The next morning found Bronwyn setting out for Ashdown under another clear sky. The first hints of yellow were creeping into the leafy canopy overhead, and the morning sun sparkled through the lattice of dewy branches to kiss Bronwyn and her mount as they took the eastern path to the coast.
Once out of the trees they were warmed by the unshaded sunlight and cooled by the fresher air blowing inland from the ocean. It wasn’t long before they saw the first blinding flashes of the sun on the sea.
Shanks, who had taken this path many times, automatically took the southern path into the village, but Bronwyn eschewed their usual route and instead pushed farther east. She missed the sea and sand and had not forgotten her promise to Shanks of a walk along the beach. Besides, the soft sand would be easier on her than the rocky coastal path, at least until she had that shoe replaced.
Coarse grass lined the path to the beach and soil gradually gave way to sand as they descended. The coastline here had been formed by the gradual erosion of ancient cliffs so they had to cross an expanse of stones before stepping onto rough sand. The early tide was receding and the wet sand was already peppered with the footprints of black-tipped gulls and other seabirds looking for an easy breakfast. A ragged line of seaweed, shells and dead crabs marked the high point of the tide, and there was no escaping the strong smell of dead sea-life as Shanks stepped over the line on to the flat, damp sand.
Shank’s hooves crunched rhythmically as she trotted toward the shallow water, and Bronwyn wished she had muffled the pans and tools and other paraphernalia of her nomadic lifestyle so she could enjoy alone the sounds of the waves breaking slowly on the shore, and the morning calls of the seabirds and the sound of Shanks footsteps.
The cold surf splashed against the horse’s legs, releasing a spray of fine mist into the air which made Bronwyn shiver happily
They stepped over the little streams caused by rainwater seeping through the ground and out of the cliff face and turned away from the brilliant silver sea toward the path up Ashdown. Here there were no rocks and Shank’s feet sighed and whispered through the high, dry sand above the tide mark.
To their left the tumbling waters of the River Ash bounced and splashed and laughed their way down to the sea in two small waterfalls. By the upper escarpment two figures worked on the nets strung between two poles near the crest to catch any fish unlucky enough to wander past the point of no return.
Bronwyn nudged Shanks in the direction of the sandy path to the village and her faithful horse dutifully began the ascent. At the top she paused by a thicket to look back once more at the calm morning sea and the quiet sands.
She felt Shanks tense between her legs before she saw and heard the attack. A hooded figure, small for a man, rushed at her from behind the bushes waving a weapon. Shanks reared back with an anxious whinnying. Bronwyn held tight and reached for the knife sheathed under her mailbag while looking for a way to escape. The highwayman had blocked the path in front of her, and Shanks, despite her excellent training, was no warhorse.
Bronwyn flourished the knife and backed Shanks away.
“What do you want?”
The figure waved his weapon and roared at her. A roar which devolved into hysterical laughter. He removed his hood.
“You should have seen your face!”
Bronwyn’s fear vanished and in its place came anger.
“William Fletcher, is there no end to the trouble you can cause? I should have you taken before the village magistrate.”
The boy was still laughing at her. “You were so scared! And your horse.”
Bronwyn drew herself up in the saddle. “William Fletcher, I am a Bronwyn of the Flame and a Guardian of the Peace of Arden, and you will treat me with some respect.”
“Or what, Mage of the Flame? Will you burn me? If you could use the wind or the sea or the earth I’d be afraid, but the only thing burning around here is your cheeks.”
“That is not the point, Will. You should not be scaring people or their horses at the top of the cliff path!”
“I wasn’t scaring people, only you. I saw you coming and waited for you.”
“You waited for me? You planned this?”
“It was worth it.” He roared again in mock fury and shook his weapon, which Bronwyn could see now was nothing more than a dead branch, and ran away along the cliff-top.
“I’m going to speak to your father!” She shouted at his back. “Again,” she added under her breath.
Bronwyn replaced the knife and walked Shanks away from the cliff edge and patted her neck, an action to reassure her horse as much as herself. Her heartbeat slowed as she relaxed. “Good girl. I’m sorry he scared you like that. I am going to speak to his father though. I promise!”
Shanks climbed the last small rise and Ashdown village lay before them. Thin smoke rose from the village oven, all the bread having been baked for the day, and the residents walked to and fro from house to house, stopping to chat and share news and gossip with each other. A young boy, smaller than William Fletcher, led two fat pigs through the middle of the main thoroughfare on its way to be slaughtered. By noon a crowd would have gathered to help butcher the meat and begin curing and smoking the different cuts.
Many of the villages recognised her, but gave her no more than a brief nod when she passed. Bronwyn considered Ashdown a village of friends, but she knew that in reality it was few of the people here she could call a friend. Everyone else just tolerated her and listened to her news with one ear while the other searched her words for the bad news they always expected to hear. Even now, even here, so far from the capital and three years after the Mages took power, she knew they saw her as the face of a ruler they didn’t want. It was up to her to win them over.
But first she had to deal with Will Fletcher.
Bronwyn dismounted and led Shanks through the main street of Ashdown. The bright sun at her back cast a hard shadow on the flat earth path. She smiled at everyone she met and offered her greetings from the Mage ruling council and from the northern villages, but most of the villagers gave her nothing in return but a blank look. They were not hostile anymore, but they were not welcoming her either.
The village oven was to her right, and cleverly built back against the forge of the man who was both the local blacksmith and Marshall of Ashdown; Will’s father.
“Good morning!” she called as she approached. She couldn’t hear the familiar banging of a hammer on an anvil. Bronwyn stepped through the door and rapped her knuckles on the wooden frame. “Eric? Are you here? It’s Bronwyn.” The forge had already been burning for some hours and the heat inside the room was oppressive.
“Over here,” came the reply.
Bronwyn’s eyes adjusted from the harsh sunlight to the dimmer forge, and then she saw him, the Marshall of Ashdown, dressed in his dirty leather apron, fetching a bucket which he dropped to the floor next to another which was already full of water. He folded his arms.
“You’re back. We were not expecting you for another day.”
“I am. I had news to deliver from the Council. It didn’t take long.”
“You mean you had bad news to deliver and it didn’t take you long to leave. What is it this time?”
“Why do you assume it’s bad news?”
“It’s always bad news. The only good news you bring is in the mail.”
“Well I have that too.”
“Good. You’ll be wanting the village hall?”
“Please. And are there any disputes or other issues I should know about?”
Eric relaxed his arms and scratched the back of his head as if that would help him remember. “Nothing more taxing than some compensation for lost chickens this time. I’m sure you can handle it, Guardian of the Peace.”
“Are you making fun of me, Marshall?”
“I wouldn’t dare. You know how much respect I afford your position, Bronwyn.”
“Yes I do! As much as you can get away with.
“That is true,” he admitted. “Fortunately I respect the person more than the position.”
“So you did miss me!”
“I missed Bronwyn, not the Mage.”
“Is there a difference?”
The Marshall folded his arms again before answering, a gesture Bronwyn noted with sadness. “I hope so.”
“Well,” she said changing the subject, “I need to talk to Eric the blacksmith now, not the Marshall of Ashdown.”
The blacksmith was only too pleased to be of service.
“And what small service can a village blacksmith do for a traveller such as yourself today, Bronwyn?”
“Not for me.” She turned to the door and whistled two short notes. The reply came by way of a snort and the familiar jingle and slap of a horse in riding tackle shaking her head. Shanks stepped up to the door and stared in. “Shanks needs a new shoe. Left foreleg.”
Eric shook his head in amusement. “One thing you do impress me with is how well you trained that beast.”
“Not me. That honor belongs to my parents. Sometimes I think they can train a horse to do anything.”
“So this is what they do since the revolution?”
“Since before. They didn’t like what they suspected was going to happen so they turned to horses.”
“They are, were, of the flame too?”
Bronwyn nodded and walked to Shanks to stroke her nose.
“They still are really. You don’t lose your gifts just because you stop being a mage, but it’s like any other skill. If you don’t practice you don’t stay sharp.”
“It’s not quite like any other skill, Bronwyn, and it must make cooking easier,” he joked.
Bronwyn shook her head. “Not as much as you think. We still have to light fires the same was as everyone else. Once we have a flame to work with we have a few more options.”
Eric unfolded his arms and stuck out a hand. “Then I propose a deal, Bronwyn the Mage. You light these lamps for me and I will take care of your horse. Are we agreed?”
Bronwyn smiled and stuck out her own hand which vanished in his grip. “We are agreed,” she said. They shook and Bronwyn turned for the door.
“You forgot my lamps!”
“No I didn’t.” Bronwyn paused in the doorway, a silhouette in the morning sun, and snapped a finger.
Behind Eric the firepit flared to a white heat and showered red sparks to the floor. Thin streamers of flame rose in a spiral from the pit and separated, darting for each of the five lamps positioned around the room. Each wick caught at once and wobbled and steadied, and the streamers died.
Despite himself Eric smiled at Bronwyn’s back. “Show off.”