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In the early afternoon of fourday, the three blue-uniformed Road Guards reined up under a spreading oak tree on the south side of the road, in a valley whose western end was roughly ten kays east of Fairhaven.
“There’s no sign of the riders that the shepherds reported,” offered Lendar, a stocky black-haired man, who was neither old nor young.
Taelya guessed that he was about ten years older than she was. Her eyes went to Hassett, one of the most recently trained guards, roughly four years younger than Taelya herself, before she replied, “Not within two kays of the road.”
Lendar eased back the visor cap that all guards wore—including Taelya—and blotted his forehead with the back of his hand. “It’s hot for this early in spring.”
“You think summer will be even hotter, or that today’s just an exception?” asked Taelya.
Lendar shrugged. “Could be either.” He looked eastward along the road that eventually led to Lydiar, but that curved slightly to the north around a low hill roughly two kays farther east at the end of the valley. “There’s a hint of dust beyond the hill, ser,” said Lendar to Taelya, deferentially.
“Wagons, you think?” asked Taelya. “Or guards and wagons?”
“Most likely both. It rained yesterday morning.”
Taelya concentrated, then nodded to Lendar. “Two large wagons and four mounted guards. There’s likely a guard riding with the teamster of each wagon, although it’s hard to tell.”
Hassett looked from Taelya to the senior Road Guard.
“All of the mage-guards can sense that far,” said Lendar.
“Majer Beltur can sense farther,” added Taelya. She didn’t mention that some mages couldn’t sense nearly that far, which was one reason she was a Road Guard with the rank of undercaptain, a rank partly because of her actual abilities and partly because mages had to be officers, although Beltur had strongly advised her to listen to senior Road Guards such as Lendar.
She took out a water bottle, filled with slightly watered ale, and took a swallow. She would have preferred unwatered ale, but, given her size, she worried that enough ale to keep her going would also hamper her magery.
Almost a half a glass passed before the two traders’ wagons neared the three guards and Taelya led the Road Guards out to meet the wagons, then turned her mount to ride alongside the two men in the seat of the lead wagon. Lendar rode beside her, while Hassett rode on the other side of the wagon.
The man with the crossbow looked to the three Road Guards, his eyes lingering on Taelya just a moment longer. “You Road Guards are farther east than usual.”
“That’s because we had reports of possible brigands,” replied Taelya. “We’d prefer that traders arrive in Fairhaven safely.”
The man looked to Lendar quizzically.
“The undercaptain’s in charge,” the senior Road Guard replied cheerfully to the unspoken question.
“I beg your pardon, ser,” the trader said flatly to Taelya, looking directly at her, not quite leering.
Taelya wanted to make him swallow his words, which were scarcely apologetic. Instead, she gathered a small ball of free chaos and placed it in midair perhaps a yard from his face, letting the heat radiate toward him. “Women mages have always fought for Fairhaven. We’re also good at removing brigands.” Smiling, she let the chaos disperse. “We’ll escort you back to town, just to make sure you arrive safely.”
The trader tried not to swallow … and failed. “Ah … we appreciate that.”
The teamster sitting beside the trader on the wagon seat managed to keep from smiling, as he kept the two big dray horses moving down the road.
“You’re coming directly from Lydiar?” offered Taelya conversationally.
“The last traders were talking about Duke Halacut’s health. Do you know if he’s any better?”
“He was when we left. For now, anyway.” The trader paused. “Have you any word on the Prefect…”
“Traders coming from the west have said that he’s talking about raising tariffs again.” Taelya didn’t mention that the reason that several successful traders had built warehouses and started working out of Fairhaven was because the town only charged the tariffs required by Montgren and didn’t put the additional squeeze on traders the way most cities in Hydlen and Certis did, but then a large portion of the Montgren trade tariff was retained by the town, and traders who built warehouses or factorages also paid property tariffs. Even so, Fairhaven’s finances were still chancy, as Taelya’s mother—the town treasurer—had mentioned more than once.
“He just raised them a little over a year ago.”
“We’ve heard that he’s had trouble paying off the moneylenders he borrowed from to pay the mercenaries who held off the Viscount’s troopers.”
The teamster looked quickly at Taelya, then away, as if he hadn’t expected something that she’d said.
“And we’re supposed to pay for his foolishness?” The trader spat, but carefully away from Taelya.
“Only if you want to trade in Gallos,” replied Taelya.
“Getting so it doesn’t make much sense to go to Certis and Gallos, not with the tariffs getting higher and higher. Hydlen’s almost as bad.”
Taelya just nodded and kept riding, still trying to sense if there might be brigands anywhere along the road ahead.
More than a glass later, the trader frowned as they approached the stone indicating that the edge of Fairhaven proper was five kays ahead. “Road’s different, since last fall.”
“It’s metaled,” said Taelya. “Packed gravel. That way it won’t rut and get as muddy. The main street’s stone-paved now, too, from one end of town to the other.”
“Your Council raise tariffs to pay for that?”
“No. It was paid from past tariffs.”
“And your Council didn’t make us traders pay for it?”
“Only with past tariffs. It took years to set aside the golds to do it.”
“Begging your pardon,” said the teamster, “but how does an undercaptain know as much as you do?”
Taelya smiled pleasantly. “It might be because Majer Beltur likes his Road Guards to be well-informed. That way people are less likely to pass along false rumors. We wouldn’t want traders to get the idea that we’re raising tariffs, for example.”
“I can see that,” said the trader. “Is there anything new we should know?”
“The distillery still has some kegs of pearapple brandy for a decent price.”
“What about apple brandy?” asked the teamster.
“The East Inn might have some at the public room. This year’s kegs won’t be ready until late summer or early fall.”
Taelya wondered if one would ask why the pearapple brandy was available when the apple brandy was not, but since neither did it was clear that they knew the pearapple brandy cost more.
When Taelya and the two other guards reined up on the main street in front of the East Inn, where the trader guided his two wagons and guards into the stable yard, it was half past third glass.
“Undercaptain…?” said Lendar.
“I don’t see there’s much sense in riding halfway to the edge of Fairhaven and turning around,” replied Taelya. “So we can ride to headquarters, and we’ll all spar until fourth glass.”
Taelya didn’t even have to look at Hassett’s face to sense the junior guard’s dismay. “We both need the practice, and Lendar needs to stay in shape.”
“Ser … I can’t even touch you,” protested Hassett.
“That’s true,” replied Taelya. “That’s why we use wooden blades.” And also because iron blades striking my shields hurt a lot more than wooden wands. “But I need to get better with the blade for the times when I’m too tired to hold shields, and you definitely need to get better.”
“The undercaptain has a point.” Lendar grinned. “Better now than in summer.”
Taelya smiled at Hassett. “I won’t pick on you.” Not at first. “I’ll spar against Lendar to begin with. Then against you. And the time spent unsaddling and grooming doesn’t count.” Taelya added that because those times weren’t counted as duty glasses, but it made more sense to unsaddle and groom first, then spar, and they’d all be finished sooner that way, without stinting duty time.
Lendar nodded at her last words, as if to emphasize the point.
The three rode past the town square, where several women were gathered around the fountain, talking more than filling their water buckets or jugs, and where a few carts with goods remained. Taelya glanced to the south side of the square and toward the new Council House and Healing House. Although people called them new, they were both over fourteen years old, rebuilt after the Hydlenese had burned the originals.
She had no doubt that her mother was still at the Council House, either working with the land tariff records or dealing with some aspect of her duties as town justicer. In the Healing House next door, Aunt Jessyla and Great-Aunt Margrena held sway, and on the south side of the square was the chandlery.
The three guards turned off the main street into the buildings that served as the headquarters for the town patrollers and the Road Guards, as well as quarters for those Road Guards who had no consorts or families. Taelya could remember when it had been a rather run-down inn before the innkeeper had been exiled to Certis for failing to pay his town tariffs. And a few other things.
Outside the stables, she dismounted and led her horse inside, where she unsaddled him, then checked his hooves, before beginning to groom him.
Lendar finished with his mount before Taelya did and stopped by the end of the stall. “I’ll get the wands and meet you outside.”
Hassett was still brushing his mount when Taelya left the stable and walked from there to the courtyard that served as an exercise yard.
Lendar was waiting. “I brought the wand you usually use, and a practice jacket.” The senior Road Guard already wore such a padded jacket.
“And a heavier wand,” added Lendar. “The majer suggested it.”
Taelya said nothing for a moment, because her initial feeling was to reject the heavier wand. Instead, she said, “I’ll try it.” After pulling on the heavily padded practice jacket, which she needed when she kept her shields close to her skin, she took the heavier wand. The grip was about the same.
“It’s slightly heavier than your sabre, the majer said.” Lendar’s words were offered almost apologetically.
Taelya understood the reason for Beltur’s suggestion, but there were definite disadvantages to being under the command of the man who’d been her uncle for almost as long as she could remember. Most of those disadvantages being that you can’t get away with anything. Not that Taelya really wanted to do anything that Beltur or Jessyla didn’t think was a good idea, but …
“It’s probably better,” she admitted, knowing that, until she got used to the additional weight, Lendar would get more hits on her shields, some of which might result in bruises, despite the padded jacket. But bruises were nothing new, since Taelya hadn’t had a natural talent with blades, and it had taken her a good year to learn to even hold her own against the other junior guards. Unfortunately, once Taelya had finally reached that level, her uncle had insisted that she start working with those who were better, like Lendar, who was better than most Road Guards, except perhaps Gustaan and one or two others.
The two stepped into the large brick-paved circle, and Taelya reduced the extent of her mage-shields close to her body, because, otherwise, Lendar would simply be striking at a wall, and Taelya wouldn’t be learning anything.
She began with a feint that Lendar ignored, then had to slip a slash-cut. But she didn’t counter quickly enough, and Lendar blocked that.
For the next set of exchanges, neither scored a hit on the other.
Then, one of his thrusts slammed under her guard, and the impact on her shields was definitely unpleasant, but not nearly so unpleasant as a thrust with a sharp iron blade would have been.
“You’ve been working on that,” she said, moving to the side.
“I had to. You’re shorter than me. It’s work to get lower.”
After a quint, during which Taelya had hit Lendar perhaps once, and he’d definitely landed thrusts or cuts on her shields, the senior Road Guard stepped back. “Perhaps you should do a time with Hassett.”
Taelya nodded and took a deep breath. She was sweating heavily, both from the padded jacket and from the exertion, but she stepped forward into the circle and raised her wand.
Hassett held his wand too high. So Taelya feint-attacked high and came in low, tapping Hassett just below his ribs before darting back.
After that, the sparring was more even, possibly because Taelya had already sparred, and the heat and long day were taking a toll. She couldn’t help remembering that Beltur had made her practice magery when she was tired, even when she was much, much younger, saying that it strengthened her over time.
Less than a quint later, Lendar spoke up. “It might be time to stop. You’re both getting sloppy.”
Taelya stepped back.
So did Hassett, blotting his forehead with an already damp cloth, then saying, “You and the other younger mages spar. The majer doesn’t.”
“He and Mage-Healer Jessyla were never taught blade skills when they were young,” replied Taelya. “That’s why he’s insisted that all the younger mages and healers learn them. That way we can defend ourselves some when we can’t use magery.”
“You can do better than just defend yourself some, ser. I’ll have bruises to show for that.”
Taelya smiled wryly. “So will I.”
“You’ve said you hold those shields close to you when you spar, and that means you can get bruised or hurt. Why do you do it that way?”
“Because that way I can learn how to use a sabre better for when I’m too tired to hold shields.” Taelya also suspected that Beltur wanted all the mages to understand a little about how fighting felt to those without magely shields.
Hassett shook his head.
After the junior guard left the exercise yard, Lendar turned to Taelya. “Someday, he’ll understand.” After a hesitation, he said, “You learned young, didn’t you?”
“I can remember being told to shield my mother when the Hydlenese attacked. I was seven. It didn’t come to that, but I still remember. That was still easier than what you went through, though.”
“I was a little older,” replied Lendar, “but … you don’t forget.”
No … you don’t. Taelya smiled pleasantly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then she retrieved the second wand, the one she hadn’t used.
“Until then, ser.”
Taelya carried the two sparring wands to the armory and racked them. Then she took off the practice jacket and hung it up. As she turned, she saw Beltur standing in the doorway. With his bright silver hair, and his jet-black forehead—the result of excessive magery during the war against Hydlen—he was an imposing figure and likely would be for years to come.
Her uncle—also the head councilor of Fairhaven as well as the majer who commanded the Road Guards—was smiling. “You’re getting much better with blades. Much better. I was watching.”
“Thank you, ser.”
“It might be best if you practiced with Gustaan occasionally. I’ll mention it to him.”
“What about my starting to practice with Kaeryla?”
Beltur shook his head. “Right now, you’re a much better mage, and you’re far better with wands or blades. Also, neither of you is likely to ever fight another woman. That’s why you don’t practice with Varais, either.”
“She’s also better than Gustaan,” said Taelya. “I’ve watched them.”
“That’s not surprising. She’s from Westwind. How else have they held their own? In any case, it’s better for both you and Kaeryla to practice against men.” He smiled again. “You’ve accomplished so much already.”
“But it’s not enough … is it?”
“It would be more than enough if you were an undercaptain anywhere else. With all the squabbling and bad blood between Gallos and Certis, the sad state of Lydiar, and with Montgren caught between Certis and Lydiar, I’m afraid we’ll be in another war before long. I hope not. We’re trying everything we can to avoid it, but that’s why we’ve begun to train another squad of Road Guards.”
Taelya had wondered about that since there were already three fully-trained squads. She also wondered how the town could pay for them.
“That’s also why I’d rather have you, Dorylt, and Kaeryla as prepared as possible … even Arthaal as soon as he’s able.”
Taelya noticed that he didn’t mention either Sheralt or Valchar. So she decided to. “What about Sheralt and Valchar?”
“What do you think?”
“They’re both older than the three of us, and much older than Arthaal.”
Beltur raised his eyebrows. “What does that have to do with ability?”
“Sheralt’s almost as strong a mage as I am, and he’s a white. Valchar has strong shields.”
Beltur nodded. “And?”
“Sheralt’s shields aren’t as strong as mine or Dorylt’s. They’re about as strong as Kaeryla’s, but shields are really all she has so far. I mean, for fighting or battle.”
“So … you’re saying that together, Valchar and Sheralt might be as strong as you are.”
“And you’re younger.”
Taelya understood her uncle’s point. She just didn’t like it. So she said, “Sheralt’s physically stronger than I am. Why aren’t his shields stronger?”
“Because he didn’t want to learn how to make them stronger. He tried for a few days and said it made him feel strange. He also suggested that he’d rather go elsewhere than be treated like he was fourteen again.”
“So you didn’t push him?”
“I’ve had more than a few things to do over the years, Taelya, and you can’t make someone do what they don’t want to unless you’re willing to risk destroying them.”
“You made me do things.”
“You wanted to learn. Sheralt didn’t.”
Taelya was still thinking that over when Beltur added, “You don’t like the idea that I’m expecting more out of the three of you than mages who are older and more experienced. Do you think I’m being unfair?”
“It doesn’t seem right … somehow.”
“It isn’t,” Beltur agreed, a certain weariness in his voice. “It isn’t right that healers have to fight. It isn’t right that Fairhaven has to fight when we’ve never attacked anyone else. You know that better than almost anyone.”
“Why don’t they leave us alone?”
“Because we’re getting prosperous, and they have troubles, and it’s easier to blame us … and if they can take what we have, then they think that will get rid of their troubles.”
“Why can’t they see that it won’t?”
“Can’t … or won’t?”
“You’re saying that they’re choosing not to see the real problems.”
“Isn’t that true of most of us?”
“You see the real problems. Why can’t they?”
“I didn’t always see the real problems, and then I didn’t have any choice. You haven’t had much choice, either. The rulers of larger lands have more ways to deceive themselves.” Beltur smiled again. “You’re off-duty. You ought to head on home.”
Taelya abruptly remembered. “I do need to go. I promised to take a ride with Kaeryla.”
“She’ll appreciate that.”
While Taelya sometimes wondered about that, a promise was a promise.
With a quick nod to her uncle, she turned and hurried out of the patrol building. She had to walk home, because she had ridden a Guard horse for the day’s road patrol, rather than Bounder, although Bounder was better trained, but she preferred to alternate riding Bounder and another horse, so that she could choose to use Bounder for the more demanding Road-Guard duties. She’d barely walked a hundred yards when she saw a courier in the pale blue of Montgren riding toward headquarters, and she wondered what the message he carried might be.
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