4 - The Mission
Three Roads Keep
The Province of Yfair, Atheri Empire
The Twenty-Sixth Day of The Month of Harvest, Year 1102 of The Atheri Empire.
My return to Yfair had two immediate results. First, the bandits that had menaced the countryside in my absence were quickly herded up, tried and hung for their crimes. A number of the women they had taken were recovered relatively unscathed and things returned to normal, although the pace of life in my far-off province felt quite slow in comparison to the bustle of Vil Saciel.
Second, I received a summons from the Duke of Valsarra addressed to Cain. Apparently he had heard about some "son of Kendric" making quite a buzz in the capital, and since he knew that Kellan was dead and that I was a girl… he assumed that my surviving brother had claimed his inheritance.
I replied simply that I had not seen nor heard from Cain recently and was simply keeping things running in his absence. Truthfully, I was afraid that Duke Adrien would go to Vil Saciel to inquire after my brother, but then I reassured myself that if the old man had not left his province in over twenty years, he would not do so simply to pursue rumors concerning one of his least-important vassals.
It was nearing the end of the Month of Harvest and more than a full year had passed since I had returned to my lands, when things took a most unexpected turn. I woke early in the morning and was very surprised to see five men approaching my gates. Three were dressed in the blue and silver of House Endymion. From the tower of my keep they looked to me like common soldiers, bearing the usual heraldry of Athera. Still, the fact that they were all riding kirin meant that they were on a very important mission. They'd probably come directly from Vil Saciel.
Following after the three ordinary soldiers was a Knight in stark white armor with a green Clare Rose emblazoned on his breastplate. I suspected he was Robin Clare, and was sure of it as my eyes came to rest on the leader of that party, the man who rode just slightly behind him. Ten feet away from the others was a bald Knight attired in the black and gold of House Tresilian. He had a gorgon's head on his round shield, an unusual device which I recognized immediately.
It was Alaric!
While Naara had sent me dozens of ridiculous and disparaging letters and Robin had given me a fine portrait of his "still eligible" sister, I had not heard from Alaric at all since I'd left Vil Saciel. He was the oldest son of his family and I suspected he was busy getting used to his new position as Baron of Cerrin following his father's death. Although I was somewhat annoyed that he couldn't be bothered to write to me, if he had traveled all the way from Cerrin to Yfair, I could hardly turn him away.
It would be awkward to have two visitors of such distinction at the same time, but I suspected that my people were up to the challenge. Since I had assumed my brother's position, all of my servants and soldiers called me "master" in the presence of outsiders. I knew very well that the men and women who lived on my lands would gladly lie for me, but someone might make a mistake.
If it was discovered that I was a woman, I could still plead on behalf of my absent brother and rule as a regent, just as I pretended to do with Duke Adrien, and as Lady Marion often did in Clare… but that public admission of weakness would certainly encourage the Duke of Kyder to press upon Yfair's borders. I wanted to avoid war at all costs, and the only way that I could do that was to continue to pretend to be my father's son. Although I never wore women's clothing unless I had to, I decided that a change of costume was in order. I donned the most masculine attire I could find in my closet, a brown gambeson, and one of my father's nicest tabards with a red Yfair horse… and then went down to meet my guests.
When I got a good look at them, I gasped in disbelief.
Alaric was not the leader of the party as he had appeared to be, and from the expression on his face, I could tell that he was far from happy with the ruse. It was not in his nature to pretend to be anything other than he was. The three "common soldiers" who were acting as his "guard" were Swordmaster Cedric, a young man I did not recognize… and Prince Naara himself. The young man had a grin on his face that was instantly familiar to me and despite his curious black curls, I decided at once that he could only be Naara's younger brother, Darsha.
Naara smirked, obviously pleased by my expression of shock. Unable to find my manners, I settled on the first words that came to me, despite the fact that they were unforgivably rude. Since shortly after our first meeting, I had neglected to call Naara "my lord" or "my prince" as Alaric always did. He never seemed offended by my lack of formality, but my people were certainly shocked to hear me speak so callously to the man who was not only our Emperor-in-Waiting, but by all accounts the most fabulously powerful mage in the world.
"Naara? What in damnation are you doing here?" I demanded.
"Well, I've always been curious as to what this fief of yours looks like, since you talk about it incessantly. It is much more brown than I expected. Perhaps it's greener in the spring?" He suggested.
"We have two seasons here, snow and mud." I informed him. "And you did not come all the way to Yfair on a sightseeing tour!"
"True. I've come to seek your aid, vassal," Naara replied. "You see, fealty is a curious thing. To a subject, a lord owes his protection. To a lord, a subject owes his service. Or somesuch nonsense like that? You're the one who quoted it at me… I can't remember the specifics."
"Very well, my lord. What would you have of me?" I sighed, my hands on my hips.
"There's been a little insurrection in Yprina. Apparently, my father's dear uncle Ogram has declared himself "King" and announced his intentions to break free of the Empire. Darsha and I intend to persuade him that this was a bad idea." Naara replied. "Of course, crazy old Ogram hasn't seen either of us in a dozen years. And if you didn't recognize me, then I'm certain that none of his men will know who we are. We're going to make it a surprise visit."
"You're going to march into Kyder with only four Knights?" I stared in disbelief.
"Well, I didn't want to bring everyone for a cordial social call," Naara replied. "And counting you, Kestrel, there will be eight of us. Master Cedric always says that you do the work of three men."
'Besides you and Alaric are my best Swordmasters! And of course, Darsha is a full Tower Mage. He played nice with others, and didn't get thrown out of school like I did. Although... that didn't stop him from picking up a few tricks down in Vaakab," He jerked his thumb at his brother, who winked slyly.
Darsha looked nothing at all like Naara, except for his fierce blue eyes. His hair was as black as my own and his nose made him appear almost Ilskaan. I wondered, though not for the first time… how he and Naara had both acquired the permission to study Sorcery and not only Magecraft. Nothing was ever said about the Prince's mother and I suspected while looking at Darsha that he was no son of Emperor Morpheus. To the best of my knowledge, there was some scandal about the younger prince's parentage, but it had never posed a real threat to his status in the Imperial Court because everyone knew that Naara would inherit and that Darsha would obediently do anything that his elder brother asked him to.
"Suffice to say, anyone who tries to take advantage of us will be severely outclassed!" Naara finished. Brilliant blue fire danced around his fingertips. As usual, when he invoked fire he didn't so much as whisper a single word. His affinity for the element was very impressive.
"Well, if that is the case, what do you need me for? You're taking me away from my hay again!" I protested.
"Kess, the haymaking will go just fine without you! As it did last year, and the year before. I know you hate Duke Ogram, and I want to capitalize on this being very personal between you two. My uncle wants your province to keep the Tower at bay and that's part of the reason he's being so daring on your border. I suspect if you were to shove your Athersword in his face while I look over your shoulder and smile very nicely… he may change his mind about expanding his territory!" Naara replied.
"How is that persuasion? Naara, you're a bloody lunatic!" I sighed in defeat, knowing he was grinning at me. I did not bother to deny that I was capable of such a thing, and a murmur of disbelief from my retainers made Master Cedric glance at me suspiciously.
I heard one word clearly. "Athersword?" Georg wondered, speaking the word almost as if he had never heard it before.
"You didn't tell anyone what you were doing in Vil Saciel?" Naara raised an eyebrow in my direction.
"I told them that I was trying build relationships that would help us against our neighbors. The specifics didn't seem important," I replied stiffly.
"Not important? You're outrageous!" Naara laughed. "Is nothing important to you but this stupid grass of yours?"
"Hay!" I protested. "Not grass, it isn't the same thing!"
"Oh come now, Kess… you can't tell me that a simple peasant chore truly warrants the full attention of my Swordmaster Marshall-in-Waiting!"
At the sound of those words, Georg choked, staring at me in disbelief. He knew I had been posing as a man to curry favor in the capital, but I had not told him of my training. Like most men, he thought it was quite impossible for a woman to learn the sword at all, let alone master it.
"It does if I say it does!" I replied, trying to downplay how shocked I was to discover that Master Cedric had officially appointed me his heir. He said nothing at all, but only smiled at Naara, who was relishing his usual position as center of attention.
"Well, I say it doesn't - and I am your liege, so I am right and you are wrong!" Naara replied in a manner that would have sounded unbearably pompous if both Robin and Darsha had not started laughing. "Gods, you've got miles of it out here! I've been riding through it for days. This place has hay like a whore has lice!" He pointed at a patch of obstinate grass that had sprung up in the middle of the road.
"That's grass," I informed him.
"It all looks the same to me," Naara snorted.
"Ah, but you are in Yfair, my lord! You may want to watch what sort of insulting things you say about our fine hay!" I reprimanded him.
"Are they always like this?" Darsha demanded, a wry smile on his face.
"And worse!" Master Cedric sighed. "They've been quibbling like an old married couple since the day they met."
"Why, I haven't heard anyone talk to Naara like that in years!" Darsha whispered, clearly amused. "Not since Archmage Osric tossed him out of the Tower!"
"Someone has to tell it like it is!" I replied. "Great gods, you're just going to charge into Kyder and expect that everything will work out on its own? You have no plan at all, do you?"
"I was rather hoping that you would come up with one," Naara smirked. "It is a week's ride from here to the border."
"I'm not allowed to say "no", am I?" I sighed, my hands on my hips.
"Of course not. Feudal duties, and whatnot. You there, guardsman?" He pointed at Georg, who blinked in surprise. "Go fetch Sir Kestrel's horse and pack him some provisions. He'll probably be gone longer than a week, but he'll be back before Midwinter."
"My… my lord?" Georg stammered. He glanced in my direction, and then back at Naara.
"Is there a problem, soldier?" Naara demanded.
"Naara, you're terrifying him!" I scolded, realizing belatedly that I sounded just like my mother. "Georg, do as he says. Please."
"What got into him?" Darsha wondered, watching Georg race in the direction of the stables.
"Well, no one has ever called me "Sir" Kestrel before," I admitted. It seemed close enough to the truth, so I went with it. "Naara, you know that I'm not a Swordmaster! I never took the oath!" I sighed.
"Ah, yes! You rode off in the middle of the night, you sneaky Trader! Which reminds me!" He reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a small object wrapped in a piece of linen. With a wicked grin, he casually tossed it to me and I caught it. As I unwrapped the gift he had thrown at me, I stared in disbelief. It was a ring, of the kind that all Swordmasters wore… the one that I had very nearly earned before news of the bandits had caused me to rush back to Yfair.
I said nothing. There were no words that could convey how I felt.
Naara dismounted from his kirin. "Kestrel Yfair. Kneel."
It was almost a relief to drop to my knees. I was shaking uncontrollably, well aware that many eyes were upon me. If I had been in Vil Saciel, I would have protested that I did not want to be knighted… but with all of my people watching, I could not find the strength to refuse Naara's order. The honor was as much for them as it was for me. My father had been made a knight on the battlefield, and any member of his family was noble by birthright… but he had always been a vassal of the Duke of Valsarra, not of the Emperor himself.
I could not refuse to swear fealty to Naara. It would put me on equal footing with Duke Ogram and Duke Adrien. Naara could and would demand that I renounce my inherited allegiance to Valsarra, which would prevent me from any disputes over my eastern border. He could ensure that Yfair was never taken from me... so long as it was never revealed that I had lied to him.
I should not have dared to repeat the words that came next. I knew very well what happened to Swordmasters who broke their vows, but as Naara, Cedric, and Alaric all began to recite the Swordmaster's Oath, I could not stop myself from echoing them as if in prayer, as if I were laying my soul bare before the Makers themselves.
"This Sword protects The Weak.
This Sword fights with Honor.
This Sword upholds Justice.
This Sword serves its Predecessors.
This Sword guards its Brothers.
This Sword guides its Children.
This Sword is a pillar of Hope.
It burns through Darkness. It slays Evil.
This Sword serves The Emperor.
It serves Athera and all her people.
This Sword may save the life of one man, or it may save the world.
This Sword does what no other Sword can do, and asks for no recognition.
I am This Sword."
I felt a brief pinch of pain as the cool steel of his bare blade came to rest on my neck, drawing only a small amount of blood. The Athersword that had been forged for me cut my tabard cleanly but barely broke my skin. Still, I knew that it would scar. But such a scar was one that I would bear proudly. Though I could not recall where I'd left the blade of my teacher, Camilla, I distinctly sensed her presence nearby. Then she was gone. I had no need of her, not any longer.
It was time for me to forge my own sword.
"Rise, Knight and Swordmaster of Athera. And be henceforth known as Sir Kestrel Yfair."
I put the Swordmaster's ring on the smallest finger of my left hand, next to the Yfair signet I had inherited from my father. The two rings looked almost gaudy side by side, and I thought, though not for the first time how lucky I was to have big, boyish hands. If my fingers had been fine and delicate like my mother's, wearing such fine jewelry would have made me look like a silly court lady trying to impress her peers.
Naara offered me the blade that he held, the Athersword that had clearly been intended for me. I slowly wiped my own blood from its blade and stood to a roar of cheers. Elysa ran to hug me, breaking the solemnity of the moment and soon I was drowning in a mob of my people. I could not resist drawing my new Athersword, which brought another gasp of awe from the gathering crowd. The blade bowed to my will effortlessly without any of the stubbornness I had come to recognize as the hallmark of an "over-used" weapon. I much desired to give it a fair try, and Alaric winked in my direction, obviously thinking that it was time for us to have a rematch.
I sheathed my sword instead and turned to Naara who hugged me roughly, despite the fact that we had an audience.
I wished desperately that Cain could have seen me knighted. I knew that he would not miss what he had never wanted. My brother had never desired to be Lord of Yfair… he'd inherited our mother's Trader heart and was never happy unless he was traveling. Still, I knew that Cain would have been proud to know that I had upheld the promise that we had both made to our father. Yfair was going to be safe and its people were happy.
I mounted my horse when Georg brought him to me. Though it still seemed ridiculous to be riding out from home with evening fast approaching, I did not want to ruin Naara's moment. Whatever he would ask of me, I would do it.
"Where are we going?" I demanded.
"A short jaunt east of here, and then we'll camp for the night," Naara replied.
"Why not just stay in my home? It's very nearly dark," I reminded him. Though there was still a chance that one of my people would accidentally reveal my secret, I did not like the idea of riding out for a long journey with so little time to prepare. Of course, Naara, like most Mages, didn't worry about properly packing for trips. If he forget something essential at home, he simply summoned an elemental to fetch it for him.
"Well, we're retrieving Kitty. She can't be trusted around livestock and there are far too many farms around here. She's already killed a sheep that might belong to one of your people, which I am perfectly willing to compensate them for," Naara explained.
"You brought your sylf along?" I blinked at him in disbelief. "Anyone who sees you will recognize you for certain!"
"Nonsense! Even with her unusual color, my Kitty is the stealthiest creature on four legs. No one will ever see her!" Naara replied. He surveyed each of us with a slight smile on his face.
"Until she bites them," Alaric replied darkly.
"Also, I have a terrible longing for a nice big campfire," Naara added. He loved sleeping out under the stars almost as much as he adored dramatic exits and to deprive him of either would have been extraordinarily disrespectful, especially in light of the tremendous gift that he had just given me. "And finer company I could not wish for!" Naara proclaimed.
We rode for some miles and the sun was very nearly down when we arrived at the place where Naara anticipated we would find his "dear Kitty". I was in no hurry to meet the beast myself. She had never "warmed up to me" as Naara had hoped she might, but that came as no surprise to Alaric, who often called her "that damned fiend" when he thought she could not hear him. Being called "fiend" caused the sylf to react most violently and on more than one occasion, I witnessed Kitty hurling balefire or snapping her teeth in Alaric's general direction. She never did attack any of us, but I was certain that was only because Naara forbade her to. She was as loyal to him as any great horse or hunting dog has ever been, in that very zealous animalistic manner which suggested that trying to harm her "Master" would be dangerous indeed.
"Maaaooow?" Kitty purred, and a long, blue-flame tail swished out from behind a bale of hay. There were six-clawed bloody footprints everywhere and a sheep torn in two pieces, every part devoured except for the head and one of the animal's hind limbs.
The sylf peeked out suddenly and bared its teeth. Then, seeming satisfied with my horrified reaction, it trotted in the direction of Naara's kirin. The kirin pawed and snorted. Alaric looked equally uncomfortable, and Robin and Master Cedric glanced warily at one another.
Darsha laughed. "Is everyone piss-scared of your pet, brother?" He demanded.
"You may not think much of it, but we get sylf in this part of the Empire. Whoever finds these footprints is going to panic," I informed Naara.
"No one's going to find anything," Naara rolled his eyes. "You're traveling with two Tower Mages, remember?"
"One and a half mages," Darsha corrected.
"Feh! I'm ten times the Sorcerer you are!" Naara elbowed him.
"Sorcerer, yes, but you said mage!" He replied. "And you are only half a Mage because you never took the oath!"
The Tower Oath was one of the hallmarks of training in Magecraft. Since the time of The Cataclysm centuries ago, every Mage who mastered The Art took an oath to use his powers in a responsible manner and was granted the right to act as a representative of the Tower Council, the most powerful authority in the Athera short of Emperor Morpheus himself. The Tower Oath was enforced by the acceptance of a thing called a "Limitation" that The Tower could use to Bind the powers of any Mage who stirred up trouble.
What it was, more or less, was a curse unique to each Mage that activated on terms of certain "misbehaviors" and caused unpleasant magical effects that could only be dispelled by the Archmage of The Tower.
I was not at all surprised to learn that Naara did not have a Limitation. While a group of Mages could wield powerful Spells that a single Mage could not hope to control, Naara had never "played nicely" with others. He'd been thrown out of the Tower for being reckless, and dismissed from the Court of Ten Winds in Ilskaa for the exact same reason. Since a Limitation was directly tied to kinds of magic a Mage was most likely to abuse, I imagined that if Naara had a Limitation, it would have prevented him from using magic entirely.
"Well then, let's clean this up!" Darsha proclaimed. He cleared his throat and began to work some Magecraft. As Darsha whistled his little song, each of the sylf footprints vanished, the mud rising up just enough to swallow the marks. The blood similarly seeped into the ground, leaving no sign of its presence.
The subtly of his Magecraft alarmed me, even having some idea of what such magic could do. When Darsha was finished with his work, I could not have identified the presence of any animal at all, let alone a notoriously sloppy fiend… and I prided myself in my tracking ability. Effortlessly invoking a swirl of fire, Naara lit the sheep carcass and all the hay pile on fire. Blue flames leapt forty feet in the air. If anyone had been trying to follow us, they would have known our location from miles away.
Darsha stared at the burning hay in disbelief.
"I told you I wanted a bonfire," Naara replied innocently.
Darsha sighed. "The spontaneous combustion of a bale of hay will certainly draw attention!"
"Well, perhaps if there were a lightning strike? Then it wouldn't be so spontaneous, would it?" Naara suggested, whispering Words that caused the sky to churn above our heads.
Darsha glared at him. "Naara, that's entirely unnecessary!"
With another sing-song Word, Darsha put Naara's fire out. "Make this mess invisible!" Darsha ordered, turning to Naara.
Naara rolled his eyes. "Now you want my help? You do it!"
"We both know you're better at invisibility than I am," Darsha replied.
"A concession from you, oh –great-mage?" Naara teased.
"What use would a respectable Master Mage such as myself have for such an underhanded Sorcerer's trick? I've never felt the need to go skulking around dragon hordes!" Darsha retorted.
Naara bowed dramatically and did not protest. He sang some Words himself and the smoldering haybale vanished.
"Well now, that was an absolutely spectacular waste of ather to accomplish what a peasant might have done with a shovel!" Master Cedric rolled his eyes.
"This is going to be some trip," Robin agreed. Alaric groaned and I laughed despite myself. The two brothers evaluated their work with pride, shook hands and mounted their kirin, leading the rest of us into the Forests of Kadumor.
As we departed from my lands, I wondered if I was the only one who noticed that ground itself where Naara and Darsha had worked all their magic had begun to glow faintly in the moonlight, a pure, unmistakable Endymion blue.
What happened next will be revealed in "Dreams of Endymion", starting somewhere after Chapter 30.