This is a rewrite of Turn 1, and the second revision of this chapter (previous version). I have taken many more liberties with events and dialogue in these rewrites than in the turns, where I never modify dialogue except to correct typos.
It had been a long journey, and there was still a long way to go. It was a month today since Ardith graduated from the seminary at Zadothar with the title of Priestess of the Mother. She had been travelling, alone, or when possible with a hired bodyguard, ever since. Not suited to take a job in a temple right away, her mission was to spread the word of Andritha.
Ardith was special, just short of unique. She had a natural talent as an herbalist, but her abilities went well beyond that. Ardith could heal. With as little as a prayer to Andritha and a touch, she could stop bleeding, close wounds, set bones. Her talent had set her apart in the seminary. They hadn't been quite sure what to do with her. Even His Eminence Zilgard, the most prominent graduate of the seminary at Zadothar, had not been capable of such feats.
Zadothar, and Ardith's home village, were at the knees of the Koril mountains, which separate Rang from Terradia, and hence from the Great Sea, on half of its southern border. When Ardith graduated the seminary at eighteen, she had been sent to Huerten, a backwater barony which bordered the Koril Mountains in the great southern wilderness which it claimed as its own. Huerten, like all of Rang, was already Andrithan, but not everyone took their religion as seriously as the rectress of Zadothar would have liked. Then there were others, who took advantage of their great distance from the Ecclesiarchy in Duerstadt to worship other gods. The isolationist Morenthians with their harsh religion dominated the town of Maelbourg. Zahirans, proclaiming that the end of the world should be welcomed, lived scattered about in villages, or hid among the masses in the towns. There were even rumors of a Jarramite or two, no doubt spying for their commerce-obsessed Director. At least, these were the views imparted on Ardith by the seminary. She wasn't so convinced that followers of these other religions were so awful. That was another reason the seminary hadn't been quite sure what to do with her.
Ardith was distracted by the metalic swish of Kay sharpening her sword. Ardith was glad she had a woman for a bodyguard, even if it made the pair stand out. The two of them were of an age, which made the situation even more comfortable, and Ardith had never had a reason to doubt Kay's ability, despite lack of experience. Even better, since Ardith had picked Kay up in Hourtzbourg, the two were becoming fast friends. Kay Wanderwit was a fletcher by trade, but had left home not many months ago, without her parents' knowledge, to explore the world. Since there was little demand for a travelling fletcher, she had taken up the sword and dagger and become a bodyguard.
When Kay put down her whetstone and started inspecting her arrows for flaws, Ardith began her nightly prayers. “Normally, Kay, I say my prayers in Sarnam, but with you here I will render them in the vernacular, as you have not learned Sarnam. You may repeat them in your mind or speak them after me. It does not matter, though some say actually speaking them makes them better heard by the goddess.” The two women knelt in the leaves of the forest, and Ardith led the prayer. Kay, despite being only nominally Andrithan, spoke the words haltingly but strongly, half a second behind her.
“Mother Andritha, blessed be thy Works and Miracles. Grant unto us this coming day continued life, health and the joy of living. Forgive us our errors, as we are but human. Forgive also those who err against us, as we forgive them also. In return, we will not cause suffering, nor will we allow suffering in our midst. We will rejoice in life's goodness, and give the excess of our earnings for the common good. Mother Andritha, blessed be thy works.”
Ardith felt safe after the prayer. She encouraged Kay to cover herself up with leaves next to her, so they could both sleep. There would be no need for a watch tonight.
The women woke the next morning at dawn, early enough to see the forest leaves glistening with dew. Dmerzig was not far. It was the sixteenth day of Arwid, one thousand first year of the Zioth. Legend said it would be only nineteen years before the five moons would disappear from the sky on the same night, and the world would be destroyed and rebuilt, but Ardith wasn't worried. Through the prayers of the priests and worshippers of Andritha, the Zioth would be prevented. Anyway, that was more than a lifetime away for her. She would be nearly forty!
Ardith and Kay entered Dmerzig from the west side, paid the market day tax, and headed to the nearest tavern, the lower floor of the Red Eye Inn, for breakfast.
Another traveler noticed the women in passing when he descended the stairs for breakfast. The tall, scrawny man was dressed in black robes, and wore a round black hat. He was only a couple years older than Ardith, but anyone looking might have guessed he was much older, with his white hair visible under the shadow of his cap. Like Ardith, Ziedon was just short of unique. Perhaps more so; it was impossible to know for sure. In a land where magic existed only in fairy-tales and legends, Ziedon the bone-setter's son would have to be a fairy-tale himself. He called himself a necromancer, continuing his father's trade in a way, through his interest in the dead, and the magical power they represented.
This wasn't odd to Ziedon. In Westearth, nestled under the waterfall between the East and West Roe rivers, a village not far from Dmerzig but all but unknown, the art of magic had not been lost. Ziedon had grown up with a mentor, and while he was mistrusted and feared to an extent even there, his ability wasn't shocking to anyone. His mentor, however, had been sure to tell Ziedon about the outside world. Some time ago, hundreds of years probably, wizards had been purged from Rang and the surrounding kingdoms, possibly from the whole world. They had been hunted and killed, and would be again today if they were to let their presence be known. Secrecy was key to survival. Ziedon was sure his mentor had been exaggerating, but nevertheless had kept his abilities to himself since arriving in Dmerzig.
Brinn awoke in the back of a wagon to the harsh yell of the driver. “Up and out! This is as far as you go. I ain't bringin a heifin into town with me!” Brinn grudgingly climbed out of the wagon. “Hey! You owe me three diyars! A little short on the brains too?” Brinn paid the driver, who laughed and rode into town. Brinn was used to the jokes, jeers and insults, but he still scowled at the driver's back. It had been bad enough as a teenager, standing two foot five between his six-foot brothers, but you'd think adults would have gotten over it. Heifin? The driver might as well have said circus freak. The terms were one and the same. Saying freak in Sarnam didn't make it any better a word.
Well, there was no use getting into a rut over it. Brinn walked the last mile into town, and wound his way through the market-day crowds. At least there was one advantage to being short.
Small booths, some hooded and others open to the sun, lined the narrow streets. One or two people stood behind each, calling out glorified descriptions of their wares, or haggling with customers. Precisely what they were shouting was not always easy to hear over the jumble of voices in the market. Occasionally a horse and rider, smelling strongly of sweat and mud, would come through, and everyone would rush to the sides of the streets. Some of the horses drew carts, which would soon be taken apart and reassembled as more booths. Children followed the carts, jumping up and down to get a peek at the latest addition to the marketplace, hoping to see exotic spices or multicolored trinkets, rather than the apples or grains that were so common this time of year.
Dmerzig's market was nothing compared to the trade center of Gernainia, the closest city to Kay's home village, hundreds of miles from here. It really just struck her as being loud and over-crowded. All the villagers from the area must have flocked here for the market day, much as Gernainia swelled during the fairs, but here, market days happened twice a week. In Gernainia, every day was a market day.
The black-cloaked man from the inn passed by. A heavy book, held under his arm, weighed down the left side of his body, and a stout walking stick supported the right. Ardith paid him no heed, so Kay let him pass, and became again absorbed in the market. Then another person caught her attention. A man, maybe two and a half feet tall, pushed right by her to a booth selling nuts. She'd never seen a man that short before, but she heard that they traveled with circuses. That could mean there was a circus in town. How exciting! She wondered how it would compare with the one that passed through Gernainia once a year.
Kay was again distracted, this time by someone who seemed to have attached himself to Ardith, a dark- skinned man in white robes that looked horribly out of place in the Dunweig market. Long, gleaming curved knives hung from his belt. She fingered her dagger until a flurry of words poured out of his mouth that made him seem as innocent a man as she'd met.
“I hope that you will all be forgiving of my poor command of your language. It has still to accustom itself to my tongue, somewhat.” He grinned widely under enormous mustachios. The man's loud voice was starting to attract a crowd, among them the short man and the one in black robes. “I am called Sahlman el'Musafir, since leaving my homeland. Most of the folk from the … wetlands who are my friends have called me Sahl. This being the farthest north I am traveling, so far.”
Ardith composed herself and took command of the situation. “Well met, stranger named Sahl. I am Ardith, daughter of Torvad the carpenter. You call this land 'wetlands.' Is your homeland then very dry?” The briefest shadow befell Sahlman's face. It quickly passed, however, leaving Ardith uncertain that there was ever a hesitation in the traveler's bushy smile.
“Ah, yes. Indeed, my homeland. There is much water here, compared to it. One must be very careful in the desert, else he die from lack of water. Here, I think one might die from too much!” Then he was from south of the Great Sea. If this was the farthest north he had traveled, he could have left the northern shores of his homeland only months before.
“My friend Kay and I are shopping. If I may be so bold, people would stare less if you wore clothes that were less strange! Mayhap you should purchase clothes suited to this area.”
“Hmmm. Mayhap eventually I can buying more. Having just return from the bazaar … uhh … shops where I made many purchases.” Sahlman rapped his knuckles on the mail beneath his desert attire. “The armor here, much more good than the desert. Weapons, not so good, I think. But, this mail, it will help me keep warm, too, eh?”
“I think not, good sir,” Ardith responded, “unless it is padded or leather. If it is chain, it will do little against the cold, but much against a stray arrow or blade.”
Kay caught the man's attention, and held out her hand. “Hi Sahl. I'm Kay.”
Sahlman smiled and grasped Kay's hand, trying to emulate the traditional greeting of the wetlanders. “It is being my pleasure, Kay.” Sahlman hitched up his weapon girdle.
To Kay's surprise, the heifin had been standing right behind her. She jumped when he spoke with a voice much louder and deeper than she would have expected. “Hello stranger! The name's Brinn. So you've seen much of the world?”
Sahl only hesitated a moment and the man's appearance before answering. “Much of the desert that is my homeland, I have seen, but I find this land of yours to be fascinating! So many different types of people. I look forward to exploring more of it.”
The interaction, with its strange characters and booming voices, was starting to look like a play. Some of the crowd clearly thought so. “I don't know much about my land or any other land,” Brinn replied. “Looks like we could explore together! It sure would be easier that way.” Kay decided that the short man was not with a circus.
Ziedon had been listening from afar, while feigning interest in some trinket or fruit, he wasn't sure which. He slowly made his way toward the group, never looking directly at them, until he stood as a dark shadow over the white robes of Sahlman. Sahl shot around, grabbing at his ghurka and evaluating Ziedon in an instant. A tall man, to be sure, but not a worthy opponent in battle. Sahlman loosened his grip on his knife. In that time, Ziedon did not even flinch. He looked intensely at Sahlman for an increasingly uncomfortable duration, and then, from within the recesses of his hood, he spoke in a grating monotone. “I am Ziedon. I am pleased to meet you all.” The man made no move to take anyone's hand, nor did he offer his.
Ardith tried to break the tension by smiling and saying, “Hail, Ziedon. I am Ardith. Andritha's blessings upon you.”
“And upon you as well, I am sure.”