With the burden of Beth’s faith in her abilities weighing her down, and burning with anger, Bronwyn left the widow after half an hour. She jumped on her horse and galloped the mile to the next farmhouse which bordered the field in dispute.
“This was why people needed Mages, Shanks,” she told the horse. “Whether they like it or not we have to interfere. Left to govern themselves things like this happen, and widows risk being made homeless. And they have the nerve to think I make their lives worse!”
She jumped off the horse, not bothering to hitch her this time, and banged on the farmhouse door.
“Hoyle! Open up. I need to talk to you about Beth and the field. Open the door!”
A voice called back, “You can find him in the east field.”
Bronwyn lifted the latch and shoved open the door.
“I don’t have time for this. You find him and bring him here.”
“Who are you?”
The fireplace spat red sparks onto the hearth.
“I am Bronwyn of the Flame and Guardian of the Peace, and you will fetch Hoyle for me NOW.”
The terrified farmhand scrambled out of the room and raced down the lane, leaving Bronwyn time to make herself Magisterial.
Hoyle returned within the quarter hour, red-faced from hard work and flushed with irritation at being summoned on his own farm.
“Bronwyn, what is this about that you summon me like this?”
“Don’t you know, Hoyle?”
“It’s the field, isn’t it? What has he said?”
“He? I’ve been speaking to Beth. Who have you been speaking to?”
“No-one. Go on.”
Bronwyn mentally filed that comment away for later.
“Beth said you have reinstated your claim on the field, but this time you are claiming ownership of the land Is this right.”
“It is. It’s owed to me.”
“Your original claim was for one quarter of the yield each year for three years. You agreed before witnesses that you had remembered the wager wrong, yes? And you settled on the claim of one eighth of the yield for two years.”
“I did at that.”
“So why is Beth telling me that now you are claiming the whole field?”
Hoyle pulled out a chair and sat down, a shocking breach of protocol for one being questioned by a Mage. He rested his forearms on the table and leaned forward. “Because some of us have been talking, and we realised that you go easy on Beth because she likes you. And no-one else does, Mage. Maybe I remembered the wager wrong first time, and maybe I remember it right now. And maybe I have witnesses who were not around before – witnesses you have to listen to.”
Bronwyn held his eye without flinching. “I listened to the witnesses. The case was settled. You can’t bring new witnesses now.”
“Everyone has a right to be heard, isn’t that right?”
“It is,” she said cautiously.
“So a Guardian of the Peace would not deny a man’s right to be heard, especially if he needed to provide a witness statement in a property dispute.”
“Are you telling me there is a new witness?”
“You’re supposed to investigate things properly, Mage. Don’t you know?”
“And who is this witness,” she said through gritted teeth.
“You’ll have to speak to Hendrick about that. It’s in his hands now.”
“What do you mean it’s in his hands? I ruled on the case.”
“He says that if a case has to be retried in the absence of a Mage he has the authority to rule. He says you ought to know that.”
Bronwyn said nothing.
“Maybe you better go speak to the Marshall. He can put you right.”
“Aye, so he said.”
“Is Hendrick the ‘he’ you thought I had been speaking to?”
“I need to get back to my farm, Mage. There is real work to be done.” He leaned back slowly and stood up to leave, master of his own home.
“Very well,” said Bronwyn sweetly. “I give you permission to leave.”
“Permission! In my own house?”
“You should get back to your farm. I have real work to do too.”
When he left, Hoyle slammed the door hard enough to rattle the crockery on the lintel. Bronwyn stayed seated clenching and unclenching her fists. This was not how things were supposed to go. Hendrick was deliberately working to undermine her authority in matters of law. It was bad enough that Oakfield actively resented the rule of Mages. Ashdown grumbled but Oakfield suffered real loss in the brief civil war that followed the rebellion. People here had declared for the king, as had so many of the rural settlements, and young men had left and fought against the Mages. Not all of them came back, and with fewer men to work the land the farms had begun to suffer. This was why farmers like Richard and Beth had invested in new ploughs. They needed new and better tools to work the land. Higher wages would not be enough if there was no-one to pay them to.
But why was Hoyle like this? He had no love for Mages, but he had never been as actively hostile as he had been just now. Someone has been poisoning their minds, she thought. Someone who wants to see the authority of Mages removed from Oakfield. Someone who wants that authority for their own.
Bronwyn left the farm house and whistled for Shanks to return. She came trotting around the corner of the house on command. Bronwyn hopped on her back and turned her mount back toward the village.
“I think we need to have a word with Hendrick, girl, Mage to Marshall.”
Back in the village Bronwyn headed straight for the Inn. Shanks was hitched again with a brief apology. “Sorry, girl, but it’s only for appearances.”
Inside, Bronwyn commandeered a table and sent for the Marshall. That would not go down well but she needed to stamp her authority on this situation once and for all, and she was past trying to make friends with this village.
At the last moment she asked for two candles which she placed, unlit, on each side of the table, and waited.
She didn’t have long to wait, and a familiar and unwelcome face stepped through the door.
Will jumped, looked around the room for the speaker, saw Bronwyn, turned around and made for the exit.
“WIll Fletcher! Stop right there. What are you doing in Oakfield?”
He turned round again. “Bronwyn! What are you doing here? I thought you were on your way to Lorin.”
“I am, but I’m making my rounds, Will.”
“I didn’d expect to see you here. You took me by surprise, that’s all.”
“Obviously. What are you doing in Oakfield?”
Will thought up a lie, and said, “Nothing?”
“Will, anytime you should be doing something we catch you doing nothing, so if you admit to doing nothing then you are clearly up to something. Again.”
“Is this because I scared you back in Ashdown?”
“This has nothing to do with that. I spoke to your father. The matter is settled as far as I am concerned.”
Will took a step away from the door and closer to Bronwyn.
“Do you have any concern though? For others I mean. We all know Mages are concerned only with themselves.”
“That’s enough Will. I don’t have time for you right now. Get out. I’ll deal with you later.”
“I thought you wanted me to stay.”
“I wanted to know why you’re here. How did you get here so quickly anyway. You don’t own a horse.”
“I do now. I’m going up in the world.”
“So you stole a horse.”
Will was aghast with mock outrage. “That is a very serious accusation Bronwyn, and from a Mage of all people! I borrowed a horse. What? Are you going to prosecute me for thieving with no witness and no victim? That’s not very just for a Guardian of the Peace.”
Bronwyn watched him with narrowed eyes. “Borrowed it from whom?”
“My father, believe it or not. If you want to go and get his side of the story he lives a day and a half that way.”
“Fine, Will, I believe you for now, but I’ll be back in Ashdown eventually to find out the truth.”
“I told you the truth.”
“William, you wouldn’t be able to tell me the truth if your hair was on fire.” Bronwyn had a thought and smiled. “Want to see me prove it?” She drew a line across the table with one finger and threads of firelight wove through the air from the hearth toward him.
Will quickly backed up to the door. “You wouldn’t!”
The threads unravelled into nothing. “Leave now and I won’t have to.”
He fumbled for the latch in the heavy door and was gone.
“He is the last person I need to deal with right now,” she said to herself, and settled back to wait.
Hendrick did not come, and the sun was now late in the sky.
The door opened to admit a nervous looking villager. “My lady Mage?”
“Yes? Have you come to tell me where Hendrick is?
“Umm no, well yes. He waits for you in the village hall along with everybody else.”
“He waits for me?”
“He said you have news and proclamations for us from the capital. He keeps apologising for your lateness and asked me to find you.”
Bronwyn stood. “Did he, now? How gracious of him. I don’t suppose he made mention of me waiting for him? We had a matter to discuss in private.”
The villager shook his head. “I’m sorry I don’t know anything about that.”
“I see. Thank you for the message. You can tell him I’m on my way.”
The villager half bowed, half curtsied, and left the Inn.
Bronwyn replaced the candlesticks. There would be no theatrics tonight after all. She paused. Unless theatrics is what Hendrick was counting on. She had planned to meet him in private to resolve the claim on the field but he was forcing her to confront him in public. Why would he do that? She had provided a way for him to avoid public humiliation, and yet he chose to embrace it. The she realised, he planned for the humiliation to be hers. He knew she had to announce the new laws and how unpopular that would make her. If she then had to challenge the Marshall publically it would be before a hostile crowd. And he was counting on that hostility to cow her and maintain his own authority.
She left the Inn and unhitched Shanks. They walked side by side up the main street toward the village hall. Lamps had been lit in anticipation of dusk and torches were safely in their sconces.
“Come on Shanks,” she said to her horse. “I tread lightly in Ashdown because I need to win their hearts. But here they are working against me. It’s time Hendrick learned what it means to be a Guardian of the Peace.”
The heavy double doors of the hall were open so everyone could see her arrive. Hendrick sat on the low stage addressing the villagers, making empty promises on behalf of the Mages, setting them up to be disappointed for when Bronwyn spoke the truth. He was working hard to put her on the defensive. But she wasn’t going to let him succeed.
Bronwyn left Shanks at the door and walked through the centre of the hall. The villagers parted around her so she travelled in a bubble of her own space.
There were no steps by the stage. She would look foolish struggling up it alone. She refused. The time for Hendrick’s theatrics were over. Now it was her turn. Bronwyn faced the crowd as an equal.
“People of Oakfield, thank you all for coming. I wanted to wait until you were all here before speaking, and I thank the good Marshall on your behalf for his service to you all.” That should get them wondering what service he has provided them, she thought. “I have news from the Council of Mages and new laws. Hear me now.”
Bronwyn ran though the changes to the laws on taxes and tithes and roads and received largely the same reaction she had every other time she had read them out. She knew they would be unhappy, they always were. No-one liked hearing new laws, or hearing that old laws had been changed. People instinctively feared change and anything they perceived as a cage. Human nature was always thus. But she knew these laws existed for the good of the people and of the land. And while people might resent them and challenge them, that did not make them bad people. The bad came when people twisted the law, and turned something meant for the good of all into a weapon they wielded for their own gain.
It was time to deal with the matter of Beth’s field once and for all.
“People of Oakfield, I can tell you now these laws have not been entirely welcome in my other villages. I understand why this is. But you, all of you, need to understand why these laws exist. No ruler can please all the people all the time. This was true under the king, and it is true under the Mages. Laws are the imperfect tool by which we maintain justice. Sometimes the written law is insufficient. It is for this reason the Mages appointed Guardians of the Peace to travel the land. While we are trained in law we are also trained in justice, and we are aware that sometimes they do not appear to agree. I am here to show you what happens when the claims of the law and the claims of justice compete.”
The crowd hummed with gossip and anticipation.
“Marshall, step down and join us.” It wasn’t an invitation, and it meant he was no longer elevated above the villagers.
Lackys quickly brought him a box to spare him the ignominy of taking the big step to the ground. Hendrick stood next to Bronwyn and smiled.
“Bronwyn, how can I help?”
“You can explain to everyone here why you interfered in my ruling concerning the field belonging to the widow Beth.”
“I don’t know what you mean? I interfered in nothing.”
“You overruled me after I had left.”
“New facts had come to light, and new witnesses too.”
“And so you took it as your right to try the case again.”
“That is legal, and it is my responsibility as Marshall. Would you have me ignore the law?” He chuckled as if the very concept was absurd.
“Of course not. I believe everyone here would insist on you fulfilling your obligations under the law. All of your obligations.”
“I’m glad to hear it Bronwyn. Far be it from me-“
“To consider what is right, when you consider what is legal.”
“How dare you! The law is what makes things right!”
“No, Marshall. What is right is what makes the law. How dare you! How dare you hold to the letter of the law by listening to the complaints of a new witness when that very act jeopardizes the livelihood of a widow? How dare you forget the basic justice of the situation because you smelled a profit.”
“I did no such thing, Mage!”
“No? Then who stands to benefit when Beth is forced to sell her farm?”
“Not me! I don’t own farmland.”
“But as Marshall you decide who can buy it if it has to be auctioned to pay debts. You don’t benefit directly but your decision ultimately lines your pockets instead of protecting those in need.”
“You can’t prove any such thing!”
“No I can’t prove it, but who here wants to see a widow turned out of her farm?”
No one answered.
“Who here wants to see Hoyle cheated out of winnings he claims are his?”
Again there was silence.
“I know you think we Mages act as we wish, but we act because we must. You all know what a just outcome is, so why do you tolerate a man like this who hides justice behind a rulebook?”
“They tolerate me because I am Marshall of this village, Mage.”
“Good, you remember who I am. The hear this; You are relieved as Marshall. My ruling on the right of Beth to ownership of her field stands. As to the witnesses who claim Hoyle is owed more, I will hear them. No payment was to be made until the end of next season so there is plenty of time. When next I arrive here you can all present your cases to me. If there is more to pay it will be paid, but Beth’s land remains with her.”
“Who will be Marshall now? Called a voice from the hall.
“You decide. Handrick was appointed Marshall by your last Mage. This time choose from among you the people you trust most to represent you. If you find more than one I will help you decide the next time I am here, but the choice will be yours.”
“I thought Mages had to choose the Marshall” said someone else.
“We have the right to choose, but not the obligation. I relinquish that right. The choice is yours. I will not overrule the popular vote. Don’t waste it.”
“Don’t threaten us with your power, Mage,” said Hendrick. “You’re the lowest of all the Mages.”
The lamps in the room began to glow brighter, and the torches belched flame. The people nearby shuffled nervously toward the centre of the hall as the room grew noticeably warmer.
“But I am still a Mage.”
“Fire!” someone called out.
“It’s only me,” said Bronwyn reassuringly. She relaxed her concentration and the brightness of the room faded and the temperature cooled.
“Fire! Wildfire! In the fields!” came the shout again. The villagers rushed outside. To the north the sky glowed like a furnace.
The villagers shouts became a chorus of chaos.
“The well! The well!”
“Form a chain! Who’s on watch?”
“The animals? Is it near the barn?”
The last question was answered by the sound of terrified animals braying as they sensed the fire coming closer. The villagers surged north, armed with buckets and bowls and shovels.
Bronwyn whistled sharply and Shanks was by her side.
“Run girl,” she said and kicked her heels.
Shanks easily overtook the villagers on foot. Hardly anyone was fighting the fire yet. So many had been in the hall they hadn’t noticed or heard the alarm in time.
Beth’s southern field was ablaze. Yellow flames moved steadily south through the summer-dry grass that no-one had cleared for weeks. The bucket chain was forming, but there were too few people, and the wells, although plentiful enough for the village, were lower than usual, adding precious seconds to the time it took to retrieve each bucket of water.
“Out of the way, Mage,” snarled Hendrick as he fought to save his farm from the oncoming flames.
“What can I do to help?” said Bronwyn? “Do you need more buckets?”
“We need more men and more water. What can you do to help?”
“Anything you need!”
“The last thing we need right now is more fire! Out of the way.”
Bronwyn pulled Shanks around and rode north. She didn’t see Beth in the hall. Was she still safe?
A thick wall of smoke flowed across the road, choking both horse and rider. Bronwyn covered her mouth with her arm and pushed through. Her eyes stung from the smoke. Shanks had no such protection. Bronwyn half-fell, half-jumped from the horse and rushed into the house.
“Bronwyn? Is that you?”
Bronwyn took the stairs two at a time. At the top sat Beth. She watched the field burn, unable to do anything.
“Beth! Are you alright?”
Beth sighed. “Yes, Bronwyn I’m fine. My farm is safe. That field needed to be cleared anyway. It looks like fate had it’s own plans.”
“You’re sure you’re safe?”
“Don’t worry about me. Even if that fire could turn north there is nothing left to burn. Go. Do some good elsewhere.”
“Be safe, Bronwyn. This fire might be too big for you.”
Bronwyn ran back down the stairs, fully aware of how big the fire was. It would continue eating its way through the field, through the livestock if they could not be cleared in time, and then maybe as far as the village. They needed more water. Hendrick was right, they needed a different Mage.
She rode Shanks back through the wall of smoke. The chain was in full swing now. Empty buckets were being thrown from person to person as fast as possible while full buckets were dumped on the ground as close as the men dared get. But the flames were fierce and the heat beat them back. Bronwyn could feel the heat even from this distance.
Someone was already with the livestock, but men and animals were panicking before the advancing flames and their escape was slowed. They had time to save some, but not all. If only the grass was not so easy to burn.
Bronwyn realised there was more than one way to fight a fire. She kicked herself for not thinking of it already. She urged her horse to the head of the line as close as she could get to the flames, and concentrated.
It was hard to tell what effect she was having at first but then out of the randomness of the flames grew a great ribbon of fire. Bronwyn pulled at it like a loose thread and wove it with her mind up and over the field and then down again to the ground near the barn.
“What is she doing?” shouted someone in the crowd.
“She’ll kill all the animals!”
“She’ll destroy the village!”
“You made your point, Bronwyn,” yelled the former Marshall. We can see your power, now stop!”
A bucket of icy water was flung in her face. She shrieked in surprise and Shanks trotted sideways to escape the cold. The spell broke, the weave frayed and vanished.
“I’m trying to help,” she pleaded.
“We don’t need help like that! Get away.”
“It’s dangerous enough work without you making it worse.”
“Bronwyn this is not the time for a Mage, not your sort of Mage.
“I can help if you would listen!”
A second bucket of water was thrown in her direction but landed short. Half the crowd admonished the man for wasting the valuable water, the rest laughed and cheered at the attempt.
Bronwyn wiped her wet face with her soaked sleeve and turned south.
“Come on, Shanks, we can’t work here.”
They raced in the direction of the village until they reached the livestock, still braying in fear as the the fire approached. The water poured on to the field was not slowing it at all. Bronwyn yanked the reins to the left, and her horse turned and leaped over the wooden fence into the burning field.
Behind Bronwyn the animals cried in terror even as the men worked to save them. Before her came the wall of flame. She reached out with her gifts but this was no candle or cottage fireplace. The distance was too great.
“Closer, girl,” she whispered and the horse obeyed, and not for the first time was Bronwyn grateful that her parents trained this horse not to fear fire.
They trotted closer and Bronwyn tried again, stretching out with the fingers of her mind, but it was still too far away. Too far away to work but fierce and close enough to feel the heat.
Could that be enough.
She tried again, this time letting the flames come to her. The heat of a fire was one way in which it manifested, just like the light, and the smell and the destruction. Instead of reaching into the flames she let felt the heat upon her skin, and grasped it tightly in her mind. She drew at it, like pulling a thread from a garment, and the flames followed. Bronwyn tightened her grip and drew fire up and out of the conflagration and set it down again in front of her. But now this fire was under her control.
She spread her hands and the flames drew out a line in the field. She turned her fingers and the fire began to spread, but this time it spread north.
The villagers, once they had seen what she was up to, screamed at her to stop, not realising her intent.
Bronwyn pushed the fire northward where it ate up new grass and left in its wake nothing but scorched earth.
The villagers had given up now in the face of two fires and streamed back to the village to save what they could. They paused only to curse her from the road.
Bronwyn stood in the saddle, held her hands high and stretched her fingers wide. The flames she commanded surged forward, eating the precious fuel as fast as she could will it. The men and animals behind her saw her silhouetted against the flames, her hair whipped up by the hot wind.
Bronwyn had no more strength left to give, and fell heavily into the saddle. The fire she commanded flickered and died.
And then the wall of flame did the same. Pushed south by the wind the fire ran aground on the scorched earth of its own making, and with no more fuel there could be no more fire.
Bronwyn sagged, exhausted, as the flames died and the smoke of the smouldering remains rolled over her.
Behind her the villages gathered in the field, unsure how they should react.
Bronwyn told them.
“You think being a Mage does not give me the authority to act? You refuse my help? Who wanted me to stay away from the fire? Who said I couldn’t help? Who doubted my wisdom? You all know that ff Hendrick had not prevented this field from being cleared this would never have happened.”
No answer was forthcoming. No answer was expected.
“Maybe now you will listen to me.”
“Yes”, she said wearily.
“Did…did you start the fire?”
“No. I was in the hall with most of you.”
“So how did it start?”
“I intend to find out.”
The night was not over yet.
Now that the field and animals were safe Bronwyn took the road north once more. The road was now damp where water had spilled from buckets. Smoke still hung in the air and in the field the last embers died of starvation.
The fire had started at the top of the field, but why? There was nothing here. No-one from the village would be here at this time of day. Beth stayed in her house rather than come to the meeting but that was because she had little interest in hearing the news first hand. On previous visits Beth had told Bronwyn before that it made no difference when she heard the news and changes to the law. They would still be the same.
But did Beth have anything to gain from burning her on field? There was nothing Bronwyn could think of, and Beth didn’t have a vindictive bone in her body. She hadn’t tried to clear the field once the Marshall, the former Marshall, Bronwyn remembered with some satisfaction, had ruled it should be left alone. And Beth wasn’t the sort of person to want revenge, and she would never risk the safety of the village and the lives of the animals by setting a fire. She also was not stupid enough to set a fire in a field of dry grass weeks after the last rains. It would take someone with no sense at all, and no understanding of the consequences of their actions to make such a poor decision.
“Oh, Shanks,” she said to the horse. “It was Will, wasn’t it?”
Bronwyn turned along the north edge of the field and rode slowly past the ashen remains of the grass. The wooden fences here had also burned, and black fingers clawed at each other from charcoal stumps where the fence posts had been.
Bronwyn approached the trees on the lane at the north-eastern corner and dismounted. “Will? Are you here?” She smelled the smoke of a campfire, a very different smell from acres of burning grass, and stepped through the trees. There on the floor was a ring of stones with the remains of a campfire in the centre. Small bones, probably a rabbit were scattered around the camp. One one side the grass had been flattened. Bronwyn sighed, made sure the fire was fully extinguished, and returned to her horse.
“I don’t know Shanks, I think it was him. No-one else could be so stupid.”
Shanks had no opinion on the matter, or at least none that she cared to share. Bronwyn climbed into the saddle for the last time that evening and rode slowly back to Oakfield.
The village was still humming with excitement. Dogs chased each other, children cried and people argued. Everyone needed an outlet for their emotions. Bronwyn’s return provided one and Hendrick led the charge.”
Bronwyn turned her horse slowly to face him and the crowd he had gathered.
“Yes, Marsh-Hendrick,” she quickly corrected.
“I am holding you responsible for this disaster!”
“Me? I put the fire out!”
“Of course you did. You can quench flames that you create. Everyone knows this about Mages of the Flame.”
“I didn’t create them, Hendrick. I think they started by accident.”
“Accident. What sort of Mage has an accident with their gift.”
“Hendrick, it was not me. See for yourself, in the copse at the north-east corner. I have just returned from there.”
“So of course we will find exactly what you tell us you found.”
“What are you suggesting, Hendrick?”
“That you planted something there to provide you with an alibi for the fire you started!”
Bronwyn was too tired to be angry. “You give me too much credit, Hendrick. I can’t control a fire from that distance. I couldn’t even see it from inside the hall.”
“I never said you used your gifts, my girl. You were there earlier to see Beth, to manipulate her story. You could have started something burning then.”
“But I didn’t. Why would I? I am here to help you, not burn your fields.”
“Because you needed an excuse to remove me as Marshall.”
“You provided that excuse for me through your conduct and lack of compassion. I have no regrets about taking your authority away. And I have no more time for you Hendrick. You have my announcements, and you have the new laws.” Bronwyn stood in the saddle and shouted to the villagers around her to get their attention. “All of you, don’t listen any more to men like this. You know what is right, and you know the law. Live where they meet. Stop fearing and hating Mages. We live in this land with you and work alongside you. I am not better than you, and neither is Hendrick. Just trust us, trust me. We work for the same land you do.”
“A pretty speech, Bronwyn, but those are just words. The Mage rebellion took more from us than you can fix with your visits and some letters. If you want to win their hearts back you will have to do better than that”
“I’ll start by doing better than you and not manipulating them for my own gain.”
“That’s what Mages do Bronwyn, that’s what Mages are. That’s why we don’t like you and don’t trust you. You might think I wanted money, but we know Mages want power. The gifts of the elements are not enough for them so they took the crown. What comes next?”
“Nothing comes next, Hendrick. You’re ranting. The Mages took the crown for the good of the land. We are still changing things. They are getting better but it will take time. Trust the Mage Council.”
“No-one east of the forest trusts them, Bronwyn.”
Bronwyn wheeled her horse around and pointed her at the Westway. “You’ll learn to. You’ll see.”
“How? Just because you will keep coming back here again and again until you win us over?”
“Of course, Hendrick. Far be it from me to shirk my duties.”