“Commitments” – The Order: Book 2

Chapter 1

Plans

Tyront looked at the younger man opposite him and shook his head indulgently, causing his full, slightly greying hair to dance with the movement. “You have been in a very good mood these last few days. This doesn’t happen to have anything to do with a certain ambassador having left the city, does it?” he chuckled.
There was a glint in Enric’s clear blue eyes when he smiled weakly and stretched out his long legs, crossing his ankles over each other. “Are you suggesting that I do not appreciate the great chances for the Kingdom the delegation’s visit has opened up? That would be implying that my disposition is somewhat unpatriotic.”
“No, my boy, I am suggesting that you are relieved that he can no longer try to charm your companion away from you.”
The younger man looked somewhat disapproving, his piercing blue eyes slightly narrowed. “Are you saying that I was afraid that he would have succeeded eventually?”
“Maybe not succeeded in charming her, but probably in taking her away from here somehow. I doubt that she would have gone voluntarily. You seem to have grown on her, after all. I have noticed that she is more relaxed now when you touch her.”
“Yes, that she is. And that was hard work. Basically, I have been wearing her down,” Enric replied with a lazy smile, glad that the conversation had moved away from the ambassador.
Tyront grinned. “Devious. What is she up to at the moment? The healers’ building is not yet finished, so she can’t really start any healing or teaching yet. Do you know if she has contacted young Rolan yet?”
“She mentioned thinking about an expedition of some sort to teach the herb gatherers which plants to look for, where to find them and how to treat them once they have found them. She will probably ask her assistant to take care of some organisational matters in connection with this.”
“You don’t seem too enthusiastic about that idea. I myself think it is a valid use of her time until she can start to use the building.”
Enric sighed. “Yes, I know it is. It’s just the thought of her leaving the city for several days with a bunch of strangers that doesn’t sit well with me. I hinted at the chance of accompanying her, but she treated it like put-on and laughed it off.” He shook his head. “Could I make her stay with an official order? Would you back me up on that? It would mean neglecting her studies and combat training for quite some time, in fact.”
Tyront looked incredulous. “You are not seriously asking me that, are you? I can’t be seen backing you up on something like that. I’d say it’s good for you to let her do something on her own for a change. She is rather a capable young woman and it’s time for her to handle things without your being there to fix each little thing that goes wrong or even prevent its going wrong in the first place.”
“I am not doing anything of that sort,” Enric retorted, knowing fully well that he was.
“You aren’t? Then how about your sending magicians to the construction site of her building to make sure it gets finished in time? And then you wanted to accompany her on her negotiations with the apothecaries.” Tyront narrowed his eyes. “Is it possible that you are trying to show her that being with you increases her chances of success? You are not that desperate, are you?”
The younger magician looked slightly irritated. “Weren’t you the one to preach that being a leader also means being a mentor?”
“What you are doing is not mentoring, though, as it is meant to serve your personal aims instead of your protégé’s,” the older man replied with raised eyebrows.
“This sounds as if you are in favour of her accomplishing something without my help and will thus grant her permission for her idea of a herb gathering expedition.”
“Yes, if the details are halfway reasonable I will not put obstacles in her way,” he said. “Even if being without her for a few days threatens to break your heart.”
“That’s nice. First you keep pestering me for years finally to settle down with a nice girl and when I do, you keep taunting me because I happen to become attached to her.” Enric shook his head. “I should have known there would be no pleasing you.”
Tyront smiled. “I am pleased, believe me. Very much so. Your falling in love with her was a lucky stroke for all of us. But it is comforting to see that she keeps you on your toes, so to speak. A man in your position has a great choice of compliant females, so the temptation to pick one that is willing to cater to your every whim is clearly there. But in the long run a less docile partner is more stimulating.”
“Yes, I dare say that is something I will probably never lack: stimulation,” Enric said with a lopsided grin. Then he turned serious. “How about the report on the results of the negotiations with the delegation? Has Marrin sent it yet? I am looking forward to reading it. I am curious what they have agreed on. Why again was the Order not included in the talks?”
“Because they mostly talked about trade, and this is not one of the Order’s areas of expertise or responsibility.”
“Of course – only invite the warriors when the trade talks have failed and we need to hit them on the head,” Enric retorted with some sourness in his voice.
“Look at you… So there is a little of your father in you, after all. Feeling the urge to get back to your roots, being a merchant, negotiating trade agreements?”
The younger man grimaced at the mention of his father. “Hardly. Don’t tell me you are happy with being left out? There is valuable knowledge about magic in the Western Territories, so I don’t see how we were not entitled to participate in the negotiations.”
“I think you overestimate the progress and depth of the talks. It was mostly about establishing a preliminary trading and messenger structure, exchanging information about goods available for trade and determining an exchange rate for our currencies.”
Enric gave a feeble grin. “So they haven’t really managed to leave you out of it entirely, have they?” He leaned forward. “I wonder who your informer is. But of course you won’t tell me.”
Tyront shrugged. “Of course I won’t. You go find your own able agents in useful positions.”
They looked up when a knock sounded at the door and a servant delivered a folded message. The older man turned it to take a look at the seal.
“Ah yes, I see Eryn finally has her own seal.” He studied the curved lines that formed an elegant ornament for several seconds. “Interesting. It does remind me of your own – which is hardly a coincidence, I dare say.”
“No, not at all. I instructed Vern accordingly and he delivered a design in record time. Very useful, that boy. We really should keep an eye on him. I suppose she sent you the request for her expedition?”
Tyront opened the seal and nodded after a few moments. “Yes, indeed. She asks for provisions for herself plus one, and for fifteen herb gatherers for ten days.”
“Plus one?”
“Yes. It seems she wants to take young Vern along with her. To make illustrations for documentation purposes. She mentions writing a book with instructions where they would be indispensable.” He looked at the second piece of paper that was included and smiled. “She has even sent a signed letter of permission from Orrin where he agrees to entrust his son into her care for the duration of the expedition. I like these little touches of thoughtfulness.” He read the letter again. “It’s odd that she has not requested any servants for the journey. As I assume that she doesn’t intend to cook and prepare camp every night for all these people, I will approve two more people to take care of this.”
Enric smiled when an idea hit him. “Make one of them the orphan girl from the kitchen, young Plia, will you? Eryn hasn’t really had much chance to spend time with her in these last weeks and I know she feels bad about it.”
“Alright, Plia, the kitchen girl it is.” Tyront made a note. “Any preference about the second one?”
“No, not really. But somebody who can do heavy lifting and has no problems taking orders from a woman would be good.”
“Well, that second part would rule you out at any rate,” Tyront said with a thin smile. “It took me years to get you to take orders from the King, after all. You see? Your accompanying her would be completely useless.”

* * *

Eryn knocked at the door to Orrin’s quarters and smiled when Junar opened it.
“Hello. I keep running into you more and more often these days. Why do you even bother returning to your home anymore?” she grinned at her friend.
“Because I am an independent woman with my own income and do not want to leech off my rich lover. That’s why,” Junar explained with mock haughtiness.
“Lover.” Eryn shook her head with a grimace, looking at the petite woman in front of her whose appearance with her nicely flowing dress was so much more female than Eryn’s own preferred no-nonsense style with trousers and tunic and her hastily braided hair hanging down her back. “I still have problems connecting that term with Orrin.”
“Good,” the seamstress said. “I wouldn’t want you to think of him that way.”
“No danger there, sweetheart. He is all yours. Is my favourite sixteen-year old around? I have good news for him.”
“In his room with his nose in a book; as always when he isn’t drawing some part of the body no normal person can identify. Be careful of that monster you brought here. It has a nasty temper.”
Eryn frowned. “Monster? You mean the cat I brought here for him to practise repairing soft tissue? It’s still here? Why? He told me he just wanted to feed it and then set it free again. That was more than a week ago!”
Junar nodded gravely. “Yes, that was the initial plan. But somehow that beast has managed to brainwash Vern into keeping it. It sleeps on his bed, eats leftover meat and then pees on whatever looks expensive.”
“Oh dear,” Eryn said with a sympathetic grimace, feeling slightly guilty. “Do you want me to talk to him about it?”
Junar sighed. “No, that’s Orrin’s problem, let him handle it. His son, his quarters, his responsibility. Though one of these days he’ll have no servant willing to clean his quarters any more, I am afraid. Removing stinking, wet, dripping items or being attacked by the cause of them is hardly an incentive to work here.”
Eryn chewed her lip. “And the cat’s in his room now? Where I am supposed to go?”
“You caught it, so you obviously know how to deal with it. And you can shield yourself. Where is the danger for you?”
“Well, catching it was not really a matter of great personal danger for me,” she admitted. “I basically stunned it and slung it over my shoulder. It might remember that and take revenge on me.”
Junar scoffed. “You stunned the cat with magic in order to catch it? That truly was a heroic act. It’s not like you are several times the size of the poor creature.”
“You go out there and try to catch one of these cunning beasts with your bare hands, then we can talk,” Eryn shot back. “They have claws. And teeth. And they move like lightning. Have I mentioned the claws? Veritable daggers, I tell you. And suddenly it’s a poor creature? A minute ago you called it a monster!”
“Says the woman who can heal herself instantly. I have not yet heard anything that would warrant your fear of going in there, so off you go. Don’t make me drag you in there by your ear,” the seamstress grinned.
Eryn straightened. “Alright. I am not afraid of a cat. I am not afraid of a cat. I can stun it again if need be…” She knocked at Vern’s door and opened it when he grunted something unintelligible.
He was hunched over a book on his desk, the ends of his overlong fringe almost touching the paper. The enormous, red tomcat was curled up on his bed, opening one eye when she entered, flicking the tip of its tail in a gesture that, however miniscule, somehow managed to convey a promise of pain to the careless person who took any undue liberties, such as for example getting too close.
“Good news,” she announced cheerfully. “The departure of the expedition has been cleared! We will be off for ten days of wilderness and herb gathering in no more than three weeks!”
Vern looked up, blinking a few times so as to leave the world of skin disorders behind him and concentrate on the here and now.
“That’s brilliant,” he then grinned. “I wouldn’t have thought that Lord Enric would really have let you leave.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she huffed indignantly. “I am a grown woman and an important person in that bloody Order. Of course he let me go!” She didn’t mention that Enric had tried to dissuade her several times, had hinted at wanting to accompany her and had very likely hired agents to keep an eye on her. This would kind of make Vern correct, and that would just not be right. Even though he basically was.
“When are we leaving again?” the boy asked and rubbed his hands.
“In three weeks. There is quite a bit of planning to be done before that and I suppose this is a good opportunity to get my new assistant started, even though he officially starts only in a few weeks. But I think it might be a good idea to have somebody here to take care of things while I am gone, so I am going to break it gently to him that he is supposed to start earlier than planned. He is going to be so thrilled,” she added dryly.
Vern gave a broad grin. “Hey, if you don’t kick him where it hurts most, you will be off to a better start than last time.”
“Oh, great. Why exactly am I taking you with me to have you around me all day long?”
“Because you need somebody with very good drawing skills and it seems that mine are unparalleled in the city,” he replied smugly.
“Yes, right. I knew there had to be some good reason for me to be willing to endure this.”
“Would you rather take Rolan on the trip? He could double as your servant,” the boy asked with a malicious grin.
“Shut up or I will make you double as my servant,” she threatened mildly. “It would certainly make things easier for Plia.”
“Plia is coming, too?” Vern smiled. “That’s terrific. It will be good to have a friendly female face there as well.”
“Are you telling me my face is not friendly?”
“Seriously – do you ever look into the mirror after you get up? I wonder how Lord Enric endures it.”
She looked at him and sighed. “You know, I am starting to wonder how hard drawing can really be. Maybe I could learn it myself within the next three weeks.”
“You go on and try that,” he smirked. “It will make you return to me and go down on your knees to beg me to accompany you.”
She sighed. “Yes, probably.” When she made to sit on his bed, a low growl warned her to think better of it. “Why is that cat still here? I thought you just wanted to feed it once after it wakes up to calm your guilty conscience for using it and then get rid of it? It does look rather fierce. Has it eaten anybody yet?”
Vern looked hurt. “Ram’an, you wouldn’t do that, would you?” he cooed and fondled the cat behind one ear without being bitten, scratched or otherwise harmed.
Eryn raised a brow. “You named the cat after the ambassador? Really? That is bizarre, even for you.”
“Why? I like the ambassador. I know you had some kind of row with him, but that was taken care of, wasn’t it? So it’s not disloyal of me to use his name for the cat.”
She sighed. “No, not really. I am just wondering why you kept him. I mean, he is a street cat and Junar mentioned that he keeps pissing everywhere.”
“That’s grossly exaggerated. That was just because Ram’an had no lavatory.”
“And he has one now?”
“Yes, he has a box with sawdust. And he uses it. He only pees on father’s shoes when he is upset.”
She shook her head in exasperation. “I really need to be more careful with what I use to teach you. If I ask you to heal a horse, will that also end up in your bedroom? And who is supposed to take care of that beast while you are on the expedition? If it treats others in the same friendly way as it does me, nobody will want to go near it.”
“Oh, that’s not a problem,” Vern waved her off. “He just needs his food twice a day and his box cleaned up once a day. The servants can easily do that. He mostly sleeps, so he won’t bother anybody. It’s a pity though, that we are on the first floor. He can’t get in and out of the window that way.”
“Have you tried it?”
“Have I tried what?”
“Leaving the window open, genius. There is a ledge under it that stretches around the whole building. He might figure out a way to get down and up again. You would be amazed what some of these little buggers can do.”
Vern eyed the cat doubtfully. “I don’t know. He might run away and never return.”
Hardly, Eryn thought. Why give up two meals a day and a warm place to sleep? But what she said was, “You wouldn’t want to keep him here if he doesn’t want to stay, would you? I don’t have to tell you how I feel about keeping prisoners, do I?”
He sighed. “Alright. I will give it a try, I promise.”
Good, she thought. With a little luck the cat would not find its way back up and Orrin might in time forgive her for the feline assaults on his shoes.
“So, I need to be off now to find my new assistant,” she pasted a big fake smile on her face. “That is going to be so much fun!”

* * *

She wondered what the best place to meet Rolan would be. In her quarters? Not good, she didn’t really have a study there and using Enric’s was not really an option. While she knew he would be more than willing to let her use it, it just didn’t feel right. The parlour was too casual and the guest room was no more than a collection of books and papers; they would have to sit on the bed, something that was not at all appropriate.
What a nuisance that the healers’ building was not yet ready for use. She would ask Lord Tyront if she could use one of the meeting rooms the Order had at its disposal, she decided. That was official – maybe a bit too much – but that couldn’t be helped right now.
She took out a sheet of paper and a pen and scribbled a quick note, sealed it with her new stamp and ordered the messenger to wait for a reply after delivering it. If Lord Tyront was at home right now, it should only need a few minutes before she had her reply; their quarters were not that far apart.
Taking out another sheet, she started writing a note to Rolan to summon him and wondered about the appropriate way to do this. Phrasing it like an invitation would seem weak. An order might be a bit strong. A request? But that would leave the chance of his refusal open, wouldn’t it? She finally decided to phrase it like the order it basically was.
A knock at the door brought Lord Tyront’s answer in which he let her know that she was free to use each and every meeting room she deemed fit for whatever purpose now and in the future. That was convenient. She decided to use the one she knew from her negotiations with the apothecaries. At least it was easy enough to find.
She finished her note to Rolan, instructing him to meet her in one hour and bring a pen and notepad with him as this would be his very first day of work as her assistant.
It would be a relief to let him do most of the work in connection with the expedition. Enric had hinted none too subtly that he expected her to complete in advance some of the studying and combat training she would miss. That meant extra hours of reading and fighting, in addition to her healing lessons with Vern.
But she was willing to accept these conditions for the chance to escape the confines of the city for the first time in almost ten months. She had lived almost all her life amidst trees, gathering herbs, bathing in ponds and rivers, yet had for quite some time now been restricted to a place with no more than a meagre few trees and a river she would rather not risk having skin contact with, at least not the part of it within and downstream of the city. Feeling real soil under her feet again, hearing the rustling of the wind in the leaves above her… Then again… sleeping outside with sixteen men, without sanitation, being at the mercy of the elements – another part somewhere began to speak out and Eryn shut it up, angrily. It seemed she had become accustomed to the luxury of life in the city. Maybe it was about time to get reconnected with the outside world, to remind herself that life was not about soft beds, lavish breakfasts and long, hot baths.

* * *

She turned from her position in front of the high window when a loud knock at the door reverberated through the spacious meeting room with the domed ceiling and the oblong table surrounded by six uncomfortable looking chairs. A servant opened the tall door, bowed, then announced Rolan.
As she had expected, he did not look too thrilled to set eyes on her again. Whether it was due to being summoned unexpectedly or his new position in general, she wasn’t able to say. But she hadn’t chosen this, either, so they would both have to come to terms with it somehow. She was older, wiser and thus more mature, and higher in rank, so she was probably the one who was supposed to make this work.
When the servant had departed and left them alone he bowed and said formally, “Lady Eryn.”
He was wearing the customary brown magician’s robes. His blond hair reached to his collar and was tucked back behind his ears, and perhaps because of his new role his bearing was stiff; he avoided eye contact with Eryn as far as he could. He didn’t bother hiding the fact that meeting her gave him no pleasure at all but was instead a nuisance he knew he had to endure.
Twenty-two years old, she mused. Only six years older than Vern, but a lot further advanced than that when it came to cynicism and disapproval. Well, at least with regard to disapproval. Vern was pretty cynical and sarcastic for a teenage boy.
“Rolan.” She nodded to him and walked closer, motioning for him to sit while she herself would remain standing for now. Was she supposed to thank him for coming? It was not as if he’d really had much of a choice in the matter. Thanking him would probably equal mocking him.
“I appreciate that you came here on such short notice,” she said and decided that it sounded right. “You were informed that we would start working together in a few weeks, but something has turned up where I need your help now already. I hope this does not cause you any undue inconvenience.”
“No,” he replied stiffly, clearly finding it hugely inconvenient to sit there.
“Good,” she smiled thinly. “I see you brought pen and paper.” She pointed to her own sheets she had brought and pushed them towards him on the table. “The first task I need you to assist me with is planning an expedition that is scheduled for three weeks’ time. Its purpose is to…”
“An expedition?” the young man interrupted her and frowned. “I have no idea how to plan an expedition! What am I supposed to do?”
“First of all, you are supposed to remain quiet and listen to me while I am talking,” she replied sharply. “You might learn something useful, after all.”
She saw him press his lips together into a thin line. Just brilliant. Telling him off was definitely not a good start.
“The purpose of the expedition, as I was trying to tell you before,” she continued, “is to teach the herb gatherers where to find and how to handle plants for medicines and medical treatments. I have already talked to some of them to determine a ten-day-route.” She bent down to pick up a sheet and push it towards him. “The blue line on this map is the route I have set. I want you to take this and put together a file with all necessary information for this trip. Have a copy made of everything, so that each of us has the complete version.”
He pulled the sheet towards him and studied it, frowning. “This is complete nonsense.”
“I beg your pardon?” she said icily, hands on her back and waited for him to look up.
“There is no accommodation near most of the sites you have marked. Where are you planning to sleep?”
“We are going to camp in the woods, city boy. What’s more, we need to work on your way of phrasing your objections in a more respectful manner,” she added and groaned inwardly. That had sounded an awful lot like somebody she had kept insulting. Was she turning into a female version of Lord Tyront? Surely not!
“Let me rephrase that,” she said sweetly and bent down to him, bracing her palms on the smooth, polished wood of the table. “If you ever again call anything I did or said nonsense, I will kick your sorry butt from here to the sea – have I made myself clear?” She smiled when he nodded silently after a moment’s hesitation. Good. That had felt a lot more like herself.
“Excellent. Now back to the matter of the camping. As we are not going to stay at any inns most of the time, we will need tents, food that stays edible for some time, and cooking utensils as well as sensible clothes for travelling through the woods. For the night we also need warm blankets. It is getting warmer already, but the winter is not entirely over yet. At least we shouldn’t have any snow. I hope.”
She watched him scribble the items she had named on his notepad and waited until he had finished before she continued. “Then we need equipment for treating and storing the herbs. I have a list of that prepared as well.” He wordlessly took the second sheet she gave him, looked at it, then grimaced.
“What now? Do you not agree with my choice of items? Then I assume you must have had ample expertise in the treatment of herbs to be in a position to judge this?” she said cuttingly and folded her arms in front of her.
Rolan gave her an annoyed look. “I can’t tell. Your handwriting is quite a challenge to decipher. Or is this the way people in the Western Territories write? Then I would kindly ask her Ladyship for a translation.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. That had been witty, but she could hardly admit that. Shaking her head at him, she pursed her lips. “We will just have to get you accustomed to my handwriting.” She gave him an evil smile. “Or if you prefer an approach that would be less taxing for your poor eyes, I always can dictate and you just follow me around all the time and take notes. Wouldn’t that save you so much trouble?”
He swallowed, and she saw the unease at the image, clear on his face, of his trailing behind her with a notepad for everyone to see.
“I think I will give the list another shot,” he assured her hurriedly.
“Good. That’s what I was hoping for,” Eryn nodded and then returned to the items for the expedition. “We need enough paper and ink for Vern to draw, and something to store his work afterwards without anything getting torn, wet or otherwise damaged. I have never travelled with books or papers, so you need to figure out something here.”
She walked a few steps and then murmured more to herself, “Have I forgotten anything?”
“Weapons,” Rolan prompted.
Frowning, she turned back to him. “What? This is not a raid, but an expedition for teaching herb gatherers! Or do you suggest we rob and burn down a few villages while we are at it?”
He showed impatience with his eye movements. “And what if you are waylaid or assaulted? Are you just going to raise a big, strong shield around all of you and wait until your attackers become exhausted from hitting it?”
“We are talking about herb gatherers, not battle-hardened warriors! They would very likely only hurt themselves with a sharp edged blade that is longer and heavier than a herb gathering knife.”
“And your weapons, Lady Eryn? Or do you intend to leave here without any armaments at all? And without anybody who knows how to use a sword? Will you alone be defending a group of seventeen if necessary? After a mere ten months of combat training?” He visibly fought for calm. “Well, that should make my position redundant soon enough.”
“Hey!” she cried out in bewilderment, “I thank you very much for not prematurely arranging my untimely demise!”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he grumbled sullenly and pretended to write something down. “Is there anything else, or can I leave?”
“No, that’s all from my side. For now. I expect regular updates on your progress. If I don’t hear from you I will come and find you. Then I will make you talk.” She smiled without humour. “Just take the easy route and keep me informed, will you?”
He stared at her for a few moments, then bowed and left hurriedly.
Eryn let herself fall onto a chair, feeling the tension drain out of her body now that Rolan was gone. That had not gone too badly, had it? She had not really expected a harmonic meeting, not when each side was clearly unwilling to work with the other and didn’t bother hiding that fact; but at least he had left with a clear idea of what to do, hadn’t he? She sighed. She earnestly hoped he would get at least some of the things done so she would not have to take care of everything herself.

* * *

“Good afternoon,” Enric greeted her from one of the sofas and put aside his book when she entered the parlour. “How was your meeting with Rolan?”
She sighed. “How do you know about that? I wasn’t even aware that you had anything scheduled with Lord Tyront today.”
“I didn’t really. At least nothing official. He told me that you needed a place to meet with your assistant when we had lunch together.”
“So when you don’t have a work-related reason to see each other, you eat together?” She shook her head.
“Don’t change the topic. Tell me about Rolan. Did it go well?”
“Oh, yes. Fabulously well. He is a real sweetheart. I would so much love to adopt him. Can I please?” she begged with mock eagerness.
“Hardly,” Enric chuckled. “He is only five years your junior, which means he is of age. People would think you just wanted a live-in lover.”
She grimaced at the thought of Rolan in her bed. “Well, then maybe not.”
“Yes, I agree. So it did not exactly go as you hoped?” he asked a third time, not giving up.
“I don’t know.” She sat next to him on the settee, let him kiss her on the temple and took a sip from his cup on the table. Enric played with a strand of her hair, content with the cosy, intimate situation between them and waiting for her to go on.
“I suppose it could have gone worse. He did not leave the room screaming but rather cursing under his breath. That is a good sign, isn’t it? And I did not kick him even once, though there were several times when I really wanted to, so I feel I showed great restraint presented with my new challenge in the form of my very reluctant assistant.”
“I am so proud,” Enric smirked. “Only a short while ago you were the prisoner, now you are doing your own subduing.”
She grinned. “What can I say? I must be a fast learner.” Then she bit her lip and thought back to what Rolan had said. “Do you think I need to take weapons on the expedition?”
“Definitely,” he answered immediately. “I would imagine you are pretty much the only one able to use them, so if there are any problems, you should be prepared.”
“But I am a magician! Why would I use swords?”
Enric stared at her. “Because there are very strict laws to deal with magicians who use their powers against non-magicians.”
“What? But healing is a form of doing just that,” she pointed out matter-of-factly.
“You know what I meant. The rules apply when it comes to less amiable interactions. Such as fighting.”
“Even if it is in mere defence?” she asked incredulously.
“That is what you would have to prove afterwards. If there is even the shadow of a doubt, you would be made accountable for whatever damage you’d caused. The King must be seen to be keeping us under control, and from your studies of the history books you should already be aware why. There were a few quite… unpleasant incidents in the past with rogue magicians.” He cocked his head and frowned. “Why do you think it is we really practice sword fighting, Eryn? Hardly to defend ourselves against other magicians. It is our way of making sure that we can defend ourselves against non-magicians, because due to the laws we would otherwise be unable to stand our ground in a fight.”
Eryn stared at him open-mouthed and then rose to pace the parlour. She threw her hands up in frustration and anger. “I am slowly going crazy from the lot of you! Why did nobody ever tell me this in all those months that you forced me to train fighting? I mean, I would have understood that reason!”
“What do you mean, nobody told you?”
She looked up at the ceiling. “Exactly what I said! Not a single one of you mighty warriors thought it worth your while to tell me why you were making me learn this! It would not have been so excruciating had I known that there was a valid reason for it! You are damned idiots, all of you!”
She looked down again and narrowed her eyes when she heard Enric laugh. “So, Tyront never told you? And neither did Orrin? But you trained with him almost every day for months! He never mentioned anything about why to you?”
“I am so glad you find this amusing! I honestly fail to see any humour in it. And don’t blame Orrin! You have been training with me for about two months now, and have you ever bothered telling me? No, you haven’t!” she exclaimed.
“I would have, if I’d known that nobody else had told you.”
“We had discussions about this! I told you that I found all this fighting a waste of time and magic! Why didn’t you tell me then?”
He shrugged. “I thought you just wanted to be difficult. Logical arguments hardly ever work when somebody just wants to let off steam.”
She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I don’t believe this. And I only found out by accident because I hadn’t thought of bringing a sword to the expedition. Imagine if I had defended myself with magic during an attack! I might have been punished severely without even knowing that I was breaking a law at the time!”
Enric sobered again. “Yes, that is the one thing that would have been dangerous.” She had only got away with stunning the guards at the gate during her flight attempt because she had still been considered a prisoner and was thus practically expected to violate the laws. And then nobody had really been harmed back then, so they had been more than willing to let her get away with it – especially as she had at that time not been bound to the Order and thus their rules.
“I see why you are upset. And you are right. Somebody should have told you. So you would have been less resistant had you been aware that we train sword fighting for the protection of non-magicians?”
“Of course! I wouldn’t have hated you so much for making me learn how to cause harm, when my life’s mission was healing, not injuring people. I would have accepted it as just another way of avoiding unnecessary damage.”
He sighed. “It seems we have made life more difficult than necessary for all of us.” Then he smiled. “Imagine – I could have got you back into bed with me so much sooner.”
She sniffed at the suggestion. “Dream on, pretty boy. I wouldn’t have hated you any less after your knocking me out constantly and your little trick with my father’s shield. Without your little trick of locking me in your quarters after my flight attempt, you might have had to wait for the next Freedom Night to try again.”
He grinned confidently. “No, I wouldn’t have waited that long, believe me. Not after kissing you in the street that day. It was a very distinct reminder of what I was missing.”
She stared at him in confusion. “How did we get to that topic? I am still mad at you for not telling me about your laws on the use of magic against non-magicians.” Sighing, she fixed him with an annoyed look. “It is quite a challenge to talk to you about something you are not comfortable with. You get me off track every time.”
“Not very effectively, as it seems,” he remarked. “You keep finding your way back to scolding me.”
“Yes, sure. As if that made any difference. What am I to do now? Single-handedly fend off hordes of attackers with a sword? Am I even allowed to shield myself?” She quickly thought back to the incident when she had met Plia and saved her from the stone-throwing bullies by raising a shield to protect her.
“Yes, shielding is fine. People can’t get hurt by a magical shield.” He frowned. “Unless…”
“Unless what?”
“Unless you trapped them inside an airtight barrier and suffocated them.”
“Oh, come on!” she cried out. “Who would do a thing like that?”
“You would be surprised at what people do when they fear for their safety or want to protect the ones they love,” he said calmly and thought back to when he had seen her lying on the ground unconsciously with the apothecaries huddling together in a corner. His own life had not been in any danger whatsoever, but he had been willing – no, eager – to hurt them, to send them to the floor cringing with pain. If Tyront hadn’t stopped him right then and there, there was not telling what would have happened.
She perked up upon hearing this. “That sounds like you have some personal experience in that area.”
“Let’s just say I have once come pretty close to violating that particular law,” he said and smiled without humour.
“So shielding myself without causing any harm to my attackers is alright? Then I should also be able to shield the rest of the expedition. If they are close enough together, that is.”
“Basically, yes.”
“What about magically enhancing my speed and strength when I fight a non-magician opponent? Is that allowed?”
“Yes, it is even advisable. Otherwise Orrin wouldn’t have emphasised teaching you that skill. You are, however, supposed to use that very considerable advantage to just disarm your attackers and not kill them. In that case you would still have some explaining to do, though not as much as with a hole in someone’s chest caused by a bolt.”
She shrugged. “No problem there. I am not eager to kill anybody, neither magically nor manually.”
“Good. The thought of my bloodthirsty companion roaming the woods for easy prey would have made me rather uneasy,” he said and rose when somebody knocked at the door. “Judging from the knock, that is Tyront.”
And true enough, the Order’s leader came in moments later.
“Lady Eryn,” he nodded and acknowledged her bow.
“Lord Tyront,” she replied.
“How was the meeting with young Rolan?” he asked and took a seat.
She suppressed a smile. So he had come to see how well his revenge had worked. How charming.
“Unexpectedly productive,” she replied seriously. “I have included him in the planning of my expedition, and he has accepted the tasks I have given him. Of course it remains to be seen how well he will carry them out.”
Tyront studied her and then nodded. “That is good to hear. How is the planning going?”
“There is a thing or two to figure out yet,” she shrugged. “But nothing insurmountable, I would say.”
Enric handed his superior a steaming cup. “We have just discussed the laws on the use of magic against non-magicians. It seems Eryn has not been aware of them until now.”
“I beg your pardon?” Tyront frowned. “How is this possible? She has been here for at least ten months.”
“Yes, tell me,” she murmured and folded her arms.
“Lord Orrin has never mentioned that to you?” the older man asked incredulously.
“No, and neither have you two,” she pointed out, tired of having put the blame on Orrin yet again.
“Well, then I suppose we can consider ourselves lucky that you have shown restraint in ignoring at least that rule so far.”
She gave him a look of annoyance, but kept her mouth shut. She suspected that he was provoking her deliberately. Maybe he was disappointed at her report of the meeting with Rolan and had hoped for desperation and mayhem instead, so he might be looking for another reason to punish her for something. Oh no, but not today.
Tyront smiled, as if something had been confirmed, when she remained silent and just glared at him.
Enric watched the two of them and hid a smile. She was learning. Good.
“We also talked about the matter of defending the expedition against attacks. As the only magician and very likely the only trained fighter, not taking young Vern into account here, keeping attackers off might be quite a challenge.”
The older magician nodded. “Yes, I have been thinking about that as well. I will increase the number of participants to twenty-three. Four swordsmen should be sufficient in addition to you, Lady Eryn.”
“Oh, no,” Eryn moaned. “That would mean that he was right and I was wrong. And that I have to admit it openly.”
“Yes, that’s how it would seem, love,” Enric smirked and added, “I’d better talk to Rolan about that, as he is now doing the planning.”
“No,” she protested. “You won’t tell him, I will. You said I could do my own subduing.”
Tyront raised his brow at Enric and slowly shook his head. “You told her that? Really? So glad to see that you are being a commendable role model,” he said.
“Oh, but Lord Tyront,” Eryn remarked with controlled smugness, “Why would I need him for that, when you yourself are such a shining beacon of exemplary leadership?”
He looked over to her and pursed his lips, torn between amusement at her careful phrasing of the insult and surprise at her audacity at insulting him at all, however subtly.
Being in a good mood, he opted for humour and raised his cup at her with a thin smile.

 

 

Chapter 2

Preparations

“What’s the matter? You look a bit glum,” Enric said from his preferred position of observation, the door frame to his study.
Eryn glanced up at his tall figure and sighed. “I had been hoping for a few applications for the three positions for healer trainees, but none have come so far. It seems that Lord Poron, Vern and myself are the only ones interested in the profession. I am rather disappointed at that,” she admitted. “But I suppose convincing people after a lifetime of thinking that warrior skills are the only way of being a genuinely useful member of society for a magician, my expectations might have been set a bit high. They probably only see a woman, an adolescent male and an old man and think that this is the kind of image that awaits a healer.”
Enric remained silent. That was true enough, he knew, but he was reluctant to confirm it. And then he was already working on an idea to change that perception.
“We could make a public announcement for all magicians,” he suggested. “Pointing out that only the most able and suitable candidates will be considered.”
“I am afraid that will not make much of a difference when nobody wants to do it anyway. Not much competition to overcome there, I’d say,” she said wearily.
He came closer and crouched before her, taking both her hands into his. “Come on. Tyront and I could say a few words as well, pointing out how important this new way of using our skills is, the honour it will bring.”
She grinned despite herself. “Yes, I can see how this will make quite an impression, coming from two warriors. Why don’t you add Orrin to the mix, just to make it really laughable for the audience?”
“Your lack of trust in the credibility of the Order’s high command shocks me, my love.”
“Good. I would have hated to think that I have lost the ability to surprise you after only such a short time of living with you.”
“Hardly,” he quipped. “You surprise me every morning when you manage to drag yourself out of bed in time for your appointments. Though I should say that you seem even more reluctant than usual when you need to rise for fighting lessons. Or is that just my impression?”
She laughed as he had hoped and patted his cheek. “That’s just your imagination, Enric. I don’t hate rising for our appointments any more than I do for all the others.”
“That’s a relief. Well, I think it is.” He snatched a bread bun from her breakfast tray, earning himself a withering look. “Don’t be greedy, there are two more.”
“I wanted to take the ones I don’t eat now with me. I like to take a bite or two when I take a break.”
“Don’t tell me Lord Poron lets you eat in the library?”
“I don’t know, I never dared to find out. I generally go outside for that. One must show respect in the presence of books,” she quoted her father.
He watched her take the half-eaten bread bun on her plate and dunk it into her drink before biting into it. He remembered how she had told him that it was a childhood habit she had held on to despite her father’s attempts to make her give it up.
“What is on your schedule today? History? Battle strategy? Botanical studies?” He grinned when he said the last one.
She snickered. “Yes, quite right. I really need some lessons from you lot in botany. The Order distinguishes between two major characteristics in a plant: edible or inedible.”
“Not anymore, my love. Now that we have you with us, we do so much more. You have not yet fully grasped the concept of including yourself in the Order, so it seems.”
“What can I say? Whenever I see something completely idiotic and useless, I aim to distance myself from it.”
“I see.” He pursed his lips, none too happy with her assessment of the institution he had spent the greater part of his life in. “Shouldn’t you rather try to change things you deem useless instead of trying to avoid being tainted by association?”
“Oh my – you are not kindling the revolutionary in me, are you? I wonder whether I should report you to Lord Tyront,” she said.
He shivered. “I fear the day you and Tyront band together against me.”
She guiltily remembered that they had more or less done that already by keeping the truth about the extent of her dispute with Ram’an from Enric. He was still not aware that Ram’an had first used a truth block on her to interrogate her and then tried to confine her inside his quarters.
“So, what tortures will you have to face today?” he rephrased his question.
“Political strategy or some such, I think. Lord Poron has prepared a new stack of books for me to read for the next few days.”
“Good. That should be a fairly useful subject for you if you pay attention. When is your history test due, by the way?” he ventured further.
“In ten days. And five days after that I am to be tested in battle strategy. It seems they all want to have the exams taken care of before I head off with the herb gatherers,” she said with a grimace. The schedule sounded gruelling when she repeated it.
“Lord Poron is the one who is supervising you in political strategy, isn’t he? He might want to test you as well before you leave.”
“Yes, he has told me as much. But I have agreed with him to split the load. I will learn only half of it now and the rest when I return. Have I mentioned that I like him?”
Enric smiled. “No, but it is obvious nevertheless. I find it quite interesting how you manage to make friends among the high ranks in the Order.”
“Like Lord Tyront?” she asked, full of mischief.
“Not exactly, but you are joined with the second in command and are friends with numbers four and five in the ranking.”
“Yes, absolutely. As if I were the one to have chosen my connection with you, Number Two.”
He grinned. “I admit you had some help in making that decision. Don’t tell me you are regretting it? You are still supposed to be in that blissful post-commitment phase after one month.”
“Blissful post-commitment phase? Don’t tell me that is what we have now? If so, I dread when grey and dull daily routine catches up with us. No more fights, manipulation, threats and other jolly events.”
Pulling her into an embrace, he laughed. “Don’t worry, there will always be fights and threats between us as long as I am your superior and you are meant to follow my orders.”
“What a relief,” she grinned and wriggled free from his arms. “I am afraid I need to leave now. My doubtless fascinating books describing how to make my enemies think they are my friends, while I am perfectly aware that the concept of a friend is no more than an enemy I have decided not to kill yet, are waiting for me.”
“No, love, that would be diplomacy. Political strategy is about how to lie to your enemies with a smile on your face while you quietly plot their annihilation.”
She shook her head at him. “You know, that does sound immensely depressing. I really hope I will never be important enough to apply all that terrible knowledge.” She smiled brightly. “But then maybe I wouldn’t have to! Being a woman I always have the less complicated option of making people compliant by taking them to bed at my disposal, don’t I? Classic female strategy.”
Enric looked taken aback slightly, then smiled weakly. “That, dearest Lady Eryn, I would not recommend. You might otherwise find out that the people you intended to make compliant have a tendency to die under the most suspicious circumstances.”
She frowned in mock confusion. “That does not sound like political strategy anymore. Too direct and obvious, not cunning and subtle at all.”
“No,” he agreed with a dark expression, “That is plain and simple jealousy. Not as complicated, but much more dangerous in my case.”

* * *

Eryn rose to open the door for who she assumed had to be Plia knocking. And indeed, the girl stood there, beaming and obviously hardly able to contain her excitement, judging from the restless energy that radiated off her.
“Eryn!” she called out and hugged the magician warmly.
Eryn smiled and waited for those now happily less thin and feeble arms to release her again, so she could ask the girl to come in and close the door.
“Is it really true? I am to come to the expedition with you?” Plia’s large green eyes were wide with excitement.
Eryn took her hand and nodded. “Yes. Enric suggested it, and I have to say that it was a fabulous idea. I was not really sure if you are comfortable with a ten day trip through the wilderness, but from your reaction just now I see that I needn’t have worried about that.”
“I have never been outside the city before,” the girl admitted. “I am a teeny bit nervous about that, but as long as you are there, I won’t be afraid.”
“That is a great proof of trust, but Vern will also be with us. And four armed men to protect us as well, so there is no need to be afraid at all, even if I don’t happen to be around for some reason,” she smiled.
“Vern is coming, too?” Plia asked with what was clearly supposed to be a casual tone of voice.
Eryn watched the faint blush rise into Plia’s cheeks and wondered if this crush on Vern was cute or if it might cause trouble later. It was probably harmless. Plia was thirteen years old, still more child than woman, and Vern had never treated her as anything else than a younger sister from what Eryn had seen.
“Yes, he will take the chance to learn more about botany and do the drawings I need for the herb gatherers’ books so they can look up the plants later when we are back.”
The girl looked suddenly uneasy. “Eryn, I have no idea what I need for the journey. I have saved a little money and…”
“Little flower, that is exactly why I have sent for you today. Junar will be here any moment, and she will take care of the clothes you need for the trip. And don’t worry about the money. The Order will take care of that.”
“The Order?” she whispered in awe. “But I am not a member!”
“But I am, and they are trying to keep me happy,” Eryn smiled. “So don’t feel guilty about it, they have more money than they need.” She put an arm around the girl’s shoulders and looked at her. “Have you grown in these last two months? I don’t have to bend down so far any more to your shoulders, I think.”
“A little,” Plia smiled. “Cook says it’s the regular food and proper work. Though I am a bit sceptical about the last part. I would have thought that heavy lifting would rather stop the growth as it pulls me down.”
Eryn laughed and stepped away from her. “Let me have a proper look at you, then.” And she did: less pale, not as thin, more muscles from working, clean, neatly combed hair, clothes that fitted. A much better picture than the one she remembered from the time when they had first met. She fondly remembered that Orrin was the one who had made the change possible by offering to her to get Plia the apprenticeship in the Palace kitchen in exchange for Eryn’s participation in the fighting competition.
They heard another knock, and Plia went to answer the door, but Eryn held her back. “No, you are not here as my servant. At least not yet. You are my guest, and as such you don’t have to answer the door.”
Junar breezed in with a large black bag slung over her shoulder and slopped it down on the nearest available free surface. “Dear me, this is heavy!”
“New bag?” Eryn asked, eyeing the monstrosity. “What do you have in there? Your entire shop?”
“No, just what every upcoming sought-after seamstress requires to work professionally.” She grinned. “Orrin had it made for me. I decided to allow him to present me with occasional gifts every now and then to keep him happy.”
“To keep him happy? How very considerate of you,” Eryn smirked.
“Plia, my dear girl!” Junar said and kissed the girl’s cheeks. “Look at you, you have grown so much! And probably will continue to for another three or four years. I think we will have to take that into consideration and add extra length, so the new clothes will fit you for longer.” Then she turned to her friend. “How about you? You haven’t ordered anything for the expedition yet, either. Don’t tell me you plan to stomp through the woods in those nice city clothes I made you? I would skin you alive for that!”
Eryn sighed. “Then I’d better not say it but order a bunch of trousers and shirts suitable for stomping, I suppose?”
“Good girl,” the seamstress nodded, obviously satisfied, and turned back to Plia. “You are aware that you will have to wear trousers as well? I hope you are not too uncomfortable with that, but a dress is not really a good choice where you want to go.”
“That is alright, I don’t mind at all. Quite the opposite, I look forward to it. Trousers seem so much more practical, but they make us wear dresses all the time!”
Junar sighed. “Oh no. That is Eryn’s bad influence. As a role model she is clearly not suitable, at least not from a fashion point of view.”
“Says the woman who makes my clothes,” the role model commented. “Not a very flattering assessment of your own skills, dearest friend.”
“My skills are not the problem, Eryn, it’s the resistance they encounter all the time,” she retorted.
“Not all the time, surely? What about all the dresses you made me? I have worn every single one of them, haven’t I?”
“True,” Junar conceded, “but that was quite a fight. Plia, sweetheart, why don’t you take off your shoes and dress and step on that chair here? I would like to take your measurements now.”
Plia undressed as asked and stepped up on the chair in her undergarments. Junar queried her about her preferred colours and the kind of tasks she would have to take care of during the expedition to fit the cut and material to the challenges.
“Eryn, I suppose you will dig in the dirt for plants, kneel on the cold, hard ground, climb rocks and do a lot of other things that will rip, tear and strain whatever I make for you?”
“Absolutely right,” she confirmed happily. “And I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to that.”
“Yes, I imagine you are. If something is unladylike, I can depend on you to enjoy it. That means I have to make a few extra pairs of trousers for you to pack. Lord Enric wouldn’t thank me for letting you run around among those men with torn clothes.”
“Yes, let’s focus on what Enric’s needs for this expedition are, shall we?” Eryn lifted her eyes and shook her head.
“You’d better. He is very protective of you. I’ll bet he is none too happy about your leaving him alone for such a long time to be off on an adventure with so many strangers.”
The magician sighed. “Protective? Try possessive instead. He is a grown man. You don’t need to pity him. He will somehow manage to keep himself occupied while I am gone.”
Junar looked surprised. “You are incredibly insensitive! I wonder if you really don’t care about how much he is going to miss you, or if you are just pretending.”
“Oh, come on! I have lived with him for no more than a month! I dare say he will survive my absence somehow. And we are actually talking about ten days, not ten months!”
Plia’s eyes darted from one woman to the other and back again, fascinated by the exchange.
The seamstress sighed and shook her head. “I really, really hope you will miss him a lot out there in the wilderness, benighted in your chilly camp, alone, with nobody to hold you in his arms and no more than a blanket to warm you. That could make you appreciate him more.”
“Don’t you think that freezing in the wilderness would rather make me appreciate his quarters than his person?” Eryn replied and ducked quickly when a rolled up measuring tape was thrown her way.

* * *

Eryn picked up the sheets of paper that had been delivered for her during the day. Enric had made it a habit to put them on that chest of drawers next to the door, the one she had still not managed to get rid of after swearing to do just that when she had bumped her toe against it one tipsy night after vising Ram’an in his quarters.
It was the third of Rolan’s reports she had received. He sent them regularly every second day, which was fine by her. He had started collecting the items she had told him to put together and kept them in one of the Order’s storage rooms. They had in these last six days exchanged no more than brief notes, questions asked and answered. He kept updating her with copied sheets for her file, such as a list with the names of all participants, checklists with progress updates and suggestions on how to transport the paperwork safely. The available boxes and chests were intended for transport in a coach and were not suitable for horseback, as they were much too bulky and heavy. One option would be shielding the papers all the time, but that did seem rather impractical. Another idea was using oilskin cloth, which was definitely something to consider. Maybe Lord Poron could be of service in figuring out a feasible solution for this. She would instruct Rolan to contact him.

* * *

Eryn lifted one of the flat wooden boxes Rolan had brought to their second meeting, judging its weight with one hand.
“This is rather heavy,” she commented. “You are aware that we are riding horses through the woods, I assume? And that we would need more than one as they are rather flat?”
The young man clenched his jaw. “It’s either a little extra weight or wet papers. Make your choice.”
Eryn found to her surprise that she felt devious joy in taunting her assistant and wondered if she was supposed to be contrite about it. No, she decided, surely not. But at least she knew now why Lord Tyront took such pleasure in teasing her. The privileges of leadership, she mused. Maybe she would get used to being a person of authority and importance in the Order after all…
“Hmm. Why is that box so heavy, anyway?”
He wordlessly took it out of her hands, opened a clasp and let another, even flatter box slide out.
Impressive, she thought. Two boxes that smoothly fitted into each other, making it less likely for water to enter through an opening. The surface was smooth, very likely treated with some kind of oil compound to keep water out.
“Interesting. What do you think how many sheets will fit inside one of them?”
Rolan shrugged. “I managed to squeeze in about twenty, but they don’t look so good when you take them out again, a bit crumpled. Fifteen should be fine.”
She bit her lip as she watched him put the two boxes together again. He had anticipated her question and tried it before. That was neat. Not what she would have expected from a person with such an obvious dislike of working with her.
“Then I think we will take four boxes. Even Vern won’t be able to finish more than sixty drawings during our trip. And we will hardly find that many different plants, anyway.”
He took out his notepad, a smaller one this time, and made a note.
“How is everything going with the planning? Any trouble so far?”
“No,” he just said, and then shrugged. “Apart from your furniture. It does need quite a lot of extra pack animals and they are hard to obtain at this time of the year.”
She blinked at him. “My what?”
“Your furniture. Table, chair…” His voice trailed off at her expression.
Watching him with narrowed eyes and a frown she wondered if he was making fun of her.
“What? You are a woman! And a wealthy one. You will be expected to travel in style.”
Closing her eyes, she shook her head. “And you are an idiot, and a colossal one at that. What makes you think I would travel with a table and chairs through the woods and then complain about the weight of paper boxes? Use that brain of yours, dear boy!” She saw him flinch at the address and had to admit that it was maybe not entirely appropriate with her only being a little older.
“How was I to know that you want to sit on a log and sleep on the hard ground?”
“I did my own herb gathering only a year ago, how would I have carried a table with me? On my back?” She shook her head at the image.
“Fine,” Rolan spat. “Then maybe her Ladyship would be so kind as to provide me with a packing list of what she intends to bring to the expedition?”
“No,” she smiled sweetly, “her Ladyship will do no such thing. She is a big girl and will pack her own things. She deigns let you know, however, that one pack animal for herself and the servant girl will be sufficient. Unless you had planned to induce me to bring any other hard-to-carry, useless items?”
Rolan closed his eyes for a moment as if to collect himself and then looked at her with barely contained vexation. “Is that everything? Can I leave now?”
“Yes, unless you have any other questions?”
“No,” he replied in a tone that suggested that he would rather gnaw off his own leg than talk to her any longer than was absolutely necessary. He bowed quickly without looking at her before closing the door of the meeting room behind him.
She grinned and shook her head when he had left. Why had she ever hesitated to ask for an assistant?

 

 

Chapter 3

The Gesture

Eryn yawned as she closed the last page of the book Lord Poron had given her the previous week. It was too long-winded, too stuffy, too boring. And yet she had to memorise a good part of it. She looked down at the page of notes she had made. There was hardly anything substantial, just plotting and killing. Was that really something they thought it wise to teach people? Why not make them learn about the merits of honesty and directness instead?
She saw Lord Poron come in through one of the large double doors, his pace unhurried and his steps quiet as befitted his surroundings. His sharp, intelligent eyes focussed on her and at her exaggerated sigh of discontent his wrinkly face twisted into a smile. “I see that your current reading material is not offering you any more pleasure than the other books, my dear. But at least you will have a short break from them now. Come, we need to leave for the announcement.”
“What announcement? Are you sure I need be there for it?” she frowned in confusion. “I was not informed, after all.”
“Oh yes, I think you should. It will be quite interesting, I imagine.” The septuagenarian magician picked up the book in front of her and returned it to its spot on the shelf.
She shrugged. “Alright. Where is it?”
“Outside in the Palace square. Maybe we should make a little detour to pick up your robes. When so many of us are present, it doesn’t hurt to remind people of your status, my dear. Go on – make haste. We don’t want to be late,” he urged her on and all but pushed her out the library.
“Yes, yes, I am on my way,” she sighed. “What is this great announcement about?”
“You will learn about it soon enough. If you hurry, that is, and we manage to get there before it is over,” he added, with concern showing on his face.
“You know what? Why don’t I run to my quarters for my robes and meet you at the Palace gates in a few minutes?” she suggested. Having him urge her on all the way to her quarters and then to the Palace square was not an encouraging prospect. “I promise, I will be quick.”
When she had pulled the robes over her head not much later, she quickly went into Enric’s study to look down at the square. There were indeed a great number of what looked like magicians assembled, and a few curious onlookers had also found their way there, keeping their distance to the all-powerful and venerated members of the Order.
Strange, she thought and turned back to meet Lord Poron downstairs as she had promised him. If this was important, Enric had surely known about it. Why hadn’t he mentioned anything, especially as she was supposed to be there as well?
Lord Poron nodded when he saw her running towards him and gestured for her to walk out the Palace first. The magicians stood together, each of them clad in their brown, unadorned robes, talking casually. From the snippets of conversation she managed to catch, she figured that they, neither, knew what awaited them.
She saw Orrin standing to one side of the crowd with arms folded, his stance broad as usual, not part of the hubbub, but observing it. She approached him and stopped next to him. He acknowledged her with a brisk nod and continued observing his fellow magicians.
Orrin was neither unusually tall as Enric was, nor radiated the almost intrusive authority that surrounded Lord Tyront, but there was a kind of calm, commanding power and confidence that made him stand out. It was that and his penetrating green eyes that made people eager to avoid getting on his wrong side. And his fighting prowess, of course – which showed in his straight posture, as if he were in a continuous state of expecting an attack. The long, thin scar along one side of his face certainly did nothing to soften the hint of danger. He had to be about as old as Lord Tyront, in his early fifties, but his profession as warrior trainer had earned him the impressive, muscular body of a fighter. That and the lack of any grey in his full head of hair made him appear slightly younger.
“What is this all about? Do you have any idea?” she asked him and let her gaze wander over the assembled men. There had to be more than a hundred and fifty of them.
“Wait for it,” he said with a knowing smile.
Eryn didn’t try to make him reveal what he knew. She knew that such attempts would be futile. He was a stubborn person. “You know,” she said rather amazed, “I was not really aware of how many magicians there are.”
Orrin looked around. “Quite a few, yes. Though not all of them are here right now. The children with magical abilities are not around, and neither are most of the Council Members.”
“How many magically gifted children are there?”
“About forty. Not all of us pass on the ability.”
She then saw Enric emerge from the Palace gates and walk towards them, of course clad in his blue robes. They looked different, though, she noted. He obviously had found time to have Junar do some work on them. His broad shoulders and small waist were emphasised to his advantage, she mused while she watched him come closer and finally stop in front of the assembled magicians.
The murmuring around her died down little by little as everybody who had caught a glimpse of the blue robes fell silent. When finally the last of them had ceased talking, Enric nodded towards Orrin, who then stepped up next to him. He flashed Eryn a quick smile and raised his voice, increasing the volume with a little magic so everybody could understand him.
“Good morning, everyone. I assume you are wondering why I called for this assembly. I wish to address the matter of the three official openings for healers to be trained.”
Eryn closed her eyes. No – please not, she thought with a groan within. No desperate attempt to find somebody who would take pity on his companion and do her the favour of working with her. Or use the opportunity to make a good impression on Enric without any serious interest in the healing profession as such.
She opened her eyes again when he continued. “I am here to warn you not to apply for them prematurely, as it is a commitment to hard work and requires not the strong magical powers required for fighting, but instead something much rarer: an above average intellect and willingness to put it to good use.”
Eryn frowned in confusion. What was his plan? Why did he discourage people from applying when none of them seemed to be very eager to do so, anyway? Shouldn’t he rather try it the other way round?
“Healing abilities are still rare in our Kingdom,” he went on. “So those of you who decide to apply and are accepted will not only have to face the challenge of mastering a new set of skills and work as pioneers in a new field, but also be prepared to take over responsibilities in a leadership role in a few years.”
She began to look more relaxed. Now, that sounded more like it. That argument would surely apply to magicians of lesser strength who had not much chance of rising up to the ranks of power in the traditional warrior hierarchy.
“Healing skills will make us stronger as a Kingdom, as warriors, as magicians, and as a society. Imagine being hurt or incapacitated and being able to heal yourself and others. Imagine a farmer with a broken leg who does not have to wait for several weeks until he can work again to feed his family. Think of your children, companions, friends in pain and being able to help them with the touch of your hand.” He paused for effect and looked around, meeting as many eyes as he could. “People in the Western Territories hold the art of healing in such high esteem, that every single magician is taught the basic principles of it without even being a healer. We are in the very lucky position to have our very own healer here in the Order to teach us this skill, to share her knowledge with us. And we are going to make use of this chance.”
He drew a dagger from his sleeve and dragged the sharp edge across his palm without showing any sign of pain. Then he lifted his hand high above his head for everyone to see. The cut had been rather deep and blood ran down his forearm in crimson braids.
What was he doing? Eryn wondered if he wanted her to step beside him to do a little healing demonstration for the crowd and waited for his sign to join him. But none came.
When he was sure that the attention of all present was focused on his bleeding palm, he closed his eyes, and Eryn stared at him open-mouthed. He would hardly… would he? No, that was impossible! He didn’t know how!
She started breathing faster when she saw the cut close itself slowly, and the blood stopped oozing. He kept the hand lifted over his head and pulled a clean white cloth from a pocket with his other hand to wipe away the blood and reveal to the gaping crowd a perfectly unmarked palm.
Enric looked towards his companion and was immensely satisfied with the surprise and utter disbelieve he saw on her face. Orrin then pulled his own dagger from a sheath inside his boot and cut his hand the same way. He, too, held it up high for everyone to see and closed his eyes. Eryn covered her wide open mouth with both hands and watched the warrior heal himself just like his colleague had done only moments before.
She only noted how completely silent it had been when the murmuring around her erupted, getting louder and more agitated with every second.
Enric was pleased with her reaction to his little demonstration, and he and Orrin walked over to her, both showing unmistakeable smugness at her stunned expression.
“But… how?” She shook her head at herself. How was pretty clear, wasn’t it? There was only one other healer in the Kingdom who could have shown them. “I mean, when?” She gestured helplessly at Enric.
“I asked Vern to teach me a few basic things while you and Orrin had your dancing lessons, and I told him to keep it a secret. I wanted to surprise you.” He smiled down at her. “It looks like I have succeeded.”
She released her breath slowly, still shaking her head, only now considering the impact of what he had just done, of what both of them had done. They had just shown the entirety of magicianhood in the Kingdom, that the two most revered warriors in the Order did value the skill of healing highly enough that they considered it worthy their time and effort to master it.
Enric saw her restraints at showing affection in public fighting with the impulse of doing exactly that, and waited for a few moments to see if she would do anything. Then he sighed and pulled her into his arms, “Come here. And don’t bother denying that this is what you were thinking of,” he murmured before he pressed a kiss on her lips.
She hesitated for a moment, then slung her arms around him and hugged him firmly, her check resting on his shoulder.
“Thank you. So much.”
“You are welcome. But we will have to see if this changes anything. Don’t expect too much from it,” he warned her.
She let go of him and smiled. “This doesn’t make a difference. The gesture was an amazing one, whether any magicians act on it or not. I appreciate it very much.” Turning to Orrin, she lifted her arms to hug him as well and groaned slightly when he squeezed her none too gently.
“Can’t breathe,” she gasped in exaggerated suffocation.
He chuckled. “You are still too soft. I would have thought that your combat training should have taken care of this by now, especially with your new training partner.”
“If you hug Junar like that, you will need your new healing skills often enough,” she laughed and kissed his cheek. When she then looked around, she saw Vern coming her way, a wide grin on his face.
“That was quite a show, wasn’t it? Can you hear them talking? They are totally confused,” he beamed as if happy about a trick well played. “And the look on your face was a sight to behold! Your wide open mouth, the bulging eyes… Very elegant, Lady Eryn.”
She flicked his earlobe with her fingers and grinned when he rubbed it. “Careful, boy. I might decide to punish you for giving unauthorised healing lessons.”
“Unauthorised?” he sniffed. ”You think Lord Enric is not authorised to authorise me? When I last checked, he still outranked you.”
“Yes,” Enric said, “that was also my impression. And whatever she decides to threaten you with, consider it nullified.”
“Nice,” she retorted, “so much for my authority.”

* * *

“Nice show,” Tyront commented and leaned back in his chair. “And effective, too. I have received a total of four applications since yesterday.”
Enric raised his brows. “That is excellent news. Have you told Eryn yet?”
“No. I want to have a closer look at them first.”
“Don’t tell me you are going to preselect the candidates you don’t approve of? She would never trust you again if she found out.”
Tyront was quick to react. “No, of course not. What do you take me for? She is the one who has to work with whatever candidates she chooses, so what would be my benefit? I am just curious.”
“Why don’t you let her take over the selection process altogether, then?” Enric asked.
“Because I can’t be seen to let her handle everything in connection with healing. And it also forces her to work with me occasionally. She needs to get used to that.” He grinned evilly. “It seems that her new assistant will teach her a thing or two about leadership as well.”
“Why? What have you heard?”
“Not so much heard as read,” Tyront said and picked up two letters from his table. “Young Rolan is not too happy about working with her, I can tell you that.”
“Reports?”
“No, better. Letters of complaint.” He held up the first sheet and read aloud, “Lady Eryn seems to find it appropriate to repeatedly address me with the insulting term ‘idiot’. I do not consider this professional conduct, and neither do I think that this arrangement can work to our mutual satisfaction in the long run. I would be eternally grateful if you could see your way to considering a different position for me.”
“Oh yes, that does sound like her,” Enric remarked and sighed.
“Wait, there is another one. That’s the first one, actually. He must have written it after their very first meeting,” Tyront said and started reading again, “Lady Eryn has today threatened me with physical violence in case I fail to comply with her demands. I quote, ‘I will kick your sorry butt from here to the sea’ and ‘If I don’t hear from you, I will come and find you. Then I will make you talk’. I am seriously concerned for my safety and urgently ask you to reconsider your choice for my assignment. She has furthermore threatened to act out her disdain for my person by making me carry out demeaning and embarrassing tasks in public.”
He let both sheets sink. “Leadership potential if ever I saw it.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“Me?” Tyront shook his head and smiled broadly. “Not a thing. And why would I? I am looking forward to his messages, they amuse me. And he unintentionally keeps me informed about what she is up to. An unpaid agent, so to say. A very useful young man.”
Enric grinned and shook his head. “You devious old scoundrel. Has Eryn, too, sent you any letters to make you reconsider your choice?”
“No, nothing. But I would be very interested in what she has to say. I suppose I will have to ask her for a progress report. Though reading it will take quite some time, I imagine. Her handwriting seems a bit… impatient, to put it mildly. And after regularly deciphering Orrin’s scribbling, that is saying something. I gather she is not too enthusiastic about writing reports?”
“No, not really. If it wasn’t for her tight schedule, I would suggest regular meetings instead.”
“I will consider that. We can discuss this when she is back from her expedition.” He looked at the younger man. “Have you got more used to the thought of her roaming the woods for ten days with a bunch of strangers yet? Only seven more days until she leaves, unless I am mistaken.”
Enric sighed. “No, not really. I am still not happy about it, but she is determined to go, and I see why she must. She has been locked inside the city for quite some time now. After growing up in the country I can see that she wants to get out of here for a while.”
“You are not worried that she won’t come back, are you?”
“No,” he frowned. “Why? Do you think I should?”
Tyront smirked. “How would I know? I don’t have any secret intelligence from my agents in this regard, if that’s what you were hinting at. No secret plans to flee the country that I am aware of. She has passed all her tests, by the way. At least the ones she has already had. There is still one in political strategy pending, I believe. Lord Poron wants to test her in the next few days about one part of the books.”
“Good. She has even been taking books to bed these last weeks, so it’s good to see her efforts were not wasted.” Enric pursed his lips. “There is something I have been thinking about. Some of Vern’s lessons have been rescheduled due to his healing training, and I was wondering if he could continue two or three of his subjects with Eryn instead of with the rest of his class. He is smart enough to handle learning at greater speed.”
“And you are not thinking about your companion at all, but only of the benefits for the boy?” Tyront asked mildly.
Enric thought carefully before answering that. “Not at all would maybe not be wholly accurate, but as the boy would benefit from this arrangement considerably, I do not think that I am giving Eryn undue preference here.”
“I see,” Tyront replied slowly. “Then we’d better make sure and emphasise the advantage to the boy when we communicate this to his teachers. It might otherwise seem as if you are trying to rearrange the Order to make your companion happy. And we wouldn’t want to create that impression, would we?”
Enric narrowed his eyes. “You think I am a love-struck fool, don’t you?”
“Does it matter what I think?” he said with a thin smile. Then he became serious. “Enric, you have never made any demands or asked for favours in all this time since you rose to power. From where I stand, you are entitled to a little foolishness. I have waited for quite some time for you to find a companion, and as long as this doesn’t stand in the way of your duties, I have no problem indulging you a little every now and then.”
Enric nodded slowly, absorbing the import of Tyront’s words. Generosity wrapped in a warning. That was just like Tyront.

* * *

Eryn sighed and shook her head at the note she had just received from the apothecaries. Only three days until the expedition was due to set off, and they thought that this was the perfect time to demand a teaching schedule for the training they had to do according to their agreement with the Order. She had no intention whatsoever of preparing one before her departure, especially as the healers’ building was not yet finished anyway – and that was where the lessons would take place.
Then an idea brought a mischievous glint to her eyes. Why not let Rolan deal with the apothecaries? At least that would keep him busy for as long as she was gone. They were rather demanding and unpleasant people to talk to, and getting them used to dealing with her assistant couldn’t hurt for the future anyway.
She looked back at the last of the books she had to go through for her exam with Lord Poron tomorrow. Ahead lay ten days without any books on whatever the Order deemed useful knowledge – no tests, nothing. That did seem like complete and utter luxury. Shaking her head at her rambling thoughts, she rose to refill her glass. They had successfully managed to make her, a woman who had revered and enjoyed books all her life, dread them now and dream of days without reading a single page. If that was what the Order considered effective education, she would have to have words with a few people here.
Looking at the box with several pairs of sturdy leather trousers that had been delivered earlier that day, she decided that she deserved a break from her book. Junar had been quite busy, too. She had made garments for Vern, Plia and Eryn in addition to her usual workload.
Rolan had informed her by messenger that all provisions, cooking and sleeping gear, paper boxes and accessories were almost complete and ready for packing. It looked like everything was going according to plan.
She looked over at the door behind which Enric was toiling in his study, and pondered. The closer the date of the departure came, the more restless she felt. First she had attributed it to excitement, but now she began suspecting that there might also be a part of her that was reluctant to leave him behind.
What he had done for her, the healing lessons with Vern, had touched her. He had never really made it a secret that he liked her very much, but this… It seemed that his attachment to her went deeper than she had expected. Love even, could it be?
She shuddered at the word. Her father had warned her about it more than once. He had loved her mother, and that had not exactly turned out to been a blessing for him. Fleeing to another country, hiding who he was all the time, that was what devotion to a loved one had brought him. He had told her that she, his daughter, was the only blessing that had come from his love.
In the years spent in her little village she had seen a few happy couples, but many were anything but. She had witnessed violence, infidelity, brooding dissatisfaction, disappointed hopes and frustration. And what those emotions could do to people in the long run… There were couples radiating happiness at the time of their commitment ceremony who were not even able or willing to look each other in the eyes a few years later. It was amazing how much could change between two people who had initially been dedicated to each other, connected in, well, love.
Abandoning a companion was not something that happened very often in the countryside. It was a matter of being seen to honour the commitment regardless of the discontent and resentment between the two people who were all but fettered to each other by an oath foolishly taken in a more optimistic mind. Ending it would have been cheating, and those who were caught up in an unhappy relationship themselves were the most severe guardians of virtue in order to make sure that others suffered just as much.
She had been determined never to get caught in that trap, as hiding her magical abilities would hardly have been possible any more when being so close to another person all the time, let alone avoiding the unhappiness she had seen.
But then there had been the King and Enric with their own ideas and schemes. Enric had told her at the evening of their commitment that he had planned to ask her to join him anyway, even without the King’s interference, but had wanted to give her more time to come around to it. She wondered how he would have reacted if he had asked her one day and she would have rejected him for fear of future unhappiness.
Those, however, were futile thoughts now. She was caught in the very trap she had always wanted to avoid, and to her relief and surprise it had so far turned out to be less of a torture and more of a pleasure than she had ever dared hope.
But emotional attachment had its downsides. What if one of them one day started resenting the other or fell in love with somebody else? Or just got bored with the partnership?
She rubbed her face and tried to push these thoughts to a distance. There were no guarantees that this would work out, so why not enjoy it while it lasted? That’s it, she thought, and sighed at her own foolishness; that was why she had already started missing him before she was even gone.

 

»End of extract«

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