Fayte stroked her head and patted her on her strong neck.
"I'll see you in a few weeks, girl," he told Whitesong. "Renee and Amelia will take care of you while I'm gone."
"Safe travels, Fayte," Renee told him, riding on Whitesong.
They had finished purchasing supplies for the tavern, filling the wagon up with crates and plump sacks. Jenson must had been carrying a fair bit of coin for all of that. It was a wonder they hadn't been robbed yet. Ironsville defences were lacking even if most of the men were brawny smiths. Perhaps training some of the men to form a small militia would be a good idea. Fayte made a note to raise it to his father as he saw Amelia coming up to him.
He kneeled and hugged the girl.
"Will you come by Ironsville to visit once you've become a knight?"
Fayte laughed. Amelia was already convinced that he would return a knight, while others so far had held back on their words. They had their reasons. Skill alone is not enough to secure the spirits’ blessing. Many promising squires over the generations had returned without success. Some would succeed on subsequent pilgrimages, while others would leave the Order entirely, unwilling to become a grunt as a soldier.
"I will," he told the girl. "And so will your brother."
Wilson smiled widely at her and Preston tried to do the same from his shoulder.
"HUMPH!" Amelia gave Fayte another hug before she ran up to Jenson who helped her onto the wagon.
Fayte sighed. "Find her a gift at Iredis. She'll forgive you then."
"Perhaps a crystal flower," Wilson said, nodding at Jenson before he pulled himself onto the wagon. "Captain Windon, you have my gratitude for offering to ride with my sister and friends."
The Captain sat atop his warhorse with just a shield strapped to his arm and sword tied to his belt.
"It is my honour to escort the daughter of two brave war heroes," the Captain said, turning to Amelia. "Are we ready to depart, my lady?"
Amelia stared at him for a moment before turning away. "They're not heroes…"
Wilson's words, Fayte knew, for Amelia was only a baby when her parents gave their lives in the War of Darkness and Light. "Take care."
Renee nodded, nudging Whitesong with her heels to get her moving. With an escort of a Captain and four soldiers, Fayte was assured that they would get back to Ironsville safely. Besides, the bandits were sent after him so there was no reason to believe that they would still be in a danger. The soldiers were sent to patrol the route and search the surrounding area. Captain Windon offered to join, saying that a ride would do him well before his return to work on the morrow.
"I'll see you soon," Wilson mumbled, watching sadly as the party left.
Just as Fayte and Wilson were about to turn away, the wagon came to a halt. Fayte prepared to draw his sword but realized there was no need when he saw Amelia climbing down from the wagon. The little girl ran all the way back to them, her little box of flowers and vials bouncing against her back. Once she reached her brother, she jumped and gave him a hug.
"Love you," she said.
Wilson kissed her on the forehead. "I love you too."
After a moment, she let go of him and ran back to the wagon where Jenson was waiting to help her up again. Once they were out of sight, Fayte and Wilson turned to make their way back to the inn. It was high noon now and Iredis was a long way from Oaksblade. The gryphon master would surely refuse them a direct flight to the magic city this time of the day when the heat was at its peak.
The crowded street had eased up a little thanks to the noon sun, with most travellers taking shelter at taverns to have their meal or a cool drink. Wilson stocked up on dry food and water for their journey, while Fayte waited by a weapon store. Swords and axes hung at the store front, with smaller blades and maces laid out on the table.
"Looking to commission a sword, squire?" the skinny storekeeper said.
Fayte could hear the clanging of hammer on steel and anvil at the back.
"Nay," he said. "My father insists that he sees to that for me."
"Ah! Likely he's got an heirloom to pass down to you," the man said. "Your greatfather's sword perhaps?"
Fayte shook his head. "My grandfather and greatfather were both simple men, farmer and merchant. A pity. I would've like to wield a sword handed down to me from my father and his."
The storekeeper was sympathetic as he nodded. "Well look at this way. I hear the Lord-Knight himself only uses swords crafted by the Order. Lord Frendon came from humble beginnings as well. Work hard, young squire, and perhaps you could pass down your sword to your son in the future. My brother is a master smith and we use the finest steel. I assure you, your grandson would see no need for a new blade if you had us make you one."
A merchant was still a merchant in the end. Fayte declined. The idea of a son and grandson was far from his thoughts now. Further than they were before he saved Emily.
"Two whetstones, a skin of oil, and a rag please."
"Very well then. Ah, another squire! Just a moment please," the storekeeper said, reaching below his counter. "Let's see here… and a rag you said? Fair noon to you there, squire. Dirtied your sword swinging at hay targets?"
Of course the merchant was only jesting, but the man was no longer amused when a blood-stained sword was dropped onto his counter.
"Haystacks don’t scream when they die," Jason said.
Patches of dried dirt stuck to his face and his clothes were torn at several places where his cuts were healed. Even without the sword, Fayte could tell from his eyes that Jason had just walked out from combat. Not to mention his hands were shaking as well.
"Jason," Fayte said, carefully reaching over. "What happened?"
"Shut up, Kaywin," he said, arms stiffed by his sides and both his fists clenched.
Jason and Fayte weren't exactly the best of friends. The last time they duelled in a tournament, Jason brought a sharpened sword and almost took off his arm. But Jason was still a fellow squire and well, a friend in some ways. It was clear to Fayte that he was in shock from a bloody fight for his life.
"Go see a priest, boy," the storekeeper said, his jovial tone was lost. "The first kill is always the worse."
Was he attacked as well? It had to be. If Jason had murdered someone by accident, he wouldn't be here looking to get his sword cleaned.
"I was attacked not far from here as well," Fayte told him, and that made Jason look at him.
His short and usually combed hair was in a mess with bits of dirt still stuck to it. Jason was a good fighter even if he behaved like a spoiled child sometimes. Right now his tanned skin was covered with dirt and dried blood. There was a hole in his left boot as well but his foot inside was unharmed though healed more likely.
"Did you tell anyone?" Jason asked in a hushed tone.
Fayte shook his head. "I'm beginning to change my mind though."
Jason seized him by the shoulders. "You better not. The men I cut down were bandits. They just wanted to kidnap me to ransom me for gold. I took care of them. You hear me? I took care of them. Don't be a coward and start running to your father, Kaywin. Some of us still intend to complete our pilgrimage."
Proud until the end, at least you’re still behaving like your usual self.
"I won't," Fayte said, holding Jason by the wrists now to pry him off gently. He was still tensed and shocked from what was clearly a brutal fight. He doubted Jason would have survived if a priest hadn't accompanied him. "But be wary, there might be more of them. Keep to the air."
Jason swallowed as he nodded awkwardly. "Does... does it get easier?"
"No," Fayte told him. "Thankfully no."
It wasn't the answer Jason was hoping to hear, but he accepted it all the same. Fayte wasn't sure about letting him walk off alone until he saw a priest in his late thirties waiting for him. They met eyes and Fayte nodded at the priest who looked just as battered though nowhere near as shaken. When Fayte met up with Wilson back at the inn, he shared his encountered with Jason.
"We should raise this to your Order," Wilson said. The look on Fayte's face made it clear what he thought of that idea. "Would you rather wait until someone dies?"
A valid point. Jason and he were both good fighters, the better ones in fact. If someone like Julin was ambushed by so many bandits, the chances of him surviving was low.
"Fayte, you will be mad at me for this but I must raise this matter with my Order," Wilson told him.
He was not mad. "The priests accompanying us are in danger as well."
That was why Wilson felt compelled to tell someone. "Let me inform the White Rose. I will make a request to keep this within our Order. Your father won't like it but at least it keeps him from worrying and stopping the pilgrimages."
It was a fair compromise.
A sparrow was sent to High Priestess Dana, head of Rondiar's church, and the current leader of the Order of the White Rose until a new bishop was chosen. The former bishop, Bishop Tydon, gave his life alongside his dragon, Rhastior, during the battle against the Saldarian demon, Ra’gelor. If not for Bishop Tydon and Rhastior, Fayte's father would not have had the chance to defeat the demon. Alas the Bishop was old and soon expected to pass, so most agreed that the man had been happier to give his life defending Hylan, than to pass on quietly on his bed in Grand-Rosia.
They spent the rest of the noon by a lake just outside of the town. There were women there with their sleeves rolled up and large bundles of sheets in their hands. They were washing bed sheets and clothes, hanging them up to dry on lines tied to trees. Preston went ahead and walked around the women, letting them touch his head as they said a quick prayer. Fayte and Wilson decided to spar.
Followers of the White Rose used blunt maces as their main choice of weapon. Wilson was however no less skilled with a sword. While he couldn't best Fayte without magic, he wasn't a pushover either. It was more practice than spar really, with Wilson healing himself while Fayte went on pushing his endurance.
"Hey now, ye not too bad!"
"You again," Fayte said, panting and sweaty. That was quick. "I see you got your sword back."
John hugged his old sword and kissed it on the hilt. "Yeap! Now how's about you and I have a go at each other?"
"Why were you released?" Wilson asked, while Fayte was only eager for a new opponent.
The man scratched his head as he thought about it. "Tell ya what, if Fayte over there beats me, I'll tell ya how. Deal?"
Wilson wasn't so sure.
"You don't suppose he broke out?" Fayte whispered.
"I doubt it," Wilson said, stepping away. "Just beat him anyway."
Easier said than done. Three times they duelled and thrice Fayte lost his sword. John was a fierce fighter and the way he moved made it clear to Fayte that he was a mercenary, albeit a highly trained one. His movements were similar to Lord Jacob, wild and messy, but John was faster and immensely stronger. Fayte had little trouble keeping up with him, but every time he parried an attack from John, Fayte felt like his wrist was going to break.
"I just had this mended at Ironsville," Fayte said, looking at all the dents on his shield. "There is more to you than you let on, John."
The man grinned at him. His hair was a shaggy mess and his chin covered with an unevenly shaved beard. The clothes he wore were old and stained yellow with sweat, while the boots on his feet were covered with holes that were mended and torn again. John stood several inches taller than Wilson. It was the way his shoulders sagged and his back hunched a little that made the man look unimpressive.
He could have easily defended himself back in Eres Star City. Fayte met eyes with Wilson and they both knew John was no simple wanderer. What are you hiding from us?
"Why would ye look at that," John said, stepping closer to the lake. "It's one of them water nymphs! Hello, there, little water nymph!"
The water nymph waved at him in its child-like form.
"Aren’t ye cute? Hello!"
The water nymph responded by pulling John into the water.