The disturbance in magic continued, puzzling Chance. As he investigated, cautiously, he smiled once he discovered the problem: the ether was filled with Seeker, Location and Hiding spells. Chance's spells either vanished or wandered off pointlessly in that soup.
He could monitor a pulse in the magic, which he decided was the approaching assassin, and noted when it turned off the main Chemeh to Flas road and entered the countryside in the direction of Chance's camp.
That was unsettling; more so was the magic signature of a troop of armed men following. Their pace matched the assassin's; therefore, Chance concluded the man was coming with a company of mages to back him.
That day passed with only steadily advancing magic. Chance was becoming anxious about how peculiar the approach was.
The pulsing marker from the man coming suddenly ceased. Chance was on alert at once and cast strongly at the last place he found magic; there was none. It was as if the man disappeared. The magic from the company following was still clear to him but they halted.
That change was confusing. Chance kept Seeker spells pinned to the group and sought the sole mage. Nothing.
The assassin was no longer appearing in his spells. There was no magic at all from that source. His anxiety increased, and he was becoming worried. Muscles were sore from constant tension.
His stress was surging out of his conscious control. Memories of Svern emerged and a statement that was etched into his mind: if you cannot control yourself, someone else will fill that gap, not on your behalf.
It felt almost as if his brother Svern was standing there, towering over him, with a look of expectation. Chance began doing Sojo; he concentrated on every part of each movement.
As he worked through the postures, his mind calmed. By afternoon, he was bored with doing Sojo but kept at it. Slowly, his mind began to sort.
Now he was smoothly executing postures and allowed his thoughts to drift to the feeling that he was missing something important. He let that sit and stare, waiting for him to realize something.
When light ended, he ate lightly and put out the campfire before laying down. He had little sleep the night before, and this night he often woke to check his warding spells.
* * *
The next day began with Chance calmly waiting, as primed as possible. There was yet no sign of the assassin. He thought over his strategy.
The rocky ground in this spot gave him strong Earth magic; the winds from the coast, Air magic. He arranged stones around the camp and injected Warning spells.
He needed to refill his water sack and went down a path to the stream close to his camp. He was almost back to his camp when he was surprised to hear a sound from above him.
A man flung himself from the ledge at Chance who dodged away just in time. A sword sliced the air a hand's width from his chest. Chance immediately began Sojo and moved away from his attacker.
It was the Black Order assassin, the Push accent was unmistakable: "Demon! Now to finish what I began with you."
Chance summoned his magic, ready to release it at his assailant. He kept away from where the man landed on the ground but then paused: something was wrong.
Before him on the path sprawled a man supporting himself with a crutch under one arm and swinging a sword with the other. The man's legs were tied to a cushion underneath him.
The Black mage saw the look in Chance's eyes, the hesitation, and bellowed: "Do not draw back - fight me, coward!"
Chance kept out of range as the man swung his sword repeatedly. For an instant, he recalled Opal's warning and the danger of expectations.
In this instance, his expectations were wrong. This was his awaited foe but not as he anticipated.
The man fought like a rabid dog, the sword its teeth. Chance did not allow this assassin close. Still, he was puzzled so asked: "Why do you not stand? Why do you fight sitting?"
The Black mage squatting on the ground before him shook with rage: "The knife thrust by your woman; it robbed me of my legs but not my will!"
The man attacked without letting up a moment, constantly driving Chance around the campsite. The sun was higher now and bright, hot light illuminated the ring in which the two fought. More exactly, the assassin fought; Chance nimbly dodged away each time.
Frustration exploded, the sitting man swung his sword around and then hurled it at Chance, who flicked it aside using magic. It clattered to the ground by his feet.
Chance asked: "And your magic - what has become of your magic? I do not sense any in you. How did you find me?"
The assassin slowly forced himself to be calm; he was sweating heavily and breathing hard. He mechanically checked that his legs were folded correctly then sat very upright.
He gave Chance a hard look before saying: "It does you no good to plead for your life; however, if you want to talk before I kill you, sit down. I do not look up at such as you!"
Chance almost laughed outright but did not. The assassin was crazy. Curiosity surfaced beside caution, and he sat so they could look eye-to-eye.
He did not sit close and looked at the other, seeing he was well muscled. Were he standing, he would likely be larger than Chance.
The man sputtered his outrage then spoke clearly, bluntly:"You ruined my legs - my Order took away my magic - because I took life - to live. You have shattered my life!"
That did not make much sense, even to the Black mage. Chance was surprised to be accused. With a shrug, the former assassin admitted in the same angry voice: "I wanted to live. I ate lives to live - that came at a cost, and I have paid the price - now I demand blood - revenge for what you did."
That only confused Chance more; he remarked thoughtfully: "Black mages took out your magic? How is that possible."
The man snarled and pulled out a dagger from his cushion, so Chance quickly added: "but I see it has been done. There is no magic in you. So how did you find me?"
Now the assassin smiled, mocking Chance: "An amulet led me to you, all the way from Beerron and finally to just near here. The mage who healed me gave it to me knowing I would want to kill you."
Smirking, he taunted: "By smashing it, I was able to approach without you knowing."
Chance's assailant slumped a moment before stating with finality: "But I am no more than this ever again. I have come to fight and to kill you - then myself."
The realization that the assassin, as he was, expected to kill Chance was too fantastic to accept. Clearly, the man wanted to be killed, gloriously in the act of dignified revenge. That ignited Chance's temper.
"You are proud." spat Chance. "What does a drag around, ordinary, half-man have to do with pride? And you want me to kill you!"
Chance spoke with condescension: "I have waited here too long. You are welcome to your fantasies - play them out with someone else. Enough of you and your wishes for noble death at my hand!"
All he went through to prepare! Chance wanted nothing more to do with this man. His disgust plain, he stood and began to walk away. The sitting man lunged at Chance shouting: "Fight me, demon. I will not live looking up at everyone from the dirt."
The former assassin swung his dagger and, pivoting with one arm, slashed very near Chance who jumped back out of range. With or without legs, the man was dangerous so he moved farther away and heard: "You must fight and kill me. Please! Give me my dignity."
Chance paused; he turned to look at his assailant. The man was begging. Chance was sure that this man never before did that in his life.
He answered honestly: "I will not just take a life, as you have done. What dignity did you permit your victims? I leave you your fate."
The man flinched as if struck but sat upright; his head raised and chin thrust forward. He began to bring the point of the dagger against his chest: "Then, it ends here."
* * *
Chance turned and began to walk away, stumbling a moment on a loose stone at the edge of his camp. An image of Sloder came to his mind. Chance was a High Mage; Sloder was an average Assassin mage. Before Chance tripped, he could expect to kill Sloder.
Happenstance and retribution brought the man on the ground behind him to this. Chance recalled Sloder again and Alsen's remark on how anyone could trip on a stone at the wrong time.
Or have a knife thrust into their back. He turned and called out: "Wait! Do not!"
Mentally he ran through all the reasons why what he was about to do was stupid. He returned and sat within the camp ring. He cleared his throat and offered: "I've some meat, bread and cheese and probably some wine left - if you are hungry - I am."
There was no response for a few moments. In a small voice, the assassin replied that he was and thank you. Chance did not trust at all but began to remove food from his pack. As he set it out between them, he asked for a name and was told: "Vind. And yours?"
Chance passed Vind some wine first and then food before replying: "Chance."
While they drank, each watched the other. Chance chewed on a slice of cheese and looked at the magic-less, former assassin. From a practical view, he should do as the man asked: kill him.
Something about that was distasteful, as nasty as the cheese he was eating. He tossed the uneaten portion into bushes beyond the simple camp.
This man stuck in his mind; he was not able to simply reject him. They fought, that was the past and done. Chance walked away; Vind could not.
He began an effort at conversation. He asked: "Did you ride?"
Vind looked over at him and kept on eating. He took a swig of wine before answering that as an assassin, he worked mostly on foot. With a shrug, he added that of course he rode, then explained that by saying he lived on a manor as a child. Horses were part of life.
That was not what Chance wanted so changed the wording to question: "I meant how did you get here? Were you brought by your mages and set down near me?"
Vind shook his head to say no; he replied he sometimes was able to get a ride with Tinkers or a farmer's wagon going in the direction he wanted to go, but mainly he used the crutches.
Chance could not evade a mental image of the man scooting along on the ground. For a short instant, he imagined he was the man on the ground; he was unsure what he would have done.
His was the kind of mind that did not linger once something passed but instead sought new directions. Chance was drawn to one such and continued with an idea that came together in his mind: "Have you considered riding a horse?"
That was impracticable to Vind, and he belittled the idea. They finished the wine between them and did not talk more. Chance noted the day was ending and glanced at the thin shelter he put together. He should kill this Vind and be done with the entire matter.
After an awkward silence, Vind spoke up: "I would ride, if I had a horse, which I do not. I have only the coins given me to come after you. I cannot afford even a small cart and pony - I am ridiculous enough without that too."
'Ridiculous enough' landed; because, Chance was definitely vain about his appearance and liked to strut about with his mage's cloak flapping. For a moment, he imagined himself in Vind's place and did not like it at all.
He suspected he would be like this man, bitter and waiting for an opening when the enemy was not paying attention. After that, he would want to die and would not have allowed anyone to talk him out of it.
Vind sat quietly, looking at the ground in front of him. Chance stood and went around the camp picking up stray sticks for the fire. The season was late summer and nights were chillier.
At dark, Chance set protective wards around where he planned to sleep. Vind made no move except to pull a blanket from his pack.
There were no 'good nights' exchanged: Vind lay down near the campfire, and Chance went in under his lean-to. He did not trust the much-changed Black mage, who was fed and now tired. Vind slept at once and eventually so did Chance.
* * *
They woke at the same time: Vind stirred and Chance woke immediately. Clouds that lingered in the direction of the seacoast began to thin. The day was showing signs of being sunny, and Chance looked through his pack.
He was thinking, in the clear state of waking, that this Vind needed to go away. The man must make a life for himself, or not.
Chance's plans started with finding Rixt and then moving on ahead of pursuit. He wondered a moment about the horsemen who followed Vind.
Casting outwards, he was not able to find them any closer than they were yesterday. Soon enough they would begin to hunt the area.
Chance thought of breakfast; there was almost nothing in his pack that was still edible. He explained to Vind that there was no food and suggested they move on. He promised he would restock supplies for both of them at the first village they came to.
Vind simply nodded, stuffed his blanket back in his pack and waited, without expression. Chance was feeling toward Vind much as he did toward Alsen: unwillingly involved with them.
There was no reason for Vind to come with him; however, there was no place else for him to go. Chance all but invited the man by not killing him and by feeding him. He repeated to himself how stupid this all was but packed and stood ready to move down from the hilltop camp.
Vind checked the straps holding him on his cushion then lifted, leaned and swung himself forward with the short crutches and the strength in his arms. He looked up at Chance saying: "You go on - your track is plain from this height - I will come as quickly as I am able."
For a long moment, Chance thought on what Vind must do to so much as move. He watched the man slide over to the edge of the camp and relieve himself in the bushes. Chance did not want to think about how the man moved his bowels.
He was impressed despite himself. He saw how difficult it was for Vind to come after him using this method of moving, even if he could have a ride some of the way. Not only that but the man could still fight too.
Vind wore his sword, and it rested in its scabbard. Chance could not say what kept Vind going and adapting to living as he was now. He sincerely hoped it was not hatred.
He began to walk down from the hilltop and heard behind him the sound of the cushion lifting and landing as Vind followed.
He slowed his pace, then slowed it more until he walked beside Vind, who remarked that this position has its charm: a person sees so much fascinating dirt this close to the ground.
Chance was surprised to discover that Vind retained a sense of humor. His attitude toward the man remained cautious but he relaxed a little.
He said that he needed to go to Laat Valley but would see that Vind was supplied with food and drink before they parted. That got him no answer, and Chance hoped that his temporary companion was preparing himself to be on his own.
Their progress was slow but by midday they were approaching a village. Chance saw that Vind was tiring but would not ask for rest or slacken the pace. The folk who lived there were puzzled at first seeing a man, upright and walking very slowly, with another who must be a beggar of some kind.
With a few coins, Chance resupplied his own pack and Vind's. The people he spoke with made it clear that he was not to leave the cripple behind when he left.
* * *
The village was small, only seven houses, and as Chance led the way onward from it, he paused by a pasture with several horses penned. A farmer came from the house nearby and said there was one he would sell, if the mage was interested. He pointed out a black standing by itself.
Chance could see the horse was a large, muscular gelding. The farmer had trouble roping it and bringing it over to them. Chance knew almost nothing of horses, rarely even rode one, and gave Vind a questioning look.
Vind who did know about horses answered that it was of a sturdy northern stock brought to this region. He continued that Chance would need spurs and a firm hand; it appeared feisty.
Chance smiled saying that the horse was not for him, it was for Vind. That drew surprise from the other two.
While the farmer and Vind talked about this horse, Chance wandered over to a stream, and after a few moments pulled a handful of gold flakes and chips from it.
As he walked back, he ground the gold in his hand. Going to the farmer, he opened his palm. The man nodded eagerly when Chance asked if this was enough for the horse. The seller promised to provide saddle and all gear in addition.
A crowd from the village gathered now. Children were fascinated with Vind. They did not laugh at or make fun of him because he was not pitiful, and he wore a sword.
Vind eyed the horse and ignored the transaction and crowd. He asked Chance if he truly meant to give the horse to him and was told yes.
He examined the horse from where he sat while the farmer saddled it and attached side bags. The farmer told them the horse's name, and Vind called 'Ido'. The horse looked over at him.
Vind said it would do for him and looked up at the horse as it was led over. From where he sat on the ground, the horse seemed even bigger the closer it came. Chance too saw the problem and asked: "How do I get you up there?"
With a growl, Vind said: "You don't. Just stand away." and moved over to the horse. He grabbed the horse's long mane and pulled its head down until they were looking each other in the eye. Vind spoke to the horse: "Ido, for this to succeed, we must work together. Ready?"
Ido returned Vind's look then raised his head, braced himself and stood still. Vind called out: "All right, here I go."
He grabbed the horse's mane and a saddle strap, flung himself up, and went over to land with a thud on the ground. Chance and the farmer looked on but did not move and said nothing.
The horse stared solemnly at Vind and remained standing and still. Behind them, more people came, wanting to see what would happen next.
On his second try, Vind clutched the horse's neck grimly and stayed on. One hand tightly held the mane while he arranged each leg so that he sat squarely. With a shift first one way then the other, he settled.
The villagers thought this an amazing event, and right here in their village. They came up to Vind and said 'Well Done!' and 'Good for You!' The children begged Vind to pull them up and take them for rides. Each wanted to ride behind this wonder man on ol' Ido.
Vind held on firmly until Chance and the farmer could arrange leather straps to keep him in place. Once secured, he flicked the reins and made a noise which started the horse walking, after first being confused at not feeling heels in its side. Vind wobbled in the saddle the first steps but gradually acquired a seat for the horse.
With a few near-catastrophes, Vind managed to take a number of children round the pasture. Chance was pleased to see success and more pleased with his good deed. Ready to go, he told Vind good luck and that he needed to move on.
* * *
At the edge of the village, Chance was overtaken by Vind on Ido. The horse halted just by him, and Vind was angry. He glowered at Chance then said evenly: "Losing a battle is not dishonorable. Accepting a gift of great value - without giving anything in return - is. You have given me..."
Chance did not want this to become dramatic and tried to say it is only a gesture of good will to a former enemy. Vind was plainly mentally chewing something that was sour. Before Chance could walk on, Vind raised his arm and said: "I, Vind Grath, Prince of Great Pusha, pledge my service in your defense until you weigh my debt paid."
There was nothing Chance could think of to answer that. He reminded himself that he chose to do a foolish thing by not killing Vind.
This extraordinary rider, a prince no less, was his punishment. He fished about in his mind for the right words and finally came out with: "I, Chance Win Field from Kehdy, accept your service on your choice and word. I see no debt between us."
There was a short moment while the two only looked at each other. Both saw that this was essentially a matter of honor, between two without any in the eyes of the world.
Thus, they continued on the way Chance intended going and later received directions toward the Laat Valley. Vind rode bright-eyed and often spoke with the horse while leaning forward and stroking it. Whenever they stopped along the way, Vind practised mounting Ido.
Soon he figured a way to pull himself up on to the saddle and strap himself to it. Chance noted that the horse and Vind seemed to get along well.
The pace was an almost running walk which Chance developed in his years wandering Kehdy lands. When they came to the steeper parts inland, he recalled the Barrier mountains west of Kehdy. These ahead were skirted in foothills; the Barriers rose sharply from Kehdy plain.
* * *
Something was definitely wrong; Ido knew how things were supposed to be. First, this was not his pasture; he was sure of that.
Next, his rider did not use his legs at all, but the horse could feel them. Last, the man on his back was unsteady. It was not the kind Ido knew, like amateur riders, but different. The smallest jolt and this rider was clutching his mane.
Ido thought: in one day, the world became strange in every way. The pace set by the walking man was also odd. It was not a walk nor a trot but between. Liking a challenge, Ido adjusted his steps till he steadied his rider and kept up with the unusually fast man.
The horse pondered this rider, who did not use his legs nor spurs, who got on his back in a peculiar way. But Ido liked being out of the pasture and away from the moody, unpredictable farmer.
The pace set by the man walking fast was easy. Best, when he was thirsty or hungry, he told them and they stopped. Ido wanted this to go on.
From experience, he knew a rider must be happy or abuse comes. He adjusted his timing until he felt the man on his back riding smoothly in rhythm to his stepping.
* * *
They went along a road that climbed into foothills, first distant but now coming closer. Clearly, they were also increasingly higher.
The route neared a river gorge. In places on their right side, they could see the mighty Laat river slamming its way down its gorge to spill out somewhere far downstream into the Miene sea.
They came upon few other travelers, none of whom noticed them especially. At the inns on the way, they learned this stretch of land was called the Bodien, a remote province of Pusha.
The inns were part-time affairs, usually run by a village or by a farm family. Chance was quick to notice that Kehdy Schools might think they ruled here, but the locals did not seem aware of that. Only a few inns displayed tax receipts on its doors that Chance could see.
The closer they came to the end of the road, the more Vind knew about the region. The road they were on would soon join the High Ridge road, a back-door trade route between the Laat region and the Empire of Pusha.
Vind explained at a rest that Pusha was 'that way' while the Laat Valley was 'over there'. He added that they were above where the Laat river comes out of the valley, and heard there was a Recluse monastery ahead, nearer the road junction.
The High Ridge road would be patrolled as Pusha was part of the Schools' hegemony. Chance was sure alerts were out for him so asked if there was a way around. Vind shrugged; he only knew the basics, spent little time studying geography.
There were more farms and manors the closer they came to the junction. As they neared, Chance noticed a monastery off to one side. It appeared to be perched on a cliff, built into its bedrock. A feeder stream to the Laat surged out of a narrow pass just farther over, but what drew Chance's interest was a bridge.
It looked as if it spanned the smaller river. He nodded to Vind and turned towards the monastery. After a moments uncertainty, Ido responded to the reins and followed.
A low wall separated the everyday from the recluses. At a gate, a bell hung on a cord, so Chance pulled it. They waited, and Ido was happy to munch grass.
Chance was considering whether to simply enter and go to the bridge when a man came along a path toward them. He was looking at the ground and walking to them as if with reluctance.
He stopped several paces from the gate and without looking up said: "This is Badi. It is a place for Recluses only; please go away."
They stood apart from each other, one looking only at the ground. The man's words were spoken as if painfully, and Chance recalled Recluses do not speak, ever. He mulled whether to just barge in and cross the bridge.
Abruptly a man came up the path. The first monk bowed the instant he became aware of him, and the man coming nodded in return. Without expression, he spread out his hands. The first monk opened the gate.
The arrival looked over both Chance and Vind; he then spoke but without distaste at doing so: "I am the Abbot of Badi Retreat."
After that, he pointed to himself, turned and walked back down the path. Vind pulled Ido away from munching and followed Chance through the gate into the monastery's grounds.
The Abbot ushered them back along the path he just came up. A monk came out of a stable and took hold of Ido's reins. Vind dismounted, and they were taken to a hall set aside for dining and entered to silence. The Abbot strolled past seated monks and led them to a table in front. He indicated to the kitchen for extra meals.
Chance wondered how people would react to Vind, and this was the first opportunity to see that. The Abbot hardly noticed, the monks did not look at anything other than the plate in front of them.
The food was plain; Chance expected nothing else. The drink was strong which he thought explained why Recluses always seemed a little wobbly, a little lost.
Strangely, the Abbot spoke during the meal. He talked about how old the monastery was and the belief that it was founded by Recluses from a time before the Schools existed.
That would make some of the buildings older than any Chance knew of in the West. He did not interrupt, and the Abbot talked as he wished.
After they finished, he took them to the kitchen where quiet monks refilled Chance's pack and Ido's saddlebags.
The time spent with the Recluses was worrisome to both Chance and Vind. To general knowledge, abbots do not talk, monks do not tolerate company and they do not become involved in politics. From the way the Abbot put things as he rambled about the monastery, Chance was convinced the man knew exactly who he was.
They left the halls to find Ido dried, brushed, and hooves cleaned. The way to the bridge was not far, and Chance politely asked why the Abbot was doing this? The other did not answer and walked along silently.
At the bridge, he bowed and pointed across before saying: "Good luck, Chance Win Field from Kehdy and Vind Grath from Pusha. Be Mage and Rider of the Laat."
That was sweet, heady talk, thought Chance, and meant to assuage. However, he wanted to cross the bridge so thanked the Abbot and began over the span.
Ido looked at the bridge, the ravine and at Chance. He waited until Chance was entirely across before stepping out gingerly on to the planks. Vind laughed at him and called him silly.
The horse was concentrating and ignored him. Finally over, Ido picked up the pace and caught up with Chance, who was looking back. He saw the Abbot still standing on the other side. Chance waved his thanks and the Abbot waved back.
* * *
From there, it was steep trails up into the ridge of hills that formed the western edge of the Laat Valley. They camped that night on the flatter land of the valley floor.
D'gre was farther into the valley from where they came out of the hills, so Chance planned to go that way as directly as possible.
There was always the worry that the Schools and the Black Order's bounty hunters were out after him. Chance reasoned that if Vind found him, others could.
It was depressing realizing that his magic was not enough to fight so many. Vind saw the mood in the other and almost wanted to help, but he held back. If Chance was captured, it was the justice of the very Schools themselves. None could flout that.
Vind would do what he could to protect this man who gave him a horse. As well, if Chance was betrayed, it would not be by Vind.
With a change of subject, Chance suddenly asked how he found him in Beerron. It was growing dark, so they made camp. Chance started tea and said that he knew how he was tracked from Beerron - with an amulet.
There was a hole about how the trap was sprung the day he returned. Vind just looked at the question for a long moment. Then, he grinned, enjoying his answer: "Expectations."
That was not the answer anticipated, and Chance scoffed at it. Vind was serious and explained that Expectations draws more energy than most magic.
He did not think one in a hundred even used it, unless they were somewhere they should not be. But a rogue, an outlaw mage, would use it to pass through a closely guarded place like Beerron. Thus, Vind sent out Seeker spells looking specifically for someone casting Expectations.
Chance interrupted saying then why did not Vind come after him when he was first in the city. The former assassin answered promptly that he did but just missed Chance every time.
He found Expectations, located where it was coming from but Chance was already gone when he arrived. He explained: "Then it disappeared - in one day - so I set out a watch for that spell. When you came back from wherever, I knew."
That made clear to Chance why Vind appeared at their stall just as they were setting it up. He rushed over, not wanting to lose his outlaw. The tea was ready, so they drank companionably together until both went off to sleep. Chance still raised his protective wards when he slept near Vind.
* * *
Early the next morning, they ate and broke camp. Asking as they went, eventually they neared the manor estate of Landsman Shom.
The way to the manor from the market road was well marked. As they came to it, they learned that Shom no longer lived; he died a short while ago.
Even so, the manor was there and now run fully by a brother, Teve. Chance was told the steward at the main hall could tell him more.
The approach to the manor was through wide fields in full harvest at this time of year. Every orchard was thick with people picking fruit.
Chance went along the well-maintained road to the main building wondering if Rixt, a friend of the new widow, was made welcome.
Widows, from his limited experience, do not always fare well left with their husband's family. Especially so one from a foreign land. A feeling of uncertainty crept into his mind and shadowed his eagerness to see Rixt again.
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