“So, Paksennarion, you have been here all winter. Do you think you may be permitted to remain longer and take on a paladin candidate?” Marshal-General Arianya asked. The two of them were sitting in the garden of outside the Marshal-General's building, allowing the sun to shine down on them in the early spring day. The few flowers that were out spread color through the area, reminding them that winter was passed, if the new warmth in the sun did not already show that.
“I do not think I will be here long enough. I rarely stay in one place longer than a few hands of days now.” Paks looked over at the Marshal-General, noticing that she looked old, remembering what the last year had brought, and yet her heart told her that it would soon be time to leave.
“It would give you rest and time to recover from your quests. And we are still so short on paladins despite all our efforts, although the numbers are slowly increasing now.”
“I do not feel I need rest. As I did not finish my training in the training order, I am not sure that I could carry a candidate through that training. If the gods wish me to train someone, I am sure they will send the person to me, or me to them – who knows what other candidates there may be who would not come to the training order?”
“Do you know where you are going next, then?”
Paks shook her head. “I never know where I am going until I am called, nor indeed do I usually know until I get there.”
“I know of no other current overt dangers here. Unless you are going to Aarenis – there is still so much chaos there after the war, with all the different factions scrabbling to divide Alured's territories and with no one able to ensure agreements are made and kept.” The Marshal-General shook her head. “The reports are so grim – but it is ever at war and I wonder how we can bring peace to a land that is not Girdish overall. Yet famine spreads and the crops fail while everyone fights over land and resources.”
“If Gird wants you to attempt it, he will provide you with guidance or opportunities. The Marshals there may help as they did in Siniava's war, or indeed Gird may send a paladin – although what a paladin could do about crop failures, I do not know.”
Canna carefully sorted the apples into the baskets - store, use, feed to pigs. She looked up at the sun - it was slowly starting to set. The summer day was still bright and warm. She looked around, her brothers were still in the orchard picking the apples, filling sacks with the good ones while adding doubtful ones to the other barrow. She finished the barrow load, then turned back, putting everything away carefully and walked up to the village to her job as an assistant in the inn stables. Aris nodded at her as she arrived.
"We've four horses in today. Leave the one in the bottom box - owner says not to touch it."
She looked around curiously and noticed the gleaming chestnut of the strange horse. It was very clean - as if it has just been groomed for a show – yet through that gleamed with power of a sort she had never seen. Canna smiled. It was clearly magical of some sort. She turned back to the others - stocky and unexceptional, waiting for her care. She swung over the gate into the first stall. She gently ran her hands over their coats as she groomed each in turn, picking up on slight strains in the muscles and easing them. She ran her hands down their legs, picking up their hooves to clean. Eventually all three were done. The strange horse seemed to be watching her. Canna walked down to the end of the stable and stood by the door to its stall. It came over and sniffed her. Slowly she moved her hand to stroke it, giving it plenty of time to move away if she was unwelcome. Instead it leant into her hand. She feel the warm perfection of its coat and the feeling of such health and power running through it. She blinked softly, happy to come close to magic for once - yet her peaceful life was not something she wished to change for any magic, even such a horse as this.
"He likes you."
She turned at the woman's voice. She was standing in the stable aisle watching her, although Canna was surprised that she had not heard her approach.
"I think so. Is he yours?"
"Yes, or I am his." She came closer.
Canna looked at her curiously wondering if she would be as extraordinary as her horse. The first thing that drew attention was the mark of the High Lord gleaming in silver on her brow. Apart from that she looked normal – like any yeoman marshal or marshal Canna had seen, but for a sense about her of such power - more than anyone that she had ever met – although power felt like the wrong word. She wondered if she should curtsy.
"Who are you?" the stranger asked
"Canna, daughter of Seli."
"Canna." That seemed to startle her, and Canna felt her keen look, as if trying to pick out the features of a possible resemblance. "I had a friend with that name once."
Canna hesitated, unsure what to say. “I was named after my aunt – she was a soldier and died far away.” She turned to pick up her broom, realizing that she was neglecting her work.
"You haven't asked, but I am Paksenarrian, a paladin."
Canna turned to stare at her - uncertain what to make of this – what would bring a paladin here? It was quiet and calm as always.
"I am telling you because I believe that part of the reason that I'm here is to find you."
"Find me? Why do I need help?" she said, startled. She was happy, her family was well – why would a paladin want to find her.
"I don't think that it's a question of you needing help. I was not sure, but seeing you dealing with my horse, I think I have a idea. You seem to have a real way with animals. Is it just care or something more?"
"I can tell when they are hurt and help them. I can also help with plants."
"Very interesting. I wish there was an easy way to test it."
"Well, come outside." Canna led the way out of the stable, and softly called for the innkeeper's dog. He got up from the sunbeam, where he had been dosing and limped slowly over to her. Paksenarrion knelt down on the dirty courtyard to examine it.
"He is old and stiff, his joints don't work too well." Canna sat down beside her, stroking her hands over the dog's joints, easing the pain from him.
"Very interesting. Well, Canna, do you understand that you are doing magic?"
"The Marshal said it wasn't bad – that it's not really magic, that it's a prayer, a helping. My parents spoke to her when they noticed that I was doing something different. She said it was a blessing."
"She is right," she paused, Canna could sense her relaxing slightly, probably thankful that Canna did not need to be convinced of this. "Can you only do a single animal or more?”
“I don't know. I can do a whole area of plants, especially if it is only telling what is wrong, that they need more water or light or something. With animals, each one is different and needs different help – I suppose if there was a group that were all ill the same I might be able to help them all together.”
“I think I need to take you with me. I am traveling south - there have been crop failures there, and I believe that I am being called to bring you to help them."
Canna gasped at the thought of living her village, but at the same time, the same kind of surge that would take her to the barton to help with a calving was pulling her to go. She closed her eyes, and focused on this.
"I.... maybe, you are right. I have never left here before or wanted to."
"But now you feel that you should?"
Lady Paksenarrion nodded.
"Very well, we'll leave at dawn. I'll arrange with the Marshal to borrow a horse for you. Bring a change or two of clothes, some food, and anything else you'll need."
"Yes, Paladin," Canna choked over it, not sure of the correct form of address.
"Call me Paks."
Canna nodded, too shy to actually do so at once, then turned away to go and explain to Aris, then to tell her family.
She walked back through the vill, trying to fix every sight and sound in her mind for remembrance later. Her parents were in the kitchen – her mother cooking dinner, her father cutting up apples, adding to the bubbling pot. Canna paused in the doorway. They both turned to look at her.
“Canna, love, what has happened?” her mother asked.
She came in a sat down at the table.
“I... there is a paladin staying at the inn. She talked to me and says I should go away with her.”
Unexpectedly her father just nodded and said,
"The Marshal told us that this might come. Well, not this precisely, but something."
“You never told me.”
“You were too young to understand, and she suggested that it was worth waiting to see if anything came of it first.”
Her mother hugged her. “We will miss you, but if you are needed somewhere, then you should go. You need not worry about us.”
Canna nodded, tears in her eyes.
“Now, when will you be leaving?”
“So soon? Very well. Let me see what I can find for you to take.”
“She said clothes and so on was all I needed.”
“That is all very well, but-”
“Now, I am sure they need to travel light. Just sort out what is necessary.” Canna's father cut her off gently.
Feeling that she was not not needed for this discussion Canna walked back outside and slowly walked around the farm, saying a soft farewell to every part - somehow feeling that it would never be hers again in the way that it was now.
The next morning, she walked to the inn, carrying two rough saddle bags – old, from when her great grandfather had been a traveling merchant. Lady Paks was waiting in the courtyard, talking to the Marshal. She smiled at Canna.
“Well, Canna, off on adventures. Gird's grace on you, and always remember that you can come home.”
She fastened her saddle bags to the horse, then stroked it softly, taking a moment to make friends.
“Ready to leave?”
Canna nodded, not wanting to cry. She mounted quickly, careful not to hurt the horse, but not elegantly.
They rode westwards out of the vill in silence. Despite her words, Lady Paks did not seem to be hurrying, which Canna was grateful for – she was not a practiced rider; like all the children she had ridden a little on the farm horses, taking them to their pastures and the like, but that would be very different to riding for a full day.
That evening they settled down as dusk approached, to make camp. Lady Paks turned her horse aside under the lee of a copse of trees. Canna got down stiffly and looked around. They seemed to be far from any settled lands.
“I can see some wild greens here. Would you like me to gather some to eat with our dinner?”
“Good idea,” Paks said with a smile as she swung down from her horse gracefully.
Canna gathered a handful of greens and washed then in the stream before turning back. Paks had lit a fire and had a kettle over it.
“Here, we have bread with meat in and some cheese. We can eat these for now, and start a porridge for the morning.”
Canna sat down opposite Paks across the fire. She ate quietly, enjoying the good food and patient of Paks to start speaking – the quiet of the day's travel had allowed her thoughts to calm. After she had finished Paks handed her an apple pastry to eat.
“Have you had any weapons training?”
“A little. I was encouraged to join the Grange as my family are all Girdish, but the weapons felt wrong in my hands. I could not use a sword at all. The Marshal tried me with a staff and I did a little better with that.”
Paks nodded slowly. “I see. I am just concerned about you. There are many dangers here that there are not at home.”
“I understand that. Yet I do not think I would learn well.”
Paks got up and picked up a long stick from the ground. Canna got to her feet and looked around. There was the branch of a holly tree lieing on the ground near her. She picked it up, slowly removing the spikes from her end. Paks watched her with eyebrows raised.
“Come here.” She said, gesturing away from the fire and the horses.
Canna walked there slowly, dreading what was to come.
“How would you hold that to fight?” she asked.
Canna raised the stick, holding one end with the other pointed mostly toward Paks. Paks raised her stick and attacked, slowly – Canna was sure she could move faster. Canna managed to block a few blows, from her half remembered lessons.
“You are just trying to block blows. Try to hit me.”
“No,” Canna said, sharply, then after a moment, “I know I can not.”
“What would you do if someone was attacking you – trying to kill you?”
Canna stepped back and put down the stick. “Maybe, I would try and make them go to sleep. I know I can do that to babies...” She trailed off.
“How does it work?”
“With my younger siblings, I would hold them and sing, making sure to touch their skin. Singing of Alyanya and the saints and all the good things and think how it would be better for them to sleep peacefully.”
“Does it work on adults, or animals?”
“I don't know.”
“Can you try and show it to me?”
Canna looked around. “There are rabbits in these woods. Let me see if I can find one – so long as we keep it safe with us in camp until it wakes up it should come to no harm.”
She walked away, towards the edge of the trees, then knelt down, reaching out gently towards the rabbit – it was nibbling the grass, but looked up at her. She picked it up, speaking softly to calm it. It felt soft and warm in her hands, full of life and contentment. She stroked it, thinking how it would be good for it to rest, to sleep to be safe. She felt the relaxation as it fell asleep. She got up and set it down int heir campsite, a safe distance from the fire. Paks was watching her with an odd expression.
Canna sat stroking the rabbit, waiting for her to speak.
“That was interesting to see,” Paks said eventually. “I think I begin to understand. Now, here is a blanket. Rest well. Do not fear anything, my horse will give us warning of any danger.”
Canna awoke early, before the sky began to lighten, and checked on the rabbit. It was no longer there. She thought, or at least hoped, that it had awoken naturally in the night, especially as it would be unlikely that a predator would have come so far into their camp.
She got up stiff from the riding, crossed the the stream, and washed carefully. She turned back to stir the fire to life beneath the pot. The food already smelt good. Canna looked around, not sure about what else needed doing, but ready for the day ahead.
The land changed as they traveled south, crossing Fintha and Tsaia, then venturing down into Aarenis. Canna was quiet for the most part, looking around and listening when Paks told stories. It seemed such an adventure to her to be traveling, and yet she felt that there was more to come. Paks had taught her about living in the wild, and about the lands they were traveling through.
Canna could see and feel the damage to the land as they traveled onwards, and knew somehow that they were getting to the area where she was needed. The plants all looked less green, even adjusting for the difference between what she was used to at home and what she had seen
elsewhere in Aarenis. The trees looked worn, not damage visible with her eyes, but some kind of general hurt. There seemed to be few birds and wild animal around, but she did not know the land, did not know if this was what she should be seeing.
“Paks, would you expect it to be so quiet here?”
“No birdsong, no animals scurrying away from us.”
“I have not been here in many years, nor do I remember clearly, but I think you are right. It feels wounded, but my sense cannot tell me how it can be mended. Do you know what you need to do?”
“Not yet. I think we need to push on to the next village. I feel that we need to work out from cultivated lands and that by healing those it will spread the effect into the wilderness.”
The next village was small and looked shabby. The cottages were ill repaired, even if well built, and there were very few people visible. In the nearest garden a woman or girl, her age difficult to tell, knelt, clearly trying to do something to the weak looking plants. Canna slipped out of the saddle and walked towards her, vaguely aware of Paks taking the reins of her horse. She knelt down touching the nearest carrot top.
“Would you let me help you?”
The girl looked at her and nodded, clearly too tired and dispirited to care what Canna might do. She touched the nearest carrot, feeling the damage it revealed and reaching out to heal the damage, she could feel power flowing through her and out of her, more aware than before of it – feeling a connection, a sense of hope and approval. She saw the carrot, then other plants all around slowly revive – not only cleared of the blight, but spreading that health to the soil. After maybe a turn of the glass, she felt that it was time to stop, and drew her hand back. For the first time she was aware of the girl staring at her and looked round – the whole garden looked healthy. Beyond its margin she could see other villagers watching her, and Paks holding the horses and smiling.
Over the next few days they went around the rest of the vill. Canna repeating her performance as needed, and speaking to the farmers about their problems. Paks watched as she was easily accepted there and the way that her gentle help aided people, animals and plants. She also saw how Canna seemed to instinctively know her limits and not push herself into danger of exhaustion.
“Alyanya is guiding you in your work, and yet I wonder if some if it comes from the Old Human magery. I don't know what your Marshal told you about that.”
“They had magic with the taking of pain and putting it into stone – I can't do that, when I can take pain, it seems to vanish around me - or not yet, maybe in time I would be able to.”
“I wonder if I should be taking you to a Kuakgan to apprentice you to – however they manage that – I do not know much of their training.”
“I do not think that is the right way for me.”
“There is nothing to fear from them. Kuakgani aren't evil – if you are afraid...”
“I am not afraid. I just... do not feel like it is the way that I should be going.” Canna hesitated, clearly struggling to find words for the ideas swirling in her mind and heart. Paks waited quietly, knowing how hard this could be. “I think I should remain here longer, helping until the harvest is in, but you need to be going on. Now that they know I can help, I'll be safe here; the local Marshal seems to have accepted the work I am doing, and even to encourage me.”
“I understand that, but afterwards. Kuakgani are trained to look after the natural world, and so it seems that your skills would be suited to their training.”
“Yet they are solitary and that does not feel like it would be my path – look how since coming here I've become a part of this vill for now – when I leave I will be missed and miss those I am leaving behind, but this feels right.”
“Hmm...” Paks thought this over carefully, “I will think and pray and see if any thoughts come to me. There may be other sources of training. Your gift is similar to the taig-sense that elves and some Old Humans have, yet it seems different, especially in the way that you can use it to do so much directly without training. Yet I do not think that their training would suit your gift, as it is far more active and direct than most of the powers that taig-sense brings. However, it is possibly that they could provide you with advice and guidance.”
“I am not convinced that training of my gift is what I require. The knowledge I need is more about how the various crops here grow, and I will learn that by remaining here and listening to the farmers.”
“I can see that you were guided here and that this is what you need to do for now. It may be that further gifts will awaken in you or be sent. Perhaps even a strange horse will turn up for you, as happened to me. Trust your gifts, but remember later that there are those who might help you if you come to feel training is needed or you come to a problem that you cannot handle alone”
Paks wondered if she should remain there, to provide further help and advice, but she could already feel the gods pulling her onward.