Toward the southern end of Shafinah was the Bridge. It was not just a bridge; in fact, it was almost never used to get to the other side of the river. It was the Mother’s House, built to honor the Mother of Fish, and as such it had been erected over the Big Bolt so her children might swim under it. It was all of timber from the Red Forest at Mu May, built by master crafters from East Gate, and rubbed with oils and preservatives from Musmahwa to keep it sturdy for generations. Supposedly, the House had to be tended only every other generation, and had been rebuilt only twice in three thousand years. Most rivers moved over time, their waters grinding away the banks while loose soil filled in what was once fluid. But people claimed the wizards of Gharqah had tamed the river here so Liliq could rest for once, so there would always be a place where she could slumber. The monks claimed it was Liliq herself who kept the river in place, in her own infinite mercy, for the sake of her children who lived there. Either way, the important thing was that the Mother’s House was safe.
It was a big bridge, spanning nearly eight-hundred feet across the wide stretch of river from east to west, spreading a hundred feet north to south. Its anchor posts were gray stone pillars, and the bridge itself was banded with cold black iron, holding the bridge in place as securely as a mother holds a newborn babe. There was railing on either side, but only high enough to keep a child from falling over. Drunkards and dreamers were well advised to keep away, or else the railing might strike them in the knee as they tip over into the river to get swept dozens or even hundreds of miles downriver, all the way to East Gate, if they did not drown first.
At the center of the Bridge was the House itself. It was massive, and three stories high. Its main entrance faced the east side of the river, where the people of Shafinah lived. No other building was three stories high, not even the senators’ houses. Yet despite its size, the entry way was a simple square door, above which was engraved the curved arrow representing the pike. On either side of the door, wooden bowls were placed on small wooden plinths, and in the bowls were carved wooden coins, each bearing the curved arrow.
Behfa pulled one of the wooden coins out of the bowl and sneered. “These people worship fish!” she spat. “They’re savages.”
“I’ve had some pretty good fish in my time,” the wizard said amicably. “I can think of worse things to worship.”
Behfa reared back and threw the coin out into the river. They heard no splash. “How did you know to turn around?”
“Magic!” the wizard said, waggling his fingers. “I watched the Senator, after they thought we were too far to hear them. If we were going the right way, she would have summoned the guard at once, or tried to turn us another direction. It was obvious they wanted us to keep going north. So, I said we should go south.”
Behfa stuck out a hand. “Give me a torch.” Avrid handed her his.
“Be careful with that,” the wizard cautioned. “This whole thing is made of wood, don’t forget.”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
A strange look passed over the wizard’s face. “You know,” he said, “it’s getting late, and this armor is making me sweat something awful. Maybe we should do this in the morning.” He removed his helmet. Despite being pressed by the helm’s quilting all day, his dark gray hair quickly sprung into waves shooting backward and sideways, as though he were in a perpetual gale.
“Lose some weight, old man, and you won’t sweat so much.”
The wizard patted his stomach. “I suppose you have a point there.”
“And where is your shield? You’re supposed to be a soldier, don’t forget.”
“I left it at the inn,” he shrugged. “Are you anticipating a sortie?”
“Not a sortie,” she grinned. “A route.”
Before the wizard could answer that, Brother Hesiud came outside. He wore long saffron robes with a dark blue stole, tied at the waist with a hempen rope dyed an electric blue. He was an exceptionally tall man, his dark hair and beard both full but well trimmed. His dark eyes were normally tinged with the presage of a smile, but just now they were wide. “What is the meaning of this? What authority brings you here?”
“How unfriendly,” Behfa smirked. “I expected you country parishes to be more welcoming.”
“It pains me deeply,” said Hesiud, bowing his head, “but we do not welcome swords here. Nor torches.”
“We came to pray, Father. Surely you won’t deny us pilgrims a little piety?”
“It’s Brother. The Yenai Faith does not put mortal Fathers next to immortal Mothers. I did not realize Zaljans prayed to Liliq.”
“Oh, we don’t. Still, I’m sure if we look around we’ll find Satar somewhere.”
“The All-Mother is everywhere,” said Hesiud, spreading his arms, “and all her children are welcome to worship her here, or anywhere, through Liliq or simply in her house. But I’m afraid we do not welcome swords here. Nor torches.”
“That’s the great thing about swords,” said Behfa. “Don’t require a welcome. And neither do torches. Now step aside, and let us into the Temple.”
“This is a Mother’s House,” he said firmly, “dedicated to Lilliq. And though it pains me deeply, I cannot step aside.”
“That’s all right. We can help you with that.” Behfa drew her sword. The troops followed her lead.
The wizard stepped forward, placing a hand on Behfa’s wrist. “Brother, please reconsider. We do not mean to hurt anyone.”
“Your words speak of peace.” Hesiud’s eyes moved down to Behfa’s naked steel. “Your actions speak otherwise.”
“If you want peace, it’s right over there,” Behfa flicked her eyes to the right, away from the door. As she did, she thought she spied something out in the darkness. Probably just a fish flipping out of the river.
The monk did not move. Behfa pressed forward, knocking the wizard aside and shoving her midblade up to the monk’s throat. Her smirk had twisted away. “This is your last chance, old man. Step aside or suffer the consequences.”
“Behfa,” the wizard said in a shocked voice. “You cannot be serious. This is an unarmed man.”
“If you’re so worried about him, get him out of my way.”
“Brother,” the wizard pleaded, “this is a sacred place, but it is only a building. Liliq does not want your blood on her temple.”
“Nor does Satar,” the monk answered, “yet here we stand.”
“Yet here we stand,” said Behfa, venomously.
The wizard interposed himself again. “Behfa,” he said, softly. “Please. This isn’t you.”
She did not soften, but broke. With an angry growl she shoved her sword back into its scabbard. The black lacquered wood snapped sharply.
Brother Hesiud’s eyes relaxed, and a kind smile melted onto his face.
In a single motion, Behfa lurched forward, seized the monk firmly in her arms, and with a twist of her hips, flung him bodily from the building. He bounced and skipped fifty feet, banging against the little railing at the Bridge’s northern edge.
The wizard stroked his dark gray beard. “You know, Captain, I’m sensing you may be a little angry.”
She rolled her eyes at him, but when she turned to enter the building at last, two more monks stood in her way. “I’m growing impatient. Let us in now, or—”
The sound of boots on lumber stopped her short. Marching down the Bridge, growing steadily closer, was a troop of twenty armed soldiers. They had pouched sleeves and pantaloons of sea green cambric, with brown leggings and armlets. Their lamellar plates and boots were of inferior steel, and some of them were patched with rough iron, and their helms were merely leather, but there were twenty of them. Each one had a long knife at their belt, a little round shield strapped to their arm, and a long wooden spear in their grip. At their head was Senator Potem. She was still unarmed, but there was murder enough in her eyes for fifty swords.
“Captain Behfa” she thundered from halfway down the bridge, still marching forward. “You have brought no papers from the border, no writ of passage from the Khan nor the Senate. Worse, you have brought steel weapons past the borders of Yena with no declaration of war. And vilest of all, you have done violence to an unarmed holyperson. I arrest you under authority of the Senate of Yena to await extradition to the Khaganate of Zalja, where you will answer for your crimes.”
“This is going poorly,” the wizard observed redundantly.
In a flash, Behfa leapt over to a window and held Avrid’s torch to it. “Stay back!” she shouted.
The soldiers continued onward inexorably.
“Captain,” the wizard said softly. “Timber doesn’t just go up like dry grass. The monks will be able to put that out right after you drop it.”
“I know that,” Behfa groaned. “I was hoping they didn’t.” She casually tossed the torch back to Avrid, who stumbled and stuttered regaining, but managed not to drop it on the bridge.
Twisting in desperation, the captain rummaged in a small bag tied to the left of her belt and pulled out a small nugget of oily yellow stone, holding it high for all to see. “This is your last chance!” she called out. “Stay back!”
“Whoa!” the wizard cried, throwing a hand out in pause. “What are you doing, Behfa? That’s Fool’s Fire! Who taught you to use that?”
“You did,” she growled.
“Well, yes, but more as an academic exercise. I mean, only a fool would use… well, you know…”
She took a step away from the Mother’s House. “This is Greater Fire,” she called out. The Senator and the soldiers had already stopped. The people of Shafinah were not well versed in magic, but they seemed to know enough. “Return to your homes now, or this entire bridge will be destroyed!”
The wizard stepped up next to her. “Behfa,” he murmured, “Tell me you’re not thinking of burning down a temple.”
“It’s not a temple. It’s a Mother’s House.”
“It is a holy place,” he pressed. “There are children in there, Behfa.”
Her eye twitched. “We don’t have a choice.”
“There is always a choice, Behfa.”
“What!?” she snarled, turning on him. “Imprisonment? Execution? If we go back to Zalja, we’re as good as dead. All seven of us!”
“It’s a long way back to the border,” he said. “Anything could happen. Behfa. Please. Throw that thing in the river.”
She stared into space, not seeing, only for a moment. Then she stepped away from him and held the Fool’s Fire up high again. “This is your final warning,” she called out. “Go home now, or—”
A dark shape had leapt from the railing, flying through the nighttime air. It only made it about ten feet or so, however, before falling onto the timber with a heavy thud. “Oof,” it cried out before scrambling to its feet and running toward them. “Four!” the shape shouted.
The wizard looked at the approaching shape, then at Behfa. “So, do weee…”
Behfa reached for her sword, the Fool’s Fire grasped firmly in her left hand. But before she could rip it free, there was a creak from the Mother’s House, and a second shape fell on her shoulders. “Gotcha!” it shouted.
“Hey!” the wizard cried uselessly.
They scuffled for only a moment before Behfa got herself free and threw the shadow to the ground. “You!” she shouted. “What are you doing here?”
“Stopping you,” the boy countered. “Now leave my people alone!”
“I’m afraid your people have something I need.”
“Thirteen!” the other shadow cried as it leapt up onto Behfa’s shoulders. Twist and tangle as she might, she could not get the shadow off her until it sprang away with its hands thrust upward. It was the little girl with the long braided tail, and in her hands was the Fool’s Fire. “Got it!” She reared back to throw it.
“No!” the wizard cried. “Don’t throw it! If it strikes the wood, it will explode!”
There was a tense pause, then Behfa struck out at the girl. She leapt backward. Behfa seized at her again, but the boy wrapped his arms around her legs, and she fell to the floor.
The girl looked at them, then the distant railing. She shoved the Fool’s Fire into her mouth.
“No. No! NOOO!!!” the wizard screamed. “Don’t eat it!”
His screamed covered the gulping sound as she swallowed it.
Everyone took a single step back.
“So,” coughed Brother Hesiud, who had just now managed to sit up against the north railing, “this is quite an impasse.”
The boy scrambled to his feet and ran to the girl.
The wizard crept up to Behfa again. “I think this might be a good time to go,” he said.
“We still have steel swords.”
The Senator and her soldiers began marching forward again.
“We do, and steel helmets too.” He put his helm back on. “You know, even at night, this armor gets me so sweaty. Maybe we should cool off.”
“How can you talk about your sweat at a time like this!?”
“I’m not talking about sweat,” he said, loud enough for the troops to hear, “I’m talking about cooling off. Maybe a bath would help.” The soldiers nodded to each other, ready to run.
“I’m not giving up!”
“Sometimes in battle, you have to take a step back, to position yourself for a good thrust. I think this might be a step-back moment.”
Behfa growled at that, but did not disagree.
“Time for a swim, troops!” the wizard shouted.
The five troops began running for the south railing. The wizard trailed after them shedding his plate, helm, mail, and sword as he went.
Behfa glared at the boy and girl, then at Brother Hesiud. Her fingers danced delicately along the handle of her sword. The Senator’s soldiers were running down the bridge now, their boots a thunderstorm. Behfa let out a roar of frustration, then started running for the south railing.
A wooden spear flew by her, striking wide and splintering to her left. Another struck the ground where her foot had been a second ago. As she approached the railing, she ran by a shield one of her troops had discarded in the retreat. She picked it up and twisted around by instinct, just in time to intercept another spear that could have skewered her stomach. She ran backwards, aggressively blocking spears. The soldiers were close enough for her to see the grim determination in their eyes. At the last second, she threw the shield to the ground and turned. The wizard was waiting there for her. Together, they tipped over the side into the black water below.
Behfa could feel her armor weighing her down, and the river was shockingly strong. She tore her helmet off instantly, fumbled with her lamellar plates’ straps, but by the time she got to her chainmail hauberk she could not stay afloat. She managed to take a desperate half-breath before sinking below the surface.
There was nothing but darkness, and the silencing rush of cold, remorseless water in her ears. She would not have been able to see her hand before her face, but her hands were too busy tangling themselves up in her chainmail. Her legs thrashed wildly, trying to fight against the pull of the river floor, but all they managed to do was turn her about so badly she no longer knew up from down. Her arms tensed and shoved, trying to break the chainmail apart by force. She had to fight to keep from screaming, knowing it would mean death. She was still tempted.
Suddenly, she saw a dim violet light from the corner of her eye. Her head twisted around. The little light was floating toward her, against the current. It caught up to her quickly, and as she slammed into it she recognized the wizard’s face in the dim light. In his hand was a small purple crystal, glowing lightly. He put the crystal in his mouth and held it with his teeth as he helped Behfa untangle and remove her hauberk. They shot up to the surface. She nearly tore her throat gasping for air the instant they broke into the night.
They had only a moment, though. “Come on!” the wizard screamed as he started paddling toward the northern bank, fighting the powerful current. A sharp right turn was coming up, and they used it to drive themselves up onto the bank. Behfa could feel the blow to her ribs as she seized hold of a bright green piyero plant that was jutting out over the water. She nearly uprooted it, but just managed to haul herself onto the muddy riverside. She immediately reached over and grabbed the wizard’s hands, fingers scrabbling in the mud, and pulled him out.
They both lay there gasping for several minutes.
“Hah… heh… and they call it… lesser fire!” the wizard panted.
“Where is it?” Behfa asked. “It’s dark out here. There could be moon cats.”
“It slipped out of my mouth when we hit the bank. I think I might have chipped a tooth. Oof. Ow. Yes, I’ve definitely chipped a tooth. Good thing I brought some bone gems. Still, we’re alive. And we are not under arrest.”
“I should’ve just thrown the Fool’s Fire,” she groaned. “We wound up in the river anyway.”
“Yes, but now we’re battered and bruised, instead of burnt up and dead.”
Behfa grunted at that. Her scarf had come undone and washed away in the river. Her dark hair stuck out in all directions like shattered glass.
“I’m afraid it will take me a while to prepare another glow stone,” he said, still short of breath. “And our torches are gone, too. We can’t go shouting up and down the river at night. Moon cats aren’t the only things on the fields in Yena.”
“And that river could have taken us miles downstream,” Behfa agreed. “We could be halfway to East Gate by now.”
“Good point,” said the wizard, rolling doggedly into a sit. “Let’s see if we can make any kind of camp. Maybe there are some rocks around; we could dig a firepit. I don’t suppose you have any Fool’s Fire left?” he smiled at her. She did not smile back. “We can start looking for the troops at sunrise,” he finished, picking through the grass for stones.
“They’re on their own.”
“What?” he stared disbelievingly.
“We’re in a strange land with no armor and one sword. They could be scattered to the winds by now, just like us. They’ll either move on to the next town, or they’ll return to Shafinah, see we’re not there, and then move on to the next town. Either way, we can’t afford to waste time looking for them. The clock is ticking even faster than we thought. We have to stick to the plan.”
“Behfa.” The wizard stood up and straightened his back so he could look down at her lying in the grass. “Those troops left their homes for you. They abandoned their claims, their families, their lives, because they believe in you. Not your cause, but you. We will start searching for them in the morning.” He looked at her, unflinching, until she finally nodded and rolled over onto her side. “Get some rest,” the wizard said, “I’ll look for some rocks.”