Chapter 14
Songs and Scholars

Ancient Forest, Byrn; Anno Regis 1275

"I am a fairly well-educated man for my time. Perhaps a little over-educated for my profession... I have always wondered about the value of scholarship in a world where superiority is determined by the slash of a sword rather than a penstroke. The ancients say knowledge is power. I suppose there may come a day when warriors are outdated and the scholars reign supreme."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The group had traveled hard for the past two weeks. Catherine rarely allowed them more than four hours of sleep at night and only a precious few breaks broke up endless walking. Thoroughly exhausted from the brutal pace, Mark was more than a little jealous of Catherine's ability to push her body beyond its natural boundaries. He did not doubt the others felt the same way.
After the camp had been set up, Mark was about to offer some food to Catherine, but she was nowhere to be found. Since the others had already fallen asleep, Mark did not want to disturb them and set off to look for her without saying anything. After walking around for a few minutes, he heard something in the distance.
As he approached the source of the sound, he realized it was a voice singing in a tongue he had never heard before. The eloquence of the foreign language only sweetened the beautiful voice it came from. As Mark drew closer, he saw Catherine sitting on a rock facing the East. The song stopped abruptly, but Catherine did not move.
You would have surprised me if you had not been so charmed by my song.
Catherine turned to face him.
"Oh, that is right," she said. "I forgot that you prefer me to speak to you directly."
Mark blushed. "No, it's okay..."
Catherine gave him a blank look. "You should know by now that you cannot lie to me."
Mark could only stammer unintelligibly. Amused by his discomfiture, Catherine smiled. The flustered swordsman soon regained enough composure to resume their conversation.
"What were you singing?" he asked. "I've never heard that tongue before."
Catherine looked to the stars. "It is in the tongue of Elves," she said, "an ancient ballad about two brothers. One was a great warrior and the other was a sage devoted to peace. The warrior died in battle and the sage lived out his years in harmony. It is a lesson to those who would recklessly tread the path of destruction."
"How did you learn such a song? There haven't been Elves in the world for hundreds of years."
"The song has been passed down for many generations in my family," she replied. Her voice was distant, as if she was traveling back to those long-lost times. "Before there was Byrn, before there was Ban... Ages and ages past... In fact, it is said that the blood of that Elven sage runs in my veins. I cannot see far enough into the past to confirm it, but if it is true, it could be the source of my powers."
It was a dizzying thought, Catherine tracing her descent thousands of years into the past. It explained a lot, though. She did have an otherworldly air to her and it would not be too surprising if there was nonhuman blood in her ancestry.
"Am I really such an oddity?" she asked, still looking at the stars.
"No, of course not," Mark said reflexively.
In all truth, Mark felt cornered by the question. He knew she would know his answer before he even said it. After all, there was not a single thought in his head he could hide from her. Nevertheless, he struggled for the right words to elaborate.
"You're... different," he said, "unique. I mean, it's not like any two people are identical anyway. Your powers are a part of it, but it's also the way you carry yourself, how you treat people. You put it all together and it's, well... unnerving..."
Catherine turned her head to him. Her expression gave no clue to her reaction. "I appreciate your honesty," she said, "and your tact. I find it fascinating how you mix both, even in your own mind. You show an unusual amount of concern for others."
"Well, I, ah..."
While Mark was busy fumbling his words, Catherine hopped off the rock and made a few tentative steps toward the camp.
"We should head back," she said. "The others will get worried before long."
By the time they returned to the camp, Ignatiy had woken up and was eyeing them with a lewd grin on his round face.
"After all the walking we've done, I'm surprised you had enough energy to be trysting," he said with a snicker.
Mark could feel his face reddening, but Catherine was as indifferent as ever. She put her hand on his shoulder.
"You should not let another man's jealousy affect you so."
Catherine leaned forward to plant a kiss on his cheek and smiled softly before walking away. Nonplussed, Ignatiy could only stare blankly, his mouth hanging slightly agape. Mark tried to maintain what was left of his composure and sat down by the fire.
Having also woken up sometime before Mark and Catherine got back, Stefan snorted, "So this is how the chovexani bewitches you, eh?"
Mark stuffed some dried meat in his mouth to avoid answering. Much to his relief, he managed to escape further torment for the rest of the night. When morning came, no one brought up the subject again. They broke camp promptly and were on their way in no time at all.

* * *

After only four more days of travel, the group finally arrived in Sagia. It was aptly titled 'the scholar city', for it catered exclusively to the scholars and no one else. There were no inns, no shops, and no taverns. The only buildings were the university, the libraries and the dormitories. Anything else had been abandoned as a distraction many decades ago.
Catherine looked around as if she were a hound trying to catch the scent of a fox. Her eyes locked on one of the libraries and she beckoned for the others to follow. As they entered the library, she looked around some more, trying to pinpoint her target.
"This is the library of ancient history," she explained. "The one we are looking for is in here."
It did not take her long to find that particular one. Catherine stopped in front of a portly, bespectacled young man clad in the robes of a second-year student. Poring over several dusty volumes, he was so preoccupied that he did not even notice her standing only a few feet away.
"Arkady," she said.
The young man looked up at them with a start.
"What's this?" he asked nervously. "Who are you? How do you know my name?"
"I know everything you know," she replied. "I am here to offer you a rare opportunity, the chance to gain an advantage over your colleagues. We will take you to a treasure trove of lost lore."
The candlelight glinted off his lenses. He had taken the bait.
"The ruins in the desert?"
Catherine nodded. "Precisely." She turned away from him. "Pack what you need. We will wait for you by the entrance of town. Do not tarry."
While Arkady scrambled to return the volumes to their places on the shelves, Catherine led the others out of the library. When they reached the town's entrance, Mark built up the courage to ask for a more complete explanation.
"How do you know where we need to go?"
"I told you that my ability to see into the future is limited," she replied. "I do not know how to defeat Kyrios, but if he is truly as grave a threat as I believe him to be, the ancient diviners must have made some note of him. We could spend weeks sorting through the archives here or we could go directly to the source."
"The ruins of Ban?" Mark asked. "You mean the old castle town?"
"Yes, I have heard that one of the castle walls is inscribed with prophecies of the future. I am certain that among those prophecies lies the key to our victory."
"Unless they prophesied we'd lose," Ignatiy said in grim humor.
Catherine's features darkened. "That is a possibility."
The group fell silent. None of them had any real idea what they were up against. It was one thing to have the odds stacked against you, but to have your defeat predicted hundreds of years ago...
Sensing their unease, Catherine sought to distract them with other tasks.
"There is no need for us to stand around here doing nothing until Arkady arrives," she said. "We should take this opportunity to restock. My father was an alumnus of the university, so they should be willing to cooperate with us. Mark, Stefan, and Olofer, come with me. Ignatiy, you can wait here in the odd chance Arkady shows up before we get back."
"Why do I have to wait here all by myself?" Ignatiy whined.
"Because you would only complain about carrying the supplies I intend to get," Catherine replied bluntly. "I would really rather not hear it."
Catherine left Ignatiy to grumble to himself while she led the others away. First, she went to the university proper, an expansive structure modeled on classical forms, and asked her three companions to stay behind. After a few minutes, she returned with a middle-aged man wearing the crimson robes of a trustee.
"And who are these people, Katia?" the trustee asked.
"They are my traveling companions," Catherine replied.
The trustee looked at them somewhat nervously and leaned over to whisper in Catherine's ear. He may have intended for them not to hear him, but he clearly did not know how to speak secretly. Even the deaf Olofer could tell what he was saying.
"Are you sure about this, Katia? I am not entirely comfortable with the thought of you in the exclusive company of young men." He glanced at Stefan. "Especially that one... He is a Gypsy, is he not?"
Catherine made a dismissive wave of her hand. "They are all trustworthy, let me assure you," she said aloud, completely disregarding the trustee's attempt at a private conversation. "There is nothing to fear."
Embarrassed, the trustee stammered, "W-well then, shall we get those supplies you requested?"
Catherine nodded. "By all means."
The trustee led them to the refectory, where he ordered the cooks to gather up food from their stores to meet Catherine's request. A grizzled old cook carried a heavy haversack over to them.
"This'll be a fortnight's worth of food for six people," he said, "but you'll be eatin' light."
"That is perfectly all right," Catherine replied. "And the water?"
As she was asking the question, another cook brought in two large waterskins lashed together. Catherine nodded approvingly.
"That should do," she said.
"Katia," the trustee said, "might I suggest you take a beast of burden to carry all these supplies? The university would gladly lend you one."
"Would it be safe to bring such an animal into the desert?" Catherine asked.
"Mules is hardier," the old cook commented, "but a pony'll mind you better. I been a porter on an expedition to the ruins more'n thirty years back. I'll tell you somethin', missy. You make sure that pony gets a drink as offin as the rest of you. Drink only a bit at a time, but do it offin. Water counts for more'n anythin'. Ban Desert ain't big, but it can get you as well as the great dunes up north. You put up a shelter afore the midday heat sets in and it won't be so bad. It'll get mighty cold at night, so pack blankets, too."
Catherine bowed slightly. "Thank you. I will follow your advice." She turned to the trustee. "We will take you up on your offer then. I will see that we either return the animal unharmed or compensate you accordingly."
"Consider it a gift," the trustee said. "For Lord Fyodor's daughter, there is not enough we can do. Still, you are quite the eccentric, Katia, leading this expedition to the ruins."
"I have an interest in the past," Catherine said. "The past tells us the way to the future, you know."
"Are you sure this second-year student will be adequate for your purposes? I am quite sure a professor or two would jump at this opportunity."
"Arkady will do quite well," Catherine assured him. "You will soon understand what a credit he is to your institution."
"You have always been a bright girl, Katia," the trustee said. "I will trust your judgment and look forward to your findings."
Catherine curtsied to him. "Thank you for all your help, sir."
"Give my regards to your father."
Catherine paused for a brief moment, a hesitation the trustee did not seem to notice.
"He knows who his true friends are," she said, "and he never forgets a favor. Farewell."
While the trustee returned to the university, Stefan gave Catherine a critical look.
"I thought you said your father was dead."
"He is," Catherine replied. "But I doubt I would have been granted so much leniency if it was known that he had been killed. If we succeed in our quest, I will assume my father's role and I will reward our benefactor tenfold. If we fail, it will make no difference."
"You're a cold woman, chovexani," Stefan said.
"I prefer the term 'pragmatic'."
Outside the refectory, they loaded up the pony, a young mare ironically named Katia, and reunited with Ignatiy at the town's entrance. Nearly an hour had passed since they were at the library when Arkady finally ambled up to the group. Looking at the heavy pack on his back, Catherine smiled.
"Books, parchment, inkwells, and quills... No food, no water, no provisions of any kind... I suppose I cannot expect a scholar to be practical."
Arkady looked at her as if he had done something wrong, but did not know how to correct it. Catherine turned at Stefan.
"Would you mind carrying his pack, Stefan? He will be moving slowly enough without encumbrance."
Stefan nodded silently and took the pack off Arkady's back. Concerned, the scholar reached out to reclaim his pack.
"Be careful," he said. "The inkwells and my spectacles will break easily."
"They'll be fine," Stefan replied, tightening one of the straps to keep the pack from slipping.
"What're spectacles?" Ignatiy asked.
Before Arkady could answer, Stefan cut in. "It's an invention of the Eastland. They help people see better. He was wearing them earlier."
"I'm surprised you know of the Eastland," Arkady remarked, clearly impressed.
"I lived there for a few years," Stefan replied. "A long time ago... I know much of their ways."
"We need to be moving out," Catherine said. "Kyrios has many spies and we cannot allow him to get ahead of us."
Although Arkady had not yet been initiated into the details of their quest, the grave mood of the others was enough to convince him of the weight of Catherine's words. It was only a few hours until sundown, but they did not seek lodging for the night. They set out right away.
Catherine kept up the unforgiving pace with little consideration for the newest addition to the group. The trip quickly began to wear on the inexperienced scholar and Catherine made nothing but the smallest possible concessions in order to keep Arkady in their company and to mitigate his complaints. Mark could see her desperation. She knew better than any of them that their time was short. The enemy would not remain so oblivious to their actions for much longer.