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“ARE YOU SURE you want to do this?” Hawk felt he had to ask, regardless of his own opinion.
It had taken four days to leave the forest. The first had been for burying their dead, grieving, collecting their supplies and marshalling their strength. The next three had been full of repetitive trees, menacing shadows and fumbling for the right path. Now they were back under the open sky and on the road to Royas Bay again.
Although the four guardsmen were his father’s men, Hawk knew they no longer wished to travel with him. After Arien’s rescue, they’d become exceedingly wary of all things mage. They even refused to let him heal them once his magic had returned. They’d always kept a respectful distance from the march’s son, but now they avoided him as much as possible. Hawk had taken to wearing gloves at all times to prevent accidentally touching anyone, but it wasn’t enough. They’d seen what Arien could do and they were frightened.
Sidony wasn’t seen as such a threat, but the days of teasing and cosseting the young lady were gone. There wasn’t much to laugh about anymore.
Irissa was the only one they trusted. She’d been close to Ren and they looked to her for guidance. Besides everyone knew witches didn’t have the same kind of power as mages. They were much weaker for a start and needed herbs and things to work their magic.
It was Irissa that Hawk faced now. The differences between witches and mages had been forgotten during their dark time in the forest, but Hawk wasn’t a fool. They were back under the sky now, back in the real world where witches and mages did not get on. Here witches did not go to the city, while mages from all over Wrystan went to Royas Bay to train. No witch in her right mind would help one young mage reach that place of learning, let alone three. Especially now Ren was gone and she had no reason to continue the journey.
“Ren made an oath to your father to see you safe all the way to Royas Bay. It was his responsibility to escort you to the mage school,” Irissa informed him in the dull voice that had taken hold of her after the last shovel of earth was placed over Ren’s grave. “He might be gone but his oath remains. I will not see his honour tarnished.”
Although he wanted to argue, sensing a trip to the city was the last thing the young witch needed, Hawk nevertheless agreed. He needed the guardsmen for the rest of the journey. If he was alone he could have managed, but he was worried about Sidony and Arien. Irissa was the only thing keeping the guardsmen close to the mages, so he had to let her stay.
Burying his misgivings, he borrowed the authority of his many knight-tutors and gave a brief nod. “Very well. It should take us another six days to reach Royas Bay. We’ll head for Tinnen’s Ford tonight. A hot meal, a warm bath and a clean bed is the least of what we all need.”
Leaving her to inform the men, Hawk turned back to his mages and coaxed them into movement. Sidony was subdued but obedient. Arien was withdrawn, dressed in the clothes of dead men and riding a borrowed horse. Their mage-beasts stayed as hidden as possible and all their decisions were taken by Hawk. When everything was ready, he swung into his gelding’s saddle with a sigh. It was going to be a long six days.
Then it started to rain.
* * *
THREE DAYS LATER they were a bedraggled, pitiful bunch who dripped their way inside the Wayfarer’s Halt. Situated on the King’s East Highway, Harble was a bustling little market town and the Wayfarer its only inn, but all Hawk cared about was the fire, the fact it rented rooms and the prospect of warm food.
His men were still avoiding him and hiding behind Irissa in all their dealings with him. Not that there were many. Since Tinnen’s Ford they’d been camping in barns and haylofts and riding steadily through each day, stopping only for lunch and an afternoon break to rest the horses. No one spoke, not even Sidony. Everyone was tired. And the rain never stopped.
Today had been the worst so far, the mud on the roads turning everything into a clumpy, unpleasant slog that made progress difficult at best. Hawk had called a halt three times to rescue stranded carts, unable to ride on and leave the poor farm folk to their sodden lots.
As a result he was caked head to foot in mud, bone weary and sick of mouldy straw. That was why he’d called an early halt and decided to stay in Harble.
Now he was wondering if that had been such a good idea. The Wayfarer’s Halt was busy. A band of travelling players had taken over the common room, meaning the taproom was full to bursting with chattering, laughing, singing patrons. Hawk felt for the purse on his belt, sighed and headed for the bar. Because of his unimpressive height, it wasn’t until Irissa and one of the guards followed him that the innkeeper even noticed him.
The heavily bearded man bent over his bar with an assessing and patronising smile. “Can I help you, young master?”
Hawk was too tired to take offence, but the guard behind him came suddenly to attention. “Lord Hawk of Gunnis Ridge requires two rooms and extra boarding for four guards.”
“Not to mention food and baths,” Hawk added wearily as the innkeeper’s eyes widened.
“Lord Hawk, is it?” he questioned, eyeing the men by the door before frowning at Hawk. “Would that be you, master?”
“Aye,” Hawk agreed. “Mage-page of Royas Bay, son and heir to the March of Gunnis Ridge. Would you like me to dig through my baggage to find my signet ring? Should I search out my father’s letters of introduction to the captain of the city guard for these men here? Or perhaps there’s some other form of identification you require before telling me whether or not you can accommodate my friends and me in your fine establishment?”
Apparently realising Hawk was at the end of his very worn tether, the man held up his hands. “Apologies, my lord, and most sincere too. We don’t get much call for folk like you in Harble. Two rooms, did you say, and space for four guards? Well, we’re mighty busy tonight, but I think I can squeeze you in, if you don’t mind the rooms being a mite small and your men don’t mind a common room and board.”
“Just make it dry,” Hawk said. “Perhaps with a hint of softness. I’m too tired for luxury.”
The innkeeper looked him over again, daring to smile. “I can see that, milord. Were you wanting baths first?”
Looking down at his mud-caked self, Hawk sighed. “If it’s not too much trouble.”
“My wife’ll see to your clothes while you’re at it too.”
“Good,” was all he could manage, beckoning for the others to follow him.
* * *
IT WAS REMARKABLE the difference a good wash and a bit of warmth could make, Hawk thought as he changed into a clean set of clothes. Despite being the only inn in Harble, and not catering to nobility all that much, the Wayfarer was surprisingly well equipped, even having its own bathhouse out the back. Hawk, Arien and his men had been quick to take advantage of it, while Irissa and Sidony washed in their room.
Now dry and ready to eat, Hawk headed downstairs again. The taproom was still full of life, but this time it made Hawk smile. What he wouldn’t give for an evening of merriment. An unlikely prospect, considering his divided, subdued group.
Finding the innkeeper waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, Hawk was quick to order food for his party and headed for the dining area. Smaller than the common room it was also markedly more empty. A roaring fire crackled in the grate, while a single long table took up most of the space. A party of four men sat at the end nearest the fire, their almost empty plates telling their own story.
Hawk nodded his satisfaction to the innkeeper and was about to return upstairs for the others when one of the men looked up. “Mage-Page Hawk?” Bulky shoulders, a broken nose and a mane of blond hair gave the man a barbaric look, but the blue eyes were friendly. Not to mention familiar.
“Sir Tobias,” Hawk said in disbelief, unable to believe that his favourite knight-tutor was here and staring at him in equal astonishment. The surprise only deepened when he looked around the table and realised he knew all four men.
“There you are, Hawk,” said the overly tall, deceptively fragile-looking man sitting beside the knight. “Didn’t I tell you we’d find him soon, Tobi?”
Hawk could only blink as his healing mage-tutor slid off the bench, crossed the room and touched Hawk’s hand, sending an assessing pulse of mint green magic through him.
“Hm.” Mage Faron’s bright eyes narrowed thoughtfully, the barn owl on his shoulder weaving her head. “So it wasn’t you. I didn’t think so. Tell me, mage-page, just what have you been getting up to lately?”
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