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The Freetown Bridge Part 1

- It should be noted that this is a work of fiction and doesn't accurately chronicle the actual events of Frisia: The Reckoning -

To Josephine, Freemonte and Derek, without whom there would have been no story.

==PART ONE==

Sitting on the hillside, Iona watched the thick mist curl across the valley floor obscuring the trees and the river. She tapped her fingers on her thigh and waited patiently, sure it would not be long. After less than two minutes her patience was rewarded by a shrill tribal cry and a wail of surrender. She would have to make a note of that girly scream, and mock Gerard mercilessly for it. Once she had saved his life for the second time in one day, she considered that she would definitely have license to mock him.

Carefully, she picked her way down the sodden grass slope and walked slowly into the mist. She could see barely three feet in front of her, an effect that was immensely disorientating, but she was damned if she was going to be caught floundering. Slow sure steps, feeling for the edge of the river with her toes, were her only choice. Ducking and dodging the surprise tree branches that leapt out of the mists, she listened intently. In her left hand she clutched her bow so tightly her knuckles had whitened, an arrow nocked and ready. Her right hand sat on the hilt of her knife, primed to snatch it free of it’s casing at a moment’s notice.

She did not have to prowl about in the fog for too long before she found what she was looking for. Against a towering birch tree that protruded out of the cloudy canopy, Gerard was pinned. A sleek elven woman, who was at least a foot taller than him, held a short staff at his neck, and from the look of her stance, her whole body weight was resting on it. She was bent forward, her nose to Gerard’s ear and her lips curled in an unpleasant leer. Clearly, she was reciting some kind of trespass warning embellished to intimidate all those who were unfortunate enough to receive it.

Gerard’s face was scrunched and skewed to one side, as he strained to distance himself from her. From her sharp features, the jewels in her ear and the markings on her chin and cheeks, Iona could see that the woman was of Clan ‘Il Taran’, and by the look of it, quite a high ranking member of the Clan Militia. From her stance and body language, Iona could also tell that as high ranking as she maybe, this woman was so intent on intimidation that she had yet to notice Iona’s presence. She could hear her mother’s voice still whispering in her ear; ‘always press an advantage’.

Breathlessly Iona slipped forward, barely moving her feet, until she was less than two feet from the woman’s back, her hand still on her knife, her bow still ready. Then, in an instant, she lunged pushing the woman forward onto Gerard, crushing him against the birch bark. She ignored his pathetic wincing. Without hesitation, she lent forward until her mouth was below the woman’s ear and began to hiss and jabber in elven. The woman’s face contorted in anger, and for a second she made to retaliate but one more hiss from Iona changed her mind and she began to loosen her grip on her staff and on Gerard. Not wishing to hang around to have her pride further damaged, the woman stalked away into the mist and Gerard looked at Iona.
‘Thanks,’ he said limply, ‘thought I was a goner then.’
‘S’alright,’ said Iona, dryly, “any time.”
“What the heck did you say to her to make her let go?” he said, rubbing his neck and re examining the rest of himself.
“Oh, just an old elven word or two,” said Iona mysteriously. “I called her the mother of a whore.” Gerard just gaped at her.
“And that made her let me go did it?” he muttered, in awe.
“No, that was this,” she said holding up her small steel blade. “I had it pressed onto her kidneys. I could have killed her with a twitch of the wrist. That was what made her let you go. She knew she had been bested.”
“Oh,” said Gerard, his eyes not leaving the glinting blade. “Sometimes, you’re terrifying you know that? Not that I’m complaining of course,” he added quickly as Iona turned to walk back up the hillside. Haplessly, he stood and watched her ascend for a minute. Then he realised that she hadn’t bothered to check that he was following and raced to catch up with her.
“When you said ‘you don’t know what’s down there in that fog,’ “ he gasped finally level with Iona again, “What you meant was that I didn’t know what was in that fog but you did, wasn’t it?” A scornful smirk curled across Iona’s face as she turned to look at the flushed cheeks of the wheezing wizard.
“Glad you’ve finally worked that one out,” she retorted, “Now perhaps we can get to where we’re going without getting ourselves killed.”
“Absolutely, right you are. You lead on then, madam,” said Gerard, trying to sound cordial whilst still flushed and panting. Fire flashed in Iona’s eyes, as she turned on her heels and growled
“And don’t call me Madam,”

Iona could tell it was going to be the longest ten miles of her life. She had picked Gerard up in the tavern on the turn gate and was supposed to escort him to the transport circle on Skal Ferra. It was a good ten mile walk, through the mountain pass, across Elven Territory, a route Iona knew well. It should have been easy; Iona was of a local clan and had walked the pass a hundred times in all weathers, and even with a human in tow she should have been safe enough. After all he was only a wizard, and a practically unarmed one at that. The problem was that he was fixated by the fact that she was a woman. He had somehow got it embedded in his head that he would have to escort her, a thought that would have offended Iona had it not been so laughable. Gerard was clearly no danger with a weapon, except perhaps to himself. Unfortunately, it did not stop him from trying. Keeping him on the right track was proving to be like trying to herd frogs with a teaspoon. She took a deep breath and pressed on to the peak of the mountain.

Tariqa gazed one more time at the endless yellow grasslands in front of her and sighed. Stretching out to the soft blue horizon without so much as a single sapling to break up the sky line, it was truly breath taking. The wild wind whipped through the grasses, making fleeting paths and eddies and throwing ripples on to the otherwise still river. Above her, the cloudless sky seemed to mirror the vastness of the veldt below her. Far in the distance she could see the silhouettes of the huts in her village. Straining to make out the shape, and half imagining it, she fixed her gaze on her mother’s house in the centre of the village. Next to it, the tavern and on the other side the bell tower. The squat hut of the village shaman; the forge and the tanners’ workshop with its strange bitter smell stood in a triangle by the river. The baker’s house, with his rosy wife who had slipped her buns on the sly when she was tiny. The bald ground in the centre of the village, the indaba tree and the well with its pure sweet water. A jolt in her stomach reminded her that she did not know when she would see these houses again or even if she would be back at all. A warm tear snaked down her nose.

The air was heavy with humidity, so that it clung to Tariqa’s face and clothes, leaving a funny warm taste in her mouth. Mercilessly, the sun beat down baking the earth hard and crisping the grassland. The game lay listless in any shade they could find, which was little and patchy. Even the crickets were too hot chirrup. Slowly, she turned her head taking in every last detail and holding the picture in her mind’s eye. Her heart raced; maybe this would be the last time she ever laid eyes on this beautiful country, this home that was more than just a land to live in. Impulsively, she reached down and snatched up some blades of tall grass, and as she had ever since she could remember, weaved them deftly into a little ring, taking care not to pop the seed heads. When she finished it, she tucked in into her coin pouch slightly embarrassed by her sentimentality and knotted the pouch tightly closed. At last, she could put it off no longer. As hard as this was, there was no other choice in the matter. Some things were worth leaving kith and kin and hearth and home for. Reluctantly, she turned her back on the veldt, closed her eyes and rubbed the small bronze ring on her left thumb. Cold wind rushed past her face, and when she opened her eyes the veldt had gone.

The bedroom was murky when Josephine opened her eyes. A shiver rushed over her, part cold, part anticipation. She had barely slept, her whole body churning with adrenaline and her brain buzzing with sights and sounds that would come. Warm breath tickled her neck and ears. William’s head rested on the pillow next to her, his rough face oddly serene with sleep. In the gloom, she stared at his pale cheeks, his soft eye lids, the contented smile on his lips. She stroked his course black hair gently and turned away from him, her heart knotting in her chest. Deftly, she slid out of the bed, without waking him, and crossed the room to the window. The hot orange sun was peeking over the shimmering horizon. A cool light wind wafted towards her from the sea, a hint of salt in the air. The streets below her shrouded in the grey of the predawn were mysteriously silent. Restlessly, she left the window and went into her lady’s chamber. The maid, whose name she was ashamed to say she could not remember, had laid out her clothes as though they were a gown and stays for the state ball. She splashed water from the jug into the wash stand and hesitantly washed her face.

Every movement was deliberate, as she divested herself of her nightgown and began to dress. Steady, studied motion might stretch time out and delay the inevitable. The sun rose, forcing bright summer light along the streets of the town, into every crag and alleyway. Figures scuttled about on their early morning business, not stopping to socialise with each other. Thoroughly, Josephine checked her packs and pouches, and fastened on her belt, crunching the buckle as tightly as possible. She bound up the long golden tresses of her hair in a strip of blue cloth, making a thick sturdy knot. Then she moved on to her braces and grieves, pulling each strap taut, securing each buckle, trying to hold back time some how. Then she crept back into the bedroom, where William lay softly snoring, his head and arm now on her side of the bed.

She stood for a while and watched as he slept, and then she moved to the dresser. The last thing to put on was there, its dark shape shining against the polished wooden surface. The jewelled pommel of her knife decorated with a deep blue gem, glinted in the dawn light as she picked it up and made to secure it to her upper arm.

Just as she closed the last silver buckle, the bell from the Law Temple Tower chimed out across the city, marking the morning six-hour. The heavy, sonorous peal called the faithful to the dawn service at the temple and stirred the rest of the city people in their heathen beds.

William stopped snoring and rolled over. Sleepily, he opened his deep brown eyes and looked soulfully up at Josephine, who was standing at the end of the bed, one foot still resting on the bedstead. He blinked and smiled at her, and said reproachful humour,
“You’re ready early, you weren’t going to leave without me where you?”
Josephine looked at him with sad eyes, her face still hidden by the morning shadow and shook her head.
“Of course not,” she said, as a silent tear squeezed itself from her eye.

It was strangely quiet thought Jacob as he opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling of the barracks for the last time. The chill of the early morning crept over him and he got up and went to the bathhouse. He looked at the faces of his sleeping comrades, peaceful for the moment. They did not always sleep so soundly unless they were drunk, they had seen too much not to dream and it was not uncommon for men to cry out in their sleep.

He lingered for a moment looking at the beds of the new recruits, some of them so young that they still called out to their mothers in the night. It was a churn of mixed emotion he felt this morning.

His last day with the militia should have been cause for celebration; he would walk free and sleep soundly, except that he would never forget what he had seen, never stop dreaming and he had chosen to walk freely into another battle.

He washed and shaved himself as regulation demanded and returned to the barracks where he put on his civilian clothes for the first time in five years. It felt strange to see his green uniform jacket lying on his bed, his neatly pressed trousers still folded in his trunk.

In the mess, he looked around at the sleepy faces of the other men eating sloppy tepid porridge as though tomorrow there would be no food. He couldn’t bring himself to eat it anymore; he just pushed it around with a spoon before giving it to an eager lad on the next table.

When the warning bell rang for parade, he had to stop himself from running to the yard. Instead, he returned to the now deserted barracks, picked up his pack and looked around at the cold whitewashed walls for one last time. Then he went into the bath house, gazed around. He scolded himself for this sentimental gesture and turned to walk towards the heavy gates of the compound.

As he approached the parade yard, he could see all of them lined up. McLaren, his bunk mate, a good four inches shorter than the men either side. The drill sergeant was barking orders at them and he tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible. He was nearly at the gate when there was a horn blast and a bellowed order. As one, the militia men stood to attention, turned to face him and saluted.
“Good Bye, Corporal Cooper and Good Luck,” bellowed Captain Daventry, saluting smartly.
“Go get ‘um, Jacob,” cried a small voice from the back rank, and the drill sergeant delivered a swift thwack to the back of McLaren’s legs with his stick. Unsure of the civilian response to such a greeting Jacob just waved weakly. Then, overcome by the inadequacy of that response, snapped to attention and saluted them all. There was general cheering from the ranks and Jacob smiled. He turned smartly on the spot and the gates swung slowly open. He stepped out without a backward glance.

The wench giggled as Tollie winked at her and tipped his hat. She made her way through the swarming tavern towards him, curving magnificently, a large stone ale jug in one hand and a steaming plate in the other. Grasping hands reached out towards her as she passed crowded tables, she turned her stunning head, eyes twinkling and smiled warmly at the drunks and revellers. Filthy fingers curled around her waist and tried to pull her onto shabby laps. Without loosing balance, spilling a drop or breaking stride, she delivered a swift kick with a sturdy but pointed boot and continued forward toward Tollie.

Bobbing gently, she placed the steaming plate of stew in front of him, and the jug of ale to one side. Then, reaching into the voluminous folds of her skirt, drew out a spoon, polished it sardonically on her apron and handed it to him with a tiny curtsey.
“ ’Ope you enjoy your dinner sir, “she said brightly, flashing another warm smile at him, “Will there be anythin’ else?” Tollie looked up at her and smirked.
“You’ve been busy, Sylas,” he whispered, unrolling a piece of parchment on the table. “You almost had me fooled then.” Suddenly, the wench’s grin faded, and somehow her jaw became harder, squarer and Sylas looked down at the paper. It was a reward notice, for a highwayman, wanted alive or dead, bounty 40 gold pieces, and he had to admit it wasn’t a bad likeness. All the same, a man doesn’t like seeing his own wanted notices. He looked up at Tollie with cold eyes.
“Come to collect the reward have you then, Tollie?” he hissed with an edge of hostility in his tone.
“I’m hurt,” said Tollie, half-mockingly. “That you think I’d ever give you up.” Sylas’ eyes narrowed.
“What have you come for then, you bastard?” he spat indignantly, “If you don’t want my life?”
Tollie smirked at the look of indignation; it was hard to take Sylas seriously with a bow in his hair.
“Believe me,” he said, smiling enigmatically, “I’ve come for something far more important than your life.”
Sylas gave him an inquisitive look for a moment and then returned to his annoyance. This was one of Tollie’s little games, and he wasn’t going to be sucked in by them any more.
“What are you talking about Tollie,” he snapped, “I’m working and you might have just completely blown my cover.”
“Will you relax,” said Tollie, in a hushed voice, suddenly aware of the busyness of their surroundings. “Sit down for a minute will you and I’ll explain.” With a look of scornful amusement, he offered Sylas a perch on his knee. Curling his lips unpleasantly and narrowing his eyes Sylas pulled out the chair opposite him, and sat down, tucking his skirt out of the way.

Tollie reached inside his jerkin and retracted his hand clutching something tightly in his palm. Slowly, as though he was trying not to disturb whatever it was, he lowered his hand to the table and then opened his fingers. When he took his hand away, there was a shard on the table about the size of his thumb. It appeared to be glass, clear as fresh water, except that it twinkled too much to be glass and in the centre of the stone was a blood red droplet. Sylas stared at the stone, eyes wide.
“It’s time,” said Tollie, his face suddenly serious.
“Meet me out back in 10 minutes,” whispered Sylas and stood up.
Tollie made straight for the door, and walked into the alley behind the tavern. He stood with his back to the path, facing a wall as though he was relieving himself.
Sylas swept around the room, collecting up empty glasses and tankards and smiling charmingly at all the customers. Then he put the empties on the bar, helped himself to a handful of silver from the cash box, took his cloak from the peg by the bar and left, leaving the publican gazing after him in astonishment.

Saran felt uneasy, sitting in the finely carved chair on the dais in the sanctuary. Usually the High Priestess sat in this chair and even then only on days of state importance or celebration. However, the tradition of blessing journeyers was one that Mother Angeline refused to overlook for such an important journey as this.

Barefoot, Saran had walked up the centre aisle of the sanctuary, watched in silence by all the other sisters. Once at the dais, she had been presented with a belt from which hung a small pouch and an empty scabbard and a pack containing a loaf of bread, a flask of cider and book of devotion. These were the standard items given to any sister of the order who was to go on a journey, and if they required a knife or suchlike to fit the scabbard they were charged with collection of that after they had left the shrine. After the presentation, she was required to sit in the chair on the dais as one by one, the sisters came forward to put a blessing on her, and kiss her feet.

It was bizarre to watch them step forward, clutching beads and cups in their hands, muttering devotions under their breath, brows furrowed in earnest. It made her uneasy too, to see the fear in their eyes almost bordering on hysterical panic. Saran knew that some of these women had not left the Shrine since they had been accepted into the order, and they always found parting to be traumatic.

She also knew that today was no ordinary departure for them, there was an uncertainty as to when and if she would return. After the tragic event of the Summer of Fire, less than 12 months in the memory, it was not difficult to understand the consternation of these gentle women that she had chosen to seek out more adventure. Even so, she was still shocked when she looked down into the kindly, weathered face of Sister Vonda, the mother of the novices, and saw that the old woman actually had tears in her eyes.

She gazed out of the sanctuary windows. She could see the red gold sun light slowly fading over the city and she sighed. There was no turning back, a calling such as this could not be denied. The Goddess would go with her and if she died, it would be in the Goddess’ sight, and at the Goddess’ choosing. She would live on in hope and happiness, in the next life.

At last, the blessing was over and the sisters went about their business, leaving Saran in solitude for one last hour’s devotion. It was with great apprehension that Saran left the sanctuary in the last few minutes of day light, knowing that she must collect her travelling pack and be at the foregate well before the chime of the evening nine-hour, when all the gates of the shrine would be barred and bolted until the following noontide.