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Chapter XIII

After the meeting with his new patrol, he shifted his gear from the caravan and spent some time getting his tent set up in the officer’s section of the cavalry cohort billet. The lieutenants’ tents were arrayed in a line along the front of the area, closest to the picket lines for the horses and the regular guard tents. On his way back out of the tent, Nalia was waiting for him.

The priestess had changed out of her traveling clothes and into a long, pale red dress with roses embroidered along the edges and down the sleeves. Anya’s symbol. Perhaps it was a ceremonial thing, or maybe just what she wore when she wasn’t traveling.

“Priestess,” he greeted her. What was she there for, he wondered. “What can I do for you?”

There were only so many priests and priestesses with the Legion, but he hadn’t expected to see Nalia again so soon.

She smiled at him as she wrapped her arm around his and turned to walk with him. “Good afternoon, Lieutenant. Have you heard?” Her fingers ran along the sleeve of his uniform and played with the fold of the cloth as she pressed a bit closer to him.

He tried to ignore her, but it was difficult. He couldn’t take a step without her body brushing against his.

Since his choice was either continuing to walk or to stop and let her wrap herself around him some more, he kept walking. Besides, as much as he didn’t want to start anything with her, she was attractive. There wasn’t much of a downside here. “I’m afraid not, lady. What’s the good news?”

“I’ve been assigned as the head healer for the cavalry cohorts,” she said, smiling as she tilted her head at him. “Isn’t it wonderful? We’ll have a chance to see each other more now. I was so regretting the end of the caravan and the lack of your company.”

He kept his gaze fixed on the tents they passed rather than look over at her. Well, something would have to interrupt the otherwise pleasant walk. Fabulous. One of these days he wouldn’t be surprised if she were waiting in his bed for him.

But what he said was, “Lady, the cavalry cohort is honored to have you. Your gifts will be needed.”

It didn’t do to upset the clergy too much. There were never enough healers for the legions and they were always in demand. Pragmatically, he supposed he should put up with her. And he wasn’t really sure why he wasn’t interested in the first place. A bit of a puzzle there.

The bigger puzzle though, was the events of the last few weeks, and whether they were connected. Insulting Thaesil in the guard barracks, and then the ambush in the alley, the next ambush on the caravan, the Huntsman in Cilis. What was going on in the kingdom and were the events connected?

“Nalia,” he said as they walked out of the tents and into one of the main roads running through the camp. “Perhaps you can offer your advice on something. Or divine insight even.”

Nalia tilted her head towards him and smiled. She continued to play with the folds of his sleeve and her hip brushed against him.  “It would be my pleasure, lieutenant. What is on your mind?”

He thought back over the events that had been occurring and hints he’d picked up from the king and Jaesil. “Something seems to be going on in the kingdom,” he said. “I’m not sure what it is. But bandit attacks are increasing and they look more like an organized army than the ragtag groups you’d expect.” He paused, and thought about the attack on him in the barracks. Had those men really been after the necklace from Baron Vreis? Perhaps Thaesil had even sent them. Jaella had warned him that the count might try to avenge the insult.

“And a band of armed men invaded the guard barracks in Rylar somehow,” he said. “They got past the sentries and attacked a lieutenant there. Then there’s the Ghostwood and the Hunter.” He paused and looked towards the south, where Nitharn lay hidden out of sight.

“I have the feeling that something is going on there,” he said. “I saw one of Cerias’s servants in Cilis. He spoke to me.”

Nalia’s hand stopped, and she looked at him more seriously. “The Lord of the Hunt sent a physical messenger to you?” she asked. “That is very rare. Usually the gods speak in dreams or through desire.”

She smiled again. “Passion comes from the gods, in all ways. Whether it is a passion to help another or a passion to touch. They inspire us to be more than we were before.”

Allen had never much appreciated theology and he still didn’t much like the idea that the gods ran everything. It seemed to take something away from him. Some part of his meaning. “I like to think they just emphasize certain parts of life,” he replied. “Highlight them. That they bring a greater passion to life, but they don’t direct it.”

Nalia reached up and brushed her fingertips over the mark beside his left eye. It seemed like people always wanted to do that and see if it were real. After seeing Tylea’s mark in Rylar, he understood it better. There was something fascinating about seeing a mark on someone. They didn’t look like a tattoo. It was more as if the skin became translucent and gave depth to the colors of the mark, and sometimes as if the mark floated above the skin.

“You are closer to the gods than most men, lieutenant,” she said. “And more than most clerics too. Despite what you think of the gods, I think you will do the right thing.”

He tried not to grimace. Talking to priests was difficult on the best days. “About the events in the kingdom, lady, have you heard anything recently? About something happening?” he asked.

Nalia let her hand drop back to his arm. “Nothing much, lieutenant,” she replied. “I’ve only heard that the churches are supporting the king more than usual this year. The nobles are causing political difficulties and sometimes priests are dismissed from their posts with the noble families. Perhaps they think we will be too biased in our work.”

Allen nodded. “I can see the difficulty.” And he could, at least about priests being biased. But if they were going to support the king instead of the nobles, he was glad of it. Whatever the reason.

“Do you know anything about these marks?” he asked, indicating the ivy beside his eye. “What do they do?”

Nalia considered the question for a moment and then shook her head. “I don’t know about that mark, lieutenant. But usually, someone with a mark has gifts like a priest or priestess, but different. Some connection to the deity they serve. I understand that it’s a bit different for everyone.

“You, for instance, can heal yourself, I hear.” She looked at him and smiled again. “Are you certain that you do not serve Anya?”

“Fairly certain, lady,” he replied. “I understand that her mark is always a rose.”

“Well, you never know how things may change,” Nalia said, studying the mark beside his eye again. “Perhaps even the gods can change.”

“It would make things simpler if it were Anya,” he said. “But the gods seem set in their patterns.”

“Perhaps not forever,” Nalia replied. “Healing is like life. Things must change and grow. Perhaps even the gods are like that.”

“Perhaps,” he said. It seemed a moot point. “Have you heard what any of the other Marked are capable of?”

“Ahh.” She paused for a moment to think. “I can tell you what I know from my studies, but it is general information.”

She paused again to collect her thoughts, and then said, “I have heard that one marked by Cerias can see into the darkest shadows, even beneath a new moon, and weigh the burden on a man’s soul. They are known as good judges, and they tend to act for justice.”

Had the Huntsman in Cilis been acting for justice, he asked himself. It certainly hadn’t seemed like it. Two bandits dead and trying to strangle him just to deliver a message?

Nalia continued, “Anya’s marked tend to be healers, but they can also cause the land to be more fruitful. Many priests also have that gift, and it’s the main reason why the people praise us and want a priest in their village.”

Something familiar about that gift nagged at him for a moment, but he couldn’t think of what it was.

“Yoneth very rarely marks anyone, but his marked are supposed to be able to see into the future. Alyssa’s are able to remember everything perfectly and excel in logic and study. Kaisa’s are able to inspire passion in others and to also know the desires of those they touch. And they are able to calm as well as wake the passions.

“Solen’s chosen are skilled in war and tactics. A marked general is a fury on the battlefield. They seem able to perceive every instance of the battle at once, to know what is occurring, and they know how to turn the events to their advantage. They seldom lose, either in war or games of skill.

“Corian’s marked, like his priests, are able to preserve foods against the winter, to banish blights and heal damage from frosts. But they are also able to cause crops to grow in the most inhospitable climates, and to make them thrive, even long after they were there.”

Nalia’s hand wrapped around his arm. “I don’t know much more than that, I’m afraid. Perhaps I could help in some other way, lieutenant?” Her hip brushed against him again.

Solen’s fire, he thought. What was he supposed to do with this priestess? He should have just slept with her to begin with and maybe she’d have stopped pursuing him. But for whatever reason, the idea wasn’t appealing, and so he tried to extract himself from her. It was almost like a dance to get unwrapped from her, and she wasn’t helping. But at least she wasn’t literally throwing herself at him either.

The dance left him holding her hand as he removed it from his arm. Too polite to just drop it, he bowed slightly over it instead. Hopefully it didn’t give her any more ideas. “Thank you, lady,” he said. “It’s been very informative. I should find Jaret before the evening, however. I promised to meet up with him.”

Nalia smiled. “I won’t hold you back from your meeting, lieutenant. I look forward to seeing you again.” She took her hand back and turned to glide away. A few steps from him, she looked back over shoulder and gave him another slow smile. “Soon.”

Then she turned around the corner of a lane that cut through the camp and was gone. Thank Alyssa for that. At least she’d given him something to think about.

So the nobles and the clerics were having some difficulties as well. And the king and the nobles were perhaps more at odds than they usually were too. Add to that, that the king seemed to expect some sort of trouble from the north and maybe from Karn. Of course, Aciel was always expecting trouble from Karn.

The three legions forming here in the North hadn’t been constituted as standing legions since the War of the Three Kings with Leale, eighty-odd years before. It was a drain on the treasury and the Guard to rebuild them, and the king would not have done it without a good reason.

Allen wondered if the legions would stay in the north when they were fully formed and trained, or if they might be detached to the Karn border, to reinforce the pass through the Kestrel mountains that divided the two kingdoms.

Whatever was going on in the kingdom, he didn’t think it boded well. Someone was going to get hurt, whether it was the king and his supporters or the ones who went up against them. That was the main reason the nobles were so problematic. They were capable of stirring up a civil war, and people across the kingdom would die, killed by their own people. It wasn’t a pretty thought, and it was one of the things the Guard was established to try and prevent. It was why they kept such an eye on the nobles. It got under his skin that he didn’t know what was going on.

He took his oath as a Guardsman seriously. It had been the better part of his life for the last year and a half. And, really, he supposed he didn’t have much else that gave his life meaning. All he had was this mark and his work and that was it. A few friends. No family, no permanent ties to anyone, no ground to stand on.

Just visions and memories that flashed in his mind now and then, somewhere in that great grey blank of his past. His mind felt whole, and not like something was missing, but he couldn’t help thinking there was a difference between being whole and being sane. He wasn’t always sure if he was sane. Who was around to judge him, after all? Just the laws of the kingdom. And laws detached from human context were incomprehensible to him. Where was his human context? Everyone else seemed to have it.

A different thought flickered through his mind, and he swore to himself as he pull his thoughts away from that line of thinking. He’d made his peace with not knowing his past. He’d built a new life for himself. There were people in this land that he cared for, and that was enough. It had to be.

Maybe he could try praying for divine insight about all of this. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d tried. He’d spent some evenings in the past begging whatever deity was behind his Mark to show itself, to make things clear to him. It hadn’t worked. It hadn’t even been until the child’s necklace the month before in Rylar that he’d even seen his goddess. She’d never shown herself to him before that. Not in three and a half years. And he didn’t know why she’d chosen to do so now.

Maybe it had something to do with all of this. All of the events going on in the kingdom, and people trying to kill him, as if he had some connection to it. Even the king had been quick to fit him into his plans, and Juslir had given him that messenger’s dagger like another string of obligation around his neck.

What was going on, how did it involve him, and what didn’t he know about it? It seemed sometimes like everyone knew what was going on and who he was supposed to be besides him.

He growled beneath his breath and swore at himself again for thinking that way as he told himself to get it together. He had to be at least thirty and he was acting like he really was three and a half, as if he’d been born when he’d lost his memory and woken up beside the wood. Ridiculous.

What had brought all of this doubt on so suddenly anyway? He’d barely blinked when the men had burst into his barracks and tried to kill him. That at least had seemed fairly normal. Now he was perfectly fine and healthy and he was having doubts here? Solen’s beard….

He felt like smacking himself.

Was worry about the kingdom really depressing him that much, that he was doubting himself again? He thought he’d put that behind him in the first few months he’d been on the Dhara. When he’d decided that life wasn’t meant to be fair. You just dealt the hand you were given.

And if you couldn’t remember your past, then you just had to make a better future. And he wasn’t going to change that decision. It meant too much to him. It was the ground that he was missing before he’d decided on it. He’d make his own life, and he wouldn’t let it go to waste. He’d do something important. Serve the kingdom, save the people, find meaning in this mess.

If there were nobles rising against the king, he was going to crush them. Whatever it took. He’d take pleasure in wringing their necks.

They weren’t going to kill the people here. And they weren’t going to start a war. Not if he had anything to say about it.

He shook off the rest of the doubts and tried to fall back into his usual mindset. Task, purpose, function. It was all straightforward. Just find the problem and fix it. Take whatever steps needed to be done.

Where the Yoneth was Kilin these days anyway. He’d been assigned to the 11th, down towards Karn, somewhere. And Jaella too. They’d lucked out in getting an assignment together. And where the bloody fires was that humor he’d misplaced somewhere in the last few minutes of this meandering. It’d better get back soon or he was going to be poor company for Jaret.

He touched the mark beside his eye and felt the ever-present hum of it there, like energy flowing through his skin. Well, Goddess, he thought. One of these days, you’ll have to tell me who you really are. And maybe when you do, you’ll tell me who I was, too.

Because I am not what I was. I don’t know what it was, and so I’m not going to worry about it. I’m going to be something else. Something new. Though, who knows, maybe they’ll end up being the same thing.

Wouldn’t that be a trick.

He chuckled slightly. It was about time to go and find Jaret, so enough of this moping about. He couldn’t really complain about his life anyway, he supposed, not when he had women like Nalia interested in him. Whether he returned the interest or not. Jaret had been falling all over her when they’d met.

He turned towards the third infantry cohort’s tents, and headed towards the lieutenants’ rows. He’d ask around until he found where Jaret had set up, and then he’d gather him up and they could set off to the Tilted Cup for a few drinks before it got too late. He’d need to be up pretty earlier to gather with the scouts and see what was going on in the area.

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