Vanagar is very different from Kendall. I quite like the character arc I had planned for her. In fact, since I stopped writing after she made the major progression on that arc, I suspect that the transition was what I wanted to write, and since it happens relatively early in the story, is why this is unfinished.
How was it possible to feel so horrible, and be so excited at the same time?
Vanagar sat at the end of the table she had successfully fallen under during the confusing tumble which had brought them here and tried not to look either miserable or overly animated, but as coolly calm as the woman with the long, black braid who had so matter-of-factly discovered the consecrated stones.
"It couldn't have been Owen Tregair," Jaelith insisted.
"Who but Owen Tregair would have done it?" Jaelith's brother, Zerith, shot back, his voice unfortunately loud. Vanagar was not the only one there who glanced nervously at the door, for fear that one of the two mages had heard him. Zerith, who did not count nerves among his failings, continued on. "Who else could have done it? Only one of the Three. So, choose between Owen Tregair, Madeleine Thorasen and the High Lady Ariantha."
"It doesn't necessarily have to be one of the Three," Cienne argued. "That's the most obvious explanation, but..." She hesitated, pale brows drawing together in concentration.
"Can't think of a good alternate explanation, can you?" Rithia mocked, voice a step beyond that ambiguous sneer which she used so well to make people, Vanagar especially, feel they had just said something foolish. But Rithia was upset and off-balance and her tone angrier than usual.
"Act of the gods?" Jaelith suggested, with the quick grin which made him so particularly likeable. "We did land in a circle consecrated to them, after all." Then he lost his cheerful expression, and glanced down at his large, capable hands. "Well, I guess we got the adventure we were looking for, and more besides. The price has been too high already."
"Will Arven be all right, do you think?" Nathan asked, hesitantly, then flushed as Rithia looked at him with an open sneer. Vanagar, who had a soft spot for the awkward Nathan because his shy uncertainty was all too reminiscent of her own, better-hidden self-consciousness, stepped in before Rithia could bite out something cutting which would guarantee that the sandy-haired boy wouldn't venture any more comments for several days.
"Jerian was his twin, Nathan," she said, looking carefully at the boy rather than watch any reaction from the rest of the table. It was one of the methods she had taught herself to keep the blushes from her cheeks, to hide her ineptness. "You know how close they were. He won't get over that quickly. Allia's with him. She'll help him grieve."
There was a general murmur of agreement.
"We need a plan of action," Zerith said, leaning forward to capture their attention. "We're in Irrelath, on the far side of the Stone Plain, by the looks of it. Surrounded by magic, wild and foul, amidst strangers who could prove to be foe as well as friend."
His voice had dropped to a dramatic whisper and Vanagar recognised her own secret thrill more openly expressed. This was Adventure. This was Romance, with every chance of Heroism thrown in. This was the epic ballad come to life, with everything thrown in from an Armitan Council member to shadow mages. Zerith had cast their small group, whose previous ambitions to adventure had risen only to visiting Arras Island during the Great Convocation, as the questers battling to win through to freedom, beset on all sides, no doubt with himself featuring as prime hero.
Vanagar, who daydreamed all too frequently of rising above the ordinary role of second child of Cayman City's Chief Justice, understood the vision which burned in Zerith's eyes. Her mother, when she had time away from dealing with the problems of Cayman City's courts, would chide her for thinking so much of the heroines whose deeds shone forth from the tales of wordsmiths, telling her to look to life's practicalities, not moon-dreams. But Vanagar had dreamed on, waiting for that prince who needed a timely rescuer, or the enchanted weapon that would fall into her hands, to transform and make anew...
She had lived a thousand triumphs, been honoured, rewarded, gone on to further and greater deeds. Never had any of those fantasies begun with the burial of a friend.
Jerian had not been a really close friend. Allia was the closest friend Vanagar had, and Allia's warm heart opened to everyone. Jerian, drawn as many were to the personable trio of Zerith, Jaelith and Rithia, had surely seen Vanagar as part of the background. Most of them did, because she was reticent, preferred to listen, and rarely had a quick and witty response. But Jerian had died, so suddenly, neck broken in the tumble that had only bruised Vanagar, and any chance of her mistaking what was happening as adventures had shattered.
Zerith, more resilient, had been solemn enough when they piled rocks over Jerian's still body, and then helped with wedging stones under the edges of the inn, but now he could not hide that, frightening as the situation was, he was already hearing the Ballad of Zerith Relien sung by Masterbard Sera.
"Strangers who will probably be the only thing preventing us from getting ourselves killed before a day goes by," Jaelith said, bringing Vanagar's thoughts back to the conversation with his usual good sense.
"Really, dear brother? Which do you suggest we place our trust in? The shadow mages or the Armitans?"
"Those mercenaries seem to know what they're doing. And that woman..."
"Who is this Stehl Lacey woman?" Rithia asked. "They all seemed to recognise the name, but I've never heard it."
"Some sort of ex-mercenary, by the looks of her," Zerith replied. "She doesn't wear a blank shield, or the insignia of a lord, so she can't be working at the moment. But she just proves my point. We know nothing about these people. We daren't trust them to place our interests on the same level as their own. We're nothing to them."
"No reason to assume that they're going to stab us in the back, Zer," Jaelith replied. "But in a way I agree. There're no Charter Guards here, no local Watch House to run to when someone breaks a law. And I don't expect that we're going to get back to Gonwindar in the near future. That's reason enough not to be unnecessarily rude to anyone. We might need their friendship, soon enough."
"All we have to do is decide which to be friends with," Rithia pointed out, echoing Vanagar's own thoughts. "There's no love lost between the Armitans and the Spictans, and if those mages hadn't interrupted, that Harman lord with the broken leg would have been calling for them to be strung up from the inn's sign-post."
"For no good reason," Cienne pointed out. "It's hardly Lady Kinrathen's fault if someone has done this to waylay her."
"She's the one opposing punitive action against Jutland," Keevan said, breaking out of his habitual brooding and silent mode.
"For the best of reasons. Whether or not Jutland broke the Charter laws by attacking Iswick civilians, their war's still an old territorial dispute and the Charter was designed to keep the other Realms from becoming embroiled in just that sort of thing. They're only fighting over a half-mile or so of land, which they both do have claim to," Cienne said, her usually mild voice growing a hint more positive.
"So Jutlanders can break Charter law with impunity? Without retribution?"
"They say it was a mistake. High Lady Ariantha will preside over an inquiry at the Convocation, but even if they are found guilty, and the due penalties handed down, that doesn't mean Iswick should be aided in their dispute. Or do you want to see the Great War starting up all over again?"
"I just think justice should be done."
"Keevan, if we take sides..."
"If we don't let them get away with it, you mean."
"Cienne, Keevan." Jaelith hadn't raised his voice particularly, but his firmness demonstrated the quality that made him the real centre of their group. Lady Relien's oldest child, trained to command. He waited until the table was quiet, attention on him, before he continued. "We can't afford to make this an issue for us. I can only thank the Star Maiden that there weren't any Jutlanders staying at the Cob and Signet. As it is, it's obviously more than a thing to argue about for some here. There are, what? Forty people in this inn? Fifty? If there'd been an attack on the Armitans, for no real reason, I bet some would have supported the Armitans. So, we fight among ourselves. I'm sure the wolves out there would be glad to pick over the remains of whoever loses, before moving on to the winners. Considering the reputation of Armitans, I would quite frankly prefer to have them on my side. Better still, I don't want to have to take sides at all. We're not to get hung up on the whole Jutland-Iswich problem. If anyone tries to draw us into it, we'll make it clear that we don't want to be part of that argument. Are we agreed?"
Even Keevan nodded, though less firmly than everyone else. Vanagar was distracted by a prickle at the edge of her senses, not the sort of thing she usually felt when arcane power was being expended, but vaguely similar. The two mages must have finally managed to set the ward on the circle of stones. She looked expectantly at the door, then remembered not to, and looked away. She was studying her square hands when the wind was let in and brought with it constraint.
Shadow mages. Vanagar waited to be last to turn to covertly study the two completely cloaked figures. There were four major schools of mages, and a scattering of minor schools, all allying with a particular god in return for control of their powers. The Vensi school was the most popular - it was the one followed by High Lady Aliantha, and those magi gave their fealty to Lady Bright. Most people considered it the 'good' school and forgot how harsh and unforgiving the sun could be. Then there was the Green School, whose link to Lord Arcturan meant both great skill with all that grew from the earth, and a need to pay blood price. The Aerin School, lofty in the sky with Lord Rictar, proud and remote, turning on the skewer of high ambitions. The shadow mages were of the Havner School, and paid homage to Lord Twilight. Seekers into the mystery, they called themselves, but they seemed more inclined to create mysteries rather than solve them. Despite hardly ever displaying their powers, they were certainly the most feared of the recognised magi.
Vanagar knew a great deal generally about the schools of magic, major and minor, even the whispers about those not recognised, like those who gave their power to Lord Heth or the Thunderer, forbidden as that was by the Charter. She had, after a year or more of agonising, decided to join the Vensi School, only to be told she did not have enough power to interest Lady Bright.
Not even her mother knew that she'd been to the Vensi School and been rejected. They'd recommended the Four Points School, aligned with the Star Maiden, which everyone knew was the school people went to when they weren't going to learn anything more than how to mend pots and light fires. The school for people who just weren't going to amount to much as mages. Soon enough, Vanagar expected she would give in and enrol, but she hadn't had the heart to capitulate yet. Discovering power inside herself had been a wonderful thing, a secret she'd kept close, and she wasn't ready yet to limit it by becoming a Four Points mage.
The two shadow mages were followed in by Stehl Lacey, who had remained outside to watch. And, Vanagar suspected, to talk to the two Armitans who had been tending to minor cuts on that massive horse, even before they looked to their own scrapes and bruises. One of the Armitans came in with her, but it was not, to Vanagar's disappointment, the tall man who had originally led the horse to the inn door.
Biting her lip, she turned her attention firmly back to her hands. This was not the time for another of her foolish crushes. Why did she always fixate on the best and the brightest, instead of deciding someone like Nathan would make her happy? Clenching her fingers firmly together, she tried not to think of how the tall Armitan man moved, of the way his eyes were tilted. She had never seen anyone quite as remarkable as him, and wished she knew the language so that she could have understood what he had said when he returned with the horse. There was always something so nobly tragic about Armitans, what with the loss of their power to transform, centuries ago in the Great War. And always so gorgeous, outshining dull-featured humans like herself, whose height was merely gawky, whose hands were square and wrists were thick, hair bushy brown frizz and eyes...
There. Vanagar knew that thinking about someone she was attracted to would only lead to a catalogue of her own faults. That was always the way.
Stehl Lacey spoke briefly to the mercenary leader, who was with his fellows at the corner table, then went upstairs with the Armitan. The woman paused as the boards creaked beneath her feet, and looked down at the room below. Things were almost as they had been before, minus a couple of broken chairs and anything resembling a bottle.
Had this quietly commanding woman also been on her way to the Convocation? Surely not for a little adventure, like Zerith and Jaelith: inviting their friends to stay at the Relien property in Lendan before crossing to Arras Island 'to see what they might see'. Vanagar shivered as the door opened again, and she saw the mercenary, Harl Mendican, heading outside.
There would be a watch through the night, she supposed. The inn-keeper had made much of having that chest of drawers drawn across the kitchen door, and every shutter firmly closed and barred. She would not like to be sitting outside in the chilly breeze, with only the horse for company. That was the difference between dreaming and living an adventure.
But no. The tall Armitan was outside, wearing that cloak covered with an incredible pattern of knot-work which he'd fetched for himself. It was one of the finest examples of Armitan decoration she'd ever seen, far more than the usual border of interlocked lines. She'd been an age studying him out of the corner of her eye, trying to work out what beasts were depicted in the centre of that mulberry-red, black and midnight blue design. Armitan knotwork always stylised its subjects so it was difficult to guess exactly what it was. Finally she decided the creatures were either dogs or horses. The cloak was a ground-sweeping piece, infinitely more complex than any other Armiten design she'd seen, and it suited him completely, hid the plain soldier's garb in its heavy folds and left him regal, aloof and handsomer than before.
Vanagar gave more of her attention to dreaming than the conversation continuing at their table, allowing her mind to produce a reason for her to find herself outside and alone with the Armitan. She would be just going up to bed when the mercenary would come back in, look around and, not seeing that serving-girl, would catch her attention and say that the Armitan wanted something to drink, before heading off upstairs herself. She would give him a look for treating her like a servant, which he'd ignore, then she'd shrug with resignation, clean out one of the battered pewter mugs with a cloth and draw off the last of the ale out of the keg behind the curved bar.
She would shiver in the cold and the ale would slop over her fingers as she stepped down from the doorway. He would glance at her briefly - she was sure he rarely missed a thing that went on around him - but his attention would be taken up by the big horse, nervously shifting because the howling of the wolves was closer still. A glint at his side, beneath the folds of his cloak would reveal that he had brought more than clothing down with him.
Waiting silently, as the gelding backed and tossed his head, Vanagar would shiver from more than the cold as she saw the strength of the man, and those differences which made him beast-kin would show clearly as he held the horse firm. Then he would speak, say something soothing in the liquid tongue Vanagar did not understand, and stroke the soft neck as gently as a dove. She would watch him openly, thinking about people who had never been animals, but who shared some common, silent bond with the furred and feathered. The blood of shape-changers should show more clearly. Even things like a hawkish nose or vaguely feline eyes were minor things, more in the mind of the observer. You'd think Armitans would at least have pointed ears, more than that slight tilt to their eyes. Abrian-Alsans had eyes like that too, but weren't Shifter blood.
There was nothing to say this man wasn't human. Just a very handsome man. His skin was clear, his features even, long jaw not heavy, but well defined, nose carefully sculpted, hair shoulder-length with the small braids before each ear practically every Armitan she'd ever seen wore.
Vanagar frowned, trying to remember how his lips had been formed. Fairly narrow, with a hint of a line forming by one corner, as if he lifted it cynically more often than he smiled. You'd never guess that the Armitans were ever anything but coldly reserved. Perhaps, as she handed him the mug of ale, he would award her the slightest smile as he nodded his head.
"My thanks, Ker," he would say, lifting the mug.
Ale, out in the cold wind? She sighed. Exactly the wrong thing. Surely some sort of hot drink - chocolate if it could be found in the kitchen - it might be expensive, but most inns were stocking it now that the supply from Oxland was increasing. She gave up on the daydream for now - she would embroider another version in greater detail later, as she waited for sleep.
Looking down the table to where Zerith was detailing what he knew of the various legends of Irrelath, Vanagar found Jaelith watching her, amused. She tried not to look annoyed. Occasionally Jaelith would tease her about her constant daydreaming, though he never sneered at her or dismissed her the way his brother or Rithia might. But she wished Jaelith hadn't noticed her just now. When he noticed that she was drifting on the edge of the group more than usual, it generally prompted one of his attempts to include her in the conversation. When Zerith finished, Jaelith would probably ask her something, and it would be glaringly obvious that he was trying to draw her out and, as always, what he asked would be something she had no particular opinion about, and she'd say something flat and dull and that would be that.
The gesture would be typical of Jaelith - he did the same thing for Nathan, with even worse results - out of a ready sympathy for the tongue-tied, she supposed. She wondered if he'd ever know how much she resented his kind attempts. It reduced her somehow, made her pitiable, childlike. She was not one of the bright lights of the group who could chatter easily, securely certain that others had some interest in their opinions. For the most part she liked listening more than contributing, occasionally putting in a question or a comment which it had taken most of the conversation to think up.
"...exactly what happened. How did fighting with magic result in magic running about uncontrolled? People fight with magic every day, and it hasn't happened anywhere but here."
"Probably because the magic systems are different," Rithia replied, surprising Vanagar. "The Realms use magic through an exchange with the gods. Irrelath didn't involve the gods at all. Well, much. I suppose they must have had some congress, or there wouldn't be this consecrated circle. Irrelathan magic involved an act of will, while the Realms have ritual and spells - or prayers, whatever you like to call them. So obviously the results are different."
Typical. Vanagar would have liked to have been at least better-informed about magic than Rithia, but as usual the red-head was able to provide answers and reasoned conclusions.
"...too cosy by half!"
It was that man with red hair and beard. He had been drinking deeply at the long window table with several other people; the Spictish merchants, an Iswickan woman, a pair of thickset men who looked like farmers, and a little out of place in the company. Now he rose unsteadily to his feet, glaring about him. "I've never trusted beast-blood and I never will. That woman's obviously in their pocket. You might say you've only heard good things about her, but y'can't tell me they weren't having a nice little chat behind our backs."
"Sit down, Wexted," the elder of the three merchants ordered, thick brows drawing together.
"Or what? You'll toss me out to the wolves? At least they're honest. You're not going to tell me you're happy to be stuck out here, all because Lady Fur and Feathers upstairs couldn't keep her trap shut!? You're pleased to be stuck out here, missing the Convocation. You don't care who cost you the profits of that get-together?"
"Be assured, someone will make full reparation, Wexted," the merchant replied, cold and soft. "Just now, however, you'll sit down and stop bellowing."
"In a day or two we c'd all be dead," said one of the thickset farmers, rising to his feet. "Bellow all ye want, Mure Wexted. We'll bellow with ye, for our wives and bairns, who'll be looking long and lonely for their das." The other farmer rose, thrust a particularly battered mug into the red-headed man's hand and clashed his own against it. "Here's to living!" he proclaimed, loudly. "To a thousand barrels of beer!"
"To a hundred saucy wenches!" his fellow added, and leered most definitely at Rithia.
Mure Wexted steadied himself with the aid of a chair, raised his eyes to the ceiling and sneered, lifting his mug in silent salutation, and obvious threat. "Here's to," he muttered, tossed the liquid back, before reeling into one of the farmers, who stumbled in turn and overset Cienne's chair. Suddenly everyone at Vanagar's table were on their feet, hands on sword-hilts.
"A challenge, by the Thunderer!" roared one of the farmers, obviously delighted by the prospect. He heaved himself forward, producing a thick-bladed knife. "Have at them Bol!" There was a sense of need about him, as if this a fight was a necessary release.
Bol obligingly hefted his mug as if he planned to level a few skulls with it, and Rithia, Zerith, Jaelith and Keevan all drew swords or knives in response. No-one else was carrying useful weapons, but Nathan hesitantly half-lifted one of the chairs as Cienne scrambled to her feet and out of the way.
"Ger! Auden! Sein!" The door was suddenly open, the cold wind sobering many as Harl Mendican ordered three of his men into the room. They did not draw their swords, merely shouldered their way deliberately between Vanagar's friends and the aggressors. The farmer called Bol swung his mug at the face of the tallest of the three, a giant with long moustaches who hailed from the western part of the Realms, judging from his blond hair and pale blue eyes. The man grinned humourlessly, caught the descending limb and, spun the farmer with a remarkable lack of effort, holding him painfully in an armlock.
Harl Mendican stalked into the room, surveying everyone as if they were rowdy teens caught rioting in a schoolroom, then looked to the head merchant for orders.
The Spictan rose wearily to his feet. "Thank you, Mendican," he said. "Time for the bar to close, it seems to me."
In short order everyone was drifting up the stairs, or around corners to rooms on the ground floor. Vanagar, pausing on the landing of the next level, looked back to see the woman with the black braid still sitting at her table, spooning up the last of her meal with uninterrupted calm. Then Rithia poked her sharply from behind and she hurried forward, fumbling along the barely-lit corridor around the corner to the left wing, where they'd engaged two rooms between the ten - no, the nine of them now, wasn't it? Rithia and Zerith had shared a room at the last inn, but they hadn't managed to get a room alone this time, and it looked like only a one-night rekindling of their affair, besides. So Vanagar had Rithia to deal with tonight, as well as Cienne and Allia.
This had been one of the disadvantages Vanagar had foreseen when she'd been deciding whether to accept Jaelith's invitation. It was not as if the other three snored or anything, but these last two days sharing rooms at inns with them, she'd been fully confirmed in her belief that she would not be comfortable sleeping in such close quarters. Vanagar was used to having her own room, and the small noises the others made through the night, as well as the constraint against making small noises herself, made it painfully hard to get to sleep. She also, more importantly, felt vulnerable and exposed, sleeping in a room not only with Allia, which would be disturbing enough, but with the often hostile Rithia as well. She felt she didn't want to sleep while they were awake.
There was also a thing she was annoyed with herself for worrying about at all. She certainly hadn't expected to find herself comparing the clothing she wore to bed with that of Allia and Rithia and Cienne. The voluminous, knee-length gowns were simply what Vanagar had always worn to bed. Allia and Cienne's neat cottom pyjama sets were inspiring a surprising amount of envy, while Rithia's transparent gown and shining silken robe simply made Vanagar feel an utter dowd. And, stuck out in the middle of Irrelath, there was no chance at all of changing matters.
"What will we do if we cannot cross the Stone Plain?" she asked Cienne, voice low since they had found Allia already asleep.
"If we can survive this place, you mean?"
Vanagar nodded, sitting down on her bed and remembering that she had thought it likely to be hard and lumpy when she first brought her gear upstairs. "The Stone Plain has always been the great barrier. We'll have to cross it to get back and if we can't, well..." She glanced at Rithia, who was sitting on her own bed, listening with a closed expression on her delicate features. "We might be living the rest of our lives in this place. Never see Gonwindar again."
"In that case, I nominate myself as the first queen of New Irrelath," drawled Rithia, unlacing the long boots she wore with her billowy riding pants. "We shall have to move to that castle over the mountain, however. We'll all soon be thoroughly sick of this inn."
Vanagar, who could all too easily picture Rithia enjoying the role of queen, hid her grimace and began to change into her night-clothes with the minimum amount of fuss, though she would never be as free about unclothing before the others as they seemed to be.
"Here," Cienne said, and passed her the damp cloth they had used to mop up spilt water when they had first checked the room over. Vanagar accepted it gratefully, wanting the luxury of a warm bath and knowing it would be a long time before she could indulge herself.
"I see what you're saying," Cienne added, after a pause. "Not only never seeing our families again, but the trials of actually living anywhere as isolated as this, let alone one which is haunted by magic. Hunting for food, gathering nuts against the coming of winter. No bread without grain, so we'd have to wait for spring, then turn farmer. No milk, which means no cheese or butter. Tanning skins for clothing and blankets. We'll be carting water up that hill whenever we need it."
Rithia took up the catalogue. "A forge to make tools - we can rework the metal we already have at the start, but soon enough we'll have to mine for it. Lacking sheep, we could search for flax or cotton plants, hope to encounter a wild goat. Learn how to spin wolf fur?"
"Learn how to spin," Cienne retorted, grinning.
"Tame a deer and milk it."
"Build houses, since we cannot share rooms forever."
"Wood, nails, rope, axes, spades, shingles," Vanagar cautiously contributed, wondering how much of this game would become their future.
"What are the odds that anyone here knows how to make shoes?" Cienne asked, pulling up her pyjama leg to inspect a bruise.
"No coffee, no chocolate, no tea. No ale, which might be a blessing in disguise."
"Be assured, that will be the first thing that pair try to make. Saucy wenches indeed!"
Rithia nodded, looking solemn. "We'll have to be careful of those two," she said, grey eyes stern. "No Watch here. No Charter Guards. No gaol-house."
"I've a knife which will enforce the law for me," Cienne replied, firmly. She tugged down her blankets and snuffed out the lamp, which was fortunate in having landed unlit and upright on one of the beds when they impacted. It hadn't even spilt.
"Where do you get oil for lamps?" Rithia asked, after a minute, and they laughed weakly, then fell silent.
Vanagar was tired, but she knew she would be awake a while yet. As Cienne and Rithia's breathing gradually deepened, she lay looking at the faint hint of light creeping through the shutters, thinking about the wicks that went in oil-lamps, and how to make candles, soap, everything that it was so easy to take for granted when someone else manufactured it. Then she thought about Rithia, who had been in too serious a mood to even bother baiting Vanagar. That was a development she liked, but doubted would last. When their future was a trifle less uncertain, Rithia would recover her poise and go back to normal.
Eventually she drifted back to constructing encounters with the tall Armitan, who probably would not, she decided, smile his thanks, but he would allow his expression to grow slightly less remote. She wondered what the Armitans thought of being trapped in Irrelath, and whether this had all indeed happened because Lady Kinrathen, like most Armitans, was steadfast in upholding Charter law.