“Lady Erina!” Aln announced, triumphantly seated on the horse’s back, “please allow me to go to town and fetch that slothful farmhand of yours!”
Erina was walking back from the far side of the farm. She looked up at Aln with a hint of confusion.
“Where is Cass?” Crescia asked. “I thought she was with you.”
“Would you believe it?” Erina asked with a sudden burst of laughter, “she thought this manor was the Southern Point! She’s exploring the source of that magic that the staff apparently detected.”
“By herself?” Crescia raised an eyebrow.
“She insisted,” Erina said, pouting. “But no need to worry. I told her my manor is hers to explore and use as she sees fit, especially if it’s for the Goddess’s Will.”
Crescia looked over at Aln who shrugged. The horse, reacting to the slight movement, began to buck him once more.
“If you wish to go check on her, m’lady, be my guest! You are her esteemed aima after all.”
Crescia gave him a wry smile, amused by that hint of jealousy in his voice.
“And what will you be doing, sir?”
“As I said, I will be heading to town to fetch this sorry excuse for a servant.”
“Honestly, Sir Aln, you needn’t trouble yourself,” Erina said.
“It is no trouble whatsoever, m’lady.”
Before Erina could object once more, Crescia pulled something out of her pouch. Several coins.
“If you’re going to town, you might as well purchase some supplies for our journey.”
Aln accepted the coins with one gloved hand, shoving them into his pocket while holding tight to the reins with the other. “You will find me a shrewd consumer, m’lady. I will get everything we need.”
Crescia gazed lovingly up at him for a moment. She realized that she longed to kiss him, her heart swollen by this facetious, but sincere man. But with Erina standing right there and watching intently, she couldn’t bring herself to so much as lean up and give him a peck on the cheek.
“Lady Erina, might I trouble you and borrow this horse?”
“Of course. Wait a moment and I will find you a map,” Erina said and disappeared into the manor. She returned a moment later with a rolled parchment and a small pouch in her hands.
“What it this?” Aln asked, eyeing the pouch as she pushed it into his hands.
“You’ll need a second horse. I doubt that one will carry you both back, if you make it to town at all,” she said with a coy smile, then added, “and you can use the rest to get whatever supplies you might need for your journey.”
“Thank you, but I believe we will be fine,” Aln said, puffing out his chest.
“You should probably hurry so you can return by nightfall,” Crescia said, beginning to grow tired of his grandstanding.
“It is a rather tiresome trip,” Erina chimed in, “feel free to use the extra coins to get a room at the inn if you require it.”
“I’m certain I can make it back before nightfall. I will find this – what was his name?”
Erina and Crescia exchanged glances.
“Ah yes, I will find and retrieve this Louin with time to spare!”
Aln gave a mild bow and yanked on the horse’s reins. It spun around more out of shock than obedience, but somehow, Aln managed to coax it down the path and toward the edge of Erina’s estate. Watching the jaunty movements of Aln shouting and jerking the reins and the horse bucking against the misguided attempt to steer it was something to behold.
“Lady Crescia,” Erina said lightly, “does he have an especially good memory?”
“I do not believe so. Why?”
“He did not ask me for a description.”
Crescia laughed. “I’m not sure about you, but I’m in no shape to chase him down. I’m sure he’ll figure it out. In spite of his appearance, he is rather capable.”
Erina smiled. “I suppose that is why you fancy him so.”
Crescia grew bright red, but before she had time to protest, shouts came from the far end of the field.
Erina and Crescia spun around to face a quickly approaching group of people. Crescia recognized the two women who had sat next to Cass – Marna and Petra, she believed their names were. Behind them were a group of servants and farmhands. One of them, a sturdy-looking man, carried something bulky in his arms. As they drew closer, Crescia shrieked.
Cass was limp in the man’s arms. Her body might have been folded further if not for the staff that lie across the middle of her body. Crescia wondered how they had managed to collect the staff. The only possibility seemed to be that Cass had collapsed while holding it. Still, being able to lift her and the staff, this man was incredibly strong.
“What happened?” Crescia and Erina asked in unison.
“We don’t know,” the woman with longer, curlier hair responded. Crescia thought she had been referred to as Marna.
“We found her collapsed in a silo at the far edge of the farm,” the shorter haired Petra said.
Cass’s face was grey. Her features were wrinkled in pain, her breathing was shallow. Her hands were clenched tight. They seemed to be almost glowing red hot. Crescia thought she saw some sort of mark on the backs of Cass’s hands, but it faded so quickly, she reasoned that she must have imagined it.
Erina and Crescia rushed to her side.
“We need to get her to bed!” Erina instructed.
“Let me see her,” Crescia insisted, “I’m a cleric.”
“I’ve already tended her injuries,” Marna insisted, “bed rest is what she needs now more than anything.”
The man carrying her headed for the house without another word. Marna and Petra followed. Crescia gave chase, opening her mouth to protest, when Erina put a hand on her shoulder.
“Lady Crescia, I’m well aware of your healing prowess. But you must trust Marna and Petra. They are accomplished healers with decades of experience. Please, just relax, and let us take care of things.”
Crescia wanted to protest further, but as Erina’s hand gently squeezed her shoulder, as that lilting voice filled her ears, that fiery feeling of anxiety just seemed to flow out of her body. As if it were all being expelled at once, replaced immediately by an uncanny calm. There was no reason to worry, no reason to press anything further. Here, everything was just fine.
Crescia nodded vacantly and Erina patted her shoulder, then walked inside the house. Crescia remained standing in the yard and suddenly, a feeling of regret washed over her. She wished she had gone with Aln. Something about him having left and her still being here felt so foreboding, so final.
She sighed and took a look around the farm. It had all become so eerily quiet. Even the animals now grazing in the fields made not a sound. And for the first time, she realized another oddity. Though the farmland was dotted with plenty of trees, there wasn’t one chirp or tweet. There were birds. They just didn’t make a sound.
She shuddered and rushed into the house.
As Aln struggled with the horse, guiding it along the path the map assured him led him to town, he failed to notice the coins in the pouch Erina had given him begin to glow. The horse had become more volatile, more resistant. Then suddenly, it stopped resisting him altogether and began trotting along the road.
“About time you finally recognize who is in charge here!” Aln crowed.
The horse did not fight him any further. But after another hour or two of riding, it could no longer support his weight. Aln reluctantly hopped off the horse’s back. The animal somehow looked thinner than it had when they were back on the farm.
“I suppose you must be hungry,” Aln said, feeling for one of the apples he had brought from Erina’s orchard. He held it up to the horse, who took it gingerly.
Aln took the creature to a nearby stream beneath the shade of several trees and let it drink to its heart’s content. When he tried to guide it back to the path, the horse resisted. Aln tried to climb atop it once more, but the horse’s body felt brittle and it slid into a laying position.
“What’s the matter with you, you foolish animal!” Aln snapped.
The horse sighed at him, but did not rise from the ground. Aln prodded at it, even shoving at it with his boot. The animal did not budge. Aln felt embarrassed, wondering what the other knights or his mentor would think if they saw him now, at the mercy of some farm animal.
The horse drifted off into a peaceful slumber. A bird fluttered down and settled on its back. The horse swished its tail once, but showed no other signs of acknowledging the bird.
“Get up! You cannot sleep here! We have to go to town and find your handler!” Aln shouted.
“You all right over there, son?” A voice called from behind him. Aln looked back to see a strange contraption. It was a carriage drawn by a single horse. Puffs of steam were billowing from some sort of tank clamped to the back. The tank made a gentle whirring sound.
“Yes. My horse is just being obstinate. I will handle it.”
Aln tried to keep his face stoic, but the red was showing on his cheeks. He stood tall and looked not at the man, but past him. Be strong and unbreakable as stone. It was what his mentor had always told him. It was how he had tried to live as a knight, though whether he had succeeded or not…
“I don’t think that horse is being obstinate, young man. I believe that horse is on its last legs, for lack of a better term.”
Aln shook his head. “There’s no way. This animal’s in pristine condition. You should have seen how he bucked and fought me this morning. He’s-”
But as Aln turned to look back at the horse, his jaw dropped. The animal had definitely lost weight, a great deal of it. Much of the muscle mass in its mighty legs was gone. Its face was angular, as if the skin and fur clung fast to the bones. It was sleeping now, its breathing shallow.
The man approached Aln. “Best to let it be, son. It’s all right.”
“It’s a miracle you got it this far,” the man offered gently.
Aln could not hide the red in his face. Whether from shock or sadness for the animal, he couldn’t be sure, but his own breathing became ragged and a lump had formed in his throat. He knelt down and stroked the horse’s head. Its breathing was barely detectable. Aln thought that the image of it sleeping against the image of the stream and the trees beneath the lowering sun might have been something beautiful, provided the viewer knew nothing of the scene surrounding its slumber.
“Can I give you a ride somewhere? I was on my way into town.”
“Town…” Aln breathed, then suddenly snapped back to his senses. “No, something is wrong. I need to go back to the farm.”
“Farm? What farm?”
Aln darted up to the path and pointed. “A few hours back that way. My companions and I were guests there of a Lady Erina. This was her horse. Please! Take me back if you please.”
The man joined Aln on the path and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “The nearest farm is half-a-day’s ride past town. I don’t know where you came from, but it definitely wasn’t anything from that way. That’s all barren meadowland.”
Aln racked his brain for something to say in protest. The man climbed back aboard the carriage and motioned for Aln to join him. Finally, Aln remembered the pouch and pulled it out. At the very least, he could pay his benefactor. But as he emptied the contents of the now light pouch into his hand, not one coin fell out. The only thing to hit the palm of his hand was a small pile of dust that blew away with the first breeze to touch it.