Lance Baron tripped over something as he rounded the corner to the barracks. He swore loudly and picked himself up. He was furious to see he'd fallen over a drunken hag who'd fallen asleep right there in the street! He hefted his boot into her ribs and she struggled in vain to get to her feet.
"You rancid little slut!" He roared. "Move it or I'll riddle you with my blade!"
"Why?" The beggar just blinked at the soldier. "I can't understand. It's all wrong."
"Clear off!" Lance bellowed and the beggar flinched. "Are you simple? Deaf?"
"I have to see the Queen. I don't know why. Where is the magic?" The beggar asked in bewilderment.
"Right! I've had enough of you lot today. You can spend the night in the lock-up with the other drunks." Captain Baron dragged the howling beggar along by the hair then once inside the yard, he flung open the lock-up door and threw her down half a dozen stone steps into the cellar. He dusted off his hands and went for some sleep.
Captain Hunter Bane was on duty the next day. The day after Zeal Day was known as the hangover shift, and that applied to soldiers and delinquents alike. He unlocked the cellar and the stench of stale beer, urine, vomit and sweat drifted out along with wails and groans of self inflicted discomfort.
"Come on you lot, out!" Hunter rattled a metal baton against the barred window of the door. "Ugh! Go and find a horse trough to clean yourselves and think yourselves lucky that buffoonery isn't a crime." The hungover miscreants shambled, blinking, into the daylight. "Ashamed of yourselves? Good. Clear off, the lot of you!" He peered into the fetid darkness and could see the outline of a figure crouched against the wall. "Oi! Come on! It's time to leave!" The figure shuffled closer to the wall.
"Must you shout?" Lance Baron felt utterly foul and had a head that was threatening to burst. "What's the problem?"
"We have a lodger. Maybe injured, I don't know."
"It will be if I have to go in there for it. OK you shit! Two seconds to get out of there, or I'll kick you to death!" Lance shouted and Hunter rolled his eyes.
"I'll do it shall I?" he walked down the steps to the remaining prisoner. He'd been down there a full two minutes and Lance was just about to intervene. "Lance? Hand me a torch down here."
"What's wrong?" Lance descended the steps, unhooking a lantern from the outside of the door as he did so. "Oh I remember her. Drunken whore in a stupor outside the gates."
"Take a good look at her. Don't you recognise her?" Hunter moved aside.
"Recognise her? I'd not go within ten feet of the rancid little bitch." Lance said in disgust.
"Lance she looks a lot like Zeal Dawnstar." Hunter said.
"What?" Lance laughed. "Oh belt up. Half the city looks like Zeal Dawnstar on Zeal Day." He had a closer look. "Passing resemblance, I suppose."
"We'd better get her to the barracks sick-room. If she's some sort of family descendant of Zeal Dawnstar's, then I'm not getting my balls chewed off for neglecting her." Hunter lifted the beggar off the floor and Lance kept the lamp. "She's battered and emaciated. Shit I can feel every bone in her spine." Hunter carried her to the sick-room and Lance sent for Mistress Bess. Bess was as close as they had to a herbalist and she had the ear of the Infirmary Tenders if their skills were needed.
Once Hunter saw the girl in daylight, he was even more convinced she was kin to Zeal Dawnstar and even Lance looked slightly uncertain. Mistress Bess looked quizzically at the soldiers when she saw her unconscious patient.
"No broken bones, Mistress, But a plenty of cuts and bruises. Oh and she stinks from here to the Stars, sorry about that." Hunter said.
"Who is she? She looks familiar." Bess rubbed a tuft of tattered hair between her fingers. "No cosmetic colouring there, just dirt."
"Lance presumed her to be drunk and unconscious last night. She's been in the cells. We don't know who she is." Hunter said.
"OK away with you. I'll clean her up first." Bess shoo'd the soldiers out of the room.
"She's a Dawnstar." Hunter said to Lance as they stood outside the sick-room.
"No. Lore is a Dawnstar. Clash is a Dawnstar. That in there is a beggar." Lance said flatly.
"Even Bess recognised her." Hunter pointed out.
"Hunter, I'm sure any kin of Zeal Dawnstar would have come forward before now. It's a coincidence." Lance said flatly.
"Can someone send for Jasper Icevale please?" Bess came out of the sickroom drying her hands on her apron.
"He hasn't been a Tender for years Bess." Hunter said.
"Icevale Tended Zeal Dawnstar when she got sick whilst pregnant. He used Air magic to draw a fever from her settled the unborn baby." Bess said seriously.
"You silly woman." Lance heaved a sigh. "Bess that is not Zeal Dawnstar. How in the realm could it be?"
"I don't know the ins and outs of magic." Bess shrugged. "Icevale's biggest self claim to fame is his treatment of the pregnant Zeal. His Air magic left a mark on her and I've just found a golden crescent on her belly. Icevale will know if it's his handiwork. Pretentious old duffer leaving his autograph on the girl." Bess rolled her eyes.
"Crescent or not, it is not possible for that girl of no more than two decades, to be Zeal Dawnstar. She won't have even been born when Zeal defeated the Harshlanders." Lance said in exasperation. "Use your heads the pair of you. Even if Zeal had survived out on the West Cliffs, she'd be forty years old now. Is she? No."
"I'm just a herb grower. I'm not here to offer explanations." Bess shrugged.
Jasper Icevale was in the sick-room less than sixty seconds and he was visibly shaken when he came back out. He could only manage a nod.
"Sacred shit." Hunter said in astonishment. "Zeal? Zeal herself?"
"Horse-shit!" Lance snapped. "There's something not right here and I don't like it. That is not Zeal Dawnstar!"
"Her husband would know." Jasper shrugged. "I'm going to tell the Queen." He grinned suddenly.
"I think not, you old loon." Lance glared at him. "She'll be told, don't worry. Merciful Gods she'll think we're all mad. OK get her to the Infirmary."
"She is Zeal, you know." Jasper nodded. "What will the Queen say about you shoving the saviour of Entia all over the place. Pfft Infirmary."
"Do as you see fit. I'm not committing myself further." Lance said stiffly.
Comet was shown into the Infirmary and then into a cold, bare room with a hard wooden cot against one wall. Brand was asleep on the cot and looked so very frail. He was horribly pale, right down to his lips and his fair hair was thin and dull. Comet was by no means a big man, but he was at least twice the weight of his sick twin. Brand's muscles had wasted away and his bones were right below his dry skin. Comet had been active all his life and opportunist thieves all had athletic muscles.
"Hey you!" Brand was watching Comet with watery blue eyes and a thin smile on his lips. "You should have woke me."
"I just got here." Comet sat on the stone floor by Brand's bed. "I made a small fortune yesterday! You'll be in Tegrid in no time."
"Zeal Day always was lucrative." Brand tried to laugh and fell into a coughing fit instead. "I'm OK. I'm feeling a bit better today, believe it or not." He lied.
"You look it too." Comet lied back. "Hey you'll never guess what's going on out there."
"Everyone's hungover and as sick as hounds." Brand guessed.
"Good guess!" Comet laughed. "Apart from that. The soldiers have picked up some beggar girl claiming to be Zeal Dawnstar."
"Oh Comet they pick up dozens of Zeal Dawnstars every year." Brand was tiring rapidly.
"No listen. They even got the old Tender who saw to her when she was pregnant with Duke Clash and they've even gone to the Queen so they can get Lord Dawnstar to go and verify it." comet said eagerly.
"That's amazing!" Brand was astonished. "How?"
"No one knows. There's more, Brand. They're saying she hasn't aged a single day!"
"Really? How can that be?" Brand was intrigued, as he was by all of Comet's tales.
"Who knows? She was a Mage though, so she still will be. Great Mother, Brand think of it!" Comet loved giving his brother fuel for his imagination, as well as news of Entia.
"Oh I am!" Brand nodded. "Ah I wish I could go with you right now Comet. You see so much and do so many things."
"We can see and do everything together once you're well."
"I'd like that. I remember when we were about six years old playing down by the River Zeal. Remember? I could do little more than sit on the grass and that was tiring. Do you remember it, Comet?" Brand's voice was becoming strained. "You climbed all the trees to get enough acorns for two crowns so we could be the Kings of Entia. You wanted to be a soldier and I wanted to be you." Comet felt the tears pricking his eyes. He couldn't recall the incident but it had meant alot to Brand.
"You need to rest, Brand." Comet moved a clump of hair away from his twin's forehead. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Yes? I'll find out what's going on with all this Zeal Dawnstar business and come and let you know."
"Yes you must." Brand smiled weakly. "Thank you Comet."
"What for? I love you. You're my brother." Comet smiled and left Brand to rest.
The barracks were surrounded by guards. Lore Dawnstar and his son, Clash, had an armed escort, just to stop the enthusiastic people of Entia from crushing them. The two Court Advisers were shown into an office while the sickroom was cleared of any other wounded except the beggar girl.
Bess had bathed the girl and treated her cuts. She'd even attempted to untangle her matted red hair.
"See?" Bess thumbed open one of the girl's eyelids and Hunter leant over. "Green as a spring lawn."
"You don't have to convince me, Mistress. Now she's cleaned up anyone could recognise her from the statue in the Square." Hunter said.
"We don't want anyone to recognise her. We want Lore Dawnstar to recognise her." Bess began tidying away her wash bowls.
Lore Dawnstar was hiding his shock very well infront of his son. His first reaction to all this was to laugh, presuming it to be some Zeal Day prank. When he heard that three quite respectable people had recognised his wife, including the Tender who'd left his healing mark on her pregnant belly, he laughed no more. Even without the wizard's crescent, Zeal was very recognisable, and very memorable. No one in Entia had hair as red as Zeal's, or eyes that were as sparkling green. Lore had often wondered how none of these striking features had been passed on to Clash. Clash was absolutely his father's son. The only physical difference between the two dark skinned and dark haired men was that Clash was six feet five, two inches taller than Lore, and Clash wore his black hair fashionably short. Lore's was unfashionably long and pony-tailed.
"This is going to complicate things." Clash commented.
"Without a doubt." Lore agreed. "Keep your composure, Clash, and trust me. I've always provided for you and I'll continue to do just that."
"Yes but The Queen ..."
"Shh. One step at a time, son." Lore scowled.
"Why don't you just say it isn't her? You'd know better than some ancient old Tender." Clash said irritably.
"I shall, if that's the case. It's not that simple. You saw those people out there Clash, they adore her. I doubt they'd just accept even my word without question. Anyway, have a bit of respect. without her sacrifice we wouldn't have the life we have today." Lore reminded him.
"And you wouldn't have The Queen's ... attention." Clash sighed.
"It's because I have The Queen's attention that you're in line for the throne. Remember that." Lore said sharply. Clash nodded.
"Gentlemen? They're ready for you." Captain Lance Baron escorted the Dawnstars from the office.
"What are your views on this, Captain Baron?" Lore asked.
"I prefer not to have views without viable substance, sir." Lance replied.
"A foot in both camps eh Captain?" Clash laughed and Lance didn't reply.
Even though Lore thought himself prepared, his colour drained and the breath caught in his throat when he saw Zeal. She was painfully thin and worn out, but still unmistakably his wife of twenty years ago. Bess lifted the sheet slightly so Lore could see the crescent marking and he had to sit down heavily on a chair. Clash couldn't take his eyes off Zeal, his mother. The mother he'd only ever known through statues and stories. He visibly jumped when her head moved and her eyelids flickered.
"Lore?" Zeal whispered. "The magic, Lore. I can't remember! Why can't I remember?" She clutched at Clash's hand and he was panic stricken.
"Zeal." Lore stood up and Zeal looked from one man to the other in complete confusion. "Zeal it's me, Lore. This is Clash."
"C ... C ... Clash? My Clash?" Zeal's green eyes were wide open in shock. "Yes I remember you. You were a baby."
"We all were at one time." Clash backed away uncertainly.
"Zeal what happened to you? Where have you been for twenty years?" Lore asked in a daze.
"I don't know." Zeal said weakly. "What is twenty years?"
"Excuse me Lord Dawnstar." Bess said quietly. "She really does need to rest. Excuse my boldness."
"I want to go home. I'm tired." Zeal looked completely overwhelmed. Lore and Clash looked at each other, then Bess, then Hunter.
"Obviously the barracks isn't the place for Lady Dawnstar, but she still needs care." Hunter pointed out.
"We can't put her in the Infirmary, father. The place is a pit." Clash spoke up.
"If I can make a suggestion?" Bess said. "It would be an honour for me to stay here right next to Lady Zeal until a suitable Tender can be appointed to her in your home."
"Excellent idea." Lore agreed. "Can I suggest someone other than Jasper Icevale? I think his enthusiasm may be a bit much for Lady Zeal."
"He'd herald every pot of ointment with a fanfare." Clash agreed.
"I'm sure Mistress Bess' expertise can be trusted." Lore nodded.
Comet reaped the benefits of the Zeal crowd outside the barracks, then the ones outside the Dawnstar's walled and gated house. He'd just cashed in his third collection of pickings, and was on his way back down the street, when he heard someone calling his name. Comet recognised Violet Veil as a respectable shop keeper specialising in oils and perfumes. He also recognised her as an associate of The Web.
"Share a jug of ale, Comet." Violet turned into a side street and entered the Blue Drum Tavern. Comet had little choice but to follow her.
"Miss Veil." Comet sat at a table with Violet and eyed her warily, an uncomfortable feeling creeping up his spine.
"You're to report to Tender Antal Redsong at the Infirmary. Don't use the front door, go round the side of the building. Antal will meet you there." Violet told him.
"W ... what? The Infirmary?" Comet blinked in surprise.
"That was the order." Violet said meaningfully. Comet's head was reeling. Order from where? Shadow? It had to be!
"Do you know what I'm to do?" Comet asked.
"No. I merely pass on the message. Go. Antal will instruct you further." Violet nodded towards the door and Comet stumbled through it. Why had Shadow chosen him for a job? He was only a petty thief, a pickpocket, a rat. Comet could scarecely believe that Shadow would even know of his existence, let alone select him for a purpose. No one ever saw these selections as an honour, the price of failure was a sure death.
Antal Redsong was waiting for Comet in the Infirmary grounds. He was immediately ushered into a square building that stood by itself and was obviously a wash room and laundry building. It was empty apart from the two men.
"Through there is a bath tub and clothes." Antal nodded towards a side room.
"What's going on, Antal? I've been told nothing." Comet asked cautiously.
"I'd rather talk to someone who wasn't covered in dust, sweat and dressed in rags. Bath tub." Antal busied himself with a shelf full of bandages. Comet sighed and went to the side room.
"Antal! Clothes? There are only Tenders' tunics and leggings in here."
"They are clothes, are they not?" Antal said casually. Comet walked out of the room dressed in his under britches.
"You want me to masquerade as a Tender?" Comet asked in disbelief. "Are you off your stump?"
"You think this is my idea?" Antal scowled. Comet grimaced and went back into the bath room.
Thirty minutes later, Comet emerged clean and groomed and dressed in the pale blue garb of the Tenders.
"How do I look?" He grinned, plucking at the hem of his tunic.
"Like a twenty year old thug in Tenders' dress. I have two days to shape you up." Antal said.
"So what am I being shaped up for? Don't say it's running drugs, Antal, please." Comet asked in dread. He'd done a few illegal things in his life, but that wasn't one of them.
"You aren't staying here. You're to be Zeal Dawnstar's personal Tender." Antal frowned and clearly had misgivings about all this.
"You know, for a minute I thought you said Zeal Dawnstar's personal Tender." Comet felt the hysterics rising. "Zeal Dawnstar? The Zeal Dawnstar? Fifteen thousand Barbarians single handedly? Returned from the dead after twenty years? Are we on the same one here?" He babbled.
"Are you finished?" Antal snapped.
"No!" Comet flung up his hands. "Antal I'm not a Tender! I wouldn't know a poultice from a pill!"
"As far as her injuries go, they're quite light. A few cuts and bruises. I'm sure you can manage a wash-cloth and some ointment. The only thing of concern is two cracked ribs. They should heal naturally but you're to report to me if you see any problems."
"This is insane!" Come objected. "I'll be found out in hours! Minutes! Seconds! Why not send a real Tender?"
"Shadow sent you." Antal said flatly. "I'm sure you'd think twice about asking these questions of him in person."
"So the job's complete when Lady Zeal is fully recovered? I'm missing something here. I'm sure Shadow didn't contract me to smear ointment on Lady Zeal." Comet looked evenly at Antal.
"I was warned that you'd question this." Antal said in irritation. "I was told to reveal your full instruction if you insisted. I would have preferred to tutor you for a few days first."
"Unlucky. I'm insisting." Comet sat on a pile of bed linen.
"Very well. You're to glean information from Lady Dawnstar. Her disappearance was magical, her return was magical and her physical appearance is magical. Shadow wants reasons and he wants them first." Antal said.
"Insane, as I said. Antal, what in the realm makes you think she'll talk to me? Even as a Tender I won't be considered close or important enough." Comet said desperately.
"That's your department." Antal shrugged. "It's my guess you were chosen because of your buoyant and charismatic nature. Seduce her if you have to."
"Seduce her!" Comet exploded in sheer shock. "Aren't you forgetting her six foot three husband and six foot five son? I can't do this. I don't mean unwilling, although I am, I mean not able. I'm just not qualified for such a big undertaking. You'll have to tell Shadow I'm not up to this, Antal."
"Comet, Shadow predicted this reaction." Antal chewed his lip and looked very uncomfortable indeed. "As a mark of his appreciation to you for accepting this job, he's made provisions for Brand in his own Keep." Comet's blood turned to ice in his veins. They were holding Brand as leverage to force Comet to do this impossible task. Comet sprang towards the door and sprinted over the Infirmary grounds before Anatal had even got to his feet. "Comet! Damn you man. Comet he's gone!" Antal followed as quickly as he could. Comet knocked over anyone in his way, Tenders and patients alike. He kicked open the door to Brand's room and it was totally empty. Even the cot had been stripped of its linen. "Comet come on." Antal tried to catch his breath. "Are you trying to uncover yourself before you even start? Come on lad. You have to think of Brand." Comet could think of nothing else as he followed Antal in a numb daze.
Zeal gradually became more coherent and for longer lengths of time.
"Why am I still here?" She asked in irritation. "Where's Lore? Are you keeping him from me?"
"Lord Dawnstar is preparing your home for your convalescence, Lady Dawnstar." Hunter Bane explained, again.
"Oh yes, I see." Zeal muttered. "I have ... things ... in my head."
"Give yourself time. Once you've rested, you'll remember everything." Hunter reassured her.
"No not those things." Zeal tugged at a tuft of her tattered hair. "Things! Things! They sparkle my skin." She gave her scalp a scratch and Bess went to investigate.
"Bugs." Zeal agreed in annoyance.
"I'll heat some water and wash that for you." Bess offered and Zeal nodded. Bess filled a jug of water and walked by Zeal to get to the stove to heat it. Zeal yawned and waved her hand towards the jug. Within seconds, steam began to rise from the water and Bess put the jug down quickly. Both Bess and Hunter were rooted to the spot in shock.
"Do you have a brush, Bess?" Zeal asked. Bess nodded and hurried through the door. Hunter eventually unfroze and darted over to Zeal's bedside.
"Lady Zeal! No one does that anymore." He nodded towards the jug.
"Don't they? Why?" Zeal peered into the jug.
"It's not necessary now-a-days and it's ... well it's against the law." Hunter said awkwardly.
"Oh. Well that can't be right. That makes no sense." Zeal frowned.
"I believe that magic for ladies was illegal even in your day, Lady Zeal." Hunter reminded her.
"Umm ... is that so? I broke the law?"
"I think they made an exception that time." Hunter smiled. "Here's Bess with your hairbrush. I'll leave."
"Leave for where?" Zeal asked as Bess tackled her hair.
"No. Leave the room."
"Well because you'll be attending to your personal needs." Hunter said awkwardly.
"The bugs. Yes?"
"Partly, yes. I'm sure you'd like to change your clothes too." Hunter edged owards the door.
"You's stop me doing so?" Zeal asked in confusion.
"No, I wouldn't stop you." Hunter couldn't help but smile at the absurdity of the conversation. "I think Bess is more suited to this than I am. Excuse me please." He made his escape and left Bess with a bit of explaining to do, regarding who not to undress infront of.
Comet was introduced to his employers, the Dawnstars, and given a room that was palatial compared to his shed. It had two windows, a proper bed and a carpet! Comet stood infront of a mirror and tried to force his brain to work sensibly. Had Antal been serious about seducing Lady Zeal? Comet had always been vainly pleased about his physical appearance. At five feet ten he could get away with being slightly underweight because the weight he had was muscle. He had a healthy, tanned complexion due to his outdoor life and Comet thought that brought out the best in his blue eyes and his blonde hair. If he could make one wish, it would be for a bit more beef on his ribs. His diet often consisted of scraps and hope, sometimes minus the former. Even with his own opinions of himself, Comet seriously doubted he would have a feather in a gale's chance with the magnificent Zeal Dawnstar. He'd also just been standing within feet of her spouse and son and that confirmed the impossibility of that notion.
"The Lady is here." Bracken, the footman, said from Comet's door. Comet nodded and grabbed his bag of medicines. "Nervous?"
"Very." Comet admitted.
"It's quite miraculous isn't it?" Bracken lead him to the lounge. "Lord Dawnstar, the Tender's here." Comet stepped into the room where Lady Zeal was sitting on a couch. He had to do a serious double take when he saw her and when he did, he wanted to run and jump into the nearest well. It was the beggar girl who'd stumbled out of his doorway! He tried and better tried to recall if he'd said anything vulgar or insulting to her. Had he called her a wench? Or was it a hag?
"Zeal this is the Tender from the Infirmary. Comet Galewind."
"Galeraven. It's an honour to meet you, Lady Dawnstar." Comet bobbed his head in a bow. She looked frighteningly pale and weak, but endlessly more civilised that she'd done the last time they'd met.
"Why do I need a Tender?" Zeal asked Lore.
"Zeal I've just told you." Lore said patiently. "We need you to recover your strength and the Infirmary and the barracks weren't suitable. Remember?"
"Oh yes, you told me." Zeal scratched her scalp, despite Bess' efforts. Lore grimaced slightly. "I have to see the Queen. Umm ... I think I do, anyway. Where's Lore?"
"I'm Lore. I just told you that too. Clash is your son and he's seeing to business. He's not me." Lore explained, again.
"He's like you." Zeal commented.
"Yes I know." Lore turned his attention to Comet. "As you can see, Lady Zeal gets myself and Clash confused. If she mentions, or asks for either of us, clarify who she means."
"Yes of course." Comet nodded. Zeal yawned and rubbed her eyes, then sagged down on the couch, sticking her legs out akimbo infront of her, making a very un-ladylike spectacle. Comet felt a giggle stirring and had to look at his feet.
"Zeal!" Lore darted at her. "Er ... yes. You must be tired. I'll get Serai to take you to your room." He helped her to her feet.
"Do I undress with the Serai in the room?"
"She's your serving girl." Lore steered Zeal in Serai's direction. "Comet will check you after you've slept."
"Absolutely." Comet tried not to sound too full of dread.
"Apart from the physical scratches and bruises, she's also quite confused." Lore said, closing the door. "She seems to have forgotten how to behave in company. I'm sure you know what I mean by the way she just slumped down to sleep."
"I'm a Tender sir. Lady Dawnstar's standards of etiquette aren't paramount for now." Comet said, sagely, and felt quite pleased with himself.
"Good. Just be aware of it and make allowances for it. Serai's always at hand, so is Bracken. We also have a cook called Delph and a serving girl named Mittin. You'll see alot of Clash, although he has his own rooms near the Palace. Obviously he has the run of the house, as I do. You'll take your meals in the kitchen unless otherwise invited by myself, Lady Zeal, or Duke Clash. I think that about covers it."
"Thank you, Lord Dawnstar." Comet said politely.
"We've already had lunch, but go and ask Delph to feed you." Lore dismissed Comet.
Dawnstar Of Entia