By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

To Catch a Thief

Even before the sun rose above the horizon, Brother Francis stood by the town keep, and soaked in the energy of the morning. He was used to rising with the light, and the cool spring air was exhilarating. Diffuse clouds rendered the sky more gray than blue, but hopefully the breeze would take the clouds with them. The monk was used to the rain, but it would be poor for the pursuit. The chase would begin soon: in the distance, Jacob led two horses around the corner, towards where he stood. He hadn’t expected the young man quite yet. It must have been exhausting to prepare an entire expedition so late the night before. Oh, to be young again! The monk took a breath of the brisk morning air, and leaned back against his walking staff, waiting.

Jacob entered the town square leading two mares. The second was loaded down with three large bags, and clearly wondered what she had done to deserve the burden. The young merchant saw Brother Francis with his back towards the keep wall, leaning calmly against his staff, and smiling serenely in some kind of peaceful communion with the universe. With reddened eyes, an aching head he’d had no chance to earn, Anna’s words still ringing in his ears, and a long ride ahead of him, Jacob was not particularly inclined to contemplate bloody Creation.

Anna had been less than pleased that her fiance was about to run off for a month. She accepted, reluctantly, that it was for the good of the town. What she couldn’t fathom was his inviting along a close female friend for the trip. Worse, that “friend” was far from proper around young men! Anna had not heard Athena’s actions were as loose as her words, but in her mind, when you smelled smoke, there was always fire. The tramp had no business traveling with her fiance.

Anna had not been pacified when Jacob explained he would not be spending time with Athena alone, or when he earnestly claimed that she never made advances towards him. He had sworn up and down that nothing improper was between he and Athena, that nothing would be, and that he would miss Anna and return to her as soon as possible. In the end, his bride-to-be had looked into his eyes, and decided she would have to be content with that. After muttering something cryptic and feminine, she had pushed him out the door.

It had been late when Jacob had finally joined Ceann in the stables, and the older man left shortly after. Jacob, instead, spent most of the night in his own preparations, and gathering trade samples that Ceann had felt were a waste of time on a manhunt. With only a few hours left before dawn, Jacob had discovered that, however exhausted he felt, his mind refused to rest. Rather, he rose and paced until the sky began to lighten, then headed to the stable to prepare the horses. It was only now that his mind decided it was ready for sleep. It would be a long day until he got the chance.

As Jacob reluctantly approached, Francis greeted him in his melodious, head-splitting voice, “Good morning!”

“Morning,” Jacob answered tersely. “Pardon me if I find it less than good, for I seem to have found a headache. Right now, I would give anything to discover who misplaced it, so I could give it back to them, with interest.”

Francis winced in sympathy, and then nodded soberly. “That is very good of you,” he spoke more softly. “Few people have such generosity, this early in the morning. Hopefully you will be rid of it soon.

I am pleased you accepted my help; I was surprised to find you receptive, when I didn’t even bring a horse. Yet, this is something I feel I have to do. Thank you for giving me the chance.”

Jacob sighed, and massaged his temple with one hand, careful to keep a grip on his reins with the other. “I have a hunch that we’ll be glad we have you with us. You would know better than I, but I’ve heard Holy Men are well received among the clans. We don’t all need to be swordsmen on this mission, and I rather doubt you’re going to faint on the road. Besides, offending a monk needlessly is foolish. We can’t exactly stop you from following us, if you’re determined, but I would rather do this properly. We’ll grab a horse for you on the way out, unless you’d prefer to walk. You do know how to take care of horses?”

Francis smiled mysteriously. “I have had the opportunity, yes. Thank you again, for your generosity. So, what is your plan?”

“I’m sure Ceann would have something to say about that, but I don’t have much beyond the obvious. My father did have a bit more news later last night. Our thieves apparently stationed horses outside the town wall. Right after stealing the shield, they must have bolted for the wall and scaled it. They had noseburn on hand, so there’s no point in bringing dogs. We’re going to head to where they scaled the wall, and start tracking, find out where that leads us. I expect that will be eastward, but we’ll see.” Jacob shrugged. “We’ll have to trust in Athena and Daniel from there.”

Francis frowned. “That is poor news. The murderers were well prepared for men acting alone: noseburn is tricky to prepare. If a clan’s leadership is behind the theft, things could be worse than I initially feared. The Kharshe are a superstitious folk. Tell me, what does the shield of St. Thomas represent?”

Jacob answered evenly, “The protection of Ironwood.”

Francis nodded. “Yes, specifically against the barbarians that filled the region after the Fall of Miraka. Could some leader among the clans be hoping for similar protection? Or to relieve you of it? Neither possibility is comforting, but the latter may be worse. How good are your relationships with your neighbors?”

“The ones nearby? Good enough. Travel fifty miles or so, and it gets harder to tell, though they’re friendly enough on the surface. Still, antagonizing Margon as a whole would be a bold step for any clan, and they have their own concerns. The eastern clans are occupied with Travan’s expansion, and the southern ones with richer targets. I can’t see a way for the Clans to gain directly from this without more collaboration than has been seen among them in centuries. It doesn’t make sense.”

The monk inclined his head in acknowledgment, but his eyes were knowing. “You do not see the Shield of St. Thomas as a relic of God, something with real power in this world, do you? Many of the sons of Kharshe do, and I have seen enough to agree. The Shield is a conduit to Heaven. That’s as much a part of church history as the Demons who caused the Fall of Miraka. For the past two centuries, Ironwood has led a charmed existence in a dangerous world. Why do you think that is? What happened yesterday changes much, and not by accident. I want to know much more of what and why.”

Jacob had been raised to respect the church, but his father also said that what many took for faith was simple superstition, a weakness common to the lower classes. The main value of the church, he said, was in social stability. Jacob’s thoughts took more after his mother’s: who didn’t want to believe in some sort of life after death? He never felt the prescriptions of the Lazerrian religion to be too burdensome, if you were a decent fellow. Believing in miracles, on the other hand, was something he could as easily leave as take. More easily. Being confronted on the issue was - odd. “You speak with confidence. What miracle have have you seen?”

Francis waved the question away gently. “Nothing to concern you, but it’s a big world. No one should be in my vocation without an appreciation for the mysteries of life, and so I kept an eye and an ear open. I have no proof to convince you, but if you look for evidence of the divine long enough, you will find it.”

Jacob let out a low chuckle, placing his hand on the other’s shoulder. “In honesty, I am a bit skeptical. I would like to continue this discussion, but by a campfire with plenty of ale. For now, we need to get the Shield back. If we are going to leave on time, we had best get you an animal soon. The stable boys should be up by now, so tell them I sent you.” He tossed a ring at Francis, who caught it deftly. “Show them this if they give you any problems. I’ll want that back, of course.”

The monk’s eyes traveled to the glimmer in his hand: a signet ring. What an incredible show of trust for a man he had just met! “Thank you: I will be as quick as possible.”

Ceann stuffed the last of his good clothes in the saddlebag, and slung it over his shoulder. Last night, he’d packed and left another bag in the stables, where he was headed now. He and Jacob had prepared most of the general supplies for the party then, including cooking gear and tents: all that was left was to load the pack horses. Conversation the evening before had been brief, though not unfriendly. Aside from his dubious idea of burdening down a manhunt with trading supplies, Jacob had set about planning and packing almost as if he knew what he was doing - once he bothered to show up. By then, Ceann had done most of the preparations, but he still welcomed the help. To give him his due, Jacob had continued after all the necessities were finished, in the hope that an extra bag of knick-knacks would open a few more doors. In Ceann’s experience, that was an unlikely hope. He didn’t want to complicate the mission: better to travel light and fast. Still, he doubted Jacob would pack too heavily, and so it didn’t hurt to make the boy feel comfortable, as long it didn’t cost him anything. If he was going salvage something out of this mess, that might be important.

Jacob wasn’t a bad kid, or wouldn’t be once he learned a little discipline and humility. He just had no business leading this expedition. If he wasn’t Lord Ironwood’s son, he certainly wouldn’t be. The Baron himself recognized that; he clearly intended for Ceann to run the operation while Jacob picked up some valuable experience. But Jacob hadn’t gotten the message. He didn’t realize he was unqualified, that Lord Ironwood had sent Ceann to keep his spoiled son in line. Well, spoiled might be pushing it, but he was no Erik, and that made Ceann’s job much more difficult. It took more than just hard work to rise above where you were born: you had to had to have talent, you had to know how to read people, you needed the discipline to speak carefully, and you needed at least a little luck. Ceann had all of those things, except the luck. But retrieving the Shield of St. Thomas would make him part of the town’s legend. There was no way he would let this opportunity pass him by.

Ceann’s thoughts were interrupted by a rich feminine voice. “Out a little late, were you? Crawling home at the dawn?”

Ceann’s face split, unwitting, into a broad grin at the woman walking his way. “If I had found you earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have to be, my dear.”

Athena chuckled. “Spend a little more time in town, instead of out driving a wagon, and you might get the chance.”

The broad man spread his hands to either side, palms gesturing inward in an invitation to talk, his smile unwavering. “I’m here now.”

The huntress scoffed mockingly. “And just leaving again! Really, a girl needs just a little reliability.”

Ceann failed to look wounded by the dismissal. “Oh? I had thought you preferred variety. Why not come with me and prove me wrong?”

Athena cocked her head to the side and put her finger to her cheek, considering. Then, blue eyes on his, she flashed her teeth in a dazzling smile. “Don’t mind if I do.”

Jacob scowled at the rising sun as Ceann and Athena walked their mounts into the square. On another morning, he might have stopped to admire the red-golden glow piercing the clouds. Today, his father’s warnings echoed in his ears, and he felt too much the press of time. He knew he had been handed a difficult task. He just hadn’t expected that leaving by first light would prove a challenge in itself. But there was nothing he could do about it now, and so Jacob forced his jaw to unclench. This was not the time to have his irritation show. It was likely to be a long journey, and he wanted the best possible start. This was his first real chance to lead, and he knew the importance of first impressions.

As the pair approached, Jacob nodded a greeting. “Good morning! I’m sure you’re as anxious as I am to get going. But first, I thought I should make a few introductions. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to properly meet Brother Francis. He’s a monk from Travan, on a pilgrimage to see the Shield of St. Thomas. Unfortunately, given what happened, he’s going to have spend a bit longer looking. He’s graciously offered to help us do exactly that.”

Jacob turned and gestured to the pair, “Brother, the red haired fellow before you is Ceann. He’s one of the better blades in Ironwood, and has spent the past few years running wagons out to small towns that don’t rate full caravans. He has years of experience leading small parties out among the Clansmen, and he’ll be the senior adviser for our manhunt. He’s a good man, and his experience will be invaluable.”

Ceann acknowledged the words with a smile, and gave the monk’s hand a hearty shake. Jacob nodded, and turned towards Daniel, but the monk stood stiff, examining the tall, solidly built woman standing before him. Her tightly woven braid and chain shirt failed to disguise her femininity in the slightest. Despite her height and the bulk of her armor, she was a pretty woman. And that was more than strange: for a woman to travel among five men under these conditions was nothing short of scandalous. Yet none of the others had batted an eye, including Lord Ironwood himself! He had known she was coming, but seeing her here: armed, armored, and packed for camping, was something else. For some reason the sheer awkwardness of it all chose now to freeze the monk in his tracks.

Jacob continued briskly, “The young man at your side is Daniel. He’s -”. He stopped and shook his head. “I’m sorry, it appears I’ve skipped ahead. Yes, we do have one of the fairer sex among us, the widow Arianna Black. That’s probably the last time you’ll hear the name, though. We all call her Athena. Like Daniel, she’s a skilled tracker, and she’s here in that capacity. But she can more than hold her own with bow or blade.”

Athena put forth her hand; her curtsy might have been elegant, if she had not been wearing thick leather breaches. “Charmed, I’m sure,” she added sardonically.

Brother Francis took the hand gingerly, “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, lady. Forgive my rudeness; I am only surprised to find someone of your sex willing to partake in this journey.”

Athena grinned wickedly and laughed, “Oh, I am nearly always willing. I do love to see new things.”

The monk raised his eyebrows; he was told those of Margon were more formal in gender relations than in Travan, not less. Her behavior wasn’t completely unknown: just in polite company. Her rangy friend Thaddeus wore a wry grin, as if glad none of this was his responsibility, while Daniel carefully studied his shoes. Ceann looked to Jacob expectantly.

Yet it was Thaddeus who spoke first. “Don’t mind Athena. Her manners are rough, but she is a good sort. Being a woman in a man’s profession has taught her a rather unusual form of self-defense.”

Francis, still trying to recover, responded carefully, “Good mistress, even if your Lord and comrades had not vouched for you, it would not be my place to judge your fitness. I only reserved some concern for your reputation.”

Athena laughed mockingly, “Oh Jacob, the poor man is worried about my reputation. That ship has sailed, I am afraid. But Thaddeus is right, of course. My words follow the manner of a poor wayward woman, but don’t mistake me. My honor is as true as as a priest’s compassion: perhaps even a little better used. And what of you, good monk? I hope your honor is a similar credit to the church’s reputation?”

After years of seeing Athena in her element, Jacob had almost forgotten how much Athena resented churchmen, how she blamed them for supporting her elopement, then casually abandoning her to their consequences. Unfortunately, he could not let her vent now, not if it threatened the effectiveness of the team. It was not his practice to raise his voice, but his words were ice. “Athena, honor does not answer hospitality with mockery, and neither will you. You have the freedom of your unique circumstances. Do not use it to shame us.”

Athena suddenly turned a ghostly white. “I beg your pardon, my lord. Brother, I am used to being mocked for the path God has put my feet on, and I fear you found my pain. I have no husband but my sword, no solace but my humor. They and I are at your service.”

The tension of the moment having faded into mere awkwardness, Brother Francis shook his head sadly, “At ease, young lady. I am not here to trouble you.”

Ceann glanced towards Jacob. “It is no trouble; Athena is here by a strange road. Perhaps some time by the fire, she’ll tell you about it. As Thaddeus has said, she is known for her rough sense of humor. But her ability to thrive working among working men qualifies her to be here. Among the barbarians, that won’t be so remarkable. For now, we need to get moving. We’ll head out the East Gate and circle north to where the attackers crossed the wall. Let’s go.”

Men, women, and horses stepped into motion, and the manhunt began. Jacob grimacing, following. So much for first impressions: he hadn’t even made it through introductions properly before Ceann led them from the square. The only sounds in the street were the clopping of the shod horses on the stone walkway, and the light breeze in the ears of the travelers. Then it began to rain.

At the northern wall, Jacob grimaced to himself. He was still mulling over the inauspicious start, when he caught an acrid whiff of something he had encountered only once before. He spared a glance for Daniel, who nodded in acknowledgment. “Noseburn,” the young man said. “We’re there. Or here, rather.”

There were a number of tinctures designed to assault the nostrils, and to cover up all other scents. One of the nastiest went by the name of Noseburn. Noseburn had a powerful odor, one as uncomfortable as the name suggested. Happily, after a few minutes in its presence, the sensation began to fade. Unhappily, it took all sense of smell with it, often permanently. The sensitive noses of good hounds were even more vulnerable to its effects, which made noseburn very useful for an assassin hoping for a clean getaway. As a bonus, it was also corrosive and moderately poisonous. It was a dangerous substance, both to make and to use, and not employed lightly. These were no ordinary thieves that the Ironwood party chased.

In this case, the smell was not overwhelming. It was enough to deter being tracked by dogs, but not enough to leave Jacob or the barbarians eating tasteless food for the rest of their lives. Probably.

Daniel grunted in frustration as he searched the ground. “Jacob, our guards didn’t chase the bastards past the wall, right?”

Jacob shook his head. “No. Father said they didn’t want to confuse the tracks.”

“Looks like the barbs have done the job for us, then. There are more than twenty tracks here. They’re running off in groups of three, starting here. There’s at least seven different trails to follow, all in different directions. The must have been laying these for hours before they attacked.”

Ceann sighed. “Well, there’s nothing for it. Athena, you pick your favorite trail and see where it leads. Daniel, you head down another and let us know how it goes. The rest of us will step a little ways down the wall, and get out of this stench.”

Jacob rubbed his chin. “Hmmm, no. No, I don’t think so. Daniel, Athena, you should be able to tell if these tracks cross, right?”

Athena nodded brusquely. “Yeah, sure.”

“Well, we’ve got mountains to the west and the pass to Pearl Bay in the northwest. And there’s not many villages to the north before you hit ocean. So there are only two directions our enemies can really go: south or east. Or somewhere in between. If it’s south, the barbs will not only have to walk all the way around Ironwood, but keep out of sight of the walls as they do. So it’s a better than even chance they’ll head North away from the walls, then east and maybe south after. I suggest we just follow the eastern set of tracks and watch for anything crossing them. Any objections?”

Ceann snorted, “They could still double back on those and go around them from one of the center trails.”

Jacob nodded. “They could. If they do, those tracks will have to go further out of the way, so we’re guaranteed at least eliminate the shorter tracks first. But if we wait for both trackers, how long do they follow a trail before deciding if it’s the right one? That could take a long time. In the worst case, splitting up the trackers and waiting turns out better, but there’s no upside to doing it that way. We’ve got to catch the right trail before it gets cold, especially with this rain. I say we take the chance.”

At Ceann’s grudging nod, Jacob motioned to Daniel and Athena. “Lead the way.”

Both trackers bent over the well-trampled grass, and thus began the tense and interminable period of determining whether Jacob’s gamble would pay off. The woodcraft of the assassins was excellent, and Athena or Daniel would periodically break into swearing as the signs they followed disappeared temporarily over rock or through a shallow stream. Still, the passing of three horses and riders was difficult to erase. Slowly, a grim smile began to edge its way on to Daniel’s wet and bedraggled face, replacing the pure anxiety. The trail hadn’t doubled back. The gamble was beginning to look promising.

Then they encountered the creek. It was only a small tributary of what would eventually become the Kattan river much farther south. This stretch of water probably hadn’t even made its way into a map. Still, it was a dozen paces wide, flowing to the southeast fast enough to cover hoofmarks comfortably. The two trackers met each other’s eyes, and then Daniel followed the water to the northwest, while Athena headed southeast. Not two hundred yards northwest, Daniel found what he had been praying he would avoid, tracks doubling back, heading south from the water. After walking east for hundreds of yards, Athena turned back towards the group, shaking her head.

Ceann gave Jacob a sour look. “Next trail,” he said.

Though he knew this might happen, Jacob was crestfallen. His quarry had an entire night’s head start. Add hours to that lead spent walking in circles on a rainy day, and Jacob would be lucky to track them down at all. “That’s strange,” was all he could say. If it had made any sense, he would have sworn Ceann was holding back a smirk.

Athena frowned. “Let me check again, I want to go a bit farther downstream.”

“I’ll follow on the far side of the stream,” Daniel offered.

The four men waited quietly, squinting through dripping hoods as Daniel and Athena peered through grass, mud, and water. Both slowly passed out of sight through the surrounding trees. Ceann sighed impatiently, and soon fell to tapping his foot. Thaddeus caught Jacob’s eyes and shrugged. The longer the trackers delayed, the less likely this was the trail they sought, and they had been gone far too long. Suddenly, Athena rounded a tree in the distance, on the edge of the water, waving excitedly.

Jacob and Thaddeus shared a grin, then stepped forward to follow. Even Ceann looked relieved, though the monk remained calmly impassive. When the group caught up, Athena gestured into the water, “We found hoofmarks in the moss on two of the stones in the river. That’s at least half a league down. This has to be the right trail.”

“Nicely found, Athena,” Daniel added. “The barbs are handling their horses carefully. There’s not much to see.” She gave him a quick squeeze on the shoulder and returned to examining the mud, one hand leading her horse behind.

The guardsmen followed the water for nearly an hour before Daniel led them to the other side. They had barely been outside town for half the day, yet the two trackers already looked exhausted. Jacob could only imagine how difficult it was to stare intently at the ground for hours in the desperate hope of finding that one scuff mark, indent in the soil, or crushed leaf that would send them in a new direction — if it wasn’t the stray mark of a passing deer. On the other hand, hiding their tracks slowed their quarry, as well. It was a few hours past past the river when Daniel pulled Jacob aside. “They must have picked up speed here. The trail is getting a lot easier to follow. I think they were betting on either losing us by now, or having us fall days behind searching for false trails. They’re making a beeline southeast, heading for the Great Road. We should pick up our pace. I don’t think we’ll lose them before then.”

Jacob smiled broadly, despite the headache. “That’s the first good news I’ve had all day.”

The grin on the hunter’s wet and dirty face matched his own. “Thought you might appreciate it. Now, if only it would stop raining.”

Despite short lulls, it was hours before the clouds finally broke, and the rain stopped for good. As Daniel had predicted, the tracks had led to the Great Road east to Travan.

Once, the High Road of Kyr had been a vital artery in the greatest empire in history. With the fall of Miraka, the great highway fell into disuse and was overrun by vegetation. Then, after the founding of Ironwood, its denizens had explored eastward, extending relations with the surrounding Clans. It was Jacob’s grandfather who finally re-established contact between Margon and the Travanian Empire. The Empire was, like Margon, a descendant of splintered Miraka. However, while Margon had been beset by the Kharshe Horde, Travan had been engulfed by it. At its low point, it included only a few surviving cities, islands in an implacable drowning sea. Yet, improbably, the Empire had survived, and its unmatched soldiers had over the ages retaken most of its original territory. Its economy had not yet returned to its former glory, but through Ironwood, a trickle of trade with the West had begun.

Since that first contact, Great Road to Travan had been recovered, the vegetation covering it periodically cut, burned away, or salted by the caravans that now traveled it. This far west, the road was in good repair. Unfortunately, its stone and gravel construction was excellent for carts, but terrible for tracking. It was nearly impossible to determine the age or source of the marks on its surface. Athena and Daniel had taken up opposite sides of the road, making sure the men they followed did not leave it unnoticed.

Jacob rode up behind Athena to offer her his congratulations at finding the trail, but a grunt was all he got in return. She rebuffed all his attempts at conversation, though she didn’t seem to mind Ceann’s company. Meanwhile Daniel, who had a rather pleasant voice, had joined Brother Francis in singing hymns to pass the time. Jacob’s singing voice could drop birds out of the trees, while Thaddeus’s taste in music ran in another direction, so the two fell back into the center of the highway.

“What do you think, Thaddeus? Will we catch them on the road?”

The rangy guardsman shrugged. “I wish I could say. They’re some scary bastards, but they didn’t expect us to figure out their little tricks, either. Athena and the boy are good, but I have to admit we’ve been lucky so far.”

Jacob patted the side of his mount’s damp mane. “It wasn’t all luck, my friend. They underestimated us.”

Thaddeus snorted. “You and Athena were clever, I’ll admit, but the old Ironwood luck has been out in force.”

The chestnut-haired youth raised an eyebrow. “What, feeling jealous? It’s hard to blame you. After all, consider my effect on the ladies. When I left, Anna was dying to give me a great big hug around the neck. With her hands.”

“I won’t admit to jealousy, but you’ve been given more than you deserve, and you still find a way to mope about it,” the older man replied. “Even with Anna you’ve been lucky. She’s young, rich, and pretty, and she just fell into your lap. What’s more, she seems genuinely interested in you. Otherwise, why be angry that you’re leaving her alone? She just needs some proper attention. I’d offer to help you out, but I’m sort of taken. Otherwise, you know, anything for a friend. After all, I actually like you, most of the time.”

Jacob chuckled despite himself. “I can tell.”

“I didn’t say I was mushy-hearted. What kind of example would that be? But you’re welcome.”

“Fine, no more self-pity. As long as you’re dishing out the advice, oh wise mentor, I seem to be having some dissension in the ranks. Care to tell me how I could get on Ceann’s good side?”

Thaddeus cocked his head. “I think I’d be more worried about Athena at the moment. You came down rather hard on her.”

Jacob plucked a pebble from his shoe, tossing it backward. “I didn’t want to. I had to, Demons damn it! I can’t have members of the team openly disrespectful to each other, not if I want to have a team. This, what we’re doing is, is too important to risk. She was wrong, and I had to call her out on it. Anyway, I’ll make it up to her.”

“If you survive the night, I’m sure you’re clear. But alright, we’ll talk about Ceann. Unlike myself, he probably is jealous. He works his tail off, and he’s ambitious, but he’s not in the right family. He wants to be Master-At-Arms or Caravan Master, though I don’t quite see it. So far, he’s done well, but that’s a pretty big rise. He knows he can’t blame Lord Ironwood for not noticing him; the Baron’s given him quite a bit of opportunity already, relatively speaking. He can take it out on you, though. You’re already his boss, and you can barely tolerate the jobs Ceann’s probably been waiting years for.”

“Right,” Jacob sighed. “Definitely need to rein in the self-pity, then. At least I have you to cheer me up. Any suggestions?”

“Well, you know, if you show him you’re competent and didn’t just get picked ’cuz of your Daddy, he’ll probably let up. It might be a hard sell, though. Competence is hard to fake.”

Jacob laughed. “It can’t be harder than convincing my father the same thing. Alright, Thaddeus, thanks for giving it to me straight, as usual. Time to go save an artifact.” He grinned. “I can handle this.”

“We’ll help, you spoiled whelp. Like I said, I kind of like you. And even if I didn’t, there’s no way I’m letting Timothy’s murderer get away with this.”

“No,” Jacob returned somberly. He stared into the distance, past the damp flagstones of the ancient road, where the wind chased those they pursued. He prayed that God would make him the instrument of His justice.

The sky had begun to fill with the colors of sunset when Daniel fell back to the center of the road. “What troubles you?” Jacob asked absently, tearing his eyes away from where the molten red and gold flowed from the mass of clouds.

“The shadows are starting to get long. We can still see well enough, but we’ll be passing into the woods soon, mi’lord, and the sun will be behind the trees. We’ll be less likely to miss something if we stop and make camp at their edge. It’s also drier out here. It’ll have fewer bugs, even with the recent rain.”

“How fresh are your tracks now, Daniel?”

“Still several hours old, although we’re gaining. Maybe because our horses are fresher, or maybe they are confident we can’t catch them.”

Jacob frowned. “I’d like to gain as much ground as we can, before they reach somewhere they might be harder to track.”

The Baron’s son called out to the side of the road, “Ceann! Athena! Daniel is suggesting we camp before we hit the woods ahead. He doesn’t want to risk losing any tracks to the shadows. I’m minded to push on a bit, since we’re still several hours behind and these bastards seem confident we can’t follow them. If they’re no longer playing tricks, this is the time to gamble. We’re still pretty close to Ironwood; the further we go, the closer we get to anything they might leave the main road for.”

Athena pursed her lips thoughtfully a moment, but Ceann shook his head. “I know how attractive it is to outsmart your opposition, and you’ve had a clever idea or two today. But once you’ve done a bit of tracking, you realize how much can go wrong when you take chances. We’re gaining, and we should catch up in two or three days. Riding for an extra hour or even two doesn’t change that much, unless we miss something in the dark. Then we lose everything. I’m not going home empty-handed because you got itchy.”

“I - alright,” Jacob grinned sheepishly.

The red-head raised his voice to carry, “Looks like we’re here for the night, folks. Wind it up just beyond the hill and rub down the horses: we want them in good shape tomorrow. Daniel, pull ahead and find a good spot near the trees for a fire, and I’ll find a flat area for the tents. Let’s go.”

The two tents, little more than cloths pitched over boughs, were up quickly, and the horses hitched and seen to. Everyone in the party had done their share of camping, and little direction was needed. In fact, there were quickly more people preparing than preparations to perform. Taking advantage of the situation, Jacob grabbed a practice sword and called out, “Athena! Care to try your hand at cracking my head open?”

The tall woman bent over her saddlebags, fished out a practice sword of her own, and took up her shield. She bared her teeth in what charitably could be called a smile and returned, “How could I refuse an offer like that? On guard!”

Jacob’s legs protested. It had been a long time since he spent most of the day in the saddle. Still, despite the fatigue and the weight of the chain shirt he wore, it felt remarkably good to move. He spared a moment for some warm-up footwork before grabbing his shield. The young nobleman tended to favor a slightly lighter blade, preferring finesse over power, and he needed to loosen up fast, if we was going to let an angry woman swing a sword at him.

Athena approached carefully, angling her wrist back and forth in a deceptively controlled maneuver that disguised her intentions. She preferred a slightly heavier sword than Jacob, a wicked one-hander favored by many of the sword-and-shield fighters of Ironwood. She was strong enough to make both her sword and shield dangerous weapons. She wasn’t large enough to batter through a ready opponent’s guard directly. However, she did have the power to force her opponent to respect the threat, or be forced off balance, making her ambiguous use of the sword far more dangerous. Fortunately, Jacob had been learning her tricks for years, though the experience cut both ways.

Jacob started with a quick strike to force Athena to use her shield defensively, then side-stepped and sent a back-swing at her arm as she attempted a counterstrike. She accelerated her swing to avoid being disarmed, but this turned her shield away from her opponent. Jacob’s weight was too far back to strike, but his quick double-step forward around her sword arm put her in a fencer’s stance as she compensated. She couldn’t quite bring her shield forward against his next blow, so she batted his sword back instead, then took a short lunge to attack his guard. Jacob, however, swung his own shield down and forward in a block that threw her arm wide, using his slightly longer reach to gain a solid hit against her forearm. He leaned back just in time to avoid a shield bashing to his face. Her sword arm was disabled; he had taken the round.

Athena yelled out fiercely, “Ach! Again, you son of a poxy succubus!”

By the newly started campfire, Brother Francis winced visibly at the remark, but Jacob saluted and came in for another round. Typical combat of the era involved heavy iron blades that were as likely to break bones and batter armor as cut muscles. That was because Ironwood’s professional guards, like most modern Margon forces, wore heavy chain hauberks. They were taught to get past the opponent’s shield and strike hard enough to bludgeon through chain, or pierce it with a solid thrust. Parries against such heavy swings were considered generally inferior to the proper use of shield blocking.

Jacob, however, felt that the superior control offered by lighter weapons was underrated, at least in skilled hands. His technique incorporated his own experiments as well as styles from distant kingdoms. After years of trial and error, the process had finally started to bear fruit in a dueling style that was all his own. He preferred forcing his opponents into fencing blade-to-blade while inflicting flurries of successively more disabling strikes on his enemies - until they left an opening for the kill. Some of the older fighters claimed his style would quickly get him killed in a field battle, but Jacob swore by it as a single combat technique: one he was still improving. Athena was starting to adapt, and could be counted on to take at least one match in any given sparring session, but she grudgingly admitted he was the more dangerous swordsman. Instead, she made sure to sneer at him over his poor archery and utter lack of tracking expertise. Still, if he was better with a sword, she was usually able to keep him honest, as she was attempting very hard to prove right now. Unfortunately for her -

“Damn your sickly yellow hide!” Athena roared as Jacob danced around her attempt at a killing swing, and disarmed her once more. “Again!”

The next set of blows, feints, and counter-blows came fast and furious. Brother Francis, despite his discomfort at her unladylike language, watched the swords fly with rapt attention. Jacob adopted a defensive posture, and was attempting to dance around Athena, feinting everywhere but attacking nowhere. He continued for a few moments, then a few more, infuriating his prey as she sped her attacks in the hopes of breaking through his defenses. Jacob ignored the first opening she gave him, then another. Just a little bit longer, and - crack - Jacob took the flat of Athena’s wooden sparring sword in the the leg.

Athena laughed wickedly at his wince. “Serves you right, you smug, infuriating boil-covered bastard!”

Jacob grinned in return despite his smarting thigh. “Oh? Care to dance again?”

The broad-shouldered blond shook her head sadly. “Can’t let the other boys get too jealous. Maybe you can convince Ceann to give it a go; I haven’t seen you two tangle in years.”

Ceann smiled grimly, then retrieved his practice sword. “As you wish, my lady.”

Jacob circled the red-haired man slowly, looking for angles of attack while his opponent did the same. Jacob made the first move, a quick tap to force his opponent into action. Ceann’s return backhand was immediate, forcing him to back-step and parry. Ceann pressed his advantage, raining calculated blows in a steady cadence. Jacob had lost the initiative. Now he waited for the experienced swordsman to make a mistake.

Ceann was in no hurry to accommodate. His continued feints, thrusts, and shield taps were designed to keep Jacob on the defensive, but he was devilishly precise, offering Jacob nothing for free. Luckily, Jacob didn’t need any charity: he was starting to get the feel of the older man, and it was time to start taking some chances.

The red-haired guard was broader, possibly stronger, but not quicker. That meant he probably couldn’t break cadence, and Jacob decided the next couple attacks weren’t mean to succeed. Gambling, he under-responded, raising his shield to meet them but changing his footing to anticipate his own attack. If Ceann had been prepared for that, he could have brought a little more force to bear and cost Jacob his balance. That didn’t happen.

Instead, Jacob shrugged off a couple blows with his shield while making multiple quick strikes ahead of where he knew Ceann would be. The older man didn’t adjust fast enough, and Jacob moved in double time, with lightning chops aimed at outmaneuvering the red-head: threatening hands, arms, knees, and elbows. In moments, the older man stumbled, and Jacob claimed his kill.

Ceann snorted in disgust. “All that fancy dancing around is useless. Half the time, your feet weren’t protecting your center of balance when you struck: a stiff breeze would have knocked you over. You might get away with the crap in a duel if your opponent doesn’t call you on it, but a field battle will eat you alive.”

Jacob smiled winningly. “I wasn’t in a field battle, and victory speaks for itself. Unless you’d like to show me the error of my ways?”

Ceann’s facial features tightened, and he nearly threw down his weapon. “It shouldn’t have worked! You’re doing sloppy things, and if you weren’t so damned fast, you’d pay for them. I’m done tonight: I can’t watch that kind of excrement get rewarded.”

Jacob cocked an eyebrow, but then lifted his practice sword to hand it off. “As you say. Daniel, would you care to give it a go, then? I’ll bet Athena will find herself recovered.”

The blonde woman stuck her tongue out briefly, then swaggered into replace Ceann. Daniel took his own weapon up with no little trepidation.

Jacob, in turn, walked over to sit on a large rock by Brother Francis, who was just beginning preparations for dinner. “So, what do you think?”

Brother Francis smiled gently. “I think some young fellows could use a little more peace in their soul. But I suspect you are asking about the swordplay?”

At Jacob’s nod, the monk continued. “In that case, I’d say that Ceann was right. You have uncommon speed, and you’ve found that with light strikes, you can capitalize on that. You take advantage of relatively small openings, but mostly you create them by making moves that against a faster opponent would be an overcommitment. You’re pretty good - with the proper tutor you could be very good - but you’ve developed a style that leans very heavily on your speed advantage, not the kind of thing an instructor would teach. But it will work for you against most.

As for your team, if they are representative of Ironwood’s guard, they’re not bad. You’re not up to Travanian standards in terms of technique, but you’re better than I would have expected out of the West. I see some ad-hoc style in you and your companions, but it’s effectively developed, and that speaks well for the general quality of Ironwood’s armsmen. Is that the assessment you were looking for?”

Jacob eyed the salt-and-pepper haired monk shrewdly. “It may seem foolish pride, but not many we’ve encountered assess Ironwood’s martial prowess so casually. You weren’t always a monk, were you? You know the sword: perhaps there is something you would be willing to teach?”

The monk raised his fingers to his chin thoughtfully, his eyes staring away into another time. “Well. I have not done anything like that in years upon years, but I suppose you have some need if you’re going to try to kill or capture skilled assassins. I need to think on this. Tomorrow, perhaps, I may have something to show you. In the meantime, would you be willing to help me prepare the smoked venison and set the snares, my Lord?”

“Brother, it’s a deal,” Jacob replied, and set to work.

It was an hour or so until dinner was finally ready, by which time mouths were watering. Jacob had rarely had been able to help others prepare a meal. His father would have frowned to see him volunteer for something as menial as cooking. Jacob, on the other hand, reveled in the excuse simply to do something different. Tonight, that mostly meant just doing what he was told, but he was in good hands. He found himself learning quite a bit about the practical use of spices in travel food. The venison turned out wonderfully, making him hope he would remember how to replicate it. Happily, he would have weeks to improve, for Brother Francis had been very pleasant to work with. For now, though, Jacob was exhausted, the previous night having caught up with him. He devoured the venison quickly, shared compliments with the chef, and gave his good-nights to the group and stepped away to speak with Thaddeus before turning in.

Ceann, who had also been up late, made his own way to a tent, leaving Daniel, Athena, and Brother Francis to finish their food and stare into the fire. They sat in silence for some time, letting the warmth soothe their stiff muscles, until Athena broke the ice. She cleared her throat gently and nodded to Daniel, “You’re getting better.”

Daniel grimaced. “Somewhat. Father is Master-at-arms in Ironwood, and I can barely stand a minute against anyone else here. I’m so much more comfortable with the bow.”

Athena shook her head gently. “You’ve a ways to go, but don’t lose heart. You’re in good company. Jacob is becoming a right terror, but look how much better he is than even a year ago. Jacob’s brother Erik and your Dad would put even him to shame.” She looked over her shoulder towards Jacob and Thaddeus, then added, “I’m not sure that will be true in another year, though.”

Francis nodded. “You move hesitantly, but that can be fixed. A little more arm strength and a little more confidence would make a world of difference for you. Both will come with practice. At your age, you should still be filling out.”

Athena winked at Daniel, “Our good brother is right. That’s why the key to success is a fine beer. It’s liquid confidence, and helps add stature too!” She batted her eyelashes at him, “Just what you need to impress the girls.”

“Very few men are more impressive in their cups,” Francis commented dryly.

“Too much of anything is a problem,” Athena agreed. “But too many shy and handsome young fellows could find a pretty girl on their arm if they had the courage to ask. It is a trial we disowned widows constantly bear.” She smiled gently at the sandy-haired young man as he reddened, then continued, “That’s not what’s on your mind, though. Share.”

Francis frowned thoughtfully as Daniel struggled to find his words. After a moment, he replied, “Isn’t it obvious? I mean, Timothy died not thirty paces from me, and I didn’t even know about it until it was done. Then I couldn’t even catch the killers, and they were only yards away from me. I have to make this right, but I don’t know if I can.”

Athena smiled sadly, “Daniel, it’s not your fault. Given the pacing pattern we use, the attackers were never going to face you both at once. Yes, you got lucky, and so you lived. Be grateful. But after that, you didn’t freeze. You ran at them, after you sounded the alarm, and that’s just what you’re supposed to do. Of course unarmored men can outdistance someone wearing full chain! That’s no failure, lad. For what they did to Timothy and Father Gerrold, we will find them and make it right. And you will help.” Athena punctuated the last with a hefty pat on the back.

A weight seemed to leave Daniel’s shoulders, and he sighed. “Thanks, Athena. Yeah, we’ll get ’em. Just, give me a minute.” Daniel stood and walked out towards the woods, presumably to answer nature’s call, possibly to hide tears. She wouldn’t look; it wasn’t her business. Instead she faced the monk, who was studying her carefully.

“Alone at last,” she spoke in a mock-sultry voice.

Francis shook his head absently. “That was kind,” he said.

“I thought it would be nice for an older man to know he still carries some appeal,” Athena quipped.

Francis studied her with a raised eyebrow. “Is that so? In the short time since we have met, you have already made a pass at nearly ever man here, or at least the pretense at one. Not Jacob, though, and that’s telling. Too well known?”

Athena shook her head, and answered frankly despite herself, “Too well loved. What other man would apologize to me by letting me beat him in front of his friends? We don’t need that: it would be strange.”

“Some would say that in flirting too easily with other men, you are doing yourself no favors, either. You might need less bitterness if you didn’t hide behind this mask of yours. If you opened up, you might find real acceptance. Whatever has happened to you, you can show yourself some respect too. ”

Athena snorted bitterly. “Is that what you have learned? That a woman who makes herself vulnerable will be treated kindly?

What will they do if she is an outcast? A widow with no money or status? A woman who can’t even have children? A girl who has more skill with a bow than a needle, whose own father backed her to the hilt in whatever she wanted - right until the day he cast her out? Wouldn’t people treat her with compassion? She’s no threat to them.

I have experienced the mercy of men, monk, and I am unimpressed. The women have been even worse. I lost my girlhood friends, my parents, and the respect of so many respectable people, doing what the church and some useless young priest told me I had every right to do: marry the man I chose. It earned me rotten tomatoes in the alleyways, while those respectable people turned their heads away in disgust: disgust at me. But most of them, they didn’t dare show their cruelty to my face until my husband, my beautiful husband, was gone. All these worthy people waited until I was completely vulnerable, and then they pounced. Don’t tell me about love. Don’t you dare tell me about respect. I take care of myself, and I take care of my friends. None of your damned rules will. I’m fine now, because I’ve learned. I survive. But don’t presume to tell me how the world works.”

Brother Francis sat and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, bemused. “You poor girl. What have those idiots done to you?”

That was hardly the response Athena was expecting. “Like I said, I take care of myself. When I don’t blabber on to strange men, anyway.” She looked at her cup. “Damned beer.”

“That,” Brother Francis answered carefully, “I’ll drink to. But Athena, there are better things in life than that. Men and women can be cruel creatures, but even they will eventually see the beauty you have inside, if you dress the part.”

Athena folded her arms across her chest and smirked, “I rather like myself, thank you, and the way I dress. What makes you think I’m not having fun?”

The monk eyed her compassionately. “You may be enjoying yourself. Would you not rather have peace?”

Athena threw up her hands and laughed. “Peace, whatever is that?”

The monk spread his hands, indicating a myriad of possibilities. “What an excellent question! But I sense you do not want my answer. Pray always, I’ve been told, and when necessary, use words. Now is not one those times. Better to listen to the wind, and the fire, and the water dripping from the trees.”

With no further urge to conversation, they let the fire fade and die, and the remaining travelers turned in. Sleeping arrangements were not as spacious as they might have wished, with only two tents available, but they were already traveling as heavily as they dared. The tents were not really needed unless the weather were to turn for the worse, but since they had them, there was no reason not to use them. Jacob, Thaddeus, and Francis slept beneath one tent, while Daniel, Ceann, and Athena lay under the other. Athena had chosen to sleep half out of hers, leaving as much space as she could from the others. It let the edge of the canvas top muffle the wind for her, but still gave a view of the uncounted stars. Athena sighed contentedly. This is all the peace I need, you crazy monk.

The next morning, Jacob woke with the predawn light, and checked a few snares he and Francis had set the night before. He was in luck, for there was a rabbit waiting for him, struggling against its noose. He killed it swiftly, then began, more awkwardly, to skin it. Like cooking, this was a skill a caravaner was expected to have, but one his father didn’t expect him to exercise. His hands were learning, but he was glad not to have an audience, though he also felt a bit guilty. He knew he should wake the others, but he had a few minutes yet.

His solitude didn’t last. Jacob hadn’t removed half the fur when Brother Francis rolled from his tent, and limped over to join him. The monk had only been awake for minutes, but his tone was relaxed and alert. “Good morning, my lord.”

The younger man nodded in return. “And to you, though you must be thinking of my father. I’m just Jacob, unless you’re working for me.”

“Jacob, then. But I understand that in Margon, as in Travan, the son of a lord is a lord. There is no shame in acknowledging what you have been given, if you use it well. However you title yourself, thank you for starting breakfast. Traveling makes for a healthy appetite, and we have a long day ahead, even if it looks to be a gorgeous one. Let me grab my knife and bag of herbs, and we’ll have a breakfast to match.”

The younger man’s knife slowed momentarily, and his shoulders seemed to loosen. “With your help, no doubt it will. I have to admit, I am impatient to get going. I know the trackers need good light, but we should move out the second we have it, and the sun is nearly above the horizon.”

The monk nodded. “And you are reluctant to drag your friends out of bed? Not to worry: we can break camp quickly once breakfast is done. If the dawn’s light doesn’t wake them, the smell of sauteed rabbit will. Would you rather prepare the meat or start up the fire?”

“The fire, but don’t season those until I get back! I’ll have your secrets yet.”

The older man’s eyes crinkled. “God alone has all of them, but the weighty matters of spicing rabbits I can discuss freely. Just make sure to grab a pan for biscuits.”

Brother Francis was right: the weather was beautiful. The other hunters rose almost as soon as the meat began to sizzle, and the tents were swiftly packed. After a brief but wonderful breakfast, the group left camp while long shadows still covered the hillsides.

The hours passed quickly on the road. Blue skies shone over the trees that bordered the ancient highway, and the breeze was cool enough to soothe away the sweat of riding in armor. The horses’ hooves ground away the miles, though the party dismounted occasionally to stretch their legs. Yet despite the pleasure of watching the trees slowly pass, Jacob could not dispel the tension of waiting, helpless, for any news of the quarry they followed. He tried to stifle his impatience, and avoided hounding the trackers themselves, but it took an effort.

It was more difficult for Daniel and Athena. They bore, hour after hour, the stress of constantly watching for any sign of the clansmen leaving the road. Daniel, especially, was prone to the pressure. He still joined Brother Francis in singing psalms, but the tunes were a wall between himself and any other distractions. His eyes were intense, and he occasionally stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow. Jacob was tempted to reassure him, but the look in the boy’s eyes made clear that waiting was the best course.

Athena was in better spirits than the day before, but she was nearly as intense as Daniel. She wasn’t much more forthcoming, either. She did say she hoped to find the barbarians’ campsite late in the morning, given their lead. Until then, it would be difficult to draw new conclusions from the many scuff marks on the ancient Mirakan road. Jacob hoped to ask more, but Athena had only patted him lightly on the shoulder, then shooed him away. Ceann, on the other hand, remained silently by her side.

It was well past midmorning, when Athena finally followed the tracks off the road. At first, Jacob wondered if she was simply stealing off to answer the call of nature, but she maintained her focus on the grass before her, and she stalked towards a small copse to her right. His breath caught when he realized that the thieves might have changed direction, and he reigned up his horse to wait for her verdict.

As Athena approached the copse, she paced right, then slowly circled before returning to the road ahead. Jacob urged his mount forward to catch her, and she flashed a quick smile back at him. “They stopped here last night: I’m positive. We’re only four or five hours behind. I’d say we’re still gaining, but more slowly than I thought. We should pick up the pace. If we hurry, we might catch them tomorrow. I doubt we’ll see more today, though, unless they leave the road.”

Jacob shared grins with Thaddeus, Daniel, and Athena, enjoying their minor triumph. For the moment, there was little else for the Ironwood hunters to do but return to the road and redouble their pace. Tension somewhat eased, Jacob let his mind wander, and the miles pass.

Perhaps an hour later, he was startled from his thoughts as Thaddeus motioned beyond the road, where the forest temporarily parted to show sections of red-tiled roof from a dilapidated villa. Once it was broad and elegant; now it was overgrown and vacant. Behind, he could just make out the marbled columns of a courthouse, and a weathered and vine-covered section of aqueduct. There would be much more to see beyond. Above them, a large raven circled slowly.

“It’s beautiful,” the veteran said. “They don’t build like that anymore, even in Maragon. I ride by every year, and I still haven’t made time to explore more than a small piece of these ruins. It’s not considered seemly for a caravan guard to wander off and gawk. Now, we still can’t spare the time. It’s a pity.”

Centuries ago, driven by famine, religious fervor, and its brilliant and insane commander Khardum, the Kharshe horde swept through Miraka like a tidal wave. Until it was finally stemmed in the north by nearly impassible mountains, and in the south by all the remaining armies of the West, the Kharshe had destroyed without mercy, taking no prisoners. Jacob and his force would soon be entering the territory of the Karath, but no Karath villages were visible from the road, and there had been no one else on the road today. Once, this road had been among the most well-traveled in the world; now it was easy to feel as if they were the only people in the world. Only the bones of civilization remained.

Jacob could not help but reflect on how ancient and enormous they were. He commented to his friend, “There’s not even enough people out here to cart away the stone. Though the West held, Margon, Chaltan, and Balina are shadows of what they were in ancient times. Father says the sudden loss of all trade did most of the damage, but the burnt fields didn’t help, and neither did the waves of barbarians that swept in every decade or so for over a century.”

Thaddeus shared his signature grin (the man retained a pristine set of teeth even after thirty years of age, as the women at the “Clever Swordsman” had noted approvingly). “We’re lucky in Ironwood that the northern Clans have basically given up on the business. Chaltan was hit pretty hard right around when you were born.”

Brother Francis chose that moment to approach. “Pardon my interruption, but you may partly have Travan to thank for the peace, for the northern Clans have been occupied with the re-expansion of the Travan Empire. We haven’t dared to reach far toward the Kharshe horse-lords, but the Kulls and Sarronens have become fewer over the past century as Travan has regained ground. Not as few as some in Travan unwisely think, however. They would be a nasty handful if we backed them into a corner. Thankfully, they have civilized a bit over the years, as you know. We even have some trade with them these days, and hopefully that will contribute to the peace.”

Jacob nodded. “I’d much rather meet them in commerce than battle. We’ll not be caught unaware and arrogant like Miraka, but the only thing more tragic than the destruction of the Great War would be if we stirred something like it again, when it could be avoided.”

Thaddeus shook his head sadly. “Only slightly less tragic would be delaying lunch any longer. I’m starving. Tell me you have no such plan.”

“I wouldn’t dare, and I’ll wager Francis agrees with you”. Yet for fear of delay, they ate in the saddle, and the conversation turned to lighter topics. The day passed quickly.

It was almost a surprise when Jacob noticed Daniel approaching Ceann. He saw the redhead nod, then announce the end of the traveling day. They had made better time than yesterday, pushing the horses as hard as they dared, as Jacob’s thighs ached to remind him.

This time it was Thaddeus that first grabbed his wooden sword, and challenged Jacob to spar with him. The knight was quick, and his execution solid, though unembellished. Unfortunately for him, Jacob was in top form tonight. The young lord flowed like the wind, outmaneuvering his friend time and again. When Athena took her turn against Jacob, the results were little different, to her colorful dismay. Ceann, meanwhile, slowly beat back Thaddeus, and took his victory. His mirth didn’t last: he and Thaddeus traded wins nearly equally. Perhaps he had the advantage that evening, but it was not a large one.

After a few quick rounds against Athena, Jacob stepped back to watch the others compete, and found Brother Francis by his side, a wooden sword in his hands. The middle-aged monk studied him carefully, seeming almost to peer right through him. What he was looking for, Jacob couldn’t begin to guess, though he seemed to find it, for he nodded slowly, and raised his melodious voice in greeting. “Well fought, son. Well fought. Would you still like my help?”

Jacob nodded. “Of course. If you have something to teach, I am more than willing to learn. I see you were able to find a spare stave: are you looking to spar?”

“Yes, I think that would be the best way to start. Go easy on me, son,” Francis murmured. “I find myself without armor, and I could stand to avoid all those bruises you young folk keep gathering.”

Jacob laughed lightly. “I have a feeling you will hold your own, Brother. But I will take care to pull my swings.”

Brother Francis saluted, and his smile faded into the blank concentration. He approached Jacob in slow and measured steps until the two faced each other, just out of sword range. He paused expectantly, while Jacob examined his guard and considered his angle of attack. Then the monk moved. Sword and shield were held together close in a high guard, as if he were going to open with the overhand strikes typical of sword and buckler style. Instead he smoothly executed a high shield punch and a mid-body thrust. Jacob quickly sidestepped the punch, blocking the thrust with his shield and swinging towards his opponent’s leg. Francis gauged the distance perfectly, leaving his leg just out of reach. He nudged the younger man’s shield slightly out of the way, then stabbed his sword into the gap with unbelievable speed, striking for the kill. Jacob couldn’t even distinguish the rod tapping below his ribs until the match was over.

Jacob bowed respectfully. “I expected you to be good, but it seems I have underestimated you.” Thaddeus and Athena turned to watch with slackened jaws. Ceann’s lips were pursed, as he discovered the monk outclassed his blade-work far more than Jacob’s did.

The Baron’s son and the monk returned to their positions, and started again. This time Francis baited Jacob into range and let him take the first swing, a quick arc aimed at his midsection. Francis stepped in sharply, catching the wooden sword on the flat of his own blade, then binding it with the spike on the front of the shield. He flipped his sword free and made a quick low strike, which Jacob blocked. Jacob then took a high backhanded swing. Francis stepped into it and under, thrusting his shield upward to block. Jacob tried to step back against the anticipated counterstrike, but Francis was now inside Jacob’s center of gravity. He pivoted sharply to the right and gave a measured body check, leaving Jacob sprawling off-balance and easy prey to his follow up series of chops.

The next set was similar in nature, if different in detail. Francis had excellent timing, and a superb sense of distance and motion. Once he started moving, he attacked with his sword, shield, feet, knees, hips, forearms, and elbows: each was a constant threat that had to be simultaneously honored. Either over-reacting or under-reacting could create a fatal opening instantly. Even subtle mistakes put his opponents further and further off-balance so that their dodges, blocks, and parries became rushed responses: each opened new vulnerabilities the monk was happy to exploit. He attacked constantly, each graceful stroke carrying bruising power, but combining into a staccato rhythm with all the predictability of falling rain.

Jacob was hard-pressed to make any non-defensive action at all. He was a child at the feet of a master: a realization which put the previous night’s conversation about Ironwood’s swordsmanship in a new light. Jacob had never met anyone who could do this: not his brother, not even Ironwood’s Master-at-Arms. Ceann and Thaddeus mulled over what they had seen, while Athena and Daniel blinked in simple disbelief.

Jacob smiled wryly. “I think now would be a good time to offer up a few of those tips you agreed to.”

Brother Francis nodded, all business. His normally musical voice became the crisp, clipped bark of a master. “You have much to unlearn. Show me your stance. No, keep your center of gravity lower, and your elbows closer to your body. Your sword and shield should be closer together unless you have a reason to separate them. Now, show me your overhand chop. Not bad, but mind your wrist there.” The monk continued reconstructing Jacob’s form long after it was too dark for actual sparring.

Eventually, though, the older man called the lesson to a halt, declaring himself famished. The monk was was not made of iron, after all, for he moved with a slight limp. It looked out of place, given his recent performance. When Francis volunteered for the mission, he had offered his information gathering skills, but his sword alone doubled the fighting power of the party. Or it would if he had a sword: the man carried none.

Jacob wanted to ask how the monk had ever become a blade-master, and why he now spent his days begging and doing odd jobs, but it seemed ungrateful to pry. If Francis wished to share anything about his skills or the limp which might have ended a fighting career, he would. In the meantime, Jacob would not look a gifted horse in the mouth. Better to focus on dinner.

When Jacob joined the others by the fire, the party was in a fine mood. Athena had put up her sparring soon enough to help Ceann with dinner preparations, and Jacob welcomed the results. Neither was a spectacular cook, but his hunger more than made up the lack. There was nothing in the world like fresh food at a campfire after a full day of travel, and his anxiety over the mission faded into a warm glow of well-fed contentment.

Even Daniel relaxed enough to let out the question he had been nursing all day. “I hate to ask, but I’ve been wondering: what’s this really all about? I don’t know about you, but I’m mostly here to avenge Timothy. I don’t understand what’s so special about this shield we’re chasing after. I know St. Thomas was our patron saint, and he built and protected Ironwood. But why in the world someone would steal his shield? I’m sure we don’t like to lose something so famous, but why is it so important we get it back?”

It was Francis who answered, “The Shield is a remarkable relic. I traveled hundreds of miles just to see it, because of who it represents. Are St. Thomas’s deeds so soon forgotten? Or do its heirs simply disbelieve the stories? What a tragedy that would be! I will tell his tale, if you like.”

Jacob nodded. “I’d be glad to hear it again myself.”

Athena stood, stretched her legs, and yawned as she glanced back over her shoulder. “I’m done with school. I’m going to go, um, gather some firewood. Anyone care to join me?”

Ceann popped to his feet and rose to join her. “It would be my pleasure to escort such a lovely lady as yourself. It’s dangerous out there.”

She curtsied prettily and took his arm. They headed off into the woods, talking and laughing.

Brother Francis frowned and quietly asked Jacob, “It is wise to let them wander off alone?”

He returned in like volume and forced cheerfulness, “Why not? If he tries anything she doesn’t like, she’ll take his head off. He’s smart enough not to mess with her.”

“And if he tries something she likes?”

Jacob sighed. “She’ll behave, mostly. She has a reputation she doesn’t deserve: no one I trust has ever claimed to be intimate with her. Can you really imagine her letting herself become vulnerable to a man? If a walk in the dark is what she wants, it’s her choice. In this, I will trust her judgment. After all, my senior adviser clearly doesn’t see an issue.”

Jacob cleared his throat, and raised his voice back to a conversational level. “Now, I believe you promised us a story.”

“So I did, young man, so I did.” He took a drink, and then began to speak slowly, his rich, liquid voice warming to the task.

“The story of St. Thomas is a one of a great general, and a great soul. His is a story of betrayal, and that of Margon in its most desperate hour. It was three hundred years ago that our story begins. Miraka, withered mother of a shattered empire, had already succumbed to the barbarian hordes. The great cities of the central plains, including the Grand Kris, where the town of Ironwood now stands, were burned to the ground. Miraka’s people had been driven west, killed, or enslaved.

After the Fall, East and West engaged in generations of near-constant warfare against an enemy that numbered as the stars. But this is not a tale of the lesser, yet still deadly, barbarian invasions that succeeded the Fall. In time, warring over the ashes of the central plains faded, and the western nations retreated completely behind fortified boundaries. Balina, Margon, the Southern League of Free Cities, the Empire of Travan, Chaltan, and a few others were struggling to rebuild. This is the time when, in Margon, our hero was born.

The reigning King of Margon in that era was Ceanned, a man loved by the common people for his high ideals, his honor, and his generous heart. He was also grumbled about by the nobility, for his naive idealism. He was more given to fanciful dreams than intelligence, cunning, or the practical needs of governance. But in that time, Margon desperately needed hope, needed dreams of a better world. God blessed Margon also with an immensely capable set of leaders among the nobility, people who took Ceanned’s fancies of prosperity for the masses, and made some of them actually work. Hospitals, orphanages, schools, roads, and banks: in an era where most nations poured all effort into swords and plowshares, these leaders made them happen.

It was an age of great men and women in Margon: Kradoc of Maragon, Tarik of Maragon, Lydia of Pearl Bay, Alexandra of Lycosa, and Alamar of Milana. Each was a master of philosophy, science, art, or engineering. However, the best and brightest was a polymath named Thomas of Attica. He was as idealistic and charismatic as his king, but also responsible, focused, capable, and truly brilliant. His hospital saved lives where others were as dangerous as the injuries they treated. His school trained not just scribes but philosophers, mathematicians, orators, and engineers. He and it were bright beacons in a dark age.

Brilliant man or no, Thomas was very human. It is said that he was deeply in love with Alexandra, and also that she loved him back. Unfortunately for him, she loved her work and her freedom more: though she favored him, she claimed she would be subject to no man or be confined to a nursery when there was so much to do. While they were very close, and she gladly worked by his side on great projects, she would not let him take her to wife. Thomas, however, refused to settle for another who was not his equal. Since Alexandra remained alone, he waited years in the hope that she would bend and admit that greatness did not require solitude. In the meantime, they engaged in the work of rebuilding civilization as the greatest of friends. However, when the period of respite from the east had grown from years to decades, trouble began to stir from a different direction.

Margon’s western neighbor, Balina, had been a proud and advanced nation before it had succumbed to the Empire of Miraka centuries before. The fall of the Mirakan Empire had damaged its commerce, yet Balina had never been directly exposed to the warfare that had swallowed Miraka, having been shielded by its neighbors. Since the press of Eastern barbarians was now at a lull, King Umber of Balina considered it the perfect time to invite his neighbors into an Empire such as Miraka had built. The invitations would be delivered by the same means as Miraka’s had been: the point of the sword. In his view, Margon’s investment in peace only proved its vulnerability.

Margon, a wounded kingdom struggling to return to its feet, now found itself in a fight for its life against a new aggressor. Balina’s armies were formidable, and much of Margon’s military strength remained in the East, manning fortifications designed against a different foe. Towns, villages, and castles fell quickly to Balina’s onslaught. Yet while its initial wounds were grievous, Margon’s resistance in the North solidified quickly. For there was Thomas of Attica who, in addition to his other talents, proved an inspired general. No one believed he had enough men to last a week, and yet he held out for over a season without reinforcement. When more men finally arrived, they found clever traps, new fortifications, new tactics, and the powerful support of the populace. The locals began calling Thomas “The Shield of Hope”, and rallied to his orations in droves. His name was blessed by his people wherever he went to succor them. The North held.

Meanwhile, Alamar, a childhood friend with whom Thomas had been fostered, made alliance with Chaltan and Goram, and began to slow Balina’s advance in the South with a similar brilliance. Thomas was heartened to hear that while Lycosa was lost, Alexandra and her people had escaped into Alamar’s lands in Milana and aided him there.

However, North and South were split, and the line between them slowly bowed against the Balina’s constant pressure. Occasionally, Alamar or Thomas, where they could, launched counterstrikes to relieve that pressure, but such gains were temporary. Umber learned to regret ever taking his neighbor to war, but war has a life of its own. Pride, his neighbor’s rightful anger, and lives lost on both sides deterred him from suing for peace. Still, the progress against Margon, while glacial, continued. Communication inside Margon became difficult, and Thomas lost contact with his love, and with his Southern friend, Alamar, as months and years began to pass.

Thomas pleaded with his King to pull more troops from Margon’s eastern forts in Tandar and Pearl Bay, but for long Ceanned refused, arguing that if any barbarian incursion were to penetrate Margon, the damage would be much worse than Balina could do. Later, he began to recall legions from the eastern border, but slowly, too slowly, to do more than slow his losses. Eventually, as the fighting continued to worsen and the money lenders began to refuse him, Ceanned in desperation finally recalled most of Margon’s Eastern forces under his cousin, one General Padrigha: a good man but an indifferent general. Padrigha set out westward to Lycosa, sending missives directing to Thomas and Alamar each to split their forces and attack from different direction.

If followed to the letter, these instructions would have cost the war, losing most of Margon’s forces in a single season. Attacking a fortified city like Lycosa, where almost Balina’s entire army sat, across a river, was suicide if approached directly. Thomas, however, rejoiced upon receiving the message, for while the plan was flawed, the army when combined with his and Alamar’s, was finally large enough to turn the tide against Balina. Thomas was confident he could fix the plan.

The “Shield of Hope” sent messengers to the south, to Alamar and to Alexandra, asking that they join him further east, before Padrigha could cross the river. He could not know their response, or even whether the messages would be safely received, yet Thomas gathered his army and marched southward, praying that he would meet his friends there.

The campaign Thomas undertook in order to join together with Padrigha is taught in Margon War Colleges today, for it was executed with genius. He managed to harry Balina all along the front, secure Attica’s supply lines, pillage it’s enemies’, forestall counter-attack against Attica, and recruit and forage all along the way on a war chest barely worthy of the name. He still arrived first in the hills east of Lycosa, in time to reason with Padrigha. Once there, Thomas prayed daily for his friends to arrive safely. He needed not only Alamar’s forces but his leadership. Thomas’s strategy for victory was multi-pronged, and required another general he trusted in order to execute properly.

One late summer day when Thomas’s hope was beginning to fade, when he began to fear not only for his plans, but for Alamar and especially Alexandra, the southern sky began to fill with dust. His heart in his throat, Thomas spied the arrival of the Southern column, and at the front were the banners of his most trusted friends. Relief was here: his friends and most likely Margon would now be safe.”

Brother Francis opened his precious wineskin and examined the faces of his audiences before continuing. Daniel’s face was rapt, and Thaddeus also listened intently, but his face was darkened. He knew a little of what was to come. Jacob likely did too, for he was staring into the fire, and waiting patiently for the monk to resume.

“Thomas was waiting at the gate for his friends to arrive, to welcome them personally. Alexandra and Alamar rode side-by-side and greeted him warmly. But Thomas noted something different: both of his friends were wearing rings.

"‘Thomas, you know my wife Alexandra! I wish we could have told you and invited you to our wedding, but communication became impossible soon after I took her and her people in.’

"Alexandra gave a faint, sad smile. ‘Yes, it was a great day not only for me, but for my people. You were right, old friend. I could not remain alone forever. My people needed alliances, and an heir. That it could be Alamar, that was a happy accident.’

"Somehow Thomas avoided showing his shock, but Alexandra would not meet his eyes, for she knew well that she had broken his heart. Soon it would be shattered, entirely. Thomas hid his pain, and welcomed his friends into his council, then shared his plans for a counter-attack. Alamar agreed immediately, and began suggesting minor improvements. While he lacked as a general, Padrigha was wise enough to hear the arguments of Thomas and Alamar and was also convinced to submit to their leadership. Thomas would be allowed to fight the war his way, with Alamar and Alexandra at his side.

"Thomas and Alamar were finalizing their campaign when new orders from their king arrived, telling them that the king’s brother had been captured and removed to Binara, and that therefore Binara was to be their first target, not Lycosa. Even Padrigha knew immediately that it was a trap, an even worse first target than Lycosa. He urged Thomas to leave immediately, to pretend the king’s message had never arrived.

"Thomas was torn. Disobeying his king was technically an act of treason, but without a far better plan, obeying could be very risky for Margon. He was caught between one act of treason and another, imperiling the kingdom or disobeying a direct order from his monarch. Telling his army to prepare to march on the morrow, Thomas spent the night entirely in prayer and meditation, hoping for a solution to appear. Such was Thomas’s brilliance that it did. Thomas found a way to incorporate the conquest of Binara into his plans, if not immediately.

"He met Alexandra and Alamar in the morning, and told them that he had incorporated Binara into his plans as per the king’s orders, and to prepare to move to the southwest. He would explain the plan on the road. He had expected resistance, but to his relief the couple appeared to take the change in stride. He shook hands and headed for the stable with both at his back. Thomas felt a movement at his shoulder, but it was not until he heard a bitter cry and then a sharp Thunk that he knew something was wrong.

"Thomas turned swiftly around to find a shocked and angry Alexandra staring at him, her right arm still outstretched. He removed from his back the shield that had shifted downward and saw a dagger extending from its surface, one which Alexandra must have been holding.

"Alamar grunted, then regretfully spoke. ‘If your shield had not chosen that moment to slip, you would have died swiftly. I had hoped it would never come to this, my friend. Our king in his stupidity has cost Margon countless lives, and I will not be a party to it any longer. We’re going to win our country back and be damned with the King and his dangerous orders. This country will be better without him. I hoped you at least I could trust to do the best thing for Margon, and Alexandra argued last night that you wouldn’t make this choice. You chose Ceannad over Margon, and so you’re as guilty as he. I’m sorry, my friend, but it’s time to die.’

"Thomas replied sorrowfully, “Alamar, Alexandria. If you would only trust me. I wouldn’t have agreed to go to Binara if I hadn’t found a way to pull it off, but Ceannad is our king. Rebellion could only hurt the country more. Turn back from this, and let us save Margon together.”

"Alamar simply raised his blade, saluted, and attacked while Thomas struggled to draw. Alamar was well known as an excellent swordsman, while Thomas was a brilliant academic uncomfortable with physical pursuits. But the few observers who noticed the commotion claimed that a blinding white light emitted from Thomas’s shield that day. From that moment, he fought like a whirlwind, praying for his enemy even as he cut him down.

"In moments, Alamar lay on the ground with his wrist and leg nearly severed. Alexandra kneeled over him, sobbing hysterically. Thomas looked upon the pair with tears running silently from his own eyes, broken by the sheer tragedy of it all. Yet, at the same time, he seemed larger, brighter than ever before, and spoke with a booming voice, “You poor fools. I will save Margon and my noble, idiot king. The people will need him after the war. If only you had listened! But even now it is not too late. Now, my traitorous friends,” his voice echoed like thunder, “I will save you!”

"Even as he spoke, Thomas reached out and gently touched Alamar’s arm and leg, and they were mended. Alexandra watched in amazement as Thomas slowly helped the man he had maimed to his feet.

"‘Follow me,’ St. Thomas murmured, turning his back and walking towards the stables. And follow they did, Alamar nursing only a faint limp.

"Alamar was cowed by the miracle, and submitted to Thomas’s authority and his new plans for the campaign. A stunning victory over Lycosa was won through brilliance and valor, and Binara was conquered soon after. The defeat of Balina was almost anti-climactic, though the Margon War College devotes an entire class to it. St. Thomas, in time, met King Umber of Balina face-to-face, and concluded peace terms with a smaller, more humble Balina. When Thomas of Attica finally returned home, he was greeted as a hero and a saint by nearly everyone in Margon but his king. Ceannad was jealous and suspicious of his general’s fame, and and wary of trusting a man who had pardoned known traitors and nearly disobeyed his orders.

"Succumbing to the pain in his heart, St. Thomas left the governing of Attica to his younger brother, claiming an inability to provide an heir. He headed east across the mountains to live alone among the barbarians. To his surprise, many from Margon followed him there, leading to his reluctant founding of the town of Ironwood. But that is another story. And I am tired and my throat parched.”

Jacob clapped his hands slowly. “Well told, Brother, and thank you! Now, we should all get some sleep.”

The others did lay down to rest. Jacob, despite his words, took watch, and waited for Athena and Ceann. He sat with his back against a pine tree, and fed the remains of the fire, so that they would be able to mark the camp from a distance. He hoped the two did not get lost in the night.

Innoken, a shaman of Shakath, waited patiently outside the tent, dressed in the traditional leathers and furs of his position. His tall and rangy figure made their bright colors and subtle contrasts even more elegant. However, he preferred the unassuming garb of a warrior, with only his medallion and bands of red on his wrists and in the the braids of his hair to show his devotion. However, men were foolish creatures; they judged not only Innoken’s dignity by his clothing, but also his God’s. Serving his God was worth some inconvenience and frippery. However, he was glad propriety did not require him to leave Talon behind. He would send the raven afar when required, but he much preferred not to: the bird was a part of him.

Innoken’s attention was stirred back to the present by the bodyguard’s voice. “The King will see you now,” the man was saying.

The shaman nodded and entered. This subsection of the great tent was as close to privacy as the king enjoyed during the day. It was only large enough, and the furs lining the walls thick enough, to prevent eavesdropping. Otherwise it was sized for comfort, to put the invited parties at ease. Once he stood in the center of the room, Innoken stated simply, “I am here, your majesty.”

Haldor, Lord and King of the greatest clan of the Central Plains, drove straight to the point, asking only, “Is it done? Were they successful?”

Innoken smiled. “Yes, your majesty. They have the artifact, and they are on their way here. However, a small group from Ironwood is tracking them. They are only a few hours behind Serren, and they are gaining.”

The shaman had the minor satisfaction of seeing his king startled. Haldor was a subtle man, known for his self-control. “I see,” he replied. “Most likely he underestimates his pursuers. Is there any way you can help?”

Innoken folded his arms. “I will send Talon to him, your majesty,” answered. “I trust Serren in this. If he knows he is being followed, he will reach here safely.”

Haldor replied evenly, “So it should be. I look forward to his arrival. Other than that, I am counting on you to be ready when summer arrives.”

“Of course, your majesty,” Innoken replied. “Shakath instructs that our people be informed only at the last moment, for greatest possible effect and minimal dissent.”

Haldor assented, “Yes, as we discussed. You may go.”

Innoken bowed lightly, then exited the tent.

Brother Francis slept fitfully. In his dreams, a man was speaking sharply to him, trying to gain his attention. It was a man he knew, an old friend, a onetime enemy. This man had spoken to him before, told him to go west, that there was something he needed to see. He went there, to see it and shake his dreams, but it was gone, sailing away in a dragon boat down a stream. He was running after. But the boat wasn’t real, and neither was the stream: it was a road he was following. Now it was a young woman, a woman he couldn’t have, or was it a woman he was trying to save? He was wounded in the rescue, and he would never fight again. But now he was fighting, and there was a young man before him, dragging him from his rest, asking for help. Then there was a light, and a voice in the distance, echoing the request, “Help him.”

Francis opened his eyes and saw just the top of a tent. For a moment, he didn’t remember where he was. But the effect faded, and he found himself again, laying on his back and listening to the sounds of a Spring night under the stars. The disquiet of the jumbled dream remained.

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