Authors: Steven A. Tolle
“I had help.” Jake stated.
“And you have help now.” Tomaris responded. “You and the girl can match most demons now and your power is not reached its limit. When you held it, I tried to determine if there was any change since you left the Keep. I believe that it has grown stronger.”
“Well, I guess that is one thing in my favor.” Jake muttered.
“Be at peace, Jake.” Tomaris said soothingly. “I believe that the Creator has brought you here and He would not have done that if there was not more to you than you believe.”
When they stopped for the night, moving off the road and onto the grassy plains, and set up camp, Taric, the male cleric, came over to the carriage. When he and Jake were trading clothes, Jake was surprised to see that he was wearing chainmail under his robes. He asked him about it.
“Many clerics who serve in the army wear armor.” Taric said with a wink and a laugh. “Secretly, of course; we are not soldiers. While some purists state that we should trust in the One for our protection, I believe that He gave us the ability to shape metal for just this purpose. It would seem to be an insult to Him to not take advantage of His gifts.”
Jake chuckled at that while he pulled the robes over his own armor.
Hailyn was sitting near her blankets, stretching her sore muscles, when Tomaris appeared. He had moved so quietly that she jumped a bit, startled when he spoke.
“I’m sorry, child.” He said with a small smile. “I did not mean to frighten you.”
“You did not frighten me, Master Tomaris.” She responded. “You simply caught me off guard.”
“May I join you?” He asked.
“Of course.” Hailyn replied.
Tomaris slowly settled to the ground, sitting across from her. He looked at her for several moments, his unusual eyes seeming to see inside her. She took a deep breath and stared back, trying to achieve a cleric’s calm. That seemed to impress him, for he smiled deeply and nodded his head.
“You have strength in you, child.” He said approvingly. His smile faded. “You will need that strength on this quest.” He reached into a pouch on his belt and removed a silvery object. When Hailyn looked closely, she saw that it was a bracelet, its surface covered in runes. With a start, she recognized the runes as the same ones on Jonas’ staff. She looked at Tomaris, the question in her eyes.
“Yes, child.” He replied, turning the bracelet over in his hand. “The runes are the same. I copied these runes when I was creating the staff that I gave to Jonas.”
His eyes took on a faraway look. “When I was much younger, I sought out all things related to power. I had the idea that, if I found old and ancient artifacts or manuscripts, I could use them to increase my own knowledge and power.”
He shook his head. “It was during one of my quests that I found this. It was in a cave, deep in the Gray Ridges, one that I believed Arnes lived in. I searched it, spending days tracing its passages, without finding any evidence to support my theory. In frustration, I kicked at a stone. When it rolled away, I saw that there was a small opening under it. When something glittered back in my torchlight, I reached in and pulled this out.”
“I took it with me to study.” He continued. “When I wore it, it would increase my power. I do not understand how it was done, though I have a theory. Over time, though, I began to wear it less and less. I eventually put it away with my other collections as new items caught my attention. It was only when Jonas came to me did I recall it. I wanted to help him, but I was loath to part with it, so I created the staff, copying the runes on the bracelet. To my surprise, it seemed to have a greater effect on a cleric’s power than my own.”
He held it out to her. “I want you to take it. It may not be as powerful as Jonas’ staff, but it can give you the increase in power you will need.”
“I cannot take it, Master Tomaris.” Hailyn said. “You said yourself that you do not wish to part with it.”
“I am older now, child, and my time will soon be finished.” He said with a sad smile. “You are going to find an object of great power. Knowing its power, our enemies will have some of their strongest guarding it. You will need all of the power you can wield.” He placed it in her hand. “Help an old man feel like he has done all he can to assist you; please take it.”
Hailyn turned it over in her hand, startled to feel soft warmth radiating off it. She pulled it over her right hand, but realized that it was too big to stay on her wrist. She was starting to pull it off when it seemed to shrink, forming itself to her wrist. She tugged at it and it came off easily. Fascinated, she slipped it back on and shook her hand. Despite the shaking, it stayed in place.
She called up her power, feeling it surge into her, her aura suddenly shining brilliantly, similar to when she had held the staff. She looked over wonderingly at Tomaris, who was slowly rising to his feet.
“What is it?” She asked.
“You must keep it secret, child.” He said quietly, looking approvingly down at her. He glanced around to make sure no one was near. “After all of my research, I have come to believe that it is a piece of the Guardian’s armor, made by the Creator Himself.”
Early the next morning, with the sun still behind the Gray Ridges, the party broke camp. There was a cool breeze blowing, the sky overhead cloudy and gray. Pulling the cleric robes over his head, Jake hoped that there would be no rain. He knelt and rolled up his sword, vambraces and greaves into his sleeping blankets. Dominic had pointed out that his sword might draw attention, since clerics did not carry them.
“The road to Dunanty is fairly safe as it is patrolled by Beragan soldiers.” Dominic had said. “Stay on the road; remember that you are a cleric now. Keep your sword hidden until you have left the city.”
Once he had packed up his gear, he headed over to the horses. When he got to where the horses were tied up, he saw that Hailyn was already mounted on Taric’s horse.
“I thought you were riding Dontas.” He stated.
“That was to get him out of the city for you, Jake.” She replied. “Since you are supposed to be on your way to the Keep, it is unlikely that anyone would look twice at the horse.”
“I see.” Jake said as he went over to where Dontas was tied up next to Shadow. The horse greeted him with a soft whinny and a gentle push of its head. Jake stroked the horse’s head for a few moments, then noticed that both Dontas and Shadow where already saddled.
“I was up early, so I saddled him for you.” Dominic’s voice came from behind him. Jake turned to see Dominic approaching with his saddlebags over his shoulder. Dominic stopped in front of Jake, looking down at him, eyes hard.
“I have one more lesson for you.” He said softly, though his eyes seemed to gleam like blue ice. “On this journey, you must harden your heart and be prepared at all times to defend yourself and the girl. If you face an opponent, you must strike hard and fast, aiming to kill as quickly as possible. If you think there is a danger, attack first. There is no place for chivalry on this mission.”
“I will remember that, Dominic.” Jake said. He realized that this might be the last time he will see his protector. He felt
a tightness in his throat and chest. He cleared his throat. “I can’t thank you enough for everything you have done for me.”
“It was my honor, Jake.” Dominic said directly. He held out his hand.
Jake took it, but his emotions made him gave Dominic a quick hug. Dominic seemed taken aback by that, but Jake felt him pat him on the back before pushing him away.
“Enough of that, boy. We still have to recover the sword and bring it to Tomaris, so we may not be done with each other yet.” Dominic said gruffly. He increased his grip on Jake’s hand. “Remember what I have taught you. Be prepared to act, but follow the girl’s lead. She knows more about the world than you.” With that, he released Jake’s hand and moved over to Shadow.
Jake tied off his blankets behind his saddle and mounted his horse. He rode over to Hailyn, where she was speaking quietly to Tomaris.
“Now you depart on this great quest, my children.” Tomaris said seriously. “Stay hidden as much as possible. Follow where the clues lead you. Recover the sword, if you can, and return directly to the Keep. Remember that if the demons know that we are after the sword, they will move it. There will be no second chance to recover it.”
He continued. “If you cannot find the sword after exhausting all possibilities, return to the Keep. It may be that Dominic was successful.”
“One final word.” Tomaris said, his face softening. “Trust and care for each other. Friendship and love are the two things that the demons can never have. That is what makes us stronger than them.”
“Go now.” He finished, giving them a bow. “Hold on to your courage and power and may the Creator grant you success.”
Sharing a look and a nod with Hailyn, Jake directed Dontas towards the road. With a final glance back, Jake saw Dominic, sitting on Shadow, give him a formal salute. Jake returned it, and then turned forward. Tapping Dontas with his heels, he and Hailyn rode away.
A long wooden lever, painted bright white and tilted above the road, was the only indicator that they had arrived at the border. The open plains, covered in tall green grass that gently rippled like waves on the ocean in the breeze, seemed to stretch forever in all directions. Jake was grateful for the wind as it tamed the warmth of the late afternoon sun. He had on his shirt, padding and armor, cover by the cleric robes, which made him sweat profusely, so any relief was welcome.
Jake and Hailyn had been riding north along the road since they departed from camp. North of the crossroads, the road had transitioned to a wide hard-packed dirt road. They had passed travelers and merchants going in both directions. Most did not look twice at two clerics riding together, though some had stopped and asked for help, mostly for minor injuries or sickness. Jake allowed Hailyn to take the lead in these situations, simply sitting on his horse, smiling and nodding while she performed healings.
There were two tents set up near the pole, one on each side of the border. Jake saw horses tied up near the closest tent with Sanduan soldiers in armor, their backs to the traffic moving north, manning the border area. On the other side of the gate, he saw soldiers dressed in brown leather clothing and boots, covered in chainmail that extended down to mid-thigh. They carried curved swords belted on at the waist, with pointed metal helms on their heads. They were randomly stopping and questioning travelers heading into Beragan. There were also horses tied up near their tent.
Some of the Sanduan soldiers called out greetings to Jake and Hailyn as they passed. When they entered Beragan, a soldier stopped them. He was tall and thin, with an angular face, long brown hair and brown eyes. He had a single silver slash painted across his armor, running from his left shoulder down to his right waist.
“Where are you traveling, clerics?” He asked directly, but politely.
“We bring a message to the Chief Cleric of Beragan from the Chief Cleric of Sanduas.” Hailyn announced, pulling out the letter with Jonas’ seal.
The soldier looked closely at the seal, then looked back at Hailyn. “Have you been to Dunanty before?” He asked.
“No. This is our first time.” She replied.
He nodded and motioned to a couple of soldiers sitting on horses nearby. One had two thin green slashes on his armor, while the other wore plain armor. “I have a couple of soldiers ready to return to the capital, Sister.” He said. “It would be their privilege to escort you there. They will ensure that you arrive safely and without incident, as honored guests.”
Hailyn, her face serene, thanked him. “That is most kind, my friend.” She said. “May the blessings of the One be with you.”
The soldier nodded, and then motioned them to continue on.
As they rode forward, the two solders formed up next to them. The one with the green slashes rode next to Hailyn. He was an older man, with a stout build, thick dark hair and a goatee on his long face, though his dark eyes had a world-weariness in them. The one that rode next to Jake was only a little older than he was, short and wiry, with short dark hair and a shaven face. He sat in the saddle stiffly, his back ramrod straight, affecting an air of competence and soberness.
“I am Sergeant Hersel, Sister.” The one nearest Hailyn said, with a nod of his head. “My companion is Mescal. If you wish, we will reach a small village with an inn near nightfall and stay the night there.”
“That sounds fine, Sergeant Hersel.” She replied. “How long is the ride to Dunanty?”
“At a pace that will not tire the horses, we should arrive by the afternoon two days from now.” He stated. “I will now take the lead while Mescal will guard the rear.” With that, he booted his horse several paces ahead while Mescal dropped back several paces.
“What do you think about this?” Jake whispered to Hailyn. “It seems strange that we would need an escort when other travelers don’t get one.”
“The clerics in Beragan do not have the same freedom of action as we do in Sanduas.” Hailyn responded softly. “The clerics here fall under the authority of their queen. She has the final word on what they can or cannot do and where they can go. Likely, any outside clerics would receive an escort like this, so they can be watched.” She nodded towards Hersel. “We need to be cautious on what we say until we reach the Chief Cleric.”
As Hersel had said, night was descending over the plains when they reached the village. The road intersected the village, with wooden buildings build on either side. The road had been paved with stone in the village. They rode through slowly, as there seemed to be a constant flow of people crossing the road, heading to various buildings. They finally stopped when they were almost to the far side of the village, pulling up to a three-story wooden building. There was bright candlelight streaming from the first-floor windows and the buzz of voices and music coming from the open front doors.
“Mescal will take your horses to the stables.” Hersel said as he dismounted and indicated that they should do the same. “Take your sleeping rolls and saddlebags with you.”
Once they had retrieved their gear, Hersel led them into the inn while Mescal left with the horses. Once inside the main hall, Jake was overwhelmed with light, noise and the smells of cooking food. Looking around, he was surprised by the number of people in the inn. All of the tables were full, with serving girls carrying large trays of food or tankards of ale, carefully navigating their way through the crowd. He and Hailyn followed Hersel over to a large man, tall though a bit fat, with dark hair surrounding his bald plate, dressed in an long cloth apron. He was standing near a large door that led to the kitchen, with the serving girls going in and out. His brown eyes moving quickly from side to side, he seemed to be trying to watch everyone at once.
“Greetings, Kelsan.” Hersel said when he stopped in front of the man. He gestured to indicate Hailyn and Jake “I need rooms tonight for my guests, as well as for myself and another soldier.”
“I only have one room left.” Kelsan replied, continuing to scan the hall. “It is small with two beds. There is also room in the stables.”
Hersel considered the situation. “I will allow my guests to take the room.” He finally said. “Mescal and I will sleep in the stable. Food will need to be sent to their room and the stables.”
“Two gold.” Kelsan said, looking at Hersel for the first time and holding out his hand.
“Do I look like a country lout who has never left the farm before?” Hersel replied sarcastically. “One gold.”
Kelsan laughed, a rich, throaty laugh, and cocked an eyebrow. “You do have the look of someone who can’t remember to wipe the manure off his feet.” He retorted. His eyes took on a predatory gleam. “Do I appear to be a simpleton impressed with your armor and sword? Two gold or you can sleep in the street.”
A small smile creased Hersel’s face as he and Kelsan began to negotiate while trading insults. Jake watched with a certain amusement as the two haggled. At first, based on the personal nature of the jibes, he was sure that they would be sleeping outside, but after Hersel delivered a particularly nasty one related to Kelsan’s parentage, the innkeeper let out a howl of delight.
“That one was worth a gold!” Kelsan roared, startling the nearby patrons. “One gold for the room and meals.” He stuck out his hand.
Hersel shook it, paid Kelsan and turned to Jake and Hailyn. “I will come and wake you before first light.” He said. “Please follow Kelsan to your room. Food will be brought to you. I will ask that you remain there tonight.”
“That is fine, Sergeant Hersel.” Hailyn responded.
“Until the morning.” Hersel said, nodding to Kelsan and going through the kitchen doors.
“Follow me, Sister. Brother.” Kelsan said. He led them through the crowded room to a flight of stairs leading to the upper levels. They went down a cramped hallway, with several lanterns lighting the hallway. The wooden floor creaked as they made their way to a door at the end of the hall.
Kelsan produced a key, unlocking the door and stepping aside. In the cramped room, there were two single beds, separated by a small table against the far wall with a single lantern on it. Above the
table, a small window was open, allowing in both fresh air and the noise from the road below. Jake followed Hailyn into the room, throwing his stuff on one of the beds.
“Hersel is a good man.” Kelsan said from the doorway. They turned to look at him. “He may be a bit of a pain when it comes to rules, but that is probably the military training. You can rest assured that he will treat you properly and get you to where you are going.”
“From some of your insults, I would not have believed that you thought so highly of him.” Hailyn said.
“Oh that.” Kelsan said with a chuckle. “Do not trouble yourself, Sister. Hersel and I are old friends. I cannot just give him what he wants; he has to earn it. The insults are our way of settling who wins. I will have your food brought up.” He said as he closed the door.
“What do you think will happen when we get to the capital?” Jake asked as he sat down on his bed. “It is going to be difficult to do what we need to do if we have an escort with us all the time.”
“Jonas told me that his letter explains that we are looking for information that can benefit all clerics and he will share it with Brother Kal, the Chief Cleric of Beragan, if we are successful.” Hailyn said quietly. “He has requested that Kal find a way for us to travel without military escort, to ensure that the clerics will maintain control of the information. We will have to see if the Chief Cleric has the power or influence to do this.”
“If he can’t?” Jake asked.
“We will have to work with what we given.” Hailyn stated. “Jonas believes that Kal has more influence with the queen than is generally known. We have to hope that is the case.”
A knock on the door interrupted the conversation. Jake opened the door to reveal a serving girl on the other side, bringing them a tray of food and water. Setting the tray down on a bed, she told them that she would return to retrieve the empty plates. She closed the door on the way out.
After Jake and Hailyn finished eating and the girl returned to take away the tray, Hailyn said. “We should get some sleep since we will be rising before the dawn.” She closed the small curtain over the window and leaned over and blew out the lantern, plunging the room into darkness.
Jake could hear the rustling of clothing as Hailyn removed her robes and climbed into her bed. He flushed at the thought of her undressing. He quickly striped down to his pants and shirt and slipped into his bed. He shifted onto his side, facing Hailyn. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness and, with a sliver of light making its way past the curtain, he could make out Hailyn’s eyes looking over towards him.
“Good night, Jake.” She said softly.
“Good night, Hailyn.” He replied.
He watched as her eyes closed, just making out a slight smile on her face. Jake gazed at her for while, watching her drift off into sleep, then turned over. He felt a little odd and unsure of himself, being this close to her as they slept. He wrestled with those feelings until sleep finally took him.
As Hersel had promised, they approached the city of Dunanty in the late afternoon of the third day. After leaving Kelsan’s inn before dawn, they had ridden all day, arriving at another village and inn near dark, staying there, and then continued on the next morning.
The weather had turned less pleasant the second night, with a strong, cold wind blowing from the north. Gray clouds had gathered overhead, occasionally sprinkling them with drops of rain. Jake was now grateful for all of the layers he was wearing.
In the hazy light, with the sun hidden by the clouds, the city seemed to rise out of the plains like a solitary hill. It had rough
stone walls, unlike the smooth walls of Sanduas, which surrounded the city in a circle. As they got closer, Jake could make out the defensive cutouts along top of the wall. There was a flow of travelers entering and leaving through the main gates. The heavy metal-banded wooden gate doors were swung open, the entrance manned by several soldiers, who were watching the people coming and going.
Hersel rode confidently through the gates, the guards saluting him as he passed. The horses’ hooves seemed to ring as they transitioned from the dirt road to the paved streets of the city. Once inside the walls, Jake saw that the buildings in the city were mostly made of wood, with some stone buildings randomly interspersed. Jake noticed the curious looks that the people on the streets gave them as they rode past. They continued on towards the squat castle that was built on a small hill in the city’s center.
The castle was built entirely of stone, with the same rough-cut features of the main walls. Jake saw soldiers patrolling along the walls. Large metal braziers topped the main gate, with several soldiers on horseback, as well as on foot, standing guard. Long green banners hung on either side of the gates.
Hersel rode up to a soldier sitting on a horse with a single golden slash painted across his armor and saluted. The man sat stiffly in the saddle, his face neutral, hand resting on his sword, watching the other soldiers. His armor was spotless and his dark hair and mustache neatly trimmed. The man radiated an air of self-importance. “Greetings, Captain.” Hersel said politely. “Is Chief Cleric Kal in the castle?”