Rozara walked out of Ye Olde Sheatfish and adroitly mounted the mare the mayor had provided for her. Spending time with horses had been one of her few amusements in her free time as a novice in Adarna and she considered herself a good horsewoman. Her clothes were convenient for riding and accentuated her slim figure. She furled her cloak behind the saddle to keep it out of the way. The day looked set to be long and hot.
Several men in front of the inn watched her silently. Even if they had entertained the notion of flirting with her, her somber expression would have quickly forced them to abandon the idea. She rode the horse slowly through the streets, looking around the town in an attempt to brighten her thoughts.
The hour upon which she had to arrive at the mine was approaching, but she was alone. Apparently, rumors spread quickly in small Ditrum. Especially after Badoris had forbade his subordinates to help her.
A sorceress must be able to manipulate people’s minds, even without spells. It seemed to her that she hadn’t learnt this lesson effectively. She slipped her leather gloves on with a sigh and continued onward with no specific goal or direction.
At the north end of the town there were more houses and fewer shops and stalls. The sound of a butcher at work caught her attention. She approached his stand. A man of average height with muscular arms, he was swinging a cleaver and preparing the dead pig on his slab with quick movements.
Rozara stopped in front of him without uttering a word. The sight was a bloody one but that didn’t bother her. She followed the confident blows with which the butcher separated the unwanted parts. She slipped off the mare and stepped closer.
“How are you doing on this sunny day,” she enquired.
The butcher stopped and saw the curiosity in the young woman’s eyes. “I haven’t seen you before.”
“I’m here on an errand. I think you’re probably aware of its nature.”
“Yes, yes, it’s a small town.” He wiped his hands on his apron. “I know what you are and why you’re here. But what’s your name?”
“Rozara. I arrived just yesterday and hardly know anyone.”
“Well, I’m Reth, and if you’re in need of fine steaks, you’re in the right place.”
“Can you handle a sword as skillfully as your cleaver?”
“Ha! I guess I can, I served three years in the army. What are you looking for? A mercenary?”
“A volunteer,” the sorceress smiled. “No one is paying me and I can’t pay either.”
“Makes no difference to me, sorceress. I left that life long ago, so I’m neither a mercenary nor a volunteer. You had better turn to the town guard for assistance.”
“I did,” Rozara shook her head. “Nobody wants to go into the mine unless they are forced to.”
“And what exactly is going on in there? People have been whispering of all sorts of horrors…”
“Come with me and see for yourself.”
“Ha ha! You don’t give up, I’ll give you that.” Reth scratched his thick curly hair. “But I’d rather stay here where there are no mysteries.”
“Alright then… I’ll be on my way.” Rozara turned around in an attempt to hide her disappointment and straddled the mare. “There’s no point in postponing the inevitable.”
“Wait a moment,” the butcher grabbed the reins. “There’s one lad who’s much more interested in adventures than me. I’ve known him for years.”
“So there are such people in Ditrum after all? Where can I find him?”
“It’s on your way. He lives in a house up the road, beneath a big tree. It’s around three miles away. His name is Deran.”
“I’m much obliged to you, sir. If I decide to cook something, I promise it will be one of your steaks!”
“Tell him I sent you,” — Reth waved goodbye — “and don’t get him into any serious trouble!”
Rozara laughed for the first time that day and waved back at him. She didn’t want to waste any more time and quickly continued north. She knew that the experienced sorceresses of the Circle would disagree, but sometimes a bit of luck was necessary, she thought to herself. By the end of this day she was going to find out whether luck was smiling back at her.
After trotting down more winding streets, she reached the edge of the town. The road here became wider, and many people and bullock carts were passing the bored soldiers of captain Badoris. Most were returning from the fields around Ditrum, others were miners. As soon as they saw the sorceress, the guards stood to attention. The lanky officer who was with them gave her a sign to stop and made a slight bow.
“Madam Ditrel, steward Timar went through here a while ago and told me to inform you that he’ll be waiting for you at the entrance to the mine in two hours.”
The way he addressed her elicited a laugh from her for the second time that day. Seeing his confusion, she instantly felt guilty.
“Thank you, I’m on my way there.”
“And… I’m sorry we can’t come with you. Good luck!”
She spurred the mare along the line of carts and left Ditrum at her back. At least not all the guards were like their captain. People’s sentiments and the intrigues they crafted could be more complicated than the spells in the dusty scrolls in Adarna, and there was no way to master that by meditating behind the castle walls.
After the grey blandness of the town, the wild flowers in the fields along the dusty road brought joy to her eyes. She had sailed so far to get here, and now the liberating emptiness of the vast surrounding fields gave her something she could finally take delight in without anyone to observe and tutor her. For a short while she was able to pretend that she was somewhere else, and that what awaited her was nothing more than a long ride till sundown. The fantasy took her back to the idyllic simplicity of her childhood.
But she hadn’t been such a good rider back then. She peeled off the road and broke into a gallop across the fields, her hair flowing behind her. The wind rushed past her face as she smiled. The horse confidently scudded forward and Rozara held the bridle tightly with both hands, spurring her mount onward.
After a short while, she decided to rest the horse and stopped. She inhaled deeply and looked round. She could still see the road she had departed. The fields lay empty and a grassy hillock stood nearby. A big oak tree atop it drew her attention, it was probably at least fifty feet tall. A solitary house stood obscured by its thick shade.
Rozara headed towards it. As she drew near, she saw that the house was little more than a shanty made of planks, with a door and a large window at the front. There were no cattle in the small enclosure next to it. Woodworking tools and nails were scattered on the ground. The sorceress alighted from the mare and began to look round. She could hear nothing but birdsong from the oak’s crown.
Rozara removed her gloves and stuck them in the thin belt on her waist. She cautiously approached the door and knocked. No answer ensued, but before she could decide whether to knock again or simply walk in, a man dragging a bucket of water appeared from behind the corner of the shack. He was tall and thin, almost a bag of bones. He was probably no more than twenty years of age and his brown eyes measured her from head to toe.
“If you’ve come for the tax, I paid it last week.”
“Did Eman send you for the tools?” he put the bucket on the ground and scratched his pointed chin. “Wait, you don’t look like the kind of girl who would know him!”
“Is that supposed to be an insult?” Rozara gave a small stamp of her foot.
“No, on the contrary! Believe me.”
“Are you Deran?”
“Yes. And who might you be? What brings you around these parts?”
“Rozara Ditrel, a sorceress. At your service,” her bow only made his surprise greater.
“Sorcerers don’t come here…” His wide-eyed expression seemed to amuse her. “I’ve never seen one, at least until now, I mean.”
“Well, here I am. Do you know Reth? He told me I would find you here.”
“Old Reth? Sure. But what can I do for you?”
“I wanted to have a word with you about something, but it looks like I’m interrupting” — she pointed at the tools on the ground.
“No, no! Wait a moment.” Deran went into the house and brought out two stools. “Take a seat here in the shade.”
The sorceress took a small bone comb out of the bag tied to her saddle and sat next to Deran. She smoothed down her jacket and straightened her posture elegantly.
“Is the mine close?”
“Yes, it’s a thirty-minute walk from here. On that horse, you’ll get there in the blink of an eye.”
“I’m here because something terrible is happening in the mine, and it’s rumored that this ‘something’ is of a magical nature.”
“I’ve heard those rumors, but I don’t usually have cause to travel near the mine…”
“I must descend into it and get this sorted out, but I may need some assistance.”
“You’re a sorceress, right? Why don’t you send for aid from another of your own kind?”
“I can’t,” — she stared at the comb she was fumbling with — “those are the rules.”
“The rules? Whose rules?”
“The Circle of Moonlight. But I can use the help of people with no magical abilities. Provided they participate voluntarily and without payment.”
“Seems like quite a restriction!” His laughter froze as he noticed her grave expression. “Why is this mine affair so important to you?”
“If I fail, they’ll banish me from the Circle and the world of magic will be forever out of my reach. I’ll never be able to study and master it… And what else could I possibly do?”
Rozara jumped to her feet and began pacing back and forth. She stopped abruptly and hid her face in her hand.
“Truth be told, magic is the only thing I’m good at. This is the only way for me to do something good for others. And for myself, too.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll think of something.” Deran went up to her and placed a hand gently on her shoulder. “I might be able to help you somehow, even though I know nothing about magic… And many other things.”
She blushed and stepped back, lowering her gaze.
“I wanted to find three armed men to come with me. But the captain forbade his soldiers to aid me, even though I’m sure that some of them wouldn’t have minded…”
“Ha, that’s no surprise! You know, for a year I’ve been trying to join the guard, but I’m short of money.”
The sorceress sat back down on the stool and started putting her hair in order using the small comb. She calmly regained her composure.
“Short of money for what? Shouldn’t they be paying you if you were to enlist?”
“First I must give the captain a hundred gold griffins or I’ll never be a soldier. Yes, that’s how things happen in Ditrum! He probably expected a bribe from you, too.”
“Well, there was no chance of that!” she huffed.
“So you’re on your own now… I have a sword! Reth the butcher gave it to me. I’ll come with you!”
Rozara lowered the comb down onto her lap and looked him in the eyes.
“I must warn you, it’s going to be extremely dangerous. Two miners have been killed. There’s no telling what exactly awaits us underground.”
“You’ll take care of the magic stuff while I protect you with the sword. Then, when the people hear about it, Badoris won’t have a choice, he’ll have to let me join the town guard!”
“Can you wield a sword at all?”
“Most certainly!” The youth stuck out his chest. “I train almost every day. And when we play cards and I beat him, Reth teaches me all sorts of blows. Would you like me to show you?”
“Save your strength for what’s to come! Can you accompany me to the mine today?”
“Sure. What could be more interesting than helping a sorceress?”
She laughed and began to smooth down the ends of her jacket.
“If we’re lucky, you won’t have to use the sword at all. But I want you to be ready.”
“Consider me ready!”
His enthusiasm in the face of the unknown made her smile.
“I must be on my way. The steward of the mine is waiting for me.” She returned the comb back to the bag and mounted the mare. “Follow me later. I’ll need some time to prepare. We won’t head down into the mine before nightfall anyway.”
“What’s the difference whether it’s night or day? The galleries are far beyond the sun’s reach.”
“At night, I have better control over the elements.”
“If you say so. I’ll join you there shortly before sundown.”
Rozara settled into the saddle and spurred the horse down the hill, the house of her new volunteer shrinking behind her. Now that she had found him, it was time to find that inner peace they had taught her in the Circle.
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