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A Measure of Solace

Chapter Six

As the days passed, so did the miles. Zeera traveled east, stopping at each town populous enough to house a tavern, seeking a worthy master for Solace. But the wooden puzzles thwarted each attempt, and ultimately tempers flared and carved pieces went flying.

 

By their fourth stop, a hillside village called Albevo, Zeera’s food had run out.

 

“I’ll have to charge for the contest,” she told Solace. “I don’t want to, but I can’t starve, and I won’t steal.”

 

It is wise to require some investment from each candidate, he said. And most should be willing.

 

But when she made the fee known that night in the common room of the Dozen Daughters, there were grumbles of discontent.

 

“Sure, it’s a gorgeous bow,” a hefty bald man said. “But does it work?”

 

Others voiced their agreement, questioning Solace’s worth as a weapon.

 

“A demonstration, perhaps?” someone asked.

 

“Yes, show us what it can do,” said the bald man, and the others joined in.

 

“Is this a good idea?” the girl asked Solace in a low voice, turning away from the crowd as she picked him up and moved to one end of the large room. “It didn’t work last time.”

 

We can do it, Solace assured her. You know the principle. You must simply maintain your emotion until the arrow has formed and flown.

 

The girl swallowed. “All right.” Feeling the emotion was one thing, but maintaining it was another. No matter what she felt, it was fleeting.

 

When she turned back, the crowd had parted, leaving a wide path across the common room, and someone had set a wooden pail on a table near the far wall, a good twenty strides distant. With trembling hands, Zeera gripped Solace’s body and held him up, her fingers light on his string. She could already feel his sorrow, the deep despair that had clung to him like a fog since the loss of his previous master. She closed her eyes and summoned forth her own despair, the loss she had felt upon losing her beloved mother. It filled her, but emptied her as well, creating a swirling pit of nothingness within her. With this emotion as her fuel, she slowly drew back Solace’s string.

 

When Zeera heard gasps from the crowd, she opened her eyes. An ethereal arrow of blue smoke sat nocked along the length of her arm. She was so stunned by its arcane beauty she almost forgot her intention, but the buzz of Solace’s voice reminded her.

 

Now! Let it fly before the emotion fades.

 

Zeera aimed at the bucket and let go. The blue arrow of sorrow flew across the common room and struck the wooden pail, making it topple backward off the table with a clatter.

The bald man picked the bucket up, showing the astounded crowd the hole in its side, surrounded by white frost. But of the arrow, there was no sign.

“Amazing,” he said. “I’ll pay a silver for a chance at such a bow.”

“I will too!” someone else called.

“Yes, a silver!” said another.

Soon the excited crowd had gathered back around Zeera, and people were thrusting their coins toward her, all speaking at once.

A decent demonstration, Solace told her. Your power is greatly lacking, however. You should have blasted an icy hole in the very wall, let alone the bucket. Such is my potential under the skill of a suitable master.

Zeera didn’t respond. Not only was she pleased she had even created an arrow, but she was busy speaking to eager contestants and stuffing her pockets with silver.

 

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After another disappointing evening, during which only two people solved the first puzzle and no one solved the second, the pair were preparing to leave the Dozen Daughters when something tickled at Solace’s senses—a feeling of ill will emanating from somewhere in the common room. He cast out his magical senses and found three figures lingering in one corner, trying to pretend they had no interest in the girl and her magical bow.

We have unwanted onlookers.

Surreptitiously Zeera peered around the room as she secured the last of her belongings. “I see them.”

They are brigands, most likely after me. Or perhaps your coin.

“Probably both. What do I do?”

Stay a night here. You have enough money to pay now, and the innkeeper will make sure they do not bother you.

Zeera swallowed and nodded, her eyes darting nervously toward the strangers. “Good idea.” Her tension was palpable to Solace, even from where he sat on the table.

Here, allow me.

As the girl picked him up, Solace opened a channel and drew out Zeera’s anxiety and fear, funneling it into himself and stowing it away as he had with his sorrow.

“Thank you,” she said.

You are welcome. You know, of all emotions, fear is the most impractical.

“That may be,” she whispered, “but we humans can’t always help what we feel.”

Solace considered this as Zeera slung him over her shoulder and went to seek out the innkeeper, coins in hand.

 

 

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The next morning, the suspicious trio was gone, but as Zeera left the Dozen Daughters, she spied someone she recognized sitting on a bench across the street.

“It is that woman,” she told Solace in a whisper. “The same one from Velzuna.”

She had long gray hair in many braids, with a green scarf across her forehead and a matching green tunic. Beside her, a worn wooden staff leaned against the bench.

Worry not. This is a common route for anyone heading east. Even if she is following us, I sense nothing distressing about her countenance.

Zeera nodded. “Still, I’m not sure I like being this popular.”

The pair continued their travels east, moving from town to town and village to village, seeking a worthy master for Solace. In each tavern, Zeera made one shot as a demonstration before the contestants paid her their silver. And every time, she felt her control over her emotions had grown, with each arrow a little more solid, and each shot a little more powerful.

Still, however, Solace seemed disappointed.

If you could but sustain your emotion longer than a few seconds, he would say, you would see just how impressive we could be together.

But try as she might, the girl could only hang on to each feeling for a short time.

Between towns, the pair talked about everything under the sun to help pass the time. Zeera spoke of life in the valley, of her family and of the pleasant memories she had of her late mother. Solace spoke of what he recalled from ages past, plus what little he remembered before Zeera had found him at the base of the cliff. They covered many miles and gained plenty of silver, but still no wielder for Solace.

At a few of their stops, Zeera glimpsed the gray-haired woman, usually from a distance.

If Solace doesn’t think she’s a threat, she thought, then neither will I.

In one town, Zeera thought she spied the three brigands as well and vowed to travel as much as possible during the day while staying the night at an inn whenever she could. This dipped greatly into her wealth of silver but was worth it for her peace of mind. There were some nights when she had to make camp in a tree near the road, but that couldn’t be helped—most towns were at least a few days’ walk apart.

I have my knives, and I have Solace, she told herself. I might not be a mighty hunter, but if anything happens, I can use my bow if I must.

One afternoon, as they followed the forested road toward the lakeside town of Lovaga, Zeera felt a swell of negative emotion from Solace.

It is as I feared, the bow lamented. There seems to be none suitable among your kind.

Zeera shifted the strap of her satchel. “And we’re running out of time. You’d best choose someone soon, or you’ll go to the first archer with enough coin.” She had meant it to sound jovial, but the girl couldn’t have felt gloomier. The idea of selling Solace now gave her a stab of dismay deep in her gut.

Life over the past few weeks had been good, from the coin, and the food and shelter it bought, to the bow’s company. Haughty though he might be, Zeera had grown to enjoy conversations with Solace, and the way his magic eased her every discomfort.

But she couldn’t keep him. She couldn’t. He needed a proper master, and she needed the money. And he had told her in no uncertain terms that someone like her, someone with a quick temper, was not suitable to wield him. She couldn’t maintain the control over her emotions necessary to create the great bursts of magical power that could use his full potential.

Still, she could create an arrow. She could focus her emotions enough to make a shot. Wasn’t that enough?

Girl!

Solace’s voice was a sudden vibration in her head.

Someone’s here. The brigands!

Zeera halted and took in a sharp breath, looking around. A bearded man stepped out from behind a tree to her left, and a thickset, stubble-headed woman crept out from the shadows behind her on the right. Ahead, a third figure stood from where he had been sitting on a fallen log. He approached at a walk, an axe in his hand and a look of distinct malice in his eye.

I am sorry! Solace cried in her mind. If I had not been so caught up in my own misery, I would have sensed them in time for you to run.

“Perhaps,” whispered Zeera, her hand tight around the bow’s limb where he curved near her thigh. But she had been distracted by her own thoughts and was equally to blame. Either way, it was too late for running. They were surrounded.

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