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Zero/Faith

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Prologue

She was a daughter of De La Valliere, she was not going to cry, she was not going to sob into the headmaster’s chest and ask that he give her another chance, and she was not going to take her stupid cup and fling it out of the nearest window.

Instead, she stood tall, relatively speaking, with her back straight and her arms wrapped around the cold metal of her familiar. “Headmaster,” she said, her voice only quavering the slightest bit. “You can’t do this, please. I did summon a familiar, it’s right here.” She raised the cup. Or maybe it was a chalice. Did that make it sound better?

The golden cup mocked her with its fine filigree and pretty etching. It was a chalice fit for a king or queen, the sort that would be a prized possession of a lesser noble.

But it wasn’t magical, it wasn’t alive. It was just a Founder-damned cup.

She heard a sigh and found herself looking up and away from the cup. Headmaster Osmond sat behind his mahogany desk, pipe tapping against the corner of his lips and heavy white brows turned down in pity.

She wanted to fling the cup at his face. She didn’t want his pity, she didn’t want the cup. She wanted to be a proper mage.

The headmaster’s sigh was like the final nail being rammed into her coffin. “You are, of course, right, Miss De La Valliere. Your summoning, as unorthodox as it may be, still essentially worked. I fear that any lessons having to do with coordinating with one’s familiar may be... unnecessary for you from now on. But of course, we wouldn’t let a daughter of such a prestigious family go for such a simple reason. Professor Colbert claims that your academic scores are some of the best in your year, even.”

There was a fluttering in her gut. Shame she recognized. An old, familiar friend, an emotion she couldn’t escape no matter how hard she studied and how many times she miscast her spells. There was relief too. She wasn’t going to be booted out to grovel her way back home like a peasant begging for alms.

She clenched her fists and hugged the cup closer to her chest.

“I,” she began only for the words to stay stuck in her throat. Louise wanted to thank the Headmaster and the Professor for their time and their understanding. Instead, the words that came out were, “I don’t belong here, do I?”

The Headmaster and Professor Colbert glanced at each other, and through some strange magic they decided to have the Professor, her favourite at the Academy, speak. “Miss Louise, it’s not that you don’t belong. You’re as noble as any of our students and you work twice as hard as any of them. It’s that, well, perhaps your talents lie in fields other than spellwork?” He was cringing by the end, an unflattering expression for him to wear and one that Louise turned away from.

There was a sting of tears at the corner of her eyes. “I understand,” she said, her voice a squeak that would have shamed her mother, just like everything else she did. “Thank you for your time, Headmaster, Professor,” she said. “I... I think I will take a small, temporary leave of absence from the school. I should visit my family.”

The Headmaster pulled his pipe out and tapped it on the edge of his desk. “Yes, of course,” he said. “I’ll inform some of the staff to assist you in packing for the trip back home. I trust that you’ll make it to your rooms safely?”

Louise nodded, gave the two older men a shallow bow, and walked out of the Headmaster’s room with strides that would have been long were she anywhere near tall.

The door clicked shut behind her, almost unheard as she was swallowed by the silence of a school corridor when classes were out and all the students were off rejoicing. Her walk towards her room was as swift as she could make it, unseeing eyes fixed on a point somewhere ahead of her.

The glimpses of other students in the courtyards playing with their familiars, their proper familiars, passed her by like midsummer storms. Quick, easy to forget, but vicious all the same.

She made it to her rooms unmolested, shoved the door open just enough to step in, locked it, and then collapsed onto her bed. The cup was left to roll off to the side, discarded like the last of her restraint.

Louise wasn’t proud of her sniffling, or the way her tears turned to anger, which she took out on an undeserving pillow. Time passed, she felt herself sinking into a fitful, still-dressed sleep while the sun sank behind the Academy walls.

A knock at the door woke her up with a start.

Louise turned so that she was laying on her back, staring at the canopy above. “What?” she called out.

“Miss Valliere?” a young, feminine voice asked. It couldn’t be another noble, not with that tone and he mangling of her name. “I’m here to help you, um, pack. The Headmaster said there was a carriage coming tonight?”

“Tonight?” she whispered to the ceiling. Already. The tears and crying and punching had drained her a little, but the word sent a jolt through her spine. Tonight was too soon. Tonight was right now and she hadn’t yet come to terms with the idea that she was little more than a failure.

“Miss Valliere? I can return if you want, but the carriage is waiting.”

She clasped her eyes shut, took a few deep breaths, then got to her feet. “I’m coming,” she said as she wiped the back of her hand across her face.

The maid, a taller, more buxom woman that her with strange eyes, helped her pack all of her belongings in a few suitcases. It only took minutes for the efficient maid to sort away all of Louise’s possessions. She watched as the maid erased all the little signs that the room was hers.

Then the girl lifted the cup on the rumpled surface of the mattress and Louise jumped. “Not that. Don’t, don’t pack that away,” she ordered with a snap. She stomped over and snatched it out of the maid’s hands. “Fool girl,” she growled before moving back and grabbing one of the lighter bags. “I’ll be waiting by the carriages,” she said.

She wished the path to to exit was quiet, but Kirche was in the corridor, a mischievous glint in her eye as she caught sight of Louise that soon turned sour. She didn’t say a word as the shorter girl stomped by, her sniffles masked by the thumping of her feet on the carpeted floor.

A carriage was waiting, as advertised, under the arch of the school’s front gate, two horses hitched to it and a gawky young man waiting by its side in the Academy livery. It wasn’t one of the nice, palatial carriages stored away for proper nobles, but it was a carriage nonetheless.

She didn’t speak to the boy, not even when he jumped as she kicked the steps for the door down and climbed in. Plopping herself down in one of the plush seats, Louise let herself sink into the cushions and her own misery.

She saw the maidservant coming down with some backs through the gauzy curtain cutting her off from the outside world, saw the girl talk to her chauffeur for a moment before the two left. Louise hugged her familiar, her sign of disgrace, closer, and waited.

It only took a few minutes for the pair of servants to return with more bags and start piling them up on the back of the carriage, every shake and rattle a hint of the travel over rough roads to come.

“Ma’am?” the boy said as he opened the side door. “We’ll be headin’ out toTwin Rivers in a jiffy. You’ve got all you need back ‘ere?”

She should have, would have, given him a stern lecture about talking to his betters like that, but she was hardly any better than the commoner. She was just a peasant in a pretty dress with a golden cup and a prestigious name. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s just head out.”

The boy grinned at her and closed the door. She saw his shadow moving around the carriage to light a few lamps, then with a ‘hyaah’ they were off. The wheels rattled under her and Louise was shaken up and down, the same motions an absent minded mother might use on their child to rock them to sleep.

She couldn’t, not even as the lights of the Academy faded behind her and the sun sank all the way to the horizon, leaving them a glowing mark in the countryside moving through the dark and across rough roads.

Louise sighed and held her familiar out before her. It was a pretty thing, even in the sparse light of star and lamp it shone like polished gold. She turned it this way and that, hoping to find something, a key, and inscription, a hint that it was more than just a cup, but there was nothing more to find than sinking despair.

All alone, in the half-darkness of the carriage and with the rumble of wooden wheels over pitted dirt to cover for her, she let loose and started to sob again. Dirty, wracking things that had her hunched over her cup while snot and tears mingled down her face. It was unladylike, the sort of thing any proper noble would scoff at, but she was alone, miles away from civilisation and only accompanied by some peasant boy and a founder thrice-damned cup.

There was a strangled scream from up ahead, and Louise paused. She snorted and wiped a hand across her nose. It was, she decided, probably nothing.

The ride turned bumpier, the horses whinnied. She was tugged to the side as the carriage veered off the off the road and onto a rough beaten path.

Tress flashed past the windows, illuminated in the swaying light of the carriage lamps.

Wood splintered, the carriage dropped out from under her.

Louise screamed as she was flung into the far wall, her grip on her cup tightening. She crashed to the ground even as the carriage continued to rumble on.

It tipped to one side, the horses screamed again. She heard shouts, men screaming into the night.

They hit a tree.

From one panicked second to the next, everything stopped. The forest went quiet.

“Urh,” Louise groaned as she picked herself off the floor of the carriage and looked around. One of the lamps had been shorne off while she wasn’t paying attention, but the other one lit the inside of the carriage every time it swayed closer.

Bits of wooden shrapnel littered the ground and one of the benches back buckled out when the front wall was rammed into a tree, leaving it laying against one of the doors. The only exit, she realized, would be to climb out of the opposite door.

They were still high off the ground, held there by the tree they had run into. She could see bits of cloth, her small clothes, strewn across mossy ground below.

“God damn it all, that one’s neck is snapped,” someone, a man, said from outside.

“Boy’s dead,” another said from further off. “Nice shot. Got ‘im right in the neck.”

“Poor sob wouldn’t've made it anyway,” a third voice said.

Leaves rustled, branches snapped. She wasn’t alone in the forest.

“H-help!” she called out as she tried to open the door. It was at an odd angle, making her push up against it even as her feet scrambled for purchase on uneven ground. The weight was too much for her.

“Shit, someone’s in there!” One of the men said.

More branches snapped, faster now that they were growing closer. “Look at all these pretty clothes. We’ve got ourselves a little lady, boys.”

“Won’t be a lady when I’m done with ‘er.”

Laughter from half a dozen throats, raucous and humourless and excited.

Louise sank back to the bottom of the carriage, glass crunching underfoot as she moved. The truth hit her like a slap across the face. These weren’t gentle peasants out to help her, they were brigands, the sort that the girls at school whispered about in hushed tones, the kind that waylaid righteous knights and who stole young maidens.

“This one’s got a busted leg,” someone said, his voice accompanied by the whine of a horse. “Put it outta its misery John.”

“Dammit, that thing was worth half as much as the damned buggy,” someone else complained.

Lousie searched herself for her wand and found nothing. She didn’t have it on her. The last she’d seen of it was in her room at the castle. In all likelihood it was packed away with the rest of her things.

“These are some pretty dresses.”

“They look good on ya.”

“Oi, fuck off!”

Laughter, the sound of bags being torn open, of her things being scattered. “Someone give me a hand, I wanna see our big prize.”

Hands gripped the edge of the door’s window and a face appeared, dirty skin covered in rough blemishes, a mouth with too few teeth and eyes that fixed onto her and ran up and down her body with undisguised hunger. “It’s just one lil’ princess,” he barked. “We’re gonna have to share, boys.”

Louise breath hitched. She didn’t have a wand. She didn’t even have a knife. All she had was her stupid cup, and while she didn’t doubt that it was heavy enough to use as a bludgeon. “You, you can’t do that!” She screeched. “I’m Louise Francoise Leblanc De La Valliere. You, you can’t touch me with your peasant hands!”

She screamed louder when someone shifted the door behind her, tearing it open from the outside.

Hands grabbed her around her waist, around her arms and legs and she was dragged out of the carriage and onto the hard, cold ground of the forest.

The men looked like giants from where she was, tall and obscene in the near dark, like wraiths floating above prey. “Well well, ain’t you a pretty little thing.”

Louise kicked the one that spoke between the legs.

He fell back with a groan, accompanied by the laughter of his friends. One of them caught her foot as she tried to kick them in turn and she was dragged along after them and away from the carriage.

She wished, wished for a proper familiar, for someone that could protect her, a knight in shining armour that could cut away the bad men and save her.

Her cup grew warm. Tiredness, as if she had just cast three dozen spells at once, washed over her as if she had just been dunked in cold water.

“Servant Saber. Which one of you’s my Master?”

***

And so another story begins! Expect three updates this week, and a lot more to come, especially if my Patrons vote to focus this story in the coming month.

Chapter Text

Chapter One

She woke with a start and regretted it immediately. Her back was one big bruise, as if she’d fallen asleep on a pile of hay instead of a proper mattress. Louise decided that she was going to give the maids a serious talking to as soon as she was up. She was also going to tell them to close her windows, it was too noisy to be proper with bird song and wind and the low crackle of fire.

Turning, she reached out for her blanket, hand grasping around on something soft and muddy instead of the soft material she was expecting.

“You’re awake, finally,” someone said from nearby.

Louise sat up in her bed and... she wasn’t in a bed.

It took some blinking to bring the forest into focus. She was sitting on a large red piece of soft cloth, the fringes covered in fine white fur. That was, in turn, on a patch of grass. She looked down at her hand and found it covered in bits of dirt. “What?” she asked.

“Breakfast is almost ready.”

The words snapped her back to reality, the nightmare of the previous night coming back in a moment. She jumped to her feet and started around her. No carriage that she could see. No bandits out to do uncouth things to her. There was a deep red cape on the ground where she’d been sleeping, presumably the thing she’d used as a blanket.

She was in a clearing, the sun still painting the sky a pale blue even though she couldn’t see it for all the trees in the way. There was a small firepit a few steps away, a pair of skinned rabbits run through by wooden skewers roasting above the small fire. And sitting across from the fire, on an upturned log...

“Who are you?” Louise asked. “Where am I?”

The knight stoking the fire with a long stick looked up at the questions and met Louise gaze. They pulled out one of the skewered rabbits before speaking. “I’m Saber, or Mordred if you’re not keen on titles and the like.” They pointed at Louise with the stick. “You got a name, or should I just call you Master all day long?”

Louise stood still for a while, mind whirling until she burnt off the sleepy fog occluding her thoughts. “I summoned you?” she asked.

Mordred snorted and waved the rabbit around as if to emphasize their words. “Not the sharpest sword in the armory. Yeah, you did. Congratulations, I guess.”

“You’re the cup?” Louise asked, still not quite certain of what to think. Familiars were supposed to be animals, and if the summoner was very lucky, a magical beast of some sort. A human, a knight no less, was not something she thought possible. Then again, she had been a cup. Maybe it was a magic cup?

She eyed her so called servant critically. The knight looked huge, though whether that was the heavy steel plates covering their entire body, or the twin sweeping horns on their head that made them look big, she couldn’t tell. Red cloth over chainmail poked out between the plates of their armour and a sword that was half as tall as Louise was jabbed into the ground next to them.

“Did you knock your head?” Mordred asked. They gestured with her rabbit off to the side and Louise found that there was a small pile of luggage waiting in the dirt. Sitting atop it like a proud trophy, was her cup.

“I...” she began before shaking her head and standing taller. “Thank you, Sir Mordred,” she said. “I am Louise François Leblanc de la Vallière. I appreciate your assistance last night. Now, bring me back to the Academy. Or failing that, to the nearest town. I need to make my way back home.”

Mordred tilted their head to the side. “Yeah, how about you sit down a bit first, Master. Wouldn’t want you to starve, now would we. That, and I think I’ve got some explaining to do.”

Sitting down next to a fire and eating rabbit off a skewer off all things, was far, far beneath what a lady of Louise’s station should have been doing. But she was stuck in a forest with a strange knight. And the gnawing pit in her stomach that protested every time the savoury scent of meat washed by was only added encouragement.

Picking the cloak from the ground, and finding it to be a suitable quality for her needs, she placed it on a log and sat down quite primly. It wasn’t the Alvis dining hall, but it would suit her needs.

Mordred passed her the skewer they’d been holding, then, while Louise nibbled on the still hot meat, the knight’s head twitched to the side. The helmet hisses, steel slid over steel, the horns swept back and away, the faceplace dropped, each motion accompanied by a snap until Mordred was left heltmentless before Louise.

Louise froze mid-bite. “You’re a woman?” she asked.

The air felt thick, Louise’s simple shirt and mage’s cloak suddenly weighed a thousand pounds and her vision went foggy even as every limb began to tremble. Then, as easily as it began, the aura of pure malic pressing her down faded. “I’m a knight,” Mordred said, her voice a deep growl.

Louise nodded. “Fine, fine, you’re a... knight,” she said while examining Mordred’s clearly feminine features. “And you’re my Familiar?”

Mordred raised one eyebrow. Instead of answering immediately, she pulled her own rabbit from the ground and tore into its haunch. “Look at your left hand,” she said.

Louise, curious, did as the knight asked and almost spat out her breakfast at the tattoo she found there.

Familiar runes came in all shapes and sizes, though they were usually small and discreet enough, just an old Brimiric marking that had gone out of style with the advent of proper wand magic. Still, the Familiar ritual being what it was, the traditional seals were a mark of pride.

She had one on her hand, a swirling mass of criss-crossing lines separated into three segments that looked as if they were spiralling out of a single point, or maybe moving into it. “What is this!” she shouted, turning her hand around to show Mordred.

The knight had a gleam of amusement in her eyes. She took another bite of her rabbit in lieu of answering at first. “It’s a command seal.”

“You, you marked me, like some sort of chattel!” She pointed her skewer at the knight, as if she would stab her from across the fire with it. “You can’t do that, I’m a mage, a noble!”

“Uh-huh,” Mordred said. “I didn’t mark you, Master, you did that to yourself.”

“I did no such thing!”

Mordred sighed. “Look, shrimp,” she began all the while ignoring Louise’s protest. “Let me explain things in a way that even you’ll understand. That chalice over there is the Holy Grail. I don’t know how you got your noble little fingers on it, but it’s one of the most powerful magical items around. It’s allowing you to summon and bind the spirit of a hero. A spirit like me.”

Louise’s mind, which had been going over a litany of not-so-ladylike curses, ground to a halt. “You’re a spirit?” she asked.

She had, of course, studied spirits a little. They were common enough, according to some, but most were so weak and shy that seeing one was unlikely. Others, those that were not afraid to manifest before mortals, could be beings of immense power and magical might. Brimir had written about them in some of his holy texts. They were to be feared and respected in equal measure, even if they didn’t have the same qualities as a mage, or even a peasant.

The woman before her, the knight, didn’t look like a proper spirit. She was floating or glowing or bending nature to her whims, for one. “You’re a spirit,” she asked. “A spirit I summoned with my familiar cup.”

“That’s the whole of it,” Mordred said. “The thing on your hand is a command seal. You can give absolute orders with it. Like if I get tired of you and decide to dunk you headfirst into the first stream I find, you could order me not to.”

Lousie ran a thumb over the command seal. It wasn’t ugly to look upon, but it was horribly wrong for a woman of her status to bear such a mark on her skin. “I don’t understand,” she admitted with some reluctance. She wasn’t at the Academy, she didn’t have access to all the books she could use to figure out what, exactly, was going on. No, she only had Mordred and the woman’s--the knight's--word to go on.

“What don’t you understand?” Mordred asked. She was using the sharpened fingertips of her gauntlet to tear at the rabbit’s flesh.

“I didn’t summon you, I summoned that cup,” Louise said.

Mordred shrugged, an armoured shoulder rising and falling. “You summoned the cup, then you used it to summon me. The Holy Grail is meant to summon seven Heroic Spirits, so if you’re lucky, we’ll have others to play with. That is, if you can last long enough.”

She chose to ignore the veiled threat. “Right. Well I have never heard of a Familiar that could summon others.”

“Bet you never heard of summoning a cup before either.”

“Well, no,” Louise admitted. “But I can’t recall summoning you... The bandits!”

Her sudden shout had Mordred leaping to her feet, rabbit in one hand and her sword, somehow, in the other. “Where?” she asked as she glared around the clearing. “I didn’t hear anyone.”

“No, last night.” Louise said. She wasn’t going to mock the knight for jumping. Mostly because Mordred was swinging a sword that had to weigh half as much as Louise around as if it were weightless.

“Tch,” Mordred said as she slammed her sword into a scabbard that Louise hadn’t noticed. “Don’t get my nerves up like that. I thought I’d have another fight on my hands.”

“Another?” Louise asked. “What happened to the bandits, last night, they were... there were a lot of them.”

Mordred grunted, took a last bite of her rabbit, then flung it into the foods. “Dead. They didn’t even put up a proper fight.”

Louise swallowed. It wasn’t hard to imagine Mordred mowing through some peasants with her obviously magical armour and sword. That she didn’t find it a challenge was no surprise either. She had the impression that her mother would be likely to respect Mordred’s attitude. “Well, whatever. They had it coming,” she said. “Now, if you’re really my servant, you’ll be helping me get back to the Academy. Or to my house. Or at least to the nearest town.”

“Shesh, you’re a demanding one, aren’t you?” Mordred asked. “And what makes you think I’d want to listen to you, shrimp?”

“I’m not a shrimp!” Lousie shouted right back. She jumped to her feet and stomped over to Mordred. She was infinitely pleased to learn that the knight was only an inch or two taller than her and as far as she could tell, hardly any bigger under that chest plate. “I’m your master, not a shrimp!”

“What did I do to deserve such a shrimpy little master?” Mordred asked.

Louise shook on the spot but reigned in her anger before she could say anything truly mean. “Let’s just go!” she said. “And I’m not a shrimp.”

“Uh huh,” Mordred said. “So, where do you want to go, shrimp?”

Lousie clenched her jaw and looked away. It wasn’t a pout, because a proper lady such as herself would never pout. “Wherever.”

“Right,” Mordred said. She moved over to the fire and kicked some dirt over it. “We won’t be able to carry all of your junk. Pick and choose.”

“What do you mean?”

Mordred looked over her shoulder. “What do I look like, a wagon? Your shit’s heavy and cumbersome besides. You should be thankful I dragged it all here to begin with.”

Louise looked at the suitcases and trunks, most of which were banged up and broken beyond repair. “Fine,” she conceded. “Just a few things.”

***

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

Her everything hurt. “Are we there yet?” she asked, the words as close to begging as she would allow them. Her focus was on the dirt path, one foot appearing, then the other shuffling forwards to meet it.

It was the slow, plodding advance of someone so tired and weary that they could collapse at any moment.

“You’ve only got yourself to blame, shrimp.”

Louise made the effort to look up and to her side. She regretted it almost immediately.

Her servant, her strange almost-Familiar, was walking along, back straight and horned head held high. She had both arms crossed behind her head as was walking with the ease of someone taking a brisk afternoon stroll. The armour didn’t even begin to slow her down even though it clanked and rattled with every stride.

Lousie tightened her grip on the suitcase she was dragging. It was the only one she brought. Just a few changes of clothes, some essentials that a lady couldn’t do without, and the more precious books that she didn’t dare lose. Not even a quarter of her own weight.

When they had started the interminable voyage it had felt weightless and easy, then Mordred, the insufferable pain in her noble rear, announced that she had no idea where they were.

That had been hours ago. The sun was in its zenith, the air was swelteringly warm and Louise was drenched with sweat, her white blouse was stuck to her and her school robes were some miles back, discarded along the side of the road.

“Why aren’t you helping me?” she growled.

“Now now, shrimp. Gotta build up those flabby muscles of yours. Never going to attract prince charming with calves like those,” Mordred said. Even through the distortion of her helmet, Louise could hear the humour in her voice.

Had she the energy, she would have kicked the servant in the shin, foot be damned.

“Look sharp, shrimp.”

Louise slowed to a stop, a process that took no more than two steps and looked out ahead.

They had been climbing a small hill, little more than a bump in the scenery, but it was enough that on the edge of the crest as they were, the whole of the countryside opened up to them.

The woods, so thick with trees and foliage gave way to open fields which were lined with waist-high fences. Wheat and barely other plants she didn’t recognize were just starting to sprout across a dozen fields, each one sent next to a little farmhouse.

Deeper down the valley was a town. Fifty or so houses, only a few of them with a second story, all lining up on either side of a little river. A mill sat at one end of the town and a wide, tall building was perched at the far end. On a hill overlooking the entire area and just barely outside of the town proper was a modest little Brimiric church, it’s bell tower the tallest thing in leagues.

She sniffled and might have set to crying if she hadn’t already sweated any excess water. “A town,” she said.

“You’re an observant one, aren’t you, shrimp?”

 

“Shut up, Mordred,” she muttered before pulling her luggage after her. It dragged across the road, leaving a thin cloud of road dust in her wake as she started the trek downhill.

Mordred snorted and stomped after her, armour clanging with every step as she kept up with no effort.

As they came closer, Louise was able to make out peasants toiling in the field, the distant steel-on-steel ring of a hammer on anvil and, when the wind shifted just right, she was able to take in the sweet scent of freshly baked bread.

They were nearly at the town proper when a tall man, arms built like logs and legs like tree trunks, saw them coming from afar and started walking over. As it was, his longer strides had them meeting a few hundred steps from the town. “Howdy, travellers,” he called out. His eyes swept up Louise form, then fixed on Mordred with the assessing air of a tamer looking at a particularly arrogant gryphon.

Louise stopped with a huffing sigh. “Hello, peasant,” she said. “We, we’re looking for lodging for the night, and a place to commission a carriage to the nearest proper city.”

He frowned at that, but nodded all the same. “I see,” he said. “Forgive me, melady, sir knight, I’m afraid that Hillrun is an awfully simply place. We don't have carriaged often, but there are wagons to and from Maltin’s in the East, and from there to the capitol if you’ve got the gold.”

“That would do,” she agreed. It was far, far beneath her, but a wagon meant not walking and that was enough.

“Aye, that’s great,” he said, easing up a little. “As for lodging, there’s the Hillrun Inn, just across town from here. Yorick ought to have a few rooms still free at these hours. Hardly any visitors around right now.”

“Thank you, peasant,” Louise said as she dismissed the man. She felt his and Mordred’s eyes on her back as she hefted her bags and started moving back towards the town, the tall chimneys of the inn in sight. It was only when she was a few dozen feet away that she realized she should have had the man carry her bags for her. He wasn’t as obstinate as Mordred and wouldn’t refuse an order from his betters.

The town wasn’t exactly lively, but there were children screeching and running around and older women sitting on porches and prattling on while knitting needles clacked. A horse and wagon were waiting along one road, three young men unloading stones from the wagon and placing them on the as-of-yet uncobbled parts of the street.

“Right,” Mordred said as she looked around. Plenty of people, especially children, were stopping to gawk at her. “I’m going to take a walk, stretch my legs a little.”

“A walk? We just walked all morning!” Louise shot back.

Mordred shook her head, horns swaying to and fro. “Just a quick check around the town. If anyone tries to murder you, stab them first, okay shrimp?” She pat Lousie on the back hard enough to send her stumbling forwards.

When she turned to glare at Mordred, the knight was already halfway down the street. Huffing, she pulled her bag close and walked faster, fueled by spite and the knowledge that the Inn probably had chairs.

It was a pretty enough building, certainly the biggest in Hillrun. Two stories, with a peaked roof with dormer windows that hinted at rooms in the attic. A sign hung next to double doors at the far end reading ‘Hillrunner’s Inn’ over a carving of a man with a bottle of wine tumbling down a hill.

She pushed her way into the inn and dropped her bags by her side the moment the door closed behind her. It was a simple place, but clean and it didn’t stink like some of the roadside taverns she had stopped in over the years.

The windows were all thrown open, letting the daylight do the work of lighting the room and its many round tables. A hearth sat dormant in one corner and the bar at the back had the room’s only two occupants. A buxom young lady who was already smiling when she pushed her way in and a man who was bent over piles of paperwork.

“Welcome to Hillrunner’s,” the lady behind the bar said. She had a crate of bottles next to her, half empty already as she continued placing more bottles onto the rack behind her. “Are you here for a meal, a good time, or a night’s rest?” she asked.

Louise could have cried. But she was a proper noble lady so she took a deep breath to calm her nerves and walked up to the counter. “A meal, and a night’s rest,” she said. “And any information you might have about the next wagon to the capitol.”

“Aye, I can do all three,” the woman said. “The meal will be six sou, the room twenty-two sou for the night, or two ecu if you have them.”

Louise froze, one hand already reaching for the stool before the woman. “Ecu,” she repeated.

“Oh, I’ll toss in the meals for free if you’re paying in ecu,” the barmaid said. “It’s a spot of trouble trading them up, but we get some Gallens merchants every so often that don’t like dealing in sous.”

“Of course,” Louise said as she stalled. She patted down her skirts, realized that she had no pockets, then looked over to her luggage. Her wand was in her bags, as well as some clothes and her damnable cup. Some books and, much to her mounting horror, not a single sou. “Can I, can I just sit for a moment?” she asked.

“Sure thing, you look like you need a break,” the woman said, her voice turning to pity. “I’ll get you some tea, alright?”

“Thank you,” Louise said. She climbed onto the stool, feet aching the moment they were off the ground. Then, with that done, her head fell forwards and rammed into the bar counter.

Some minutes later, a cup of steaming tea was placed before her. “Here you are, love,” the barmaid said.

Louise mumbled her thanks and took a sip. It was warm, which was the best she could say about the tea, but it did fill her up a little.

She had to face her problems head on. Maybe she could sell a book. They were valuable, more so than any peasant would realize. Then again, which peasant would by a manual on magic use? She hadn’t seen any manors, so begging for assistance from a fellow noble was out of the question.

Her clothes, likewise, were too fine to sell to the peasantry.

Looking around, she noticed her reflection in the glass of some of the finer cups. Her hair was a messy tangle of branches and leaves and muck, her face was all dirtied up and her white silken blouse was stained all under her arms and chest.

She looked a right mess.

“Troubles, lass?” the man at the far end of the counter asked.

“Yes,” she said simply.

“Hrm,” was his intelligent reply. He shuffled some papers around, dipped a quill in a well, and scribed some notes. “You’re not the only one,” he said.

She eyed him more carefully. He was dressed simply, and didn’t have a cloak of nobility, but he could read and write clearly enough. “Who are you?” she asked.

“John Smith. From the Adventurer’s Guild of Tristain,” he introduced himself without looking away from his papers. “Pleasure is all mine.”

“Oh,” she said. Adventurers were, in her mother’s own words, little more than mercenaries that lacked the proper pragmatism to make a decent living. They were supposed to be a group of snobbish nobodies high on their own youth. Or so she had overheard.

“Hrm,” he agreed.

“Still haven’t found anyone, eh, John Smith?” the barmaid asked as she brought over another case of alcohol and began sorting it into the racks.

“Not a soul,” he agreed. “These goblins are becoming a problem all across the valley, but we can’t find a proper adventuring party that wants to help. At this rate we’ll either need to hire mercenaries to do it or give it up as a bad job.”

“A job?” Louise perked up. “You have a goblin problem?” she asked.

“Aye,” he said, perking up a little. “Mighty big one too. Normal enough, for this time of year. Goblins move out of their winter dens and run around causing trouble. Usually have plenty of folks ready to smack them down, but it’s been hard getting help recently. Guild has better paying quests near the capital. All make work as far as I can tell though.”

“I see,” she said. “And how much are you willing to pay?” she asked.

“One sou per goblin ear,” he said. “So two per.”

That was... an awfully small amount of money for such a risky job. And it would mean cutting off the ears of goblins. She felt her stomach roiling at the idea.

Still, it was going to grumble a lot more when she didn’t feed it. “I’m in,” she declared.

The man looked at her, stared at her cloak, then her hair. “I don’t think that’s a wise idea, lass. You’ll get yourself killed.”

“I can do it,” she protested as she jumped to her feet. She hissed and almost tumbled when her sore feet thumped to the ground.

He stared even harder. “Leave the adult work to the adults, little lady,” he advised.

“And if I help her?” asked a voice from the entrance.

They all turned to see Mordred sitting at one of the tables, sword resting across its surface and feet up on a bench.

The man eyed her fine armour and the size of the obviously magical sword. “Mayhaps, mayhaps you could manage,” he said.

Louise grinned.

She wasn’t going to sleep outside that night!

***