Chapter 19: Mixed Company


"Mistress, there're strangers on the road," the guard warned.


The sun peeked over a distant range of mountains and the parade of paupers rested after a long night of travel. Wenifas opened her eyes and slowly stood. She stepped out to the road, turned, and stared west. Smoke drifted on the wind – a reminder of the previous night's destruction – as a horse and rider stepped down the road with four figures behind it. The horse passed among the parade of paupers. Several of the people waved and about half as many more bowed to the rider.


Wenifas bit her lip. "Who are they?" She asked the guard.


The guard shrugged. "The way they pass, i presume it is someone with rank."


Wenifas ran a hand through Claiten's hair. "Go to your sister," she said to the boy. Annoyed, Claiten returned back to the pine where Evereste rested with Meu – and the dirt covered Trohl they found the night before.


The knot of strangers approached. The rider turned to the guard and said to him, "I am looking for the one that leads this rabble."


Wenifas recognized the rider immediately. It was the Jay, Meriona. The guard turned to Wenifas. Although a smile stretched across the Jay's face, something suggested she was not at all pleased.


"You have saved a great many of my people," Meriona glanced back at the long train of commoners. "For that, I thank you."


"You are welcome, mistress," Wenifas gave a low bow.


"I am told you command these military men. Have you taken oaths to the armies of the Empress?" Meriona asked.


"Of course not, mistress," Wenifas stated. "The men follow my lead as they were ordered. It is not a thing of my doing."


"Who gave such an order?" Meriona asked.


"Our commander, Ayrik," the guard answered.


Meriona gave him a puzzled look.


"It is a lawful order. Under special circumstance, on rare occasions, members of the clergy – and civility – are known to lead troops," the guard answered. As he said civility, he gave a bow to Meriona, in recognition of her position. Still, he was making it clear that he took his orders from Wenifas, and there was nothing Meriona could do about it.

Meriona turned to Wenifas and assumed an authoritative pose. "You have done a good job, though you are not trained in these matters. I ask that you immediately turn these men over to me."


Wenifas looked about the various people as they relaxed along the road. Despite the large number of people all around her, including over thirty armed and dangerous men, Wenifas felt very much alone. Her one desire was to leave them all and be truly and utterly alone. Then she might have a chance to grieve for Derris. This was the thing she cared to do: to cry and bluster and mourn a great man. Yet, she remembered her children, and something inside whispered it'd be a mistake to turn over control of the guards to this woman. She assumed Meriona would take the men and make for Ebertin with all possible haste – and leave no guard for the people. Yet the Jay had guards of her own. Why not take them and go ahead all the same? They'd have the long train of paupers and soldiers to serve as a vanguard, and Wenifas was pretty sure there was little to fear in front of them.


Wenifas glanced at Meriona's entourage. Her heart jumped. She knew these men. Their faces were etched on her soul as she remembered them killing Derris once more. For a split second, Wenifas thought to say something about them, to attack them with nails and teeth. Her mouth hung open. Though she recognized them, they did not seem to recognize her. But then, she thought it might just be that each possessed a cold dead stare. After all, they were murderers.


"I'm sorry," Wenifas finally answered with her head bowed deep. "These men have not fulfilled their orders. I cannot release them."


Meriona stared daggers at the priestess. "And what orders are these?"


"To see these people to safety," the guard volunteered.


"We are away from the camp. There are no waokie here to harm them!" Meriona snapped. "If these people are not safe, when might it be so?"


The Jay spoke with a smugness that grated on the priestess. Suddenly, Wenifas wanted to say that these people would never be safe so long as the corruption and hypocrisy of the baradha ruled! But she kept a calm face. Instead, she simply said, "They will be safe among the Trohls, when we have reached a settlement of significance."


"Then, you will turn these men to my command?" Meriona pressed.


This time Wenifas didn't flinch. A cold rage caught hold of the priestess. She locked eyes with Meriona and said, "We shall see."


A bothered air came over the Jay though she calmed herself quickly. She sighed and offered a long suffering smile. "Then I ask that we be permitted to join your caravan, that we might be safe among your numbers."


Wenifas realized the Jay didn't trust her own guards and knew she was right not to do so. She felt sympathy for the woman as she answered. "You have a right to the road," Wenifas gave a gracious bow. "It is your prerogative to keep any company you like," she said with no hint of irony.


"Then it is settled – we will join you," Meriona grinned.


"It has been a long night. We marched until the sun came up. We shall return to our travels at noon," Wenifas explained.


"Very well," Meriona said and turned from the priestess. Meriona and her guard passed out of earshot.


Wenifas turned to her own guard. "Does it surprise you that she wishes to tarry with us instead of riding ahead?"


Piqued, he turned to her. "What are you insinuating?"


"Those guards are not as they seem. I do not trust them – and I suspect Meriona does not trust them either," Wenifas said.


The guard stared after the three strangers. " We shall keep an eye on them."


"Thank you," Wenifas gave a nod to the guard and stepped away. She returned to the pine and nestled with her nose in Claiten's hair. There were still a few hours before noon and she longed for a deep, dreamless sleep.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


Baet stepped from the camp of Ministrian commoners and walked among the brush and scrub of the valley.


"Where are you going?" Toar asked.


"I feel a return of the drips," Baet replied with a sniff. "I'm lookin' for your weed to make some tea."


"Do you remember it? Shall I help you look?"


"Do as you like," Baet shrugged.


"Do you think that's her?" Toar asked.


"Who?"

"The woman with the guards. Do you think she's the one that yelled at us? The one with your musket?"


Baet turned back to Toar. "She's a priestess, right? Twin gods and what not?"


"She's not a Jay. They don't bow and scrape to each other."


"That's good, right? That she's not a Jay?"


Toar frowned. How should he know?


Baet sniffed. "Well, it's nice to know Cloud Breaker might be close. Wait – do you think one of these fools might have Thunder Maker?!" Baet turned to his friend, excited.


Toar shrugged.


"Well, somebody has it," Baet frowned. "So where do we go next? Ebertin?"


Toar stiffened at the name of the city.


"You really don't like the place, do you?"


"I know too much of people that rule it," Toar frowned. "Do you think she's figured out how to reload that thing?" He changed the subject back to Wenifas and the musket.


"I certainly hope not!" Baet shook his head. "But maybe one of the guards knows something about it – if she thinks to ask any of them." He shook his head. "What are the chances any of them have shot and powder?" He shook his head. "We taught the Ministrians – and everyone else – not to dabble with our muskets. I wonder if the lesson has lasted..."


~!@#$%^&*()_+


Celesi walked with Toar as the caravan continued east. Meriona encouraged it and asked her to keep an eye on him. Celesi didn't need the encouragement, but she was certainly glad to have Meriona's blessing. There weren't many Trohls among the refugees and Celesi had not encountered many commoners among the Ministrian until now. She was not used to them, but only the groveling manner of the baradha and their immediate lackeys. The commoners were not like the ruling class, which did not surprise the young Trohl – but she had no idea how to treat with them.


Meriona followed them shortly. She lagged a bit so that she might ride next to Carringten. With a raised brow she engaged the Borz. "Our Trohl friends are rather chummy, don't you think? Perhaps a bit too much?" Meriona said with an arched eyebrow.


"What do you mean?" Carringten asked.


"Your master knew the significance of her condition. His appraisal was a sol for her blooding," Meriona looked at Carringten with a critical eye. "Your associate is rather friendly for my liking. If anything should transpire between the two, I will hold you accountable."


"Threats, my lady?" Carringten eyed her. "To what end?"


"A gold sol is the cost of such things," Meriona said with a lifted brow.


"It is not our custom to pay for things freely given," Carringten replied, unperturbed.


"I remind you, this is a matter of interest to the Throne," Meriona chastised.


Carringten turned to Meriona, nonplussed. "The Throne has so very many interests. How does she keep track of them all?"


"With the assistance of her servants," Meriona gave a slight bow. "When in Minist, do as the Ministrians do. Have you not heard this?"


"I have," Carringten nodded. "And what makes you think we are in Minist?"


"Look around you. What makes you think we are not?"


"We are not in Saotren," Carringten began. "And we are certainly not in Borzia. But Minist? I think the Trohls might argue against such an assertion." He shrugged. "Yet, to keep the peace, I will talk to him all the same."


"Stern words, I hope."


"The sternest," Carringten replied in a flat tone.


"That is all I ask," Meriona gave a honeyed smile.


For several seconds, neither spoke. Carringten eyed the Jay. Although there were several hundred of her people about, she sought him out and walked her horse close by. He did not mind it, though he wondered why. He assumed she was uneasy among mere commoners. Perhaps she felt it better to walk with a man that she could be openly antagonistic toward instead of with people she had to pretend to like and serve. He remembered all the reasons he did not like Minist.


"How long before we reach Ebertin?" The dark man asked.


"Among this squalid mass? Another week. We are half way to Falderfallen's Hovey. Then we can leave these people. Then we will move fast," Meriona said.


"And my master? Where is he?"


"A day or two ahead us?" Meriona shrugged.


"You say the execution will be quick. I should like to get there with a bit more haste," Carringten stated.


Meriona shook her head. "In the lives of governments, a day or a week is but a blink of an eye. Your master is an important man. A trial is necessary. It will be several days before Kezodel and Gliedian have scripted their interactions before the court. After that, there will be a time to petition against the decision of the court – not out of any true concern for the accused, of course – merely to maintain an illusion of impartiality. We will arrive in time. Even as we limp along in this train of miscreants, I believe we shall arrive before Creigal ever sees the court. Besides, why do you wish to be there?" Meriona continued. "They will know you as one of his lieutenants. What will you do? Will you fight Kezodel and all his men? If you try, it will be a quick and nasty death for you."


"I will do what I must," Carringten replied.


"Live by the sword, die by the sword," Meriona shrugged. She eyed the dark man to see if this caused him any discomfort.


"True warriors do not beg for a quiet death, only a cause worth dying for," Carringten replied.


"And your master? He is such a cause?"


Carringten nodded.


Meriona frowned and shook her head. "There are no such causes. It is a grave mistake to value the life of some one else above your own."


"What of your Empress? Does she not demand your allegiance?"


"In her case, undying allegiance is the alternative to most immediate death. There is no other bargain in Minist," Meriona answered.


"Then it is a nation of slaves," Carringten noted.


Meriona smirked. "Half the world is in our thrall, yet all slaves are not the same. You shall see the luxury and privilege I am afforded."


"You do not disagree?" Carringten said.


"I do not," Meriona admitted. "I kissed the ring of Empress Seviticah – and I wonder if she might have kissed a ring herself – but I am not concerned with who stands at the top. I stand close enough. I see a great deal, and I am afforded many things."


"But you would not die for your empress?" Carringten asked.


"Why should we want to die at all?" Meriona scowled. "Should we not want to live forever? But that is the great pain of our existence. Surely, it must be very few that manage immortality."


"Few?" Carringten turned to Meriona with wide eyes. "You think there are those that manage it at all?"


"Certainly."


"And who are these people? Where are they? Might we see them? Might we study with them?"


"Of course you can! But time continues, and some are always skeptical. They will say, 'you are not dead yet, but there is always tomorrow...' They do not see what some have accomplished," Meriona huffed. "Such men and women are the elect of God, and they live because they kill without mercy. Death always takes life, and so if you'd maintain your life, you must serve death."


Carringten snorted. "In my travels, I have met a few of the old masters of Minist, and although some are very old indeed, none are immortal."


"If they are not dead, how can you say they are not immortal?"


"Because even the greatest die. To live for three, even four hundred years is a far cry from living forever. To be immortal is to watch the infinities pass as if they were nothing but this season's flies," Carringten stated. "How long did Hischeidah live? Six hundred years? Yet, he is dead," Carringten continued. "And is it true he took most of his secrets with him?"


"He may have taken a few tricks, but we shall discover them soon enough."


"And that is to say nothing of rumor he was a chimera..."


"We will yet attain our goal," Meriona huffed. "The gods have promised it. But you do not know the true gods. We are the elect. We have the keys. We unlock the doors."


"I do not know your gods," Carringten agreed. "But I certainly know of them. For one, I know you speak not of Ooroiyuo and Naharahna."


Meriona visibly flinched.


"Yes, Jay. I know they are the gods of children. They are for the unwashed masses. They are a source of song and story, to control the conquered peoples. The baradha do not speak the names of their true gods. Not amongst the profane. Yet I know their names: Hef, Gairfitz, Rauthmaug the All-Consuming... I know much of your secret gods and the dark powers they offer – but they are nothing compared to nature herself," Carringten asserted. "Hers is the kingdom of heaven. Hers and hers alone. For all belongs to her, both heaven and hell. She offers eternal truth to any and every man. All they must do is open their eyes and embrace their mortality. Someday you will die, mistress. But first, you must live, and in your life you must serve. If you serve the dark, you will die only to be born into darkness once more."


"And what of those that serve the light? I suppose they will be immortal?"


"Servants of the light must die in service to the light. But by doing so, they will be born to the light once more."


"So we all must die and yet we are all immortal?" Meriona huffed. "I think you contradict yourself."


"To live a life of meaning requires death. In order to remember, we must forget. Is this contradiction? Or is it merely paradox?" Carringten shrugged. "Doubt says it is one. Faith says it is the other."


"Then you admit it: you do not know it all," Meriona smirked.


"The aim is not to know everything. That is the mistake your people make. I need only know enough. And that my dear, is a simple thing indeed," Carringten said.


With a snort, Meriona pushed her horse forward. Carringten hid a smile. She'd return. He knew it. Who else could she talk to?


~!@#$%^&*()_+


Criegal slept in a posh room, in the town of Falderfallen's Hovey. They were stopped at an inn, and the duke was heavily guarded. He woke with a start as he realized someone else was in his room. He suspected an assassin. He suspected Banifourd, or Garf, or Bence. He was sure Gliedian had gone back on his word and he would die an ignominious death far from anywhere.


The shadow moved, dextrous and quiet. It bent toward the bed and a pair of hands slid across the covers. Creigal grabbed at the wrists and caught the attacker. He expected a poisoned pin or a garrote – but there was nothing in her hands. The attacker sucked in her breath as he pulled her forward. A woman! Creigal thought. He stared into the dark and tried to read the features of the slight creature before him.


"Let me go," the voice was curt and seemed to belong to his daughter. Was he still awake? Did he not dream it?


His eyes adjusted further. He held her hands, pinned with his own and realized it was the Jay, Karamina, with her fine dark hair and striking Ministrian features. Her frame was etched by the light of the Tears of the Mother Moon. Her fine lingerie covered a minimum of her youthful frame. With his eyes finally adjusted to the dark, Creigal did as she commanded and dropped her hands. "You are in the wrong room," he told her.


"And if I were?" Karamina whispered her defiance. "But I do not think so. I am in the right room. Don't you see? I am here for you, old man," she smiled. With a chuckle she pulled off her shirt.


"Non, child. I do not want of such sport," Creigal began.


"It is not for you to say," Karamina cut in. She pushed him back with a gentle hand and crawled over him. "If you defy me, I will scream and bring in the guards. It will be bad for you. I will say you forced yourself on me, and they will be wrath. There is only one thing to do. You must submit," Karamina pushed his lips into his and kissed him. "This does not have to be such a confrontation. I am quite amicable," She sat up, pulled her hair back, and revealed the delicate curve of her neck. With a pout upon her lips, she continued. "Do you not want me? Am I not attractive?" She cradled her breasts. "I offer the warmth of a woman, a chance to frolic before you die. And not just tonight. I will be with you tomorrow night, and the next. I will be with you every night if you only ask. I'll be with you until you part from this life."


"It cannot be..." Creigal began with a sigh. He was pinned with his back to the headboard. He could not move without touching her delicate bits, as she continued to press forward.


"You think of the Trohl, is that it?" Karamina pouted. "If I were the blonde, you would bed me." She began to wriggle out of her small pants. "I will make you forget her. You will see..." She leaned heavily into the Duke, and kissed him once more. "Give me a royal child. I will see that it gets a good upbringing. I will see to its comfort."


She was warm to touch and Creigal felt his blood rush. He remembered cool nights with his warm wife so many years gone from this world. Since then, he'd suffered little interest in bedding a woman. But having one, naked, inviting, and pressing against him was tempting indeed. He had to admit that she was quite fetching to behold.


Karamina kissed his neck. "Forget everything else. Let me be your world," she cooed. "Please? Please?" she begged as she kissed him again and again, and pressed him against the headboard. "I want you," she ground her hips against his. "I need you... HEY!" Karamina sucked in her breath.


Criegal wrapped his arms around Karamina. He stood and lifted her over his shoulder. For a second, she thought he meant to throw her, to dash her against the floor in anger. But he did not. He stepped off the bed, careful not to drop her. She struggled to get out of his hands, but she was petite and could not match his strength. There was little she could do as he walked her across the room.


"Let me down!" She raged quietly, that they still might not be disturbed. "You better let me down, or I'll scream!" She hissed at him.


Creigal walked to the door and banged on it. The door opened and two confused guards looked at Creigal as Karamina hung over his shoulder in unadorned glory.


"No more gifts," Creigal said to the guards as he set the Jay on her feet. He spun her around and smacked her on the ass.


"Ow!" Involuntarily, Karamina stepped forward, into the hall. One arm covered her chest as the other reached for her sore butt. The door slammed shut. Karamina looked at the guards with shock on her face, and the guards returned her dumbfounded stare.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


There were few blankets and almost no tents among the ragtag collection of Ministrians. The paupers huddled under the boughs of low hanging trees and syphoned heat from one another. As the night stretched into the wee hours and grew most cold, Wenifas roused the camp. Guards lit fires to warm the walkers. Almost before the paupers could enjoy them, the call went out and the column started east once more. Walking was the best way to keep warm, they said. Still, they were lucky. Summer nights in the mountains were not so bad.


The march continued until noon, when they stopped and took another rest through the high heat of the day. Then, as the sun began to wan once more, they'd wake, take a bit meal – if there was food to be found – and begin their slow march once more. Wind kicked up from the west and brought with it the smoke from the wrecked forts. The reek was thick and at times it was not possible to see from one end of the caravan to the other. It was apparent that much, if not all of the forts had burned, and continued to burn. Occasionally, stragglers from the camp joined the caravan with fright in their eyes, blisters on their feet, and wild tales of their escape. Still, there was no sign of waokie. The parade of paupers continued east, heads down and solemn.


Not all of the refugees were bowed by the doom and gloom of the situation. The youngest survivors seemed least affected by their circumstance. For one, Claiten skipped down the line of marchers, no longer bothered by their near escape. He did not think to connect the smoke to the destruction of everyone and everything he knew back at Camp Calderhal. He assumed most if not everyone had escaped the way he had, and since no one talked about it, there no chance for anyone to set him straight. The sun burned bright, despite the smoke, and warmed the child. His mother marched at the head of the column with a new found importance and fierce determination. For Claiten, this was a fine adventure.


The handful of guards were in odd spirits and restless. There was no guarantee they were free of the waokie, and there was still the danger of what lay ahead. There was also a guilt about them, as they left so many of their brethren to fight and die. Many were quick to note they were under orders and those that tried to defy captain Ayrik were threatened with insubordination. So it was that most vacillated between survivor's guilt and the pleasure of a new day.


As Claiten ran down the line of refugees with several other children hot on his heels, one of the guard nudged another. "That's her boy," he said to his brother-in-arms.


"Who's boy?"


"The priestess," the guard answered. "You know. The priestess that rescued... this," he waved at the various people.


"Yeah? Did you ever petition?"


"Non. I don't think I ever saw her back at camp. She's a looker though."


"There are so many lookers among the priesthood. That's why we like 'em," The other joked. "But this one... She is weepy. Did you not see her when she first approached the gate?"


"It was a rough night," the guard shrugged. "Besides, women are meant to cry."


His friend turned a critical eye. "You mean to ask her don't you? You got the coin for it?"


"Maybe," the guard frowned as he rolled several bits of metal in his hand – all of it copper. "I left most my monies in the barracks. Will you lend me?"


His friend rolled his eyes. "All this trouble, and you can think of nothing but pollinating the next pretty flower! We're a thousand miles from home! Do you not see the trouble we are in?!" Still, he dug a hand in his pocket and fished out several coins, many of them silver.


"Priorities," the guard smiled as his friend passed him a couple diems. "If I die, I shall die satiated." He turned with a smile and whistled at Claiten. "Come here, boy!" the guard called.


Claiten turned to the heavily armed man. His eyes went wide and his hand drifted to the hilt of his dagger – not that he expected to fight. When frightened the young boy always reached for his knife, and guards usually encouraged it. Certainly these guards smiled to see it. They thought it was good instinct. His friends kept a safe distance from the guard. All of them had suffered a lashing from such men. They too had no idea why their friend was summoned.


"I beg a favor," the guard smiled and held out the diem as Claiten slowly approached. "Take this and give it to your mother. Ask if she will perform ritual, that my soul might be purged."


Claiten snatched the coin and ran up the line. He thought his mother would be pleased as he gave her the coin and whispered the guard's words.


"Men!" Wenifas bellowed to Meu. "We are lost in the wilds and they can think of nothing but their stiff little billies?!"


Meu shrugged.


"Take back his coin and tell him I am not performing. Tell him I am sick. Tell him I suffer a rash..." Claiten turned to go back to the guard. Wenifas grabbed him by the shoulder before he was out of reach. "Non, I will talk to him," Wenifas continued. "In fact, I will talk with all the guards." She dug into her bag and took out a handful of coins. "May I?" She asked the wyrm. Meu smiled and shrugged once more. It was only coin and easily won. She did not care what happened to it. Wenifas picked a handful of large silver lunes from the bag and gave them to Claiten to hold.


Once the boy had his hands full of heavy silver coins, Wenifas turned and stood in the road. She smiled and nodded as the people passed. She stopped each guard. She thanked each of them for their continued service to the Throne and gave them a lune.


Several balked. "Priestess, I cannot take this! What monies will you use?"


"There is enough," Wenifas told them. "Please take it. The Gods demand it." Thanks to Fedring, she had more money than she'd ever thought possible. Indeed, she felt guilty for having it – not because she got it by theft. She felt guilty because those behind her had so little. Still, she was not stupid. She knew what the money meant to the future of her children. But she was not tight fisted either.


"Why do you pay them?" Claiten asked as they waited for the next set of guards.


"If I don't pay them, who will?" Wenifas told him. "Currency must flow, and if I give them money, it solidifies my command. Besides, we have so much of it, and these people suffer." To give some small bit of money to the guards brought a lightness to her burden. She had so much coin she was convinced she could give half of it away and still have more than she'd ever need.


Claiten pointed at an approaching guard and whispered to his mother, "He's the one."


"Hullo, miss," the guard blushed. "You did not have to stop for me," he said with a bit of a flourish. "I would have found you at our next rest."


"But I did," Wenifas smiled. "I apologize, but I am unable to perform for you," she said as she pressed the diem at him.


The guard's expression grew dark. "But why?"


"You ask for my service, that you might worship, and I am flattered by your offer," Wenifas smiled. "But I am burdened by the words of your own captain. I must command, and thus, must maintain superiority. I cannot be under you as I am over you. Instead, give your heart to one of my talented sisters, and let me rule your thoughts instead." She put her hands on his ears, pulled him forward, and kissed his forehead. He blushed to receive such grace, and his jaw dropped as she pressed a lune in his hand. "This is for your good service, my brother." She turned to his friend and pressed a lune in his hand too.


"What is this?" the friend asked.


"You protect us, and we must see to your needs, that you will be strong. Please. You must take it," Wenifas told him. She turned and moved down the line of refugees before they could argue anymore.


"She is right, you know. You must let it alone, or you'll have to fight the rest of us for her favor," the friend stated, suddenly alight with infatuation.


"And now you want to sleep with her too?" His friend charged.


"Did you not hear her words? She is a poet," he admired. He shook his head and turned away from the retreating priestess. "But there are others. There must be one among this crowd that's worth the metal – some quivering flower, thick with honey."


"Some one or two," the guard glanced about the marching crowd. He realized half a dozen pretty faces despite the dirt and fatigue. His mouth creased into a smile as he closed his hand around the lune. "To see to our needs," he repeated Wenifas' words, "that we might be strong..." and offered a sly smile to the next priestess he passed.


~!@#$%^&*()_+


The tops of several buildings peered over the forest. After a week of walking, Falderfallen Hovey was finally in view. There was a weary uncertainty about the refugees. Now that they'd reached a Trohl settlement, would they be welcomed and succored? Or would the locals view their arrival as an invasion? There was a nervous trepidation about the caravan. Meriona decided it was an exquisite opportunity. She approached Wenifas as the priestess paid the last of the guards.


Meriona watched as Wenifas once again gave coin to the soldiers. They smiled and thanked her – yet not a one thought to ask her where she got so much coin. Meriona wondered that the priestess should give away so much of her own monies. For one of such a low station, it must have taken years to save so much. That is when she discovered something rather fantastic! It was the boy that let it slip, as he dug in his pack. He pulled a purse from his bag.. But not any old purse. One marked with the office of the Corpus Majoris. Somehow, this priestess and her progeny possessed the coin of Fedring's office!


"Congratulations, priestess. You have succeeded in saving our people," Meriona smiled.


"Thank you," Wenifas hid her hands in her pockets. "I did what I could."


"You have done well. I am impressed," Meriona said. "Many would have abused such position. They would have taken advantage."


"In what way?" Wenifas asked.


Meriona shrugged. "There are all sorts of things a person can do. But I'm sure you saw opportunity. You are far more clever than you let on."


"You continue to compliment me," Wenifas blushed and bowed.


"It is deserved. Yet, I feel you have entered new depths," Meriona paused.


"In what way?" Wenifas asked. She was reticent, and although it was subdued, the Jay noted her suspicion. Meriona did not mind. It proved the priestess' intelligence.


"In our hour of need, we approach a settlement of strangers. How shall we proceed?" Meriona began. "But I do not mean to pressure you. Instead, I hope to be of service. Might I lead the people into town? I know Falderfallen Hovey. I know many of the magistrates, and I believe I can smooth over our arrival."


"You would do that?" Wenifas tried to hide her shock.


"They are my people too," Meriona rebuffed her lightly. "I must do what I can to see them safely established."


"And once we are safe?"


"I continue to Ebertin. There are matters I must attend." Meriona said. "When I leave, I ask that you come with me. I would see you commended, and properly rewarded for the part you have played."


"Do you take your guard?" Wenifas asked.


"The foreigners? Yes. I have promised to see them to the capital, and I will keep my word," Meriona answered. "Is there reason I should not bring them?"


"I do not like them," Wenifas confessed.


Meriona cocked her head, "Oh?"


The priestess's eyes went wide and shot from side to side. "They are not guards at all!" She confessed. "They are criminals, escaped from the prison! The night of the attack, I witnessed them murder a man!"


"You saw this?" Meriona feigned shock.


"I did!" Wenifas asserted. "He was a guard, good and loyal! The very best of men!"


"Then you must come with me!" Meriona charged. "I take them to court – for another matter. But once we are there, you can witness against them!" She hoped the redhead and the mute wished to go to Ebertin too, and thought it likely. They were a suspicious lot, thick as thieves. Perhaps she could see them all hanged!


"We will see them hanged?" Wenifas asked, her eyes alight.


"Yes, my darling. We will see justice rule," Meriona smiled.


"Then I must attend," Wenifas said, and offered a bright hopeful smile to the Jay. "Please. Lead us into town."