By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action


Jacob was used to being up earlier than most of his companions in the Guard. He had always liked the still and quiet of morning, and tended to turn in early compared to his companions. Moreover, whatever St. Thomas had done to his body seemed to reduce his need for sleep, at least a little. So, per habit, he rose to meet the sun, and began to prepare breakfast.

He let his thoughts wander as he went, gathering ingredients and starting the fire. He did not like where those thoughts went. He was grateful to St. Thomas for rescuing him, and he understood how the spirit couldn’t just betray Heaven and fight Innoken on his own. But Jacob couldn’t quite forgive Heaven for not being willing to face the Shakaths of the world. Because without their help, Innoken was practically invincible. Ironwood was going to die, and there was nothing he could do about it. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to burn breakfast, too.

Perhaps thankfully, Jacob was interrupted by the distant sound of a knock on the front door. He stepped briskly to the front of the building, and opened the door. Before him, stood a slim, dark-haired woman of just over average height in a Sarronen-made dress. Her eyes were red, and her thin smile was brief. Behind her was a tall blond with her hair bound into a tight braid. She looked nearly as tired as the other.

“Laranna, Athena, you’re up early. Come in and have some breakfast. Did you not sleep well at the keep?” Jacob asked.

“Not really,” Athena replied wryly. “This little outing may have toughened me up a bit, but when someone tries to kill me, it still ruins my day.”

“Dear Lazarus,” Jacob replied. “What happened?”

“A man broke into our room last night,” Laranna replied uncomfortably. “He had a Kull face and a Kull weapon, so he must have been involved with the men who kidnapped me the first time. But he crept right over the bed with a poisoned dagger; there’s no doubt he meant to kill us. Thankfully, he was no match for Athena.”

“I can’t imagine,” Jacob responded quietly. “Come in and sit down, Laranna. Breakfast is almost ready. I don’t have much in the way of herbs to make a tea, but there’s plenty of wine, and I just cracked a fresh cask of mead. Whatever you want, just let me know. That must have been terrifying.”

“Yes, it was demon-damned awful,” Athena replied dryly.

Jacob ruefully ran his hand through his hair. “Of course. I’m sorry I dragged you into this.”

The blond’s eyes flashed. “I’m not. I wanted to come. I would like a little appreciation, and maybe a little pampering too. The Kull had a poisoned dagger, and I was stuck under a blanket with nothing. It’s almost pure luck I’m still alive.”

“Yes, I know how you feel, and you do deserve it,” the dark-haired man returned, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Besides, the offer was for you too: we have eggs, honeyed biscuits, berries, and fresh ham. Just don’t expect me to serve you breakfast in bed.”

Athena placed her hand on Jacob’s for a brief moment, then lifted it to show the distance between her thumb and forefinger. “You were this close to impressing me. This close. I bet you’d serve Laranna in bed.”

Jacob shook his head with a grin, trying to ignore the flush rising in Laranna’s pale face. “Still engaged, Athena. Don’t you think I’m in enough trouble right now? Now, tell me what happened, while I put together the plates. Take your time.”

“I have to say, Jacob. This isn’t bad,” Athena remarked around a mouthful of biscuit. The scent of spiced ham and eggs mixed with the mead to announce a truly mouthwatering meal, and none in the warehouse had refused the invitation.

“Indeed,” Lord Erik added. “You have developed all manner of new skills lately, Jacob. What else have you been hiding from us?”

“Thank Brother Francis,” Jacob replied, pleased. “I’ve learned a lot from him. Truthfully, though, you keep a good larder here, and that made it easy.”

“Just Francis,” the former monk replied, “but you are too kind.”

“Not at all,” Jacob added. “Unfortunately, now that everyone is here, we have a little business to take care of. Erik, I know we just got here, but it’s time we returned Laranna home.”

“To what purpose?” Erik asked. “Her father will be here in less than two weeks, on his way to the Summit. No doubt a runner has already been sent to let him know that his daughter is safe here, in Count Ervallyn’s care.”

Laranna replied uncomfortably, “I am afraid I do not feel very safe. We have not had time to share the news, my Lord, but a man broke into my room last night with a poisoned dagger, and tried to kill Athena and myself. I owe her my life.

The next assassin may be more careful, or more skilled. I doubt I will remain a target after the Summit, and so perhaps it is best for us all if I leave.”

“Oh my dear girl,” Erik replied, “I am so sorry. I’m also impressed, Athena. When we get home, and we will, I will make sure you get the commendation you deserve.

Still, Jacob, given what has happened, I need you and the Shield here. The situation is serious, and I would like your help in planning how to handle the Summit. Perhaps Athena and a few of my men can return her home?”

Glancing at Laranna, and her carefully blank face, Jacob replied gently, “I said I would return her home myself, and I will. She will be safer with me than with a larger escort. Besides, there are questions I would ask Lord Northspire before the summit. He may be able to shed some light on why the Kulls would risk so much to strike at Laranna. He may also be able to help us at the Summit. I don’t think the Count agrees with us on the threat of Sarronen, and we will need a Travanian ally there. I believe it’s best for us all if I use my party to return her home.”

Erik’s brow furrowed, but he eventually nodded. “You have grown a backbone with the rest of your skills, Jacob. I have not the heart to order you to stay. But you will leave the Shield here. I trust you, of course, but the warehouse here is safer than road, and the stakes are too high.”

At this point, Ceann spoke up from the back. “Jacob, I belong with the Shield. May I have your permission to stay here too?”

“Of course,” Jacob replied. “I would not separate you from your duty.”

“I also ask your leave to guard the Shield, my Lord” Francis added, examining Lord Erik. “I have seen that Jacob can take care of himself, but only my presence can fully deter Sarronen from trying to retake St. Thomas’s legacy. Please allow me to remain in your service until Jacob returns.”

“Yes, of course,” Erik replied. “If you have Jacob’s trust, you have mine.”

“Thank you, My Lord,” the older man replied, bowing slightly. “Also, if you will indulge me a moment, I have a question regarding the recent assassination attempt. Athena, how quickly did this poison act?”

“In heartbeats,” Athena replied. “The Kull barely scratched himself, and almost immediately he fell to the floor. I’ve never heard of a poison acting that fast.”

“It was Two-Step then,” Francis replied grimly. “It is a frightening mixture, made from the distilled venom of a snake that lives in Kull territory. It paralyzes its victims nearly instantly, and can be absorbed through the skin. The snake’s bite is not always fatal, but the concentrated poison is.

This assassination is curious, then, because if you were going to kill a Sorcerer, this is how you should go about it. If he sees you coming, he can stop you. But prick him in his sleep or from behind, and he would die before he knew he was dying. Yet Laranna was the target.”

“You did say Innoken was not permitted to order your death,” Jacob reminded him.

“True, though Haldor could do so, as long as Innoken did not ask it of him directly,” Francis noted.

“What a frightening world this is becoming,” Erik noted. “Are you sure you are up for this, Jacob? Just you, Daniel, and Athena escorting Laranna home? You are not invincible, you know. I watched you spar with Francis, and as fast as you are, you’re not invincible. By my guess, your thoughts have mostly just accelerated to let you make use of the body you have.”

“That is the biggest change,” Jacob affirmed, “though I feel twice as strong as I did before, and as much faster, with an endurance to match.”

“Perhaps. However,” Erik asked, “will that help you if you encounter a brigand hiding behind a tree with a crossbow?”

Jacob’s silence was telling. “I thought not,” Erik continued. “I can’t begin to understand what has happened to you. Maybe it is some sign of fate, and I know you cannot back away from danger to Ironwood. But you are not invincible, and you are still my brother. So I ask, as your brother, that if you do this, please be careful.”

“I will,” Jacob replied.

“Thank you,” Laranna replied, her eyes brimming with gratitude. “Northspire will not forget your kindness, nor will I.”

“Then if you are done eating, let us retrieve your things,” Jacob replied.

The road to Northspire was narrower than the once-great highway between Talyk and Ironwood, but more heavily traveled. Two horses fit comfortably on the gravel walkway, though they were obliged from time to time to swerve onto the trampled grass beside the road. The area was more heavily populated, as well. Some farms were as close as a dozen yards away from the road itself. Small houses and barns dotted the land in either direction, though they thinned as the group passed farther from Talyk, except when they neared a village. They had ridden through six since Talyk.

When they first set out, most plots were under two acres, sized to single families, though the larger ones might have supported thirty people or more. Out here, even the less successful farmers claimed several acres or more; they had not yet been broken up and passed down through generations. Northspire as a barony was little more than fifty years old, and like most Travanian border territories, it had grown over its lifetime at the expense of its neighbors. Land in Northspire was cheap, and its people were strong and independent. Laranna was proud of the latter.

The travelers rode silently, the men ahead, and the ladies behind. Daniel, as a tracker, had been enthralled with the difference in terrain and animal life from back home. He spoke of the colors of the squirrels, the leaves of the trees, the patterns of the deer, and the number of bears. Thankfully, he seemed to be filling Jacob’s need for conversation, for the lady of Northspire was not up for it.

The day went swiftly, despite the oppressive heat, and the flying insects that buzzed around her face and neck. Trying to ignore the little red bites collecting on her wrists and ankles, Laranna spared some sympathy for the others, who must be sweltering in their armor. Eventually she might muster some additional sympathy for Jacob, who had tried repeatedly to cheer her up. But today, conversation was just too much to ask.

Feigning friendliness to everyone around her during her weeks of captivity had been difficult, and truthfully, she probably hadn’t quite succeeded. The company of Jacob and his friends had been a breath of fresh air, and she owed them her life. However, since they found her, Laranna had had no time alone at all. The company energized her at first, but after a while the need for quiet was like the need for fresh air, and she felt as if she had been holding her breath for weeks. Part of that was her own fault, a result of the insecurity that warred with her need for solitude. She had almost refrained even from inviting Athena to share her room in Talyk. In hindsight, of course, inviting her had been one of the best decisions of her life. But now, on the road, she found herself gasping for time to think.

So much had happened that she didn’t know how to make sense of, and it left her feeling raw. Dead spirits were trying to use their magic to conquer the world, and Laranna was in the way of their plans. Bandits had nearly killed the woman who had later saved her life. Sarronen, whom she had long thought a friend, had not only kidnapped her, but then they attacked her and her escort with a dozen men and magical help. Finally, with Sarronen behind her, she was nearly murdered in her sleep in Talyk. Not one of those things really made sense to her: all of them could have killed her, and none of them could have been predicted. Worse, she had been utterly helpless throughout the entire process, and part of her feared that neither the dangers nor her helplessness would end.

The resulting stress and the lack of sleep had become physical discomforts on their own, and mixed poorly with saddle soreness and being eaten alive by mosquitoes in a heat that announced that Spring was nearly done. Laranna’s soul longed for home, but even more she needed an escape, some time and space for all the things dancing around her mind and heart to settle.

All of this had affected the others as well, but Jacob had reacted by trying to distract and entertain her. After a few attempts, Laranna was afraid she had snapped at him, and the poor man had finally left her alone. Since then, he seemed to accept more than understand her need for room, doubtless something Athena had taught him. The blond was a quite the character, but she had a strength and rustic wisdom about her. It was comforting to know the woman had her back.

Actually, the guards-woman might be able to help in another way. Laranna pulled her horse back for a moment and fell alongside the taller woman, sacrificing the silence in favor of a more burning need. When she caught Athena’s attention, she asked, hesitantly, “I was wondering if I could ask you a favor.”

Athena shrugged, and replied, “Go on.”

“Well,” the dark-haired lady continued softly, “I wanted to say thank you, again, from the bottom of my heart, for saving me. If you hadn’t been there in the room, that man with the dagger would have killed me. There’s nothing I could have done about it, either, nothing at all. That last, I think, has been what’s been the hardest to bear. So I was wondering, do you think you could you teach me how to fight?”

“Not really,” Athena replied regretfully, “At least, not in a week. I could teach you a few things, but we’d barely be getting started.”

“Oh,” Laranna said, eyes downcast.

“But I understand,” Athena continued. “I really do. If it makes you feel better, I will teach you what I can in the time we have. Maybe then it’ll be easier to find someone to practice with back home. You need someone like that, someone you trust. If it weren’t for Jacob, I never would have gotten any good. Not too many boys were willing to spar with a girl, after all. Sometimes it’s frustrating to owe the man so damned much. But yeah, we can try it. Maybe when we get you home, I can help you find a partner.”

“I think I’d like that,” Laranna smiled. Then, on an impulse asked, “Does he know?”

“Does he what?” Athena returned carefully.

“Know you’d do anything for him?” Laranna continued, trying to keep her voice neutral.

The tall blond picked at her horse’s mane, and took a deep breath. “I guess. It’s just, we’ve been friends forever. We look out for each other.”

In the moment, Laranna suddenly realized she was jealous, irrationally so. Athena was taller, exotically blond, and physically striking. Her frame was broad, but that didn’t detract: her entire torso was equally well-endowed. In fact, she was remarkably capable and attractive, if you liked the type, and her every motion exuded physical grace and confidence. She was no scholar, but for most men that was a benefit. And Jacob liked and trusted her like no-one else in the world. “But does he know how you feel? He trusts you implicitly, and I’ve seen him touch your back or shoulder without a thought. Margons are such famous prudes, there has to be something special there. And you do look out for him. I have seen you tease him terribly, but I also get the feeling you would die for him, as he almost did for you.”

It was Athena’s turn to cast her eyes down, uncomfortably. “You could say that, but the thing is you, don’t know Jacob. He’s got his own funny ideas about honor, and he’s super strict about them. On the one hand, I’m this widow who rebelled and married the wrong man, and then was crazy enough to take a man’s job, the least feminine in the world. I’m no saint, either. I like the company of men, and I drink, though I’m smart enough to know where to draw the line - on both counts. I wasn’t born so badly, but if you ask anyone from Ironwood, I’ve definitely fallen in the world.

The thing is, Jacob doesn’t care about any of that in a friend. To him, I’m someone strong and loyal, who does her best to do right by others, and who won’t let you down. He looks at my life and what I’ve done, and he doesn’t see anything wrong in it. What’s not forbidden is permitted, is what he says. He doesn’t judge me. He accepts me as I am, without blinking. Of course, I love him for it.

But it is what it is. He’s very strict about his honor, and he’s from a different world, socially. He’ll marry who he is told, and can you imagine him taking a mistress? Someone like that, do you think he can really look at the widow of a lumberjack and see a woman? It’s not permitted. And I thank God for that, because if he did, he wouldn’t dare trust me like he does. We can be close, because he sees me as one of the guys. What does it matter if I happen to have breasts? I’m a buddy. Whatever I am in polite company, in the practice yard, we’re equals.

Heaven knows what would happen if he treated me like a woman. I don’t think I want to know. He’s my best friend, and it would kill me to lose that.”

“Oh,” was all Laranna could say for a long moment. “He ignores women?” she finally asked in a small voice.

“He tries,” Athena smirked. “But watch his body language - he’s not immune. I’ve seen it with Anna, because whatever else she is, she’s gorgeous. But I also see it with you. He lights up when he sees you, but I don’t think he even knows. He’s pretty good at lying to himself.”

“Why are you telling me that?” Laranna asked, shrugging defensively as she swatted a fly. “Are you afraid I will hurt him? Or maybe fall for him?”

“I might prefer it,” Athena grinned hopelessly. “You’re a better match for him than Anna, mentally and socially. And deny it all you like, you like him too. I’m just not sure he’ll ever realize he has a choice, because it would mean standing up to his father. That’s a hard thing to do: I know. But even though I lost some friends when I defied my parents and married, I don’t regret choosing my own path. I just wish it had turned out better.

Laranna’s cheeks flushed, her body betraying her yet again. A woman as independent as she should be above such things. “No. I won’t have feelings for someone who’s unavailable. Maybe Jacob is free to let this Anna go. I’ve been down that road a few times, though things might be different in Travan. For now, though, he is planning to go home to her. If he changes his mind, maybe we’ll have something to talk about.

But Athena, please don’t act is if your life is already over! You’re far too young to think that way, barely older than me. You just need a fresh start. If you’re being judged too harshly in Ironwood, you can leave.”

“Maybe,” Athena shrugged. “Though there are people there that are hard to leave. Jacob for one, and his father, who believed in me when I needed it most. Anyway, where would I go? But speaking of roads, you must have been here on the way to Talyk before. Where do you usually stop for the night?”

“We’re entering my Father’s territory. Any Holder between here and home would put us up. There are several we’ve stayed with, and most at least seemed pleased at the attention. But if you and Jacob are willing, I would like to camp out another night. You could teach me a bit of the sword, or dagger, or whatever you feel is best. I wouldn’t have to play the good guest, and we would be hard to follow, if anyone is chasing us. I think I would sleep better that way.”

Athena nodded thoughtfully. “We can do that: I think that might make me feel better too. I didn’t sleep much last night, either. I’ll let Jacob know what’s on your mind.”

When the blood ran from Laranna’s face, Athena smiled sympathetically. “About stopping for the night. Anything else is on you.”

It was a nice little spot that Daniel had found. It was sheltered from view of the road by a bluff, and by a small copse of trees to the west. They were placed to hide the sunset, but sunrise would be spectacular. There was also plenty of deadwood and tinder, and even some game. The bowman had brought down a rabbit, and so dinner would be fresh. Jacob looked forward to working with Laranna to prepare it: she had a different way with food than Francis, but she was a more than competent cook. Despite her fatigue, her mood seemed to have improved since spending time with Athena, and Jacob was hoping to learn a bit from her.

However, Laranna seemed to have other ideas. The tents were up, and Daniel had nearly finished skinning the rabbit, when Athena left the care of the horses and handed Laranna a dagger. While Jacob watched incredulously, Athena began to instruct her on her stance and how to grip the weapon. Jacob had, from time to time, taught groups of boys from well-to-do families about the proper use of weapons and armor. After all, there were dozens of pages in Ironwood training to become warriors some day, and the older boys were expected to teach. Jacob himself had joined them in various chores when he was younger: cleaning arms and armor, mucking stables, and doing all manner of odd jobs. He remembered well the joy of leaving such things to younger and less privileged hands, as well as assisting the arms master in basic instruction. He did not recall many youngsters looking as awkward with a dagger in their hand as Laranna did now. Somehow, he found the sight endearing.

Athena, noting his scrutiny, placed her hands on her hips, and motioned him to get back to dinner. Laranna also sent him a furious glare, attempting to burn him to ashes where he stood. Jacob shook his head, but returned to preparing the food. No sense in antagonizing the ladies. Daniel shrugged and helped.

After dinner, the women thanked them. Laranna even shared a tired and grateful smile before bidding the others good night. Within moments, a light snore emanated from that ladies’ tent. “That was quick,” he remarked. “Is she well?”

“She’s been through an awful lot,” Athena remarked, “but for now, she’s only exhausted.”

“I couldn’t help but feel she’s been unhappy with me today,” Jacob added. “I have no idea why.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Athena replied. “She’s just feeling a little vulnerable, and she doesn’t want a man to see her that way. That and she needs some recovery time. I remember you weren’t much up for small talk after nearly getting killed, either. I wouldn’t worry about it. No doubt she’ll be back to listening to you babble on about history and trade once she gets some sleep.”

“That’s good to hear,” Jacob replied. “I’d rather bore than offend, but I was hoping to avoid both. I suppose it was thoughtless of me to press her for conversation. Not only do I like Laranna well enough, but we may need her help.”

“You have a plan, don’t you?” Daniel blurted out. “To save Ironwood?”

“The only way to save Ironwood is to kill Innoken. Heaven won’t do it, so I’ll have to. To do it, I’ll need Two-Step and access to Innoken at the Summit, and that means local help.”

“Jacob!” Athena turned towards him, shocked. “I never thought you would stoop to poison, but even so, he’ll kill you. You saw what Brother Francis can do now. What if Innoken blocks your poison as well?”

“He won’t unless he knows what I’m up to. I suspect even if he turns his skin to armor like Francis did, the poison will still seep through when it turns back to normal. Of course, I might be dead by that point, but even then it would be worth it. All I have to do is hit him once, and Ironwood will be saved. I think I can convince him to fight. All I have to do is keep the poison secret, and I’ve won.”

“Damn, Jacob!” Daniel whistled.

“Why do you want to go and get yourself killed?” Athena snarled. “You’ve got no reason to think this will work, and every reason to think you’ll get your ass torn apart by an invincible enemy. This is madness.”

“Give me another option,” Jacob responded quietly.

“God or Heaven or somebody up there has to help us, or there is no option! We’ve got to pray, to cry out and make them hear us!” Athena called back, hands clenched. “Otherwise we run. We can’t fight unarmed. Or maybe there is no God? What good God would let his world go to Hell, or let his angels stand by while it’s ripped apart? But we can’t just attack. If you go all berserker on a demon, all you’ll get is dead.”

“Someone here in the real world has to fight Innoken,” Jacob replied softly. “It’s like Brother Francis said, you’ve got to step up, and then have faith that God will have your back.”

“You brave pudding-minded idiot,” Athena swore, “Facing a god with a poisoned sword is not what he was talking about! I can’t listen to this nonsense anymore. I’m going to bed.”

Jacob watched silently as Athena stormed off to her tent. Daniel put his hand briefly on Jacob’s shoulder, and then followed Athena’s example, much more quietly. Only the crackle of the fire, the chirp and buzz of insects, and Laranna’s soft snore filled the silence.

Northspire was small compared to Talyk. In fact, the town proper was smaller than Ironwood. It was also far younger, and had less outward charm, though the surrounding lands were at least as picturesque. However, in homage to Travanian tradition, its defenses were formidable. The main keep was visible for miles, rising dozens of feet from the hill where it stood. There was a tower attached to the keep that seemed to stretch into the blue forever, its height beyond estimation. The outer wall ringing the inhabited area was perhaps a bit over twenty feet tall. The area around it was cleared for hundreds of yards out, and probably used for grazing. Unlike in Talyk, its urban population was confined behind the wall. Outside were only farms, mostly very large ranches and plantations, well beyond the fortified area.

The outer wall could not have been more than thirty years old, and it had been raised with an eye for expansion, with much of its enclosed area still used as public land. Within, the initial buildings were finished fifty years ago. Northspire Keep was a tool of conquest, a means of extending the Travanian Empire into barbarian territory. It had been built after a short and bloody war that had brought Travan north into the mountains, and protected access to water, grazing land, and mineral deposits in the region. More recent skirmishes had extended Northspire’s territory westward, though by accounts the current Earl had been against those conflicts. In the past twenty years, some level of understanding had been gained with the Kulls on the western border, and these days Earl was a strong advocate for peace. Skeptics replied that that was because the he already owned was cold and empty enough as it was. Instead, it was Talyk, feeling the press of an expanding population, that grumbled against their western neighbors.

Laranna was more than happy to share the history of the region, and its politics. Athena had been right: sleep was the medicine she needed most. She had been a bit stiff in the morning, but eagerness to reach her family and to share the beauty of her homeland had loosened her spirits. She spoke with joy, eyes warm, and hands animating her description of crystal clear waterfalls or the mining machinery she had personally helped design and seen installed. Jacob’s own grin was fixed upon his face as he listened: her enthusiasm was contagious, and it filled her face with beauty. Blue eyes were meant to be lit by that kind of fire, he thought. It would be a pity their friendship would be so short. Even he survived his plans, Jacob likely would never see Northspire or Laranna again. Still, there was no need to let the sorrows of the future interfere with the moment.

Athena, on the other hand, rode to the rear of the party, alone with her dark mood. She refused to talk to him, or even to Daniel, who agreed with her. Jacob wished there was something he could say to her, but nothing came to mind. He would have been equally livid if their roles had been reversed, and his heart went out to her. She was right that they should appeal to God again, or as often as necessary, and had spent hours the night before in prayer. But if that failed, he could not back away from a chance to save Ironwood, and so there was nothing he could say to her. Instead he lost himself in the pleasure of conversation, and tried not to think about the future, or anything of importance. Laranna and her ebullience helped immensely.

It was almost a disappointment when they finally approached the open outer gates of Northspire. It was guarded by only two friendly mustachioed men, though they seemed professional enough. The people of Northspire were more concerned with wresting a living from an uncaring land than with warfare. However, they were still of Travan, and Travan hosted the most professional soldiers in the known world. These guards’ faces, though, turned to joy as they recognized Laranna. “You’re home!” the taller man called out to her. “My Lady Laranna! You’ve come back to us! Are you well? Who are your companions?”

Laranna’s own smile split her face from ear to ear. “Jannic, Tan, it’s so good to be back! I see Lord Ervallyn didn’t send a messenger before we left Talyk. Don’t worry for me: I was captured, but not hurt in any way. These are friends of mine, from Ironwood, led by Lord Jacob of the same. They were kind enough to offer me escort home from Sarronen. It’s been quite an adventure, but here I am, safe again. I owe them all immeasurably.”

“Your father will be - well, we’ve all been so worried for you, we nearly gave up hope. But here you are! Anyway, you must be tired - please, come in! But I will run ahead and let your family know to expect you.” With that, Tan gave Jannic a quick bob of the head, and sprinted away towards the keep.

Jannic shrugged, grinning. “As my friend said, be welcome into the town, Lord Ironwood and my Lady Laranna. A word of advice: you may want to reach the keep as soon as possible, but I wouldn’t go at a gallop. They’ll want to greet you properly, as soon as they know you’re coming. The keep hasn’t been the same without you, my Lady.”

“Thank you,” Laranna replied, beaming, before stepping her horse through the gate. “It is so good to be home.”

Jacob mouthed his own greetings before following. Inside, Northspire was a strange mix of hardscrabble means and the expectant motion of new growth. There was relatively little color, and most of the stone was spent in the bones of the wall and keep, but there were newer buildings everywhere, most in good care. The markets were small, carrying little variety, but exuded a friendliness and a hopeful energy. There were buildings still being raised, and goods from the surrounding countryside flowed in past the cries of boisterous children. Wood, coal, stone, iron, lead, and steel ran through the city’s veins, and it was clothed in wool and amfantha. Northspire was not rich, but it was alive.

The party, as it walked, attracted a small crowd, filled with murmurs of the Lady’s return, though most folk were content to watch from afar. Many of the working men and women of the small town called out to wish her well. Others grumbled at possible causes of her absence, but quietly: the Lady Adelin Northspire was a very popular figure, and her daughter and husband little less so.

Just outside the keep stood a tall, sandy-haired man with a stern face, blue eyes and a prominent nose: the Earl Joranthan Northspire. Behind was a young woman in green whose hair matched his own, and whose eyes glistened with unshed tears for the return of her sister. In front, advancing to meet them, was a middle-aged lady with dark hair to match Laranna’s. Though that hair had began to show strands of gray, she was still a beauty, with fine facial features, her daughter’s sparkling blue eyes, and a healthy figure visibly rounded by pregnancy. Her overwhelming joy filled the hall, and she rushed past Jacob to embrace Laranna. She choked back her own tears as she held her daughter close. “It’s so good to have you back, my dear. I knew you were alive, but I had to see you, to know that you made it through unbent. And you have, my love, you have.”

Eventually, when her mother released her, Laranna fell into the arms of her father, who held her tight for days, while her sister wated patiently for her turn. When those days had passed, Lord Earl Joranthan Northspire held out his hand to Jacob, and spoke kindly, “Thank you, son. We are in your debt. Please, come inside, and let us hear what has happened.”

Dinner was hearty and endless, with bread and beef, potatoes and tubers, roast chicken, and spring beans. It was less sophisticated than the fare at Talyk, but honest and hearty, and Jacob was ravenous. However, if the food was more plain than in Talyk, the atmosphere was much warmer: Jacob had never felt more at home outside of Ironwood. Part of that was due to the decoration, which involved the use of simple items like vases and flowers in tasteful and creative ways. Even the chandeliers and wall sconces were set with flowers and vines native to the hilled area, and the tapestries and draperies, were beautiful. In many cases they were rustic in subject, but involved a bright and varied array of colors, cheerful mixed with the melancholy. Clearly, the Earl had access to the dyes of Kullen. Jacob was suprised to learn the Countess had woven or embroidered much of what hung on the wall, though she pointed out a few pieces that Laranna had completed.

Jacob was especially impressed by an embroidered likeness of her younger sister Jaselle among wildflowers, though Laranna herself was modest about the piece. Still, he could tell Laranna was warmed by his praise for her skill. In much of Travan, decoration was considered to be an almost rude display of wealth. However, wildflowers and vines skillfully woven around iron, vases laden with live pansies, and clean floors strewn with fresh grasses all gave the opposite impression: of time and care spent in making a guest feel wanted. In Jacob’s case, it worked perfectly, in no small part because his mother and sister-in-law expressed themselves in a similar language. Daniel and Athena seemed as warmed by the reception as he.

However, even if the room had been small and unadorned, Jacob was sure that the Lord and Lady Northspire’s charm alone would have made him feel special. Laranna’s parents and younger sister were overjoyed to have her home, and their mirth filled the air. Jaselle, a very pretty young maiden with a younger version of the Lady Adelin’s stature and smile, served drinks to the guests, while her mother drew out their stories.

Jacob, Athena, and Laranna each shared their own details, in a ragged piecemeal fashion interrupted by a million questions, but they left nothing out. The Earl of Northspire only nodded thoughtfully at the claim that Sorcerers were partitioning the continent of Annaria for themselves, and had asked thoughtful questions about the means and probable consequences, many of which Jacob could not answer.

Countess Adelin grimly accepted her daughter’s description of Sarronen’s treachery, and had not flinched at the telling of Jacob and Francis’s frantic defense against them. She had offered sympathy to Athena and Laranna over their encounter with a poison-wielding assassin, and had winced at Jacob’s rescue of Athena from bandits. On the whole, both had been more accepting of Jacob and Laranna’s tales even than Jacob’s brother Erik, which spoke well for their character and Laranna’s. Unfortunately, this led to questions about what to do about all the new information, and those were harder to answer.

“Clearly,” Joranthan had noted, “Sarronen has plans in the West they don’t want Travan or Kulllen involved in. But is it merely a matter of timing? Or are there Sorcerers in Travan whose attention they want to avoid?”

“I don’t know,” Jacob was forced to answer. “Francis spoke briefly of a Sorcerer in southern Travan whose claims are not known in Heaven, and I find that odd. But it does seem that the plans of the Sorcerers are not fully baked. The haste to deal with Ironwood may well be about unifying the Clans and securing a border before more Sorcerers can arrive. Maybe they view Ironwood and its fertile land as easy prey. Perhaps they only want it out of the way before they turn to more difficult conquests. In any case, I can hope that sharing their plan in the Summit may make it less worthwhile to execute.”

“I hope he will not simply turn against Travan first. Just because Ironwood is an easier target does not mean Travan is ready to handle the clans, especially if they can be united behind a god,” the Earl noted.

“What an unpleasant thought,” Jacob replied, wincing. “However, with your help, I think I might be able to get rid of Innoken.”

Athena frowned sourly, while Laranna swiveled to face him with wide eyes. “Brother Francis remarked that the poison called Two-Step would probably be the best way to kill a Sorcerer, as long as the Sorcerer was unaware of the poison beforehand. I’m willing to test that theory.”

Laranna gasped, raven hair flowing around her head as she suddenly nodded. “Of course. No wonder Athena has been cross with you today: you told her your plan, didn’t you? But how will you get close enough to him to use it?”

Jacob shrugged. “I don’t know, exactly, but I’m hoping I can get a hearing at the Summit, and lay some accusations at the feet of Innoken and his god, with plenty of contempt for the latter. If Innoken is anything like Serren, he will have to respond, to defend Shakath’s honor. Without Shakath’s Sorcerer, everything falls apart. I can make him face me: it’s only the poison I’ll have to hide.”

“Not exactly subtle,” Athena remarked sullenly, “given how dangerous the man is. He could kill you before you get a chance to hit him.”

“No,” Jacob replied adamantly, denying the possibility with a confidence he didn’t feel. “He can’t. Sparring with Francis gave me a sense of what Innoken is capable of. If all I have to do is hit him once, I can do that. But all that depends on being able to get the poison.”

“Yes,” the Earl replied, uncomfortably. “It is expensive and difficult to obtain. We don’t keep any on-hand, as it decays within months of bottling. But it is used south and west, near Talyk, by elite bodyguards and assassins within the Clans. No one in Travan would admit to possessing the substance, but there was a Kull a generation past that surrendered the recipe to the Emperor in exchange for his life. The knowledge has not been lost. There are a few men who manufacture it for the Empress…

No, I have said enough. Are you certain that Innoken and his God are responsible for my daughter’s abduction?”

“It has to be, father,” Laranna replied. “Prince Halvar would never have acted on his own. Only Innoken, the King, and Serren seemed to know what Shakath was really about. Innoken must have been behind it, but the real threat is war, not any danger to me. Jacob is right: removing Innoken is the only way to prevent it.”

Lord Northspire sighed. “I make no promises, then, but I will see if I can find this thing for you. If I can procure it, I must have your word you will use it only on Innoken, and the no one will ever know how you got the poison.”

Jacob nodded solemnly, “You have my word.”

“You’re insane,” Athena muttered.

“No,” Daniel interjected. “It will work. If anyone can do it, Jacob can.”

“Yes,” Laranna added thoughtfully, “it does seem to be the best chance, though you run the risk that the poison won’t penetrate Innoken’s armor, or his skin. But by your expression, I see you’ve already considered that. It’s risky, but I’ve already seen you show more bravery than that.”

“Then we will help you as well as we can,” Adelin replied, in silken tones. “Athena, I am sorry that you and your friend are burdened with this, and I hope we can find a more subtle way to approach the problem. I assume then that you will remain for the next week and accompany us to the Summit?”

“Yes,” Jacob replied, leaning forward. “Or at least, I had hoped that would be acceptable.”

Adelin smiled reassuringly. “After all you three have done for us, how could we offer any less?”

Joranthan nodded in agreement. “I will make the arrangements myself.”

Jacob knocked three times, softly. The hallway still held the chill of cold stone, well into mid-morning. The fresh White Dragons that wreathed the sconces aside the door gave the space a personal touch, but they did not warm him, or make the knocking easier. That was strange, for there was no reason in the world Jacob shouldn’t be here, or should feel nervous about it.

“One moment,” a voice answered, young and female.

The door opened, and a pretty young woman opened it, perhaps eighteen years of age. She was of average height, with sandy brown hair, blue eyes, and a crooked smile. Her dress was a deep green, and flattered her figure nicely. Jacob tried to keep his eyes on hers. “I didn’t expect to find a handsome man at the door,” Jaselle said, playful laughter in her voice.

“I mean it well when I say that can’t possibly be an unknown experience for you,” Jacob replied. “It is, of course, a pleasure to see you again, Jaselle.”

Jaselle’s eyes sparkled at the courtesy. “You might be surprised, then. Men seem to find the prospect of an earldom much more attractive than just a pretty face. I have been sought as a consolation prize by idiots my sister rejected, but being an afterthought hardly counts.”

Jacob let his sympathy touch his voice. “That’s a pity, but hopefully a temporary problem. If you’re anything like your sister, you have a lot to offer. Might I come in?”

“She’s at work with her records at the moment,” Jaselle replied, glancing over her shoulder.

Jacob lowered his eyes. “I don’t want to be a bother. I’ll not be offended if now is a poor time to visit.”

Jaselle’s eyes were encouraging. “I will ask, then. But I think she’ll invite you in.” She walked to the back of the room, then stepped around the wood-paneled corner. “A visitor to see you.”

Laranna’s voice was strained, impatient. “Oh, and who is it? What do they want?”

“It’s your friend, Jacob,” Jaselle replied, amused. “He didn’t say what he was after.”

“Oh,” the voice replied. “I guess you’d better let him in, then.”

Jacob walked around the paneling to the office on the right. There Laranna sat at a broad desk, parchment scattered all about her. Her eyes were intense, distracted, but her dark hair was raised and pinned in a pattern of strands and bows, as if she were entertaining. She wore a blue blouse he didn’t recognize; it suited her.

Jaselle sat to the right, facing him in a hard wooden chair before the desk, legs crossed, grinning knowingly at the both of them, and fidgeting a bit to either side. She lifted a a quill from the desk and chewed on it, eyes dancing.

Jacob cleared his throat. “Hello, Laranna. I like what you’ve done with your hair.”

Jaselle giggled. “Told you it would look better this way.”

Laranna shot her a tired look. “Yes, I should thank you, I suppose, You’ve always been good at that, but there’s no need to be smug. Jacob, what is it? I have weeks of work to catch up on.”

Jacob ran his hand through his hair, shifting his weight to his left leg. “I see. What type of work is it? Can I help?”

Laranna sighed. “Probably mostly by not distracting me, unfortunately. These are spring harvest reports, the quarterly mining reports, the keep’s larder inventory, last year’s taxes, the contents of the treasury, and requests from the steward. I need to have a recommendation ready on what to levy in Spring Taxes, what funds to make available for aid to farmers and miners, and what to ask the steward to buy. Some of that will mean a wagon to Talyk, and it all has to be done before we leave for the Summit.”

Jacob raised an eyebrow, turning his head from one woman to the other. “You’ve been dead for months. Won’t someone already have this finished?”

Jaselle giggled again. “See? Someone else here has some sense.”

Laranna threw up her hands, eyes flashing. “Yes, but they were all written by the steward, and he gets it wrong from time to time. Father skimmed through them, but he has so much else to do. I trust mother was careful about getting the castle’s needs right, but that’s where her purview usually ends. Unless you went through it all, Jaselle? That doesn’t even count my projects with the mining equipment.”

Jaselle frowned slightly, and bit her lip. “Not as such. I’ve been busy, though Jensen has gone over everything about the castle, and Norry has spent extra time on the mining report.”

Jacob took a seat beside Laranna, pulling up the second chair from the front of the desk. “Show me the agricultural bits, if you trust me with them. They’re impossibly boring, but I’ve worked through Ironwood’s version of those.”

Dark eyebrows raised in surprise. “Boring? With those, I can read every bit of Northspire like, well, like a book. Look, you can see when Omalan was sick, because harvest figures are down almost ten percent, and are caught up in the next week. You can see old man Jamisan’s son didn’t buy enough potatoes or wheat seed, and now we’ll have to lower his taxes. You can see that the rains fell in the west harder than the east, and so this man here is lying when he’s asking for relief, but three others are refusing to acknowledge their losses. I can see everything my people are up to. When they come to the castle for help, I already know their stories even if they’ve only answered a dozen questions from the tax man.”

Jacob whistled. “You’re much better at this than I am.”

Laranna couldn’t quite keep her pleasure at the complement from softening her eyes, but her tone was all business. “Give it a go, and give me the highlights, if you want to help. You might be able to save me some time, at least. Otherwise, aren’t Daniel and Athena missing you?”

“They’re out sparring,” Jacob replied, “and I’m not sure how much good that will do me these days. Also, I wanted to see how you were doing.”

Laranna’s eyes were already down, her lips moving as she mouthed the words of the mining report. Jacob looked helplessly to the sandy-haired beauty at her side. She only shrugged, and placed her hand on her sister’s shoulder fondly. “She’s already long gone. I was worried that being kidnapped and nearly killed might have done her harm, but she’s in her element. It’s nice to see.”

Jacob began to leaf through the papers, but looked up a moment to respond. “She’s a strong woman. You’re not helping, then?”

The sandy-haired lady grinned charmingly. “Laranna does this because she doesn’t trust anyone, but I trust her. Father might have had me tutored, but there’s not too much of clerical work I don’t trust someone else to do as well as me. I’m better with people than books, and there are no audiences today. Besides, I’m well behind on my sewing,” she offered, lifting up a partially-embroidered white glove. ”It’s rather dear to have it all commissioned, so I make myself useful there.”

The swordsman grinned. “How well I understand. Paperwork isn’t my first choice, either.”

“You’re here, aren’t you?” Jaselle asked.

“I am. I should mention Lord Morgren was talking about you, back in Talyk. He seemed quite taken with you, and wanted Laranna to ask how you were doing. Not sure he’s good enough for you, though.”

Jaselle clapped her hands together. “I knew he still wanted me! I could kiss you!”

“I wouldn’t. I’m betrothed, back home,” Jacob replied.

“It’s an expression, silly. But I’m curious, then: why are you here, if not to court my sister?” the young lady asked again, crossing her arms.

Jacob smiled as charmingly as he could. “I have nowhere more useful to be. Besides, I rescued a good woman, and now I feel responsible for her, for some odd reason. I suppose I fancy myself her friend. And yourself? Not that I‘m complaining. I didn’t expect Laranna to be alone, so I’m just as glad to have you here to play chaperon.”

“I see,” she returned, with a crooked smile. ”I suppose I could see that, though that would make you a better man than most who came this way. Morgren was an exception, but I can’t claim he’s perfect, either. Anyway, glad to be of service.”

Then, after a moment, she sobered. “I was scared to death that I had lost my sister, so it’s really good to just to be here. Mother was sure Laranna was alive, but what if she was wrong? Laranna was my best friend growing up, you know, and she does so much that I’m not sure I could pick up if she was really gone. Having her gone really left a hole around here. I figured that, for the next few days, the least I could do was keep an eye on her. After all, she needs me as much as I need her.”

The younger woman threw her arms around her sister, and hugged her close. Laranna grunted, but put an arm back around Jaselle, and pressed her cheek against her. “Now, if you are both done interrupting, I really do want to get this done sometime this year.”

It was late afternoon before Laranna came up for air, though Jaselle had fetched meat, wine, and bread for lunch, and forced her sister to eat. The Earl’s heir had been critical of Jacob’s initial report, and sent him back to answer a few more questions. However, she hadn’t sent him away, and in the end had decided she was better off with his help than without, even if she would likely read the source material when she had the time.

The dark-haired Lady was still surrounded with scrolls, and had smudged ink on her cheek, but at least she had relaxed from her earlier intensity. “Thank you, Jacob. You’ve saved me hours, and things are in better shape than I had feared. I probably shouldn’t have fussed so much, but it’s maddening not to feel in control of things. I’m sorry if I was short with you and Jaselle. We can take a break for a few hours. I owe you both that much.”

“Good,” Jacob replied, “because I know where we should go.”

“Where is that?” Laranna asked cautiously.

“You wanted a lesson in swordsmanship,” Jacob replied, “and now seems like a good time.”

Jaselle sent her sister a glance. “Why? Is this because of the assassination attempt?”

“Yes, because of that,” Laranna replied, her voice catching slightly. “You know how much I hate feeling helpless. I’ve always thought it was unfeminine to fight, and unnecessary. I’ve learned better sincce. I was going to have Athena teach me, though.”

“You can,” Jacob said, “if you prefer, but I’m offering my help too, while I’m here. Oh, and the offer is open to you too, Jaselle. It would be helpful. Aside from a teacher, Laranna should have someone she feels comfortable to practice with once we’ve left. I can’t think of anyone that she would feel as comfortable with as you.”

“I suppose,” Jaselle replied, crossing her arms across her chest. “I’d never thought about it, but anything that could endanger you could also come my way, too. It would even be nice to be able to walk the garden at night without being frightened out of my wits. Alright, I’ll give it a try, if you’re teaching.”

“Can we try to find Athena first, though?” Laranna asked. “I’ve begun with her, and I have to admit, I’m less self-conscious in front of a woman. Heaven knows, she’s capable enough.”

“Sure,” Jacob said, though his heart skipped a beat for some reason he couldn’t identify. “I’ll find Athena and Daniel, and meet you in the back garden. We can move to the barracks courtyard later, if you’re comfortable enough with a crowd. After all, if you want to continue you with this, we’ll need to find you another teacher. In the meantime, though, you’ll probably want to change into something more suitable for practice.”

“Like what?” Jaselle asked.

The question brought back memories. Not a few times had Jacob thought of the peculiar courage it had taken for Athena to learn to fight, and now he was asking the others to share it. “Trousers and a blouse if you can find some that fit, otherwise the shortest dress or skirt you can stand wearing, providing it’s not too tight. A riding dress will work too: one that’s a bit short and loose up top is best, because it’ll let you move. Athena did a combination, growing up. Once you know what you need, you can alter your own so you’re comfortable wearing it in public.”

“You’ve given this some thought, haven’t you?” Laranna asked. “Well, working with Athena, you’d have the chance. We’ll try it your way, then. See you in the garden.”

“Riding dresses, I have,” Jaselle grinned. “I’ve spent almost as much time on a horse as you, sis. Thank you, Lord Jacob.”

Jacob bowed and retreated, heading for the courtyard, while the younger woman watched him go. “I like him. He’s handsome enough, and he seems like a really good guy,” she said, placing her hand on Laranna’s arm.

“Oh, and you’re such a great judge of character,” Laranna replied. “You even like that pig, Morgren.”

Jaselle mock swatted her sister. “He’s not so bad, and you used to like him yourself before the thing with Talia. He’s far from the first man she’s gotten to, though no one wanted to let you know what she’d been up to, of course. It’s a rare man who doesn’t let his, um, hungers lead him around.”

“It is, isn’t it,” Laranna murmured, thinking of Jacob’s odd relationship with Athena. On the other hand, Jacob had paid a lot of attention to her since she had met the man; maybe he wasn’t so innocent as he appeared. “Still, he’s taken, so there’s no point thinking about it.”

“So you don’t mind if I play with him a bit,” Jaselle asked, mock-fluttering her lashes.

“Don’t you dare!” Laranna answered reflexively. “He’s a good man,” she added lamely.

“That’s what I thought,” Jaselle answered, contented.

“You’re insufferable,” Laranna replied.

“That’s why you love me.”

Daniel leaned against the locked exterior door to one of the keep’s gardens. It wasn’t a particularly large garden, but it was private, and had just enough room in the walkways to serve for practice, though there was a circle of crushed stone in the center with two wooden benches, easily moved. “We’re all set, ladies. We can kill each other in peace.”

Jaselle wore a comfortable-looking blue riding dress, one that had obviously seen use. It was slit past the knee to allow freedom of the leg, and hemmed up to the ankle to keep the dress out of the dirt. It was also a bit loose in both the arms and the bust. Jacob wisely stood back and left Athena to critique the outfit.

“Not bad for a start,” the sturdy blond noted approvingly.

“Jacob told me to work with a riding dress, trousers, or a divided skirt,” the shorter woman replied, examining her arms.

Athena ran her hands along the cloth, and eyed the sandy-haired woman’s breast. “That’s good advice. You’ll need to tighten up the top, though, as much as you can. You’ve got a little weight up front, like I do, and you don’t want that swinging around in a fight. The distraction value isn’t worth it, I’ve found.”

Jaselle’s grin was wicked. “I’ll keep that in mind. How long did it take to to figure that out?”

Athena grinned. “Too long, though I started much younger than you, so my choices kind of grew with me, so to speak. Also, the riding slits work, but they’re meant go with thick leggings or some thick undergarments. A proper lady like yourself may want to sew in some extra cloth, or go with a plaited design. It gives you freedom of movement in a slightly less sensational way. I see Laranna has done that.”

The raven-haired heir stood with her own cream blouse and green plaited riding skirt, arms crossed. Not for the first time, she felt plain next to her more buxom sister. It was perhaps irrational to be jealous because her own clothing had passed muster, but there it was.

Athena moved over to her now. “Laranna, do you remember the stances I showed you for knifework? Let’s start with there, and I’ll show you the differences. We can grab the practice swords after that.”

Laranna quickly moved into a crouch, right foot forward. It was a simple thing, but she felt self-conscious and awkward. Several yards down the walkway, Jacob was helping Jaselle do the same, directing her feet. She looked like a natural. Daniel was watching appreciatively.

“Mind your balance, Laranna.”

She gritted her teeth, and complied. When Athena was satisfied, she handed Laranna a thick bundle of wooden sticks attached to a pommel, or whatever the handle was properly called. “Follow my lead, Laranna. We’re going to do a high swing, and a low swing. Strike swiftly, and pull back. No, don’t lean forward without stepping. Your balance has to be centered at all times. Again.”

Ahead, Jacob was doing something similar with her sister. Her strikes looked swift and graceful, but Jacob had her retrace the arc slowly. He stopped her in mid-swing, putting his hands gently on her arms, molding them into a precise angle, then making a chopping motion. Laranna couldn’t hear what he said, but her sister met his eyes, and returned something witty. Jacob laughed. Daniel was watching with interest.

“Eyes on me, Laranna,” Athena barked sharply, after following her gaze to the other pair. The bookish brunette gritted her teeth and complied. “I want to see swift, precise movements,” the blond drillmaster continued. “Now!”

Jaselle moved on to low strikes, eyes flashing as she demolished some invisible enemy. “Well done,” Jacob called out. “At my shield.” Jaselle continued, with mirth, but no mercy. Her taskmaster looked pleased.

Laranna was committed to learning the knife, and the sword. She never wanted to be as vulnerable again as she had been that one dark night, when the strange Kull had towered over her, and nearly killed her. She had cowered, helpless, behind Daniel while Jacob and the others defeated the Sarronen patrol. Never again! But merciful Lazarus, it was going to be a long afternoon.

The next morning, Jacob swung by Daniel’s room soon after sunrise, asking if the man would join him in his daily walk around the town. The tracker nodded, and came to the door, yawning slightly.

“What’s on your mind, Jacob? Restocking?” the bowman asked, taking in the cool air and long shadows near the keep. He also noted Jacob was carrying a couple large sacks.

“So to speak,” Jacob replied. “I’ve got some shopping to do, and thanks to my time with Laranna, I’ve got some ideas on how to go about it.”

The younger man’s jaw dropped. “Don’t tell me you’re taking advantage of Laranna’s confidence to make some quick coin?”

“No need to worry,” Jacob assured the man. “I mean, yes, the information I have from her is helpful, but I’m not exactly using it against her. This will be a win-win, to the extent she notices it at all. She’s repaid me for what I lent her in Talyk, and now it’s time to refill our bags. But let me ask you, assuming we’re going to sell a few bits down South and take the rest home, what do you think we should buy?”

“Hmmm,” Daniel replied, thinking. “So first, prices here are lower than Talyk for just about everything made locally, because it’s a poorer area. So, that’s everything agricultural we’ll see, raw metals, and some gems.”

“Right, mostly,” Jacob said, pleased. “Not everything agricultural, though: lamb is pricier here. Certain types of wool, fruits, and things like flax and certain woods are more expensive than you might expect, but in general that’s right. So what of that should we buy?”

“Things that are small and light? Things that don’t go bad?” Daniel guessed.

“Yes, I’m thinking gemstones, purer local metals like copper, amfantha yarn, and so forth. I’ve also seen a lot of embroidered linen here rather than woven wool. We should grab a little of that, too.”

Daniel gestured. “There’s a place down that way that handles fabrics. You want to head there?”

“You have good eyes,” the blue-eyed swordsman noted, heading in the indicated direction. “Show me what you’re thinking.”

There was a young girl at a small stand with dark eyes, a reddened and freckled face, and clever hands occupied in embroidery. An older man stood behind her, eyes on Jacob, as he approached.

“Good morning,” Jacob greeted the girl, who was likely on the shy side of fourteen. She sat behind the the wooden stand, hands working swiftly on a new piece depicting a dove in the sky.

“Morning, my Lord,” the girl responded automatically. “Are you lookin’ for something particular I could help you with? I got all kinds of linen here, good for a pillow, good for traveling sacks, good for filling in a window in the summer to keep out the gnats. Even good for a wall in a keep, if I say so myself.”

“What do you think, Daniel?” Jacob asked, stepping backward.

“The latter will sell for most, but they’ll be much harder to sell if they’re not commissioned,” the young man noted. “The cloth’s pretty fine, good for towels and pillows, but not worth carrying across the content.”

“Not quite what we’re looking for,” Jacob agreed. “Try down the street a bit. Good day, miss, and best of luck.”

The girl nodded her head without looking up. A few moments later, they approached another stand, this one manned by a plump housewife who looked to be expecting. She met their approach with friendly brown eyes, chestnut hair held back with ties of her own make. “May I help you, my Lord, or are you just looking? Fine morning for looking around.”

“It is,” Jacob replied agreeably. “You’ve got some beautiful sackcloth, I see.”

“Yes, my Lord, sturdy stuff, but a nice fine weave. I can put on your house sigil, if you like, sew it on quick as a jiffy for a copper more a bag.”

“See anything you like, Daniel?”

This time the younger man nodded. “They’re a lot of pieces with the sun and sword of Travan, in a really nice style. Well-to-do men and women will want those for their tables. They’d go nice with some of the sacks, and even a couple window pieces.”

The young woman’s eyes lit up, and she nodded, “A discerning eye you have, young man. Would my Lord like a dozen of those for two silver?”

Jacob shook his head. “One and two copper for a dozen of the napkins. But only if I can get another dozen at the price with an Ironwood tree and a broken tower.”

“You’ll beggar me, my Lord! I’ll need a silver and a half for that, but I’ll throw in two of my window-pieces for eight coppers each. And I’ll need a sample to copy while I work.”

“Daniel?” Jacob asked.

The young man shook his head. “Six coppers for those, but use the other pattern you have over there, with the flower. It’ll light up with the sun behind, but it’ll use less thread.”

“For that price, you’d best want half a dozen, my Lord. But if you do, I’ll throw in a sack to carry the lot,” the woman added helpfully.

“Let me know where you got the gold-colored yarn,” Jacob replied, “and you’ve got a deal.”

“Very wise, my Lord. I’ll need two days to sew the pieces you asked.”

“Then I’ll pay half up front for those, as long as you we can pick up what you have on hand now,” the swordsman replied.

“Very good, my Lord, you won’t regret it,” the plump woman replied with a gap-toothed smile.

“Yes. My man has a good eye,” Jacob nodded towards Daniel. “Let’s see how he does with gems. We have four bells, at least, before I want to get back to Laranna’s office.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” Daniel replied, warmed at Jacob’s regard.

Jacob remarked to himself that it was a fine morning, if a little warm. The days were passing quickly until he would have to face Innoken. He had settled into a routine: he would rise, go for a walk, shop with Daniel a bit, join Laranna and her sister for a day of paper-work, then meet them both in the side garden to train. Jaselle had been a pleasure to work with, though Laranna, strangely, had been running hot and cold. Occasionally she would open a bit about matters of history or trade, or the project she claimed would double Northspire’s copper mining efficiency. She was immensely proud of the latter, and it sounded promising. Then he would have dinner, either with Daniel and Athena, or with the Earl and his family.

The evening before, dinner had been with Lord and Lady Northspire, as well as the other two from Ironwood. It had gone well enough, given that Athena still wasn’t really talking to him. Laranna had been a bit withdrawn, but Jacob was willing to make allowances, given how hard she had been working since getting back. The Earl had been a gracious and interested host, listening with pleasure to Jaselle’s exaggerated description of her epic adventures while learning the sword. Jacob had rather enjoyed them himself: the sandy-haired lady was a talented story-teller. Daniel had rounded out the night by trying to strike up conversation with her, complimenting on her quick mind and natural aptitude. The amused blond handled him with aplomb, basking in his praise while countering it with self-deprecating humor and questions about Ironwood. Her parents remained in good cheer: the warmth of family conversation was a welcome change after weeks of waiting anxiously for news of their daughter. Jacob was more than a little envious at their relationship, and did not look forward to leaving.

Unfortunately, staying wasn’t an option, and Jacob’s duties began to weigh on his mind. This morning, he took his walk, as usual. However, instead of meeting Laranna, he accompanied Athena and Daniel to the main courtyard, with arms and armor. If the ladies were going to learn to fight properly, they’d need new tutors once he and Athena were gone, and this was the only place Jacob would be able to find them.

“So, what do you think?” Jacob asked, ambiguously, as he and Daniel neared the large courtyard devoted to drilling.

“About what?” Daniel remarked, amused. “About Laranna: she’s determined and bright. She’s starting slow, but I can’t see her failing at anything she sets her mind to. Jaselle? She got an angel’s figure, but she’s talented, and a sweetheart too: you don’t find women like that. She’s treating swordplay like an exciting new game, and she’s winning. If we weren’t in the back-end of nowhere, she’d be beating men away with a stick. I have to admit, I’d probably be one of them.”

Athena snorted. “You are one of them, Daniel. I’m going to handle Laranna’s lessons alone today. I don’t think she’s doing well with distractions. So, Jacob, you can do - whatever is you’re going to do with Jaselle - later in the day.”

“That’s unfair, Athena,” Jacob answered softly, “and you know it. I’m pretty sure Jaselle has a thing for Morgren in Talyk, anyway. But she is a great girl, and I’m going to see that she and Laranna have a proper teacher when we’re gone. They seem to want it, and it’s the right thing to do. Why are you upset? Even if I survive my encounter with Innoken, I’ll likely never see either of them again. Tell me what I have done wrong, Athena. Tell me anything I should do differently.”

“Maybe spend a little less time with them and more with us? It’s not fair,” Athena grumbled, her aching voice shaking with restrained emotion. “Everything you want, it just comes to you. You’re damn near invincible with a sword, and whatever you say, I’m watching rich and attractive noblewomen fall in love with you in front of my eyes. Even when they know you have no plans to see them again - ever.

You can do damn near anything you want to. You charmed half of Sarronen, and made a heap of cash in Talyk. What’s more, you have friends who would do anything for you. Seriously, everything is on a silver platter for you, but what do you choose? Death. I don’t - I don’t know what you should do. But damn it, why are you so cold about it? Do you want to die?”

Jacob’s eyes bore into hers. “Remember when everyone had left you, and you had no money, no friends, no prospects, and hunted every day for your food? How did you handle that?”

“One step, and then the other. One day, and then the next,” Athena whispered.

Jacob sighed. “That’s what I’m trying to do. Athena, I’ve been completely honest, with everyone, about everything. Laranna and her sister know exactly where I’m at. We’ve had some fun, and soon we’ll all wave goodbye. Then I’ll go off to fight for the future of Ironwood, and that will be that. But I’ve got some things I need to take care of first, and that’s why I’m here today.

Daniel, and Athena too if you’re talking to me, what’s your read on the courtyard? Are they good? Is there anyone you’d trust to teach a woman?”

“You’re an idiot,” Athena mumbled.

“They’re good,” Daniel acknowledged, trying hard to ignore Athena for the moment. “Very good. On the whole, they’re better than Ironwood, and they have the arrogance to go with it. I feel like a complete novice here, and that’s after what Francis taught me. Also, the high level training is formal, but the beginner training is informal, because no boy makes it to adulthood without knowing how to fight. You want someone to teach the girls? A kid could it better than most of them.”

Athena took a deep breath. “Don’t worry about it, Daniel. Your strength is still coming in, and you’re getting better constantly, even if you don’t see it. For the rest, I’d have to agree. I’m better than average here, but just barely. I’ve gotten mixed reactions, but mostly just because I’m a novelty. I doubt I could ask anyone to train Laranna ‘as a favor’. She could pay for a tutor, but I wouldn’t know who to trust. We don’t want to start with that.”

“Fantastic,” Jacob replied sarcastically, shaking his head. “Here’s what we do.”

The courtyard was broad and austere, and full of men from the Northspire military caste. Unlike most nations, Travan set aside money to pay for a standing army. Between that and their propensity for castles, taxes were much higher in Travan than Margon. Church tithes were proportionately smaller to compensate, leaving Travan with more monasteries (that tended to be self-sufficient) and fewer churches.

Travanian military regiments, especially near Clan borders, had a long and prestigious history. For generations, the strongest, the quickest, and the hardiest had been tested and selected from among the population. They trained constantly, and were allowed a path to property and nobility when they captured territory. They were the society’s elite, and were afforded all manner of special privileges. In some provinces, this included leniency regarding relationships, even polygamy. Travan wanted the best warriors in the world, and it wanted a lot of them. This produced problems of its own, including corruption. Those in Travan who didn’t idolize the military often hated it. In response, an exclusive society of Travanian “Knights” had arisen, who adhered to a strict code of honor. Lord Joranthan Northspire was among them.

Northspire was recently “liberated” territory, on the front lines of the competition between the sons of Miraka and the sons of Kharshe. Lord Joranthan and his family were determined that Northspire would follow the path of honor, and peace. His political opponents claimed he was misled. They called his philosophy weak, though they did so quietly. Most of the military men of Northspire loved Joranthan. However, they were also prideful, and even many who respected him considered him too much the idealist. Victory did not always go to the cruel, but it did go to the strong, and the warriors here were the strongest men in Northspire. They viewed the courtyard as their proving ground, where the hopeful could prove themselves worthy, or be humbled. Jacob was counting on that.

“What do you plan to do?” Daniel asked.

“Prove a theory,” Jacob replied.

"Prove what?"

“That there’s always one,” Jacob answered cryptically, then winked. “You'll want to watch this, but don’t interfere.”

Athena shrugged, and Daniel nodded, and then they began to spar together. Athena and Daniel drew eyes among the swordsmen as they crossed blades. Some looked on appreciatively, others dismissively. From the comments, it was clear that most recognized them as guests from Ironwood who had rescued their Lady, and so their presence was tolerated.

However, Jacob drew more than eyes. He drew whispers. He practiced alone, tracing out forms in slow, controlled patterns, facing away from the center of the courtyard. It might have been an innocent act of contemplation. In the eyes of Northspire pride, it seemed an act of contempt.

In minutes, Jacob was approached by a tall, wiry man, with bulging ropes for muscles, and a cocky, dismissive grin. Three others stood behind him, laughing to each other. The tall man’s words were spit out with contempt. “Westerner, are you here to fight with that blade, or just play with it?”

Jacob answered with patient cheer, not altering his motions in the least. “I am working on my forms. Until I find someone my speed to spar with, it’s the best way to practice.”

The cocky man shook his head, a shock of blond hair waving like a flag in the wind. “I had not heard that the men of Ironwood were so stupid, or cowardly. How about you face me for a friendly match? Have a little fun? Or you you can get the hell out of the way of real soldiers. Your choice, my friend.”

Jacob carefully lay his sword down on the cobblestones, beside his shield. “Here’s my idea of fun. If you touch me even once with that sword before you find yourself flat on your back, I’ll give you a silver mark. Otherwise, you and those fine fellows hiding behind you give up a mark of your own.”

The blond soldier spit at his feet. “So it is stupid. You’re on. Well, are you going to pick up that toy of yours?”

“No,” Jacob replied, stretching. “I won’t be needing it. Whenever you’re ready, soldier.”

The cocky solider snarled, swinging with angry precision, right where Jacob wasn’t. His gauntleted forearm caught a rabbit punch, and then Jacob was gone, off to the side. Jacob’s knuckles should have been bloody, but they weren’t. The tall man should have been unaffected, but Jacob’s punch was stronger than a man’s punch should be. The soldier winced, shaking his sword arm briefly to loosen it. Jacob stepped inside the tall man’s guard, wrapping his leg behind the tall fellow’s. He grabbed the soldier’s aching forearm, pulling it forward, and thrust his hips back. The Northspire soldier found himself flying, disoriented, and then he was laying flat on his back.

“I’ll have the silver when you catch your breath,” Jacob noted, and began cleaning his nails with a dagger that no one even saw him draw.

“By all the demons,” the man on the ground wheezed, slowly returning to his feet. “You cheated.”

“And how,” Jacob asked pleasantly, “did I do that? I’ll tell you what: find someone on this field that can defeat me with a sword, and I’ll give you your mark back.”

The man tried. Jacob gave him that. Still, within twenty minutes of lopsided combat, Jacob stood face to face with Joranthan’s master at arms. Northspire’s foremost military position was its marsh, the field commander, and primary strategic and logistical adviser. Second in command was the master-at-arms, but he had a different role. It was his job to train Northspire’s troops in skills and tactics, to drive them to their personal best. And usually, to remind them all that he was better.

This man-at-arms was a tall, muscular man, with chestnut hair and deep brown eyes, strong eyes that had seen much without losing their soul. He spoke with a resonant voice that could carry across fields and battlegrounds, or hold a conversation close among friends. Or enemies. “Greetings, Ironwood. I am Gemmelon, master-at-arms in Northspire. I wish I could say it was a pleasure to meet you under these circumstances. I do suppose there is a point to all this?”

Jacob put forth his hand. “I am pleased to meet you, Gemmelon. I apologize for the display, but it was, unfortunately, necessary. I make as many mistakes as other men, but I never act without purpose. I am looking for someone to train the Lady Laranna, but I have little time to find him. That’s more a test of character than skill, and I have little time to sort out those who pride makes them incapable. You’re the first to pass the test, I think.”

Gemmelon shook his head, and then, after a moment, Jacob’s hand. “What makes you think your arrogance is better than our pride?”

“Its purpose,” Jacob shrugged, “and, of course, I can back it up. But I assure you, I would have chosen a gentler means, if I had the time. Have you come to spar with me?”

“I’m not fast enough to fight you,” Gemmelon replied. “So, let’s play a game. You were right to practice slow, but not to practice alone. Face me, one stroke for one stroke, at the pace you began with today. Let’s take speed out of the equation.”

So they began. Jacob and Gemmelon trained, measuring time by distance, and working to improve their efficiency. As expected, Gammelon was better at this game, but Jacob was no slouch, and learned quickly. They spoke, they swung, they parried, and after a while they laughed as they spoke. By the end of the hour, both men were more dangerous than they were before, and Jacob thought that, just maybe, they were both slightly better men.

Finally, Jacob looked up at the sun and announced that he needed to depart, for Northspire’s daughters would be expecting him. But before he went, he pulled a silver mark out of his pouch and handed it to the burly master-at-arms. “Thank you,” he said. “You owe me nothing, but if you would do me a favor, I would greatly appreciate your help in training Lord Joranthan’s daughters, Laranna and Jaselle, if they’re willing. Laranna recently learned this is a dangerous world, and she doesn’t want to be any more vulnerable than she has to be. I think you’ll find her a determined student. I’m hoping Jaselle can help her.”

“You’re an arrogant bastard, Jacob, but I like you. And I’d hate to be on the other side of any army you helped train. The Earl has let me know earlier this week that you might have difficulties getting home, and to look around for an opportunity for you here, if it proves necessary. Show me you can use a softer touch, and I’ll put in a good word for you. If you’re interested in my Lord’s girls, you’ll probably want that. In the meantime, I will grant you your favor.”

“Thank you,” Jacob said, and held out his hand again. “I will consider your advice. But I hope that by tomorrow, you will see that I have only done what I had to do. Farewell.”

“I’ve had just about enough sitting around for today,” Jaselle opined, stretching her arms lazily, then stood. “I expect Athena will be waiting for us at the garden. “Are you coming?”

Jacob shook his head. “Not today, I think. I got here late, and I’ve got a bit of reading I need to finish. Besides, I think Athena wants you to herself today.”

“Where were you earlier?” Jaselle asked. “I was beginning think you’d given up on us.”

It was Jacob’s turn to stretch. “Not a chance. I was busy procuring you a tutor. I’m afraid I had to ruffle some feathers, but Gemmelon has agreed to train you once Athena and I have left.”

“What did you do?” she asked, eyebrows raised.

Jacob looked off to the side, tapping his foot. “I might have challenged everyone in your father’s army to a duel, and offered a silver mark to anyone who could beat me.”

Jaselle put a hand to her mouth, trying to stifle a laugh. “Did you pay the mark?”

“I did,” Jacob admitted.

“You know, I could have just asked Father,” the sandy blond noted, though her blue eyes sparkled with gratitude and amusement.

“I suppose so,” Jacob admitted. “But I wanted to know I could trust him, or whoever I could find. I figured after what Laranna had been through, if your father knew the right man, he already would have asked.”

“Knucklehead,” Jaselle laughed, then startled him with a quick hug to express her gratitude. “Knock, knock, Laranna. Are you coming?”

“Hmmm…?” Laranna looked up from her papers, blue eyes unfocused, raven hair slightly mussed from running her hands through it as she read. “I have something important to take care of, first. I expect I’ll be along, but but don’t wait up.”

“Fine,” Jaselle replied fondly. “I’ll hold you to that, though. You started this warrior woman thing, and I’m not doing it alone. And you, knucklehead, can I trust you to behave with my sister while I’m gone?”

“As always,” the knucklehead replied.

Jaselle grimaced. “It will have to do. Later, then.”

“Finally,” Laranna said, neatly rolling the text she held in her hands.

“I’m sorry - what?” Jacob responded.

“Jacob, what are you doing here?” Laranna asked, mussed black hair nearly obscuring her usually piercing blue eyes in the candlelight and the echoes of sun from through the shutters.

“I thought I was helping,” Jacob replied, confused.

Laranna continued, voice sharp and deadly serious. “Yes, but why? I enjoy knowing what’s going on in my father’s earldom, and it’s a good idea. It’s maybe a necessity in the chance my mother doesn’t have a son this time, and I can’t find a man I trust my life to. But you hate paperwork, and I’ve heard you talk to Athena. After a week from now, you never expect to see me again, even if you live through facing Innoken. I don’t even know if you even expect to do that.

Athena is angry and jealous, even if she won’t admit it. Jaselle, on the other hand, might well adopt you. She’s always wanted a puppy. Jacob, I’m grateful to you, I really am, but I’ve been left behind by enough men not to look forward to another one. So, I ask again, what are you doing? You must have a plan - you always do. What the hell is it?”

Jacob did not meet her eyes, and his voice became distant. “To live, for a while, before I have to die. Or to escape, for a while, before I have to go back to accepting my father’s terms.

Look, I like you, I like your sister, and I like your parents. So far, I haven’t seen anything in Northspire I don’t like, except maybe too much arrogance in your fighters. I don’t want to go home and never come back. I keep hoping that with everything I’ve done, I can find a way, maybe by putting myself on the Talyk run, to not lose everyone I’ve seen here, not entirely. But I don’t know how.”

Laranna sighed, fire not gone, but merely exhausted for the moment. “Come on, then. There’s something I want to show you, before I head down to the garden.”

The dark-haired woman neatly stacked the papers she had been examining in a drawer, then stood and bound her hair in a tail, and walked to the door. “Follow me.”

She walked down the hall, then towards the back of the keep, where the great round tower rose, the one visible from miles away. She opened the door, and entered, not even glancing back. Great stairs wound through the outside of the tower in a spiral, and Laranna began to climb them. The tower was impressively wide, with rooms inside the spiral, and thin platforms before the narrow window-slits where archers could stand. Much of the rest of the space was used to bolster the stone, and there were trusses everywhere. After, several floors, the platforms became narrower. The inside spiral continued, but to save weight there were only wood-planked floors at decreasing intervals, with pallets of stored materials here and there. Laranna continued upward without stopping.

Finally, after Jacob had lost count of the floors, the great stair gave way to a final room, where a few men with spyglasses perused the road and hills surrounding the keep. Jacob bent over to sit, but Laranna waved to a guard there, and pointed upward. The fellow nodded, and pulled a rope to open a trapdoor to the roof. Laranna thanked him, and climbed up above into the wind.

When Jacob emerged through the trap door, and slowly closed it, he saw Laranna standing against between crenelations in the outer wall of the tower. They were clearly for show, for no arrow from the ground could possibly aspire to make it halfway up the tower, much less to where they were standing. Instead, Laranna stood looking out over the whole earldom, wild winds blowing through her hair, arms resting on the wall that came up only to her breast.

Jacob walked over to stand beside her. There, barely audible against the wind, Laranna spoke, gesturing across the rolling countryside. “This is my life. Within sight of here is everything I have, everyone I love. I don’t think I could ever bear to leave it.”

The slim, dark-haired woman turned toward him, meeting his eyes. “Tell me, do you love her?”

“Who?” Jacob asked.

“The woman you’re going to marry.” Laranna’s eyes were soft, and her hair had escaped its bonds to fly in all directions.

Jacob looked out over the countryside, or tried to. It was dizzying. He was terrified of heights. “I don’t even know her. In months of trying, I’ve been unable to have one genuine conversation with her. No, I can’t possibly love her.”

“Will you tell your father, then, that she’s unfit for you?” Laranna asked.

Jacob hesitated. The vertigo continued to build, but he stared out, down, ignoring it, fighting it. “I don’t know. That might be the honest thing, but like I said, I barely know her. I need more time.”

“And if he tells you to marry her anyway?” Laranna asked, eyes glistening. “Will you do it? Will you marry some other girl he’s picked for you out west?”

“I don’t - “ Jacob started, and then his head swirled, and his knees nearly buckled. For brief moments, the land almost seemed to swirl before his eyes, and he sat himself down on hard wood, unable to stand. He closed his eyes against it. “Sorry, it’s the height. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

When his vision cleared, Laranna’s face hovered above his, sympathy on her face. She was beautiful, her wild raven hair like a cloud above him, eyes liquid. Those eyes neared his own, and must have liked what they saw, for she hesitated there, smiling sadly. That was when he leaned forward to kiss her, gently. She leaned into the kiss, slowly, and let him put his arms around for a long moment. Then she pushed him away, and stood, sighing heavily.

“You will marry her, I think, or someone else your father chooses”, Laranna said. “I don’t understand it, not really, but I do understand duty. I don’t think you ought to do it: I can’t even imagine letting someone - I mean, what is it but rape if you have to marry against your consent?

But I look out at my home and my people, and I can’t think what I wouldn’t do for them. In this, we’re the same. You’ll go back to them, and I won’t see you again.

Jacob, you don’t really want to be friends, and neither do I. Don’t play games with me: I won’t be used or rejected again. And oh God, this time is so much harder. Jacob, please, just go. I need some time, I just - for now, if you care for me, stay away. You were planning to do that soon enough, anyway.”

Laranna stood, and wiped her face with her hands, and with her sleeve. Then she opened the trap door, and climbed the stairs, and was gone. Jacob watched her go, and did not follow. After a while, he stood again by the wall to soak in the road and the hills, the ant-like people below, and the clouds and the sun, fighting the dizziness that churned the cold stone that somehow occupied his chest. What had he been thinking?

Jacob entered the sitting room slowly, closing the door behind him. The first thing he noticed was the scent. It wasn’t rose, but something else. Was it carnations, or some other spring flower? It was outside of Jacob’s expertise, but the smell was sweet, and rich, and welcoming, like the rest of the decor. Like most other rooms he had been in within the keep, it was full of sconces strewn with vines and climbing flowers. There were portraits on actual canvas, of Joranthan and Adelin when they were young, and various other pieces of art painted or embroidered on linen, even a few things woven in Sarronen style. The couch and chairs, like those in Talyk’s keep, were cushioned, but the couch was occupied. Jacob sat in the chair.

“Tea?” the Lady Adelin asked gently, pouring at his nod, and offering him a porcelain cup. Jacob accepted it gratefully.

The Lady, as always, was elegantly dressed. She wore a patterned pale blouse and long green skirt, both taken out to accommodate her pregnancy. She was easily as beautiful as either of her daughters, despite being nearly two decades his senior, but more wise and mature, her eyes more knowing. She still carried some of the radiant glow he remembered from his first meeting with her, whether from her pregnancy or her own natural energy. Her dark hair was raised, with no strand out of place, and her lips carried the welcoming smile of a perfect hostess, but her eyes were clouded with some unreadable thought.

“How are you finding Northspire?” the Countess asked politely.

Jacob smiled, pushing down the melancholy from yesterday’s encounter, the last he had seen of Laranna. “Very well. Everyone has been kind to us, and Northspire itself is a lovely sight. I’ve never been made to feel so much at home, anywhere.”

“You have been a generous guest, I am told. Laranna has been grateful for your help with her paperwork. Gammelon was perturbed to find that none of his men could match you, but mollified when I explained that you owed that to a blessing from Heaven. I believe you wounded his pride yesterday, though he just told me that half the men in the yard now count you as a friend. He was a bit confused by that.”

Jacob’s grin was genuine. “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. Yesterday, I challenged. Today, I taught, and gently. The prideful are very susceptible to flattery by those who defeat them. I’ve watched my brother employ the tactic many times. Laranna and Jaselle will have a better tutelage for it.”

“Very clever, Lord Jacob,” the Lady acknowledged, continuing with her courtesies. “I thank you for your help in this matter. My daughters also speak very highly of your friend, Athena, and their experience learning from her. I think they will continue with this training.

I am also pleased that you found some distraction here from your own troubles. No doubt, your separation from home lies heavily on you.”

“Thank you,” Jacob replied. “I admit, it is difficult, being uncertain of the future.”

“Yes,” the Lady acknowledged. “Though in my life, I have sometimes had dreams of the future, sometimes. If your Brother Francis were here, I would have liked to ask him about the power of dreams. For many years, I thought it must be my imagination, that I knew a woman’s dress before it was made, or a man’s face before I met him. My dreams are often of trivial things, poignant moments in my own life, memories of the future as random as the images you might retain of childhood. Lately they have come more often, and they can be as disturbing as they are comforting.”

“I see,” Jacob replied.

The Countess shook her head lightly. “It is kind of you to say so, but you must be wondering why I’ve called you in.”

Jacob was forced to nod. “I admit my curiosity, my Lady.”

His dark-haired hostess raised a single finger. “Then I will be direct. What are your intentions toward my daughter?”

Jacob sighed. “I can have none. My father has made clear since I was a child that I would not choose my own wife. And Laranna has made it clear that my friendship alone would only be painful for her, since my father would not allow me to return often, if at all.”

Adelin nodded sympathetically, unsurprised. “You have faith, then, that you will defeat Innoken.”

“I do,” Jacob replied. “I must, though I might not survive the experience.”

“Then, reason would tell me, as a mother, to ask you to honor my daughter’s decision. Laranna is very grateful for all you have done, and saddened she cannot better repay you, but we must think to the future. It feels ungrateful, but I must also ask that you guard your interactions with her, and not visit her unchaperoned. I would not see her, or her reputation, hurt. I suppose that must go for Jaselle, for she is fond of you too, if in a different way.”

Jacob bowed his head sadly. “Of course, my Lady. I have no desire to cause pain to your family.”

“Then,” Lady Northspire continued, after taking a deep, shaky breath, “reason has spoken its piece. I only ask one more favor.”

“Name it, my Lady, and it is yours,” Jacob responded nobly.

“Not so fast!” Adelin answered, the sound of her laughter rich and musical, but also sad. “You haven’t even heard my request. What I ask is this: Please, do not give up on Laranna yet. It’s best to leave her alone now; she has been through too much, and her feelings are too raw. However, despite your predictions, I suspect that you will meet again. You are a good man, Jacob. Under better circumstances, you would certainly have my blessing to court her, but this is not the time. As things are, know only that I expect you to do what is right. When the time comes, take care of my daughter. She will need it.”

Jacob cleared his throat, confused. “I will remember your words, and I will try to do what is right.”

His odd hostess smiled sympathetically. “Thank you. That is all I ask. Finally, I have something to give you. In this pouch is a corked vial containing a small portion of Two-Step. Handle it carefully! It breaks down within hours when exposed to air, so the outside of the vial is safe to touch. However, what is inside will be deadly for several weeks or more if the vial is unopened. As you know, the poison can be absorbed through the skin, so do not let it touch you, and do not breathe it in.”

Jacob reached carefully for the small pouch, and placed it within the larger one he wore. “Thank you, my Lady. This pouch may save thousands of lives, including possibly mine.”

The Lady Adelin smiled sadly. “Then good luck, young man, and may the Creator bless you.”

The final dinner with the Earl of Northspire felt awkward to Jacob, despite everyone’s outward friendliness. He desperately wanted to talk to Laranna, to seek some resolution that didn’t hurt so much, to tell her everything would be alright, even if he didn’t believe it. But all she wanted from him was nothing, and so that was all he could give. Thankfully, avoiding him didn’t mean she was avoiding Athena, but Jacob was almost afraid to discover what they were talking to each other about. He would have to ask. Athena might even answer: she was, grudgingly, talking to him again.

Jacob started, for the Earl was talking to him. “So, I hear you have found what you needed,” the Earl was saying. “Do you think it will be enough?”

“I do,” Jacob replied. “There’s enough Two-Step in the vial to coat the tip and edge of my sword, and then some. If Innoken is anything like Brother Francis, it will be an incredible fight, but I only have to hit him once, as long he doesn’t know about the Two-Step. I’m pretty sure I can do that.”

“How are you going to contrive a fight, though?” the Earl asked. “It’s a Summit: the use of weapons there is punishable by death. I would much rather you could walk away from this.”

“Me too,” Jacob admitted. “However, I will do what I must. I will need some help at the Summit, though, because Ironwood isn’t invited to the main council on security arrangements, just the side sessions on tariff and trade. I’ll need a sponsor to gain an audience, and then the audience will have to be ratified. I’m hoping I can count on your sponsorship, and I’ll have Erik ask Count Ervallyn if he will second it. The two have known each other for years, and so I should be able to count on his support if we call in a favor. From there, a formal accusation and a challenge to his God should be able to draw Innoken out. The Sarronens place great emphasis on hospitality and honor: I doubt even Shakath can convince his people to support a God who won’t admit his intent to his hosts when directly challenged.”

“And then?” Lady Adelin asked.

“I’ll ask him to step outside and defend his God’s reputation,” Jacob replied, “People like Halavar are very unhappy about how they’re being used. If I can give them a better option than supporting genocide, I think they’ll take it. I just need to handle Innoken.”

Lord Joranthan smiled, and spread his hands. “You almost make it sound easy, though I find myself apprehensive. You will have my sponsorship. We leave in two days. Will you be ready then?”

Jacob shook his head. “I will depart in the morning. There are some last-minute preparations to make, and I realize now that I may have to talk to Count Ervallyn before the Summit. Also, I need some time to talk to my brother, and review my plans with Brother Francis. I apologize for changing my plans and leaving abruptly, but I only get one chance at this.”

“We’ll miss you,” Jaselle said. “I’m sure Gammelon is very competent, but he’s also very busy, and far too serious. It’s been a pleasure having you and Athena here, and somebody needs to keep Laranna in line. You’re all welcome back, anytime.”

Daniel shot Jaselle a hurt look, which she seemed to miss, while the Lady Adelin smoothly responded. “Indeed, it has been a joy. Thank you for all you’ve done. We wish you well, and you are always welcome to visit.”

Laranna seemed to wince internally to Jacob’s eyes, but her smile was convincing as she spoke. “Yes, thank you all for bringing me safely home, and for all your help. Athena, especially, I owe a debt I can never repay. I’ve spoken to you in private, Athena, but let me say again: you’ll always have a place in Northspire, if you want it. I’ll see you at the Summit.”

Jacob had enjoyed the luxury, over the last week, of having his own room. It was on the second floor of the keep, and had a window facing out over the back of Northspire. From where he stood, he could see the hills give way to the mountains in the North. He hadn’t spent much time here, for he enjoyed the company of others, but right now the quiet suited him. His time in Northspire had been a pleasant respite, excepting Athena’s anger with him, until today.

Now, Laranna wanted him out of her life, and that meant he wasn’t welcome here, whatever anyone else said. It wasn’t until the moment that she said goodbye that Jacob realized how alone he felt, as he walked to his probable death. Athena was right: he was an idiot, one who lied to himself. For he had let himself need Laranna’s companionship, and she was never just a friend to him. That put his whole world into a new light, made him wonder if maybe he had treated Athena, too, unfairly. But if so, what would he change? When had he become so weak? Time was growing short, and Jacob realized he was tired, especially tired of pretending to be sure and strong. The moon-lit hills had no more solace for him, and so he stripped down to his smallclothes, pulled on a night-robe, and sat silently on his bed.

That was when he heard the knocking, lightly, on his door. He gracefully swung to his feet, and plodded over, undoing the latch. As he pulled the heavy wooden door open, he beheld in the dim lamplight a pretty young lady with a determined expression, still in her blue dinner dress.

“Good evening, Jaselle,” Jacob greeted her, trying to cover both surprise and fatigue with courtesy, “May I help you?”

The young lady nodded, hair shimmering and bobbing in the lamplight. “Yes, I need to talk to you before you go. I hadn’t realized it would be so soon. Can I come in?”

Jacob replied, “I don’t think your mother would approve - “

Jaselle rolled her eyes, and breezed in, taking a seat on his bed. “I’m a big girl, and I’m not as fragile or rash as Laranna or my mother believe. Parents never seem to realize it when their children finally grow up. Close the door, please. I don’t want to be overheard.”

Jacob’s jaw dropped, but he complied. With no chair to use, he stood towering over his seated visitor in his night-robe.

“Sit. I have no intention of discussing this with the navel sticking out of your robe”, Jaselle continued impatiently.

Jacob sat beside the young lady on his bed, who faced him solemnly, her legs daintily together on the floor, curled slightly behind her. “Better,” she said. “So, what happened with Laranna today?”

Jacob rubbed his nose uncomfortably. “You know how I’ve always told her that I couldn’t possibly be interested in her, because I was already engaged? She called my bluff, asked me if I really intended to go back to someone I did not love, when I knew there was someone here I could. I didn’t know what to do, so I kissed her. But she knew I was still going to leave, and so she said she never wanted to see me again.”

Jaselle grimaced. “I was afraid it was going to be something like that. And then you talked to my mother? What did she tell you?”

“It was the oddest thing,” Jacob replied. “Has she ever told you she could see the future?”

“Yes,” Jaselle replied, unmoved. “But just her own, or things she would witness personally. When I was thirteen, she described in detail a day where I would fall off my horse and sprain my arm. She described the dress, and my reaction. She didn’t say it was going to be my sixteenth birthday. When the day came, though, I fell and I cried, thinking my arm was broken. She reminded me that it was just a sprain, and would feel much better in a week. I asked her how she could possibly know, and she just smiled. There were a few other cases, but that one sticks with me.”

“I guess,” Jacob said, “after all I’ve seen this spring, I shouldn’t be surprised. Well, your mother said I should honor Laranna’s wishes and stay away from her for now.”

“That’s probably wise,” Jaselle remarked.

“She also said I should be careful with you, and not see you unchaperoned,” Jacob added.

Jaselle stuck out her tongue, and made a gagging motion. “I swear she still thinks I’m five, sometimes. And?”

Jacob couldn’t help but chuckle. It made him feel a little better. “She told me not to give up on Laranna, that she thought I would see her again sometime in the future. She said to look after her. I’m not sure if she meant more than that. She seemed disturbed, but not with me. It didn’t make sense.”

“It’s hard to say,” Jaselle replied, “She has been odd lately. I had put it down to Laranna’s absence, but now I think it’s something to do with her pregnancy. She knows something she’s not sharing.”

“So,” Jacob asked, putting his hand to his forehead, “Is that what you wanted to talk about?”

“Partially,” Jaselle said. “I have to admit, I’m glad to know we’ll see you again, or at least that she will. I assume they’re the same. Not least because it means you’ll survive Innoken. But I suppose you knew that, right?”

Jacob shook his head. “Not really. It might just mean I run into her at the Summit. Also, she asked me to look after her, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be alive. Some of the most active people I’ve met recently are dead.”

Jaselle sighed. “Maybe. By the way, I asked Gammelon who finally beat you. Do you know what he said?”

“That he did,” Jacob guessed, “but not with with the sword?”

“No, he said no one did. He said he had no clue until today how thoroughly you had won, on and off the field. The worst part, he said, was he that can’t even be angry about it, because everyone is better off, including him. He said to convey his apologies. It sounds like you’re a dangerous man, knucklehead.”

“And yet, you’re still calling me names,” Jacob said, though he found himself chuckling again.

Jaselle rolled he eyes fondly, and answered, “Because you found it amusing, and because, in some ways, it’s true. You messed up with my sister, and people got hurt. I know you meant well, and it’s not all your fault, but it’s still painful for her, and for me. I forgive you, but it’s true.”

Jacob looked the wise young woman in the eyes, and then bowed his head briefly. “I’m truly sorry. I never meant her any harm. If I could fix it, I would.”

“Then there’s something else you need to hear,” Jaselle said. She sidled towards him, and placed her hand on his broad back, and began to gently rub it, soothingly. “All will be well. You will be alright, and she will too. Really.”

She pulled his head onto her shoulder, and for a few moments she held him and ruffled his hair. Finally, he pulled away, and smiled at her with sad eyes. “Thank you. I had no idea how much I needed that.”

“Good?” she asked him.

“Good,” he replied, voice steady.

“Then I‘d best get going,” Jaselle said, standing. “Laranna’s going to need a little more support than that.”

“Tell her I’m sorry,” Jacob said. “And if there’s ever anything I can do for you, let me know.”

Jaselle smiled sadly. “Thank you, and I will, but don’t make any promises you can’t keep. See you around, knucklehead.”

She kissed him lightly on the cheek, and slipped out the door.

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