The Mission Urges Ever Onward
Zacharion and Sihaya awoke late in the morning, after the other guests left to resume their journey, and found waiting for them quite the meal- and their hosts. The entire family sat around one of the tables in the common room—husband, wife, four sons and two daughters—waiting for them; two of the boys got up and, in a show of courtesy that both found pleasant (if more appropriate for the court than a roadside inn), seated them. Then came a brief prayer of thanks and blessing, in Ilker’s name.
“We are pleased to have the last apprentice of Holy Ilker and the Princess Royal as our guests.” the husband said, “Even if we must enjoy your company in a manner more like that of a cherished secret than a joyful birth.”
The wife then followed with “As soon as you two retired, we sent word to the palace of your presence here. I would expect that a rider or two left the palace to come for you two as soon as our message arrived.”
The eldest son then spoke, excited at the idea; “Mother, what else are we going to do? It is clear that the realm will soon sunder into civil war. Lord Acton’s ambitions will not let him sit quietly, not when things are so chaotic.”
Sihaya sat amazed at this youth’s erudition, betraying a training far beyond what would be expected of a common-born boy, but when she looked at Zacharion she saw in his eyes the fullness of explanation: as her father once served Holy Ilker, so did their host- and like her father, he passed on all of his wisdom to his children. Class, she slowly realized, did not determine one’s quality of character- only the means to realize it.
“That we shall know when the rider from the palace arrives.”
Time passed in quiet eating, enjoying the meal, when a pair of men entered the common room from the roadside door. Armed they were, and wearing the colors of the Lord Marshal of the palace, as one ought to expect from dispatch riders in the Solar Nation. The husband excused himself, meeting the men while the wife subtly signaled her sons to be ready to assist their father. The wife then took up her daughters and, with Sihaya, cleared the table before retreating into the kitchen.
Zacharion saw this clearly as the couple not taking at face value what they saw, and then acting as if those men were a threat. The husband, wary and showing the wisdom gained by age, approached the men saying “Welcome, riders. You come from the palace?”
One of them, the older of the two, grasped the husband’s outstretched hand and grasped it in a manner that—though strange—pleased the husband.
“His Majesty wishes you well. You shelter the last one?”
“I wish His Majesty well, and I do. His Majesty’s daughter also rests here. Come, quickly, sit and give us the word from the palace.”
Satisfied that they are genuine the couple moved into action. The women returned to the table the meal and fixings while one of the sons rushed out to stable the riders’ horses and the husband put the riders at the table. Sihaya, at her hostess’s unspoken insistence, also sat at the table.
“Please, be seated.” Sihaya said as she entered the room and again took a seat at the table, “You rode long and hard. My father would understand if you forgo the pleasantries.”
They thanked her kindness with a silent nod and a quickly-consumed meal. When they finished, so did everyone else, and while the daughters and younger sons cleared the table and began cleaning in the kitchen the four guests talked with their hosts and the elder sons.
“First, Your Highness, your royal parents are alive and well.” the elder rider said, “The truth of how the attack occurred has been revealed, and your parents believe that your safety again resides in the palace. They bid you to return as soon as possible.”
Without missing a beat, Zacharion broke in: “Then I am the target. Very well, I shall take my leave and resume my journey.”
Sihaya grabbed his hand. “Alone? I forbid it. Whatever ability you possess, you cannot prevail against the forces arrayed against you by yourself.”
The husband and wife smiled, knowingly, at each other. The daughters giggled from their spot at the kitchen doorway, for they also noticed.
“Princess, you need not worry. Go back to the palace, and leave the boy’s safety to us. We will ensure that, as far as we can, we will see him through safely. “ The husband then turned to Zacharion. “Where do you go next?”
“I seek the Witch of the Wildlands.”
The others gasped, save for the husband, who still cocked a disbelieving eye his way.
“She certainly lived up to her legend.” The husband said, “Yet she was Holy Ilker’s peer. I am uncertain that she yet lives, my boy.”
Zacharion, with sternness beyond his years, did not turn away. “She lives. I have proof of it. If you intend to aid me, then show me the best route from here to there.”
“That crone sees no man, and has not since King Zebulon ascended the throne after the Wars ended.” The wife said, “Why would she see you, even if you were Holy Ilker’s last apprentice?”
“She will see me gladly because I bear the very things that Ilker held for her for so long, things that she would want returned- and other gifts that he intended for her beyond those things.”
Zacharion showed the same pouch that he used to prove himself when he arrived in court, and in it he drew another icon- a small, palm-sized medallion bearing the sigil of the Witch, one that pulsed with life as it was made of wood and inked in blood, wood and blood that yet lived by means unknown.
“She lives.” Zacharion said, “This is the proof. That it does not sear my flesh proves that she is aware, and approves of my intention. Now, no more talk of what I will or will not do- only how to see it done.”
The couple looked at their eldest son, who spoke thus: “From here, the Wildlands are a long ride by horse along the road to the point where you turn off to approach. It takes about a month of all-day riding to do this. It takes about as long to ride to the river crossing, and then come to the border by raft or boat, due to the winding route and slow pace. Going through the fields and forests slows the pace, but avoids the visibility of the roads as well as the vulnerability of the river.”
“No, I know another way.” Zacharion said, looking at the eldest son, “Go forth and bring down a bird of prey this day.” Turning to the wife, he said “When your sons bring you this bird, clean and dress it as you would a hen, duck or pheasant. Bring me the two largest feathers and a dram of its blood, and then leave me be. I shall tell you presently what shall be done.”
The words hit with a sacred authority, and none questioned him despite his boyish age and appearance. While the sons went hunting and the rest of the family tended to the house, and the other road-guests that arrived over the day, Zacharion saw off Sihaya.
“I love you, and this worries me. I am far, far too young for this.” She said to him, “My father may be cross with you.”
“No,” he said, “he will not. However, because of this you may soon find yourself with a new sibling- and your mother will make it so. Be well, princess of the Solar Nation, for soon you shall be Queen and the nation will need its Mother Protector.”
Zacharion nodded, and the riders escorted her away before she could protest. Just then, the husband stepped outside.
I heard you just now. Not yet a man in any way, yet you speak as if you’ve lived many times before- and lives not yet come to pass.”
“It’s strange.” The boy said, “I see more than what eyes reveal. I have for as long as I remember, and that is what Ilker struggled with me to master. Time and space are neither straight nor narrow, and for this reason I have quite the mission.”
“To do what? Visit all of Holy Ilker’s peers and students?”
The boy shook his head. “To finish his work.”