Tala smiled and nodded to Den, before dropping down without another word and walking back down the moving caravan, to the chuckwagon.
She knocked on the door and almost immediately Brand ripped it open, eye twitching just slightly. “Yes?”
Tala almost jumped back but prevented herself from doing so. She glanced at the oxen, somewhat close behind her. That would have been unfortunate. “Brand? What’s going on?”
He let out an irritated breath. “Oh, Mistress Tala. Good, you’re here. Please…please step up.”
She stepped up, onto the wagon’s back stair, and looked inside. Within the wagon, Tala saw several other cooks all working feverishly. So, there are more than three cooks this trip. “You look busy.”
He gave her a flat look. “Your suitor has put demands on our time.”
Tala looked at Brand in confusion. “Say again?”
“Your suitor. The boy interested in you. The man who is making my life irritatingly complex with too-reasonable-to-refuse requests.”
She continued to give him a look of non-comprehension.
Brand groaned. “Master Rane, Mistress.”
Tala reddened, though she couldn’t have said if it was with embarrassment or irritation. “He’s not my suitor!”
“Oh? Well, you might want to clarify that then. Most men don’t do this for someone they aren’t interested in.”
She felt herself coloring, again. “What happened?”
“Well, apparently Master Rane got the idea that you were interested in thunder bulls.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, no…” What did he do?
“Oh, yes.” He cocked an eyebrow at her.
She swallowed. “Go on.”
“Well, he took it upon himself to cleanly decapitate a small herd of the bovine: Six, in all.”
“Did we harvest them?” Tala looked around in confusion, seeing if the carcasses might still be within range.
“Oh, don’t you worry, Mistress. He has a dimensional bag sized for, and I quote: ‘Large things I might find useful, later.’ He stuffed them all in that sack and brought them along.” Brand pointed at a clearly inscribed leather duffel bag, resting on one counter within the chuckwagon.
“Why is it here, then?”
“Well.” He gave her an exasperated look. “You were apparently napping and missed his heroics. So, he consulted with Master Trent, and the good Master Trent let the indomitable Master Rane know that you had worked with us to process your previous acquisitions. He came here right away and enlisted us to process the meat: ‘As Mistress Tala has requested in the past.’ ”
“Brand, I’m so sorry. I can pay for the processing…” How much is that going to cost? A moment later, another thought came to her. How much jerky is that going to produce?
Brand waved her away. “He granted us all non-meat parts of the beast as payment.”
She hesitated. Oh…wow. That’s a lot of money… “That sounds wonderful for you. Why are you irritated?” What’s the catch? I should have told him I was interested in all of the bull, not just the meat…But she didn’t really want hand-outs…did she?
He threw up his hands. “Do you know how to process close to five thousand pounds of meat? I can’t let it rot; I can’t turn him down, because you’re right, this is a treasure trove! And there is no way I’m alienating someone so willing to give us harvests.” He gave her a look. “But teach that boy some moderation.”
She cleared her throat. “He said he missed combat and would be happy to get some harvests, if it was convenient.”
“Well, it seems to have rusting been convenient.” He leaned back against the doorframe and sighed wearily. “I’m a miner complaining that the gold seam is too large.”
Tala smiled consolingly, patting him on the arm. “At least we both get a lot from this, yes?”
He eyed her warily. “Why do you think we can process all of this?”
“Aside from your implications?” She gave him a knowing smile. “Because you clearly have some magic augmentations you don’t want to admit to.” She gave a mischievous grin. “I can come into the chuckwagon and-”
“Nope!” He blocked her. “You’re fine out there.”
“You know, I was in there on the trip up, when my arm was broken.”
“And did you think to look around?” He gave her a sly grin.
She hesitated. No, I didn’t…why was that? “Why didn’t I feel any desire to look around the inside of your wagon, Brand?”
“We all have our secrets.”
She pulled out the token for the order of the harvest, but Brand just snorted. “Put that away. I’m under a contract of indenture that bars me from sharing. Take it up with the Culinary Guild.”
“Are they involved in the Order?”
“I cannot discuss that.” But he gave her a rather patronizing look, which made the answer obvious.
“Fair enough. So, when can I expect my jerky?”
He eyed her. “You know, you’re lucky we carry spices in bulk.”
“That doesn’t sound like a timeline.” She spoke with a bit of sing-song playfulness.
He laughed. “It’ll be done by the time we reach Bandfast.” He held up a finger. “Don’t let him bring us anymore. I’d kill myself before turning him down, and it would likely kill us to try to process it all before it goes bad.”
She grinned. “Fair. I’ll let him know.”
She turned to go, but Brand touched her shoulder. “Mistress?”
“In all seriousness, talk to the boy. This is no small thing he’s just done for you, and I don’t want you to be maneuvered into something, because you didn’t consider what was happening.”
She slowly nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”
That burden added, Brand smiled, waved, and closed the door.
Feeling both elated and deeply uncertain, Tala turned back towards the front of the caravan. Great…More to figure out.
* * *
Tala absently flicked a bit of jerky out, away from the caravan, noting how quickly it flickered from existence. I wonder how he does that. Does he transport in and out so quickly? He can’t move things other than himself, else he’d be behaving differently. Can he open portals? That was a bit of a disturbing thought, though she didn’t really know all the ramifications. And, I doubt he can, anyways.
She sighed, shaking her head. No, I watched him flicker away and back to avoid a crossbow bolt. He’s just that fast.
Tala grinned at a sudden realization. My role here is as a dimensional Mage, and I’ve been doing strange exercises and workings all over the place. No one is going to bat an eye, if they notice the dimensional flickers of power.
She tossed another chunk. Interestingly, it arced for longer before vanishing. Didn’t think I’d send another so soon, eh? She felt her burdens lighten, just a bit, as her smile settled in, and she exhaled a quick, relaxing breath. Things are looking up, Tala. Don’t focus on the negative.
That, of course, caused her mind to shift towards the tasks before her, when she got home.
I have to make my first payment towards my debt. They’d let her delay, if she wanted, but it would invoke interest. Thankfully, her debts were such that interest was only added if she skipped a payment. Yup, if I can’t pay my debt, I now owe more! Even so, she was grateful. She knew that many loans accrued interest regardless.
So, the first payment is two gold, and I have another week and a half, give or take, before it is due, or I gain interest. She could pay it now, well, as soon as she got to Bandfast. That would set the start date for her repayment. A minimum of two gold per month for just over twenty years. I’ll be paying it off faster than that.
She owed Holly at least eight ounces, gold, so she’d finish Tala’s inscriptions. With the other items she’d asked Holly to investigate and possibly add on top, not to mention her use of her active magics, she’d be surprised if she didn’t owe at least another three. Probably more…
So, twelve ounces to Holly. I have almost twenty-two ounces, now, and I’ll get another five and a half when we reach Bandfast. Almost twenty-eight ounces, gold. That was a ridiculous amount of wealth, if the world had been as she’d seen it, while still a child.
Not enough. It wasn’t even a tenth of her debt. Come on, Tala. You’re only on your second contract, and you’ve gathered this much? If you keep on at this rate, you’ll have your debts paid off in a year.
That was likely a bit too optimistic, especially with the time she’d need for her body to adjust to the deeper layers of inscriptions. Plus, winter was just around the corner, and that would make contracts take longer, but not really pay more. Plus, the inscriptions themselves need to be refreshed…
Even so, somehow, it almost looked like she might be able to do this in just more than a year. Unbelievable.
Her smile returned. See that, stupid self? Try to depress me, and I find the way through.
She was walking alongside the caravan and almost back to the front wagon. “You’re talking to yourself again, Tala.” She shook her head. “You desperately need some closer traveling companions.”
That brought Rane to mind. Both Brand and Den seem to think he’s trying to court me, or something…
As she neared her wagon, she saw someone standing on top of it. Their eyes met, and Adam waved.
She picked up the pace and caught up quickly, pulling herself up to stand beside him.
“Hello, Mistress Tala. I was afraid that I’d missed you.”
She shook her head. “No, I apologize, Adam. I didn’t know when you’d be free, and I had business to attend to. Ready?”
“Are you sufficiently stretched?”
She sighed. “No, not really…”
“Good enough.” He punched at her.
Surprised, she didn’t have time to think. Even so, the motions that she’d practiced more than four hundred times that day came quickly, though they still felt a bit awkward and her arms were tired.
She blocked, stepping back and to her right, moving herself out of the line of attack even while she moved the line of attack the opposite direction.
Adam’s eyes widened, but he didn’t stop. He swept at her feet.
She stepped back, resisting the urge to attempt hopping over, Adam’s words echoing in her mind. ‘Don’t jump if you don’t have to. Once you go ballistic, you are incredibly easy to predict and attack.’ Adam, apparently, defined going ballistic as any time she was completely airborne.
What followed was a series of attacks that Tala did her best to avoid or block. To her surprise, she succeeded. As it continued, however, she realized that Adam was not going at full speed. Instead, he was moving just fast enough to force her to react as quickly as she was able.
She focused, calling on her mage-sight to give her an edge. He didn’t say no magic, this time.
Immediately, she was able to better anticipate his attacks and tell which of them were feints.
Adam clearly noticed her improvement, because he picked up the pace, though his relaxed demeanor indicated that he was still holding back considerably. Finally, he moved to full speed, or near enough, and quickly overwhelmed her attempts to deflect him, and he drove her to the wagon’s roof with a punishing kick to the inside of her right knee.
As she dropped, he struck her across the left cheek, spinning her away to land, sprawling, on her stomach.
“Good. Great even!”
She could hear the smile in his voice as she spun back around, trying to recover her feet to attack, but the world was not cooperating, and she was having a hard time focusing on him.
She paused, her gaze finally locking onto her target and the world steadying. She was crouched and ready to spring. She fully processed his words, relaxed, and stood.
He was nodding. “You have improved remarkably. I’d not be surprised if you told me you’d been training for a month, if not a little more.” He smiled. “You’d still lose most fights against an untrained man, but we’re working on it. Strength and reach disparities are hard to overcome.”
She grunted. “Both Guardsman Ashin and Mage Rane have offered to spar with me. Do you think that would help?”
Adam seemed to consider. “Ashin, yes. He’s a good lad. Top of his class.” He grinned. “Which is why he’s allowed to be a caravan guard.” The smile faded just a bit. “Rane? I don’t know… I think there’s a good chance of him killing you outright.”
She blinked. “In a sparring match?”
“You missed his little encounter with the thunder bulls.” He shook his head. “I genuinely don’t know which hurt them more, when they managed to strike him, or when he struck back. His magic seems aimed at close-quarters combat, and his sword is perfect for it.”
Sword? I haven’t seen him with a sword. “Is that handle on his belt the sword?”
Adam nodded. “The blade seems to be in a dimensional storage space of some kind. The entire weapon is wooden, but whatever magics it has don’t seem to rely on the material’s properties.” He shrugged. “I’m probably being too paranoid. If he offered to spar with you, he likely has a method of doing so non-lethally. I’ll leave it up to you. Even so, I’d recommend against it, until you have the fundamentals down, else he might influence you in dangerous ways.”
“Would it help?”
“If you aren’t injured or killed, yes. But again, only once you have a solid basis.”
Okay, then. It would be nice to have more ways to improve. “Alright then.”
Adam nodded once. “Let’s review. I want to tweak your techniques a bit. It looks like you’re trying to move like…” He hesitated, frowning. “You are trying to move exactly like me. How are you even doing that?”
She shrugged. “Is ‘how’ really important? Yes, though. I am trying to move like you showed me.”
He shook his head. “No, no, that isn’t right. I think I see the issue, then. Though again, I’ve no idea how you got there. Your body is different, so the techniques need to be altered to accommodate the differences between our shapes, our physiology.”
She nodded, understanding. “Like spell-lines. To get the same result, we need slightly different forms, because of our differing structure.”
“I suppose?” He shrugged. “I’m no Mage.”
“Alright, then. Let’s get to work.”
* * *
Adam stayed past the half hour he’d promised, but not by much. He made sure to go back through each of the techniques he’d taught her and shift them to take advantage of her own shape, her own body, while negating the difficulties of the same.
They said goodbye, and he departed, leaving her to practice, which she did.
She again went through every movement on each side, but now, she did two hundred slow repetitions and only one hundred fast, always in groups of three. Two slow, one fast.
Slow. Slow. Fast.
In that manner, she was able to draw her use of the techniques to match what Adam had changed. She was surprised at how much of a difference it made. The movements quickly went from awkward, hitching movements, to the kinesthetics feeling incredibly natural. He is a talented teacher.
It also thoroughly and utterly exhausted her.
In the end, she lay panting on the roof of the wagon, limbs spread wide, incorporator clutched in her right hand.
She drank whenever she could calm her breathing enough to allow it.
Her clothes had accommodated her elevated activity and temperature by allowing the cool breeze to reach her. It helped.
“Good clothes.” She was not going to name an outfit. That way lies pretension and pomposity.
She was splayed out, head towards the front of the wagon and the ladder, when she heard someone clear their throat.
She moved her hat off of her face and looked up to see Ashin peaking over the edge.
She did her best to spin around, coming up into a seated position facing him. She mostly succeeded. “Guardsman Ashin!”
“May I…come up?”
Den huffed a laugh, but Tala ignored him, and hoped that it had been quiet enough that Ashin hadn’t heard. “Of course. What can I do for you?” Her breathing was basically back to normal.
Ashin came up and sat. “Well, I came by to spar earlier, and you were so focused that you didn’t notice, so I assumed that I shouldn’t disturb you.” He glanced away, seeming a bit embarrassed. “When I came back after that, you were sleeping.”
Tala colored. “Oh! I’m so sorry, Ashin. You were kind enough to offer me help, then I left you unable to give it.”
He smiled hesitantly. “I understand. You’ve a lot going on. Do you still need a sparring partner?”
She opened her mouth to say no, given how worn she felt, but then hesitated. I’ll have to fight tired sometimes… It was possible she was pushing too hard, but she didn’t allow herself to consider that. “Sure!” She stood, only swaying a little with the motion of the wagon.
Ashin gave her a skeptical look. “Are you…sure?”
She nodded, giving him a ‘come at me’ motion with her hands, now raised in a fighting guard. Hey! I didn’t have to remember to do that. They did it on their own. Good hands! She was feeling a bit lightheaded, but it seemed to be passing. “You won’t be able to hurt me, so let me see what you can do.”
Ashin seemed a bit hesitant but shrugged. “If you insist.”
Tala saw his next movements as if in slow motion. He tucked his front leg up and into his own chest, then drove his heel outward. Oh! That’s a sidekick.
To her great surprise, Tala was able to sweep his kick to the side, intercepting and redirecting it. Unfortunately, she wasn’t quite fast or strong enough. His heel struck her in the chest, up near her left shoulder and knocked her backwards…off of the roof.
She squeaked in surprise, even as his eyes went wide in horror.
Ashin lunged forward and caught her flailing hand, arresting her fall. Her heels were still on the roof, though much of her was out over the edge.
How did he move from kicking me to catching me? Despite the question, she didn’t argue, clinging to his hand as he pulled her back.
“Sorry about that. I wasn’t thinking about what might be behind you.” He looked down and away. “That was foolish of me.”
Tala let go of his hand, turning to look at the edge of the roof. She then looked back, meeting the eyes of the driver behind Den’s wagon. He had a look of utter bafflement. He’s had quite the show, today. I’m basically on a stage, in front of him… She hadn’t really considered that either. “Well…Good kick?”
Ashin laughed self-consciously. “That was a pretty good block. If you had allowed your shoulder to move more freely, it would have been perfect.”
“Move my shoulder?”
He nodded. “It’s a hard subtlety to practice, alone. You know how you twist your torso with the block?”
“Yeah, it gives power and strength to it.”
“Well, your torso can be loose before you turn, only tightening for that movement. If you hadn’t been tensing, you’d have just been pushed into a twist, moving out of the way when I hit you. It might have hurt, but it wouldn’t have unbalanced you very much.”
“Huh.” She thought back to how she’d been moving, considering. “I’m holding in the transition positions very stiffly…” It seemed that just knowing how to position herself wasn’t enough. I need all the right muscles tense or relaxed in the right sequence to properly execute the movement. It was a bit daunting.
Ashin smiled. “Honestly, though, that one movement seemed well done.”
She gave him a flat look. “Now, you’re just patronizing me.”
He held up his hands. “Maybe, but I don’t think so.”
She growled irritably. “Fine. Again.” She glanced over the edge. “Maybe no high kicks?”
He laughed. “I did that because it’s slower and easier to block. Never kick above the waist in a real fight.” He hesitated. “Well, unless you have a really, really good reason.”
She shrugged. “Seems fair.” Her guard came up, and she advanced.