“These pages smell like beer,” Jasna said, wrinkling her nose. Half the page was stained a yellowish-brown, the lettering smeared, barely legible. Not that she was having much luck deciphering the words anyway.
“That’s because somebody blew all the papers into the big puddle from the broken cask,” Petra said, glaring across the table. “While you were off racing, I saved as many as I could.”
Brynne and Katarin both blushed, and bent their noses to the pages in front of them.
“This ‘Perrantin’ fellow uses too many big words,” Jasna complained. “I want another page. This one is too hard to read.” She reached for the stack of papers by the younger girl’s elbow.
Petra swatted her hand away. “I’ve already gone through those and made my notes.”
“How is it that an itinerant woodcutter’s daughter can read and write better than a girl who receives daily instruction from the clergy?” Justin asked, looking up from his own sheet of beer-stained paper.
“She only attends one of every three or four lessons,” Brynne said.
“One of the men in the camp used to be a druid. He knows all sorts of letters. He’s teaching me Elvish!” Petra said.
Jasna rolled her eyes. “Yes, because there are sooo many elves up here in the mountains.”
“I still don’t quite understand what we’re looking for,” Justin said. “These pages are all out of order, written in different hands…”
Petra cleared her throat, and glanced over at Katarin.
“Next time, I’ll just let them use you for target practice, then,” the healer said. She turned to the young man. “We’re looking for whatever those men were looking for. If they were willing to kill to get their hands on this material, we need to find out what secrets it holds.”
“I keep seeing this name… ‘Zadreth.’ And ‘Lugsid,’” the young man said. “Those are not Thyatian.”
“They are Old Traldar,” Brynne said. “Lugsid, Lavv, They are towns, estates from Halav’s day. They are mentioned in the Song. Only Krakatos and Achelos have kept their old names since the Thyatians invaded. But this.. Zadreth. I have never heard of it.”
“Listen to this,” Katarin said. She smoothed the scroll she’d been looking through, and read: “‘The sun glinted off the lake to the north, and there was a most interesting arrangement of peaks to the west making it look as if a snake were poking its head up. Just to the left was a natural formation that looked like rabbit's ears perked up in alarm at the snake . . .’” She looked over at Brynne. “Does that sound familiar?”
The other girl’s brow furrowed as she thought. “The Standoff Peaks?”
Katarin touched her finger to Brynne’s nose, smiling. “That’s what I thought of, too. The lake can only be Windrush. And here, there is more, on another page.” She picked up another scroll, carefully unrolling it. “‘Few know this road once continued a few leagues to the east across the river and into the mountains. If one looked sharply one can find the almost hidden road to a grouping of foundations that make a long-abandoned village. Unlike ruins on the west shore of the lake, these cluster around a central square.’”
This time, it was Petra who nodded. “Along the southern edge of the lake, there are some old, flat stones here and there. We never followed them for long, since the timber there is too young. We weren’t allowed to go far from the camps near the lake shore. It’s much too dangerous. They say the northern woods along the lake and the mountains are haunted.” She made the closed-circle sign against evil with her thumb and pinky fingers against her heart.
“That just sounds like superstitious nonsense to me,” Justin said.
“No,” Petra shook her head. ”You don’t understand. The woods there don’t… feel right. They don’t look right, or smell right. It just feels….”
“‘Not right?’” Justin finished.
“You--” Petra started, her cheeks coloring. Then she sighed. “You would understand if you’ve been there.”
“Then let us go,” the young man said. “My eyes grow weary of scouring these pages.”
Brynne stood up, smiling. “I agree. Less reading and more… doing anything else!”
Jasna knocked on the tabletop. “Now wait just a moment. I’m in charge. Since when do the Handmaidens of Petra take orders from a boy?”
“I wish we could go with you,” Fiala said, as she handed the satchel over to Jasna. “But with the feast at sundown…” She flinched as her father called her, from within the kitchens. “Petra go with you,” she said, squeezing the girl’s hand.
“I am!” the younger girl said, from over Jasna’s shoulder.
“You know what I mean!” Fiala stuck her tongue out, and then eased the delivery door shut as her father shouted again.
“Well,” Jasna said, “That takes care of provisions.” She turned to the rest of the group. Brynne and Katarin had added the fur linings to their sturdy woolen cloaks. Brynne took the bag from Jasna, and slung it from the end of her quarterstaff.
“You’re going to hike through the woods in that?” Jasna asked, with a gesture towards the bands of color peeking from beneath Katarin’s cloak. “What’s wrong with breeches?”
“An initiate must wear the proper attire,” the novice weaver sniffed. “Everybody knows what this dress means, and I am treated accordingly.”
“It just means the bear will catch you first,” Jasna muttered. She started up the alleyway, peeking out from around the corner. “Where did Lord Stableboy say he was staying?”
“The Two Sheaves,” Petra said.
“He has a name, you know,” Katarin said.
Jasna clucked her tongue. “He hasn’t given his real one, so I’ll just keep calling him whatever I like.”
“Do you think he’s really the son of a knight?” Petra asked.
“Not from Penhaligon. He’d have seen kobolds and ogres if he was from the north. Which means he’s probably from the coast.”
“Specularum,” all the girls said at once.
Katarin sucked in a sharp breath, her eyes lighting up. “You don’t suppose he’s--”
“Please,” Jasna said. “Don’t start fawning over him. It’ll only make his head bigger.”
“Sheared,” Brynne said.
“Oh, don’t go getting jealous.” Katarin patted Brynne’s arm. “We’ll let Jasna have him.”
“As if he has anything I’d want.”
“Gold enough to pay off a peace-bond violation and a Class 4 crime,” Petra reminded her. “And that was just as a purse full of kopecs to him.”
“I meant besides that,” Jasna said.
“He’s brave,” Katarin said. “Charging those men like that in the marketplace….”
Jasna rolled her eyes. “You didn’t hear him squeal at the mention of rats.”
“You sound like a Darine caravan,” Jasna said.
Lord Justin pulled his cloak tighter about his shoulders, muffling some of the jangling of his chainmail jack. The lantern, hanging from a strap on his backpack, still creaked and rattled as it bounced off his hip. A sword -- the handle wound ‘round and bound to the scabbard with red cloth, rattled and bounce at at his other hip.
“We’re going on an adventure. It pays to be prepared.”
“We’re going for an afternoon hike, not delving the depths of Mistamere,” Brynne said, giving the lantern a poke.
“That one -- “ he pointed at Petra, “said where we were going was dangerous.” Justin tried to straighten his back a bit more, but winced, and readjusted his pack instead.
Jasna glanced over at Katarin. “Maybe you won’t be the one to get eaten by the bear.”
The girls waited, after they’d rounded the bend onto the North Bridge Road. Lord Justin jangled and rattled as he huffed back down the North Road.
“The gate is that way,” he panted, pointing up the street.
“Yes, and the North Road gate has been locked and warded by the baron himself,” Jasna said.
“But that is the roadway that leads to the other side of the lake, is it not?”
Jasna nodded. “Yes, but it is out of bounds. Nobody has traveled it since the… accident… at Tarnskeep.”
The young man’s eyes widened. “So the stories of the White Witch’s wrath are true? That she killed an entire company of men by herself, and their ghosts haunt the shores of the lake, hungry for vengeance against her?”
Petra’s back stiffened, and she made to say something, but Jasna trod on her foot. “Now is not the time,” the older girl said.
They turned, and followed the avenue, across the bridge onto Fogor Island, keeping to the wider streets, until they drew near the Old Mill. The newly-hewn wood of the ferry wharf stood out against the age-darkened wooden quays and warehouses.
Before they could make their way to the stone steps leading down to the ferry landing, Petra gave a sharp hiss, and motioned towards the shadows opposite their position. Figures roused themselves, stepping into the gray morning light.
Three men, tall, broad of shoulder, their armor gleaming from beneath heavy blue woolen cloaks.
“Children?” one of the men asked. The one in front raised a gloved hand, silencing the knight who’d spoken, before settling the hand at the thick sword belt at his waist.
“And why are you not at the Square, playing at the entertainments the baron has brought to town for the new year?” The man stared down his nose at the group.
“We have been sent back across the river on an errand by my father,” Brynne said.
The big knight crossed his arms. “It takes five of you for such an errand?”
“Not even my drunkard of a father would send a girl alone into this part of town,” Brynne said.
“And I suppose this one is your bodyguard, then?” one of the other knights quipped, nodding towards Justin.
“He likes to think he’s a knight,” Jasna said to the man, in a loud whisper, her tone of voice indicating that it didn’t much matter if the boy heard or not. “He insisted that he be prepared for anything before we left.”
“You don’t expect us to do all the heavy lifting, do you?” Brynne asked.
The two knights behind the leader exchanged smirks.
“Just be sure you keep well away from the lake shore,” one of them said, a bit louder and slower than before.
“We know the rules,” Katarin snapped. She took Justin’s hand, patting it. “And we’ll keep him out of trouble.”
Again, the lead knight made a brief, silencing gesture towards the other knight who’d spoken. He inclined his head.
“Very well. Keep a sharp eye,” he said to Justin. “The celebrations have attracted some rather unsavory elements.”
The knights turned, settling back to their watch of the ferry.
“We were not to let anybody across,” one of the knights said in a murmur.
“They are children,” the leader rumbled. “I hardly think the Church or the Cult would stoop to using children for their ends.”
“I wouldn’t put anything past those cultists,” the third knight muttered.
The rest of their conversation was lost as the girls made their way to the riverside, Justin clanking and jangling as he followed behind.
“That wasn’t very funny,” Justin said, as they hiked towards the logging settlement a bit upstream from the ferry landing opposite Fogor Island. “Did you hear how they spoke to me? Like I was a simpleton! And don’t. Say. It.”
“Say what?” Jasna asked. To her credit, she kept a straight face.
“Say that he is--” Brynne clapped a hand over Petra’s mouth. The two engaged in a staring match, only broken when Katarin waved a hand between them.
“You were going to show us the ruined roadway?” the novice weaver reminded the girl.
They hiked up the well worn footpath alongside the logging sluice. After perhaps a half mile, waist-high posts driven into the ground, with a thick, heavy rope slung between blocked the path. More posts, placed perhaps every ten or fifteen feet, stretched into the woods to the east. Across the sluiceway, a similar boundary had been erected along Fisherman’s Isle. Strips of weathered red cloth had been tied along the rope, and fluttered in the weak morning breeze off the lake.
The Fisherman’s Bridge was barely visible, another three hundred yards up the path towards the lake shore, shrouded in a thick fog.
“Windrush is a cold spring-fed lake,” Justin said. “How is it that such a fog could come about with the weather still this cold?”
“The only gold you brought was to pay the ferryman, right?” Jasna asked.
“Just the one royal, yes.”
She nodded. “Good.” Then she ducked beneath the rope barrier.
“Where are you going?”
“We need to get closer, to see if we can find this road along the shore.”
“But this cordon… Surely it’s a warning.”
“Maybe for other people,” Brynne said, as she slipped under the rope, then took it from Jasna to hold it up for the others to pass under.
“But that’s just for everybody else,” Petra said with a fierce grin.
“What was this about knowing the rules,” Justin asked, as he ducked under the rope next to Katarin.
She gave him a smile of her own. “I said we knew them. I never said we’d obey them.”
He shook his head. “You’re as bad as the tiny one.”
“I heard that!” Jasna said, from where she led them further up the path.