By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action


Laranna quickly took to traveling with the expanded Ironwood party. The road eastward from Sarronen was narrower than the Great Highway, but still comfortably fit two horses side-by-side, and naturally lent to horses walking in pairs. Brother Francis rode in front with Daniel, who sang hymns without care, happy to enjoy a day without responsibility. Behind her rode Ceann and Athena, and their conversation would occasionally run loud enough to carry to Laranna’s ears. That left her to ride with Jacob, for which she was grateful. He was easy to talk to, and not unpleasant on the eyes.

The oddest thing about him, though, was his curiosity. She discerned soon enough that the swordsman was not a scholar. He had an appropriate respect for books, but limited patience for poring through them. However, his memory was surprisingly good, and he asked thoughtful questions, turning over each answer like a stone in his hand to find all its features. Each result, before he stored it away and moved on to the next, was finely polished. She found herself teaching things that she herself had not fully understood, and he seemed genuinely grateful for each gem they discovered.

She answered another of his questions now. “Yes, the Taran East Road is newer than the Great Highway. Scholars say Tara itself grew out of serving travelers on the Highway. It was a more defensible location, with a better water table, than the land just to the south. Miraka owned most of the land near the Highway itself, including dozens of inns and way stations, but they were supplied from Tara. Few of the travelers actually came into the city, and that was preferred. The villages nearer the road were actually more cosmopolitan. Tara just supplied water, wool, meat, and bread to the villages and way stations. The water traveled by aqueduct, and the supplies in miniature barges on the water. The Mirakans were a very clever people. Anyway, that’s why the roads east and west are better kept than the south road, which leads more directly to the Highway.”

“They would also be shorter routes to what is now Travan. Traveling straight south, then west or east, would be longer to the final destination,” he replied.

“Right,” she acknowledged, “Though I still would have expected Tara to expand further south, if they could have done so.”

“How many of those aqueducts are left?” Jacob asked. “Have you seen one?”

“Yes and no,” she began, turning toward him. She thought she saw Athena rolling her eyes: the woman had overhead Jacob’s question. That was a reaction she was used to. She wouldn’t let it get in the way of her pleasure at riding with someone who actually shared her interests! “Not the ones near here. I have read of them, but never had a chance to explore this far west. There is one near home, though, that I have seen, and the design is the same.”

Jacob looked off into the distance for a moment, before returning his gaze to her. “Is that one still operational, or can it be repaired?”

“Not anymore,” Laranna answered with a head shake that scattered her dark hair. “It could be repaired, but that one led to a bath house hundreds of years ago. There’s no call for it now.”

“I suppose not,” the chestnut-haired man replied. “I forget sometimes just how rich Miraka was. That’s what I love most about what we do in Ironwood, though. When the Kharshe horde attacked, millions of people died, but many more lived. It was the loss of trade and expertise that plunged Margon into darkness. Warring nations overcrowded with refugees, overrun by plague, and depleted of men left the economy shattered for hundreds of years. Trade routes and whole industries were lost. Ironwood is helping, slowly, to rebuild all of that.”

”In Travan, it was similar to in Miraka, but we had better walls.” The raven-haired woman lips pursed into a sad smile. “The barbarians had been our neighbors since long before, and we knew a little better what they were capable of, though no one could have predicted Khardum.

When the Horde came, a wall would be taken or a castle destroyed, and our ancestors would fall back to the next. Again and again, we fell back, but at each fortification, we made the attackers pay ten-fold or more, until even the Kharshe had no heart for it, and sought easier prey. Our stonework, metalwork, and military training remain excellent today: they were Travan’s lifeblood, but so much else was lost, despite the furtive efforts of our monks. Many accounts of those years remain, and they are grim reading.”

Jacob grimaced. “I imagine they are. I haven’t read the worst of Margon’s history, though my tutor spoke of it.”

Laranna cocked her head slightly to side. “Did you never want to read it for yourself?”

“No,” Jacob replied. “The accounts were too dry, too depressing, and too impractical, all at once. My interest is more in the rise of civilization than its fall. The trade routes Ironwood is forming are the arteries of tomorrow’s empires: full of new hopes, new technologies, and new riches. When I see Mirakan ruins, I view them as a promise of what we will one day replace and surpass. I want to be a part of that.”

“How very inspiring,” Laranna said, smiling crookedly.

Jacob suddenly became awkward and insecure. “It is, actually. At least, I think so.”

“No, I agree,” Laranna added, her unbidden smile broadening. “I just never took you for a dreamer. I haven’t met many, especially ones with half a brain. It’s refreshing.”

“I’m a dreamer and a half-wit?” Jacob replied, amused. “My lady, you wound me.”

“Not deeply, I suspect.” the dark-haired woman replied. “But let me know if I truly do cause you offense, for that is far from my desire.”

Jacob’s amusement persisted. “I will. Happily, I am not easily offended.”

“Good,” Laranna replied, “for I am cursed with the habit of speaking my mind. Yet, I have noticed how Athena speaks, and she is at least as direct as I. She is courting your man Ceann, yes?”

“Athena,” Jacob explained, “is a force unto herself. Few rules can hold her, and I would not recommend any try to follow in her footsteps. I have known her nearly since I could walk, and she surprises me constantly. But yes, I think so.”

On an impulse, he called out behind him, “Ceann? Are you courting Athena? Laranna wants to know.”

“If she’ll have me,” Ceann replied, whereupon Athena leaned over and gave him a great hug.

“It seems so,” Jacob shrugged.

Laranna looked bemused. “I have a lot to learn about Margonians.”

“You can try,” Jacob replied with a quick grin. “If you do figure us out, be sure to teach me.”

It was somewhere between mid and late afternoon when Brother Francis slowed to a stop. Beside him, Daniel nearly stumbled into the robed figure. “What is it, Brother?”

The monk nodded absently, as if speaking to himself. “Yes, I think this will be a fine place to stop for the evening.”

Daniel stared openly. “I don’t understand. There’s no shelter, no stream here, and we have hours of light. We’re not following anyone anymore, either, so we could keep moving well into twilight. Someone must agree with you, since there are tracks heading south, but I can’t imagine why.”

Francis called back, “Jacob, mind if we stop here? I’m getting a feeling we should.”

The younger man shrugged. Why not? He had come to trust the monk’s instincts, even more so since his fight with Serren. There was much more to him than met the eye. “Sure. We’ll set up camp in the field to the south.”

He called out a halt, receiving a disgusted look from Ceann, then began to set up the tents. Laranna, without asking, started gathering wood, and soon the group was sitting comfortably around a small fire, tents pitched behind.

“It’s really too early for this,” Ceann grumbled. “We should still be on the road.”

“I trust Brother Francis’s instincts,” Jacob explained, “and this is what he preferred. Besides, at this point, what’s the hurry?”

Ceann, whose irritation with Jacob had been building for weeks, finally lost his patience. “Jacob, by God’s left knuckle, how are you so cheerful? After weeks of chasing the Shield of St. Thomas, and a murderer, we’ve lost. It’s over. But only because you gave up! We could have asked Haldor for more time, checked to see if the Shield had left Sarronen. Instead, suddenly we’re all done, and you’re demon-damned chipper about it. Lord Ironwood is going to be pissed, and I don’t know what in Hell is going on.

What’s more, instead of going back home, we’re just riding off east with your new girlfriend. Again, no explanation. Is it her pretty face? It that why you’ve been wearing that stupid grin?”

Laranna spoke up hesitantly, “I don’t want to be an inconvenience, I swear, and I never asked you to go out of your way for me. But at as long we are here, is there any harm in enjoying the company?”

Ceann met her question with a smirk. “You do know Jacob is betrothed, don’t you?”

At her look of confusion, Ceann snorted, turning back to Jacob. “I thought not. And this is just the last in a string of your disasters. You had to fight in that stupid tournament, didn’t you? We could have found the Shield, but instead you had to go play with swords because someone was mean to you in the Great Tent. Before that, you just had to stay at that guy Thane’s house, because Master Trader Jacob thinks he can save the world. We could have caught our murderers that night by the crossroads if we had split up like I suggested! Every step of the way, you ignore my advice, or don’t tell me what you are thinking. There are a half-dozen examples I won’t even mention, because what’s the point? You won’t listen.

Instead you ask that monk who shouldn’t even be here. He’s good with a sword, I’ll grant you, but swordplay doesn’t solve everything! It sure hasn’t found you the Shield of St. Thomas!

It’s my job to watch after Daddy’s little screw-up, and you won’t even let me do that. Well, I’m done putting up with your horse-shit, just done.”

Daniel, moved by loyalty, tried to answer, voice cracking. “Stop. He’s trying.”

Ceann laughed out loud. “He’s trying something. But trying isn’t succeeding.”

Jacob examined the red-haired Guard silently. Ceann was supposed to be his mentor, his father’s representative. From him, the words stung, and he could not pretend otherwise. Ceann obviously hadn’t heard about Serren or the Shield from Athena as he expected, but Jacob was not ready to bring Laranna in on what he knew, and so he didn’t argue the point. In fact, his mind refused to manufacture anything to say. Of course, his decisions weren’t perfect, but there wasn’t much he would change, given only what he had known at the time.

There was one thing he could have done better: he could have kept Ceann aware of his thoughts. Yes, his adviser tended to disagree with him, but Jacob was responsible for keeping the man informed and listening to his ideas. Even if last night Ceann was drunk and hanging on Athena’s arm. Even if the party had been woken early this morning, and rushed to the Great Tent. Even if Jacob had to leave Laranna’s company and pull the unhappy redhead aside if he wanted to talk to him. It would be painful to listen to Ceann’s criticism yet again, but Jacob was supposed to do it. Because if he didn’t, he risked this conversation happening. Now it had.

Jacob wanted to say he was sorry for the mis-communication, but if he did, Ceann would see it as false apology. It would be better to say nothing at all. Worse, there were things Jacob really couldn’t explain, not yet.

Lord Ironwood’s second son stood slowly, and looked around at the others. Weighed down by his own insecurity, he saw only anger, hurt, in every direction. Suddenly, he found himself utterly lost. “I think,” he said, “that I need a few minutes.”

Athena could only gape as Jacob fled into the woods, until in the long silence, she found her own words. “Was that really necessary?” she asked Ceann, anger blazing in her eyes.

In that moment, so much became clear. She put her hand on Laranna’s arm, and spoke softly, as to a child. “You are more than welcome among us. Yes, Jacob is betrothed. I can see that he likes you, anyway, though he’ll never admit it. But that isn’t why he invited you. Jacob’s a thinker. Even his reasons have reasons. Problem is, sometimes he’s too busy thinking to speak. There’s been more going on than you know, or Ceann, either. I don’t know his plan, but I’d bet my life it’s a good one.”

Her voice strained, Athena rounded on Ceann. “And you: you’re a bastard. I think we need to have a long talk. Later, when I’m not likely to kill you. But right now, Jacob needs a friend.”

As Ceann watched, incredulous, she stormed off into the woods after the troubled nobleman. He started to rise, but Brother Francis’s carefully patient voice interrupted him. “Let it be,” the monk said. “All will be revealed soon.”

Ceann grunted contemptuously, “Ah, the one Jacob actually trusts, even about stopping to camp in the middle of the day. This is as much your fault as anyone’s. Only now you speak up?”

Brother Francis’s normally gentle and melodious voice had frozen solid. “I was waiting for your anger to recede, in the hopes that it might take some of your stupidity with it. When Jacob gets back, he will tell you who took the Shield, and why we ride to prevent a war. I suspect that is when he will realize that Laranna deserves the truth, as well. In the meantime, if there is anyone who can undo your damage, it is Athena. Now, have a seat.”

Ceann sat down, hard.

Athena was incensed. What in Heaven’s name was Ceann thinking? If he had only bothered to ask questions before running at the mouth, nothing would be broken, and she wouldn’t have to be alone. Now, there was no way she could see herself with an idiot like that. How could she have misjudged him so badly? She had been so blindsided, she had not even thought to defend Jacob until he was gone. Of course she hadn’t: he was the one person who had always supported her, no matter how bad things got. She had to fix this, as much as it could be fixed.

Without thought, one foot followed another, southward down the trail that led into the forest. She descended from the field, then continued several minutes down the winding trail through the trees. When she reached the bottom of the long hill to a small glen, the trail split. She noted scuffed bootprints heading off to the left, around yet another another hill. Luckily, the tracks were fresh, and she had no trouble with them. She hadn’t really expected Jacob to wander this far so quickly, but she still couldn’t see him. It was only after she rounded a rocky hill that she realized the tracks she had been following weren’t Jacob’s. Suddenly she was staring into the surprised faces of three large men with scraggly beards, each wearing ragged leather and very long knives. Behind them were two more sitting before a low fire.

“Well, hello, girl,” a yellow-bearded giant before her offered with a leer. “Are you alone? Come join us by the fire. Don’t be shy.”

Behind the speaker, one man picked up a bow, and another an ax. Athena turned on her heels, and bolted back the way she came. Behind her rang the urgent cries of the bandits behind her. Some of the cries were wordless, but others were more chilling. She clamored up the trail, dodging trees, running as fast as she could uphill in her heavy chainmail. She was in good condition, but too soon her chest began to burn and heave for air, and she risked a look over her shoulder. Sure enough, the bastards with their damned long legs were gaining. By God’s middle finger, this was going to suck. When she reached a flatter area of the hill, she staggered to a stop, one hand on her knee, and yelled at the top of her lungs, “Jacob! Bandits!”

The highwayman slowed their approach, while Athena drew her sword and straightened into a defensive stance, trying to use the hill to her advantage.

“You can’t win,” the yellow-bearded man laughed, breathing heavily. “Drop your sword, your armor, and all your valuables, and you can live through this.”

Lightning raced through her veins as the huntress prepared to fight for her life. She had seen the bandits’ lair; there was no way they would let her live. At least this way, she might die on her feet. “Maybe I can’t fight you all,” she panted, trying not to hyperventilate in her fear, “but the first one up the hill is going down.”

They didn’t rush her, though, or attack one by one. Three men waited for her, just below where she crouched. Two had spears, while one wielded a sword and an ornamented shield. Meanwhile, a shorter bandit at the bottom of the hill began to string his bow. The other, the one with the ax, stood patiently behind the three in front. He must be the leader.

Athena, without a shield or bow of her own, couldn’t afford to wait any longer. With a wild yell, she charged over to the spearman on the left, a dark-bearded youth. She splintered his spear-shaft with a mighty down-swing, fighting to keep from getting surrounded.

In the distance, she heard Jacob’s call, “Athena!”

“Here!” she screamed, tearing into the man who futilely tried to poke her with his jagged stick. A cut across his neck sent him falling, blood spurting everywhere, as he gurgled his death. Despite herself, Athena gagged, struggling not to vomit, but still managed to deflect an enemy sword with a quick backhand. The blond-bearded spearman tried to circle up to her right, and the axeman carefully began up the hill.

The bandits were more careful now, and more angry. The spearman kept back, using the advantage of his weapon’s range to send skewering thrusts from afar, while the swordsman kept her too occupied to press the attack. She held her own, desperately dodging and trying to angle around the swordsman, trying to keep the spear out of the fight. She even scored a glancing hit against the swordsman’s hip. Below, the archer had his bow ready, but waited for a clear shot.

Knowing she had only moments to live, Athena flew into the swordsman, wishing she had her shield. Deflecting the incoming strike with her sword, she lifted her leg and kicked the man down the hill, striking hard with the heel of her boot. However, with the swordsman clear, Athena took an arrow to the ribs. It was a clumsy shot, uphill, and without a full draw. Still it took the wind from her, and pierced the padding under her chain. She had no time to consider the slow trickle of blood through her uniform as she dodged under the axeman’s swing, shredding his shirtsleeve with her sword.

Then, suddenly, the world was moving too fast to follow. Somehow, she was sliding down the hill, a spearhead caught in the the chainmail on her right side. She slipped under the ax aimed at her forehead, but lost her footing entirely, and began to roll down the hill. The fall snapped the spearhead from her enemy’s spear, but also ripped its tip painfully from her side. She tried to scramble to her feet on the uneven ground, but the archer’s boot swung hard into her gut, and she curled forward reflexively instead, stomach again fighting to empty itself. Curses rushed by her ears, and boots assaulted her from all directions, bloodying her sides, back and cheeks as she struggled to protect the softer parts of her face. She could hear nothing over the rush of blood in her ears. She was going to die.

Then, suddenly, the boots were gone, and there was clean air around her. Gasping, groaning, she tried to lift her head, and the sounds of the world returned. Jacob was here, and the bowman stared sightlessly at her, blood mixing in the half-dried mud and leaves, only a few feet away. The swordsman was up, parrying desperately against Jacob’s attack, whose usual defensive style was giving way to the pure onslaught of rage. The axeman tried to approach, but in the spaces between the seconds that crawled by, Jacob’s sword hissed by him, forcing him back.

The third remaining bandit, the one with with the missing spearhead, stood by her, having circled behind Jacob. Athena pulled her dagger free from where she lay, frantically stabbing him in the calf. He clubbed her with his spear-shaft as he fell, but she continued to stab, the coppery scent of blood now everywhere as his thrashing legs ceased. Jacob took advantage of the distraction to put a huge gash in the chest of the axeman, who now clutched at himself with his left hand. Seeing Athena reach toward him with her dagger, the axeman gave her another kick, rattling her vision. Jacob’s return slice nearly severed the man’s head. The lone swordsman tried to turn, and Jacob’s back-swing cut deep into the his leg, felling him in a fountain of bright red blood. The bandit’s death was already certain, so Jacob ended his misery with a cut to the neck.

Jacob stepped forward, standing over the dead swordsman. “You made me kill you,” he whispered inanely. He stood dazed by his surroundings, face pale. He looked as if he wanted to turn and run from the horror of death and gore. Instead, he cleaned his weapon on the bandit’s cloak. Then he staggered to Athena, hovering over her, deep worry etched in his face.

“I’m fine,” she said, though nothing felt fine. “I - thank God you came just then. I’m not ready to die.”

“No,” he said, unable to manage any proper reassurance. “Me neither.”

Jacob stood still for a moment, taking in the gruesome scene. He had killed not just one man, but three. It was not an easy thing to live with, despite the other choice being worse. Athena looked up at him from the ground, her face and armor streaked with blood and dirt. She looked battered, and exhausted. His heart went out to her, but she would not thank him for questioning her toughness. “Can you stand?” he asked.

Athena sighed, and sat upright. “Sure, just give me a minute.”

Jacob offered a hand, and pulled her up to her feet. “Thanks,” she grunted, “I think.”

“You need to see this,” he said. He stepped over to the fallen swordsman, and removed the ornate but dented shield strapped to the bandit’s arm, lifting it to show her.

“My God, Jacob, that’s the Shield of St. Thomas. How did that get there? Do you think these bandits are the ones that stole it?”

“So it seems,” Jacob replied heavily, “but not from us. You don’t hunt down a priceless relic, then use it as a weapon to mug people with. They must have taken it from Innoken’s men. Ceann was right: we should have watched the exits to the city during the tournament.”

Athena put her had on Jacob’s arm, steadying herself. “Maybe he guessed right about this, but he’s completely wrong about you. He’s jealous, and petty, and afraid; and I feel like an idiot for not seeing it. I’m done with him. Don’t you worry about him, either, and any of the stupid things he said. Anyway, I need to sit, but not here. Let’s go down to their lair, by the stream.”

He put his arm around her carefully, trying to ignore the feel of her as she breathed, and helped her down the hill and around the bend. The camp looked strange, as if the men whose life he ended would come back momentarily to take the pot off the fire and join him. He couldn’t sit here with their ghosts, so he helped her down to the bank by the stream. There they sat, for minutes or for hours, watching the clear water, and listening to its soothing babble. Athena slumped against his side.

Eventually, Jacob cleared his throat, and reluctantly interrupted the silence. “I hate to mention it, but we need to clean those scrapes of yours. I won’t have you getting wound-sickness from laying in mud.”

“Just a few minutes,” Athena groaned.

“Stay here,” he continued. “I’m going to grab some clothes, and get the water off the fire. Once the pot cools a bit, we’ll need them to clean and bind any gashes you’ve picked up.”

He came back with a couple shirts, a dress, and the pot. Using a shirt to hold the handle, he lowered the bottom of the pot into a still section of the stream, waiting for the sizzling to stop, then placed it on the grass. Athena scooted over to the stream, and dunked in her head, letting the filth wash away from her hair and face. She came up grinning. “Whoa, that’s cold. I needed that.”

She stripped off her chain armor, dunked it briefly in the stream, padded it as dry as she could with the one shirt, then left it in the sun. She laid down on the grass in her shirt and pants, warming in the sun.

Jacob did likewise, and dunked his head in the stream, as well. Then he checked the pot, and found the water had cooled to a tolerable temperature. He wet a second shirt in the water, and used it to clean a cut on his arm. “Alright, Athena, I still see some blood. Let’s get it clean. There’s some on your - do you want me to wait somewhere else while you clean?”

Athena shuddered. “No, please, and keep your sword close. What if there’s someone else out here? I never scared easily, but right now I really don’t want to be alone. Just turn around.”

So the Baron’s son waited while she stripped off her pants, and dipped them in the water. She removed her shirt, and cleaned that too. She tried to put on the dress, but it was small, and she was wet, so it stuck around her shoulders. Grunting softly at the tight fabric rubbing on her bruises, she wiggled out of it. Meanwhile, Jacob sat patiently, pointedly staring downstream. “Jacob, the dress is too small.”

“Sorry,” he replied. “I could look for another one, but I think they’re the same size.”

Athena laughed. “Did you do this on purpose? Save a girl’s life and then leave her nothing to wear?”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” he replied carefully. “I suppose I’m just a poor strategist.”

Athena chuckled sourly, and grabbed one of the large shirts, throwing it over her head, nose wrinkling. Despite having been washed recently, it still didn’t meet her definition of clean, and she did not consider herself strict about such things. Still, it was dry, so she plopped down next to Jacob, smoothing the cloth onto her damp thighs. And suddenly, she was exhausted, her eyes barely wanting to stay open. She leaned against Jacob’s side and kissed his cheek. “Thank you,” was all she said.

Jacob put his arm around her, and there they sat in the sun, warm against each other as the swiftly racing clouds dappled them with sun and shadow through the afternoon.

As the shadows started to grow longer, Jacob stirred. The warmth of the woman lying against him was pleasant, and he was loathe to wake her. In fact, the feel of her was starting to stir something in him that he wasn’t sure he wanted stirred. Unfortunately, Ceann at the very least would have hard words for the pair if they didn’t get back soon. “Wake up, Arianna,” he called out gently, shaking her shoulder.

“No,” she grumbled. “Sleep.”

“Sorry, time to get up. We’ll have questions enough as it is,” Jacob reminded her.

“I thought you were my friend,” Athena complained.

Still, she took his outstretched hand and allowed him to pull her to her feet, then waited while he turned back to the creek. She felt every inch of the bruises throughout her chest, thighs, ribs, legs, and, well, she didn’t have to count them all to feel them. No, she wore her aches like a blanket. But she was a warrior, and so she said nothing as she thankfully shed the ratty shirt and climbed into her own clothes and armor.

“You can turn back around now,” she said. “I have to say, I’m a little insulted.”

“Why is that?” Jacob, asked, pulling on his own armor.

“You didn’t peek,” she observed.

“You would have killed me,” Jacob laughed, as he started back towards the bandit camp.

“Maybe, depends on your reaction. Wait, is that a cave by the fire?” She raised her hand above her eyes to shield them from the sun.

“Yes,” he answered. “I saw it but didn’t have time to check it out.”

“Looks like now’s the time,” she said, and limped towards it.

The sky was starting to dim when Jacob and Athena arrived back into the camp, the sunset spreading in a spectacular red above the forest. Jacob wore the Shield on his back, its straps around his shoulder, but it was mostly covered by the large bag of items they had looted from the small cave behind the bandit’s cooking fire. Despite the passage of time, the scene was much as when they had left: Laranna and Daniel sat nervously, Brother Francis was carefully impassive, and Ceann looked fit to chew nails.

“Finally decided to come back, Jacob? I do hope you have some answers,” the red-haired merchant drawled.

Jacob nodded, easing down the bag he carried. “Yes, I suppose you deserve them. First, Athena, while looking for me, found a camp with five bandits: big guys. She fought well, and managed to hold them off until I arrived, though it was a close thing for a while.”

Ceann’s eyes grew wide, and his mouth worked. When he said nothing, Jacob continued, “All five are dead, though we both needed some time to recover, physically and emotionally. I don’t know how many fights to the death you’ve been involved in, but I don’t recommend them. There was a stream nearby, so we cleaned up all the blood as well as we could.

Our bandits also had a cave nearby where they stashed their loot. It’s easy to miss, especially from the stream, but we found quite a bit there, including some interesting things from Sarronen. Oh, and one of the bandits had this.”

Jacob swung the shield off his back and held it forward for the others to examine. It was solidly made, but didn’t look particularly remarkable. It was just was a old metal plated round shield. Perhaps once it had been beautiful, but now it was dented, scratched, and much of the paint was chipped. Yet, for that, both the wood and the metal had held up surprisingly well. “This is the Shield of St. Thomas.”

Ceann’s mouth swung open again. “How did - what is that doing here?”

Brother Francis was nearly as shocked, though it did register in his voice. “Amazing! Yet I was given to understand from Daniel that Serren had stolen the shield.”

Daniel’s jaw clenched. “He did, I swear it! He was the one who murdered Timothy, and Father Gerrold as well.”

Jacob reached carefully into the heavy bag, and pulled out a few tokens: two medallions of the Fire God, two red scarves, and a chain hauberk of Sarronen make. Then he nodded to Ceann. “We found these in the cave. Someone was moving the Shield out of Sarronen, and was attacked by these bandits. We should have been watching the southern and eastern exits from the city, but we assumed that if Serren had taken the Shield, he would have no need to remove it from the city. Something changed his mind, or Innoken’s. I didn’t tell you, because I didn’t want to involve the Lady Laranna. And when she wasn’t present, you seemed - occupied.

If Innoken and probably Haldor were involved in this, then Ironwood is in danger. We need to attend the upcoming Summit, and find out more.

Laranna, I hoped that in exchange for an escort, you would not begrudge us an introduction to your father, and he might be able to help us at the Summit. But I didn’t want to embroil you in our problems. I’m sorry that I wasn’t clear about my reasons or my situation. I’m sorry too if I gave the impression that - well, that I wanted to court you. You see, that’s never been my decision to make. My father chose the woman I am to marry, and I didn’t consider that things might work differently in Northspire. Lady, you have my sincere apology. But now I realize you have something to tell us, my Lady Laranna.”

The raven-haired woman chewed her lip for long seconds, before sighing, decision made. “Yes, I suppose I do. I was in Kull territory when I was kidnapped, but it was Sarronen warriors who did it. I wasn’t supposed to know. I was blindfolded before Halvar ‘rescued’ me. But there were clues: my ‘Kull captors’ were poor actors, and sounded too much like men of Sarronen. I don’t suppose someone from Travan was supposed to hear the difference.

Sarronen’s patrolling in Kull territory never made sense to me, either. But I could not let Halvar know I was aware. They left me alive to go back and give Travan and the Kulls more reason to fight each other. They would have killed me if they had known I could reveal their secret.

I was in Sarronen for almost two weeks, and every day was terrifying, but I couldn’t show it. Every day, I was sure, would be the day I showed my fear, and they would kill me. Thank you for taking me with you. I don’t know how much longer I could have stood it.”

Athena rushed forward, and put her arm around the lady, who suddenly began to cry silent tears. To Athena’s surprise, the stiff noblewoman buried her face in her shoulder immediately. “It’s alright now,” Athena whispered. “You were strong.”

Laranna gave her a quick grateful smile, and wiped away the tears, straightening. She didn’t push Athena away from her side.

Ceann threw up his hands. “God’s clearly on your side, Jacob, because there’s no other possible explanation for all this craziness working out in your favor. But you found the shield, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. I do wish you hadn’t sent us off to Travan without talking to me first. Your father will be less than pleased.”

Jacob couldn’t completely hide his exasperated grin. Clearly, this was as close as he was going to get to an apology. So be it.

Brother Francis, however, still looked grim. “This is more troubling than I had anticipated. Ironwood, the Kulls, and Travan: that is a lot of enemies for the Fire God to risk making. What stakes could be worth risking so much? Is Haldor really willing to go to war? If so, why?

Jacob, this may sound strange, but I want to ask you a favor. My quest was always to find this relic, and now that quest is done. Would you be willing to entrust me with it for an hour or so, so I can meditate on it and complete my pilgrimage? You have my word that I will return it, after.”

Jacob did not hesitate, but held the Shield forward before the middle-aged monk. “Of course, Brother. Thank you for all the help you have given us. You have more than earned my trust. We both have a lot to consider, I think.”

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