They guessed the direction of the farm from the little Morrigan had told Bronwyn of the huge stranger who had delivered food and other items for the camp. Fortunately their guess was the right one, and only a short ride later they found its northern edge even as dawn found them. The fields were dotted with golden stacks of hay from the harvest, and they could see the farm coming to life with every step closer they took.
By the time they reached the farmhouse workers were already scurrying about, feeding, sweeping and cleaning out. It reminded Bronwyn she was glad she never had to work on a farm. It wasn’t the work per se, the constant attention her wards needed from her was in some ways just the same responsibility a farmer had to his animals but they smell was much more pleasant.
“Which one is Morrigan’s friend?” Lydia asked as they approached the workers milling about. “Do you remember what he looked like?”
“He’s hard to forget. You’ll see.”
“What do you mean.”
“Have you ever lost a bull in a field of sheep?”
“How can anyone do that?”
“Oh. Then I think I see him.” Lydia pointed at the farmhouse doorway which was almost filled by the man they were looking for. “A man like that could defeat the Mages on his own!” she added.
“If they need defeating,” said Bronwyn. She dropped from the back of the horse to the bare-earth path and approached the farmhouse. In daylight she could see the man clearly for the first time. His size was the first impression he gave. And maybe the last if he was angry, thought Bronwyn. At more than a head taller than her he must have been at least six feet. But his height was only one part of what made him so imposing. His shoulders were twice her size as well and he stood in the doorway like a hundred year old oak. Formidable and immovable. Even his gaze was intimidating. Bronwyn felt like she was a child again, walking to the front of class to be told off for some childish prank.
If this man was a king, Bronwyn thought, everyone would follow him.
She swallowed, surprised at her own nerves and offered her most gracious smile well aware that she had not bathed in three days or slept in two.
“Good morning, I am Bronwyn of the Flame, Guardian of the Peace.”
The man nodded, and bit into an apple the way Bronwyn would bite into a plum.
“Aye, it might still be at that. Depends on your business here, Mage.”
“We met two mornings ago at Rowan’s Keep. You delivered provisions for Morrigan’s camp.”
“It was three mornings ago.” He finished the flesh of the apple in three bites, then ate the core in a fourth. He looked at Lydia who was in the process of dismounting. He nodded in her direction. “She was not there. Only you.”
“That’s right. She is from the Dale-“
“I am not blind, Mage.”
“We are here about Morrigan.”
“He has enough to last the week. Why did he send you here?”
“He didn’t! Listen, we are here because-“
“The Mages have him,” interrupted Lydia.
The man had stopped chewing but Bronwyn could see the muscles in his jaw clench as he ground his teeth. He stepped back into the house, opening the doorway for them.
“Tell me,” he said.
When Lydia had finished telling her story, with little input from Bronwyn, the man planted his massive hands on the table they sat around before replying.
“So why is this Mage here?”
“She is the one who carried the message to Sallus.”
“I didn’t know it was for Morrigan,” said Bronwyn. “I never read it.”
“But you delivered it to his enemies,” growled the man. “Now he is lost.”
“Not yet,” urged Lydia. They will have him now but he will not break easily. If we can rescue him tonight-“
“Rescue? The city will be in flames by tonight. If the Mages have his message they know about the coming rebellion. They will strike first.”
“The monarchists know too. I was freed by a Mage who is part of the rebellion.”
“Pah. One Mage betrays another and we are supposed to trust them?”
“Morrigan is a Mage, and you trust him.”
“My trust in Morrigan pre-dates the Mages who rule this land now. If you think I will trust another…”
“Hey!” said Bronwyn. “We don’t even know who you are, yet. Morrigan needs help and we are not enough. He spoke of you like a friend so we came to you.”
“What can I do?”
“More than you are letting on, I think,” said Bronwyn.
“Oh, I see,” said the farmer. “The little Mage is the insightful one, is she?”
“Not insightful. I just remember my history.”
“What history?” said Lydia. “Do you know who this man is?”
“I think I do. If I’m right we have found the best person, the only person who could help us.”
“You know nothing about me, Mage.”
“Who is he?” said Lydia.
Bronwyn kept her eyes on the farmer as she spoke. “When the kingdom fell there was no murder. The Mages wanted a bloodless rebellion, so they approached the kingsguard, the White Lions with a proposition. If they surrendered the King could be removed without further violence, and-“
“They did not surrender!” shouted the farmer. “The mages cared nothing for blood or lives in their coup. They just wanted power, at any price. The birthright of the king was an excuse. Every land, every kingdom grumbles about their ruler but there was no better alternative. Two generations of kings had brought peace to Arden, peace with the Dale and the Five Islands and the city states grew in wealth and power. Where was the need for a new ruler? Where? The land prospered.”
“But it wasn’t perfect,” sain Bronwyn.”
“No land is perfect, Mage. Show me a perfect kingdom and then tell me what this fairy tale is called. The king was not perfect but the land was just, on the whole, and king and commoner were ruled by the same law. That is what the Mages didn’t like, especially Sallus and his ilk. He was the face of the rebellion, even if he was not the soul of it. The Mages claimed to act for the people but they acted only for themselves! The stole a kingdom with betrayal and murder.”
“But there was no murder!” insisted Bronwyn. “That’s not what happened.”
“Were you there?”
“Were you? The kingsguard did not surrender. The White Lions were lost to lies and deception and broken oaths.”
“Did you know the kingsguard?” sid Lydia.
“Know them? I led them. I am the captain betrayed, Mage. My name is Donovan, and I am the last of the White Lions.”
The women looked at each other. Lydia face was full of hopeful surprise but Bronwyn frowned, as if this was somehow not good news.
“The Lions were slaughtered in the courtyard of the Mage tower in Lorin while I followed a lie. Rydan, a captain of the Mage Guard persuaded me that if my men surrendered they would not be killed. And while the Mages dealt with the Lions Rydan, Morrigan and I would be able to capture Sallus in his tower. But he worked with Sallus. His tower was filled with guards. Morrigan and I escaped through the tunnels under the courtyard. And the city guard and Mages slaughtered them all. Now Sallus rules.”
“And Rydan captains the Elemental Legion, the replacement for the White Lions,” finished Bronwyn.
“Aye. I know it,” growled Donovan.
Lydia looked from one to the other. “So you can help us! Your friend needs you.”
“No,” said Brownyn. She rose to her feet. “He can’t help us.”
“Why not?” said Lydia. “He’s the captain of the White Lions. If he is not soldier enough for us then who is?”
“Soldier he may be, but I will not work with a traitor,” said Bronwyn. At this Donovan only bowed his head.
“He was betrayed,” said Lydia.
“He swore an oath to the king and he was willing to break it to save the lives of his men.”
“To save the kingdom, Bronwyn!”
“That’s not the point! He swore it so he must uphold it, no matter the cost. Or what value does his word have? The people of this land think they cannot trust a Mage, that they cannot trust me, but all I have ever done is be true to the principles I was taught. I worked for the people I serve and I upheld the law. I discharged my duties as best I can and people hate me for it. And now you want me to take the word of a man who betrayed his king?! You would march into battle with a man like this? He might be the last of the White Lions, but don’t you see that is the disaster? If he upheld his oath, if he was the man he swore he would be, he wouldn’t be the last.”
“Bronwyn, he would be dead!”
“He would be true.”
“We would have no hope at all.”
“Hope for what? What am I supposed to hope for? You tell me a king, but no king is coming back. They tell me the Mages but you say they caused all this? If everyone has their own truth what am I supposed to believe?”
“Come with us and find out. Let’s find Sallus and you can ask him yourself.”
“There’s nothing we can do.” Bronwyn swept out of the farmhouse with one last look at Donovan. “There’s no-one I can trust.”
“The Mage is right,” said Donovan.
“About what? That you can’t be trusted?”
“That I should be dead.”
“But you’re not. And because of that we have a chance. You can get us into the city and to the tower where they must be holding Morrigan. A Mage and an archer can’t do that alone. But with a White Lion we could.”
“Arms alone won’t stop the Mages now. That’s why Morrigan was digging at the Folly.”
“You mean the keep? Why? Is there something there that can help us?”
“Only words. Few in Arden know this, but Sallus and Rowan worked together once on their Mage gifts and how they could be united. To see if one Mage could control all the elements.”
“I never heard of such a thing.”
“That’s because it never worked, and the work itself was outlawed by another Mage, Ovette, when she presented evidence to the council that the research was driving Mages mad. She and Sallus have been opposed ever since.”
“But I don’t understand how would Morrigan’s work help.”
“It would discredit him. Imagine the ruler of the Arden, of the Mages, a man known to have driven other Mages mad in his quest for power over the elements. Arms alone would bring only death, but with proof like that he would lose the support of his fellow Mages, and without a clear leader they would be weak. Then a rebellion could succeed.”
“So we should go back to the keep at once!”
Donovan shook his head. If this only happened last night there is still time. Perhaps two days before the Mages return there.”
Lydia stood up now. “Then we must rescue Morrigan at once.”
“Is everyone from the Dale so eager?”
“If I am eager it’s because I want to stop this war before it starts. The Dale suffered in the civil war after the last rebellion. I will not have that happen again. So yes, I am eager, and the day is young.”
“Aye, it is. But so are you if you think you and your bow can rush into the city and change the course of this day. Take the time to plan or failure will be your quick reward.”
“This is the wisdom of an old soldier?”
“Always take the wisdom of an old soldier, they are the ones who survived.”
“Or escaped, according to the Mage.”
“She’s not wrong, and if I could change the past I would, but no-one has the power to undo their great regrets. Not even the Mages. Now, sit down and listen to me. Learn all you can now. During the battle there will be no time to learn. If the Mages know the rebellion is coming then we must be careful. As it is we are but two steps from hell.”
When Bronwyn marched out of the farmhouse her first instinct was to find Shanks, feed her, brush her down and talk to her, but then she remembered that the Mages had her killed.
Bronwyn burned with anger. Her world was smoldering and soon flames would consume it as they had done once before when the Mages took over. When the Mages did what they had to. At least that was what she had always believed. But now? Now the seeds of doubt had been planted. A second civil war was just beyond the sunrise. When that day dawned where should she stand? There was no question the Mages ruled for the good of the land, but did they rule by right. Could they actions be good if they were rooted in deception? Could a king be trusted if he was born to absolute power? And what of the man and woman who even now no doubt made plans to rescue Morrigan. Could they be trusted? One was the agent of a conquered land, the other an oathbreaker. Her whole life she had been certain of what was right, and what was right to do. Now she was lost in the fog, a ship among the rocks, knowing that any decision, any turn could be the wrong one.
She needed a beacon. She needed truth, and she wasn’t going to find it in a farmhouse squabbling with two people she didn’t know.
She was of the Flame, a Guardian of the Peace of Arden, and a Mage of the land. Her answers would come from Mages or not at all.
Donovan drew his finger through the dusting of flour which covered the big kitchen table. Cups and other small utensils marked out buildings. The streets were already drawn. This new line was their path through the city. Lydia bent over the table, committing to memory the names and buildings Donovan had pointed out. The choke points he had warned her of and the best plan of attack he could come up with for two people to have a chance of survival against an entire city guard.
They both turned around when the farmhouse door opened and Bronwyn stepped in once more.
“Morrigan trusts you, so I will too. I don’t want anyone else to die, and I want the truth. I will help you.”
“You called me a traitor,” said Donovan. “A traitor and a Mage, off to fight a war?”
“To stop a war. I Guard the Peace. You guarded the kingdom. We want the same thing.”
“Aye, Mage. I think we do.”
“You’ll need a weapon,” said Lydia. “And armour if you have it. You will be in the centre of the fighting.”
Donovan reached the door in two steps and stretched up to the white lintel. He pulled down a sword almost as big as Bronwyn. It was pure white, double-edged, at least four inches across and four feet long. The heavy ceremonial blade of the White Lions. He hefted it as easily as Bronwyn would wield a knife.
“I remember my oath. One Lion still roars in Arden.”