The manor hall was a complex of buildings that proclaimed luxury in their styling and decoration. It appeared overdone to Chance, who considered it tasteless. Not intimidated by the attempt at importance, he walked up to the entrance and pulled on a large, lion-headed door knocker.
A servant came out, after what seemed a long wait, and asked Chance's business. The man was unfriendly and regarded him with distaste.
Chance smiled and said he was here for a guest of the house, a woman named Rixt. The servant thought a moment and then shook his head. No person with that name was here. He began to go back inside, but Chance stopped him.
With his temper beginning, he asked in a level voice for the steward. The man said begone and continued inside. Chance followed closely, put his foot in the door and pressed the man about Rixt.
The servant was startled but then looked more closely and saw the vest and silver belt this man wore. Realizing there was a mage here, possibly a high one, demanding some woman, frightened him. He backed away and called for the steward.
Another man came down a side hallway toward them and slowed when he saw Chance. With a bow and flourish of his arm, he said: "Greetings High Mage. I am steward of the manor. How may I be of assistance?"
Chance repeated his request, and the steward turned to the servant: "Kindly fetch the person our visitor wishes to see - at once."
The servant began to stammer, so that the steward told him to compose himself. Again, the man repeated there was no one here named Rixt. He added neither guest nor among the people working harvest.
The steward frowned and invited Chance into a room off the entrance. He ordered tea and snack food; he sat on a stiff, wooden chair and indicated a more plush version for Chance.
Conversation was formal between the two, and Chance asked if someone could be here, unknown, to see the widow of their master Shom. That made the steward pause then ask if he meant the lady Dette. Seeing the mage nod, he said simply that Shom's widow lived at the manor but received no visitors now or recently.
The servant entered with tea, disrupting what was beginning to annoy Chance. As the tea was poured, he tried to ease that by suggesting perhaps the visitor came without lady Dette mentioning it.
The steward seemed to be thinking then replied that the lady Dette kept to her interests, said little and did not have visitors. She did when married but, naturally, not since Master Shom's death.
Chance stood, ignoring the tea, and said he must be mistaken. He thanked the steward then turned and walked out.
Coming through the doorway, he looked over to where Vind waited on Ido and then waved for him to follow. He walked purposefully away from the manor and then off the estate.
Once they were out of sight of the manor hall, Vind halted. He said without much explanation: "A woman from the manor comes in a moment - she said she would take us to Rixt."
Just before Vind spoke, Chance was ready to go along the carry-all route and find what exactly happened to Rixt. Murderous thoughts about Alsen were rising up. Vind's statement caused all that tension to evaporate. He smiled and looked back on the road from the manor.
* * *
As promised, a woman soon appeared, running down from that direction, and came over to them. Panting to catch her breath, she straightforwardly told them they must get away from the road. She was sure pursuit was very close behind her.
Chance followed her as she turned and darted into woods by the road. Vind held back, searching the way behind, and then urged Ido into the trees and shrub after them.
The trail the woman was taking looked to be a loggers' way. Frequently, they passed trees that were cut down and being stripped. Chance called ahead to the woman asking if she was Dette. Yes came back as she slowed, stopped and sat on a tree trunk laid down beside the path.
Chance came up to where she was and sat beside her. He waited while her breathing returned to normal then asked: "Where is Rixt? Is she safe? Why are you pursued?"
Vind rode up and heard so said he would scout around them. Left to themselves, Dette introduced herself: "I am Dette - of Egenlar, widow of Landsman Shom. I will take you to Rixt on condition you allow me to come with you - away from the manor - away from D'gre."
The terms were not important to Chance because he seemed to be acquiring people. He pledged that she could go anywhere he and Rixt went. Dette smiled her gratitude and told him Rixt was near a village at the other end of this trail.
Vind returned soon after, and Chance told him the trail led to Rixt. Vind nodded and then turned his attention to Dette. He introduced himself with simply his name and told her she was correct. He saw a band of men riding down the road. They spread out as they went and searched the area on either side.
He said they did not come down the logger's path. After giving her his information, he sat waiting. The look on his face was similar to Chance's.
Dette read their expressions of expectation and began: "Shom had an older brother - a man named Teve who was jealous of him. Shom was smarter, faster at work and a better swordsman. Their father favored Shom."
She paused as much from remembering as from fear they would return her after being taken to Rixt. She saw no options but to speak. Looking away from them, she said: "I was to meet them - Shom and Teve - at a ledge - over a scenic ravine. I was early and saw Teve shove Shom to his death. Teve told me to keep silent."
She was blunt and cold saying this; Dette cried all her tears over it already. She finished saying she did not speak of it and Teve did not kill her. Vind was hardened and spoke flatly: "It is your word against a Landsman. As a woman, your testimony is inferior to his anyway."
It was a cold look that Dette gave Vind; she snapped that she knew that. Turning to Chance, she asked if they were ready to go on. He certainly was and so stood. She rose and then headed off down the path. Chance followed with Vind riding behind to guard their back.
Dette needed another rest stop before they reached a clearing which appeared to be a camp. As they came into it, Rixt turned from what she was doing and broke into a wide smile. She hurried over to clasp Dette excitedly then let her go to wrap herself on Chance. He hugged her as warmly, and they remained together awhile.
Vind rode out of the trees now and halted on the edge of the camp. Rixt looked at him curiously then at Chance. Chance inserted that this was Vind, in service at the moment. He added the horse's name was Ido. Rixt smiled and said welcome to Vind who did not respond and was staring at her with tight eyes.
Rixt was taken aback; she now noticed how the man was dressed, how he sat on his horse and the sword hilt sticking out of its sheath. She kept her eyes on Vind. Picking her words slowly, she asked Chance what happened with the assassin he was to fight.
Chance indicated Vind but said nothing. Rixt took a deep breath and simply stood there. Then, she walked over to him and said she was the one who stabbed him. He did not speak but dismounted. Rixt stepped back quickly as Vind landed on the ground, attached his cushion and then sat looking at her.
Rixt stilled herself, her fear. She watched as he undid crutches from his back strap and placed them under his arms. He scooted past her to the campfire. Rixt spoke to his back: "I meant to kill you - I did not intend to maim."
Dette's answer to him earlier came back, and he spoke softly: "I know."
Rixt looked at him a moment longer then turned to the others saying she could offer food and tea can be ready in moments.
Chance and Dette went to the campfire and sat. He looked at Vind but the man was only seeing the spark of the fire. Chance readied his magic, in case this calm was the first step to a storm.
* * *
Soon a meal was heating in a pot on the fire and water was boiling in a kettle beside it. Rixt selected a tea mix and set out cups.
No one spoke during this and accepted tea as she handed it out. Vind sipped from his cup and made a polite comment. Rixt responded with an unsure smile, and gave the customary response.
Dette was becoming tired; she sipped from the tea and seemed to be relishing being free. But, it was too much at once, and she asked if she could lay down. Rixt took her into a shelter she constructed. They talked only a moment before Rixt came out.
Vind was speaking with Chance and urging him to move down the valley beginning the next morning. Rixt heard and started to protest that she provided for customers here. She asked if she could have a few days before they left. Vind spoke to Chance instead of her, saying he advised they leave.
Rixt almost lost her happiness over seeing Chance and Dette. She held her tongue and considered that yet again, she was walking away from business because of Chance.
However, business did not keep her warm at night so she agreed. She stated she was resolved to go by one customer on their way southward.
She left them after that and went into the shelter. Chance wistfully watched her go. Vind ignored her and began to tell what he knew of the region they were heading into; it was very little. It did give Chance a notion of where his struggle to escape the Schools would play out next.
Chance was relieved that Vind did not try to harm Rixt; nonetheless, he was wary of the man. About Dette, that was up to Rixt. The woman was attractive; he noticed and saw that Vind did too.
That said, she was witness to a murder: brother against brother. Chance thought that a very vile act. He decided that the woman was Rixt's friend and needed his help.
The next morning, Dette was transformed. She was no longer timid, not frightened by any noise. She cheerfully helped Rixt pack away the camp and was eager to leave. Chance and Vind did not have to do much other than wait and used the time to plan. Vind would ride ahead; Chance would walk with the women.
* * *
The group moved away from Rixt's camp and headed down a different logger's trail. The day became overcast as they walked. Darker clouds emerged from the direction they were going.
Rixt solved the issue of whether to halt and make a shelter or go on and get wet. She told Chance that she needed to make a stop in the next village.
His first response was to frown; because, he wanted to be away from anyone coming after Dette as well as those he was sure pursued him.
She shook her head and said she was going to make a call at the village. If Chance wished to go on, she would catch up when she could.
Dette and Vind both heard this exchange. They slowed to let it be settled. Chance was annoyed but seeing determination on Rixt's face, he agreed. He could not let it go at that and added that she must be swift about it. As firmly, she replied she would be as long as necessary.
They turned a short way farther, and Rixt led them along a path that ended in a small village near the main road. Chance decided Vind and Dette should wait while he escorted Rixt. He walked with her past fields to where several houses were grouped by a stream.
As they approached, a number of people came from one larger house and rushed towards them. They were happy to see Rixt, hoped she would come, and ushered her into the house.
Chance stood outside feeling excluded. A youth came out of the house and brought him tea. He accepted the drink and went to sit under a shed's roof. The expected rain began with a drizzle that increased before passing.
He thought of Vind and Dette and figured they took shelter somewhere. He looked about seeing farm houses and gardens, and sheds like the one he sat under.
People began to arrive after the rain stopped and went right into the house where Rixt was. They ignored him which suited his nervousness about being so exposed.
Time passed slowly; Chance pulled out the amber and began to glance through it. There were books on spells that he never heard of.
He was absorbed by one when Rixt came out of the house and over to where he waited. He looked up hoping she was done.
She wore an expression of resignation on her face; Chance asked if she was all right. She shook her head before replying that she was but a woman inside was not.
She would have to stay longer, and Chance could go on if he wanted. She would find him after this was complete.
He did not know how to answer; he did not know what to do. Staying still was dangerous. Before he could make up his mind, a man came running from the far side of the village.
He shouted that riders were coming and urged Rixt back to the house. Looking at Chance, he pointed to another house, more a hut, and took him to that.
Chance entered the front door and was taken through to the back where he was shown a hiding place: a cabinet that was fitted over a trap door. The housewife lifted it telling him to go down. He did and she closed it over him.
The sound of scraping then silence. Chance lighted a small magic glow to see and found he was in a storage cellar. He was not at all pleased by this but stayed quiet as he heard voices raised.
After a long while, the noise outside quieted, the housewife lifted the cellar door and said he could come out now.
When he left the hut, he saw a crowd around Rixt, who stood in front of the larger house, and walked over to them. Chance hesitated to speak and so simply stood by.
Some were crying so he knew whatever illness Rixt was attending ended sadly. People were pressing on Rixt, thanking her. She was gracious but said she must go.
He was not sure but thought he heard them speaking about a wagon and horse. Now, several men went off around to the back of the building and soon returned leading a horse.
Another group went to a neighbor's house and returned pulling a small wagon. The horse was hitched to it. Supplies were carried from houses and loaded into it.
Chance offered to pay but that was received as if he insulted them. He went back to being silent. Rixt was very pleased with the wagon and learned the horse's name was Tess. The horse was old, but Rixt was assured she was reliable. Both horse and wagon were a gift. She climbed up on to the wagon and took the reins.
* * *
All but ignored, Chance scrambled up and sat beside her. With a flick of the reins, they moved out of the village back toward where the other two were waiting.
Rixt drove well and talked constantly with Tess. The horse was startled by this sudden change in her tranquil life but willing.
Chance looked inside the stack of provisions given them and was impressed. For a small farming village, they were generous. He asked what this was about.
She did not answer for a long moment as she sought the right words. At last, she turned to face him and said: "A well-respected woman has died with dignity - without pain."
Her face showed the feelings she held back. She added: "I have been providing what medicines I could for her - it helped. I could not leave without easing her through the release."
Chance sat and only looked at her; before now, her work with herbs was simply what Rixt did. He never made the connection with people and illness. In his life, there were only a few he saw become ill and die.
Healers were mages to him, mages such as worked to keep Vind alive. Except for what Rixt taught him, he knew even less of the plants Healers used. That Rixt was a Herbalist and also an Easer did not occur to him.
The village hid them when riders came looking for Dette. They risked all they possessed so Rixt could do what was possible to ease a well-loved, dying woman. They were grateful and gave her a wagon and horse. He did not think any of them would tell the Landsman Teve.
Dette admired the wagon and happily climbed on to the back. Tess eyed Ido and then gave her attention to a clump of grass nearby.
Vind spoke to Chance asking about the riders he heard on the road. Chance answered he could not say because he was in a root cellar the whole time. Vind gave him a curious look but did not ask about that. Rixt was ready to go, so Vind rode ahead down the trail.
Chance climbed down saying he could walk as fast as Tess moved, and Dette was pleased to climb forward to sit beside Rixt. At once, the two started to talk, and Chance moved a little away so as not to listen.
Rain came again in distinct passes, first wetting then clearing, over and over. Rixt and Dette pulled a tarp over the wagon and went on. Chance spelled a Nimbus above him which kept him dry.
Vind however was soaked when he returned to them later that afternoon. They picked the driest place they could find and set up a camp for the night. Chance assisted Rixt with a meal, and Dette helped Vind dry Ido and Tess.
He came back from tying both securely for the night and found a blanket in the wagon. Vind took off his clothes on the other side from the group and wrapped himself in the blanket. He came round and hung what was wet on a rack by the fire. He sat and said little.
They ate well that evening from the supplies given by the villagers and sat contentedly around a small campfire afterward. Dette made tea and remarked that the sky was clearing. Chance pulled off his boots and sat cleaning mud from them while Vind waited for his clothes to dry.
* * *
Vind did not ask how they came to have a wagon filled with supplies. Dette knew from speaking with Rixt. She guessed that Vind assumed Chance bought it with gold.
Chance wanted to know what was beyond the valley so asked Dette about the land there and its people. She admitted that she only traveled this way a few times, and always with Shom, to a place called Onne. She recalled a side trip to an island in the big lake south of the city.
Known as Linnet, it was in a wild, little-settled region. She explained primitive tribesmen lived farther south and came up along the lake when they raided. This interested Chance so he asked her all she could remember.
Vind too was listening closely and asked questions as she narrated the only time she was on Linnet. Rixt sat quietly so Chance guessed she still retained images of a dying woman in her mind.
Chance was finished with his boots and said he better make more gold. He pulled out several nuggets from his pocket.
As they talked, he spelled a piece and after a moment dropped a coin on the ground. He selected another and repeated the moves until he had a small pile before him.
Dette was fascinated and asked what he was doing. Rixt smiled and said as if it was obvious: "He is a High Mage; he pulls gold from streams and makes coins."
Dette was now astonished; even Vind was curious. Though he was once a mage, he did not know of this spell. Ever practical, Rixt inquired if Chance could do the same with silver.
He thought a moment then replied that the ore in its pure form was not so common but he could do with it as he did with gold. He demonstrated by pulling out a strangely shaped piece of ore and was soon dropping silver coins on the ground.
Dette scurried to the wagon and dug through until she found a pan. She placed it under the coins saying there were small bits that he dropped. She was sure a sack of those was worth something to a smith. He nodded and was careful to make coins over the pan.
The next day was similar to the one before except that it remained sunny. They moved towards the bottom of the valley and the trade road that cut through hills to the coastal plain beyond.
Chance continued to ask for all that Dette could remember. Her answers were precise, detailed. Once she was empty of information, he walked ahead so that the two women could speak together without including him.
Vind rode out as before and returned that afternoon. He said there was a patrol on the main road; he asked around and learned it came from a place called South March castle. With some scouting, he discovered a way through which skirted the main road.
That was good to hear, so they followed a side road he pointed to. By evening, they were in woods. Camp was put up and another meal from the supplies prepared. At nightfall, they were again full and drinking tea.
Vind remarked that while he liked tea, he wished for something stronger. Rixt was thoughtful a moment and then stood to go to the wagon. She searched under then behind the seat and was pleased to find a flask.
She held it up for all to see and remarked that this was a gift from the woman's eldest son. He told her of it, but she forgot about it till now.
Each was given a cupful, and indeed it was a fine liquor. Definitely local said Vind with admiration. Chance sniffed then drank. He coughed. When he could speak, he added to Vind's good opinion of it. They drank slowly; it was strong and their minds were on what lay ahead.
* * *
Chance looked at Vind, unsure how long the man would stay with them. To find out, he said: "Vind Grath, you have paid me well with your service. I can see no more to this debt you feel."
Vind was surprised; he rarely thought about his arrangement with Chance. He glanced at Rixt and Dette who were both looking at him. Before he could answer, Chance continued: "That said, I would be grateful if you would consent to come with us."
Rixt looked over at Chance, curious why he was being so formal. True, she did not feel at ease with Vind knowing that he was the assassin who viciously attacked Chance.
As well, her impression was he looked the part of a man from the Pushan upper classes. His face, blond hair and light eyes were Push bred. She was from neighboring Caotia and knew the type.
Assassins were a cult of the Black Order. Other than Chance, her experience with mages was such that she wanted nothing to do with them.
It seemed that Vind was uneasy over his place among them, and he said: "I have been happy to scout - to aid in your safety - however, my service ends at your wish. Honestly, I see why - you have no need for a man such as me."
Dette saw how serious this was becoming and refilled everyone's cup from the flask. Rixt sat back, and the two did not enter the conversation.
This was between men and involved something men would think important. Both women spoke before now about Vind, and it was about his ability to do things despite having no use of his legs.
Before this moment between Chance and Vind, both agreed it was a rare man who could be angry yet think, as Vind showed of himself when first he met Rixt. Dette also said she thought Vind rather attractive in a manly, rough way.
Chance was looking eye-to-eye with Vind then he sipped from his cup and said: "I am a mage, the kind who wanders off on his own and explores."
Vind was looking at Chance with curiosity now. He glanced at the two women but saw they were remaining back. Chance said more, in the same informal way: "I have small skill outside magic. My brothers taught me swords and Sojo - my sisters taught me to clean and cook - a little. Plainly put, I am in need of a companion of your background and skill - but not one in service to me."
Chance felt himself being drawn into something he avoided all his life so far: asking. He was recklessly confident about himself; however, this man offered years of experience. Chance guessed Vind's age to be close to thirty.
He did not know how long the other lived by assassination, but it was certain Vind was better than he at strategy. Whereas Vind became a high-level warrior, Chance avoided confrontation and became a bookish itinerant.
Vind was not convinced and spoke frankly that they would only be held back by him. Chance would have no more need of him after they reached Linnet. Face set, he repeated: "I can ride but can not walk."
Unexpectedly, Dette spoke saying that was so, but Vind got about very well. Rixt was not sure why she took up Dette's theme but stated Vind was definitely useful: he scouted, he was ready to fight to protect them and he took care of the horses.
Vind heard those compliments but was unable to accept their valuations. He made his own about himself, and it was far less than the two women seemed to have of him.
He looked over at Chance and repeated that he could offer almost nothing. Feeling this was for Vind to decide, Chance did not speak.
Rixt turned directly towards Chance saying that an offer is 'on the table' and Vind is undecided. She continued: "Which brings us to a place where it would be helpful to know your plans."
Being asked his plans seemed funny to Chance, and he laughed. His only plan was to escape capture. He had no ideas other than to keep running, keep hiding.
However, both seemed inadequate. Carefully, he ordered his mind and spoke, knowing he was setting out his soul for all to see: "I have run - hidden in root cellars - no more. The wild region Dette spoke of - it is suitable for me, a wild mage. Even so, I am a High Mage so am free to select a place to hold. However, wherever I light, I will be attacked - maybe for years on end."
Claiming and retention of land were outside Rixt's knowledge but not Dette's, who suggested that Linnet could be defended. Chance at once asked: "By one man? No man is an army of himself - even a High Mage."
Rixt disagreed, her face showing her opinion. She sipped the last of the liquor in her cup. Setting it down, she spoke bluntly: "Generally, that is true. In this case: you must combine Vind's skills with yours and, you can make gold coins all day long. Chance, with Vind's help, you can buy an army."
He took her seriously, at her words, and answered that sounded possible, and he admitted to no knowledge of mercenaries. Rixt then looked at Vind, her eyebrows raised in question; he smiled and nodded. He did have such experience.
Dette came into it again saying that Onne did little business with the Schools and Guilds; thus, he might find mercenaries there. Chance was quiet as he thought this over. He looked steadily at Vind then said: "I will buy, if you are willing to lead."
Now it was Vind's turn to laugh; he replied that no mercenary, no matter the price, would take orders from a man such as him. Chance snapped back he knew exactly Vind's sword skill and said any man who defied the Sitting Man risked much.
Vind reflected on that title, then nodded. He was as dangerous on the ground as he ever was when standing. That was true. To Chance, he said only that he would consider the offer and continue to aid them, which satisfied everyone.
Chance slept with Rixt that night, apart from the others, but he was slow to fall asleep. His carefree life alone on the road, in truth, was only dodging relentless threats. Did he think he could go on that way? On this year's end, he would be twenty-four.
He did not see himself in ten years as still running away. Soon, Rixt would tire of always moving, and he did not want to lose her. She was becoming the air that he breathed. Rixt might leave him sooner or later. But if she did, it would not be because he lacked courage.
The sunrise was through mountains on the southern side of the Laat valley. It meant the season was moving along, indifferent to the causes and hopes of the land's inhabitants. In a few months, winter would replace summer.
As the four ate a morning meal the next day, each was thinking that their lives, individually, changed course far more than any of them imagined possible. There was little talk; because, there was so much to think about, so much to consider carefully. As well, being on the road constantly was beginning to wear on them.
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