Ventor was called into throne room on a particularly bad morning. One of the serving girls, a freshly hired one, had brought breakfast to his room by mistake. He had stared that the tray of food. The sausages had been fried enough that the skin had cracked, revealing grease and juice inside. There were six small tomatoes that were still on their vine together, and those had been fried as well so they were cooked through. Everywhere his eyes landed there was another marvel, a glob of blackberry jam on top of a piece of buttered toast, a baked roll with soft cheese inside it, a hard-boiled egg decorated with a pinch of salt and pepper, on and on, a full breakfast that his mouth would have watered at even if he hadn’t been without food for six years and three months. He had taken the plate with shaking hands and thanked the serving girl, who hadn’t seemed to realize that anything was wrong. He’d sat in his room with the plate on a desk in front of him, staring at it for a good twenty minutes. He went so far as touching the food, bringing it to his nose to sniff at it. Every other oath Ventor pictured as a chain, but the Oath of Hunger and the Oath of Thirst were like twin animals clawing him hollow from the inside.
Ventor hadn’t broken his oath. He’d come close, trembling with a hot sausage inches from his tongue, but at the last second he’d thrown the plate out his window instead. He had cried, but it wasn’t the first time that the twin oaths had done that to him. He had been careful not to let his tears fall into his mouth.
By the time a messenger had come to fetch him, Ventor had pulled himself back together. There was usually a deep catharsis in coming upon a temptation and resisting it, but six years had weakened the thrill of conquest that he’d once felt at keeping the animal oaths at bay. Ventor was coming to wonder how many years he had left in him. Delland had lasted sixty years in the Strangheid. Ventor couldn’t imagine himself enduring for that amount of time, if he managed to survive the trials and tribulations of hunting witches and wizards for the king.
The throne room was bedlam when Ventor entered. There were a dozen other oathkeepers, nearly all that were stationed in the castle, even those that should have been sleeping. When Ventor entered, they looked to him as though he would know what to do, even though he’d never led anyone in his life. The Strangheid had a special power among the oathkeepers; it was a symbol of everlasting devotion and sacrifice. It didn’t matter at all that Ventor had come within a bare inch of breaking his oath.
“My daughter went to her room at the usual time last night,” said King Aldric. His voice cut through the chatter, stilling the sages in mid-sentence. His gaze was firmly on Ventor. “This morning, her handmaiden came to her room to wake her for the day. The door to the bedroom was locked, which was not terribly unusual. It wasn’t until well after breakfast that more insistent efforts were made to bring the princess from her slumber. A key was found and used to open her bed chambers after giving her plenty of warning. When the door was opened, she was not there; her perfectly made bed had a note on it. That note claimed that she decided to go west, in order to commune with Lantis, the spirit of the Berrung Mountains. When my son was informed of this, he revealed that Princess Sofia had spoken with him some days prior about what conditions in the Silent Desert were like. It is Prince Rowan’s contention that the note was a false trail laid for us to deflect our attentions. He believes that Sofia’s target is not Lantis, but Pothis instead. The princess is, at most, twelve hours away from Marurbo at this moment. If you are in this room, then you are privileged in knowing the prophecy that came before my daughter’s birth. We must now behave as though the prophecy is nigh and the kingdom itself is in utmost danger.”
Ventor nodded to his king. An order was going to come soon and the Oath of Fealty would become his guide once more. “I will do whatever it takes to see her returned,” said Ventor.
“The sages must think on the matter,” said King Aldric. “Be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”
With that the room became lively once more. Ventor stood with the other oathkeepers as the sages spoke with each other. He had questions, like how such an escape could even happen given that she was under guard by two oathkeepers throughout the night, but he didn’t suppose that his questions would do much more than distract from the issue at hand, which was getting the princess back. The other oathkeepers looked uncomfortable; this was, in part, their failure.
“We can split our resources between east and west,” said one of the sages.
“Those aren’t the only two options,” said another sage. “If the princess has left one false trail, it is possible that she’s more than one. She might have gone north, or boarded a ship going south. It’s possible that she’s staying in the city and not traveling anywhere at all.”
“So we cannot know where she is going,” said the first sage, “Which would mean that we should use some method to cover as much ground as possible in all directions.”
“Nonsense,” replied a sage with a thick black beard. “We are not dealing with fair dice. We must gather all the information that we know about how the princess thinks and make a distribution of probabilities, then spend our resources in such a way that we expect the highest possible return.”
The conversation continued on in this vein for quite a long time. Ventor chafed at it, but there was little to be done about it. The sages would do their thinking and the king would make the ultimate decision, but until that time, Ventor would await his orders. The other oathkeepers had preparations to make so that they could be ready for an extended journey, but Ventor never removed his armor and carried his sword with him everywhere he went. He had no need to stock up on food or carry skins of water. His station of authority meant that he had no need for money either. He had no friends to say goodbye to and no obligations that he would be leaving on the floor.
The sages eventually came up with a plan for sending the oathkeepers along all the major roads away from Marurbo, stopping in every town along the way in order to enlist the help of the locals. Given their travel speeds, the oathkeepers could ensure that the entire kingdom would know that the princess was missing within the week. With a sizable reward on offer, everyone would be looking for her. It would be a scandal for the king, but he had waved that concern aside as though it were nothing.
Ventor was the last of the oathkeepers to be given an assignment. When it came his turn, the king had the sages and the prince leave the room as well. Ventor could feel nervous anticipation at the thought of what was coming. There was something that the king wanted done, something that required secrecy.
“By the power of your oath to me,” said King Aldric. “I command you to travel to the orphanage at Leshampur with all due haste and seek the savior promised by prophecy. If you find my daughter while trying to find the savior, I command you to bring her back to the castle with all due haste, whether my daughter wishes to return or not. If those two commands conflict, the second command takes precedence over the first.”
“I understand, my king,” said Ventor. The Oath of Fealty was a thin golden chain, stretched out behind Ventor and pulling him backward almost immediately. “I shall leave at once and not return until my task has been completed.” Ventor turned and walked away without listening for an answer. It was rude, but his oath did not care about such things. Ventor was on the hunt again.
Saying goodbye to Ulf had been the hardest part. He had understood that she was leaving the castle, and seemed to know that this was necessary, but he wasn’t happy about it. Sofia had met dozens of spirits, but Ulf was the one she had the strongest connection to. He was also the one that she knew best. He would miss her, and she would miss him. When he dropped her on the bridge, she gave him a tight hug that squeezed the pieces of porcelain together, then kissed him on the curved white and blue shard that made up his forehead. Then she was off, without a second look backward.
Sofia had waited until the night of the full moon, which made walking in the dark easier. Once she was past the Grunwich Tower that marked the border between Marurbo and the farmlands, she ducked into a copse of trees in order to complete her disguise. Her ringlets of red hair hung down to the small of her back when they were loose, which was too distinctive if she wasn’t wearing a hood. She gathered her hair up at the back of her head and used a sharp knife she’d taken from the kitchen to slice through it all. After that she pulled out a bottle of dye she’d taken from the royal alchemist and began rubbing it into her hair. Once she was done, she washed up in a nearby stream and looked at the results in a hand mirror, trying her best to reflect the moonlight so she could get a look at herself. She looked like a different person, less royal than before. Her skin was more fair than she would expect from a girl who had worked as a washerwoman or a maid, and her fingers were clean and slender, but the resemblance was close enough. She had stories ready for those who would question her.
Sofia was past the point of no return. If all went well, no one would know that she was gone for hours, by which time she would be twenty or thirty miles from Marurbo. She would take the back roads and take advantage of the kindness of out-of-the-way strangers. The oathkeepers would be looking for her, and they would move quickly, but they had a wide area to search. The first days would be the most difficult, but after those had passed, it would simply be a matter of keeping her head down and traveling as swiftly as possible. It would take two months to get to the Citadel, where Sofia hoped she would meet her mother.
“Sacrifice, ritual, intention,” said Omarr. “Those are the three components to dark magic. It’s only the first that makes it dark though; the intention might be good or bad, and the ritual is usually nonsense meant to signal the spirit, but it’s the sacrifice that makes people shiver, and sometimes that’s even for good reason.”
Henry sat on the soft grass outside the cottage as his father lectured. Sometimes the lesson of the day involved practical matters of dark magic, like how to properly draw geometric shapes for a ritual or how to distinguish diopside from augite. Dark magic required a frighteningly large amount of knowledge about the natural world because the ritual ingredients and materials meant for sacrifice were often quite specific. Henry felt fortunate that his mentalist training had given him effectively perfect memory, which meant that he could easily pass any knowledge drill that his father gave him. Omarr had given up on those two years prior, in favor of teaching Henry processes and theory that mere memory didn’t help with.
Today, the lesson seemed to be about people.
“Sacrifice can be usefully divided into those which are permanent and those which are not.” He held up his left hand, where two fingers were missing. “The reticence is understandable for those things which you can’t get back. But for blood? Hair? Nails? The magic is weaker, but the magic can be used time and again. A strand of hair and a drop of spit can create a simple ward that will ensure a door stays shut for quite some time. A vial of blood can grant a few minutes of wicked claws for fighting, or six hours of night vision, or a few dozen other things. Even among those sacrifices that require a limited resource, there are those which no person should object to. Your father and I have saved all of your baby teeth for use in any ritual that might require them. And of course even with something so extreme as taking a life, there are sometimes ways of minimizing the cost. So the question then becomes, why are there such extreme prohibitions in place?”
Henry shrugged. The question was obviously rhetorical and he didn’t imagine that his father would enjoy a proper debate on the subject.
“People are stupid,” said Omarr. Henry frowned. “They’re irrational. Boys hear from their fathers that dark magic is bad, then when they get older they tell their sons the same thing. People associate blood with injury, so they see any use of blood as something to be squeamish about. I know you don’t like to hear it, but if you mean to practice dark magic in Donkerk, you need to know that people are stupid.”
“I don’t think people are stupid,” said Henry. He rested his hands on his knees. “I don’t think the sisters are stupid. And I’ve talked to enough people in Leshampur to know that they’re more or less like you and I.”
“You haven’t talked to any of them about dark magic though, have you?” asked Omarr.
Henry shook his head. “You impressed upon me that this would be a bad thing.” That was an understatement. He had so many memories of being lectured on the bad things that would happen if he let the truth slip that they all blurred together.
“Good. Let’s say that something bad happens once you leave here. A man’s leg breaks while you’re traveling with a caravan, for example. The wound gets badly infected and the man is going to die. You have your baby teeth among your effects and without considering it too much, you perform the ritual to cure him of his sickness and restore him to health. Now, if people were smart, you wold expect that the man would be grateful, and since the only sacrifice was something that you unambiguously owned, there would be no cause for anyone to be alarmed. Yet the result is likely that you would be attacked or turned in to the oathkeepers.”
“That doesn’t make them stupid,” said Henry. “They could be acting in their own self interest. A man might be grateful that I saved his life, but if I was revealed as a dark wizard in a more public way then he might get in trouble by not having turned me in. That would make him selfish or cautious, not stupid.”
“You’re being charitable,” grumbled Omarr. “I sometimes fear that your father and I have done too much to shield you from the harsh realities of the world. You have never watched a man die while knowing you could save him. You’ve never seen the inside of a hospital that sits a mile from an abattoir where unused blood flows into the sewers, wasted. There are cemeteries where bones, skin, hair, and flesh all lay unused, rotting into the ground for no discernible reason.”
“I know all that,” said Henry. “I haven’t experienced it like you have, and I won’t until I make my own way through the world, but I do know it. That doesn’t mean that people are stupid.”
“Stupid was the wrong word,” called Hirrush. He walked toward them from the cottage. Henry hadn’t know that his other father was listening in, but it didn’t surprise him. “Irrational was right, but it doesn’t fully contain the disdain that your father feels, so he uses stupid instead.” Hirrush nodded to Omarr. “Your father and I have seen enough of the world to know that most people are incurably irrational. I have seen men die, knowing that I could save them at the cost of revealing myself as a dark wizard. I have revealed myself as a dark wizard and had my services refused by dying men. One on occasion I continued on anyway, trying to prepare the necessary ritual, but the man fought against me, smearing the lines I was drawing in the dirt even as he was bleeding to death.”
“He might not have understood,” said Henry quietly. “He might have thought that you were trying to kill him, not rescue him.”
“You normally have a strong sense of empathy,” said Hirrush. “It’s failing you now though. Someone with access to all the same information you have, someone who has read all the same books, who knows all the same arguments, might still disagree with you. I won’t claim that I know what was going through that man’s head as I tried and failed to save his life, but to say that he would have allowed me to do what needed to be done if only we had time to have a civilized chat is simply wrong.”
“I think I understand,” said Henry. “But you’re arguing two different things then. One, people are irrational and do things that directly contradict what their own interests and values might be. Two, people are different in some core way that isn’t reducible to just the facts at hand. So there’s a disorder to the mind which makes dark magic dangerous around them, but even without that disorder it might still be dangerous.”
“I know you won’t be home for much longer,” said Omarr. “Working at the orphanage was just your first step toward finding your own way through life and I don’t have any illusions about this cottage being able to hold your attention for long.”
“It’s not that,” began Henry.
“We’re not offended,” said Hirrush. “What your father is trying to get across is that people are dangerous, even beyond mere abilities. If you’ve got any ambitions at all, you’re going to run up against other people, those who are irrational or those who are rational with their own goals that differ from your own. Worse, you’re going to encounter systems of people that don’t really exist for any reason that anyone understands and which no one individual is capable of changing.”
“We’re worried you’re going to try too much,” said Omarr. “We’ve equipped you as best we can, you’re more skilled as a mentalist than your father was at your age —”
“Don’t give the boy an ego,” said Hirrush.
“— and all you’re really missing is an oath if you wanted to have the trifecta of power. You’re strong, Henry, and you’re going to get stronger as the years go by, but there are still challenges that are beyond you. Call people stupid, or irrational, or say that they’re just aligned along a different axis than you, but understand that it’s you against the world. The injustices that you find, the ones that you’re going to be compelled to fix, those are the ones that have been most resistant to fixing. There are problems with experience, ones that are intractable. Don’t throw yourself against the rocks.”
Henry frowned and looked very solemn. He stared at the ground in front of him as his fathers shared a look. “I think a reasonable person can see the horror of the world and shirk back from it. I think you can throw up your hands and say that the way things are is how they’ll always be, that the problems we see, or at least the big ones, are still around because they’re just so frighteningly difficult. You can be reasonable and intelligent, and you can still think those things.” Henry looked up and met his fathers’ gaze. “If you’re telling me not to try changing the world, then I can’t promise that. I’ll be careful. I’ll be clever. But once I’ve tracked down my parents and talked to Sofia, I’m going to find those big, intractable problems and work on the solutions.”
Henry stood up and walked away, across the pasture with the grazing goats and toward the road. He had no firm destination in mind, but the conversation was over. His fathers had tried to warn him about a certain type of people without really thinking about the fact that they might be the sort of person they were warning about. He could count on one hand the number of times his fathers had done something that wasn’t for themselves or for him. He was grateful for the life they’d provided him, and for the skills and training they’d given him, but he wasn’t planning on leaving just because of wanderlust or the need to make his own way in life. His fathers, unfortunately, were wrong.
Ventor knocked twice on the door to the orphanage. Though Leshampur had seen some changes in the sixteen years since he’d come through, the orphanage looked the same as it ever did. He was certain that it had experienced some wear in that time, but his memories weren’t sharp enough that he could compare the thick oak door to how it had been. If anything it was in better repair than it had been. The orphanage had been standing for a hundred years, replacing wood when there was rot and taking on a fresh coat of paint every decade or so. It was reassuring to think that in a hundred years, the orphanage would probably still be standing, in more or less the form it took now.
A young girl of not much more than twenty swept open the door. She wore the wimple and a powder blue dress that draped to the floor, which marked her as a member of the Foresworn Sisters, but the youth of her face betrayed her as very much a junior member of her order. She was pretty, in the way that young women often are, and Ventor felt a slight tug at his Oath of Chastity, which he imagined as a silver chain about his neck. She looked him up and down, and her eyes widened with every inch they traveled.
“Is Sister Clarice available?” asked Ventor. “It’s quite urgent.”
“She’s not here,” said the sister. She had no Oath of Silence then, which was something of a relief. More than that, she seemed to recover quickly from having taken in his imposing figure, which was another point in her favor. In his hunting of witches and dark wizards, Ventor had come to know the value of someone who could resist being tripped up by the unexpected. “She left the order three years ago. Is there perhaps something that I can help you with?”
Ventor felt a tightness in his chest. The image of Clarice laying naked in the moonlight floated unbidden through his mind, a memory sixteen years old but no less vivid for the passage of time. “She is Fallen,” said Ventor. “She betrayed her oaths.”
“Who did you say you were?” asked the sister. “I am Sister Miriam and if there was something that Clarice could have helped you with, perhaps I can help in her stead.”
“I am Rector Ventor,” said Ventor. He straightened his back and gestured to his chest. “I bear the Strangheid, which does not permit insignia, but I am a member of the High Rectory. I can demonstrate my oaths, if you require such.”
Miriam seemed to relax. “That won’t be necessary,” she replied. “Especially given my induction was so recent I cannot respond in kind. Yet you still haven’t told me what it is you wished from Clarice.”
“A child was stolen from this orphanage sixteen years ago,” said Ventor. “I came here then and attempted to find whoever had stolen the child, but to no avail. Now desperation requires the search to begin again. Sister Clarice was instrumental in providing me with assistance last time and I had hoped that she would be able to do so again. If she is fallen, she is worthless for this endeavor and you will have to serve as my liaison during my time in Leshampur.”
Miriam’s eyes widened. “Oh, you’re that Ventor, I had been given some background but only one of the others sisters has speech. I’ll prepare a room for you right away and of course answer any questions that you might have. In the meantime, if you’d like to remove your armor and get more comfortable, I’ll inform the others that you’re here.”
“I do not remove the armor,” said Ventor. He felt himself stiffening and tried to relax. Just as the serving girl hadn’t meant offense by giving him breakfast, this sister did not understand the pain that she caused. “I do not eat or drink either, and I have taken the Fifth Elevation of the Oath of Chastity. Please make no further offers.”
Miriam gave him a curt nod. “Henry,” she called with a look over her shoulder. “I know you’ve been eavesdropping, make yourself useful and take the rector to the receiving room.”
A small blonde boy, too old to be under the orphanage’s care, stepped out from behind a doorway and gave the sister a bow. “If you’ll follow me?” he asked.
“You could apologize for listening in,” said Miriam.
“Curiosity is nothing to apologize for,” replied the boy with a grin. “I try not to apologize if I don’t mean it.”
Miriam gave a harrumph, but went off her own direction.
“You’re not an orphan,” said Ventor as he followed behind the boy. The king’s wording, ‘all due haste’, echoed in his mind. There were other wordings that the king could have used, ones which would have bound Ventor more tightly, but ‘all due haste’ gave some leeway for Ventor to decide how much haste was due, so long as Ventor was doing his best to move forward. “If you were an orphan, you would have been sent to the rectors years ago. Why are you here?”
“I’m useful,” said Henry. “I fix things that are broken, clean things that are dirty, help out with the children from time to time if there’s a crisis, run errands that the sisters are too busy for, speak for the sisters that have taken oaths of silence, and generally help things run smoothly.”
“How old are you?” asked Ventor.
The boy opened the door to a room and paused slightly to take in Ventor’s armor. “Sixteen,” he replied. “If you need anything at all, let me know. This is the room that they use for talking to prospective parents, or for other business that requires some privacy. I can bring you a pen, ink, and paper if you’d like. You’re going to be looking for a child?”
“A boy,” said Ventor. “Your age, in fact.” His eyes narrowed, but the boy looked at him with simple curiosity. “Who are your parents?”
“My father is Omarr, a farmer some ways outside of town,” said Henry. “My mother, Patrice, died when I was six years old. I don’t really remember her though. If you’d like, I can help to round up some of the children my age. The sisters stay at the orphanage, for the most part, but I know plenty of people around Leshampur. It wouldn’t hurt to sweeten the pot if you wanted to bring people in, some torts or trifles for those who aren’t moved by civic duty.”
Ventor pursed his lips. He didn’t honestly believe that he could be so lucky as to find the prophesied savior sitting inside the orphanage he’d been stolen from sixteen years ago. Besides, he had an immediate feel for the boy as something of a scoundrel. Ventor had started his life as a miscreant and knew how a young boy with loose morals might weasel his way into the employ of those who didn’t truly need him. On top of whatever they were paying him, Henry likely took his own cut when he went to buy things for the sisters. Once he had inserted himself into the middle, he could skim his own portion from the top.
“Your service would be appreciated,” Ventor said to the boy. “In the meantime, I will need the pen and paper that you mentioned. There is much work to be done here if I might hope for this investigation to bear fruit.”
Sofia had been surprised by the number of spirits she encountered on her journey north. House spirits, like Ulf, were supposed to be found in one in every thousand buildings. Nature spirits were more common, but also more rarely seen, simply because there was so much more to nature. If a lake had a spirit which had taken physical form, fishermen might row their boats across the placid water for decades without ever catching sight of it. Houses and structures were also inherently centered around humans, so of course house spirits would have an interest in people. Not so the nature spirits, who mostly didn’t care about people so long as there was some measure of respect involved. Seeing a nature spirit was supposed to be something transcendental and unique, the kind of experience that a person got once or twice in a lifetime. Occasionally people developed a relationship with a nature spirit; a hunter might see the same spirit a number of times and take it as an omen for good or ill, or a prospector might spend a few days walking side by side with the spirit of the claim he’d staked. That was supposed to be even more rare though. Those were stories that made their way into books as exceptions to the rules that governed spirits.
Sofia saw three nature spirits in her first day on the road. The first was a squirrel with bright colors in its fur and eyebrows so large that they looked almost like wings. It had leapt from tree to tree, following her at a distance but making a fair bit of noise, until finally Sofia turned around and curtsied to it, which either scared it away or let it know that she was no threat. The second was a large bird, which flew at a sedate pace such that it cast a continual shadow over her and spared her the harshness of the sun. Once she was done walking through the wide field, the bird was nowhere to be seen. The last had been a creature that was something like a turtle, with a shell made of bark that twisted up in an improbable corkscrew on its back. It drank from the river while she refilled her waterskin and because it ignored her, she did it the courtesy of ignoring it in turn.
There was something special about Sofia, some connection to the spirit world that no one else had. House spirits were supposed to be one in a thousand, but they’d been one in a hundred instead, maybe even more. Nature spirits were supposed to be rare and reclusive, but she’d seen three in the course of a single day. Had those spirits been there all along and only been more eager to see her than they ought to have been? Or had they come from the spiritual realm to the physical realm just because of her presence? It was said that everything had a spirit, from the smallest rock to the largest mountain, but most of the time the spirits simply stayed in their own plane of existence that laid next to the real world like a sheet of paper. Sofia had no idea how anyone could have tested that, so took the idea with a grain of salt.
At mid-day she took a nap on top of a large, flat rock. When she woke up, she ate meat and cheese from her pack for supper and continued on. She was traveling light, with only a single change of clothing and enough food to last her for two days, along with enough money that she could buy whatever it was she needed along the way. Stopping in towns was dangerous, because that was where she was most likely to encounter someone looking for her, but it was a necessary part of the plan if she hoped to make it to the Citadel in a reasonable amount of time.
Her first proper stop was on her second day, when she walked into the small town of Gull’s Hollow. There was only a single tavern, but they offered a pot of beef and rutabaga stew that was a welcome change from the meats and cheeses that Sofia had been eating from her pack.
“Traveling alone?” asked the innkeeper.
“Unfortunately,” replied Sofia. “My uncle is a sage and sent me off by myself to gather some information on plants and animals.”
The innkeeper nodded. “Well, you be careful. There’s doings afoot. Heard from a friend this morning that they saw an oathkeeper running at full tilt, fast enough to kick up a trail of dust. That’s a bad omen if ever there was one.”
“I’ll keep a look out,” replied Sofia. She felt bad that her father was worrying about her, but between the note and Rowan’s story, he shouldn’t have been so concerned. She was grown; her father should have known that she could take care of herself.
The real test would come when she came across someone who was on the lookout for her, but that would thankfully wait for another day. Her disguise seemed adequate at least, and she had a dozen stories ready to go in case anyone asked about who she was, some of which she had the props to back up, but if she was caught she had no real illusions about being able to escape.
On the third day she came across the Trenten Wood, a long stretch of forest that hugged the River Lenten for a hundred miles. The terrain alongside the river was rocky, which meant that the paths weren’t suitable for trade, especially given the much easier travel that was available by boat. Sofia had decided ahead of time that she would take the more difficult roads though, in part because she wanted to limit her exposure to people as much as was practical. The oathkeepers would hopefully avoid the Trenten Wood in favor of stopping at the settlements that flanked it, which meant that the only real risk she ran would be at the various landings where roads wound themselves through the thick canopy cover and away toward the towns outside the forest.
Sofia was only an hour into the Trenten Wood when she felt something watching her. She continued on for a few paces before turning to look at it; what she saw was a large bear the size of a carriage. Dotted all through its fur were small, purple flowers, and its eyes were that same color as well. Sofia had no doubt that she was looking at the spirit of the Trenten Wood. She had almost expected to see it, given the experiences of the past few days, but she hadn’t thought that it would be so large. When it caught her eye, it rose up on its hind legs and let out a loud road that shook pine needles down all around them. Sofia wanted to scream, or to run, but neither of those would have done her any good, so instead she simply watched the spirit and prepared a speech.
“They talk about you,” said Sofia. “People have tried to settle the Trenten Wood since Donkerk was just an outpost, but you always get in the way.” She stared right into the bear spirit’s eyes as it trundled towards her. “It’s not in the history books, but I think they must have tried to kill you, maybe a few times, and you always came back stronger and meaner for it.” The spirit stopped a few feet from her, sniffing the air. Still Sofia didn’t move. “I don’t think you’re bad. I think you know that given the choice, people would cut down the trees for lumber and plant their crops on the cleared land. If they did that enough, there wouldn’t be a Trenten Wood anymore. You’re just defending yourself from people who haven’t learned to live in harmony with the land, people who think they know better.”
The spirit tilted its head to the side and looked at Sofia.
“You never give problems to people who are just passing through,” said Sofia. “So I hope you’ll treat me just the same as them. We’ve stopped encroaching on the Trenten Wood because you used force against us, but I think we both wish that it hadn’t come to that.” She held a hand forward, palm up. “I can’t speak for all people, but I’m not going to do anything to hurt you. Deal?”
The spirit moved forward and nudged her hand with a surprisingly warm nose.
“Good,” said Sofia. She let out a sigh of relief. “You can keep me company while I walk, if you’d like.”
She turned to move, putting the massive spirit behind her, but the moment she did, she felt herself yanked backward. She almost lost the grip on her pack when she landed in a thick expanse of fur, but she closed her eyes tight and held on to her belongings with one hand while the other dug deep to grab a handful of the spirit’s shaggy fur. After nothing more happened, Sofia righted herself and looked around; she was sitting on top of the spirit, right in the small of its back. When she had situated herself a little bit better, the spirit began to move, trundling forward through a forest that seemed to move out of its way.
Sofia leaned down and hugged the spirit close.
“Thank you,” she breathed. “When I get home, I promise I’ll try my best to make sure you don’t have to hurt anyone again.”
Henry spent an inordinate amount of time at the orphanage. Ventor’s arrival was a truly frightening thing; it threw everything into jeopardy. Omarr and Hirrush were both in danger, as was Adrianna, not to mention Henry himself. He wasn’t sure what the oathkeeper wanted with the missing child, but it clearly had something to do with the prophecy. Why this was being dug into now, sixteen years after the fact, was a question that Henry kept coming back to. Something must have changed.
“I could dip into his head,” said Henry on the first night. “He’s dangerous, I need to know what he knows. With the speed that I can chew through memories, if I worked through the night it wouldn’t take me longer than a day to find a recent memory and from there I might be able to work backwards in order to get at the instructions that were given to him, or the text of the prophecy itself.”
“He’s important,” said Hirrush. “The armor he wears is magical. You said the sword seemed to be too. That means he’s not just any oathkeeper, he’s one with a high rank and strong oaths, a one-man army. Most probably, his orders come from the king himself. That means that the royal mentalist will have planted a seed in the man’s head, which in turn means that any attempt to breach his mind will be met with lethal force. You can’t attempt it, not safely.”
“If we breached together?” asked Henry.
“I’m rusty,” said Hirrush. “Perhaps if we worked the job together, we’d stand a chance, but it would leave me crippled for days afterward. I wouldn’t mind killing an oathkeeper, it’s just a question of whether conventional means are better.”
“I don’t want to kill him,” said Henry.
“He wants to kill us,” said Omarr. “He’s the same man who came here sixteen years ago. He killed a few hedge wizards then and did it with a ruthless efficiency. You said he doesn’t eat or drink? There are bound to be some powerful oaths there. It’s even possible we’re dealing with the most powerful oathkeeper in all of Donkerk.”
“I still don’t want to kill him,” said Henry.
“I don’t either, for what that’s worth,” said Adrianna. The witch had been brought in for an emergency council. She was the most at risk out of all of them, owing to the fact that she had been practicing in a semi-public manner for quite a long time. Her patrons were numerous; any of them could turn her in. Worse, she had met Ventor before and there was a good chance he would remember her.
“It’s not a matter of voting,” said Hirrush. “It’s a matter of whether we’d even be capable of it.”
“We should start preparing for a rapid exit,” said Omarr. He looked down at his left hand, where he was already missing two of his fingers. “We’ll do the ritual ahead of time and be ready to enact it at a moment’s notice.”
“And leave all this behind?” asked Hirrush. “The books alone are worth a considerable fortune. All our implements, the onyx altar … it’s our home, Omarr.”
“Home is meaningless if we’re dead,” replied Omarr. “I have two caches set up, one in Marurbo and the other in Nalian. We can go to either, but we should decide now. Once we’re prepared to leave, then we can think of killing the oathkeeper.” He saw Henry’s look. “Or not killing the oathkeeper and trying to stick this one out anyway.”
“I passed his first inspection,” said Henry. “If I stay close to him, I can have some control of where he decides to look. He’s been sent on a fool’s errand anyway. If he was sent by the king, the king is acting in desperation. And in the worst case scenario … I can hand myself in.”
“Don’t be daft,” said Omarr.
“We don’t know what the prophecy says,” replied Henry. “Maybe the king wants me dead, but we can’t be sure. Maybe I’m supposed to be his adviser.”
“That’s precisely why it’s too dangerous,” said Hirrush. “It’s uncertain. There’s high variance.”
Henry rubbed his forehead. The only upside was that they were listening to him and arguing the point instead of simply trying to dictate the next move or cutting him out of the conversation entirely. “Ventor doesn’t know I’m the one that he’s looking for. If I leave suddenly, the sisters will notice, which will draw Ventor’s attention. If we’re going to evacuate to one of the boltholes, we need to make some excuse that explains where I went, unless we want Ventor on the scent. He’s under the Oath of Fealty, which means that he’ll be tenacious. He’ll have to be, or he’d lose all that power he worked so hard to gain.”
Omarr swore. “You’re right. You’re a known quantity. If you disappear, Ventor would come by the cottage, where he’d find dozens of major wards and a whole library full of books, any one of which is a hanging crime to own.”
“You could tear up the wards and burn the cottage as you leave,” said Adrianna. “But … that would be suspicious as well, if there weren’t bodies to find in the fire.”
“I have a ritual for that,” said Hirrush. “One to reshape the bones of a cow. We could stage a house fire.”
“That’s drastic,” said Henry. “And I think a fire is suspicious either way. Let me get in some time by Ventor’s side. I can help guide his investigation. I can keep him from thinking that I’m who he wants. Maybe I can find out what he wants from me.”
“That’s very courageous of you,” said Omarr with a frown. “Exactly the sort of thing that your father and I are worried about.”
Yet the next morning, they let him go. Henry’s fathers were making preparations in a number of ways, so that they might slip away without leaving behind a trace, and so that if worse came to worst they would be able to open up with all the firepower available to them. Adrianna was understandably reluctant to come with them, but her life was in danger far more than theirs was. For his part, Henry tried to pretend that everything could stay the same in the wake of the oathkeeper’s arrival. So long as the future didn’t hold too many more surprises, maybe that was possible.
The spirit of the Trenten Wood took Sofia on a circuitous path through his domain. She had thought that the Trenten Wood was mostly the same, simply trees clustered around the Lenten River and its tributaries, but the spirit was eager to show her that she was wrong. He took her to a small clearing that held a gentle lake, walked beside her as they came across a family of deer, and gave a happy roar when they found a blackberry bush for her to eat from. There were many rocks that jutted up from within the thick, loamy earth of the forest, and there were places where the trees were nearly overtaken by brush. Sofia slept huddled against his massive form, luxuriating in the heat that he gave off. She tried to track their location by the sun, but after the second day she was throughly lost and couldn’t tell whether they were making progress north at all. Ulf had been possessive in the same way, leaving her side only rarely. Sofia began to worry that their tour of the Lenten Wood wasn’t taking her north at all, but just as she was trying to figure out how to communicate her will to the spirit, they broke through a line of trees, beyond which was a large town.
“Leshampur,” said Sofia. “So you did know. What’s more, I think you’ve saved me quite a few days of travel and some awfully sore legs at that.” She climbed down off the spirit and looked at the buildings arrayed before her. Leshampur was the last port of trade along the Lenten, before it became unsuitable for travel by boat.
The spirit of the Trenten Wood turned its head around and buried its muzzle in its fur. When it turned back around, it had one of the small purple flowers that adorned its back clutched gently in its teeth. He prodded Sofia with his nose, just once, then held the flower toward her. She plucked it from his teeth and tucked it behind her ear, then wrapped him in as much of a hug as she could, which wasn’t very much given his size.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “You were a good help, and I enjoyed seeing your forest.”
When she pulled back, the spirit cocked its head to the side.
“I remember what we talked about,” said Sofia. “I’ll talk to my father when I get back and I’ll make sure that we come to an arrangement regarding people trying to encroach on you.”
The spirit bear huffed once and turned away, trundling back off into the woods without much more in the way of goodbye, leaving Sofia all alone. She turned to look at Leshampur. Her pack was nearly empty of food following her time in the Trenten Wood, even with the occasional stop to eat from the bounty of the forest. She smelled more than she thought a princess was ever supposed to smell, though she didn’t find it terribly offensive. She didn’t have terribly much dye left for her hair either. Sofia was going to have to stop in Leshampur, there was no way around that. Given that she was stopping though, there was one minor bit of business that she could look into; Leshampur was the home of her prophesied savior. With a number of goals in mind, Sofia strode forward, toward her destiny.