I lean against a tree, eating lunch, and mostly listening to Lord Taver expertly spinning an elaborate lie. Only mostly listening because Alan is sitting beside me drinking tea and looking wistfully toward the saddlebags holding the salvaged pages from the three grimoires, pages packed in herbs and well blessed by all four priests.
Taver’s audience, besides us, is Gregor, Bevin, Jeffrs, and all of the Sergeants from both my guards and the battalion.
“We have positively determined Destroyer was the murderer of the seventeen missing men.” Well, yes, nine skulls anchoring a sorcerous spell is pretty definite, I silently agree. “The mercenaries accepted employment from the duly appointed governor of Blythe, and carried out his orders. They may be scum, but they have committed no crime. The illegal orders and taxes were Orsin’s crime.
“But after the riot,” Taver pauses to let the snickers die down, “It was not possible to leave them in Blythe. We are going to let them have horses, provisions, and they are going to leave Abalem and find employment outside the realm.”
Both true statements, but totally misleading since their employment would be by Abalem. Well, technically, I guess it wasn’t employment, since we were just promising a reward. Yeah, semantics, Abalem is employing them, and I don’t have a problem with it.
“Blythe might not agree with my decision; I didn’t ask them. They forfeited the right to an opinion when they tried to hang prisoners without a trial.”
Not a good rationalization for excluding input from Blythe, but the best Taver could come up with. “And I concurred with the decision,” I add from the sidelines. I won’t let Taver take all of the blame if Blythe gets upset. Eventually, we might even tell them the truth, once the swamp-wizard is dead.
There is the expected buzz of talk among the men as we resume our trip. Alan rides beside me, but is still busy thinking about things that would probably annoy me. I ignore him and enjoy the mild weather and growing crops. Planting season passed while we were in Blythe, and the green of the fields promises a good harvest, provided there is enough rain but not too much, and insects are moderate instead of swarming. Farming has its own set of dangers.
The bridge across the river looks to be in good shape, repairs completed until next spring. As we ride past, the mercenaries and their escorting squadron pull out and cross the bridge rather than continuing with us. The small town will be full of rumors, but the mercenaries are disguised as battalion, so the rumors will be wildly inaccurate They have to contend with a small crowd of citizens rushing to cross to our side.
“We knew you would come back,” a man dressed in a hastily donned robe and a necklet of office speaks for the group trying to arrange itself in orderly lines behind him. “We would not delay you, but …” he loses track of his thoughts, and gets punched in the back by a woman I am willing to bet is Mrs. Mayor. “We just wanted to wish you well.”
And see the Sword up close. He did not say that, did not have to. I ride forward and give them all a good view, and a short speech thanking them for their greeting. When we leave, they wave good-by until we are out of sight.
Taver stops early at our rendezvous. He had decided to send a squadron to be sure our ex-prisoners at least started in the right direction. The rest of us will stop for the day, and wait for them. If it were later in the year, they could have crossed at one of the fords closer to Misthold, but the river was still running strong, and such a crossing is too dangerous. So they will have to come back across the bridge and catch up with us on the road.
I awake to the sound of Lord Taver cursing loudly. I’m out of my blankets, Sword drawn before I realize his anger isn’t sparked by an attack.
“Those idiots.” Taver modifies his ranting somewhat once he realizes I’m in hearing range.
“Which idiots?” After all, there is a wide selection.
“The squadron we sent over the bridge. They sent a messenger that they will meet us at Cassengs ford, because they have decided it is better for the mission if they are not seen re-crossing the bridge.”
“Are they wrong?”
“Not the point.” Taver is still very angry. “It isn’t worth the risk.”
I would say the biggest risk was Taver’s temper, no matter how dangerous an early crossing is. It is at least two days travel to the ford, maybe Taver will calm down before then.
Sodden but pleased with themselves the squadron stands at attention as Taver calls them stupid in many different ways. He is not the least mollified by the fact they got across without losing man or horse. The squadron stands at attention, listens, and are clearly unrepentant. Finally the priests convince Taver to let the men get into dry clothes and sit beside the fires we have going.
Alan and I watch, a little removed, for these are Taver’s men, and it is his right to deal with them. Camp is already set up; Taver has planned on spending the night at the ford. The squadron’s horses have already been dried and fed, but are far from happy and are letting the men who are taking care of them know it. Likely it is just as well the squadron isn’t going to ride them until tomorrow, they need to calm down too.
So we camp early again, no pressure except our own desires to get home driving us. Alan and I sit and watch and talk while others do all of the work. My guards would be insulted beyond belief if I tried to help with camp work, and the general consensus of both guards and battalion is that Alan and the priests have done more than their share on this foray. Their continuing disturbed sleep confirms this opinion. My guards have stopped trying to keep Alan and me apart. One of them even called Alan ‘Mage’ yesterday, but Alan pretended not to hear him.
The sound of a horse hard-ridden has everyone reaching for their weapons, an act of pure reflex since one horseman is no threat to a party of our size. But even thinking this, I move to Taver’s side, which means Alan and my guards do likewise. As the rider notices us, he slows, then comes forward at a walk. I recognize the livery as a royal messenger from Verkal.
The rider recognizes our standards, for he addresses us properly. “Lord Advisor, Princess.” Of course, he ignores rank and addresses the man first; he is Verkalian. “I come bearing thanks from our Oligarchs to your King, and compliments to you, Princess, on slaying a demon.” He bows to me.
I can’t help wondering how difficult it is for him to show respect to a woman, but I am well trained and know my face reveals nothing of my internal thoughts. I slightly bow back in acknowledgement. “Thank you.” I do not ask his name, Verkalian protocol is that all couriers are nameless because they speak the word of their rulers. I shut down my internal rant about how irritating it is to others when people don’t have a name, neither priests nor Verkalians care. I let Taver continue the conversation, not out politeness to Verkalian prejudice, but out of boredom.
I walk over to the bank of the river, watching the rushing water. I can feel my guards itching to pull me back, but they wisely don’t try, not even verbally. I pretend not to notice two of them stripping off arms and armor, doubtless to be ready to jump in and save me if I slip, or jump, or am dragged under by some river monster with tentacles. I roll my eyes, but since I’m staring at the river they don’t see.
Alan leans against a near-by tree. “Are you thinking about going swimming?”
I just look at him.
“Your guards seem to think so.”
“My guards always think some disaster is going to happen,” I remind him. We are interrupted by one of our couriers.
“The Verkalian is a clairvoyant, Princess. I saw him at the Verkalian court in full robes when I took warning about Enchanters.”
“Why would they send a clairvoyant as a messenger?” Alan answers his own half-spoken question. “They have some other purpose.”
“Distract him, so I can talk to Taver.” It shouldn’t be hard for Alan to do, an obvious sorcerer (Mage!) riding with father’s Lord Advisor and Daughter.
Taver believes the courier, or rather my report of what the courier said. I hadn’t brought him for fear that he too might be remembered, if seen. “The Verkalian is going to eat with us before continuing, so we can send one of our couriers immediately to warn the King, but his horse is superb, he may still out-run our courier.”
“We can’t do anything to interfere with him,” I remind myself as much as Taver; messengers are sacrosanct by ancient treaty.
“We can send another courier to light the nearest Spire, one flame for warning.”
I agree it is the best we can do. I send Taver back to talk to the messenger, while I start the couriers on their way. By the time I rejoin them, a camp meal is being served, and the messenger and Alan are talking about some tavern in Verkal’s capital city, with Taver looking benignly on, doubtless pleased that the messenger is not making the meal a hurried one.
“If I may ask, Princess,” the messenger begins as his and Alan’s reminisces wind down, “What was done with the demon’s body?”
“Burned, cleansed ritually, ashes mixed with salt and put in separated boxes, boxes dumped in the ocean.” I had no second thought about answering fully. We want everyone to know there are no demon pieces/teeth/ashes available in Abalem.
The messenger lets out a deep sigh. “That is very good to know, Princess.” He seems to decide this is not enough, and starts again, “No all people are wise.” He looks sideways at Alan.
“The demon was dead and disposed of well before Alan came to Abalem.”
The messenger sighs again, then smiles. “We agree with your father about sorcerous magic. No insult meant.” He bows slightly to Alan.
“Alan is a Mage.” I’m going to get tired of saying this, but not as tired as people are going to get of hearing it.