The modern border between Targe and Rosanth—optimistically called the final border—was clearly marked by the presence of the Great Divide, a wide, fast-flowing river that originated in the Silver Mountains. There were almost a dozen bridges crossing the Great Divide, some of them wide and grand, others narrow and ... well, still quite grand. This was, after all, Rosanth.
"Huh," said Ashley, as the carriage rumbled across one of the narrower bridges. "Seems like a lot of fuss for just a bridge."
It was built of well-wrought stone, solid pillars supporting it from below, pointed like arrows so that the swift water flowed smoothly around them. The bridge was covered with a steeply angled wooden roof, the posts supporting this carved with a vines-and-grapes motif.
"Rosanthians do enjoy their little luxuries," said Fin. Ashley was sitting beside him at the front of the carriage, Maya and Selene sleeping inside—it was late in the day, and both of them had been training hard. "Although actually all they added was the cover now sheltering us from the last of the sun's light. This bridge has been here since before the Devastation."
"You're wasting words telling me, Professor."
Fin smiled. "I'm not a professor."
"Yeah, but you talk like one."
"And you, young Ashley, talk like a common street thug. Am I to judge you by that?"
Ashley shrugged. "Why not? That's what I am. Ain't proud of it, ain't ashamed of it neither. Judge me or not, it ain't gonna change nothing."
"Indeed not," he said.
They rumbled on for a while. Ashley looked around at the bridge.
"It's bloody long though, ain't it?"
"It is at that. Remarkable feat of engineering. I doubt there's a single person alive today who could replicate its construction."
"Yeah," said Ashley, with a laugh, "not by themself, anyway."
Fin chuckled. "No, perhaps not."
"But I get what you're saying. Like Unity, yeah? Didn't get built, just got found. Well, all of the real impressive buildings, anyway." Ashley laughed again. "Don't reckon any of the places I ever lived were 'found', don't reckon no one would've WANTED to find 'em."
"It certainly seems as though you've had it rough."
"Huh, who hasn't, yeah?"
Fin smiled as the carriage finally reached the end of the bridge, the road continuing in a northward direction, stretching through low green hills and surrounded by tall thin trees, their branches slim and bushy.
"Why are we going to this place?" Ashley asked, after a minute of silence.
"Again, you're asking?"
"Sure. Keep asking the same question, sometimes the answer changes. Works real well with people you don't trust so much."
"And you include me in that group," Fin said, with a smile.
"Yeah, you're surprised?"
"Not surprised, no." Fin adjusted his hat upon his head, then looked at Ashley. "We're travelling to Cerveau because there is a certain item I require, a small statue. My investigations have led me to believe that it is currently at Trinity College, which is located within that city."
"Yeah, that's what you said before," Ashley muttered. "Seems a long way to go for a statue."
"As I said to you before, it's rather more than just a statue."
"Yeah, you did say that. Didn't say MORE than that, though."
"You want an explanation," said Fin. "Very well. To put it simply, in order to have the strength necessary to protect you, and your sister, and Selene, and any others that might share in my dream of a safe haven, I need that statue."
"That still ain't telling me what it does."
"It amplifies ability." Fin gestured to the left, to a lake in the distance. "Do you see that lake over there?"
"Of course I can bloody see it."
"If you possessed the statue, you could heat that entire lake to the point of boiling. If Maya possessed the statue, she could part the waters of that lake and leave the fish on the bottom, gasping for breath."
"Maya wouldn't do that," Ashley said, flatly. "Not unless the fish were attacking me or something."
"No, of course she wouldn't. It was just an example, but a poorly chosen one. I apologise."
Ashley grunted, staring at the lake. The carriage rumbled along. After a few minutes of silence, she spoke again:
"You said we're stopping at a village tonight, yeah?"
"More a town than a village, but yes. Abelard."
"Kinda remember you saying we should avoid towns."
"I did say that, but I must purchase supplies. Besides which, I thought that staying at an inn would be a pleasant change from roughing it."
"Don't make much difference to me. Long as there's food around, I'm good."
"Yes indeed. Fuel for the body, fuel for the spirit."
Ashley considered this.
"Fuel," she said. "Like a fire?"
"In your case especially, very much like a fire."
Ashley grunted again. They travelled on in silence for a further few minutes, and then she spoke once more:
"Maybe you ain't all bad," she said. "Don't go thinking that I trust you, because I don't, and if you even think about using your little mind-energy-whatever tricks on me I'll SHOW you how much like a fire I am. That goes for Maya too, hear me? I don't mind you doing this training or whatever, because it makes her happy, but just watch it, you get what I'm saying?"
Ashley nodded. "All right. Long as we're square about it."
Abelard was a quiet little walled town, not nearly as big as Unity but in no way a village. There were guards at the gate Fin drove the carriage through, the evening watch, but they barely spared him a glance. The streets were wide and uncluttered, the buildings wooden and pretty in a uniform sort of way. Red and yellow roses grew seemingly everywhere, in window boxes and along the sides of the streets, and in tiny parks just big enough for a couple of bench seats perched on a square of grass. The street lamps were tall and elegant and well-spaced, the lanterns they bore burning with a clean light that illuminated the streets nicely.
"Bit bloody fancy and all," was Ashley's comment, and Fin smiled in response.
It wasn't so late but the streets were clear, though the public houses they passed seemed crowded enough. After some searching Fin found what he was looking for; a smallish inn, off the main streets, near to the northern gate. It was called The Gruntled Swine, and its sign had a rather superbly done picture of a pig wearing a black buckle-hat of old-fashioned Rosanthian style, a frothing mug of ale held charmingly in its hoof.
After parking the carriage and waking the girls inside and arranging rooms and stabling and food for the evening, Fin left Selene and the others in a quiet corner of the inn, and he went and had a well-earned bath.
The common room of The Gruntled Swine was more spacious than the inn's cosy exterior had suggested; it had a dozen tables and a large fireplace burning low and warm, and a long bar against one wall, and even a wrestling pit, although it looked as if this particular feature hadn't been used in a good while. The table at which Selene and the others sat was old but sturdy, the chairs hard but comfortable, and all in all there wasn't much to complain about at all. Nor did the food disappoint, three generous bowls of lamb stew with a basket of bread to accompany, and a bowl of green apples besides, and a jug of bittersweet orange tea. The stew could have perhaps used a little more seasoning and the bread was a day old, but the girls barely noticed this.
Ashley glanced around the rest of the inn as she ate. It was a quiet night, only three other tables occupied—two by traders, their profession obvious, the third by a neat little man who ate his stew daintily, dabbing at his lips with a napkin after each precise spoonful. No trouble here, Ashley thought. Good.
That was before the door was flung open and a group of men walked in, stomping their feet and talking loudly at each other. One of them went to lean on the bar and missed, crashing to the floor in a heap of crumpled indignity, drawing howls of laughter from the others.
Without looking directly at the men, Ashley studied them. Five. Drunk. All of them big and moving like they know how to fight. Here for further booze and food.
"Keep your head down," Ashley snapped at Selene, who had also noticed the men and was staring at them. Maya was eating an apple, apparently unconcerned. "Gawking like that's just gonna—"
"I know what I'm doing," said Selene, turning her cold gaze on Ashley. "I don't need your advice."
"Yeah, well, don't come crying to me when you get into trouble," Ashley muttered. "Maya, you done with your stew?"
Maya nodded without looking at her sister.
"We'll go up to our room in a minute then, once they're eating."
"What? No, you won't," Selene stated. "We're waiting here for Fin, as he instructed."
"I don't think so, Princess. Fin didn't know about these louts when he told us to wait for him here."
Selene narrowed her eyes.
"Nevertheless," she said, "his instructions were clear—"
"Okay, yeah, he SAID 'wait for me here', but he MEANT 'keep yourselves out of trouble'. Don't go wandering off, don't talk to no one. We're supposed to be keeping our heads down, I don't see how—"
Ashley stopped talking as she noticed one of the men take an interest in their table. She glanced at Maya then focused her attention on her stew, her shoulders hunched as the man walked towards them.
"Evening, Pretty," he said, addressing Maya. She didn't respond, was sitting completely still, her hands in her lap, the half-eaten apple sitting neatly on the table in front of her, her dark eyes fixed upon it. Ashley gritted her teeth together, then looked up at the man—he wasn't short and he wasn't tall, not exactly ugly but not nearly handsome, his short dark hair and wide grey eyes giving the impression of youth, though he was clearly much older than Ashley and the others.
"Your friends are missing you," Ashley said. "Go join 'em."
"Wasn't talking to you," the man replied. He glanced at Selene, who was gazing levelly at him. "You'd keep, though. Nah, but it's clear who the pick of the table is, pick of the pub actually, and I wager I'd be saying that even if this place were packed full."
"Turn around," Ashley said. "Walk away."
The man chuckled.
"Just chatting, is all," he said. "Just—"
Ashley pushed her chair back with a loud scrape—not standing, but prepared to.
"I ain't telling you again," she said.
"Ooh, scary," said the man. "Mind you, I'm talking about your face. Nothing like this little petal—"
The man stopped talking as Ashley kicked her chair away and stood properly, stepping up to him, her jaw as tightly clenched as her fists.
"What's your problem, girl?" the man said, both laughter and menace in his voice. His friends were taking notice of matters now, standing at the bar and watching with interest. Ashley ignored them.
"My problem?" she said. "That there's some scrap thinks he can talk to my sister—"
"Sister! That's a good one, let me guess, one ma, two dads, no idea who either of 'em are?"
"Ashley," Selene said, her voice low and cool, "don't cause trouble."
In truth Ashley had been about to strike the man, but Selene's voice stayed her hand.
"I'll do what I like," she said, addressing Selene as she continued to stare the man down. "I don't need your advice."
With that word Selene stood and walked away, to sit at a different table.
"Nice friend," the man said.
"She ain't my friend," Ashley spat. "Neither are you."
"My heart's breaking."
"That ain't all that's gonna be breaking if you don't step down."
"Yeah? So make me."
"You're talking dangerous now," Ashley said. "Because I got kind of a rule, someone asks for a beating I gotta give it to 'em."
"Love to see you try. Almost as much as I'd love your sister here—"
Ashley had tensed to strike, but the voice from across the room stopped her. She glanced over to see Fin, dressed impeccably in a dark dinner suit, his cane held in his hand, standing tall and fine beside the bar.
"Now, now," he said, his voice clear and jovial, "I'm sure that whatever problem we have here can be solved without the need for fisticuffs."
"Who the hell are you supposed to be?" the man demanded, looking away from Ashley. With some effort she ignored the beautiful chance to strike him that this gave her.
"You can call me Fin. Tell me, sir, what is the problem here?"
"No problem, not for me," said the man. "Just wanted to have a nice chat."
"Well, who could blame you?" Fin said. "However, we've had a hard day's travelling, and we're all a little tired. With no disrespect meant to yourself, our plans were to simply go to bed after eating."
The man considered this.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, fair enough." He glanced at Ashley, who was still glaring at him. "Maybe another time, then."
Ashley didn't stop glaring at the man, but her fists unclenched and the tension in her shoulders disappeared.
"Now then," Fin said to the girls, "if you've all finished your meals, I think it's probably bed time. Come along, I've checked our rooms and—"
"Gotta wonder," came a voice, a new voice, from one of the men standing at the bar—he was older, with a weathered face and hard blue eyes. "What's an old fart like you doing travelling with a bunch of kids?"
Fin laughed. "An excellent question. We're part of a mercenary company, the Silent Dawn, or rather the parents of these children are. I serve as their tutor and guardian."
"Silent Dawn, eh?" said the older man. "Used to do some work with them, back in the day. Old Travis still banging around?"
"Unfortunately," said Fin. "And as hard a sod as ever."
The older man chuckled. "Yeah, ain't got too many happy memories of him and that bloody 'proper discipline'!"
"He always was one to take things too far," Fin said. He glanced at the girls, then smiled at the older man. "I must escort my charges to their rooms, but it's been a pleasure meeting a fellow 'dullard'."
The older man chuckled again. "Don't see many in these parts. Give Travis a kick in the arse from me when you see him. My name's Gerry, he'll remember me."
"A message I would be more than happy to pass on," said Fin. "Good night. And to you sir," he said, addressing the man who had wanted to 'chat'. "I wish you a very good evening, and offer my apologies for any hard feelings you may have."
"Nah, no hard feelings," the man said—he was already sat at the bar, the mug of ale before him half-drained, his stew yet untouched. "Good luck with your whatever."
"And to you. Girls, come along now."
Selene was already at Fin's side, and Ashley and Maya followed within seconds. Soon they were out of the common room and ascending the stairs to their rooms.
"Gotta admit," Ashley said, "that was pretty good. You do all that with your energy stuff? Read his mind or whatever?"
"No, that was simple bluff coupled with good fortune," Fin replied. "I did indeed have some association with the Silent Dawn in years gone by. I encouraged the gentleman to think of Mr Travis with an imprint, as he is one of the longest-serving, most prominent and most stable members of that particular company. Ah, here is your room." Fin held the door open and the girls walked in—the room was small and basic, with no windows and three simple beds. Fin walked in behind them, closed the door, and went to light the lamp—then he turned to Ashley.
"Miss Ashley. Would you be so kind?"
Ashley looked at him, then clucked her tongue and touched the lamp's wick, which lit instantly.
"Perhaps a mundane application, but still always impressive," Fin said. "Where was I? Mr Travis, yes. I sensed some feelings of distaste towards him from 'Gerry', and thus a certain smoothness of interaction was born. In truth I never had any problems with Mr Travis's approach to discipline, but sometimes it's best to follow the flow of opinion, yes? Now, to bed, and to sleep. Tomorrow will bring another long day of travel."
"Um," said Maya. "We're going to that big city, right?"
"To Grand Cerveau, yes," said Fin.
"Is it safe there? You said this was, um, this was a dangerous country for, um, people like us ... what if we get into trouble? Even tonight, I thought we were—"
"Nah, forget that, Maya," said Ashley. "You've got me to look after you, remember?"
"I know," said Maya.
"And Selene and I, also," said Fin. "Rest assured that your safety is my primary concern."
Maya stood there, hands clasped together in front of her, then she nodded.
"Okay," she said. "I just got worried. Before, in the eating room, I really thought there was going to be a fight. And it wasn't even about us being ... different. I just was thinking ... if someone found out, that we can do stuff like we can ... that it would cause ... more trouble."
"Maya, it's okay," Ashley said. "Just go to sleep now and quit fretting. Tomorrow you probably won't even remember that you're worried."
"Okay, Ash," said Maya, smiling at her sister. "Um, goodnight, Mr Fin. Thank you for helping stop the fight. I know Ash could have beaten that guy easily," she added quickly, "but I think ... it's better when there's no fighting."
"I agree completely," said Fin. "Goodnight to you, and to you, Miss Ashley, and to you, Selene. Have a good rest; another long day awaits us tomorrow."
The following morning brought bright sunshine and sharp winds blowing down from the mountains, carrying with them the promise of a cold winter.
"This town is so pretty," Maya said, her face and hands pressed up against the glass of the carriage's window. "So many flowers and there's grass everywhere, even outside people's houses."
She glanced back at Selene—the girl was sitting with her hands crossed demurely in her lap, her back straight and her eyes closed.
"Are you focusing?" Maya asked.
There was no response from Selene. Maya winced.
"Sorry," she said, hurriedly turning away to look out the window again.
In the front, Ashley was looking at the city with different eyes.
"There's something weird about this place," she said. "Too quiet, for one. Ain't heard even one merchant since we've been here, and there ain't nearly enough people walking around. And where are all the damn guards?"
"Rosanth is different to Targe in many ways," Fin said. "In fact there are more than a few guards around, but they only wear uniforms when on official duties, such as when they're stationed at the gates. Otherwise they dress like regular citizens."
"What the hell," Ashley said. "So how the crap are you supposed to know who's a guard and who isn't?"
"I believe that's rather the point." Fin glanced back at a quiet knock from inside the carriage. The little hatch between the front and the back came open, and Maya's worried face appeared.
"Um," she said. "Can I ride up front? I'm just ... I ... oh, I want to see the town properly."
"Sure," Ashley said. "Prof, stop the carriage a moment, yeah?"
"Prof," Fin repeated, with a small smile. He guided the horses to a stop, and Maya got out of the carriage and joined them at the front, sitting close to Ashley.
"It's a much better view from out here," she said, after a minute. "All these flowers are so pretty."
"Yeah, real nice," Ashley muttered. She leant forward and squinted. "Is that the gate up there?"
"Yes," said Fin. "But I don't think we'll have any trouble."
As they drew closer to the gate, however, Fin found cause to doubt his own prediction; there were several familiar faces amongst the guards stationed there.
"Hello again," said the man who had wanted to 'chat' the previous evening. His voice was not entirely friendly. "Lovely morning, isn't it?"
"Indeed, yes," Fin replied, as he brought the carriage to a halt.
"Thought I might see you around this part of the town," the man said. "Was hoping to, actually."
"Ah, yes?" said Fin. "Why was that?"
The man shrugged. "Just got to thinking about things. I'm a man who likes to do my job proper. If there's something going on, I want to know about it."
"Spoken like a true watchman," Fin said, with a light chuckle. The man's response to this was a thin smile.
"Yeah," he said. "So let's go over your story one more time, that all right with you?"
"Of course—I, also, am a man who likes things to be done properly," said Fin. "As I said last night, we are with a mercenary company, the Silent Dawn, and I am the tutor and guardian of these girls."
"Yeah, that's what you said all right," said the man. "Gotta wonder, though, what you're doing all the way up here. Silent Dawn work out of Targe, far as I've heard. Way down south near the Crovian border. What you said to old Gerry last night, yeah, that was enough for him, and maybe I believe that you were part of the Silent Dawn once, but right now? Got doubts, fella. Got real doubts."
"I'm not quite sure what it is you're implying," Fin said.
"Implying?" The man looked around at his fellow guards, most of whom were grinning. "Don't remember implying anything. Reckon you'd know if I was doing any implying. Just asking questions and raising doubts, like a good little watchman should. Why don't you step down off that carriage, sir, and let's have a proper chat inside. Just friendly, like. No implications."
"I hardly see the necessity," said Fin. "Whether or not you believe me, the fact of the matter is that I am a member of the Silent Dawn, and that these girls are in my care—"
"These girls," the man said. "Yeah. That's what really got me to wondering. Like Gerry said to you, right off the mark, what's an old fart like you doing with a bunch of young girls?"
"Hm," said Fin. "I'm sure you have a theory you'd like to share with us."
"Got a couple, actually. Most likely being that you've trained these girls up as thieves, I seen how quick Pretty there is with her hands, way she ate. And Ugly there, well, she's got muscle written all over her, even a citizen could see that. Of course, there are other possibilities."
"Such as?" Fin asked.
"Wouldn't do to say, out here in the open, on a nice morning like this. Break the mood, it would."
"Say it anyway," Fin said, gazing directly at the man.
"If you insist. Had a couple of travelling brothels through here lately—"
"That what you think, huh?" Ashley interrupted. "That we're a bunch of whores?"
"Not you, maybe," the man replied, his voice level. "But your sister there—"
"My sister you wanted to 'chat' to, you mean?" Ashley asked. "Yeah, I know why you're asking these questions. Know why you're interested in us. Got nothing to do with Fin here, or me, and everything to do with the way you were looking at my sister in that pub—"
"All right, that's enough," the man growled.
"Nah, it ain't near enough. You WANT us to be a travelling brothel. Ain't THAT what this is all about?"
The man shifted position. "Now hang on a minute—"
"You do realise," Fin said, firm reproach in his voice, "that young Maya here is only just thirteen?"
The man glanced around at his fellow guards. None of them were grinning now.
"You may be disappointed to hear this," Fin said, "but we are NOT a travelling brothel. The very idea ... neither are we a band of thieves, as exciting as that might sound. The truth of it is that I AM the guardian of these girls, and their tutor, and that we are travelling to meet their parents in Grand Cerveau. No, it's not a usual state of affairs, but if you're familiar at all with the operation of mercenary companies then you'll know that 'usual states of affairs' don't occur often in that line of work. Further than that I couldn't possibly comment, as the nature of their parents' current contract is rather sensitive. Now. May we proceed through those gates, and leave you to more important matters?"
The man cleared his throat.
"Uh, yeah," he said. "Reckon I might've been a bit hasty there—"
"Yes, well, perhaps so," said Fin. "None of us can claim to be perfect, can we? Good day to you, sir."
"Yeah. Uh. Take care."
Fin nodded to the man, and to the other guards, and then urged the horses forward, and they left the town of Abelard behind.
"That," Fin said, as they rumbled away, "was rather hairy. Ashley, I appreciated your help there. Quick thinking."
Ashley shrugged one shoulder. "Just saying what I thought. Would've liked to beat that leer off his face."
"As your sister so wisely said last night, it's better when there's no fighting."
There was the sound of a latch being undone, and Selene looked out from inside the carriage.
"Is something happening?" she asked. Fin smiled back at her.
"Thankfully," he said, "the answer is 'no'."