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Tala, once again, woke early.

She had not gotten enough sleep, partially because she had taken the time to rig up a small case for the magic detector. Even so, she didn’t let that stop her. She rose quickly, stretched, exercised, cleansed, and verified the integrity of her iron skin.

The magic detector was invaluable for this. If she was uncertain about any location, she simply pointed the device at her skin, and if it glowed at all, she applied more salve to that location. Huh… I should have gotten something like this earlier. True, her own mage-sight could do something similar, but it was less acutely accurate and, even with a mirror, harder to be sure that she wasn’t seeing magic reflected off of the iron from her surroundings.

I do wonder why the magic detector doesn’t seem to respond to reflections off of iron. Another mystery for when she could get it examined more closely.

She finished packing up her pack and satchel, hanging her bedroll below the pack, and strode out into the common space.

Lyn was waiting for her with coffee and a breakfast pasty. “Eggs and sausage.”

Tala gratefully took the food, and quickly ate it, washing it down with the coffee. “Thank you, Lyn. That was very kind.”
“I had to do some sort of sendoff. You’ll be safe, yes?”

“I’ll do my best.”

Lyn looked like she wanted to respond to that, but instead, she simply nodded.

“Oh!” Tala pulled out the letter she’d written to Holly, detailing some requests, and handed it to Lyn. “Could you get this to Mistress Holly?”

Lyn cocked an eyebrow as she took the letter. “Sure? What is it?”

“A few ideas and scripting requests. Nothing too major.” Tala shrugged. “You’re welcome to read it, if you’d like.”

“Alright, sure.”

She smiled. “Take care, Mistress Lyn. I’ll see you in just about two weeks.”

“I’ll see you, then.” Lyn, then, stepped forward and gave her a quick hug, being exceedingly careful to avoid skin contact. “I’ll miss you.”

Tala accepted the hug and returned it to the best of her ability, trying to keep her own skin away from Lyn’s clothing. “I’ll miss you, too.” To her surprise, Tala felt like it was actually true.

“Now, get! You shouldn’t be the last one at the work-yard, and the sun is almost up as it is.”

Tala grinned. “Bye, then!” With a wave, but no further words, Tala departed, walking briskly towards the work-yard, near the outside of the city proper.

As she was moving quickly, and heading directly for her destination, it was a much faster trip out to the outer wall than it had been from the outer wall back to her house. I have a house. She did not camp on the thought, but it still made a smile tug at her lips. She had a home, again.

And I’m leaving it.

But, just for a time. She could do this.

I can do this.

She arrived at the work-yard to find a very different scene than she had on other days.

First, all of the cargo-slots had been loaded onto a single wagon on the far side of the yard. They were fully encased within the wagon save holes for each of the places she needed to contact for recharging of the scripts. The back was also open, to grant access to the door into one of the cargo-slots. That likely holds the supplies for the voyage itself, as part of the contents. She’d find out either way, soon enough.

Aside from carrying the cargo-slots, this wagon was different from her test wagons in several ways. First, the wheels were of an overlapping segmented design, with each piece held outward with a sort of leaf spring, allowing it to collapse inward, somewhat, if the wheel went over particularly rough terrain. The plates’ overlapping was oriented so that no metal edge would ever come down onto the ground, so long as the wagon moved forward.

Secondly, the wagon had what looked to be a very robust suspension system, to further steady the load, and smooth out rough terrain.

Finally, a pair of mundane oxen were hooked to the front, being tended by the driver, and all three beings were nearly ready to depart.

Beyond her own charge, there were a string of seven other wagons, each nearly twenty feet long and pulled by their own pair of oxen. As she walked past each, towards her charge, she got a good look at them. By the activity around them, and the brief look inside given by her mage-sight as she got within range, there were four types: two wagons were for the other Mages, with a driver and servant each bustling about, preparing for departure; three were for passengers; one looked like nothing so much as a bunkhouse on wheels, likely for the mundane guards; and the final was clearly a traveling kitchen. At least the food will be good…I hope.

The Mages’ wagons were each set up differently. She immediately identified Trent and Renix’s wagon because there were three beds. One plush bed was fully separated in a front compartment, one equally plush bed was behind a curtain, and the third was nice enough, near the rear of the wagon, clearly for the servant. The other wagon only had two beds, one vastly nicer than the other, confirming that the other Mage did not have a mageling. It was still odd, intuiting the physical nature of things from their magical imprint.

I suppose the driver sleeps across the driver’s seat at night? It made sense, as it seemed that great care had been taken to make those a comfortable place to be throughout a long day’s travel. And through a night’s sleep.

Of the passenger wagons, it looked like two were for more wealthy patrons, as there were only two or three occupants in the large wagons, not including the driver and servants. They were actually similar to the Mages’ wagons, but seemed to be more generic, where the Mage wagons appeared to have been customized for their passengers. The other passenger wagon appeared to be for poorer travelers, as her mage-sight detected a full five people in that wagon, again not including the driver and servant. Even with the five people, it didn’t look too cramped. There was a stack of five beds against the front of the wagon, and what looked like reasonable seating within.

I guess passengers tend to stay in their wagons, during the day. Seemed like it would be boring.

Neither she, nor anyone she’d known as a child, had ever traveled between cities, so it was all new to her. Except magical transport to and from the academy, but that is altogether different.

The bunk wagon looked to be outfitted with ten beds, and a small area for ten more people to rest. Three shifts, then? If she had to guess, there would be ten guards out and about, ten sleeping, and ten resting each in rotation. Indeed, it did seem that eight were already asleep within.

The culinary wagon had three occupants and no apparent driver. I suppose one of them drives? They seemed to be doing final preparations, locking down things within the wagon. I wonder if they will be able to cook as we travel, or if we’ll have to stop for meals? It was a sign of her ignorance that she didn’t even consider that lunch might be made ahead of time in the morning, though her own preparations should have planted the idea. There was a bit of odd obscuring on this wagon, which reminded her of looking at Holly, but she couldn’t determine the source. All the metal implements? That was as good a guess as any.

Every wagon had what looked like a flat, padded seat on the top, higher even than the driver seat, near the center of the wagon. A look-out post? She’d have to wait and see how they were used. Additionally, each wagon had the specialized, steel and spring wheels, along with what appeared to be highly articulating suspension systems. I suppose that makes sense. There isn’t a road we can take, and standard wagons don’t do so well on rough terrain.

Around the wagons, she could see many people moving to and fro. Twenty guards were in evidence, including Ashin who waved to her when their eyes met. She waved back.

She easily picked out the three other Mages, each busy with their own tasks. And each with a horse. As she noted those, she saw at least fifteen other horses as well. Back-ups for the Mages, and mounts for the guards? She really had no idea, as she’d never so much as touched a horse in her life. My own two legs are good enough.

As she thought about it, she realized that she wasn’t sure how long each day’s travels would actually be. Maybe, I can ride beside one of the drivers, now and again?

Lyn had never mentioned horses…Though, she did initially offer me a wagon… It seemed that Tala might have missed something critical. Nothing for it, now.

She did have a wide-brimmed hat, which she planned to pull out, once they were on their way. No reason to get burned by being in the sun all day.

The third Mage, a woman, was obvious by her spell-lines even at a distance, but Tala didn’t focus on her in order to analyze them, yet. I’ll wait until we’re closer. She also wanted to complete her task quickly. I’d hate to be the hold-up.

She finally reached the cargo wagon and, noting that the outermost cargo-slot was shut, she decided to empower that one first. No need to inconvenience someone by barring their entry, later.

She placed her hand on the first, formed the mental construct, and poured her power through it, into the construction.

She was still marginally improving her speed, both at constructing the mental model, and at attenuating the expression of her power.

It was complicated by the spell-lines in her right hand, as she had to forcibly direct the power around them.

Huh, I suppose I could use my left hand, but not on this first one. Her left was, as of yet, un-inscribed. So, in theory, there should be less interference, if any.

She quickly filled the first, waiting till all three symbols glowed with an inner light, and moved to the second. On this second one, she did decide to use her left.

She rested her left hand against the activation panel and formed the construct in her mind.

Her power refused to flow through it and out of her left hand. Strange. No matter how she twisted her mind, she couldn’t make it work. After close to a minute, she gave up. I’ll have to ask someone- probably Holly -why that didn’t work.

In hindsight, she realized that it had been a bit foolish to experiment with an actively empowered construct. Glad it didn’t explode…

She quickly finished her work and stepped back, double checking that all thirty symbols glowed brightly. Done. Even with her ill-advised experiment, it had taken her roughly five minutes. Having the doors closed really does speed up the process. In addition, just like the day before, wearing her gloves had not slowed the process at all. She noted both things for later.

Once she’d placed her notebook back in her satchel, she walked to her driver, placing a smile on her face. “Hello!” She waved, and he started, turning to bow in her direction.

“Greetings, Mistress. How can I serve?”

Tala waved a hand. “First, my name is Tala. Second, what can I call you?”

He glanced up to her, seeming uncertain. “You may call me ‘Driver,’ if you so wish.”

“Driver? May I know your name, instead?”

He seemed at a loss, before finally shrugging. “I see no harm. I am Den.”

“Well met, Den.” She extended her hand.

He started back, but quickly mastered himself. When no magic seemed in evidence, he slowly took her hand in his, and shook. “Good to meet you, Mistress.”

“Please, call me Tala.”

“Mistress Tala.” He smiled, seeming to gain a bit of confidence.

“Now, Den, would you have a space up near your seat that I could stow my pack?” She pointed her thumb over her shoulder and down behind her, indicating the pack on her back.

Den’s eyes widened. “Oh! Is your wagon not sufficient?”

She smiled. “No, no. I don’t have a wagon.”

He blinked, clearly confused. “But… How can you not have a wagon?”

“I don’t want one. That said, I also don’t want to carry my pack, if I don’t have to. Do you have a place?”

Den nodded quickly. “Of course, Mistress Tala.” He patted the ox he’d been working with and led her back to the wagon. Below the seat, opening on either side, were large wooden boxes. “On longer trips, we often have two drivers per wagon and so we each get one of these.” He pointed under the seat to an identical one on the other side. “That one is mine.” He hesitated. “But you can have that one if-”

She held up a hand. “This will do perfectly.” She opened the well-made box, noting several clasps meant to secure it for the road without impeding its use. Cleverly done. It was roughly four times the size of her pack inside, being much longer than it was deep or tall, oriented along the length of the wagon. The lid hinged from the bottom of the outward face, so it seemed like she should be able to access it from the ground, from the driver seat, or from the ladder, just behind the driver seat on this side of the wagon. She stuck her pack inside, keeping her satchel to carry a few necessities. “Thank you, Den.” She then pointed to the top of the wagon. “Would you mind if I rode up there, on occasion?”

“Ahh, to give yourself a rest from the saddle?” He smiled, kindly. “Of course!”

Tala scratched the back of her head. “Well, I won’t be riding, so it will mainly be to rest my feet, or just to allow me to change things up.”

Den’s eyes widened, again.

I’m going to stress this man into an early grave.

“No horse? You’re going to walk!” He closed his eyes and muttered something under his breath, clearly not intending Tala to hear. “Never question the decisions or ways of Mages, Den. You know better than this.” He pasted a smile on his face, opening his eyes once more. “I’m sorry, Mistress Tala, of course you can ride whenever you wish.”

Tala sighed. “Den, thank you. I’m not going to be upset if you ask me questions, or don’t obey, or anything like that.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Den seemed to come to a decision, and his smile became more genuine. “In that case, Mistress Tala: Thank you, and welcome.” He extended his hand again, and Tala took it once more.

She left him to finish with the oxen and now that her pack was secured, she felt light and ready to go. She now wore her wide-brimmed hat, taken out of her pack, and she thought she looked rather nice, all things considered. Who knows what a week of trail dust will do, but right now? I’m quite alright.

While the hat mainly protected her from the sun, it also had the benefit of further obscuring her spell-lines. That, along with her gloves and lack of Mage’s robes, caused her to look positively mundane to the casual glance.

In that regard, she realized she had to forgive the guard who walked up to her, hand on his sword. “Miss, this is no place for civilians, unless you’ve purchased a ticket.”

They both knew that all passengers were already in their assigned wagons. Tala smiled and turned to the man. He was a good head taller than her and clad in leather and mail. A round shield hung from his back, and an iron cap sat on his head. He was armed both with a long sword, and what appeared to be a short chopping blade. In addition, she saw loops on his belt for both a quiver and a crossbow to hang, though he wasn’t wearing them at the moment. In that first look, her mage-sight also swept over him and saw through the holes in his mail. He had quite a few old injuries, that seemed to be causing mild discomfort, though she wasn’t sure exactly how she knew that. As a final bit of information, she knew that if she jumped right, he was likely to have a harder time following her than if she moved left, due to something that hadn’t healed quite right in that ankle.

She took all this in in less than a moment, and her smile grew just a hair. She was feeling playful. And why not? I’m supposed to be here. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Miss. That isn’t relevant-”

She pulled off her hat casually and stretched her neck to each side. His hesitation confirmed that he’d been able to see her spell-lines.

The big man, to his credit, immediately changed tack. “Apologies, Mistress. I am Sergeant Holdman, second in command of the third squad for this caravan. Are you, by chance, Mistress Tala, our third Mage?”

Third? Interesting, Renix doesn’t count as a full Mage to mundanes, I suppose. She, herself, wouldn’t have counted, if she’d followed standard practices. “I am Tala, yes.” She extended her hand.

Sergeant Holdman hesitated, just as Den had, but he took her hand and shook it carefully. “A pleasure, Mistress.”

“Please, call me Tala.”

He gave a half bow. “As you wish, Mistress Tala.”

Tala struggled not to roll her eyes.

He glanced over his shoulder. “The Master Sergeant is eager to get us underway. If you would, could you empower our cargo-slots and then join us near the bunk-wagon?”

She pointed before he could. “That one, right?”

“Ummm… Yes.”

“Are you heading there, now?”

“Yes.”

“Then, I will accompany you.”

“Please, if you don’t mind-”

She held up a hand. “I’ve already empowered the cargo-slots, Sergeant. We’re ready.”

He took that in stride, not even glancing towards her charge. “Very well then. After you, ma’am.”

“Tala.”

“After you, Mistress Tala.”

Despite what he said, they walked side-by-side around the kitchen-wagon to the other side, and down the caravan to beside the bunk-wagon, where a group of some eight people waited for them. Five were guards, by their insignia, two were of like rank to Holdman, and three outranked him. The other three were her fellow Mages. Renix is as much a Mage as I. She refused to let that imply her lack.

She was introduced around but decided that she was making people uncomfortable with her handshakes, so she simply nodded at each in turn.

The first to catch her eye and give a shallow nod of greeting was the final Mage, a Material Guide named Atrexia. She specializes in the manipulation of rock, earth, and their derivatives, though she avoids metals. Tala briefly wondered how she would feel to the woman. I hope nothing like sand rubbing against her skin. That would make interacting…difficult.

Trent and Renix greeted Tala with smiles and nods of their own, while the Sergeants and First Sergeants bowed more deeply.

One of those who outranked Holdman was a Master Sergeant, and he oversaw all of the guards for this caravan.

“A pleasure to meet you, Master Sergeant Divner.”

He was the last to be introduced to her, and his bow was the least of those given by the Sergeants. “Mistress Tala. I assume that the cargo-slots are ready to go?”

“They are.”

“Then, we may depart.” After a brief pause, he added. “I trust that you will inform us, if any deviation requires our attention?”

He means with the cargo-slots. “I will keep an eye on them, yes. If I notice anything unusual, I’ll let you know.”

With that, he nodded and turned, calling for the wagons to begin moving.

Four of the Sergeants jogged off to the bunk-wagon, climbing in, while Divner and Holdman moved to direct the drivers and remaining guards.

Renix waved as he turned and climbed on his horse, and so she walked over towards him.

“Hi!”

She smiled at his enthusiasm. “Hello, Renix.”

“Where is your horse?”

“I plan on walking or riding on my wagon.”

That seemed to catch Atrexia’s attention, as she nudged her own horse in their direction. “You are going to walk?”

Tala turned to her and tried to direct her smile up at the woman. “That’s the idea.”

“You will throw off the defensive lines of the caravan. Get in your wagon and stay out of the way.” Atrexia’s eyes swept the caravan, before a frown creased her face. “Where is your wagon?”

“I don’t use one. Or do you mean where will I ride when I do so? That would be the cargo-wagon.”

“You don’t-”

Renix grinned. “Oh! Mistress Tala, will you allow Atrexia to look at you?”

Atrexia turned her eyes on Renix. “You will address me as Mistress Atrexia, mageling, and it is rude to ask that on behalf of another. I’d thought Master Trent would have taught you better.”

Trent, who had just mounted his own horse nearby, laughed. “He’s fine, Mistress Atrexia. Look at the girl.” He glanced at Tala. “Assuming that is acceptable?”

Tala sighed. Might as well. “Fine by me.”

The spell-lines around Atrexia’s face rippled, and her eyes widened in shock. “What-” She cut off as Tala lifted her gaze to meet the older Mage’s.

“I’m certain you are very good at your job, Mistress Atrexia, and I wouldn’t dream of telling you how to do it. I ask for the same courtesy in return. My actions are my own.”

Atrexia visibly swallowed. “You can’t be an arcane, but how…?”

Tala grinned. “I’m a bit odd. Even so, I’m sure we’ll get along swimmingly, if you’re willing.”

Atrexia leaned forward, and by the still pulsing spell-lines across her face, she was attempting to study Tala more closely. “Yes…I’d…I think I would like that.” She nodded, and her spell-lines lost their power. “I apologize for any abruptness. I look forward to speaking with you on this trip.”

Tala smiled and nodded. “That sounds wonderful.”

By that time, the wagons had begun rolling forward at a pace which would have matched Tala’s brisk walk only a week ago, but now seemed quite leisurely to her. The other Mages were mounted and turning their horses in the same direction as the caravan.

Well, we’re off! With no further discussion or thought, Tala set a pace to match the wagons and began walking.

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