The girl's silvery armor looked out of place on the unkempt road. Though she saw, through the light mist, that the badlands and dark forest were behind her, she did not feel at ease as she approached the pastoral fields and homely farms that bordered her destination. There was no traffic on the road. She knew well that the town ahead didn't expect many visitors these days, especially not from the southwest.
The town of Canterwall and its attached lands were some of the most bountiful in the country. The land's fertility was both a blessing and a curse. Its bounty brought riches and a good life in exchange for hard, honest work. The curse was the land's location, being the westernmost province of Ustalav. To the west, the badlands of the Belkzen spewed forth bandits and orcs who pillaged and looted. It was for this reason that every citizen was also a local militiamen and held weapons at home. To the south lay the cursed lands of Vyrlich, where the evil taint of the Whispering Tyrant could still be felt centuries after his defeat. On the darkest nights when the mist pours from the mountains, every god-fearing citizen knows to stay at home. Over the years, superstition had grown strong in the hearts of Canterwallers, and while they strove each day for their families and lands, they remained wary of strangers and what the night could bring.
The girl knew, because of her faith and her blood, she would be received with suspicion in the town ahead. Thus she rode with caution, her eyes moving from one shadow to the next, as she drew nearer the buildings of Canterwall. One of her hands caressed her horse's mane while the other kept tight control of its reins, both signs of her own nervousness; Argentum had been trained by her own father and would follow her every command, even in combat. It had felt good to have such a great companion to rely upon as she had traveled through both Belkzen and Vyrlich. As she drew closer to the town, the girl saw the wooden lookout towers, spotting the guards with her sharp eyes long before they noticed her. They were distracted and undisciplined. Judging by their expression, the girl could image they were playing cards to keep themselves awake. Such behavior would have earned them a week inside a cell in Vigil. Still when they noticed her, they stopped whatever they were doing and readied their crossbows. She advanced calmly and purposefully, keeping her hands in plain sight. After a few minutes of following her with their weapon's sights, the guards were convinced that she was not a threat, lowering their weapons and to resume their game.
The town had once been better protected; the servants of light and justice had kept the peace and fought the darkness around it. Yet superstition reigned supreme, and in the end it had been enough to doom the region. Its defenders moved southward, beyond Vyrlich where they needn't worry about watching their backs both from the evil they fought and the people they had sworn to protect. The decision had been hard for the protectors to make and hard for the town to endure.
Now this close to the town she could see that life went on, even after the protection of Iomedae's Swords had been withdrawn. The fields were greener than she had seen in many of her travels. As she entered the town the locals began to stir for the upcoming day. Shepherds were already taking their animals to graze in the nearby hills. The girl could smell the aromas of fresh bread and stew coming from nearby buildings. Despite the comfortable scene and smells she sensed something was amiss. Transactions were being conducted in low murmurs instead of the more vocalized way that was typical of Vigil, where even with the feeling of constant siege people remained happy. In Canterwall people somehow felt sad. Maybe it was not them, but her. She fought the tears that struggled to pour from her as she recognized a place or another, a familiar smell or sight.
The girl was so absorbed by her reverie that she didn't notice at first the people staring at her. Her elven ears, the symbol on her cloak and shoulder pads, even the shield tied to Argentum's saddle and the sword hanging from her waist; each of this brought attention to her. The holy symbol of The Inheritor, the "sword of valor", a longsword surrounded by a burst of light, was well known to the Canterwallers, and they were not fond of it. It brought dark memories, memories of loss and disillusionment; of better times that were suddenly ended. Besides which, everyone around her was clearly human and her mixed blood was obvious. Few of these people had seen an elf, much less a half-elf, except those who might remember her father. Somehow the girl was not sure that would be a good thing.
The girl could feel the stares and hear the whispers. She was not welcome here, not by a long shot, and still none dared oppose her as she continued along her way. Argentum walked slowly and cautiously, sensible to the growing tension.
The houses grew more clustered as the girl neared The Wall, the man-made boundary protecting the Count Palatine's castle and separating the poor of the town from the gentry and those with noble blood, or at least the money to pay the heavier taxes. But that wasn't the girl's destination. Atop a hill north of the town proper stood a stout structure of stone; the best defensible region apart from Count Palatine's castle. It was the Temple of the Inheritor. As she neared the hill and temple atop it, the air thickened oppressively. The multitude watching her had grown. It felt to the girl like a mockery of a victorious return. The girl looked from one face to the other searching for a familiar or friendly face. She found none.
Suddenly the crowd parted and through their midst strode a Varisian woman. She was of medium age, dressed in a long, dark tunic that could serve either for a funerary procession or a judge in court. Her pale skin was a shocking contrast against both her clothes and her long black, gray-speckled, hair which flowed to her waist. Despite the woman's age, her figure was clearly that of one who kept herself in constant training. The sober expression on her clean face could not hide her hostility. A silver and gold medallion in the form of a spire hung from her neck, showing her high rank in Pharasma's clergy.
Argentum stopped with a sudden neigh as the high cleric of Pharasma, goddess of balance, stepped in his way. The horse was well trained, but there was something unnatural emanating from the woman, some power of the grave surrounding the servant of the goddess of births and deaths.
"Halfbreed, those of your faith abandoned this province many years ago. What do you want here?" she said firmly, without amicability.
The girl sighed, for a moment speechless. She caressed Argentum's mane, and slowly dismounted. Every movement was precise and premeditated; a process to calm her racing mind. This woman, a Judge of Phrarasma, Judge Waletzko if she had heard the murmuring of the crowd correctly, there was something about her that made the girl's hairs stand up on the back of her neck. Something that made her want to draw her sword. But she knew well that in this town the woman's word might as well be law, so despite the judge's hostility, diplomacy was called for. The girl pulled away from Argentum, the reigns still in her hand. She looked directly into the judge's grey eyes, holding her own ground.
"Good day Judge. If I remember well our temple is not abandoned. I have come to see the Sword guarding it on a matter of personal business."
The older woman looked at the girl as if measuring her worth. The Judge crossed her arms in front of her, "Are you a Sword or a Sword Knight, girl? What is your rank? Can you make decisions for your church?"
The girl stood straighter, answering with pride. "My superiors have honored me with the title of Sword Knight of the 9th Circle."
"That will do. Your abandoned temple owes the town a thousand golden suns on rent, and to everyone's dismay the Count Palatine hasn't ordered its seizure, yet. Do yourself, your friend and all of us a favor, and take your lady friend back home. I will pay the debt myself; Canterwall needs that temple in capable hands."Waletzko turned and extended her hand toward a small and pudgy woman in the crowd, dressed not too differently from her, though her holy symbol was made of silver, not gold. "Norn Hannah Kappel here is looking for disciples to train; she requires the appropriate facilities and the place would serve her well."
The girl listened calmly, measuring her words before speaking. "I am sorry Judge, but I don't think we have any plans to sell at the moment. Nor do I think Sword Kosel has any plans to leave this land. She was, after all, born here. But if she decides so, I will escort her wherever she wishes." Then without waiting for any answer, the girl palmed her saddlebags, which made a characteristic metallic sound. "And you said a thousand golden suns, right? I assume the Count Palatine will let me pay on behalf of Sword Kosel, after all Vigil's gold is as good here as it's there."
Judge Waletzko's expression changed almost imperceptibly, but for the girl, used as she was to reading people's emotions, it was clear the judge was not pleased with her answer.
Before either could say anything, Norn Kappel intervened. "I am thankful for your good intentions Judge Waletzko, but I don't need a temple to practice my vocation," said the woman humbly.
The air around the three women grew even thicker with tension. The girl, not sure if she would make matters worse, touched Kappel's shoulder and smiled, "Norn, if you ever need a place to practice your craft, rest assured, Iomedae's doors are always opens to those who protect life." The girl couldn't help but feel kindly toward the older woman, for her face brought back fond memories of love and caring.
The tension eased a bit around them, even though Waletzko was unhappy about how things were going. The judge looked with non disguised anger at the saddlebags.
"Just leave Canterwall. Your ilk left this place many years ago. Finish what they started. Go and leave this town in the hands of those who really care for it."
And with that the priestess of the Lady of Graves left and, having nothing else to watch, so did most of the crowd. Soon enough the young girl in silvery armor and the older midwife in her midnight tunic were left alone.
"Please forgive Judge Waletzko, I believe she desires that temple as much as Groetus desires the end of the world," said the Norn truly apologetically, then she smiled looking quickly at the girl's saddlebags, "and apparently, both will have to continue waiting."
The girl nodded and thanked the Norn with a smile and was about to mount Argentum again, when the pudgy priestess stopped her.
"What is your name girl?" the Norn asked curiously, noticing the girl's half-breed and familiar features.
The girl looked around cautiously. "Norn, I believe it best that I not say."
Norn Kappel looked apprehensive, guilt in her eyes, yet she still persisted. "Girl, stop talking in circles, I know you
just what is your name?"
The young sword knight sighed and gave the older woman a sad smile. "Jordan, Jordan Fenix, ma'am. At thy service."