“There, little lordling, you see? I told you that we would beat the storm!”
Robeth shook his head and tried not to smile at Marjin as she grinned back at him, threads of grey hair wiping around her face. Little lordling, indeed. Marjin just laughed and turned away, slowing Gerith to a steady trot.
Marjin had been right, of course. Again. They had seen the storm coming in as they crept along the narrow path, clouds piling high, turning the northern sky to white, and then grey, and then black, obscuring the single sun. The wind had kicked up and the temperature had dropped quickly, chilling Robeth even through his leathers and furs. When they had passed an overhang — a shallow, but thick protrusion of rock from the side of the mountain — he had suggested that they stop and make what shelter they could; at the very least, they could string their tents together and curtain off an area beneath the overhang. The two Temerares, plus their mounts, plus six mules loaded down with supplies. It wouldn’t be comfortable, and it would be cramped, and they would be cold, but it would be enough to see them through until morning.
But no. Marjin had argued that the Inn was only another hour’s ride. And, if they kept a steady pace, they would arrive before the storm reached them.
And she had been right. Again.
The wall of the mountain had gradually curved away, the ground around the path widening, and now the plateau spread out ahead of them. As if this entire side of the mountain had been sheared away during the Reweaving of the World. There was wild forest here, and tamed orchards, and — a welcome sight — the Inn of the Honeyed Bear.
Robeth touched Shera’s sides with his heels, causing her to quicken her steps and pull up next to Marjin and Gerith as the forest closed around them on both sides. He looped the reins in one gloved hand and shifted his hood lower over his face, stifling the wind that was beginning to give him a headache. “It’s larger than I remember.”
The Inn stood tall over the surrounding forest, the blue-grey stone almost black in the declining light. A tiered circle, the outermost level was only one story tall. Each level inward added another story, with the innermost level standing at five stories in height. The entire structure was covered in fine carvings and scrollwork in geometric patterns and stylized flowers and leaves, with many of the latticed windows opening onto narrow balconies.
At this time of year, of course, they were all closed and barred against the cold and wind. But many were illuminated from within by the reddish-gold of candles and hearths.
Robeth felt warmer just looking at the Inn, and all those glowing windows.
“You expect the Inn to have remained unchanged?” Marjin arched an eyebrow at him. “You haven’t been through Achareth Province in — what? — ten years?”
The wind gusted, sending frozen pebbles of snow raining down on them from the trees. Robeth dropped his head, trying to shield his face. Shera flicked her ears in irritation, and he patted her neck. “Twelve,” he answered. “I spent my entire seventeenth year — an entire year, not just a season — riding around Achareth looking for a seircovra.”
Marjin burst out laughing.
“That’s right!” she chuckled. “I had forgotten about that. You and your cousin were both courting — eh, what was his name?”
Another gust of wind, the trees around them groaning loudly. The path curved, and, for a long moment, he lost sight of the Inn through the bare trunks and swinging branches.
“Kajinti!” he yelled.
Marjin flapped a hand in confirmation. “Yes! Kajinti! You and Santeneth got drunk, almost got into a duel — which she would have won, I am sorry to say — then declared in front of your mother and the entire court that you would each bring Kajiniti whatever his heart desired to prove your everlasting love.” Marjin cackled loudly. “A seircovra! Ha! I’m sure your mother put him up to it, just to teach the two of you a lesson.”
“Of that, I have absolutely no doubt.”
They rounded another curve in the path and the Inn came back into view. He could see the lowest two levels through the trees, now, and could almost feel the heat on his face.
Another blast of wind, this one so strong that it tore the hood from his head, ripping through his hair, across his cheeks. His eyes watered.
Or perhaps he was succumbing to hypothermia.
The trees fell away around them, a wide space of brown grass and snow opening up in front of the Inn. The horses both whinnied in excitement, Shera picking up her hooves and moving into a loping canter. The distance to the main gate shrank quickly.
The thick wood-and-iron portcullis had already been half-lowered, shielding part of the tunnel against the on-rushing storm. A young guard, her face buried behind a scarf, her head bare despite the cold, was waving at them, urging them forward, faster. Robeth pressed his heels to Shera’s flanks, pushing her into a run. She complied eagerly.
They pounded beneath the gate, the clop of hooves and the jangle of harnesses and the heavy breathing of horses and donkeys echoing from the walls. Behind them, the portcullis dropped, hitting the frozen dirt and stone with a deafening thud.
No more wind. No more ice and snow.
Robeth slowed Shera to a walk and patted her neck in approval.
The oath made Robeth wince. He ran a gloved hand over his hair, rubbing out some of the ice and pebbles and bits of bark and leaves, and watched as another guard — older, muscled, annoyed — came running down the tunnel past them. He barely gave the two Temerares a glance. He was too busy yelling again.
“Teirkka! What have I told you about dropping the gate like that!”
Robeth twisted around in his saddle, watching as the older guard bore down on the hapless soul working the gate hoist. Much younger than he had initially assumed, and wide-eyed with alarm. Likely only just joined the guardians, which is why she had been assigned such a simple task as watching the gate.
Robeth sighed and turned away as the elder guard laid into his subordinate, loosing a string of curses much worse than Ekkart’s Eyeballs.
Even his cousin Santeneth would have blushed.
“Well,” Marjin huffed as they plodded towards the far end of the tunnel, “that one is going to be spending a few hours on his knees in penance.”
Robeth flinched as a harsh By Gerrta’s Tongue! echoed from the stones. “If he’s not careful, the Lady of the Inn may have him flogged.”
Marjin lifted a greying eyebrow, her expression somber. “You could, if you wanted.”
Robeth paused as they finally reached the end of the tunnel, five stories rising high on either side. The walls curved around, encircling a large courtyard. Like most Inn yards, it was a mixture of hard-packed ground, paved pathways, and small gardens, with a circular stone platform in the center. The Hallowed Flame burned there. When he had last visited the Inn of the Honeyed Bear twelve years ago, the brazier had been stone covered in carvings of dozens of bears. That had been replaced at some point with a much larger brazier of gleaming bronze, the bowl held aloft at chest height by three Honeyed Bears, jaws open in fierce roars, their fur dripping gold.
Blessed by the Hallowed Flame, the gardens bloomed, filling the courtyard with the rich scents of herbs, flowers, fruit, and berries. Birds sang from the branches of orange and plum trees, and butterflies flitted through the air. There were even conical beehives tucked among the herbs, the insects buzzing loudly, contentedly. A few guests and Inn guardians in their green and brown uniforms wandered the yard, admiring the blooms or caring for the gardens.
The interior wall, all five stories, was covered in more geometrical carvings and stylized flowers and leaves. The windows here were thrown wide open, more guests lounging with books in their hands or leaning over the sills to enjoy the gardens from above. One set of bright stained glass windows on the northern end, firmly closed but gleaming red and blue and green and yellow, depicted a massive honeyed bear surrounded by fruiting trees and beehives.
Higher still, at the very top, the walls opened to sky. Up there, where the heat from the Hallowed Flame met the cold and clouds of winter, a thin vapor had formed. The translucent cloud twisted and spun slowly, tiny rainbows flickering across the water crystals.
Robeth inhaled long and deeply, clearing the scent and taste of ice and cold from his body. His blood started to thaw. Pulling off his gloves, he dropped to the ground, tugging gently on Shera’s reins so that she would follow him up the path to the Hallowed Flame.
“That a no?” Marjin prompted, dismounting to follow with her own horse.
“It is the Lady’s prerogative to discipline the guardians of her Inn. If she chooses not to do so ….” He hesitated, remembering the older man’s foul curses. “I will speak with her in private. The matter does need to be addressed, but I will not question her authority in public.” He patted Shera’s nose. “Prayers of thanks first, then some oats and carrots for you, girl.”
The horse whuffed in agreement, recognizing the words for her favorite foods, if not understanding the rest.
Robeth stopped at the base of the platform, closed his eyes, and bowed. He did not need to turn and look to know that Marjin had done the same.
“I offer my name to the Hallowed Flame: Robeth Eard, son of Dynna, Lord-Captain of the Temerares of Eardvall.”
“I offer my name to the Hallowed Flame: Marjin Quil, daughter of Mattha, Temerare of Eardvall.”
Robeth dropped to one knee, his head still down, his eyes still closed. Water ran down his neck as the frost and snow on his hair and hood melted. His clothes began to steam. “To the Hallowed Ones, we offer our gratitude: Tassha of the Needle, Ekkart the Far-Seeing, Gerrta of the Song, Lieneill the Far-Hearing, and Far-Wandering Dhajin of the Flowers.”
“To the Hallowed Ones, we offer our thanks,” Marjin continued, “Tassha of the Needle, Ekkart the Far-Seeing, Gerrta of the Song, Lieneill the Far-Hearing, and Far-Wandering Dhajin of the Flowers.”
“Accept our gratitude and thanks, heart-felt and freely given. May our words heal you, even as you heal the world.”
Robeth paused, pressing his hand to his heart. For a moment, the Hallowed Flame seemed to grow warmer. Then warmer still. The remaining water on his clothes suddenly flashed to steam and he flinched at the explosion.
And in the rush of the steam, he heard voices. Two. Three? Four?
Mine. Not yours. I will tell, I will. What if she’s lying? Kill you, I will.
His eyes snapped open and he looked up. The Hallowed Flame was still in its brazier, the honeyed bears roaring silently.
Marjin was touching his shoulder, her expression concerned. “Beth?”
He turned to look at the Flame again, then shook his head. He forced a smile and shook his head once more. “Later.” Pushing to his feet, he turned to find a guardian waiting for them; a messenger, to judge by his grey and black clothes and ankle boots.
The messenger half-bowed. “Lord-Captain Eard. Temerare Quil. I am Jessle. If you care to leave your mounts at the stables, I have been sent to escort you.” He gestured towards the stained glass windows. “The Lady of the Inn awaits you.”
Attala Neis, Lady of the Inn of the Honeyed Bear, was a woman of middling years and middling appearance: brown hair, brown eyes, skin that might have been pale at one point, but that had browned and lined with exposure to the elements and age. Her clothes were equally middling: a green dress, brown vest, brown leather boots, and a green and brown cloak woven with leaves and flowers. In contrast to the gleaming stained glass windows, she looked small and plain. Her only jewelry was a silver clasp, holding the cloak closed at her throat: a pentagram in honor of the five Hallowed Ones. It was pointing up, though, instead of down.
Odd, but not unheard-of. In their years of mapping the Rewoven World, his company of Temerares had encountered individuals, even small isolated communities, that honored the Hallowed Ones with an upright pentagram. Something to do with directing their prayers and vital energies towards the Hallowed Ones, rather than towards the world.
Robeth had never seen one worn within the borders of Eard. Though, practically speaking, Acherath Province and the Inn of the Honeyed Bear were barely part of Eardvall. Seven weeks of hard riding from the capital, in the Dellith Mountains of the extreme north-west. He and Marjin wouldn’t even be here, except —
“Welcome to my Inn, Lord-Captain Eard, Temerare Quil.” The Lady dipped her head, hands poking through slits in her cloak to hang loose at her sides. She stood too close to the hearth. The fire within hissed and cracked, flames licking at the back of her legs.
Robeth hesitated, goosebumps running up his arms and back.
He recognized that voice.
He did his best to cover the pause with a small smile and bow. “We thank you for your hospitality, Lady Neis.”
“It is my duty to provide a safe haven to all who pass through these mountains. What brings you so far north, Lord-Captain? Surely Acherath Province has been fully explored and mapped by the Temerares.”
“It has, indeed, my lady. My company of Temerares are actually camped in a valley on the far side of the Dellith Mountains. Temerare Quil and I returned to the capital several months ago with new maps and botanical samples. We are now en route back to my company with fresh supplies. We had hoped to rejoin them before the full onset of winter, and thought that passage through Acherath Province would be the quickest route.”
“Clearly it was not.”
“… No. We will remain until the storm passes, and then be on our way again.”
Another dip of her head, and Lady Neis turned away to face the fire. She was so close to it that her clothes nearly smoldered.
Robeth cast a glance at Marjin, who just shrugged.
Apparently they had been dismissed.
But first ….
“My lady, if I may?”
She turned her head towards him, but did not move her body.
“There is a guardian who is speaking ill of the Hallowed Ones. I am concerned at how his words may affect them.”
Lady Neis remained silent.
Robeth felt his jaw tighten. “The matter should be dealt with. I would rather not have to explain to the Grandesse that the winter was more severe or the spring delayed because one man could not control his temper and caused harm to the Hallowed Ones.”
A very long pause. Then, “I shall speak with him.”
This time, Robeth didn’t bother to nod or bow. He just turned away and exited the room.
Jessle was waiting for them outside. Now that Robeth was paying attention, he noticed that the young man was also wearing an upright pentagram.
“Could you escort us to our rooms, please?”
The messenger nodded, and set off at a brisk pace. Around and around he went, following the curve of the Inn, past guest rooms and staff quarters and storage spaces, then up two wide flights of stairs. By the time he came to a halt in front of a thick wooden door, Robeth figured they were on the third floor, directly above the front gate.
“Your suite, Lord-Captain, Temerare.” The messenger pushed open the door, revealing a sizable room beyond. Heavy table and chairs, hearth (unlit), a few tapestries, a cabinet filled with books. On the wall opposite, a pair of windows hung open. Robeth could smell the fruits and flowers of the central yard, and feel the heat from the Hallowed Flame. A door on each wall to the right and left led, he assumed, to sleeping chambers.
“Oh, thank the Hallowed Ones,” Marjin breathed. She jerked a thumb at the left door. “A night away from your snoring will do me a lot of good.”
Robeth rolled his eyes.
Jessle coughed politely. “I am afraid that you have already missed the midday meal. The evening meal will be served in the great hall at the nineteenth hour. You may explore the Inn as you wish, but we ask that you respect the privacy of the other guests. And, we caution you against venturing outside of the Inn, or onto the upper walkway. The storm will have made that treacherous.”
“There’s a walkway up there now?”
“Yes, Lord-Captain.” Jessle nodded eagerly. “The Lady Neis added it several years ago. She has made many improvements to the Inn since she succeeded Lord Barrth.”
Robeth nodded and wandered over to the windows. The vapor at the top of the walls had thickened, and the first drops of rain were beginning to fall. Three levels below, the gardens spread out, green and humming with life, the pathways running in straight angled lines between the clusters of plants. Gaze still on the yard, Robeth asked, “She has been Lady here for how long? Five years?”
“Yes, of course.” Robeth turned away from the gardens. “Thank you, Jessle.”
The young man smiled and quietly left the suite.
Marjin scowled at him as she pulled off her cloak and slung it over the back of a chair. “What was that?”
“I know that look, that tone of voice. This isn’t about just the pentagrams. Yes, I noticed them, too. Did the Grandesse send us here?”
“No.” Robeth shook his head, removing his own cloak and pacing around the suite. He fiddled with the hilt of one of his daggers, strapped securely to his belt. “Just as I said: going through the Dellith Mountains seemed the fastest route. But ….” He made his way back to the table and dropped into one of the chairs. Marjin did the same, leaning towards him. “I heard something in the Hallowed Flame. Voices. In the steam and fire.”
Marjin’s expression snapped from curious and annoyed to wary in an instant. “The last time you heard voices, the Hallowed Ones were warning you about an assassin plot against the Grandesse.”
Robeth spread his hands.
“What did they say?”
“Mine. Not yours. I will tell, I will. What if she’s lying? Kill you, I will.”
“I recognized one of them. Lady Neis. Mine. Not Yours.”
“Hunh.” Marjin dropped back in her chair. She ran a hand through her hair, pulling the greying braid over her shoulder. “So Lieneill heard something important, and Gerrta whispered it to you through the flames.” She sighed. “We’re not leaving when the storm passes, are we?”
“Sorry. Your husbands are going to have to wait just a bit longer.”
Growling, Marjin pushed herself to her feet. “Well, in that case, let’s go do what Temerares do: let’s take Jessle up on his offer, and go exploring.”
[End Part One. Part Two will appear in the May 2022 issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]