3. Ifonsa

Ifonsa spat.

“I still say we should have contacted Rido,” Ifonsa said.

It had taken less than half-an-hour for the bickering to start. Up until then the journey upstream had been quite pleasant. They were well past the farmland surrounding the town, and had moved into gentle woodland. Up ahead Ifonsa could see they were approaching a hamlet, small docks jutting out from the river bank.

Of course, while on the surface Ifonsa had appeared calm, she was scanning the shoreline, half-expecting an ambush at any moment. Something felt not-quite-right about this entire endeavour.

Actually if she was entirely truthful, her unease began well before the invite from Heric. That’s why she wished to hand in her commission as a Warden, and head home. Yet, the mission, as Heric liked to call it, was a useful focus for her disquiet, and her anger.

“How do we know it’s real?” she added.

“There wasn’t time,” Heric said.

“It would have taken me less than a quarter hour.”

“The castle gates are closed.”

“Who mentioned anything about using gates?”

“You planned to climb the wall?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“The document was legit. It didn’t need confirming.”

“How many times have you witnessed Rido’s seal?”

“Twice,” Heric snapped.

That was more than Ifonsa had expected. She watched the bargemen as they pushed on their poles, keeping the barge righted and the rope taut. She might have remained silently watching them, had Falduin not interjected.

“You know,” he said from beside Lera at the front of the barge, They were both meditating facing one another. “I can hear you.” He didn’t even open his eyes.

“We’re talking about you, not to you,” Ifonsa snapped.

“I suppose the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” Falduin said, smirking.

His arrogance annoyed Ifonsa. Actually, everything about him annoyed her. From his flat nose, and dark eyes, to his grey robe with gold brocade, to the way he had just shown up at the dock this morning. Her gut told her he was trouble.

“They talk about you a lot in the High Tower, do they?” she asked him.

Falduin opened his eyes and shot her a glance. “I am ever on their mind,” he said, with a wicked smile, “and their tongue.”

Ifonsa couldn’t help feel that he was making a lewd accusation against her.

Perhaps Lera sensed it too, because before Ifonsa could snap a retort she said, “I believe I won that round.”

“Won what?” Falduin asked.

“Oh sorry,” Lera said. “I forgot you might be unfamiliar with the practise. It’s something we do in the convent. We see who can meditate the longest. I’ve never been particularly good at it, but Sister Wena managed to meditate for two full days, without once breaking. Unfortunately then she began snoring, so we had to disqualify her. Are you keen for a contest?”

“And all I have to do is meditate?”

Lera nodded, “Uh-huh?” she said pleasantly.

“Very well,” Falduin agreed.

“Good. Then let us begin,” Lera said,

Falduin closed his eyes.

Lera flashed Ifonsa a wink, before closing her own.

Ifonsa watched the two of them for a time, hoping to catch Falduin cheating. Then she could call him out, and perhaps convince Heric that he was a liar as well as a cheat. Yet neither Lera not Falduin so much as moved a muscle. Ifonsa couldn’t even see them breathing. She considered asking Falduin questions in the hope of distracting him, but Lera might have considered that unsporting. Within a short while, Ifonsa loss interest.

They had moved past the hamlet by then, the river turning to the left in a great arc. The lapping of the water against the barge’s hull competed with the shouts of the barge captain, as he compelled the pair of oxen up a gentle rise.

The sun had risen, although it was still hidden by the trees, sending shafts of golden light streaking through their leaves. The air was filled with birds singing, and buzzing about feasting upon the insects hovering above the water.

“It’s been a while,” Ganthe said. He stood nearby watching her.

“What has?” Ifonsa asked, annoyed at being disturbed.

“This,” Ganthe said gesturing at the wilderness. “I missed it.”

She nodded. “Me too.”

They were travelling surprisingly fast upstream. Her gaze returned to the bargemen. They really knew their craft. They were big men, with muscle built up over years. Bigger even than the Eagle Knights.

“They’re good,” Ganthe said.

“Uh-huh,” Ifonsa nodded.

“It’s harder than it looks.”

“Most things do.”

“I did it for a while.”

Ifonsa couldn’t help laughing. “Aren’t you a little scrawny?”

“I’m not even eighteen. Unless it’s Gáwoddian already.”

“Next month.”

“But you are already eighteen,” Heric said from the stern.

Ifonsa had noticed that Heric kept a close eye behind. Perhaps he was worried about being followed.

“What do you mean?” Ganthe asked. “Did I miss a birthday?”

“In a sense,” Heric replied turning to face them. “New kingdom, new rules. Everyone is counted a year older the first day of the new year.”

“What? Even babies born just the day before?”

“Talk to Lera about it. She’ll know more. It’s a directive from her church.”

Ganthe snorted,

“Careful, blasphemy is a crime now,” Ifonsa said, with an amused smirk, “Punishable by death.”

“Even the Empire didn’t do that,” Ganthe protested, then added, “What if I’m a follower of another church? Say I worship Ledh or Cóufæn?”

“It won’t matter. They’re all part of the same church now.”

“That’s not right.”

Ifonsa shrugged. “Just don’t start praying to demons or trying to raise the undead.”


“The punishment is much worse.”

“What’s worse than death?”

“The Qelian,” Heric replied.

“What’s that?”

“They strap you down on a table in the middle of the town square,” Ifonsa explained, “and everyone that lives there has to watch. They torture you, for hours. The Priests use magic so you can’t die. Then when they deem you’re ready the Senior Priest enters your mind, and strips away every memory, every piece of knowledge, even your own mother’s face. You’re left knowing only one word: warludne. You shout it over and over again reciting it as your soul plummets down into the Underworld”

“What’s it mean?”

“We deny you. It’s a message to the demons and devils that dwell amid the chaos.”

Ganthe shivered at the thought. Then he suddenly laughed, “You’re having me on.” He grinned broadly as his gaze flicked between Heric and Ifonsa.

Heric shook his head, his expression pained. “No,” he said. “I’ve seen it. The poor girl was all of thirteen. A witch, that the High Tower didn’t want or hadn’t found.” He glanced at Ifonsa as he said, “Except they didn’t torture her for hours, but days. Sir Helmund tried to put a stop to it, but… .There were only ten of us. They knew we’d never spill blood, so all we could do was watch.”

Ifonsa waggled her index finger at Ganthe, “No demon worshipping, understand?”

“Yes, Mum,” he replied.

Before Ifonsa could protest that she wasn’t that old, Heric said, “That jerkin’s new.”

Ganthe shrugged and looked down at his feet. “Not really.”

“You didn’t have it last time I saw you.”

“It’s quite lovely,” Ifonsa agreed.

“It cost me the last of my money,” Ganthe said. “I’ve been keeping it, just in case something came along.” He lifted his gaze to them and grinned, “And it has.” He laughed.

The sun rose above the trees, bringing with it the gentle warmth of Spring. The birds had returned to their nests and the insects to their lairs and other hiding places.

The towpath cut through the woodland, which thickened the further upstream they travelled. Occasionally it passed through a hamlet, or sometimes even a small village with a manor house nearby.

Ifonsa watched the farmers, weeding and ploughing their fields, and the other villagers just going about their day. Occasionally she’d see groups of children playing near the river. Sometimes they would wave at the barge, and Ifonsa and Ganthe would wave back, but most just ignored them. One group of elder boys were swimming, laughing and trying to dunk one another.

The river that ran through Caham wasn’t as grand as the Milardus River, but its current was stronger. She and Adanna had grown up swimming in its waters. It felt like they had spent every Spring and Summer battling her brothers, cousins and friends for the domination of The Rock, the small island that jutted from the river’s surface.

The sides were slippery, and the jagged edges treacherously sharp. But Ifonsa and her twin had once retained control for weeks. Even when Gadfri had snuck out after dark and tried to steal their token against the rules, they had prevailed.

She missed home terribly. She had been away too long. She hadn’t returned since she had delivered the dreadful news about Adanna to her family. Yet duty was duty.

“Are we being followed?” she eventually asked Heric.

Heric shook his head, “Not that I can see.”

“But you expect it?”

Heric didn’t exactly answer her, but he gave her a pensive look that said plenty. They had both seen too much during the wars to not expect something.

“Exactly where are we going?” Ganthe asked.

“Wombourne.” Heric answered.


“Have you seen any barges coming down the river?”

Ganthe shook his head.

“That’s why. No iron shipments nor word for weeks.”

“Why not send a messenger or the army or something?”

“Rido was ordered not to.”


“By The Baron.”


Heric shrugged. “We’ll find out when we get to Wombourne. It might be nothing. Ganthe, if you want out we can let you off at Cabridge.”

Ganthe shook his head, “No. I’m good. Is that why we’re taking a barge?”

Heric nodded, “We might attract attention if we rode out the gates before dawn.”

“But not by barge?”

“I don’t know. We have horses waiting for us at Harnsey.”

“Oh. I don’t mind barging the entire way. It’s quite nice. I don’t like horses much.”

Heric smiled, “You’ll be fine. And I still haven’t bought you that meal I promised. There’s a nice pub in Cabrid-.”

“No!” Lera suddenly shouted.

“Did you see it too?” Falduin asked her.

“Yes,” she answered, scrabbling amongst her pile of gear.

“See what?” Heric asked.

“There are bandits ahead,” Lera said, withdrawing her sword and strapping it on.

“They’re waiting to ambush us,” Falduin added.

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