Shanks’ gallop had settled into a steady gait two miles out of Ashdown and the horse ate up the distance one hoof beat at a time. The light sandy soil of the coastal village had given way to the brown heavy earth of the eastern countryside which had suffered in recent weeks for lack of rain. The ditches along the road were dry and cracked and every step the horse took was a sharp retort on the hard earth. Bronwyn was glad of the new shoes.
The land before her rose up to meet the sky in a gradual incline. Trees dotted the summit giving a ragged appearance to the boundary between earth and sky. The sun was only halfway to noon and the morning was still bright and clear, although high wispy clouds were forming in the west.
At noon she stopped, satisfied with the miles behind them. She rested against the stump of an old Ash and sat with her legs crossed and a cheesecloth stretched between her knees. She had cut three slices from the cheese and ate with a potato in one hand and dried pork in the other. Only when these were gone did she eat the cheese. Shanks nibbled at the grass nearby. From this higher ground Bronwyn had a clear view of the sea below Ashdown and could just make out the smoke from cook fires, and probably the Marshalls forge. It would be some time before she was back here again. First she had to journey to Oakfield and discharge her duties there, then continue west to Lorin instead of taking her usual circuitous route north through the hills then skirting the border of the Dale and the villages there before eventually returning to Ashdown along the coastal road. The whole journey would normally take her a little under four weeks. This diversion to the capital would delay her at least a week.
Bronwyn wrapped up the rest and returned it to the saddlebag which hid the scroll. Her fingers toyed with the seal, wondering what could be inside. The fact a scroll existing with a royal seal was mystery enough, but the manner of its arrival was just as much a mystery. Who was the woman left behind in Ashdown, and who was she fighting? That was evidence enough the scroll must be important, even without the seal.
Bronwyn withdrew her hand and tugged the saddlebag to better hide the tube. It was something for the Mage Council to discover. It was only her job to deliver the mail.
She took a last quick swallow of water and mounted her horse with the ease of a lifetime in the saddle. She took one last look behind her and noted from the dust trail in the distance that another rider had set out from Ashdown, and pressed on.
The great hill that separated Oakfield and Ashdown eventually passed, and Bronwyn felt a little sad as she took her last long look at the sea as she rode the hillcrest path south for three miles. She turned west once again and started down the road that would bring her to Oakfield. Another ocean lay before her now, a patchwork in shades of brown and yellow where harvest was underway, a land and grass and rolling hills, although even the usually verdant grass was showing evidence of the lack of rain. Miles to the west the green thickened and darkened where the southern forests grew, and another half day’s journey beyond them was the first of the city states. Both north and south were the populous towns of Arden, each with resident Mages to guide and advise the people, but this was her land, the sparsely populated villages and farms of the east, where no Mage wanted to go. The land itself was pleasant enough, but the job of country mailman and roving magistrate was not what any Mage trained for. It felt like a waste, to be gifted with control over one of the four elements of life, and yet be here, listening to the petty squabbles of people who resented her interference, but who would tear themselves apart if she was not there to rule between them.
They continued along the road, descending the gradual incline step by step as the sun passed overhead in its slow arc toward sunset. The pale blue of the western sky deepened as the sun fell, the blue becoming more intense even as the high thin clouds turned to pink, edged with gold.
It was time to find somewhere to spend the night. Bronwyn turned Shanks from the road and aimed for trees that had fallen in a storm years before. No-one would travel this far to cut them up, so they had lain here unclaimed ever since. They would make a good shelter for tonight.
Dead branches were plentiful here and Bronwyn made the most of them and built her fire in the space where one tree had fallen on another. Here she could have the fire in front of her and thick wooden walls on either side and behind her to reflect the heat.
Bronwyn took her flint and steel and, instead of kneeling close to the kindling, stood over the fire. The sparks from a flint were too small and died to quickly for a Mage of the Flame to control, but Bronwyn had been practicing.
“Ready, Shanks? I think I can do it this time.” Shanks looked on without anticipation.
Bronwyn struck the steel to the flint and the sparks showered from her hands and fell to the wood and died.
She struck again, focussing her will on the moment of conception this time, and although she felt a flicker of her gift, these sparks too fell and died.
Shanks watched her, waiting to be impressed.
“Ok, this time. Are you ready?”
She struck again, this time moving her hands with the sparks. Her hand brushed against one, she felt the heat burn her skin like a pinprick, and in that moment sensed the difference. She cast her will to the falling spark before it landed, wrapped her gift around it and watched as it touched the top of the pile of wood. But where the others had died, this one burst into life.
Bronwyn grinned as the flames send shadows dancing around her little camp. Shanks turned away to look for something to eat.
“Walk away Shanks! I don’t need your admiration. My mother was right. Never try to impress a horse.”
Bronwyn slept warmly between her wooden walls despite the clear night sky overhead where a thousand stars competed for attention with the four moons. She awoke, stretched and conjured the last embers back to life with a thought so she could prepare a hot breakfast. She would not be in Oakfield by noon, and did not plan on eating until she arrived.
Both Shank’s blanket and her own were rolled up and stowed away, and her horse was once again laden with all the accoutrements of her trade.
The road was flatter here, the great hill behind them. The land climbed sharply to the north and to the south continued its slow descent to the tip of the southern peninsular. Ahead, the low hills gave way to the plains which housed the coloured squares of a hundred different farms.
And miles ahead of her was the great tree from which Oakfield took its name.
The firm road and a steady pace saw Bronwyn arrive at the borders of Oakfield before noon. She stood aside while a shepherd urged his sheep forward with the help of two faithful dogs, and returned his greeting. He was obviously in a good mood today and Bronwyn saw no reason to spoil it by telling him who she was.
That news she saved for the children she found trying to catch frogs from one of the shallow ponds on the edge of the village. She announced her name and title and sent them off to find their Marshall, Hendrick.
Oakfield was a much bigger village than Ashdown, benefitting from better trade routes and the range of crops the various farms could produce. Its famous tree had also been a popular meeting place in times past and so it was one of the villages Bronwyn visited which could boast an Inn with accommodation. The Mages assigned to regions full of towns would never consider this a luxury but Bronwyn did. As much as she appreciated the hospitality of the Marshall of Ashdown, she felt like she was intruding on someone else’s private domain. A guest room at an inn, no matter how small, was much preferred, and of course, since the Mages changed the law, she didn’t have to pay.
Bronwyn dismounted and walked Shanks toward the village square. There was no need to make Hendrick come all the way to her. Instead she met him as he was leaving the Inn. A smile as wide as his face appeared when he saw her.
“Ah! Bronwyn of the Flame, so good to have you with us again! You have had a good journey I trust?”
She smiled back. “I have, thank you Hendrick. How is the village?”
“Dry, Bronwyn. The land is thirsty but harvest is underway so no harm done. Besides our wells are deep. The weather will turn soon enough. What news do you have for us this time?”
“The usual unwelcome kind I fear, Hendrick. But I cannot stay with you long this time. I have to get to Lorin as soon as possible, so please gather everyone tonight. I will share the news and mail at the same time, then I have to leave in the morning.”
“So soon? What’s the rush.”
“Ah! Mage business. The business of Mages is above my station Bronwyn. Far be it from me to interfere with a Mage in the performance of her duties! And far be it from me to-“
“Hendrick, you are interfering with the performance of my duties. If I could just be on my way I have to make my rounds before tonight.”
“By your rounds you mean the situation with the widow Beth?”
“I do. Has any agreement been reached?”
“None so far, but I am confident that now you are here everyone involved in that unfortunate situation can come to some agreement. It is a sticky situation, Bronwyn, and I would help if asked, as I am Marshall of this village, but far be it from me to interfere.”
“Of course, Marshall. No-one would expect any less of you. Now please excuse me.”
Hendrick bowed with a flourish and let Bronwyn on her way.
Her smile vanished as soon as he was out of sight.
“What an obsequious little man, Shanks. I can’t believe the last Mage appointed him Marshall. No, don’t say anything, I know you’re thinking the same thing.”
Shanks said nothing. Her stabling would have to come later. First Bronwyn would have to go and see Beth, and her farm, eponymous Oakfield Farm, was a short ride from the village.
Oakfield Farm was in fact the farm from which the village took its name. The giant Oak tree that overshadowed the land of three different farms was older than anyone remembered, and it was a point of pride that it stood firmly rooted in the farm which had formerly to Richard the farmer, and of late to his widow Beth. Pride and shade was all the tree provided. As prestigious as it might appear to outsiders, a giant tree on prime farmland was a liability, not a blessing. The trunk, roots and lee all took up valuable space which could otherwise be used for crops.
But that was not Beth’s only problem, which is why Bronwyn had made her journey here a priority.
Farm hands hard at work told Bronwyn that Beth was probably in her cottage, a building of stone walls and thatched roof that sat at the centre of the farm. Bronwyn dismounted and hitched Shanks to the post out of politeness rather than necessity, and knocked at the door.
“Beth? It’s Bronwyn. Can I come in?”
Through the door Bronwyn heard a scrape and a bump, and then the latch was released and the door opened. Behind it was a woman who could have been Sophia’s older sister. Her dark hair was threaded with white but she moved around her cottage more easily than Sophia moved around her schoolhouse.
“Bronwyn! I missed you, come in please!”
“Thank you Beth, it’s always good to see you too.”
Beth bobbed her head from side to side, a funny little gesture that Bronwyn found adorable, and said, “You wouldn’t think so the way some people in the village have been carrying on.”
“What do you mean? What’s happened since I left?”
“Sit down, my lovely. Are you hungry?”
“No,” said Bronwyn, then realised she was. “Actually it has been a while since breakfast.”
“I roasted two chickens this morning, and I made fresh butter yesterday.” She clattered around the kitchen, summoning plates, knives and bread and added them to the table. “Eat!”
Bronwyn took a chicken leg and began to eat. “I will, but tell me what has happened. When I left I thought the claims against your farm would be dropped.”
“They would have been, if you had had the last word, but someone has been stirring up rumours again.”
“Who would do such a thing? The field is yours by right of marriage. Rumours can’t change that.”
“Not if the rumour is that Richard, bless him, lost the field in a wager.”
“He wouldn’t have done that, would he?”
“Of course not. He enjoyed a good wager with the men in the village but he would never risk one of our fields. Richard was no fool. At least, he was not that great a fool.”
“Who has the claim?”
“It depends who you ask. That’s the problem. No-one can agree on who owes who what, so the Marshall ruled that until the issue is settled the land should not be touched. Fortunately I expected as much so I had that field harvested first, but I have not been allowed to clear ti yet.”
“But you need to begin preparing that field for next season soon. What happens if you don’t?”
“Then I lose my biggest wheat yield, and with it the ability to pay for the new ploughs. I expect you can see where this leaves me?”
“Without ploughs you won’t be able to use the rest of your farm either, and then you’ll be forced to sell.”
“Beth, why didn’t you tell me about the debt the last time I was here. I thought this was a simple boundary dispute.”
“It was, the last time you were here. Like I said, someone has been spreading rumours.”
“But who would want to see you forced to sell your farm?”
“Someone who expects to profit from it, Bronwyn.”
Bronwyn was horrified. What had been a simple boundary dispute when she left had turned into an issue of someone potentially causing the eviction of a widow. The repayment of debts was a serious matter, so if there was some truth to these claims, and they could be proven, then Bronwyn would have no choice but to uphold the law.
“Beth, this is awful. I don’t understand why you’re so calm!”
“Because, my lovely, you’re here now. This morning I was worried, but now I have a Guardian of the Peace to help me.