I was given a horse by King Tynis, as a reward for my part in the events of Warmuth Bridge, a warhorse. Tarn was his name, and he was a fine, fine beast. It did not take my master long to find a way for me to put him to use.
"It is time for the North Ward at Starhill to be restored," my master told me one day. "You will ride to Starhill"
"Take the Hadof with you for your studies." I nodded. The Hadof works dealt with the runes of the southeastern islands, and in particular the magic of the Wizard-Kings who once ruled in ancient Hadof, where burns the lake of fire.
"You have proved yourself in the field, Pacasin, I do not worry about your ability to deal with any physical threat you encounter, be it beast or bandit and you will have Sergeant Brumel and his troop of ten cavalrymen, but be ever mindful. There are unhumans, undead beasts and old magics in the forests of the north and even older evils in the mountains that are always seeking a way back into the lands of men. We shall rest a month, and you and I shall study the Starhill ward together and review its construction and the means to restore it."
"Yes master," I agreed. I wondered what his purpose was in giving this task to me. This was something he had done in the past, and what I though of as a duty of the Vale Wizard.
"You will command Sergeant Brumley and his men, but you will listen to the Sergeant anytime he has an opinion, eh? He is a seasoned warrior. Old warriors are hard to kill, they say, and there's a reason for that."
I know I normally say that a lot, but it seemed I was saying it even more since our return from Warmuth Bridge.
Ethric and I did review my study of the wardstone that night, but I spent some time earlier in the day with Sergeant Brumel and his men. Aside from my time in Tarn's saddle, the Sergeant and I went over the route we would travel, and the possible problems we might encounter as we went. The Sergeant painted a pretty rosy picture for the trip to Starhill, but I found myself looking at what I thought was the familiar territory of the Vale with a new perspective.
Montcross consists mostly of mountains and forests and ran from the Warmouth River in the west to the Tatterik in the east. To her west lie Ormond and the Farlight Sea and to her east, across the Tatterik, was the kingdom of Fedriksland to the south and north of that, the Bitter Peat, a cold, poisonous and seemingly endless series of bogs and swamps. Due south of Montcross lay the Horse Kingdoms and the land of the Hidden Lakes.
Three large highland valleys were where the great majority of the people of Montcross built their towns and cities. Above them, nestled in the northern mountains themselves was the Vale. A bare third of the size of the kingdom's southern valleys, the Vale was a bit colder, a bit wilder and a bit less comforting to those who were born to wear silk and velvet. So my master said, anyway. I seldom gave it much thought, as it was what I was used to.
The Vale's position made it a barrier between the peaceful lower valleys and that which occupied the north. That role was taken very seriously by King Tynis, by my master Ethric, and thus by extension, me. That the civilization of man held sway where it did was due to three ancient wardstones. The first of which was buried in the floor of the courtyard in the keep at Starhill.
I rode Tarn through the gates of the city with Sergeant Brumel and his men behind me, just as we'd done many of the days since my return, but this day our saddlebags were packed for a journey, our full kits were about us and our bellies warm with a fine breakfast.
We followed the Cairnheart, moving at a good pace over the trade road that ran alongside the river, finally crossing the river itself the evening of the third day at the town of Cairncross.
"There's an inn here, my lord," the Sergeant told me. "The Three Seasons, if I remember right. They may have room for us." I kept reminding him I was no Wizard yet, and to call me Pac, but he seemed to be prone to erring on the side of caution when it came to such things.
The Sergeant and I entered and I found the inn as I expected it to be, a bit dim and smoky. Quieter than I expected, but perhaps that quiet was due to the sergeant's bulk filling the doorway.
"good evening gentleman, welcome to the Three Seasons," A tall, muscled fellow with an apron and a big smile offered as soon as we were in the door. "I'm Artuma. Welcome to my inn, and will you be wanting a room?"
"We would," I answered. His focus moved from Sergeant Brumley to me. "We have another ten men with us. Do you have the room?"
"Will the common room do for your men sir?"
"It will. Can you stable our horses as well, or will we need to post a picket outside of town?"
"It should be no problem sir, there are no caravans in town at the moment, so there's room aplenty, though we're expecting a large train of wagons in a couple of days. Will you be staying long?"
"Overnight," I answered. "Will we get breakfast in the morning?"
"Yes sir, and dinner tonight. You'll have to pay extra if you want anything but the house glass to drink. We can fix you a lunch to take with you on the road as well if you want to pay a little extra."
"how much?" the Sergeant asked.
"Will the two of you be sharing a room?" the innkeeper asked. The sergeant looked at me and I nodded.
"Two silver for the two of you and two for the ten men in the common room. Add a silver for the travel meal, and you and your men will pay for anything but the house glass when you're served."
"Agreed," I nodded. Sergeant Brumley opened his purse and doled out the five silver, then threw in a couple of coppers.
"For the horses," he told the innkeeper. "We'll fetch our saddlebags, the rest we leave to your care."
Outside again the Sergeant gave the order to dismount and immediately grabbed Corporal Winthrom. "Corporal, you'll see that the horses get to where they will be kept in good order and assure yourself that the stable hands know how to tend a warhorse before you come inside." he then grabbed another of the men by the arm and pointed at Tarn. "Crommer! Gather the young lord's bags and mine and find us inside. Everyone else's will go in the common room. We've paid the innkeeper so if anyone puts out a hand, you let me know."
"Listen up!" The Sergeant bellowed. "You'll drink what the inn is serving and like it. Anything else you pay for yourselves, understood?"
A chorus of 'yes sir!' came from all around. The Sergeant nodded at me and we returned to the inn and found that a set of tables near the bar had been pushed together for us. It did look like room enough for the twelve of us. We sat as a serving girl approached us.
"good evening good sirs, I'm Elta. We've got a pot of mutton stew if you're in a hurry for food, but we'll be serving a fresh carval soup in about an hour, and there'll be fresh bread to go with it at that time. There are still some good summer apples left, and you can have them baked if you want."
"I'll wait for the carval," I said, and Sergeant Brumley nodded his agreement. "For now, I'll try a glass of the house to see how it suits me."
"I'll have the same," the Sergeant added. Just then Crommer came in with our bags. The ever attentive innkeeper saw them coming our way and met Crommer at our table.
"I can show your man where to put those," he offered.
"I'll come along," I stood. "I'll need to give the room some attention if my bags are to stay there safely."
"Very well," he agreed. Crommer and I followed. We took the stairs to the upper floor and followed Artuma halfway down the hall. A door there opened to a relatively large room, for an inn. There were two beds, one by the window and one behind the door. A small table with a water pitcher and basin were on the other side of the door. This led me to understand that the inn, at least on the upper floor, did not have running water.
"Very good. Crommer, put my bags by the window and the Sergeant's on the other bed."
"Where's the privy?" I asked, dismissing Crommer.
"The stairway at the back end of the hall, then out the door." He gestured out the door and around the departing Crommer.
"Thank you," I told him, "Step outside, if you would?"
I wait until he was through the door then let my magic out, surveying the room. The door and the window were the only ways in or out. Nothing hidden to find, which was reassuring. I pulled some magic to me as I raised a hand to my lips, cupped and blew into it as if warming it. Moisture from my breath began to condense and I let more moisture be drawn in from the room and with a small surge of my magic, chilled it as I cast it out. A circle of frost flew out like a smoke ring, up and out until it hit the edges of the room. It clung there for a moment, and as it did, I let the frost paint itself into minor runes of warding. The figures stood out for only a moment before the frost melted and the moisture soaked into the wood and plaster. I hummed a little magic to seal it, and then touched the floor with a finger to complete it.
Aruma's eyes were wide where he stared in from outside the open door. I walked out to join him, pulling the door closed behind me and reaching out to stretch the wards on both sides of the door towards me, tangling them together and fastening them at the door latch.
"My room should not be touched while I am here," I told the innkeeper.
.... There is more of this story ...