Some help at last.
“HAWK! HAWK! DID the innkeeper tell you? They have partri-” Ever the lady, Sidony crashed into Hawk as she entered the room. Her mouth shut with an audible clop once she realised they had company.
At least she was feeling better, Hawk thought with amusement. He’d known a warm bath was a cure for many ills.
Red-faced, Sidony clung to his arm as she came under the interested gazes of two knights, a squire, a mage and a barn owl mage-beast.
Fighting back a smile, Mage Faron bowed. “Well met, young mage.” The owl on his shoulder sighted the mouse peeping out from Sidony’s collar and ruffled her feathers.
Cricket squeaked and ducked away, rousing Sidony from her unaccustomed bashfulness. “Good evening, sir,” she said solemnly, holding out her hand. “Are you a mage too?”
Faron’s long fingers closed tightly about her hand and Hawk caught a glimpse of pale green before the mage let go with a satisfied smile. “I am indeed, my dear. Mage Faron, a teacher at the Royas Bay mage school, but unlikely to be a tutor of yours for much magic.”
Responding to his smile, Sidony bounced happily on her toes, but the arrival of Irissa and the guards forestalled any questions. Especially when the woman spotted Faron.
The witch stopped mid-stride, while the mage straightened to his full height. Their gazes locked and Hawk could practically feel them both bristling, like two cats meeting for the first time. On Faron’s shoulder, the barn owl stretched herself up tall and thin, watchful and waiting.
Arien crept into the room as soft-footed as a shadow, clinging to the wall. The barn owl glanced dismissively at him, then swivelled her head for a longer look. Some of her surprise must have reached her mage because Faron blinked and turned to the boy.
There was a long, thoughtful silence before Faron looked at Hawk. “I believe introductions are in order, mage-page. I’ll let you do the honours.”
Since he was the only person in the room who knew everyone, Hawk realised he had no choice. “Everyone,” he said to his road companions. “Allow me to introduce Mage Faron, Sir Tobias, Sir Gedrey and Squire Philippe, all lately of Royas Bay.” Turning, he nodded to the group around the table. “Mage Faron, sir knights, squire, may I present Lady Sidony Roscoe of Summerford Lea, Mistress Irissa Rowe and Guardsmen Huw, Edo, Lupe and Grey, all of Gunnis Ridge, and lastly, Azarien, a young mage newly met on our travels.”
Allowing everyone to trade nods and polite greetings, Hawk looked at Mage Faron. He had lost track of time somewhat during his adventures, but he knew the new school term must be due to start any day and, since the mage wasn’t well known for his travelling, Hawk could only assume he was outward bound rather than returning. Which made things even more intriguing.
Finding himself the centre of curiosity, Faron smiled. “No doubt you’ve had a hard ride today. You young types always do,” he added with a wink for Sidony. “And since we’ve already eaten an excellent meal, in the interests of fairness I believe it’s best to let you eat and relax before we start talking. Please, join us.”
Sidony huffed and Hawk narrowed his eyes. “There’s no need to wait for us to finish before you tell us how you came to be here, sir,” he pointed out.
But his mage-tutor hadn’t worked with young mages for so many years without learning a thing or two. He smiled and beckoned them towards the table. “True enough, but I believe your own story will make for more interesting listening, and for that I’ll have to wait until after you’ve eaten.”
At which point the door swung open to admit the innkeeper’s wife and several maids, arms laden with platters of food.
“Ah, here you are.” Faron steered Hawk, Sidony and Arien forcibly into the seats nearest the fire, shooing the knights out of the way. “Partridge, I believe you requested, Lady Sidony.” And he piled their plates so high with mouth-wateringly tempting food that it would have been rude to resist.
* * *
DESPITE THE AMOUNT of food the innkeeper’s wife had brought in, it didn’t take long for Hawk’s party to finish. Especially when they had two knights and a squire happy to take second helpings in order to help. Having moved to stand before the fire, the better to view the three youngsters and the witch, Rylan Faron could only shake his head in rueful admiration.
Catching his eye, Sir Tobias guiltily swallowed a mouthful of beautifully roasted rabbit. “We’re growing boys,” he said, rather defensively.
Faron smiled. Since the knight was more than thirty, the only way he was growing these days was outwards. At least he would be if he weren’t so infernally active. By most people’s reckoning Harble was a three-day ride from Royas Bay. That wretched knight had made Faron reach it in two. In the rain. Was it any wonder he preferred to stand? He hadn’t ridden so far or so fast for over ten years. His body was not grateful.
While everyone else devoured apple and blackberry tarts, Faron ruffled the feathers on his barn owl’s head and studied the three young mages. Hawk he already knew, having seen much of the young healer over his first year at the mage school. At thirteen he’d been a late entrant, but his magic was already so well controlled and strong that no one had noticed any lack in him.
A quiet, self-contained boy, with a level head and an undeniable air of command, his years as a page had done him the world of good. Faron wasn’t the only one who expected big things of him in the future.
Beside him sat Lady Sidony. Small though she was, Faron could feel the pulse of her magic halfway across the room. He’d felt it from a whole lot further away eight days ago, which was what had launched him on this harebrained chase in the first place. The strength and power of her didn’t surprise him – the Roscoe line tended to produce staggeringly explosive mages every couple of generations or so – but the fact that her magic had woken on its own did.
His eyes flickered down the table to the subdued woman seated at the far end – as far away from him as possible. Although there was little light in her dark eyes, he was reminded of a phrase he’d heard often over the years: witches were born, mages were made. A witch’s power was mostly instinctive, while a mage had to be taught how to access the light within them and how best to use it.
So what had woken Sidony’s magic at such a moment? His gaze fastened on the last and most intriguing of the children. Scrawny but taller the Hawk – although Faron estimated he was a couple of years younger – Azarien had a pinched face and wide, fearful eyes. He frequently touched the pine marten wrapped around his neck, seeking reassurance, and kept glancing at Hawk, as though reminding himself the boy was still there.
Then there was his power. To Faron’s magical senses it was barely there, yet there was something niggling about it. A constant hum that wasn’t a noise and wasn’t quite a feeling, just a presence that surrounded the boy and whispered of strange things.
“But then I’ve always had a fanciful imagination, eh, girl?” he murmured to the barn owl on his shoulder. Ira nibbled gently on his stroking finger and he smiled.
Plates and cutlery were being pushed away at the table and he thought it time to step away from his shadowy corner. “If you’re finished,” he said, addressing everyone, “perhaps you might like to retire to the taproom. The musicians tonight are very good.”
A pointed glance at Sir Gedrey had the man nudging his squire and between them they managed to herd the guardsmen from the room. The children didn’t move, but Faron hadn’t expected them to. Two were too curious to let him out of their sight, while the other was too scared to leave them. The witch didn’t go either, which he found surprising. He raised his eyebrows at Tobias.
His old friend sighed and pushed up from the table. “Would you care for something to drink, mistress?” he asked, dusting off his best court manners. “Or perhaps a stroll in the evening air, now that the rain has finally passed?”
She eyed him coolly, much to Faron’s amusement. Normally Tobias had to fight women off with a stick. This one looked at him like he was an ant in her sugar bowl. “Hawk?”
“You don’t have to stay, Irissa, unless you want to.”
The witch nodded, her expression blank. “Then I will take a walk. Alone,” she added sternly, before Tobias could follow her. “If you’ve no objection, sir.”
Her voice was cold enough to produce a frost and Tobias held up his hands. “Far be it for me to contradict the wishes of a lady.”
She said nothing and walked from the room, leaving Sir Tobias to blow out a thoroughly relieved breath. “The things I do for you, Ry.”
The mage smiled. “You didn’t do anything, Tobi. Count yourself fortunate. There is one woman in Wrystan who isn’t in love with you.”
Lady Sidony drew their attention with an impatient tut. “As well she wouldn’t be, since her sweetheart was murdered just a few days ago.”
“Murdered?” The knight in Tobias rose swiftly to the surface, sweeping all signs of the awkward courtier to one side. “Where? How? By whom?”
Looking from the intent face of his friend to the solemn ones of the children, Faron sighed and sat down, pouring everyone glasses of watered wine. “Come and sit, Tobi.” Passing out the drinks, he waited for his friend to settle next to him before pinning Hawk with a firm stare. “Now, mage-page, begin at the beginning and keep going until we tell you to stop.”
* * *
EVEN WITH SIDONY’S frequent – and frequently unhelpful – interruptions, corrections and additions, Hawk’s tale wasn’t long in the telling. It left more questions to be asked than were answered, even though he made sure not to leave anything out. He hesitated over Arien’s part, but a glance at the boy earned him a small nod, so he told Mage Faron everything.
Once finished, he felt more confused than ever. The expressions on the men’s faces told him they understood just as much or as little as he did. He suspected the only one around the table capable of providing any real answers was Arien, but doubted the boy would dare speak up.
“Well,” Faron said. “I don’t think these mysteries will be solved tonight. Or even tomorrow.”
“Then we’d all best get some rest,” Tobias agreed, standing up.
Hawk raised his eyebrows suspiciously. “Rest?”
The knight nodded. “We leave tomorrow.”
“Leave?” Hawk and Sidony chorused together.
“For Royas Bay,” Faron told them. “The sooner we get you three settled at the school, the better. Mountains only know what might happen if we left you wandering around much longer.”
“But -?” Hawk searched for words, wondering how his temporary authority could have been taken away so swiftly. He hadn’t looked for the responsibility of leading their party to the city, nor had he particularly enjoyed it, but now it was being usurped without thought he knew he was going to miss it. “But how are you even here?”
“Oh, the usual ways,” Sir Tobias said with a hint of a grin. “Horses, roads, movement.”
Hawk narrowed his eyes and wondered why he’d previously liked the knight so much. Clearly he’d been mistaken.
Sensing that the mage-page was losing his patience, Faron gave an elegant shrug. “We were responding to an invitation, Hawk. From you.”
He frowned, knowing that far-speaking wasn’t one of his magic skills, nor Faron’s. “What?” he questioned, giving up on manners.
“Well, actually, as it turns out it wasn’t from you. Now I’ve met her I can honestly say Lady Sidony has quite a punch.” Faron smiled. “But there was a hint of your magic in there too, Hawk, so I knew I had to come.”
“You felt my magic?” Sidony asked, green eyes wide.
“All the way in Royas Bay. Well, four days south, if I’m being honest.”
It was Hawk’s turn to widen his eyes. “But if you felt her over all that distance…”
“Then there’s no knowing who else might have picked up the calling card,” Sir Tobias agreed. “So it looks like you’ve got company for the rest of your ride, little mages.”
Annoyed though he was to lose all his responsibilities and power in one night, Hawk grinned. “Irissa is not going to like this.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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