Bearing the heir of a House' favorite son undoubtedly had its benefits, and yet Ursula would be hard pressed to name them. It was her privilege to sit in the main room at the right hand of Torbral. Her privilege to sit all day in the heat of those thrice-cursed and ever burning fires, and listen to the ostensible Lord and Lady of House Loman drone on like a pair of self important bumblebees. All through the day they ate with the heads of other households, most of them beholden to Torbral, and with the knights who served them. The ladder was forever being lowered and raised, like a tongue lapping up victims, bringing them into this fusty, smoke filled maw of a grand hall.
They rarely introduced Ursula to their honored guests, and they did not speak of anything of importance. There hardly seemed to be anything of importance to speak of, besides the existence of her child, and that was one thing they did not mention. Instead, they spent an awful span of minutes saying hello, and an awful span again to say goodbye. A clasp of the forearm, a nod to the lady; these things done, and they were gone.
With as much wealth and influence as Loman reputedly had, Ursula could not fathom why they lived in such a dreary place. This was one question, one of many, that Torbral was disinclined to answer. At least they weren't forcing her to do needlework anymore, though poor Daya still had to.
Ursula dozed, the voices a steady washing in her ears, until she was startled awake by the sound of her own name.
"Ursula the Unloved." There was a man standing before the Lord's table. He was dressed in a purple doublet and leather riding breeches. There was a black circle upon his forehead, a tattoo, and Ursula quickly realized that marked him as a Rider. She shook her head in surprise. The Riders were common only to the Keepholds, where other men could not maintain horses. They were elite messengers, and in the north, used only on occasions of great urgency. It defied all reason that one should seek her out, cooped as she was and without any power of her own.
The man looked upon her with an expression of utmost concentration, and then nodded, as though satisfied as to her identity despite having never laid eyes upon her before. Goosebumps prickled along her forearms as he handed her a letter sealed with the sign of the shield.
The Rider watched her open it, and then bowed himself away.
The letter was written in a familiar hand; that of Thyriel, the royal philologist. It was difficult to make out the words at first, until she recognized that he had put it in an old dialect, one he had taught her so that she could understand some of the more ancient treatises in the royal library. Lord Torbral leaned nearly out of his chair to get a view, only to snort in disgust when he found he could not read it.
This is what it said.
"My beloved Unbeloved,
I have ungentle news. The third prince, Magil Grimeye, has suffered an unfortunate accident. Another tourney was held, rather belatedly, in honor of your happy marriage. You were not sent for because of obvious reasons that need not be enumerated here. I have always been of the opinion that one should air our grievances only once, and repair them posthaste. If they cannot be repaired, it may be better not to air them at all. A grievance without air will often drown in inattention. But I am forgetting the news.
Your brother Grimeye, so very pleasant as he was, took part in the now famous melee. However, the padding with which his defenses were equipped proved insufficient. Grimeye recieved a serious blow to the skull. It did not fell him immediately, and as such, the culprit was not apprehended at the time. A black knight is the only description we have, one of the endless young fools who fancies it romantic to enter the lists in disguise. That is assuming this blow was not deliberate. Speaking of accidents, I know I have not yet had the opportunity to offer my condolences over the demise of your dear Lord Hamal. He was a forceful man, and someone will surely miss him.
Your brother passed on yesterday, his spark returning to the Mondial. Your presence will be expected at the palace. Please come back quickly. It has been many weeks, and I have no one to lecture. A tragedy.
~Yours in the Light~
Thyriel, first Philologist of Grand Petronia, Holder of the Seals"
Ursula looked up from the letter after reading it twice through. The Lord and Lady of Loman were glaring at her impatiently.
"The Third Prince is dead," she said. "I must go home."
Strangely, Torbral smiled.
* * *
Aric, Kerrigan, and Bawn traveled northeast into Petronia. They met no one else on the road, because they did not travel by road. They camped in close dells and under wayward pines, whose understory formed a sort of tent floored by a bed of old, dry needles. They camped beside streams, and in jagged clefts of rock among the hills. They did not enter any other towns, or do much speaking of what had happened at the last. Bawn felt that his point had been proved. No good things come of cities.
Kerrigan practiced her swordsmanship with Aric. She used the ranger's fine blades, and he an old longsword. He had never felt very comfortable with a shield, so he wielded his two-handed. Bawn watched them, giving the occassional terse suggestion. He was very particular about Kerrigan's form. It was an old style that he was assaying to teach her, and its practice was a precise one. The girl and the boy found that they were roughly matched in skill, and Aric had a bare edge in strength. Kerrigan's second blade often gave her the advantage.
They entered Petronia. In the land there was no sharp distinction. Politically, there was a shift from many minor Lords and Merchant Princes to one King and his many vassals. Outwardly, there was no sign of this, especially given that they avoided even the smallest habitations. Aric and Kerrigan both were taking well to their lessons in wilderness knowledge. They had not become experts, but they were passable trackers, and they could discern the signs differing a Pillydowel mushroom from a Death'sCap or a Hushbone. Bawn gave no signal that he enjoyed tutoring them, but he continued to do so, so he must have.
The days flowed out of time, one Walk to the next, league upon league. They entered a wood that had retained much of its green in spite of winter's reign. The first snows had not come, and many trees would wait until that time to give up their viridian gowns. Thick mosses dwelled upon the juts of basalt and the great granite mounds, like ancient and neglected tombs.
The forest's name was Thanilore, or so Bawn remembered it. Light here hung like garlands in the drowsing boughs, and dripped to pool in long and golden corridors. Birds sang everywhere out of season. Warmth seeped up from the fruitful earth.
"Elali's herald once claimed this place as her home. Her influence remains."
Aric frowned. "The Pearl Mare?"
"That is she." They passed through a thicket of dense shrubs and vines. A gray stone wall appeared before them, worn and lichen fused. It was difficult to see the structure as a whole, given the denseness of the overgrowth, but it appeared to be a cubic structure about 20 paces to a side, and as many up.
Bawn led them to the front face and pointed to an opening halfway up the structure. It was of a size slightly larger than the average door. He jumped, as Aric might have jumped a small stream, and quite abruptly was standing in the opening with his back to his companions. He disappeared inside.
Kerrigan looked to her friend, and mouthed a word.
Shortly, Bawn reappeared and lowered a heavy leather rope that had seen more than its fair share of use. They used it to rappel upwards. Kerrigan entered the structure first.
There was a short hall ending in a stout door. She saw above her a series of grates, and another that could be dropped in front of the door. The rope was affixed to a ring in the stone that apppeared to exist for that purpose. After helping her up, Bawn wordlessly turned and went through the door, only half closing it behind him.
She waited for Aric. Once he was up, he coiled the rope behind them and they went through together.
The main chamber was a high ceilinged hall. The wall on one side was partially crumbled, as if it had been struck by catapult stones. The resulting opening let in the light of the upper canopy. It highlighted a pile of rubble, and great sheets of dust. A few small shoots pressed up through the mess, having found enough soil and drainage to root. There was nothing in the way of furnishings but a ring of rocks around a blackened core, a rudimentary firepit. Heavy sacks of miscellania were piled in one corner beside a wealth of dry wood.
Bawn had taken some of this wood to build a small pyramid within the blackened space, and broke open a vine to harvest its fibrous entrails. He set about hunting a spark by rubbing a sharp stick between his hands, causing it to turn against another stick, and the fibers. In a few moments, smoke rose in a thin trail, and then a candles worth of flame. He used this to light the pyramid.
Kerrigan had accompanied him long enough to know he had no need of fire. He could eat his food raw. He could wade through freezing waters or blistering heat with equal disdain, but preparing fire comforted him in some way. The tendrils seemed to leap higher, orange and red embers glowing brighter in his presence than without him. They watched him care for the burgeoning flame until it was an open blaze.
Then they sat around it. Kerrigan was the first to speak.
"What is this place?"
"One I have used before. It belonged to some of the watchers for the herald, but they were broken. This place fell to hunters. A hundred years, and they were gone. Travelers rested here occassionally, but now, no one passes through Thanilore, except the outskirts. This is just another wood, and we are a rider's day from any village that I know."
They were quiet awhile, each with their own thoughts. Aric dwelled on Kerrigan herself. When they had been apart, he had thought of her always. Now that they were together, he didn't know what to do. They had had a brief romance, before her mother had discovered it and taken her away to be married. It had yet to rekindle. Aric falted Bawn's staid, imposing presence for their failure to attach. He felt her awe of the barbarian was much like an infatuation. And it made him small.
Kerrigan was indeed thinking of the barbarian, wondering at his past and future both.
Bawn's own thoughts were unknowable.
"What are you going to do?" Kerrigan asked.
Bawn looked at her.
"When we are gone, and you are alone again, what are you going to do? When you don't have someone to teach?"
Those grand shoulders shrugged, a mountain shaking off the ice of a season. "I will do as I've always done."
"But what do you want?"
"Only what I cannot have." This comment was clearly intended as an ending. Kerrigan would not let it be.
"Asylphian," she said. "You're mourning her, but you can't keep mourning forever. You have gifts, and you don't use them."
Bawn said nothing, but there was a hardening around his eyes, around his mouth, and down through his whole too solid self.
"Kerrigan," Aric said, sensing danger, "don't."
"No. There's no reason to live this way. It's been a thousand years! Why are you still punishing yourself? Why are you living in ruins like a ghost? Why do you keep yourself alone?"
The fire flared, scattering ashes. The wood outside the walls had faded into darkness.
"I am what I have been made."
No matter what Kerrigan said after that, Bawn did not speak again until the night had passed.
* * *
Tiddles woke alone. "Oh dear," he thought, "oh dear." The fire had burned down to ashes and one sad, charrred branch. The hat of supreme diameter had gone, and with it the blue robed man. They had camped within sight of Skreeholm, though the mountain was still remote. Tiddles had gone to sleep with his back against a parchment tree.
Petronia was much more pleasant than the Plains. There was more variety, at least, and more water. In this season, there was not much food, which was a pity. Fortunately, Skree do not need much to go on, and they are professionally omnivorous. His only complaint was the cold.
He shivered as he stood, looking about. The mountains were lost in the mists of the Mondial, and the rest was only trees and hills browning with the winter. Tiddles hoped he could reach Skreeholm before it snowed. Only luck had held it back so far. Snow was something he had read of, and it sounded awful,
He rose, took a drink of water from his skin, and padded toward the dark shape on the horizon. After half a turn or so, he heard a muffled voice within his travel sack, and he withdrew the Tablet.
The face in the clay had already appeared.
"I see you have seen fit to leave the one I warned you against, at long last."
"He disappeared. I don't know where he went."
"We can hope that he is bored with you, and will not return."
Tiddles hissed to himself. "Who was he? You wouldn't say before why you were so afraid of him."
"I am not afraid. It was merely ill-advised that you should have gone with him. The headless gods have favored you. It could have easily transpired that you did not survive the meeting."
Tiddles had tucked the Tablet under his arm so he could walk as they conversed. He whistled at the assertion, as a bird would.
"Why do you say that?"
"If he had seen you as a threat, it would have ended quickly."
A flash of blue blades. Yes, it would have been fast.
"I couldn't have been a threat to him. I was afraid from the start."
"The Black Mage despises all wizards. He is one of the few names in this age who has killed their kind."
"He killed mancers?" Tiddles, having been amoing wizards all of his short life, had a difficult task imagining this. Black was frightening, but wizards were immortal and all powrful, at least in the eyes of their young prentice. To have killed one...
"How did he do it?"
The Tablet's answer was not long in coming. "Bloodily."
A flash of blue tallo, and a centaur discarded in the grass. Tiddles shook his head in incredulity. Oh dear. The man had had an awfully focused interest on the tower. Perhaps he had decided he'd learned all he could from the Skree, and then gone in search of the Tower. No. If he knew as much as Tiddles believed, he would know the Tower was not found. It was none of his business, anyway. The man was gone. He hadn't been so bad. Tiddles was off to better things.
He looked to the mountains.
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
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