Nahl leads his horse along a small trail, following lingering tracks in the snow as quickly as he can. The Semplar follows behind with her hood brought before her charmingly youthful face.
As they approach a cliff, they spot the entrance to a cave and rush in with their mounts. In spite of the trail leading there, they find darkness with no fire to welcome them.
They push deeper inside and find Jessica’s horse nibbling on a few carrots. Or rather Vikiana’s, as Nahl corrects himself. Just as the Templar and Semplar were about to call out, the latter is kicked by a shadow that appears behind her.
“Ah!” The girl cries out as she crashes into the wall.
Nahl flips around with his dominant right hand flashing to his sword hilt but freezes as a sharp and cold steel blade presses on his throat. His eyes meet two seemingly black but somewhat shiny irises that make him shudder.
“Oh. You.” A woman groans with a deep voice.
She pulls the blade away and walks backward to sit on a rock, sheathing her hunting knife as if naught happened. Nahl feels a cool sweat in the small of his back as he realizes he almost died. The Semplar, on the other hand, struggles back to her feet while reaching for her forehead.
“Miss Jessica.” He greets.
“You bitch!” The Semplar yowls as she feels blood on her fingertips.
Nahl holds his arm out to block the apprentice and shapes a fire construct to chase the darkness from the cave. He notices that Jessica’s face is pale as moonlight and that her breaths are short but rapid.
“Bad idea to sneak up on me, girl.” Jessica declares unapologetically.
Her tone added to the ruthless ambush makes Nahl pause because he realizes how naive he’s been. As he berates himself for failing to take her seriously enough, the Semplar walks around his extended arm towards Jessica with an angry expression.
“I came to help, you ungrateful brat.” The girl mutters as she reaches out to the woman to take stock of what her sickness is.
Her hand, which began to shine with a golden glow, is caught by Jessica before it can touch her chest and twisted to the side. The Semplar can’t help but cry out in pain again as she is forced to bend on twain to follow the cruel angle her wrist is being twisted at.
“Girl, I’ve literally just told you not to surprise me.” Jessica utters with a hard threatening voice.
“I was walking!” The Semplar protests with outrage.
“Miss Jessica, this Semplar is an apprentice Alemplar.” Nahl hurriedly explains as the confrontation tears him out of his daze.
“My name is Uhla!” The girl exclaims with tears in her eyes. “Not girl, or Semplar.”
Jessica blinks to chase her dizziness and lets the girl’s hand go. She sighs internally at the useless expense of energy these two caused her when she stopped to rest.
“You can’t help me, I just need rest.” She grumbles.
“The patient will keep her mouth shut.” Uhla grunts back with a frown as she massages her wrist.
As the two ill-tempered women face-off, Nahl awkwardly shifts his weight from one leg to the other without quite knowing how to deal with this situation. Despite the fact he’s clearly the one with the highest status, it never crosses his mind to use the authority he gained as a Templar.
“Fine, I did give my word I wouldn’t complain.” Jessica says with a deep sigh. “Make yourself useful and bring some dry-wood back, Nahl. I don’t have enough energy to feed that fire construct through the night.”
“I do.” Nahl reassures.
“Idiot.” Uhla whispers.
“What?” He asks in confusion.
“She doesn’t want you here, and neither do I for that matter. Besides, I might need your flow to heal that barbarian.” Uhla explains shortly.
“Keep your tongue in check, girl.” Jessica warns with a snarl.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Uhla apologizes sarcastically. “Was I too accurate by implying you’re an uncouth, uneducated, ungrateful savage?”
“No, I don’t care about that.” Jessica deadpans, further irritating Uhla. “But he’s a good cook and I’m hungry so don’t antagonize him.”
Nahl opens his mouth to placate them both but their two heads turn to him with urging glares that cause him to run out of the cave on an impossible quest to find dry-wood.
“I’m a Templar.” Nahl protests with a weak voice once he’s outside.
— — —
Uhla frowns as she tries to interpret a diagnostic from the results of her construct. She quickly panics as she realizes she has no idea what’s wrong with this Jessica but that her cold is definitely the least of her worries.
“Are you done?” Elizabeth questions her with a grunt as she loses patience with Jessica’s conciliatory behavior.
“I, um, no?” Uhla replies awkwardly as her cheeks turn slightly red from embarrassment at her prideful attitude when examining the woman. “You have a cold.” She lamely adds because she has to say something.
“Oh yeah?!” Jessica asks with exaggerated surprise.
“No shit!” Elizabeth exclaims with a mad giggle.
Uhla feels her face turn crimson so she lowers her head over her construct. Jessica hops off the rock to crouch in near the flames with her hand held out. The Semplar grits her teeth at the mockery and pulls flow from the steel flask at her waist to assemble an overly complicated healing construct when the most basic one would suffice.
“Give me all that.” Jessica orders without even bothering to turn around.
“All that?” Uhla asks, faking unawareness.
“Both constructs.” Elizabeth utters darkly.
“Let me take a look.” Jessica adds.
The Semplar feels goosebumps arise all over her arms and hurriedly gives the two constructs to the scary woman. Jessica doesn’t even take a glance before dismantling them and then absorbing most of the energy to feed the constructs keeping her heart from bursting.
“I can tell you have no idea what the problem is so I’ll enlighten you.” Jessica speaks up to divert the Semplar’s attention from her theft of energy.
“I, I just needed more time with the results.” Uhla protests.
“My heart is in its rebellious phase.” Jessica says simply and assembles a standard healing construct for her cold by using the rest of the flow she stole.
“That’s it?” The Semplar asks, blinking from surprise.
“My lungs are short-winded.” Jessica says, chuckling at her wordplay.
Uhla falls silent, feeling guilty about her failure to find the problem and sad about her patient’s resigned attitude towards her health. She unpacks a few mats to settle around the fire with the barbarian.
“Who’re you and what happened to you?” Uhla asks quietly, intrigued by how someone could survive losing so much flesh with a weak heart.
“Ha.” Jessica laughs. “Don’t trust me but you don’t want to know.”
“…” The Semplar opens her mouth to protest that she does want to know but she pauses. “Does that mean I want to know?” She asks tentatively.
“Good!” Jessica praises cheerfully. “Yes, it does.”
“But you’re not going to tell me.” Uhla infers.
“Exactly.” Jessica says with a nod.
— — —
Nahl drags a dead branch be broke off a tree into the cave, having found it by spending a good hour scouring the area. Jessica welcomes him with a pot filled to one-fourth by water and a charmingly innocent look of expectation on her face.
“Do you have actual vegetables and meat for me to work with?” Nahl blurts out.
“I do.” Jess confirms.
“I have some dried thyme and bay leaves but I would like an honest answer from you about why you picked me to send to the Hospitaliers when Dame Vikiana could have easily recommended a dozen Templars.” Nahl says while grabbing the pot.
“It’s simple really. You’re low born, a good cook, and too damn fussy to be a bad person.” Jessica replies with a shrug.
“That’s it?” Nahl asks, feeling a bit vexed even though he knew the woman has very little information about him.
“All I expect you to do is be yourself and recruit more fools like you so the Hospitaliers can grow in the right direction.” Jessica replies while rolling her eyes. “I don’t need a sword-master for that.”
Nahl sighs at himself and settles around the fire under the two women’s anticipative gazes. As he prepares the meal, he catches Jessica repressing coughs which reminds him he had to chase her here to get her some help.
“I understand you don’t wish for evil to catch up with you.” He says, keeping the name of the pursuer under silence because he doesn’t want to worry the Semplar and he has an inkling Jessica is the kind of person who likes to decide whether to reveal or keep her secrets to herself. “But there are two entire regiments of Templars spread out across the valley, no one could follow your tracks here without being found so it couldn’t have hurt to stop and rest.”
“Uhla said it’s just a cold so don’t worry about it.” Jessica dismisses.
“I didn…” The Semplar withers under the glare the barbarian throws at her. “She has a cold and a bit of a fever.” Uhla tells Nahl with a sigh because the Alemplars aren’t supposed to be going around running their mouths about people’s health problems.
— — —
That night, Nahl awakens to find Jessica snapping her fingers together in front of the fire and laughing at the cracking sound it produces. It makes him uncomfortable but he doesn’t find the courage to call out to her because the flames are projecting flickering shadows on her face which makes her smile look twisted.
— — —
The three part ways the next morning. Uhla returns to the Order’s camp two silver coins heavier while Nahl and Jessica head for Meria, the former having told the latter he wants to meet the Hospitaliers there before heading for Castle Lance.
It annoys Jessica but Nahl is a better horse rider so she decides not to exhaust herself in a fruitless attempt to lose him. They travel together for three days until they reach the island’s capital.
They part ways once they get past the guards at the gates without trouble, which Nahl notices makes Jessica inexplicably scowl. As he has during their journey, he puts her mood jumps on account of her sickness.
— — —
Rowland opens his eye to the old but sturdy ceiling above him. He immediately groans in annoyance at still being stuck in this brothel because his half-sister and her mother have decreed he must fully heal from his wounds.
Even his father, Count Urnan who is one of the few that isn’t in danger of losing his title in fact if not in name under the new rules the Hospitaliers are spreading, lacks the power to get him out of this room.
That is why he startles when he finds an unknown woman staring at him from the bedside with a disquieting gleam in her piercing eyes. She has curled and messy black hair with curls falling over the jagged scar on her left cheek. Her lips form a corner smile that somehow enhance her charm by spoiling her cute traits.
“You’re not good enough for Yvonne.” The woman declares with a flat voice that underlines how certain she is of the affirmation.
“Who are you?” Rowland asks.
“Her rather disappointed best friend.” She replies while standing up.
He can’t help but gaze at her slim figure as she rises from the chair she sat on, literally unable to divert his eye because she is that close to him. She is wearing a skintight black hard-leather armor that still carries a smell of chemicals that indicates it is brand-new.
Rowland’s mind, already off-balance from the new information, is further thrown in for a loop as he notices that this woman’s body isn’t symmetrical; she only has a single right arm and breast.
He dazedly wonders why someone so injured would have an armor made to measure but soon realizes that the question is both stupid and born of prejudice. After all, he found her attractive long before he consciously made note of her wounds.
He quickly reasserts himself to check the door, finding it closed but that there is a shadow revealing that the guard posted outside is still there. Or at least his body is, Rowland realizes with a burst of fear that lasts until he sees the man’s foot move.
He then checks the woman’s slim waist, finding three blades hanging there with expensive looking engraved pommels. He also finds a long rectangular case with oddly smooth seams resting in the corner that likely belongs to her.
“At least you’re smart enough to check me out before seeking answers.” The woman remarks coldly.
“That’s three times as many swords as you can use.” Rowland fires back in the same tone while preparing an air-blade underneath his bed-sheets.
“Good thinking.” The woman grins as if he gave her a compliment instead of poking at what should have been a sore spot. “But cut it out or I’ll have to do something mean.”
“Cut what out?” Rowland asks.
He is playing stupid to conceal the fact he froze as he realized her first words of praise were aimed at the fact he’s assembling a construct out of her sight instead of how he checked his situation, or perhaps to both.
The woman’s hand flashes and slaps the bandaged gash in his skull, causing Rowland to stiffen from the burst of pain and lose control of the air-blade’s segments. He bites the inside of his cheek and squeezes his fist.
“Who are you?” He asks tensely while retrieving his energy.
“Jessica Freepath.” She answers with a smile. “I need someone to take me shopping, the tailor that made this didn’t have any good swords, or clothes, or hats… To be honest, it’s mostly because I’m tired of waiting for you to stop lazying around.”
“I’m injured.” Rowland notes, mostly because he doesn’t like the feeling she’s giving him of being led by the nose.
“Are you?” She questions with a surprised expression even though she clearly knows since she just poked at his wound. Rowland gestures to his bandaged head and left shoulder. “You were just scraped a bit, are you really a soldier?” She asks suspiciously.
“Not anymore, I’m a Hospitalier now.” Rowland replies with an amused smile because he’s starting to like this Jessica and how she casually dismisses common sense. “I’ve been ordered to stay here until I heal these scratches. Can you get me out of here?” He asks while getting out of the bed, belatedly realizing that this imposing and assertive woman is much shorter than her presence would suggest.
“Of course I can, there’s a window.” The woman replies with a shrug. “Get dressed up.” She adds, throwing him a bag.
Rowland opens it, finding the most regular clothes he’s ever seen. They’re so unremarkable he wonders if she stole them from one of the clothesline hung over the streets in residential quarters because he doubts she made them herself and no shop would put this on a stall.
As he dresses up, the woman starts removing her hard leather armor which reveals that she’s wearing almost identical clothes to those she gave him underneath. He almost asks if she’s trying to disguise herself as a low born but thinks better of it because he intuits she’ll use his remark to make fun of him in some way.
— — —
Huan Thrin’s butler barges in his master’s office without knocking, looking nervous as he presents a piece of parchment to his Lord. The man picks it up and reads the words written on it.
‘Chain-mails are expensive, thanks. Please take umbrage because this was a legitimate case of self-offense.‘
“Where did you find this?” Huan asks, quite baffled by the random message.
“It was in the pocket of one of our friends who was knocked out with her partner when they entered an alley, she has no idea what happened but the ambush occurred near Cecil’s brothel and next to a rundown tavern that serves cheap beer.” The butler replies concisely.
“I assume only the chain-mail was stolen.” Huan says.
“Nothing else was stolen, even the coins in their purses.” The butler confirms.
“Whoever this is, they are making fun of the law which eliminates the Hospitaliers acting in any official capacity. Thieves would have stripped them of all their belongings, and drunk soldiers with a grudge would have beat them up.” Lord Thrin ponders out loud.
“The location could indicate that it is Councilwoman Cecil’s way of retaliating.” The butler suggests.
“Her history suggests her play would be subtler or more heavy-handed than this.” Huan denies instantly. “Look out for more similar incidents, if there are none then we can conclude it isn’t coming from that woman.”
“There has been some disarray and odd movements within the Keep these past days, this attack could be the result of dissension.” The butler proposes. “If there is chaos, it could be time to make a visit.”
“I’m still thinking because that is unlikely.” Lord Thrin denies firmly. “And do not suggest this again, they will be coming to me sooner or later to return the title they stole from my father’s hands when he took his last breath.”
“My apologies, Lord.” The butler says with a stiff bow. Huan waves his hand to indicate that offense wasn’t taken.
“This is too trivial for the person responsible to cause turmoil in the Keep, but at the same time the timing is too coincidental to completely ignore.” The blue-eyed tall Noble murmurs to himself.
— — —
Jessica raises her tankard to her lips and takes an enthusiastic gulp of bitter beer before smashing the mug down on the table with a loud smack. Rowland takes a single sip before deciding it isn’t wise to allow himself to become intoxicated in the presence of this unpredictable woman.
The tavern’s interior is as seedy as it could be, as if the owners made an effort to let some of the wooden beams rot and poured beer on the counter to darken the surface. There are a dozen chumps having drinks in spite of the fact that it’s the middle of the afternoon.
“So, why did we come here if you wanted to go shopping?” Rowland asks.
“Because a sister of mine found a quality riveted chain-mail in the alley earlier today.” Jessica replies with a serious expression.
Rowland pauses, understanding that this woman is likely implying her sister stole it because there are no shops anywhere near here that sell that kind of equipment, especially not a riveted chain-mail.
“Even if you’re short on coin, I don’t think…” He starts, trying to be diplomatic.
“I’m not.” Jessica interrupts. “I’m just waiting for the victims to show up so they can mistakenly accuse me.”
“Then… why did we leave our weapons behind?” Rowland asks nervously.
“My weapons, you have none.” The woman corrects. “And I kept one.”
She reaches over her shoulder to tap the space between her shoulders, implying she has a dagger or some kind of long knife on her. Rowland frowns because this really isn’t something he should be doing as a Hospitalier.
“Ugh. Yvonne was right, you’re no fun.” Jessica exclaims with a grimace.
“I don’t think you should be covering for a thief but that’s up to you, I simply want no part in this.” Rowland explains, feeling offended.
“I’m targeting the group that ambushed you.” The woman says with a sigh, once more putting him on his back-foot. “But, hey, if you don’t want to see them humiliated then…” She trails off and pretends to stand up by pushing on the table with her hand.
“No, tell me more!” He hurriedly calls to her as an eager smile appears on his face.
“Hm. Okay, but I think I just noticed a terminal problem with you.” Jessica says while sitting down. “It’s going to make it difficult to agree to allow you to keep seeing my best friend.”
“Agree? Allow? You’re lucky she isn’t here to hear this.” Rowland responds while rolling his eye.
“There it is! That’s the problem!” The woman spouts out while pointing straight at his face.
“What is it?” He asks with a frown.
“You can’t wink, like at all!” Jessica cries out with exaggerated dismay.
“Of course I can’t!” Rowland shouts angrily. “Is this because I made fun of your arm?”
“No, absolutely not. I would never do that. Not me, nuh huh.” She denies, affecting an innocent expression. “My sister would, but not me!”
“I’m starting to think the two of you are the same person.” Rowland accuses with a groan. Oh, he could almost get a pass for smarts if you weren’t so obvious about it. Elizabeth’s sarcasm echoes in Jessica’s ears.
“Bad luck, we aren’t even twins.” Jessica denies seriously. “She’s a lot younger than I am.” Spiritually your elder. Elizabeth counters pridefully.