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Untitled serial

Samuel Marshall
Part 10

‘It looks like a letter,’ Jenna said slowly. Her eyes widened. ‘Written out to King… King… is that how you write “Astes” in elven script?’

I wouldn’t be knowing,’ Rowena said sharply. ‘Got no Elvish at all.’

‘Oh?’ The priestess quirked an eyebrow, evidently wondering why. Receiving no answer, she looked back to the slip of paper, holding it flat against the table. ‘It’s a human name, in any case, and I think that might be an A at the beginning. He’s the only King in these parts, so...’

‘If it’s a letter for the– the King,’ Arras whispered, leaning in close, ‘then ought we to be reading it?’

‘Mmm,’ Jenna said in a not-really-listening sort of way, staring intently at the words. ‘I think this is written in the politest speech… I can barely make head or tail of it.’

‘Nothing?’ Rowena asked, disappointment shading her voice.

‘Well… I think it mentions the names of a few other humans, or maybe human towns. There are some numbers I can read. Quantities of gold… that might be a count of soldiers, maybe.’

‘That’s all?’

‘It ends with something about the gods’ blessings, and the sender’s name… it’s in elven…’

‘Alaenith?’ Rowena hazarded, stumbling over the name.

‘Your pronunciation’s worse than mine!’ Jenna exclaimed, smiling. She bent close to examine the complex script, dense with intertwining loops and curves. ‘But I think you’re right. Who is he? Or is it she, I’m never sure…’

‘Was,’ Rowena corrected shortly. ‘Me birth-father. He’s dead.’

‘Oh, goodness. I’m sorry to hear–’

‘Aye, save it.’ She glanced around at travellers bustling about the hall. None seemed to be paying their little huddle any particular attention, but it wasn’t exactly a secluded location; fear of being watched grew into a persistent itch.

She reached out abruptly to take the little message-scroll; rolled it up inside its case and fitted the cap tightly into place, setting the whole safely inside her tunic pocket. ‘Let’s be out of here. I’m ready to go.’

‘But…’ Arras objected, caught by surprise.

‘If ye’ve something to say, say it outside where ye can’t be overheard.’ She pushed back the oaken stool and stood, reaching down to grab her pack.

‘At least thank her!’ Arras hissed, standing up beside. He gestured at the priestess, sitting placid and warm-wrapped in her thick white robes.

‘I think she isn’t one to offer thanks, unless there’s a benefit,’ Jenna said with a smile, rising swiftly to her feet with a hand on the tall staff. ‘And look, I am ready too. We travel the same road, do we not?’

Rowena scowled and stalked quickly out, leaving them both to follow in her wake.

‘Shouldn’t we turn back?’ Arras asked, hurrying up beside her. The priestess had kept pace too, though her breathing sounded hurried against the quiet of this still morning. Probably wasn’t used to the exercise, Rowena thought with a smirk.

‘Back?’ She glanced behind at the Halfway Inn, in daylight a jumbled mess of buildings joined unevenly into one. Somewhere in the stable block, a horse neighed in complaint. ‘Why?’

‘If the message is for the King, surely we should take it to him. The capital lies east and north. We’d have to go through Chaldon…’

‘Hah!’ Rowena kicked at a stone, watched it bounce haphazardly through the dirt until it clattered softly against a chunk of rock. She kept walking, climbing the trail’s gentle slope as it curved up along the hillside. ‘Ye think I’d trust the King, and no clue what the message says? If it’s the wrong thing, we might all end up wi’ permanent smiles.’ She traced a line across her throat.

‘But he’s the King,’ Arras persisted.

‘Aye, and how do ye think he stays that way? Not by good deeds and a true heart, is it?’

He fell silent for a while, exasperation plain on his face. Eventually he said, ‘But your father wrote that letter. Your father was taking it to the King when he died. Surely he would’ve wanted you to finish that task.’

‘Me birth-father,’ Rowena corrected. ‘And I’ve no care for what he wanted. I’ll decide for meself.’

‘Priestess,’ Arras said, turning to the other woman as if for support, ‘what do you think?’

Jenna walked beside them in silence, the hood of her heavy robes pushed back to reveal her wide, smooth face; her short blonde hair that almost glittered in the sunlight. Now she looked at Arras. ‘I can tell you the Temple’s beliefs on loyalty to one’s king, or I can tell you what I truly think. Which answer would you like?’

‘What you think, of course,’ Arras said, looking slightly taken aback.

‘Then: I want to know what the message says. And I’d like to hear the rest of the story, too.’ She smiled apologetically. ‘Curiosity is a weakness of mine.’

‘Hah,’ Rowena said triumphantly, amused that Arras’s hoped-for ally hadn’t turned out quite so helpful to his cause.

‘Well, then.’ Jenna turned her gaze downward, catching Rowena’s eye. ‘You’ll tell me the whole tale?’

‘I suppose,’ she said reluctantly. Against all expectations, this one Diellan priestess was turning out to be difficult to hate.

The full story took most of the morning to tell, in between steep terrain that left no room for conversation: much of the time they walked, or scrambled, single-file up a narrow trail. Rowena began to wish she too carried a staff to ease the climb.

They were taking a well-used shortcut, on Jenna’s advice – the woman had travelled this way before. The actual road, passable in most seasons by wagon traffic, curved far around hills which this foot-track ran directly over. It cut away half the journey; they could be in Lancir by nightfall, if you believed the priestess.

Now at midday the three sat near the summit of what Jenna promised was the highest hill, sheltered by an overhang of rock from winds that grew fierce at this height. They shared days-old bread, which had grown a little dry, cheese and nuts that the priestess contributed, and the last of the apples.

‘They sell provisions at the Inn,’ the priestess mentioned neutrally, which seemed a gentle rebuke; had Rowena not stalked out, they could have bought fresher fare. ‘Still, this is a fine enough meal – and what a view!’

‘Aye,’ Rowena said noncommittally, biting into a chunk of bread. Small clouds floated across the sky, seeming a little closer than usual, and one such hid the sun’s rays. Even so, a vast landscape spread out before them, nearby hills not quite blocking a distant, mountainous horizon. First was the land they travelled: steep slopes, valleys choked with growth, hardy trees twisted into strange shapes by the wind. Further distant, visible through gaps between rocky edges, the country settled into a gentle, rolling gait. There were fields, maybe, in patchwork colours. Buildings tiny with distance, a village.

And then a burst of warm sunlight washed over them, spreading across the hills and valleys in a line that rushed forward, turning everything vivid with colour.

Ohhh…’ Jenna breathed, her mouth half-open, brightness suffusing her gentle features. She looked like a priestess ought to, somehow – though her face was more motherly than pretty, her short hair lay tangled by the wind, and the heavy white robes she sat wearing were stained by the dirt of the trail. For all that, a less cynical person could believe her truly blessed.

Simple things please simple minds, Rowena thought instead, and glanced down at the woman’s staff that lay beside, wondering uncharitably if it bore any purpose beyond easing her steps. Like its owner it was very tall, half again Rowena’s height. It was made of polished ash, and quite thick; a worked indent two-thirds up served as a handle. Finally, near the top, she spotted the mark of Diella – hands clasped one in the other – carved neatly into the wood. There was no metal inlay, and you had to look carefully to see it.

‘Some bear fancier staves,’ Jenna said, noticing her attention, ‘but mine has served me well. It’s very practical.’

‘Do ye use it in rituals?’ Rowena asked sceptically. ‘Or just for whacking the damned?’

The priestess laughed. ‘Some ceremonies do call for a staff, though it’s usually more of a light touch than a whack. But I’m not really much for ritual, myself.’

‘Not much for ritual?’ Arras echoed, surprised. ‘But… not intending any disrespect… er…’

‘He’s meaning to say,’ Rowena cut in, ‘aren’t ye in the wrong profession?’

‘Goodness, no! There’s more to the Temple than just a service each week.’

‘Then what do you do?’ Arras wondered.

‘Well… I’ve been working at a mission in Oxden, to the north, helping street ladies –’

‘Whores, ye mean,’ Rowena interrupted.

Jenna sighed. ‘If you prefer. We give advice, and have a few places where the girls can live safely, if they need a hidey-hole. And work small healings, and try to shame the city fathers into action when it’s needed.’

Arras seemed confused. ‘But doesn’t the temple condemn… uh…’

‘Whores?’ Jenna asked, smiling. ‘Not quite. The action, not the people. And it’s our duty to help those in need.’

‘Trying to win yerself a few converts,’ Rowena muttered.

‘Most of our girls, blessings on them all, would not make good nuns. They taught me patience, when I thought I already knew it.’ She met Rowena’s eye. ‘In fact, some I know are a little like you.’

The elf scowled, tossing an apple-core into the bushes below. ‘Mebbe it runs in the family.’

‘If you work in Oxden,’ Arras said, ‘what brings you out here?’

‘I became head of the mission a few years ago.’ The sun vanished once more behind a cloud, its shadow speeding across the landscape ahead, and Jenna frowned slightly. ‘Now it seems I have come to somebody’s attention. I am recalled to the High Temple, to be reassigned.’

‘Ha!’ Rowena smiled maliciously. ‘Yer attitude didn’t sit well with them, I’m guessing.’

‘Well, you guessed wrong,’ the priestess said lightly. ‘I’m told it’s a promotion.’ But a light touch of wariness remained in her voice.

‘Aye,’ Rowena muttered, scowling. She stood abruptly. ‘I’m all done. Let’s get going.’

Through the afternoon clouds built up and the wind strengthened, so that Rowena was glad they had descended from the heights. The sun vanished behind a layer of dark-grey, leaving gloom to set in long before dusk should have. By the time they tramped wearily down the last long slope to rejoin the wide, muddy road, the only evidence of sunlight was a faint patch of lighter grey in the sky ahead.

Lancir began about a mile ahead, a scattering of buildings encrusted around a small hill where the castle stood high and proud. There was a military garrison, and a Duke lived there; around that the town itself had grown, outside strong castle walls. It was an important crossroads for traders, though much smaller even than Chaldon, never mind the northern cities.

They walked toward it through flatter land, having crossed over the range of hills which made such a long detour for wagons. It seemed to be productive land, too; fields dense with green, crops almost ready for harvest. The road crossed through a small village of rough but cared-for wooden homes, a pair of loose hens squawking in complaint at the group. Rowena scowled at the chickens; Jenna waved, smiling, at a mud-coated child who silently watched them pass.

‘We’ll be there soon,’ the priestess said, nodding ahead. ‘Thank heavens! I wouldn’t like to spend tonight outside…’

‘There’s a storm brewing, all right,’ Arras agreed.

‘Aye,’ Rowena muttered, irritated by their small talk. She stared ahead, her eye caught by a tall stone gateway beside the road. It didn’t seem to lead anywhere obvious; there was a hedge, plenty of trees, but no grand house in evidence. ‘What’d that be?’

‘Lancir’s graveyard,’ Jenna said. ‘It’s set a little apart from the town. Very sensible.’

‘Still used?’

‘As far as I know.’

‘Then I’ll be taking a look,’ Rowena said casually.

‘What on earth for?’ Jenna wondered.

‘Ye know I’m trying to find me birth-mother.’ She grinned, enjoying the priestess’s confusion. ‘Best to check the likeliest place first.’