As was the custom for itinerant Mages, Bronwyn spent the night in the home of the Marshall of Ashdown. This hospitality was intended to be a sign of mutual respect between Mage and Marshall, but this night felt to Bronwyn like an obligation reluctantly fulfilled.
The next morning arrived crisp and bright, with a cold wind blowing in from the eastern sea that overcame the warmth of the early sun.
Bronwyn rose early after a sleep disturbed by a night of restless emotions. Eric had already left for his forge, but a pot of porridge made with cream steamed over a low fire. On the table were two clay bowls. One contained a spoon, the other honey.
The honey was either a special gift from host to guest or simply the Marshall remembering Bronwyn’s sweet tooth. In either event it was very welcome, and Bronwyn drizzled a generous helping into two servings of porridge.
She rinsed her bowl and spoon and straightened up before leaving. While she had certain rights as a Mage but she respected the obligations of a guest even more.
The wind slapped her in the face as she stepped outside but it was only an autumn chill. The real cold weather would come later.
Ashdown was already in full flow. Animals were being prepared for slaughter, firewood was gathered and the hundred little jobs that keep a village functioning were being done.
Later she would have to fulfil another part of her Mage duties by setting up court in the village square. As a Guardian of the Peace it fell to her authority to rule over disputes of property and payment. Ashdown was an agreeable village on the whole, which is to say that they agreed with each other, not with her, and she rarely had anything serious to judge. Other villages were a different matter. She remembered that her next visit was to be Oakfield, and shuddered inside at the fear of what they might present her with this time.
But before any of that, it was time to say good morning to Shanks and take a ride on the beach.
Her horse had been stabled and fed and rubbed down as a courtesy, another privilege afforded the Mages. Shanks snorted her greetings when Bronwyn opened the stable door and moved impatiently around her stall while Bronwyn saddled and mounted her.
“I know, I know, I missed you too. Did you sleep well?”
The only answer Shanks gave was to walk out into the sun and turn toward the beach.
They trotted down the same path they arrived on and headed straight for the water. The tide was out and Bronwyn let Shanks gallop across the rippled shore. Hooves kicked up wet sand and left prints which slowly filled with pools of water. Out to sea the fishing boats were already on their way back with the day’s catch.
At the waterline they turned left and Bronwyn let Shanks have her head. She thundered through the surf, straining against the reins and sending the saltwater spray skyward. The wind streamed Bronwyn’s behind her where it glowed golden in the morning sun, and for a moment, just a moment, she felt free of all the responsibilities that came with being a Mage in a land ruled by Mages.
The walk back was slow and steady. The exhilaration of the first run of the day was over, and Bronwyn and Shanks rode back to the village in silence, listening to waves break against the shore.
The fishing boats were much closer now. Two of them were listing, as if they had a big catch. When Bronwyn was nearer she could see they were towing another boat between them. The third boat had no sails. At first Bronwyn thought it had no mast either, until she noticed the sharp teeth of torn wood on a stump where the mast had been. She urged Shanks forward to meet them at the jetty.
“Was there an accident?” she shouted to the boats when they were close enough. “Is anyone hurt?”
“The boat isn’t one of ours,” shouted back one of the crew. “We found her drifting. The boat is burned, and we think someone tried to scupper it?”
“But every one is safe?”
“We found one person on board, a woman. She’s injured.”
“Hard to say. She is covered in bruises and cuts but she is unconscious. She will have to tell us more when she wakes up.”
“Let’s make sure she does. See what else you can find out about her and her boat. I’ll fetch the Marshall.”
When Bronwyn returned a fire was already burning in the sand, and the woman had been paid out nearby on a blanket. On the sand next to her lay a bow with a broken string, two bloodied knives and a small empty satchel. The boat she had been found in had been dragged onto the sand. Arrowheads were buried in the deck and sides, and now Bronwyn could see burn marks and cracks in the hull along the port side. It was a wonder the boat hadn’t sank.
“What happened to her?” she wondered.
“Only she can tell us that, and only if she survives,” said the Marshall. “Do you know where she is from, I assume the Dale, from the colour of her skin.”
It was a fair assessment. The injured woman’s dark skin was synonymous with the land to the north of Arden, and they were known to favour the bow as a weapon of war. “Pirates?”
The sailor shrugged. “Could be but I think it’s unlikely. Pirates have not been seen in these waters for years.”
Eric turned to Bronwyn. “But that was before the Mages upset everybody, yes?” He knelt down next to the woman and laid an ear to her chest. “Her heart is strong, and if these knives are any indication I wager whoever she was fighting came off worse than she did.”
“Worse than this?” said Bronwyn. “Look at her! Why do you think that?”
“Because, Bronwyn, she is still alive.”
They had brought the woman up the cliffs to the village and placed her in the schoolhouse. Sophia took charge of her care and did what she could to nourish her. She took some water, dribbled into her mouth from a cloth but no food. When the blood was cleaned from her skin they found fewer injuries than they expected. Most of the blood was from her enemies.
“Well, Mage, does this fall under your jurisdiction?” Eric asked Bronwyn after they left Sophia to her work.
Bronwyn shook her head. “This has nothing to do with the Mages. This is a survivor of a pirate attack. It doesn’t involve me. I will gladly help if I can but her care is for you to decide.”
“Do you think she’s a danger to the village?”
“I don’t know, Eric. We don’t know what she will do if she wakes up.”
“When she wakes up. She’s strong. Look at her. She’ll survive.”
“I hope so.”
“But someone wanted her dead. What if they are still out there and come looking for her?”
“Do you think they would? You said yourself she is alive because whoever attacked her is dead. Maybe there is no-one left to follow her? And we don’t know how long she was at sea. She could have drifted. How will anyone know where to look?”
Eric grunted, satisfied with Bronwyn’s logic.
“So we wait and see what happens, do we?”
“You’re the Marshall.” They walked together back to his forge. “What are you doing with her boat. Will that tell you anything about her?”
“We searched it but didn’t find anything else. It had nothing on it, no supplies, no equipment. Not even a rope. It’s not seaworthy and we have no need of another so I said it could be broken up for firewood.”
Bronwyn pointed toward the cliff path. “It looks like they are done already.”
Eric turned to see where she was pointing. “So soon?”
Two fisherman were hurrying through the village streets carrying something wrapped in a cloth.
“Marshall! You need to see this!” said one of fisherman.
His companion pointed at Bronwyn. “Maybe she does too.”
Eric and Bronwyn looked at each other.
“In here,” said Eric, standing aside so they could all enter his house.
“What is it?” said Bronwyn.
“We found it when we started breaking up the ship,” said the first fisherman.
“It was hidden beneath the chine.” said the other.
“Well, show us then,” ordered the Marshall.
The fishermen placed the cloth on the table and unwrapped it. Inside was an oilskin wrap and inside this was a tube which had been sealed with wax.
The Marshall leaned closer for a better look. “It must be important to be this well covered. Keep going.”
The wax seal was cut and the end of the tube twisted off. Inside was a scoll of parchment. The scroll was wrapped in a ribbon of silk, red with gold thread, and tied in a bow. The bow was held in place with a large wax seal which the Marshall did not recognise, but Bronwyn did.
That’s a royal seal,” she said.
“Royal? Arden royalty?”
She nodded, took the scroll from him and turned it slowly in her hands, checking the details. “An old one, obviously, but definately Royal.”
“Who would send a scoll under the royal seal?”
They both looked through the window in the direction of the schoolhouse.
“That is an excellent question,” said Bronwyn.
Eric knocked softly on the schoolhouse door and waited only a moment before Sophia answered.
“Oh, Marshall, come in. She is still asleep I’m afraid.”
Bronwyn stiffened before entering and had to remind herself that she was here this time as a Mage, and the Mage would have to be welcomed even if the friend was not.
“Bronwyn,” was Sophia’s only greeting. Bronwyn only nodded.
“Has she said anything? Have you found out any more about her?” said Eric. He walked around the bench examining their guest for any clues that might shed some light on the royal seal.
Sophia noted the change in tone. The Marshall not usually so forthright. “Nothing. She just sleeps. She hasn’t made a sound.”
“Have you searched her?”
“We removed her bloody clothes to burn. They are over there.” She pointed at a pile of ripped and dirty rags on the other bench.
“Bronwyn?” said Eric. Bronwyn began picking through the fabric, searching for pockets, or badges, or anything that might tell them more.
“What are you looking for?” said Sophia.
Eric handed her the sealed scroll.
“What is this? I don’t recognise the seal.”
Bronwyn found nothing and piled the clothing together again. “It’s a royal seal,” she said.
Sophia looked from Bronwyn to Eric in surprise. “Royal? How?”
“We don’t know,” said Eric.
“Is she royalty?” said Sophia.
“The Dale has no royal family. And besides she looks more like a warrior or hunter than a princess,” said Bronwyn.
“So why is she carrying a royal message?” said Sophia.
The Marshall leaned over the bench, resting his hands on each side of the woman’s face and studied the upside down features. “We are assuming that she knew the message was on the boat. It’s possible she didn’t know it was there.”
“But then who was she running from and fighting? The most likely explanation is that she was trying to escape with the message?” said Bronwyn.
“Why are you assuming it’s a message?” said Eric.
“I’m just saying. It could be anything, of course, but it is probably a message.”
“But a message to the royal family? Now? How long ago must it have been sent?” said Sophia.
“Maybe it is from the royal family?” said Bronwyn.
“Then why hasn’t anyone opened it yet?” Sophia said.
“Another good question,” said Eric. “And that’s one we can answer right now. Bronwyn, hand it over.”
Bronwyn held the scroll in both hands and shook her head slowly. “No. You can’t open it. None of us can.”
“Why not? There is no royal family left to receive it. Come on.” Eric beckoned her forward.
“No, Marshall. I can’t. If this is a message to the royal family then it now belongs to the mages, and if it is from the royal family then we don’t know who it is for, so we have to return it to the Mages.”
“So, whatever we think, that message has to go to the Mages.”
“Even though there is no royal family any more.”
“And what about her?” The Marshall pointed at the woman on the bench. “Doesn’t she get any say in this? It is her message after all.”
“Is it? You said yourself she might not even know it was there.”
“And you said that she probably did know it was there!”
“Even if she did, the message bears the royal seal, so the Mages have to see it. They have to be the one’s to decide what to do with it.”
“It might not be anything to do with them. The only thing we know for sure about that message is that it is not for the mages! Otherwise it would have their seal on in.”
“But we have no royal family now. There’s no king to read this, so it has to go to the the ruling council instead.”
“Who just happen to be the same Mages that got rid of the king.”
Bronwyn paused only a half a second. “Yes.”
“Sophia, what do you think?” said Eric.
Sophia looked at the scroll and at the woman on the table. “I don’t think it is anything to do with us.”
“Thank you,” said Bronwyn.
“So you would let her take it?” said Eric.
“I don’t know what right Bronwyn has to the scroll, but trouble followed this woman here, and trouble did that to her. I would send the message away before trouble comes to us too.”
“And what about her?” said Eric. “Does she stay here? What if the trouble followed her and not the message?”
“We have to help her. It’s our duty to help any traveller in need. The Mages haven’t changed that law.” Sophia glanced at Bronwyn. “Yet. And even apart from the law it is the right thing to do.”
“And what happens when she wakes up and finds that we took her scroll?” said Eric. “Will she do to us what she did to her attackers?”
“We can take her weapons and bar the door from the outside if we need to. We can explain.”
“Huh, explain! I’m sure she will be in a very receptive mood once she finds out we burned all her clothes, took her possessions, and locked her up!”
“What other options do we have?” said Sophia.
“Bronwyn?” said Eric.
“I don’t know, but I have to take this scroll to the Mages in Lorin. You should care for her while I’m gone. I’ll return as soon as I can to tell her what happened.”
“This is your final word as a Mage?”
“It is, Marshall. And besides, one of my duties is to deliver the mail, remember?”
“So be it. But I want this riddle solved, Bronwyn. I don’t like strangers in my village when they can bring danger with them.”
“I will leave early,” said Bronwyn, when they had left the schoolhouse.
“I want you to leave now,” said Eric. “Within the hour.”
“You really want me out of your sight so quickly?”
“It’s not that. But this woman brings danger with her, and that scroll is a part of it. I want an end to this mystery as soon as possible, and if you have to deliver that message to Lorin then I want it done and you back safely as soon as possible too.”
“I need time to gather fresh supplies, and-“
“You’ll have them. Go and get ready.”
Bronwyn nodded and left to fetch her horse. Her mission was clear, but the only thing that puzzled her now was if the Marshall seemed more concerned with the safety of the village, or of her.
One hour later Bronwyn and Shanks were ready to leave. True to his word, the Marshall had arranged for supplies of bread, cheese and dried meat, and wrapped in a cloth were five large potatoes, fresh from his furnace. Two new water skins were also ready for her.
The scroll was safely back in its tube and tucked out of sight under the saddlebags.
“I still have to stop at Oakfield,” she explained as she swung her leg up and over her mount. “But it’s on the way so it shouldn’t delay me.”
“See that it doesn’t. Ride safe, Mage,” said the Marshall.
“And come back safe too,” added Sophia.
Bronwyn nodded. “I will. You can tell me how many children you have in your school when I come back.”
“I’ll look forward to it.”
Eric slapped Shanks hindquarters. “Now go and fulfil your duties, Mage.”
Without another word Bronwyn kicked her heels and Shanks broke into a quick trot. Once clear of the village Bronwyn urged her to go faster. Shanks accelerated to a gallop, and then was away from the village and out of sight.
“Was that the right thing to do?” asked Sophia.
“Right or wrong it was all we could do. If a Mage claims jurisdiction over something like that who are we to say no.”
“Don’t you worry that the Mages will always claim the right to something if it suits them?”
“Aye, but while Bronwyn is a Mage, she is also Bronwyn. I trust her more than most. Don’t you.”
“If she wasn’t a Mage I could trust her more.”
“She’s on her way to the Mage council now, Sophia. Trust is all we can do.”
“I should return to our guest,” said Sophia.
“Look after her,” said Eric. “The sooner she is up and out of here the better for all of us.”
Sophia returned to the schoolhouse and relieved the young girl who had been appointed to look after the mystery warrior woman in her absence. Sophia rested her hand on the woman;s brow, and felt her cheeks. There was still no sign of any fever. That was something. Her body would just have to heal itself. Until then all Sophia could do was give her water.
Sophia dipped a clean cloth into a bowl of water and squeezed out the excess. She parted the injured woman’s lips and dripped water in slowly. The woman swallowed reflexively, another good sign. Sophia squeezed out the whole cloth, then repeated the exercise twice more until she was satisfied with how much the woman had drank. Then she took the bowl and cloth away to be exchanged for new.
As she reached the door she heard a voice behind her, weak and croaking.
Sophia rushed back, spilling the rest of the bowl of water.
“Did you say something? Can you hear me? Are you alright?”
The woman’s eyes flickered open but they were unfocused. “Muh..” she repeated.
“Did you say more? I have more.” Sophia quickly soaked the cloth with the water she had left and brought to the woman’s lips.
“I have more.” Sophia squeezed the cloth and water dribbled onto the woman’s mouth. She flinched and turned away and one weak arm pushed Sophia’s hand away.
“More what? Wait here! I’ll be right back.” Sophia lifted her skirts and ran outside shouting “Marshall! Marshall!, She’s awake. She’s saying something.”
The Marshall was there in half a minute.
“What did she say?” He asked. The woman still lay on the bench, apparently drifting in and out of consciousness.
“She wants more of something.”
“More of what? Is she hungry?”
“I don’t know. Look, she’s moving again!” They leaned closer, Sophia with her water-cloth at the ready.
“Muh…” she said. “Mor…Morrigan.”