Rowan gave the Queen a pointed look which was returned by her own piercing sea green gaze.
“Why did it take you so long to discover the raiders and their operation?”
“That’s a good question,” Queen Elarin responded, “I’m surprised you hadn’t already asked it.”
“It hadn’t crossed my mind until yesterday.”
“Well the answer is mult-faceted. First and foremost, they primarily acted on the other islands and the northern and southern sides of this island, far from the capital. The further you get from the heartlands, the more policing falls on the local Lords, garrisons and governors. When we investigated after the fact, we found clear signs of corruption and bribery.”
Both Rowan and Seres were disgusted at the notion.
“Furthermore, they were significantly less overt with their strikes, either hitting caravans or small villages.”
“How do you know all this?” Seres asked. Rowan wondered as well; this was a significant amount of detail.
“We were lucky. One of the governors kept a full set of reports on all the attacks that were in range of his city and jurisdiction so that he could extort more bribes from the raiders. The rest of what we have is mostly extrapolation and inference with a splash of eye witness accounts.”
“Makes sense,” Rowan sighed frustratedly.
“This all led to only a single report ever making it to the capital before the eclipse five years ago. Roughly nine years ago, we were informed of a group of raiders based on Færich Lan.”
“I remember that!” Rowan interjected suddenly.
“You do?” Seres asked quizzically with the aid of a raised brow from Queen Elarin.
“Aye! Tyris missed my eleventh birthday because of it.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Queen Elarin apologised. “They were dealt with swiftly. All in all, they were probably less than a tenth of the full operation.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were meant to be a red herring of some sort,” Rowan posited.
“If they were even affiliated with them,” Seres added.
“Indeed. After that, it wasn’t until the lead up to the eclipse that they started to act more boldly. Then they kidnapped Seres and hit Næmyris. Only then were we in a position to start investigating. It took the better part of a year to have enough intelligence to strike.”
Both Rowan and Seres needed a moment to process everything after that. It was a lot to take in. Eventually, Rowan spoke up again.
“Were the people taking bribes punished?”
“Hopefully such tragedy will never again befall our fair nation.”
“Are you done with your questions, Rowan?” Seres asked.
“I am, yeah.”
“We should probably get going if we want to make good time.”.
“Right. Thanks again, Queen Elarin, and goodbye.”
“Farewell, Rowan. Please keep my daughter safe.”
“Goodbye, Mother. We should be back before the Solstice if it doesn’t snow too heavily.”
“Farewell my dearest Seres. If ever you need more protection on your travels, you know who to ask.”
“I’m sure Rowan will be more than enough.”
With the final goodbyes said, the two girls lead their mounts and pack horses out of the stables before mountain up. Rowan was unsteady at first, she’d never ridden a horse before, but she didn’t make a complete fool of herself which was something at least.
The start of the journey was largely uneventful. Both Rowan and Seres were wearing riding gear instead of any obvious finery so most people only gave them a passing look if anything. Life in the city was a busy one after all so it wasn’t that surprising. On top of that, Rowan was a complete stranger to most people and Seres hadn’t been seen in the city in over five years. Right now the only thing that gave her away were her eyes and they weren’t exactly the first thing you noticed when you looked at someone.
Once they were outside the city, they picked up the pace, going at a canter instead of a walk. They tried trotting at first, but Rowan couldn’t get a handle on it. Fortunately, only Seres saw her fall the first time.
“Oww ow ow ow,” she cried out as she landed on her side.
“Are you okay?” Seres asked. “That looked like it hurt.”
“I’m fine,” answered Rowan with a soft note of pain as she rolled back up, thankful that Elan Fiir was attached to the horse instead of her. On the flipside, said horse was now running away.
“Rubbing your shoulder like that isn’t very convincing.”
“I’m more concerned about the horse. Give me a second.”
Without any more warning, Rowan bolted across the grasslands to catch her mount. Fortunately, Rowan was more than a match for a horse in terms of speed. Ten leagues an hour? Easy. As she was, Rowan was pushing twelve. The downside was that she was significantly lacking in stamina, at least compared to a horse. Still, this was a sprint, not a marathon and Rowan was able to catch up in no time.
“Easy, girl,” she whispered in an attempt to calm the mare down.
Instead of letting Rowan stroke her, the mare reared her head and gave Rowan a toothy neigh followed by what could only be called the smuggest chortle in existence.
“Dinnae give me that,” said Rowan with a hint of annoyance.
The horse of course had every intention of giving Rowan ‘that’ in the form of an extremely loud snorting right in her face.
“What do you mean you want an apple?” Rowan wasn’t actually sure that’s what she wanted if anything, she just knew that horses apparently liked apples. From the horse’s reaction it seemed like a good guess as she nodded intently.
“I don’t have any, but we have some nice tasty treats back with Seres and the other horses.”
At the mention of treats, the horse was instantly off. If Rowan hadn’t been holding onto the reins it would have been another chase.
“Wait! I need to get on first. Please don’t shake me off.”
The horse just gave her a look that said, ‘That was entirely your fault and we both know it.” Thankfully she didn’t do anything to make things difficult for Rowan as she mounted back up. That is nothing she could control; being notably taller than her rider didn’t count.
Once Rowan had both feet in the stirrups and her hand on the reins, the horse went from nothing to a full gallop within seconds. If she weren’t an Ardent, Rowan would have been thrown off like a ragdoll.
Seres was laughing when Rowan finally regained control. To add insult to injury, the horse joined in.
“I think she likes you,” Seres giggled.
“She’s a menace,” Rowan huffed. “I’m half convinced that she’s an Ardent in disguise.”
“That would be something. Are you sure you can handle her? The stablemaster would have given you a more mellow horse if you’d told him that it was your first time.”
“It’ll be fine,” Rowan said, rolling her eyes. “Nami’s just a little feisty is all. Speaking of which, do you have any of those sugar cubes on you?”
“I do, yes.”
Seres pulled out three brilliant white cubes of sugar from a small pouch at her waist. One was given to each of the horses from Rowan’s feisty chestnut and Seres’ graceful grey to the sturdy bay that was their pack horse. Nami was demanding another before she was even finished.
“You can have more later,” Seres told her with a mischievous smile. “If you behave, that is.”
Even from her saddle, Rowan could feel the indignance behind the look that Nami gave Seres.
“Are you sure she isn’t an Ardent?” Rowan asked. “Horses shouldn’t be this emotive.”
“Don’t be silly,” Seres giggled.
“I’m not,” Rowan objected. “Just look at her.”
“Intelligence was her Gift from the Goddess, that’s all.”
“Why couldn’t it have been grace or vitality?”
“Are you sure you want to say that while you’re on her back?”
“No,” Rowan admitted, “it’s just…”
There was no helping it. If anything, Nami was the perfect horse for Rowan and she couldn’t exactly begrudge her for having the one Gift that made her more intelligent than the average horse. Maybe if horses had as many potential gifts as humans and the other humanoid races, they were limited to three, just like animals.
“Rowan? Are you okay? You’re staring off into space.”
“For a good minute.”
“Well… I think I’m okay. I was just thinking.”
“If you’re sure.”
“Yeah, don’t mind me. Instead, you should mount back up. It’s still a while off to the next village.
They continued to travel west by way of the road that ran alongside the Telma River. It had been years since Rowan had last travelled down this road and it was just as beautiful and viridescent as she remembered. There was lush green grass and wildflowers. To add to the picturesque scenery were nice white fluffy clouds, one of which Rowan swore looked just like a fenrabbit.
On the first day they took a gamble on reaching a village before nightfall and hoping they could find shelter there instead of looking for somewhere to set up camp. They were cutting it close as the sun had just dipped below the horizon when the village came to view. Granted, calling it a village was rather generous. It was more of a hamlet, little more than a dozen or so buildings.
According to Seres, it had been originally settled to take advantage of a ford. Keyword being originally as earthquake had diverted another river into the Telma causing water levels to rise by more than a foot. Now they have a ferry instead.
Of course, with so few buildings, an Inn was out of the question. On the flipside, literally everyone offered their full hospitality and that was without them even disclosing their identities. Seres refused to impose that much, however, which led to Rowan making a compromise with one of the farmers by means of their barn. In the end, Seres agreed to the compromise, albeit reluctantly on the condition that the farmer accept a silver link for his troubles.
The barn ended up being surprisingly comfortable, especially as the farmer had said that they could sleep on the hay. Alas, the comfort at the cost of mutual shame or perhaps a new fashion trend as the hay had managed to practically become one with their hair. It ended taking the better part of the morning to brush out every last bit.
Meanwhile Nami munched smugly away at her breakfast, chortling whenever the girls hit a snag. Eventually, however, they were able to leave. Unfortunately, the further they got on the second day, the more obvious it became that they wouldn’t reach the town. Eventually Rowan called for a stop.
“I think we need to make a choice, Seres. We could push on past sunset. If we do, we should make it to the town and we aren’t hurting for night vision. At the same time, it isn’t really fair on the horses. Alternatively we could find a place to set up camp and then take it easy tomorrow.”
“Wouldn’t we need to make up for lost time if we did that?”
“If we were in a rush, yeah, but a single day doesn’t matter that much.”
Rowan wasn’t being entirely truthful when she said that. She wanted to get to Næmyris as soon as possible. At the same time she didn’t want to injure the horses. They were kind of screwed if either of them went lame or threw a shoe after all.
“If you say so,” Seres replied after some thought. “In that case, the copse of trees a mile or so back looked promising. And it’s close to the river so we can bathe.”
“You want to bathe in the open? And I thought I was bold.”
“Stop that,” Seres pouted, “it’s not like they’ll be anyone to spy on us so it should be fine.”
“Well I don’t really mind. I’m just surprised is all.”
“We’re still going to wait until its pitch black.”
“Of course. Shall we?”
The copse ended up being a perfect place to set up camp. Out of the way and well sheltered but still close to the river and the road. There was also space to set up a campfire without threatening the trees. With that said there were a few hiccups when it came to setting everything up. That is to say that the tent was an absolute nightmare. Even Nami refrained from snickering at the whole ordeal.
When it was finally over, the two girls collapsed to the ground in a moment of cathartic exhaustion.
“That had no right to be that difficult,” Seres huffed.
“Are you sure they didn’t give us any better instructions?”
“That’s what I found in the packs.”
“It read like it was made with an architect in mind.”
“You can say that again.”
“I was wondering, why did you pack so many crystals?”
“Oh that? Let me show you.”
“Let you what now?”
Seres rolled her eyes. “Just watch,” she said as she got up and walked over to her packs. From inside one of them she pulled out a rose tinted crystal with veins of blue. Rowan recognised it as a Thermal Resonance Crystal, specifically a flame bearing one.
“You see, a lesser known ability of my eyes is this.”
Seres started conjuring a small flame, drawing it from the crystal and let it dance over the palm of her hand.
“How are you even?” Rowan started.
“I’m able to Resonate with crystals and channel their power. My Gift helps as well.”
“Gift of the Soul?”
“It lets me strengthen Resonance in the living, be it people, trees, or animals.”
“Animals I can understand, but trees?”
“It isn’t easy, but yes, I can. More importantly, I think it’s time to put this fire to use.”
This time Seres just casually tossed the flame into the fire pit they had made.
“There has to be a catch?” Rowas asked.
“It takes a lot of energy and once I release my control I can’t regain it. Take the campfire for example. I can’t do anything about it now.”
“How did I not know this was a thing?”
“Probably because those that do know about it think it’s a myth so it isn’t really that well documented. On that note, there’s something I need to thank you for.”
“Lord Fein wanted to know if it was true so he tried desperately to get me to tell him. When you made your deal with him, you stopped them from torturing it out of me.”
“Well I’d do it again and again if I had to.”
“Don’t mention it. You gave me a reason to live, after all, to not give in. If anything I should be thanking you. Now let’s make dinner before I start crying and then we can go bathe.”
Seres nodded affirmatively.