A/N: Last chapter, Golzar, Gerhard and Bryn were discussing her inauguration as a guild councillor and the upcoming formalities that will be critical in determining the direction of her career. Now, Golzar and her company of chevaliers are making their way to a guild meeting at the heroes' halls in Witchfield, a location close to the capital city.
Grey skies loomed over Witchfield. The smell of the rain was in the air also, seeping slowly through the lazy breezes, but Bryn had yet to feel a drop on their head. They gave Dapple a pat on the neck, urging her onward through the line of horses. They rode up next to Golzar, who was at the front of the line, ill-advisedly looking at Gerhard’s scroll as she rode.
“Watch where you’re going,” Bryn insisted, voice alarmed.
Golzar grinned. “This is kind of fun actually. Feels like I’m getting more done at once.”
A tut of the tongue. “You’re gonna lose control if you keep doing that. She’ll go astray without you guiding.”
“Alright, alright. Don’t worry.” But Golzar tucked the scroll back into her rucksack anyway, which swung slightly round the neck of her horse. With both hands on the reins, she began to ride faster.
She caught up with Gerhard, who was already at the front of the line. Bryn followed soon after, and they couldn’t help glancing at Gerhard’s new saddle. It was a fine piece of craftwork, and Gerhard had adjusted to it quickly. There was a lever system that allowed him to guide the horse with less force applied from his right leg, accommodating his injuries.
“Y’know, you’re supposed to be riding at the front now, right?” Gerhard quipped.
“Pff – the only reason commander rides front is if the other bastards can’t recognise ‘im.” Golzar turned back to yell at the other Miscreants. “But you lot recognise me, don’t ya’?”
A cheer resounded. It nearly drowned out the sounds of rolling thunder in the distance.
Bryn chuckled. Raucous, as always. To avoid the noise, they rode Dapple slightly off to the side, tugging the feathered cap slightly down their head.
When Golzar rode up next to them, they jolted.
“You ready for the meeting?” she said, eyes bright.
Bryn gulped. “I . . . I’ll be going?”
“Well, of course. You’re my second now, they’d expect you,” said Golzar.
A stab of panic flashed in their chest. “What on earth would I say? What would I do?”
Silence stuck to Golzar’s expression. She seemed unsure how to respond, like a wheel had caught dead fast on a pebble in her head. She took a deep breath and let it out, her eyes flitting for a bit to stare up at some stray thought in the sky. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. If you don’t worry about it so much then – “
“I’m not worried.”
Another one of those pebbles on the road.
“Well, worst comes to worst, I can do the talking and you can do the judgemental staring at anyone who tries to interrupt. Sound good?”
“Hmm. I can live with that.” Old men – old war men, specifically – a enclosed little space and poor lighting on a rainy day. Let’s say they weren’t looking forward to it.
Golzar flashed them a smile, but then turned away. The look said: alright, that’s done now. Bryn frowned.
The Miscreants passed under the branches of old gnarly trees, and as they did, they could see the peaks of roofs rising over the horizon. They were almost arriving at Witchfield town. This wasn’t their actual destination. Only they had to ride through it to get to the Witchfield countryside and beyond that, the Guild Hall.
The cobbles were trod smooth by the many merchants that walked its paths. Bryn could feel the change in Dapple’s stride as she carried them over the boundary between grass and stone. As they were riding around a corner, a merchant was ordering his serf attendant about, finger pointed accusingly at the serf’s chest. Bryn glared sideways at the merchant, scowling. The merchant paid them no mind.
Maybe if Bryn were as much of a daredevil as Golzar, they’d be dueling people left and right too. An interesting thought. They squashed it with a light shake of their head. They raked the soft curls out of their face with one hand. Beside them, Golzar rode on.
If Bryn was sincere in saying they could “live with” being around the Guild Council, Golzar would eat her prayer mask. The quip was on the tip of her tongue, but she swallowed it. Better to speak about the distant far-off things, which were less distracting and less disruptive.
“We’re going to need some kind of theme for the dinner. All the last ones we went to did – “ Golzar paused, glancing upwards a moment. “ – or, at least all the ones I remember going to. The food’s not bad, you know? You should try coming with us next time.”
“Hmm. I’ll think about it.”
Bryn looked like a stone lion someone carved a miniature of out of wood. There wasn’t a legendary stone lion statue here, but she’d remembered stories of them in Besiv. If any Woodlandian saw something like that, they’d definitely make a carving out of it. And that carving would be just like Bryn was – average-sized but definitely not average in any other way. Bryn’s coal eyes were keener than a hawk’s, she knew, and short curls looked mature on them where they’d look childish on anyone else. A lion’s mane.
Golzar found herself glancing back and forth between their expression and the road ahead whenever the two of them talked. How were they taking it? Was she making sense? Did they think she was stupid? It was rough.
“Next most important thing,” she said, “the guest list. Specifically, we don’t have one. We’re probably going to have to write invitations ourselves and choose who to bring.” Her voiced dropped and she smiled cynically. “Though of course, we won’t really be choosing.”
Bryn snorted at that.
Towards the town gates, there was a small strip of green, peppered with little white dandelions. The grass pooled around the stony base of the walls, which sloped up towards a pair of watchtowers. Golzar squinted. The pale light still cast a glare over the metal weapons and equipment, but she could see the silhouettes of guards on duty, ambling back and forth along the wall.
“Should we stop ‘ere?” Gerhard said from the front. He had turned his russet stallion around. “Could be a long ride still to the Halls.”
Golzar nodded, and raised a hand – signalling the rest of the Miscreants to dismount.
They watered their horses at the gates. As they did, Bryn, Golzar and Gerhard congregated at the left pillar of the main entrance.
Gerhard had dismounted, and he opened his mouth, just about to say something when the sound of neighing interrupted.
Golzar whipped around. The source of the sound was from beyond the gates. She saw Bryn race past her and stop dead centre. They turned back, calling out. “Messengers! Red flag!”
Indeed, the party had a red flag raised, the sign of an emergency.
Three townsguard heroes rode forth to receive them. Golzar motioned for Gerhard and Bryn to follow on foot.
The messenger in the lead took off his helmet. A tuft of blonde hair poked out, a fringe hanging over a pale, blanched face. His voice shivered, but he glanced between Golzar and the townsguard, and seemed to decide the townsguard needed to be informed first. He dismounted and hurried over to the first man cloaked in tan and black. It made sense. No hero was supposed to act outside of their official duties and quests.
But Golzar felt something was off. Without waiting further, she walked up to where the townsguard were gathered around the messenger. She nodded at one of them, who didn’t shoo her away.
“There’s been an attack,” the messenger said. “In the village. It’s . . . “
He was glancing at Golzar with a hint of recognition in his eyes. Golzar turned away, pretending not to be so involved with all this. His voice dropped as he dropped the news.
“. . . the Lions. They raided a farmer’s hut.”
A pinprick of pain. Golzar realised she’d bit her tongue. With some difficulty, she swallowed. Just what was Thornston thinking? Was he involved?
Golzar waited for the messenger and his party to leave, ushered by a flank of other heroes to rest in a nearby inn, before she addressed the commander of this hero company.
“Arthur,” she said. Arthur was a tall man, not quite as tall as Gerhard, but stockier. He gazed down at her with uncertain green eyes. The crescent symbol of his Carving Knife Company framed his chest. Golzar met his stare. “We’ll take it from here.”
“But Councillor – “
“It will be best that you remain at your post,” Golzar insisted. Then, she switched to a friendlier, more casual tone. “We were headed that direction anyway.”
Eventually, Arthur nodded. He turned around and waved a hand, signalling for the Knives to fall back behind the gates.
A cluster of townsfolk had gathered around to watch the events. Bryn cast them a sweeping gaze. Any troublemakers? It seemed that the crowd was mostly people from the inn, looking to see what had happened to the most recent renters. “It’s those rascals again,” one man said to the other. “Those ‘heroes’.”
Golzar’s voice rang out. “Come on, Bryn – let’s get going!”
“R-right!” Bryn climbed onto Dapple and lightly tugged at her reins. The good sturdy mare cantered on.
Just outside the town, there was a small stretch of green grass. Bryn could see the woods bordering it, where they would soon enter. The Neverheim river thinned out so much after Witchfield Town that it was never possible to take a boat to the Countryside. Besides, a hero company needed their horses, and those were nearly impossible to wrangle onto watercraft in large numbers.
From the left flank, Bryn begin to fall behind a bit on purpose. They always preferred to watch the other’s backs, even if Golzar insisted that the older ones like Robert, Richard’s brother, could do that well enough.
They saw Tanya riding her pony in the middle of the line, with Richard at her side. Robert, a hulking but careful lad, was looking nervously about them from the back. A slight movement in the bushes could set him off.
It wasn’t long before they felt a slow-down in the front of the line.
Bryn could hear the sound of horses coming from the opposite direction, the clopping of hooves against the dirt. As the strangers approached, they saw the brightly-coloured motley and knew it was minstrels the Miscreants had run into.
A high note from a flute pierced the air. Bryn could see the shadow that a particularly large lute cast onto the ground.
The minstrels sauntered down the middle of the path. When they noticed the heroes, however, the music was cut short. Bryn tilted their head to one side in confusion. Before long, a completely different, much faster tune started picking up, very awkward and hurried, as though the instruments were catching their breath.
From where they stood, Bryn could only see how the minstrels suddenly filed into one line, swerving quite dramatically. They begun to squeeze past the heroes on the left flank. Golzar raised a hand for the Miscreants to move towards the right so the minstrels could get through.
When only a few musicians were still straggling behind, murmurs broke out among the Miscreants. “What was that all about?”
As the boy with the flute passed by Bryn on his donkey, they thought they saw him flinch away.