Crawling through the bushes surrounding Haven House, Sharryl paused to free her black hair, which had snagged on a branch, tucking it behind her slightly pointed ears. At six feet tall but nicely proportioned, Sharryl Cylnt was considered beautiful by many. Particularly the young non-wulfin male trainees. She wore a pair of black pants, sleeveless black shirt, leather jerkin, and a pair of low black boots. “Hellsfire! Ciel, we could be doing a hundred other things which are more fun than this.”
As Ciel looked back over her shoulder, her gold-flecked blue eyes sparkled with mischief. “We were told to practice our scout skills and I thought now would be a good time.” Shorter than Sharryl by five inches, Ciel was on the thin side but with wiry strength and good speed. Like many of the female trainees, she kept her silvery blond hair short. She wore the same type of clothing as her friend, but her boots were brown.
“Why now and why here?” Sharryl moved alongside her. “Is something going on that I don’t know about?”
Hearing footsteps, Ciel held up a hand warning Sharryl to stay still and keep quiet. Holding their breath, they hoped they wouldn’t be discovered. After what seemed like ages, the footsteps faded away and Ciel heaved a sigh of relief. “That was close,” she whispered, resuming her crawl through the bushes. “Shar, didn’t you pay attention to the direction we’re heading? And must I remind you what happened after breakfast?”
Sharryl grabbed her friend’s ankle, bringing her to an abrupt stop. “Are you crazy? If we get caught, we’re in deep trouble.”
Brushing small green leaves from her hair, Ciel grinned. “You can’t tell me you’re not curious about what’s going to happen to Raven Kael.”
“Of course I’m curious,” Sharryl whispered harshly, “but I don’t want to get kicked out of training for eavesdropping.”
“Don’t worry! We’ve made it this far without anyone discovering us. Just a little further and we’ll have reached our goal.”
“Well, since I have five silver commons riding on the High Guardian’s decision concerning Raven….” Sharryl met Ciel’s steady gaze “Lead the way, my friend.”
“Which way did you bet?” Ciel swatted away a fly.
“That Raven wouldn’t be dismissed.”
Ciel stopped and looked back at her, eyebrows raised. “And you say I’m crazy? The High Guardian has to dismiss Raven for fighting.”
“Then Polaig Fardon and the others better be dismissed too. Especially Pol, since drawing a dagger in the middle of a fistfight is wrong.” Forgetting that her hands were dirty Sharryl rubbed her nose,. “Besides, since Raven arrived yesterday, she’s been in four other fights and wasn’t dismissed.”
“True.” Ciel agreed, then thought of another point. “But in this morning’s fight, Raven broke Polaig’s sword arm.”
Sharryl wasn’t convinced. “I’ll win the bet with the others, Ciel. I guarantee it.” Her voice brimmed with confidence.
“And what would you do with your winnings, Scout Trainee Cylnt?” The voice from above brought the half-elves to an uneasy halt.
“Shar, I think we’ve got company.” Ciel peered through the bushes. Seeing dagger hilts protruding from the tops of black, gold-trimmed boots, she looked up and groaned. “Well met, Guardian Shandra.”
Shandra Tyl crouched down. “What are you up to, Trainee Diost?” Shandra’s look was stern, but her gold-green eyes sparkled with ill-concealed amusement. The morning light reflected off the silver dagger earring she wore in her right ear. “I strongly suggest the two of you come out of there before anyone else happens along.” Dressed in black leather pants, sleeveless black shirt, and a black vest all trimmed in gold; Shandra was as tall as Sharryl but more muscular. The clothing she wore was a typical work uniform of an oathed Guardian. Around her waist was a sword belt that held a long sword and a pair of daggers. Around her neck was a gold medallion with a crescent moon superimposed by a sword.
Sharryl quickly followed her advice and was soon standing beside the older half-elf. “Mistress Shandra, I can explain–”
“It’s my fault, Guardian Shandra.” Ciel joined Sharryl. “It was my idea to–” She shut up, reluctant to reveal what they were doing.
Straightening up, Shandra studied the dirt-covered black breeches and jerkins worn by the trainees. “You should thank the goddess Celena I’m the one who caught you. If you’d reached your goal, our leader would have known and both of you would be in worse trouble than Raven.”
Scuffing the toe of her boot in the dirt, Sharryl eyed the cloth badge that Guardian Shandra wore. It consisted of a gold crescent moon with a silver sword superimpose over it. All oathed Guardians wore it and she wondered if she just ruined her chances of getting one. “What happens now?”
Crossing her well-muscled, deeply tanned arms on her chest, Shandra fought the urge to smile. “Since the two of you have nothing better to do than spy on High Guardian Valeri, perhaps digging a new garden for two retired Guardians will keep you occupied.”
Ciel rolled her eyes. “Digging! We’re not farmers or common laborers! We’re Guardian Scout Trainees!”
“Keep up that attitude and you’ll find yourself mucking out the stables for the rest of your training.” Shandra gave Ciel a hard look. “Ellyn and Tyor need the help and asked for a couple of trainees to assist them. A little manual labor won’t kill you, Ciel.”
“Mistress Shandra, I don’t mind helping them.” Sharryl then grinned. “It’s better than mucking out stables anytime!”
Shandra nodded in satisfaction. “Good.” She motioned for them to walk with her. “I know you’re curious to find out what’s going to happen to Raven, but you’ll just have to wait like the rest of us. I, for one, doubt she’ll be sent home. Raven’s been through enough as it is without being dismissed. Taken prisoner on her first training patrol, then sold into slavery….” Shandra shook her head. “Sending Raven home would be the wrong thing to do. I suspect High Guardian Valeri has other plans for your classmate.”
* * * *
“Val, send her home! Now! If Raven stays here any longer, she’ll probably kill one of her classmates instead of breaking an arm.” Myranna Alder paced before the large oak desk. “I’ll escort her myself!”
Watching her friend and second-in-command, Valeri Zelont sighed. “Sorry, Myranna, but I can’t do that. I’m under orders from Silon and Parn not to send Raven home if she gets into minor trouble.” Val ran her fingers through short brown hair peppered with grey. “Where’s Raven now?”
Myranna stopped her pacing, tossing her long blondish-brown braid back over her shoulder. “She better be standing across the hall where I told her to wait.” Her sky blue eyes hardened. “If she’s not there, Raven Kael will wish she had stayed in Parn.”
“You know, if I were to send Raven home, then Polaig and the others would suffer the same punishment. In fact, where Polaig is concerned, you better have a convincing reason for me to let her stay in scout training. She had no right to draw a dagger during the fight and you know it.” Val eyed her tall, muscular friend. “Why did she do it?”
Myranna plopped in the chair before the desk, turning the gold dagger earring in her right ear lobe. A nervous habit. “Pol said she felt her life was in danger and only meant to frighten Raven. She never intended to really hurt her.”
Valeri’s eyes narrowed. “Why would she feel threatened? There were three other trainees backing her up!” She frowned. “None of these fights make any sense!”
“They’re young and have a need to prove themselves. I was like that when I was sixteen and so were you, Val.” Myranna chuckled. “And if I were you, I’d get ready for more such behavior once those male trainees move in tomorrow. Thirty sixteen-year-old males and forty-seven sixteen-year-old females in one building is going to make for some interesting times.”
Val sighed. “I’m well-aware of what could happen, Myranna. You really didn’t have to remind me.” She stood. “Since the move isn’t until tomorrow, I’ll worry about it then. Right now, I have to deal with Raven, and then I have to meet with the Baroness of Aln. Send Scout Trainee Kael in, then I want you to find Alandra Firesword. I think she should become Raven’s mentor.”
“Interesting choice. Why Alandra? Celene Fiold would be more appropriate. She won’t put up with any nonsense from a trainee, no matter who they are.” Myranna slowly got to her feet. “Besides Alandra’s never been a mentor before.”
“Celene is not the mentor type for anyone. Besides, those two are too much alike and would probably kill each other before the day is out. Alandra knows how Raven was raised in Parn and she speaks wulfin fluently. Which is one language Raven responds to when she’s angry.” Val rubbed her eyes, feeling older than dirt. “Keeping Raven out of trouble will be Alandra’s main task.”
Myranna headed for the door. “That’s fine, but who will keep Alandra out of trouble?” She left the room before Val could reply.
“Gods! I sometimes wonder if staying High Guardian is worth the aggravation.” Val thought, as she turned to stare out the window. The scrape of a boot on the wood floor alerted her that Raven had entered.
“Lady Valeri, I’ll be packed and ready to leave within the hour. No one needs to escort me back to Parn. I can travel alone.” The trainee’s voice was calm but held a touch of anger and fear. At six feet tall, thin but muscular with short black hair and dark grey eyes, Raven wasn’t considered beautiful but a attractive. Her slightly pointed ears and narrow face showed she was a half-elf, one of many at Haven House.
“What am I to do with you, Raven? You arrived yesterday and already you’ve been involved in five fights with four other trainees.” Val glanced over her shoulder at the young half-elf. “Did Triust Lodro teach you to start fights with four people at the same time?”
“N-No.” Raven absently rubbed a heavy scar circling her neck. “Lady Valeri, I’m sorry for what happened. I didn’t mean to break anyone’s arm.”
Turning to face Raven, Val leaned on the back of her chair. “Apparently I didn’t get through to you when we talked yesterday. Or did you pretend to listen?” She avoided Raven’s thunderous grey eyes, unnerved by the anger they held. “Myranna wants me to send you back to Parn and I really don’t blame her. However, I am under orders not to dismiss you. Are you deliberately trying my patience?”
“No, my lady.” Raven tugged on a sleeve of her black shirt, unsure as to what she should say.
“Then why were you fighting again?” The tall woman’s voice nearly rose to a shout. Val turned back to the window to regain her composure.
“No matter what I say will change what’s happened. But Polaig had no right to draw that dagger when I was unarmed.” Raven ran her fingers through short unruly raven black hair. “Even if I was armed, I was taught not to draw weapons in a fist-fight.”
Turning to face Raven, Val suddenly noticed the six-foot tall young female wasn’t armed. “Where are your weapons? Did Myranna take them from you?”
“ No. You said yesterday it would be better if I didn’t carry my weapons while on Haven House grounds when not training. So I left my daggers and sword in my room this morning.” Raven shrugged. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”
At a loss for words, Val stared at Raven’s blackened left eye. “Did one of the healers see to your injury?”
Raven nodded. “Priestess Siena did what she could. There’s no permanent damage and I can see out of it. She could only heal it enough to bring down the worst of the swelling.”
“Hmmm.” Not comfortable with the young half-elf being as tall as her Val waved her to a seat. “Sit down.” Val sat as well, deciding that shouting would solve nothing. “I realize this past year has been extremely difficult for you, Raven, and I know what happened to you, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Fighting, however, is the worst way to deal with any problems you may have. To that end, I’m assigning Guardian Scout Alandra Firesword as your mentor. She’s someone you can go to if you have a problem, questions, or just need to talk. Alandra speaks fluent wulfin, and is familiar with your upbringing in Parn. I think you’ll like her.”
Sitting on the edge of the chair, Raven shook her head. “High Guardian Valeri, I should go home. Coming back to Haven House to complete my training as a Guardian Scout is a mistake.” She stared at her scarred hands. “Triust Lodro and Priestess Kiya were wrong in thinking I should return here.”
“Raven, you’re putting me in a difficult position.” Val stood and resumed her pacing, wishing she could have a day off like the other Guardians. “When a trainee reports in, they are committed to the four-year training period. In your case it’s now two, but that’s beside the point. Don’t you want to become a Guardian anymore?”
“Yes,” Raven timidly replied.
“Then why this sudden change of heart?” Val wanted to understand.
“I thought returning to Haven House wouldn’t be too different from when I first came here.” Raven clasped and unclasped her hands, unwilling to look at the woman. “But it’s very different! Except for the wulfin here, I no longer trust the others. I–they frighten me, Lady Valeri.”
Taken aback by the admission, Val sat heavily in her chair. “Raven, do I frighten you?”
Raven barely nodded. “You aren’t wulfin.”
“The letter Triust Lodro sent me before you left Parn stated you no longer had difficulty dealing with non-wulfin. You were training with them and had gone on several Day Patrols.” Val picked up a quill pen to keep from drumming her fingers. “You can’t turn your back on the races you’re born of.”
“Elves and humans mean nothing to me, Lady Valeri.” Raven’s right hand clenched into a fist. “Wulfin raised me and accepted me as one of their own. Wulfin never hurt their own people!”
Listening to the half-elf, Val got an idea. “You have a right to be angry with those who hurt you, Raven. It would be unusual if you weren’t.” She set the quill pen down. “However, at Haven House you must set aside your prejudice and anger in order to successfully complete your training.”
“And if I can’t?” Raven gripped the arms of the chair to hide their trembling.
“As I said, I can’t send you home just because you want to leave. Only if you commit a crime such as theft.” Val briefly smiled. “And I don’t think you would do that. Correct?”
“Correct.” Raven grudgingly agreed, staring at the floor.
“In light of the circumstances, your need to get along with the non-wulfin trainees is extremely important, so I am going to put you in charge of the scout trainees. Since I need to select Classleaders for each of the classes this training year, you, Raven Kael, are the Guardian Scout Classleader, at least for the time being. There are a couple others who will also get the chance before I make my final decision.” Raven could only stare at the woman, dumbfounded. Val continued. “Guardian Myranna will explain the responsibilities you now have and Guardian Shandra Tyl will give you more details since she was once a Scout Classleader. To further keep you out of mischief, at least for today, you’ll help Shandra pick up the supplies from the village.”
Raven scowled, cautiously wiping away a trickle of sweat from her bruised left cheek. “The others in my class won’t like this, Lady Valeri.”
“It doesn’t matter whether they like it or not. You can’t pick and choose who you’re going to follow in the Guardians and it’s time they learned this.” Val clasped her hands together. “There’s one other thing I’d like you to do, Raven. You are to limit your contact with wulfin here at Haven House when you aren’t training and in the village. I want you to spend most of your time with non-wulfin for the immediate future.”
“You can’t do this!” Raven jumped to her feet, knocking the chair over. “You have no right separating me from my people! Damn it, I won’t stand for it!”
Myranna and Alandra heard Raven’s outburst through the closed door. “By Celena! Who’s shouting?”
“That’s your new charge.” Myranna replied, hiding a grin.
Alandra’s green eyes widened. “Val’s finally making me a mentor? What made her change her mind?”
“Your new charge is a handful for anyone else here except maybe Celene, but Val doesn’t think it would work out with those two. Our esteemed leader believes you are best suited for helping this one readjust to living here again.” Myranna frowned. “I still think it’s a mistake for Raven Kael to stay.”
“I’m to be Triunal Raven’s mentor? Hellsfire! Seems my luck’s just taken a turn for the better.” Alandra’s eyes sparkled with wonder. “Good thing I came back from my assignment early.”
Myranna eyed her friend suspiciously. “Alandra, why did you come back early? You weren’t expected for another three months.”
“No reason at all.” She suddenly busied herself by dusting off her black gold-trimmed leather jerkin.
“Did Lady Cyrella order you to return to Haven House?” Myranna wouldn’t let the matter drop.
“She might have suggested I was needed here instead of in her library. You know how Loremasters can be.” Alandra smoothed down her short red hair with her fingers.
“How much damage this time?” Myranna braced herself for the worst.
Alandra sighed. “Only minor. As I cast a spell to light some candles, Cyrella’s daughter Serena bumped my chair. A few pieces of paper with some notes on them were scorched, nothing more. Before that, there was the incident with some ink and an old map…”
Myranna held up her hand. “Enough! I really don’t need to hear this.” She shook her head in exasperation as she reached for the doorknob. “What are we to do with you, Alandra?”
She shrugged. “What can I say? Things happen.”
“Being mentor to the trainee in this office just might keep you on your toes.” The sound of something hitting the floor and breaking made Myranna wince.
“If nothing else, I’ll have interesting days ahead.” Alandra followed her friend into the room.
Entering the office they found Raven picking up pieces of glass from a bottle she accidentally knocked over. Val was busy drying off several scrolls. She looked up, a pained expression on her face. “Welcome back, Alandra. I’d offer you some wine, but there’s been an accident.”
“Good thing I’m not thirsty.” Alandra met Raven’s eyes and bowed to her. “Cylarel, Triunal Raven.”
Getting to her feet, Raven bowed in return. “Cylarel, Guardian Alandra.”
Looking her over, Alandra noticed the black eye. “What happened to you? Didn’t you have one of the healers tend to that? Val, what’s been going on?”
Val checked the marked candle burning in its holder and cursed. “Damn! I’m going to be late!” Dropping the cloth she had been using, she grabbed a document case from its hook on the wall, hastily stuffing papers and scrolls into it. “Myranna, Raven is now the Classleader for the scout trainees. Give her the silver torque and the pair of bracers with silver studs.” She latched the case closed. “Scout Classleader Raven Kael, will you obey the restrictions I’ve placed on you?”
Raven placed her right fist over her heart and bowed in a wulfin salute. “I swear upon my Oath of Triunal to obey your orders High Guardian Valeri Zelont.”
“Very well.” Val slung the case strap over her shoulder. “Myranna, Shandra will be coming by. Please make sure you give her the black scroll case.”
“When should I expect you back?” Myranna asked as she went to a wall shelf and picked up the scroll case.
“The way my day’s been going, not before sunset. I hope Baroness Kylal doesn’t have any surprises for me.” Taking her sword belt from the back of her chair, Val buckled it on. “Alandra, make sure your young charge stays out of trouble. She’ll be helping Shandra pick up the supplies in the village, but before she leaves have Raven select a horse from the stable. And make sure she’s wearing her weapons when she goes to the village.”
Alandra followed Val to the door, troubled by how Raven was acting. “Val, what’s wrong with her? Why was she fighting and why didn’t Siena or Ailen heal her?”
“When I get back, we’ll have a nice long talk about Raven.” Val looked back to where the trainee stood. “Good luck, Alandra.”
Val hurried out and down the hall, leaving Alandra staring after her in bewilderment. With a shrug, she walked over to Raven. “Put down the glass, cub. Myranna, do you have any orders?”
Myranna perched on the corner of the desk, watching Raven carefully place the pieces of glass on a piece of paper. “The two of you might as well go to the stables so Raven can select a horse. From there, you’ll go with Shandra to the village.”
“What about the trappings of the Classleader?” Alandra sat in the chair Raven had occupied.
“Thanks for reminding me.” Myranna removed a key from her pocket and unlocked a desk drawer. From within she brought out a torque made of twisted silver strands and a pair of fine leather bracers imbedded with silver studs. “Scout Classleader Raven Kael, these let anyone who sees them know that you are a Guardian Classleader. Take good care of them and don’t you dare use them for stakes in gambling or I’ll skin you alive.”
Raven took the torque with a look of undisguised loathing. “Perfect. I get rid of one collar only to get stuck with another.” She muttered, placing the torque around her neck, wishing it covered the heavy scar. The bracers didn’t bother her as much since she usually wore a pair when she practiced with her weapons.
“Guardian Myranna, what are my duties as Classleader?”
“Basically you make sure your classmates make it to class each day, help them in their studies and training if they need it, and make up the guard and patrol roster. Also you assign the weekly chores. Shandra will help you with those the first couple of times. You also submit weekly evaluations of the trainees’ progress” Myranna tossed the scroll case in the air and caught it. “I think it’s a mistake making you leader of the scout trainees, but Val believes it will do you some good. Don’t make a liar out of the High Guardian, Raven or your next two years will be the most miserable you’ve ever had.”
Alandra reached out, patting Raven’s arm in reassurance. “Cub, don’t let the over-muscled bully frighten you. This side of her comes from being Celene’s lover. Ignore her and she’ll go away.”
“Don’t you wish,” Myranna growled. “Raven, while we’re waiting for Shandra, go to your room, change into your work uniform, and get your weapons. Dismissed.”
Raven bowed slightly and headed for the door. Alandra called after her, “Put on a sleeveless jerkin. Loading a wagon is hot work and I wouldn’t want you to keel over from the heat.”
Nodding, Raven left the office closing the door behind her. Heading down the hall towards the stairs leading to the second floor, she couldn’t keep from thinking how big of a mistake it was to come back. ‘Hellsfire! This is worse than I ever imagined it could be! Why won’t Lady Valeri send me home? How am I supposed to adjust being a trainee again?!’
On the second floor, Raven paused at the first door on her left and started to turn the knob, when the door across from hers opened. The young wulfin male grinned. “Silar! I heard you arrived yesterday and I’m sorry Col and I weren’t here to greet you!” The speaker came over and gave Raven a hug, then stepped back when he noticed the neck ornament. “Scout Classleader? That’s an honor, cosil.” Like all of his race, his body was covered in short fur, he had a slightly pronounced muzzle, and fur growing from the tips of his pointed ears.
Raven grinned despite how she was feeling. “Sulnt! Where’ve you been?” She grasped his fur-covered arm. “I really needed to talk to you and your twin yesterday and this morning.”
The young wulfin male followed her as she entered her room. “Col and I have been staying in the soldier’s barracks in the village. We’ve been helping the non-wulfin male trainees pack. They’ll be moving into Haven House tomorrow.” Sulnt sat on the neatly made bed. “But what of you? How did you get that black eye?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it. I’ve been in five fights since I arrived yesterday and as punishment, Lady Valeri made me leader of the scout trainees.” Raven knelt by the chest at the foot of her bed and started rummaging through it. “To top it all off, I’m also supposed to restrict my socializing with wulfin. She seems to think it’ll help me readjust to being back here.” She pulled out a black leather jerkin and a pair of linsey-woolsey breeches. She pulled off her boots and quickly undressed. Around wulfin Raven was unembarrassed.
Sulnt shook his head upon seeing the scars that covered her body “Silar, I wish we could have been there at Parn for you. But Lady Valeri thought it more important we continue our training uninterrupted.” He frowned slightly. “As for your restricting the contact you have with wulfin, that’s not going to be easy for you, cosil. Even in Parn, before you, me Tanera and Col came here for training, you preferred to spend most of your time with wulfin.”
Raven winced at the mention of her cousin’s name, locking away the grief that was never far from the surface. “I know, but what can I do? I promised Lady Valeri I would obey her orders.” Raven quickly did up the lacing of her jerkin and pulled her boots back on. “I should have just stayed in Parn, brunar. Triust Lodro would have understood if I refused to come back here.”
“Perhaps. But being Triunal means you have to deal with wulfin and non-wulfin fairly. One day you’ll be Triust, and many citizens in the wulfin communities are non-wulfin.” Sulnt eyed his foster sister. “Raven, it will work out. Trust me.” He went over and gave her a quick hug. “I better get going. I have to get back to the barracks to hand out the room assignments. Plus, I don’t want you getting in any more trouble because you’re talking with me.”
“Thanks, Sulnt. Give my best to Col and tell him what my punishment is. I’ll figure something out so the three of us can get together and talk. I’ve really missed the two of you.”
“And we’ve missed you, silar.” He stood, smoothing the reddish fur on his arm. “Take care and try not to get in any more fights. And if you can, stop by the barracks in the village and I’ll point out the non-wulfin males who are in your scout class.”
“If I get a chance, I will.” Raven promised. Sulnt left and Raven closed the chest. “Guess I better get my sword and daggers and head back downstairs. Guardian Alandra’s probably wondering where I am.” She murmured as she sheathed two daggers in the tops of her boots and two more in her belt. From the wall next to her bed, she took down a the sword belt that held her bastard sword. “At least I can go armed. It didn’t feel right without my weapons.”
As Raven reached the bottom of the stairs, Shandra came in through the side door. “Well met, Raven.” She noticed the torque and bracers, “or should I say ‘Classleader Raven’. So Val’s picked a highly qualified trainee for the position. Excellent! If you have any questions or need advice, just ask. When I was a leader of my scout class, I had problems in the beginning but soon got the hang of it.”
Raven walked at her side. “Won’t this anger the others in my class?”
“Maybe the two or three who believed they would be chosen but I think are least qualified; unless they start improving their training.” Shandra rested a hand on Raven’s shoulder as they walked. “The first and most important thing to remember is that you are the leader. Don’t let any trainee try to usurp your position or undermine any orders you give.”
“I was leader of my training litter in Parn, but no wulfin cub would think of going against my orders. I doubt the non-wulfin here will feel the same way.” Raven sighed. “Guardian Shandra, couldn’t you talk to Lady Valeri and ask her to select someone else? I’m afraid my advancement will only make things worse.”
They paused outside the office door. “Raven, you’ve already proven what you can do by coming back to Haven House to complete your training. It took great courage to return after what happened.” Shandra gave her shoulder a slight squeeze. “Trust me, youngster. I know what I’m talking about.”
When the two half-elves entered the office, Myranna yelled, “Catch!” as she tossed the scroll case in Shandra’s direction. “Val says everything’s in there.”
“Good.” Shandra turned to Alandra. “Welcome back, my friend.”
“Thanks. I hear you need help fetching the supplies from Aln.” Alandra stood and stretched.
“I could use a couple volunteers.” Shandra tucked the scroll case in her belt.
“Then Raven and I are volunteering. Val wants the two of us to keep out of trouble today.” Alandra grinned and lowered her voice, “but she said nothing about tonight.” In a louder voice, “Myranna, if there’s nothing else, the three of us will be going.”
“You’re excused and don’t forget to have Raven choose a horse.” Myranna waved them out.
“Since Lyta’s at the stables, Raven can do that while I hitch up the team. We have a lot of supplies to get, so we’ll probably have the noon meal and the evening meal at The Society.” Shandra remarked as the three of them headed for the door in the back of the building.
“Sounds good. Maybe we could wander the Open Market if we have some extra time.” Alandra glanced at Raven. “Did you see much of the village when you arrived yesterday?”
“No. I came with four wulfin Guardians who were returning from leave. We took the trails through the Dorn Forest.” Raven looked around as they exited the stone building. “Guardian Alandra, why aren’t any trainees at weapons or archery practice? Since I arrived yesterday, I’ve only seen Guardians in the training yard.”
“Before I answer let’s get something straight; you can call me Alandra. None of this ‘Guardian’, ‘my lady’, or ‘mistress’ business. I’m not old enough for such dignified titles and find them foolish.”
“But you’re an elder! I can’t…”
Alandra held up a hand. “Cub, I hate giving orders. Just use my name. Keta?”
Raven smiled slightly when her mentor used the wulfin word for ‘understand’. “Ketal. Now will you answer my question, Alandra?”
“Certainly. Trainees like to take full advantage of these breaks in training. Some are either out hunting or riding.” Alandra rolled her eyes. “I bet the majority of them are at the soldiers’ barracks visiting their classmates.”
Shandra shook her head slightly disappointed. “You’re probably right and a number of those youngsters need the extra practice. I swear, sometimes they are barely doing enough to get by in training. I’d hate to see what would happen if they find themselves in the field as a Guardian and don’t know what they should do.”
Alandra nodded in agreement. “When training resumes in two days, maybe you and I should come up with some unique group drills to show them what happens when they don’t practice the skills they’ve been learning.”
“A most excellent idea, Alandra. Raven, what do you think? Being Classleader means you’ll be helping to set up some of the drills.” Shandra glanced over her shoulder, seeing Raven walking a few feet behind them. “You don’t have to bring up the rear. We’re not on patrol.”
Alandra slowed her pace until Raven caught up. “What’s wrong, cub? Still bothered by what Myranna said?”
“No. Just wondering why non-wulfin males have been allowed to come here.” Raven sighed. “It’s not right.”
“I know what you mean, youngster.” Shandra frowned. “The new ruler in Kendror believes that all mercenary companies who belong to the Mercenary Guild should be of mixed sexes, like the Kendror Army. The Mercenary Guild gets its charter from the crown so they had little choice in the matter. Since Sentinel Marissa Zelont doesn’t want the Guardians to lose their guild standing, she had to agree.” She chuckled. “I’m sorry to say that the other female trainees here were not upset by the news. I swear you could hear them cheering in Ramor.”
“How long have these new trainees been here?” Raven kicked a rock along the dirt path they followed.
“Seven months. Some changes had to be made in Haven House to accommodate the new ones, which is why you now share a room with Sharryl.” Shandra watched Raven from the corner of her eye. “There are four male trainees in the scout class. One of them is Carrick Sulst, the Duke of Fickor’s heir.”
Raven’s lip curled in disgust. “A Border bastard? How could Lady Valeri allow that? The Border Lords are nothing but thieves slave traders and murderers!”
“Like it or not, the Border Lords agreed to be part of the new Kingdom of Kendror. If they didn’t, Queen Leeann’s position on throne would be very unsteady.” Alandra remarked. “By being members of the kingdom, the Border Lords can’t charge outrageous fees and taxes to travelers and caravans. Plus, their patrols in the hills surrounding the kingdom help to keep the gnolls and orcs in check.”
Raven snorted. “Wulfin don’t believe that and neither do I. If anything, raids by those creatures have increased since the Kendror region was formed into a kingdom. The Wulfin Wide Patrols have their hands full, yet no Kendror soldiers have been sent to help.”
Shandra stared at Raven in amazement. “By Celena! How do you know so much of what’s going on?”
“I’m Triunal and also was in the scout training litter in Parn. One of my duties is learning about the wulfin patrols. While I was in Parn, I spent a lot of time reading the patrol reports and studying the maps of the hills and the lands to the east.” Raven scratched a scar on her arm. “It gave me something to do while I was recovering.”
Since neither Guardian was ready to broach that subject just then, they changed the topic. “So why were you fighting with the other trainees?” Alandra asked as they approached the stable where the trainees’ horses were kept.
“Ask the other four who were involved. I did not start any of those fights, Alandra. I had no reason to.” Raven shook her head. “Polaig Fardon, Elisel Fiold, Fier Korl, and Jessarel Trelt attacked me. I had no quarrel with them. I’m here to complete my training as a Guardian Scout, nothing more.”
The doors of the stable swung open and another trainee emerged. Seeing Raven, the shorter human smiled, her greyish green eyes full of warmth and friendship. “Raven! Welcome back to Haven House!” She walked over and gave Raven a hug. “I’ve missed you, my friend.”
The warm greeting surprised her. “Deral Tron! I almost didn’t recognize you! What did you do to your hair?”
“I had Mistress Lyta cut it. It was just too long for scout training. Every time I turned around my hair kept snagging on branches, so I finally said enough!” She combed her fingers through the short mop of silvery-blond hair. “I must admit, in hot weather like this I feel much cooler.”
Raven nodded in agreement. “That’s why I always keep mine so short. Plus, it’s one less thing someone can grab in a fight.”
“I never thought of that.” Deral grinned. “Have you come to pick out a horse?”
“Among other things, Dera. I’m also going to be helping Guardian Shandra pick up supplies from the village.” Raven looked towards the paddock where a number of horses were grazing.
“The ones that haven’t been selected are in the stable. I’ll go with you.” Deral started towards the doors.
“Guardian Shandra, it shouldn’t take me too long.”
“There’s no hurry. I still have to harness the team to the wagon. Alandra, you can give me a hand.”
“Why not? I think I remember how it’s done. The horses go in the back, right?”
Shandra punched Alandra in the arm. “If the horses go in the back, then you’ll be pulling the wagon.”
The two headed for the other stable on the far side of the fenced-in field for the horses. Raven followed Deral, glad to be out of the scorching sun.
“Have you heard about the additions to our class?” Deral led the way towards the middle of the stable, where several horses had their heads hanging over the stall doors.
“Yes. But I only know the name of one of them. Carrick Sulst.” Raven stopped to pat the neck of a bay horse.
“The others are Riordan Plind, we call him Rory for short; Guardian Ilene’s son, Kervan Myers. Shar’s rather smitten with him.” Deral gave one horse wide berth as she walked by. “The last one is Varlin Naerl. He’s an elf from Arda.”
The large black horse Deral avoided, Raven approached. “Hasn’t anyone selected Darkfall? He’s about the best there is.”
Deral shuddered. “Darkfall’s fine when he’s in the stall or the paddock, but if you try to ride him, you’re risking your neck. He nearly killed me when I attempted to ride him. Even Mistress Lyta can do nothing with him and she hasn’t been able to find a buyer for him either. Personally, I think he’s a disguised fiend from the Abyss.”
From her belt pouch, Raven pulled out an apple she had saved from breakfast and cut it into quarters. Darkfall eagerly accepted the treat, nuzzling Raven’s cheek when he finished. “He’s not a bad horse, Dera. He just doesn’t like to be kept inside like this.” Raven opened the stall door. “Where’s his tack?”
“You can’t be serious! Raven, the moment you get on his back he’ll throw you and then try to stomp on your head. Trust me, I know thereof what I speak.” Deral quickly moved away from the stall as Raven let the horse out.
Walking towards the stable yard with Darkfall walking calmly at her side, Raven grinned. “I know horses, Deral. Darkfall won’t hurt me. Please bring me the saddle and bridle.”
“At least let me get Mistress Lyta first.”
Raven brushed aside Deral’s worry. “I’ll be fine. Really.” To prove her point, Raven mounted Darkfall bareback. “See?”
“By the Gods! What in the Nine Hells are you doing, Classleader Kael?” The newcomer stormed over to where Raven easily sat Darkfall. Her violet eyes flashed in anger and her short white hair seemed to dance with her anger. “Who gave you permission to bring this horse out?”
Looking down at the much shorter human, Raven couldn’t help grinning. “Guardian Lyta, Lady Valeri told me to select a horse and I did.”
Deral was hovering near the entrance to the stable, waiting for Darkfall to go berserk. Instead of throwing Raven from his back, the horse merely arched his neck and lifted his right hoof off the ground as if posing.
Raven nudged Darkfall with her right heel and he started off at a walk, then moved smoothly to a trot. Raven easily guided him with her knees and he was soon cantering along the fence surrounding the pasture.
Deral walked over to Lyta, eyes wide in amazement. “I don’t believe it! Why hasn’t he thrown her?”
Lyta shook her head, bewildered. “Damned if I know, Dera.” She closed her eyes for a moment, a slight frown on her face. “That horse has no sign of fear or anger in him.” Opening her eyes, she glanced at the trainee at her side. “I suppose Raven has found a horse like she said. Unless you want to try him again.”
Deral vehemently shook her head. “No thank you! I would like to reach old age..” a wicked grin grew “like you, mistress.”
Snorting, Lyta lightly cuffed Deral. “Old indeed! Watch yourself, youngster. Else you’ll find your next training session with me very taxing.”
“As if they aren’t taxing now.” Deral ducked behind Lyta as Raven came riding up. “Should I fetch the saddle and bridle?”
“No.” Lyta motioned for Raven to dismount. “Classleader Kael, you may keep Darkfall. You’re to take care of him and his gear.”
Standing beside her new horse, Raven stroked his neck. “I’ll take good care of him, Guardian Lyta. After I wipe him down, could I put Darkfall in the field with the other horses? He really hates being locked in the stall. I’ll bring him in at night.”
“Very well. Deral, show Raven where we keep the grooming tools.” With a wary look at Raven and Darkfall, Lyta walked towards the other stable where the horses belonging to oathed Guardians were kept, shaking her head, and muttering to herself.
Making sure Raven was between her and the horse, Deral headed back into the stable. “How did you do it, Raven? No one’s been able to ride him.”
“I don’t know. Maybe he likes me more than everyone else. When I was first here at Haven House, I used to visit Darkfall as often as I could, bringing him apples and carrots and just talking to him.” Raven rested a hand on Darkfall’s back and he stopped walking. “I’ve always loved horses and could ride anything in the stables at the Great Lair.”
Deral led Raven to a room lined with shelves on one wall and tack stands on the other. “It’s easy to find Darkfall’s brush, comb, hoofpick, and cloth. Just look for his name on the shelf. Right across from that is his saddle, saddle blanket, and bridle. His halter and lead rope hang on a hook outside of the stall.”
“Why the change?” Raven grabbed the cloth and hoofpick, returning to her new horse.
“We were having problems with the infantry trainees when it was their turn to help care for the horses. They kept leaving everything all over the stable, and Guardian Lyta became fed up with it. After nearly shouting herself hoarse – no pun intended – she came up with this system.” Deral perched on a worktable across from Raven. “It’s worked out quite well. Sometimes the infantry trainees can be so dense.”
Wiping down Darkfall, Raven shook her head. “Not all infantry trainees.” She eyed Deral. “I’m surprised you’re not in the village with the others.”
“I had lessons this morning with Guardian Lyta.”
“Lessons? Since when did you need help in training? You are considered one of the best here” Finished wiping down the horse, Raven pulled the hoofpick from her belt and began cleaning his hooves. Unlike most horses, Darkfall didn’t lean on Raven, but stood quietly.
“Hellsfire! I forgot you weren’t here. I’m Guardian Lyta’s apprentice as well as a scout trainee.” Deral swung her feet.
“Apprentice? I thought one of the cavalry trainees would be more suited for equitation instructor.” Raven tugged on Darkfall’s forelock as she moved to his right side and he snorted, tossing his head.
“Not equitation instructor, but something better. Raven, hold out the hoofpick in the palm of your hand.”
Puzzled, she did as asked. Without warning the object floated out of her hand and over to Deral. “By the Gods! You’re a magic-user!”
Deral chuckled, the hoofpick now in her hand. “Not quite. Guardian Lyta and I do not use spells or spell components with our abilities. I’m a mind mage.”
“Mind mage? What’s that?”
“Our power comes from our minds and bodies. What I just did with the hoofpick is using my mind to lift the object and bring it to me. It’s like extending an invisible hand.” Deral studied the hoofpick. “And it’s like you are actually touching it. But you still have the weight affect you. The largest thing I’ve lifted was a ten pound rock and it wasn’t easy. Guardian Lyta says the more I practice the easier it will become to lift heavier objects.”
Raven cautiously approached Deral. “Could I have the hoofpick back?” Deral handed it to her. “Thanks. How did you find out you had these abilities?”
“When we began our second year of training, all trainees were ‘tested’ by Guardian Lyta. Aside from myself, Sharryl also showed some abilities, but it’s not the same as Guardian Lyta or myself.” Deral cocked her head, eyeing Raven curiously. “Shar’s abilities are like the bonds between identical twins.”
Finished with Darkfall, Raven returned the cloth and hoofpick to their proper place, saying over her shoulder, “Don’t look at me that way, Dera. The only blood sibling I have is my half-brother and he’s 70 years older than I am.”
“But you both look so much alike! Couldn’t it be possible that you’re related?”
“I highly doubt it, my friend.” To Darkfall, Raven spoke in a quiet voice, “Rel,” using the wulfin word for ‘come’ and he started following her out of the stable. Realizing what she had done, Raven stopped and stared at her horse. “How in the Nine Hells did he know what I said?”
Deral was following behind her. “Don’t ask me. I don’t even know what the word means.”
“It means ‘come’ in wulfin. Dera, where did Darkfall come from?”
“If you have to ask that, I’d say your upbringing is sorely lacking.”
Raven was forced to grin. “Want to become a jester as well as a mind mage? I meant–“
“I know what you meant, Raven. I just wanted to see if you remembered how to smile. Since you got here yesterday, every time I saw you, you were either frowning or glowering.” She patted her on the shoulder. “As to your question, the Guardians bought him from the horse trader near Aln, along with ten other horses. Where he came from before the horse trader, I have no idea. Why?”
“He acts as if a wulfin horse trainer had worked with him. They’re considered the best anywhere.” At the gate to the field, Raven lifted the latch and opened it. Darkfall walked through without hesitation. “I wonder if I could find out from the horse trader.”
“You could ask him, I suppose, but I have the feeling he would be unable to tell you. That man is not too choosy about where he gets his horses to sell, if you take my meaning.” Deral whistled and a bay gelding came trotting over. “This is my horse, Baylin.”
“A fine looking horse. With those long legs he must have great speed.” Raven stroked his nose. “Darkfall’s built for endurance and fighting. Good for long patrols and travel.”
“Gods! Is there anything you don’t know?”
“Lots of things.” The creak and rumble of a wagon caught Raven’s attention and she looked to her left.
Shandra and Alandra were sitting on the buckboard, Shandra holding the reins of the team. “Ho, Raven! Did you choose a horse?” Alandra jumped down before the wagon came to a stop.
Raven nodded. “I picked Darkfall.”
Shandra climbed down from the wagon, surprised. “Darkfall? The horse no one can ride?”
“The one everybody says is from the Abyss?” Alandra watched Darkfall as he reached over the fence and nibbled Raven’s hair.
“He’s not bad, just misunderstood.” Raven scuffed her boot in the dirt. Are we leaving for the village now?”
“If you’re ready,” Alandra replied. “Deral, would you care to join the three of us in our little quest?”
“Since when is fetching supplies considered a quest?” Shandra asked as she rechecked the traces.
“It makes it sound more interesting, don’t you think?” turning back to Deral, she smiled. “You also get paid ten silver commons and two free meals at The Society.”
“I could use the extra pay. I’ll help.” Deral went to the back of the wagon and climbed in.
Raven gave Darkfall a final pat. “Behave yourself, Darkfall. I’ll be back this evening.” She joined her classmate in the wagon.
Alandra returned to her seat on the buckboard. “Why hasn’t anyone put cushions on these damn things?”
“Because when it rains, the seat would be more uncomfortable.” Shandra said as she climbed back aboard and took up the reins. “There’s nothing worse than a soggy seat, in my opinion.”
“Then have a magic-user cast a spell against water or something.” Alandra tried to get comfortable.
“And do you plan on asking Ilene to cast such a spell?”
“Why not? It shouldn’t be hard too come up with something that would work. Using magic to make things comfortable or easier to use is an excellent idea.”
“I’ll remind you of that after Ilene turns you into something unnatural.” With a shake of the reins and cluck of the tongue, Shandra got the horses moving. “Besides, we’re Guardians. Comfort is rarely part of our job.”
“And I think you’re wrong.” Alandra glanced over her shoulder at the two in back. “What about you two? Do you think being comfortable is important?”
“No. When you’re in the field, you need to keep alert if you want to survive.” Raven answered.
“But is it so bad to have a hot bath, clean clothes, and a real bed to sleep in?” asked Deral.
“And how would you manage that in the field?” Raven retorted. “How many wagons and pack horses would you need to carry all that you want to be ‘comfortable’?”
“You do have a point,” Deral conceded. “I’ll have to rethink that.”
“Well, neither of you will have to worry about such things until next year’s training. That’s when all trainees begin to spend days and weeks in the field.” Shandra pointed out as she used the reins to turn the horses onto the road leading to the village.
Guardian Blades copyright 2013 Anna M Dobritt