A sip of water from her canteen. The cool-to-the-touch wooden surface was one of many reliefs she felt upon allowing the sweet liquid run down her throat. She refilled the container from her small pot, and took small sips as she boiled another batch.
Traveling was a harsh and dangerous thing. Water, the precious commodity it was, required patience. This was the first suitable source of running water she had found. Stagnant water wouldn't do. She repeated her process, and filled both of her canteens to their fullest, and added the weight to her pack. After finishing off the remaining boiled contents, she hoisted herself up.
A challenge in and of itself. Standing was a process that she took with careful precaution. The pain of her knee was something she wanted to avoid if possible. Her magic staff was useful in this moment, as it was built sturdy and made standing and walking much easier. There were no cushioned chairs on the road. She had to sit on the dirt or grass most of the time.
With her pack on her back, the staff at her side, and the rest she received while preparing the water, she was back on the road. Her staff allowed for her to hide the severity of her limp, but the occasional passersby would still sometimes glance her way.
Damn it Gladus. Why'd you have to up and leave me out here all on my own?
She grit her teeth, and then forced herself to loosen her jaw, before she injured herself. She wouldn't forget him, but she had no time to mourn. The less time she spent on the road, the safer she would be in the long run.
The cloak hid her facial features, but did little for her figure. It would be best to avoid being confronted by one or many who might wish her harm. She didn't trust her skill with magic in a pinch.
A sudden call out caught her attention, a young man, no older than 25 years, was passing by on his own wagon.
"You there!" he called down on her, "Young lady. Brown cloak. May I interest you in a ride? I can take you to the next city."
He slowed his wagon to a halt next to her and moved around to the rear, to help her up the steep wall of the wagon, which only had a single step to support jumping up. Even if she was unhindered by her knee, she was still short, and would have difficulty pulling herself up anyway.
She accepted his outstretched hand, and allowed herself to be pulled up into the wagon by the man. Without saying a word, she dusted herself off in a show, adjusting her hood in the process, before placing a single coin in the man's hand.
A glance at the coin would tell the holder that it was of high value. Gold. It was a currency not of her land, but was of a mint from a different, but nearby country. The value of the coin was not lost on the person in front of her, and her payment held with it a meaning.
"Do not ask me too many questions." Is was it said.
"Sufficient for travel, I hope?" she asked, keeping her voice low.
"Of course my lady," he gave her the smile of a businessman.
It was a silent contract she knew that he understood, which satisfied her. She followed his path through his things to the front of the wagon, and placed herself between two bags of what appeared to be flour. She spread her legs out in front of herself, and attempted to get comfortable.
Meanwhile, the man she assumed to be a merchant, took his seat and directed his horses to pull forward again, and they were soon making time. This man had just cut her travel time considerably, but she was unlikely to keep with him for more than the next few days it would take to make it to the next major city. The chance of them having the same destination was high, so the less he knew about her and her intentions the better.
Her goal was secret. So much so, that perhaps 5 people knew of her destination, and two of them had been in her company until just a few days prior. Her travel was to be conducted in secret, dressed in common clothing, and traveling without guards, that was how she found herself in her current predicament.
She was taking her misfortunes and working with them, and for the moment, she was still making progress at something more than an unbearably slow pace. It was fine for her, and the company was good.
The man knew not to speak to her much, yet simply having someone nearby was a soothing thing, though she was unlikely to be able to trust him with her life.
The steady clip and clop of the horses hooves, combined with the steady rhythm of the wagon's various bumps and sounds began to make her feel drowsy. She took this as an opportunity to rest her eyes, though she intended to not sleep.
She was quite tired, but when she felt that she might drift off, she forced her eyes open, and began to study the passing environment. The sun would be setting soon, yet she dared not rest until her compatriot was in his own bedroll.
This proved to test her with her constitution. The merchant kept going until he was no longer able to see for the darkness of night. She was ready and willing to sleep completely exposed if it meant she could rest, but there was still time before she would be able to sleep.
Once they were stopped, she floated gently out of the cart, and landed softly on her feet.
"Can you perhaps gather materials for a fire?" he asked her, "I need to tend to my horses, but I will assist in a moment."
Without waiting for a response, he lit a small magic lantern, and set about his task with his horses.
She paid him little attention and set about her given task. She set about gathering some dry grass, and sticks of different sizes. The merchant was quick with his work, and joined her to finish the last third of the gathering. He managed to scavenge some larger branches and large pieces of stray tree bark.
Everything gathered and ready, it was her turn. Being of some skill with magic, lighting a campfire was simple for her, and so she set to work. She set the wood up and placed a loose wad of the dry grass in the center. With the setup complete, she willed power to her hand, and let a spark fly and catch the grass. Within minutes the merchant started to add larger pieces of wood and they had a suitable fire.
Satisfied with the work she had accomplished, she groggily set her roll out and wrapped herself in the cloak she had procured for the journey. She had but a final task left. It was a trick that gave her reason to set herself a small distance away from her benefactor. A spell she whispered into existence, so as to not alert him to her magic. Her words of power echoed through her own mind, and tugged on her energy.
This was magic much more complex than simply sparking a fire. It was something which required an incantation, but it set in motion something which would allow her to sleep safely, even in the presence of an untrusted individual.
A circle of magic, invisible to the eye, was created around her, and tethered to her life-force. It was a peculiar magic. It was a fragile circle, which extend from her approximately one meter in every direction. Its strength was weak, but that was its purpose. A person walking through the invisible circle would break the magic, and the energy invested in the spell would rush to its owner, the shock would be enough to wake her up.
Confident she was as safe as possible, the young woman allowed sleep to take her.
A sudden and literal shock of energy brought her into full alert. She sat up fully and quickly, already gathering energy into her hand to strike at the offender attempting to assault her. However nobody was close enough for her to attack without her staff to channel.
Her target in question, the guilty merchant, leapt way the moment she sat up.
She sensed that he was not after her; therefore, she allowed for the lightning energy in her hand to dissipate. She shook her hand out. Electricity always left a powerful tingling feeling when she used it. Now that he was no longer in immediate danger of being electrically incapacitated, the merchant approached again, but still stood at a slight wary distance of her.
Good. He knows that I can harm him if I must.
"The sun is rising. I would like to set out soon," he stated.
She was not in any position to argue with her transporter, neither did she want to tarry.
"Very well," she said, before scooting out of her bedroll.
She made haste in packing her belongings again for the road. The Merchant had already set his horses to the wagon. He did not seem to be a patient man, and even though he was the one who offered the ride, she got the sense that he very well might leave if she didn't gather herself quickly.
He was being hospitable towards her in every way that she could hope, and she was grateful for that. This merchant was a blessing that she would not soon forget.
She steeled herself and relied on her staff to assist her in standing. She grabbed her pack, and allowed for the merchant to assist her in the task of getting into his wagon.
From there the day proceeded smoothly. The ride was easy, and the silence was something she had grown accustomed to over that last few days.
Soon the smooth ride was to end. Past midday, they arrived at the final checkpoint that would push them into the next territory. A border village. It was built to supply the small fort were a minor lord lived. This lord owned no land, and was titled so merely to express his power to take taxes. These were taxes taken form travelers passing over the border.
They were based on cargo size, type, and number of persons passing. In this case, she had supplied the merchant with more than enough to get his unwittingly important cargo through.
Times like passing through the gate made her grateful for her womanhood. The men stationed to collect the toll paid her no mind. It was assumed that she was either the sister or wife of the merchant driving the cart.
Making her way through the toll gate on her own could have proven a challenge. The reason a tollgate existed was that it blocked the bridge of the river. The river was the true obstacle, otherwise she could have just hiked around the village, and made her way with no problem. Having the merchant meant she wouldn't have to show her face and risk being exposed.
It was better for her to keep her head low and appear unassuming and submissive. This was the same plan that she had had with Gladus.
She was yet again thankful to have someone whom she could rely on for assistance, even if it was a mere temporary arrangement.
The Merchant paid his toll, and they were on their way. Once over the bridge, she would be safe and free, relative to being in her own land. The people just over the bridge were hundreds of times less likely to recognize her than anyone near her at the very moment.
It was a relieving experience for her. As soon as the cart touched solid ground again on the other side of the river, it felt as if a mountain was lifted from her shoulders. She slouched down among the flour bags and placed a hand on her chest
She must have let out an audible sigh, as the merchant turned to look at her in a nonchalant way. He quickly turned back around and resumed focus to his horses. The next step in her quest was going to be upon her soon, except she was going to do it alone. Her two companions were no longer with her to complete the task, and she was left as the sole chance for her land.
This was burdensome, but she could not stop for anything. Nothing would keep her from her purpose.
It took three more days of travel. This was less than half the time it would have taken her had she walked all the way.
"Good luck to you my lady," the merchant said.
"Farewell. May you have good luck with your work," she responded in kind.
This was the last time she was likely to see the man. She was grateful for the fact that he was reliable, but he was not someone who could be useful in her task ahead, and could very likely be a hindrance, or put in danger by her. This was something unacceptable.
Her next hurdle was making it through the gates of the keep, and being granted an audience with the lord there. Lord Renaldt.
The trip through Bunstrom was a winding one. She did not want to stray from the main path through the city. It was crowded, hot, and incredibly uncomfortable. She must have gotten unlucky in the time of day that she arrived.
She brought her hands up to her chest and squeezed in tight. She needed to slip through the crowd. All of the warm bodies pushing against her made it impossible to for her to use her staff as a lever to hold herself up. She was forced to put the full weight of her body onto her injured leg, but did her best to hide her limp. Weakness was not something others needed to see, especially when she was alone.
Past the market area, she moved into the wealthier class area, and the crowd was thinned. So much so, that as she looked about herself, she could only see a few people ahead of her, though behind her was the thrum of thousands.
She took a moment to breathe and air out her sweaty inner clothing. It did little to cool her against the rush of heated bodies from the marketplace. Another deep dredge of air, and she affixed her pace towards the center of the city, where the lords' keep was located.
There in the more modest area of the city, she could see children scrambling about, and apprentices running on errands for their masters. It was a much more serine atmosphere, and much more akin to what she was used to from her own time growing up. She rarely got to see the marketplace.
Now that she was no longer focusing on making her way through the crowd, her mind had time to put thought elsewhere.
What if I can't get into the keep? What happens after I deliver my message? Will Renaldt listen to me?
It was thoughts like those that plagued her. Simple worries, but ones which could have a great impact, and could permanently seal her fate. The gates to the courtyard loomed in front of her. Creations of wood, steel, and stone, which could withstand a powerful assault.
At that point, as the gates stood in front of her, she clenched her papers, as her life depended on them.
"Halt! Woman" came a commanding voice, "Lower your hood. What business do you have at the keep of Lord Renaldt."
The man, simple armored, appeared from the shadows behind the gate as it was raised to allow entry and exit.
She slowly stepped forward, aware of the guardsmen whose eyes were trained on her, and held out her hand, with the documents ready to be glanced over. They were a letter of introduction, which asked for permission to enter. It disclosed her heritage and standing, as well as stated her as having business with the lord.
"A private audience with the lord eh? Well, these'll be looked over again in a moment, but follow along," a young woman approached with haste, "This person will hold your cloak. I need to pat you down."
At the very least he was straightforward. All in the day's business. Even as she handed her body covering to the servant, she could see the woman was checking for hidden pockets and such. She lifted her arms, taking the staff into the air with her. The immediate pressure on her leg was something of a non-comfort.
The guard ran his hands about her body, taking great care about her wrists and hips. Places she was most likely to have hidden tools. Her status made her safe from any intentional unnecessary contact, such searches always made her uncomfortable nonetheless. They always accompanied any visit to some noble of high status. She could bear it, as she always had.
"You can keep the cloak, but your staff and travel pack will stay at the gate. They will be returned to you upon your leave," the guard said, "Follow me."
The servant took her staff and handed her the cloak, before bending down and picking her pack up from the ground. This left her without an aid to walk, but she followed along, the guard either ignored or did not see her condition.
Regardless, she was made to follow. Once inside the keep, a man who looked to be of greater age than most was there. He took her papers from the guard and looked them over. He turned to her and did the same to her.
"Lady Conelle. It is a surprise to see yourself here, especially at this time of year. Well no matter, you have important business no doubt," the studious man said.
She gave a small polite bow, "of course, Sir Finnegan."
"Come along dear. Follow me and I can take you to the lord. He has recently finished with his midday meal, and will be holding afternoon meetings. You appeared here at the optimal time between his daily tasks. He will have more than plenty of time to hold a private session with you, my lady."
She followed along behind him, the lord's advisor. He was likely notified of her presence the moment she had appeared at the gates, and had come to meet her. Now she followed him, and behind her was the guard, ensuring that they made it to their destination.
The long hallways, lit by magical candles, felt welcoming to her after an extended time of rough travel. These halls were the type she was most acquainted with. They were so similar to what she had lived with her entire life. The air inside was still warm, but still much cooler and controlled than the outside. It was a marvel of ventilation and magic, which kept the climate inside the building much more controlled than most.
They eventually stopped in front a set of wide framed doors.
"His lordship is behind these doors taking time before his afternoon begins. Allow me to check before sending you in to see him," Finnegan said.
The advisor quickly disappeared inside, and reappeared not a minute later.
"He will see you now," Finnegan said.
Conelle bowed to him one last time, before moving through the doors into the homely room.
It was well lit, and spacious enough to be comfortable. The room contained a small table, comfortable chairs, and an empty fire pit for the winter times. A lavish rug was under it all, and sitting at the table was an aging man.
Lord Renaldt was reaching the middle of his life, and was beginning to show it in his appearance. The life of leading the equivalent of a small country was not one free of stresses.
Renaldt stood and greeted her as she entered the room. She bowed to him as he approached.
"My lord," Conelle stated.
"My dear you have grown some since I last saw you," he eyed her, "it's been a few years though," he let out a good hearty laugh.
"It has been, my lord," she replied graciously.
"Oh come now Conelle, you are like a daughter to me, as all of your siblings. At least use my name as a minimal formality when we are not in front of the court."
She looked him directly in the eyes, "Of course Lord Renaldt, I apologize."
It was truth that Renaldt did not fancy his title when among close comrades and family. Such was not so in her household. In fact, Renaldt was perhaps the only person who could get away with addressing her father by his name alone. Everyone else in her family spoke to their lord in a formal manner at all times. Not even her mother was free of such duties.
Renaldt turned and made his way back to his chair at the small table. Conelle followed, and sat herself opposite to him.
"Can I offer you a cup of tea or perhaps a glass of wine?" he asked her.
"I would not mind some tea at this time. It has been something of a journey," she responded.
Immediately a servant appeared and poured her a cup, which she took gratefully in her hands. A small sip was enough for her to test its flavor and judge that it was too hot for her liking at the moment.
"So Conelle," Renaldt started, "What brings you here? You came unannounced, without plan, and without escort. I cannot imagine my friend Byron would normally allow you- especially you- on such a trip," his words were truthful.
She rarely traveled without some form of accommodated transportation, and being of nobility, without an escort. Of course, not many of the lords and ladies were invested enough in each other to know why her being there was especially out of the ordinary.
Lord Renaldt quickly wrote down what she presumed to be a short note, and passed it to a servant, who set about whatever task he had been assigned.
"Of course Lord Renaldt. I have come to you under the guise of a commoner, as a way of meeting as secretively as possible. My father would request your help in matters of control. He asks for your aid in subduing a number of his captains," she pulled yet another slip of paper from her blouse, Renaldt blinked at her, "the particular details are written here. I'm afraid I do not know of all the goings on in regards to the situation, but I have been assured that all necessary information is enclosed in this letter."
Renaldt sighed, before accepting the folded paper from her and smiling, "I'll have to get my guards to check you a little more thoroughly next time. They can't even detect a simple slip of paper."
She chuckled, covering her mouth in a dainty way as to limit the volume of her amusement, "yes well I doubt any of your common guards have any great skill at detecting the presence of magic. Perhaps employ a magician to do your checks?" she suggested.
"I'll take that to heart," he said as he frowned down at the important piece of paper. His eyes ravaged the document of its information, before he grunted rather softly, "A military coup eh? He suspects to be overthrown by his own men. He's giving me quite the deal for assistance."
"It's not something we are able to deal with on our own," Conelle responded, "More people are backing general Cornwhel than not in the army. This information has only come to light incredibly recently and I was dispatched immediately."
"That brings this around to my original question. What was Byron thinking in sending you alone on such a task?" Renaldt questioned.
Conelle sighed, "I left with 2 others, including Sir Gladus, but an attack from a group of highwaymen had them killed in efforts to allow my escape and safety. Both Gladus and I escaped from the attack alive, but he succumbed to his wounds, which were too deep for one of my skill to mend. He suffered from internal damage which rendered him unable to breathe properly."
Renaldt looked down and away, and she saw in his eyes a shadow of grief.
"I will mourn his loss, and I grieve that you had to experience such a thing. Nevertheless, you are now my guest under my protection. For now you may rest and recover. I shall see to it that you are fed and clothed. I must take a day and speak to my wife, and advisor," Renaldt said.
"Of course Lord Renaldt." She responded.
"I would wish to speak at length with you, but you are tired and I am about to be very busy. Lilina will be your appointed maid. She will show you to your quarters, and will assist in bathing and clothing you should you need it. Please… rest and take a short break if only for a few days. Gathering men can take some time."
All of the tension in her shoulders was relieved in that moment. He was all but guaranteeing that her family would be receiving assistance. It was a great undeserved blessing.
She stood and bowed to Renaldt, bidding her leave from his private room. The maid, whom introduced herself as Lilina stood at the other side of the door. She bowed and in her hands she offered something surprising. Lilina the made handed her staff back to her.
Lilina bowed to her, "Lord Renaldt thought that you might want to keep your staff with you for the duration of your stay."
Conelle appreciated the show of faith that not many received. To be armed in the home of a lord was to be completely trusted by the lord. It was a privilege for his family, the guards, and the king if he was so inclined to visit.
There was no mistake about the staff, it was as a sword in the hands of a magician. Without a conduit for her power, she was about as harmful as someone with an intermediate amount training in the martial arts. As such, wielding it multiplied her power by many times. This was an act from the lord that she would not forget.
The familiarity of her crutch in her hands again was somewhat soothing. It gave her relief not only from the great discomfort she felt while simply moving about, but also supplied her with a mental comfort.
She had little time or need to contemplate the kindness of Lord Renaldt. Instead she bade for Lilina to guide her forward through the winding magically lit halls of the keep.