"I know how hard you worked to get here," Zeke started with a stronger tone. "The constant training paid off. You earned your station. But," he held up a finger, "Alton tells me you had yet another disagreement. If you went through all the trials and left the palace only to do dishes for an army, I misunderstood your reason for joining."
Dea smiled at his teasing. She admired her mentor's approach to
discussing trouble spots. "No, sir," she answered. "I am not fond of
the dishes. My difficulty is with waiting for Captain Alton to act. He
received word the other day that Darien has taken another village north
of here. If we started out the next day, we would have arrived in time
to do some good. Instead, he awaits an order to move. If that is what
has arrived, it is too late."
"So you questioned him."
He made it sound as if her reasoning was weak. "I simply suggested he
send a group of us ahead of the company to scout. That way we would
have been prepared by the time reinforcements arrived."
"I thought we talked about this."
She closed her eyes and hung her head. "We did, sir. I did not say
anything in front of the others. I waited until no one was around. I
was not aiming to undermine him in any way."
Her mentor's large hand came to her shoulder. Its warmth, as usual,
calmed her anxious thoughts. His powers were rarely dormant. "I know
it is difficult to wait for someone to act. But this is how the Fortis
operates. They are not leaving those people unprotected. They know
where they are needed most. Alton is more aware than you give him
credit for. He not only worries for those villagers, but he has an
entire company of Validius to look after. He will do what is in the
best interest of everyone."
"He must see you as an exceptional Validius."
She looked up and met his gleaming eyes. "Sir?"
Zeke smiled. "I have never known him to keep a soldier around after
they question him once, much less four times. Perhaps he is getting
Dea let herself laugh. "Perhaps."
"I would not tempt his wrath again if I were you. Trust his actions. Follow his lead."
"Yes, sir," she answered with a nod. She knew her captain was well
respected by her father. He did not earn such by making bad decisions.
The two drew near the row that held Dea's tent. Dozens and dozens of
crisp white canvas dwellings stood side by side. Dea peered at them and
wondered how long she would lie on the bedroll before giving up on
finding sleep. She was not even vaguely tired.
"I will be here when you return," Zeke said in a kind tone. "Take the
Star Tear. Keep it in your pack. Try to use your power as little as
possible. I do not want you becoming marked with no one there to stand
for you. Be careful. Be smart. Stay safe, Dea."
"Yes, sir. I will."
"And pay attention to Alton. You can learn much from him."
Dea gave a nod of understanding. "Will you be staying at the camp while we are away?"
"I have business east of here, but I will stay close. I will be back before you miss me."
"When will you be returning to Alistad?"
"After I know you are back from your assignment and doing well."
"Would you take a letter to my parents for me?"
Zeke took a deep breath and narrowed his eyes in thought. "Have I turned one down yet?"
She shook her head with a smile. "Thank you, Zeke."
They moved down the row of tents at an easy pace. Several soldiers in
their midnight blue Validius uniforms occupied the dirt path. Most
appeared to be heading out for duties. The others were getting situated
for their rest cycle.
Dea pretended not to notice Zeke's watchful gaze scan the alley between
tents. His eyes quickly surveyed each Baldorian with whom they shared
the path. She wondered if he even realized he was doing it. He would
always be her guardian.
"Now," Zeke said as they slowed beside her assigned quarters. "Get some
rest. I will stop by in the morning before you depart." He reached
into his riding coat. "Put this somewhere safe." He pulled a small
ceramic bottle with a wooden cork from an inner pocket.
Dea took it carefully. She knew stout bottle was difficult to break,
but she still cradled it in her hands. Its weight surprised her. It
looked to be heavier. Star Tears were something she would never get
used to even though they were a common part of her training as a Healer.
"And before I forget." He searched another pocket and retrieved a
folded paper. "I told your mother I would have this in your hands the
next time I visited."
Her mother's customary parchment reminded her of home. It still carried
her fragrance. Belwyn loved tending to her roses. Her study was
filled with them. Red roses were her favorite.
"I have not written one since your last visit," Dea said. Her sadness
hung on her words. Her mother sent a letter with Zeke every time he
came. Dea's writing was far less often.
He slipped the letter into her hands. "I am sure you will have one by
the time I leave for Alistad. You will have plenty to tell her about
when you return."
Holding the letter and Star Tear close, Dea smiled up at Zeke. She
rarely informed her mother of her duties. Belwyn was not pleased with
her joining the Fortis. She felt it was no place for women, let alone
the Veiled Heiress of Baldorah.
No, her letters consisted of everything except the Fortis and the war.
She discussed the weather, new people she met, and any notice about an
upcoming leave. Those were the kind of things Belwyn would like to hear
"I will have one ready before you go," she said. "How are her roses?"
Zeke raised a brow. "She never lets me close enough to tell."
Dea couldn't help but chuckle. Very few were allowed to tend to
Belwyn's roses. Not even Aien tried to interfere with her garden. Dea
admittedly missed their quiet times spent caring for the well loved
"How did your practice go?" Zeke questioned. He looked to the staff sheathed across her back.
"Do we need to practice your techniques?"
She shook her head. "No, sir. It was me. My head was not in the ring."
"Where was it?"
"Nowhere," Dea answered. "Everywhere."
"Are you having doubts?"
It was a vague question. "Not about coming here," she quickly
clarified. "But I guess I have doubts about where this war is headed. I
know Father is concentrating on defense more so than offense. I
understand his tactics. I only wonder if it is enough.
"This war has stretched on for two decades. Most of those we are
fighting do not even know what they are fighting for. They follow
blindly. They are just as much the victim as all of our people."
Her mentor nodded slowly. He was pondering her concern. His answers
were always thought out. "Your father wishes to end this. He has tried
every way possible to reach an agreement with Darien. The man will not
have it. We can only wait it out. They will grow weary of it. That
is how they are."
His reply was the same her father used not long after the war started.
The enemy forces would grow weary. That was yet to happen. And by
comparing earlier battles with more recent ones, it was intensifying.
It was the popular opinion that Darien's people prolonged the war
because of jealousy of the Baldorians. The Baldorian race was know as
an ageless race. Elvlings was what the humans called them. The three
races, humans, Baldorians and Elves, once coexisted. It was long before
Dea's time, but there were still those who remembered such days.
The Elves began leaving the lands just prior to Belwyn taking the
throne. That was more than six decades ago. They have not been heard
from since Dea was a child. She was now well into her forth decade.
Zeke went on his way and left Dea to settle in for the night. After
stepping into her tent, she worked to shed her armor. She started with
the strappings that held the staff across her back. It was the easiest
She moved on to her leather bracers. The method was then repeated with
her greaves. The lacing on each came loose at her urging. Once those
were placed by her pack, she gave her attention to the broad placard
that hugged her from high on her waist to low on her hips.
The lacing in the midsection was undone without too much effort. The
upper buckle came next. The larger buckle on the lower half of the
placard always took a little more patience. The thick straps and sturdy
pin were reluctant to release her.
Dea found a place for the Star Tears in her pack. She made sure it was
concealed, yet readily retrievable. If she was to need the concoction,
it would be best if she did not have to search for it.
Setting the pack beside the bedroll, Dea laid her placard and coat atop
the bundle. Taking her mother's letter in hand, she stretched out on
her bedding. Perhaps sleep would be less difficult with a pleasant word