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Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Spellcaster's Heiress -- Chapter Four

By Christopher Leeson


I was accustomed to forests.  I had learned much in military training, and even more by two years of dwelling in the wildwood.  We of the Fyana kept no long-term camps and boarded wheresoever we might.  If friends were near to hand, the best accommodations were to be found at farmhouses and cottages.

Oftentimes, though, we considered ourselves lucky if we found some abandoned hut or forest cabin to sleep in.  Lacking that, one might have to make do nestled behind a rocky break or out of the wind under a stone fence.  How we hated the rain and the snow on nights like that. 

I can recall a fair number of camps passed shivering on the lee side of a boulder, or beneath a peasant's hayrick, with the snow sifting upon our shoulders between the boards.  In the worst circumstances, even a fire might be denied us, for a campfire would have guided in bands of patrolling militia.  In such circumstances, a blanket is easily worth more than a diamond.

I think what makes privation endurable is ultimately not blankets or fire, but camaraderie.  There is warmth of another kind in a sharing community.  During my ride through the forest in Ava's body, it was the lack of companionship that I most sorely missed.  But I actually didn't lack for significant companionship.  Fear was my faithful companion.

But fear was nothing new to me.  As a soldier and a rebel, I had had to learn wariness.  Is fear something a fighting man should try to ignore or banish?  Of course not, for fear is a great protector of life.  Men who are readying themselves for combat do not ignore their apprehension.  Beware the companion who seems to possess no fear.  It is the same as having no wits.

Understand that I do not speak in praise of cowardice.  Such a quality is not the same as healthy fear.  In truth, a man who frightens too easily poses a greater danger to his companions than does the reckless bravo, and he will suffer for it.  Unfortunately, others may suffer, too.  A coward's death is usually a small loss to his warrior band, but the troubles that it may bring on others is the thing that is tragic. 

It is disconcerting to become a stranger to oneself, as I had done.  I hoped that becoming a woman had not made me a fainthearted.  Yet, why should I fear this?  I knew full well the courage shown by many women -- especially Ceann, whom I held most dear.  I think what bothered me most during my solitary ride was that I had not been tested in my new guise and didn't know how I would fare.  My first instinct -- to pit strength against strength and skill against skill -- might be, I realized, entirely inappropriate.  But, given that, what exactly was appropriate? 


Ruelm's Tavern

The friends whom I had come seeking were hunted and hounded rebels, haunters of the marchlands and as elusive as the wild boar.  By calculation, the Fyana consciously moved with regular irregularity between safe houses and remote camping spots, sometimes ranging as far as the Avarne Mountains to the east and to the Bay in the west. 

Our dispersion was intended to make it impossible for all of us to be taken in a single swoop. But our practice of frequent and secretive movement could not have functioned without a network of hosts, helpers, couriers and, of course, informers, whom we called "our trumpet."
A tortured band member could, naturally, name many of our helpers, but after a couple bad experiences, we restricted each individual rebel's effective knowledge of the Fyana's disposition to relatively small areas.  The effect was that a man forced to tell all he knew could not bring down the whole structure.  Even so, the policy put our helpers into even greater danger than it placed us, because those in a region could be named and most of them lacked our mobility.  The courage that common people displayed while laboring in our aid sometimes made me wonder who were, in fact, the true heroes. 

That so few of our Fyana had been run to grown thus far was owed, perhaps, to the fact that so many of our adversaries were foreign hirelings, lacking local contacts and personal knowledge of the land.  Working for gold, they often underestimated the angry patriotism that inspired people to oppose the tyrant.  Others that served Harouck were city men.  It was their class who received most of the benefits deriving from Harouck's iron-fisted rule, but such men were largely strangers to the countryside, little more apt at their tasks than were the mercenaries.

One of the "Trumpet" that assisted our band greatly was the innkeeper Ruelm Ellis.  The aim of my journey from Cawdour's house had always been Ruelm's establishment, which lay near the village of Penelin. 

At long last I reached the tavern.  I entered and asked a serving man for his master.  He seemed to size me up to be a lady of rank and went obligingly to fetch him.  Ruelm came in, drying his hands on a towel.  The stout man frowned quizzically at the sight of me.  He had known Rodin Oc'Raighne on sight, but how could he be expected to recognize me in my present guise?  While on the road, I had decided to be sparing with the truth.  I therefore told the innkeeper that I was the sister of one of the local rebels, that my "brother" had told me that he, Ruelm, was a man to be trusted. 

The taverner had to regard every curious stranger as a potential spy, and that included me.  At the first hint about the topic I wished to discuss, he guided to a private spot.  "You are mistaken, Lady," he said.  "I don't know any of the raiders who hide in the woods."

Then he added, "Does this brother of yours have a name?"

"Of course.  But it is a name that I would prefer to speak only in front of one of the Fyana itself.  Incidentally, I could use a room for -- a few days perhaps.  Should anyone come calling, wake me up, no matter what the hour."  Once Ruelm had digested my message, I knew that he would unfailingly pass it along.  It didn't really matter if he believed I was a spy or not.  He would leave it to the Fyana to kill spies, and would not descend to doing it himself.  I only had to wait for the results.

After a good meal, I asked for a healing salve to relieve my raw flesh.  In the privacy of my room I applied it and, following that, I lay stretched out on my bed, staring at the rafters and thinking long and hard.  How could a
predicament so ludicrous be, at the same time, so frightening? 

I had previously decided that I would not tell my men that I was Rodin come back in the shape of a woman.  That would overtax their credibility, and would be unnecessarily humiliating.  Rodin was dead, truly dead.  I hoped he could return in some form, but for now he was dead.  The band would never accept my leadership in the form I was in.  To bear the mark of sorcery is to become bad luck for every person in one's circle.  Also, an eighteen-year-old girl would not inspire their confidence in my leadership, even if they accepted my past.  Who could blame them?  My own self-confidence had become only a rag of what it once had been. 

The best that Rodin-as-Ava could aspire to would be acceptance as a hanger-on, little better than a mascot, one who would occasionally be given a task as a simple courier and be sent on odd errands.  That was Ceann's fate, oftentimes.  If I had to eat crow, I preferred that no one knew that it was Rodin Oc'Raighne eating it.

But what story could I offer?  Certainly not that I was Ava Gaedael, Cawdour's daughter.  The word would soon spread into these parts that Ava had betrayed her father, the friend of the Fyana.  If the rebels supposed that I was "Ava," her fate -- my fate -- might be a bitter one.

So, while riding though the forest, I had concocted the tale that I was Maeve, the youngest sister of Rodin, come seeking news of her brother.  I could answer any question that others were likely to ask, though I certainly didn't relish immersing myself into such an identity for the long term.

The tavern, as usual, buzzed with gossip and I ventured out from time to time to keep myself informed.  Soon, just as I had anticipated, the first news of Ava Gaedael's treachery arrived, carried by a post rider who had sympathy for the rebels.  One angry partisan thereupon declared that the traitoress should be abducted from Moyarien and whipped by patriotic women until her ribs showed.  Another carouser argued that a brutal beating to the death should not come so quickly to a parricide, but instead the betrothed of Harouck ought to instead be tattooed as a slave and be sold to any whoremaster who would take her to a foreign country.  Her selling price, he advised, could be used to help the wretches that her champion Harouck had impoverished.

With such violent attitudes abroad, I definitely preferred to be Maeve and not Ava.
The next piece of news that came in plunged me into a black funk.  Harouck's officers had identified my dead body in Cawdour's house and the Oc'Raighne family had been ordered arrested.  Somehow I had all but blotted out the possibility, but it had become all too common for a traitor's family to be punished as if they were all traitors.  It was this ever-present danger that caused the Fyana to be very secretive about their real names.  I could not conceal that Rodin Oc'Raighne was a deserter; I had done all that I could to conceal the fact that I was not only part of the Fyana, but its leader.

The deaths imposed on traitors were the cruelest of deaths, I knew.  Did anyone in the room notice the blanching of my cheeks, even while I tried to appear unconcerned?

The general opinion held was that the Oc'Raighnes would be soon taken into custody and put to death on the eve of Cernnunog's Feast.  Back when our race practiced human sacrifice a thousand years ago, the Feast was the favored time for ritual death.  Even today, the usual means of execution was burning inside wicker cages.  From his first year, Harouck had been arresting everyone whose loyalty he doubted and, more recently, those who owned enough property to arouse his cupidity.

It was theft of property that had made the chancellor hated among the powerful of the realm.  Many of such men would rather see their fathers burned alive than have a furlong of ground belonging to them confiscated.  The kingdom had grown financially strapped under Harouck's, and his waxing unpopularity made him doubt the loyalty of the native-born.  Several men, though they had served the former king well, had conspired against the chancellor's rule.  Consequently, Harouck kept no standing army of patriots, but used mercenaries to safeguard his power, which was an expensive proposition.

I clung to the bare hope that my family might have been warned in time to elude capture.  I even thought about carrying the alert to them myself.  But that would be an exercise in futility.  The arrest agents would have been dispatched days ago from Moyarien, which, in any case, was much closer to my family's estate than I currently was.  Sadly, barring a miracle, they would probably be in custody at that very moment. 

What could I do?  My options seemed few.  I had to reach Lady Elekta, explain my disaster and, with her aid, reclaim a male shape.  That outcome seemed necessary if I were to act with effectiveness.  Once a man -- any man; I didn't care what I looked like -- I could reveal myself to the Fyana as Rodin returned from the dead.  That would be a shocking claim, true, but, hopefully, the miracle of my resurrection would work in my favor.  Men were always seeking to see the influence of the gods in all things.  But I would prefer to have a companion or two to go help me to the druidess. 
At the very least, I had to make contact with my friend Gannon.

It was noontide of the fourth day when a knock sounded at my door.  I opened it, expecting my midday meal, but this time Ruelm's "joy-maid" Magghi -- that is, a bonded barmaid-prostitute -- stood there empty-handed.

"Lady Maeve," Magghi began, "a man has come asking for you." 

I perked up.  "Who?"

"I don't know."

I thought it likely that Magghi would know most of those Fyana members who favored this region for a hiding place, but the maid was being wisely discrete.  I stepped around her and hurried into the serving room, looking for any familiar face.  I quickly picked one out -- Cromm, black-bearded, big-bellied, broad-shouldered, and as solid as a tree stump.  He was a brave, I knew, but sour-tempered.  I thought that he, more than most of the band, would be suspicious and hard to convince.

Pretending not to know the rebel on sight, I went to Master Ruelm, who stood behind the counter.

"I was told that I have a visitor," I stated.

The taverner gestured toward Cromm.  "Lady Maeve, this is Lobais, a friend."

A friend.  Just that, a friend.  Well, Cromm had been my friend, too.  My blood raced hotly to have one of my own band so close.  Lobais was an alias that he often used -- one borrowed from a legendary fyana hero.  I went over to him and introduced myself, using my assumed name.

"Let's go outside and talk, Lady Maeve," Cromm suggested, taking my measure with one cocked eye.  When the rebel stood up, he towered above me, but, to tell the truth, I was getting accustomed to seeing the world from Ava's stature.

Cromm ushered me out the postern.  Though the ground out back reeked of old slop, rotting melon shells and turnip peels, the trees and brush had been cut back far enough to deny a hiding place to eavesdroppers.

"Why have you been asking after our people, Lady?" he demanded bluntly.  "You told Ruelm that you were the sister of -- one of our friends?  Which friend?"

"Rodin," I replied, trying to control the tremble in my voice.  "My name is Maeve.  I'm the only member of my family to escape arrest.  I know my brother is dead, but as a precaution he sent my parents a message.  He said that if we should come to misfortune because of any action by him, we should send word to his friend Gannon, and as soon as possible."

I watched Cromm's reaction carefully.  Did he know that I had not been in contact with my family since becoming a rebel?  Two or three times before I might have mentioned it to this or that comrade.  If Cromm knew this, he would accuse "Maeve" of lying.  If the judged me a spy, he might act with rashness.

The flutter of the man's eyelids displayed curiosity, not suspicion.  "Gannon?  What can he do for you?"

If he was skeptical of my claim, he was too good a gambler to show it.  "Rodin didn't say, but he made it seem very important."

Cromm grimaced.  "Well, I only have your word for who you are.  You don't look anything like Rodin."

I shrugged.  "My brother took after his father."

He rubbed his sable whiskers between his fingers.  "I'll talk to the commander and see whether you're worth bothering with."

"The commander?"  I wanted dearly to ask who it was, but any show of curiosity would be a mistake.

Now he _did_look suspicious.  "It's nothing that should concern you."

"Should I wait here at the tavern?" I inquired.

"Yes," he nodded stiffly.  "If you're not contacted by tomorrow night, leave these parts and never come back!"

That was Cromm.  Well, I knew he could be a real swine.  A week ago I had been giving him marching orders, but now he was snapping at me like a dour schoolmaster!

"Good night, Lady," the partisan grunted and turned away.

I watched him walk swiftly toward the hitching rail, wondering what he would advise the others.  I certainly hadn't learned very much from the contact, except that I still didn't like being called "Lady."


Cromm came for me the next day.  Within a quarter hour we were picking our way along a rutted road trailing into the same dark woodlands we rebels knew so well.

He led us off the main track to follow a sledge trace.  This, I knew, led to a woodcutter's shanty.  Normally abandoned each spring with the melting of the snow, the cabin was occasionally used as shelter by our band.  Would I meet with Gannon there, or would a "spy" be given her due in that remote glen?  I gritted my teeth; Cromm wasn't squeamish about carrying out authorized assassinations.

We drew up at the cabin; the fresh weeds of springtime, mostly tansy and lungwort, were flourishing around its moldering foundations, filling the air with a tang.  Cromm, having dismounted, helped me from my saddle, a gentlemanly act that I accepted as part of my role.

A fair-haired young man came out just then and approached us with an amble.  Gannon was still limping a little from his fall, I noted.  But it was like I was seeing him in a totally new incarnation.  How tall he was, and how leopard-like were his movements.

"You're Rodin's sister?" he asked.  "You're even more lovely than Lobais here led us to believe.  But I didn't know that red hair ran in Rodin's family."

"Watch yourself," warned Cromm.  "Red-haired women are bad luck."

"I've been fortunate with redheads before," Gannon remarked without shifting his eyes from me.  The way he was trying to capture my glance set me ill at ease.

My jumpiness must have been evident because he next said,  "You shouldn't be nervous.  If you can survive our friend here, you be safe enough with me.  Rodin must have told you that I'm not a beast --"

"Gannon," I broke in excitedly, "we've got to talk."  I turned back toward my dour escort.  "Cromm, can we be left alone?"

The older man seized my arm.  "How did you know my name?" he demanded.

"Let me go!" I snarled.  "I'll explain to Gannon, but to nobody else!"

"You'll explain it to me, or --!"  He looked to his fellow rebel.  "She knows too much!  I told you she was a spy!"

"Back off -- Cromm," Gannon warned sternly.  "If she's a spy or not, I'll be honored to talk to the lady.  We want to encourage Harouck to send my more such enchanting spies.  Don't worry; I'll search her for daggers."

The bearded man shook his head.  "Watch yourself!  A woman's beguiling tongue is more deadly than any dagger she could wield."

"Wait for us down the road," Gannon suggested.

Cromm loosened his grip and stalked off to his horse.  Gannon did not look after him, but regarded me with a smile like a taut bow.  I almost preferred Cromm's surliness to Gannon's flirtation.

Now that we were along, his manner changed slightly.  My friend crossed his arms and said, "All right, we're alone.  If you're really Rodin's sister, I can't imagine why he would have wished for any member of his family to look me up.  I'm hardly in a position to be helpful.  Anyway, Rod said more than once that he hadn't kept in contact with any of his clan.  When did he get in touch with you?"

"If you doubt me, why didn't you say so to Cromm?"

"He's an excitable man," Gannon explained with a shrug.  "If suspects treachery, he's too quick to action."

I stepped up on a log and looked forlornly in the direction that Cromm had taken.  I didn't want any third party to be close enough to hear what I had to say next.  I glanced over my shoulder at my friend. 

"All right, I admit I'm not Rodin's sister.  That was just the best lie I could think of."  I was almost surprised my own frank admission.  I seemed to be acting on pure instinct, and my reading of the situation told me that frankness was called for.

"Uhh," Gannon hummed skeptically.  "And what else have you been lying about?"

"Just about everything, to everybody."  He frowned, but I smiled -- and I wasn't sure why.  "But I want to stop lying.  That's why I had to find you."

"What's this all about, Maid?"

"It's…very complex."

His stare softened, which was the opposite of what I expected.  But, now that I thought about it, he had once remarked that it was hard to stay angry at a pretty face.  "Just tell me what you're after in the simplest way you can."

"There's nothing simple about it!" I yammered.  "But first you have to believe that I'm not Ava Gaedael, Cawdour's daughter."

He looked bemused.  "I never assumed that you were.  Why do you bring her up?"

"She's dead."

Hid brows knitted.  "I hadn't heard!  How do you know?"

I threw up my arms.  "Because this is Ava's body -- and her twisted spirit isn't inside it."

He looked at me as if he thought I had lost my mind.  "Then you are Ava!"

"No, I'm not.  It's just that you might have a hard time accepting who I actually am. 

"Try me."

"First you need to understand that sorcery has happened."

"That's usually the start of an overripe fish story," he remarked soberly.

I shrugged.  "It's me, Gannon -- I'm Rodin Oc'Raighne."


My story had tumbled out in a breathless cascade.

"Hold on now, lass!" he protested at the end of it.  "You can't expect any sane man to believe this silly stuff!"

"It's true," I pressed.  "This isn't just about me.  It's about the fate of my parents, my whole family.  They're going to die if I can't help them."

"We've all heard that Rodin's kin were going to be seized.  I'm very sorry."

"Not as sorry as I am," I responded morosely, "but I can't do anything about it, not like this!"

Gannon looked away, perplexed.  "And to think I was looking forward to meeting Cromm's mysterious redhead!  This is one for the scrolls!  Who are you, really?"

"Put me to the test, Gannon.  Ask me anything -- about yourself, about the band.  I know it all.  I'm Rodin!"

Gannon glanced back my way.  "All right," he sighed, "if Cawdour could do something like this, why would he do it?"

I explained about the magic Blood, the magic Spirit.  My friend listened patiently, but his expression warned me that I wasn't gaining any ground.

"Well, that was a bad question," he averred with a shake of his head.  "Whether you're telling the truth or not, how would I ever know?  Answer me this instead:  Who goes by the name of 'Skylark?'"

"Ardud Nath!" I replied eagerly.  "He's a yeomen living near Sez.  A good patriot.  His wife's name is Linn."

My easy answer had thrown Gannon off balance.  "How did you know that?" he muttered.

"I told you how!"

"I know what you told me, but --"  His features creased doubtfully and he drew a deep breath.  "Well, try this one:  What was month was it when I first met Rodin?"

"Dumann!" I answered, then added:  "You're a friend of Hydref.  You had deserted Harouck's guard and were staying with him, trying to find like-minded people to join.  He recommended that you come to us.  We met at his cottage and took a stroll for me to debrief you.  Remember that strawberry patch of his when, where you kept stooping down to pick them.  I thought there was no bottom to you."

Now he did look impressed, but in his eyes he yet remained a stubborn man.  "All right, I'll get you with this one:  What's the fourth line to this verse?

"Courage, noble fighting men,
"And never feel dismayed.
"If we're outnumbered one to ten --"

He paused, expecting me to finish.  It was a song of his own composition.  I had heard it often enough, but hadn't thought much about it.  I was finding it hard to remember how the thing ended.

Gannon began to smirk, but then, bless the gods, the missing line came back to me in a rush:  "We shall not be afraid!"

He might have just taken a blow on the jaw, from the look of him.  "Well," he murmured half-audibly, "maybe my verses have spread farther than I thought.  They deserve to."

"That singsong nonsense?" I baited him.  "You're lucky we haven't flogged you out of camp for abusing our ears!"

"Abusing your ears?  Blast it, I could almost imagine you were Rodin.  He never --"

"I never what?" I demanded.  "Appreciated you as an artist just because you started out in bardic training? 
You weren't up to their measure -- or so you said, in a rare moment of honesty."

He clenched his fists.  "You can't be Rodin!"

"You've heard about what magic can do.  Why won't you believe me?"

"Because magic is something that always happens to other people." 

"It does.  It's happened to me, not you."

"Well," he murmured doubtfully, scratching his chin.  "I'll believe in miracles when they happen to me."

"What about Nera and her sister at Uchtryd's tavern last fall?  That was a kind of a miracle -- finding two women willing to put up with the likes of you at the same time."

He tossed his head.  "That wasn't a miracle; it was just good taste -- which you rarely find in a women!"

I laughed.  "Do you remember what my last words to you were, after your fall, just after I slung you across my saddle bow on Cymydog Road?"

He shook his head.  "I'm not sure."

"I said, 'We'll cheat that prophecy of yours yet!'"

His face transformed utterly.  "Damn it, you're right!  It slipped my mind.  I never mentioned it to another soul.  Either you're Rodin or you can mind-read things that I can barely remember!"

"I can't mind-read, Gannon.  If I could, I'd have knocked you on your bum for thinking about me what you think about every woman you meet!  I can't prove it, but I know you!"

He looked away, thought for a moment, and murmured a paraphrase of an old ballad:

"Rodin, I hardly knew ye!"

We must have talked for an hour after that.  He tried to remain skeptical, but I could feel his defenses being given up.  I explained why I didn't want to tell the others what I had told him, and, because Gannon was a man, he seemed to understand my reluctance.  I explained that the only chance I had was to go to Lady Elekta and persuade her to undo Cawdour bizarre enchantment.

"But you'll lose Ava's magic," he reminded me.

"What magic?" I snapped.  "I can't do anything!  I've tried.  I don't think I really am a wizard."

"Witch --" he started to correct me, but saw my poisonous glare.  "Ah, yes, wizard," he corrected himself.  "It looks like that prophecy is going to come true, after all," he added.


"Because I'll have to leave the band if I'm going to be riding all over the countryside with you."

That was food for thought.  I hoped that such an interpretation could be true.  I was about to put my hand on his shoulder and clasp him in a comradely embrace when I thought better of it.  Instead, I went to my horse and climbed into the saddle.

Gannon mounted immediately afterwards and without further talk we rode to rejoin Cromm, who sitting on a rotten log.  Gannon greeted him with a high wave.

"Well, the man asked."

My companion's reply told the rebel very little, except that I was no spy and that he had promised to escort me to a certain destination that, at present, would have to remain confidential.

"When will you be back?" Cromm asked dubiously.

"I don't know.  As soon as possible."

I spurred on past them, impatient to find Elekta and make my womanhood no more than a fading memory.  Gannon caught up a moment later and we continued on for about half a league without speaking.  Suddenly, I heard my friend behind me say:  "I'm glad you're back, Rod."

I thought about that, especially about the terrible cost of my return, and eventually replied.  "Thanks.  It's better than being dead, I suppose -- but not much better."

He laughed nervously.
By latter afternoon we were crossing into open farming country, well along the road to Gan-Cann.  The meadows there were peppered with steep hummocks.  Beyond the hilly area, the land opened into pasturage and recently-plowed fields.  The farther on we traveled, the more at ease I felt.  Having a trusted comrade made had made a great difference to my state of mind.

All through those equestrian hours, Gannon hardly let on how much my change of appearance must have shocked him, even though he kept up a friendly banter about sundry other subjects.  

"Who replaced me as leader of the band?" I finally asked.  "Lairgann?"

He grimaced, as if he supposed that I would not like the answer.  "No.  At first it looked like Lairgann was taking over, but it didn't work out."

"Why not?"

"He blamed himself for involving Cawdour and getting him trapped.  Also, Scaith's capture ate on him.  He took himself out of the contention."

"What about Ceann?  Didn't he feel for her?"

"She's a lovely lady, but she wasn't asked to go with you.  She insisted and her misfortune is on her own head."

"I thought you liked her?"
"I did -- do!  But a rebel camp was no place for a lady.  Anyway, you made every man in the band jealous that you had a woman adventurous enough to want to try and keep up with us."

I changed the subject.  "So who did our friends finally choose?"

With a frown he said, "You're not going to like this."

"I haven't liked anything that's happened to me lately!  Just spit it out!"


"Cemion?!"  The sound of that disagreeable name had at last torn down the dusty curtain that was clouding my memory.  Now I realized whom it had been that had suggested my mercy killing when I lay paralyzed along Cymog Road.  It had been Cemion! 

My knuckles, tight upon the reins, went white.  "By the gods, why Cemion?" It was as if the men had deliberately spited me by choosing my detractor and rival.

"He's a good man and a brave fighter."

"You like the choice, then?

He raised his chin.  "What if I do?  What's wrong with Cemion?"

"For one thing, he's only been with the band for a year."

"Rod -- you were only with it a year before they made you captain, remember?"

I let that pass.  "And another thing, he's too contrary!"

Gannon shook his head.  "He was only contrary with you.  He gets along swimmingly with everybody else."

"So what are you saying?"

"You two were like a pair of rams in the same flock, always butting heads, each trying to run the other one out.  But he has the making of a good commander."

"I don't think so!" I said.  The reasons I thought so didn't come to mind immediately; therefore I just fumed in silence until we stopped at a roadside inn.  In the course of a hearty meal my disposition mended and Gannon likewise grew more relaxed, his acerbic wit gradually resurfacing.

"You walk funny for a girl, Rod," my idiot friend observed, "like you're still clumping around in boots.  Look at the way real women walk.  See that joy-maid over there --"

I kicked his shin. 

Our meal finished, we learned from the innkeeper that there was only one room to let, so we shared it.

"I'll throw my roll on the floor," Gannon suggested.

This struck me as slightly unreal.  It seemed as though he was treating me like a lady.  Not long before, the two of us would have thought nothing of sleeping side by side upon a bed that was wide enough to hold us.  But now, without even discussing the subject, we had simultaneously grasped the fact that something important had changed.

"Why volunteer to be uncomfortable?" I fired back.  "I can sleep on the floor just as well."

"It'll hurt your back."

"And you have a sore leg.  I'll be fine!  Don't make an issue out of it!"

"I'm not making an issue out of it, you are!"

We bickered but, in the end, I took the bed.  Gannon's knightly honor demanded it.


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