Avarron peered into the map, resting on the neck of his horse. He trusted that the steed would follow the trail. A road he could no longer call it. It certainly had been one, long ago, but years without maintenance had only left a few signs of its past state. The trail winded into the hills, which were covered with thick forest. Occasionally, when they reached a hilltop, the silhouette of the mountains became visible far in the distance.
The map really was of no use anymore from this point onwards. But that was exactly why Avarron had requested the cartographer to quickly produce a copy. It had been done overnight and was shoddy work, more of a sketch than a properly drawn map. That was exactly what Avarron needed for his attempt to fill in this gap. That was something that the cartographer had happily skipped a night’s rest for. Tonight, at the campfire, Avarron would draw in the trail with Dann’s assistance. For now, he was simply placing dots as reference points for hilltops they passed and saw, as well as turns in the trail.
As a bonus, he had convinced Lannvaire that this secondary objective to his mission was one he could not be disturbed from it. It meant that Dace received all her complaints about the discomforts of the road. The knight attempted to let her ramble on with minimal response.
“It’s too steep for a wagon. And it’s in disrepair. Who is in change of maintenance around here? I demand to see him. You should find him and bring him here,” she argued.
“Yes, I agree. Something should be done about it,” Dace mumbled, a generic reply he had used several times now. As the princess looked up at him expectantly, he realized what he had just agreed to. “Princess, I don’t think there is anyone around here in charge of maintenance.”
Lannvaire gave him a confused look. “How is that possible?”
“We’re not in the city anymore,” Dace explained. He visibly tired of the conversation.
Luckily for him, the short exchange of words had given the princess some food for thought. She leant back into the wagon, pondering the situation. Her thoughts were quickly interrupted as a wheel bumped through a hole in the ground.
As three simultaneous cries of pain and frustration erupted from the wagon, Avarron couldn’t help but smile. “I know it’s wrong,” he admitted to Rogan. “But part of me enjoys seeing these girls taken out of the palace and their pampered comforts.”
“Imagine we’d have to go all the way up there,” Rogan copied the smile as he pointed at the mountains in from of them. The tallest of them had still had snowy peaks, even at the onset of summer. “Can you imagine the ambassador coming with a wagon?” he asked laughing.
“I’m hoping the Nevarrans are smarter than that. They are supposed to be smart, after all.”
“You mean, because they’re sorcerers? I heard that every single one of them is a sorcerer,” Rogan said excitedly.
“They’re not sorcerers. You should know better than that,”Avarron chided him. “They devote themselves to the gathering of knowledge. As such, they know tricks that may seem like witchcraft to the superstitious, I’ve been told,” Avarron explained.
“But wasn’t sorcery the reason for the war?” Rogan asked.
“For some reason we’ve never quite understood, they claimed that we disrupted their connection to some spirit world when the Ardaithe sealed off the fallen kingdom. Losing the war only made it worse. It’s why a peace treaty was never signed. The Nevarrans greatly enjoy their mystical reputation and have never been willing to admit that there’s no such thing like a spirit world. But after nearly two centuries, almost everyone on both sides agrees we really ought to stop fighting over it. That’s why we’re going to pick up their ambassador.”
Avarron looked at Rogan, who gave no response. The boy had already lost interest in his own question. “History never was your favourite subject in school, I take it?”
“Who cares what happened I don’t know how long ago?” Rogan replied disinterested. He had given his teacher the same response more times than he cared to count.
“I don’t know about yours, but in my family history is considered very important. It explains how we got to where we are. It provides examples, of both good and bad choices made, to learn from.”
“Heh, now you sound like my father,” Rogan smirked. “Please tell me you’re not going to be like that stuffy, old man.”
“I promise I won’t tell him you called him that. Does that alleviate your concerns?” Avarron smirked in return.
“It would, if you stopped using talking so stuffy. Besides, you don’t even know him.”
Avarron and Rogan had never told each other their family names. When Avarron had asked for Rogan’s, the boy refused to tell him before Avarron told him his. As the knight’s family was a very carefully kept secret, the exchange of family names had never occurred. Yet neither of them was bothered by it. Over time, Avarron had realized he actually preferred not knowing the boy’s family. It was the best way to stay out of politics.
“The way you describe him, I might not want to,” Avarron teased.
“Well spoken. You have certainly alleviated my concerns now,” Rogan said solemnly, barely containing himself from bursting into laughter.
“Kids,” Asratorix mumbled as he glanced at the knight and his squire, just loud enough for both of them to hear him. The bard nodded, sharing the sentiment.
Avarron and Rogan looked at each other for a moment and simultaneously said: “Stuffy, old men.” Then they burst into laughter.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Asratorix asked, interrupting them.
“Probably, since you asked,” Avarron replied. As Asratorix did not immediately point out his mistake, he started to look around. The scenery had shifted somewhat. They were no longer on a hilltop and the road winded down steeply. Avarron carefully made a few marks on the map to indicate direction and elevation. “Thanks,” he said to the bard.
“Can I see it?” Rogan asked curiously as he stretched himself, hoping to catch a glimpse of the map.
Avarron took the map off the horse’s neck and revealed it to Rogan. It was completely unreadable for the squire, though. All he could see was a blur of dots, lines and symbols.
“I know, it’s not much,” Avarron admitted. “It won’t be a real map until I bring this to an actual cartographer. But tonight, Dann and I will try to make a sketch. As soon as he finds a suitable camp site.”
“He claims to have done so already,” Asratorix smirked.
As Avarron looked up, he saw the scout down the road. “Angels, why am I so distracted today that I even miss my own scout?” he wondered out loud.
As they approached Dann, he slowly walked towards them. “I found a nice rock outcropping, creating an open spot in the forest, on a small hilltop. Much more easy to defend from assassins than our previous camp site.”
“Perfect. How far from here?” Avarron asked.
“Right over there,” Dann pointed at the next hilltop the trail approached. “I found it a while back, but didn’t feel the need to return immediately, so I simply waited for you.”
That was unusual. It was unlike Dann to be idle. As Avarron looked at him, he noticed how tired the scout was. He had slept little since they left, and walked long distances scouting and returning to report. He had given chase to an assassin and in total probably made over twice the distance on foot as Avarron had on horseback.
“Tomorrow is the last day we will need intensive scouting. And I’ll keep you out of the night watch roster,” Avarron decided.
“But you’ll need me tonight. I’m the best spotter. If the assassin…” Dann sputtered but Avarron interrupted: “I need a fit scout tomorrow to find the trail and the border. And that means you need to rest.”
Dann didn’t argue any further. “Thank you, sir. I have not been idle while waiting though. I prepared wood for fires around the camp, as well as a central campfire. They only need to be lit.”
Together they climbed the hill. Arriving at the top, Avarron found it to be exactly as Dann had promised: An open space with good vantage in all directions. Before he could order them, his men immediately started to light all the fires and then quickly and efficiently set up a tent for the princess and her maids.
The royal guards stood and looked somewhat bewildered as Avarron’s men got the camp ready. Only when they all made themselves a spot to sleep nearby the main campfire did the guards start to follow their example. This resulted in an inner circle around tent and campfire, surrounded by an outer circle of royal guards.
The maids quickly retreated into the tent, making themselves comfortable after the rough ride. Lannvaire approached Avarron instead. As the men all gathered around the campfire, she asked: “What’s going on?”
“Well, I brought a bard along. He’s going to do what he does best,” Avarron replied cheerfully.
“Music? How delightful!”
“I’m afraid not,” Avarron apologized. “What he does best is story-telling.”
“Oh,” Lannvaire failed to hide her disappointment. “What will he tell?”
“He never reveals much beforehand,” Avarron explained as he guided her towards the campfire. “I think it will be a very dark tale tonight though. Perhaps it would be better to retreat to your tent?”
“No,” Lannvaire said determined. “I’m not a child anymore.”
“As you wish, princess,” Avarron said, which immediately resulted in a glare from Lannvaire.
When did she become so strong-headed, he wondered as they sat down in the circle. Asratorix clapped in his hand to draw everyone’s attention and ask for silence. Once he had everyone’s attention, he started: