Sword & Sorcery tale about young mercenary woman on a quest Chapters 1-5
Inona strode unnoticed through the crowded throne room, her hood pulled over her head concealing her face. Reaching the marble throne she stopped; looking towards the throne, where the Queen sat consulting with nobles. Knights in ceremonial armour stood guard on either side, lords and ladies gathered around the throne. The babble of voices quieted as all eyes focused on Inona. Queen Ellana turned her attention to the figure before her. Inona bowed gracefully removing her hood and nearly all in the throne room gasped in shock and outrage.
Inona Chanele let her black hair fall to her shoulders, she wore light mail and breeches tucked into calf length boots, a long sword strapped to her waist. Inona was sure some here would know of her. A mercenary for hire, but that didn't shock the nobles so much; no it was more the livid scar she bore that covered most of her left cheek and marred her beauty. Even now after all these years, she had returned to the land of her birth they still could not accept her. It was bad enough being a woman mercenary for hire here, but to be so cruelly scarred as well made her an aberration in many eyes.
The Queen, however, seemed to show none of that, there was almost a hint of a smile as she spoke: "What is your request, my dear?" The Queen asked mildly.
Before Inona could answer a knight near to the throne spoke out. "Majesty this woman is a vagabond mercenary let me show her out" he growled drawing his sword menacingly.
As he stepped towards Inona, suddenly from nowhere a huge black cat pounced in front of the knight. He froze mid-step even the Queen seemed taken aback she turned to speak to an elder at her back. Inona smiled evilly at the knight with a slight hand gesture the cat came to her side. Inona hadn't taken her attention away from what was happening around her either, and the feline remained also alert a low growl emitting from the animal as it watched all around the throne room. All this happened in but moments; the knight found his voice again.
"What manner of sorcery is this, how dare you....."
"Sir Markwight,” The Queen interrupted firmly and with some annoyance. “No sorcery has been used here and I want to hear what the young woman has to say so please stand aside and let her speak." the Queen stated. There were murmurs amongst the gathered lords and ladies. The Queen hushed them to silence with a withering glance and slight raising of her hand. She returned her gaze to Inona gesturing for her to speak.
"You are kind indeed your majesty," Inona began magnanimously giving the abashed knight a quick laconic glance as he stepped aside. "I heard tell you are looking for swords for a quest I offer my services, for a fee of course." Inona finished. Now the throne room was in uproar some voices derisory some outraged. The Queen turned to the elder behind the throne and said something he nodded and strode forward arms outstretched light flashed between his outstretched hands.
"Silence!" he bellowed. "The Queen will hear this woman out if you don't hold your tongues I'll clear this court now." he continued, a deathly silence fell.
So this was the Queen's sorcerer, where then was the prince she had heard so much about. The prince was reputed to be the best swordsman in all the land. Inona wanted to test that. It was a way of proving her worth for the quest and it would show all these pompous asses of lords and ladies that she was more than their equal.
The sorcerer turned to Inona "The Queen wishes to know what is it you wish in return that is to say what is your fee, my dear?" He asked not unkindly.
"I will tell you my fee your majesty but first I wish to prove my worthiness for this quest against your finest swordsman," Inona said, this caused more muttering amongst the crowd.
“I will duel this upstart woman and teach her a lesson, your majesty." Challenged the knight who had tried to throw her out, Inona sighed as the Queen after conferring with the sorcerer and another figure behind the throne she could not make out nodded her assent.
The crowd hushed as Inona and the knight faced off swords at the ready.
"Now I'll send you back to the gutter...", before the knight could finish speaking Inona dashed forward lunging at the knight raping his sword hand hard the knight protested yelling in pain dropping his sword before it hit the floor Inona caught it standing upright with both swords in her hands leaving the knight red-faced, wringing his hands his eyes watered with the pain.
The knight protested he had been taken unawares and that Inona had not signalled her readiness to begin the contest. Inona retorted returning would an enemy in battle give him time to prepare himself!
"Haven't you anyone better your majesty no offence, Inona began bowing again she gave the knight a disdainful glance who had the decency to at least look shamefaced. "I heard the prince is a good swordsman perhaps he would like to try his hand," she said.
All eyes turned towards the Queen with a sense of expectancy. The Queen had a whispered and heated conversation with the sorcerer and one or two others around the throne before turning her attention back to Inona. Inona waited calmly the big cat once more at her side ever alert.
"The prince is presently indisposed but his squire will stand in his stead,” the Queen began as Inona sighed disappointedly, from what she could garner from snippets of conversation around the throne room the prince was rarely seen in public and few knew what he really looked like they also had hoped to get to see him; so were as disappointed as Inona.
"Rest assured next to the prince squire Farely is the finest swordsman in all of Kendonia having been taught with the prince," concluded Queen Ellana.
The man stepped forward he was a little taller than Inona dressed in greens and gold rather like a young lord Inona thought, with handsome features and piercing blue eyes. There was an air of quiet confidence about him that made Inona wary, also he looked somehow vaguely familiar like maybe she had seen him once before a long time ago. She shook off the feeling; she had not been here since her childhood and never got near to court so it was impossible to have crossed his path before. The cat gave a low growl, he too was wary of this squire whoever he was. Inona waved the cat back as she faced the squire. He smiled pleasantly at her.
Once again Inona lunged forward but she could see he was already moving in anticipation of her move and parried it with ease. They both stepped away circling. For several minutes they thrust and parried lunged and sidestepped, feigning, probing and testing each other's defences. Everyone in the throne room watched in nerve biting silence not daring to move or speak. For the first time, Inona thought she might lose she had never come close to losing a sword fight before in all her adult life it would take one tiny mistake now to lose this duel she took a moment to study her opponent's face for any sign of weakness in his resolve. He raised an eyebrow and gave the slightest of nods acknowledging her skill but no other sign. So back and forth they went as time seemed to slow Inona getting more than a little tired but still determined to go on.
Suddenly he changed tactics switching sword arms Inona in an effort to parry a blow from the left side switched also but not fast enough leaving herself open a split second as his sword came across to disarm her but surprisingly missed leaving her a chance to disarm him she took it. Inona was not happy though she was furious and glared at him. He had let her win they both knew it, she didn't relish that thought she liked to win fairly and squarely. It had all happened so fast that hardly anybody had noticed except maybe the queen and the sorcerer. The squire bowed graciously and smiled returning to his position behind the throne. Inona felt sure he would want payment for letting her win later. She gritted her teeth, "he would get payment alright at the end of my sword if he has any ideas of what to expect from me." Inona thought still furious but not showing it she bowed once more to the Queen.
"A most thrilling contest my dear you are indeed very skilled and worthy of this quest, now tell me what is your payment for accepting this mission. There are several others also on this quest most of which have accepted payment in gold half in advance do you wish the same?" The queen asked studying Inona carefully. “By the way, you have not asked what the quest is yet it is not information we have made people privy to until they accept, but most ask first anyway," the Queen concluded.
Inona had heard rumours it is to be a very dangerous quest that some would most likely not return from, but no details as to what it might be. So those who accepted were a pretty tough lot who either didn't care whether they lived or died or were hoping against the odds for getting rich quick if they survived.
"It matters not to me what the quest is your majesty a mission is a mission I will treat it like any other undertaking I've been given danger is a part of any commission I undertake and what I get paid for, as to payment. No gold I've enough gold to see me live comfortable the rest of
my days." Inona said the crowd were muttering again wondering what she was going to ask for.
“Then what do you wish, if it’s within my power I will grant it," stated the Queen expectantly
"Careful what say your majesty it may come back to bite you," Inona thought smiling to herself. "Land your majesty a small piece of titled land," said Inona unruffled by the consternation of the gathered lords and ladies even the Queen seemed taken aback but Inona knew even if they didn't like it, they would probably accept it. Thinking she wouldn't live to return and claim her payment she was sure some would try to make sure of that even if she did succeed. The Queen had to know this also she was once again in conference with the sorcerer and the squire seemed to be entering the conversation as well. All talking subsided as the Queen turned to face Inona again.
"I have said if it's within my power I would grant it and indeed it is and I will seed to you the land at Lewyne Vale. as I believe this land is not contested or bordering on any lords land. I'm afraid it's a barren piece of land, it will be hard work to make it habitable at all, but I'm sure you'll be up to the task should you succeed in the quest,” said the Queen smiling. Inona thought the Queen was very shrewd indeed she was hedging her bets placating the lords by giving her land that nobody wanted. There was grudging approval amongst the gathered crowd but the Queen hadn't finished yet.
“Step forward and kneel before me," said the Queen. Inona did so without hesitation kneeling head bowed before the Queen.
“What is your name my dear," the Queen asked grasping a gold sceptre next to her, in hand.
"Inona Chanele," she said loud enough for all to hear.
“I name you Lady Chanele of Lewyne Vale and the said Vale and all its holdings and wealth therein accumulated yours subject to an annual tithe to the throne from this day forth." said the queen passing the sceptre over Inona. “So say we all," the Queen intoned passing her gaze over the crowd. "So say we all," the lords and ladies grudgingly replied. The Queen bent towards Inona and whispered something that only the two of them could hear. Inona grinned and nodded. She noted looking up seeing the squire behind the Queen frowning he must have seen the queen whispering to her. Inona smiled and felt a thrill of delight shudder through her she would make sure she survived to claim her payment.
"You have your title now but your land will only be fully granted on successful completion of the quest," added the Queen.
On a small sovereign island ruled over by the sisterhood of Lashia a seeress strode hastily through the dusty corridors of the abbey she stopped at an ornate wooden door knocking loudly upon it and waited.
"Enter”, a rasping voice within said.” The seeress entered and waited for permission to speak. At a heavy oak desk the matriarch sat she looked up from the scroll on her desk her grey eyes caught the worry in the posture of the seeress the slight shuffle of feet the head more bowed than usual.
The matriarch gave any that met her the appearance of an old crone, her short cropped hair long turned white with features sunken. Her bony hands folded the scroll before her. When however one looked more closely they would see eyes as sharp as an eagle’s that missed nothing with the intelligence to match and a fierce stubborn will.
"What news Sharmane?" The matriarch asked knowing whatever it was, must be important, judging by the woman's demeanour.
"The scarred one has appeared at Queen Ellana's court matriarch," said the seeress meeting the matriarch's gaze. At first, the matriarch did not answer rather for a moment she scrutinised the seeress more closely before answering.
"Are you sure Sharmane, he's not supposed to appear for another decade at least and certainly not in queen Ellana's domain, why it's supposed to happen in the Emperor of Mafren's empire many leagues from Kendonia," said the matriarch with a shake of her head. “Nay Sharmane you must be mistaken," she concluded.
"No matriarch there it is no mistake the signs all point to it," the seeress insisted. "Also he is a she." the seeress added.
"What!" Explained the matriarch for the first time in her long life she was genuinely surprised. "This cannot be the scarred one is supposed to be a man beside the time and place are all wrong that alone the gender you must be mistaken." The matriarch insisted slowly shaking her head as if chastising an unruly child. "Return to the other seers and meditate on this more. Cast your net further there must be an error somewhere in your divinations." commanded the matriarch. The seeress nodded resignedly but didn't look hopeful of a different outcome.
She began to leave and the matriarch spoke again more gently. "Thank you Sharmane you did right to me tell of this straight away, I pray you are wrong on this occasion for all our sakes, but make preparations to leave for Kendonia in case you are not, and let me know the outcome as soon as possible. "The matriarch sighed and bid the seeress leave. She stood and paced the room pondering the implications. "If Sharmane was to be right and she usually is, "A woman and now, in Ellana's court it was all wrong, of course, the prophecy hadn't said definitely the scarred one would be a man but all indications had implied so." the matriarch sat down again. "I will have to go through all references to the prophecy again. “The matriarch considered with some irritation, she rubbed her hands to warm them with a look of determination on her weathered face.
Inona knew now what the quest was, but it didn't make much sense to her. A sorcerer had apparently stolen an ancient relic, a crown that was believed to hold some power; he had also raised a small army of undead and had killed many in the southern city of Malori where this crown had been kept. This was all nonsense to her she didn't believe it an army of undead that would make him a necromancer and she didn’t believe necromancers existed that alone undead. She had travelled far and seen much in her life up till now but never had she seen any sign of a necromancer she heard rumours from time to time most proofed false this so-called necromancer was probably just a rogue sorcerer running amuck why not just send the sorcerer with a few soldiers to dispatch him and return the crown. Last reports had said he' was may be headed towards the Mafren Empire anyway surely the emperor could handle it; he had the men and resources to deal with such a threat.
One thing was making her nervous though the squire had never shown since the day they duelled. She had been sure he would be snooping around hinting how he let her win and how was she was going to repay him. There had been no sign of him she had spoken to some of the others on the quest about him none knew much about the squire at all. In fact, as much was known about the squire as there was about the prince which made a sort of sense. Inona gave some thought to evaluating her fellow adventurers and considered them to be mostly a capable bunch, most had shunned her when she tried talking but she was used to that now. Surprisingly the knight she had humiliated had become friendly and he had apologised for his past behaviour which surprised her she wondered if the queen had something to do with his change in attitude. He too was on the quest when she had asked him about the squire he became strangely reticent. The Queen’s sorcerer too was going with them, another four knights two nobles each accompanied by one of their best captains these she suspected would be the ones that would try to prevent her returning. For now, she could relax only if they succeeded would they try to stop her returning to claim her reward. She surmised they hoped this rogue sorcerer or whatever he was would save them the job.
It had been two days now since she had arrived back in Kendonia there were a few yet to join their party before they left so Inona had some time to look round the castle and the city which it seemed hadn't changed that much since she had left what appeared like an age ago now to her. The castle stood on a rocky hill with one broad and winding path leading up to heavily armored gate to try and assault it head on would be very difficult and to try from any other side would be practically impossible it was to rocky if you didn't break half your bones in your body trying to climb up you were also left exposed to attack from within and would be cut down before you got near the castle walls. Inona didn't envy anyone trying to storm this castle.
The city of Kendor nestled in the castles shadow bustling with life. Its crowded streets and thriving marketplace were a hub of commerce for people from all over Kendonia as well as from other lands to buy and sell all kinds of goods from the common to the rare and exotic. Inona made her way through the marketplace being jostled by the crowds. She was glad she had left Samba back at the castle. Not many people in Kendonia knew about Janju cats or their ability to become invisible, to blend in with their surroundings they were fearsome animals half a man's height hunted by many for their skins. Some thought wearing a coat made with Janju skin could make you invisible also, but it didn't work no one knew why or how the Janju cat could make itself invisible it just could and Inona had more than one occasion to thank Samba for that ability. The two of them had become almost inseparable since she rescued Samba when he was a cub. Her comrades at that time had told her to kill him before the animal grew big enough to turn on her. Many had tried taming Janju cats before and had died or had been maimed when the animal eventually turned on them. Inona, however, hadn't tried taming Samba he was free to go whenever or wherever he wanted and often did disappearing for days but he always returned. He was fiercely protective of her that Inona wondered if he was maybe a little jealous of others attention towards her. Inona stopped to look at a stall with some trinkets that caught her eye. Further up the crowded street, there seemed a commotion and she could hear awed voices, she caught one-word seeress as a carriage passed along the street towards the castle.
"Seeress here in Kendonia what nonsense,” Inona thought shaking her head she decided to move on.
Queen Ellana looked pensive as she waited for the matriarch and seeress to approach the throne, it had been many years since she last met the matriarch she was just a girl then. Not many knew but they were family the matriarch and Queen in fact only the sorcerer Koburn and the prince knew. Koburn leant towards the Queen and spoke quietly so no else could hear.
"Your great aunt is looking very frail these days your majesty," he said.
"She always looks frail, gods how old is she now two centuries or more,” the Queen answered
"Not quite that old, but don't take it too lightly your majesty I fear her time draws near,” he said with an edge to this voice.
Ellana looked into the sorcerer's eyes for any sign of humour but there was none. Then with some trepidation, she faced the frail looking old woman as she finally stood before her with the seeress by her side and she could hardly speak, Koburn was right in his assessment. She coughed pretending to clear her throat in order give herself a moment to compose herself.
"Welcome matriarch, what brings you here to my lands, is there some service we can assist the seers of Lashia with," asked the Queen with a slight tremor in her voice."
"Such formality Ellana,” the matriarch began in a ringing clear voice. "But yes there is a service you can render, we have travelled by way of the waystones alas it was just as tiring as travelling over land and sea for one of my age. Not so for Sharmane here though eh." She paused nodding towards the seeress who flushed slightly and curtsied to the Queen, " rooms, a bath and hot food for now and we shall talk later my dear," the matriarch finished.
“Of course matriarch I shall have the steward organise rooms for you right away," the Queen replied clapping her hands and waving for the steward to attend her. Ellana thought whatever reason the matriarch had to travel here by way of the waystones must be urgent and it was obviously something to do with the quest. The waystones from what she could remember from her youth were magical gateways that went from one location to another it was said that people get lost travelling in them occasionally never to be seen again and that only those versed in their use could successfully utilise them. They were a fast way of travel cutting a seven-day journey down to just hours at most She didn't think there was that many waystones certainly there was only one in Kendonia she knew of and that was half a day's journey away at least.
It was early evening when Queen Ellana met in the matriarchs private chambers the sun now low in the sky still cast light through the stained glass window throwing shadows across the room. The seeress sat in the shade in a corner meditating, the matriarch sat at a desk reflective as she spoke to the Queen. "Ellana my dear I'm sorry for making you come to me I know how this must look to the lords..."
"Oh to hell with the lords!” the Queen interrupted. "I'm more concerned with you, great aunt, you don't look well this journey was too much for you wouldn't sending the seeress with an entourage have been enough I'm sure she is quite capable," Ellana said going to the matriarch and clasping her hands in her own.
"You're too kind dear, I'm not ready for my grave yet and the matter is too important for Sharmane alone or anyone else but myself," the matriarch stated gravely.
"Has this something to do with the stolen crown?" Ellana asked
"Yes," the matriarch paused considering. "You remember that old prophecy I told you about when a child?" She asked
"Vaguely, it's supposed to take place in the Mafren Empire but not for many years yet," the queen answered.
"At the Mafren palace to be exact, do you remember who the catalyst for this prophecy is supposed to be?" the matriarch asked as the Queen seated herself in a chair opposite.
The Queen was thoughtful for a moment and then frowned at the matriarch. "You surely don't mean the young woman just because she has a scar on the side of her face, besides from what I can remember as you told it the catalyst was to be a man. He would be hideously scarred as you told me." The Queen said emphasising the words hideously scarred melodramatically. She smiled fondly at the matriarch. The Queen obviously thought the whole idea was not worth taking seriously. "Besides this is Kendonia not the Mafren Empire or palace," Ellana concluded.
"I see you haven't lost your sense of humour, or flare for stating the obvious dear,” said the matriarch sardonically. "Anyway we were wrong about the catalyst being a man and as I've heard this necromancer may be headed for the Mafren Empire. According to all the seers including Sharmane here this young woman is the scarred one," the matriarch concluded in a more serious tone.
“Are we sure this sorcerer is, in fact, a necromancer there have been none seen in many years,” the Queen asked
“I’m sure that your own sorcerer has already confirmed it; you can be certain this is a necromancer and he poses the greatest to us all especially if he obtains that what he seeks,” the matriarch said gravely.
"I wish to see this young woman first thing in the morning I'm tired and wish to rest now," the matriarch said the Queen rose to leave and Sharmane saw her to the door.
"By the way how is my great nephew?" The matriarch asked.
"Aron is well and as reclusive as ever,” the Queen replied.
"Not for much longer I suspect, will he come to see me after I've seen this young woman it may be a while before I see him again after tomorrow," the matriarch said arching an eyebrow. The Queen's face was a mask of diplomacy that spoke volumes to the matriarch. "By the way, Sharmane will be going on your quest to I will stay here with you for the time being if it's no trouble. I suppose there will be enough gallant souls on this quest to see to her welfare and protection," concluded the matriarch shrewdly.The queen walked back to her rooms lost in troubled thought. She hardly noticed her surroundings or the two guards who escorted her, this prophecy she had always believed to be mostly nonsense. If Aron intended to go however she might have to dissuade him just in case there was some truth in it.
Inona was furious two guards had come to her room and demanded that she come with them. She hardly had time to finish her breakfast before they began to bustle her out the door and escort her across the castle grounds to the east wing. The guards were impassive and refused to answer any of her questions. The east wing was where the lords and ladies stayed at the castle and had much more comfortable chambers than the south wing where her room was. Inona began to wonder if some lord had summoned her perhaps to threaten or discourage her from going on the quest. They certainly wouldn't try anything stronger while at the castle especially after the Queen had made her a lady Oh that was a nice touch; despite herself, she found she liked the Queen. The guards stopped in front of double doors and knocked. Inona fully intended to give whoever it was a piece of her mind. A voice within bade her enter the guards pushed the doors open and ushered her in and about to speak her mind instead her mouth dropped open and her eyes widened in surprise as she came face to face with the matriarch.
"Close your mouth dear you might swallow a fly and it's not becoming for a lady of the realm," said the matriarch dryly.
"Yes matriarch," was all Inona could answer.
"I see you know of me, "the matriarch said.
"Of course matriarch I'm well travelled and knowledgeable," Inona said finding her voice and feeling a little cross
The matriarch arched an eyebrow while beckoning Inona to come closer she scrutinised her a moment
"Tusk! Tusk! We are tetchy aren't we I know your roots child I know you were born here in Kendonia and I know how you must hate how you were treated by its people. Not without cause I'll grant you but don't let that cloud your judgement the Queen is a good and just ruler and the prince is a lot like his mother." stated the matriarch
"I like the Queen, but I haven't met the prince yet," said Inona
"Oh have you not, you would recognise him if you did would you?" asked the matriarch again arching an eyebrow.
"Well, I... That is I mean if someone introduced me..." Inona stuttered a little perplexed.
"Things are not always as they seem child and people are sometimes are not who they appear to be." Interjected the matriarch, "but that's by the by, I want you to do something for me."
Inona tensed warily searching the matriarch’s features for some sign expecting trickery or maybe some spell to make her compliant to do what the matriarch wished. Not far away in a nearby corridor Samba appeared in front of a startled maid and bounded towards where Inona stood-facing the matriarch, alerted by her sudden tension
The matriarch smiled then waved a hand agitatedly. “Tell that animal of yours to be calm I’m not going to harm you or make you do anything against your will, my dear.” The matriarch said firmly.
Inona hadn’t been aware that Samba had picked up on her tension before the matriarch mentioned it nor was she sure she should stop him coming to her aid.
“I simply want you to look after the seeress for me she is new to the outside world,” the matriarch said with some exasperation
Inona relaxed and sensing Samba now outside the matriarch’s chambers communicated the same to Samba
The matriarch frowned. “So the two of you are linked I see I thought as much but wasn’t certain still now that is a rare gift you have,” the matriarch said
Inona knew the matriarch was referring to herself and Samba but didn’t answer she was surprised by how much the matriarch knew and seemingly accepted most people would make it just another reason to call her an abomination.
“As I was saying please look out for Sharmane for me I would consider it a great kindness, and by the way you can trust her don’t forget she is a seeress and could see things which may help you, also try and work with the squire he is a good person who may be trusted also. I wish you no ill my dear but much success.” Said the matriarch her tone had a ringing finality to it. Inona replied she would do her best to follow the matriarch’s request and keep the seeress safe partly because if what the matriarch said was true the seeress may prove useful.
But as she left the matriarch’s chambers and headed to the courtyard she felt troubled by how much the matriarch knew and felt there was much more she knew and had left unsaid there was a seeming finality in the matriarch tone as if they wouldn’t see each other again. Maybe the matriarch thought Inona wouldn’t return if that was the case she intended to prove her wrong. Inona had also glanced back as she left the matriarch’s chambers and had seen a look of resignation on the matriarch’s weathered face it was if she was really seeing her for the first time a weary tired old woman with not long left for this world. Inona shrugged it could have been just her imagination or even what the matriarch wanted her to see so she would be more sympathetic to her request.
The following morning all on the quest assembled in the courtyard two more had been added to the group of adventurers all mounted after making final preparation for the journey ahead. The Queen came to see them of wishing them success and a safe return on completion of their quest. The matriarch had said her goodbyes to Sharmane beforehand and watched from her window as they rode out through the castle gates.
My prayers go with you, child and may the gods help us all” the matriarch whispered to herself.
Inona had been riding at the rear of the group when they left the castle and city behind them. She had been studying the two newest members of their little band. One was a tall bearded mute man with a lean muscular frame the other was shorter and thinner with gaunt features and dark skin the two seemed to be together. Many would dismiss the smaller as being no threat in a fight; Inona knew better she knew his origins once she had undertaken a mission in his country he hailed from Caliradia probably the great desert city of Callir itself by his accent and he was undoubtedly an assassin. She wondered if he had been hired to assassinate her by some lord or was he here just for the quest like everyone else was supposed to be. She must have been staring at his back overlong for he turned in the saddle and looked directly at her giving a quick smile before turning back again. Inona shrugged if he was here for her he would at least wait to see if she survived to make the journey back before attempting anything at least she hoped so. She figured the tall one was a backup for the assassin or to keep him safe while he got the job done.
“No good worrying about it now time to get to know the seeress,” Inona thought, she spurred her horse to the front of the group where the seeress rode beside the sorcerer she passed the squire riding with the knights just behind the seeress.
“Good day Inona,” the squire said smiling as she passed him. Inona didn’t reply but gave him a cold stare. There was some murmuring among knights at Inona’s apparent slight which she pointedly ignored. The seeress glanced over at Inona as she came up beside and smiled pleasantly she rode side saddle on a white stallion that Inona couldn’t help but admire.
“I call him Cloud,” the seeress said noting Inona admiring the animal.
“You ride him well, have you done much riding?” asked Inona curious she couldn’t imagine the seeress had done much riding having been cloistered in that Abbey most of her life.
“Before I joined the sisterhood I used to ride a lot my father owned stables so I used to get to ride many different breeds of horses.” The seeress said she had a faraway expression as if reminiscing about times gone by.
“Oh I see,” said Inona a little surprised by this she thought the seers were taken in from a very young age. “How long have you lived in the Abbey then?” she asked
“Since my thirtieth year, I am well past my sixtieth year now,” answered the seeress
Inona sat stunned for a moment with this revelation the seeress looked to be no more than twenty or thirty years at most.
“You will be giving away to many secrets of your order Sharmane if you are not careful,” Koburn put in smiling
The seeress flushed slightly and seemed flustered realising she had indeed said more than intended. Inona thought she may know horses but didn’t know much about people.
“Pay no attention to that old fool, all he knows is how to turn people into toads,” Inona jibbed deflecting the conversation while she absorbed what the seeress said although she hoped the sorcerer wouldn’t take offence and turn her into a toad. But to her surprise, he burst out laughing which made the seeress laugh and then Inona herself started laughing. “Phew that could have gone badly if he did take offence,” she thought. Thinking she might have overreached herself and angered the sorcerer but she had judged him right he was one not to take himself too seriously.
“You seem to have a way with people my lady Inona,” said Koburn shrewdly
“Don’t start that,” Inona said cringing
“Start what?” Koburn asked innocently
“Calling me my lady I was enjoying myself up to now You’ve just gone and ruined my day,” retorted Inona
“Why not my lady, after all, you are a lady now, like it or not,” said Koburn. Smirking and all three started laughing again
From behind the squire piped up in a grand voice “Is my lady ready to stop for some refreshments?”
Inona stopped laughing turned and glared at the squire who had a smug expression on his face and simply shrugged his shoulders at her
“Well it is past midday; time to water the horses and have a bite to eat,” he excused
In spite of what she thought of the squire he was right it was well past midday now and time to take a break.
“I haven’t seen that feline of yours all day is he nearby?” Asked Koburn looking around while he sat on a tree stump eating, the rest of the group sat in a circle busy eating or tending the horses.
“Yes I have heard so much about the Janju cats I would love to see one close up,” said the seeress excitedly. “Are they really that big and
fierce as people claim they are?” She asked.
“Most people aren’t keen on seeing one close up,” replied Inona. The seeress reminded her of giddy girl on her first outing. She sent her thoughts out to the cat it had just had it first meal of the day and was basking in the afternoon sunshine. The cat immediately came and as it made its way into the camp most of the group let out surprised explanations of shock or amazement and shied away from the animal.
“He is lovely,” Sharmane said as Samba came and laid down close to close Inona. She asked if she could touch him.
“He doesn’t normally let just anyone touch him,” Inona said but was surprised to see he let the seeress stroke him. The seeress seemed to have a way with all animals.
The group decided after having eaten and watered the horses to continue their journey they had several hours yet before dark. There was an Inn at the edge of a forest where they hoped to spend the night. They passed travellers and the road and had yet to meet any kind of trouble. Kendonia being a largely prosperous law-abiding country its people were mostly friendly there were a few bandits in remote areas but they were few and far between They passed a few farmsteads here and there as they travelled onward. Dusk had fallen when they arrived at the Inn.
The innkeeper looked the group over and told them he hadn’t enough cots to put them all up so the seeress, the sorcerer, the squire and the two lords took what spare rooms were left while the rest had to sleep outside or in the stables. Inona didn’t mind she preferred sleeping outside. She was busy grooming her horse when the stable door opened and sir Markwight came in. The knight had changed somewhat since their first encounter Inona thought she may even grow to like him.
“Squire Farley asks if you would like to join him for supper,” said the knight.
Inona frowned, “here it comes I just knew he would want something for letting me win that duel,” she thought while the knight waited for her answer. In spite of her misgivings, she agreed anyway. Expecting supper to be in his room or a table for two in a discreet corner where no one could see them. Inona was surprised however when she entered the Inn a little later, which was full of boisterous patrons three maids moved between tables carrying drinks and food. The squire sat at a table on one side of the Inn with the seeress, sorcerer and sir Markwight who spotted Inona enter and called her over waving an arm in the air to catch her attention she barely heard him with all the noise. As she made her way to the table she spotted the two lords with their captains sat on the other side drinking and talking amongst themselves one of them noticed Inona and gave her a disdainful look which she ignored as she sat down between Sharmane and Koburn.
Later as she returned to the stables she passed sir Markwight taking some air he nodded to her. Inona felt compelled to ask him what was on her mind.
“What’s his game and who is he really?” she asked.
Sir Markwight didn’t have to ask who, he already knew who she meant “Why he is squire Farely and he is here for the quest like we all are nothing else,” he answered.
Inona shook her head doubtful she was having a growing suspicion about the squire. She didn’t really know what to make of him she usually was a good judge of character but it seemed she had been totally wrong as far the squire was concerned and that wrangled; It was most perplexing.
“Well if you think otherwise you should take it up with the squire,” he said wishing her a good night.
Shortly after daybreak, they left the Inn. Keeping to the road as they travelled through the forest, as usual, they stopped for a short break shortly after mid-day. Inona was talking with the seeress when she noticed the squire disappear into the forest by himself. Inona waited a minute or two then excused herself and went into the forest at roughly the same place the squire had disappeared. Moving quietly through the undergrowth it wasn’t long before she found him with is back to her practising with his sword she stood little way back watching him.
“You know you shouldn’t creep up on someone like that they might get the wrong idea,” he said continuing his practice with his back still to her.
“Why did you let me win the duel?” Inona asked ignoring his remarks. He stopped finally turning to face her. Sheaving his sword he walked towards where she stood, stopping close to her, he seemed to study her a moment then smiled.
“I’ve heard about you before we met and I couldn’t think of anyone better suited for this quest.” He answered
“I don’t think you are telling me all of it,” Inona said frowning.
“Well, that's all the answer you’ll get, for now, come on let's head back time we got on our way again,” he replied he started walking back to the others and Inona followed close behind.
Just as Inona was getting ready to mount her horse the seeress whispered to her urgently. “I must speak with you privately when we camp this evening,” she said. Inona just nodded not wanting to draw attention, whatever it was the seeress wanted to speak about she seemed troubled by it. Inona remembered what the matriarch had said about Sharmane so anything she had to say when they had a chance to speak privately she would give serious consideration.
The forest gave way to low hills and fields with the occasional stand of trees and it was under one such stand that they decided to make camp as the light faded. When everybody had settled around the campfire the seeress came to Inona.
“I wish to take the night air will you walk with me a while I don't feel safe walking on my own here,” Sharmane said. Inona took the hint and they walked off a little way from the camp. When far enough away not to seen or heard from the camp they stopped.
“Well, what is it Sharmane have you had a foretelling, something I need to know?” Inona asked
“Yes, and it's not good,” Sharmane began. Inona nodded for her to continue. “We have a traitor in our midst one of the lords will attempt to
kill you,” she said. The seeress squeezed her eyes shut trying to shake off the possible consequences of nightmarish vision she had.
“Well, I’ve been expecting at least one would try and get rid of me but not this soon,” Inona said
The seeress was shaking her head, "No it's not what you think,” she began before Inona interrupted.
“When is it supposed to happen?” Inona asked thinking through possible ways to foil any attempt on her life. “Any plan that didn't involve myself being dead would be good,” she thought sardonically.
“No, listen to me, it is not only you but Koburn, the squire, myself and just about everyone else while we sleep I’m not certain when either tonight or tomorrow,” said the seeress sounding a little frantic.
“What, why would anyone want to kill you or the others,” Inona said she was beginning to have misgivings about trusting Sharmane’s visions but she knew the seeress wouldn't make such wild claims unless she was fairly certain and her instincts told her to trust the seeress in spite of any doubts though she considered that Sharmane might of miss read her vision. She wondered whether the assassin was involved in this plot also it did seem likely to her.
“He would need more men than just his captain to kill the rest of us are you sure you have it right Sharmane?” Inona asked mulling it over in her head. Sharmane nodded.
“But I still don’t understand. why kill everyone,” Inona was beginning see that something more was going on than she first thought but she couldn’t quite grasp it yet.
“Do you know which of the lords it is Sharmane?” Asked Inona still working on possible scenarios in her head.
“I’m afraid not Inona it's not that precise at least not often, but I can tell you this now you cant tell either Koburn or the squire about this,” said the seeress
Inona looked aghast at the seeress, “Why not surely we must warn them,” she said
“If you warn them it will change the vision and the most likely outcome is we will all die,” Sharmane said gravely.
Inona started pacing to and throw, she shook her head in frustration trying to see a way forward. Samba picked up on her emotions and appeared close by bending down she ran her fingers through his fur it helped calm her as she considered what to do.
“You are central to everything that is happening now Inona what you do may well decide all our fates,” Sharmane said solemnly.
Inona stood once again she stared intently at the seeress, ”Why me?” she asked pieces were beginning to fall into place in her head. What the Matriarch told her and the squire and now Sharmane though she wasn't sure what it all meant yet.
“Because you are the catalyst the one told in prophesy,” answered the seeress
“What is that supposed to mean, bah you seers can be so infuriatingly obscure sometimes. In any case, I don’t believe in prophecies,” Inona retorted.
“It doesn't matter the thing is what do you intend to do now,” the seeress began. “There is more I need to tell you,” the seeress continued. Inona waited, wondering how much worse it could get. “This lord is an agent of the necromancer and there is also more of his agents at Queen Ellana’s Court. There will be an attempt on the Queen’s life soon,” the seeress said at length.
Inona tugged at her hair she had questions that needed answering but now was not the time, “I presume you didn’t know about these agents or the attempt on Queen’s life before we left maybe we should turn back,” said Inona considering the best course of action.
“No, we must go on I can warn the Matriarch she will know what to do, I suggest you have a talk with Koburn to he can tell you more about the quest as long as you don’t mention about what I’ve seen in my vision,” Sharmane stated
“How are you going to warn the matriarch?” Asked Inona
“I think there is a stream nearby is there not,” said Sharmane. Inona nodded and they headed toward the stream. “Keep watch in any case anybody comes,” she said bending down she stirred the water with her hand at once the water steamed and mist rose when the mist cleared the Matriarch could be seen within water almost immediately she turned to face the seeress.
“What is it Sharmane,” asked the matriarch her voice sounding distant put still clearly heard. Sharmane related what she had seen in her vision. The matriarch frowned her expression appeared deeply troubled even through the water. “I’ll handle things here,” the matriarch began just as Inona leaned over to have a look. “Ah, there you are, child, you must carry on with your quest is too important to turn back now,” concluded the matriarch firmly. The water began to clear again the matriarch no longer could be seen.
On the way back to the camp both were quiet Inona was thinking furiously she had one or two ideas but first, she had to speak with the sorcerer and keep Samba close she would definitely need him for whatever lied ahead. When they got back to the camp some had already turned in for the night. Koburn the squire and sir Markwight sat by the fire quietly talking. Koburn looked up at the two women as they entered the camp with the Janju cat and immediately he sensed something was troubling them. The seeress went to her sleeping bag while Inona sat on a large rock at the edge of the campsite with Samba at her feet. Koburn excused himself and walked over to Inona. He could see she was waiting for him as he approached.
“Well, what’s troubling you I know something is wrong I can see it in your face? Asked Koburn seriously
“I want to know more about this stolen crown and this so-called necromancer,” Inona said ignoring the sorcerer’s question. Koburn raised an eyebrow sitting down beside her he cleared this throat before speaking. “The crown is just a priceless antique on its own nothing more,” he paused to see Inona’s reaction.
“But there is more to it,” she stated.
“Yes, there are three jewels missing from the crown when they are all reunited and inserted back into the crown it grants the wearer enormous power magnifying any magic abilities the wearer already has many times even just one jewel reinstated increases the wearer's ability to some extent. Its also thought to eventually send the wearer insane,” he explained at length.
“So if you had this crown and the jewels fitted you could become all-powerful but a necromancer can only raise the dead right,” Inona said
“If this necromancer is who I think he is, he once was a sorcerer and besides a necromancer normally can raise a small army of undead but with the crown, he would be able to raise legions of undead that is apart from any sorcerous abilities he has. I know you don't believe in any such thing as necromancy or necromancers Inona truth be told there hasn’t been any seen for many years until recently but they do exist,” Koburn said.
“So now he is looking for the jewels I take it, and they are hidden somewhere not all in the same place I presume,” Inona said
“Clever girl I knew you where a lot smarter than most would give credit for,” the sorcerer replied.
“So where did this crown come from what are its origins?” Asked Inona astutely.
Koburn gave Inona a half smile nodding his head, “Again a very good question my dear,” he began marvelling at how clever and knowledgeable this young woman was for her age.
“The crown was forged by ancient elven craftsmen many centuries ago or so it thought,” pausing a moment he gathered his thoughts before continuing. “The elven race is now believed to be extinct so there is none alive to verify the crown’s potential but I think a few may yet survive today somewhere. The crown was meant as an ultimate weapon in a war they fought back then nobody knows who the enemy was there are no records going back that far.” Again he paused considering, the point is, they never actually used it out of fear it was too powerful and could end all life and besides there was more than a good chance it would eventually make whoever wore it insane,” he finally concluded.
Inona mulled all that she had learnt up till now as she lay on her bedroll; she did not sleep but lay awake sifting it through in her head. Some pieces were beginning to fit together but she still couldn't make much sense of it. She needed more information to be able to fit it all together one thing was certain this was not a straightforward mission like the many she had undertaken in the past. In the meantime, she needed a plan to foil the attack on herself and the others. She knew whichever lord planned to kill her and the rest would need more men to be able to kill everyone before some would wake and raise the alarm. That meant there had to be men lying in wait somewhere ahead of them. She kept Samba at her side if the attack was to be tonight the cat would alert her to any danger.
Inona passed a sleepless night but at least it had been uneventful although it didn't’ help her mood at breakfast as she snapped at anyone that tried to speak with her. She noticed also the seeress looked as if she hadn't slept much either. As they set off again Inona considered what lay ahead they were to pass through a small hamlet that went by the name of Kandon Creek. Ordinary she would have considered it a good place for an ambush but as the attack according to the seeress was to be at night it seemed unlikely but still, she was wary. She could send Samba to scout ahead but thought it best to keep him near.
As they arrived at Kandon Creek, Inona decided she needed to buy some supplies. Dismounting she looked around the small hamlet a few people were going about their daily business everything looked normal and quiet. The rest of the group waited, looking around. Inona headed for the general store entering her eyes adjusted to the dim light, the store seemed crammed with various goods of all kinds from food to clothing. A tall thin man stood behind a wooden counter. He watched Inona intently as she found some trail bread and held it up to the man.
“How much,” she asked
“One centin,” he answered gruffly.
Inona got the coin out and put it on the counter, then she got three more coins putting them on the counter also.
“What's this for?” the storekeeper asked eyeing the extra coin on the counter greedily.
“Information,” Inona said the man raised an eyebrow but said nothing glancing down at the extra coins again.
Inona sighed and put two more coins down the man snatched them up and once more scrutinised Inona.
“What you want to know?” he asked
“Man of few words I see,” Inona began laconically the man grunted. “Did a small group of men pass through here recently?” She asked studying the storekeeper’s face for any reaction.
The storekeeper looked thoughtful a moment. “Yesterday about ten or twenty men passed through they looked well armed as if expecting trouble,” he said
“ As many as twenty!” explained Inona, “you sure about that,” she said
“Cant, be sure of the exact number but more than ten for certain,” he replied.
“Ok, thanks,” Inona said turning she started to leave.
“Good luck,” the storekeeper called. Inona gave him a wave in return as she left the store.
As Inona remounted she once again began to think furiously, she thought maybe six but as many as twenty. “Looks like they want to make sure nobody survives,” she thought.
They stopped by a stream at midday and the seeress sat beside Inona and whispered so nobody else could hear. “Do you know what you are going to do yet,” she said. The seeress looked drawn and pale “I believe it will be tonight,” she continued pensively.
Inona nodded, “I have an idea,” she replied looking up she let her gaze fall to where the assassin and the mute sat. The big man was gesturing to the assassin and seemed a little agitated about something. She recognised the quick hand movements of the mute as sign language and could even interpret some of it. Enough to know she needed to have a talk with the assassin. Inona excused herself and walked over to the two men. The big man stopped his signing as Inona approached and stared at Inona, and the assassin who had his back to her turned to face her with that same self-confident smile he always seemed to have.
“Good day scared one,” he said
If Inona didn’t know of his origins she would think he was insulting her, but the opposite was the case. Her instincts were telling her that she needed these two so she gambled hoping she would not be wrong.
“You’re not here for me are you?” she asked straight out
The assassin grinned,” Yes and No,” he answered
Inona gave him a look like sour grapes, “Don't play games with me I know you're an assassin are you here for me or not,” she said in a hissed whisper getting up close to him that they were nearly cheek to cheek Her nerves were getting more than a little frayed at the edges. She hadn’t time to play cat and mouse with the assassin.
The assassin took a step back raising both hands still grinning in a way that made Inona want to knock the grin off his face,” Forgive me scared one, I didn't mean to cause you distress,” he began. He inclined his head to her, “I am Abul Shan and my big friend here goes by the name of Ben we are here to help you.” He concluded.
“Why,” Inona said her instincts hadn't failed her. “Why was a word she seemed to be using a lot lately.
“Because I have been sent by the Calif himself to aid the one told of in prophecy,” he answered
Inona wanted to scream, “ be damned prophecy again,” but she would take help wherever she could get it right now let him believe what he wanted. She told him about the attack that would happen tonight. The seeress said she couldn't tell the sorcerer or the squire but nothing about the assassin not knowing; it was a risk she had to take. Between them, they formed a plan.
Later as dusk fell they made camp in a small clearing surrounded by trees and a narrow stream. If it wasn’t for the likelihood of them being attacked and murdered while they slept it would have been an ideal spot. The surrounding trees, however, would give their would-be attackers cover to conceal themselves and the sound of the stream muffle their approach. Inona waited while everyone else had settled in for the night. She looked around the camp to make sure no one was watching. Dark clouds crossed the moon, the night air was still and warm. Inona placed her saddlebags under her blanket to make it look like someone sleeping. Creeping over to where the seeress lay she gave her a nudge and whispered for her to get up and follow. The two of them silently went a little way back from the camp behind some scrub bushes and lay watching the camp. Inona expected Shan and the mute would be in place by now all they had to do now was wait. The moon reappeared from behind the clouds and the night air grew cooler several hours past and Inona had to rouse the seeress once or twice to keep her from falling asleep. Then she caught movement at the far side of the camp where she had seen the two lordlings sleeping two dark figures rose silently one waited in place while other went in the opposite direction to where Inona and the seeress lay hidden. She heard a low whistle like a bird call then the figure returned one heading towards where Inona was supposed to be sleeping the other heading to where the sorcerer and squire lay. More dark shapes appeared among the trees moving silently towards the camp. Inona surmised correctly that they would go for the obvious tactic of taking out the greatest threat first.
Inona waited while the figure neared her bedroll, she whispered to the seeress to stay put removing her hip dagger she silently crept towards her intended target. Inona came up behind the man just as he was about to stab his dagger into her bedroll he half turned sensing someone behind him Inona put one hand over his mouth and pulled his head back plunged her dagger into his back. The man struggled briefly as she held him keeping her hand tight over his mouth then he gave a strangled moan and collapsed at her feet. She could just make out his face in the gloom it was the noble who had given her a dirty look back at the Inn. Across from her she heard another moan and could just make out Shan crouching over his victim. Drawing her longsword she cut down another, Shan doing likewise they took out another two before the assailants realised what was happening.
Then as Samba brought a man down he screamed as the cat mauled him. The mute charged in, wielding a war hammer and caving one attacker's head in swinging the hammer from side to side breaking limbs and crushing bones of any that got near him. The rest of the camp was hastily on their feet and grabbing for their weapons. Koburn just managed to get to his feet casting a fireball that engulfed two attackers that rushed him in flame. The squire, sir Markwight and the knights fought side by side they were joined by the remaining noble and his captain. Inona noticed that the seeress had joined the fray. Though her spells were mainly of a defensive nature she blinded one attacker and made another stumble while Inona stepped in and finished them. Samba went from one victim to another disappearing like smoke only to reappear moments later savagely ripping throats and disembowelling others it was a gruesome sight to witness. Shan and the mute took down several more while the sorcerer got several with bolts of lightning.
Several lay dead at the squire's feet the display of skill shown by the squire was truly awe-inspiring, as Inona caught a glimpse in a lull in the battle close to her. The noble was fairing nearly as good also confidently despatching foes. Then she was in the thick of it once more fending of two assailants taking one through the heart ducking low to avoid a swipe to her head she rolled to one side coming up and slashing the man in across his waist spilling entrails on to the ground.
Then all was silent it was all over in a matter of minutes. Shan and the mute went about gathering the dead while the rest took stock of the situation they had lost one of the knights and had three wounded. Sharmane was healing one of the wounded knights when Inona approached.
“When you’ve healed everyone else, can you heal Samba he has some minor cuts,” Inona asked.
“Of course Inona,” she answered a little tiredly, “I don't suppose we’ll get any more sleep this night,” she concluded.
Inona shook her head in reply by the time they had cleared the campsite dawn was beginning to break on the horizon. They decided to burn all the bodies together except the knight giving him a separate pyre. Sir Markwight stood over the knight as his body was consumed in flames
“He was a good friend and valiant knight,” sir Markwight spoke solemnly saluting his fallen comrade.
They rode out quickly as dawn broke leaving the fires still burning wanting to be long gone in case the fires attracted unwanted attention.