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.
"Yes, my lord!" he agreed, with much more reverence in his tone than he had been showing previously. Word of my performance would spread quickly, assuring a much greater degree of cooperation, and steer the curious away from any interest in my things.
I returned to the table to find the rest of the men gathered there. My spot next to Brumley remained open and there was a large glass sitting at it. The sergeant held his in his hand. I eyed it as I approached.
"How is it?"
"Weak, but pleasant enough," He answered, raising his own glass. "Good enough to cut the dust of travel, but not the stuff to make a night of revelry from."
I sat and lifted my own glass. He was right, though it was warmer than I liked. I reached out with my magic and took some of the heat out of it, giving it another experimental sip. Ahh, much better!
"We've four days of good riding ahead of us if the weather holds, then we'll be in the Starwood," Sergeant Brumley told me. "We'll take a day to get through the forest and into the hills and should reach Starhill midday the next."
"Good," I nodded. That agreed with my own estimates. All assuming the weather held of course, which seemed likely for now.
The conversation around the table went from this to that, as we casually dealt with whatever questions concerning tomorrow's departure came up. It ended when the meal began arriving, though several of the early diners who'd opted for the mutton stew were eying the carval soup with regret. The bowl was steaming hot and the scent of spices rising up from it was enticing. The small loaf of bread that came with it was hot as well, and a dark, rich color.
Eating dominated the next few minutes. Days on horseback and dining from trail provisions and campfire cooking made our appreciation for the meal greater than it would have been back home. Our section of the room grew quieter, despite Corporal Winthrom's tendency to slurp his soup rather loudly. The carval is a meaty fish, a bottom-feeding fresh water feast with fins, and the soup was thick with chunks of it. Bits of potatoes and onions added to the savory goodness and as I chased the dregs of it around the bottom of my bowl with a spoon not quite up to the task, the innkeeper came to check on us.
"Well, my lord, how did you find your meal?"
"Quite suitable," I answered. "It certainly hits the spot after three days on the road."
"Coming from Trilin then, are you? We seldom see Wizard's here in Cairncross."
"You're not quite seeing one now, Artuma," I told him, looking him in the eye. "I'm apprentice to Ethric, Wizard of the Vale, and the business I'm on is his."
"Excuse me my lord, but the distinction between Wizard and Wizard's apprentice is not something you'll ever see me making. Still, it is good to see the Valedon is about the business of the Vale, even if it is by extension, eh?" The big, toothy grin appended to that statement was just too much and I broke out in laughter. He seemed so earnest and disarming all at the same time I had to.
"Innkeeper, you set a fine table, and I hope to discover your bed matches your fare. You can be assured that the business of the Vale that sends me forth is not often going to offer me a chance at such, so thank you."
"The people too serve, my lord," Artuma answered with a bow. It was an old, dignified expression signifying the bond between the people and the Wizard of the Vale, one not often used, and almost as rare as the old title he'd used for Ethric. Valedon was technically the title he held as the King's Wizard in the Vale. It was a modern translation of an old Cunish word once used to denote a similar position that loosely translated into 'Guardian of the North'. The Cunish kingdom had died out more than a few thousand years ago when the mountains were first overrun by the unhumans coming out of the deep north. The strength of the stories that were the Cunish legends and the power of those remaining Cunish artifacts kept some of who and what they were alive, even after all that time.
Once we were in our room for the night. I'd cleared and reset the wards I'd placed and only had a few hours of study to do before I slept.
I had the Hadof to study of course, but Artuma the innkeeper's Cunish references had sidetracked me some. I had two Cunish runes within my arsenal, and I took it upon myself that night to study them with a different perspective than I had in the past.
The first of the two runes I looked at was one I'd learned many years earlier called 'The Lock of Edon'. It was used as one of the wards I'd sealed the room with earlier in fact, and that made my study of it even easier, as I'd pulled it from the wards and into my mind when I cleared them earlier.
The Lock of Edon was, at its core, three interlocking and intertwined figures meant to invoke silence, stillness and emptiness. The way they wrapped around and through each other reinforced their mutual conceptual keys — silence persisted within stillness. Stillness persisted within emptiness, and emptiness persisted within silent stillness, and all this was connected to movement that didn't happen; to space that was already empty as well as the silence created when the runes were evoked.
It wasn't the three interlocking runes alone that marked the Lock of Edon as Cunish. Each rune was also associated with a different elemental force. Silence was water, stillness was earth and emptiness was air. Further, as in all Cunish tripartite runes, a fourth rune could be seen occupying the empty space between the three, and this empty space always represented a rune of Magic, whose elemental symbol was fire. When casting one of these Cunish runes, the Wizard put his Magic into that empty space, completing it.
Cunish runes and Cunish artifacts were very powerful because of the amazing level of artistry and skill that went into their construction. I remember having been awestruck by them when I'd first studied them, and I was perhaps even more amazed as I spent my study time reconsidering the Lock of Edon. Not only were they full of artistry, not only were they proof of an incredible level of skill by whoever crafted it, but the level of thought that must have gone into it! It was mind boggling to consider what their minds must have been like to be able to do what they had done.
I hoped to be able to craft a rune someday. It was one of the tests one had to pass to be a full Wizard. With my newfound appreciation for the Cunish rune makers, I felt further than ever from that success. Certainly I did not believe I would ever achieve anything half so grand as those the Cunish had created.
I fell asleep that night with the Lock of Edon spinning through my dreams.
I woke early the next morning, Sergeant Brumley didn't stir at all as I rose and resumed the spot on the floor I'd chosen for my study corner.
I had ignored the Hadof the night before, and with a little witchlight to assist me, I read my Hadof.
Unlike the Cunish, the Kings of Hadof had been very much focused on Fire Magic. Some believed that this was because of the Lake of Fire, but I think that while that might have been the spark, the real reason was the link between Magic and Fire at the elemental level.
The Hadof were from one of those times and places in Gaen's history when Wizards ruled over all men, even those of royal blood. If history tells us anything, it tells us that such things almost never end well. Those that do end well do end, and more quickly than when royal blood holds sway. Most tales of Wizard-Kings are bloody and brief.
The Hadof were bloody, as you would expect, but not quite brief. Their rule managed to last far longer than the usual Wizard-King. Most scholars attribute this abnormal longevity to the runecrafting skills of Margan the Elder, second Wizard-King of Hadof. Some considered him to be a pyromaniac cursed or blessed with Wizard's blood. He managed to burn almost as many of his own people as he did his enemies, and the Hadof reign would have been brief indeed if his only son Margov hadn't managed to escape the conflagration that killed him.
Despite his shortcomings, Margan was a hell of a runesmith. The Hadof runes he created were potent, long lasting, and simple to cast. So simple in fact that they were the bane of most Wizard's existence. Anyone with a drop of Wizard's blood could manage the most basic of the Hadof runes, and someone always seemed to get burned when one of them was cast.
I set my reading aside a while before the Sergeant awoke and spent the interval in meditation. I looked within my own mind and reorganized some of what I knew in light of my new thoughts on both the Hadof and the Cunish.
Keeping a mind and memory that you can wield as yet another tool or weapon was just one of those things you had to be able to do as a Wizard, and I spent time with mine now almost automatically.
When Brumley roused himself and rose, splashing his face with some of the cold water in the basin across from where I sat, I stirred myself away from my introspection and rose as well. I was perfectly conscious and not the least bit groggy, so I had no use for cold water. I summoned a little of the Magic and waved a hand over the basin, heating the water in an instant until it was steaming hot. I took the small washcloth folded neatly beside it and dipped it into the water, to wash my face and neck and hands. Perhaps I should have asked for a bath last night, but with another long series of days on the dusty road, I might as well wait to have that bath once we'd arrived in Starhill.
We joined Corporal Winthrom and the rest of the men in the common room for breakfast. None of the men appeared to be suffering from last night's drink, so I assumed they had not lingered long after the sergeant and I had turned in. We ate under the beneficent gaze of Artuma the innkeeper and our fare was a large deep-sided earthenware pan filled with eggs, sausage, onions and potatoes, sprinkled with butter and cheese.
There was a great urn of lavis, a hot drink made by boiling a powder made of dried dandelion roots in water. It was yet another experience from out of the past that we encountered at the Three Seasons. The drink was not much favored in the south, and might have been seen as an insult, if I'd been served it in the southern valleys. I'd had it once or twice before in my life, usually as a part of the midwinter feast at the tower, and liked it. I saw that most of the men sweetened theirs, but I was used to having mine plain. In my opinion, once you were used to the taste, the sugar just muddied the depths of flavor to be found in the drink.
With our meal done we got busy getting the horses ready to resume our journey. The men had done up their packs before coming down for breakfast, as Sergeant Brumley and I had, but there was a minimal amount of adjusting as the kitchen staff came out with the lunches we'd paid for.
"Its been a pleasure, Artuma," I said, leaning down from Tarn's saddle to take his hand. "We won't be coming back this way this trip, but I look forward to the day when I come to Cairncross, and the Three Seasons again."
"Blessings on you, and on the day about you," the innkeeper said with a bow. Another old saying that had echoes in the Cunish past. I nodded in return and pulled Tarn's reigns to wheel him about. With a nod to the Sergeant, we moved out, and minutes later Cairncross and the Three Seasons were behind us and the road to Starhill before us.
Three days of dust and heat on the road to Starhill, and then on the fourth day, with Starwood a promise on the horizon, the clouds moved in and with them, rain. By nightfall, and with the forest looming before us, the rain was hard and the wind had begun to drive it into our backs. The road climbed a small hill just before it reached the forest, and we camped in the wind shadow of it, pitching our tents against the hill itself where an exposed layer of rock produced a shelf that jutted out several feet from the slope below it. The shelf offered partial protection and a place to make a shelter for the cook fire.
"We would be drier and less windblown if we camped in the Starwood," Sergeant Brumley told me as we approached the forest's edge. "But I'd rather camp away from the wood. Nothing to say we can't forage for a little firewood before dark though."
"I'll lead Crommer and a couple of his men to forage for some," I offered. "I'd like to get a taste of the forest for myself before we journey through her tomorrow."
"I'll finish getting the rest of the camp set up and the horses settled. Have a care once you're past the tree line. Stay near the road and don't let anyone loose sight of it."
"I will," I promised him. "Crommer!" I hollered behind me.
"Yes sir!" came the reply.
"Pick out two more men for wood gathering detail and follow me."
Crommer picked out the two nearest men, Wolso and Ithys. Wolso was a good-natured fellow, always quick with a quip or joke of some kind. Ithys was a bit more taciturn, but then again everyone in the patrol was quieter than Wolso.
Crommer grabbed a spare ground cloth from the supplies and threw it to Wolso, and soon the four of us were hiking down the road to where the road and the forest met at the bottom of the hill. It wasn't a steep hill, but I could see us struggling back up it if we collected too much wood.
"You've gathered firewood in the forest before, haven't you Crommer?" I asked.
"Of course sir," he answered.
"I don't have to tell you what to look for then. What about the others?"
"We should all be fine sir, we're all used to foraging for wood sir."
Where are you from Crommer?"
"Well, from Starhill, sir. We all are. I think we all assumed you knew that."
"Dust! I wonder how I managed to miss that detail. I'm almost certain that my master didn't tell me that."
"I dunno sir, maybe he thought it would come up pretty quickly in conversation so there'd be no need."
"Perhaps so. Well then I guess you know not to loose sight of the road while gathering wood then."
"Yes sir," All three of them answered then.
All this had been said as we walked within the pouring rain. As the road entered the forest, the rain lightened and the noises changed. The sound of the rainfall hitting the canopy above us was quieter and more muted, and a new sound, that of the rainwater dripping down from above, was added.
The road itself was raised somewhat from the forest floor, and there were snarls of growing underbrush and dead wood alongside it. Passersby had pushed fallen trees and broken limbs and cut back brush out of their paths for years. We wouldn't have to leave the road at all to collect our wood, and the gathering would go quickly.
"Lay that tarp out here Crommer. I don't think you three will have to go more than a few feet from it to collect what you need."
"Yes sir!" Wolso said. "I don't imagine we will. Will you be with us sir?"
"I'll be right here," I told them. "Listening."
They assumed I suppose that I meant I would be listening to them, but it was the forest I wanted to hear and feel. I opened my senses some and let the forest touch them. There was some small traces of magic, some very old and familiar and others fainter and undefined. There was warmth and movement and sound, low and hollow sounds beneath everything else and other higher sounds, wild, random, melodious but uncoordinated sounds. The lack of coordination could never quite rise to the level of discordance though. The sounds of the forest and the rain upon it produced a surprisingly coherent harmony.
I thought of it as a chord or phrase in the song of Gaen, but just a snippet of it, as if I heard it through a door just as it closed. As I listened, I felt a thread of it tug at me and I listened to it for a while then took a step as if to follow, but shrugged it off. I raised my head as if I could hear it more clearly in doing so, but it was gone - back into the background.
"What?" Corporal Crommer asked, having seen my movement.
"Something I perhaps would follow, but not now," I answered. "I am on my master's business, not my own."
That answer would have to satisfy both of us. I'm not sure what call I heard, or why I should answer, but I knew that now was not the time.
Having said that, I pulled the magic back inside myself and looked around me. The men were done and the ground cloth was folded full of wood, and Ithys had his arms full as well of what looked like a good bit of small wood.
"Lets get back. I could use a warm fire and a hot meal."
The wind had died down some while we were in the wood but the rain was still falling hard. The trudge back up the hill was a real production, as the rain slick mud seemed much less manageable going uphill than it had coming down. If the grade had been any steeper it would have been a real problem. When we got to the shelf of rock and the cover where we would build the fire, Sergeant Brumley took over, telling us they would get the fire and dinner going while we got ourselves cleaned of the mud we'd collected on the trip up the hill.
"Don't suppose you, being an apprentice Wizard and all, can do anything about this rain?" Wolso asked, half in jest. The dry half. I was pretty sure the wet half of him was serious.
"I could, but messing with the weather is never simple. You're pushing against things that can push back. It can be like stabbing the sea with your sword. Your sword doesn't have much impact, and while you're watching the blade get wet, a wave can roll in and knock you on your ass."
"Well..." Wolso began.
"Permanently." I added.
"Well then I understand why you might not want to mess with the weather then."
"If it meant my life, I would do it in a heartbeat. But I'd rather save myself for what I don't know is coming. This weather is inconvenient, and a pain in the ass, but its not deadly."
"True enough," Ithys added. "This is not the sort of storm we're used to seeing south of the Starwood this time of year though."
Which reminded me of the earlier conversation. "Sergeant Brumley, I can't believe we've made it all the way to the Starwood before I learned that you men are all from Starhill."
"I guess I assumed that your master had filled you in on that," Brumley said with an embarrassed grin. "We always travel to Lord Ethric's tower to join him for the trip to Starhill."
Dinner was a soup, made from extras collected from everyone's saddlebags. It could have stood to have a couple of rabbits worth of meat thrown in, but rabbit hunting in this downpour would have been ridiculous, not to mention futile.
By the time we were done eating, it was dark. Night had fallen completely and the men were settling in as best they could. It seemed that the rain had eased up some, but it was hard to tell. I took a short walk before finding my own bed, walking through the horses, my magic loose within me and let a sense of calm seep out from me and into them. Once I'd calmed them, I sat by the fire for just a moment, tossing in a few scraps of brush. While the fire flared brightly, I cast my wards around us and set them with the nearby forest in mind.
My tent was only slightly bigger than those the men used. I had a little more in the way of personal effects than any of them did, and my study material and the tools of my trade required certain precautions be taken to protect them. Those precautions tended to be bulky. The slight difference did translate into enough room to sit and a camp stool and table that allowed me to maintain my studies as we traveled. I still studied the Hadof, as my master had demanded of me, but I had left my consideration of the Cunish behind several days ago. I could ill afford to spend my time on that when I had the Wards of the North to prepare for.
We were late getting started the next morning, mostly due to trying to clean up the mud and shake the rain off the tents and other gear. It was probably a good thing that we were only a day's travel away from Starhill.
The initial hour of travel was dark, darker than I'd have thought, but the continued low clouds and rain above the forest canopy had their impact on the available light. By mid morning it had lightened considerably and I was thinking it was more a function of the skies clearing above us than it was the sun climbing higher in the sky.
The road through the Starwood was raised above the forest floor, but it followed the forest's high spots. There were small bridges here and there, made of thick, roughly cut timbers seated in rock and gravel beds to keep them from sinking into the soft earth beneath them. This was the main road in and out of Starhill after all, it was more than a track worn through the wilderness. Perhaps it was the storm that had us so alone on the road.
We took the horses into a clearing at midday to eat our lunches and the clearing showed us that the sky had indeed cleared considerably. The low, heavy clouds were now high clouds and the sun shining through them carried a lot of warmth with it. We made no fire, eating cold meats from last night's dinner and weak mead, which was much safer than any of the ground water we could find here.
"we've got a good half day's travel ahead of us," Sergeant Brumley told me as we ate. "If the rain continues to hold off, we should arrive in good shape and just in time for dinner."
Near the end of the meal I thought I heard the sound of horse hooves on the road and I stood to listen. Sergeant Brumley stood too, and after a moment, he must have heard it too. "Travelers coming down the road."
I let my magic out a little, feathering the slightest bit of my senses out and focused it up the road. I felt a familiar touch, just the slightest hint of that same feeling I'd had the night before while we were gathering the firewood.
"No, this is something else," I said. "Get the men ready for battle and make sure the horses are hobbled."
"We're going to fight?" Wolso asked.
"Probably not," I answered.
"But the less prepared for it we appear to be, the more likely it is that we'll have to." Sergeant Brumley finished for me.
The sound of the horses was louder now. I turned, not waiting for my words to be relayed by Brumley or the corporal. "Everyone not tending to the horses up on the road. Sergeant, I want you and Ithys with me."
"The rest of you form a skirmish line behind us," the Sergeant hollered. "Wolso, you stay with the horses."
"Yes sir!" the barked response came uniformly from everyone at once, and loudly. The sound of it had to reach the ears of those approaching. I tied my travel cloak back, out of the way of my weapons, and drew my sword and dagger. It would not be wise to wait for the unknown force to arrive to begin my preparations, and I did have some concern about tipping my hand too soon, but I thought about last night's call and my sense of its being directed at me. Those coming would not be surprised. I let my magic out and let it flow around and through my companions. It took three to do the Cathasa Cana, so that option was not open to me, but I did have others. I began to sing a tuneless melody, and because of the direction my thoughts had gone in the past few days, I sang an old Cunish verse that would give the eye clarity and the arm strength. As I sang, I raised my dagger hand and drew a rune invisibly in the air that would provide some protection against suggestion and other charms and glamours.
With my magic loose, I let it roam a little towards the sound of those who approached. I felt the dead edge of a magic I'd studied but never felt before, except second hand. It wasn't the last thing I would have expected here in the Starwood, but it was close.
As I thought it, they came into view. Four columns of riders six deep. The horse were pure white with blue eyes and flowing manes. The riders were all dark haired and dark eyed with beards that followed the lines of their jaw but were cut back and trimmed everywhere else. Like the horses, the riders appeared to be identical copies of each other. The only exception was the rider who led them. He was clean shaven and his dark hair seemed tinged with blue highlights. His eyes were brown flecked with yellow and seemed to glitter as the light from above the forest canopy struck them.
They came to a clamorous stop a couple horse lengths in front of us and the yellow-eyed rider flashed a wide, white-toothed grin.
"Well met, travelers," he offered with a slight bow of his head.
"Not so well met as you might wish, unhuman," I countered. "Begone!"
The men behind me stirred, but I didn't hear them utter a sound. That was good training, and not the kind the men of the south would have.
"Please, call me Casin," He said calmly, but I saw his eyes flare with red light behind their golden facade.
"I shall not call you at all, unhuman. You have not been called and you are in the Starwood. You have no place here. Begone!"
Those pretty white horses all reared and screamed at my words, but the yellow-eyed unhuman brought his still beneath him and leaned forward in the saddle, grinning again. "Come, let me draw my sword and match myself against you. I hear you did good work at Warmuth Bridge. I would see how I compare."
"Your sword is no more your own to command than mine is, creature. I will not call you and I will not answer your call. Begone. Three times I say it." Thunder sounded through the wood at my words, and the unhuman beast sat back in his saddle, his hand dropping to the pommel of his sword.
"So we shall, apprentice," the unhuman spat, wheeling his horse around. Over his shoulder as they rode away, and over the pounding of their hooves he threw back. "See you some day in the mountains, boy!"
We entered Starhill late in the afternoon. We traveled faster leaving the Starwood than we had entering it, the thoughts of the unhumans who had come looking for us at the front of our thoughts. We were met by Magister Ownes, the governor of Starhill and with him was Captain Moires, commander of the Starhill detachment and Sergeant Brumley's boss.
"I'd be happy to discuss our trip over dinner, and in fact we will need to," I told them when the Magister asked about our travels. "but my more immediate need is for a hot bath and some dry clothes."
"Will you require assistance?" Magister Ownes asked.
I considered for a moment what he might really be asking. I was a fifteen year old boy, on my own for the first time. He probably assumed I would enjoy a woman to wash my back. He was right of course. I would enjoy it immensely. It would not be something my master approved of, so I answered as I knew he would expect me to.
"No my lord, I will be fine bathing myself. It is something us Wizard's apprentices learn fairly early in our training."
The remark drew the laughter I hoped it would, and a servant led me to my chambers — my master's chambers, really. Ethric had a tower at Starhill and I of course was to use it while I was here. The servant carried most of my kit, but I carried my tools and such of course. It was never wise to place them in the hands of another unnecessarily.
I had been to Starhill before, but It was a good decade earlier. The five year old Pacasin had few memories of the place that I could dredge up. My teaching at the time was very much about my own mind and control. The ordering of my memories did not come for a few more years. Had my memory served me better, I probably would have remembered the bathtub I found in the tower. It was large and deep and was just what I wanted.
"I hadn't remembered this, and so will not be needing to have a bath drawn for me," I told the servant. "I shall be able to provide my own."
"I shall pass the word my Lord."
"What is your name?"
"Revin, my Lord."
"Revin, come for me when it is time for dinner. Otherwise, I do not want to be disturbed."
"Yes, my Lord."
It is not a difficult thing, calling water forth in a place where it is plentiful. The world has some inherent sympathy for its existence there and this makes the conjuring easier. Heating the water was almost trivial as well, and it gave me a chance to try out one of the Hadof workings that I had been studying of late. The trick with any of the Hadof was in containing it properly. They all had an inherent tendency to work too well and too quickly when not tended carefully. As did fire itself, I thought.
With a tub full of water heated to perfection, I only had to get out of the grimy riding gear I was wearing. I might have wished that Revin was still here to take them away, but he could tend to them when he came to get me for dinner.
Under the mud and grime-caked clothing I found that I was mud and grime-caked as well. I spent my first tub-full of hot water getting clean before I could fill the tub a second time and have the soak I'd been wanting. I thought of trying to soak in the first tub's water and shuddered.
Once I had let the water relax and restore my energy, I touched my right hand to the opal hanging at my neck and opened myself to the Magic. I found the deep note that was far-seeing and touched it, sending a tentative query out along a thread towards my master.
<Pacasin, > he replied.