The city of
Nevertheless, the river did not overflow often, and the abundance of water and the rich soil on the plains surrounding the city made the area ideal for farming. The city had grown rapidly from its beginnings, and was by far the largest city in the kingdom, though some claimed that Pantaglia, the great seaport city to the north, now rivaled it.
Along with agriculture, commerce flourished in the city. Being the seat of the kingdom, it was the place where men of great power, or those wishing for it, gravitated. With great power came great riches, and where the coin was, merchants were sure to follow. Many opulent buildings had sprung up in the city over the years to house these people. The metropolis was filled with glittering minarets and shining towers, reaching up to he sky, each seeming to aspire to outdo the other. The finest artisans and craftsmen had been hired and brought in from the four corners of the kingdom to build these structures, with no expense spared. Nevertheless, they all paled in comparison to the palace that had been built almost one hundred years ago by King Kalmach the Great.
It was situated high up in the foothills, high enough that it could be clearly seen from anywhere in the city. Built from a unique white stone found only in the
Standing on a balcony high up in the southernmost tower, Queen Irissa looked down at the city below.
The kingdom had been at peace for the past fifteen years, since the end of the Witch War. Though a few rebels had survived that conflict, they were too scattered and few to cause much trouble. Internal strife was at a minimum and Mandaria was at peace with all its neighbors. The economy was prospering, especially since Baron Christo had completed a very favorable trade pact with the kingdom to the south of them. The pirate fleets had been broken twenty years ago by the last king, and though a few still preyed on shipping, the impact was little felt, and the losses easily absorbed. No one was suffering expect perhaps the poor commoners who worked the fields, and they didn't count anyway. King Gultane's power was absolute, and all positions of any significance were held by people loyal to the throne. Of course, again, there were always a few who might plot to cause trouble only for their own gain, but Irissa knew who most of them were, and was willing to look the other way as long as they didn't go too far and still remained useful. By all rights, she should be quite pleased with the way things were going.
Nevertheless, she was not. Recent events had cast a pale on her outlook. Her pale blue eyes were clouded, her lips set in a thin line. Her long fingers gripped the stone railing of the balcony just a bit too tightly. Her foot, sheathed in a leather sandal shipped from the neighboring
Today was not a good day, not after the news she had heard from riders that had come in from Hadell that morning.
The tapping of feet on the floor alerted her to someone's approach, the Grand Vizier if the quick pitter pat was any indication. The man was undoubtedly in a rush today, but even when he wasn't, his feet still made that stuttering tapping sound, more like the scurrying of a mouse than a man. She thought the analogy apt.
A moment later the Grand Vizier made his appearance in front of her, bowing low. His blue robes, the color of the royal court, swept the ground around him. He had a full head of hair, white as snow, and starting to thin. He was getting on in years now. He had been a tutor to Prince Gultane in his younger years. The two had grown close and when Gultane had become King, Mariot's position had risen rapidly. He was one of the few people the King trusted implicitly, and he returned that loyalty in kind, and he had indeed proven quite useful at times. Even so, Irissa did not think quite as highly of him as her husband, as was the case with anyone who gave his or her loyalty to any person other than her.
"A thousand pardons, you highness," he said. "I was in a meeting with some very important people and I..."
"More important than your Queen?" Irissa stated cuttingly.
The Grand Vizier paused for a moment, glancing up at her.
"Of course not, your majesty," he replied. "I apologize."
Irissa dismissed it with a curt wave of her hand. She had more important things to worry about than being petty right now.
"Three days ago a ship called the Lady of the Night was sunk by the Red Eagle" she stated without preamble. "Ordinarily, this would not be news. However, I've heard a very interesting tale about that particular ship."
She turned away from the balcony, walking back into her bedroom. Mariot's eyes watched her, but he did not move.
"The Captain's name was Jacob Fisher. It seems that while in Pantaglia he ran into a very interesting group of people. A swordsman with silver hair and a patch over one eye. A female who seemed to know her way around a sword as well. A magician and a young girl. You know of course, who I mean."
She stopped walking and turned to look at him. Mariot nodded his head. He had heard that description often in the past. He was well aware of Irissa's obsession with catching the last of the Witches, this Merigan Maniore. He nodded.
"The Captain contacted the Imperial Knights in Pantaglia. It seemed that Ktan was looking for Dason Walcroft, though he wouldn't tell Fisher what he was after. Instead of springing a trap for Ktan in Pantaglia, the Captain decided to go along with Ktan to see exactly what it was he was seeking. I suspect the man was hoping to not only get a reward for capturing Ktan and the girl, but perhaps steal whatever it was that Ktan was after as well. They sailed to the southern islands with some foolish idea of kidnapping the girl and bringing her to Hadell once it was determined what Ktan was looking for."
"Of course, the plan failed," Irissa continued. "Fisher did indeed capture the girl, but something went wrong. Fisher was killed, apparently by his own crewmembers. The story I was told was that he was driven mad by some kind of book..."
Mariot frowned, looking at Irissa. He had been the King's liaison to the witches before the war. Or spy might have been a better term. He was well acquainted with the rituals they had performed, or as well as any man could be. He had heard rumors about a book, he knew that Irissa had been seeking it, he knew it was important to her, though he wasn't exactly sure why. In all his years of studying the witches, he had never seen one example of uncontestable magical power. He was convinced the witches hadn't been witches at all, but had just deluded themselves and convinced the general population they had some kind of strange power. Since Gultane had wanted to get rid of them, and it served the King's purposes for people to think that they were indeed witches, he had kept this information to himself. All these years Irissa had been hunting for that girl, Merigan, with an obsession that Mariot considered, well, unhealthy. The war had been over for fifteen years now. The girl was an infant when it had happened. She couldn't have any recollection of it. What harm could she possibly do? If it were up to him, their resources would be better spent on other things.
But of course, it wasn't up to him.
"You suspect this is the book you have been seeking?"
Still, he wasn't about to suggest to Irissa that her behavior seemed in any way abnormal. He wasn't sure, but he suspected that even after all this time she felt guilty for betraying the other witches. He knew she was often plagued by nightmares. Her screams in the middle of the night could not be hidden from all curious ears, not matter how the King might try. She clung desperately to power with all her might, and was dreadfully afraid of anything that might threaten her position. He had discretely sounded the King out about this, but Gultane had just brushed off the doings of his wife, content to humor her little idiosyncrasies in return for her overlooking his own.
"It would seem so," she said slowly. "I had thought the book lost. There had been no sign of it in all these years. Unfortunately, there was no sign of either the girl or the book on board the Lady after the Red Eagle caught up with it. Some of the people on board made it to shore. The girl may have been with them. The ship was sunk near Donelan."
"You have sent the Imperial Knights to investigate?" Mariot questioned. Though this was interesting news, he didn't see how he was to play any part in it. The Queen was quite capable of ordering troops to go search for the girl. She had been doing it for years, and he was certain she wouldn't be telling him this just because she wanted to chat.
"Not yet," she replied. "I want you to find Brohan."
"Brohan," Mariot repeated, somewhat surprised. He hadn't heard that name in years. King Gultane had spent a lot of effort demonizing the Witches of Donelan. Many people had firmly believed they were doing the lords will by wiping the witches out. That fervor had not died after the war ended. For years afterward the search for witches had continued. In some towns the burning of a witch became almost a weekly spectacle. Mariot had no idea how many had died. No record was kept, but he suspected in numbered in the thousands. Even so, it was still felt by many that not nearly enough was being done, that some clever witches still managed to escape the flames. Witch hunters had been hired by the church (or found among their own ranks) to track these people down. Brohan had been perhaps the most famous one, and claimed responsibility of having sent over a hundred witches to their deaths. He was said to have an uncanny, almost supernatural, ability to detect the use of magic and hunt down its caster. Mariot didn't put much stock in it, but again, the Queen felt differently. Eventually the witch hunting fervor had cooled, and Brohan and his ilk had fallen out of fashion. Mariot couldn't remember hearing anything about him for years. "Is he even still alive?"
"Of course he is," Irissa replied. "He's still living in Donelan. If the girl was on the boat, she shouldn't be too far away. According to my sources Ktan and the others were not with her. She's separated from them, and closer to the capital then ever before. She may even have the book with her. Finally she's within my grasp, and I'm not going to let her slip through my fingers. I need you to get word to Brohan immediately. See to it personally."
"Personally?" the Grand Vizier replied. He was an important head of state, not an errand boy. He hadn't lied about the meeting he had been at. "But your majesty, I have important duties here. The representatives of two neighboring kingdoms are here to negotiate trade initiatives. I'm the chief negotiator and it would be disastrous to the talks for me to leave in the middle of it. If you don't mind my saying, this seems more a duty for the Imperial Knights. I'm sure Variman..."
"I said you personally!" the Queen snapped, shutting Mariot up in mid sentence. "This is more important than any trade negotiations. If that girl has the book and gets away, it could be disastrous. Don't you see that the entire kingdom lies in the balance?"
Mariot just stared at the Queen for a moment. No, he most certainly could not see that, but he knew there was no point in telling her that. He had seen her in this kind of mood often enough to know that arguing with her would be pointless. Still, what he was telling her was the truth. The trade talks could very well collapse without his presence, and he was certain that would be a much more severe blow to the kingdom than the escape of one young girl.
They had all humored the
The sound of purposeful footfalls made them turn toward the entrance to the room. Unless it was someone specifically summoned by the Queen it was unusual for someone to enter her chambers unannounced.
The man who entered was a daunting figure, even, as he was now; wearing the blue and ivory dress uniform of the royal court instead of the white armor of an Imperial Knight. Variman Vashey was entering middle age, but years of training as a knight had hardened his body and given him the look of a man much younger. Only a few lines on his face gave away the fact that he wasn't as young as he used to be. The stubby brown hair on his head showed no sign of graying. A veteran of the court, his hawkish blue eyes missed nothing. His face seemed to hold an eternal expression of suspicion. At well over six foot, he towered over the average man, his height alone enough to give most men pause, not withstanding his fierce reputation as a cunning and ruthless warrior. Coming up and standing beside the small frame of the Grand Vizier, his dimensions seemed even more imposing.
"M'lady." Varamin said, bowing his head slightly in deference, and totally ignoring the presence of the Grand Vizier.
"Hello Variman," the Queen replied. She gave the Grand Vizier a look.
"You may go," she said curtly.
Mariot stood there for a moment, displeased with the summary dismissal, but knowing there was nothing he could do about it. It didn't matter anyway. He had nothing more to discuss with this woman. He would take his case directly to the King.
Stiff backed, he strutted out of the room.
Variman watched him until he disappeared, then turned toward the Queen.
"Was the Grand Vizier offering you his words of wisdom?" he questioned.
"The Grand Vizier is a fool!" Irissa spat out.
Variman made no attempt to hide his amusement. Like many military men, Variman admired strength and little else. He had grown up fighting, and was very good at it. He had no time for people who spent their time talking things out, trying to negotiate, which he considered akin to appeasement. As far as he was concerned, if someone got in your way you ran him over and moved on, and that was the end of it.
Of course, he had been around long enough to know that it couldn't always be that way. Even when your forces were obviously superior, the people did not always support war or fighting, and sometimes even a King had to bow to the people's will.
Or at least, that was what Gultane seemed to think. Now if he was king...
"Have you learned anything new?" Irissa asked.
"No," Variman replied. He had just ridden in from Hadell, having been with the Imperial Knights who had been sent to pick up the girl. Unlike Mariot, he fully supported the Queen's hunt for Merigan, though his reasons differed from those of the Queen. He was more interested in the young girl's companions than the girl herself. Ktan Hammerlane was one of the few people whose fighting skills Variman respected, might even rival his own, in fact. Even though they had won the Witch War because of it, the battle of Mergess Hill had been the only battle where the Imperial Knights had been defeated, a defeat that Ktan had played a major role in, a defeat that had been a bitter pill for Variman to swallow. Even though Ktan was only one man, as long as he lived Variman considered him a danger to the crown. He would like nothing more than to finally meet the man in battle, and get his revenge for the defeat at Mergess Hill.
He assumed Irissa was aware of this. Since Ktan and the girl were together, their purposes coincided. As a result, it was only natural they join forces.
"The girl must be somewhere near Donelan," Variman continued. "And I'm sure Ktan won't be far behind. I'll leave at first light."
Irissa's gown rustled as she stepped down from the balcony.
"No," she said slowly. "That won't be necessary. I have someone else handling that."
Variman looked at her in surprise.
"Who?" he questioned, frowning.
"Brohan," she replied.
Variman's frown deepened.
"Brohan? The old witch hunter? Is he even still alive?"
"Yes he's still alive," Irissa replied curtly. "I sent Mariot to finding him."
Variman was plainly put out, and did not try to hide it. Wherever Merigan went was where he would find Ktan. All these years he had been the one in charge of the hunt, all this time he had been as enthusiastic as her about finding them. Even so, a lesser man might not have questioned it. She was the Queen after all. However, Variman was no lesser man.
"Why him? Why now? It's been years since the witch hunters have been used. Who knows if he even still retains any of his old skills. You know I want to find this girl as much as you. How can you put someone else on the trail when we're so close?"
Irissa looked at him for a moment, seemingly amused. She stepped forward and took his hand, a beguiling smile on her lips.
"Don't worry my dear, I haven't lost confidence in you," she said soothingly. "I have something else for you to do."
Variman just looked at her for a moment. It wasn't often she showed her affection for him, at least, not unless it was late at night and they were sure no one would interrupt.
"And what might that be?" he said slowly.
"I want you to go to Pantaglia," she replied.
"Pantaglia?" he questioned. "Why there?"
Irissa's hand ran slowly up and down his arm.
"Ktan and the girl were looking for Dason Walcroft," she said. "Apparently they were after something. Captain Fisher was out to get it as well, though apparently he didn't know exactly what they were after. According to my sources, the Captain was driven mad by a book. I think you know what book it might be."
Variman nodded slowly. He had once been the head of the Sacred Knights that protected the Maiden's of Donelan, before the war had split them and he had sided with the king. He was well aware of their routines.
"The book of Redemption," he stated.
"Exactly," she replied. "And you know how long I've been looking for that. Brohan can handle the girl, at least for now. I've never made it any secret I've been looking for the book. I need to know for sure if it's what I am seeking, and if so, how it fell into Dason's hands, and why I wasn't told about it."
Variman's kept his face carefully neutral; giving no hint of the sudden tension that tightened his neck muscles. He knew a lot more about the book than Irissa suspected. He was in fact, the one who had found it in the ruins of the Maiden's fortress. Even then he had known Irissa was seeking it, but that was long before he had become her consort, when his loyalty to the king had still been suspect. He had kept the knowledge of its whereabouts to himself, thinking to use it as his own ace in the hole if needed. As it had turned out, he hadn't needed it. He had been clever and resourceful enough to make himself one of the most powerful men in Mandaria without it. Even after he had become Irissa's lover, he still hadn't mentioned it. She would have undoubtedly wanted to know why he had kept the knowledge from her for so long, plus he still thought the information might be useful to him someday. Fearing that Irissa would find it, he had given it to his good friend, Dason Walcroft for safekeeping. It had remained with the man ever since, and Variman had pretty much forgotten about it entirely. Now, however, things had suddenly become complicated.
"I see," he said slowly. "I suppose that is something that it would be better for me to attend to."
Now that he knew what Irissa was thinking, he was glad she had chosen him for this task. If someone else got to Dason first and he talked, well, that could make things very uncomfortable, very uncomfortable indeed.
"I'll ride back to Hadell tonight and catch the first boat tomorrow," he stated. "If Dason knows anything about this book, I'll find out."
The Queen pulled him closer.
"There's no need to leave quite so quickly, is there?" she questioned, looking at him with an expression that he had seen often enough to read her intentions clearly. "The king is in economic negotiations and will be indisposed until quite late tonight. You know how lonely I get when he's not around..."
A knowing smile spread across him lips.
"No, no need to rush off," he agreed. "Dason isn't going anywhere. I'll leave for Hadell tomorrow."
"How much farther do you think it is til Donelan?"
Merigan lifted her eyes and scanned the horizon in front of them. They had been walking all day through rolling fields of wheat and barely. They knew the road was to the south of them. They had spotted it a couple of times, when they had crested the higher hills, but they dared not use it. The ship had been bound for Hadell, and those waiting for them could not have missed observing it sail to the east. Even if their adversaries could not be sure of its destination, or when the two had parted ways with it, they both knew the Imperial Knights could not be far away.
"I really can't say," she replied. "I haven't been in these parts in a long time. Even on the road I don't think I could tell since I'm not sure exactly where we landed. I do know it's about four days ride on horseback from Galias to Donelan."
They had walked all day. The sun was now low on the western horizon, less than an hour from sinking beneath it. Willbrand was tired and hungry, and he knew Merigan couldn't feel any better. Neither one of them had their travel packs; they were both back on the southern islands. All they had was one small pack that Barto had given them when he had sent them over the side of the Lady. They had almost no food or supplies, and very little coin. Alone in hostile territory, their outlook was bleak.
Of course, he didn't mention that to Merigan, tried to push it out of his mind, in fact. There was no sense in thinking like that; it wasn't going to help them. They would just have to go on as best they could for as long as they could and not worry about things beyond their control.
Still, they couldn't just walk forever. It wouldn't make sense to go blundering about in the dark. And they had to eat sometime.
"We're going to have to find a place to rest for the night," he said. "Do you have any suggestions?"
Merigan gave him an unsure look. She wasn't used to being asked to make decisions. She had always left that up to Ktan.
"I don't know," she said slowly. "I don't think we can stay at an
"True, but that doesn't mean the farmer won't give us away," he replied.
"Yes," she conceded. "But most of the farmers are more worried about their crops than about someone running from the king. I don't think they'd ask too many questions, especially if we give them a few coins."
"But you don't know that," Willbrand replied, obviously not convinced. "Perhaps it would be better to just sneak into someone's barn for the night."
"Well, we could try that," she conceded, "but that won't get us anything to eat. And if we get caught, it's even more likely that the owner will turn us in."
Willbrand thought about that for a moment, then nodded.
"I suppose you're right. Our luck has held so far, I guess we'll just have to trust it one more time. Just make sure it's not more than a few coins that we have to pay. Our funds are low enough as it is."
Merigan gave him a rueful smile then raised her head and looked around again. They could see the thatched roof of a farmhouse off to the left.
"Shall we try there?" she suggested.
"As good as any, I suppose," he agreed.
They walked along a narrow dirt road that led up to the door of the farmhouse. As they approached Willbrand suddenly stopped and turned toward his companion.
"What are we going to tell them?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"What are we going to tell them about who we are, about what we're doing here and why we have no supplies? I don't think it would be wise to tell them we came off a ship. Who knows what they might have heard. Don't you think it would be better if we had some kind of story?"
"I'm not much of a storyteller," Merigan replied. "Did you have something in mind?"
"Well, no, not really," he responded.
They both stood there looking at one another for quite some time.
"Well, we can't just stand here all day," Merigan ventured, glancing at the farmhouse door which was no more than a few paces in front of them. "If they look out here and see us, they're going to wonder why we're standing here."
"All right, all right," Willbrand answered. "We were on our way to Donelan with a group of merchants and something happened. We were...umm, attacked."
"By bandits," Merigan piped in.
"Yes, by bandits," Willbrand agreed. "It was the middle of the night and we were taken by surprise. Still, I had my sword nearby and managed to slay a dozen of them."
"Six," Merigan said, looking at him sharply. "The story is supposed to be believable."
"Ten," Willbrand countered, looking hurt.
"Hey, no fair going backwards," the young noble protested.
"Okay, okay! Eight."
After a moment, Merigan nodded her agreement.
"But even so there were just too many of them. We fled into the night, barely escaping with our lives and just the clothes on our backs. We were separated from everyone else; don't even know, in fact, if any of them survived. We're trying to make our way to Donelan in hopes of meeting any of the others who may have escaped and gone there. How's that sound?"
"Sounds good enough to me," Merigan concurred.
The negotiations completed they walked forward and knocked on the door. It was opened a moment later by an older woman who stared at them curiously.
For a moment they all just stood there looking at each other, then Willbrand cleared his throat and spoke.
"We are travelers passing by and wondered if we might find shelter here for the night, and perhaps something to eat."
"We'll pay you," Merigan chimed in.
The woman looked them over for a minute, then nodded and stepped back, ushering them in. The house was small, the wooden walls bare. The furniture was sparse and crudely hewn. Two small children played on the floor near where the woman stood.
"Make yourselves at home," the woman said, pushing back her stringy black hair. She walked over to an open window and peered out.
"Abner, tell your father strangers are here looking for shelter," she called.
They heard a grunted reply from somewhere outside, but saw no one.
Willbrand sat down at the table, looking around slowly, trying to hide his distaste. He was a noble, had spent his whole life in soft beds, having clean if not luxurious quarters, being waited on by servants. The conditions had been poor at times during their journey. He had had to camp out in the woods with the barest of necessities. It had been unpleasant but he had always known it was just temporary. This place was no more than a shack. The castle barns back in Crotasia were cleaner and smelled better. How could these people live like this?
He glanced at Merigan, but she seemed unperturbed. He had seen a lot since their journey had started. He was well aware that there was a lot out there that was new to him, that, as a noble, he had never been exposed to. Still, for some reason the realization that this was the first time he had ever been in a peasants house came as a surprise to him.
The woman had been washing clothes in a small wooden tub before they had entered; now she went back to it, ignoring the two newcomers. She hadn't asked any questions, or seem in the least bit curious about them. Willbrand didn't think visitors like themselves were common. He thought the woman would at least ask them some questions.
A short time later the door was pulled open and a middle aged man with dark black hair and beard stepped in. The woman immediately stood up. The man grunted a greeting then turned his eyes toward the two strangers.
"Greetings," Willbrand spoke up. "We were with a caravan of merchants on our way to Donelan when we were waylaid by bandits. It was late at night and..."
"My son says you'll pay for shelter," the man cut him off. "How much?"
Willbrand paused for a moment, a bit put off at the interruption, and at the question. He hadn't really thought about what they might pay. They didn't have much coin to spare, but he thought, or hoped rather, that these people would not demand much for shelter and some food. Still, he had never done anything like this before and was quite at a loss as to what price to suggest.
"Five coin," Merigan said, seeing Willbrand groping for a reply.
"Five coin," the man repeated slowly, his eyes brightening a bit. Willbrand gave Merigan a look. He hadn't really wanted to spend that much. They had little in reserve, and no prospects of obtaining anymore anytime soon. If anything, she should have suggested a lower amount so they could barter up.
"Very good," the man said. "You can eat with us, just don't be expecting a feast, and there's no room in here, you'll have to sleep in the barn."
Willbrand and Merigan both nodded, the young noble surprised at the lack of negotiation. His lack of experience with peasants was becoming painfully obvious to him. Still, it was a relief that they didn't have to spend anymore. Considering the surroundings, he had hardly expected a feast, and as for sleeping in the barn, well, it couldn't be much worse than it was in here.
He was wrong.
"Five coin! This wasn't worth two coin! The smell is so bad I can barely breathe. Don't they ever clean this place? I'm surprised the horses can even stand it. Five coin! We were robbed! We really did run into a bandit. We'd have been better off just sleeping under the trees."
He sat in the far corner of the barn, Merigan standing beside him. After paying the man, they had eaten something with him and his family. Neither the man nor any of his kin had asked them any questions at all, and Willbrand had not gotten to tell them of his exploits against the imaginary bandits. They had eaten in silence, in fact, each of them more concerned with getting as much as they could of the meager fare as possible, grabbing everything that was put on the table almost before it was set down. Willbrand had considered their manners atrocious, and they would all have been given a sound tongue thrashing had they been at the royal court of Crotasia.
But of course, they were not. After they had eaten the man had led them outside to the barn. Pulling open the door, he had left to continue to tend his fields in the little light that remained before nightfall, leaving them to fend for themselves with neither candle nor blanket.
"Oh stop sounding like Saramis," Merigan said slowly. "Five coin will buy the man a weeks worth of food for his family. They'll eat better than they have in who knows how long, ever, maybe. Consider it contributing to a worthwhile cause."
Willbrand just looked at her. He had never considered a peasant to be a worthwhile cause. He had never considered peasants at all, in fact. They were just something he had never thought about. They were always there, even in Crotasia the streets had been filled with them. He had seen them every day, but he had just never paid any attention to them.
Merigan leaned against a wooden beam, looking thoughtfully out the open barn door at the slowly darkening fields. She didn't say anything more, but had a pensive look on her face. Willbrand wondered exactly what she was thinking. It was obvious she felt sympathetic toward the peasant. He got the impression she was much more familiar with the ways of these people than he was himself. He wondered how much time she had spent with them, and if she had even lived like this at one time or another in her life. He couldn't picture it, he couldn't see her living in a hovel like the one these people lived in, but then again, he couldn't picture anyone living like that. He still couldn't believe those people called this place their home.
"Do they all live like this?" he finally said.
Merigan looked distracted.
"In a dump," he said bluntly. "Their house, and this barn, are falling apart. They're dirty and they smell. The whole place is filthy. Do all peasants live like this or are these an...aberration?"
Merigan's head tilted, a slightly puzzled expression on her face. Gliding silently on the hay-covered floor, she walked over and sat down beside him.
"You don't get out much, do you?" she said, looking at him closely.
Willbrand fumbled for a reply, then gave up and shook his head. Why did he find that so difficult to admit?
Merigan swept her hand in front of her.
"This is how the majority of the people in this kingdom live. If you hadn't been lucky and by sheer chance been born into a family of noble blood, the chances are you'd be living this way too."
Willbrand looked down at the ground. It was true. He knew what she was saying was true, but he couldn't picture himself living like this, no matter what family he had been born into.
"Can't they do something about it?"
"Something, like what?" Merigan replied.
"I don't know," he replied lamely. "If life is so difficult here, why don't they move or something."
"Move?" Merigan said, finding it hard to suppress a laugh. "Where could they go? The farmers, like most people in the kingdom, have no land of their own. They work here by leave of the Baron who owns the land and most of their crop goes to him in taxes. They only place they could go is to another Barony, and they'd just be in the same position there."
"I don't know," Willbrand replied somewhat testily. He didn't like his ideas being made fun of, even if they deserved it. "Who says they have to go to another Barony anyway? There must be unclaimed land around here. We traveled through miles of it on our way from Porgia to Pantaglia."
"We're much closer to the core of the kingdom now," Merigan replied. "This isn't the wilds of the north. There isn't much uncultivated land here, although I suppose they could find someplace if they really tried, but how would that help them? They're farmers; they can't live in the forest. They wouldn't know how to survive, and besides, the forests are filled with bandits. A well-armed group, such as we had, just passing through hasn't much to fear, but if someone tried to clear land in the woodlands some of the thieves would be bound to take notice. One of the few advantages to living in a Barony is that they are under the Kings protection."
"Protection from what? They have nothing to steal!" Willbrand pointed out.
"They have horses, and other farm animals," Merigan countered. "Even their pots and pans would bring a few coin to someone desperate for it. I've known bandits who would cut your throat for less."
"How reassuring," Willbrand stated grumpily.
A low rumble outside caught their attention. Merigan stood up and walked over to the door, looking out at the sky above, which was now rapidly darkening. A flash of light silhouetted her for a moment, followed by another low rumble.
"Looks like we're going to get some rain," she observed as she walked back to where Willbrand sat. "Still think we'd have been better off sleeping under the trees?"
"I suppose five coin isn't too great a price to pay," Willbrand conceded. "It certainly would have cost us more at an
"Hard to say because I don't know exactly where we are. Anywhere from two days to a week, I suspect."
Merigan sat back down beside him.
"A week," Willbrand replied bleakly. Even at five coin a day, assuming it would cost no more and they only ate once a day, that would be stretching it to the limit. They weren't traveling through the wilderness; there was no game here to forage for. They didn't have the weapons for that anyway. What were they going to do when they ran out of money? They had to get to Donelan. Eventually their friends would come looking for them, and they certainly weren't going to find them here. He supposed he could find a job somewhere if it came down to that, though his training as a noble had not included any farming skills. The best he could hope for was to hire out his sword to someone, perhaps to some merchant, but he would have to find one who wouldn't ask too many questions and it would have to be a job that wouldn't bog them down in one place.
Merigan might have an easier time of it finding work, but his moral code prevented him from suggesting it. Not that he doubted for a moment she would volunteer if the need became acute. He didn't really know all the skills she possessed, but he knew she was at least good at cooking, and probably a number of other things he might not know anything about.
He toyed for a moment with the idea of her somehow using here illusionary skills to finance them. He was sure they could use that to their advantage in some way if they just used a bit of imagination, but almost immediately discarded that idea. Merigan's skills were a serious matter, not to be taken lightly, and any rumor of her reaching the ears of the Imperial Knights would spell disaster for them. The two of them certainly wouldn't stand any chance if they were discovered.
He heard the slow patter of rain begin to fall lightly outside.
The only other thing he could think of was resorting to stealing. Again his moral code made him reluctant, but he suspected the rationale of stealing a small amount of food to prevent starvation would provide enough justification to overcome that. A more important consideration was that he no skills whatsoever as a thief. He had never stolen anything in his life. It wasn't necessary when most of your needs were automatically provided for, and again, getting caught would be disastrous.
Of course, with Merigan's skills, she would have no trouble at all resorting to the ways of a thief, and the chances of her getting caught would be nil. Since she wouldn't be using her skills out in the open, it would not draw attention to them.
He wondered if she had ever done anything like that, even just to see if she could. He had to admit if it were he; the urge to try would have been strong. She was marked as a heretic anyway; it wasn't like she could get into any more trouble than she already was.
He would have to ask her about that someday, but not right now. He supposed if they became desperate enough they could play that card, but he wasn't ready to even discuss it just yet. Right now he was reasonably well fed, and they did have shelter for at least tonight. With a bit of luck their coin would last them until they reached Donelan. Merigan had said it could be as little as two days away and if that were the case then all his worries were for naught. Even if it was a week, they might find someplace for less coin to stay, and even if their coin did run out; they could just tighten their belts and carry on. During his cadet training, he had gone almost two days without food at one point and it hadn't seemed like too great a hardship. He had heard tales of people lost in the forest in the winter that hadn't eaten for weeks and yet survived. He didn't think they'd starve to death in a week even with no food at all; certainly not a pleasant prospect, but they would do what they had to. He suspected that the threat of capture was something that should be of more concern to him than starving.
He wondered what would happen after they reached Donelan. From what Merigan had told him she hadn't been there in years. It wasn't certain they'd be able to get any help. What would they do then?
"Who is this person in Donelan that you know?" he finally spoke again.
Merigan stirred, looking up, as if surprised to hear him speak to her.
"Umm, there are actually a number of people that we might get in touch with," she replied.
"Might?" he repeated. "You don't sound too sure of yourself. Are you certain these people will be there?"
"Well, they were last I heard," she replied with just a bit of hesitation.
Willbrand lifted his head and eyed her.
"And when exactly was the last time you heard?" he questioned.
"I'm not sure," she said slowly. "A few years I suppose..."
"A few years," he said, sounding none too pleased. "So for all you know, these people might not be there anymore."
"I guess that's possible," she replied. "But most of them have lived there all their lives and have no reason to go anywhere."
"Still, anything could happen after all that time," Willbrand persisted. "People change, people move. For all we know none of these people might be there. For all we know, none of these people might even be alive anymore!"
Merigan lifted her hands.
"Do you have any better suggestions?" she said. "What other choice do we have?"
Willbrand looked at her for a moment, then turned his head away. She was right of course. They had no place else to go. He realized that he was letting their potential problems get to him. Understandable, really. He had never done anything remotely like this before. He had never been on his own, had never been away from his parents. He had to admit that scared him, scared him a lot more than he liked, or thought it would have, but panicking about it wasn't going to do him any good and certainly would be embarrassing in front of Merigan.
"I'm sorry," he said quickly. "You're absolutely right. I'm just being...overly pessimistic. These people have lived there all their lives; I'm sure they wouldn't just pull up stakes and leave suddenly, not all of them anyway. So who is the first person we try to contact once we get there."
Merigan thought for a minute.
"Ferdinand," she said finally. "He's a farmer who we used to stay with when I was very young."
"A farmer," Willbrand repeated slowly, looking around himself, not exactly sure they would be any better off.
Merigan opened the small pack Barto had given them and started to root though their meager supplies.
"Like I said, most people who live in the kingdom are farmers," she reminded him.
"But he can help us?" Willbrand pressed. If he was anything like the farmer they were now with, he didn't see that the man could give them much help, especially if they needed to borrow some coin.
"He's a good friend, and he knows a lot of people," Merigan replied. "If we reach him, we'll be safe."
Willbrand's skepticism was somewhat diminished by Merigan's reassurance. He had to face the fact that she knew a lot more about this area than he did, and he had no choice but to defer to her decisions. As she had said, there really was no other option.
Willbrand had thought Merigan was just taking stock of what they possessed as she looked through the things in the pack, but his eyebrows raised a tad when he saw her pull out the book. She set it down in her lapped and stared at it.
It was rapidly getting dark. The sun had been sinking in the sky even before they had entered the barn, and now with the cloud cover it was almost too dark to read. Almost, but not quite. Willbrand felt a tightening in his throat.
"What are you doing?" he said slowly.
For a long time Merigan didn't reply, just sat there looking at the cover of the book in front of her. Finally she looked at him, and he saw a glint in her eye he had never seen before.
"I have to admit to more than a little curiosity as to what's in here," she said.
He didn't reply, just sat there, but he felt oddly nervous. No, not oddly. He knew exactly what the cause of it was. They had both heard the rumors about that book. He had seen his companion’s reactions to tales of the curse, or whatever it was, and the reactions of others, ranging from open skepticism to unfailing belief. He had been quite skeptical himself, would, in fact, have dismissed the entire story of it being sure death to open the book if you were unworthy until just a few weeks ago, until he had met Merigan and seen what she could do. True, Merigan's powers did not include cursing objects, yet she was but an untrained acolyte. Who knew what sort of power a High Priestess would possess? He had seen for himself what had happened to Captain Fisher. The book might have had nothing at all to do with that, but it seemed an awfully odd coincidence.
"Don't open it," he found himself saying.
Merigan looked at him. She didn't really look surprised.
"You believe what Hansen said?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Not really. Not all that about a darkness coming, but you know what happened to Captain Fisher."
"I know," she said softly.
He waited for her to say more, but she fell silent. Still, she made no move to open the book.
"You seem to have some reservations about it yourself," he said finally.
She looked closely at the cover, running her hand along it. Even that made Willbrand nervous.
"Why don't you just put it back," he suggested.
"If Hansen was right, then no one but the High Priestess can open it, but what if there is no High Priestess?"
Willbrand thought about that for a moment, then shrugged.
"Then no one could open it," he replied.
"I don't think it would work that way," she replied. "If that were true, then there could never be another High Priestess. I mean, supposed she died suddenly, without training a replacement? Would that have meant the end of the Maidens?"
Again Willbrand shrugged.
"Is that a rhetorical question?"
"I think the answer is no," she replied. "I think there must be some safeguard. Even if what Hansen said was all true, there must be some way to open the book in an emergency."
"Maybe," Willbrand said reluctantly. Although it sounded reasonable, what she was saying was obviously just guesswork. Was she willing to bet her life on it? "Even if that's true, even if there is a way to open it, we don't know what it is."
Merigan tapped the book softly with her finger.
"Or maybe what Hansen told us was only partly true. Maybe any Maiden can open it."
Willbrand let out a ragged sigh.
"Maybe this, maybe that. Maybe the book has no power at all and what happened to Captain Fisher was just a weird coincidence. Merigan, it's all just guesswork. The fact of the matter is, we don't know, and it's foolish to open the book up before we do."
"And just how do you propose we find out?" his companion asked.
"I don't know that either," Willbrand replied. "At least, at least wait until we find the others. Maybe Saramis can figure out something. Maybe there's some....I don't know, magical thing he can do."
He realized how lame that sounded, but she seemed to seriously consider it, though still she made no move to put the book away.
It was getting darker by the minute. Even if she opened it now, she suspected she probably wouldn't be able to read it in the fading light. What Willbrand was saying made sense. Even if the book was harmless, given what they had been told and what had already happened, it was prudent to wait. It certainly wasn't going to do any harm. Yet even so, she was reluctant to put the book away. In fact, she felt herself drawn to it somehow. She looked down at it again. It was quite large, and filled her lap, yet it felt strangely light, feeling like it weighed no more than a book perhaps half its size. The cover was dark brown, with an engraving of a woman standing under a large tree surrounded by stars, with the inscription 'Kan Tournin' beneath. She knew the book was old, but there were no signs of wear or age upon it.
What kind of secrets did it hold? What could it tell her, about the Maidens, about herself? She had felt the urge to open the book from the moment it had come into her possession. It had been just a small thought in her mind at first, but it had slowly grown until now it was almost irresistible. She suddenly realized she had never wanted anything more in her life.
And that in itself set off alarm bells in her mind. Deep down inside she realized it wasn't natural, what she was feeling. Somehow something was influencing her, making her want to open the book. Whether it was the book itself or something darker, she didn't know, but one thing she was certain of was that the power directed at her was not looking after her own best interests.
Slowly she wrapped her hands around the book and lifted it up, and then she held it out in front of Willbrand, who just looked at her with a frown on his face.
"Take it," she said.
"I don't understand," he said slowly.
"Just take it, please."
He looked at her for a moment more, then reached out and took the tome from her. Immediately her face seemed to relax.
"It wants me to open it," she said. "The feeling is… quite strong."
Willbrand just stared at her. For the first time he noticed the paleness of her face. He looked down at the book in his hands. He felt no urge to open it at all. In fact, he didn't even want to touch it. He quickly shoved it back in the pack.
"The book wants you to open it?" he said slowly.
"I don't know if it's actually the book, or someone or something else," she replied.
"What or who else could it be?" he questioned. "There's no one else around here. Irissa?"
Merigan shook her head.
"I don't know. All I know is the urge to open it was almost irresistible. Whether it's the book itself, or some other reason I can't say for sure."
Willbrand sat back against the wall of the barn, a look of distaste on his face. The more he learned about this book the less he liked it. He had a feeling they were dealing with a power here that was way beyond them. More then ever he wished the others were here.
The rain was a steady drumming on the roof of the barn now. Water was leaking down from the roof in several places above their heads, but fortunately, none of it was dripping on them. Merigan bunched some of the straw together into a small pile and lay down upon it.
"I'm so tired," she said softly.
Willbrand nodded distractedly. He was worried about what she had told him. He didn't cotton to the idea of something or someone influencing Merigan, or trying to. It was a problem he felt completely inadequate to deal with. He didn't understand any of this, and that made him feel even less in control. No matter how his ego may feel about it, he needed Merigan. He had to be able to trust her or all was lost.
"Are you okay?" he questioned.
"Yes," she replied after a moment. "I'll be fine. I just need to get some rest."
They fell silent. Willbrand slumped down against the wall, listening to the rain drum against the wooden roof above them. There was nothing he could do, nothing except carry on. They would just have to do the best they could until they reached Donelan, and then...well, whatever happened happened. They were safe for now, and there was no sense in worrying. Even so, it was a long time before he finally drifted off to sleep.