magnus.” ReVell Dower walked over to the window, looking into the darkness. Seven regiments were nothing, no matter how well trained. The sheer bulk of the enemy force would crush them in a matter of days. “They won’t stand a chance. The two green militia regiments will fall without so much as a struggle. The Huscarls will stubbornly try to hold the whole city and when they take enough losses, back off to the Old Quarter. And the Royal Guard will, of course, fight to the last in the castle and lose.”
“They’d be more organized if they all fought together,” Rien said.
“Yes, but that’s the stupid split regiment system. If Wainwright weren’t such a horse’s ass and cooperated with Sothos, they could have an organized defense!”
“I don’t understand why there were so few troops stationed on the Laraka,” Rien said. “Sothos must’ve know how likely an attack on Shandayma was!”
“Maybe, maybe not,” ReVell muttered.
“That’s still thirteen regiments the Beinison force will have to fight,” Rien added as an after thought.
“One by one, thirteen is negligible. Their chances would be better if they stood as one!”
“Untar can’t be so arrogant as to have them march right into Magnus, could he?”
“What’s to stop him? An ancient broken fort at a fork in the road? He went through all of Quinnat in a matter of days. Magnus isn’t much tougher.”
“Welspeare and Monrodya may send reinforcements,” Rien suggested, his voice filled with doubt.
“Arvalia can send reinforcements,” the Baron said.
“But your troops were meant to reinforce Leftwich!”
“Leftwich won’t matter if Magnus is gone.”
Rien nodded. ReVell was right. Not much would matter to Baranur if Haralan’s rule were to end. “What are you going to do?”
ReVell Dower confidently walked to the door and pulled it open. “Guard! I want to see Sir Bonhan and Sir Hardin now!” He slammed the door shut. “I have three regiments here, including one heavy infantry. If I march directly on Gateway, I can also pick up the Seventh Baranurian Rangers in Cynnyd. This will leave two militia regiments in Hawksbridge, along with the Eighth Baranurian Rangers on the Monrodya boarder and another heavy infantry regiment. That should be plenty for the Duke.”
“What can you do with four regiments?” Rien asked. “It’ll be suicide to confront the Beinison army like that.”
“If there’s been a miracle at Gateway, they can use four fresh regiments. If not, then I’ll make a direct attack on the rear of the Beinison army at Magnus. Four regiments aren’t much, but they can produce quite a bite.”
“That’s a one thousand league march. You won’t be there until mid to late Yuli at the earliest,” Rien protested. “It may already be too late now.”
“Faith, Rien. Faith! Where there’s no hope, there’s no chance for victory!”
“I just don’t want to see you die out there, ReVell,” Rien said. “I agree with sacrifice, but not with suicide. If you can’t change the tide of the battle, then there’s no reason for you to die in it.”
“This isn’t about life and death,” ReVell said, speaking with great conviction. “War has never been about life and death. It’s about freedom and rights, because those are the things easiest to lose. This country has had a good line of kings. Losing that would destroy us…”
There was a knock at the door.
“…I intend to go to make a difference, not to die, but if death is a part of that, then it’s a necessary part. I’m willing to do all that I have to.”
The knock sounded again.
“Come!” the Baron returned to his desk and sat down.
The door opened and the two knights that had been called walked in. They both seemed sleepy, but were properly dressed. Each man greeted the Baron and Rien.
“I think you’d best be the one to tell them, Rien,” the Baron said.
Rien nodded thoughtfully, then looked up where Kera stood in the corner, watching the exchange, all but forgotten by the men in the room. “Kera, go to bed. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
She hesitated for a moment, wanting to hear the discussion, see what the final decision would be, but instead walked over to the door and pulled it open. It was her duty as Rien’s squire to do what he said, not argue or ask questions. She had promised him and herself that she would see this through and be the best squire she could and eventually become a knight.
“Kera,” Rien’s voice stopped her. “Thank you.”
She turned and smiled at him, not sure if he was thanking her for leaving or risking everything to find him to bring him back. He was right when he said that if she did the right thing calling him from his tribe, it could only mean that the unthinkable had happened. Indeed, it has. These could perhaps be the last days of Baranur.
Before returning to her room, Kera stopped at the picturesque wall sized map of Baranur in the great hall and looked at the keep representing Gateway. It was maybe two hundred fifty leagues from Magnus, about as far as from Sharks’ Cove to Port Sevlyn, a distance the Beinison army covered in just a few days forced march. There were another hundred or so leagues between Port Sevlyn and Gateway. How long could that take? An extra few days? By now it could all be gone and Untar the Second could be sitting on Haralan Tallirhan’s throne.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” a guard’s voice startled Kera. He paused by her, admiring the map she looked at, taking a break from his rounds. “Just look at all that! Our fathers and forefathers took this land from the wild and the barbarian tribes that roamed it and made it into what it is now and the Beinison generals think they can just take it all away. Never! No foreign sword will control any portion of what we are! Baranur has been forged in the fires! You remember that, girl!”
Kera smiled at him nervously and nodded.
“Good night,” the guard went on, down the great hall.
How wrong he was, she thought. How much is already lost.
She returned to her room, lit a candle and prepared for bed. She could only guess at what was happening in the library this late at night, what kinds of conclusions would be made, decisions arrived at and how different the world would be tomorrow morning. Kera wondered about what had happened to Adrea and what would happen to her little girl, now in the south of Baranur with Brice, if she were killed. The first time they met, Adrea accepted Kera with no questions, going out of her way to make her feel comfortable and welcome. At first Kera suspected it was because of Rien, but as time went on, she realized that that was Adrea’s nature. She was always kind to everyone and always helpful.
The candle’s dying light caught Kera’s attention and she wondered how lost she had become in her memories and worries. When she lit the candle, it was a long way from burning out.
Getting into bed, Kera permitted the flame die out, letting darkness settle in around her.
Early in the morning, following the directions of one of the keep guards, Kera found Rien on top of the watch tower, thoughtfully looking into the forest. The guards he had chased away from the post walked the length of the rampart on the keep wall, quietly talking about having drawn the night shift yet again.
“Rien?” Kera asked, stopping just short of him.
It took him unusually long to respond. He shifted, then motioned her over, not saying a word.
“Are you okay? I’m sorry about yesterday.”
He nodded. “ReVell wants me to lead the ranger regiment. He feels I’m most qualified.”
Kera felt her heart sink. Join the war? “Are you?”
“I prefer peace,” he answered.
“Are you most qualified? Will you do it?”
He did not answer for a long time, making Kera suspect he had decided to go. She would, of course, go with him. She was his squire, after all. What she did not know was if that was what she wanted to do.
“At any other time I would have agreed to do what he asked,” Rien said. “The arguments presented were most convincing and while I completely disagree with participating in a war for any reason, he is absolutely right that unless each of us does his part, we can not call this land home or this country our own. Every bit of strength we exert for the crown makes this country that much more powerful.”
Kera felt her heart beat faster. “`Any other time’?” she repeated his words.
“Long before this situation arose, I made a promise that I now have to keep. Adrea never came out of Sharks’ Cove and I have to find her and get her out.”
“Sharks’ Cove? It’s well over three hundred leagues behind the enemy line!” Kera exclaimed.
“A promise is a promise.”
There was obviously no talking him out of his decision and no further arguments would help. “When are we leaving?”
“We?” It was the first time this morning he looked at her. “I’m going alone. It’s too dangerous for you.”
“You can’t go alone! You’ll need help. And she’s my friend, too!” Kera did not really want to go, but she would do it for Rien and Adrea. She felt she owed them at least that much.
“No. I’ll be in the heart of Beinison held territory. Besides, Deven will be with me. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
“And you think I want you getting hurt?”
“Kera,” he sighed, “you’re my squire. My obligation to you is not just to make you into a knight. It is also to teach you and guide you and when the need is there, protect you, until you can protect yourself. I judge this to be too dangerous for you to come.”
“I lived my life in the streets of Dargon, taking care of myself!” her voice was filled with anger. “I damn well know how to take care of myself!”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think you’re quite ready for war. You will remain at Valdasly until you hear from me.”
He shook his head. “I don’t want you following me into a war. Promise me that you won’t do what you did yesterday, no matter what.”
She tried to stare him down, but it did not work. His mind was made up long before she tried to change it.
“I’ll worry about you.”
“I’d be worried if you wouldn’t.”
“When are you leaving?”
“In a few hours. As soon as my things are ready. I’ll be leaving Kelsey and my armor here.”
“How will you go?”
“ReVell is giving me a horse from his stables, a very fast one. I need to get to Sharks’ Cove as quickly as I can.”
Kera put her arms around Rien, pulling him close to herself. “Be careful.”
“I will.” She felt his cheek against her temple. “I have every intention to come back.”
“I love you,” Kera whispered as a tear ran down her cheek.