"Well, I take it you were having a good time with your partner, young miss?"
"He's not my partner! You caught us at the wrong-"
"Ah- no matter that. Mister Roebuck, what did you say were here as, again? I heard quite a few rumors but I just want to confirm it for myself, you know."
The man wrung out his towel and tightened up his trousers. At the magister's request, they finished cleaning up as soon as they could. He'd been chatting away with the church folks. They wore their robes and hung clubs at their sides, and Buck reckoned pissing them off wouldn't be wise.
"Why, I'll tell ya honestly, I'm here cause a real pretty lady, said her name is Ziva, said she needed a champion down here cause her last one retired. I just happened to be around. As luck would have it-" he gestured to Alex, her face contorted and grimacing in embarrassment "-I just happen to be with yer next, greatest, most beautiful-est, longest legged-est, freckle-y, book-reading-y heroine. Ain't that funny?"
The old wizened magister chortled, running a finger through his grey beard. The long, coarse hair had beads and twine skillfully weaved through it: Buck figured it had a religious significance. His piercing blue eyes scanned all over him as the group marched up the road. "Well for you being one of Ziva's? I wouldn't have assumed you were! Ah, you must be a joker, a comedian, perhaps you were a satirist in a past life? Surely you say that in jest?"
Buck laughed. "I'm telling ya the honest truth, sir. I'm as much here cause of Ziva as y'all are cause of yer gods."
The small congregation rippled, a number of chuckles and laughs spreading through fhem. The old priest quieted them with a gesture. He himself wore a wry smile. "Ah, forgive me then. You must have hit your head something fierce, Ziva's never sent a champion as... say, direct, as you are."
Alex crossed her arms and stuck an elbow in Buck's side. "He says that all the time! He's just a crazy half-giant with funny stories."
They crossed under a great arched tree and back into town. "Regardless, it is a tremendous occasion! The first time any- any!- of us have seen a new hero emerge, and most of all- well, a quite unusual one at that!"
The group moseyed on into town, being given a wide berth by the townsfolk. Most had heard the rumors. Those that weren't too hungover stared. Most eyes were on either the little blonde, or the massive man. "Eugh," Alex grumbled, "are you sure I'm the right one? It's... Never picked one from Hesse. Or a farm- I don't have a lot to do with the church- or even a girl, I don't recall any women ever being picked. Surely, there's a mistake?"
"Make no mistake young lady! You must surely be the one!" Before them stood the temple grounds: a great, circular arena about thirty yards around before a large, carved stone building. To Buck's recollection, they had magicians called Geomancers here, whose sole job was to pick out great pieces of stone and turn them into the structures used for daily life. It certainly looked like it, as the whole place seemed to flow up from the ground as just a few solid pieces of stone. It had a much older architecture compared to the wood and brick buildings of Brookheim. The great oak doors creaked open and let them into the wide interior chamber, where a small circle of delegates sat. "Willow, Buck, as this is a church affair, I must ask you to wait outside-"
Alex shot up beside the magister, glaring at him. "My Grandmother Willow will come inside!"
A stern look crossed the man's face. "She's not sanctioned-"
Alex stamped down, standing tall above the stout fellow. "She. Is. Coming. In." She growled, leaning over him.
The man had at least the good sense not to argue with that. Willow laughed and complimented her fiery attitude, though a robed man stepped in front of Buck with his thin, iron-banded club loose in his fingers. The man had a lot less to negotiate with- and, well, to be honest it seemed less a matter for him than it did for the natives here. He was perfectly content to wait outside and chat up the disciplined folks outside. "Oh, I'll just-"
"Come inside." Alexandra beckoned him in, and the robed fellow melted away, obviously not wanting to incur the wrath of the woman. Buck wondered if the title of heroine might have gotten to her... Or if she was a little cranky, since they hadn't had a lot to eat.
"Oh, that's quick, asking me to come inside already." He joked, ducking into the building. He spotted a great wooden table set up in the center, long red cloth tapestries hung from the high ceiling. A perfectly-maintained fire- a ceremonial, sacred flame, Buck guessed- burned at the far end of the church. They had a few young tenders watching the fire. A young man hauled in a pile of wood and sorted each log into special slots by the fire.
The red on Alex's face matched the sputtering, chuckling magister's. "N-no! Not like that-"
Willow nudged her granddaughter. "Great grandbabies, one of these days!"
Buck raised a hand, laughing at his own joke because he thought it was the funniest thing in the world. "Okay, okay, now one of us has gotta git our minds outta the gutter. Whatcha need us for, Mister Magister-"
"Magister Freidrich." Buck nodded and pulled a stone seat out for himself. It made a satisfying thunk sound, and then the rest of the group took seats around the table. Alex sat just beside Buck, and Willow sat apart from him, with Friedrich across from all of them. A ring of temple men stood around all of them, while Friedrich settled into the seats and clasped his fingers together. "Whatcha want?"
"You're rather direct." The old man chuckled, and an acolyte placed the testing blade across the table. "Why, this is the first time in a great many years that we've had a hero selected with one of our charmed metals. Heroine, forgive me for that."
They broke into conversation. A lot of it went over Buck's head. The history of the country, why there were a bunch of old men with strange charms picking out young folks from rural towns, why exactly the fact a woman got selected. He had rather wisely decided to extricate himself from their politics and their ideologies: he just worked on a farm. And liked all the cute girls they had no problem showing off. He drummed his fingers on the table, dipping in and out of focus in the conversation. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed the firekeepers working, poking iron rods into the fire to stoke it.
Alex looked a little distraught. They were talking about logistics and what- in an era of uninterrupted prosperity and peace- might cause a heroine to be selected. The neighboring countries had settled down. There wasn't a great civil unrest occurring. The dragon clans of the capital and the northern mountains had set aside their differences- hell, the last hero to be picked out had buried the hatchet between elves and men for good. There didn't seem to be a single issue for Alexandra to go and solve.
Friedrich snapped his fingers. "Buck, lad, have you been paying attention?"
"Sorry, sir. Ya were talking about something like no real big problems 'round here. So we gonna have to make some problems for Alex here to fix?" He came crashing back to reality, slumped in his seat and blinked away his headache. "Unless the problem is me, y'know. Wouldn't that be a helluva twist?"
Willow chuckled. "You? A problem? I don't know any women who'd say that!"
"Grandmother!" Alex shoved an elbow off. It got a disapproving grumble from her Willow. Buck laughed. "He's not a problem! He's alright to have around- just- Magister Friedrich, are you certain everything is right with the test?"
The man held up the testing blade. Buck saw clearly where the tip interlocked with some other structure. In the likely many decades it had been used, it had worn out a little. But still, the locking mechanism looked undamaged. Even if they used a peculiar magic metal that he couldn't wrap his head around how it worked from an engineering standpoint. "You can see it here. You've been selected, and according to the protocol of the church we do have to follow through with all of this! Young lady, you'll have to follow in the footsteps of Gottfried, Eadwine before him, and even the patron of the Maker church, Faustulus! And of course, that does come with special privileges and rites, you understand. This could be a sign of great change coming soon."
"But I don't want to- I'm just- aren't all those heroes men? Soldiers, too!" She went pale in the face. "I- I just want to read my books and study magic and- well, go to... One of the magical colleges in the capitol, not any of this heroics! I'm surely not cut out for slaying dragons or- or fighting armies or anything of that sort!"
One of the acolytes poured small glasses of a church-approved wine for the small party. Friedrich distributed them and Buck graciously accepted. "Yes, yes, I fully understand your concerns. But you know the old heroes weren't all fighters. My namesake, Friedrich the Friar- didn't have a violent bone in his body; he helmed the church during its reformation. And even Iron Gottfried took on a career as a statesman after his campaigning days were over! Now, I spent time reviewing the church doctrine, it hasn't changed much with regards to the festival and the Trials. All they do is select our countrymen- and women- with potentially bright futures, but all those heroes had allies and companions!"
"Sir, Friedrich- what are you getting at?" Alex declined any of the church wine. Buck sipped his. It tasted grape-y and rough.
He netted his fingers and cracked a crooked smile. "Those men all had confidants in their day and age- Friedrich his small circle, Gottfried had his armorer, even Faustulus- who, well, he was named a hero posthumously- put great faith in the wolf-brother he'd earned and allowed us to take the Wyldkin into our republic peacefully. I can't say for certain what will become of you, I am just a rural magister- but you may be wise to select a... How should I say this- fellowship for yourself. A shield-brother, spear-bearer, confidant, however you have it. People you'll take with you on your journey ahead."
Buck swished his wine and gulped it down. "Oh, a journey?"
"Young Alexandra will need to head to the capitol in order to be confirmed, yes. Alongside witnesses and testifiers from the delegation here..." Friedrich rubbed his chin and looked around at the robed fellows, Buck and Willow and the furiously fidgeting heroine. "I would see to it personally- but alas, I've a duty to Hesse. I must stay behind, as I'm sure you understand."
The room fell silent, all eyes on Alex as she mulled over what she'd been told. With her hands in her lap and her whole body twitching anxiously, eyes darting around, she looked like a mouse caught in a trap. The blood drained from her face as the weight of her choices made it self apparent to her. "Uh-huh... Oh my."
Buck sat back in his chair and didn't think too much about what the magister said. Witness, testimony, confidant. He seemed to have a developing knack for being in the precise right place at the exact right time. Everything since he'd gotten here had been beyond coincidence. His mind rushed a mile a minute, before he cut off all those thoughts and decided to just open his mouth and go with the first thing that came up in his head. "Well, I'll go with Alex! I saw her pull the sword out, and I think we're pretty friendly. I can be a witness to it!"
"Wait- what?" Alex shot up in her seat. "You will?"
Friedrich chortled. It had a dry, raspy quality. "Yes, lad? Well, you certainly could. You were right there when it happened."
"I mean- he can come- it's just that I haven't had much time to decide on that! Or even what I'll do!"
"Why, that's your choice to make, young lady. Though I have to say it wouldn't be a bad one to make." Friedrich hummed. "I'm sure you can manage, you know the whole town's been talking about you."
Willow butted in. "Oh absolutely! I'm sure you'll get plenty of gifts and help on the way to the capitol!" Her grandmother clapped her hands together and laughed uproariously. "Well I'm sure the carter can get you a cart, and the brewer will get you drinks and all of that, it's historic! Little Brookheim being the home of the latest, greatest, name in the history of our Republic!"
"Grandmother..." Alex shuffled in her seat. "It surely can't be that serious!"
Buck shrugged, leaned back and watched the door. He strained to hear the town outside, but he noted the church men moving to guard the doorway. The great gateway shifted, as if a crowd pushed against it trying to get in. The man tapped the table again. "Uh, y'all, do we have company?"
"It seems we do." Friedrich grumbled. "Damian! Remus! Open the door and turn the young folks loose! I'm sure Brookheim has much love for the both of you!"
They all stood up and gathered- and the two young men threw open the doors for Buck and Alex and Willow and Friedrich. A crowd of smiling faces and cheering voices greeted them. The hungering mob swirled and pulled them out, Buck thought he recognized Rodrick and Amelia. Even he, being so big, couldn't resist the pull, and soon enough they all ended up paraded around the town and showered with affection.