It was customary for village announcements to be made at the end of the day to allow for workers in the fields to return, which meant Bronwyn had some time to prepare.
She began by hitching Shanks to the wooden rail by the water trough outside the blacksmiths forge. Iron tools like picks and shovels and plows were important and the big, heavy tools blacksmiths needed to produce, but other items, like the humble horseshoe, were no less important.
Bronwyn removed the saddle and pack from her horse and set them on the ground nearby. It was not going to rain today and they were safe enough in Ashdown, especially outside the Marshalls forge.
She unpacked the mailbag from the saddle and sorted through the few letters she had left. Ashdown was the last village on her circuitous route along the eastern shore, and sent and received the least mail. Most of the letters were simple messages, things that had to be said but carried no real urgency. But today she also had to deliver a request from a landowner who was looking to marry – that would be something for the Marshall to deal with. A bill of goods was due to be paid for the beehives provided at short notice last season when a tree crushed three after it fell in a storm, and the last was a petition she had circulated to all the villages in her care. This last letter would cause the most disruption. Fortunately for her she could delay this letter until she had made her announcements and delivered the latest news from Lorin. She was optimistic that the villagers would welcome the news this time.
Bronwyn tucked the letters inside her satchel, then untied and retied her hair to pull it away from her neck.
But that would all come later. First it was time for her to discharge another of her responsibilities as a Guardian of the Peace of Arden.
The Marshall of Ashdown was usually called upon for his smithing, but today he would be the farrier. He took his clinch cutter, hammer and pincers from the hooks by the door and walked over to the horse waiting patiently outside and staring at him with her big brown eyes. He squatted next to the foreleg Bronwyn had identified and felt around the hoof. Shanks obediently lifted one leg. Eric eyed it critically. It didn’t look worn. It shouldn’t have broken so soon. Shoddy workmanship. He checked the other three legs and came to the same conclusion each time.
“Well, well, well, it looks like someone is getting four new shoes today.”
Shanks turned her head at the sound of his voice.
“Don’t you worry about the cost,” he winked at the horse. “The discount I give Bronwyn will more than offset the extra charge I make for Mages.”
“Are you talking to your customers horses again, Eric?”
Eric looked around. Standing behind him, and obviously amused by what she had overheard, was a young woman in a long dress the colour of bluebells. Her perfectly straight dark hair hung loose, reaching down her back almost as far has her hands, which she had clasped behind her.
“What of it, Sophia? A horse is the perfect companion. They don’t talk back.”
“That’s not a good thing. Where is the pleasure of a conversation when only one person is speaking?”
“It depends on who is doing the speaking. You’re going to find this out soon enough once your school opens.”
“Until I get some children my school is no more than an empty room.”
“Did you know Bronwyn is here? She can deliver your letters when she leaves.”
“She is? That’s wonderful. I didn’t know.”
“She arrived this morning, no doubt bearing some of the gracious wisdom of our rulers.”
“Give her a chance before you dismiss what she has to say.”
Eric held up his hands, a tool in each one.
“I will give her a fair hearing, I always do. No man can accuse me of less. But I still expect to dismiss what she has to say.”
“You know she wasn’t involved in the rebellion. She didn’t depose the king. She was still learning.”
“Aye that is the truth, Sophia. But who was she learning from? You want to teach. You will pass on your understanding of the world to your students, and then you will expect them to go out and act on it. No apple tree bears plums, Sophia. At least not in any part of Arden I have ever seen. She can speak, and speak freely, but we will be the judge of what she has to say.”
The meeting was in full flow, and Bronwyn had nothing to say.
“You said taxes would be lower!” Yelled a farmer to a chorus of ‘Aye’s.
“They will be lower,” she replied calmly.
“But now we have to pay to maintain our own roads?”
“Yes, exactly, they are your roads, as you rightly say, so it’s only fair that you pay to maintain them and not the city-states. That’s why they are reducing your taxes. The Mage Council don’t think it is fair to charge higher taxes if you have to pay for your local amenities.”
“But you said it is now the law that we have to maintain the roads,” called out another disgruntled voice.
“That’s right. It’s important they are not neglected. As you know they are important for trade and-“
“Don’t try to teach me about the value of a road, Mage. It was your kind that’s neglected them for the last three years.”
“It was important for the city-states to adjust to the new government following the revolution.”
“But you didn’t spend the taxes you collected. Now you want to force us to pay for the roads you ignored!”
“They are your roads. You should be pleased to maintain them.”
“Wait, who pays for which road?”
“What do you mean?” said Bronwyn.
“I mean, we have three roads from Ashdown, north, south and east, to Oakfield. Who pays for the eastern road?”
“Each town and village will be able to agree with its neighbours the share of costs.”
“What if they don’t pay?”
“They have to,” Bronwyn explained again. “It’s the law. The council expects shared roads to be paid for half by each town or village. And you can now take these matters into your own hands instead of petitioning the capital when you have a disagreement.”
“But how do we pay for it?” Someone insisted.
“As well as the lower taxes you pay you can introduce a toll.”
This last word was met with laughter.
“Who’s going to pay a toll here? We can’t raise enough money from the southern road to maintain that. Those bushes grow fast. Wagons won’t be able to get through. Then trade will suffer, supplies will spoil.”
“If you could-” bronwyn began.
“What happens in winter?” said someone.
“That’s easy,” shouted another voice from the back of the room, “You just send a fire mage to melt the snow!”
“But a fire mage can’t light fires, remember?” More laughter.
The Marshall stood up next to Bronwyn and immediately drew all eyes to him.
“Bronwyn, I’m sure there are other pressing issues we need to discuss. We can return to the upkeep of the roads later. What other edicts have you to deliver?”
Bronwyn cleared her throat. It was going as well as could be expected.
“In previous years each small-hold, freehold, farm, village and town has been required to provide a portion of whatever goods it produces to the city-states.” This was old news, and the way things had carried on for generations, but it was still met with grumbling. No-one liked a tax in any form. “The council has ruled that this tithe provides the cities with an inconsistent source of supplied. The populations in the east are growing and trade is increasing. From two months hence, this tithe will become a fixed quota, and each smallhold, freehold, farm, village, and town will be issued with a list of goods appropriate to their ability to provide. Chief among them, Ashdown will be required to supply the following; pigs, Oak and honey. Due to its distance from the capital there is no requirement to supply fish.”
“Bronwyn, what happens in a bad year?” said the Marshall.
“Well, they are minimums, so you will still be expected to provide them.”
“But what if we can’t?”
“Then the council have ruled that a compensation payment can be made either by increasing the donation of another good, or in silver.”
“They are calling it a donation now?”
“You are donating it to support the capitals. They don’t have the farmland you have.”
“We don’t have the money, or trade, or people or armies they have, Bronwyn.”
“Everyone has to do their part?”
The villagers grumbled as the debate rolled on and around until there was nothing new to be said and the same tired arguments were presented again and again.
“Don’t you ever get tired of defending the ideas of these Mages?” said a young man standing at the front of the crowd.
“She is a Mage, why should she?” called someone else.
“We’re the one’s working the farms and the mills to make sure the cities don’t go without.”
“All she does is sit on a horse all day and tell everyone else what to do.”
That was enough for the Marshall. “Enough, everybody. Settle down. We have to hear her out tonight. We get our voice tomorrow.”
“That’s right,” said Bronwyn, grateful for some support at last.
“She won’t be here tomorrow! She’ll be gone, off to Oakfield, and she’ll tell the Mages what they want to hear. They don’t hear us.”
“I do. I hear you,” said Bronwyn earnestly. “I will listen to you tomorrow like I always do. But please, listen to me first.”
The crowd grumbled some more but quietened at the Marshall’s urging. As they settled down to listen to the rest of Bronwyn’s proclamations Sophia slipped in at the back.
Eric caught her eye and leaned across to whisper in Bronwyn’s ear. “You have one friend here now at least.”
Bronwyn scanned the room. “Where?” she whispered.
“In the corner. Sophia just came in.”
“Do you think we will still be friends after this meeting.”
“I think that all depends on what else you have to say.”
Bronwyn cleared her throat and turned her attention back to the villagers. “Now to matters of justice…” She paused for the expected heckling but none came. Maybe the good people of Ashdown were finally ready to listen. “To ensure the security of the land and the protection of itinerant Mages, the council have ruled that as of this day, the murder of a Mage is to be a capital prime offence.”
Finally, something they didn’t argue with, but Bronwyn did notice some scratching of heads among the villagers.
One hand went up.
“What’s a capital prime offence?”
“You all know what a capital offence means, don’t you?”
“Yes, the death penalty!” shouted the Marshall’s son, Will Fletcher, with his trademark irritating grin.
“That’s right. The death penalty. The council have ruled that the punishment for a capital prime offence is death, followed by the seizure of all land and possessions of the murderer.”
“You mages don’t make it easy on yourselves, do you?” whispered the Marshall.
“What do you mean?”
“All this bad news means you had to protect yourself somehow.”
“That is a horrible thing to say! And this isn’t bad news, people just don’t understand how it will benefit them yet.”
“Bronwyn, I don’t think they ever will. Your audience is getting restless by the way.”
Another hand had gone up.
“Yes?” said Bronwyn.
“The council of Mages has ruled that the murder of a Mage now carries a higher penalty than the murder of anyone else?”
“That’s right. It’s because-“
He spoke louder. “Is your life worth more than mine?”
“Are our lives worth less than yours?”
“No, that’s not what it means! If-“
He was on his feet now, stabbing the air with his finger. “You Mages took us into a war because you believed no man should be above another, yes? That’s what you told us! That’s why you made us fight for you. Die for you! Murder is the worst of all crimes! But now it’s only the worst for you?!”
The lamps in the hall flickered as if a wind had passed through the room.
Bronwyn stepped forward, the heat of anger beginning to rise.
“That’s not what this is about! I am not more special than you. I am-“
The man spat on the floor and glared at her. “We know what you are.”
That was far enough.
The Marshall stepped between Bronwyn and the crowd. “You, no more, or tomorrow you face my authority, do you understand?”
The man muttered something and pushed his way out of the hall into the still night air. Another followed, then another and then the hall was empty save for Bronwyn, Eric and Sophia, standing alone at the back.
“Well you got their attention,” said Eric.
“Don’t make jokes, Marshall. This is important. They need to take what I say seriously.”
“They did, Bronwyn. That’s why they’re so angry at what you said.”
“They should be relieved!”
“Relieved? At lower taxes but increased costs? At increased tithes? At laws which put you above everyone else?”
“My role is important.”
“It doesn’t make you special, Bronwyn.”
“We are all two people, Marshall; who we are and what we do.”
Eric held her gaze as he weighed up the implications in her words, then walked out the door. “Your horse is ready. You can be on your way in the morning,” he said over his shoulder before the door swung shut, leaving Bronwyn alone with Sophia.
“Well?” said Bronwyn, a little too sharply.
“I didn’t hear everything, I’m sorry I was late. I can see how it went.”
“It didn’t have to go like that. I just need people to listen. Everyone thinks I’m wrong, just because I’m a Mage and the Mages rebelled, but they did it for the right reasons.”
“People here think differently. We are a long way from the capital.”
“Three days hard ride is not that far.”
“But it’s enough to make a difference to the lives of people here and their understanding.”
“But they don’t even try to understand! They judge what I have to say before I have a chance to say it. They think they know everything.”
“Well, we are all guilty of that at some point in our lives, Bronwyn. Even a mage. Even a friend.”
Bronwyn sighed as the tension of the evening left her shoulders and an apologetic smile escaped her lips.. Sophia had once again used her gentle words to dull Bronwyn’s edge. A Mage could work the elements, but Sophia worked a magic all her own.
“Yes, even a friend.”
The anger faded.
It was time for a change of subject. “Is your schoolhouse ready?” Bronwyn asked as they walked slowly toward the door of the hall. She picked up one of the lamps on the way out and extinguished the others with a thought.
“Yes, it is!” said Sophia. “It was finished last month, just after you left us before. We have benches and desks for eight.”
They passed through the door into the cooler evening air. There was no wind blowing from the sea tonight but the night still held the promise of a damp evening chill now that the summer was almost over.
“How many children do you have?”
“Just two, both from this village. And both very young.”
“Only two? Why so few? There are more children than that here and in the surrounding farms.”
“People only want to send their youngest. When they are old enough they put them to work or begin teaching the family trade. But I worry the children I do have are too young to learn to read, and as soon as they are old enough they will be taken away again.”
“I see,” was all Bronwyn said. She didn’t want to be drawn into another argument about how the civil war had taken so many men of working age. Many of those who had not been killed or wounded had remained in the cities, lured by the wealth and wonders of the western shore.
“I’m not trying to blame you, Bronwyn, you don’t have to be silent.”
“I know, but the Mage rebellion affected everyone and I am the only face they see. People only remember the bad, not the good.”
“They don’t see the good. Don’t forget life in the west of Arden is very different to life here. Here it doesn’t really matter who rules, as long as the laws are just. No-one here wanted a revolution. People here just want to be left alone to get on with their lives.”
“I don’t mean to start a fight, Bronwyn. And I’m not criticising the Mages, but I’m just telling who that the people who make the laws are probably not thinking of the whole country when they make them. For all their wisdom and high towers I think they don’t see far beyond the walls of the cities, and we are a long way from the cities. They are so full of people I think they forget the rest of us live in this land too. A kingdom is for all the people, not just the rich and powerful.”
They reached the schoolhouse and Sophia unlatched the door, pushed it open and ushed Bronwyn inside.
“There are some candles to your left.”
Bronwyn picked up four candles and placed them on the desks as she walked around the small room. The lamp she placed on a shelf.
Sophia sat on one of the benches while Bronwyn drew the flame from the lamp and lit the candles one by one. The pale light struggled to illuminate the room and deep shadows flicked at the corners.
“I can make them brighter, but the candles will burn faster,” said Bronwyn.
“Go ahead. I won’t be teaching many lessons in the dark anyway.”
Bronwyn gestured with both hands, and the candles sparked and brightened. The shadows retreated. She looked around at the room, at the tidy benches and long shared desks, and clean slates stacked on one side for children to practice their letters. There was no parchment here, and no quill and ink to practice writing. They were too expensive for a schoolhouse as remote as this. But even so, Bronwyn was impressed with what Sophia had accomplished.
“Where did you get all this from?”
“Eric was a big help. He offered work in trade for materials, and we offered free schooling to the children of Oakfield in exchange for carpentry. They haven’t sent any children yet though.”
“Do they know you’re ready?”
Sophia smoothed her hand back and forth over the desk and nodded. “They do, but I was going to ask you to deliver another letter for me tomorrow. Not just to Oakfield, but to anyone you see. We need to teach as many as we can or the only skills the children will learn will be the trades and crafts taught by their parents.”
Bronwyn pulled a bench closer to Sophia and sat down too. “My parents trained horses. They still do, but I never learned how. I was sent to study the Elements when I was nine.”
“In a school like this?”
“In one of the colleges. Three of the cities have their own colleges. I went to Lorin.”
“They sent you to the capital? They must have valued your gifts.”
Bronwyn shook her head. “It wasn’t because of that. Lorin is the biggest city so had the most Mages, and they needed someone of the Flame to teach me more than the basics. The other lessons I could learn from any Mage.”
“What were the other lessons?”
“Oh, reading and writing and numbers, civics, trade, history, law. All the things that make a Mage useful.”
“When did they teach you how to use your gifts?”
“That began when I was ten. They don’t teach children younger than ten. They punish you if they think you have used them for anything within the college if you are too young.”
“Punish you? I thought that was the reason you were there.”
“Yes but a child with those gifts? They wanted us to learn some discipline first before some curious child with the ability to control the earth undermined the building.”
“I didn’t know the gifts were so strong at such a young age.”
“They aren’t. Not really, but they would tell us stories like that to scare us into behaving. Most of the mischief came from those of the wind. If they knocked something open and the window was open how could you prove it was them?”
“Ah, so they are the crafty ones,” said Sophia with a smile. “I have taught some children like that before. None with those gifts though.”
“Well if you suspect any children of the gifts make sure you send them to me so I can test them. Perhaps there are some gifted children in Ashdown after all.”
“Bronwyn, with our luck, the only person with gifts around here will be Will Fletcher. And with your luck, you will have to train him.”
“I really hope that doesn’t happen! Luckily he has no sense of the elements from what I can tell.”
“From what I know of him he has no sense at all!” When they had finished laughing she added, “How long did you study for?”
“Seven years of study in the colleges, then we are apprenticed to Mages for the next four years. I took my full title the year of the rebellion, but I was away in the north at the time, home with my parents for the end of a season.”
Sophia looked around the room. “I don’t think I will have any students for that long! Maybe two years, perhaps three. My hope is that by teaching them here they will learn more from me, and from each other, than they would in their own family trades. And maybe that extra knowledge will mean someone will take them on as an apprentice too.”
“You said earlier there have never been any mages from Ashdown, do you think there is a chance any of them will be gifted?”
“How would I know that? I hope not. Not because Mages are bad, Bronwyn, ” she explained quickly, “but because it means they will be gone from here for so many years. If they are apprenticed to someone else they will still be working in this part of the land, and we need that. We need people to stay.”
Bronwyn nodded her understanding. “I know what you mean, but don’t forget I have a responsibility to see that everyone has an opportunity to be trained. It doesn’t mean they have to go. There is no law about that.”
“Yet,” said Sophia, which Bronwyn chose to ignore.
“And if any of your children do things like this…” Bronwyn raised a hand in the air and the candles glowed brighter. She lowered it again and the candle flames returned to normal. “Then please tell me when I next pass through.”
Sophia pointed at Bronwyn’s hands. “Do you always have to do that?”
“This,” said Sophia, mimicking Bronwyn’s actions.
“Oh you mean the hand movements? No! Actually I am not supposed to. We’re taught not to use our hands but it’s a bad habit I’ve had since I first learned this, and as I am on my own so much there is no-one to say not to me anymore. I don’t even realise when I do it!”
“Why is it discouraged? It looks impressive.”
“Because it’s showy. The elements are the forms we work with, like a carpenter or a mason or a smith. They use their tools carefully because they take their craft seriously. The elements are the same thing. Hand gestures are for conjurors to entertain children. I was told that a long time ago some mages would say magic words too.”
“What’s magic about a word?”
“I don’t know. What’s magic about me doing this?” She clapped, and the four candles flared in time to the sound. “The skill is focussing our will on the element we have affinity with. Everything else is cheap tricks. See?”
Bronwyn continued clapping and the candle flames flared with each clap, sometimes in sequence, sometimes together.
Sophia laughed at the odd scene and applauded. “I’m sorry, Bronwyn. I mean no disrespect to your gifts, but this is wonderful!”
Bronwyn placed her hands in her lap and the candles steadied. “It’s refreshing to to hear that someone values my gifts.”
“Bronwyn, even a Mage of the Flame is still a Mage!”
“But those of the earth, air or water are more powerful because those elements are so common. Where can you take a Mage of the Wind so he is without air? I can control the flames,” she shrugged and clapped once more and skeins of candlelight wove through the air, “but I need a source of fire to work.”
“That still makes you a Mage. Not everyone is all-powerful or all-wise. We can only work with the gifts we have.”
“Is that what you’re going to teach the children here?”
“When the practical lessons are done, yes. I hope to teach them more than just their letters and numbers. They need to know how to live in the land of laws and rules, and not just on the land. And with the Mage council issuing new laws twice a year they will need to understand what they mean and not just believe what they are told.”
“Because you can’t trust Mages?”
“Because any ruler who insists that they must be obeyed because of who they are apart from the law, risks becoming a tyrant.”
“So you do understand the reasons the Mages rebelled!”
“I understand their reasons. I don’t agree with them.”
“But you just said so yourself. The king shouldn’t be obeyed just because he is a king.”
“I said a ruler shouldn’t be obeyed apart from the law. If the ruler, king or mage, rules within the law, then we all live within the law, but if the ruler, any ruler, feels they are above the law, then tyranny begins.”
“The Mages are not above the law.”
“No? Then why does the murder of a Mage carry such a harsh penalty? Any murder is a terrible crime!”
“The Mages have a responsibility to look after this kingdom now. The new law shows people they Mages are important servants of the land, and the job they do is valuable. The penalty for ordinary murder is no less. The punishment is still severe.”
“What’s an ordinary murder?”
“Oh, you know what I mean. Stop twisting my words!”
“I’m not twisting them. But before today everyone was equal under the law. Now we are not. What other laws will the Mages change?”
“I don’t know, but why are you assuming any changes will make Mages better than anyone else?”
“This law does.”
“Does it? What if ten years ago someone had murdered the king? How would they have been treated under the law? Would it be the same as if they had murdered a stranger from the Dale, or the Five Islands?”
“Maybe someone did murder him three years ago.”
“He wasn’t killed. He fled during the rebellion.”
“What if he hadn’t run away?”
“What do you mean?” said Bronwyn
“Do you think the Mages would have killed him?”
“We are not murderers, Sophia!”
“I didn’t say that. But they are ambitious. How far would their ambition take them?”
“It doesn’t matter! The Mages rule Arden now, and the land is the better for it.”
“So I keep hearing, from a Mage.”
“You don’t understand what it is to rule a kingdom. I don’t either! But they do. They watched a king do it badly, without merit, and they knew they could do a better, fairer job. You and everyone else likes to remind me that the Mages problems are not your problems, so how could they understand what you need? Well your problems are not their problems either. They have to govern all of Arden, from city-state to smallhold, and they have to balance trade and tax and diplomacy with all our neighbours. Maybe they are clever and ambitious, but maybe the problem is villages like this one being selfish and small-minded. Maybe if looked outside your own borders for one day you would see that the world is much bigger than Ashdown, and Oakfield and the Dale. And the Mages are ruling it because someone has to, and they can.”
Bronwyn was out of breath, and sometime during her speech she had stood up.
After a pause that was a just long enough to be uncomfortable Sophia said, “Well I expect you will have a busy day tomorrow. Don’t let me keep you from your bed.” She stood and opened the door for Bronwyn.
As Bronwyn stepped across the threshold of the schoolhouse she felt that the atmosphere inside was somehow colder than the night air.