Jenna pulled the curtain open, filling her small room with noon day sun. Dust floated through the beams of light and all seemed blinding as her eyes adjusted. She pulled back her copper-red hair, tying it in a tight bun.
She'd already cleared her room of chairs and pushed her table aside. It left a space of about three or four paces for her to work with.
Her dress was folded neatly on her bed, leaving her in a light tunic and baggy pants.
She took a warrior's stance in the middle of her room and waited. Her back leg took most of her weight, bending deep. It was coiled tight beneath her, ready to throw her forward in an instant. She stared out the window, her eyes eager, impatient. She was ready.
Jenna blew a few strands of hair from her face, only to have them fall back a moment later.
Almost ready, anyway.
Jenna crouched by her bed and reached underneath it. She groped for a second, then found what she was looking for. Jenna pulled the stick out and tested its weight in her hand. Her prized possession.
It was no ordinary stick, of that Jenna was confident. She marveled at it for a second, pleased with her cleverness. This was her rapier.
The only bit of wood exposed was the handle. It was the perfect size and shape of a rapier handle. At the bottom of the handle, Jenna had created a pommel by fastening a river-stone to the wood with twine.
Like-wise, along the "blade" of the wooden sword were stones fastened with twine. Larger stones were tied at the base of the blade, gradually getting smaller until the last stone, on the tip of the sword, was barely a pebble.
Jenna knew, for a fact, that this knobby, unsightly creation of hers had the exact weight and balance of a standard rapier. She had her uncle, Rufus to thank for that, she supposed.
She lived with Rufus at his inn. It was a modest establishment, but it was one of the few inns in the area and had a fair amount of business. Jenna, now eighteen years of age, had called it her home for around ten years.
She worked at the Drestan inn, which took its name from the village they lived in, Dresta. One night five or six years earlier, after drinking himself into a stupor, a young caravan guard left his rapier at the bar.
Normally, Rufus would hold such things for the man to claim the next morning. It was a common occurrence. After Jenna closed the tavern, she spirited the blade away to her room, testing it meticulously. She was in awe over the thing. She didn't sleep that night. When the sun came, she had created a perfectly weighted training sword, or stick, whatever. The patron got his sword back and was none the wiser.
Jenna readied her wooden rapier and waited. The salty old combat instructor, Arlo, was already waiting in the courtyard. Jenna loathed the veteran soldier, but the man could move. Rufus had begged him to take Jenna as a student, but he refused.
"Weapons aren't for women and women aren't for weapons," he would say.
Stupid old man.
So, every day an hour after noon, Jenna would spy on his lessons. Rufus had arranged that. She'd been given the nicest room in the inn as her own. It happened to have the best view of the courtyard, which Rufus graciously allowed the old man to hold his lessons in, for a fee, of course.
It still annoyed Jenna that she wasn't allowed to take the lessons outright, but she'd developed a fierce pride in the whole process. Something about learning to fight in secret was exciting. She doubted she would have the social wherewithal to participate in the classes anyway. All in all, it had become a highlight of Jenna’s day.
His two students entered the courtyard, and Jenna cracked opened her window. Arlo was chastising the two boys for being late, as he often did. Jenna knew the boys, it was hard not to know someone in a town of three hundred people. She doubted they knew her, though.
The lesson began, and Jenna mirrored every move, watching Arlo and his students with passion. Every correction he made to their thrusts or stance, she checked on herself. She glanced at herself in the mirror after every move, making sure her position was perfect.
She practiced her angles and lunges. She loved the rapier, and she loved training with it. It was the newest style of blade available, and new techniques were being discovered every day. At least, Jenna assumed they were.
Not only were rapiers beautiful, but they were intricate and mysterious. Jenna was fascinated by the sweeping geometric designs that made up the hilt. Not only were they appealing, but they were useful for trapping an opponent’s blade, too.
Most importantly, they didn't rely on strength alone to be effective, making it the perfect weapon for Jenna. Practicing was one of the few parts of the day she looked forward to.
The lesson ended, but Jenna continued her training for another hour. By the end of it, she was winded. She tucked her wooden rapier away and cleaned up.
Jenna glanced at herself in the mirror. Her normally pale cheeks were flushed with exertion, highlighting her freckles. She was sweating some, but it seemed the real sweating didn't begin until she put her dress back on.
Wiping sweat from her brow, she moved to her desk. She leaned against it and studied the papers sprawled across it.
Beneath everything was a map of the Empire. Jenna had covered the maps with notes, circling some areas and crossing other areas out. It was her third map in as many years.
On top of it, in no particular order, were several sheets of lists. Some lists were packing lists, others were to-do lists. Everything led to the same goal: Jenna's adventure.
Her gut told her that something grand was waiting for her out there in the world. She couldn't explain it, and she'd never dare say it, but she felt destined for something special.
However, every detail needed to be planned perfectly, and every preparation had to be made with meticulous attention.
At least, that was what Jenna told herself.
She'd been planning to leave Dresta for as long as she'd been there.
Even her rapier practice had been the result of one of her early lists.
Learn how to fight to defend yourself on the road. Check.
As soon as one list was complete, she made another, and another. There was always a reason, another excuse not to leave.
It seemed fine at first, but as Jenna grew into an adult, she recognized the planning and stalling for what it was: fear.
She was ashamed of that fear. So, she made more lists. Her parents had been adventurers to the core. Always exploring, never settling. They would have set out on a moment’s notice, but they were gone now.
Moving papers around, she searched for the list of foods that would keep well in a pack she'd been working on the other day. She found it, added 'apple wrapped in cloth' to the bottom of it, and set down her quill.
With a puff, she blew a chunk of hair from her face. It had fallen during rapier practice, but she'd been too distracted to deal with it. After blowing it out of her face for a moment, it fell back to the same spot over her eye.
What would mother and father think of her now? Would they be proud of her? Sometimes, she feared she was forgetting their faces. Some days she missed them so much it ached.
"We have a Water Priest arriving later today," Rufus said as he swept furiously at the tavern floor.
The bottom floor of the inn was a dining hall with a small bar at one end. The bar room was simple, but clean. The rough table tops were scrubbed daily, and the bar top was polished to a sheen.
Jenna could tell he was stressed. His sideburns were sticking straight out of his face. The dark bushy masses were nearly covering his ears. When Rufus was lost in thought, he tugged on those massive side burns. The result was a fairly reliable way to see how Rufus was feeling.
"Again? So soon?" Jenna asked.
Rufus shrugged, "Lady Cedara flows through us all."
"I don't think an almighty Goddess needs some Water Priest to come gather taxes for her," Jenna responded, smirking.
Rufus cast a warning glance at Jenna, but a grin was already breaking through the facade. Rufus was a large man, as tall as he was broad. Most of his weight had settled into his gut as he aged, but his arms were still as thick as Jenna's head.
His cheeks were always rosy, and his face seemed to be in a perpetual smile. He was a good man, and Jenna loved her uncle fiercely. He made it easier for her to stay in Dresta.
"None of that now, Jenna. We'll be going to his sermon with the rest of Dresta, so mind your tongue."
"Yes, uncle," Jenna said, grinning.
"He'll have followers with him, too. It will be a busy night for us."
Jenna sighed inwardly. She tried to hide the dread on her face. The last time a Water Priest came through, the inn was filled with the priest's servants and a few religious followers. They took up all eighteen of Rufus' rooms and didn't pay for a single one. The court yard would fill with tents from the guards, so the rapier practices would be canceled until they left.
Rufus always welcomed them, seemingly happy to serve those who served Lady Cedara, the River Goddess. It drove Jenna mad.
They normally came once a year, preached the Cedaran word, collected their taxes, and moved on. This was their third visit to Dresta in a year.
Before Jenna could ask when they would be arriving, the front door opened. The small bell on the door sounded and Rufus turned to greet the guest with a wide smile.
"Greetings! Are you here with the Water Priest? I've prepared rooms for all -"
"No, no. I'm here alone."
A young man stepped in, probably only a year or two older than Jenna. His black hair was just long enough to be messy, and his dark tunic and traveling cloak were tattered around the seams.
The man looked like he'd been on the road for months, dust covered and lean. His icy blue eyes darted from Rufus to Jenna, then around the room. He relaxed a little when he only found the two of them.
"I'm sorry, sir. A Water Priest and his party will be staying here tonight. They'll be filling up the inn I'm afraid."
Jenna had the urge tell this stranger about the inn a few hours south west of Dresta, but her jaw wouldn't relax. She hated when it did that, locking up around strangers. It happened all too often.
It wasn't just that he was a stranger that made her shy, though. This man was better looking than any man in Dresta. His skin was pale, like hers, but without the reddened cheeks and freckles. His jaw was tight and masculine and he seemed to have a muscular build. His shoulders were broad, and from what Jenna could see of his exposed arms, he had a series of veins-
Jenna realized she was staring, blushed, and diligently studied her feet.
"All I need is a cot for the night. It could be in the stable for all I care."
Rufus raised his hands, showing he was helpless in the matter.
"Four gold pieces and I leave at dawn," the young man said.
Rufus pursed his lips, thinking.
"I couldn't charge you that much for a cot when I only charge four silvers for a room. I'll fix you up in the stable for a single gold piece, and we'll feed you tonight. I can't let a traveler go without a bed, especially with a Water Priest in town."
Rufus winked and gave a polite chuckle. The man didn't chuckle back, but Rufus didn't notice. The world needed more men like Rufus, Jenna was sure of that.
"A generous offer, but I won't be needing food. Fetch me the cot and you won't see me again."
The young man smiled, but there was a darkness in his tone that chilled Jenna.
"Fair enough, my name is Rufus Barrowly, by the way. That is my niece, Jenna Warden."
Jenna froze, barely flashing a pained smile as the young man nodded to her.
"Oliver," he responded, offering a shallow bow. "Nice to meet you both."
Oliver set the golden coins on the counter, Rufus took them, shrugged, and disappeared to the cellar to fetch the cot.
In a rush, Jenna felt the pained awkwardness of being left in the tavern with this strange man. She was rigid, afraid to move for fear of being awkward, thus, making her appear more awkward.
Oliver moved within a few paces of Jenna, and he froze. Slowly, as if trying not to disturb the air between them, he looked up at Jenna. His eyes were wide and his mouth was open as if to speak, but he was silent. He was either surprised or offended.
What was he doing?
For the love of the River Goddess, did Jenna smell? Had he just gotten a whiff of her? She hadn't bathed after the rapier practice. At the time she didn't think she smelled, but it was a possibility.
Cedara drown me now.
As Oliver stared at her, she fought off two urges. The first and strongest was the extreme desire to lift her arm and smell her armpit. The second was primal, but just as distinct. Jenna wanted to run away.
Oliver took a half step closer. He lifted his hands, as if not to spook a wild horse. Jenna blinked, and the social anxiety she felt turned to fear.
Perhaps this man wasn't strange. Perhaps he was a predator. It was possible Jenna was in danger, and she'd let his attractiveness and her shyness stun her into a stupor. She berated herself, but only for an instant.
Then, something strange happened. Oliver stopped his approach and waited. He gave a weak smile, almost sheepish in its appearance.
At first, Jenna thought all of her blushing was making her warm. Her whole body pulsed with heat. It wasn't oppressive, nor did it cause her to sweat. It rolled over her like a soothing wave, like a warm fire at the end of a fall evening. It was coming from Oliver.
It stunned her into stillness, and for a moment, she simply enjoyed the sensation. The relaxation broke away as Oliver spoke.
"Flowing strength, hope, and light, a river's subtle might."
Oliver spoke with a smooth, rhythmic cadence. It was a poem or song of some kind, but not one that Jenna had heard before. Oliver was still looking at her, waiting. Did he want her to respond?
"That's nice?" she said, half asking, half telling.
She had an awkward pause between the two words, but what did Oliver expect? A strange man doesn't just whisper poems at young women and hope for the best. With the strange warmth still distracting her, she didn't have much else to say.
Oliver looked disappointed for a moment, but hid it quickly. A forced look of indifference covered his face and darkened his eyes. He put his hands down and backed away.
As he stepped back, the warmth Jenna felt from him faded. It left her feeling cold, despite the beautiful summer day. She wanted to move closer to him, to revel in the heat, but she didn't move.
Was she imagining that warmth?
Oliver moved to the side, trying to walk around Jenna and to the bar. Jenna moved to the side, hoping to give Oliver more room. Instead, Jenna shifted the same direction as Oliver.
Jenna froze. With Oliver's head down he didn't notice Jenna move right away. Their bodies touched.
It wasn't painful, but nor was it gentle. By sheer coincidence, Jenna fell into him. Jenna felt the warmth again, wrapped in it, consumed by it. Her face brushed against Oliver's chest, like it was meant to be there. She swore she could feel the beat of his heart.
Oliver took a deep breath, taking in her scent. He didn't push her away, nor did he hold her. If he wanted to, Jenna would have let him. The tension that wracked Jenna's body melted. In that moment, they were connected.
The moment only lasted for a single, blissful second. Oliver backed away, leaving Jenna empty and cold. They both muttered apologies, and Oliver hurried to the bar.
As the bliss faded, the horror of Jenna's actions dawned on her. She'd just bumped into a stranger, and instead of acting like a normal person and stepping away, she nuzzled him.
Her stomach churned and she nearly heaved.
She nuzzled him.
Rufus emerged from the cellar with the makings of a simple cot. He handed the boards to Oliver and shrugged. Had he come up a moment earlier, the scene would have been much different.
"You need help putting it together? You have your own blanket?" Rufus asked.
"I'll be fine, thank you."
Oliver nodded to Rufus, then to Jenna. His eyes lingered on her, but only for a moment. He was searching for something in her, but didn’t find it.
Oliver stepped outside, leaving Jenna flushed and uncomfortable.
"You're still welcome for the meal," Rufus called after him.
There was no response.
"That lad was a bit on the strange side," Rufus said in a hushed tone.
"That he was," Jenna said, but it was a thoughtless response. She was still staring at the door he'd left from. The room felt cold without him.
"Could be one of the Cedaran monks, giving up comfort and all that, come to hear the Priest's good word," Rufus mused.
Jenna blinked a few times and pulled her eyes away from the door. Pieces started to fall together, and she realized Rufus was probably right. The monks were an odd lot, barely speaking, eating nothing but bread and water. They didn't preach like the priests, nor did they claim any authority. They simply prayed.
Jenna dismissed the warmth as her own awkwardness. The poem must have been some abstract Cedaran prayer. She thought she knew most of the prayers, but she never cared much for the Church.
Jenna shrugged, "Probably."
A crowd was gathering near the entrance of the town hall. It was a long, plain building with tall ceilings and rows of wooden benches. The only time Jenna saw it this busy was when a Priest was in town. Even the Drestan town meetings only drew thirty or forty people. Now, at least three hundred people waited to be let in. That was nearly the entire town.
Jenna and Rufus joined the back of the crowd. The sun was beginning its descent below the tree line. Jenna was exhausted. She'd been dragging bags and stabling horses for hours. As promised, the Water Priest had arrived with all his minions.
Jenna had hoped they would miss the sermon, but Rufus insisted they go.
As the crowd settled, Jenna found herself searching for Oliver. All she found were familiar faces. She even found Arlo, sitting straight and proud towards the front of the hall.
Jenna didn't like crowds, and in Dresta, she didn't have to deal with them often. She stayed close to Rufus. He pretended not to notice to spare Jenna the embarrassment.
Jenna and Rufus followed the line into the hall. It was a dark space, the only light coming in from narrow windows along the roof line. Several torches were spread throughout, bathing the murmuring crowd in red, flickering light.
They took their seats on the spitefully uncomfortable benches and waited. They were in the last row and not among the sea of people, but the air was still heavy.
At the far end of the of the hall, the Water Priest took to his elevated platform. His robe, like all Water Priests, was a vibrant blue. The fabric hung from his shoulders and arms, billowing with every move the man made.
He wielded an abnormally large book, the Tome of Cedara. It contained all of her stories, all of the anecdotes of the church, and warnings against evil. It looked comically large in the slender priest’s arms. He hefted on to the podium and looked out.
This Priest was younger than the last the Church sent. He had sandy blond hair that was swept neatly to the side. He had a soft face with a constant smile.
The crowd hushed as he waited. He didn’t open the Tome.
"Thank you all for the warm welcome. I beg for missions such as this. Your town may be small, but you Drestans are a hardworking, honest people. To be among you is to be both inspired and humbled."
His voice carried clearly through the hall, reaching even Jenna's ears. He sounded sincere, too. That surprised Jenna a little. Most Water Priests acted like stopping at Dresta was a burden.
"I understand that you have already offered your wealth to Lady Cedara two times over this season."
Jenna stifled a sarcastic grin. Everyone in Dresta called it a well tax, but the Church refused to say the word "tax." So, they said things like "offered your wealth."
"I assure you, I am not here for your wealth. We will accept no offerings."
An excited but confused murmur rolled through the crowd. Everyone was thinking the same thing. Then why were they here?
The Water Priest paused until it was quiet again.
"Dresta has been blessed by the holy river. It runs through your very town! You drink from it, eat from it, travel by it. It is part of your identity, your souls."
The Holy river was better known as the Faling River, but most used both names. Indeed, Dresta survived off the river. Fishing and exports on the Faling kept the economy healthy. In such a small town, Jenna could hear the rushing of the river at all times.
"Does anyone know why the Faling River is sacred?"
No one answered, of course. Everyone knew the answer. Jenna hated it when the Priests would do that.
"The Faling River flows from the most sacred place in this land, the Goddess' Lake, Lake Cedara. Seven hundred and forty-three years ago the Lady cast out the flames of evil, creating this very river to spread her love and justice across the land. She whispered to the water that she wanted peace, and peace it gave her. The Faling River cut across the land, creating nations, dousing flames, and saving the people."
Jenna had heard the story a hundred times. It was actually one that she enjoyed, depending on who was telling it. It was by far the most exciting story the Church had to offer.
The Goddess, Lady Cedara, stood in the lake and made a river with nothing but her own power. She used that river to destroy the Fire Lord and his forces. The story was much more entertaining than the one about offering a beggar some water.
"We, as followers of Lady Cedara, made our home on the shores of her Lake. All who follow her may call Alaris home, even you Drestans and faithful followers can claim it as your homeland."
Jenna had heard from travelers that Lake Cedara was an impressive sight. It was actually a small city-state called Alaris, even with a standing army. The actual lake was massive. People said there were points they couldn't see across, like it was a sea. Alaris was a bustling city with people, art, and gold. It was seat of power in the empire.
An island at the center of the lake was the head of the Church, even though most functions of government were in Alaris. Jenna heard that the tallest spire could be seen from miles away, made of pure gold, it glistened like a second sun.
Visiting Alaris was on several of Jenna's lists.
The Water Priest paused, and the smile fell from his face. He shifted his weight and cleared his throat. It was a strange gesture for someone who'd been speaking with such confidence.
"I've come today not for offerings of gold, but of will. Alaris, even the entire Cedaran Empire, is being threatened. A force of evil amasses from the north and threatens to crush our way of life. Dresta, I need soldiers."
The hall was silent. Not even a breath could be heard. Jenna saw a mother pull her teenage son closer. One man hung his head.
A wave of guilt rolled over Jenna. She had no friends in Dresta, and Rufus would be spared to run his business. Lives would be changed forever, but Jenna would hardly notice.
"Lady Cedara's river extinguished fire and fertilized the land. It gave us life and happiness. As we all know, evil still exists and it must be dealt with. We must act as her vessels, doing her will. Prophecy has foretold of a time when Lady Cedara returns to this world. When she comes to purge this world of evil once again, who will you stand with?"
Jenna's face twitched. This wasn't a Goddess' will, this was the will of whoever controlled the Church. If Cedara did return, like the prophecy said, would she want any part of this violence? Couldn’t she just wave her hand and end all this conflict?
The Priest continued, "Water gives life, but it also brings death. Those who are cruel and wicked will drown under Faling's weight. They will fall under her current, and try as they might, they will not take breath. Lady Cedara has proclaimed, no innocent person shall drown in the Faling."
No, not again.
Rufus wrapped his massive arm around her, pulling her close.
She felt the eyes of everyone in the hall turn to her. Rufus held her closer. The hall was shrinking around her, crushing her. She needed to escape.
Jenna slipped from Rufus' grasp and stumbled away from the bench. The Priest paused his sermon, and now the full attention of the hall was on her.
"They weren't evil," Jenna tried to say, but she only stammered. She ran from the hall, slamming into the door and falling outside.
The Priest was wrong.
Her parents had drowned in the Faling, but they weren't evil.