The first towns I'd traveled through had been unnerving; small places with mostly wood and mud buildings, dirt roads, and people who stared at me from shadowed doors. Strangers were not welcome in any of them, and especially not strange men with double swords strapped to his back. By those swords I made it plain that I would brook no trouble and villagers kept their distance. Mistrust had become inbred in the little spots of habitation on the trails. The largest village I had passed through had been no more than a couple hundred people and no friendlier than the rest. Even their pigs, chickens, and dogs had slid away into the shadows as they saw a stranger approaching.
I was a stranger and strangely dressed. I rode a fine gray gelding, which was the sort of beast that belonged to nobles. A large, gray-stripped cat sat on the saddle before me, ever watchful and an excellent guard at night. We'd survived with little trouble over the last seventeen days since we left the highlands, heading towards the sea and the capital.
I missed the mountains. The lowlands stunk of rot, death and decay. No fresh breezes blew across the lowlands, at least at this time of the year. Winter, I knew, would be wet and muddy, not white and clean. Lady Gray felt the same as I did; I could tell from the way she all but snarled every time she had to walk across the ground.
We were nearing the ocean, though. I could tell, if for no other reason than the midden heaps of fish debris. Unless there was a huge lake or overcrowded lake that fed the four villages I passed in the last three days, I suspected I might have finally almost reached my first destination.
Wide stretches of cultivated land began to become more prominent than stands of trees. The mountains were far behind us and even the hills gave way to flat plains and finally to a descending series switchback and glimpses of a very large city below.
He was more than half way down before he realized the wide expanse of blue had to be the ocean. He had known what as ocean was, but he had never truly held the concept in his mind. Blue as the sky on a spring day -- at least in the mountains. As the trees cleared, he could see all the way to the bay and the distant white-sailed ships that danced upon the water.
People began to watch me more carefully as I neared the city gates. After all, the swords marked me as a dangerous man, though in truth they were the least dangerous part about me.
"What is your business in town, stranger?" one of the guards asked. He had a hand on his sheathed sword as though he expected me to launch myself from the saddle and attack.
"I come to visit," I answered, though I didn't say who or what I would visit.
The man looked over me, the horse and the cat. Then he gave a nod and let us enter.
They were more used to strangers here, I soon realized. That came from the port, I realized. Ships came on longer journeys than I had taken from the mountains to the shore. I saw a plethora of different costumes, bright colors, and heard words I did not recognize. The city called to me in ways I had not expected.
Before we had gone far, Lady Gray jumped from the horse to the ground and went off on her own work. I had expected it, but I watched her dart up the street with some trepidation until she disappeared in the mass of people and buildings. I rode on, up towards a tower in the distance. I let myself watch the world around me and realized I had already become intrigued by this strange place.
"Mage," a voice said before me.
I looked up to see Lady Gray, a tall woman in fine clothing, and a bright orange cat coming my way. People parted for this woman, whom they knew well since she had served the local lord and lady for three generations.
I swept off the horse and gave her a proper bow. "Magestra," I greeted her. "Your message was received and the signs read. I am here to take your place so that you can go home to the mountains."
Her ageless face turned towards the direction from which I had ridden and she smiled a little, as though she could see the mountains already.
"You have come in good time, my friend," she said. "Let us go to the tower and I'll introduce you to the Lord and Lady. I will leave in a few days. There are things you will need to know."
"I am grateful," I replied and walked beside her. Lady Gray took her place to my left and the horse followed behind. "The city is overwhelming -- but I find it intriguing, too."
"Yes, it is that. I'm glad you find it interesting. I should not like to leave you here if you were not wise enough to realize how interesting a place this is."
"Something is changing," I said and looked out at the sea. "The signs were strong. My service here will not be the same as yours, but I hope to do as well."
A wind blew, sudden, cold, and filled with a sense of dread that others who had no magic even stopped and looked out at sea. Far out on the horizon, dark clouds appeared for a moment and then disappeared again in an eye blink.
Not yet, not yet: but the danger was coming. I had little time to prepare, but I was here. I would be ready when the clouds returned.