Hoofbeats from behind drew Wisp from her thoughts. The rider pulled up a respectful distance before dismounting and calling out to her.
Slowly, without moving her gaze from the men and women struggling in the red mud at the foot of the hills, Wisp turned her ear towards the messenger to show she was listening.
“Laurenne Niir, your mother requests your presence within the Agora. She says it’s getting too late for a lady to be out in the woods like this.”
Wisp smiled to herself before answering.
“Well, Iaowen, look around you. I’m not in the woods, am I?”
She heard, rather than saw, the man shift awkwardly in his boots. Iaowen Raivous was her father’s ward, youngest son of Herra Tapio, sent from Trehjem Keep in Puusilta. He’d shown up ten years ago, a boy of almost nine, when Wisp was just seven to grow up alongside her family. He was a good lad, ever so slightly awkward around women, but luckily for him it came off as endearing rather than bumbling. Kona Irena preferred asking him for help when it involved her eldest daughter, as of late. Wisp knew her mother’s intentions – harmless flirtation in an attempt to spur movement towards tittering femininity – which inspired her to do nothing more than torment the poor boy. In a sisterly fashion, of course.
“And, Iaowen, I’m quite sure that there are very few in Ereld, let alone Pertania, who would be so bold as to consider me a lady.”
She was greeted with silence. With a small sigh, Wisp spun on her heel and began to descend the hill away from the battle, avoiding his gaze as she passed him. Iaowen seemed at a loss as she swept past him and back into the trees that ringed the hilltop. A beaten path led all the way back to the archery grounds, which would then connect to a stone-paved road all the way back to the Agora, her family home in the center of Pertania. The sound of unsure footsteps followed her as she crossed the treeline, Iaowen leading his horse and making sure she had no way of escaping. Inwardly, Wisp chuckled. Whenever her mother had sent Iaowen after her when they were children, she would do her best to escape him and watch from around corners as her mother scolded him for losing her. That was how she’d gotten her nickname, too. When Iaowen had explained the situation to her father, Reen Petani had simply laughed his great belly laugh and conceded that even a grown man would have a hard time keeping track of a wispy little thing like her. Eventually, more people began calling her “Wisp” than “Niir” – except Iaowen himself, who always used her real name. Even now, he made sure that he always had her in sight when sent to fetch her from this or that corner of the Valley. It had once been irritating, but now she was so used to his constant vigilance that she barely even noticed anymore.
Wisp blinked in surprise. She hadn’t expected conversation.
“What was the Company standard doing on the hill?”
Wisp made sure to not slow her walk at all. If he was asking, that meant he hadn’t seen what was unfolding in the Sekret Doliny. Best to keep it that way, until she could get word about what she’d seen to her father.
“Practice drills. I heard them and decided to watch. Must have lost track of the time.”
She didn’t see it, but Iaowen only pursed his lips and nodded slightly.
The rest of the long march home passed in silence. They only slowed long enough to allow Wisp to retrieve her discarded bag and shoes from the archery yard. The stone road back to the palace passed through the town of Bazaar that began a few miles out and was built right up to – and partially carved into – the great yellow-stone walls surrounding the Agora. A mere sideways glance from Wisp to the gatekeeper unlocked the small wicket gate set into the gigantic heavily carved and colorfully-painted wooden doors that opened into a courtyard. There were servants and children running everywhere, carrying bundles of laundry or delivering the newest shipment of supplies to the kitchen halls beneath the main foyer.