The late summer sun sank lower in the cloudless blue-gold sky, casting long shadows to the left of a horse and rider as they travelled the gentle road south from the borders of the Dale.
Bronwyn, Mage of the Flame and Guardian of the Peace, was tired.
“What do you think, Shanks? Shall we make camp under those trees ahead? You hungry?”
Shanks flicked one ear at the sound of Bronwyn’s voice, but of course said nothing. “Well I’m hungry,” Bronwyn said, “And you never argue with anything I have to say.”
Bronwyn stretched in the saddle to ease the ache that was beginning to creep up on her from her days ride.
“I wish more people were like you,” she muttered. “Everyone else argued with me all the time when we were back there. You think they’d be happy with the news, but no. It’s always ‘what are the mages taking now, why are they changing things, what gives them the right’.
Shanks trotted forward obediently.
“It’s not like I want to interfere, Shanks, you know that. But I have to do my job.” Bronwyn pondered this for a moment. “I suppose keeping the peace would be easier if I wasn’t the one upsetting it all the time.”
Bronwyn fell silent as they approached the treeline. Shanks might be the best trained horse east of the capital, but she wasn’t much for conversation, and as much as she loved the lonely rides between the villages and towns on the eastern coast, sometimes the company of a horse was not enough.
“Hey, we’ll be at Ashdown tomorrow,” she reminded Shanks as she patted his neck. “We can get your hoof fixed.”
Whether this was an event Shanks was looking forward to or not, she didn’t let on.
The air grew suddenly cooler as they passed beneath the shade of the trees. Here the damp of the late summer rains had been trapped by the leaves and undergrowth, and Bronwyn sensed the faint scent of leaves rotting in the mud.
She sensed something else too.
Bronwyn nudged her heels into Shank’s ribs and pushed a little farther on. She smelled smoke. A campfire? Or the remains of one. That would be a blessing. It was an irony not lost on her that she hated the tedium of building a fire. Bronwyn always felt with her gifts she should not have to go through the same laborious process as everyone else. Still, maybe there was something she could work with.
Shanks pushed into the clearing, forcing Bronwyn to lean to one side to avoid a branch. The campsite had been abandoned, probably since noon, but the remains of the fire had continued to smoulder. A wooden frame still stood in place on the far side of the fire. Meat, rabbits probably, had hung here. The fire itself had been banked up against some large stones, and in front of them the grass was still flat. Some sticks and small logs had been laid on other stones nearby to keep them away from the damp earth. They were far from seasoned but while making a fire was not something Bronwyn particularly enjoyed, damp wood was not a problem.
Bronwyn dismounted but made no effort to hitch Shanks to a tree. Instead she pulled back the reins so they wouldn’t tangle and released the bit so Shanks could relax and eat. She rubbed the heel of her palm up and down Shank’s long nose for a minute before turning her attention back to the fire.
Bronwyn knelt down and blew gently into the ashes, bringing forth a dull red glow.
“I think we’re in luck,” she said. “I’m not going to be cold tonight.”
Bronwyn heaped the biggest branches and sticks she could find on to the fire, arranged them properly, and blew again. The dull glow brightened and she could feel the faint warmth in her outstretched fingers. It was enough. She focussed her will, gestured from habit rather than necessity, and the fire sprang to life.
Bronwyn unpacked her camping gear from Shanks. Pots clattered to the floor, shocking nearby birds awake and into the air with the sudden noise. She rested one hand on her hip and the other on Shank’s flank as she surveyed the camp site for a moment, making mental preparations before setting to work.
“You see, Shanks? Being a Mage of the Flame is not completely useless, no matter what anyone else thinks.”
Supper was the last of the bread she had brought with her from the northern province to accompany a thin soup she prepared slowly in her tin pot. Shanks nibbled at patches of grass while Bronwyn heated water and turned large liquid eyes to her blonde rider.
“I know, I know. This is far from the best meal we’ve had since the last time we were back in Ashdown, but tomorrow will be better. I’ll get the Marshall to fix your shoe and we can ride along the beach. You love that!”
Shanks gave nothing away as Bronwyn used her horse as an excuse to talk to herself.
“And some fresh fish. That’s what I look forward to when we get back to the coast, the fish. They taste better here than anywhere else. Even from Lorin, and that’s on the coast too. Why do you think that is? Is it something to do with where the sun rises? Or because there’s fewer people in the east?”
When the soup was ready Bronwyn rearranged the stones in a smaller circle around the fire and added more wood.
“It’s the people I miss the most in Ashdown. They are nicer to me there,” she explained to Shanks between scrapes of spoon on pot. “They listen to me, even if they don’t like what they hear, which is most of the time. Even that time I ruled against the Marshall on the ownership of that fence. But at least they listen. I know, you listen to me too but you don’t give me much in the way of conversation, Shanks. Even for a horse.”
Instead of answering, Shanks bowed her head and wandered to the far side of the clearing to investigate some bushes.
Bronwyn drained the last of the soup and set the pot and spoon aside. She held one hand over the stones and felt the warmth beginning to radiate from the rock. It was dark now, and the small fire was the only source of light, yellow and crackling, in the dark circle of trees.
Bronwyn stretched out on the flat grass near the fire and decided to make her bed. She fetched a trowel from her pack and dug a series of holes in the ground, each one large enough to take one of the stones from the fire. Then with a small blanket wrapped carefully around her hands she picked up the stones one by one and dropped them into the holes she had made, hot side up. When they were all filled she recovered them with a thin layer of soil and lay her ground blanket on top. Then she built the fire up one more time, arranged the remaining stones to reflect the heat toward her bed, and wrapped herself in another blanket.
Shanks must have found something she liked because she snorted softly across the clearing.
“I know, Shanks. Goodnight.”
Bronwyn lay on her back and closed her eyes and before the first stars appeared she was asleep.