A Walk in the Woods

The baron offered Emmeline his arm and they took a back stair to the Baron’s gardens and woods, small secluded acreage outside the castle and the town, but within earshot of the Baron’s guards should trouble arise. The moon was out, and a light breeze make the walk comfortable. It wasn’t cold, but a touch cool. “It is good to see you mademoiselle. My daughter says that the trip to Thalassa was a success for you in many ways.”

She nodded modestly. “I mended rifts between my uncle and I, with Rivanon’s very valuable assistance and he troubles me no more with those attempts to marry me off. It also turns out I do have a land inheritance on Thalassa itself — some 200 acres or so — that I now lease to my uncle. We’ve begun a grape venture together and I was able to bless his lands and mine.

“Also with Lady Rivanon’s assistance, I was able to discover things about my own lineage. I am a descendant of one of the original 100 families, as it happens, but more importantly my grandmother the Contessa Adela Porteaux still lives. I was united with her and we almost immediately became fond of each other. So much so, she proposed a formal adoption and of course I found that to be as wonderful as it was a surprise. Magus Elemix’s mother Magistrix Bella, is also the Contessa’s daughter, which makes her my aunt and Elemix my cousin. So, in the space of a week, I went from no family at all to suddenly being surrounded by wonderful people.” Emmeline beamed with happiness at the memory.

She continued with more seriousness. “An assassin that worked for the cult of Tyaa, one of the last of that particular group who insisted on dogging our heals ever since Calder Falls, finally caught up with us. He murdered his way into laying a trap for us, but with Magistrix Bella’s help, we turned the ambush back on him. It was very difficult. Bella and Elemix both nearly died, but we prevailed.”

She stopped suddenly. “Oh! I’m so sorry. I’m blathering on and on and am giving you no opportunity to speak at all. I apologize my lo– Baron.”

The Baron smiled a bit, replying “No, please. Mademoiselle, I am the captive audience of the Queen of Love and Beauty. Continue.”

Emmeline blushed. “Um. Well, much of this all happens at the same time, but I should sum up a little of what else was going on.” She told him about Elemix taking what we know as the Aquila to scholars as well as Typhon Ne’s transition to the Aarith faith and paladinhood. “We discovered a map etched inside the Aquila and are now on an expedition, backed by the academy, to discover what secrets the ancient Eterian generals may have hidden.”

“Interesting,” he nodded.

She paused as she considered how to tell him the next part. “But something more personal to me also happened. I… am a witch you see. My patron is fey and has not an evil heart. She does grant me magic, which I’ve used to save lives and defend others as best I could. I knew the wizard’s guild would take exception to me because my magic comes from a place they cannot control, predict, or fully understand. I originally sought simply to keep quiet about it and come forward when I was ready. But I found out that Elemix stood to be punished most severely because he didn’t turn me in when I revealed my nature to him.” 

The Baron’s eyebrow went up a bit – very similar to Rivanon’s first reaction.

“I couldn’t let that happen, so I immediately changed my plan and went before their council. It was difficult. No single conversation, regardless how intelligibly, honest and well-reasoned my arguments were, would sway them to spare my life. Ultimately, I was sent to the head of the college of necromancy to be trained and judged by Archmagus Revan. It was nightmarish for someone like me who loves the sun and freedom, to be trapped in a dungeon with necromancers, but it was also very enlightening. I came to understand Revan a little bit but more importantly he came to understand me. At the end of that time, the council met again and decided against execution or banishment. By a single vote — Revan’s — they have accepted me.”

Emmeline looked down, afraid to see rejection in the baron’s eyes. “But their rejection is not truly what I most fear.”

“It is mine,” he said.

Emmeline nodded. Hesitantly, she looked up. Despite what Rivanon had said, she still feared he would be… disappointed in her.

There was a silence for a short moment, “Thank you for being honest. I knew there was some thing about you that did not add up.” He thought, “May I ask you this, do you know your patron’s goals for itself and for you?”

“Mara is a she,” Emmeline said softly. “She was banished a very long time ago by a sorcerer, forced into a state of limbo in a sense. This is terrible for one of the fey. Worse than death, for in death in this world they are sent home to Faerie. I think she would escape this fate if she could but I’m not sure it is possible. Even with the Mother Tree her connection is very tenuous.

“I believe her goals are not harmful. But we need help. There are those who would corrupt the Mother tree. I shudder to think what that could do to Mara and what corrupting Mara would do to me. She needs — we need your help.”

“What can I do that I have not done already, my dear friend? I have sent patrols to Cerisey. I have allowed Silverleaf to invite his tribe to live under my protection, reviving the elven community. Please,” the Baron said, “is there something specific I can help with?” His voice was genuine, as was his curiosity.

Emmeline was surprised. “Oh! I didn’t know you sent patrols. That will certainly help a lot — and is really the only thing I could expect. The elves I’d hoped for will be much delayed before they can arrive.”

She squared her shoulders and faced him as if preparing to an almost physical blow. “Now you know what I am…”

“Yes?” he said. “What are you other than Emmeline de Cerisey de Thalassa? A minstrel? An adventurer? A witch? You are all these things. The locals speak of what are called ‘witches’, local hedge mages who are wise women. Some say they are the descendants of the lost priests of the Old Gods. My uncle’s wizard protector uses the term ‘witch’ to describe herself due to this. Are you any different?”

“Yes… and no. I am those things you say I am, but I’m the sort of witch who receives her power from the fey.”

The Baron then asked, “and what do the fey, Mara in this case, get from you? All transactions of power come with responsibilities, give and take. I have heard legends of being granting power. Gods expect their priests to do their will, lords expect vassals to do their will, all in exchange for power, title, or simply protection. Can you tell me what Mara expects of you?” He added, “Is it to save her as you said?”

“I would like to save her, though she has not specifically asked me to do so. She also expects me to be wary. She has alerted me to the fact there are those who would turn me against her or failing that, snuff out our line. The most important thing, the thing that matters is that she told me she trusted me to make the right choices. That is what she expects.” She shook her head. “I don’t know any more than that.”

The Baron stroked her cheek, “It must be hard having all this thrust upon you at once.”

She wished she had a little more self-control as she blushed again, but it was hard around the baron. “Sometimes. But I haven’t had to bear all this alone. I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by good people, and I have had something good to hope for. It gave me all the strength I needed.”

“You speak of Sister Typhon, Sister Jocelyn, and Magus Dungaroon? Yes, they are decent persons as far as I can tell. They all have their own agendas however, as I have mine. It is of your agenda I wish to speak to you. This journey to the east. It seems quite dangerous. I know that country and I am not certain you understand what you are getting into. The depths of danger you will face,” he replied.

Emmeline reflected a how Mara had looked to the east with an expression of anger the last time she spoke with Mara at the Mother Tree. “I’d like to hear what you know,” she said.

The Baron answered, “I told you one of the stories some time ago, concerning a Carian named Tuderic. The Rift is an area mostly outside the influence of Thalassa and the League. The farther east you journey into the Outlands, the more primitive, barbaric and dangerous things get. Many live under despots at best, or enslaved to monsters at worst. When the Empire collapsed and the roads across the Waste fell into disrepair, each provence, town, or outpost fended for themselves. Some, like the Western Periphery, held onto Eterian values. Others returned to their old ways, but still others turned inward. Simultaneously the fall of the Empire, and Eteria itself in the Great Burn displaced many peoples. Sorcerers, Prelates, and would-be Tyrants seized what they could, raised armies of whom they could, eventually turning to great humanoid armies unseen since ancient times. The Rift has seen first the collapse, then the Carian invasions, then wave after wave of Orc, Goblin, and Men crossing the Waste and vying for power and land. Lastly the Norvik came and stirred the pot once again. I hear rumors of civil war in Maelith even now. It will not be long before others are drawn in.”

To Emmeline it still sounded a lot safer than bothering a very old dragon. “The unrest makes it dangerous, and other challenges might make things more difficult still. But I hope to keep our small party from drawing too much attention. We’ll focus on the goals of the expedition and try not to get distracted or drawn into something over our heads.

“Enough about me. I’m here now and the expedition will wait. I’d like to focus on what’s been happening here and my Baron.” She smiled up at him.

He smiled, “Forgive my curiosity. I am concerned about you, and my daughter of course. This summer we went into the upper valley in a punitive expedition, searching for the goblin tribes that attacked us. We drove a number of them out, still others escaped, a few were captured. I am deciding what to do with them, as they surrendered to us. Other than that we rebuilt the two villages and restarted the mines. Quite a few hardy souls have joined us, though more men-at-arms, farmers, and miners are needed.”

“That’s very good to hear.” Mention of the goblins made her recall that the little lead card she had was recovered from one of them, but she didn’t want to divert the conversation again. “You need more people to settle the Calder region — too few people and lots of land, whereas the isle of Thalassa has far too little land and far too many people. If only they could be enticed to enticed to come here.”

“It is security primarily. If we can secure the Upper Valley from Calder Fall to the Azen Cascade, then they will come. With the silver, I intend to hire troops to do just that, and enfief knights as well. It is beautiful country,” he said.

Emmeline was curious about what silver he meant, but the baron’s finances were not her business. “Speaking of beautiful country, I have learned a means of enhancing plant health, which is that ‘blessing’ I referred to earlier. I estimate it will double yields if I get it done before harvest time. It takes a good eight hours of carefully walking and channeling verdant magics in an area of a little less than a mile, around 500 acres is my best guess. That’s far more than enough to cover Cerisey, of course.”

She felt it the least she could do since her people toiled all year to make a living, what was one day of hard work for her when it meant so much to them? Her feelings on it were plain to see on her face as she extended her offer. “I would be happy to do the same for whatever lands you might direct me to, my Lord. Doubling your agricultural output on at least your prized lands could mean that much more resources and coin for Uzec.”

“You continue to be surprising Mademoiselle,” he said with a smile, “Alone it would take you all year full time just to do a tenth of the farmland. Uzec is larger than you think. But perhaps we can select specific areas together. As far as Cerisey is concerned, that will bring their yield up to par. It is hard land.”

Emmeline smiled. “I’d really love to work with you to find any areas where I can help.” While her words were innocent, the quirk of her lips and glimmer in her eyes revealed her little flirt.

He paused, with a slight eyebrow up and a touch of a smile, “I’m sure you would, mademoiselle. I’m sure you would. Ah, we are here.” The Baron pointed at a small barn, still within sight of the walls.

Emmeline looked at him curiously. “You clearly have a plan,” she said with a smile.

He smiled, “I always have a plan, but this one is quite innocent. This is my private stable.” Walking into the barn Emmeline saw several horse pens. A groom bowed and exited. The Baron brought Emmeline to a larger pen on the far side, where a pregnant mare was kept. “her name is Essemé. She has been a friend and companion for many years. While she has many years left to her, the grooms believe this may be her final foal. Rivanon’s horse, Maude, is one of Essemé’s children. Soon she will give birth. I want you to have it.”

“That is a beautiful gift,” Emmeline said, touched. “I know the foal will be beautiful, but… ” She thought of the bread she’d made, but decided right then that she would not manipulate the baron’s emotions like that. Ever. “I wish I had something so precious to give you.” She looked up into his eyes.

“Your presence from time to time is all I require,” he replied.

She looked around and seeing there was no one else here, she raised an eyebrow. “Just my presence?”

The Baron smiled, held Emmeline in his arms, and kissed her deeply…

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