Rohea looked around as he stepped into the tavern. Although he did not expect to see Maes waiting at The Stinky Mug as she had told Pyar, he still held a small glimmer of hope that Maes would be around.
"Sir Rohea!" the innkeeper called as he saw Rohea enter. "It's been a while since I saw you last. I didn't believe a word they were saying about you! I knew the mages were behind it."
Rohea walked up to the bar and clasped his hand with the innkeeper's. "It's good to see you, too."
The innkeeper looked around the tavern furtively. He leaned in closer and beckoned Rohea to lean forward as well. The innkeeper whispered, "A young lass was here a while ago."
Rohea drew in a quick breath. Maes did come to The Stinky Mug after all!
"Is she still here?"
"Nay, she didn't stay long, but she did leave a message with me. She said that things were becoming dangerous, and she couldn't wait here for you."
"Did she say where she was going?" Rohea asked.
"She said something about that, lemme think," the innkeeper replied. He paused and rubbed his hairy chin. "Ah, she said she was heading back to where she healed."
She must have meant Riloo! But why would she head back there? Rohea thought. "Did she say anything else?"
"She wasn't very talkative, but she did say that she was being watched. She wouldn't say by who though. I figured it had to do with the mages."
"How so?" Rohea questioned.
"It was the way she said 'watched'. She didn't mean it in the usual sense," the innkeeper said as he gestured at his eyes with his fingers.
Rohea slammed his fist on the bar table, creating a loud noise and startling the other patrons of the tavern.
"Those damned mages!"
"Aye, they're always up to something or other. If it were up to me, I'd get rid of the bunch of them. Don't know why the king even tolerates their presence."
Rohea nodded with a grim look on his face, but didn't say anything in response.
The innkeeper chuckled and added, "You have much in common with that young lass. Aren't very talkative."
"Have you told anyone else what you told me?" Rohea asked.
"Nay, I figured that it was between the two of you."
"Good," Rohea said, placing some silver coins on the table. "I hope you will keep it that way."
The innkeeper smiled as he quickly palmed the coins. "Generous, both of you."
Rohea paced about his quarters, considering his next move. King Wespil would be unwilling to let him go on another journey so soon, especially after what had just happened. On the other hand, Rohea felt that he had to handle it himself – Maes was his squire and he felt responsible for her.
A knock on his door brought him back to the present.
"Come in," Rohea said.
Groba stepped into the room. "Thinking about your squire?"
"She's a crafty one. I don't know what her next move will be, but we must be prepared for it," Groba said.
"So you believe that she's the mastermind?"
Groba was silent for a while. "It is hard to imagine one so young being that powerful, but Pyar did make a good case. There are many unresolved questions about her. It could very well be that she is much older than she looks, I've heard of some spells that can alter one's appearance."
"Wouldn't you have sensed something when you met her?"
"I would like to think that I would have, but between you and me, there is a lot to dark magic that I do not yet understand."
While Rohea was wary about mages, Groba was one that he fully trusted. Rohea told Groba about what he learned at The Stinky Mug.
"Hmm," Groba said. "A tough decision, Rohea."
"What do you mean?"
"If Maes is innocent, then you have to find her and regain her honor. If she is truly evil, then this could be a trap."
"I don't believe she would harm me," Rohea replied. "She had plenty of opportunity to do so in our travels."
"True, but dark practitioners are much more sinister than that. She could be out to win your trust, only to use it against the kingdom in the future."
"What do you suggest then?" Rohea asked.
"I can prepare some ward potions for you. They worked against Cyler, so chances are that they'll work against her too. However, each potion will only protect you for a short period of time."
"If she truly is a dark practitioner, then a short period of time is sufficient for me to land my blade. But, how will I know when to drink a potion?"
"Only you will be able to know," Groba replied. "If you suspect that she is affecting your mind, as dark practitioners are wont to do, then drink one potion and see if it helps. It should be able to undo whatever spells are placed on you."
"And what if she is innocent, as I believe?"
"Then we have a bigger problem. That would mean the true dark practitioner still lurks in the shadows, and we have no idea who that would be."
"What are your plans, Groba?"
"Me?" Groba chuckled. "I'm just a simple man living out his life."
"Will you be joining the Mage Council again?"
Groba shook his head and said, "As much as the council is beholden to me for freeing them from Cyler's influence, they also blame me for designing the bracers in the first place! I think they just do not want to give up any of their existing power."
"Why did you design the bracers?" Rohea asked.
"I have an inquisitive mind, and I've fiddled with magic of all sorts. The bracers were designed to persuade an enemy soldier to join our side. That way, there would be less bloodshed on both sides."
"How were you intending to get the enemy soldiers to wear them in the first place?"
Groba laughed and replied, "That's the part that stumped me! I discussed the problem with Cyler but he didn't offer any suggestions. Little did I know that he had other plans for them."
Rohea woke early the next morning, and prepared to head outside for his morning exercises. As he stepped into the courtyard, a young page approached him.
"Good morning, Sir Rohea," the page said respectfully and bowed.
"Good morning," Rohea replied.
"The king requests your presence after his breakfast," the page said. He blushed slightly and continued, "I wanted to pass the message last night but I feared I would rouse you from your sleep."
"It's alright," Rohea said, and looked a little more intently at the page. "I've received the message early enough. Were you waiting by my door the entire night?"
"Y-yes," the page stammered. "I did not want to miss you if you left early."
Rohea chuckled, remembering the days when he was a young page.
"Good, now go get some well-deserved rest."
Rohea walked to the middle of the courtyard and began stretching his muscles. There were a few hours before the sun would rise and the king would have his meal. Sufficiently warmed up, Rohea drew his sword and adopted a stance. He moved slowly, taking one step and swinging his arm gently in an arc. He raised his sword to block an imaginary attack, and then stepped backwards into a guard position. Rohea moved from stance to stance, slowly at first, but picking up pace as he continued until his movements were a blur.
After thirty minutes of practicing, Rohea sheathed his sword and glanced around. There were a number of squires in the courtyard warming up and practicing, but he did not see any that he was familiar with. What caught his attention was the lack of any other knights in the courtyard – they should have also been there before dawn like him.
Wiping the sweat from his forehead, Rohea stretched his legs and started jogging around the keep. He spotted a few patrols on the walls, and greeted a number of guards with whom he was familiar with. When he returned to the courtyard, he smiled as he saw his fellow knights.
"Good morning, Sir Puccar," Rohea greeted.
"Good morning, Sir Rohea. Care for a friendly spar?"
Rohea smiled and nodded. He drew his sword and picked up a shield from the stands. The other people in the courtyard scurried and cleared a wide circle for the pair.
"So, what'll it be? Ten silver for the winner?" Puccar challenged.
Rohea laughed heartily.
"Sure, but are you sure you have enough to pay me when we're done?" he countered.
Puccar grinned as he said, "We'll see about that!"
The two men bowed and dropped to their stances. They circled around slowly, watching each other for openings. Suddenly, both men sprang up and the loud clank of their swords rang throughout the courtyard. Rohea played defensively, letting Puccar make attacks while he parried and dodged them. When Rohea saw an opportunity, he lunged forward. Puccar quickly stepped to the side, and slammed his shield onto Rohea's back. Rohea grunted in pain and dropped to one knee.
Chuckling, Puccar taunted, "Getting tired so quickly?"
Rohea rose to his feet and spun to face Puccar. He hit his shield onto Puccar's to indicate that he was ready to continue. More wary this time, Rohea watched Puccar's every movement. Rohea made a few weak attempts that were easily parried by Puccar, and followed it with a quick swing to the left. Puccar hastily raised his shield to block the attack, and took a step backwards to absorb the impact. Sensing an opening, Rohea quickly sidestepped and kicked Puccar on the chest.
Puccar took a few more steps backwards and said, "Now that's more like it!"
The duo became a flurry of motions as they continued sparring. Dust flew in the air as their feet shuffled across the courtyard, and more than a few squires stopped their practices to watch them in action. The sounds of their swords hitting and shields blocking carried easily in the morning air.
Both men's bodies glistened with sweat in the rising sun's rays as neither Rohea nor Puccar gained any advantage. Rohea glanced quickly at the sun and turned back in time to block a thrust from Puccar.
"Shall we call it a draw?" Rohea asked.
"Let us spar until a clear winner emerges!" Puccar replied.
"I would love to," Rohea said. "But I have a duty to perform, this morn."
"Very well then," Puccar said as he stopped and sheathed his sword. "We will continue this another time."
Rohea smiled and clasped his hand onto Puccar's outstretched wrist.
"That we shall, my friend."
"My lord, you wanted to see me?" Rohea said as he bowed to King Wespil's entrance.
"Leave us," Wespil said to his attendants. He walked over to Rohea and said. "Yes, there is a matter I would like to discuss with you."
"Of course, my lord. What is it?"
"I understand that you were instrumental in thwarting the plans of Mage Cyler."
"Nay, my lord. As much as I dislike the mages, this matter was resolved by one of their own."
Wespil nodded and said, "You speak of Groba."
"And the young mage, Pyar."
"Yet she was the one who accused you in the first place," Wespil stated.
"I do not doubt that her intentions were pure, even if her conclusions were awry."
"And what of your squire?" Wespil questioned.
Rohea had a grim look on his face. "I believe that Maes is innocent. However, there is a legitimate basis to Pyar's accusation this time."
"Why do you think Maes is innocent?"
"When we traveled together," Rohea started, "I did not sense any malevolence about her. She was critically wounded during one battle near Riloo, but she did not use any magic then."
"And yet dark magic was sensed from your party earlier on," Wespil said.
Rohea nodded and replied, "When we first left Vimml, we were waylaid by bandits. Maes was captured by one of them, who became blind, which I assume was the 'dark' magic."
"And you did not kill her then?"
"I did not know it at the time, although I suspected she was a mage of some sort. I questioned her later about it, and concluded that either she didn't do it, or she had no idea of what she did."
Wespil paused for a moment, and asked, "How do you know that she was telling the truth?"
"There is no way to tell for certain, but I pushed her physically as I questioned her. My gut tells me that she wasn't lying."
"What are your plans now then?"
"With your permission, my lord, I would like to set out in search of her. I believe I can clear her name just as mine was."
"If what you believe is true," Wespil said, "Then there is another dark practitioner somewhere. Do you not want to hunt him down instead?"
Rohea waved his hand in disgust. "All this talk about dark practitioners and their dangers reeks of mages and their plots."
Wespil narrowed his eyes. "You do not believe that one exists?"
"My duty is to the throne. While the dark practitioner may very well exist, he may be less of a threat than the mages we have within our walls."
Wespil said, "I know of your distrust of the mages, Sir Rohea. But believe me, we need their assistance more than ever. The war drags on, and unless the mages lend us their assistance, I fear it will be many years before it ends."
"Surely they must listen to you, my lord."
Wespil laughed dryly. "They listen to no one except themselves. They will come up with a multitude of reasons why they are not prepared to go to war. If I force them, the skilled mages of the council will stay in Wolle, while they sacrifice their young ones."
"Where would you look for your squire?"
"I believe she may have returned to Riloo," Rohea replied, "She left a message at The Stinky Mug."
"I see," Wespil said, "While I understand your desire to clear her name, there are more important matters I need you to do."
"Of course, my lord."
"You will lead more troops to the front lines. The attrition there is wearing down our numbers, and fresh supplies and soldiers will bolster our offense. You will assume command of all our army at Yaklo, and together with the troops you bring with you, you are to lead an assault onto Ciiar and take control of that city."
"Yes, my lord," Rohea said, "If I may, may I send a courier to Riloo with a message to Maes?"
"Very well, use one of the pages. Some of them have never left Wolle and could do with the experience."
"I have just the page in mind," Rohea replied with a smile.
Rohea returned to his room and packed his belongings. He did not care about most of his material possessions, except for a small onyx pendant tied to a string. He kissed the pendant lightly as he tied it around his neck and whispered, "Bring me luck as always, mother."
Rohea returned to the courtyard in search of the young page he had talked to in the morning. Not knowing his name made it difficult to track him down.
"Sir Rohea!" A familiar voice called out.
Rohea turned and saw the page.
"Ah, I've been looking for you. What is your name?"
The page paled and replied, "My name is Fleomr, Sir Rohea."
Rohea laughed and clapped Fleomr on the back.
"Rest easy, son. I have a mission for you."
"Do you know how to ride a horse?" Rohea asked.
"Have you been trained in making camps and hunting?"
Fleomr nodded again.
"Excellent, then you are best suited for this mission." Rohea described Maes' features to Fleomr, and the message to be given verbally to Maes. "After you have delivered the message, you are to travel with her to Yaklo, where both of you will meet with me."
Fleomr's face turned even paler than before as he asked, "Yaklo? That's where the war is!"
Rohea nodded grimly and said, "Yes, and I am going to be in need of capable soldiers such as yourself."
Fleomr beamed with the praise and stood proudly.
"I won't let you down, Sir Rohea!"
Rohea checked the reins one more time on Feisty, his trusted steed, and stroked her mane. Feisty neighed and turned to glance at him. Rohea retrieved an apple from his pack and fed it to Feisty.
"It may be a while before you'll have another, my old friend."
Rohea then turned to face the large mass of soldiers behind him. Dressed in his full suit of armor, with the royal colors fluttering in the strong morning wind, Rohea was a sight to behold.
"We have a long march ahead of us," Rohea began. "The enemy has been at our borders for a long time. But today, we set off to put an end to this war. Together, we will drive the enemy out of our lands, and take what we need from theirs!"
The soldiers cheered loudly, as their spirits were high. Rohea jumped swiftly onto Feisty and shouted, "Let us move!"
And with that, the large army began their long journey to Yaklo. Comprised of foot soldiers, archers and cavalry, the speed of the march was determined by the slowest: the soldiers on foot. There were also many caravans filled with food and supplies, but the large pack horses pulling them had been well-trained and could easily keep up with the pace.
Plodding slowly on his horse, Rohea thought back to his encounter with Puccar a few days earlier. Rohea had been in the granary, checking that the correct amount of supplies was being packed for the trip, when he saw Puccar enter as well. They had struck up a conversation, and Rohea learned that Puccar had also been assigned a mission by King Wespil. Puccar could not divulge any details, but from the supplies that Puccar assembled, Rohea surmised that Puccar had been chosen on a mission involving only himself and his squire. Rohea wondered if Puccar was being sent to the neighboring villages to train the village folk as Rohea himself had done recently.
"Sir Rohea?" A voice pulled Rohea out of his memories.
"Yes?" Rohea asked, turning to face his lieutenant.
"The scouts have returned, and they have found a suitable camp for the night a few hours away."
"Very good," Rohea said. "Have the cavalry and caravans ride on ahead and make camp."
"Will you be joining them, Sir?" Lieutenant Baiffer asked.
"No, I will stay with the other soldiers, lest they feel slighted."
With that, Rohea slid off his horse, holding on to his reins and walking on foot. He made conversation with those on the march, and learned some gossip about their hometowns.
When they finally arrived at the campsite, many were tired. They quickly pitched their tents and prepared to retire for the night.
Rohea walked to Baiffer and asked, "Have the guards been posted?"
"Yes, Sir Rohea, we've prepared the roster of guards for tonight. Do you want to have a look?"
"No, that's alright," Rohea replied.
"Shall I lead you to your quarters?" the lieutenant asked earnestly.
"Please do," Rohea said, "And send the word to the soldiers, that they may pack their heavy armor onto the caravans from tomorrow. We are far enough from the capital that our show of force is no longer visible. We will suit up again when we're closer to Yaklo."
"The troops will be very happy to hear that."
Rohea smiled and said, "I can imagine. However, remind them that their weapons must be by their side. I do not want our army to be both defenseless and weaponless. The scouts and guards must remain armored and ready, of course, but I presume you have the rotations all sorted out."
"Very well, I shall see you tomorrow at dawn then," Rohea said as he entered his tent.
Edited By TeNderLoin