The Dragons of Arbor
Chapter 2: The Sisters of the Weeping Road
Copyright© 2011 by Sea-Life
There were a million places along the Shadar, it seemed to River Dambro, where a young girl her age could run into trouble. The Sister's Tower at the Pontir Bridge was not one of them.
Officially it was 'The Spirit-Blessed Residence of the Sisters of the Weeping Road', but we just called it Pontir Tower.
The Sisterhood was dedicated to rendering aid to travelers along the Shadar, and given that it was navigable for almost its entire length, there were lots of travelers. I had taken to stopping there frequently, and as I often came to the aid of people on the river these days myself, I had built up some credit with the Sisters.
There were many reasons that the women who were the Sisters came to this calling. Most had met rejection or abandonment somewhere along life's road. There were disfigured women, barren women, orphan women and those with physical and mental ailments that healers had not been able to solve. They came, they shared and they found a purpose. Not every Sister was a foundling, and certainly not all were from poor families. Over the centuries wealthy families had donated, both in funds and resources, hoping to provide comfort in this way.
Assuaging guilt perhaps, was how Sister Fawn described it. Not all of them, perhaps, but many over the years had given generously in the knowledge that one of their own had been driven to the Sisterhood. This neglected the donations made by the wealthy families of those they rescued, and the contributions from grateful communities up and down the river, but Sister Fawn was bitter herself, having been cast aside as a young woman. I took her advice with a grain of salt and made sure to listen to all the opinions offered at the Tower. There were many whose outlooks were much more positive than Sister Fawn's.
Mother Marigold, who I saw only occasionally, warned against letting the Sisters' dependence on my abilities grow too great. There was only so much I could do in the end, and it was certainly not likely to become my life's calling as it had the Sisters. But every Tower the Sisters kept along the Shadar was open to me. I always had a bed and a meal when I needed one.
It wasn't ideal, maintaining so much distance from my parents. I was home for special days and seasonal celebrations. Perhaps a week out of every six or so. I was tall and felt somewhat gangly and awkward, as twelve year old girls often do. I had begun to maintain an attitude of quiet reserve in the past two year since my Transformation. The utter rejection by my childhood friends and neighbors had only been tempered by the acceptance of the Sisters and the love of my parents. Bane and Hobby Dambro continued to brag on their daughter at every opportunity, and expressed their pride to their neighbors with unwavering faithfulness. How could I not love them for it?
The pattern cast by the past few years had in its own way become an opportunity for me. An opportunity beyond what I might have been able to have at home in Misty Creek. The Sisters had become my journeyman instructors, teachers and mentors, and the Sisterhood my Guild Hall and College. There were generations of women, well educated, experienced and widely traveled women, who were now Sisters of the Weeping Road. They had much to teach me, and I had been busy in the past couple of years learning everything I could.
For the past two years I had been coming to the Tower at the Pontir Bridge every morning. Sister Amble taught self defense to every woman in the Sisterhood who asked, and every Sister who asked was granted leave to spend three years service at the Pontir. They learned how to condition and harden their bodies, they learned a variety of unarmed defensive techniques, culled from Sister Amble's years in the Quatram Brigade and then the Royal Guard in Demethia. Many women and girls came and went quickly, soon discovering that they had no aptitude for further training. Most only lasted the six months minimum. The Council of Mothers had determined years ago that those who requested the training would have to commit to the six months, but only those who wished to do so had to remain beyond that.
To my surprise, I found I had some natural inclinations that made me something of a natural for the training, and with the ability to call on the nearby Shadar for strength, was able to adapt physically to the more aggressive styles that came with the advanced training. Particularly I had found myself fascinated with throwing knives and the staff. I was pathetic with the sword and adequate with the bow, and passable with the lance and spear. I felt comfortable on horseback and this added to my abilities with the lance, but I didn't have the weight needed to be truly effective with it.
Today I was working the staff with Sister Amble herself. The weapons-mistress was the only person in the Pontir Tower who could match me anymore, though I knew I had a long way to go to spar as an equal with the Sister. There were many former students now elsewhere who were certainly my equal, if not better.
'I doubt that any of them are twelve though!' I thought, dropping my stick to counter a particularly nasty slash that had seemed to come from nowhere. The move forced me to take a small hop back at the same time and my foot came down on a pebble or clump of dirt, losing my balance for just a moment. It was moment enough for Sister Amble who just that quickly had her on her back and held her own staff poised at my throat. I slapped the ground beside me in surrender.
"You were doing it again River! You get lost somewhere every time, and then something happens and you wind up on your back with my staff on you!"
"Yes Sister." I replied.
"Say it! What were you doing?"
"I will say it again, because you are too good with the staff to remain stuck at this point in your training. You must learn to stop thinking. You and the staff are one, and you act and react, but you do not think!"
"Yes Sister." I replied again, feeling embarrassed now.
"When you begin thinking, you are only distracting your well trained body, and disconnecting your well honed senses and blinding your finely tuned instincts."
"I know Sister. I am sorry."
"Of course you are. Do you trust me River Dambro?"
"With my life Sister!" I answered immediately and with emphasis.
"Then trust me when I tell you, learn to do this without thought, learn to fight unthinking. There is a light at the end of that tunnel that you are not able to see yet. When you have truly mastered this step, then and only then will you be able to bring thinking back into your stave's arsenal."
I sighed. This was not a new message, but it was one I was having trouble grasping, after having done so well until now.
"Thank you Sister."
I ran to the showers to get clean. I had a lesson with Sister Beryl shortly, and she did not enjoy the smell of the exercise yard intruding on her world of history. We met once a week, and had recently been studying the Alcatian Uprising. It may have been labeled history to most, but Sister Beryl said what we studied was 'social engineering'. I memorized countless dates and places, but that rote knowledge was just the framework on which Sister Beryl claimed to be building in me an understanding of the way societies operated and how they interacted with each other.
Today we discussed the shipments of wheat flour between Khel and Audubre, and the part the government of Viremon may or may not have played in funding the 'bandits' who almost completely cut off shipments across the Alcatian Trade road.
Sister Beryl seemed particularly focused on the effect the bandits had on the deployment of the Royal Guard to protect the caravans, and how this redirection of the troops allowed the rebels much more freedom to operate in the larger cities. This lack of immediate oversight by the King's forces eventually caused most of the larger cities to begin forming their own municipal guard, something the King had not allowed previously. The rebels saw to it that their own members applied for as many of the new positions as possible, and ultimately their presence within the local guards allowed them to foment further dissent amongst the populace.
"Oddly, the rebel elements in these home guards were the guards greatest asset, for a while." Sister Beryl intoned. "The success of the early municipal guards, especially in the cities of Audubre and Grimurh which had historically been rowdy, dangerous border towns, would encourage more cities and towns across Alcatia to form municipal guards, and give the rebels a broader foothold. At the same time, the second wave of rebel recruits were able to be recruited directly into these guards, and the local governments of Alcatia were unwittingly providing the training and weaponry these rebels would use to overthrow their King."
It was this kind of interconnectedness that Sister Beryl loved to find when peeling back the layers of history. How a little seed money finding its way into the hands of a band of highwaymen could ultimately lead to the key decisions that allowed the Alcatian rebel forces to develop the key wedge mechanism that ultimately led to the popular revolt that brought down a king.
Sister Amble or Sister Beryl, it seemed with either, the lesson was position, leverage and timing.
There is something about being on horseback.
No, not that! Like most girls my age I had discovered that pleasant pastime, but riding horses had not been a part of it. For me, being on horseback seemed to raise me up, allowed my thoughts to clarify and my focus sharpen. I became more aware of my surroundings while on a horse.
Today, being on a horse meant focusing on the lessons of Sister Juniper. I had long since learned what I needed to know about horses themselves, the 'care and feeding' part of horse training. Sister Juniper was attempting to teach the military uses of the horse. We discussed the use of horse to move troops and supplies. We discussed the mobility of a mounted unit when compared to a similar sized unit of foot soldiers. We discussed the advantages and disadvantages of certain kinds of terrain. We discussed the advantages and disadvantages a mounted force had when engaging ground units.
Today we were learning just how difficult it is for a unit of horse to be stealthy. Horses make noise. Their hooves not only make noise, but under certain conditions, the noise carries extraordinarily well. In addition the sound of horse's hooves on a variety of surfaces is distinctive, both in the tone and the rhythm of the sounds.
"Every soldier worth his salt is trained to recognize the sound of hooves beating on sand, grass, gravel and stone, and at every pace from a slow walk to a full charge." Sister juniper was telling us. "You are learning how to muffle the sounds of your horse's hooves by wrapping them in cloth, amongst other things. An army's scouts often spend large amounts of time and energy training their horses to walk with a false-patterned pace that breaks the familiar rhythm. But even when you do these things as well as possible, horses can be noisy just breathing, especially when being ridden."
We sat that morning, in the mist and stillness near the river wearing blindfolds as small groups of horses were ridden or led past us. We had small bags of an open weave cloth stuffed with chalk dust, and instructions to throw a bag at any suspicious noise we heard. I'm not sure how effective this was, because after a while I think I began imagining as many sounds as I actually heard. I would have liked to make more a game of it, but the women I trained with were all ten years my senior, if not more. Games were not well received among them.
The morning's results had been enlightening. Most of us had scored at least one or two hits on the passing animals. The concept of a stealthy horse was built up in our minds at the same time it was broken down. This afternoon we were attempting to make our own horses stealthy, and to see how horses in groups tended to counteract the efforts.
The small spit of stone the Pontir Tower stood watch over the Shadar from was the crumbling evidence of the edges of an ancient plateau which ran off to the east from here. This stretch of the valley ran between the face of that old mesa and the rising hills beyond. A small horse trail led up the crumbled face, leading to the top of the mesa and hundreds of square miles of dry, scrub-covered flats, sprinkled with gullies, dry washes and small canyon systems. It was a great place to ride and let the horse and rider test each other. Riding up the horse trail to the top of the mesa was an exercise in patience. Riding down the trail was an exercise in faith. The trail was narrow and the cliff was steep. This afternoon as we came down the trail, we could see the red flag on top of the Tower signaling a recall. Unfortunately, you cannot quicken your pace when coming down the trail. It was another agonizing hour, almost dark, before we were back at the Tower.
"We received word more than two hours ago now that there has been a fire in Vakkha." Mother Marigold said, before we were even unhorsed. The local Sisterhood has sent a request to all Sisters who can be spared. Dozens of homes have burned, along with the town's granary. There have been six deaths and dozens of serious injuries mostly from fighting the fire as it swept from home to home."
The entire group volunteered to go en masse.
"I can be there very quickly, taking my road. Are there any medicines or supplies needed urgently?"
"Of course." Mother Marigold said. "I've taken the liberty of making that assumption, and gathered almost all of our burn salve for you to take. There's also a jar of Balm from Farspire the wizard that has had Magic worked into it. Be sure Sister Meadow in Vakkha knows to save it for the very worst of the burn victims, and to use it sparingly."
Sister Juniper offered to bring my horse, and anything I wouldn't need immediately. Vakkha would be two hard days ride for them.
I changed into an acolyte's robe of the Sisterhood. It was how we managed to shelter my actions under the wings of the Sisterhood, despite my not formally being a member. I strapped the bag of supplies to my back and walked to the water, my fingers idly rubbing my Skystone. A nervous habit, but a reassuring one.
There were those among the Sisters, and a few others outside the Sisterhood, who had expressed some interest in what I experienced while I was being the river. They are always disappointed when I tell them I can't describe it. It is a struggle each and every time. The mass of impressions, the volume of information that comes to me all at once takes me close to the edge of madness every time. This time I hardly had time to experience that edge when I felt the pain from Vakkha, and I was there.
I rose up from the river's edge, and began running towards the lights I could see of the nearby town. I almost ran over an old man carrying a basket of something. I looked around and saw there were multiple baskets sitting close together in the area. The baskets appeared to be full of ashes.
"Can you direct me to Sister Meadow?" I asked.
"The building with the blue door straight ahead." He said, pointing behind him. There was a row of buildings that direction.
"Thank you." I said, taking off again at a run. The last building in the row had a blue door and a wide wooden porch. There were several people sitting on the porch itself, and they all smiled, weakly, and with signs of exhaustion, but still, they smiled to see me.
Inside the room, past the blue door, was pain and the smell of smoke and burned flesh! I saw a Senior Sister holding a small child in her lap, feeding a broth in small sips.
"Sister Meadow?" I asked as I approached.
"Yes?" She said, a little startled to see me.
"I've come from Pontir Tower. I've got burn salve from Mother Marigold."
You are River Dambro then?" She asked.
"Yes Sister." I answered.
"I've heard of your gift, and the miracles it sometimes allows you to work on our behalf. Thank the Spirits." She said with a small, pursed smile that might have seemed put on, except for the kindness in her eyes, and the same exact look she gave the babe in her arms when it murmured for more broth. "Sister Tansy!"
Another of the Sisterhood came out from a back room then. Her robes were streaked with soot and blood.
"This is River Dambro. She has brought us burn supplies from Pontir Tower."
I shifted my pack of my back and began unwrapping the bundles within. The very packing material was burn gauze. No wasted space in this load!
"Sister Meadow, I have been asked to make sure you are aware this small jar is from Farspire the wizard, and should be used on the severest burn victims, and sparingly then."
"Mother Marigold sent this? Spirits bless her!"
"I almost ran over an old man as I came up from the river. It looked like he was building a collection of baskets. Do you know what he is doing?"
"There are still several people missing." Sister Meadow sighed. "He is collecting ashes so they can be sorted through in the morning when there's light. Its not exactly a rational act, but his wife is one of the missing, and it keeps his mind occupied for now. Are there still people on the porch outside?"
"Go ask them where Chopper is. You have been taking Sister Amble's training, haven't you?"
"Good! Find Chopper and tell him I want the two of you to patrol the streets where the fire damage is. I don't expect we'll have to worry about looting, but better to be safe."
The crowd on the porch were all of the opinion that Chopper was at Fallow's Inn, which had been set up to serve meals to those whose homes had burned as well as those helping with the rescue and treatment of the victims. Rose, one of the women on the porch, offered to guide me, and we walked several streets over and back towards the river in the dark. We introduced each other, and for the first stretch of our journey through the streets, Rose was quiet.
"There are more Sisters coming?" She asked eventually.
"Yes, but not until tomorrow night or the next morning." I offered without explanation.
"Some find the Sisterhood an obstacle. You represent order in places where the King's rule is thin and weak."
This line of conversation surprised me. I hadn't expected a political discussion to break out on the walk over to the inn.
"The Sisterhood doesn't seek to rule anyone, and there are many kingdoms along the Shadar. The Sisterhood gives favor to none of them. But I am too young and new, you won't get a long discussion on the politics of the Sisterhood from me."
That got me a short, barking laugh from my guide. It was almost too dark to see, but I imagined her shaking her head.
"I have been accused of fighting my battles in the wrong places before. How old are you my dear?"
"You are tall for your age, and fair of face. I will have to warn Chopper to behave himself."
Chopper was sixteen, a head taller than I was, with broad shoulders, dark straight hair and an easy smile that had me off-centered immediately. Rose made sure to get him thinking her way immediately.
"Chopper, this is River Dambro." Rose explained. "She is an acolyte of the Sisterhood, as you can see by her robe, and is twelve years old. Sister Meadow has asked her to come find you, so that the two of you can patrol the fire-damaged section and keep an eye out for looters."
"Of course." He said, holding out his hand. "Chopper Eamen, at your service."
In walking back towards the fire damaged section of town, I learned that the kingdom of Lagespar was currently at war with a neighboring kingdom. King Greentree's levies had stripped many of the smaller towns and villages of most if not all of their able bodied men. Vakkha was one of those towns, and there were few but old men and young boys remaining.
"Why then do you find yourself left behind?" I asked. He seemed to be of an age where military service would be expected of him.
"Both of my parents are invalids, though my pap can get by for a little while with a cane." He answered.
We stopped back at the blue door building again and grabbed a couple of torches. Sister Meadow added her admonition to Chopper to behave, and it gave me some pause. I seldom saw this level of concern from the Sisters I wound up working alongside.
"The women of Vakkha seem intent on reminding you to behave." I said once we were out on the streets making our way through the the burned buildings. "Should I be concerned?"
The torch light didn't make for the best viewing, but I'm sure that Chopper was blushing.