I was up with the sun, as normal.
I rose carefully from my place, bedded down on the floor of Meilan's house. The sorceress had wished for me to stay with her at the inn, but I had begged the indulgence, and it had been granted.
Meilan stirred beside me but did not wake. It was just as well, as she needed the sleep; work would not cease for her.
Would that I had something to give her. Something to calm her, as she had been distraught last night. At least she had not broken decorum, for all that she threatened to. Her honor was intact and none could gainsay it.
I gathered my travel pack and carefully opened the door. It was as silent as a whisper, as it should be; I had greased it last night with just this in mind.
Meilan did not stir, though her mother looked up from the bed she shared with her husband. I waved a quick gesture, and shut the door as silently as I opened it. With her awake, I did not need to worry.
One table was spread with replenished finery; a feast of manageable foods designed to break fast while on the road. The Sorceress and her companions were already before it and had already started. I despaired; their manners and demeanor were so different than mine.
"Ah, there is our sleepyhead." The gentle to the Sorceress's left said, smiling to show he meant no sting.
The Sorceress chastised him anyway. "That's quite enough of that, Baron Halith.The young apprentice is on time, it is we who are early."
"Oh hey, none of that now," the older man sitting to the Sorceress's right said. "You're an equal to us now, or as much a noble as we, for all that you are unlanded. You may incline your head to show respect, but you only bow to the king and queen."
I straightened up quickly.
"The good Count Warren is correct - we are equals here. Come and eat with us."
I closed and picked up the nearest fruit bread. It was a rare thing to have here.
"I am the Countess Phine, and you are of course young Kath. I did introduce us all last night, but I've no doubt the excitement chased our names from your head, eh?"
I thought about how best to construct my answer. "I'm afraid not, Sorceress; I remember all of your names, and indeed the names of those men-at-arms in Count Warren's service introduced to me last night. Your full name is Lirisphine, or so you said last night."
The sorceress grimaced. "Please forget that - I am not fond of that name."
I did not want to give offense, but both possible answers seemed to have their own pitfalls. "As you say, Sorceress."
"Right! Now that the introductions are out of the way - again, shall we go? daylight is burning." Baron Halith opined while stealing some sort of pastry.
the Sorceress frowned. "We are still not a complete party."
The Baron looked to me. "But then who... " His face soured quickly. "Oh, that one."
"Aye, that one," The Count ground out. "And if he does not arrive soon I'll drag him from wherever he hides. Woe to those who impede our sacred mission."
"A trifle too much doom and gloom, good Count," the Sorceress countered. "Besides, our 'sacred mission' as you call it is over, all our young chicks found, as it were."
The last was said with a smile to me, in much the same way as the Baron had with is own words earlier.
I thought to issue a verbal sally of my own. "I must admit, this seems a bit much for one village. Last year there were not half so many, and the year before."
The nobles shared a glance among themselves before Count Warren answered. "In truth, there have been rumors of unrest and banditry in the region, and the Countess here" - He paused to smile again, at the Sorceress this time - "has been ever fond of traveling with as many companions as she could field."
"Flatterer." The sorceress responded, fluttering her eyes. The Count's grin sharpened into something I would take for mocking.
The Sorceress had no time to take offense if such were intended; the little Count, Conrad, entered the green bowed down by a pack larger than mine and sporting mail, for all that it was ill-fitting.
"Ah, and there's our prodigal. You're late, lad. Snatch a quick meal and let us be gone."
"Sorry sir," Conrad replied glumly, head bowed our direction.
"Come here, young sir," The real Count told the false one. "It is time to begin your instruction."
The spectacle was interrupted by the arrival of one Eadric, a young member of the Count's men-at-arms, leading his horse, a formidable looking beast trained for war. I gave the creature a wary eyeful, which it returned.
"My Lady Kath, may I take that for you?" he asked pointing to my bag.
I could do for myself just fine. "Why?"
Eadric stretched out a hand. "It is unseemly, my Lady. You are now one of the gentry yourself, though unlanded as yet, and a noble such as yourself should not be burdened overmuch on a long journey. As I have been assigned you for the duration of such, it would reflect poorly upon me."
I knew the rule of course; all apprentices were to be treated as such. But I had no idea it was to begin so soon.
I handed over my worldly possessions, and Eadric affixed them to his horse with some care. I felt more at ease among the common, for all that he was a soldier. "As long as you don't expect me to ride this beast myself. I know not how, and I dare say he does not like me."
Eadric laughed. "Riding lessons are surely in your future, my Lady, but perhaps not today. As for Gern here, he likes you more than most, for he has yet to try to bite you even once."
The horse showed teeth as if to prove his master's words.
The sound of a step behind me caused me to turn; the Sorceress herself was approaching. Eadric stiffened in salute from beside me.
"That reminds me, young Kath. It is best to begin as early as possible, so with your permission, I would like the chance to teach you at least some of the lessons you may need upon the road, circumstances permitting."
What to say to that? There was nothing, so I inclined my head carefully but quickly.
"Splendid!" She all but cried, no doubt waking more than a few of those slumbering 'round us.
"Mind yourself, Countess!" Count Warren hissed in a whisper that carried itself across the green,
The Sorceress clapped her hands cross her mouth, her cheeks pink.
"Are we ready, Count Warren?"
The Count finished adjusting a buckle on the little count's armor. "We are, Countess."
"Then let us depart - before the good people of the village throw us out."
I wanted to object, we would not do such a thing! But the Count merely laughed. "Aye Countess."
A gesture had two men leading the way on horseback, and the rest formed in behind them to a double line. Eadric mounted and moved his own horse to my side.
"We shall you out on foot, my Lady. However I shall be close and at your disposal, should you need anything."
It was... as odd a thing as I expected, to be considered among the worthy.
"Thank you, sir,"
We started off at a walk and I found myself in the center, just in front of the Sorceress, and I was alone there, surrounded by a wall of horseflesh and metal. The little count was in the rear, listening intently as a man explained something to him, his face purple. Well, they both made a matching purple pair.
I wish I could hear what it was all about, but the jangle of harness and discordant notes of armored men made that impossible. It was no wonder the party needed horses after all; being burdened by so much steel must make walking difficult, at least long walks.
I wondered how I had missed so many armed men at the festival all of yesterday; they had been hidden for much of it, cycled into and out of the throng, but where had they been hidden? Were they bitter over missing the merriment at all, as several had done altogether?
The sun was high in the sky when the Count led the party from the trail to a grassy field with a stream, a place that seemed custom made for meals while on the trail. I was no closer to answers, for all that I felt I could tease the answers myself.
The Sorceress spread a blanket as one of the Count's men - Arglye I think his name was -led her horse away to the stream.
She sat and patted the cloth next to her. "Come Kath, let us eat and discuss the ways of magic."
I turned only to find Eadric already had my bag outstretched.
"Of course, Sorceress."
The Sorceress pouted. "I am beginning to think you have forgotten my name yet again, young Kath,"
"I could never, Sorceress. However, even should I be a noble, present company outranks my humble self, and I do not wish to give offense."
"Oh, but you are a flatterer," the Sorceress replied. "You will go far with such a silver tongue! However, your very wish not to give offense might give it, for the proper address to one such as I is Countess, not Sorceress. Sorceress is a polite title of address to a sorceress you do not know the rank of and is often used by the peasantry as a term of respect to all of our kind.
You, however, will have to be more discerning, for while I do not take offense at such, many might."
The Count Warren bulled his way amongst the grass and sat at the blanket. "She's right lass. Some consider rank to be important."
Spoken as someone who did not understand that rank was very important. Rank determined whether you ate or not and if others ate. Rank determined if others committed a crime against you or not. Speaking of eating, I began myself, my own travel bread would do.
"Rank is important. I apologize."
The Countess waved me off. "I am not so petty as to be offended by a title. I was once as you - but far less well spoken."
"I find that hard to believe, Countess Phine."
"And there is that silver tongue again," The Countess turned to Count Warren. "We were to discuss magic workings, you may stay if you wish?"
The Count shook his head ruefully. "Such talk always makes my mind swim. I think I'll see to the young squire."
The Countess grimaced. "Try to keep the swords clashing to a minimum please, it gets hard to talk over them,"
Count Warren snorted. "There will be no sword-work today until he learns the proper way to hold one."
And then he was gone.
"Well... shall we begin?"
Our meal was complete, it seemed. I was finished anyway.
The Countess removed a wrapped bundle from the small bag at her side, and unwrapped it to reveal... a glass ball?
A perfect sphere of glass with multiple colors shot through it and smoke trapped inside. She held the precious object out to me.
"Take this, and we will work on your first feat of conscious magic."
I took the cloth along with the ball; the Countess allowed it and that option was superior to getting my dirty prints directly on such a precious object.
"Don't be shy, Kath. Cup the ball in both hands." The Countess mimicked the pose she wished me to take, which looked much like the pose the shrine statues had been carved to take in the temple my Father had taken me to the one time we journeyed to Cohnak, many years ago.
I felt briefly sacrilegious.
"That's good Kath. Now, focus on yourself and the globe. You have color within you, and you wish to push that from yourself to the globe, to make it reflect those colors within."
I focused - and felt nothing. For a long moment, until the noise in the clearing began to grow strident with the sounds of departure.
I cracked an eye and told the Countess so, expecting her disappointment. She shrugged my failure away and pressed the globe back into my hands. "Keep it, and keep practicing. This is but a simple thing that one can do anywhere, even walking upon the road. As long as one keeps their eyes open, of course."
Eadric had already claimed my bag, so I, in turn, claimed the blanket, shaking it out and returning it to its owner as free of dirt as I could manage.
She thanked me and moved off to mount her horse.
"Alright, your turn," Eadric said.
He was cupping his armored hands below the saddle of his horse. "Some find it difficult to mount, and you admitted earlier you've never ridden before."
"So the lessons begin."
"They do should you wish it." He answered.
I stepped into his hands in response; my weight proved no issue for him, and I found myself on his mount's back. Gern, for his part, looked less than impressed with these proceedings, and I was certain that only the firm hand of his master upon the reins prevented disaster.
"We shall start at a slow walk, of course. Which method of riding would you prefer to learn?"
There were multiple methods?
"Teach her side saddle, Eadric."
Eadric wore chagrin as a cloak. "Ah, but my lady Countess, that will require the second pommel and..."
The Sorceress merely looked at him.
"...Right away, my lady Countess."
A metal encased hand plumbed the depths of a saddlebag, and a form of hard leather hook was placed over the saddle. Strong hands moved me.
"In order to ride side saddle, which is all the rage at court, one simply shifts one's seat further over the backbone of the horse and places one's right leg into the second pommel here. With the left in the stirrup of course."
I was so adjusted in short order.
"There, remember that pose and keep to it as best you can... lean back a bit. Now take the reins, and give them a snap."
I did so, and the animal in question turned and gave me such a look of profound reproach I almost slid from his back.
Eadric gave the beast a gentle slap on the shoulder. "Gern behave, she's learning."
Gern shook himself and went rigid, staring straight ahead.
Eadric shook his head. "Try again, my Lady."
Another snap of the reins and Gern started forward, at a slow walk. I quickly found myself leaning so as not to fall; there was a roll I had not seen involved in riding, a hitch in the gait of the horse, and I had not anticipated such.
Eadric stayed close, ready to lift a steadying hand or grab the reins should Gern decide he preferred to run.
I clearly heard laughter from behind me as we started off, followed quickly by what could only be a blow. I dared not turn to see, but the laughter had sounded much like that of the little count Conrad.
"Don't worry about that, my Lady. Other lessons are being learned."
Should I inquire? Yes, I should. "Why does Conrad journey with us, can you say?"
"I can. His father has decided that Conrad should learn the art of war or of peace. To that end, he now rides with Count Warren, one of the strongest and most wise knights of the realm. Conrad himself will determine which path to take by the time we reach the capital. An informed choice at Count Warren's able hands, to be sure."
I could almost feel for the little count; after the coming of age, the Count Vasrun decided the best use of his third son was either as a priest of the Goddess or as a man-at-arms, and so cast him out to make his own fate. Without title or land, he was no better than a well-educated commoner. At least he was allowed his name, a probable safeguard on the Count Vasrun's part against war or illness.
"Don't worry about Conrad," Eadric exclaimed. "Some of us were third sons as well, or even fourth! We turned out alright."
"Do you have the gift yourself then?" I asked him.
"Heavens no, else you'd be seeing me in a dress. A dress made of mail, of course. But no, you were as glass. Anyone with an ounce of heart would be.Conrad has some hard lessons ahead of him, but he will be given the best chance under Count Warren's care."
"That is comforting," I told him - and it was.
Gern the unfriendly bucked, just a bit, and I had to return my attention lest I be dropped painfully into the dirt.
Not a single event, as it turned out. Gern had a good grasp of his surroundings for a horse; every time my attention was on anything other than him, the beast tripped on a stone, or rolled a shoulder, or pulled up suddenly, and I had to adjust myself or have a repast of road soil. Eadric was invariably studying our surroundings during such, and so saw nothing.
By late afternoon, I'd had enough. "Let me down sir, please."
Eadric looked at the sun a moment. "I guess it's about time. Can you find your own way down? Dismounting properly is important."
I swung my leg off the pommel, my other leg from the stirrup, and slid down. Gern snorted and shifted, but despite his efforts, I landed upon my feet.
"Well, that is indeed one way. Perhaps not the best way, however."
"And what way would you dismount, sir?"
"Well, from that option, I would swing down as you had done, and kick out, shifting myself so I faced the horse and keeping a grip on the first pommel so the animal cannot shift away from me."
That seemed more involved than I wished to be. Eadric mounted and Gern the unfriendly gave me a stare as if to say that all was now right with the world. If that was his thought, my backside agreed with him.
I was certain I preferred walking.
Eadric leaned down, and I was treated to the sight of Gern adjusting to the change naturally. "Do not worry - riding will be easier for you when you get your own horse and saddle, rather than relying on ones made for others."
I just nodded and picked up my feet; our little stop was in danger of lengthening our line of march, and I did not wish the responsibility for that. I'd as soon walk, however. Horses were temperamental beasts, it seemed, and too costly besides; I'd never have the gold to waste on such. So unless the crown wished to gift me one (a fanciful dream and no more) the skill to ride would wither after this journey.
I busied myself with a survey of our surroundings; we were nearing the border of the world I'd seen. By dusk, we had crossed it, the small stream that marked the border of the Count's territory. We stopped on the far bank, and the Count levered himself from the saddle with a sigh that I felt I understood.
"We will camp here, upon the road. Lady Kath, are we likely to impede traffic if we do so?"
I inclined my head. "No, Count Warren. The harvest will not be ready for travel yet, and so the wagons are still a day or more away. With our animals rather than horses, the pace will also be slower. None visit us from Bithal, the next village, as they are busy same as we. We could camp here another day besides, and not impede any traffic."
Not that there was much visitation in the best of times; the lords frowned upon it, or indeed travel of any kind between their domains.
Count Warren nodded. "As to be expected. Here we are on Baron Bithal's land if by only a hair, and his hospitality and patrols both are legendary."
"Do you fear bandits, Count Warren?" I asked.
"Bandits are always a concern, Lady Kath... but most know well enough to leave the Sorceress or Apprentices alone, and indeed will move quickly in the other direction should either be spotted. Few wish to risk the direct wroth of the King. But no, bandits are not a concern for this well-armed company; foreign powers have been known to... meddle, however, and a good dozen of the King's own as escort go far in preventing such mischief."
"Other kingdoms interfere with the choosing?" I could not fathom it.
"It has happened before." The Countess admitted.
"And seems to happen more of late, especially at the border towns,"Count Warren added. "However you need not fear."
You would be hard-pressed to find another village closer to the border of the kingdom than Vard. The choosing rite was also well known throughout the lands and occurred at the same date every year. I had heard that some other nations mimicked the rite in hopes that the luck showered upon us by the Goddess would divert to them in some small fashion; Hastelan boasted the most numerous and strongest school of magic in the land, such that we had stayed free for generations untold despite being invaded by others many times.
If it would happen to this party, then it would happen. The border guard was strong to protect against invasion from the Ostrok empire, so it would be difficult for them, short of a full invasion. At least, around the Count Vasrun's lands; I knew not of the others.
"Come, Lady Kath. It is time to continue your training."
The Countess had the blanket spread upon the ground again. "Shouldn't I help set up camp?"
Eadric led his horse by. "Not at all, Lady Kath. The men and I have it handled; your job is to learn, and learn quickly."
The Countess pulled an item I recognized with dread from her nearby bag. "Tell me, Lady Kath; can you read?"
"A few words only. My father did not know all the letters himself. Shouldn't I practice the concentration you showed me earlier?"
The Countess patted the blanket. "Not at all; that is something to be done on your own, whenever possible - such as when walking carefree as a bird in the midst of an armed party sent to secure your safety. For now, you learn something you must, and something which cannot be learned on one's own.
I sat; I could only be made the fool this way once.
The countess opened the book. "Now, say every word you know to me."
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