Bronwyn rode out of the camp in a dark mood. Morrigan had no right to keep questioning her like that, and no right to infer the Mages we somehow at fault for what had happened. They rebelled because they needed to remove the king from power. The war which followed was a tragedy, of course, but if the monarchists had simply listened the could have been far less bloodshed. Did these people think the Mages wanted a war? That they wanted to risk tearing the land apart?
She shook her head free of the dark cloud Morrigan had left upon her and urged Shanks into a run to clear her mind.
The ruined folly was closer to the western boundary of the forest than she remembered, and the trees soon thinned until she was once more riding under the open sky. The rain had continued all morning, and out here in the open she was no longer protected from the worst of it by the trees. It was a grey, effortless rain that had no intention of rushing its admittedly not unwelcome task. Bronwyn pulled her cloak tighter around her neck and shoulders, pulled gloves from her saddlebag and put them on, and checked the hidden scroll was still secure.
The road turned upward toward the western cliffs, and granite boulders lined the side of the road where the earth had eroded around them. To the north Bronwyn knew lay the city state of Tay, a few miles inland from the coast and today hidden from sight behind rain and low, rolling clouds.
But ahead of her, visible despite the weather, was the capital; Lorin.
Built on the unyielding cliffs of the western shore, Lorin was one of the major ports of Arden. The docks themselves, a thriving community of traders, merchants, fishermen and foreigners were south of the city where the cliffs fell away sharply. These docks connected the city with the great trade routes of the western shore, down and around the southern top of the peninsular, north to the Dale and beyond, and far over the horizon to the Five Islands.
As Bronwyn approached the city she noticed for the first time the skyline of her youth had changed. The city wall was higher, crowned by a ring of new stone and crenelations, and the high spire of the Palestra where she had trained and studied in her youth was now dwarfed by the top of the Mage tower. The towers of the former palace were no longer the tallest buildings in Lorin.
The closer she got to the city the better the road became, and soon Shanks’s footsteps tapped out their arrival on a well-maintained road edged with shallow ditches kept free of weeds either side of a gentle camber.
Closer now, Bronwyn looked again at the city wall. Not only was it higher, but there were more towers, and the great arch of the eastern gate, once welcoming to all, had been fitted with two huge doors of oak. They were wide open, and the daily traffic flowed unimpeded, but the fact this relic of the past had returned to Arden at all still gave Bronwyn cause to wonder what else had changed, and why.
It was a welcome relief to pass unchallenged into the city but she counted six armed guards at various stations near the gate. They seemed relaxed enough, and stopped no-one, but it was only three years ago that she had left the city, and at that time one sleepy guard was enough.
But there were some changes that were clearly an improvement over the city of her youth. Main streets had been paved. Major side streets had been upgraded to cobblestones, and both showed signs of improved drainage. Lamp posts dotted each major intersection. They were no more than simple poles with hooks on which lamps could be placed each night, but it was better than the dark streets she remembered.
Civic improvements abounded. Bronwyn recognised most of the streets and she remembered shops and inns and stables. Now they had been replaced by statues and fountains and gardens. The city was a far more beautiful place than the one she had left, of that there was no doubt.
But it was not necessarily a more welcoming place. Apart from the reinforced gate and walls and city guards, there were more soldiers on the street as well. Bronwyn noticed how they walked down the centre of the streets, forcing the citizens to the sides. In her day they gave way to the people of the city, they made conversation. The way people scampered aside as if it was not their city made it seem as if they were acting not out of politeness, but out of fear.
And apparently she had stared too long.
“You there, on the horse.”
Bronwyn reined Shanks in and turned her horse to face the city guardsman who had called out to her. His pike tapped out a third footstep as he approached, flanked by two others armed with spears.
“Yes?” she said.
“Stop staring at the soldiers and move along.”
“I wasn’t staring. I’ve just been away for a long time. Things have changed.”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses, just move along.”
“I am not making excuses!”
The guardsman lowered his pike to Shank’s head just enough to seem threatening. The other guards each took two steps to the left and right so Bronwyn faced a wall of soldiers.
“State the purpose of your visit to Lorin.”
“State what?” said Bronwyn in disbelief.
“You heard me.” He gave a signal and the two spearmen readied their weapons too.
“What is this? Are you threatening me?”
“We are charged with keeping the peace.”
“You have no right to bring such a charge against me! How dare you? I am a Guardian of the Peace.”
The man’s face fell, and the spearmen immediately took a step back.
“Y-you’re a Mage?”
Bronwyn replied with an edge in her voice.”I am Bronwyn of the Flame, Guardian of the Peace, at your service,” she said.
“Apologies your grace!” stammered the guard. “We had no idea!”
“You had no idea I was a Mage?”
“No, your grace.” He waved an arm up and and down to indicate her clothes.”I didn’t recognise you dressed like that.”
“Dressed like what?” she demanded. The guard hesitated in his reply. “Answer me,” she said.
“Like a traveller.”
“I am a traveller. I have travelled here!”
“Apologies again, your grace! But you are not dressed in the robes befitting someone of your station. If we can escort you…”
“I need no escort from the likes of you,” she replied. “And since when did my clothing give a city guard cause to challenge a mage?”
“We would never challenge a Mage, your grace!” said the guard. “Never!”
Bronwyn said nothing else but rode past them in silence. As uncomfortable as the encounter had been, one thought nagged at her. The guards had not asked for credentials or proof of any kind. All she had to do was claim to be a Mage and they had let her passed. They had offered her an escort!
So why wouldn’t everyone make the same claim?
Her journey to the council building took her near the Palaestra of her youth, and she couldn’t resist a short diversion to see the school where she had trained for so many years. It was a relief to see this building was exactly the same as she had left it, although it had clearly been recently cleaned. The distinctive pale red and dark red checkerboard patterns of the brickwork gave the school a much more attractive facade to the plain, almost utilitarian, stone construction of the buildings around it. Robed figures bustled up and down four steps, one for each element, of the building. She could see what the guards meant now. Most of them were plain black, white or blue with the occasional red. Every now and then someone would walk past with horizontal stripes of gold or silver embroidered into the robes at knee height.
If this was how Mages dressed now in the city it was no wonder the guards thought her out of place in riding leathers and worn boots and the unkempt appearance of several days ride. She certainly did not look as sophisticated and presentable as these students. She suspected she did not carry herself with the same air of self-importance she detected in their faces either.
Fashions and attitudes had both changed in the last three years, she realised. For a moment she felt aggrieved that she had not been kept up to date with these changes, but then these were city Mages. Her duties were far more provincial, in every sense of the word. She had a duty to stay up to date on the laws and rules of the land, and impart them to the villages under her care. The fashions of the capital were not important enough for someone to make sure she was kept up to date.
More students were arriving for the afternoon classes. She whistled and tugged lightly on the reins and Shanks obediently side-stepped out of their way. The movement bounced her leg against the saddle and she felt under her thigh the protruding tube, and remembered the reason she was here.
“I think that’s enough sightseeing for today, my girl. We have a job to do.”
Shanks snorted as Bronwyn wheeled her mount around, and they trotted turned to the main street. Here Bronwyn turned west once more and guided them both through the city to the Mage Council.
The centre of Mage authority in Lorin, indeed in all of Arden, was a red brick building near the cliff edge. Quatrefoil designs marked out minor windows and the design elements were repeated throughout all the doorways of the building. The Mage Tower was also one of the few buildings in Lorin to have windows glazed with stained glass. The others being the palace and the guildhalls. But where the palace windows were decorated with scenes of kings and queens of old, and the guildhalls with designs of their trades, the Mages decorated theirs with scenes of nature. An enduring and delicate reminder of the foundation and source of their own power.
And beautiful. The upper windows in particular, the ones in studies and private offices which overlooked the courtyard and the bay, contained such fine leading and delicate colours that artists were frequently commissioned by their patrons to study them and paint them. None could quite capture the quality of light that passed through the windows during a late-summer sunset, though many tried. Despite the reputation the Mages had of becoming more secretive and unhelpful, this had been and still was an easy way to get inside their inner sanctums. Flattery did get you everywhere.
Bronwyn took Shanks to the stables, and after identifying herself as a Mage, ensured her horse received the proper care and attention she deserved. Bronwyn shook out her clothes, pulled the tube free from its hiding place, and walked through the entrance.
Her riding boots rang out on the polished stone floor of the lobby, and turned all eyes to her. Everyone else wore soft shoes or slippers and they glided and whispered around the room. By comparison Bronwyn clomped into the room and destroyed the air of tranquility they seemed to try to cultivate. Mages cast disapproving looks her way as they passed, and others frowned in her direction. She could feel the embarrassment glowing from the face of the young Mage seated behind the long desk in the centre of the room as she approached. He sat and watched her approach with an effect of serenity but she could tell his body language was hoping desperately that this woman causing a disturbance in the lobby was not here to see him.
He didn’t get his wish.
“Good afternoon,” said Bronwyn, almost in a whisper. Anything louder felt like shouting.
The young Mage freed his hands from the folds of his white robe and steepled his fingers. “Good afternoon. This is for Mages only. If you are lost I can have someone direct you to where you wish to go.”
“I am a Mage,” she said.
The young man looked her up and down. “Are you sure?”
“I am Bronwyn of the Flame, Guardian of the Peace, appointed to the eastern province three years ago upon the completion of my apprenticeship by Sallus himself.”
“Sallus appointed you?”
The young Mage considered her for a moment, then said, “Very well. How may I assist you.” There was a curious emphasis on the word ‘you’, as if he resented the fact she was there at all.
Bronwyn brandished the tube containing her secret scroll. “I have a message for Sallus.”
‘Oh, is that all’, was what she read in the face of the young man, but he said, “Mail can be delivered to the postmaster. Over there, down those stairs.”
Bronwyn looked to where he was pointing, then back at him. “I don’t think I can do that. I need to make sure he sees this himself.”
“The postmaster will be able to help you further.”
“No, I really need to make sure Sallus gets this message. Can I take it to him myself?”
“That won’t be possible,” said the Mage, but the look on his face said ‘don’t be absurd!’.
“Why not? I know where his office is, unless it has moved.”
“”That won’t be possible,” repeated the Mage.
“Why don’t I just go upstairs now and give it to him.”
“He won’t be there.”
“Okay, where will he be?”
“I can’t say.”
“Do you know when he will be back?”
“I can’t say.”
This was getting annoying. “What can you say?”
He pointed again to the door at the side of the hall. “The postmaster will be able to help you further.”
“Remind me what you do again,” said Bronwyn.
“I am here to assist Mages with their enquiries,” he said. It sounded like something he had learned by rote.”
“Well I am a Mage and I am making an enquiry.”
He peered over the desk at her boots and his gaze followed the marks her feet had left on the stone floor “Real Mages,” he said.”
Bronwyn bristled. “Excuse me? And what is a ‘real mage’?”
“Someone who studies the arts, not someone who roams the countryside like a wild vagabond.”
“A wild what? I do the work of the Mages out in the real world. I don’t sit behind a desk looking down at people because they are not dressed in their bathrobes.”
The Mage waited only a beat before saying, “Obviously.”
Bronwyn leaned over the desk, planted her hands firmly on the polished wood and looked him in the eye. “When did the Mages become so bureaucratic?”
He looked right back at her. “When they decided they didn’t want to be bothered by….undesirables.”
“Undes- I am a Mage!”
“Of the Flame. Yes, I heard you.”
“And you are going to sit there and refuse to help me, even though that is your job.”
“I’m not refusing, but there is nothing I can do for you.”
“I already said, you can tell me where I can find Sallus.”
“I would,” he said, “But I am afraid that won’t be possible.”
“Ugh. You might be the most annoying person I have ever met.” She remembered Will Fletcher. “Or it might be a tie.”
“I am glad I could be of service,” said the Mage. “Next please.” He waved forward a young couple clutching three sheets of parchment. “Marriage contracts? The postmaster is through that door and down the stairs.”
“You were not,” said Bronwyn, turning on her heel.
He smiled at her, but it was mostly because he was pleased to see she was leaving.
Bronwyn headed back for the door, boods scraping and ringing on the flagstones again. She knew Sallus had an office upstairs. At least he used to have on upstairs. Why couldn’t she just go up and wait for him? It would not be a surprise if he really was busy, he was, after all, the leader of the Mage Council. And if he wasn’t in his office or available, he almost certainly had a private secretary or two who could tell her when he would be back.
She toyed with the idea of leaving the scroll with a secretary but decided against it. It was her message to deliver so she would make sure it got into the right hands.
The obnoxious young Mage in the centre of the room was helping, if that really was the right word, another Mage now. This one was dressed in a blue cloak with two lines of gold thread around the hem. If his attention was elsewhere there was nothing stopping Bronwyn from taking the stairs up from the lobby. Guards stood on duty around the lobby, standing by various doors, but none of them challenged her as she approached. She did have a right to be here after all! She was a Mage.
One last look over her shoulder told her the young man wasn’t paying her any attention, so she ran up the stairs two at a time. Her boots rang out clearly in the high-ceilinged room, but no-one stopped her.
She was wrong, though. The Mage at the desk did see her walk away then turn to the stairs and bound up them, but she was only a Mage of the Flame, from the provinces at that, so not nearly important enough for her to concern himself with.
But mostly it wasn’t his problem any more.
It had been at least three years since she last walked these halls but she still remembered her way. The furnishings had changed, new carpet had been laid on the landing, something thick and imported which muffled her boots completely, and new tapestries hung on the walls. From the first landing she could take one of the corridors which circled the courtyard or continue higher. Sallus’s office and study used to be on the top floor of the building, with a window that overlooked the bay and the setting sun. She had been inside twice before. Once when beginning her apprenticeship and once when she had completed it and received her full title and appointment as a Guardian of the Peace. Her other classmates each received a title and role the senior Mages felt best utilised their talents, whether that be Guardians of the Peace, of the Truth, the Inquisition, or the Battlemages.
Bronwyn climbed the steps again to the second level. Two more bored-looking guards were posted here but they let her pass without challenge. This upper corridor had arches on both sides. There were no glass panes here. Heavy shutters were mounted to the walls to protect the corridor and keep in the heat in bad weather, but today they were flung wide. To her right was the city itself, a maze of roofs of thatch and wooden tiles. To her left was an open view of the courtyard with its four corner fountains. They also followed the design of a barbed quatrefoil which had been quartered and backed into each corner.
Further down the corridor was another desk, staffed by another Mage. This time a woman in a black robe with three golden lines. Her desk contained a quill pen, ink, and a pile of thin sheets which looked like parchment but were thinner and smaller. Another guard with a spear stood near here. A guard here was mostly for show though. What threat could Sallus, Mage of the Earth and leader of the council not fend off himself? The guard and the Mage were talking but quieted as Bronwyn approached. The guard eyed her. The Mage smiled.
“May I help you?” she said,
“I’m looking for Sallus. I have a message for him.”
“He is not available at present. I can take any message you wish to leave.”
This would be good enough, Bronwyn told herself, but then chided herself for thinking such a thing. Good enough was not what she wanted to be. “I need to deliver it to Sallus himself. When will he be back?”
“I’m afraid I cannot say, ” replied the Mage.
“But you know, don’t you? You’re his secretary?”
“I am one of them. I can’t say for sure when he will return. I would hate to mislead you.”
“Well at least you are more honest about it.”
“Are you sure I can’t take a message.”
“Can I just leave it inside? On his desk?”
The guard straightened up a little, like he was ready to do his job and use his weapon to refuse entry to an unarmed young woman. “I’m afraid not.”
“What about the next council session? Can I speak with them?”
“If you tell me what it is about I can try and arrange something for you, but I doubt they will receive you. Council business is important, you understand.”
“I do understand, but this might also be important.”
“Well, if you are not sure…” she trailed off, her eyes dropping to the wooden tube. Crumbs of hard wax still clung to it in places. “You could leave your message with the postmaster.”
“No, thank you. I should deliver it to Sallus myself. I just need to know when he will be back.”
“I’m afraid I cannot say.”
“Well do you know where he is? Is he in there?”
“He is not available at the present time.”
“Okay, so can I leave a message for him to contact me when he is available.”
“I can pass him that message. Where can he contact you? Where are you staying?”
“I-” Bronwyn began, and realised she hadn’t made any arrangements for accommodation yet. “Never mind. I’ll try again later.”
“As you wish.
“Well, Shanks, that was less productive than we hoped.” The horse rested her head on Bronwyn’s shoulder as Bronwyn adjusted the harness. “I think we need to find somewhere to stay so we can leave a message for Sallus. I know, I know but I don’t want to leave the message with just anyone. It might be important. Don’t fret, we’ll be back on the beaches of Ashdown soon.”
Bronwyn arranged lodging for both of them at an Inn near the gate where she had entered the city. Lorin felt too crowded for her to spend the night surrounded by buildings in all direction. From here, she hoped to see the trees and countryside beyond the walls, but the walls had been raised and all she could see was stone.
She returned to the hall the next morning and once again tried to meet with Sallus, and was once again rebutted by the unhelpful young man in the white robe, but this time she left her address with the more helpful Mage acting at Sallus’ secretary.
Bronwyn spent the rest of the morning and the early afternoon familiarising herself with the city while the message she carried rested safely in her satchel. There were changes everywhere, in street layout, buildings, and ornaments like statues and fountains, and yet at the same time it had the unmistakable feel of the city she grew up in. This building might have been remodeled but it was the same building she would meet her classmates at when their studies for the day were over. That street had been widened and drainage installed, but it was the same street she had walked when she needed to take the fastest route from the north-west to the north-east of town.
The changes were cosmetic for the most part. It was still her city.
She returned to the hall again in the late afternoon, certain that Sallus would have to reappear sometime. Her faithful white-robed companion was not there this time so Bronwyn took a breath, made her greeting as pleasant as possible, and tried to explain her situation again.
“And so it would mean a lot to me if you could let me know when Sallus might be back so I can delivery my message,” she finished in her sweetest voice.
The Mage on duty, black robed this time with no gold threading, listened to her carefully, glanced at her noisy boots and pointed at the door to the postmaster’s room. “You can leave your delivery downstairs if it is important.”
“I already explained I can’t do that. Because it is important I need to deliver it myself. Can’t you just tell me when Sallus will be back.”
“I don’t have the time to keep waiting for him.”
“Oh, you provincial Mages are too important to wait for the leader of the council?”
“That’s not what I meant. I have work to do. Oh, never mind.”
Bronwyn pushed away from the table and headed for the stairs. Maybe Sallus’ secretary would be able to help this afternoon.
“Hello again, Bronwyn,” said the Mage in the blue robe.
The Mage shook her head in a show of sympathetic disappointment. “I’m sorry, he’s not returned yet. I have the address of where you are staying though, so I can send an apprentice to you as soon as I find out.”
Bronwyn signed through gritted teeth. “I know. Thank you. It’s just..I need to deliver it so I can get back to work.”
“I’m sorry, but if if you don’t want to leave it with me or the postmaster I can’t help you.”
“I know. It’s okay. Thank you anyway.”
Bronwyn walked away from Sallus’ office for the third time in two days. Thick carpet muffled her footsteps, all the footsteps, so she did not hear a Mage in a white robe approach the secretary as Bronwyn walked away.
“Who was that?”
“A Mage of the Flame from the eastern provinces. She is trying to deliver a message to Sallus.”
“She didn’t say, ma’am. She wanted to deliver it personally, said it was too important to delegate.”
“She’s from the eastern shore, you say?”
“Yes, your grace.”
“Is she staying in the city?”
“Yes, at this address.”
“I see. Please send me a messenger as soon as one arrives.”
“Yes, your grace.”