Authors: Jim Greenfield
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Wynne watched the hawks soaring over the fields and realized there were words in their haunting cries. The words were strange but she felt an understanding in her heart. They were warning her but of what? As she watched them she felt lifted from her saddle into the air among them. They seemed to swoop and soar around her with cries of joy. She did not understand it but she welcomed it. The birds rose over the king's company and she could see the forest road the king would take to Stormridge. She looked south and the distance revealed the spires of Nantitet. Higher, she wanted to fly higher. The cries of the hawks grew more urgent and she shook herself, her eyes tightly closed. The sounds of the hawks became faint and she opened her eyes to see Prince Estes looking at her. She ignored him and continued on the road.
At the edge of the fields rose an old forest. Wynne stared into the interior and the forest laid claim to her and pulled hard at her tether.
"Wynne? Are you okay?" asked Prince Estes.
"Yes, I'm fine. I hadn't realized how closed in I was at Nantitet. The stone and brick dulled my senses. This trip is more stimulating than I expected."
The clop, clop of the horses heralded their exit from the ancient forest road and soon the sounds of rushing waters rose around them. The company slowed as they reached the river crossing south of the castle of Stormridge. The horses crossed the flowing current above the rocks without difficulty but their riders were soaked to the thigh. The forest grew close around the rivers creating a two edged defense. Large forces had difficulty moving through the trees but the castle needed vigilance to detect foes in the dense wood. The castle rose up on a hill allowing a view of the Herban River beyond the trees to the south. The Powtan River to the north also was visible although not as clearly. Sentries always watched the rivers. Any force traveling the nearby lands exposed themselves to the lookouts at Stormridge. It was a small castle but strategic and important enough for King Yeates of Calendia to visit his vassal Lord Rilar. Yeates made regular visits to his major vassals but did not announce the trips in advance and kept a company of thirty men ready to march swiftly. The king believed this surprise action allowed him to visit safely without premeditated attack upon his destination or his capital, Nantitet. Thus far it worked.
The breeze had been lurking and now greeted them almost solid with sensation. Wynne's nose crinkled and her mouth pulled to the left when they cleared the hills south of Stormridge. She inadvertently opened her mouth and it was fouled immediately. The food they had eaten an hour earlier, stringy rabbits of some sort, had tasted foul and now threatened to rise up. Wynne turned her head to grab a cleaner breath of air nearly gasping. Most of her companions paid no notice to the stink but she saw the tension in Prince Estes' jaw. The tall trees did little to pull the smell from the air.
"I guess they haven't buried their waste recently," said Estes.
Wynne did not even respond to that.
The journey from Nantitet had been pleasant for the most part; the weather cool but sunny and the air was filled with freshness, flowers and trees. It washed over Wynne and she almost forgot why they were going to Stormridge. She put it out of her mind and enjoyed the experience. The sky began to cloud as they neared Stormridge which sat below the Black Mountains. She appreciated the dynamic changes in the sky. And then the smell of the town greeted them.
Now reality fouled her mood.
King Yeates rode at the head of thirty riders and led them through the forest road. They had ridden through threatening weather to this northern town and Wynne was ready to take a hot bath but doubted, from the quality of air that it was a common practice in the area. Even in Nantitet, the capital city of Calendia and the most important city on Anavar a bath was rare and to bathe regularly was sure to start whispers. Not that Wynne cared about the whispers. She was a sorcerer and whispers followed her like the tap of her boot heels.
"Anything amiss?" asked Yeates.
"Just the air." Some impulse kept her from mentioning the hawks' warning, whether from spite or a larger scheme she couldn't say.
"Ha, you haven't been here before. Rilar is a methodical man and does not change his plans often. The garbage sits until he is ready to have it removed."
"Yes, he was methodical with his name calling."
"Wynne, do not dwell on that here. We are exposed and you must protect the book. It is key for Nantitet to remain strong. We do not know who may attempt to steal it. Do not let yourself get distracted."
"So I have to endure the leers and snickering? The rumors that I am sharing your bed?"
"Well, it is flattering to me," said Yeates. He grinned but Wynne did not smile.
"You know what I mean," she said in a flat tone. "It undermines my ability to be an advisor and to gather information. Rilar is isolating me, negating any benefit I offer you. Is this result intentional?"
"I will discuss it with him once I see what support he offers to me."
"Yes, why did you bring only thirty soldiers?"
"They are enough to keep bandits away and not enough to threaten Rilar."
"Do you really need him that much? Can't you just order him to obey?"
"Wynne you told me yourself to strengthen ties with my vassals. Ordering them does not create the trust I may need from them in the future. Not that I believe Treteste is the threat you say he is, but I do listen to you."
"It was Tagera who said he was a threat. I am following up on his warnings."
"Do not speak of him to me again. I am done with Tagera and if he shows his face in Nantitet I will throw him in irons. Am I understood?"
"Yes, your highness."
She fell back and let Yeates ride alone. Stormridge stood on the low hill before them with its gates closed.
"We are here, Wynne," said Estes. "You are finally outside the walls of Nantitet and under the shadows of the forest again." He grinned at her. She tried to ignore him. Estes, the only son of Yeates, looked down at the small woman. He was taller than his father and handsome, but oblivious of other people's concerns much like his father. He looked at her down his hawk-like nose set off by blond hair and piercing blue eyes. His white teeth gleamed at her and she raised her hand mockingly to ward off the glare.
"Isn't that what you wanted?" He asked.
She did not answer.
"I don't understand you."
She smiled at that. Wynne's auburn hair moved gently in the breeze and she was aware of its touch on her neck. The trees. The trees. She did not know why the forests called to her, but she felt their touch, heard their voices each time she stepped outside or passed an open window. More than once she missed the words of the king because windows in the great hall let in the forest air. "Yes, I wanted to leave the city, but it doesn't need to be shouted to all within hearing. I don't want everyone knowing what I think."
"I apologize, Lady Wynne," said Estes, smirking. "We shall be discreet and no one will notice the sorceress of Nantitet."
"Would you prefer to be a toad? It won't be that much of a stretch," smiled Wynne. "And I would do if for no fee, sincerely."
Estes backed away. "You are too generous, Wynne. I do not need such favor."
"It is all you will get from me."
He frowned. "I will invoke your statement about shouting to every ear. I must gain the respect of my men and you help not." He glanced around at the soldiers. They did not meet his eyes, masking their faces with discretion.
"Well met, then," said Wynne. "Perhaps we shall gain respect from each other."
"It is possible," said the young prince.
Stormridge wasn't a large town; its buildings snuggled around the southern walls of the castle with an outer wood wall around the town. The gates looked far stronger than the rest of the town wall and the gates were closed.
"Must have recognized the king," muttered Wynne.
"I didn't catch what you said," said Estes.
"Just sorcerer stuff, never you worry."
A loud scraping reached their ears as the gate of the town opened. The heavy gate slid to one side and several rough dressed horsemen rode out. Each wore a heavy coat of furs with a long sword girdled to their waists. They rode fast, in a wedge with their leader at the point. Lord Rilar led the riders to the king. Rilar proved a strong fighter and defender of the crown. His support of Yeates earned him Stormridge in place of Merkel who had betrayed Yeates. Rilar had quarreled often with Yeates before Yeates became king and they were not close friends. It was the crown that held Rilar's pledge, not Yeates himself. The riders dismounted and knelt before King Yeates.
"Welcome to Stormridge, sire," said Rilar.
"Rise, Rilar, and thank you for your welcome."
"Welcome, Prince Estes. It has been several months. You are growing tall and strong."
"Thank you, Lord Rilar. It is always a pleasure to see you again." Rilar raised an eyebrow while Yeates nodded.
"This is Wynne," said Yeates, smiling. Rilar glanced at Yeates, and then nodded his head to the young woman. Rilar hesitated before speaking.
"It is an honor, Sorceress Wynne. I have heard much about you. You are welcome."
"Am I really?" mused Wynne. "One wonders about the words spoken by the Lord of Stormridge that pass through Nantitet, whispered and viperous."
"Only rumors," said Yeates. "Rilar has his enemies who seek to discredit him. I did not know you took those rumors to heart Wynne or else I would have counseled you earlier."
Wynne's expression did not change although she nodded. Rilar backed away. He opposed Yeates' decision to employ the sorceress. His opposition had been vocal and lengthy. Word of it passed through Calendia even to the Wierland border. None of his words about Wynne flattered her. Estes moved to her and reached over to grasp her hand. He shook his head. Her eyes bored into his. She turned to the king.
"We will speak of this later," snapped Yeates.
"Later? Do you fear me, King Yeates?" whispered Wynne so Rilar would not hear. "Do not let your vassal see you weak. However, I will not extend friendship to that man."
"Very well. You shall spend your time out of sight while we are here. Do not look for Rilar and trouble no one."
"As you wish," said Wynne, demurely. She resisted a smile and a glance at Rilar. "We shall continue this discussion another time, Lord Rilar."
"Please Wynne," said Estes. "This is not the time. We are in the open and in risk. Confront Rilar in his study if you must." He glared at Rilar to show he supported Wynne. "But out here risks the crown."
She nodded. Yeates watched her.
"Well, Rilar. Lead us to your castle," said Yeates.
The group rode on, leaving Estes and Wynne to follow, guarded by two soldiers.
"You will never succeed at politics, Wynne," said Estes. "Your heart is not closely guarded."
"How do you mean?" she snapped. "No one knows my heart."
"Your thoughts, then. Something of you comes out in the way you move."
"I notice your interest in the way I move."
Estes blushed slightly as they rode under the gate. People lined the courtyard to see the king. They cheered and waved as the king passed. They cheered for the prince. Then they saw the sorceress and silence blanketed the courtyard. Wynne stared back at the faces focused on her. The crowd dispersed to return to their chores.