Tolkuva pressed forward from the south along the road up from Krunglek. The sun sank lower in the west as a deep crimson orb gave the sky an almost blood-colored luster. She had been riding up from the south for a few weeks now. Tolkuva looked forward to some time off the horse, and perhaps this night would be the end of that journey. She came over a hill and spotted to the south a dirt road that pulled off of the main paved highway that continued towards Rhatneua. She veered off the highway onto the dirt road, and the thick forest with its vibrant array of colors swallowed her.
Tolkuva followed the road to the west for some time under the canopy of trees as the day gave way to twilight and then dark. About half an hour later, the forest broke, and she crossed bare fields of recently harvested crops. The remnant of stalks still dotted the fields under the ample light of the three moons. Now out of the trees, Tolkuva adjusted her riding cloak and set her sights down the road, still towards the west. She crested a hill and spotted her destination, a well-fortified manor house situated atop a small knoll. She approached the house, circling it wide and slowing as she approached the front gate, which was now closed. A watchman looked down, and Tolkuva performed a series of hand motions. The next moment, the gate creaked and opened on its large iron hinges. Tolkuva prodded her horse forward. The animal sauntered through the gates, which closed behind her. She brought the beast to a stop, dismounted, and a stableboy came and took the animal from her. Tolkuva adjusted the sword at her waist and loosened the cloak about her shoulders now that she was out of the wind.
A young man with blond hair came out of the main house into the courtyard. “Milady,” he greeted. “We weren’t expecting you back so soon.”
“I wasn’t expecting to be back this soon, either,” Tolkuva said. “But something happened…”
“Nothing bad, I hope.”
“Oh, no. Not at all. Well, at least not for me.”
“What is it?”
She smiled. “All in due time.”
“Don’t mean to pry.”
“You are trained to be suspicious.”
“Is there anything I can get for you? Food perhaps?”
She nodded. Tolkuva wiped her forehead with her forearm, removing some dirt. “I would like that. And a hot bath, perhaps?”
“I’ll see to it. You are welcome, as always. Come this way. I’ll show you to your room.”
The young man turned, and Tolkuva followed him into the manor. They entered the building, and it was just as it had been when she had left a few weeks before. The furniture sat polished, tapestries decorated the walls, carpets covered the floor, and fires burned in most of the fireplaces in the building. They passed several other people in the building, each in silence, with a weapon at their side.
The young man led Tolkuva to her room, opened the door, and lit a candle. “I hope you find this to your liking.”
“Yes, very much so. Thank you.”
“I’ll have your food brought to you.”
“Again, thank you.”
“It’s my honor to serve.” The young man scurried away, leaving Tolkuva in the room. She put her things on the bed and removed her sword, and placed it on a chair next to the bed. She removed her cloak and seated herself on the edge of the bed, putting her head in her hands before she laid back. The soft, down mattress about absorbed her, and she let it hug her aching back and thighs for several moments until the young man returned with the food. He brought it in and set it on a desk near the door.
“Your bath will be ready for you in a moment,” he said. He turned and left her.
Tolkuva got up, walked to the desk, sat down, and ate the meal of a pumpkin-based soup with some bread. Getting up from the desk, she left the room, found the bath, and bathed., Later, she returned to her room in clean clothes and fresh skin without the dirt and debris from weeks out on the open road.
An hour later, the young man returned. “One last call before we all turn in. Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“I was hoping to find Mahn or Rune here,” she said. “Do you know where they are?”
“Mahn left about a week ago to return to Rhatneua. I am not sure what business he had there with his father. He’s staying there.”
“I guess I will head that way tomorrow morning,” she said.
The young man left her, and she closed and bolted the door. She blew out the candle, laid back in the bed, and fell asleep on the down mattress and under her quilts.
Tolkuva woke early the next morning, dressed, and was ready to ride again with her cloak on her shoulders and sword at her waist. She left the manor and found the stable, where the stableboy greeted her with her horse. “You look refreshed, milady!”
She gave a sly smile. “A hot meal, bath, and proper bed can put anyone in better spirits after weeks on the road.”
Tolkuva took her saddled horse and walked it out of the manor’s courtyard before mounting up. She turned the beast towards the east, riding back towards the highway she had come in on the night before. Reaching the highway, she turned north again and rode into the wind that blew her black hair out of her bronzed face. She focused on the road ahead, setting her pace at a gallop. She maneuvered through carts loaded with produce and wares headed to the city for sale that got thicker the closer she got to the city.
After about an hour and a half of riding, the city came into view. The city gleamed in the early morning light, especially the colossal cathedral that crowned the hill on which the city sat. Its spire towered hundreds of feet above the surrounding land and bore sculpture of a hand bearing a torch atop its spire. The torch was lit with a white flame visible even in broad daylight.
She progressed further north and crossed the river south of the city. Once across, she entered a roundabout and rode up a broad avenue into the city that, like the highway, was teeming with carts laden with produce. The girl dodged left and right and rode into the lower city and continued following the avenue up the hill. She passed through another gate into the upper city, with its more ornate buildings, manicured landscapes, and wide streets relative to the more crowded lower city. She turned down a street and found a villa surrounded by a high stone wall. The gatekeeper recognized her and opened the gate as she approached, allowing her to enter. Tolkuva dismounted, and another stableboy came and took her horse. Tolkuva smiled as the young boy scampered off with the animal.
No one, however, greeted her after that. Tolkuva waited a few more moments before she walked through the courtyard towards the villa constructed of bright white granite and marble, with intricate carvings on the façade. She climbed a set of stairs and pushed one of the two doors inward at the front of the building. She entered and closed the door behind her. Tolkuva had expected the house to be warmer, but it was as cold as the outside, only without the wind—and quiet too.
“Hello?” she said. “Is anyone here?”
She walked into an atrium with many statues and paintings on display under a rotunda.
Stumbling steps echoed from an adjacent room. A few doors opened and closed before a portly man with graying hair emerged.
“Young Tolkuva!” the man greeted.
Tolkuva smiled. “Mahat.”
“Glad to see you, my girl! We weren’t expecting you this soon.”
“I wasn’t expecting to return either, but I am here to see Mahn. Is he around?”
“Mahn? I’m afraid not. He and his father traveled north for a few days. But they should return sometime today. But I am sure that we can make you comfortable here if you choose to stay.”
“I would like that,” she said.
“As the master says, you are always welcome here.” The butler ushered her along. “Please, come this way out of the cold. We have some warm rooms on the west wing I am sure you will enjoy.”
The man led her through the sprawling estate. They passed through rooms filled with art, books, fine furniture, maps, and knickknacks. Mahat led her to a room in the west wing of the building with a large fire already going in one fireplace. Tolkuva seated herself on one of the upholstered sofas in the room, and Mahat left her. He returned moments later with a cup of wine and a tray of vegetables.
“Not much is prepared right now, I’m afraid. Please accept these.”
“These are perfect,” the young woman said.
“Fantastic. Make yourself comfortable. You know the place as well as any of us do. As soon as the master and his son arrive, I will let them know you are here.”
“I think I’m going to stay put here for a while. The fire is warm, and I haven’t had a chance to sit for some time now.”
“By all means, do!”
The butler left, and Tolkuva nibbled on some vegetables and drank some of the wine. She got up, found a book, returned to the couch, and started reading the book while watching the fire consume the wood in the fireplace. Soon, she drifted off to sleep, but she awoke when heavy steps came her way. She set the book aside, straightened herself the best she could, and faced the door. She swallowed hard as the boots got louder. Soon, the doors flung open. Before her, she gazed at Mahn in a heavy woolen cloak sporting a neat beard and short, black hair. He stepped into the doorway and gazed at her before he closed the door behind himself.
His eyes scanned her up and down. “I wasn’t expecting you back this soon.”
“I know. It seems no one was.”
“Mahat told me you were back here. I didn’t believe him, so I came as quickly as possible.”
“What were you and your dad up to?”
“A Kaehkaen faction had a run-in with what they thought was a holdout from the Inquisitors. We rode to investigate and found out that it was nothing. We’ve been having a lot of those. I’m not sure if the Inquisitors are trying to throw us off or some of our recruits are getting a little anxious and picking fights.”
“After the war, there’s not been much need for the Kaehkaen anymore. They disbanded the Inquisitors.”
“There are still some pockets of resistance, though, from some former members. But you’re right. Our numbers have been reduced since that time. I hope that perhaps we can bolster them again, though.”
“Why would you need to do that?”
“Just in case it happens again,” he said. Mahn came closer to her. “But enough about me. I didn’t even ask—how are you?”
Tolkuva wrung her hands. “I’m okay, I guess.”
Mahn studied her composure. Their eyes locked for a moment before Mahn cut away. “What brings you back here? I thought we had agreed that it would be best to not see each other anymore after what happened last time.”
Tolkuva quivered. “I know.”
“Are you sure you’re okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost?”
“I’m fine.” Tolkuva looked at the young man and stared for a long time. She dropped her hands to her side and swallowed.
“What is it? Why are you here?”
“Mahn, I’m pregnant.”