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Arden Chapter 20:
Trust

After Donovan had distributed his duties for the farm that day, the three spent the rest of their morning in private council. He had already sketched out the broad strokes of the city map for Lydia’s benefit, and Bronwyn was able to fill in additional details from her recent visit there.

But it was Donovan who laid out their strategy. As a knight he was well-versed in the tactics of taking and and defending a city with armies of hundreds, so he knew exactly how they could get in. Where five-dozen men would fail, three could succeed, and the defenders would never be expecting it.

“But succeed at what, exactly?” said Bronwyn.

“We need Morrigan free. He is our highest priority,” said Lydia. She leaned back in her chair to stretch after an hour of hunching over the dusty table. “And Donovan thinks he will be in the cells of the Mage tower here on the cliff.” She tapped an upturned cup with her fingernail.

Donovan stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I wonder if the Mages knew how well defended that place would be when they built it,” he said.

“They’re not stupid,” Bronwyn reminded him, “but that’s not why they built it there. The western cliff represents all the elements. The sea and earth below, the sky and sun above. If they look west from the tower at sunset all they can see are those elements. The location is more symbolic than anything else.”

“What a happy coincidence,” Donovan observed. “But well planned or no, that is where we need to be. We need to get to the cells first to rescue Morrigan, and if possible, we need to stop Sallus.”

“Stop?” said Bronwyn.

“Kill,” said Lydia. “He is a threat to all of us.”

“I won’t let you kill him,” said Bronwyn, squaring off against the archer. “I need him. I need to talk to him.”

“Talk? It’s too late for that now.”

“No, it isn’t,” Bronwyn insisted. “All of this, all these plans and secrets. I need to hear it from him. Hear an explanation from him. Then I can make up my mind.”

Lydia was shocked. “You don’t believe us? After everything we’ve told you?”

“Why should I? You expect me to disbelieve everything I was taught as a Mage. Why should I believe you and not them?”

“But you’ve seen what they have done!”

“And I’ve seen what you have done. I know what Donovan has done. No-one here has a monopoly on the truth. So when we find Sallus we will take him alive. Do you understand me?”

Lydia looked across the table at Donovan who only grunted back at her, but she saw a sparkle of amusement in his eye.

“Let the Mage have him if she wants,” he said.

Lydia stepped away from Bronwyn to fetch water. “You need to see what we can see, Bronwyn, and not waste any more time on questions for this man.

“I don’t care what side anyone is on anymore. I want answers, so better an honest question than blind faith.”

Donovan saw his chance to ease the tension that had been building in the room. “We have been working too long without a break. You both know the city, you know what we intend to do. There is nothing more to learn here. We should eat now, and rest and sleep while we can. We leave three hours after noon. That will bring us to the city before sunset. Agreed?”

Lydia nodded. “Agreed, Bronwyn?”

“Yes,” said Bronwyn.

“Good. My room is in there, Lydia. Bronwyn, the attic is comfortable too. Prepare yourselves.”

“Where are you going?” Bronwyn asked as Donovan reached for the giant sword and made for the door.”

“This blade was not the only thing I hid when I ran. I’m going to get my armour,” he said and left the women alone to rest.

Bronwyn paused on the ladder to the attic. “We want the same thing, Lydia,” said Bronwyn to her back. “The same goal.”

Lydia said nothing.

Much like the knight and the archer downstairs, Bronwyn found sleep to be an unwilling ally. But the attic was warm, and comfortable as Donovan had promised, and eventually she dozed off among the chests and boxes that surrounded her and so she did not hear the horses leave.

She awoke groggy from interrupted rest and a distinct lack of the sleep she had been due the past two days. The sun poured through the small and imperfect glass panes built into the attic wall and cut its path through the dusty air.

Bronwyn sat up slowly, taking a breath and letting it out and prepared herself for what wa to come. She had never been in a war. She had never had battlemage training, but she had been taught how to use her gifts to defend herself. Now Bronwyn had to hope that would be enough.

She stood and ducked under a beam as she walked to the attic door leaving dusty tracks in her wake. Her footsteps followed the same path as other, much bigger footprints which were almost free of dust. Donovan obviously came up here often.

Bronwyn knelt by the hatch and pulled. It did not move. She pulled again, harder this time, and heard the rattle of a bolt on the other side. The wood was not stuck. They had locked her in.

“Hey!” She banged on the hatch with her fist and dust bloomed around her. “Hey, let me out!”

Only silence.

“Are you down there?” She peered through the cracks in the boards. There was the table, still covered in flour and make-believe structures, but she could see no-one else.

Bronwyn rattled the locked door again, yelled again, and gave into the realisation they had left her behind.

She huffed a quick sigh, crept back to the window again and looked out. She thought she might be able to break the glass, but the window was too small to fit through, and too high to drop from safely. And she suspected than the farmhands had been instructed to leave her stranded anyway for when Donovan and Lydia came back.

If they came back.

Bronwyn sat on the chest near the footprints and drew circles on the floor with her heels. Her fingers drummed out a rhythm on the brass hinge of the chest.

At least one question had been answered today: Donovan was still in the habit of leaving people behind. If she was going to get the answers she needed she would have to get out of here and get to the city before anything happened to Sallus. If Lydia did indeed plan to kill him, then Bronwyn had to stop her. Maybe Sallus was behind all of this. Maybe the ascension of the Mages and the civil war was his fault. But the law was the law, and if it was the role of a Guardian of the Peace to deliver the mail, it was also her role to weigh up claim and counterclaim and rule according to what she found. Lydia, Morrigan and Donovan had laid out the case against Sallus. He still had a right to defend himself.

Fingers still drumming, Bronwyn looked around the attic. Maybe there was a tool of some kind up here she could use to open the hatch and drop to the kitchen table.

Bronwyn opened the chest in front of her but it contained only clothes. The next two were locked. A pile of wooden boxes in the corner held a miscellany of small personal items, each wrapped in cloth, but while they might hold some sentimental value for the man who placed them here they were of no use in an escape. Another chest contained blankets, and the last one in the corner contained silverware, wrapped in silk. Even in the attic light it gleamed so much Bronwyn suspected it had never been used. Still, a knife was a knife.

She slid the blade through the crack between hatch and floorboard and jiggled the bolt, but achieved nothing. There was not enough flex on the blade and the floorboards were too thick for her to reach much with the knife.

Feeling a little guilty at the damage she had done to the knife, Bronwyn replaced the silk wrapping and dropped the lid of the chest shut with a thud.

That left the chest in the middle.

Bronwyn snapped the latch open on her last chance and found only papers. Most were loose sheets but a few were rolled or folded and wrapped in ribbon. She dumped a pile on the floor and rifled through the rest, just in case. No, just paper.

She put the papers back in the chest and was about to drop the lid when she noticed the name on the top of one of the letters, where the sender would identify themselves. It was Morrigan. She read a handful more and most of them were from Morrigan also. Two were from someone else, a lady judging from the name, but it was no-one she recognised.

So Morrigan and Donovan had been in regular contact. By the way Donovan had spoke earlier Bronwyn was under the impression that he had turned his back on everything about his former life. No, that was a mistake. These letters were much older than she thought. This one was dated four years ago, before the rebellion. This one six years ago, around the time Bronwyn had begun her apprenticeship, and this one ten years ago. Bronwyn read it. Morrigan seemed upset about something. He had called Donovan a self-righteous fool – no, not quite. He was quoting someone and agreeing with them. Whatever had Donovan done to deserve that?

The Bronwyn opened one of the folded letters tied with ribbon. This one was several pages long, and the first page was an illustration of a white lion holding a rose between its teeth. She could already tell what this would be. Donovan had a lover. Or he used to. There was no evidence of a woman in this place at all.

Curious to know more Bronwyn read on. Then she read another letter, and another, and another. After she had read them Bronwyn folded them carefully and tied the ribbon back in place. Then she bit her lip and read Morrigan’s angry letter once more, and her heart broke just a little for the choices Donovan had made.

Choices which had led Donovan down the path where three years ago he had been betrayed.

Her hand holding the letter dropped to her side into the warm sunbeam.

Donovan was true to his word, and she could trust him.

She sat there for a moment, wondering at the past of a man she hardly knew, and wondering if she would have done the same, until something caught the attention of her senses.

Something familiar.

Burning.

She lifted the letter out of the sunbeam and the faintest whiff of smoke trailed off into nothingness. A small brown spot marked the letter where it had been clean before.

She lowered the letter into the sunbeam again, but this time nothing happened. Bronwyn moved the paper slowly toward and away from the glass pane. She could feel the warmth on her skin but nothing that would cause paper to burn. But there were imperfections in the way the sun lit the page. Bronwyn held the paper still at a point where the refracted light became a white spot, and was rewarded by a tiny string of smoke from a darkening brown mark.

Now this was something she could use!

****

Bronwyn drove her stolen horse to a gallop right out of the stables. Farm hands and chickens scattered and squawked as she thundered past the smoking remains of the farmhouse kitchen. In hindsight she should have been more careful blasting her way out of the attic with all that fine flour dust in the kitchen below.

It was still early in the afternoon, and the autumn sun shone yellow in a clear blue sky. By the time she reached the city night would not be far behind.

What state would the city be in by now? If Donovan and Lydia had their hearts set on hunting down Sallus could they be stopped? Sallus was a powerful Mage, but they were experienced fighters.

Bronwyn galloped on, the road before her unfolding to reveal the answers that lay ahead.