I feel sure, however, that three more seasons lie in front of me.
They walked around the building, stopping for Liavan to take cuttings of bushes and dig up a few small things. The descendant plants suggested that there had been kitchen, herb and ornamental gardens back in the days when the building had been in use, and rare or exotic varieties seemed to have been a feature of them. Liavan had no idea what some of the plants she was sampling were, but others were well known garden and medicinal herbs. All of them apparently thrived in total neglect, which was a useful characteristic and the ones she or Warden Nierd didn't recognise all looked potentially useful. There was also the possibility that now the wardens of the royal preserve knew that the building was here she wouldn't be allowed back. The three of them paused for lunch when they returned to the yellow clay forecourt, and Liavan thought that her cheese and fruit looked more appetising than their handfuls of dried foods that had survived however long it had taken them to cross the preserve on foot.
The walk back was made usefully informative for Liavan by Warden Nierd's willingness to name every small bird that they saw. Both men agreed with Liavan that the yellow clay seemed to have been picked for plant retardant properties, and Warden Nierd suggested that perhaps it had been cut as tiles or bricks and laid on the surface when the track was laid. "The road to the Royal Lodge was faced with Bunriing clay that way," he said. "This looks like it was a grand avenue once, and that was the sort of thing they did with those tiles. The Urmaghs liked to make a grand entrance and their engineers liked to only do a thing once."
"That's fair," pointed out Ky Arriagh. "No-one wants to have to keep doing the same thing over and over again unnecessarily."
It was afternoon, but not late afternoon when they emerged from the trees and instead of leading them straight to the hole the deer had dug beside her garden fence, Liavan first took them to the edge of the slope overlooking the Kingsbridge with its view of The King's Head beyond. "There's the inn," she said, pointing at it. "To get there from here, you just have to follow the track across the hill, down the slope to the road, and then turn right. That will bring you to the Kingsbridge down there and, as you can see, the inn is just beyond that."
"Or we could go straight down the hill to the road," pointed out Warden Nierd.
"You could," conceded Liavan, "but I haven't been that way myself yet and I can't comment on why they didn't cut the track up this slope instead of the one they chose. They could probably have done it if they'd gone back and forth across the hill a few times, but I assume that they had their reasons. Before you make up your minds which way you're going to take, would you like me to show you the spot where I saw the stag or stags?"
"That was the point of coming this way, wasn't it?" Liavan thought that Warden Nierd was still uncomfortable that Ky Arriagh had made her such an open and unconditional offer of payment. "Lead on Withemistress."
She smiled at them both. "It's this way," she made a 'follow me' gesture and set off back towards the track and her house. There were still soft, muddy spots among the grasses and other plants, and she picked her way carefully back to the track, so she didn't wind up sprawling on the ground in front of the two men.
"There's couch in among the tussock grasses," commented Warden Nierd. "I wouldn't have expected that up here."
"That was one of the first things that made me wonder who had been here before," Liavan told him. "There's more couch and less other things on the other side of the track."
Ky Arriagh asked, "What is this couch and why is it significant?"
"It's a type of grass," replied Warden Nierd. "It only turns up around places where people live. If you find a patch of couch out on its own, then you should go looking for where the building used to be. There could be something useful like a well or something dangerous like a well or a cellar."
"Ah." Ky Arriagh sounded satisfied, then he abruptly stopped moving.
Liavan looked at him, but couldn't see anything wrong with him, except that he was still and staring at something in front of him. She turned to look at what he was looking at, at the same time Warden Nierd did, but all she saw was her house surrounded by her beginnings of a garden.
It was Warden Nierd who asked, "Ky Arriagh, is something wrong?"
In response, Ky Arriagh raised his right hand and pointed at Liavan's little, unornamented house of stone with its slate roof and asked, "What is known of the enchanter, sorcerer, or wizard who lives there? There is much magic within the fabric of that building and I would prefer not to anger its owner. In my land, the possessors and wielders of such power can be arbitrary in their enforcement of their boundaries."
"I'm not taking you inside the garden fence if that makes you feel any better," offered Liavan, mentally trying to adjust to the idea that the existence of her house could produce an effect like that on anyone.
Meanwhile, Warden Nierd was saying, "Um, Ky Arriagh, you do know what a withemistress is, don't you?"
Ky Arriagh turned to look at the older man and replied, "A withemistress is a wise woman, isn't she? Interested in herbs and remedies...." His voice trailed off even as his hand gestured in the direction of Liavan's basket.
"Withemasters and withemistresses are what we have since the grand and mighty wizards, sorcerers, and enchanters got themselves wiped out in the war that overthrew the Urmagh kings," corrected Warden Nierd gently. "This is probably Withemistress Haucmel's own house."
"It is," confessed Liavan with a slightly rueful smile. "Your reaction to my house was, in some ways, quite flattering. I take it that you can see magic?"
"It runs in the family," he said quietly, "but I've never done anything with it. My mind doesn't seem to work the right way: I can spend hours practicing at the butts with my bow, but magical theory and cantrips bore me beyond belief. I was always falling asleep at my desk when I was supposed to be minding our magic tutor." Liavan noticed that the top of his ears were really quite pointed compared to those of everyone she knew while the lobes were quite long and fleshy. The tops of his ears were also turning pink and Liavan realised that he was blushing. He added resignedly, "What do I really owe you for aid?"
"I am not in the habit of saying one thing and meaning another," replied Liavan quietly. "What I said is what I meant. Warden Nierd has been generous with his plant and bird identifications, and you have both been very patient with my interests today. The spot where I say the deer is over this way. Are you still coming?"
He stood there for a moment, apparently nonplussed.
"I wasn't planning on eating you, you do know that, don't you?" Liavan smiled at the foreigner, who managed to make his mild confusion attractive without trying to.
"Do they have those stories here too?" His confidence was back. "Every decade or so there's a chanting mob that has to be persuaded not to burn someone's tower to the ground."
"I believe that they're only stories," said LIavan honestly, as she picked her way carefully between the muddy spots. "I mean, why eat people? Aside from diseases and moral issues, it would bring on all sorts of legal and social complications. It involves murder for a start, unless you think that eating random dead things, or people, you found just lying around already dead was a safe thing to do."
"No!" He sounded revolted.
"Good, we're in agreement then." She nodded firmly in emphasis, and Warden Nierd laughed. Apparently he found them amusing.
Liavan couldn't help but notice that both men were careful not to touch her wooden garden fence when she led them around the trackside corner at the western end of the garden. "It was here," she said, pointing at the hole. "I believe it dug that hole. I admit that I decided that because I couldn't do anything about it, and I believe that it can't get into my garden, I went back to bed and tried to ignore how close it actually was."
Both men looked at the little house, the distance from its western wall to the hole, and Ky Arriagh bent down to measure something Liavan couldn't see with his hand. Warden Nierd replied, "That may have been wise, withemistress. It would have been what, five times its length from the wall of your house? No distance at all to a deer."
"I have to agree," added Ky Arriagh as he straightened. "My ancestors used to use them as cavalry mounts, and this one is a wild animal. One of the reasons my ancestors found them so useful was that magic didn't affect them as easily as it does horses, donkeys, or men. They were said to slip through magical barriers as if they were stepping between the runes."
Warden Nierd asked curiously, "What about mules? Or didn't your ancestors cross donkeys and horses?"
Ky Arriagh laughed. "Mules don't deal with magic at all, unless they're forced into it. If you try to get close to a magical item or effect while riding a mule, you'll probably find yourself on the ground while it moves to what it considers to be a safe distance."
The warden smiled and commented, "I knew mules were sensible animals."
Liavan laughed at his tone and expression, then asked, "I take it that this could be what you're looking for. What do you intend to do now?"
Ky Arriagh looked around and answered, "I'd like to set up a hide in those trees," he pointed at the trees in the gully, "so I can keep watch overnight and see if the animal comes back. Then I'd like to track it see if I can find more of them."
"These are the Duke of the Azides' lands, not the royal preserve," pointed out Warden Nierd. "We should have a conversation with His Grace and arrange permission to plan catching wild life in his domain. It would be polite and politic."
"You are right," agreed Ky Arriagh, "and when I return to build the hide and stalk the beasts, I must let Withemistress Haucmel know what I am doing. It would be impolite to watch her property," he added quickly, "for completely proper reasons, without telling her what I was doing."
"So, I'll be seeing you both again, after you've been to see the duke?" Liavan found herself smiling happily at them both.
"Of course," Ky Arriagh smiled back. "I can't watch your property line without telling you I'm here - that could lead to all sorts of misunderstandings."
"Saints know we don't want any misunderstandings," added Warden Nierd. "I imagine getting to wherever the Duke is at the moment, and then back again, will take some time so don't expect us for a few weeks, Withemistress Haucmel."
"It will take how long it takes," replied Liavan. "I hope you're comfortable at The King's Head tonight and I look forward to your safe return."
The two men set off for the inn then, and Liavan waved them good bye before going into her garden to pot up her cuttings and put her small plants in the ground.
It had one way and another, been a very good day.
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