Midnight Quest (10 page)

Calio blinked at this smooth speech from a foreign man she didn’t recognize. “I see. Sorpan…of the Sorpan merchant family?”

“Why, yes. I’m the third son.”

Her dark eyes were a little white around the edges. “Belthain Castle and a merchant’s son…” she muttered before looking at her son with a pinched mouth. “I suppose next you will tell me that be the High Priestess of Elahandra you be holding?”

She had meant it sarcastically, but Rialt’s mouth twitched at the accurate guess. “Actually, eh, she be. Sarvell?”

A wave of silence rippled outward as his entire family stared at him incredulously, jaws dragging the snow covered courtyard. Sarvell’s eyes were dancing in mirth as he reached out and helped Jewel to stand on her own feet.

As soon as she was solidly planted, she turned her head in the general direction of Calio. “I am Jewel Jomadd, High Priestess of Elahandra and Guardian of the Barrier. Mistress Axheimer, I am very sorry that you were so worried for Rialt. Please believe me when I say that I needed him desperately. Without his aid, and Sarvell’s, I would not be alive and standing before you now.”

Calio watched her for several moments in silence. Rialt saw his mother take her in from head to toe, noting everything, especially her unseeing eyes. When she turned her head back to Rialt, her expression was unreadable. “I will have the full tale.”

“Eh, so you will,” Rialt assured her with a quiet rumble. “But first, she needs to be near a fire with a warm meal in her belly. Jaron,” he turned to a cousin standing nearby, “I would take it kindly if you would see to Sarvell’s horse and him,” he put his hand against the stallion’s neck with a gentle pat.

Jaron seemed glad of an excuse to not be near his angry aunt. “Of course, Rialt.”

“My thanks.” Wrapping an arm around her shoulders, Rialt led Jewel through the throng to the house.

 

Chapter Six

The reassuring band around her shoulders proved to be remarkably effective at keeping curious relatives at bay. Jewel could hear them mutter to each other, and the sound of hardened snow crunching as they milled about, but no one approached her. Only three sets of footsteps followed them as they walked—Sarvell’s she recognized but not the other two. Then again, she didn’t need sight to know that Rialt’s parents were following them in.

The ground under her feet, unfortunately, had a very thick coat of snow on it. Jewel hated snow with a passion. She relied on the feel of the ground under her feet and the sound of her own footsteps to help guide her step. Snow muffled all of that. Even with Rialt’s steadying grip, her feet slipped and skittered, making her uneasy. She slowed to a cautious pace, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth.

Jewel gasped and instinctively clutched a handful of Rialt’s coat as her feet left the ground. “Rialt!” In the next moment, her feet were on solid ground again, robbing her of a full protest.

“The stairs be a bit slick just now,” he explained to her, words warm with amusement.

“Then warn me first!” she growled.

“Eh, eh, do no be crabbity.”

Crabbity?! Really, how did he think
he’d
feel if he was suddenly lifted into the air without warning? A slight scuff as a door opened, then warm air heavy with the smell of leather and wood flowed past her face. Jewel took a deep breath as she crossed the threshold. Someone had kept the fires going in the house, as the sweet scent of wood smoke was prevalent in the air.

Rialt bent enough to murmur near her ear, “I will give you a proper tour later but for now, let us settle in the kitchen.”

She nodded her understanding and followed where he guided her.

The kitchen turned out to be only five steps away, to the left of the door. From the muted thuds her boots made as she walked, it had a stone floor to it. A warm heat enveloped the place, coming stronger from the far right, where she judged the stove to be.

“Why don’t I give her the guided tour, and you speak with your parents?” Sarvell asked from nearby.

“Eh, a good notion, that.” Rialt’s arm around her shoulders fell away. “Here, give me both cloaks too while we be about it.”

Jewel thankfully shrugged off both cloaks, as she felt that at any moment she would start overheating in this warm kitchen. As soon as her hand became free, Sarvell took it in a gentle grasp and started leading her about the room. As she learned where the stove, counters, table, chairs and other features of the room were, she kept an open ear to the conversation going on at the table.

“Sick with worry, we were, wondering where you had gone to, only to find you rescued
her
,” Calio hissed. She obviously meant to keep her voice too low for Jewel to hear. Pity she didn’t quite manage it.

“She be no the same woman that left us out in the cold six months ago,” Rialt rumbled impatiently, tone nearly a growl. “
This
one stood up to ministers and death threats rather than let our clan be hurt.”

“How do you know that?” a deep, male voice asked. There was a quality to it that reminded her sharply of how Rialt spoke, only the voice sounded a mite higher in tone. Rialt’s father, no doubt.

“Well to start, Elahandra told me.”

“A foreign goddess!” Calio exclaimed. “Do no tell me you obeyed a summons from another clan’s god! Do you no mind who your goddess be?!”

“I mind it fine,” Rialt responded with false mildness. “Although a smart man, to my mind, does no argue with a goddess in the dead of night. Especially when she has a mad-on. But Mam, I said
to start.
You forget, I went and fetched her meself.”

Jewel hesitated in her step, her hand on the warm wood of the table on the opposite side of the family. Perhaps both parents felt the weight of her attention on them, for a long moment of silence passed before the father asked, “What are you saying, son?”

“I found her in the dungeons of Belthain Castle.”

Jewel felt she had memorized enough of her surroundings to be able to move confidently about now. She stepped around the table to Rialt’s side, using the sound of his even breathing to know where he stood. When she felt close enough to do so, she reached out and laid a hand on the soft leather covering his arm. “I told you,” her words were painfully steady, “without your son and Sarvell, I would not be alive now.”

Another long stretch of silence. Jewel could feel their eyes on her. She raised her chin a little, squared her shoulders, and waited them out.

“Why,” Calio asked slowly, tone neutral, “would the High Priestess of Elahandra be in the dungeon?”

“Because a certain government toady wanted Ramath to concede something to him. I refused to be his leverage.”

Judging by the weighty silence this time, they did not know how to respond to that.

“Father, Mam, look at her. She acted to protect us as no other would. If you had known, would no you have sent me to her?”

Rialt’s father blew out a heavy breath. “Eh, and probably joined in, in truth.”

“Colben!” Calio protested, nearly spluttering.

“I would rather have the girl here, safe,” Colben insisted, sounding remarkably like his son as he spoke. “Priestess, I bid you welcome.”

Jewel beamed at this. “Thank you.”

“Calio-love, let us get these three fed,” Colben suggested to his wife in a tone that brooked no disagreement. “They look a mite lean to my eyes.”

~*~*~*~

Jewel lifted her head to the cold night air and took a deep breath. What a day this had been! Rialt had made good on his promise of sitting her next to the fire and getting a warm meal to her, but he had neglected to tell her that she would be talking and stealing bites from her plate the entire afternoon. Once the story had gotten out about why Rialt had come to rescue her, everyone in the clan seemed to descend to get their own account of the story straight from her. Or Rialt. Or Sarvell, in a pinch.

The one good part of the whole riotous day was that by the time everyone had retreated back to their own homes, they all knew that Jewel was not the priestess that had left them out of the barrier six months ago. They also knew that she would rather die than expose them to the Daath. Those two facts had won her an acceptance here that was iron clad. The downside to this acceptance? Well, she’d become an unofficial part of the clan and so everyone felt perfectly comfortable approaching her.

Most of her life had been in the Order, as she had been entrusted to them as a toddler. Her days had been peaceful, quiet and very organized. To be thrust into this place where everyone talked over each other, walked freely in and out of each other’s homes, and no one hesitated to ask direct questions overwhelmed her. It had taken several hours for her to learn how to talk loud enough to get a sentence finished.

Worse, by Ramath standards, she was “too small” and “needed some meat on them bones.” People had constantly brought her food. Jewel had managed to somehow consume the first five plates, but after that she’d ducked behind Rialt or Sarvell for protection. Being men, they’d first laughed at her plea for help and then cheerfully finished the proffered food for her.

She leaned against the back porch’s railing and tried not to feel queasy at just the memory of all that food. Right now, she had perfect empathy for a stuffed goose.

The back door abruptly jerked open in a woosh of displaced air. “Jewel, are you—?! Ah, there you are.” Sarvell let out a huff of agitation. “Rialt! Found her!”

Jewel turned slightly to face him. “Really, Sarvell, there’s no need to keep a constant watch on me.”

“You’re in an area that you don’t know,” he responded with strained patience. “Please, for both your guardians’ sake, don’t disappear on us.”

“I do know the house,” she protested in exasperation. Indeed, that had been one of the more amusing parts of the day. When the children asked how she walked around without tripping over things, she’d explained how she needed to memorize a room’s layout. They’d taken great delight in taking her on a very extensive tour of every room in the house.

Rialt’s heavy footsteps approached down the wooden hallway, stopping abruptly as he came to the doorframe. “Lass, we had no notion if you were in the house or stepped outside.”

Worrywarts. Both of them worse than a mother cat with a passel of kittens. “You’re going to have to ease up a bit, gentlemen. I’m used to seeing to myself.”

“Just let us know where you’ll be?” Sarvell requested with a long sigh. “As I said, you’re not in an area you know. This will be a constant state until we find all of the crystals.”

Well, he had a point. She ran a hand roughly over her hair. “Fine, I’ll try to remember. I actually stepped out here for a reason.” Turning, she pointed to an area off the porch, far beyond what any human could see. “The crystal is over there. I think it’s well beyond the city’s limits, but I have a hard time judging distance until I’m closer.”

“Rialt, any roads heading that direction?”

“Just a hunting trail. It will be a fashrie if the course stays true.”

“Fashrie?”

“Eh, there be only forest beyond farrest city gate.” He sounded very disgruntled at the very idea. “Digging out a mammoth crystal and hauling it home again, well, it do no sound a bit of fun.”

Oh. Fashrie must mean difficult or troublesome. Actually, digging out a crystal large enough to fill a two-story house from a forest and hauling it
upslope
to its proper spot in the city would be more than “troublesome” to her mind. Back-breaking sounded more like it. She imagined that the long-ago people that had shoved the crystal down the side of the hills and into the forest had not had nearly the amount of difficulty.

Although…hadn’t there been an account of a priestess before her that had moved the crystal by herself? Jewel’s brow furrowed as she struggled to bring the memory up. Yes, there had been, but she couldn’t remember the name…what had been the priestess’s name?

“I think perhaps I need to pray to Elahandra about this. She might have a solution for the problem.”

“I certainly hope so. I can’t imagine how we’ll get it back up that hill otherwise.”

“Logs and ropes and a hundred strong mules, belike,” Rialt suggested darkly.

Jewel, trying to imagine this, winced.
I’m definitely praying for guidance.
“Let’s not borrow trouble. I’ll ask Elahandra tonight before retiring. Shall we get up early tomorrow and go hunting for the crystal?”

“Eh, might as well. The sooner we do so, the sooner we can move to the next.”

“Then I’ll say goodnight.” She walked passed both of them into the house. Even after an afternoon of navigating the place, she still hesitated a bit before she found the stairs. Part of the cause to her hesitation lay in the fact that Rialt did not, by any stretch of the imagination, keep an organized house. After having a stream of visitors, the house was now a bit more topsy turvy than usual, to boot. Still, she found the stairs without tripping over anything and went up to the guest room on the right. Rialt’s house only had two bedrooms upstairs, and she had been given to understand that Sarvell would share a room with his host for the duration of their stay.

This room had its own hearth, well fed with burning logs. The room held nothing more than a washstand near the window, a chest near the footboard, and a bed that sat squarely in the center of the room. The bed had a thick, soft tick that threatened to swallow her whole. After nights of lying on damp stone floors or rocky ground, the bed felt like paradise to her.

She slid out of her clothes and shoes, laying them across the top of the chest. Clad only in a borrowed nightshirt, she dove into the bed and wiggled about until her legs were covered with the quilt. Comfortable, she clasped her hands together and bowed her head.

Elahandra, I am very blessed to have such good men as my protectors. Thank you for sending them to me.

“You are quite welcome,
” her goddess answered with affection. “
I am pleased to see that Ramath has shown you such warm hospitality.”

Yes, they’ve been very kind. A little too boisterous, but that is apparently their way.

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