Tala stood atop the cargo wagon, the light of early morning making the busy work-yard bright.
Lyn had bid her goodbye before the woman headed to work, herself. Tala had paid her housemate/landlord thirty silver ounces before they’d parted ways: twenty for the next month’s rent and ten for the rug that she’d bled upon.
Rusting expensive rug…
Tala reveled in the autumn air, stretching slowly now that she’d finished charging the last of the fourteen cargo-slots. The passengers and off-duty guards were climbing in through the appropriate doors as she watched from above.
As Master Himmal had promised, the wagon had been adjusted so that her presence on top wasn’t a problem, though her movements did cause the body to sway some.
They even increased the width of the wheels to spread the load better…
True to his word, there were five accessible cargo-slots, boxing in the nine that were loaded down with goods, bound for Makinaven. The one on the back was as she’d seen before, but there were an additional two on each side, mounted to allow the doors to be opened with ease. Each had a short, flexible stepladder hanging down below them to allow for quick entry and exiting.
Despite the cool weather and bits of snow scattered around the work-yard, the dark wood beneath her feet was already beginning to warm in the late autumn sunlight. It was going to be a lovely day.
As she watched the guards entering, she was reminded of how small this trip would be, with regard to required personnel.
Only forty guards, three shifts of ten with ten as backups, would be accompanying them, despite there being more than two hundred passengers. Makinaven, as it turned out, was a popular destination, much more than Alefast, at least for mundanes. And a more dangerous route, especially if they want us to be secure against a full third of our guards being rendered unable to perform their duties.
Three of the outer-accessible cargo-slots had been built out to house the passengers. That was the equivalent of twenty-four mundane wagons worth of space, with the added benefit of having the common spaces combined for a more communal atmosphere and trip, unlike the usual separation between wagons. The passengers were additionally isolated from the movements of the wagons, at large, so the passengers should be very comfortable indeed.
The remaining two accessible cargo-slots were what Tala had expected. One was filled by the guard’s quarters; accommodations for drivers, which was an unusual luxury given most simply slept in or near their driver’s seat in most caravans; and private spaces for the three Mages: Mistress Odera, Rane, and Tala herself. The remaining space in that cargo-slot was taken up with things they might need on the venture, and that could be sold on the other end, if they weren’t needed, to increase the profitability of the trip.
The last accessible cargo-slot was simply a supply storage for the trip itself. With more than two hundred fifty people, they would go through a lot of food and supplies over the next weeks.
Two weeks. The distance between Bandfast and Makinaven was not too different than that between Bandfast and Alefast, but the need to traverse the forest made the estimated travel time much longer. If the forest cooperates, it only takes a week, but some unlucky caravans have taken more than a month. They were prepared, regardless, at least with respect to supplies.
The chuckwagon, the only other wagon on this trip, was in place behind the cargo wagon, and there were no fewer than five cooks already busily working in and around the rig. They also had a dedicated driver, which Tala had been informed was only possible because the drivers were being given accommodations in a cargo-slot.
Tala absently tossed a bit of jerky to the side for Terry, as she watched a servant push the last of the passenger cargo-slot doors closed.
She was suddenly bumped to one side, and she staggered slightly, causing the wagon to rock beneath her.
Tala spun, glaring at the diminutive woman standing behind her. “What.”
“You were ignoring me.”
“How was I to know you were speaking to me?”
“Is there anyone else around?”
Tala narrowed her eyes. “Old crone.”
Mistress Odera grinned back. “Yes?”
Tala threw her hands up. “Fine. What do you want?”
Mistress Odera gestured towards the forty-two indicator symbols, glowing to Tala’s mage-sight through openings in the wagon-top. “It seems that you’ve done your duties as the dimensional Mage. Is that correct?”
“It is.” Tala was hesitant in her answer. Why does that…oh. Rust.
“Good. That means, with those duties accomplished, you are now only a Mage protector until tomorrow morning, and entirely under my authority.”
Yeah… I walked into that one. “So it would seem.”
“Good. I will be atop this wagon for most days of our trip. I would like you to observe from atop the chuckwagon, while Master Rane and the Guardsmen provide encircling defense.” She looked at Terry. “Will you be of help, or do you wish to remain as you are?”
Terry glanced to Tala. She shrugged, and so, he squawked and bobbed. “He’ll help, but-”
Mistress Odera spoke overtop of her. “Good. He can drive back anything that gets too close. You can support him if he chooses to engage something within the outer ring of our defenses, or address any secondary breaches. Questions?”
Mistress Odera smiled. “Ask away.”
“First, is the chuckwagon reinforced for my effective weight?”
Mistress Odera hesitated, then sighed. “I even knew about that ahead of time and failed to account for it.” She shook her head. “Very well. We will both be on this lead wagon. Next question?”
“It seems like you’re preparing us for a lot of attacks. Is this route really so much more dangerous?”
“You’ve only taken the one trip to Alefast and back, correct? Including when not under contract?”
“Yes. This trip will be much more dangerous than that one.”
“Well…alright then.” She lapsed into silence.
After a moment, Mistress Odera cleared her throat. “So?”
“What’s the third question?”
“Oh… I didn’t actually have one.”
“Then, why did you say you had three?”
“Because I had two and figured I would think of a third by the time I got there.”
“But you didn’t.”
“But I didn’t.”
Mistress Odera snorted a laugh. “You’ve had some incredibly nit-picky teachers in your life, haven’t you?”
Tala shrugged. “That’s not entirely true. Most of them were fine, but most also didn’t like me too much.” She sighed. “I now understand that a good part of that was how I acted, and a part was how my iron made them feel while around me.”
Mistress Odera nodded. “I see.”
After another long moment, Tala turned away, looking for where she would sit for the first part of the journey. Then, she hesitated. “Wait. I do have a third question.”
Mistress Odera gave her a look of patient expectancy.
“Did you really forget about my increased weight?”
“By the plan I put forward, it seems that I did.”
Tala narrowed her eyes at the older woman. “You just wanted to see how I would react to you acting in error.”
“That is quite the assumption.”
“How did I do?”
Mistress Odera cocked an eyebrow. “I told you that you could ask three questions, not that I would answer them.” She smiled. “Now, have you seen your quarters, yet?”
Tala frowned. So, you’re going to be like that? She groused a bit, then shook her head. “No, I haven’t.”
“I’d recommend that you do. We aren’t leaving for another half-hour or so.”
“I can see them tonight.”
Mistress Odera gave her a long-suffering look. “Go look at the room, Mistress Tala. Then, come back here, and we’ll go over a few more details.”
Tala gave an exaggerated bow. “As you command.”
Mistress Odera snorted a laugh. “Don’t start something you can’t maintain, girl.” But she was smiling, nonetheless.
Tala didn’t comment as she climbed down, still not sure what to make of the woman, as a whole. Thankfully, the cargo-slot in which she would be sleeping was mounted right beside the ladder.
As she stood on that ladder, it was an easy step over, onto the lip of the entrance. The cargo-slot’s door swung inward smoothly, towards her left, and Tala moved inside, closing the door behind herself.
She was in a common space, extending before her and mainly to the left. Guards were already lounging, reading, or otherwise resting before their shifts began. The space was lit by simple magic constructs, which would function off the ambient magic in the air, even right outside a human city. For the moment, they appeared to have been empowered sufficiently to remain lit until they reached the wilds.
Off to her right, clearly marked doors led to two latrine stalls. Someone had tried to explain to her how the waste was contained, and how it would then be shunted out the door at need, but she hadn’t been interested enough in the topic to pay close attention. Don’t need that anymore, anyways.
She crossed through the common space, stopping just inside a short hall at the first door on the right; it was marked ‘Dimensional Mage.’
She pulled out the key she’d been given and unlocked the door. They built all this in here, in just a couple of days? It was impressive. They’d have to tear it all out before she could allow the devices to power down, too. I hope it’s worth it.
She stepped inside, Terry on her shoulder, and closed the door, locking it behind her.
It was dark, but not pitch black.
A small amount of the light that hit the cargo-slot was distributed into this expanded interior. So, she had enough light to see. Mundanes probably wouldn’t though. That’s probably why the magical lights are in place out in the common space.
There was a bed for her, and a few hooks for her accessories. Simple, and no more than I need.
She carefully lowered herself onto the bed and found that it was able to support her weight. What did they stuff this with?
Despite her weight, it seemed to hold up well under her and was surprisingly comfortable to boot.
As she examined the structure, Terry walked across the bed and squawked in irritation. As small as he currently was, he wasn’t heavy enough for it to be cushioned for him.
Metal. The structure of the bed was metal. It looks like tubing of some kind. Fused at the junctions to make a near-seamless whole. As she moved, it creaked ever so slightly. They even gave it large runners instead of discrete feet to distribute my weight on the floor better.
They really did think of everything. “I’ll pull out my bedroll for you, Terry. You’ll be plenty comfortable.”
That seemed to mollify the avian.
Tala unlocked her door and moved back out into the hall, resecuring it after she was through. She turned around as the door behind her opened.
Rane stepped out. “Mistress Tala, good morning.” He quickly pulled his door closed; not so quickly, however, that she couldn’t see inside.
“Good morning, Master Rane.” His room was easily double hers in size and she saw a servant working away, inside, seemingly doing whatever servants do. He looks familiar… “Is that…Manth?”
Rane smiled happily. “Yes, he was available again, for this trip, so he was assigned to me, once more.”
Rane nodded, turning towards the exit. “Yeah; it’s nice to not have to get to know someone else, or work through the finicky minutia of a new servant.”
Tala walked beside him, giving him an incredulous look.
“Ahh, right…probably not something you’ve ever dealt with.”
“No, I can’t say that I have. When have you?”
“My family had servants, and I interacted with them a lot, growing up. And whenever Grediv had us spend any time in Alefast, he would get a servant to handle the minor details for himself and me.”
“That would have been nice.” Tala groused.
Rane gave her an odd look. “You do know that you could have had a servant, if you’d wanted one.”
Yeah, but… She let out a sigh of defeat. “Fair enough. You’re right, but I think I’m good, as I am.” They pulled the door open, and hopped down, the door swinging shut on its own. Well-designed hinges.
“Have you seen our third? I haven’t had a chance to meet her yet.”
“I have…she’s up on the cargo wagon.”
“And she can hear you perfectly.” The woman’s voice came down to them. “Come on up, Master Rane. The three of us should talk before we get underway.”
* * *
Tala stood at the front of the cargo wagon, eyes scanning the surrounding landscape. Terry was…somewhere, probably having a grand old time, depopulating the local fauna.
Mistress Odera had gotten the caravan into the formation they would hold for the whole trip. Her reasoning had been sound. “Practice when not under pressure.”
As such, the guardsmen were prepared for a vicious defensive battle, which Tala greatly hoped would never come. Three were stationed atop the chuckwagon, their shields mounted in place, crossbows ready to accept whatever specialized bolt was required, and they had a lot. Fastened to the top of the wagon, beside each emplacement, was a segmented quiver holding at least twenty different types of quarrels, four of each.
They had a dimensional chest affixed to the center of the space, which held more of every type, so that they could refresh their stock as needed. That must be expensive to maintain…
Around the two wagons, the seven remaining on-duty guardsmen rode in a loose, ever-shifting formation. Thankfully, each had a very simple set of directions, which, when combined with the other mounted guards’ different instructions, created the defensive pattern. Each rider had what looked to be a bundle of spears, varied similarly to the archers’ ammunition. Each bundle looked to have been designed for quick selection and armament of a mounted rider. Tala knew enough to know that she, herself, would be laughably incompetent if she tried to design such a thing.
Rane rode in slow circuits around their moving wagons, inside the circle of guards.
Tala was tasked with ensuring nothing obvious showed up to threaten them from the front. She wasn’t to engage. Mistress Odera had been explicitly clear on that point; she was simply to inform. At her observation, they had already scared away two groups of thunder bulls that had lingered in their path.
Around her regular sweeps of the rolling plains before them, and the dark line of trees some fifty miles distant, she read one of Holly’s books, trying to deepen her own understanding of physiology, anatomy, and her spell-forms. Every bit of understanding she gained would increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the workings, and that could only profit her in the long run.
If Terry’s frequent, flickering visits were any indication, he was feasting joyfully, his contentment evident every time Tala saw him. Maybe, I should find a way to let him get out more… On the way from Alefast, he’d seemed content to rest near her. That was something he had likely rarely been able to do, if ever. Now, he’s had more than two weeks of rest, and so the hunt is what draws him.
She knew that she sometimes viewed Terry as a pet, no matter how many times he had proven to be more. I need to be treating him like the equal that he is. With a nod to herself, she pulled out a larger than usual piece of jerky and waited.
A moment later, Terry appeared beside her, the size of a large dog. He looked at the jerky in her hand, then up to her face.
She tossed the jerky to him and sat down so that his head was a bit higher than hers. It was actually somewhat intimidating, looking up at the clearly predatory terror bird. She took a deep breath and smiled, speaking softly so even the driver, just a few feet away, wouldn’t hear. “Hey, Terry.”
Terry bobbed, coming a bit closer.
“I want to treat you more like the partner that you are. I don’t want to just have you ‘be around.’ ”
He continued to eye her.
“Can you…let me know, if there’s anything I can do for you, or anything that we can do?”
He tilted his head, first one way then the other. Finally, he bobbed his head.
He moved forward and bumped her head with his. It probably would have bruised her, without her defenses.
Tala grinned and lightly headbutted him back, in turn. “I do like having you around.”
Terry bobbed once more and vanished.
I’ll take that as a good sign. He doesn’t have to cling to my side but still likes to be here.
She returned her attention to her current tasks.
Aside from the thunder bull families, a small flock of burning sparrows had swept their way and had been dispersed with a few well-placed bolts. The effectiveness of the guardsmen’s ammunition kept drawing Tala’s mind to the anti-magic weapons like those quarrels. They are fascinating bits of magic. Armaments that are empowered by their target. Tala shook her head. They wouldn’t work against anyone who had a good handle on their own power…would they?
Tala glanced back towards Mistress Odera. If Tala hadn’t been looking for, and felt, the slight tendrils of magic, stretching from the woman at all times, in all directions, Tala would have thought her asleep and blind to the world.
Clouds had rolled in through the morning as they left Bandfast behind, and a light dusting of snow had already fallen. Because of that, Mistress Odera sat, wrapped in a blanket, seasoned with white. Tala, herself, had pulled on her leather shoes and wide-brimmed hat.
“Are there weapons that work on Archons, like the guards’ munitions affect arcanous beasts?”
Mistress Odera opened her eyes. “Yes and no.” She closed her eyes once more.
Tala shook her head. “Care to elaborate?”
Mistress Odera smiled, keeping her eyes shut. “If you are in control of your own power, it cannot be turned against you, unless wielded by one greater than your control.” Her smile widened. “I, myself, have resisted the influence of beings and Archons classified as Refined.” Her smile faded. “Such control is unusual, however.” Her eyes opened, locking gazes with Tala. “I’ll wager you now have the strength to fight a Fused and hold your own. You’d likely win as often as not, but if it came to a contest of wills?” She shook her head. “You might even fall to another Bound.”
Tala grimaced. “I am working on strengthening my will, my soul.”
“As you should, but you have crippled yourself, as anyone with eyes can see.”
She cocked her head. “How so?”
“You do not face your greatest fear.”
Tala snorted derisively. “I’m not afraid of dying, Mistress Odera.”
Mistress Odera’s eyes opened, seeming to pin Tala in place. “No, Mistress. You are afraid of living.”
Tala rocked backwards in her seated position. What? She opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came to her. Is…is that true?
Mistress Odera’s eyes were already closed, once more, and Tala could see the flow of power pick up around the Mage. If her mage-sight was right, Mistress Odera had expanded her awareness back to nearly a hundred feet out from the wagon in every direction.
Even after four hours, it should have been impressive. But, at the moment, Tala didn’t have the mental space to contemplate that.
Instead, Tala found herself sitting, staring forward. Is she right? Am I afraid to live?