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The children of duty & justice

By JGJ Fairhurst All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure


Two colossal empires sit side by side. Guided by scripture, Emperor Horim of Olbaid foresees an inevitable war and plots to strike before being struck. Horim hatches a plan to frame neighbouring empire, Miria as instigators to win support for his holy conflict. Despite a predicted death toll in the millions and a war expected to span decades, Horim sees no price too great to shape his legacy and see off the preordained demonic invasion . Osyron Rymore is a fledgling marshal. Due to the brewing war, most seasoned marshal's have been conscripted into the army leaving him and fellow recruits with tasks that outweigh their experience. Opportunity is on the rise for criminals and a child trafficking ring is suspected to be operating in a coastal village in the far reaches of the empire. Osyron is sent alone. Here he meets Daniela Callahan, a fisherman's wife who leads him on a journey further than any charted map and beyond all belief.

Chapter 1

                    The Children of Duty & Justice

Chapter one

“War with the Mirian Empire? This is ludicrous!” Panic-laced disbelief broke out amongst the gathered monarchs in the throne room of Emperor Horim of Olbaid. Alarmed voices bounced around the stone chamber, dispersing into the shadow-laden corners. The twin empires had known peace since their formation over thirty years ago. However, Emperor Horim wanted to change that—he wanted war.

Horim sat, perched atop his throne, expecting the incredulous outcry from the leaders of the empire. A gem-studded crown rested atop thinning grey hair on the emperor’s head. Below the crown, two astute, angular eyes scanned the seated monarchy before him. Two gnarled hands emerged from his burgundy robe and clasped together before he continued.

“I know you consider this an act of unprovoked aggression, but you’re wrong, my friends. Not only is this necessary but it carries the burden of inevitability.” Emperor Horim met the eyes of kings, queens and state leaders as he addressed the room. The annual Calling of Kings was a half-day of political affairs followed by a week of debauchery and excess, the kind only monarchy can conceive, conjure and indulge in. This year’s Calling would be remembered for the former rather than the usual latter.

The King of Darr stood and clapped a fist to his breastplate in salute. “We’ve had a successful spell of peace with the Mirian Empire spanning decades. Forgive my ignorance, Emperor, but you’ll have to explain your arrival at such a conclusion.”

A chorus of “hear, hear” tailed the statement. The support evolved into a boisterous murmur. As the noise trailed off, all eyes rested on the emperor’s blank expression. The unreadable look brought clearing throats that simmered to silence.

“I intend to explain and in great detail; do you intend to listen or are your minds already made?” Boots slid on the stone floor as the feet of kings shuffled uncomfortably. “Let us start with necessity, shall we? For centuries our kingdoms warred with each other until the Olbaid empire was forged and all nations agreed to join under the Olbaidian banner— unity under one cause and worship under one god. Miria’s situation mirrored our own—wars that spanned generations between rival kings and religions, eventually ending with the forging of an empire. Now two colossal empires stand side by side. Will this state of affairs be the case forever? Worshipping differing gods and by doing so disrespecting each other’s?” Horim opened his arms and peered at all gathered. Royal lips shaped to speak but Horim cut off any chance of thoughts becoming voiced words. “Naivety is your master if you think so. My friends, all wars fought from the beginning of time have brought us to this point, to one final conflict, or more accurately a penultimate conflict.”

“If we defeated Miria then all lands would join under one banner, so who’s left to war with?” inquired the Tesslin king.

Emperor Horim’s eyes fixed on the man. “Have you so soon forgotten what is written in Holy Scripture? Or is blasphemy now permissible in your lands?”

The king’s eyes went wide. The emperor held deep religious convictions, holding blasphemy on par with crimes of violence. “No…no, Emperor…not at all,” he stammered.

Horim let the forebodingness marinate before dismissing it. “Then allow me to continue. I, of course, refer to the final judgement of mankind set by our Lord God, Hixel. The demonic horde that inhabits the infernal lands to the south will come; it is a matter of time. This is God’s word, therefore not open to debate.” Horim raised an eyebrow in an unspoken challenge. No one picked up the gauntlet.

“What is in question is will we be ready for such an invasion? I say a divided mankind will not. A divided mankind will fall. With half the known world praying to a false god how can we really expect Hixel’s blessing in such a battle? Humanity—not half but all of mankind—needs God on its side for such a war. As things stand, we will fail. We will die.”

Emperor Horim rose from his throne and paced methodically around the elongated table that sat the gathered leaders, a wolf circling a sheep pen. Intimidation was the reason he donned the crown. It was forged for these moments. Jewels submitted by every kingdom as a token of their surrender and unity with Olbaid encrusted the thick circle of gold. Amongst kings and queens, the crown emanated authority, but it was viewed as gratuitous excess through the eyes of commoners. Horim knew exactly when and when not to utilise it.

Emperor Horim emitted a sigh and continued. “I do not wish this more than any of you. I wish to convince Miria of Hixel being the one true God, to convert them, to ultimately save them. You know as well as I they will not listen to reason, so it leaves one alternative…force. Once they’ve recognized Hixel as the true God, then and only then will mankind be ready to face final judgement.”

Shadows on the wall cast by the roaring fireplace jerked a nervous dance as Horim spoke. Gauging the faces staring at him, Horim had a lot of convincing ahead. He continued to pace around the table with hands clasped at his back. “Now, my friends, is the prospect of mankind’s annihilation reason enough? Maybe you think my words an exaggeration or overreaction. Perhaps the sceptical amongst you think me an outright fabricator. If so, then hear me out on the inevitability of such a war.” Emperor Horim left no time for interjection. He wanted all present to remain oblivious to each other’s thoughts. If the majority were against his proposal then isolating them with their thoughts remained crucial. All it took was one voice for the rest to champion and fall in behind. They would hear everything he had to say before they got a chance to retort with any objection.

“The Mirian Empire finds itself in the exact same situation. From their perspective, they have a blasphemous neighbouring empire riddled with heathens. While our gods differ, their religion does recognise the preordained demonic invasion from the south, so they’ve the same concern as us. They’ve spies in our cities and towns, as do we in theirs. In short, we have peace treaties but no trust. The Mirian Empire may have contemplated the very proposal that I now present to you. So I ask you, leaders of Olbaid, do we sit idle and let them take initiative? In other words, will we be the predator or the prey?”

The statues of prior kings that lined the wall overlooked the proceedings in silent judgement. Emperor Horim walked back to his throne and sat down, opening his arms in invitation to questions. The gathered leaders exchanged uneasy glances, most having a contribution to offer but shying from speaking first.

The state leader from the Glenlands broke the silence,

“Forgive my boldness, Emperor, but there is something that I must point out. Your father thought war with Miria neither inevitable nor necessary. He ruled the Empire while Miria was still a mass of squabbling kingdoms. If he thought then as you do now, then he had the perfect opportunity to strike. History shows he did not attack, nor did he propose such a notion at any Calling of Kings.” Heads around the room nodded their agreement and another murmur broke out before all turned back to hear Horim’s response.

“No forgiveness necessary. I am an admirer of boldness. Why, it is the very quality I seek, so I am glad to see it in attendance,” replied Horim. “This is something I have pondered myself and my initial conclusions were exactly as yours, but I ask you to consider this: Olbaid was but a fledgling empire during my father’s reign. Would all the freshly conquered kingdoms have fought against Miria? The newly formed, tentative bonds would certainly have broken. Why surrender to Olbaid one day only to bleed for them the next? Such an act would have ripped the new allegiances apart and at the same time helped galvanise the Mirian Empire. While it would seem the perfect time at first glance, after some scrutiny, you’ll agree the timing would have been catastrophic.”

The gathered monarchs chewed over the emperor’s words. By the emperor’s estimation the momentum was beginning to swing in his favour. All that mattered now was the quality of the answers he gave to their questions.

“Your Imperial Majesty, a war between empires would last decades; the death toll would be unimaginable,” offered one of the queens.

“What are decades when compared to the eternal peace that a solitary empire would bring? What is a death toll when compared with the extinction of mankind? I am under no illusions that this is a decision to be taken lightly, but a choice has to be made even if the best option is no better than brutal.”

Horim ran mock meetings with his closest advisors in the week leading up to the Calling of Kings. Together they pre-empted the most obvious questions that would be asked and had well-rehearsed answers in wait.

“What if the demonic invasion comes while we war with Miria? This would put us in the worst possible scenario. This would be the most certain way to ensure the end of days, would it not?” was the queen’s doubtful response.

Again Horim expected it. “The church of Hixel has given me their assurances that the judgment day invasion comes only when mankind is united as one. While there are two empires and a divided mankind then it is regarded by the church’s greatest scholars that no invasion will take place.

Hope danced in the queen’s eyes; she sat upright hoping to reel in the prize catch she’d hooked. “Emperor Horim, I have to ask the obvious. Why not use this information to secure a long-term alliance and peace with Miria? The solution to the demonic invasion is staring us in the face and it is a peaceful one with not a single life taken or lost.”

Horim smiled internally at his diligence in preparation and the predictability of the kingdom’s leaders. “This too has crossed my mind and is a fair question. While we have spies in each other’s empire, neither side could take serious an offer of an eternal alliance nor would either empire have any right to make such an offer. If you are now going to ask why both empires don’t withdraw all men from foreign soil to make this a possibility, it would have to be done on the back of the one thing we do not have: trust. Spies in each other’s lands are testament to that.” Emperor Horim paused to see if the queen understood his reasoning before continuing. Judging by the dejected look on her face, it was clear she did. “Even if we could assure each other of our honourable intentions it would birth a far bigger issue. By implementing some perpetual stalemate with Miria we would be risking the wrath of God. I don’t think that the will of Hixel can be so easily eluded or ignored. He has set us a judgement day and warned us of it in scripture. If we were to put into play any means to avoid it I don’t think God would take kindly to our attempts to outfox him by striking a deal with heathens.”

Dejection turned to total deflation as the queen’s body hunched. A fellow representative came to her rescue with an alternate objection for the emperor. “Your Imperial Majesty, we cannot invade Miria; the citizens of the empire would not support it. They celebrate the anniversary of the peace treaties every year. Many of our soldiers may refuse to take up arms or desert altogether if war was declared.”

For the first time, Emperor Horim was given pause. He had thought extensively on what the people who held sceptres and power would say yet had not considered the commoners who clutched broom handles and swords. Pawns meant little individually but collectively they held tremendous, unrealised power.

Horim traced a finger across an eyebrow. “I grant that the reasons I have given you today may be beyond the comprehension of the everyday man.” He leaned forward on his throne, lacing his fingers under his chin. He spoke aloud but to himself. “What we need is a cause that can be understood and championed by ordinary folk, something or someone that will win us the battle for hearts and minds.” All at once, the emperor leaned back, injecting volume into his voice. “If you give me your oath that you will support me in this then I will give one in return. I will win over the people of this land and harness their backing. There will be some resistance of course, there always is, but I will win over the majority. This is my oath to you as Emperor.”

Upon arrival to this year’s assembly, the monarchs’ heads had been filled with all the delights and luxuries the Calling of Kings delivered. Now, mere moments later, they faced an impossible choice. Agreeing to an unprovoked war or defying the emperor in his own throne room. Dozens delicately balanced on that tightrope, collectively yet alone.

A chair screeched, breaking the silence as the king of Darr stood. “Emperor, all of three days ago my wife gave birth to my daughter, my only child. I am closing in on my fiftieth year and I am not so presumptuous to believe more children await me further down the path of time. The point I am making is that I do not wish my one and only child’s life to be blighted by war, a war that will span the entirety of her life.” The king struggled with the sentiment of what he was saying. He cleared his throat before continuing, “I do not think I could look her in the eye knowing it was I that sanctioned such a war.”

“My congratulations to you and your queen. I am assuming she is not in attendance due to this recent birth?”

The king nodded his confirmation.

Horim continued. “I understand your concerns, but I plead that you understand mine. If we are fortunate enough for this inevitability not to have crossed Mirian minds then perhaps your daughter could live in a world that is blessed with peace, yet that peace would be dependent on Miria’s ignorance. When your own daughter has grown and become a queen and the forces of Miria are running rampant through her lands, running through her private chambers…” Horim fixed his gaze on the king, making sure he understood the meaning behind his words, “do you think you could look her in the eye then? Knowing it was your inaction that let to…that?” Emperor Horim paused long enough to let the horror-inducing visual play out in the king’s head.

Horim swept his arm, inviting the room into the repulsive scenario. “What would all our children say if we sat idle because we side-stepped a difficult decision? You can abstain and remove this burden from your neck, but recognize you do not rid yourselves of it. It will fall and clamp around the necks of your children, if…” the emperor paused and raised an eyebrow, “they are lucky enough to still be in the position to make that choice.”

A clamorous murmur broke out amongst the gathered royalty once more. This time it showed no signs of being brief. The emperor revelled in the stir it caused and let it run its full course. As the rabble began to die out the screeching of chairs sliding on the stone floor could be heard as one by one Olbaid’s leaders stood up and voiced their agreement.

War was unanimously confirmed.

Horim stood, clasped his hands together and bowed before the leaders of the empire. “I salute your bravery and wisdom, for I know it was not an easy call to make. Being monarchs and leaders is more than inheriting a title. Situations will arise when it will be asked of you whether you are deserving of those titles. With your actions today you have proven yourselves worthy. It is an honour to be your emperor.” Horim raised his arms and broke out his best smile. “Enjoy the rest of your time here, my esteemed friends. All your feedback from last year has been taken into consideration and we’ve worked scrupulously in meeting all your wants and desires. What we have in store for you will surpass any Calling of Kings on record. You are free; go fulfil your desires. Whatever your appetite, we have it catered for and we will satisfy.”

The leaders bowed and offered customary farewells before departing through the grand double doors. Their chattering voices faded with distance, leaving the emperor alone with his private guard and thoughts. He sunk deeper in his throne and recalled the day he was crowned Emperor of Olbaid. One simple question that day had been the catalyst for the conversation that had passed: “Your father forged an empire. Just how does one follow something of that magnitude?” It was a question asked by an inherited advisor. As the question resonated, the crown on his head had felt heavy, his body felt scrawny and too frail for the empirical garb he donned. The advisor had long since been hanged, framed by the emperor for the rape of a cleaner at the palace, though Horim had since come to regret the action—advisors who were innocently bold enough to blurt out such questions were rare. He needed difficult questions. Without them, he could not provide the answers. However, the hanging had brought him great sway with the common folk. Such justice for a lowly cleaning girl against such high-ranking personnel showed this was an emperor who cared equally for his subjects regardless of social standing—a fortuitous, unforeseen by-product of the advisor’s elimination. In time, Horim came to realise the advisor’s question had been rhetorical, but that never quenched his desire to find an answer. And now he had it: conquer and rule the world.

He meandered through his throne room, following his departed guests through the ornate double doors, a self-congratulatory smile began to spread. Monarchs. He scoffed at the word. Even monarchs question what is said rather than why it’s said. His legacy would not be the first man to inherit an empire but the first man to conquer one. The man who made the world recognize Hixel as the one true God. The man who unified humanity. The man who led humankind to victory over the demonic horde.

That is how one follows something of that magnitude, dear advisor.

Chapter Two

The town of Cloverstone was alive with activity despite the sun yawning its first stretch over the town’s rooftops. Prolonged fingers of light breached treetops and cast the town in a yellow hue. Horse-drawn carts carrying sculpted stone rolled down dirt roadways, headed for cities of a scale that outmatched their mountainous origin. The driver of one cart offered a morning greeting to a boy standing in the entrance of his home. The boy’s mop of dark mid-length hair hung forward, his eyes transfixed on a clutched parchment. The cart drew level then passed the house with no acknowledgment in return. The driver let out a discontented grunt, shrugged, then began to whistle as the horses journeyed onwards towards his destination.

Osyron Rymore thought he heard someone call his name. For the briefest of moments, the inkling to look up and respond almost formed, but it faded before maturing into a processed thought. His focus was back, scrutinizing the letter he held. The hawk messenger that had delivered it was still visible as it made its return to its sender. Osyron paid it no heed. The possible verification of a dream come true lay in his hands and even the majesty of a hawk in flight reeked of mediocrity by contrast—if indeed, it was a letter of acceptance. He could very well be clutching the confirmation of a dream foreclosed if it turned out to be rejection. Osyron shook his head to clear it of desires and doubts and began reading from the start.

Casandra Rymore counted dust motes that hung in the streak of sunlight coming through the open doorway, waiting patiently to hear what news the messenger hawk had brought. The light from the open door cast their house in a soft, dream-like bloom. The perfumes of nature drifted in, giving a fine compliment to the already promise-filled morning. Casandra inhaled deeply, held it and let the breath go as a playful sigh. If the silence between them was to be broken, the burden rested on her. Her son would remain mute for a duration her patience would not withstand.
“Are you going to tell me what is says or do you plan to leave your mother in eternal suspense?”

With eyes still fixed on the parchment, Osyron slowly raised a solitary finger in a silent plea for time. He needed to read it once more, methodically this time. Eagerness had rushed his previous reading; he needed to make sure there were no loopholes, no conditions and no mistake. He scrutinised the words, cautious not to misconstrue a syllable or solitary letter. Nothing was out of place. It was official. He has passed the Marshals of Law preliminary examination and his invite to train was official.

Casandra knew what was written on the parchment; the ecstatic smile that crept, then blossomed on her son’s face was difficult to miss and easy to decipher. “You are a marshal now, my son,” she somehow managed through her impossible grin.

“Just a cadet, Mother. There is a lot I need to accomplish before I can call myself marshal,” replied Osyron, although hearing that declaration aloud made his stomach flip.

“You will be. Of that I have no doubt. If half the people in half of Olbaid had half of your sense of right and wrong this empire wouldn’t require marshals.” Casandra walked over to her son and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Olbaid is blessed for having you as its son, as am I.” She pursed her lips before adding, “As was your father.”

Osyron glared and brushed past her. He walked to the kitchen table and leaned his weight on it, offering his back to her. “You said ‘was’ proud. That’s past tense. Have you given up on him?”

“No. I just…there comes a point when…” Casandra drew a sharp breath and started over. “I’m trying to look forward not back. It’s been so long with no trace, no word. What I called hope now feels like desperation. What I thought belief now has the hallmarks of denial.” Casandra’s head snapped up as she opened her arms. “What am I to do? Believe till the grave that he is alright and is coming home? Spend what time I have wishing and wanting?” She bit her lip and let the fire leave her voice. “I ache every day for word. Even a ransom note would be a blessing to me now, anything that would confirm he is alive. Too much time has passed to think this is still a possibility, not that we have the wealth or renown to ever consider a kidnapping feasible in the first place.” She edged a few steps closer to her son; Osyron heard the footsteps and turned to face her. “If he has not been taken against his will then he has left us of his own accord. I can’t believe he would leave me for another woman, but if this was the case he would have the decency to let me know. He would’ve taken some of his possessions, his clothes, the pipe you carved for him, something. Son, my life has been adjourned since your father’s disappearance; no one can free me from that limbo but myself. If you have some hope, some possibility that I have not considered, then offer it to me now and I will hear it.”

This time Osyron’s eyes took in the freshly swept floor. His lips motioned but no words came.

“I can’t defy reality indefinitely; I need to move on in my life as you are moving on in yours. Please, understand this much.”

Without looking up, Osyron took his mother’s hand in his. “I think much the same. I suppose I was relying on you to fuel my dying hopes, hoping you’d sit and wait for word while I run off and unfurl my wings.” Osyron shook his head. “That’s selfish; forgive me. I believed that for as long as there was no trace of him then there was hope. Now I’ve realised the opposite is true. It’s difficult accepting it without confirmation… ” Osyron wet his bottom lip, “…that he’s not ever coming home.”

Osyron’s father, Richard, had been missing, presumed dead for almost a year. He had worked as a medic whose daily routine predominately consisted of house calls to the long-term sick and injured. At that time, Osyron had worked as a carpenter. His father had often coaxed him to follow in the family footsteps and undertake the path of medicine. Osyron contemplated the offer but a visit to Cloverstone from a recruitment officer for the marshals to ended all consideration. He recalled the unfounded trepidation he’d felt when revealing to his father the path he chose.

“That’s wonderful news, Son. Despite your talent as a carpenter I knew you were cut out for something else.”

“You’re not disappointed?”

Richard had smiled and laid down his pipe. “My son has decided to pursue his heart’s desire. How can I feel disappointment?”

Osyron let out a sigh and raised his eyes to the ceiling. Richard took in his son, the display of relief presented the chance to be mischievous. “You know, from the moment I saw your slack-jawed gaze at that recruitment officer’s stories, I knew where your future lay.”

“I’m not slack-jawed!” said Osyron in mock offense, but privately wondered if there was any truth to the allegation. He recalled being mesmerised with the accounts of life as a marshal, the stories of bravery and justice.

“Not usually, no, but when something has your undivided interest then you seem to lose control of your lower jaw muscles.” A ghost of a smile flashed on Richard’s face as he continued. “A little drool comes out the side of your mouth as well if your head is on an angle.”

Osyron gaped, lost for words. They both stared at each other, internally battling to keep amusement private. After a brief stare out, a telepathic truce was stuck, ending in unified laughter.

“Thank you, this means everything. Not your ‘slack-jawed’ allegation but your understanding,” said Osyron, still revelling in his father’s approval.

“Don’t tell me, Son, show me!” Richard stood, opening his arms wide, an invitation Osyron gladly accepted.

Casandra interpreted the distance in her son’s gaze. “He would be proud of you, proud of his boy becoming a marshal.”

Osyron cleared his throat. “You are getting ahead of yourself again, Mother. I am a cadet. Anything beyond is yet to be proven.” The memory had played out, but the accompanying sorrow made a chore of departing.

“You will be. Time will prove me right.” Casandra looked at her son with new eyes. He was grown now, her baby had become a man. Every day she bore witness to the transformation yet the procedure seemed to have snuck up from obscurity. “I couldn’t be prouder, Son.”

Osyron gave a closed-mouth smile. It was all he could manage. His mother came to his rescue. “I know, Son, I know.” Still clinging to the acceptance letter, he wrapped his arms around her, dispelling the potential hangover from their brief, heated exchange.

“Will you be okay here on your own? I’ll have to find a place in the capital but will visit at every opportunity.”

Casandra raised her eyebrows. “You don’t view your mother as capable? The tasks you attend to are now the opportunity to learn something new, and should anything prove beyond me then I’ve countless friends here who’ll gladly lend a hand.” Casandra rubbed his upper arms. “I’ll be fine. Focus on what you need to do and put thoughts of me aside.”

He knew this was no guilt-sparing lie. Cloverstone had many a steadfast friend for the Rymore family. “I’ll prove you wrong about one thing, Mother.”

“Oh, you will? And what might that be?”

Osyron released the hug enough so he could look his mother in the eye. “You said you couldn’t be prouder; I’m taking that as a personal challenge.”

Casandra smiled at her son once again as she pulled his arms back around her to indulge in his full embrace once more. “Let’s sit,” she said at last, letting him go. She extended her arm to the chairs tucked under the kitchen table. “I think you should go tell Mrs. Elerby. She’ll almost be as delighted as I am.”

A chuckle escaped Osyron’s lips. “I think she still holds ill will towards me.”

Casandra gave him a playful tap. “Don’t be silly. You have proven your calibre many times over since then. This will just be the icing on the cake.”

Osyron made a sour face at his mother who was looking rather pleased with herself. “Jokes are not your forte, Mother.”

In his thirteenth year of life, Osyron tried to steal a honey cake from Mrs. Elerby. His nose had caught the enchanting aroma on his way past the woman’s house. He obliged the sweet fragrance that begged him to follow. “Just so my eyes can see what my nose can smell,” he told himself, creeping closer to the patio. The cake sat cooling on a bench outside. It looked as good as the aroma promised. The bewitching powers of the cake’s perfume now coupled with the captivating sight of it left Osyron defenceless. His own salivating mouth and rumbling stomach became part of the collaborators warring against his better judgement. He considered whether there could be anything better in the whole wide world than sinking his teeth into the warm sweetness and letting a bite sit on his tongue, the rightful throne of this sovereign cake.

If it looks better than it smells, I bet it tastes better than it looks, was his innocent reasoning. With tongue protruding out the side of his mouth, his hands joined the list of conspirators as his fingers walked their way around the pie dish. Once in his grasp it was the simple matter of a getaway. He turned, ready to make off with his ill-gotten gain. Every stride was now a step closer to biting into the promised, delicious rapture. He trod with caution when icy realisation gripped him. From the corner of his eye the squat shape of Mrs. Elerby leaning out of the window stared at him. She had been watching him the whole time. His tunnel vision had prevented him paying due care and attention. He was caught red-handed. He desperately racked his brain in order to explain away his actions; shame replaced the want inside him. Mrs Elbery vanished from the window and re-emerged at her front door. She walked over, studying him with an unreadable face. The world held its breath as she leaned in so close her nose almost tipped his. “You and I will pay a visit to your parents, young man.” She held his gaze for what seemed an eternity before adding, “and I don’t think they’re gonna like what you’re going to tell them.”

His hear sank. He’d hoped to hang his head and stare at the floor while the exchange between his parents and the aggrieved baker played out. Now it was on him to explain how a honey cake had become his master. The notion was absurd now that the cake’s enchanting hold had been broken.

Once back at his own house Mrs. Elerby instructed Osyron to explain why she was with him. The young Osyron tried to illustrate it was the honey cake’s powers of enticement that were the real criminal here. The cake, having such a powerful effect, ought to be taken as a compliment, and that no one should be too upset as it was only cake.

“Only cake?” replied his father, crouching down to meet him at eye level. Osyron hung his head to avoid the scrutiny of the close proximity stare. His father’s thumb and forefinger under his chin prevented the escape. “It’s never only cake, it’s never only anything. You see, when you put your hands around that dish and started to make off with it you took more than just cake.”

Osyron met his father’s gaze willingly now, readying to defend himself against false accusations. He had taken a cake, nothing more; any other allegation would meet fierce denial.

Richard held up a finger in front of his son to highlight he was making a point. “See, as well as cake, you’ve also robbed Mrs. Elerby of any respect she had for you. She once saw a decent boy. Now she sees a thief. It was just a few weeks back she was complimenting me on what a fine job your mother and I have done raising you. I really don’t think she will be repeatinging herself anytime soon.”

Shame bubbled in Osyron anew as the comprehension of his father’s words began sinking in.

“You have also stripped away a lot of pride your mother and I had in you. Respect and pride are difficult to obtain, Son, and next to impossible to retrieve when lost. You see, Osyron, it’s never only cake, do you understand?”

Osyron did. Despite his young age he grasped his father’s meaning as the connotations of his actions wrapped around him, squeezing a tear from his eye. “Mother, Father, Mrs. Elerby…I am sorry, I truly am.” He had voiced multiple apologies on the journey to his parents’ house in the desperate hope Mrs. Elerby would somehow be satisfied with his disingenuous pleas and send him on his way unpunished. However, this was the first time he said it with steadfast sincerity. “I will make this up to you, all of you. I swear.”

“She has long since forgiven you, Son,” said Casandra, still displaying a self-satisfied grin at her cake joke.

“Perhaps. I still feel a little shameful approaching her house even with legitimate reason.” Osyron turned to his mother as he sat forward. “Do you mind if I spread my good news?” He raised the parchment in his hand. “I have a few friends l’d like to share this with. I will bring us back some of Mrs. Elerby’s freshly baked rolls on my way home and we can enjoy them together.”

Casandra nodded confirmation and offered a nonchalant palm to the door. “On you go then, spread your good news. I know a lot of people will be keen to hear it.”

“Thank you, I shall be quick as I can.” Osyron leaned over the table and pecked his mother on the cheek before making for the door.

As he began pulling the door closed behind him Casandra called out, “Mind you pay for those rolls—don’t just go helping yourself now.”

Osyron peeked back through the ajar door and thumbed his nose. He gave his mother one last smile and waved the parchment above his head with all the enthusiasm of a springtime lamb before disappearing out the door. The house fell suddenly silent.

Casandra stared where her son’s smile had shone mere moments prior. That Osyron would leave the family home had been inevitable since his arrival in the world. Casandra had contemplated the prospect several times since his birth. Pride and happiness filled her, however, the spike of dread introducing itself episodically was proving difficult to ignore.

This had been her home for three decades. Every painting that hung on the walls, every ornament that adorned the shelves, even the furnishings filling the rooms were here because she had chosen them. All except one. She cast her eyes to a corner of the room, taking in her husband’s favourite chair. Walking over, she slid her fingers across the varnished finish and onto the cool, upholstered leather. Osyron had designed and built it as a birthday gift for his father. It still carried the pungent smell of pipe smoke, something she had hated when Richard had been around. But now it was a precious, fading remnant of the man she loved. Casandra took in a deep breath and held it in as long as her lungs permitted. She released it slower than any breath she had given back to the world.

Her home had always felt cosy but with the closing of the door, the walls inched further apart and the ceiling grew taller. This was familiar territory for Casandra. The house had begun its growing habits shortly after Richard went missing. As time passed, her home had continued to swell and bloat. As the house increased in size, her comfort withered. Eventually the building had ceased its incremental growth but never reversed back to the snug sanctuary it had been when Richard was around. Now the gradual expansion began anew. Casandra knew it was no more than imagination. She also knew imagination was an entity with unparalleled power.

Chapter Three

"How could anyone do such a thing?” The question continually surfaced in an ever-churning cauldron of questions. ”Money; it’s always money,” was the unsatisfactory answer rising to meet it. There are many ways to earn coin both fair and foul, but to play a wilful part in this took something most did not possess. This took evil.

A blast of wind carrying the chill of the sea pulled Osyron from his ponderings back into his surroundings. It was mid-autumn yet the occasional gust carrying winter’s cold intent introduced itself. He stood on the deck of the chartered ferry staring out to sea. A moon that fluctuated between unashamed beauty and self-conscious recluse illuminated the world around him when not shying behind patches of cloud. The villages that spattered the coastline offered pinpricks of lights as the ferry voyaged through the water, the light too dim and distant to penetrate the surrounding darkness. The ferry would dock at his destination, Parkcross, with the breaking of morning, where his first assignment as marshal would truly begin.

A heaving wave crashed against the hull and peppered him with sea spray. Nevertheless, he remained defiant to stay on deck. Staring at the open expanse of sea was preferable to the walls in his cramped cabin. The open air allowed for clarity of thought, something he found difficult to find below deck. There was much to consider and time was a scarce commodity.

Wearing civilian clothes on his first official role as marshal was not how he had pictured it; being sent alone was not how he had dared imagine it. Despite circumstances not as he’d envisioned, correcting problems like this was the reason he had become a marshal. His first year of marshalhood should have comprised of settling squabbles between bickering farmers over whose livestock had eaten whose crop, or breaking up drunken altercations outside the local Inns. His assignment was on another level entirely.

Seemingly angered its previous efforts were shrugged off, the sea slapped another wave hard against the hull. This time the spray that caught Osyron was no mere peppering. Osyron tasted the salt and felt cold water trickle down his torso into his breeches. The wind brought a chill to his now damp skin. With a groan, he gauged the moon’s position before heading back to his cabin. His feet squelched as he trudged across deck and down the stairs. The lanterns lining the below-deck passageway did a better job of illuminating the enclosed space than the moon’s effort on the main deck. The melody of instruments floating from a cabin further down the passageway was a welcome distraction from the monotony of the creaking bulkheads. When the music stopped, boisterous laughter broke out, soon to be followed by aggressive voices. In turn, music struck up anew and vanquished the imminent danger. It had become a familiar cycle since departing from the Olbaid docks; this was Osyron’s third night experiencing the sequence of song, laughter and anger. He smiled at the memory of his first night on board. Several times he had fumbled sleepy-eyed for his sword and made for the door of his cabin only for the music to strike up and quash the threat with more efficiency than a squadron of marshals.

Osyron stripped off his drenched clothes and climbed onto his hammock, covering himself before the night’s chill further saturated his skin. Sleep was now his foremost consideration; three days of milling over his objective had brought him no closer to adequate answers. If the fates were kind, queasiness would not visit him tonight. He had requested a bucket after setting sail and spent many an hour on the voyage staring into the bottom of it. His direct commander, High Marshal Riven, had given Osyron the choice to travel by land or by sea at the outset. The romantic notions Osyron held of sailing had made the decision on his behalf—an incorrect decision he had long since admitted.

Osyron had already decided to make the return trip by land. “If you return,” whispered a demon of doubt. He ignored it and tuned back into the muted music seeping through the planked walls of his cabin. The unanswerable question rose from the depths again, ever belligerent at his inability to find a satisfactory answer. “Why would anyone sell children?”

A report sent from Tollhead, the town holding local authority over Parkcross, claimed suspected child trading activities were happening in the village. Several couples who had previously been childless now had a son—three couples in Parkcross itself and two in neighbouring villages. When questioned about the sudden new arrivals, each couple claimed the children to be relatives taken in as orphans from the skirmishes on the Mirian border. While not unheard of, the circumstances surrounding these sudden arrivals had raised enough suspicion for a report to be sent to Marshals’ Hall. It was common knowledge all the newfound parents were trying for a child. The alleged war orphans were all boys and under a year old. Babies the same age, same gender and showing up at the same time and place induced suspicion. There was too much coincidence for it to be dismissed as coincidence. The report went on to state the local marshal had questioned the couples and the villagers but met the same war orphan cover story by everyone. As no crime was reported, The Tollhead marshal was unsure how to proceed but could not ignore the peculiarity, hence the report had been sent to Marshals’ Hall.

That report was the reason Osyron lay with fingers locked behind his head, pondering the danger awaiting him.

The inebriated choir playing and crooning their melodies matched the rhythmical waves breaking against the hull. The booze-saturated passengers did their utmost to match the turbulent sea with booming laughter and stomping feet. Despite the raucousness, the odes to alcohol and maidens fair were surprisingly soothing. Osyron’s hammock swayed in time with the metronome of the sea. Before long his consciousness dissolved to blankness. The music and waft of home-brewed spirits faded to nothing.

Osyron awoke to the ferry docking at Parkcross a few hours after sunrise. The captain called out orders over the sound of the ship’s bell as passengers thumped their way along the corridor outside his cabin. As Osyron dressed, he pondered the ragtag band of drunken musicians managing to rise earlier than him.

The ferry would not return to Olbaid for two days so Osyron arranged to leave his luggage on board while he sought accommodation in the village. Osyron offered farewells to the crew before disembarking the ferry and stepping onto the Parkcross pier. He trod his way along the aged wooden slats, passing an assortment of fishing boats bobbing on the water. He glanced at the fishermen lining the sand on either side of the pier. He imagined them rising early each morning to beat each other to fabled lucky spots along the thin strip of beige sand. At first, Osyron judged the circling mass of sea birds overhead to be exceptionally loud, then came to realise there was no city noise masking the birds’ cawing.

The pier ended in a dirt path leading directly into Parkcross. The village was smaller than Osyron had expected, a cluster of modest, sturdy buildings huddled together like sheep in a field. A sanctuary of civilisation in an unbroken expanse of surrounding green fields. The single-storey homes were comprised of cream stone with structured wooden beam framework. Wafts of smoke rose from multiple chimneys, bending on the breeze coming in from the sea. Osyron made his way into the heart of the village, admiring the gardens that boasted colourful flowerbeds, defiant of the time of year. Osyron passed the village inn; most likely, it would be his abode while residing here. In the heart of the village was a collection of market stalls where locals traded differing wares and bric-a-brac. The charming aroma of freshly baked pastries reminded Osyron he had not eaten yet. He casually strolled around the sparse streets of the village to get a taste of life here, hoping the place itself could tell him something the locals would not.

Osyron wanted to learn as much about the village as possible before beginning his enquiry; he planned to use any information he gained from his observations later. It was a trick taught by his father. “Ask questions you know the answers to; this will separate truth-tellers from liars.” For Osyron’s work as a marshal it had already paid dividends.

In the centre of the ring of market stalls stood a life-sized statue of a fisherman. The statue’s arms were raised in the air, casting out a rusting net of iron. It bore no plaque or inscription so seemed a tribute to the art of fishing rather than an individual. Around the statue ran a thigh-high wall where villagers sat, conversed and enjoyed the morning. Osyron meandered over and sat down to contemplate his next step. Passers by greeted him with warm welcome. Osyron struggled to match the crimes insinuated to what he witnessed. Why people like this would participate in covering up child selling was beyond Osyron. Not for long, he vowed privately.

As Osyron sat, observing life in the village, one of the child-acquiring couples happened by. Folk gathered around the happy pair while others looked on at a distance, beaming joyful smiles. Market traders slipped items into the bag the mother was carrying as they enquired how the baby was settling in. Villagers made cooing noises and adoring faces at the bundle the woman proudly carried. What struck Osyron most is not what he saw but what he did not. There were no hushed whispers spoken into ears via cupped hands. No disapproving glances cast at the couple’s backs. No discreet fingers pointed at the couple from village gossips. If there was a conspiracy in Parkcross, the entire village was involved.

Stall attendants wandered from their pitch to chat with others in the market square, apparently carefree of thievery. Villagers browsed wares and laid coin for items purchased in the proprietors’ absence. Seemingly, the very concept of theft had not reached Parkcross. A toddler picked up an apple from a basket at a market stall. She held it in both hands and stared intently at the apple’s shiny red skin before clamping her tiny teeth around it. Upon seeing this, her mother fumbled in her pocket for a copper coin. The stallholder held up her hands in protest to payment before crouching down to give the small girl a playful pinch on the cheek. The mother shook her head, insisting on payment. The fruit seller and the mother duelled with insistence until the mother eventually yielded and accepted the free apple. Once the stall owner turned away, the mother gingerly placed a coin down on the table and made her getaway. Osyron’s brow furrowed at the exchange; the lines deepened as he considered everything he had witnessed since stepping onto the Parkcross pier. This was not what he’d expected, not what he’d expected at all.

Chapter Four

“Black rancid souls.” High Marshall Riven spoke each word with hefty revulsion. His face suggested the words left an aftertaste matching their meaning. Osyron had visited the high marshal’s office before, however, this was his first time as an official marshal of law. The high marshal was a behemoth of a man. His jet-black hair and beard had begun sheltering silver, but it lent the mountainous man distinction rather than age. Riven was no lumbering oaf. Intelligence glistened in his dark eyes. Osyron sat opposite Riven at the high marshal’s desk. The black marble surface between them held a solitary parchment, the child trading report from Tollhead.

“They must have some base of operations where they carry out these child trading atrocities. I want you to locate it and make a report containing names of ringleaders so we don’t capture pawns. Once you have this information, send it back by hawk messenger and Marshals’ Hall will take care of the rest.” Osyron offered an understanding nod. Riven leaned in and spoke in a confidential tone. “We’re dealing with callous filth and they’ve made it clear how low they’re prepared to stoop so keep caution close as your next breath. Ending a marshal’s life will not be out of the question for these people. You shouldn’t be sent alone, but circumstance has pulled rank and dictated this.” Riven leaned back in his chair and let out a breath. “Let restraint be your governing partner on this assignment; listen and abide to every word it has to say. If they discover who and what you are then I will have an extremely difficult conversation with your mother ahead of me.”

Osyron’s mouth was too dry for words so he offered another nod as he wiped his palms on his thighs. Riven continued. “Restraint, Osyron. If you hear one word out of my mouth today it is ‘restraint’. I know you are keen to impress, but do not be a hero. Don’t let pride pilot your actions; the potential ramifications are way too severe to even comprehend such a notion. Keep in mind your primary objective and acknowledge you will have a far greater chance of achieving that goal while alive.”

Osyron thought Riven born for the role of High Marshal, he could not imagine him being anything else and in turn, he could not imagine anyone else being the high marshal. Riven had predecessors and in time would have successors, however, this struck Osyron as somehow wrong, impossible even.

High Marshal Riven stood and walked to the window, hands clasped behind his back as he continued. “We can’t send a large infantry as it will cause this scum to scurry under whatever rocks they crawled from. When we leave they’ll simple pick up where they left off.” Riven let out a sigh of resignation as he turned to face Osyron. “Parkcross is just too distant and rural to be marshalled properly right now. If I am being honest with you, lad, we simply don’t have the man power for such a tactic even if it were deemed viable; this war and its demands ask questions we simply don’t have answers to. Riven walked behind Osyron, placing both hands on his shoulders. “We can spare one marshal and even then I fear I spend too much.” Osyron felt the grip on his shoulders tighten. “That spineless Tollhead marshal should be doing his job. Criminality like this should’ve put fire in his belly to see justice served. This is what happens to a marshal when he gets too comfortable for too long.”

Riven gave Osyron’s shoulders a double pat and started around the desk to his chair. “You let me deal with him; the wheels are in motion regarding his lack of commitment to duty. You focus on the task at hand. I’ll send our gutless friend the appropriate paperwork letting him know you out rank him in this investigation.”

When the report of child trading was heard at Marshals’ Hall it was met with outrage and disgust, nevertheless catching those responsible was secondary to the war effort. The conflict with Miria had brought change to the empire, as was the nature of war. For the criminal underworld it brought opportunity. With soldiers deployed in various stations at the Mirian border, the marshals picked up the slack while carrying out their own responsibilities. With justice and order stretched thin there was many an opportunist willing to embrace the development with open arms. For Osyron it had brought promotion; he was a cadet and should have remained so for several months working under the tutelage of an experienced marshal until he had shown enough understanding to be worthy of the title himself.

“Do you know the most common cause of death for marshals?” asked Riven.

“In these times, sword would seem the most obvious answer, High Marshal,” replied Osyron.

“Correct, but that’s not the complete answer. There are ways to stop half a yard of steel taking refuge in your belly or having a dagger slide across your throat in your sleep.” Riven sat down at his desk and met Osyron’s eyes. Osyron thought it best to remain in attentive silence and let the high marshal make his point. Riven spoke with a natural sternness which had never been more discernible than now. “Don’t ever be reasonable with unreasonable men. If you let your guard down and trust the untrustworthy then you will find yourself trying to forgive yourself of what’s unforgivable.” High Marshal Riven paused. “Not desirable as far as dying thoughts go.”

This time Riven waited for a response; Osyron struggled to give one. “I understand sir, I will try to keep that in mind,” he managed.

“There is no try with this, lad; it’s do or don’t, or more to the point, do or die.”

Osyron swallowed and stammered a “Yes, sir.” He found himself wiping his palms on his legs again.

“You’re scared. That’s good. Fear can be a friend, but like pride, never let it govern you. All your emotions will want their say in this. It is fine to hear them out as long as they obligate your true purpose: duty.”

Osyron liked the sentiment. He would have exchanged justice for duty in the high marshals’ statement but kept the thought to himself. Either way the point was not lost on him.

Riven interlaced his fingers and rested his hands on the desk. “I know this is not easy to hear, lad. Truth seldom is. But, know I have faith in you. I would not have given you this assignment otherwise.”

Encouraged by Riven’s change of tone Osyron managed to put words to his thoughts. “Your faith in me is well placed, High Marshal. I’ve made the promise to be careful to more than one person, myself included. Vigilance will be my shadow.”

Riven appraised the newly named young marshal with steel grey eyes before offering a slanted smile and nod of approval. “Good lad. Two final things then I’ll let you make preparations and say your farewells. One you have a say in and one you do not. Let’s get the mandatory out of the way first. You’ll be going to Parkcross undercover. If you’re to dress in marshal’s regalia you’ll be met with the same wall of silence that birthed this damned report in the first place. Also, your safety is paramount to me. Being incognito maximises the potential of you coming out of this unharmed.”

Osyron’s stomach sank as he digested Riven’s words. He had spent many afternoons daydreaming of his first official assignment in the capacity of marshal. None of those dreams involved conducting himself as a civilian.

Riven pulled a folder from a drawer and slid it across the desk. “You’ll find the finer details in there, but here are the basics. Because of the recent hostilities with Miria, you are fleeing the borderlands. Your wife is safe for now with family and you will be sending for her soon as you have steady work and a permanent place of residence.”

Osyron listened but his excitement devolved into discontent.

“Try befriending some of these families who have acquired a son. Tell them you and your wife have been trying for a baby but have had no luck—lay it on nice and thick. Play on those heart strings and win their trust.”

Osyron bit his lower lip.

“I know, view this more conman than lawman work. But bear in mind the end justifies the means.” Riven brought his face close to Osyron’s. “Bastards, Osyron, child trading bastards will end up imprisoned as a result of these actions. You’ll be good at this. You have a way with people— they take to you. A few white lies for such a coup is well worth the trade-off, wouldn’t you agree?”

“It is, sir, it’s just.” Osyron wet his lips before continuing, “People like me because they see me as genuine… This—this is everything I am not. I’m not sure I’m the right man for such covert tactics.”

“Don’t underestimate yourself, Marshal. Yes, my options are limited but I do have some options regarding who I send. You are my first choice. You are my only choice. I believe you’ll bring a satisfactory closure to this case.”

Despite Riven’s faith in him, Osyron found he could give only a half-hearted nod in reply.

Riven leaned back, clapped his hands together and pointed a finger at Osyron. “Now for the choice part; you are going to like this. As Parkcross is a fishing village, you have the option of traveling by ferry. It’s a picturesque trip by boat, skirting the southern coastline of the empire for three days. It will give you plenty of time to get into character before going about your business. I think the ferry would be perfect preparation time.

Osyron lifted his eyes then his head. “I’ve never so much as set foot on a boat. I’ve heard so many romantic tales and songs of sailing at sea.” A smile spread across his face at the idea. “Yes, High Marshal, it would be a delight to travel by sea.”

Chapter Five

Osyron decided there was nothing more to learn from silent observation. The giant fisherman statue towering over him was an impressive sight but unlikely to reveal village secrets. As he made his way casually towards some nearby market stalls he observed everyday life in Parcross. People shared friendly greetings; children chased each other around; young lovers strolled hand in hand, exchanging amorous sidelong glances; a bard sang of a fabled giant fish as passers by tossed the occasional coin into the open mouth of the lute case by his feet.

Osyron ventured into several stores, stating he was looking for work, but was met with polite refusal. The market stalls rendered the same result. A woman in the early winter of life drew him in with a smile of personified sweetness. “Pleasant morning to you, young man, are you looking to banish the bland? Care to favour your meals with flavour?”

He walked over to her pitch, which comprised of herbs, spices and various dried goods. The mixture of exotic aromas smelled enticing. Osyron returned the old woman’s greeting with a smile of his own. “Not right now, m’lady, although I may be persuaded once I have taken care of my business. My name is Alex. I have just arrived in the village and I’m looking for work. I was wondering if you knew of anyone hiring in town.”

“Looking for work, is it?” The old lady replied.

“Yes, that’s it,” responded Osyron. “I’m from the borderland and wish to put as much distance between myself and the brewing conflict as possible. My wife has moved back to the safety of her mother’s house for the time being while I find work and a place to stay.”

“Oh, my dear boy.” The old woman’s smile evolved into a chuckle. “You’re a pitiful liar.”

Osyron had practised his cover story on the ferry; he now wondered if he had over-rehearsed. He had come here expecting to encounter a naïve fishing village populous but instead found his inexperience exposed. Osyron’s hand came up to swat an imaginary fly from his face. “Sorry?” he mumbled.

“I don’t wish to sound cruel, child, but you’re transparent as country air.”

Osyron opened his mouth to speak but no words came. He was a boy again caught red-handed, stealing honey cake.

The silver-haired lady walked from the opposite side of her stall and stood close to him. Her features took on a mischievous mask as she lowered her voice. “So, why are you really here, eh? Why the need for a cover story?” The old woman’s eyes tightened as she began thinking aloud. “Nothing of note goes on around here. My guess is you’ve heard tell about the new babies in the area, although you look a little wet behind the ears to be a marshal. On the surface, child selling sounds mighty severe, so they wouldn’t send a mere cadet…” Osyron stared dumbfounded at her while she tapped her lower lips with a finger. “But if you take the brewing war into account, a number of marshals would be drafted into the army. Furthermore, the marshals would be subsidising domestic soldier duties.” Her eyes opened wide as she raised a finger in triumph. “The upshot of that would be early promotion for a lot of the cadets, so I reckon that makes you a young marshal, right enough.”

Osyron went wide-eyed.

With a click of her fingers the lady added, “No need for words, young man, your face has given the confirmation I need.” Her smile broke out again; triumph filled her expression. “So what can I do for you, young marshal?”

Osyron patted his pockets awkwardly, scrambling to regain his composure. Alex’s fragile mask had been shattered—by the deduction prowess of an elderly herb seller. He had heard stories about the naïvety of rural folk, but now he felt every part the fool for accepting tavern tales as facts. Osyron was willing to wager those story tellers had never conversed with a certain market trader in Parkcross.

“That was quite an amazing piece of detection work Mrs...?”

“My name is Lilly Hitchens, but please, call me Lilly.” Osyron offered a bowed head in greeting. “Lilly it is then.

You yourself are something other than an herb

seller from a fishing village, are you not?” Osyron paused, hoping Lilly would give her own confirming nod or something to build on. Instead she offered only the same serene smile she adorned with such natural ease. “Granted, I can’t quite work out exactly what you are or where you come from but you have spent most of your days outside of a fishing village; that I know…” Osyron decided to close with a compliment, “You’re too astute to be a market trader.”

Lilly raised both eyebrows. “So charm is the strategy now?”

“I was merely giving credit...”

Lilly cut him off. “Yes, I can see why you would choose the charm offensive; you have a handsome face. Honest too. I can see charm being viably effective for you.” Lilly winked before adding, “With most people.” Osyron opened his mouth but Lilly held up an open hand to stop him before he could speak. “I’ve travelled the kingdom once or twice in my time, learned the value of keeping my mouth shut and my ears and eyes open—learned to pay attention to a person’s actions as well as their words.” Lilly held up a finger. “Lies don’t sit easy on your lips, which suggests an honest character, but when you’re an undercover marshal it makes for a traitorous ally.”

Osyron was beginning to wonder if this mission was part of some elaborate set up, a training program devised back at Marshals’ Hall. Had it not been for the severe shortage of man power in dire times, he may have convinced himself of it. Lilly had him and his story sussed, had him completely cornered save for one last route—honesty.

“Okay, you know what I am and why I am here. My name is Osyron Rymore, but you no doubt worked that out too,” Osyron joked, but silently wondered if she hadn’t also figured out his date of birth and the eye colour of his first crush.

Lilly remained her warm self. “No; that is an area where you’ve educated me, young man. It’s a pleasure making your acquaintance.” Lilly offered her hand.

Osyron shook it, wondering if he now gave access to every secret he had. “Considering how astute you are I guess you know how the children got here,” he prompted. “You’ll know where they came from too, right?”

Lilly waved a hello to someone strolling past. “Now there is a question that puts me in a bit of a bind. I wish to be kind to you, to help you. However, questions like those are going to force me into lies or telling you truths so fantastical you’d dismiss them as lies.”

“So you know the answers but you’re not going to tell me?” asked Osyron.

"Now who’s the astute one?” came Lilly’s jovial rebuttal.

Osyron’s raked his fingers back through his hair. “Lilly, your silence is helping whoever is behind this continue these diabolical acts. You strike me as a genuine person—in fact this whole village appears to be a haven of good, well-intentioned people. These folk would not be party to baby trading without fear of something foul befalling them; someone must be holding some threat against this village.” A passer by stopped to peruse Lilly’s wares. She selected several items before placing a coin in Lilly’s hand and going on her way. Osyron waited until the woman was out of earshot before continuing. “Lilly, please, save me and the village the hassle of days of investigation and just tell me what you know. I know how I appear to you, just a lone rookie, a glorified cadet. But I assure you the marshals will be here with the necessary numbers once I’ve identified the perpetrators. Don’t protect them, Lilly. You gift them the freedom they need and don’t deserve. Please, for the sake of everyone, just a name or location. Something I can work with. I’ll take it from there and see justice done. All in the strictest confidence. Nothing will be tied to you, you have my oath as marshal on that.”

Lilly’s expression softened, taking on the qualities of a grandmother tending to a child. “So many false preconceptions I don’t know where to begin. Oh, my dear boy, it’s not what you think at all. There’s no bandits or thugs holding this place ransom, nothing could be further from the truth. I can’t tell you the details of what is going on as it’s not my place to say so. Even if I divulged, you simply wouldn’t believe me. The circumstances are beyond your comprehension right now. You’ll not accept the actuality of what is transpiring here, not without evidence, evidence I don’t have.” Lilly’s smile returned, only this time it was sad and had a look of finality. “I’m sorry, child, but you’ll find everyone here just as set as I am. It’s best you go back to Marshals’ Hall and tell them there is nothing to report—that all the children are confirmed as orphans of war, and close the investigation.”

Osyron let out a breath. “You know I can’t do that, Lilly. I need something more substantial than the assurance of an individual to turn my back on something as serious as child selling…I just can’t see a scenario where child selling could be a good thing.”

Lilly shrugged and turned her palms up to him. “That is the very point I am making, dear boy.”

“You do know I can arrest you for obstructing the course of duty, Lilly?” Osyron regretted the words as soon as they were out.

Once again, Lilly saw them for what they were. “So now your tact is intimidation? If you think my arrest is an advancing step towards your end goal then do it. I’m not sure how arresting me in the market square in broad daylight is going to compliment your cover story. You might want to think this one over, Master Osyron; you will force me to retract the astute observation I credited you with.”

Another villager came and glanced over Lilly’s herbs. After some deliberation he walked off without making a purchase.

Osyron slid a hand down his mouth. “I’m not going to arrest you, Lilly. The answers I need are right in front of me and I snatched at them, unsuccessfully. Please understand my frustration here.”

Lilly gave a dismissive wave of her hand. Unable to shake the feeling of desperation that was making his throat dry, Osyron looked down at her earnestly. “Lilly, do you give me your word that no one is holding a knife to this village’s throat, that it’s not fear of retribution that keeps you from telling me what you know?”

Lilly fussed with the arrangement of her herbs. “That, I can answer.” Lilly turned to face him; her fingertips gently touched his elbow. “You hunt phantoms that don’t exist, dear boy, conjured by your preconceptions. Too many false presumptions are misguiding your reasoning. No one here is under threat from outside parties.”

He believed her. At least, everything she’d said matched the initial report. This left Osyron with no leads, but worse yet, no theory to follow. There was nothing to do but move on. He would collect his baggage from the ferry and find a room at the inn. “Thank you for your time, Lilly. Whatever’s going on, a satisfactory explanation is the least I’ll be taking back to Marshal’s Hall. I won’t be going anywhere till I have that.”

Lilly took coin from a customer in exchange for dried herbs before replying. “It was a pleasure meeting you, young man. I hope this is not the last time our paths cross.” Osyron gave her a smiling nod as a parting gesture and turned to leave. Lilly caught his wrist. “Do you know, child, we don’t lock our doors in Parkcross?”

“Is that so?”

“Only in winter, when the winds pick up; unlocked doors tend to flap about like, like doors caught in the wind.” Lilly indulged in a small chuckle.

Confused, Osyron asked, “Doesn’t anyone take advantage of this—thieves and the like?”

Lilly spread her arms. “We don’t steal from each other here, child, and it’s rare we get outsiders except those coming in by boat; they tend to be respectable merchants or visiting relatives.” Lilly looked up and down the length of him. “Now we have an undercover marshal to file under our miscellaneous list.” Lilly shot him a quick wink. “But you are here to uphold the law, not break it, right?”

Osyron supposed the question rhetorical and offered Lilly a tight-lipped smile in reply.

“Well, you take care of yourself, young man. I hope we meet again sometime.”

Osyron inclined his head again. “Good day, Lilly, you take care of yourself now.”

Osyron started back towards the boat to gather his belongings. He considered heading into the town of Tollhead to pay the marshal a visit but dismissed the idea. He had a copy of the report and Osyron saw no reason the marshal would enjoy hearing him repeat everything he’d already seen on paper.

Talking with Lilly and witnessing life in the village first-hand had destroyed all the planning put into his investigation. He had no leads other than to question the families directly. He had no idea what questions to ask and no reason to not expect the same war orphan story as an answer, regardless.

Riven’s faith in him began to feel misplaced.

Chapter Six

Osyron sank deeper into the bath, letting out a satisfied moan. The ferry voyage gave him an appreciation of water not at the mercy of the tide. The four walls around him held perfect silence, another welcome change from the hull’s constant, creaking lament.

Osyron relished eating without keeping a stalwart vigilance on his plate; his first meal on the ferry had ended in embarrassment as his bowl slid along the table and crashed against the floor. The unheeded warning given moments prior seemed so poignant while looking at his stew seeping through the floorboards.

He lay in the tub with eyes closed, occasionally peeking with the unreasonable expectation of an intrusive creak shattering the tranquillity. A ghost of anticipation made him contemplate the floor tilting below him, bringing a premature end to his warm sanctuary. He shook his head and voiced aloud, “It’s a carriage for the journey home.” The room was snug but sizable compared to the ferry cabin. Aged, but well-maintained wooden furnishings adorned the room; a bed, wardrobe, mirror and a chest of drawers spread evenly against the walls with a four-panel window that promised good light come sunrise.

Osyron soaked, enjoying the therapeutic remedies while letting fresh plans formulate. Lilly unmaking him had bruised his ego, but he had since decided the discussion productive. Lilly’s information aligned with the report and married perfectly with the easy-going nature of the village. Things were not as Riven had pictured therefore the case needed a fresh approach, a marshal’s approach. The thought banished Osyron’s reluctance to end his bathing. He pushed himself out of the tub and made for his towel, the cool evening air forcing quickness into his step.

Riven had advised against bringing his marshal’s regalia, calling it potential exposure. From everything that had happened already, Osyron had learned exposure was a mute concern. Osyron towelled himself dry then walked over to the wardrobe. He opened the double doors and took out his ivory marshal uniform. The golden silhouette hawk in flight emblazed on the tunic’s chest reminded him who he was and why he was here. As he dressed in his uniform, the final remnants of Alex the House Hunter perished and in his place stood Osyron, Marshal of Olbaid.

With uniform adorned, Osyron looked himself up and down in the full-length mirror. He wondered how Lilly’s conversation would have gone had he worn official attire. A lot better than it did with Alex was his immediate conclusion. A self-assured smile spread across his face, punctuated by an approving nod of his head. Donning the marshal uniform and sword not only changed his physical appearance, it lifted his spirits. Osyron decided to wait until nightfall before continuing his investigation, allowing time to plan his questioning strategy. The dark provided an intimidating element even to a representative of law, especially to those with something to hide.

Come night fall Osyron had eaten supper and thrice ticked off his mental checklist before embarking into the darkness. He indulged in one last look in the mirror. Not only was he physically alone, he was now alone in tact. Riven advised against this approach. He could handle dying, that was an inevitability of life. However, dying while directly contradicting Riven’s instructions weighed heavy on him. Osyron swallowed. Riven had faith in him but Osyron had to show faith in himself. Riven’s assessment had been wrong, therefore his approach had to be wrong. It was time to do it Osyron’s way.

He left the room and made his way downstairs to the inn. Lively chatter accompanied by a bank of pipe smoke filled the bar. Osyron walked with back straight through the light fog, avoiding eye contact, but hoped to catch a nudging elbow or a muted whisper in a darkened corner. There was neither. Some patrons raised mugs at the sight of him while others gave a disinterested glance before going back to their stories of elusive fish they’d almost caught that morning. Osyron nodded in greeting to the raised mugs and headed outside.

He cocked an ear at the inn door; the muffled drone of conversation continued steadily, interrupted only by mugs knocking together in salute. The absence of excitement at his passing assured him there was no imminent danger. But as this thought passed through his mind, bewilderment simultaneously entangled his thoughts. Osyron stepped away from the inn and grasped his cloak in at fist under his chin. Sundown had introduced a chill that carried from the sea, forcing the cloak to ruffle on the breeze. At least the birds have gone to sleep, thought Osyron as he wandered into the dark night.

Osyron planned to question the three families in Parkcross that had acquired children first and scrutinise the war orphan story, hoping to initiate some inconsistency that could be pried open. En route, he tested Lilly’s open locks claim. He knocked on several doors with enough force to open them; all did. Some homes had residents inside. Osyron assured them he was doing the rounds and asked if they had any concerns they wished to report. He received none but many an offer of tea and occasionally, something stronger. Unoccupied houses were no different; the doors sat unlocked despite having no one home to mind the contents. This was a village of unrivalled trust and community. Osyron almost wished he were Alex looking to start a new life here.

Curiosity satisfied, he made for the first of the families’ homes when a peculiar house caught his eye. The houses lining both sides of the street were uniform, all built around the same time period with the same materials. The building at the end of the row was different. It was smaller than the rest and showed no signs of enduring the elements that were synonymous with coastal villages. No creeping ivy grew on its walls either, which seemed mandatory judging from the other homes. It boasted no garden, nor a path. Osyron was uncertain it was a house; it could easily be a storage shack.

It looked in such stark contrast to the others that Osyron couldn’t help his curiosity. A closer look would do no harm. The families he intended to question would not be going anywhere; in fact the later the hour the more daunting a visit would become—there was still a sufficient window of time til a reasonable hour to be knocking on a door ended and an inconsiderate one began. He stood outside the small building. Footprints indented in the surrounding grass suggesting recent activity. With a furrowed brow, Osyron took tentative steps towards the door.

The curious building had one window on the front and another at the back. Both had curtains drawn, preventing any hint at the contents of the structure. He circled the building and could not gain any further information so decided to knock on the door. He used the same technique he had used on the other doors, giving the knock a little more weight than was necessary. It did not swing open. Curiosity grew into suspicion. Osyron backed off a step. With tensing muscles, he reached out a hand and turned the handle—it was locked. He snatched his hand back, a jolt of alarm racing through him, lifting the hairs on his arms. He looked the door up and down as his hand reached to his hip to check his sword was clear in its scabbard. It’s just a locked door. Anywhere else, it was, but here, it stank of deceit. He took a step back and raked fingers through his hair. He turned his head and held his breath, hoping to hear some sign of life inside. The wind whistling through the gaps in the houses was all he could hear. It’s just a locked door.

A knock at the door made Daniela’s back snap upright. She was not expecting anyone tonight, moreover the knock was not the agreed ‘three knocks, two knocks, one knock chain’. It’s just a knock at the door, she told herself. A few people had gotten the sequence of knocks wrong before, but this was different, there was no attempt of sequence. A gasp escaped her lips as the handle began to turn. Her hand rose to cover her mouth. I locked it, she thought, unsure if it were a question or a statement. The door remained closed as the handle turned back. She realised she was holding her breath and let it out slowly. It’s just a knock at the door. She tiptoed over and pressed her ear against the wood, hoping to catch a familiar voice or sound. The whistle of wind was all she detected.

"Do you know, child, we don’t lock our doors here?” Osyron recalled Lilly’s parting words. He had not given much thought to the statement at the time; he’d been preoccupied nursing his bruised ego. But now he paid due heed. Now what Lilly had said seemed like a tip off rather than a random curiosity about village behaviours. He considered breaking the lock but dismissed it as rash. The contrast of the building, the locked door and Lilly’s enigmatic words did not justify a forced entry. This could be something perfectly innocent. Osyron decided to press on with his original plan; he would question the families and time permitting, return later. Osyron turned to leave. After a step, a sound made him freeze. Someone was unlocking the door.

Get a hold of yourself, girl, it’s a friend…that’s gotten lax with the coded knock. Ten gold doubloons say it’s Old Man Hanlan. After a dozen or so attempts, Peter ‘Old Man’ Hanlan had failed to perfect the knock. He could detail the type, weight, age, even gender of most fish by little more than a glance yet a simple three-two-one knock sequence had proven to be beyond him. It’s Mr. Hanlon; he is just too embarrassed to try and fail with the knock again. Daniela scorned herself for being so jumpy and began unlocking the door. I will let him pick his own unique knock, one he’s comfortable with, she decided, sliding the bolt from its place.

Osyron turned as the door opened, his hand instinctively flying to the hilt of his sword. The warm glow from an internal lantern silhouetted the figure of a short, young woman standing in the doorframe. Two blinking, almond-shaped eyes peered at him. Fair hair pushed back behind her ears adorned her face safe for a rogue strand which danced on the breeze. “A marshal?” asked the silhouette.

Osyron realised his hand was still on his sword hilt and removed it. “Good evening, ma’am—my name is Osyron Rymore,” he said, offering a bow in greeting.

“Good evening, marshal, I’m Daniela Callahan. You seem young for a marshal.” Daniela shook her head, trying to dismiss her words. “I mean, what brings you to my door? I hope you will be brief; I was just about to turn in for the night. I have a busy day tomorrow. Need to get all the rest I can. Work, work, work…” Daniela realised she was rambling and tailed off.

Osyron gave a dismissing wave of his hand. “It’s fine, I get that a lot. I am young for a marshal; it’s a fair observation. I was sent here to investigate the recent influx of new babies in the area. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, Miss Callahan, or may I call you Daniela?”

Daniela tucked the stray strand of hair behind her ear. “Daniela is fine. New babies, they’re orphans, that’s right, generated by the recent scuffles with Miria. That’s what I have heard at least. Sorry, I can’t be any more help than that.”

Osyron folded his arms. “Ohh, I think you can, Daniela, I think you can tell me exactly where these boys are coming from, how they get here and exactly who it is that brings them.”

Daniela straightened and closed the door a little. “Did you just call me a liar, marshal?”

“Me?” Osyron put his hands to his chest in exaggerated offense. “Not me, Daniela no, but that pile of feeding horns behind you might be. Also that stack of carry cots is pointing the finger of accusation your way.”

Daniela closed the door so only one eye was visible. “Those are…for sale. Yes, I buy and sell baby merchandise.”

“I see. You won’t mind if I come in and took a look around then, would you, just so I can verify those claims?”

“I would prefer you didn’t; I have dinner cooking right now and it may burn if I don’t tend to it sharp. Could you come back another time?”

“What about sleep and your busy day tomorrow?” reminded Osyron.

“Yes, I have that too. I’m so tired I forgot to mention I was cooking dinner.

Osyron sniffed the air. “I don’t smell food cooking.”

“It’s just a simple meal; some bread, cheese and tomato.”
“So you fear a meal that requires no cooking may burn?

Daniela’s head sank.

“Daniela, let me in. We need to talk.”

Daniela raised her head and searched his gaze. Eventually she pulled open the door. “I suppose this was only a matter of time.”

Osyron gave a nod of thanks as he stepped past her through the doorway. A single lantern sat on a table in the centre of the room, lending a cosy campfire ambiance.

A solitary support beam ran across the centre of the celling. Running the length of it was a curtain partition. The dividing sheet was tied to the wall, exposing a living area beyond. The house was modestly furnished. A chair tucked neatly under a table sat in front of a bed that rested against the far wall. A stove with an assortment of pots hanging above it offered some warmth. But what made this house different were the stacks of fishing gear and baby goods. The fishing gear lying in the corner appeared abandoned but well used. The baby items sitting next to the nets looked pristine by contrast. The small house had the basics covered, however, it lacked the personal adornments that made a house a home. No wind chimes, no dreamcatchers, no tapestries or paintings hung on the plain wooden walls; no figurines or momentos collected dust on shelves or end tables. Despite its small size, the contents suggested it was both a home and a storage shack.

“Do you live here?” asked Osyron as Daniela closed the door.

“I do now,” she replied.

Osyron watched the girl trudge back from the door into the lantern light. “Do you care to tell me what’s going on, Daniela?” She stood motionless, eyes fixed on the floor with her hands held behind her back. “I assume you can produce the proper documentation proving you are a merchant?”

Daniela raised her eyes to look at him but didn’t respond. Osyron nodded at the stack of nets and poles. “All that fishing gear suggests you have an alternative profession.” Again, his words met with silence. “I can take you back to Marshals’ Hall with me based on this incriminating evidence alone.”

“I can’t go anywhere, there’s no time!” spat Daniela, springing to life.

Osyron held up his hands and waited for her to cool. “Mind if I sit? He asked.

Daniela extended an arm in invitation to the table. “I only have one chair, you can have it.

Osyron picked up a bucket and turned it upside down. “I can’t be taking a woman’s only chair; my mother would never forgive me such an act,” he said, sitting down on the makeshift stool. “I am here to help, Daniela. If you have done nothing wrong then you have nothing to fear. Cooperation will go a long way in aiding you.”

Daniela meandered over to the chair opposite and slumped onto the table, letting out a deep sigh. Giving her temples a rub, she said, “You won’t believe this anyway.”

Chapter Seven

Please, God, don’t take her from me. She is all I have, all I want. Please, God, why take her?

Shadows cast by a lonely lantern wavered across the life-sized statue of Hixel. The flickering flame bathed the effigy in jagged golden streaks, fashioning the stony figure both beautiful and ominous. Kneeling at its feet was the hunched figure of Brendan Bastine. The congregation and cardinal had departed for the day, leaving Brendan alone with his prayers. The residing cardinal had issued Brendan with a key, permitting him to pray inside the temple after regular hours. Hixel’s statue and Brendan were all the humble lantern’s glow revealed. As far as Brendan was concerned it was all that needed to be revealed. The twin rows of pews, the altar, even the scripture-laden walls were lost to darkness. But it did not matter; this was between God and himself.

Brendan’s bowed head caused his mid-length, receding hair to hang over the sharp features of his face, his nose protruded through the middle parting. He wore his Olbaidian soldier’s uniform, having come directly from duty. He had undertaken the daily ritual of coming here since learning of his wife’s cancer. He had a dependable life partner in Marsha, a steady job and a belief in Hixel that would see him on the right side of the eternities when he crossed the veil. Brendan was ultimately a content man until Marsha’s diagnosis had changed everything. Now he spent his nights helplessly watching Marsha endure a drawn out, painful death. He could do nothing but witness his love ponderously decay from the inside. Yet Brendan would not permit any retreat into self-sympathy; after all, witnessing pain was one thing, enduring it was another. All he had was prayer, so pray he did.

Please, don’t take her. Spare her, and I am yours in this life and the next. Please, God, heed my call.

Tonight and every night the infrequent hiss from the lantern wick was the only reply to his incessant pleas. Brendan’s fingers cramped from continuous interlocking. His palms sweated from prolonged contact.

Spare her; she is one life to You but the world to me. Please, Hixel, she doesn’t deserve this.

The statue of the Olbaidian God Hixel’s infinite silence never deterred Brendan. He spent every spare second kneeling at its feet with his hands clasped tight and his eyes screwed shut in unyielding determination. Pain grew in his knees from the repetitive nightly weight they bore. It started as a distant dullness, but now episodic sharp jolts screamed for him to stand. Seeing it as a test, he endured the pain.

Don’t do this. Take me if you must but spare her. I beg You, Hixel, I beg You.

Brendan raised his head and opened his eyes, taking in the statue’s face. He wasn’t sure what he was hoping to see, but it was not there. He could pray no longer tonight. Time was due to return home and see how the medics had fared in their endeavours. He gave one final bow and kissed the marble feet before struggling to his feet. After rubbing his knees to get the feeling back Brendan exited the temple.

The sun had been present when he entered, but now as he opened the front gate to his cottage home the moon had begun its nightly rise. Brendan walked the familiar path to his front door. He took a steadying breath before pushing the door ajar. The five medics Brendan had hired were still in attendance. Some packed vials into boxes then placed the boxes into satchels for safe transportation. Others lifted coats from pegs, readying themselves for their own journey home.

“Good evening, Mr. Bastine, we were hoping to get the chance to speak with you before leaving,” said one of the medics to Brendan, who lingered in the doorway. Brendan’s heart froze. The medics never wanted to converse. Brendan was the one who constantly forced dialogue, repeatedly being fobbed off with unsatisfactory answers: “Time will tell, Mr. Bastine.” “Let’s see how she responds to this new treatment.” Had circumstances not been so dire, Brendan may have found it amusing just how many ways the medics found to say the exact same thing.

“Marsha—how is Marsha?” asked Brendan, whipping off his weapons belt and soldier’s tunic. He stood tense, clutching them in each hand.

“Marsha’s condition is what we wanted to speak about,” replied the medic, a hint of a grin touching the corners of her mouth. She gestured to her fellow medics in the room. “It is our collective belief her cancer has gone into remission.”

“That means it’s going away, right?”

“That’s correct.” The medic’s smile elevated into full bloom. “We believe we have cured her.”

Brendan let his tunic and weapon’s belt fall to the floor. He cut through the medics on his way to the bedroom where his wife lay, stopping in the doorway to gaze at her. “Marsha?” Marsha sat upright in bed, a previously absent pinch of colour residing in her cheeks; it had been missing so long Brendan had forgotten it was ever there. Her eyes held a glint of life that the cancer had also previously stolen. “Is it true, are you cured?” asked Brendan, his fingers bit each side of the doorframe in anticipation.

“Yes, it’s true. I’m weak but recovering,” replied Marsha, opening her arms in invitation. Brendan scampered across the timber floor and held her gently as his elation would permit. “Is this a dream? I fear to wake up—don’t let this be a dream,” whispered Brendan into her shoulder.

“No dream, my love. I’m cured,” came her hushed reply. “Just like that, over night the sickness is gone?” asked

Brendan, continuing his firm but cautious embrace.

Marsha released the hug and placed both hands on Brendan’s cheeks. “I have been improving for a time, but the medics and I decided not to tell you until we were certain of recovery.”

Brendan blinked and cautiously drew his face free from Marsha’s hands. Marsha offered a reassuring smile before continuing. “Hope is a wonderful thing to have, my love, but false hope is nothing but tragic; we wanted to be sure it was the former and not the latter is all.” Feeling abashed she drew away.

Brendan gave a smile in reply before taking her in his arms once more. “Listen, Marsha, I need to go and offer my thanks, I will be back as quickly as I can.”

“Of course, Brendan, take as long as you need.”

Brendan left the bedroom to be greeted by a legion of smiles; the medics couldn’t help overhear the endearing conversation between man and wife. Brendan strode through the room, sweeping through the pocket of smiling faces without acknowledgment. He crouched, scooping up his abandoned tunic and headed out the door, leaving the medics to exchange bewildered glances. An apathetic, cold statue was about to receive the overwhelming appreciation from a joyous man.

As the weeks passed Marsha made a full recovery from her illness. Being courted by death had been a terrifying experience but it was also the greatest teacher she ever had. All her woes and concerns before her illness were gone, recognised and released for the trivialities they were. The only concern in her life now was the infrequency she saw Brendan. He continued his ritual of visiting the temple after work each day to kneel at the statue of Hixel. On numerous occasions she had gone to bed without seeing her husband and awoke to find him already left for work, assuming he had come home at all.

Marsha was born in the Mirian Empire. Her family moved to Olbaid when she was a child thus she viewed herself more a citizen of Olbaid than Miria. She and her family kept their faith in the Mirian god, Dannu. Both religions and cultures overlapped in many aspects and worshiping a different god had never been a problem in her life or marriage, until now. Brendan broached the subject with increasing regularity. Whimsical mentions of the matter steadily increased until gods and religion became the cornerstones of every conversation he initiated. Marsha tried every approach from tactile to forceful, from gentle to fierce. No matter her method, Brendan gripped the same steadfast resolve; there was no compromise in him and certainly no quit. Now, the Bastine home didn’t see a day without raised voices or slammed doors.

One evening after Brendan returned from the temple their verbal sparring reached a crescendo. Marsha and Brendan sat opposite each other near the fireplace. A bear skin rug and a sea of silence occupied the gap between them. Marsha observed the relaxed demeanour of Brendan casually rocking on his chair with his eyes closed, basking in the glow of the fire. She thought it a good moment to suggest he spend less time at the temple and more at home. It was the latest in a long list of misjudgements on her part.

“Hixel saved you from passing into the eternities and you wish me to stop giving praise? You ungrateful heathen!” spat an incredulous Brendan.

Marsha shook her head at the instant and all-too-familiar defensiveness of Brendan. “You don’t have to stop, just spend more time at home, more time with me. That’s all I am asking,” she pleaded.

Brendan threw his hands up. “There would be no time to spend together without the intervention of God! Why can’t you grasp this? Why can’t you give thanks to Hixel like I do. We could both spend time together, giving thanks at the temple.”

It now dawned on Marsha there never was a correct approach or a correct time. This was their life now. Brendan’s mind was set and locked. It was now a question of simply when Brendan would storm off to the temple. If Marsha had any money she’d wager it on sooner rather than later. “If I spent so much time at the temple too then who would take care of all the domestic chores while we are both there? Furthermore, I do give thanks—I give it to the medics who worked endlessly to save me, sometimes for a fraction of the pay their profession merits. I give thanks, Brendan, and I give it where it is due.”

Brendan snapped to his feet and balled his fists by his sides. Drawing his eyebrows down he paced forward onto the rug. He spoke slow and deliberately through clenched teeth. “The breath of life in your body is a direct gift from Hixel and you use it to blaspheme. Never have I been more disappointed in you in my entire life—never!” Brendan spun and headed for the door. He did not say where he was going nor did Marsha ask. They both knew there was no need.

Marsha would sleep alone in their bed tonight, Brendan at the feet of a statue.

Brendan marched the familiar path from his home to the temple, his wife’s lack of gratitude still irking him. Why can’t she acknowledge it was a gift from God? It was beyond Brendan. He wanted so badly to understand his wife’s words but they were so odious they offended his conscious just thinking about them. He feared the attempt to understand could be blasphemous in itself. Forgive me, Hixel, for she is my wife and I love her. She simply does not comprehend or appreciate the gift she has received, but I do, and I shall give the praise Your divine actions deserve. I am Yours forever, my Lord.”

Chapter Eight

“All I want is the truth; that’s the reason I’m here. It’s clear you play some part in trafficking these children. If you co-operate, Daniela, I will see that every leniency is directed your way.” Osyron leaned forward. The lantern banished the shadows from his face, painting it in a mellow glow. “All I need is a name. Then this is all over.”

“I can imagine what it looks like, but it’s not what you think. There’s no name to give and this will never be over.”

Osyron spread his arms. “So enlighten me. What’s happening here?”

Daniela took in a breath and held it. “Are we being watched? Can they hear us?”

“Do you wish to go somewhere else, somewhere safe before continuing?” Osyron searched her expression, looking for words her lips would not speak. The lantern flame danced in her two polished amber eyes that held much but gave away little.

Daniela released the breath and cleared her throat. “There’s no name to give. You’re looking at this all wrong.” Daniela tapped her fingers on the table. “It’s difficult to know where to begin.”

Osyron leaned back, forcing a creak from the upturned bucket. “Then tell me everything, from the start; how did you come to be involved in this?” Osyron glanced at her dilapidated furnishings. Everything except for the items made for babies looked subjected to a lifetime of use. “Do you have debts to pay off?” Again her lips remained motionless, her eyes the epitome of secrets untold. “You have to tell me, Daniela. I can’t help if you don’t tell me.”

Daniela gave a conceding nod. “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you, it’s just difficult to explain. It’s a long story and you’ll not believe it anyway. There are consequences to letting you in on this, the lives of children for one.”

“Do I need to paint the picture of what happens if you don’t tell me, Daniela? I have the suspect I was instructed to find. If you don’t point to anyone further up the chain of command then the finger of accusation rests on you.”

Her rebellious strand of hair had fallen over Daniela’s face again. She tucked it back behind her ear. “I’ll tell you what’s going on but it’s nothing like what you think.”

“Just talk. The ring leader is all I’m interested in.”

“There is no ring leader, not the way you mean at least.” Daniela shrugged. “The closest thing there is—is me.”

Osyron frowned. “If you are the ring leader what happens to all the gold you make?”

Daniela stood; her chair screeched with the force. “I don’t make gold!”

Osyron raised his hands again. “Okay, okay.” He pointed a finger at the chair. “If you don’t use that I’ll take it and you can have the bucket.”

Daniela visibly cooled. ”I know how it must appear to you,” she said, sitting back down. “Look, I don’t charge people money for babies. I do accept coin but it’s by donation.” Daniela pushed her palms together, searching for the right words. “Just hear me out. It’s a long story and I need you to hear all of it.”

Osyron made a zipping motion across his lips.

Daniela took a breath and let it out slowly. “I’ll start from the beginning. My husband, Henry, is...or rather was a fisherman. Almost a year ago he received severe rope burns on both of his hands while fishing. Something big snagged in the nets. The medic advised him to let his hands heal properly before going out on his boat again, but it was the height of fishing season and we’d been talking of a child. Henry said he would work every hour Hixel provided so we’d have the extra coin a new life would demand. But his hands didn’t heal; the rope burns became infected and he contracted gangrene.” Daniela swallowed, sniffed and ran a finger across her glistening eye. “Both hands were amputated but the gangrene had spread into his arms. He faced the decision to have his arms removed at the elbows or at the shoulders. The medics recommended the latter as it would be more likely to catch the infection before it reached his torso. They also said it’d be difficult to survive a second let alone third amputation. So he had both arms removed at the shoulder.” The lantern flame reflection intensified in her amber eyes as they took on a wet glaze. “I know this may not seem relevant but it is. Please just let me finish and you’ll understand why.”

Osyron answered with an upturned hand motioning her to continue.

“The amputation was a success. The infection was caught but it took such a toll on Henry—on us both. His spirit was crushed. He was normally a jovial sort but after the operation, he plummeted to some dark place, somewhere I couldn’t reach him, no one could. After months stewing in mental isolation, he made a confession. He perceived himself a burden, a mouth to feed that could contribute nothing in return.” Daniela shook her head in defiance to his long since spoken words. “He could no longer ply his trade, so he taught me how to fish. Before the accident I had sold the fish he caught, so we swapped roles; I fished and he worked at the market. I did my best with the knowledge Henry passed me but I was nowhere near the calibre of fisherman he was. We barely scraped by. Others offered help, but Henry always refused. What’s worse, I think the offers of charity further compounded his sense of worthlessness. Once Henry knew I could feed myself and keep a roof over my head he…” The tears that loitered in her eyes finally spilled. Daniela lowered her head to the table, burying it in her arms. Her body racked with the force of muffled sobs.

Osyron reached out a comforting hand before drawing it back. Daniela sounded genuine but he had to consider this was a play on his heartstrings. Tragic as her story was, it was no justification for trafficking children. “Let it out, Daniela.” he said tapping her arm. She peeked up to find his handkerchief on offer. “You will feel better for it,” said Osyron. Daniela accepted the handkerchief with nodded thanks.

Osyron did not dare fathom the depths of emotional turmoil Daniela had experienced. Fortune had dealt her the foulest of cards. He forced himself to remember why he was there; despite believing Daniela, he was still no closer to finding out what was going on. He searched for the right words but Daniela spoke first.

“I do apologise—it’s been a while now, I really should be past this.”

“That’s alright, there’s no expiration with matters of the heart.”

Daniela inhaled deeply. Drying her tears, she gave a final sniff before continuing “I fished to support myself. What coin we had saved was devoured by Henry’s funeral so there was nothing left to hire help. I divided my time between catching and selling at the market. I was only half as good as the other fishermen and only spending half the time on the water.”

“I have to ask, could you not have sold the boat and found alternative employment?”

“The boat was the last part of Henry I had. He built it. The day of its maiden voyage was the proudest I’d ever seen him.”

Osyron nodded. “I understand. Please continue.”

“I would never match the other fisherman so I specialized, aimed for more elusive fish, the type sought after by the affluent. I spoke with the other fishermen. They were courteous and agreed I could exclusively catch the rare fish if I left the bulk, mass market fishing for them. Even if I had a poor catch I could set my own price as I had a monopoly.”

Osyron smiled, impressed with her enterprise and the other fishermen’s sense of decency.

Daniela stood. “I’m sorry, I don’t know where my manners are, would you like some tea, marshal?” She moved to her hearth before Osyron had time to answer.

“That would be nice, Daniela, thank you.” Osyron was still wondering when Daniela’s story would begin shedding light on the child selling. “So, babies, Daniela, when do we get to the babies part?”

Daniela placed a log on the hearth and set a pot of water on top. “I’m getting there. Patience, marshal.”

Flames licked around the fresh log, chasing the gloom and shadows from the room. The extra heat was a welcome addition too. Daniela turned to face him, continuing her story. “I learned what I could from the other fishermen. They told me I’d get a better haul after a storm. The fish that dwell in the depths come closer to the surface in the wake of a storm.” Daniela let out a breath as the water began to steam.

“Well, we had a storm. A big one. I waited for it to pass then took to the water. I was out for twenty minutes or so when the weather changed. The storm that passed was a prelude. I got caught out there, a plaything of the winds and waves. I tried to steer back to shore but I was a mess of anxiety and inexperience. The storm carried me further from the coastline. The sea continuously rose in swells, blocking my view of home. Every time the water receded Parkcross was further from view. When distance extinguished the last dot of light, I panicked and turned my sail into the wind; it tore and the mast came down with it. I could do nothing but ball up on the bottom of the boat and hope I did not capsize. The storm lasted most of the night, carrying me south. Once it passed I took stock of the damage. My boat, Henry’s boat, was a floating ruin. The sail, mast and oars were gone. I was driftwood at the mercy of the tide. I was lost at sea for weeks until I washed ashore.” Daniela paused, screwing her face at the recollection. “It was late and dark out…sorry, my memory is foggy. I was barely conscious due to dehydration…I remember having a sack forced over my head and being dragged to my feet. My captors marched me through a dense forest into a settlement and tied me to a post inside a hut. They left me there in solitude.” The boiling water caught Daniela’s attention. “Excuse me a moment.”

Osyron let out an impatient breath. “Who grabbed you? And how did you know it was a dense forest, a settlement, a hut if you had a sack over your head?”

Daniela removed the pot from the heat then fetched two cups, carrying on with her story as she poured the tea. “I didn’t have the sack on my head the whole time. Please, just let me finish and I will answer any questions.” Daniela looked over her shoulder at him. “How do you take your tea?”

“A little honey.” Osyron raked fingers back through his hair. “Keep going, Daniela.”

Daniela nodded and turned to finish the refreshments. “They gave me food and water, lifting the sack enough to access my lips, but when feeding time was over the sack got pulled down again. I pleaded with them to let me go but never received a response. When night fell again I awoke to the sound of my hut opening. I thought someone was sneaking in to kill me but a baby’s cry gave me pause. Then I heard a woman’s voice. She tried cooing the baby back to silence but sounded anxious rather than comforting. Once the baby quieted, she spoke to me, begging I take her son and flee with him and never return. I agreed and she cut my bindings. We opened the hut door and stepped outside, but women just appeared from nowhere—one second the way was clear, the next spears, bows and drawn swords all pointed at us. One of the women approached and forced another sack over my head. I was free for a matter of seconds before being blind and bound inside the hut again.”

“Just women?” asked Osyron, no longer caring to mask his dubiousness.

Daniela looked at him as she carried two steaming cups over to the table. Osyron noted the distinct scent of lemon.

“Yes, I’ll get to that part,” replied Daniela, sitting down. “The following morning I was taken from my hut and led to a mighty tree, the roots of which were not entirely submerged underground. The lengths above the earth braided and intertwined to form a solid dome under the trunk. They used this hollowed tree as a town hall. They whipped the sack off, exposing me to hundreds of surrounding women, each more beautiful than the last, all standing attentive like soldiers on parade. Everyone had a lethal glare pointed my way, all except one. A single women was staring at the floor; I later found out she was the person who had tried to free me the night before. Their leader announced they would consider letting me leave if I could convince them I would not speak of this island to anyone.”

Osyron saw what was happening. Her emotional plea had not harvested the levels of sympathy she was looking for, so she had resorted to desperation. “A tribe of beautiful women, like in the fables spouted by men in taverns across the empire?”

Daniela shook her head. “I know how this sounds.”

“Just get to the point,” replied Osyron, finality in his tone.

“As I said, it was a tribe of women, women warriors just like in the fables. But the part you never hear is what’s done with the male offspring—they slaughter them. That’s why the woman came to me the night before; she wanted me to save her son. Despite fearing for my life, I knew exactly how I was to convince them to spare it.”

Osyron considered just how young and naïve he looked. Daniela was an actress of considerable talent, but why she thought her tale would be believed by even the most gullible was beyond him.

“I don’t understand why you live in such a modest abode, Daniela; with your talent you should be with a theatre group touring the towns and cities. I would go as far to say you could be a leading lady in a big city production.”

“I know how this sounds,” Daniela repeated. “Just let me finish and if you have questions I will answer them then.”

“By all means; this is an entertaining tale,” replied Osyron, blowing on his tea.

Daniela scowled and continued. “I asked if I could take the unwanted children with me, and also if I could return every few months to collect their unwanted offspring. I told them I couldn’t go free and never return knowing the fate of the boys I leave behind. If I never showed up again, they return to their custom and the boys’ blood would be on my hands. They knew this practise was abhorrent to me so took me to be sincere. They took no joy in killing, deemed it a necessary evil, but my proposition removed that burden. They agreed but with conditions. First, I was to let some of the women sail back with me. They travel around the world seeking the mightiest warriors to breed with, which increases the chances of birthing the strongest offspring. The second condition was that when I return, I come alone. The third condition was that my visits would be no greater than three months apart as they feared the mother and baby bond would be too strong if allowed to blossom any longer. I agreed and a deal was struck.

“So, why...” Osyron had a multitude of questions demanding to be asked.

Daniela cut him off before any reached his lips. “Please, there’s not much more. I will answer anything when I’m done.”

“Keep going.” Osyron sipped on his tea to stifle his impatience a little longer.

“They repaired my boat, completed days of work in mere hours. Boat construction seemed second nature to the islanders. With the boat fixed we set off and I returned here with five boys and three women.” Daniela sucked her bottom lip. “I set out with more than five, but the lengthy journey claimed some of the children.” Daniela’s nose creased with the memory, her eyes filling anew. “I undertook four burials at sea.”

The genuine anguish in Daniela’s voice challenged Osyron’s certainty this was a yarn. He was either looking at the greatest undiscovered actress in the twin empires or her incredible story was actually true.

“The five boys you’re investigating are the five boys that survived the journey. I am your ‘ringleader’, marshal.” Daniela let loose a sigh and readied herself for the inevitable avalanche of questions.

Osyron was dumbfounded; while farfetched, some aspects matched up. Her story explained why it was all male children; it also explained why the village would be so at ease with the children’s arrival. “I can ask questions now?” said Osyron, setting down his cup.

“That was a question, marshal, but yes, ask whatever you wish,” replied Daniela, picking up her tea.

“If your story is true, why not inform the marshals when you returned?”

“That was my initial plan, but I personally knew people in the village who wanted a child, knew they would love and raise the boys well if not better than anyone else could. I also know the quality of life here and could think of no better place for a child to live. Had I given the boys over to the marshals not only would I have had to explain just where I got them, risking the suspicion I’m now getting from you, I also had to consider what would have happened to the boys in that scenario. Life in an orphanage? Children there are granted to those with coin not love. I also had a duty not to jeopardise the secrecy of the island. The less ears that heard the better. I was told to tell no one—that has since proven impossible, but I see no reason to abuse the broken promise.”

Everything she said made sense and yet suspending belief proved impossible. “How much coin do you make from this? You’ve admitted to being in a bind financially.” Osyron swept his arm out. “This home verifies that. It’s hardly cynical of me to conclude you are doing this for gold.”

“No!” spat Daniela, slamming her cup down. “I make no money from this!”

I’ve sold my house, the one I shared with Henry, to fund the future expeditions. I had this smaller place built, as it would get too cold to sleep on the boat in winter. The money left over goes into funding weeks of travel back and forth.” Daniela started counting on fingers as she listed expenses. “Food, clothing, blankets, medicines, these baskets and feeding horns, the list goes on and on. The boat needs a substantial amount of work; its not built for lengthy voyages. No boats here are. The levels of modifications needed are extensive, the costs extreme.”

Osyron’s eyes went wide as realisation struck him. “I can validate everything you’ve told me.” A smile spread across his face. “Take me to your boat, Daniela, take me there now.”

Chapter Nine

“My boat? Why?” frowned Daniela.

“You claim these women made repairs, right?”

“Yes, my mast and oars were replaced, among other things.”

Osyron reminded himself to remain professional, reining in his excitement. “If you’re being honest, Daniela, then I have wrapped up this investigation on the first night.”

She shot him a puzzled stare. “I was a carpenter before a marshal. I will be able to tell if that mast is made from wood that originates outside the twin empires.” He stood up, smiling “Let’s go, Daniela, you are about to be vindicated.” He considered adding, “Or incarcerated,” but thought better of it.

Daniela led Osyron towards the docks. The chimneys had long since ceased smoking. The only light was from the brilliance of the moon. The temperature had plummeted since Osyron had entered Daniela’s home. The heat absorbed into their fingers from clutching cups of tea would soon be stolen away. Winter was creeping closer while the villagers slept, soon to announce itself as part of their waking lives.

Daniela clasped her shawl tighter around her as the breeze tried to make off with it. They made their way through the semblance of houses towards the pier. Osyron smiled a private smile. If Daniela was in the right then he had walked past all the evidence required to close the case seconds into his arrival.

Lighting a torch, Daniela set off along the pier with Osyron a couple paces behind. Their feet clomped on the deck, amplified by the stillness of night. She took him on board a small boat that made her scant home look glamorous by comparison. Daniela passed Osyron the torch as she gestured at the mast. “There it is.”

Osyron stood slack-jawed. He reached out a hand and tentatively traced fingertips down the mast. He wedged the torch between two crates, committing both hands to the mast. “I don’t recognize this wood. It’s from no tree in either empire,” he mumbled.

Daniela stood, hands on hips, pursing her lips in triumphant vindication. “Satisfied?”

Osyron gave her an open-mouthed stare. He’d expected the mast to expose Daniela but instead it bore plain testimony to her innocence. There was no feasible way this could have been staged. The likelihood of such a thing was more improbable than the island story. Everything she had told him was truth—far-fetched, ridiculous truth.

Do you understand now why I can’t go to Marshals’ Hall with you? The lives of baby boys depend on me. If you take me in you sentence them to death.”

Osyron clung to the mast as he turned to face her, “Listen, Daniela, I have a better idea; we take this to the high marshal and—”

“No!” protested Daniela. “Haven’t you listened? There’s no time.”

Osyron let go of the mast and walked over to her. “Please, Daniela, hear me out. We go to Marshals’ Hall and we speak with High Marshal Riven; you tell him your story. He’ll see to it you get the fastest boat in the emperor’s fleet, one that will halve the voyage time and double the babies’ chances of surviving the journey by consequence. Any supplies you need will also be taken care of.”

Osyron considered Daniela making the burials at sea one after the other. She had been through more in her young life than most folk go through in a lifetime. Osyron wondered if he or anyone he knew could have come through such trials. Those four babies dying as she tried to save them right on the coat tails of her husband’s suicide. Daniela was not so much touched by death—more grabbed by the throat. He watched as she stood in quiet contemplation, mulling over his words.

“This is going to end one of two ways, Daniela. Either the marshals handle this or evil does. There are only so many people around here wanting babies and able to take them on. The further afield you travel the more people you will have to bring into your confidence and the inevitability of the wrong ears hearing of this draws ever closer. You know who I mean, Daniela. The type who value greed over compassion. They’ll view this as a gold generator; the price can be extortionate when desperation is the patron. My way, you have the protection of the marshals. We could even set up an orphanage in Tollhead, let the people you know and trust run it. Have them interview prospective families to make sure they are going to the type of home that meets your approval.”

Daniela gave a sigh then nodded. At last she put words to her agreement. “You’re right. I was wondering who would take the boys I brought back with me this time. I was hoping the villagers would have people lined up when I returned, but there was no guarantee. It is a matter of time as you say before suitable homes dry up. A faster boat increasing the boys’ chances of survival is hard to ignore too.”

She had not mentioned the journey time being halved, the one benefit to herself in his proposal. It was as though it did not even register. Osyron wondered if she’d misheard that part. “It will also improve your life, Daniela, half the time at sea means more of a life for you.”

“Yes, I suppose it will.” She gave him a single, sharp nod. “I can’t envision a better alternative. Let’s head to Marshals’ Hall then…I hope this Riven character is as good a man as you propose.”

Osyron smiled at her. The orb of torchlight cast her in mellow orange. “High Marshal Riven is duty and justice itself, Daniela. Just you wait and see.”

Chapter Ten

Brendan thought the tranquil waves washing over Olbaid’s shore painted a picturesque yet misleading picture. The same water kissing the coast of Olbaid did the exact same to the demon-inhabited lands in the south like some double dealing lover. In a strange way, the sea both separated and tied together the two gargantuan continents.

Brendan patrolled the cliffs overlooking the bay that separated the bottom half of Olbaid from Miria. His detachment led by his captain traversed the clifftop paths at the end of each working day. He told Marsha the role was assigned when in reality, it was by his request. He reasoned time apart would be mutually advantageous for himself and his estranged wife. He could offer Hixel praise in his free time without being reprimanded for the act, and time alone would give Marsha a chance to experience life without God’s grace. She would soon wake from her slumber of ignorance and start seeing things with newfound clarity. Sacrifice in the short term would pay off in the long—a harsh but necessary lesson. A temple of Hixel lay in close proximity to Brendan’s barracks. It was his intended destination when patrol duties were complete. A meal was possible, but hunger could wait if not overly demanding. Priorities were priorities after all.

It was a Sunday, Olbaid and Hixel’s holy day. The heavens displayed a brilliant blue in honour of the occasion as Brendan walked the coastal pathway with his fellow soldiers. On Hixel’s sacred day, buying and selling were not permitted; the sailing of boats and the riding of horses were also forbidden. Miria and Olbaid agreed to respect each other’s holy day and all the subsequent stipulations. It was part of the binding peace treaties signed my both emperors.

Brendan’s fellow soldiers shared their own plans for the evening. Judging by their plans, most men would wake to a pounding head and an encumbered pot of piss. The other soldiers had ceased asking Brendan to join them, his steadfast refusal now taken for granted. Brendan held no desire for such shenanigans; someone had to remain resolute to redress the balance of such debaucheries.

Brendan and his patrol approached the trade bridge spanning the bay at its narrowest point. The bridge’s construction was a joint venture between the empires, both a symbolic and practical joining of the lands. Every new year the bridge received a fresh coat of white paint, the internationally recognised colour of peace. It was an impressive sight all year round but with clear skies above and shimmering water below it defined picturesque.

Despite the beautiful costal landscapes, Brendan brooded over spending time away from Marsha. It infuriated him how much Marsha had changed since her miraculous recovery. Her inability to grasp the significance of what had passed was a frustration Brendan toiled with daily. The scenery and favourable weather served as little tonic to his resentment towards his wife’s attitude. Such a gift granted and such ignorance returned. Marsha, what have you become? You will yield first and see it my way, just see if you don’t.

The sight of a white sail on the Mirian side of the bay caught Brendan’s eye. Miria are sailing a ship on Hixel’s holy day? Brendan stopped and stared at the floating blasphemy sliding along the water’s surface. The rest of the detachment walked on, keen to have patrol duty over with. Their decision to turn a blind eye ruffled Brendan further. Annoyance evolved into anger and anger swelled to fury. Brendan felt his fist clench. “I’ll see your justice done this day, Hixel,” he whispered. He broke into a sprint towards the bridge and drew his sword, yelling, “Captain, boat sailing on the bay!”

The sound of drawn steel caused an instinctive reaction in the soldiers. Each man drew their own weapon and crouched into defensive positions. Heads spun to seek the danger before they all rested on the shifting figure of Brendan. “Get back here, Private Bastine!” bellowed the patrol captain, but Brendan powered on—he was out of earshot or wilfully ignoring the order. The captain let out an angry grunt and took after the rogue private. “Fifty-first infantry, sheath your swords and follow me.” The men did as commanded and fell in behind the patrol captain who had taken off in pursuit of Brendan Bastine.

Brendan was partway across the bridge; he heard the captain call but judged he was far enough away to plead ignorance once his superior caught up. Not today, Captain, for I answer a call from a higher station than yours.” As Brendan listened to the rhythmic thuds of his footfalls on the wooden planks, he wondered how he would get the boat to stop. He was an Olbaidian soldier, these were Mirians on Mirian waters, and he held no recognized authority over them. By the time he reached the other side of the bridge the boat would have passed under and gone. Even if the boat dropped anchor he had no way of getting out to it. He stopped on the bridge where the boat would pass and called out, “Halt, in the name of Emperor Horim, in the name of Hixel Himself I order you to halt!” The crew on board stared up at him, hands lifting to shelter their eyes from the bright day. They shared glances, shrugs and words Brendan could not hear. One thing was clear; no one attempted to stop the boat.

Air whistled past Brendan’s ears as the deck of the boat raced up to meet him. He managed to land on the balls of his feet and gave a forward roll to spread the impact. He stood upright from the roll and drew his sword. “I ordered you to stop,” he said breathlessly.

The crew of six froze in place. They stared in open amazement, buying Brendan valuable recovery time. His knees and hips screamed in protest to the jarring impact of the jump. Brendan utilised the pain to add menace to his voice. “Just what is so important that you had to sail on Hixel’s holy day?”

The crew looked at each other, fearing to give the wrong answer to the enraged Olbaidian soldier.

“We wanted to sell apples,” came a timid reply; it sounded more of a question than an answer.

“Apples!” bellowed Brendan.

“Yes, a-a-apples,” came the same timid response.

Brendan held his sword at arm’s length in the face of the man nearest him. The shocked sailor fixed his eyes on the blade as his colleague stammered an explanation. “We buy apples at the north of the bay then ship them around the southern coast of the empire where they fetch a higher price due to shortage.”

Brendan felt a vein throb on his forehead. “You buy, sell and sail on Hixel’s holy day?” Brendan was bottled thunder. It was not lost on the crew.

Eventually one of the crew stammered, “Who’s Hixel?”

Brendan did not recall disembarking the boat or crossing the bridge back into Olbaidian territory. He didn’t remember having his hands bound at his back nor having two fellow patrol men hoist him under his arms and drag him along. Yet here he was.

The irate patrol captain was bellowing, making it difficult to make sense of the surreal discord encapsulating him. The two big men on Brendan’s either side hoisted him high, leaving his feet treading air as he walked. Brendan had no idea when the shouting had started; the captain’s voice materialised into being rather than having a defined beginning. For awhile it seemed to be somewhere in the background but now it was at the fore of his thoughts.

Brendan caught half-sentences in the captain’s outbursts as he tried his best to comprehend his surroundings. The captain was angry at someone’s actions and their punishment would be death.

Who’s he screaming about? Brendan was about to ask the men who were hauling him when he noticed his soldier’s tunic matted in blood. Did I have an accident? Brutal pain in his knees and hips suggested there might be truth in this theory. The captain’s continual screaming made it hard to recall the recent past. Brendan started to pick up more of the captain’s words as the fog banks in his head began to recede.

He felt dampness soak through his clothes and touch his skin. This blood can’t be mine, it’s coming through my uniform. Just what’s going on?

The captains’ irate voice continued to interrupt Brendan’s concentration. “What will the sergeant say? Hell, what will the emperor say?”

Answers to this flirted in Brendan’s head but darted around a corner in his mind every time he ventured close to understanding. The clouds in his head coupled with the enduring pain made clarity of thought impossible. Did I go drinking with the men in the patrol…on a boat or one of… Brendan’s dangling foot caught a lose rock, forcing him to wince. There was something in that thought, but the memory was lanced by the recent spike of pain from his toes. He could not decipher the incomprehensible circumstance he found himself in. He decided to let the men carrying him bear his weight and focus on the captain’s voice. That voice was the one constant in the shifting, surrealistic world he had found himself in.

“You’ve singlehandedly destroyed relations with Miria. This could be the catalyst for war, a war between empires! You little bastard, do you have any idea the calamitous effects this will have on us all? It is the executioner’s axe for you!”

This time it was the captain’s icy exclamation that made Brendan wince. I wouldn’t want to be the guy the captain is screaming about, sounds like his days are numbered. Maybe I will say a prayer for him tonight in my devotions to Hixel.

Chapter Eleven

Daniela and Osyron returned to Marshals’ Hall via coach. Osyron harboured private concerns over convincing the high marshal of the validity of Daniela’s story. The foreign wood boat mast was enough for him; however, reporting this news second hand to Riven seemed insufficient. Osyron had travelled to Parkcross practising a plausible lie; he returned reciting a ludicrous truth. He would make Riven believe. He had to. Time was the enemy and the death of children was the cost of failure.

“You’re very quiet,” said Daniela, gently rocking as the coach wheels braved the contours of the road.

“I was thinking about seeing the high marshal again. I’m sure he’ll be impressed I was able to wrap things up so quickly,” was the half-truth Osyron offered in return. Recalling his conversation with Lilly, he feared fabrications would result in exposure. He changed the subject before inevitability struck. “How big is the tribe on this island in terms of numbers?”

“It’s hard to say. My best guess is they number somewhere in the thousands.”

Unsure of how to respond, Osyron let out a whistle. He was thinking of another question to ask when Daniela asked one of her own.

“What’s a city like?”

“You’ve never been to a city?” Osyron was genuinely surprised.

“Yes, when I was a child, though I can’t recall much. Lots of buildings, lots of people and lots of noise.”

“Then you remember it just fine,” laughed Osyron. “We should be there in a matter of hours. Do you wish to take care of business right away or get some rest and freshen up first? Daniela considered a moment but Osyron excitedly began speaking again. “You’ll love Marshals’ Hall—it’s both the physical and literal embodiment of justice for the empire.” He stared out the window of the carriage, a dream-like gloss in his eyes. “It’s been less than a week since I last laid eyes on her but it feels much longer.”

“Her?” Daniela giggled “You call a building ‘her’?”

“I didn’t say ‘her’… I said ‘it’,” stammered Osyron as his eyes darted around the carriage interior.

“No, you definitely said ‘her’, you were perfectly clear.”

Osyron felt his face flush. “No, it’s probably the noise of

the wheels on the road, masking my words, making them sound a little different.” He picked at a loose thread on the seat.

“Yes, that must be it,” said Daniela in feigned agreement.

Osyron wished to change the subject again. “You didn’t answer me, if you have a preference over heading straight there or getting some rest?”

Daniela considered a second, a mischievous smile appearing on her face. “Let’s go straight to Marshals’ Hall.” She bit her lip to stifle a laugh. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from her any longer.”

Osyron gave Daniela a narrow-eyed glare before staring out the carriage window. Osyron tried to ignore the rising heat in his face and the glee it inspired in Daniela. From the corner of his eye he’d saw her cheeks bulge with repressed laughter.

After leaving the carriage, the pair entered the city gates into the streets of Olbaid. The racket made Daniela skittish. The crowd and the din caused a sensory overload. Sounds, smells even buildings morphed into one another, making reality an overwhelming and disorientating mess.

“It’s best you take my hand, we could easily get separated in these crowds,” said Osyron. Daniela offered hers without hesitation.

Towering buildings stretched out before them on either side, channelling the city racket into corridors of noisy confusion. Osyron led the way, but how he kept himself oriented baffled Daniela. Shoulders bumped hers and she offered apologies to the back of heads as offenders moved on without registering the contact. She gripped his hand tighter lest she be swept away in the current of people.

“I don’t like this; I can’t hear my own thoughts.”

Osyron glanced back at her, somehow continuing to manage his way through the tide of endless bodies. “I recall my first time in the city; I thought the whole empire had decided to pay a visit the same day as I.” He flashed a reassuring smile. “You get used to it.”

Daniela shook her head. “I have no interest in getting used to this. I just want confirmation of the law’s understanding then I’m gone.”

“We’re here, declared Osyron, pointing to the building looming at the end of the street. Daniela was so lost in mind and spirit she hadn’t noticed the elongated building that blocked out the rest of the city ahead. “So this is ‘her’,” she whispered.

“Sorry?” asked Osyron.

“I said, it’s magnificent.” Marshals’ Hall was indeed as grand a structure she had seen. It was no taller than the other buildings but its exceptional length made it awe-inspiring. Its fortified roof was lined with flags, each representing a kingdom of the empire.

“Isn’t it just,” replied Osyron, pride radiating from him. “Let’s head inside; the high marshal and peace of mind awaits.”

High Marshal Riven sat writing at his desk. which he was beginning to perceive as his ball and chain. Circumstance of late tied him to it far more than he liked. Riven recognized if not appreciated the importance of the paperwork that came with his position. He rose from his chair and bade “Enter” to the knock on his door. “Marshal Osyron! Glad to see you back safe, but you have barely had time to journey there and back. Is everything alright?”

Osyron took purposeful strides to meet Riven’s outstretched hand.

“Greetings, High Marshal. Quite the contrary. I am happy to report my assignment complete. My findings may come as a bit of a surprise; they certainly came to me as one.”

“That’s often the case, lad.” High Marshal Riven paused to take in Daniela. “And who’s this, a key witness? You really should’ve sent a hawk messenger telling us of your return.”

“Not a witness as such, but let me introduce you to Daniela Callahan; she is the person responsible for everything.”

“She is?” asked the high marshal. “Are you certain, lad? Why is she not in manacles?”

Osyron cut him off before the situation turned awkward. “Sir, it is imperative that you let her speak. It is quite a tale but please hear her to the end of it before interjecting. I have very good reason to believe that everything she says is true.” Osyron bit his lip. “I think we should all take a seat for this, High Marshal.”

High Marshal Riven studied the faces of Osyron and Daniela. “Very well. I’ll hear the girl out.”

Daniela proceeded to tell the high marshal her story. When she had finished the high marshal’s response stunned them both.

“I believe you.”

“You do?” cried Daniela and Osyron in unison. Daniela beamed. She had faced a barrage of questions after her previous recitals of the tale. She’d expected the same if not more from the high marshal.

Osyron’s eyes went wide before flashing an ‘I told you so’ smile at Daniela.

Riven answered their unspoken question before they could voice it. “A few days ago I was approached by a woman very similar to the ones Daniela described. This woman made no bones about what she wanted of me. I thought I was looking at the crudest assassination attempt in Olbaidian history.”

“What happened to her?” asked Daniela.

“We’re holding her in the cells downstairs. The more we questioned her the further we got from any kind of understanding. We dropped the assassination theory and assumed her to be a spy, but that theory quickly lost credibility as well. Now that you have told me your story it explains a lot.”

Osyron turned to Daniela. “Maybe it’s one of the women you brought back from the island with you?”

“I doubt it. I dropped them a three days’ ride from here, back at Parkcross.” Daniela turned to the high marshal. “Would it be possible to see her?”

Riven nodded. “I was about to suggest that very thing.” The high marshal stood and extended a hand to the door. “Shall we?”

A brisk walk through an ornate hallway lined with portraits of high marshals past led to a downward spiralling staircase. The bottom of the stairs birthed a completely contrary world from the hallway above. Slate grey walls with naught but periodically spaced torches repelled the would-be darkness. Musky aromas from stagnant water permeated the air, punctuated by an echoing drip in the distance. Daniela drew close to Osyron. The cries from disgruntled inmates made her realise there were more daunting places in the city of Olbaid than its crammed city streets.

The bleak corridor ended and opened into a large room. A thin man with his eyes closed sat rocking on a chair behind a stout table. He was evidently conjuring imagery of a place more alluring than his current surroundings. Judging by the whiff of alcohol Daniela supposed a tavern featured prominently in his mind’s eye.

“We’re here to pay our guest of honour a visit, Sam,” announced the high marshal.

Sam rubbed the bleariness from his eyes as he stood, the jingle of keys echoing down the corridor. “Of course, High Marshal, she’s just where you left her.” The sleepy jailer led them out of the room to another corridor much wider than the first. In place of the tunnel of blank grey walls, prison cells stretched out on each side.

“She’s locked in the first cell,” explained Riven. “We didn’t want to parade her past our other guests. Any woman down here causes a stir, but this one, this one would invoke the god of pandemonium.”

The two marshals and Daniela stopped outside the cell and looked in as Sam traipsed back to his daydream. Two narrow eyes peered pack at them through confining bars. Daniela had mentioned the beauty of the islanders but the woman in the cell halted Osyron’s breath. Never had he witnessed such flawlessness. Long dark hair accentuated the clear, crisp whiteness in her eyes. Her frame was the embodiment of femininity with masculine traits that enriched rather than detracted from her beauty. Osyron knew perfection was impossible yet could not find a single aesthetic flaw. She wore a tunic made from sleek black animal hide, held closed by a knotted belt at her waist.

“And here was I thinking you only made that face when staring at boat masts,” quipped Daniela.

“What…boat masts, what?” mumbled Osyron, still transfixed by the islander. Realising his jaw hung open, he snapped it shut. Averting his stare, he turned to Daniela.

“Sorry, what were you saying?”

Daniela smiled. “You’ve dealt with it.”

Despite a sheet-covered straw mattress and a three-legged stool, the woman in the cell stood with her back straight, in the centre of the cell. Osyron didn’t know why but he was certain she had been in that stance for some time rather than striking a defiant pose at the sound of approaching footsteps.

“I recognize her—she’s not one of the women I brought over, but I recall her fron the island,” said Daniela.

“Fish woman,” came the flat reply from the cell.

“Yes, it’s me, the woman with the fishing boat. My name is Daniela. Do you remember me?”

“I do. You are the fish woman.”

“Yes, that’s correct, but my name is Daniela.”

“You never told me they call you fish woman!” said Osyron, grinning at the revelation.

“Did you or did you not tell me to keep things relevant?”

Osyron bowed his head in acknowledgement to her point but made no effort keeping the amusement off his face.

“Well, I guess we have no real reason to hold her captive any longer, but if we let her go she’ll not show up for the trial,” said Riven.

“Trial, what trial?” enquired Osyron.

“Why, Daniela’s trial of course.”

It was Daniela’s turn to go wide-eyed and slack-jawed.

“Trial?” echoed Osyron again, sounding ignorant to the meaning of the word. “Didn’t you listen to anything Daniela said? There’s no need for an investigation let alone a trial.”

Riven placed his hands behind his back and addressed Osyron. “By the letter of the law there is a crime to answer for. Daniela has confessed to taking money in exchange for children. But that’s not the real reason this case necessitates a trial.”

“What reason?” asked Osyron, struggling to comprehend the sudden unforeseen twist in circumstance.”

“This case has become quite the talking point in the city. The anti-war movement are claiming child trading is now springing up throughout the empire as a direct consequence of this brewing war. They’re using it as a weapon in the battle for hearts and minds. It’s become a massive point of contention. There needs to be a trial to show their claims lack all credibility.”

Daniela and Osyron shared a worried look.

“We’ll need to get our defence ready. Given the bloated interest in this case the prosecution will be out for blood and could throw anything at us. We need to anticipate and prepare for it.”

“What can they throw? I have done no wrong; there is nothing to defend,” said Daniela, half pleading.

“What if the babies carry a plague? What if it’s a plan by foreign invaders to make Olbaid sick? Here to introduce some disease we have no cure for that renders us helpless or wipes us out?” asked Riven. He took in the two incredulous faces gawping at him. “Don’t worry, the trial will be nothing but a formality, a foregone conclusion if approached with the required care.” He nodded at Osyron. ”Both you and I will bear witness in Daniela’s defence and if our friend in the cell here agrees to testify then the outcome’s inevitable.” Riven offered a reassuring smile and continued. ”Why, with the backing of the investigating marshal, the high marshal and a witness from overseas confirming both our statements as true, this will be the most straight forward case our courts have ever seen. A landslide victory will ensue, you mark my words.”

Osyron relaxed but retained caution. “So when will this trial take place?”

Riven’s face screwed in thought. “Well, the anti-war movement is right about one thing. Crime rates have risen due to this war.” The high marshal chuckled. “Incredible that they latch on to the one case that has no credibility at all.”

“How long till the case is heard, High Marshal?” Osyron repeated.

“The jails and courts are full with crimes ranging from the petty to the severe, but given the high interest it will be first in line of the unscheduled cases to receive a court date.”

Osyron’s voice grew louder. “How long, sir?”

The high marshal scratched his beard. “Give or take a few days—my best guess would be one calendar month from now.”

Osyron brightened. “That’s workable. If you give us permission to take the fastest boat in our fleet, Daniela could set sail, pick up the children as scheduled and be back in good time to face this nonsensical trial.” Osyron smiled, adding, “All potential problems averted.”

Daniela nodded in earnest and looked at the high marshal with renewed hope.

“I’m sorry, Daniela, I can’t let you leave,” said Riven. The angst on his face did little to soften the news. “Once a defendant has been brought into custody they must be held until their case is heard.” He turned to Osyron. “You know that, Marshal.”

Frustration threatened to overwhelm Osyron. “Yes, but an exception can be made in this case, given everything you know you must make an exception in this case!”

Riven stared at Osyron, appraising the imploration burning in his eyes. “I’m sorry, lad, no exceptions.”

Chapter Twelve

In the years prior to Riven becoming a marshal, he cared for his sickly mother. She had fallen frighteningly ill and despite countless examinations, the correct diagnosis of her sickness remained elusive. Her health bloomed and diminished in unpredictable cycles but seldom improved enough for her to undertake the most pedestrian of tasks. With his father working as a well-paid diplomatic advisor to the emperor, Riven could afford to care for his mother full time. Viewed as handsome and a man capable of handling himself both physically and intellectually, Riven was considered quite the catch. Several prospective love interests beckoned but Riven never pursued them, fearing neglect of his mother as consequence.

However, one girl dominated his waking thoughts. She was no stranger in his dreams either. Often he would divulge lengthy conversation with his mother about her. Upon hearing her son’s interest, she continuously encouraged him to ask her out. Riven repeatedly fobbed off the notion, assuring her that he would when his father returned from diplomatic duties in the newly formed empire of Miria. Over time, the girl grew impatient.

Riven let out a sigh as he dabbed his mother’s head with a cold cloth.

“What thought goblin is stealing my child’s happiness today?” she enquired.

“It’s nothing, Mother,” was Riven’s too-quick reply.

“Why, my own son lying to me, I never thought I would see the day.”

Riven gave her a sad smile. “Okay, let me rephrase, it’s nothing for you to worry about.”

“If it concerns my son then it concerns me,” she said. “You’re not letting this go, are you?”

“I’m the finest thought goblin hunter in all the empire. I can’t have one running rampant in my own son’s head. I have my reputation to think of.” She gave him her special tight-eyed, tight-lipped smile.

“That you are, Mother,” agreed Riven. He sighed. “Victoria has arranged to meet with someone this end week. She’s accepted someone else’s proposition.”

“Ahh, I see. We should’ve played the guessing game. I think I would’ve won, and in record time.” Her hand rose, pulling away her son’s to cease his fussing. “Go ask her out. She is as taken with you as you are with her. I’m sure she’s only accepted this others man’s offer as she deems the prospect of receiving a request from you as folly. Ask Victoria; she’ll say yes. I give a mother’s guarantee.”

Riven pulled his hand free and dunked the cloth in the bucket of ice water by his feet. “I can’t, Mother. Who’d look after you?” He rinsed the cloth and proceeded to dab his mother’s forehead again.

“I’ll be fine. In Hixel’s name will you just go and ask the girl out.”

“Father made it quite clear it was my duty to look after you and I do not intend to let someone else take care of my responsibilities. That will be breaking my promise to him and my obligation to you.” Riven leaned back and opened his arms. “And who can look after you better than your own son? Those medicines and potions prescribed by the medics do nothing. I think it’s my attentiveness that attributes most to your well-being.”

Riven’s mother shifted in bed, waiting for him to meet her gaze again. “Listen to me and listen close. I want to feel the breeze in my hair; I want to breathe the summer air that’s so delightful this time of year. I want to feel the cool grass under my bare feet. I want to do all the simple things that everyone takes for granted. I want to feel self-reliant rather than a burden…”

Riven opened his mouth to object at her last comment but his mother raised a defiant hand. “I just want to enjoy what I can while I can. I promise not to wrestle any bears while your back is turned.”

Riven could not help but laugh at the image.

“Make an exception, Son, make an exception just this once. Being alone for a bit may even do me some good.”

Riven flirted with the possibilities presenting themselves. “Victoria doesn’t live far; I could be gone and back before the door creeps shut.”

“Do it or forever regret it,” encouraged his mother.
“Regret is part of life. You taught me that,” said Riven.

“True, but better to regret the things we do than the things we don’t.”

“You have an answer for everything it seems. Fine, I’ll do it,” He gave a nod of confirmation.

His mother smiled. “That’s my boy.”

Riven repaid her smile in kind. “An exception, just this once.”

A panting Riven came bursting through the front door of his house. “‘Yes’, Mother! She said ‘Yes’!” He found her sitting by the open window of the front room, enjoying the summer ambiance. She had somehow managed to drag a chair from the centre of the living area, no mean feat for a woman who played Knock, Knock, Runaway on the soul collector’s door with worrying regularity.

“A mother’s guarantee,” came her knowing reply. “I have some broth on the go. Would you care for some when it’s ready?”

Riven was struck dumb. Seeing her out of bed was a pleasant surprise, but making broth was something Riven thought long past her.

“Mother, that’s incredible, you really are returning to health.

She gestured towards the other chair. “Grab that and tell me all about it, spare no detail.”

Riven closed the door and did as she directed. “We have agreed to meet this end week. I will arrange for someone to look after you that evening so you’re not alone.”

His mother dismissed his concerns with a roll of her eyes. “I’ll be fine. This hour alone has done wonders for me; imagine what a whole evening will do. I even managed broth.” She glanced over at the pot. It had begun to bubble. “Be a good lad and give it a little stir.”

“Of course, Mother,” Riven said, pushing himself out of his chair. “The aroma is giving me quite the appetite.”

On the end week Riven spent an evening with Victoria. After seeing her home safely, he decided to pick his mother flowers, a ‘thank you’ for her recent encouragement in making tonight possible. If his mother could not experience nature’s beauties then it was only right that he brought that beauty to her. He allowed his imagination to run wild as he plucked flowers from the side of the path. He fantasised about all the exciting potential his life suddenly had. Once he had gathered a satisfactory bunch, he started home again. There were more stars in the sky than he could recall witnessing before. They shone with a brightness that would make a believer out of a sceptic. Engrossed by their majesty, he staggered off the path. Riven chuckled at what he must look like. He would have forgiven any passer by who perceived him as drunk as he was indeed intoxicated—the night, the sky, the air, the surrounding foliage in bloom all carried a bewitching quality. It felt like walking through the aftermath of a grandiose battle between duelling wizards. The world seemed adorned by a magical residue. Riven wondered if the world always looked this way, wondered if his eyes had now been opened to some secret dimension. Or was tonight just one of those nights that inspired troubadours to scribe odes and sonnets? The thought kept him occupied to his front step.

Riven opened the front door to be greeted by an expected silent darkness. This late hour would see his mother long asleep. He stepped stealthily as a man of his bulk could manage, avoiding the tell-tale floorboard creaks. He’d memorised the creaks’ whereabouts as a boy. He’d been caught trying to sneak out after dark to meet up with friends, who themselves had gone through the same ritual in their own homes. After that he began scribbling maps of the floor so he knew where to stand and where not too, circling all the ‘mischief spoilers’, that being the moniker he and his childhood friends had given to a creaking floorboard.

Making it to the lounge table creak free, Riven lit the lantern enough for a subdued light. He glanced over to the stove, checking for soup. There was none. Twice would have been pushing things, he supposed. The last batch hadn’t been up to her usual standard but given the circumstances, voicing any criticism would have been harsh in the extreme.

Riven filled a vase with water and placed the flowers inside. He traversed the remaining minefield of mischief spoilers and made it to his mother’s room. A thin sheet of moonlight shone through the slight gap in the drawn curtains. He tiptoed towards the bedside cabinet, beaming at his idea to pick flowers. Waking up to nature would make his mother’s morning. The sweet aromas may even harbour some medicinal properties too. He wondered why he had never picked flowers for her before but swore a silent oath to make it a regular occurrence.

On his second to last step, his foot came down on something unexpected; instead of meeting a solid floorboard the sole of his boot pressed on something cylindrical. It rolled as he brought his weight down, forcing his balance to shift. The momentum sent him speeding towards the wall. Instinct took over—he threw his hands up to avoid hitting the rapidly approaching stone. His hands met the wall as the vase met the floor. The crash rang around the room and the water spilled and seeped through the gaps in the floor. Riven’s eyes closed, “Stupid oaf,” he chastised himself in a now pointless whisper.

He pushed against the wall to stand upright. His apology was already on offer before he turned to his mother.

She lay on her back with her blankets pulled to her collarbone, arms flat by her sides. Her eyes sat shut. Riven felt goose bumps on his forearms.


She did not respond. The crash had been loud, too loud. She should have woken. Icy dread jolted inside Riven. He placed his ear next to her lips. “Mother, wake up, you’re scaring me.” His fingers searched in the near darkness for her wrist. “Mother! Mother, no!” His eyes darted, his mind racing. “Mother, please no.” Reality crashed home. She was dead. He left her and now she was dead. He leaned forward, resting his forehead on hers; his fingers cradled her cheeks. His eyes screwed tight yet tears found their escape. “I’m sorry,” he whispered between sobs. He had been remiss in the duty his father assigned him and now his mother was dead.

“No exceptions,” repeated High Marshal Riven. “I would be neglecting my duty.”

“Duty?” asked Osyron. “What about those innocent boys? What about justice?”

“I have a whole empire to marshal. I can’t go taking on the burdens and wrongs of other lands too, no matter how repulsive I find them. We have to do what’s required of us.”

“I promised her our help. She could be on her way to saving those children right now. The only reason she’s here is because I convinced her to come.” Osyron locked Riven in a stare. “If you do this, the blood of those children will be on your hands; it will be on mine!”

“You did your job, Marshal, and you did it well. I know that’s of little comfort to you but it’s what you must take from this. Justice will be served, I will see to it. It’s just going to take some time. Bureaucracy simply won’t permit anything else.”

“But...but the children,” Daniela managed.

Osyron’s mouth opened but Riven spoke first. “Enough, Marshal. You’re dismissed. Take some time off, go visit home.” Riven turned to call the jailer. “Sam, come through, I have need of you.” Sam wandered in from his room. “Put this woman in the cell next to our friend here. Give her anything she needs. If we can offer it, she gets it. No request is too grand, no volume of requests too many. Understand?”

Osyron and Daniela’s eyes met. She was still unable to put words to the countless concerns swarming her head. Osyron looked at her in a wordless apology. He slowly raised a finger to his lips to silence an already dumbstruck Daniela. Discreetly as possible, he positioned himself behind Riven. With Sam’s line of sight blocked, Osyron drew his sword.

Chapter Thirteen

Brendan Bastine stood with bound hands in the centre of the courtroom. The wooden stand felt scant defence against the sea of judgmental eyes surrounding him. At his back sat the public gallery of raised benches. Brendan could feel the stares singe the hair on the back of his head. Just like Marsha, they did not have the capacity to understand the importance of whom he served or the righteousness of his actions. To either side, Brendan could see the silhouettes of gathered councilmen. A ring of torches around him cast the people beyond the flames indiscernible. Rows of vague humanoid forms held his life in their shadowy hands. The only people Brendan could see with clarity were Emperor Horim, present in place of a regular judge, and his patrol captain who occupied the dock by Horim’s side. The captain was reading aloud his damning statement to all in attendance.

Due to the case’s severity, Brendan’s hearing was brought forward by order of Emperor Horim. A night in the cells offered Brendan recollection but hearing the captain recite the proceedings brought a level of vividness he could not muster on his own. Brendan wondered how he’d managed to avoid broken bones from the jump he’d taken from the bridge to the boat below. Hixel watched over me, of that I’m certain. I have no right to ask, but spare me one more miracle this day, Lord. Mirroring the previous afternoon, the patrol captain’s voice stole into Brendan’s conscious thought.

“…and by the time I and the rest of the patrol had arrived on the Mirian side of the bay, private Bastine had slaughtered all six crew members on board the merchant’s boat. The two Mirian guards posted on their side of the bridge wanted to place Private Bastine under arrest but my assurances, or more likely our greater numbers, convinced them that he should face prosecution in Olbaid. I wouldn’t like to imagine what would’ve developed had a Mirian patrol been passing at this time. The news of the slaughter would have reached the hierarchy of Miria by now and we can expect a demand in the imminent future to surrender private Bastine into Mirian custody. Emperor Horim, councilmen, people of Olbaid, this concludes my testimony.”

Emperor Horim sat listening to the captain but his intent gaze fixed on Brendan. “Thank you, Captain, I have a few questions and then you are free to go.” The patrol captain offered a nod of acknowledgment.

Horim turned to face the dock. The creak of the chair resonated heavily in the ambient silence of the room. “This vessel these men were on, you claim it was a merchant’s boat; you’re certain of this?”

The captain nodded emphatically. “It was carrying a cargo of apples, Emperor, in a hull designed specifically for the transportation of goods; this was clearly a merchant’s boat being used for merchant’s purposes.”

Horim gave a methodical nod of his head. “That would hint at merchants and a merchant boat.” Frowning, he continued. “And the men on board, Captain, how can you be certain they were not pirates?”

The captain looked puzzled at the question. “There was no evidence to suggest they were pirates, Emperor, none at all.”

Emperor Horim’s tone went flat. “I didn’t ask for evidence they were pirates, I asked for evidence they were not.”

The captain inched a finger inside his collar. “Well, they didn’t appear to be pirates, they looked like honest merchants. Their clothes, mannerisms and conduct all suggested they were everyday merchants, my lord. Not once did the word ‘pirates’ cross my mind nor pass the lips of any of the men on my patrol.”

Emperor Horim leaned forward in his chair. “Tell me, Captain, can clothes not be stolen as well as a boat and its cargo? Can mannerisms and conduct be mimicked by skilled conmen? Is there one piece of solid evidence that you can offer that these men were not thieves of some descript, something that could rule out the possibility in its entirety?”

The captain glanced around the room before answering. “Well, nothing that springs to mind. As I mentioned in my report, none of the victims had weapons drawn or showed any signs of turning hostile. In my opinion and from what I observed, the men killed weren’t pirates.”

Horim gave the same methodical nod. “When outnumbered six to one would you recommend letting your foes draw weapons before engaging in combat or would you declare it advisable to strike before they draw steel?”

“Emperor…” the captain’s reply caught in his windpipe. He gave a throat-clearing cough. “That wasn’t the situation, Emperor. If I could just draw your attention to—”

“Answer my question, Captain.”

The captain’s head sank. “No, Emperor, it wouldn’t be advisable to allow one’s foes to draw weapons.”

Horim grinned. “Thank you, Captain. Now let us examine the perspective you had on the events in question.” The emperor sat back in his chair, taking on a casual demeanour. He made a circling gesture with his hand as he spoke. “Do you believe you had a better view from your vantage point on the bridge of these…potential pirates than Private Bastine had from the deck of the boat?”

Amidst the circle of torches Brendan stood tall with his chin raised. The line of questions from the emperor dared him to court hope. The sensation of burning glares upon him receded. Hixel, I know this is Your doing, praise be upon You!

“Well, no, my lord,” answered the concilman, “it’s just they appeared from what I could see to be regular merchants.”

Horim looked at the benches of councilmen. He spoke in a deliberate voice, holding a finger aloft to emphasise the point. “Appeared to be… Just one more question, Captain, and you’re free to leave. Do you think appearances can be deceptive?”

Prior to the hearing, the patrol captain had been thrilled to hear the Olbaidian ruler would be standing in as judge. He envisioned conversing with the emperor, imagined helping see a killer brought to task while playing a pivotal role in strengthening ties between empires. The stark contrast of reality versus his imaginings left him dumbfounded. Instead of feeling like a man who was helping bring a cold-blooded killer to justice, he felt like it was he who was on trial for attempting to discredit an Olbaidian hero. Sweat beaded on the captain’s forehead. “They can be, Emperor.”

Horim placed his palms together and inclined his head to the patrol captain. “Thank you for your time, Captain, you have been most cooperative. You’re free to leave.”

“Thank you, Emperor, happy to serve you and the empire.” The bemused patrol captain gathered his report and hastily made his way out of the courtroom. He shot Brendan a look shaped by disbelief as he hurried past. He’d witnessed the private slaughter six citizens yet after testifying to this, Brendan somehow looked like an advocate of justice, not the murderer of innocents. The captain’s footsteps hastened on the stone floor before the groan of the courtroom’s hefty door opening and closing resonated through the room. His departure left the room shrouded in silence.

A smile ghosted on Brendan’s lips. After hearing the graphic statements issued by the soldiers on patrol and the captain’s testimony he steeled himself for a death penalty. Something—or rather someone—was altering events, and Brendon knew exactly who it was. Thank you, God, praise be to You.

Emperor Horim’s voice caught Brendan’s attention. “Private Brendan Bastine, may we now hear your account of the incident in question?”

“Emperor, I am a man of God. Hixel miraculously cured my wife of cancer. The sight of the boat shamelessly and blasphemously sailing on Hixel’s holy day was something I could not ignore. I understand this is a court of law therefore not concerned with matters of faith, but even with religion aside, the boat was in clear violation of the peace treaties signed by yourself and the Mirian Emperor. I knew decent citizens wouldn’t treat the peace treaties so heedlessly. I acted in accordance to both my faith and my responsibilities as a border patrol soldier. I believe my conduct to be correct under Olbaidian law and in the eyes of God.

“Thank you for granting this humble servant of Hixel and Olbaid the chance to speak, emperor.” Brendan bowed before Horim and the councilmen.

Horim turned towards the attending councilmen. “Yes, it was God’s holy day, which itself has significance attached. Something the soldiers and their captain failed to mention in their testimonies.” Horim paused, a look of deep reflection etched on his face. “Why, this lends further weight to the men on that boat being pirates or some type of black market traders.”

One of the dark faceless figures on the councilmen’s benches stood. Horim gestured an invitation to speak.

“A thousand pardons, my liege, I’m not seeing the connection between the day of the week and the men being pirates.”

Emperor Horim welcomed challenges to his statements; he took satisfaction in knowing he was in the company of men who had enough backbone to contest him. Being surrounded with nodding dogs who complied with every word would lead to a complacent apathy, ensuring his demise as emperor. Challenges served as an initial integrity assessment of his ideas. Any flaws in his thinking needed to be exposed. This allowed him to remould his ideas before executing them. Questions were welcome, just so long as the questioner recognized the length of their leash.

“Fair question, councilman, allow me to clarify. The crew on the boat are either thieves or legitimate merchants; it’s one or the other. If they’re merchants, then they require official permission from the Mirian Emperor before sailing. And if this voyage was legislated by Miria, then they’ve spat on the peace treaties they’ve sworn to honour. Also, as Private Bastine has pointed out, this is a direct insult to Hixel.” Emperor Horim spread his arms and questioned the men in attendance. “Does anyone here think Miria would act so rashly in broad daylight?” His gaze flicked between both sets of council benches, allowing ample time for response.

Brendan shifted his weight on his feet and glanced at both benches in tandem with Horim. He waited for an interjection from the faceless shapes beyond the torch flames. It never came.

Horim brought his arms down and leaned back in his chair. “If Miria didn’t sanction this voyage then there is no other conclusion than pirates. No merchants would dare defy the peace treaties.” Horim extended an arm towards Brendan, his voice brimming with adoration. “Our brave Private Bastine here has done the Empire of Miria a great service as well as honoured Hixel on His Sabbath. His actions should forge a stronger bond between empires, not cause a division.”

A mild ripple of applause broke out from the public benches. A councilman snapped to his feet, cutting short the public’s commendation. Horim cocked a finger, prompting the man to speak.

“My liege I must ask, do you believe Miria will view it the same way? Had the crew been Olbaidian men and the killer a Mirian soldier, would you view it as a kindness bore unto Olbaid?”

Horim had been waiting for that question. He rubbed his chin in feigned contemplation. “That’s a very good question, councilman; it’s only right we view this incident from a Mirian perspective. Let’s see, if I or one of my representatives granted permission for a boat to sail on Miria’s holy day then I’d be obliged to confess my guilt, an explanation being the least I would offer. Alternatively, if it were pirates then I would applaud their demise, even celebrate it. After all, it was a holy day and I am a devout believer. I would be compelled to decorate the Mirian soldier for bravery and champion him as an advocate of peace.” Horim frowned and looked over to the benches. “State your name, councilman.”

“Sheridan, my liege.”

“Well, Councilman Sheridan, I’m truly impressed by your shrewdness and modesty.”

“My liege?”

“You presented your thought as a question, making it seem my idea to decorate Private Bastine. It’s no secret I’m a holy man and would praise anyone who protected the teachings of Holy Scripture. It was clever, but not so clever that it passed over my head. You are trying to give credit to your emperor for your own idea. You are a true loyalist and your kindness should be recognised.”

Councilman Sheridan’s head snapped back as if he’d been slapped. “No, my liege, with all due respect, you’ve misunderstood me.”

“And still you persist with modesty.” Horim chuckled. “Quite endearing, but I won’t hear another word on the matter. I’m a fair emperor and I give credit where due. Let the records state that Councilman Sheridan recommended that Miria decorate Private Bastine if found innocent of all accusations.”

Brendan watched councilman Sheridan’s dawdling descent into the mass of shadowed figures. He couldn’t see the man’s face yet knew the exact expression it bore. Brendan’s head swung to the benches at the other side as another voice spoke. It came timid, with delicately chosen words. “Emperor, if I may be so bold, that may be pushing matters.”

“Well, they could always confess to allowing this boat to sail, purposely and wilfully blaspheming our God and declaring their intent to ignore the peace treaties.” Horim faced forward, directing his words to the public gathered at the far end of the room. “I will restate it, I am a fair emperor. If Miria is guilty of treason against our peace treaties then I will gladly lend an ear to a confession and the compensation they intend to offer for dishonouring them.”

The standing councilman resumed, trying in vain to mask his growing incredulity. “My liege, we can’t expect compensation for dead Mirians, it’s too much. We will incur Miria’s wrath if we do; this could mean all-out war. Relations are already tenuous; asking for compensation after six Mirian deaths would be a slap in the face.”

A choir of voices sounded their agreement from the councilmens’ benches, accompanied by a murmur of whispers from the public benches. A restless tension overthrew the sedate, parliamentary ambiance in the room as Horim focused on the outspoken councilman. “And who’s wrath should we fear more—Miria’s or God’s? Isn’t a sanctioned voyage on Hixel’s holy day a slap in the face to us? Isn’t it a slap in the face of God?”

The councilman’s eyes drifted to Sheridan on the benches opposite himself. He gulped before answering. “Those are fine points, Emperor, thank you for correcting my thinking.” The councilman was already seated before finishing his reply.

Horim nodded before delivering his closing statement. “If there are no further questions or comments then I state this hearing concluded.” Again Horim paused momentarily, allowing for interjections before continuing. “Then let it be known that I, Emperor Horim, with advisement from the Olbaidian council have found Private Brendan Bastine not guilty of all accusations. Furthermore, by recommendation of Councilman Sheridan, the Olbaidian Empire expects a decoration from Miria for Private Brendan Bastine if they didn’t sanction the voyage for protecting Mirian waters. If the voyage was sanctioned, then an apology and an agreeable recompense should be offered to both the Olbaidian Empire and the temple of Hixel for wilful neglect of the peace treaties and blasphemous behaviour respectively.”

A ripple of discontinuous applause sounded from the public benches while Councilman Sheridan cupped his hands to his face and sunk further into his seat. A neighbouring councilman offered a sympathetic pat.

Emperor Horim’s gaze rested on Brendan before gesturing towards a guard in attendance. “Cut this innocent man free from his bindings; he shall be detained no longer.”

The guard strode from the darkness through the surrounding ring of torches and cut Brendan’s restraints.

Horim stood and addressed the room. “This concludes the hearing of Private Brendan Bastine. If you have no involvement, please clear the court for the next case.”

The room came alive with collective chatter and the sound of feet on stone as the attendees bustled for the exit. Brendan rubbed his wrists where the ropes had turned them red, a broad smile fixed on his face. Hixel, I am not worthy of Your favour but I am thrilled to receive it. I now recognize Your gift to me. I am immune to the trappings of this world and in return I shall be Your weapon of righteousness. My life is devoted to continuing Your work; I understand what I must do.

Chapter Fourteen

Osyron licked his dry lips and swiped a hand across his thigh. His fingers inched around his sword’s hilt and drew it from its scabbard, inch by silent inch. Daniela’s face bore woe then confusion. Osyron stood poised with his sword held above his shoulder. For the briefest interlude, his better judgement beseeched him to reconsider.

With all the force he could muster, he slammed his sword hilt into the base of the high marshal’s skull. The pommel met the big man’s head with a dull thud. Riven crumpled to the floor. Sam’s eyes followed him down. As Sam lifted his gaze, the tip of a sword greeted it. The jailer’s eyes followed the length of the blade, finding an intent Osyron at the opposite end. Osyron flicked his head to the islander. “Open that cell and let her out.” Sam gave a stuttering nod as his fingers fumbled with keys.

Daniela remained paralysed, her lips shaped in a silent whistle. Sam opened the cell door, setting the inmate free.

“Give Daniela the keys and drag the high marshal into the cell,” ordered Osyron.

Sam obliged, throwing the keys at Daniela. She broke from her paralysis, snatching them in mid-air. Sam looked at the unconscious heap that lay on the floor. “I can’t move him, he’s too big,” he stammered.

From the corner of his eye, Osyron saw the island woman put both her hands under the high marshal’s arms and lock her fingers across his chest. She stared at Sam and thrust her chin towards the cell. Sam grasped her meaning and scurried into the cell. The islander dragged the unconscious Riven behind.

“Let’s rip that bed sheet, tie a gag and—”

A right hook to Sam’s jaw cut off Osyron’s words. The island woman stood with a scowl on her face. “Sleeping men scream less. I’m Zinaria. And we should leave now.”

Osyron nodded in greeting. “I’m Osyron. And yes, we should.” Before locking the cell, Osyron instructed Daniela to remove the high marshal’s seal. He looked at Zinaria. “I need to bind your hands.” She fixed a glare on him. Osyron hastily offered an explanation. “As a ruse, just until we’re out of the building.”

“Do it.” Came her flat reply.

They trio moved deftly up the stairwell and into the high marshal’s office. Osyron scribed a letter granting permission to use the fastest boat in the fleet. They waxed it closed using Riven’s seal before heading to the harbour.

The counterfeit document worked as intended. The harbour master barely looked at the letter beyond the binding seal of the high marshal. Instead, his shameless stare moved along the contours of Zinaria. “The Hornet, that’s the one yae’s be after. Built as a scouting boat she was. All haste, though she rarely leaves the docks.”

“How so?” enquired Osyron.

“With our capital accessible by sea, Olbaid’s fleet sits here protecting it. If we ventured out, the city and emperor are vulnerable.” The harbour master cast his arm out at the line of ships as they walked the pier. “See, because our fleet is superior to Miria’s, they won’t launch an attack on our capital while we sit in. Our ships won’t leave, Miria’s wont attack, rendering the battle at sea a stalemate.”

Osyron pointed at the biggest ship in the fleet, a towering vessel that blocked out the sun. “What’s that ship?”

“That be the emperor’s own ship, the Citadel. A floating palace is that. Should the land battle swing in Miria’s favour, then the Citadel would be Emperor Horim’s escape tunnel.”

The harbour master walked along the pier towards the Hornet. Osyron was almost impressed the man could carry a conversation and walk straight while relentlessly ogling Zinaria. Thankfully, Zinaria seemed oblivious, or at least indifferent to the man’s leering.

“This be her, the Hornet,” declared the harbour master. The boat looked like a needle, a slender body that ended in a fine point. Thankfully, it looked able to berth three bodies comfortably. The steering wheel sat behind a roofed stairway and the boat’s deck narrowed to a fine point at the front, making it as sharp a ship’s bow as Osyron had laid eyes on and giving the Hornet its apt name.

As the harbour master helped Osyron on board he whispered, “Lucky devil,” in a gravelly voice. Osyron wanted to pull the leering man into the sea but too much would be jeopardised by indulging in the whim. The harbour master winked and gave a tainted laugh, absent of any humour. Osyron faked a smile and swallowed the unease the man’s presence generated.

The jailbreaking trio got busy setting sail while the harbour master lost himself in not-so-private thoughts. Osyron gambled the man would not become suspicious by haste and worked doggedly to free the boat from its moorings. The duration of Riven and Sam’s unconsciousness was uncertain but Osyron did not wish to find out. Zinaria took the wheel while Daniela headed below deck for an inventory check. Osyron stood, waving to the harbour master as the Hornet moved out of the docks into the awaiting sea.

Osyron watched the colossal city of Olbaid shrink with distance. An expanse of sea was all that was behind him as the shoreline shrunk and disappeared behind the swelling water. Daniela popped her head from below deck and caught Osyron’s attention. “We need to stop somewhere along the coast for supplies. We’ll be at sea for some time and there’s only enough food for two, maybe three days. Some alternative clothes would be welcome too.”

“Let’s wait till we’ve built a distance from the city; it’ll give us time to list exactly what we need, minimizing the time on Olbaid.”

Daniela nodded and returned to taking stock.

“Will you be okay sailing the boat, Zinaria?” asked Osyron.

Zinaria cast a scathing glance and scoffed. “You ask an islander if she can sail?”

Osyron disregarded her derision; other matters needed more immediate attention.

Daniela re-emerged onto the deck clutching writing implements. “So what’s going to happen now? I don’t mean writing the list, I mean the bigger picture. What’s the plan?”

“Honestly, I’ve no idea,” replied Osyron. “We’re now wanted by the crown. Physical assault and imprisonment of the high marshal won’t be forgotten so readily. On top of that we’ve notched up a few crimes against the empire as well.” Osyron raised a finger for each recited transgression. “There’s a jailbreak, holding an employee of the crown at sword point, forgery and theft of a boat from the emperor’s own fleet. That’s to say nothing of treason; I’ll hang for that alone.” Osyron let out a troubled breath before continuing. “I’ll be killed on this island because I’m the wrong gender, and I don’t imagine they’ll be forgiving of you, Daniela, if you take me there.”

Daniela tapped the quill on the parchment and grimaced. “They’ll kill us both; I was told specifically not to bring anyone.”

Osyron looked at the stoic figure steering the boat. “Maybe Zinaria can help us.”

Daniela turned to take in their one hope of salvation.

Zinaria looked at them after hearing her name. “I cannot go back yet; I am not carrying a child. Going back now would see me a failure.”

“You have to go back; we need you to talk on our behalf. The boys’ lives on your island depend on it,” said Osyron.

“Inconsequential.” Zinaria shrugged.

Osyron could not reason with Zinaria until he understood what drove her contempt. “Your island must have had a male population at some point; what happened to them?” he asked.

Zinaria clutched the boat’s wheel tighter and stared Osyron up and down. “Our foremothers killed them.”

“I guessed that much, but why? They must’ve had some overwhelming reason to take measures of such finality.”

“They had reason.”

Osyron remained mute, waiting for Zinaria to counsel him. The wind and waves filled the void left by the brief absence of words before Zinaria elaborated. “Around Two hundred and fifty years ago we were ruled by a king similar to your emperor, except ours wielded a legendary cruelty. Women were perceived as dirt, dirt for men’s seed to grow in. Saying ‘no’ to a man for anything was a criminal offense. A rejected male could choose any punishment he deemed appropriate for the woman. If the king didn’t think the punishment carried enough severity, he would overrule it for something more sinister.”

“You were second to men in everything?” asked Osyron.

“Worse than second,” barked Zinaria. “The males were on different bands of privilege, but most men where happy because no matter their social standing there was always someone below them. Women.

“Decency, or more likely guilt caused some of the men to rebel against the king, resulting in a civil war. It was a short but bloody conflict that saw the king overthrown. A brief period of peace followed. The king was dead along with his ideology. An equal society was promised but did not materialise. The death toll of war meant that women now greatly outnumbered men. The remaining men decided they could have five women each. As an example of this new system’s fairness, they allowed women the privilege of choosing what male they would like to share. A few of the men opposed, so a ballot was set up where the men voted on this new proposal. It was a landslide victory; each man could now have five women.”

Zinaria’s features drew continually tighter as she shared her island’s bloody history. “That ballot was the men’s biggest mistake. In the time between the king’s demise and the tallying of the vote, males held no rights over females. Our foremothers tasted freedom for the first time. They began to understand what things could be like, what it should be like. Once they had experienced freedom, they had no desire to surrender it. The women did something that had never done before. They held a meeting of their own.”

Daniela and Osyron shared a glance but said nothing.

“The sisters decided to act. They would no longer live like chattel. They would kill their domineering male counterparts and live as a female tribe. Free of men and free of the god they worshiped. They considered keeping some men alive as breeding stock, but a revolution would be inevitable given enough time. Therefore our foremothers decided to travel, set sail for other lands so they could repopulate and keep the island free from the influence of men. They already knew of your twin empires. We were not scared to sail for the horizon. We were not anchored in place by religious nonsense. Your religions taught fear of the south; this meant our island would remain secret. With long-term survival plans agreed, the women got busy sorting out their revolution. The next morning the women awoke before the men and prepared food as was customary.” Zinaria paused before adding, “The food had an extra ingredient. The men’s first meal of that day was the last one of their lives. The women celebrated their freedom and vowed any male born from that day forward would not be allowed to grow to become a man.”

“Your people don’t allow the boys a childhood?” asked Osyron.

“It was considered, but the bond between mother and child would prove troublesome. It’s difficult for a lot of mothers to give up their sons with no bonding time at all. So a quick death is best.”

“Osyron felt his teeth clench at the thought of slaughtered innocence. “So you went from oppression under a cruel king to becoming a tribe of baby killers. What a heart-warming tale of liberation.”

Zinaria’s eyes locked on him. “We are no baby killers! We only kill men-to-be. Daughters are pride; they are joy; they are life itself.”

Osyron took a calming breath and drew both hands down his face. Indoctrination had shaped Zinaria’s beliefs, beliefs formed and adhered to for quarter a millennium. Yet she remained their only hope of evading execution. The brief history lesson compounded hope. Daniela and his own life now depended on convincing Zinaria to make a plea to her sisters on their behalf. Osyron glanced over the sea, back towards Olbaid. Daniela and he faced execution to the north and south. The sea granted a temporary stay of execution but permeant residency was unthinkable. The lives of innocent children hinged on them both. For their sake, it had to be south.

Chapter Fifteen

“What do you think of me?” enquired Osyron. “I am a man yet I rescued you. I attacked myown commanding officer, my own friend to aid your rescue. Do my actions mean nothing?”

Zinaria gave him a casual glance. “You want to save the boys. You rescued me because you need my help fulfilling that goal. The man you struck said he had no reason to keep me captive. I wasn’t in need of rescue.”

“True, but it’s not because the children are male, it’s because I deemed it the right thing to do—their gender is irrelevant to me. My actions would not differ if men were killing female babies; I would still want to help.”

Zinaria glared at him. “Men could not do as we do. They cannot carry children. Men need women.”

“Yes, they do, as women need men.”

“Only for a night.” Zinaria let out mocking huff before adding, “Not even that long.”

“Need is need regardless of duration,” said Osyron. Zinaria glanced at him again but this time offered no words. Osyron stole a glimpse at Daniela. She continued to work on the list of essentials. Looking up from her writing, she gave an encouraging smile.

“Your sisters visit many places,” said Osyron. “They must witness both genders co-existing happily. Sure, we have disputes and inequalities, but our need of each other outweighs any differences we may have. You might not believe me but there’s been many men who fought and died for the rights of woman in both Olbaid and Miria. It’s taken time but we are at the point where women can do anything men can. Roles in the twin empires are decided on freedom of choice and ability, not gender.” Osyron stretched out an arm. “Take Daniela for example. Her husband taught her how to fish; it did not matter that she was female. No one assumed her incapable just because fishing is a predominately male profession.” Zinaria’s face remained inscrutable. Osyron had no idea if his words were being absorbed or dismissed without consideration. “The women you send out, they don’t always return, do they?”

“No, they are killed by men,” spat Zinaria.

“I have no doubt some are. I know some men can be…intimidated by women, especially capable ones. But is that the fate for all the women who don’t return?”

Zanaria was incredulous. “What else could happen?”

“Well, for one, they could be killed by women instead of men,” offered Osyron

“No female is a match for one of my sisters,” stated Zinaria flatly.

“In combat, you may be right,” replied Osyron, “but maybe if a more subtle approach were used, something like a poisoned meal?” The significance of the example Osyron gave was not lost on Zinaria. He continued. “I am willing to bet that some women from your island have coerced married men into bed. I am also willing to bet that some of these men’s wives have found out and…” Osyron paused, recalling Zinaria’s words when describing her foremothers’ revolution, “…decided to act.”

Zinaria’s eyes narrowed as she fixed him in a stare.

“If you don’t like that scenario you are going to like this one even less. Maybe, just maybe some of the women that leave your island don’t return because they find happiness, find love.”

Zinaria laughed aloud. “You’re funny, male. I was thinking over what you said but now I know you’re just being funny.”

“What’s so funny? People fall in love all the time all over the world. Are your tribe immune to love or are they incapable of love?”

Zinaria’s laughter tailed off. “We love each other, our sisterhood, our tribe.” Her face twisted with revulsion. “We don’t love men.”

“Not openly, you don’t, you wouldn’t make that admission in each other’s company for fear of exile or ridicule but, in private I know some of your people will harbour such thoughts. You can be in the company of thousands and still feel loneliness. Desire to feel special by someone you deem special. Someone who is to you what you are to them. Not just love, but in love.”

Zinaria became visibly flustered. “We all love each other, we are all family. What do men know of love anyway? Men only know how to love themselves.”

“More than you it seems, unless you’re keeping thoughts private, like I suggested?”

Straightening, Zinaria changed the subject. She spun the boat’s wheel, causing Osyron to stumble. Daniela dropped her parchment and scrabbled to recover it. “I need to return to the mainland; I cannot go back without a daughter.” Zinaria looked Osyron up and down as if seeing him for the first time. “You’re not exactly a primary target but I suppose you meet the minimum requirements. Give me a daughter.”

Osyron went wide-eyed. “What?” The word shot out like a dart.

“Impregnate me.” She repeated her order, casually.

Osyron thought he had had Zinaria cornered, but with just one sentence it was now he who felt trapped.

“You don’t find me attractive?” asked Zinaria.

“I…it’s...uh…” stammered Osyron, caught between not wishing to offend, and doing the impossible—the immoral.

“Zinaria motioned for Daniela to take the wheel. She turned to face Osyron and undid the knot in her belt. Her animal hide garb fell open and off. What lay beneath was definition and contour that spoke to Osyron on a primal level. A language so ancient and animalistic it did not require words for comprehension. “I am attractive, yes?” asked Zinaria again.

Osyron wanted to say he was uncomfortable copulating with a virtual stranger. He wanted to say he wouldn’t be treated as breeding stock. He wanted to say he didn’t wish to father a daughter who’d be taught to hate him. He wanted to say he didn’t want to father a son who’d be killed at birth. He wanted to say the inevitable death at the hands of her tribe lent no desire to aid her plight.

Instead, he said, “’s...” He let out a frustrated breath and averted his eyes. “Zinaria, please cover yourself,” he managed at last.

Zinaria pulled her clothes on and knotted her belt as she tried to fathom the rejection. “This is far more difficult than my sisters led me to believe.”

“You’ve gone very red Osyron, have you caught the sun?” asked Daniela now at the boat’s wheel. Her considerable amusement at his predicament was evident. “It’s best you stay below deck when we reach the hotter climate.”

“Thanks, that’s good advice, Fish Woman,” came Osyron’s dry response.

Daniela smiled broadly at Osyron’s flustered embarrassment. However, a tinge of sympathy cut short any prolonged amusement. Further teasing seemed inappropriate due to the swirling uncertainty surrounding them. Besides, he was due some credit for his actions at Marshals’ Hall. Being a marshal meant everything to him yet he had betrayed that passion for her. “Hey, I wanted to say you were very brave back there, knocking out the high marshal and instigating Zinaria’s jailbreak. I’d be in a cell right now had you obeyed orders,” she said, laying her list to one side.

“You’re welcome, but I’m not sure there is anything to thank me for. It was my idea to drag you to Marshals’ Hall and as Zinaria pointed out, she wasn’t in need of rescue.” Osyron tailed off as he ran the events at Marshals’ Hall through his head. “I never imagined raising my voice to the high marshal, let alone a weapon.”

“Ahhhhh,” said Zinaria, smiling at her epiphany. “Now I understand why you turned me down.”

Osyron brightened. “That’s good. I thought it’d be difficult to explain, given your limited interaction with men.”

“No, I understand now. Riven turned me down and now you turn me down. You are men who lay with other men, yes?”

Osyron’s head sank and his hand rose to meet his face. He motioned to correct Zinaria but stopped. It was beneficial letting Zinaria hold her assumption, sparing him the embarrassment of future advances. However, if she caught him in a lie, he would never gain her trust. Osyron looked to Daniela for help. She picked up her list and hid her face behind it, her body trembled with the effort of concealing laughter.

“We have women who lay with women in our tribe; they hold no desire to be sent out into the world. We accept this and don’t force it. You and your lover are the first men like this I have encountered.”

Osyron’s face contorted as he donned a phoney smile. Once more he looked at Daniela for an out. She peeked over the parchment with smiling eyes. Rather than confirm or deny Zinaria’s observation, Osyron decided to change the subject. “What will your sisters say when they see me?”

“Nothing; they’ll kill you,” Zinaria replied.

“As soon as I step foot on the island? I won’t get the chance to speak?”

Zinaria thought it over. “No, you’ll be dead long before you get near the island. We patrol our borders. Some sisters can fire a bow with great accuracy. As soon as you’re in range your skull will be filled with arrows.”

Osyron believed it. Her casual self-assuredness added credibility to the claim. “So I need to hide out of sight when Daniela picks up the children?”

“That’ll do you no good,” replied Zinaria.

Osyron frowned. ”Why’s that?”

“Because I’ll tell them you’re there.”

Once again the casual, matter-of-fact tone chilled him.

“Wait, why would you tell them?”

“Because they’re my sisters. Why wouldn’t I tell them?”

“You’d be stuck in a prison for a month minimum had I not freed you; can’t I have your silence in return? I am not asking you to lie; just don’t mention me. I mean you people no harm. I only want to help Daniela retrieve the boys.”

Zinaria thought this over. “I cannot keep this from my sisters. You’d be the first adult male on our shores for almost three centuries. It’s too big for me to ignore.”

Osyron let his head sink into his hands. After rubbing his face he peeked through his fingers. The sun setting on the horizon carried a strange profoundness. Zinaria’s voice caught his attention.

“However, I may have an idea. But first, we go back so I can fulfil my duty.”

Chapter Sixteen

A lone envelope bearing Emperor Horim’s personal seal lay on the high marshal’s desk. Riven knew from experience the letter would contain precious few words. Emperor Horim was a staunch practitioner of giving no lines to read between when it came to communicating by ink. This letter was no exception.


Riven strode for the door before the note landed back on his black marble desk. While Emperor Horim bestowed little information as possible when parting with it, the opposite was true when he was the recipient. He loved detail. He had an accomplished memory when it came to remembering and dissecting lengthy speeches or elongated passages of text. Horim examined text or spoken words at face value. Once satisfied he had total comprehension of what was said he moved on to why it was said. Horim was an artist at deciphering the motivation and agendas behind words; he seldom if ever made a wrong call. On more than one occasion he had sniffed out several ambush and assassination attempts that had fluttered under counterfeit banners of truce.

By now, word of the jailbreak would be on the tongue of every stable boy in the city. Those boys would take the mannequin of truth and adorn it with every embellishment and exaggeration conceivable. Emperor Horim acted to the contrary. He had ears for certifiable facts only. He would begin with the headline and whittle his way down to truths most would discard as irrelevances. What were the prisoner and her liberators wearing? When did she last eat? What did she eat? No matter how inconsequential it seemed, Emperor Horim would devour every detail.

Riven had already prepared for the emperor’s summoning a twenty-three-page report specifying every detail he considered of interest. The throbbing headache given as a parting gift by Osyron made the task more laborious than normal. Riven gave a wry smile at the memory. The young marshal wore his heart on his sleeve but even Riven raised an eyebrow at what had transpired at the cells. A marshal raising arms against him was inconceivable before today. Osyron’s blow had outraged Riven yet a begrudging admission to being impressed lingered somewhere below it.

Upon entering the throne room Riven found advisors and generals chattering and huddled around tables brought from the dining hall. He snatched glances through the mass of bodies; the tables were covered in charts, maps and figures representing troop positions. Riven strode towards Horim, who sat on his throne as debate raged over where to hold, advance or retreat. Cages containing messenger hawks lay in wait for plans to be finalised. These birds would carry information that shaped empires. Some would be decoys, carrying notes laced with poison, indiscernible yet lethal to the touch.

Emperor Horim sat atop his throne at the far end of the room. His eyes met Riven’s as he drew closer. Advisors and underlings pored through manuscripts on either side of the emperor, whispering snippets of information in his ear. Horim pointed a finger to the spot in front of him, letting Riven know where to stand. Riven made his way through the maelstrom of activity and stood at the instructed spot.

“Greetings, high marshal,. You have the report I requested, the full report?”

Riven fell to a knee, offering a deep bow. “I do, your imperial majesty. I have an account of today’s events; I also have everything from Marshal Osyron’s briefing and findings.”

“Ahh, young Marshal Rymore. That was a bit of a shocker. We held high hopes for him, did we not?” Riven gave a confirming nod. “And how is the head?” asked Horim.

Riven raised a hand to rub the nape of his neck. “Nothing that will keep me from performing my duty to the empire.”

“Glad to hear it. Now, your report if you will, High Marshal.”

Riven opened his report and began to read aloud to the emperor. Horim sat back, elbows resting on both arms of his throne, his fingers interlocked at his chin with one finger upright and held against pursed lips. Horim bathed in information the way others soaked in warm water.

Riven paced as he read aloud his report when a sudden bark from the emperor cut him off. “Cease!” Riven looked up to see Horim rise from his throne and pace down the half dozen steps towards him. Horim flicked both hands in a dismissive gesture towards his advisors, who simultaneously slapped their books closed and melted into the crowded room. The emperor stood before Riven, gazing up at him. Both men’s eyes locked and Horim placed a hand on Riven’s shoulder, coaxing him down to speak in his ear. When Riven was in range, Horim leaned in and whispered, “Tell me everything, High Marshal—and I mean everything—about these unwanted warrior-bred boys.”

Chapter Seventeen

Osyron woke covered in a thin layer of sweat. His blanket lay on the floor, kicked off at some point in the night when he’d felt too hot. The sun’s mirrored reflection on the sea rippled the roof above his bunk, coating his sleeping space in a shimmering gold. Osyron let his eyes grow accustomed to the morning light and dressed. Daniela had advised the appropriate attire to purchase when they stopped in Olbaid. He would be dressed in clothes suitable for a late autumn if not for her informed intervention.

The voyage back to Olbaid had been brief; Daniela and he had darted around a scant coastal village for supplies while Zinaria took care of her agenda. Back on the boat, Osyron shared awkward glances with Daniela as the sounds of Zinaria and her guest drifted up from below deck. The exchange was thankfully brief.

Zinaria’s open contempt cooled with time. She began to refer to Osyron by name, only addressing him as ‘male’ during disagreements and misunderstandings. She still regarded him with suspicion, but this too abated with increased interactions. Osyron supposed this was the longest anyone from her island had spent with a man since the revolution centuries prior. He was an ambassador for his gender, a diplomat searching for middle ground with someone who refused to concede any. Yet Osyron found enough space to plant his feet if not the room to dance.

Osyron’s breath caught as he stepped onto the deck. The sun was breaking over the horizon, painting the world in golden radiance. The beauty witnessed in his bunk had been a prelude, a visual appetiser for the view up on deck. He stood, staring at the liquid gold sea. He thought it the most wonderful sight he’d ever witnessed, until he turned to look at Daniela. She stood at the wheel, kissed with the shimmering amber reflections from the sea. The reflecting water rippled down the length of her. Osyron found himself caught between the realisation he was staring and never wanting to look away.

Although entitled, Daniela had not voiced any grievances towards him. She was now accessory to a multitude of crimes because he had insisted they return to Marshals’ Hall. Perhaps she was too preoccupied with awaiting her death on the island to worry about Olbaid—a death that would be brought about by his presence on this boat. Regardless of his honest intent, his presence made her life forfeit.

Osyron meandered over to her. She looked tired from sailing through the night but still offered a smile at his approach. “Daniela, I want to say something in case I don’t get a chance later,” he began. “I want to tell you I’m sorry, for everything.”

Daniela cast narrowed eyes under a drawn brow at him. “Good morning to you too. Sorry for what? What ‘everything’?”

“You’re now wanted in Olbaid, Daniela, considered an accessory to all my crimes. And that’s only a concern if we return. Surviving this island looks grim. Save from throwing myself overboard I have no way to remedy that.” Osyron’s eyes dropped to his feet. “I should have stayed behind when we stopped for supplies, turned myself in or went into hiding.”

Daniela smiled her assurance, studying his face. Osyron’s expression was reminiscent of a grey cloud, lost and lonely against the glorious sunrise backdrop. “Diving overboard is not the best idea you’ve had. These waters house things that would be happy to call you breakfast, and besides, you provided what you promised, the fastest boat in the emperor’s fleet. As for the island, Zinaria said she had an idea. Let’s wait and see what she has planned before we share final farewells.”

“If you won’t accept my apology then accept my thanks—most people in your shoes wouldn’t be so understanding. You haven’t blamed me, accused me or even complained when you’ve every right to.”

“The day is young,” replied Daniela with a wink.

A broad smile broke out across Osyron’s face. Daniela’s own smile grew to a self-congratulatory grin, managing to brighten his mood when a spectacular sunrise could not. She liked seeing him happy. Despite the severity of the situation, she recognised the honourable intent in him.

Daniela would never imagine a woman like Zinaria facing rejection by any man, and yet both Riven and Osyron had, proving themselves men of substance. But Osyron’s refusal was truly impressive. A suspected assassination had likely governed Riven’s decision, whereas Osyron knew there was no such danger or strings attached. Zinaria was undoubtedly the most beautiful women he had seen, yet he’d chosen integrity over a prime opportunity for carnal gratification. Daniela sniggered at the memory of Osyron, so self-assured one second—completely scarlet the next when Zinaria had propositioned him.

“What’s funny?” enquired Osyron.

“Nothing,” said Daniela, giving a dismissive wave of her hand. “I need to wake Zinaria. The island is drawing close and we need to hear what she has planned. Here, take the wheel.” Daniela noticed the nervousness on Osyron’s face. “Don’t worry, it hasn’t bitten me yet. I’ll take it back before you get us lost.”

Osyron cleared his throat. “Of course. I can manage.” Steering a boat for the first time with horrors lurking in the waters below was somehow less intimidating than waking Zinaria from slumber.

After Zanaria joined them on deck, Osyron prepared food. It was rare all three were up at the same time as Daniela and Zinaria sailed in shifts, one going to bed as the other got out of theirs. Osyron enjoyed cooking for others. Feeding Zinaria had been a particularly rewarding experience. She was an inscrutable mask of stone when he presented her with food; she never offered him compliments. Osyron supposed the cleaned plate she returned was compliment enough. She often watched him cook; at first, he thought it was suspicion but soon realised she wanted to learn. Zinaria would continually ask questions while peering into his cooking pot. It was gratifying to think that someday she would prepare meals using techniques he taught her. The women who killed him may enjoy food that his culinary prowess introduced to their culture. The thought stole some of Osyron’s smugness.

After eating, Zinaria resumed her stint at the wheel. Osyron cleaned the bowls and returned them to storage while chatting with Daniela. An excited cry from the wheel caused their heads to spin. “It’s home!” Osyron peered at the horizon. His stomach churned when his eyes picked out a triangular silhouette in the distance. He suddenly regretted having breakfast.

Daniela turned to Zinaria. “Will you tell us your plan now that the island is in sight?”

Zinaria motioned to Osyron to drop anchor before answering. “I’ll swim to the island while we’re out of range of the archers and talk to my sisters. I’ll make a plea on your behalf; how they react remains to be seen.”

“That’s it? That’s your plan? Talk to them and see how they react!” Osyron pushed fingers against his temple. Zinaria’s idea was a long-held mystery but he dared wish for more than she offered. “You wait all this time to tell us and…” he bit his tongue. Finishing the thought was pointless. Words were pointless. Their fate had sudden finality.

“I was deciding what I should say to my people and how I should say it. I’ll say you freed me from prison. I’ll tell them you raised arms against your lover to aid me. I will mention you returned to the mainland, allowing me to fulfil my objective, despite risk to you. I’ll let them know you present no threat.” Zinaria shifted the weight on her feet before going on. “I’m putting my life on the line by doing this, and not just with my sisters.” Her eyes turned to the water.

Osyron pushed his lips together tight in consideration. “Daniela mentioned there are things in the water and I appreciate the risk.” Osyron let out a calming breath. “I apologise if I sounded ungrateful, Zinaria. If you can get them to spare Daniela, let her take the boys as previously agreed, that would be something.”

Zinaria digested Osyron’s words. “I’ll do my all, for you both.” Zinaria shook her head. “Risking my life to save a man, what has become of me?” Her eyes took in Osyron then flicked towards Daniela. Without warning, she burst into a sprint and dove overboard.”

“Wait!” cried Osyron. There was a considerable expanse of ocean between themselves and the black dot on the horizon. If not eaten, exhaustion was certain. “Wait!” he called again. A hollow splash answered his cry.

Daniela and Osyron raced to peer overboard. Expanding ripples from Zinaria’s impact grew and kissed the hull before dissolving into nothing. They both stared at the surface, anticipating Zinaria remerging. She didn’t. Osyron felt Daniela take his hand. “Do you think she’s alright?”

“I think so. She acted with such decisiveness; she must know what she’s doing.”

“She didn’t mess around, that’s for sure,” said Daniela.

Osyron turned to face her. “Best keep the anchor dropped and maintain position so she can locate us again.”

Daniela nodded her agreement. “Good idea.”

Osyron took a step but Daniela held tight to his hand. “Zinaria looked dubious just before she jumped; what if she dove off because she feared a change of heart—what if she didn’t consider how far the island actually is?”

This time Osyron had no answer.

Chapter Eighteen

“Can you find it, Skrip? With the information I’ve given, can you find it?” asked an eager Emperor Horim.

“I can find it and I will find it,” said the squat figure looking up from the map. Skrip had a patch over his left eye and a magnified monocle over his right, giving his pupil gigantic proportion. The angled desk obscured Horim and Riven’s view of Skrip. Undisciplined grey shoots of hair projected above the desk while tiny feet dangled below.

Riven had never visited the highest central tower in Horim’s palace; he’d always assumed it a lookout post. He had no idea that its cylindrical walls encased genius. Books dominated the living space. Parchments, charts, maps, and other forms of literature filled the many shelves. Some lay on tables but most were on the floor in disorderly piles. The shelves not holding books were crammed with bottles, orbs, crystals and all manner of strange apparatuses. Riven could only speculate to their use. It looked like a laboratory, but the bed told Riven this was Skrip’s home.

A muttering Skrip toddled over to his chalkboard and began scrawling down numbers. Aside from the grey, gravity defiant hair, Riven thought Skrip resembled an adolescent cyclops.

Skrip turned to face the two men. “Mathematics, mathematics is our key, yes, it is…yes, yes, yes!”

Riven and Horim shared a sidelong glance. The emperor drew down his brow. “How, Skrip, tell me the how?”

Skrip put down his chalk and toddled back to the map.

“There are ways…well, I have ways. No one else has ways, but I have ways.”

“Share them, Skrip, share them with your emperor.” Horim raised a finger before adding, “Simply as you can, Skrip.”

“Right, right, right! This island was discovered by a boat that sailed from Parkcross, yes? Yes. A colossal storm forced this boat south, yes? Yes.” Although Skrip answered his own questions, he looked to the emperor for confirmation.

“Go on,” said Horim.

“Yes! Well, I have that storm recorded, yes I do! Speed, duration, direction. All recorded. Yes, yes, yes!” Skrip looked fit to burst with excitement. “I take these recordings and convert them into their mathematical equivalents. That’s what I do, yes! Next, I take the size of the boat that was carried by those winds into consideration; this too gets transferred into mathematical equation, yes, it does. With these calculations complete we have half our answer, yes we do!”

The ghost of a smile appeared on Horim’s lips. Skrip hurried back to his chalkboard and etched numbers amongst markings Riven did not recognise. “Next, I ascertain the size of the island. With the reports of the population, we can calculate the land mass required to sustain such numbers. As an island is surrounded by sea, this necessitates a need for fresh water. This island must have rivers or lakes. There is also the requirement of agricultural land for the growing of plants and the raising of livestock. Now the island has grown big, big, big! Many other factors— yes, yes, yes! All of these dynamics expand the accumulative landmass. Yes, they do!”

The more Skrip divulged the wider Horim’s smile grew.

“Shifting tides give us a bothersome probability factor; I can minimise that, but even Skrip can’t make it vanish entirely, shoo, shoo, shoo! It does not go, but Skrip can make it minimal, yes, yes, yes! With calculations completed, it will be a simple case of traveling to the area my equations provide, and if that is not bang on the island itself I give a Skrip guarantee that visual contact will be made. If the ship travels in ever-increasing circles from the coordinates I give, this island will be found in under a day, yes yes yes!”

Horim’s smile turned to laughter as he brought his hands together in a solitary clap. “Excellent, Skrip, excellent! I shall send someone to collect your findings and bring you whatever you want for supper; as always, your wants will be fulfilled, my friend.”

The little man’s eyes squinted shut as he made his way back to his chair. He kicked his legs back and forth in delight. “Cheese!” he exclaimed. “No, wait—meat. No, cheese on meat, cooked! Cooked cheese with meat! Yes, yes, yes!”

Skrip’s excited chattering met the backs of the emperor and the high marshal as they made for the door of the little man’s unruly world.

“It shall be done, Skrip,” called Horim over his shoulder as he exited through the door.

Both men descended the tower’s spiral stairway. “My pardon for asking, emperor, but may I enquire as to why you have someone measuring storms?” asked the high marshal.

A knowing smile touched Horim’s face. “Fascinating little fellow, don’t you agree?”

“In all my days I’ve never encountered anyone like him,” said Riven.

“And nor will you. He is a man who can locate an uncharted island that is an inconceivable distance away without leaving an isolated room in a tower. Yet I send a servant to him every morning because he cannot tie his own shoes.”

Riven was stunned at the revelations of the enigmatic little man.

“To answer your question, it’s not just storms he measures but all the elements.”

Riven shook his head in wonder. “That can be done?”

“You don’t know the half of it, High Marshal. I’ll tell you Skrip’s story. Several months back he was brought before me. His behaviour had raised suspicion in the community; those drooling cretins thought he was practising dark magic. He showed me what he was working on, devices to trap and harness the power of the elements. It’s what he told me of the wind and lightning that sparked my interest. He believes in time he will be able to catch lightning bolts and trap them, bend their power to his will. He showed me enough that day to convince me he might actually be capable. His dream is to give a light source to homes, replacing the naked flame. He thinks the same energy source could be used to power carriages, negating the need of horses. He wants to channel the wind to increase the velocity of sailboats, reducing travelling time. Goods and medicines could be consigned where they’re needed in a fraction of the time.” Horim let Riven get his head around everything he had divulged before adding. “While these are all commendable ideas, I could not help but conceive of a few of my own.”

When they reached the bottom of the stairs Horim put a confidential hand on Riven’s shoulder. “Can you imagine the benefit of such power in war? Can you picture the enemy as cyclones meet their charge, the devastation of a summoned hurricane on an enemy camp, lightning bolts at our command crashing down on them?”

Riven raised both eyebrows at the images of destruction Horim painted. Horim pushed on Riven’s shoulder, turning the big man to face him. “You think me a monster for wishing this? These powers would end this war immeasurably quicker and with less casualties. Olbaidian casualties at least.” I don’t want war, Riven, I want peace. I want Hixel respected. This power ensures that respect.”

“I understand where you are coming from, Emperor, it’s just a lot to process,” answered Riven.

“Not for Skrip. That little man just may be the most brilliant human to ever live. He belongs to Olbaid—belongs to me.”

Riven clasped his hands behind his back. “Is he a prisoner, Emperor?”

“No, not as such. He does not leave his room much but that is personal choice. I provide for his needs, fulfil his wants and desires. He has no place in the outside world; he is feared, shunned, even spit at. I give him all he asks, mainly academic texts. He takes joy in comical mischief so I send entertainment in the form of jesters. I also send women to attend to his needs as a man. He is not a prisoner in the conventional sense; if he has encroaching bars then they are made from the intolerance, fear and hatred of man.”

Riven found it difficult to fault Horim’s words yet felt sympathy for Skrip’s situation.

“In all probability, it will take Skrip all his life to master these ideas. He may even have to pass on his work to a successor. This conflict with Miria may come and pass but we do have man’s final battle with the demonic hordes to consider. Such weapons will see us victorious, as will these warrior-bred boys.”

“There something that’s been bothering me, Emperor, regarding the demons,” said Riven with due caution.

“Go on.”

“Does the discovery of this island not render the demonic lands a falsehood?”

Fury flashed across the emperor’s face. His lips curled back, revealing gritted teeth. A moment later, Horim’s blank expression was back. “No. This island simply sits somewhere between our land and that of the demons. The discovery disproves nothing.”

Riven considered a moment. “Perfectly feasible, Emperor.”

“Be very cautious where you tread, Riven, for you almost stepped on the word of a God, of the God. Although it pleases me my high marshal has the spine to ask such questions.”

“I beg your forgiveness, Emperor; your explanation has satisfied my curiosity.”

“Good. Two things before you go. I have a letter to send to Brendan Bastine requesting his presence; I have further use of him. More importantly, I have ship and a crew that will take you to this island. I want you to be the one who finds it. With their breeding and our training, we will have a future generation of ultimate soldiers. To think some of them will be fathered by the best Miria has to offer—now doesn’t that have a certain poetic irony.”

Riven could see just how far ahead the emperor had planned. The boys would take almost two decades before they could be utilised, and Skrip’s work longer still. An icy realisation struck Riven; he would see the inside of his coffin before the twin empires saw peace. “Leave it with me, Emperor.” He bowed in salute.

As he turned to leave, Horim’s voice stopped him. “An awkward question merits one in return.”


“Do you suppose he did what he did because he found out?”

Riven’s brow furrowed as he struggled to comprehend Horim’s question. “You will have to forgive me, Emperor, I’m not following you.”

“Young Marshal Rymore. Do you think he turned on you because he discovered you killed his father?”

Chapter Nineteen

Since Zinaria’s departure, Daniela ceaselessly paced the deck of the Hornet. Osyron kept tally but gave up counting after she surpassed a hundred laps. As Daniela paced she asked questions with incremental regularity. How long do we wait? What if she got eaten? What if the tribe has killed Zinaria? How long do we sit doing nothing? Osyron wanted to offer answers but internally asked himself the same questions. “It’s too soon to let our imaginations get the better of us,” he offered. “Let’s give Zinaria time. She may very well be lying, recuperating on the beach after that swim. I’m sure ships have undertaken shorter voyages than that.”

Daniela smiled even though the want was not there. If Daniela’s death was probable, Osyron’s was borderline certified. “I’m sorry, I know I keep repeating myself.” She stopped walking. Her eyes squinted towards the island. “She’s back!”

Zinaria was powering a canoe towards the Hornet. The small craft sliced through the water, casting ripples across the otherwise undisturbed sea. Daniela and Osyron ran to the bulwark. Daniela hit the rail with such momentum she almost toppled over. They welcomed Zinaria back with smiles and waving arms. Drawing alongside the boat, Zinaria raised a hand in greeting and made her way on board.

“You’re both to come ashore. No weapons,” said Zinaria once she was back on board and the canoe was secured. She showed no fatigue from her marathon swim.

“We won’t be killed?” asked Osyron.

“Not initially. You’re to be evaluated.”

“Well, it’s something,” said Daniela.

Osyron ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah, it’s something. Okay, Zinaria, let’s see if we can convince your sisters our hearts are more valuable beating.”

Lead by Zinaria’s canoe, they sailed the Hornet towards the island, docking at a rickety bamboo pier. Of the dozen boats moored, no two were alike. Osyron recognised the design and flags on display. This was a fleet pilfered from various shoreline kingdoms around the two empires. The islanders must have commandeered the boats one by one when returning from the mainland.

A collection of figures stood on the pier, waiting. A sandy shore of almost white sand separated the sea from a thick jungle wall. The sky above was clear blue yet the gloom below the jungle’s canopy looked unnatural, a gloom somehow possible in the otherwise all-consuming light. Sparse rays of sunlight broke through the thicket of branches, giving an indication of how deep the jungle stretched back. Osyron heard animal calls from the dark depths of the place.

Osyron looked at Daniela, taking both her hands in his. “Are you ready?”

She met his eyes and smiled. “It’s funny, I almost cracked with the waiting; now I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to another hour composing myself.”

“You and me both,” he confessed. “Let’s face this together and hope Zinaria has done enough to convince them that letting the boys sail back with you is still the rightful outcome.”

“Sail back with us you mean?”

Osyron swallowed. “Yes, of course.”

Waiting at the end of the pier were twenty women. All looked mirror imagines of Zinaria. But it was not their beauty and flawless physiques that demanded Osyron’s attention. Each hand gripped a weapon; each weapon was drawn and every set of eyes carried a cool assuredness that even the leering harbour master back at Olbaid could not have ignored. Osyron placed a foot on the creaking bamboo pier. A chorus of hisses was spat his way, making clear the fragility of the invite. He instinctively raised both hands above his head. Daniela made her way down the Hornet’s gangplank and followed suit.

“Walk slowly, male,” instructed one of the women.

Osyron gave a nod in understanding and proceeded down the pier with fingers laced behind his head. Osyron wondered if this was the first time any of these women had seen a man before. Most of the women had likely seen men in Olbaid or Miria, however it was certain that this was the first time any of them had seen a male trespass on their home.

“Follow me,” said a familiar voice. It was Zinaria. But her tone concerned Osyron. It was the voice of Zinaria when they had first met, the voice of open contempt.

With her back turned, Zinaria led the group into the ominous growth of the jungle. The thick canopy made sunlight as unwelcome as Osyron felt. The women moved in a solemn circle of drawn steel around them. The overture of frantic animal calls rang out and echoed through the trees.

Zinaria zigzagged to the point of disorientation. Not one of her sisters voiced objection, so Osyron assumed the practice normal. The air was thick and Osyron had to put effort into drawing a full breath. Despite the shade, running sweat started to sting his eyes. Unlocking his fingers from behind his head struck him as foolish. Any sudden movement on his part could incite fatal feedback. He resorted to blinking furiously, even then not free of apprehension. His sweat drew insects that buzzed and bit—tolerable at first, but each step generated more. It began with his exposed flesh, his face and forearms, but now he felt pincers nip under his shirt and tiny legs scuttle up his own. The need to scratch and slap his skin began to overwhelm him. He peeked at Daniela through blinking, half-blind eyes. She did not seem to share his plight. The buzzing amplified as the bites intensified. Others flying insects danced in front of his blinking eyes, goading him to take a swipe. The sound of beating drums was heard, echoing from a distance. He focussed his attention on them, partitioning his mind from the relentless bites and blinding sweat. After what seemed a lifetime, the trees thinned and broke, and the insects’ enduring attention with it. His skin still burned and screamed to be soothed. The scorching sun on his bite-ridden face and arms began a fresh torture.

A figure entered his watery vision. “Rub this on him,” said a familiar voice. It was Zinaria. Through bleary eyes, Osyron saw her toss an object at Daniela. Daniela fussed with the item before her hands caressed his faced. Osyron let out an audible moan as a cooling grease coated his skin.

“I should have given this to you before we entered the jungle…” Zinaria corrected herself. “I forgot.”

Osyron barely heard her; he was lost in the cooling sensation washing over him.

“The ointment will pacify your bites.”

Osyron kept his eyes closed, managing only an absent nod.

“Strip him naked,” instructed Zinaria to Daniela. Daniela stared dumbly at her. Osyron peeked an eye open. “What is this, you mean to humiliate me, Zinaria?”

“That ointment will also stop the eggs under your skin from becoming larvae. If you find that eventuality preferential, then remain clothed.”

Playing host to insect eggs was enough for Osyron to ignore his embarrassment. “Can I at least go somewhere private and apply it myself?”

“You can apply it yourself, but leaving our sight is out of the question.”

Osyron sighed in resignation.

“Should I turn my back?” asked Daniela.

“That’d be considerate, thank you.”

Daniela turned as Osyron started to unbutton his shirt. “Pass me the ointment, please, Daniela,” said Osyron. Daniela half-turned, passing him the jar. She caught a glimpse of his exposed torso. Curiosity requested her gaze to linger. The serious situation denied it. “So, is this like those adolescent fantasies you and your friends shared as youngsters?” she mused over her shoulder.

“Funny enough, they did not include being host to insect eggs, being held at sword point or public humiliation in front of a group of exclusively female strangers armed with weapons,” Osyron whispered through gritted teeth.

Daniela looked at the circle of women surrounding them. Their faces had lost their unreadable stoniness and in their place was a mixture of revulsion, fascination and inquisitiveness. Their heads tilted from side to side as they examined the curiosity before them.

“Can I put my clothes back on now? Or let me guess, they need to be burned.”

Zinaria regarded him with an unreadable look. “Your clothes are not infected. Get dressed.”

With vision now clearing, Osyron noticed a towering wall of conjoined tree trunks not fifty yards in front of them. Knee-high grass was all that separated the group from the camp. As they approached, Zinaria let out a shrill, animalistic call.

“We’re here,” whispered Daniela.

A section of the tree wall lowered on ropes like a drawbridge, granting the group access inside. Beyond the opening lay a bustling encampment. Hundreds of women stopped in their tracks and fixed eyes upon the group as they entered, then exclusively on Osyron. The settlement hosted thousands of huts. The small homes were comprised of an open doorway between two glassless windows, giving the impression of hollow-eyed, gaping-mouth stares.

Women who were practicing with weapons threw them down and started towards the group. Others who tended gardens let implements slip from their hands as they too meandered over. Some women who fed goats sat down their buckets and followed their kin for a better look at the newcomer. Soon, every woman in the camp was wandering towards them. Two lines of women formed on either side of the group as they walked. The parade of bodies stretched as far as Osyron dared look.

A woman shattered the eerie silence by screaming a war cry in Osyron’s face. It signalled a cavalcade of noise to ensue. Women screamed, others hissed at Osyron, walking the narrow parting between the two lines of islanders. Angry eyes and bared teeth flashed in his vision. Faces of unbridled hatred chastised every step he took. Somewhere behind the hostile racket of the tribe, Osyron heard the lowered section of wall lift, sealing him inside.

Zinaria led them deeper into the encampment. Osyron decided his feet were the place to direct his gaze. The pandemonium endured as the women closed in behind the group and followed. Osyron noticed the tree with intertwining roots above ground Daniela had spoken of back in her village. It seemed to be their destination. The tree was shorter than Osyron imagined, however, the trunk’s girth was monumental. Walking the circumference would swallow a full minute. The tree’s tangle of roots weaved and coiled around each other, forming an interwoven wall. They started at head height and ran down to the ground, reaching to depths unknown.

The group approached the tree and Zinaria reached an arm through the thicket of intertwining roots, creating an opening that they passed through in single file. Two rows of burning torches embedded in the sandy ground lit the dome interior. The twin rows of fiery light lead to the tribe’s elder. She sat atop an unceremonious chair which rested on a simple wooden platform. Several guards with black swirling designs painted on their faces harboured stony demeanours either side of the elder’s platform.

Osyron dared raise his eyes to take in the leader. The burning torches caused jagged shadows to shift across the elder’s visage, deepening the darkness in the lines on her face. While she did not scream or hiss, her face carried no welcome. Other than her seat atop the platform in the company of guards, nothing about the woman suggested authority. She looked older that the majority of the tribe but otherwise wore the same animal hide garment that started at the chest and stopped mid-thigh with a belt around the waist.

As the group finalised their approach and the following crowd filled the outer parts of the hollow tree, the elder spoke, addressing Osyron directly. “You’re the first male to step foot on this soil for quarter of a millennium. How does that make you feel?”

Osyron knew the wrong words meant death. He also recognised the elder had baited him to say them. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak, elder. I am here to aid Daniela and in turn aid you and your people. As for how I feel, scared would be the honest answer.”

“Freeing Zinaria is not unappreciated by us… We are not men. We grant you the chance to speak as a reward, a generous gesture, all things considered. Your fate and that of the fish woman remains to be decided.” The elder turned her attention to Daniela. “Did we not make it clear you were only ever to come alone to this island? And yet here you are, with a male no less.”

“Please, elder, we both realise the generosity and significance of you allowing us passage. Extenuating circumstances created this situation, making Osyron’s presence here unavoidable. After freeing Zinaria we had to flee in the boat; there was simply no time.”

The elder turned her gaze back on Osyron. “Zinaria has informed us that you returned to the mainland after the rescue. Why did you not stay behind then?”

“Zinaria’s escape rendered me a wanted man. I feared imprisonment if I stayed. It was not until later I considered staying behind, however, Daniela would have missed the deadline if we returned to Olbaid a second time.”

The elder spoke in a mocking tone. “You’re scared to be here; you’re scared to stay behind.” She extended a condescending arm and looked out over the gathered tribe. “Look at this lion presenting itself a lamb.”

Jeers grew amongst the surrounding women. Osyron knew this was no act of generosity or reward as the elder described. The opportunity to speak was an illusion, a feigned kindness so they could kill him with a clear conscience. Daniela’s life and his own depended on his next words. He waited for the murmur to end before speaking.

“If you allow your preconceived ideas of what I am to render my words invalid, then the reward of allowing me to say them is forfeit as consequence. If you allow me to speak but refuse to listen, then you offer nothing and negate my chance to offer in return. I ask you evaluate the validity of my words as a human being, not a man, for that would be rewarding and generous on your part and appreciated on mine.”

Daniela’s eyebrow rose. “Where did that come from?” she whispered.

“I don’t want us to die, Daniela,” he whispered back.
The elder’s face was unreadable as she regarded Osyron in silence. She shifted in her chair as a hushed chatter broke out amongst the gathered islanders. The elder raised a hand aloft, commanding silence. “There are certain notions we hold that impede our capacity to view you as trustworthy. We jeopardize our anonymity by allowing you to return home.” The elder leaned forward in her chair, levelling a finger at Osyron. “Now that you’re aware of our location, what’s to stop you returning to conquer, as is your nature? It’s in all men’s nature to war; to destroy, to own. Why are you different? You are such deceitful cowards. You pretend you’re acting on some god’s behalf and not of your own selfish backs. Man will eventually kill himself. Your insatiable need to control and dominate supersedes your respect for life.”

Osyron considered the current state of the twin empires as the elder spoke. Her point was sound but it did not justify the genocide of baby boys.

“We’ve enjoyed peace for centuries, male. If you think you have something to say that’s worth us risking this then say it.”

Heads all around the room nodded in agreement as whispers in the dark broke out once more.

Osyron spoke in a hushed voice so only those in the immediate vicinity could hear. The gathered crowd would have to ask those closest to the front to repeat his words. The majority of the tribe would hear his words from the lips of their sisters and not from the mouth of the visiting abomination. “Freeing Zinaria has consequences for me. I’m now a wanted man in Olbaid. If I don’t return, they may come after me and discover your island. If a ship does find this place, that ship will report the island’s position. It’s a matter of time before the Olbaidian fleet occupy your waters.”

A wave of worry rippled through the crowd as Osyron’s words passed from mouth to ear amongst the sisters. The ripple of noise evolved to concerned chatter; the chatter bloomed into panic. Osyron heard a few screams echo up the tree’s hollowed trunk.

“Silence!” The elder rose to her feet.

The reverberations of alarm simmered for a long moment before dying out.

Osyron went on. “If you let Daniela and I live, then we are indebted to you. We will repay that debt with unending silence. Furthermore, both empires fear traveling to the south; they believe the lands populated by demons. I will reinforce these stories as true. I will take samples of vegetation and insects that don’t exist in the two empires as proof of my visit to a foreign land. I’ll confirm their beliefs. I can help you remain secret, you just have to let me.”

Osyron’s words resonated through the crowd, sparking robust discussions all around. The elder glanced up into the oppressive darkness of the hollowed trunk interior, seemingly looking for answers.

The elder brought her gaze down and fixed it on Osyron. She rose from her chair, shooting both hands aloft in a wordless demand for silence. “Answer me this, male. How can we trust someone who switches sides so readily? How do we know you won’t trade the location for our island to stave your own execution when you return home? It sounds like you are just telling us what we want to hear. You’ll act no different when faced with the powers that be in Olbaid.”

Osyron met the elder’s gaze. “I have chosen a side and my allegiance is unshakable. You view sides as man versus woman or Olbaid versus your island, but the only battle I consider is right versus wrong and I have always acted in accordance with this. It was right to free Daniela and Zinaria. It is right that I try save these boys. It is right that I respect your wish to be left in peace. My side has never switched, my loyalty never faltered, regardless of the consequences that have befallen me.”

They crowd began discussing their own interpretations of what they were hearing. Daniela reached through the darkness and squeezed Osyron’s hand. Her fingers interlocked in his, reminding him he was not alone. He looked at her. She wore that smile, the one that seemed to shine, outstanding even in a room of monumental beauty.

“I’m proud of you,” she whispered.

Osyron felt his face redden as he flicked bashful eyes between her face and his feet.

Again, the chief elder raised hands that snuffed out the growing commotion. “We as a people have much to consider. You shall remain on the island until we decide the correct course of action.”

“What about the children?” Daniela asked.

“They’ll live, for now.” The chief elder gestured towards Zinaria. “Take them away.”

The world turned black as Daniela and Osyron had hoods thrown over their heads. A forceful yank on Osyron’s shoulder pulled Daniela’s hand from his. His hand reached blindly for hers but his fingers only swiped air. Arms slid under his and lead him away. Daniela’s last statement swam through his head. He could not recall words more evocative yet feared they would be the last he ever heard.

Chapter Twenty

Brendan Bastine listened to the crisp echo of his steps projected down the tapestry-lined corridor at Emperor Horim’s palace. He knew not the name of the polished stone that emitted the delicious sound. Nevertheless, God’s interventions assured that such finery was set to furnish the corridors of his future. The invite requested Brendan to meet Horim in the emperor’s private gardens, a summons that would fill even the most distinguished of men with trepidation, but not Brendan. His wife’s cure, the jump from the bridge followed by the outcome of his hearing had seen him the benefactor of a trilogy of miracles. There was little to fear when in the favour of God.

The two palace sentries guarding the double doors to the gardens saw Brendan approach. One offered a nod of recognition and a swooping arm, inviting him to venture through to the gardens. Brendan smiled as he passed the men, however, his grin was self-indulgent. Being recognisable to palace sentries added an extra spring to his already confident stride.

The opened doors revealed a substantial oval garden plateau high in the palace structure. The emperor’s botanical haven in the clouds; an island of colour, alive and vivid against the stationary grey cloud. Brendan took a reassuring glance over his shoulder at the palace before crossing the bridge leading to the sky garden plateau. Partway across, Brendan stopped. Curious as to what supported the gardens, he leaned over the handrail. A whipping gust of wind met his face, causing him to swallow and relinquish curiosity. He quickened his step to the other side, setting foot on the adjoined gravel pathway.

After a few crunching steps, Brendan spotted the emperor in quiet consultation with a man he did not recognise. However, the attire adorning the stranger was unmistakable. Brendan traversed the rosebush-lined pathway towards the two men. The smell of flowers was a welcome reward after negotiating the stink of the city streets below.

“Ahh Brendan, it’s good to see you again. May I introduce Patriarch Bannon from the Temple of Hixel,” said Horim upon Brendan’s approach.

Brendan came to a stop and bowed before the emperor before turning to the patriarch and falling to a knee. He kept his head bowed while fixing his eyes on the holy man’s boots. “It is a true honour to be in your presence, your excellency.”

Patriarch Bannon extended a hand in front of Brendan’s gaze, allowing him to kiss the gold ring that symbolised his position. “Rise, child,” said the patriarch.

Brendan stood and met his eyes.

“It is I who is honoured to be in your presence, Private Bastine. The emperor has filled me in on your heroics. Six blasphemous pirates face Hixel’s judgment thanks to your courageous heart.”

Brendan gave a dismissive shake of the head. “Duty, to God and empire.”

The patriarch arched an eyebrow. “Humility and courage.—you’re a rare soul, private.”

Emperor Horim observed keenly the exchange between the two men, ending it with a single, interrupting clap of his hands. “Well, Brendan, let’s get to the matter at hand, shall we? I have received word from Miria. They did not permit a boat to sail yet they have refused our councilman’s suggestion to decorate your formidable actions against an unsanctioned voyage. Atop their refusal, they demand we surrender you into their custody.”

Brendan said nothing, only stood with his hands clasped behind his back and his chin held high.

“If you have fear then shed it. We have declined and declared their refusal to decorate you as warmongering. If Miria want the peace treaties abolished then so be it.”

“I commend your bravery, Emperor,” replied Brendan, bowing his head.

Patriarch Bannon’s face screwed up in thought. “I know it’s not my place, but may I offer a thought on the matter?”

Emperor Horim displayed an open palm in invitation to speak.

“If Miria refused to decorate Private Bastine then perhaps Olbaid should. A promotion from private to captain would show how strongly we believe in our convictions.”

Brendan stared at the patriarch as if the words had come from Hixel’s own mouth.

A slow grin grew on the emperor’s face. “Why, that is an excellent idea.” Horim stepped towards Brendan and placed both hands on his shoulders. “What say you, Brendan, do you accept the role of captain in the Olbaidian army? It would please me a great deal.”

Brendan inhaled deeply. With all the conviction he could muster he replied, “It would be an honour, Emperor. With Hixel’s guidance, I know I’ll become the best captain Olbaid has to offer.”

“Bravery, confidence and a man of God—I salute you, Captain Bastine.” Emperor Horim and Brendan shared a long stare and smile.

Brendan prayed silently. My Lord God and Saviour, You are by my side… I thought I had overstepped the mark but here is the proof I have done Your will and I have pleased You. I live for You, my Lord.

“I’ll take care of the necessary paperwork tonight. Visit the military headquarters here in Olbaid tomorrow. Your captain’s regalia will await you.”

Brendan struggled to hide his elation; a prideful smile wrestled his will to maintain a professional demeanour.

“Now, if you don’t mind, Brendan, myself and the patriarch have some confidential matters to discuss.”

Brendan bowed to both men at the waist. “Of course Emperor, my humblest thanks once more.”

Brendan strode through the gardens and back across the bridge. The two influential figures he left behind watched him leave and disappear into the palace.

“Did you see that?” asked Horim.

Patriarch Bannon turned to face him but said nothing.

“His head is still attached to his shoulders because of me and yet he falls to a knee at the sight of you. Even if I were open about his promotion being my idea, it would be no different. This is why I need your support.”

Patriarch Bannon grimaced and drew a sharp breath. “Announcing support for war is much for the temple to risk. There is no guarantee the people will meekly accept. They have no stomach for conflict. The shadows cast from wars past still darken those old enough to remember them. Many people still privately cling to religions you have outlawed. Our support of a war with Miria may be the catalyst for an uprising, a revolt against the temple of Hixel.”

Horim stared at the holy man. “Name your price.”

Patriarch Bannon took a few crunching steps on the gravel pathway before answering. “Many of the temples we inherited are in a state of catastrophic disrepair; buildings are victims of war too.”

Horim made a circling gesture with his hand, coaxing a more direct answer to his question.

“Do you think it right in the eyes of the people that you tax the temple of Hixel?”

Horim’s brow drew down. “So it’s a lower tax rate you seek; how much lower and for how long?”

The patriarch raised an eyebrow. “Do you think it favourable in the eyes of Hixel?”

Horim broke the interlocking stare and gazed off into the endless sky. “So it’s tax exemption you want—for how long?”

Patriarch Bannon took a side step into Horim’s line of sight, forcing him to meet his eyes. “For as long as Hixel reigns in heaven.”

Brendan floated through the city streets, bumping shoulders with passers by but rarely registering the impact. The cacophony of smells that had riled him on the way to the palace now went unnoticed. Street vendors called to him, shoving their wares under his nose yet they remained somehow distant, somewhere different. His feet automatically shepherded him towards the closest temple of Hixel.

Brendan frolicked in his musings as he went but the sluggish pace of human traffic irked him back into reality. He wanted out of the mass of surrounding faces and their lethargic meandering. An alleyway caught his eye; he was unsure where it led but the direction seemed favourable. He stuck out an arm and began moving sideways amongst the people in the streets. Individuals huffed and others cursed at him for moving independently in an unpractical manner across the current of bodies. Brendan breathed a sigh as he made it into the alleyway opening. The need to brush off his clothes overcame him as his hands swiped feverishly across his arms and legs.

The back alley stench was staggering. The toe-curling aroma seemed to seep out of the very ground and walls. The towering buildings that ran the length of the alley muffled the drone of the city, however, it also caused the air to stagnate. The wet patches decorating the bottom of the buildings told the alley was utilised for more than just a shortcut. Brendan glanced back at the heaving streets and let out a sigh. His nose crinkled as he cupped a hand around his mouth before venturing down the alley.

Missing cobblestones created pockets for murky water to collect; Brendan took great caution positioning his feet. Gracing the temple floor with sodden boots from here would be considered blasphemous. Uneven ground meant the puddles that carpeted the alley grew larger the further Brendan progressed, causing his elongated steps to grow into leaps.

A short, squat woman appeared ahead of him from an adjoining alleyway. Her hands were held above her, balancing a basket of what looked like sheets on her head. The smell did not seem to register with her; her nostrils were well accustomed to floating through the foulness, reasoned Brendan.

With foot placement needing constant diligence, Brendan spared occasional glances at the woman to gauge her distance. Leaping into her would not become him. As his foot landed from his last puddle hop, Brendan glanced up to see the basket and its contents tumble from the woman’s head to the wet cobblestones below. The clean sheets landed on the ground, soaking up the dirty water. The woman fell to her knees behind the upturned basket, Brendan presumed in woe, but a dagger-brandishing figure at her back corrected his misconception. It was then he noticed the blood.

The woman held herself upright on her knees for a moment before slumping face first onto the soiled sheets. The figure stood behind her in a triumphant stance, taking in his kill with wide-eyed wonder. Blood ran along the knife, forming droplets that hit the cobblestones in a rhythmic heartbeat. Most disturbing of all was the twisted grin the young man displayed.

Brendan burst into life and rushed at him. With legs in motion, his hand gripped the sword hilt at his waist. As Brendan closed the distance, the figure did not register his rushing approach, still lost in his gloating, vacant stare.

Two marshals dashed into view from the same adjoined alley the woman had emerged from. They sprinted towards the murderer from behind while Brendan continued his headlong charge from the front. Brendan was quickest. He took a leaping dive over the woman’s corpse, tackling her attacker around the waist; the killers arms came up while his legs lost contact with the ground. The momentum forced them both backwards and they met the waiting cobblestone with a jarring thud. Brendan scrambled up the man’s torso, straddling his chest. He looked into the face of a boy on the cusp of adulthood, the sickening smile still painted on. The glazed, vacant eyes stared through Brendan into the sky above.

“Kill him,” whispered an internal voice. Brendan’s hand floated towards his sword at his waist. His fingers touched the leather strappings on the handle and closed around it. “Kill him,” urged the voice.

The ring of sliding steel filled the air.

“Sheath your sword now, this is marshal business.”

Brendan looked up to see the two marshals take the last few panting steps and stand over him. Brendan looked up and showed the marshals a smile and his palms open in compliance. The buildings lining the alley seemed to lean in for a closer look down at the unfolding drama. “He snuck up on that woman and ran her through.” Brendan nodded towards the corpse. The boy made no effort to move. He lay on his back with his permanent smile and vacant stare.

“It’s alright, we know who he is and what he’s capable of. Good work, friend, but we’ll take it from here.”

Brendan glanced down at the boy and frowned. “I didn’t see where he came from. One second it was just me and the woman in the alley, the next, there he was.”

One of the marshals tended to the boy, slipping manacles around his wrists while the other addressed Brendan. “He’s elusive, but we have him now thanks to you and your brave intervention.”

Brendan felt wetness seep through his boots. The filthy puddle water covered the soles of his feet inside his boots and began to hug around his toes. An image of the urine-stained walls flashed in his head. “What will happen now?” he asked quickly, suddenly wanting to be out of this place.

“Now we lock him up to face trial. Would you stand as a witness if called?”

Brendan’s nose creased with the rising reek of the water. The smell had intensified now that the stagnant surface had been broken. “Of course, I would be happy to assist in any way.”

The marshal smiled and gave Brendan a pat on the arm. The other marshal had the boy on his feet and began marching him down the ally.

“We’ll be in touch and let you know when a date is set for the hearing. Now if you don’t mind I should go help out in case the boy tries to run again.”

The remaining marshal nodded to Brendan in farewell.

Brendan nodded his understanding before departing. He began hopping over puddles again, though it made little difference now. Scrubbing the stink from his boots now replaced giving Hixel praise at the temple; there was no way he would soil the temple’s floor with these boots.

As Brendan reached the far end of the alley he realised that the marshal had not taken his name or place of residency. He turned to see the two marshals hoist the corpse of the unfortunate woman into a carriage then board themselves. Brendan cupped a hand to his mouth to call but the carriage door closed and the wheels turned, pulling the carriage from the tunnel vision the alley offered. Must have been the overpowering smell that distracted the marshal, thought Brendan. It had indeed prevented him from realizing till now. Hixel will handle it; He has more important ways to spend my time. He exited the alley and headed for his barracks, hoping his fellow soldiers would be out attending to their own engagements; he and his boots would not be a welcome addition to the confined space his detachment called home.

The horse-drawn carriage made dawdling progression through the crowded streets. Giant wheels trundled along uneven surfaces, causing the dead woman’s head to rock from side to side on the carriage floor. The three brotherhood members inside sat in a row, staring down at her. The two dressed as marshals grimaced at the sight.

The other bound by manacles looked down with unfathomable glee.

“Saul, take that blanket on the other bench and cover her.”

Saul stood and did as instructed, lowering the window shade and settled on the bench opposite his companions. “What do we do now?” he asked, sitting down.

Gilroy stared at the lifeless shape under the blanket. “We take her to the morgue.”

Saul rolled his eyes and huffed an impatient breath. “I mean what to do about the situation—we’re supposed to help the people, not…” he extended a hand towards the body, “not murder them.”

Gilroy stared at his counterpart. It was a legitimate question yet the flames of frustration began to stoke in his head. “I don’t know, Saul, okay, I just don’t know. I’ve never been in this position before.” Gilroy’s thumb and forefinger came up to rub his temple. The clicking of horseshoes and the buzz of the street folk invaded the private sanctuary of their carriage. So many people walked on either side of them, oblivious to the corpse and predicament that travelled the road amongst them. “We’ll station someone at the morgue, see who claims the body. I think a financial windfall will grace her family in the near future. I guess we can have Brotherhood associates monitor the family, make sure nothing untoward happens to them.”

“You mean like guardian angels?”

“Yeah, yeah, something like that. I can’t think of anything else right now but if it comes to me, I’ll see it done.”

Saul thrust his chin towards their silent acquaintance. “And what about Driskal?”

Gilroy spent a long time staring at the boy next to him before turning back to Saul. “He’s not evil…dangerous, yes, but not evil. If we can find a remedy for his madness he can atone for this wrong. Go back to ridding the empire of vampires.”

“And if his madness can’t be cured?”

Gilroy took a long moment before answering Saul. “The Brotherhood sees justice done.”

Chapter Twenty One

Riven ran over his checklist for his voyage south. Once satisfied, he closed his travel trunk and left it at the door, ready for departure. Packing for the journey became a drawn-out endeavour. His attention continually snagged on thoughts of demonic encounters. He had never given the notion much consideration before, but now there was reason. Both the church and the crown declared demonic

lands as factual and Riven had always accepted this without question, until now. Now he thought for himself.

Riven walked to his larder to bag up the remaining food. His hand flicked loaves of bread and dried meats from the shelves into a sack as he pondered all that had happened. If everything he’d learned was true then the islanders had travelled between their home and the twin empires for centuries. Even a fisherman’s wife had made it there and back without demonic intervention. However, maybe it was as Emperor Horim had stated, that this island simply lay somewhere between the twin empires and the demon infested lands further south. Over the years, Olbaid had sent ships to verify the demonic lands existed. None of them had returned.

The last of those ships had set sail on the day subsequent to his mother’s death. The capital and empire at large had been in uproar over the voyage, some commending the bravery of the crew while others condemned the attempt as blasphemy. The city pier was lined with citizens from every kingdom. Bunting adorned the docks while people waved arms and voiced their encouragement into the confetti-filled morning air.

As the maelstrom of excitement enveloped the land, Riven had sat alone on his porch, rolling an empty vial in his fingers. It was the vial he’d lost his balance on the night his mother passed. It was a standard medic’s vial. He had seen enough medical paraphernalia during his mother’s ill health to be certain. Initially, Riven had sat the vial aside, thinking it dropped by one of the many medics who frequented their home. However, they had never left a vial on the floor. For it to appear the same night his mother passed caused Riven to revaluate the reasons behind the vial’s presence.

Earlier that day, Riven visited the local medic to identify the sweet smell emitting from the vial. “That’s slumberroot,” the medic declared.

A single drop of slumberroot in tea aids a restful night’s sleep. A spoonful renders a patient unconscious for surgery. A vial consumed by even the healthiest of people…fatal.

Riven now knew his mother had been murdered.

Slumberroot was a controlled substance in Olbaid, a full vial could not have been easy to obtain. Any medic would have a professional obligation to report such a large amount of a lethal drug missing. The medics in town confirmed their own stock was present and correct and that they had received no requests for such a vast quantity of the drug. This led him to believe that the murderer was from out of town or at least had sourced the drug elsewhere. With limited knowledge of such matters, Riven knew he would be hard pressed to track the journey of the vial from its origins to his mother’s bedroom floor. He needed education and access to information. The following morning, he signed up for the marshals.

The normally arduous path from cadet to marshal was negated by Riven’s drive for vengeance. His dedication was such; Riven became the youngest ever high marshal in Olbaid’s history. Doors once closed to him were now open, and his eyes were privy to previously private information.

Two decades after his mother’s death he found what he was looking for, a report from a town called Cloverstone detailing a vial of slumberroot missing. It was dated immediately prior to his mother’s death. Further investigation revealed two medics operated in Cloverstone at the time, Gavin Aston and Richard Rymore. Gavin Aston was the man who had reported the substance missing. It was absurd someone would sign a recorded document knowing its involvement with a murder. This made the other name, Richard Rymore, Riven’s primary suspect.

Approaching the man was folly. Guilty or innocent, direct questioning would result in fierce denial. It could well be the vial had been lost or stolen and both medics had nothing to do with his mother’s death, but this lead was all he had. He needed a tactile approach. By now, the vial too was gone, thrown and smashed against the wall on a grief-ridden night. With such scant evidence, Riven needed something conclusive, something that could tie this medic to his mother or the vial. Currently, he had nothing to justify an arrest. Vengeance reminded he did not begin this hunt for it to end in incarceration. An idea struck him, one that would leave doubt over the Cloverstone medic’s involvement.

Richard Rymore sat at home in his favourite chair, crafted by his son, Osyron. The chair’s back reclined far enough to offer exquisite comfort while stopping short of coercing sleep, although the dream bringer had found him there on several evenings past. There was time left in the day for a relaxing smoke before bed. It had been an eventful week; his son had decided to give up carpentry for a career as a marshal. Richard had seen it coming. The boy had talent for working with wood but it was never going to be more than a hobby. The boy had a sense of adventure that woodwork would not satisfy.

A knock at the door caught Richard’s attention. A prolifically knocked door was an occupational hazard as a medic, but why it consistently happened while he was settled for a smoke in his favourite chair was uncannily frustrating.

“I have it,” Casandra said, seemingly reading her husband’s thoughts.

“No, at this hour it’s medic business,” he replied, placing his pipe aside and lifting himself from the chair. He looked at his pipe. It was loaded and demanding attention. “Soon, my friend,” He whispered, before moving to answer the knock.

He opened the door to a dark-haired youth standing ridged. The lad looked up at him with a mute stare. “Hello, something you need, kid?” Richard asked him. The boy remained silent and handed him a folded note. “What’s this?” enquired Richard, unfolding it.

The boy shot down the garden path, through the gate and off down the street. Richard frowned as the boy was lost to the darkness, the gate swinging on its axis the only evidence he’d been there. Richard looked from the boy’s vanishing point back to the note in his hand and proceeded to unfold it. It contained two words:


Richard raced towards the still swinging gate. “Get back here!” he screamed. “Who gave you this?” The still night maintained its stoic silence.

“What’s going on?” asked Casandra, appearing in the doorway.

“It’s nothing, a practical joker is all,” replied Richard, stuffing the note into a pocket.

“Are you sure everything is okay? You sounded stressed.”

“Everything’s fine, just a boy fooling around. Let’s go back inside; my pipe and chair need my attention,” said Richard, offering a disarming smile.

“As do I, Richard.” Casandra winked. She opened her arms in invite. She stood, a silhouette outlined in warm amber from the lantern inside. Richard walked over and slipped his arms around her, flicking the door closed with his foot behind them.

Riven sat in hiding in the undergrowth opposite the Rymore household, his blood boiling. The note he’d written delivered by the boy Riven had hired to knock on the door had confirmed this was his mother’s murderer. It took all his restraint not to burst from cover and tear through the Rymore door. Riven forced sensibility to reign over his other demanding emotions. There was at least one witness in there. He needed to get the killer alone.

Riven spent the next few days studying Richard Rymore’s daily routine. At the end of each working day, the medic returned home via Old Quarry Road. Along one side of the road ran dense woodland, home to creatures of claw and fang. On the other ran a sharp downward incline towards an abandoned quarry. The secluded location along with the darkening hour was tailor-made for the private consultation Riven longed for. Riven had waited over twenty years for such a moment. One more night would see his patience rewarded.

Riven returned to the shelter he had built in the woods, a small tarp covered with branches as camouflaging cover. He avoided booking a room at any of the local taverns. Riven wanted little interaction with people as possible. A medic was about to go missing and a muscular visiting stranger appearing and disappearing had the potential to raise suspicion in even the dullest of minds.

Riven scanned the area before pulling off the camouflaging branches and climbing inside. This would be the last night he slept with a longing for vengeance. This time tomorrow his mother’s killer would be dead. Riven drifted off to sleep knowing justice was in touching distance.

Richard Rymore lay, staring at the shadows shifting on the celling, sleep an unreachable destination. He stole a glance at his wife lying at his side. She had no such trouble drifting off. A ghost from his distant past had come back into his life and warded off any chance of slumber. A ghost called Annette Riven. Decades had passed since he’d heard that name, yet he’d read it on the note with instantaneous recognition. How or why her name had found its way to his door after so many years was beyond comprehension. He silently cursed himself for not giving chase to the note-bringing boy; an answer was now impossible.

Twenty years prior, Richard visited a childhood friend who had relocated to a neighbouring town, Havenwell. It was on this visit Richard became aware of Annette Riven. His friend took him to the local tavern, insisting the ale here surpassed any Cloverstone had to offer. After sampling a few mugs, a professional interest requested he eavesdrop on a conversation two medics were engaged in at a neighbouring table. Through the tavern chatter and boisterous laughter of inebriated patrons, Richard picked up a snippet of conversation between the two medical practitioners.

“I visited Annette Riven today,” said the taller medic. “She asked me again, that question, that same question she always asks.”

The shorter medic wore a sympathetic mask but only nodded in reply.

“She’s in genuine pain but I can’t do it. It’s against everything I believe.”

“I get the same thing. Every time I’m there she insists I aid her in passing. I won’t hear such talk; it’s against Hixel,” replied his companion.

The taller medic peered at the ale remaining in his mug. “I should make this my last; I’m to visit her come morning.” With that, the two men swallowed back the last of their drinks before making for the exit.

Although the eavesdropped conversation was brief, Richard had heard enough to stir his curiosity. The following morning he acquired the location of the medic’s infirmary from his friend and tracked the tall medic to Annette’s house. After learning her address, Richard wrote Annette a letter stating he was a medic from elsewhere who was aware of her situation. He offered to hear her pleas but without any promise to abide them.

Over the following weeks, Richard and Annette corresponded back and forth. Annette described the nature of her illness and outlined every test and treatment she had received with nothing more than spells of fleeting relief as result. She was irredeemably sick with a sickness that was as slow as it was excruciating. The majority of her days were comprised of physical agony and emotional anguish. After several years of the finest treatments, there was no legitimate reason to expect her condition would ever improve. She mentioned her son in her letters, explained how her illness was equally debilitating to him. She needed to end her life so her son’s could truly begin. His care for her was of such a high standard that she might yet grind out a decade before the sickness took its inevitable toll. A decade comprised of slow decay and abject misery, leaving her son a middle-aged man with no wife or career, and no idea how to rectify either situation. She feared her prolonged existence could well be the catalyst for her sons’ own downward spiral into a life of unfulfilled loneliness. She had to end it, not only to extinguish her pain, but also to give her son opportunity to start his own life and find love.

Richard analysed Annette’s letters with careful consideration. He scanned her writings for any indication of irrationality, any hint of an unbalanced mind. He found neither. Instead, he found a mother who loved her son dearly. He found a woman who perpetually resided in an arena of anguish. An arena with no doors and no escape save one, death.

Richard decided to help her. In his final letter, he informed Annette of a drug called slumberroot. Consuming a vial would end her suffering. Aside from the sickly sweet taste, it would be a straightforward, painless process. Annette agreed to his proposition, her only concern being her son’s near constant attendance. She wished to consume the vial in privacy as it might take her some time to build the courage. If her son were to catch her, any future attempt would become impossible.

Annette sent her final letter to Richard, instructing him to bring broth with the vial of slumberroot. She planned to get her son out of the house for a short while. She would pass the broth off as her own, giving the impression time alone was beneficial to her well-being. On the strength of this, convincing her son to leave for an entire evening should be achievable, giving her a full evening alone to compose herself and invoke her crossing of the veil.

On the date specified by Annette, Richard crouched in the undergrowth across from the Riven household, waiting. After Annette’s son left, Richard went inside the Riven home for his first and final meeting.

Richard suggested she leave her son a letter, a farewell before undertaking matters of such finality. Annette decided against it. Her son would blame himself no matter what words she offered. As much as she felt like an anchor to her son while alive, a letter admitting she had voluntarily given her life so he could live his would be such a weight to burden, one he would carry to his own grave. It was best he believed she passed naturally in her sleep.

As Annette instructed, Richard burned all evidence of written correspondence between them. Annette’s remaining fear was landing Richard in trouble. He helped her where no one else would and she was aware of the consequences that would befall Richard should his participation in her passing be discovered.

Richard placed the soup on the stove and helped Annette out of bed to sit by the window. He grew to admire Annette and was sorely tempted to retract his offer. The pain etched in her face while he carried her quashed the desire to voice such doubt aloud. Once Annette’s ruse was set, Richard gave a goodbye and made for the exit. The longer he spent with Annette the more real she became. She’d been words on a page until today. Now she had a voice, a face. With every step towards the door, his conscious demanded he turn around and tell Annette he had made a mistake. He held his breath and marched for the exit. His fingers gripped the door handle and swung it open. He glided through the door, twisting his body, and pulled the door shut tight behind him. Once outside, he closed his eyes and let his breath go in an elongated sigh. He had presented Annette with an option; she had the final say. She could linger in her arena of pain or take the exit he presented. The thought steadied him.

It was not until his carriage journey back to Cloverstone that Richard considered the fate of the vial once Annette consumed the contents. Annette would not have the strength to dispose of it. However, a sick woman passing in the night would not raise any questions and an empty vial would not stir suspicion in a home frequented by medics.

The journey home was a sombre experience. He felt a sorrow for Annette only surpassed by the sorrow for her son. Richard had experienced both his own parents’ passings so knew first-hand the grief that lay directly in the boy’s path. From the unbreakable devotion her son had shown, Richard knew the calibre of man he was. Annette’s suffering would be over, but monumental anguish was set to consume her son’s life. As the carriage trundled ever onwards towards home, Richard’s knuckle caught a tear before it escaped his eye.

Chapter Twenty Two

A tear welled in Riven’s eye. Tears had once been an everyday occurrence in the darkest parts of his grieving process. However, this was the first tear to glisten in his eye for longer than he cared to remember. Seeing his mother’s killer, smiling and laughing with the people the medic visited squeezed it from Riven. It needed released; it was that or charge at the man in broad daylight before countless witnesses. He had waited twenty years. He could hold on a little longer.

After Richards’s last house call, all that stood between him and home was Old Quarry Road. A carriage ride would be quicker and wiser come winter but Richard enjoyed the trek. Not only was the setting sun through the trees a sight he never tired of seeing, he slept better after travelling the road home on foot. He looked forward to reaching home. In a strange way he even looked forward to the obligatory knock on the door interrupting his smoke with precise, mischievous timing. The note bearing Annette Riven’s name earlier in the week crossed his mind. Deciphering the reason behind its appearance remained beyond him. He had gone over it enough already to know the answer would remain forever elusive, the answer having disappeared with the boy who’d brought the note. He chased off the circular thinking and strode for Cloverstone. The thought of seeing Casandra caused him to beam. A pleasurable stroll and then the waiting welcome of her arms would be a fine beginning to a fine evening.

Why is he smiling? Smile when I have you, bastard, I dare you. Riven glided nonchalantly out the shop doorway and stuffed his hands in his pockets. He meandered his way through the townsfolk going about their daily routines. Storeowners locked doorways while their assistants loaded carts with wares to be trundled home. Mothers carried parcels of frugally haggled food, soon to be converted into soups and stews for the hungry mouths of children. The sun had sunk to an awkward level in the sky, causing people to squint and cup hands to brows while facing it. Through the people and loaded carts shifting on the dusty street, Riven saw Richard head towards Old Quarry Road. The time had arrived.

As Riven knew the route Richard was taking, he could afford to keep distance between himself and his target. Even if he briefly lost sight of him, the unmistakable white robes worn by medics made Richard easy to pick out. The broad purple cross emblazoned on the torso and back made the uniform eye-catching amongst the dreary garb of common townsfolk. Riven himself dressed in the blandest of clothes, brown breeches and a beige shirt. Rendering his large frame inconspicuous was a task in itself. He walked with hunched shoulders and a bowed head with hands stuffed deep into the breeches pockets. His eyes occasionally lifted to gauge the distance between himself and vengeance. Stay well back, he reminded himself. He wanted no one to notice he was following the medic. Many questions would come after tonight. He had to be cautious no answers involved him, after all, a simple vial had lead him to his mother’s killer. He could afford no such mistake.

“Help me!” A woman in evident distress darted through the people on the street and scurried towards Riven. She took the slack on his shirt in both fists and stared up into Riven’s face. “What’s wrong, my dear? Speak.” Riven made the effort to keep frustration from his voice.

“It’s my husband, he’s tearing up the house. My children are in there,” said the distraught woman, pointing over her shoulder at her house. Riven’s drab attire did not have the desired effect on his sizable bulk, it seemed. The woman had bypassed several people to address him specifically.

“Go to the marshal’s office and get help. I will have your husband subdued by the time they get there,” said Riven, already striding towards the house indicated by the petite woman. Urgency for such matters was always paramount but now he moved with swiftness that he never thought himself capable of. As he closed in on the house he could hear wood crash against stone and glass shatter against the floor. Flying silhouettes shot across the window as Riven rushed through the doorway. A monstrous man stood in the centre of the room. Strewn across the floor was the rubble of furniture and shards of broken glass. Riven was ten paces away yet the waft of alcohol was prominent in the air. The muffled cries of children filled the interlude of silence between the two staring men. To Riven’s relief, the sound seemed to drift from another room in the house.

Riven could not recall ever encountering someone bigger than himself. He had met men taller, also broader, but no one that outmatched him both ways, until now. The flash of surprise on the man’s face at the uninvited guest suddenly twisted into full-blown fury. Riven stood, staring, unsure of what to say; to reveal that he was the high marshal would ruin everything. “Easy now, big fella, I’m here to help.”

The gargantuan man froze, blinking dumbly. A tiny island of comprehension flashed in his eyes before rampant seas of rage engulfed it. The big man bellowed and began a headlong charge at Riven. Riven went for his sword; his hand patted franticly at his breeches where it should have been. The ogre man gathered momentum as he closed the distance between them.

Riven steadied himself. No matter how big this man was Riven had bigger matters to take care of. He let the need for vengeance fill him. He had not come this far, not come this this close only to be stopped by a rampaging drunken giant. The two men met in clash of muscle and bone, it was Riven who backpedalled. Brute force was a losing battle. He let the backwards propulsion take him as he forced his arm over the big man’s shoulder and around his head. Riven half-turned in anticipation of the rapidly approaching stone wall. They met it with a thump, the big man’s head meeting stone with a sickening crunch. The weight of the giant dropped, pinning Riven’s back against the wall and his legs under the colossal, unconscious body.

Riven let out a low groan. Even though the bigger man had absorbed most of the impact Riven had not escaped unscathed. The behemoth’s shoulder against his chest had driven the wind from him, making it hard to catch a breath. I need to move, he thought. The marshals would be here soon. Even if none of them recognized him, a personal testimony and summonce to a hearing was not something he could afford to involve himself in. He pulled at his leg, trying to free it. He was trapped. He could not muster the strength or leverage to move the dead weight that anchored him in place. His mother’s killer would be on Old Quarry Road by now. His chance was passing him by. It had to be today. It had to be now.

Outside, a curious crowd of townsfolk gathered around the house; peeking eyes glanced through the window and elongating necks crept around the doorway. The befallen silence after the frantic commotion had given those in earshot courage to venture close. Riven breathed a sigh at seeing them. “Good people, help me free my legs,” he managed, still struggling to regulate his breathing. The townsfolk stammered their agreement and funnelled inside. They lined the length of the big unconscious man and rolled him off Riven’s legs. Riven wiggled his toes, making sure everything was in working order. There was a deep numbness in his legs that beckoned terrifying thoughts while pinned to the floor. Some of the people ventured into the other rooms to check on the well-being of the children while others picked up broken pieces of furniture for inspection. Others still checked on the unconscious man. Riven slipped through the group and made his way outside and towards Old Quarry Road. Over two decades of patience and preparation and now the fickle loyalty of time had switched allegiances and become his enemy.

He had no desire to dwell and have his face become familiar to the townsfolk in the process. Too many eyes had seen him already. If he had to spend another day here, any descriptions of him would become worryingly detailed and accurate. Riven strode away from the scene as quickly as fear of looking suspicious permitted. Once certain he was out of sight of the town, he broke into a dead sprint, taking to Old Quarry Road in pursuit of his escaping target. Pain and fatigue protested every stride but the need to close the saga that had dominated his life for so long forced him onwards.

As his legs pumped and his chest heaved he feared the chance gone. It had to be tonight or shelved until much later, perhaps forgotten all together. That last thought drove need into his aching legs. He gritted his teeth as his lungs began to burn. The foliage to his side flashed passed him in blurring green streaks. His heavy footfalls on the rocky path matched the rhythm of his thundering heart. A cry of frustration danced on the tip on his tongue. The glimpse of white robes in the distance banished it. This was it; his time had come.

Riven called out to the figure in the distance with as much volume as he could muster. “Medic, medic, wait, I have need of you.” The white-robed figure stopped and turned back to look at him. Riven closed the distance, slowing to a jog to recuperate. As Riven drew close, the man opened his mouth to speak. Riven wasted no time. He met the agape jaw with a driven forearm and felt teeth crack under the impact. Whatever words the man was about to say became a gargling groan. The medic fell backwards in a groggy heap, blood trickling from his mouth. Riven glanced the length of the road in both directions before flinging the limp body over his shoulder and disappearing into the thickness of the woods.

Bushes and low-hanging branches clawed and grabbed at Riven’s sweat-drenched clothes as he staggered onwards. He was uncertain of his destination, but he knew it lay in the depths of this dark place. Riven could hear the medic gargle on blood and drowsily spit out bits of broken teeth. After several minutes of grunting and staggering through defiant undergrowth the vegetation broke into a clearing; tall pines surrounded a murky pond in a stuttering half circle. The setting sun shimmered on the water’s surface as the medic let out another groan, this time with more life. He was beginning to gain consciousness. Riven paced towards the pond; the cloudy water teeming with sediment was a fitting end for the scum draped over his shoulder.

Riven grabbed the medic by the hair off his shoulder and slammed his face into the watery murk. The sudden sensation of wet cold shocked the man out of his semi-conscious state. Arms flailed, legs kicked and muffled screams bubbled up from the water. Riven’s vice-like grip powered by hatred and brute force kept the head locked under water. Riven had often wondered what he would say to this man when he finally confronted him. He had recited lengthy speeches in his head over the years. But his unbridled rage had no time for words, it demanded action; it demanded justice. More bubbles came to the surface in a rush as the medic continued to thrash his arms, kicking up the dirt from the pond bed, turning the water ever darker.

There was something Riven needed to know, something that he would ponder forever with no hope of finding out. The medic sputtered and gasped in air as his head came out of the pond. Blood and water dripped from his face as Riven yanked his hair back, spitting a single-word question through gritted teeth. “Why?”

Riven slammed the medic’s face back under before any answer could be offered and yanked it back out once more. The medic sobbed, desperately inhaling as much air as the fleeting window of opportunity allowed. The breath was swallowed with water and blood, forcing convulsive coughing. “Why did you do it do her?” growled Riven in his ear, too disgusted to look him in the eyes.

The man gasped in air once more and tried to offer words. “ I—”

Riven rammed his head down a third time; the very sound of the man’s voice repulsed him. “Why did you kill her?” he demanded as he yanked his head out again. His iron grip on the sodden hair was unrelenting.

The man’s words came out between desperate gasps. “She…asked…for…it.”

Fury screamed inside Riven as he drove the man’s head under one more time, one final time. Riven let out a roar of rage, his arms and chest muscles flexed and solidified under his drenched shirt. The thrashing limbs faltered then gradually stopped. One final bubble broke the surface of the pond and lingered. Riven stared as it moved on the water’s surface, for the briefest of moments he glimpsed his sweat-drenched face reflected on the shifting surface of the bubble. His teeth-gritting expression began to melt; the ferocity in his eyes seethed, smouldered and extinguished. Without warning the bubble popped; no other rose to replace it. His mother’s killer was dead. A twenty-year need for vengeance was over. Riven stared at the half-submerged body. He felt nothing. Killing this man had dominated his life and now two protruding legs from a muddy pond signified its end.

Riven stood and stared at the body face down in the water. His eyes fixed on it as he waited to feel something. Nothing came. Regret or even sorrow would be more welcome than the indifference occupying him. He was avenged of his mother’s killer and he felt nothing.

Riven had no concerns about the body being discovered. Nocturnal beasts that lived here were at this very moment crawling out from caves and crags around the forest. They would devour this easy meal before any human registered it missing. He turned and began walking back through the darkening wood. Before returning to Olbaid, Riven burned his makeshift shelter and blood-stained clothes. After washing in the river by moonlight he dressed in fresh clothes and started on the road back to Olbaid, back to his role of high marshal.

As time passed, the memory of that defining night began to dull. In Riven’s capacity as high marshal he was involved in numerous murder investigations. While undertaking these cases, his recollection of that night would occasionally resurface. Whenever he restrained someone consumed by grief from getting at the killer of their loved ones he often found himself repeating the same phrases. “The court will see justice served,” or “Don’t do something you will regret.” Such regret never found a home in Riven, however, the company of hypocrisy perpetually shadowed him. It was to be his private, lifelong penance.

Chapter Twenty Three

Daniela sat on the steps of her hut, repeatedly turning over an orange in her hand. The islanders had assigned the visiting duo huts on the encampment outskirts. Rather than people, they kept company with livestock, a bamboo pen of scrawny goats and dozens of free roaming chickens that ceaselessly pecked at the sun-cracked ground. Beyond the goats and chickens was the camp’s mighty outer wall. It did not offer much of a view but provided shade to the chickens and goats during the sunlit hours. The chickens ventured further out as the wall’s shadow grew; now at late afternoon they roamed freely.

Aside from a few restricted areas Daniela and Osyron were free to wander as they pleased. Daniela utilised this liberty more than Osyron as it was more of a liberty for her. Osyron met glares and hisses when he traversed the camp and was even spat at when venturing too close to a select few of the less welcoming hosts.

Daniela glanced over at Osyron; he was hunched over rubbing more of the insect-repelling ointment into his legs. She gave a shake of her head. “I don’t want to sound condescending but you realise these trips gathering leaves are pointless? Collecting ingredients for ointment just so you can go back the following day to collect more is a fruitless cycle.”

Osyron paused and looked up at her. “Well, what do you propose I do with my time? Cook inside my hut all day or perhaps wander around the camp being hissed at?”

“I understand,” replied Daniela. “It’s more about what you’re avoiding than what you’re doing.”

Osyron offered a confirming smile and went back to applying the ointment.

“How many days have passed since we arrived?” asked Daniela.

Osyron rolled down his trouser legs and twisted his face. “I’ve lost count. Counting days seems pointless when each one may be the last. It’s been a week at least…I can’t be more accurate than that.”

The sun had sunk low enough for the breeze to emerge from its daytime hiding place. Daniela wished she knew where it hid during the sun’s rampant hours so she could dwell there too. “All set for your leaf hunt then?” she asked.

“All set,” replied Osyron, walking over to her. He reached to place a hand on Daniela’s shoulder but drew back, realising it was greasy from the ointment. “Don’t worry, I won’t be gone long; the fading light will see to that.” Osyron took a step to leave before adding, “Unless you wish to come with me?”

Daniela glanced around the camp. The clashing of steel was infrequent now, signalling the intense training regimes of the women were winding down. Soon it would be a meal followed by book study in the glow of campfires then songs and music before sleep. “Do you mind if I pass? I want some alone time to gather my thoughts. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No, I understand. I’ll give you space,” Osyron said. He turned and walked away, offering a glance over his shoulder. A raised hand bid her farewell as he disappeared through the huddle of huts towards the camp exit.

When Osyron had vanished from sight, Daniela tilted her head back and emitted a drawn-out sigh. She sat, turning over troubles in her head in rhythmic tandem with the orange in her palm. She had never seen such a fruit before, never tasted one or even conceived of such a thing. It should have held her mystified yet it didn’t. At any moment, the islanders could end her life and the lives of the boys she had come here to save and this too was not enough to demand her undivided attention. Despite the wonders of nature, despite fearing her execution, her most common reoccurring thought was Osyron.

You’re not falling in love. You can’t fall in love. Daniela continued to turn over the orange while raising her other hand to her temple. Her forefinger and thumb drew along her brow, massaging a tight spot above her eye. Okay then, Daniela Callahan, you go fall in love with him right before he is killed. Your own death and the death of the boys on this island are not enough to be worrying about. She stood and paced across the sandy ground as chickens clucked their way around her legs. He wouldn’t even put his hand on you and is that any surprise? You can’t be considered any better than ordinary, and that’s compared to the women back home. Next to the women here, well… Daniela interjected her own self-condemning thoughts. Just stop it. Nothing can happen; nothing will happen. That’s where this silliness begins and ends. She spun around and marched up the steps to her hut.

Inside, she sat down on her straw-stuffed mattress and cradled her head in her hands. Even if none of this crazy island business was going on it’s too soon after Henry. You can’t disrespect his memory like this.

Osyron meandered through the jungle, collecting the leaves, roots and tree sap that made up the soothing ointment. A ghost of a mist blanketed the grass underfoot. It shifted and swirled around his knees as he took carefully placed steps through the jungle foliage. While walking and gathering ingredients he never spotted the islanders but knew they shadowed his every step. The occasional whizz of an arrow followed by the death cry of some hidden horror confirmed their presence. Some of the tribe saved his life while others discussed if they should end it. Osyron found the thought amusing, however, while a humorous thought, it failed to birth any laughter.

His imprisonment of heat and hatred with no end in sight was a toll-bearing test of sanity. Wondering if each breath would be his last made life unbearable. Slipping over the precipice into madness would have been inevitable if not for one thing—Daniela. Her company somehow made this hell endurable. He could not imagine going through these tribulations without her. Whenever he thought he could take no more, she was there to lift his spirits and feed him hope. Where once she was an occasional ghosting thought amongst a million others, she was now a permanent fixture in his conscience. Lately, he had to make a genuine effort to focus his attention where needed and not on Daniela. Does she think of me as often? Does she think of me in the same way? he wondered as he rubbed the leaves he happened past, feeling for the tell-tale velvet texture on the underside. Perhaps the desperate situation is magnifying these feelings of fondness. Osyron paused, still holding a leaf before shaking his head and moving on. That was not it; he had felt this too deeply and for too long for it to be offhandedly dismissed as some fleeting crush. Daniela had been a regular patron at the forefront of his mind before they had even spotted the island. The way she had given up her life to see justice done was admirable, was wondrous. Anyone would claim to act just as she had, but Osyron knew claiming and demonstrating to be very different animals. With the pressure of sworn secrecy under threat of death from the tribe coupled with the widespread fear of sailing south, most would have disowned the whole affair and gone back to their lives happy to have one. But Daniela was different; he had never witnessed compassion to such a degree in anyone, never thought it possible. She handled whatever was thrown at her as though she had been dealing with unimaginable trials her whole life; indeed, she had been through more than most women he had met. Osyron was enchanted with her. Even with the accompanying madness of his current situation, he concluded that his life was better for having her in it. A single glance from her and unsurmountable obstacles melted into nothingness, a smile and the unbearable became somehow pleasurable.

The whoosh of a spear in flight followed by an almighty thud as some unseen beast crashed to the ground yanked Osyron from his thoughts. The creature’s roar echoed through the trees, prompting birds to caw their disapproval and take flight from the canopy above. When the brief interlude of noisy activity passed, Osyron stood motionless, eyes scanning the surrounding thickset vegetation. He considered voicing thanks, but feared the sound would draw further unwanted attention. His eyes continued to scan for any sign of life but the constant chorus of insects and birds was all he heard; he saw no one. He raised his hand in a silent gesture of appreciation and started on his way.

The sound of his own movement and twigs snapping underfoot helped mask the incessant hum of the tiny winged critters that kept him close, constant company. Osyron offered internal thanks for the repelling properties of the ointment.

Despite the multitude of dangers in the jungle Osyron felt more at ease here than at the settlement. If not for the man-eating beasts stalking him and the perpetual drone of insects, Osyron could almost call himself happy while foraging. A love for the discovery of new trees and plants was in his nature. The only thing that could make his daily excursions more gratifying would be the presence of Daniela. He dearly wished she had accompanied him. There’s always tomorrow. The thought stopped him in his tracks. Tomorrow was no guarantee; even his next breath carried a question mark. I have to tell her how I feel and I have to do it now. Osyron spun on his heels and strode back through the misty grass towards the settlement.

The sun was a half-circle of wavering red, sinking into the sea when Osyron drew close to their twin huts. The heat had mellowed from its earlier mercilessness to a placid warmth. Daniela sat on the steps of her hut where he’d last seen her. Chickens clucked and scattered in all directions as he approached. Others pecked at the ground, well accustomed to invasive human feet.

“You have not even begun to peel that orange; are you feeling okay? You’re not coming down with something, are you?”

Daniela’s head snapped up at the sound of his voice. Osyron put the back of his hand to Daniela’s temple to gauge her temperature. It was something he’d witnessed his father do countless times. “Your temperature seems fine. I wonder if...”

Daniela drew her face away from his hand. “Why are you touching me?”

Osyron drew his hand back, frowning at Daniela’s sudden defensiveness. “I was testing to see if you were burning up. I thought you would be comfortable with it. I’m sorry, I should have asked first.”

“No, that’s not it. Before you left, you stretched out your hand then drew it back like you were repulsed at the idea of contact with me.”

Osyron covered his mouth and let out a chuckle. “What’s so funny?” demanded Daniela.

“My hands had ointment on them; I didn’t want to get

your clothes covered is all.”

Daniela tilted her head back, letting out a groan at the recollection. “I’m sorry; I didn’t consider that.”
“Daniela, please look at me,” said Osyron. She brought her head back and gazed up at him. “I have no idea what is going to happen to us and I wanted to say thank you for being there when I needed you. I wish you were somewhere far from here, somewhere safe surrounded by friends, cheer and song. Nevertheless, I must confess to a degree of selfishness. I am delighted you’re by my side. I wouldn’t’ve got through this without you, and I’d choose no other to go through it with.”

Daniela slowly rose. The step underfoot elevated her to equal his height. The breeze lifted a lone strand of her hair, reminding Osyron of the first time he’d laid eyes on her. “And I could wish for no better companion to be at my side.” She took in his blue eyes. She could see a world in them, countless thoughts, fears, dreams and hopes but above all sincerity. They held each other’s stare as their faces inched closer; Osyron glanced between Daniela’s eyes and mouth. Daniela’s tongue darted out to wet her lips. The distance between them slowly diminished. Osyron gently placed his forefinger under Daniela’s chin, guiding her lips to meet his. He felt her breath; she felt her heart race. They both closed their eyes and conquered the final inch between them.

“Wait! Osyron cried, drawing back. Daniela almost fell as her momentum carried her forward. He caught her by the arms and she stared up at him, a tangle of hurt and confusion. Osyron had to talk fast. “We could be monitored right now; we know how these women would react if they saw us embrace. While they have not mentioned it, they may still be under the impression that I am a man who likes other men. For all we know that may be the very reason I am still alive. As much as I would love to kiss you, Daniela, it could very well be a kiss of death, for us both.”

Daniela’s face softened as she let out a sigh. “You’re right; the potential consequences are too great, we have the lives of boys to think about as well.”

Osyron risked drawing the backs of his fingers across Daniela’s check. “I may be guilty of wishful thinking but I’m sure our time will come.”

Daniela caught Osyron’s hand before he could take it back and held it. “Then let’s both be guilty together.”

Osyron could feel his face flush; he hoped the red-tinged world from the setting sun masked his reddening cheeks.

“I think we have pushed our luck to its very limit,” Daniela said, letting go of his hand. “We can talk about us when the time is more appropriate.”

“I think you’re right.” Osyron remembered the basket of leaves in his hand. “May I ask a favour—do you mind handing these leaves in for me? I feel the happiest I’ve been since arriving here and being hissed at will only rob me of it.”

Daniela smiled at him. “Give them here.” Daniela made her way through the huts to offer the basket to the women, her hair whipped around as she glanced back over her shoulder, beaming a smile at Osyron before disappearing through the semblance of huts.

Osyron spotted the orange Daniela had left sitting on her step. He walked over and picked it up. It still harboured the warmth from Daniela’s hand. If the elders somehow granted them a pardon and if they made it back to Olbaid then maybe they could find some quiet corner of the empire where they could live their lives in peace. He could revert to his trade as a carpenter and Daniela could keep fishing or do anything that caught her imagination. She was young enough to learn anything she desired. Maybe they could even raise a boy from the island as their own. The confirmation of his execution could arrive any moment yet he could not keep the smile from his face at these thoughts. Osyron placed the orange back on the step and picked up a stick from the ground. He etched the words ‘Good night, Sweetpea’ in the sand at the foot of Daniela’s steps before retreating to his own hut. He peeked out his window in anticipation of Daniela’s return. She appeared and sent the chickens scattering as she drew close to her hut. She stopped before the steps and frowned down at the sand, her arms folded as she bent over, reading the message he’d left. A broad smile dominated her face, melting the frown from her brow; she bit her lip and peered over at his cabin. Osyron ducked away from the window and snuck over to his bed. Laying down, he laced his fingers behind his head, powerless to stop the smile spreading across his own face as he closed his eyes and drifted into dreams.

The blunt end of a spear banging on the hut doorframe woke Osyron the following morning. “You’ve been summoned. You must come to the Elders’ Tree at once,” came a demanding voice. Osyron dressed and stepped out of his hut. Six armed women stood in formation with unreadable expressions. Osyron took in the sunrise, wondering if it would be the last he’d ever see.

“I guess this is it,” said Daniela, stepping out of her hut into the morning sun.

Osyron offered a smile. If his smiles did half of what hers did for him then he knew it would make whatever was coming more endurable for her. “I guess it is. Are you ready?”

“I’m ready,” said Daniela, returning the smile.

“Osyron tried to speak but the sight of her grinning face with the sunrise at her back forced him to gulp. A parched mouth prevented him from saying more so he nodded his agreement instead.”

Every waking second on the island had been spent in anticipation of this moment, and now that it was here, Osyron’s stomach turned to stone. The fate of Daniela, the boys and himself had been decided by women indoctrinated by near three centuries of hatred. The boulder in his stomach increased in density and somehow began to churn. His legs became hollow; with each passing step through the huts towards the tree, crumbling to the dirt became an increasing probability.

The women who escorted them had given no instruction not to speak but he chose silence freely. There was nothing to be said at this point and even if he could think of anything relevant, he doubted he could get the words out. He stole a glance at Daniela as they walked. She also seemed to find words difficult or had rendered them pointless like he. Knowing her, she would be concerning herself with the fate of the children rather than their own. This shamed Osyron over his own selfish thoughts, but even shame was preferable to the snowballing fear that steadily grew with each step closer to the great tree and the elder waiting within. The loathing in the stares of the women as they passed made the short walk deplorable. Osyron wondered if the women had knowledge of their fate. Unadulterated bitterness in the eyes he met prevented him searching for answers. Perhaps those resentment-filled glares suggested a merciful sentence had been passed. Dread and hope embraced inside him, carefree and ignorant of their fundamental incompatibility.

The huge beige tree came into sight and grew more imposing with each step towards it. If it was to be death then he hoped it would at least be swift. He gagged at thought of seeing Daniela die. The thought of her witnessing him die held equally little appeal. His head spun as they ghosted through the tight tangle of roots and into the encompassing darkness of the Elders’ Tree.

Inside, disembodied faces stared at Daniela and Osyron in the muted glow offered by burning lanterns. The six guards escorted them down the narrow parting in the sea of faces leading to the elder who sat upon her chair opposite the entrance. Osyron felt like he was walking into the maw of some great beast carefully anticipating its precise moment to snap shut on him. He pictured drawn swords in the hands of the women, hidden from view in the darkness, all anticipating the moment they could hack him, the outside abomination to pieces. The silence inside the tree was disconcerting given such a gathering of people. Judging by the number of faces, the bulk of the island’s population would bear witness to their fate. The six women escorts came to a stop before the elder; they bowed before melting into the sea of faces on either side. The elder returned the bow before rising from her seat.

Wasting no time with greetings, the elder stretched her arms out and addressed the room. “With not one but two visitations to our island we have been forced to re-evaluate the terms under which our civilisation operates. Our anonymity has been compromised and we have to adjust and react accordingly.”

Osyron’s stomach felt cavernous; butterflies glided through it, causing his guts to shift and grumble. Daniela grimaced and flicked her watery gaze into the engulfing, endless darkness of the hollowed trunk above.

The elder lowered her arms and gazed at the two intruders.

“We have deliberated for many nights, outsiders, contemplating what fate should befall both yourselves and our male offspring.” The elder paused, knowing every second of silence was a torturous eternity for the trespassers. “We have decided that our sons will no longer be shipped off to Olbaid.”

Daniela’s amber eyes went wide. “You must!” She opened her mouth to add further protest but the sudden appearance of two spearheads inches from her face persuaded her to rethink the idea.

The elder continued. “As for both of you, we believe that your intent was honourable, and your deaths would not fix the problems we face; therefore we shall spare your lives.”

Osyron gave Daniela a smiling sidelong glance. Daniela returned the smile but half-heartedly.

The chief elder went on. “But we will not let you leave.”

It was Osyron’s turn to go wide-eyed. “We made a mistake in allowing the fish woman to leave the first time; this male’s presence here is testimony to that. Therefore you shall both remain on the island indefinitely, as guests.”

“Guests?” asked Osyron through gritted teeth.

“What is to be done with the boys?” pleaded Daniela.

The elder looked at Daniela. “We will allow them to grow and become part of our society. As I stated before, we believe the outside world will destroy itself; it is man’s nature. We cannot sit idle and wait for such an event to pass. That would lead to our own extinction. We need to ensure our continued survival. We can no longer rely on sending boats to foreign lands. We must become a self-reliant people.”

“Guests?” asked Osyron again with increased volume.

The chief elder ignored him as she continued to address Daniela. “We are in a unique position. Our sons can be taught our history with no outside influence. If we’re lucky, then this self-destructive nature of men will prove to be a learned behaviour and not inherent in male blood. They will be taught virtue, respect and the importance of equality.”

Osyron scoffed, forcing the elder to turn her attention to him. “Yes, male, you are our guests. You are free to come and go as you please on the island with the only exception being that you can have no interactions with the children we are raising. Your influence on them would not be appreciated.”

Osyron met the elder’s eyes. “I’m a prisoner and nothing more—at least have the grace to call it what it is.”

The chief elder stared at him. Osyron thought she looked genuinely puzzled at his protest. “You will not be caged as your people did to Zinaria; you will not be given sparse rations or scraps from the plates of others. You will eat as we do and as much as pleases you.” The chief elder stopped briefly before reiterating her earlier point. “You’re a guest.”

Osyron wanted to let the bubbling anger free but suspected it would be met by consequence on the elder’s part, leading to regret on his. He made a conscious effort to keep the heat out of his voice, but not all of it. “This island is a cage and the bars are the hatred and contempt in every pair of eyes that look my way. Just because the cell is large and the bars are not tangible does not make me any less of a prisoner.”

The chief elder continued to address him with a placid self-assuredness. “You are free to define the terminology of your stay here however you please, but we view you as a guest on this island. Time is needed for you to win the trust of everyone here. Maybe this time will help you redefine your outlook on your stay here.” The elder kept talking, mentioning meeting halfway on a metaphorical bridge but Osyron was no longer listening; his mind was set on escape.

“Do you really plan to let the boys grow to become men?” asked Daniela.

“We do. We remain certain the outside world will destroy itself. This forces us to make changes to ensure our own long term survival.”

Daniela thought this over for a time before replying. “This is wonderful news. I bow to your wisdom, elder.”

The elder gave Daniela a smile and a slight bow of her head in return.

Daniela continued. “I understand your concerns over letting us go free but we have no reason to return here if we know the boys are going to live. We also have no reason to tell anyone of your existence. We would respect your privacy. Is there no way we can return home?”

The elder looked at Daniela and gave her a knowing look as if expecting the plea. “The last time you were here you promised that you’d tell no one yet you returned with someone, a male no less. Did you envision having any reason to do that at the time?” Daniela recognised it as a rhetorical question and let the elder continue. “I understand circumstances forced your hand but if this can happen once then it can happen again. How long before we are inundated with fleets of boats looking for the fabled island of women? No sister, we cannot let you go, the safety of our cultural integrity depends upon it.”

Daniela wanted to offer further protest but she understood the elder’s reasoning. She had gone back on her word and now held no credibility with the islanders.

Osyron had only considered freedom or execution as outcomes. With the news sinking in that it was to be life-long imprisonment, his thoughts turned towards his mother. She now faced having both her son and husband disappear without a trace. Osyron did not like to think of such things but it was evident his mother had steadily become lonely as a woman. Now that loneliness was to be compounded with the heartache of losing her only child. She was liked in Cloverstone, but how long before whispers of her husband and son both disappearing without a trace became rumours? How long before rumours became allegations? Osyron couldn’t blame the gossip mongers and speculative chin wags; even he could acknowledge the suspicion that coincidence was advocating. Osyron swore a private oath not to let that become his mother’s fate.

Over the following days, Osyron found tolerance if not acceptance from some of the islanders. Some had seen men before so his appearance did not offend them as much as it did the women who had never left the island. They showed him training and fighting techniques and he in turn showed them what he had learned as a marshal. His ultimate goal was to begin passing on his abilities with carpentry as he hoped to spend time at the dock to formulate an escape plan. He needed a boat; he needed the Hornet to outrun any boats that gave chase. Osyron refrained from telling Daniela his intent to escape; if he was uncovered, Daniela’s genuine innocence could be the only thing that saw her life spared.

Osyron was astounded by just how intensely the women trained. It was clear why they had such impeccable physiques. Living alone for centuries in complete anonymity could have led to complacency but such a concept was more foreign to the women than he was. The islanders trained as though an invasion was imminent, and had done so since their revolt against the indigenous males of the island two hundred and fifty years ago. An alliance of mutual trust grew incrementally. Tolerance from the women grew as did his resilience to the sun’s unforgiving rays, but neither had blossomed enough to make him forget his desire to escape or his privately sworn oath.

Venturing into the jungle alone was not only forbidden but out of the question as the island was saturated with traps, the docks and surrounding area being particularly encumbered with hidden deaths. It explained the seemingly directionless walk from the boat to the encampment when he’d first arrived on the island. Even if the jungle had been trap-free, the women’s regular patrols and inside knowledge of the area made remaining undetected a borderline impossibility.

Once he had become familiar with the trees on the island, Osyron educated his hosts on how to maximize the longevity of their wooden weaponry. He suggested letting him treat their boats so that they too could have a longer life span. They turned down his offer, stating they already had a fleet that would serve their purposes for a considerable time. With voyages to the mainland soon to be redundant, the islanders’ use for boats had greatly diminished, taking Osyron’s hope with it. Things were getting desperate. There was no other way off the island other than the dock. He could not concoct a plan let alone an escape attempt. He knew there would be only one crack at escaping. If caught, he would be killed or overly policed to deny any possibility of a second escape attempt. He remembered his private promise to his mother. He could not allow himself to surrender to hopelessness. He had to keep believing there was a way off the island. It just needed finding.

Chapter Twenty Four

Riven stood on the quarterdeck and wiped the nape of his neck with his handkerchief. The horizon split into two perfect blue halves, a deep blue that shimmered with sunlight by day and moonlight at night. Above stretched a pale sky that had bore no clouds for the past week. Riven squinted up disbelievingly at the blazing sun before turning his attention to the crew. Not one man was past his twentieth year. The fledgling crew under the guidance of the only female captain Riven had ever known brought intrigue. Several weeks had passed since departing from Olbaid and still Riven could not crack the meaning behind the peculiarity. A lurking dread told him this was an expendable crew. Riven did not like the thought; he liked captain Whisky and her young crew but more than this, it meant he too was viewed as expendable. Riven recalled the flash of anger on Horim’s face when he had questioned the emperor about the demonic lands. He wondered just how deep his question had cut.

“You all right, High Marshal? You’re wearing a heavy face again.” Whisky’s voice stole into his thoughts. She stood at the ship’s wheel that was comically too big for her, staring at him through the wheel’s spokes rather than over it. While not big enough for the ship’s wheel, Riven knew her big enough for straight talk.

“Your crew, they’re all kids. What’s the story?”

Whisky rested her chin and foot on the spokes and grinned through the ship’s wheel. Her arms hung limp as she draped herself around other spokes, almost becoming one with the wooden device. She stared at Riven, analysing him. Whisky had to be double the age of the oldest man in her crew. While short, she was a natural leader full of fight and mischief, possessing an uncanny knack for knowing when a comforting arm over a shoulder or a hefty boot up the rear needed applying. A solitary streak of white ran through the centre of her red hair. Riven thought Whisky perfectly embodied a fox. “You really don’t know, do you?” she asked.

Riven shrugged. Whisky huffed a laugh. “We’re pirates. Well, we were pirates. Now we’re legitimate members of the empire’s armada.”

Riven snapped his head back and stared at Whisky. Pirates in the armada was farcical. Horim’s grinning face flashed in his head and lunacy switched to sanity.

“Let me guess, you were captured and offered a lifetime in prison, or the armada.”

“Jackpot,” exclaimed Whisky, whipping a finger through the air.

“I need to ask, what stops you from stealing the ship and returning to the pirate life?”

“’Cause the emperor is a crafty bastard.” Realising who she was confiding in, Whisky suddenly straightened.

Riven cleared his throat. “I know the emperor.”

Whisky relaxed a little. She rested her chin back on a wheel spoke. “See, my life sentence is currently served by part of my crew; twenty men are held and will remain so until the emperor calls for me. They’ll be released with a different twenty taking their place. The length of time they serve is always different—sometimes it’s weeks; other times its months. I guess he fears a jailbreak if we knew the switch date.”

“That’s some fierce loyalty. Shows the high regard they hold you in. They all go along with the shared sentence?”

Whisky nodded. “The crew was captured with me. They received a pardon on the condition they join the armada and serve a portion of my sentence.” Whisky hooked a thumb into her belt. “I can’t return to pirate life after cutting a deal with the emperor. I wouldn’t be trusted the length of myself. Same for my men. There’s no ship sailing back to that life for us.”

A lot had happened in Riven’s absence while recovering from his knock to the head. He made a mental note to catch up on who was in Marshals’ Hall’s cells and their reasons for being there when he returned. Riven realised Whisky had not answered his original question. “You’ve yet to explain the crew’s youthfulness.”

“That’s Judith Flowerbank’s doing.”

Riven wiped the accumulated sweat from his face and neck. “Who is Judith Flowerbank?”

“Yer lookin’ at her.”

Riven’s hand froze mid-wipe. He lowered the handkerchief and fixed a frown on Whisky. She pointed a finger at him. “That’s the very face I was met with time after time when requesting to join a crew. It was usually followed by laughter, but I see yours is stuck there.”

Riven’s frown melted but his eyes stayed fixed on Whisky.

“A name like Judith Flowerbank is a liability when looking for a crew. No one took me seriously when I combed the coast for a ship to join. After universal rejection and ridicule, Judith Flowerbank went home, never to see the light of day again. She remerged as the charismatic Whisky Falcone.” Whisky waved a theatrical arm and bowed before Riven. “Before the week’s end, Whisky had a crew. Before a decade passed, Whisky had her own ship.” Whisky extended the same arm to the boards under her feet. “Then Whisky inherited Judith’s problems. Pirates stood shoulder to shoulder with me, but bending the knee, calling a woman captain, that had never been done before. Found myself looking for a crew all over again. Forced me to take on those no one would touch. So there you have it—a crew of unwanted novices, a ship full of Judith Flowerbanks.”

Riven took in Whisky’s words. Once again the same word surfaced, louder and with more authority. Expendable.

“Land ahoy, land ahoy!” An emotional cry rang from the crow’s nest, lifting the hair on Riven’s neck. The ship’s bell rang, calling the crew to action. Riven glanced up. His eyes narrowed, peering in the direction the lookout was pointing. He scanned the horizon, picking up a black silhouette between the blue of sea and sky. “By Hixel’s breath, it’s real,” he muttered.

The crew sprung to life and jostled for position as they scampered towards the bulwark railing. Everyone wanting to confirm the legitimacy of the island with their own eyes. The sun had sapped the men’s vigour in recent days, but with their destination in sight, the now resurgent crew defied the baking heat.

“Captain Whisky, summon the men. I wish to address them before we sail any closer,” requested the high marshal. Professionalism was assured from the diplomats and the two seasoned soldiers on board but the youthful crew needed guidance.

Captain Whisky nodded. “Aye, High Marshal.” She called the men to heed. The crew ceased scanning the horizon and began chattering amongst themselves as they fell into formation on the main deck. Captain Whisky and the high marshal stood on the upper deck, looking over the assembled crew. The sails rippled on the shy breeze as Riven took them in. He gave a rhythmic, approving nod as he paced back and forth. “I wanted to personally thank you men for getting us here. You have done a fine job not letting fear corrupt your hearts and minds. For that, I commend you.”

Some of the men raised fists; others voiced cheers at the recognition.

“We are here on a diplomatic mission; this should be at the forefront of your minds above and beyond all else. We are making history. You are the first adult males to be setting foot on this island for over quarter of a millennia. Our story will echo through the corridors of eternity. Those echoes will resonate with tones of valour, or tones of shame—it is dependent on your conduct this day.” Riven ceased pacing and addressed the men face on. “You are sons of Olbaid, ambassadors of Olbaid, and I expect your behaviour to exemplify the meaning of this. Do yourselves and our empire proud.”

The crew pumped fists and filled the sea air with excited cheers. Riven let the good spirits run their course. “I stand before Olbaidian men, men that I am proud to say I have sailed with. I want nothing that happens here to change my view for the journey home. I take pride in this crew, not only in your capabilities as sailors but also in your characters as men. I do not want questionable conduct robbing me of the pride I feel for you. Now, let us commence with what we came here for. You men are about to become part of legend; do your all to be worthy of it.”

The crew roared with approval. Some called out, “For Olbaid!” while others tossed their hats into the air. Lustful thoughts of plunder had been put aside, at least for the time being.

Riven gestured to Captain Whisky, letting her know he was done. She stepped forward and addressed her crew. “You’ve won the respect of the high marshal, strengthening my own respect for you in the process.” She gave her men a beaming smile of blatant pride. “Let’s get back to it, lads, history is waiting to be written.”

The crew gave a final “Aye, Cap’n” and returned to their posts, indulging in back slaps and boastful grins.

“So, what’s the plan?” asked Whisky.

“We sail close as we dare, then deploy the diplomats with the two soldiers on a rowboat.” Riven met the captain’s eyes. “Tell the soldiers to carry ceremonial swords. All other weapons are to be left on board. I want no one else setting foot on the island. Let’s get what we came for and return home with little fuss as possible.”

Captain Whisky nodded her agreement. “The crew’ll be disappointed after such a monumental build up but I agree, uneventful is how I want my first expedition to pass.” Whisky took a few steps to rest her hands on the upper deck railing. The sea breeze lifted her hair from her shoulders as her eyes narrowed to focus on the ambiguous silhouette in the distance.

“What if your insubordinate marshal is on that island?”

Riven had pondered the question on the journey. He walked to stand shoulder to shoulder with Whisky and join her scrutiny of the dot on the horizon. “If he came here he’s most likely dead, but if by some chance he’s still alive then we’ll request he be surrendered into our custody. If they refuse, so be it. Exile from the empire is as fitting a punishment as any.”

Riven hoped Osyron was alive, however, he remained uncertain if he wanted the custody request to be complied with; in all likelihood, it would end with the boy’s execution. News of the jailbreak had spread throughout the city; everyone from the Olbaidian elite down to the commoners lent an ear and voiced an opinion on the matter. Offhandedly dismissing such a blatant disregard for authority was not a possibility. Exile from Olbaid was best for everyone involved. Riven harboured no regret over killing Richard Rymore, but sorrow for a child’s loss still had a home in him. Perhaps a merciful outcome for Osyron would see him free of that chain. Informing Osyron’s mother her son was alive and well but unable to return home could also pay off the debt to his conscience.

Captain Whisky drew back and bunched her face. “Does being marooned on an island of beautiful women strike you as a punishment, High Marshal?”

Riven gave an expectant grin at Whisky’s question. “I’ve met one of these islanders; while physically beautiful, their nature is a different animal all together, especially when it comes to men. They have a deeply seeded loathing, an indoctrinated hatred that has outlived the generation that conceived it by centuries. Life here is not as pretty as the headline suggests, Captain. Knowing you’ll never see friends or family again is torturous.”

Captain Whisky shrugged, deferring to the high marshal’s knowledge on the matter. The diplomats emerged from below deck and caught her attention. “Tell me, High Marshal, do these islanders comprehend the concept of diplomacy?”

The importance of the question forced Riven to straighten. Life on an island oblivious to the world rendered diplomacy a redundant notion. Riven hoped the island was at least aware of the theory and would recognise its meaning when offered. “Do me a favour, Captain; have one of the men tear a bed sheet and make white flags. Even these islanders can’t be ignorant of the meaning behind a white flag.” Riven detested making a speculative assertion but it was out of his mouth before he could slam his lips shut.

The crew remained transfixed on the four diplomats and two soldiers in the rowboat making their way to the coast of the island. Men hung over the ship’s railing while others climbed the rigging for an advantageous view. Both soldiers held white flags aloft, the tame breeze doing little to aid them. Riven was hoping the white squares of cloth would stand out against the dark hull of the ship from the island’s perspective. Whisky instructed them to hold the flags calmly, but the lack of a breeze had the soldiers whipping the flags back in forth with more vigour than Riven liked.

A lone woman emerged from the cover of the undergrowth near the shore, taking confident strides towards the beach before thrusting the spear she carried into the sand. With hands on hips and chin held aloft, she cut a defiant stance. “Halt. Come no further; you are neither welcome nor wanted here. Turn around and never return,” she called, her voice matching the commanding nature of her pose.

One of the diplomats laboured to his feet in the shifting rowboat, sticking his arms out in an awkward display of balance. “Greetings and blessings be upon you, good lady. We come bearing gifts: weapons, literature and an offer of allegiance. All we ask in return is an audience, a chance to speak with the hierarchy of your island. We wish to discuss a coalition that would be mutually advantageous for both our people.” The diplomat smiled, turning the palms of his outstretched hands up, coaxing an agreeable response.

“If you ask something in return then it is no gift. Your items are not wanted; you are not wanted. This is your second and final warning. Leave now and never return,” spat the lone figure.

“Good lady, we have travelled such distance, by instruction of Emperor Horim himself. We know of your visits to our land; we know of your people’s acquisition of various Olbaidian property. The emperor is willing to overlook this if we’re allowed to speak. You may keep the items we’ve brought even if we come to no agreement. This is a generous offer, is it not, dear lady?” The diplomat remained in the same open-armed stance.

“You were warned, twice.” The woman pulled her spear from the sand. That second warning was the generous offer in this conversation.” The woman spun around, her long dark hair whirring through the air, and walked back towards the cover of the jungle. The trees swallowed her, leaving the diplomat staring at the vacant sandy shore.

The ship’s crew could not hear the exchange but the woman’s undaunted stance and march back into cover told the story. A shrill cry sounded over the crew’s murmurs. “Look out!” Whistling projectiles sped through the air. Six arrows found six targets on the rowboat. The men clutched at their torsos, staring dumbly at the arrows embedded in their chests. Two men crumpled to the deck while the other four toppled overboard in near perfect unison. The crew screamed at the unfolding events. They swore oaths of revenge and vile intent while hammering fists against the hull carried across the water.

“Calm your men, Captain Whisky, I need clear heads for what we’re about to unleash,” said Riven.

Chapter Twenty Five

“Give me a weapon and I’ll help,” Osyron said, extending a pleading arm at the women that swept passed. Word had reached camp from the border patrols of an outside ship and the islanders were wasting no time getting armed and moving. One of the women stopped and stared at him, shifting her sour gaze between his face and open palm. “You’re scum if you’d take up arms against your own gender,” snapped the woman. “Or you’re lying and wish to aid these men.”

Osyron let out a frustrated breath. “I went through this when I arrived here. It’s not a case of man versus woman, it’s a case of right versus wrong. This is your island and whoever is on the ship has no business being here. It would be no different if I were home and your ship sat on our coast uninvited. I want to help because it’s the right thing to do. I cannot put it simpler than that.”

Osyron held her eyes, hoping she would see his honest intent. She eventually pulled a long knife from her belt. As he reached out to take it, she snatched it back to her chest. “Stay in front of me. If you betray my trust, you die. I cannot put it simpler than that.” She extended her arm, offering the knife once more.

Osyron gave her a wry smile. “I won’t let you down.”

“I am Azleah. Consider me your commander.” She pointed her finger to a small group of women who glided passed. “Follow them. Walk where they walk and step where they step.”

Osyron offered a confirming nod as he tucked the knife into his belt. A voice caught his attention, stopping him in his tracks. “I am not sitting idle waiting for an outcome—I want to fight.” It was Daniela.

Osyron could understand her perspective but instinctively wanted to keep her safe from harm. His values seemed ludicrous given the nature of the island. Any request for her to stay behind would come off as patronising. “You’ll get no argument from me,” he said, swallowing back the contradicting inner turmoil. ,

“Here, take my bow,” Azleah said, pulling it over her head.

Daniela accepted with a ‘thank you’ and then gave Osyron a wink. “Well, get moving, boy, or we’ll lose the group we’re supposed to be following,” she said, flicking a finger towards the group in the distance.

Osyron gulped, trying to swallow the lump in his throat and nodded dumbly. Daniela stood looking at him, her amber eyes shining, her lips curled up in that disarming smile of hers. The smile that made misery dissolve, made every hardship worthwhile. He never felt more worthwhile than when he was the reason behind that smile. Osyron had wondered many times over the past months if he was falling in love with her. In this moment, he was certain of it.

“Move!” snapped Azleah. The sharpness of her voice forced Osyron’s legs back into service as he scurried to catch up with the departing group.

The trio followed the group’s zig-zagging path through the dense undergrowth towards the shore. Osyron’s eyes darted between the footsteps on the ground and the rebounding foliage that snapped back at his face. He considered this an opportunity of escape but the recollection of giving his word to Azleah forced him to put such thoughts aside. The group halted and took up positions inside the jungle’s cover. They lined behind tree stumps and thick bushes and formed two lines; the first line crouched, poised on one knee, the second line standing upright. Both rows had arrows nocked in drawn longbows.

From their cover point, Osyron and Daniela could see the uninvited ship. Its imposing dark hull and grubby, yellowing sails looked somehow lost against the brightness, an unsightly stain on the clear blue blankets of sea and sky. Between the mighty ship and shore, a small rowboat bobbed on the tide. Osyron thought he could see an arm lying limp over the edge. What was unmistakable was the corpse floating face down on the sea’s surface beside it. The body was dressed in the garb of an Olbaidian diplomat. Negotiations evidently had not gone as planned. Osyron gasped as the corpse was suddenly yanked below the surface by some dark mass. The once crystaline water flushed into a bloody cloud where the body had been.

The ship had begun lowering two more rowboats into the sea; this time the personnel on board looked anything but diplomatic. A dozen men occupied each boat. All carried swords, axes and maces but the metal shields strapped to each man’s back caught Osyron’s attention. Osyron placed a hand on Azleah’s bare shoulder. Her head spun, whipping Osyron in the face with sleek black hair. Osyron withdrew his hand at the daggers in Azleah’s eyes. “They’re about to use the tortoise shell formation, overlapping their shields as one, giving the archers nothing to hit. You need to pull back.”

“We’ll pull back, male, but not yet,” replied Azleah. The two rowboats drew closer while a further two lowered into the sea behind them. A throng of arrows fired from the jungle, making a unified whipping sound as they sped through the air. All of the arrows found their targets but ricocheted harmlessly into the water. The front row of archers that had fired fell in behind the second row to reload. The second row took a step forward and fell to one knee to let loose their round of arrows.

“Do you smell that?” asked Daniela. “It smells like oil.”

Osyron inhaled deeply. “I smell something. What is that?” Daniela looked at him and shrugged.

“Pull back and mirror my footsteps,” said Azleah as she started to retreat. Osyron extended an arm in invite for Daniela to go first; she gave a quick nod and followed Azleah through the jungle’s dense vegetation.

Osyron heard a whoosh as the next round of arrows took flight. He risked a glance over his shoulder to see the first two rowboats close in on the shore. As Osyron continued to retreat, a fourth round of arrows was fired, then a fifth. The sound from the last volley caught Osyron’s attention, causing him to halt; it carried the unmistakable crackle of fire. The impact of arrows hitting shields was sharply followed by panic-filled screams as realisation struck the men on the boats. Osyron risked another glance over his shoulder; the sight that met him left him rooted in his tracks. Flames flickered and spread on the impenetrable shell formation of shields. It dawned on Osyron the first four volleys were not intended to penetrate the shields but simply coat them in some flammable substance in preparation for the flaming arrows that followed. Osyron watched the fire grow. Arrows continued to pepper the boats, giving the flames further incentive to spread and intensify. A voice screamed aloud, “My arm is cooking!” An even louder call to “Hold position or you’ll kill us all!” retorted the pleading voice. One rowboat kept its nerve and held their shields in place, reaching the shore. The other lacked disciplined. One shield slipped from formation. The culprit responsible dove into the cooling sanctuary of the sea. The women pounced on the opportunity, sending a stream of arrows into the exposed area. More shields slipped out of formation that in turn evoked more fired arrows at the unprotected crew. The men toppled overboard, shields hissing as they splashed into the water. In mere moments the boat was abandoned, the occupants’ dead or diving for the refuge of the sea.

Osyron spun, looking for Daniela and Azleah but found no sign of either. His eyes darted around the thickset jungle wall. Branches with overgrown, shiny leaves obstructed every possible pathway. His gaze settled on a bush in the wall of untamed growth; the branches gently bobbed, suggesting they had recently been disturbed. Osyron made for it, fearing to be lost and alone in a labyrinth of traps. As he pushed the bush aside something locked around his ankles. He glanced down to see a rope snag his feet. He was whipped upside down at disorientating speed towards the waiting canopy above, the whirring of rope accompanying his ascent. A jarring halt ended the journey upwards. Osyron tried to recuperate his bearings. From his perspective high in the treetops, he could see the shoreline. Dangling upside down, the sea became the sky, complete with flaming boat as a surrogate sun. Osyron reached for the knife given to him by Azleah; it was gone, most likely fallen while being whipped into the air.

Osyron stared out at the beach, the two trailing rowboats now in touching distance of the shore. The men who had made it safely stood in waist-deep water behind the remaining rowboat. They held shields above their heads for protection even though the bombardment of arrows had ceased. Osyron looked at the taut rope around his ankles. Even if freeing his feet were possible the resulting fall would be somewhere between crippling and fatal. He could do nothing but remain a spectator for the remainder of the skirmish playing out below.

“We’ve lost Osyron,” panted Daniela as she scrambled to keep pace with Azleah. Staying close resulted in the whipping backlash of branches from Azleah pushing past them; lagging behind carried the threat of losing her altogether.

“No sister, he has lost us—an important difference,” responded Azleah over her shoulder.

“What happened to him, is he alright?”

Azleah stopped, turned and placed a hand on Daniela’s shoulder. “What happened is he did not listen.”

Daniela felt the colour drain from her face. “Is he... dead?” she asked, her voice little more than a whisper.

“Doubtful. The route we took contained predominantly non-lethal traps. Chances are his ignorant male behind got caught in one of those.”

Daniela shaped her mouth to speak but Azleah held up a finger, giving her pause. “We are almost home. We will find him once we have taken care of the invaders.” The instant her words were spoken Azleah was on the move again. Daniela took one more hopeful look over her shoulder, She stared at the spot in the jungle where she and Azleah had come through. Nothing stirred. Finally, heeding Azleah’s words about not listening, she turned and gave chase again as she whispered a plea into the jungle. “Please, let him be alright.”

Riven and the survivors took shelter behind the remaining rowboat bobbing just off the shoreline. Many of the men spat curses as they nursed burned and blistered skin in the waist-deep water. The crew’s ire was at its threshold and discipline close to being forsaken. Riven’s initial plan had been to claim the death of a few islanders, one for each slaughtered diplomat and fallen soldier. Now there were another dozen lives lost in the pursuit of that vengeance. Huddled in the company of the remaining crew, Riven realised two things; he had grossly underestimated the women’s capabilities to defend themselves, and the crew’s rage would now not submit to any order to retreat. Riven dared not give the order to fall back while the corpses of the crew’s dead brothers polluted the water around them. Water reflected and rippled over drawn brows and gritted teeth hissing venom-laced words. The smell of singed hair ghosted amongst them.

“Listen up!“called Riven, loud enough to be heard above the scheming chatter of the crew. “Form two circles. Inner circle, raise your shields; you’ll be the roof of our defence. Outer circle, you’ll be the walls. Soak your shield and yourselves in the water before we move out so they can’t pull the same stunt.” The men ducked under the surface, soddening themselves with seawater. Riven hoped the two boats that followed saw what they where doing and would follow his lead. “When we move, we move as one, just like we drilled on the ship.

Riven had spent the journey well, drilling the ragtag crew into a cohesive military unit. While most of the men were not up to the standard of regular soldiers, even the slowest of them had picked up the basics after repetitive drilling. The men had been keen to practice as it was a welcome distraction from the cycling thoughts of demons and sharing the fate of the other ships that had ventured south across the great sea. The tortoise shell tactic had seen armies move across battlefields under immense fire without losing a single unit. This was the first time in Riven’s experience that anyone had thought to set the shields on fire using arrows coated in combustibles that would splash and coat the metal shields, rendering them flammable. Grossly underestimated indeed, thought Riven. It would prove useful in the war against Miria. All he had to do was make it back alive to report his finding.

“Once we reach the treeline, hold position until the other rowboats have caught up. Once we are united, we advance.” Riven pushed away a floating dead body that had drifted close. “Moving as a unit will prove impossible in that undergrowth so we need to spread out. They may try and pick us off with arrows so keep your movement unpredictable and your shields up at all times.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” was the men’s reply, followed by more vile oaths and malicious promises to the women. Riven knew he had another battle on his hands after this one but he needed to focus on getting into that predicament before he could concern himself with getting out of it. Right now, he would be happy to get a confirmed kill or two and hope it was enough to sate the crew’s thirst for revenge. He began to regret not bringing Captain Whisky along; her command meant infinitely more to the crew than his.

As Osyron slowly rotated upside down in the air he could see the men from the rowboats making their charge across the sand. Please let Daniela be somewhere safe. The advancing men zigzagged while holding up their shields in front of them. The women continued firing arrows with their double-row tactic, one row firing while the other reloaded. The jungle thickened as the men advanced, making targeting with arrows near impossible. A horn blasted, signalling a full retreat. The women turned and disappeared into the cover of the jungle. Due to his vantage point, Osyron could still see the women crawl, scurry and hide in various places but knew they would now be ghosts to the men on the ground.

Osyron wondered if Riven would be present after seeing the Olbaidian attire of the dead diplomat. An imposing, dark-haired figure guiding the accompanying men’s movements confirmed it. It was not just his easily recognisable frame but his precise, professional actions that made him distinct amongst the amateurish movements of his entourage. Given what a return home with Riven would mean, Osyron pondered who he hoped to be victorious.

The invading men were spread out, making ground through the undergrowth. As they closed in on his position, Osyron contemplated calling out a warning about the traps but quickly dismissed the idea. He had made a promise to Azleah. Furthermore, if they were to share the same fate as himself, it would be the least bloody outcome possible. There was no telling what the women would do once the men were ensnared, but at least a death-free conclusion was possible.

All at once, the jungle came alive. Men tumbled down holes as the ground underfoot opened into spike pits. Walls of sharpened sticks swung around tree trunks with ferocious velocity, embedding themselves into unsuspecting flesh. Nets pulled closed on the ground and carried their cargo up and out of sight. The invading men spun their heads every which way, witnessing their comrades being claimed by the terrain around them. Panic ensued. Some men rushed forward with a warcry only to trigger further traps. Tree trunks swung from different directions, knocking men flying through the air. Others came down in opposite directions, crushing bones between them in a sickening thud. One man turned to flee and ran headlong into a spear trap that sprung from the ground. Blood filled the man’s throat, reducing his scream to a muted gargle.

In a matter of minutes, three dozen men where whittled down to a mere handful. The remaining men stood with drawn swords, cowering in a circle, eyes fixed on the trees, bushes and vines around them. Heads spun at the sound of birdcalls while others slapped at the biting of insects. The circle drew smaller and the men stood back to back, terrified to step in any direction. One man’s jaw quivered as he pointed his sword at the ground as if it was about to come to life. Terror had made a mess of his breeches.

Riven looked around at the dead and the dying. Groans came from pits and from nets in the canopy above. Parts of the jungle were more claret than green; smatterings of blood glistened, stark and vivid on the green foliage. The occasional weapon strewn on the jungle floor was the only indication the meat mounds beside them had once been men. Some men had been impaled by spiked devices. Most were dead, but a sorry few were alive to witness the irrevocable nature of their plight. Flies and other pests wasted no time in responding to the macabre scene. A horde of vibrating wings hovered around the puddles and streaks of blood that covered the ground and plants.

Riven took a quick head count of survivors. The bravado and rage that had been prevalent mere moments ago submitted to unbridled fear. Riven threw down his sword and shield. ”Drop your weapons, men. It’s over.” He placed his hands behind his head in a gesture of surrender. The men stared wide-eyed at him then each other. One by one, they let their weapons slip from their fingertips onto the jungle floor. Mimicking Riven’s lead, they too raised hands above their heads.

Whisky’s crew would not have accepted the order to retreat before now. The want for vengeance coursed through them at the sight of their fallen brethren on the shoreline. Even with a twenty-year cooling period, no one would have deterred Riven from avenging his mother’s murder. Still, part of him wished he had voiced the need to retreat when he had realised the women where not the presumed pushovers he had expected. The sight of the remaining crew openly whimpering and trembling led to another realisation; these where not men at all, they were boys. Hixel’s tears, why didn’t I call the retreat? Riven began to wonder if he could have overwhelmed their anger by making them tremble at his command. He screwed his eyes shut and tilted his head back. I should have said something. He let out a slow, steadying breath and opened his eyes. Tilting his head back, he stared into the tangle of branches above, straight into the waiting gaze of Osyron.

Chapter Twenty Six

“We told you you’re not welcome yet you chose to ignore our wishes,” said the elder. “You were given not one but two warnings to leave and you ignored them both. Enlighten us, what is so important that you chose to disregard our desire to be left alone?”

Riven listened intently with his hands bound behind his back as he stood in front of the elder inside the great tree. The remaining crewmembers huddled behind him with tear-streaked cheeks. They snatched the occasional glance at the floating lantern-lit faces surrounding them but flicked the attention back to the ground anytime eyes met theirs. The bound hands of the crew scratched at a multitude of mysterious itches they had acquired. Osyron felt a pang of empathy; he was the only one in attendance who did. The round-up of the invaders had been brief and efficient. The men snagged in traps where divided into two groups, those who needed aid received it; those that required a quick death were not left wanting either.

“We had a proposition to make,” said Riven. “One that would be beneficial to both our people; we came here to offer you weapons and knowledge.” The high marshal fidgeted. Having his hands bound at his back denied him the luxury of a satisfying scratch.

“You sailed all this way just to give us gifts?” The chief elder leaned forward in her chair. “Listen closely, male, you insulted our might by storming our shores with fifty men; do not slight our intelligence with obvious transparency.”

Riven shifted his hip, trying to give an itch some modest relief against his belt. “Not give, exchange. The emperor of Olbaid heard of your situation and wanted to offer an alliance of convenience. He sent us to trade for your unwanted male offspring. If you will not take my word for it then check our cargo hold, you will find crates of weapons, tools and books that could greatly benefit your civilisation.”

“Oh, we will,” came the elder’s cool reply.

Riven flashed a tight smile and continued. “You have been stealing from us for uncounted years; an audience was not an unreasonable request in light of this. Our intent was honourable, initially at least. I would have been happy if no one but the diplomats set foot on your island but once those diplomats were slain,” Riven shook his head, “that changed everything.”

The elder dragged a hand down her face before responding. “No one would have been slain if you had just heeded our warnings; you could have listened, you could have left. No deaths at all.”

“Aside from the sons you routinely slaughter I suppose you have a point,” quipped Riven.

The elder reeled back in her chair. She glared at Riven through narrowed eyes. Knowing his fate was already sealed, Riven lifted his chin, brazenly meeting her stare. The pair’s eyes interlocked in a duel of demanded respect and belligerent defiance. The elder broke the silence, but not the stare. “Your journey was not only a waste of lives but also a waste of time. We’ve had a recent change of heart about our sons. They’ll not be given away, not to you, not to anyone; they’ll grow and become part of our tribe, free from the influence of outside males such as yourself. We will, however, take the weapons and books you have brought as a gesture of good faith and in return we offer this.”

“I’m listening,” responded Riven, also showing no desire to resign from the stare-down.

We will release you with a message for your emperor.”

Riven blinked then frowned, his itching body forgotten momentarily. Riven had been certain he would be dead before sun down. The crew behind him beamed smiles at each other. They shook their bound hands in triumphant gestures while mouthing silent cheers. Realising their activity was drawing the stares of the women, they quickly simmered, going back to staring at the floor and clawing meekly at their irritated skin.

The elder stood and paced forward, drawing every eye in the room. “There is nothing for you here, except death; we have nothing to trade with your emperor or his empire. We will no longer journey to Olbaid; we are now self-sufficient and no longer require anything from outsiders. Any future attempts to enter our territories will be treated as acts of hostility and shall be met with unbridled wrath. We do not deal in warnings save for this one; heed it.”

Riven twisted his torso, trying to cater to the nagging demands of his itches. “I’ll relay your message, word for word.”

The elder wandered back to her seat, her tone lost its fire as she took on a more philosophical demeanour. “Tell me, how do you suppose your emperor will respond to such a non-negotiable directive?”

Riven shrugged. “The matter will be closed. He was only interested in your sons as he thought them unwanted. If this is no longer the case then he will lose interest, there would be no reason to send more ships to your island. Even if he felt a score needed settling he would not prioritise it over the war with Miria. The war will consume his attention for a considerable time. Even conservative estimates see the war lasting decades.”

What Riven said matched what the high elder knew of the conflict between the twin empires, however, she was not prepared to take his word so readily. “Osyron, Daniela, step forward please.”

The two made their way out of the gathered crowd and stood between the elder and the bound high marshal. “What do you make of this man’s words?”

Daniela gave the high elder a bow before speaking. “I am from a small fishing village, high elder; I know little of the emperor. What Riven says of the war is true regarding its estimated duration—I really can’t confirm any more than that.”

“And you, Osyron?”

Osyron gave a bow of the head to the elder before responding. “The emperor is strong willed but he will not disrespect the situation as it stands. High Marshal Riven is a man of integrity. He will give the emperor an honest report and advise any return trips here to be folly. He wouldn’t put petty score settling above his duty, he won’t put anything above his duty.” Osyron gave Riven a knowing look before continuing. “I think this to be true of the emperor as well. Spending time and resources for no other reason than to heal wounded pride would not become him.”

The chief elder mulled over everything she had heard before turning her attention back to Daniela and Osyron. “The sole reason for keeping you here was the preservation of our secrecy, but it seems everyone from a fish woman right up the emperor of Olbaid knows of our whereabouts now. Daniela, Osyron, you are free to leave.”

Osyron went slacked-jawed as Daniela reached in the dark to give his hand a squeeze. “Free to leave the room or the island?” stammered Osyron, hoping beyond hope it was the latter. He heard a breath of laughter escape Daniela’s lips.

The chief elder smiled. “The island. As I said, your remaining presence here was to protect our anonymity; it’s too late for that now.”

Osyron turned to Daniela, squeezing her hand in return. She shaped her mouth in mock pain before giving him a smile and for the briefest of moments, Osyron swore the room lit up. “Thank you, elder,” spoke Daniela, “the thought of returning home means more than I can say. Osyron and I will do everything in our power to ensure the story of your island becomes myth when we return.”

“That would be appreciated by the sisters here.” The elder paused before adding, “And brothers.” A small but undeniable grin cracked the elder’s face.

“We will let you depart first so you have a head start on these men.” The chief elder gestured towards Riven and the crew bunching behind him. “They shall remain as our guests for a while. In that time we will teach them the true levels of foolishness a return trip here would necessitate.”

“That would be appreciated, chief elder,” replied Daniela.

“Azleah will guide you to the docks and see to it you have enough food and water for your trip.”

Daniela offered a bow and Osyron mirrored the gesture. The elder’s voice brought their heads back up. “Never return here; the same warning I give to the emperor I give to you. Any appearance on our territory will be viewed as an act of hostility, punishable by death. I hope I’m clear on this.”

Osyron looked at the elder, knowing it would be the last time he ever did. “I mean no disrespect when I say I never wish to see you or this island again, elder.”

The elder gazed at him. “And I mean no disrespect when I tell you the feeling is mutual.”

With the tribe’s blessing to leave, Daniela and Osyron began saying their goodbyes. Being more widely accepted, Daniela’s goodbyes took longer than Osyrons’, so he decided to speak with Riven while Daniela hugged the tribe’s women she had grown closest too.

“Greetings, High Marshal, I hope recent events are not going to prevent us from being civil. This might be easy to say as I’m the one who struck you, but I hold no ill will and hope somewhere down the line we can be friends again.”

“We are friends lad, we just have some business to take care of is all,” replied Riven.

“By business you mean putting me in jail right?”

“We’ll decide that when I catch up with you. I’ll do my utmost to make sure whatever punishment you receive will be lenient. In time, I’d like to see you back in the marshals. You’ve a good heart, lad; you just let it rule your head too often.”

Osyron watched Riven grimace and wriggle as he spoke. “There is a leaf in the jungle,” offered Osyron. “It looks like the others save for a reddish tinge and a velvet underside. Get to recognise these leaves as soon as you can; it will make your time here more endurable.”

Riven frowned at the seemingly random statement.

“Why are you talking about leaves, lad?” Riven’s eyes flickered as another thought struck him. “Won’t we be caged?”

“You will be caged, just not in steel,” said Osyron. Riven’s frown deepened at the cryptic response.

“You’ll see.” Osyron smiled. He noticed Daniela over Riven’s shoulder finish with her farewells. “I best be on my way then, High Marshal, I’ve had enough boat trips to last me a lifetime but this one can’t come quick enough.”

“Safe travels, lad, I look forward to bringing you in to custody when I return,” said Riven.

Osyron clasped a hand on the big man’s shoulder. Riven offered a nod, his bindings restricting any other response. “Until next time then.” As Osyron walked off Riven called to him. “You’re free to visit your mother; we considered leaving a marshal there but our stretched man power ruled it out.” Osyron turned and gave Riven a bow in thanks before spinning on his heels and pacing towards the waiting Daniela.

“All set?” a beaming Daniela asked.

“I am, I was just making sure there were no hard feelings between me and the high marshal,” replied Osyron.

“How was he?”

Osyron thought it over. “As a man he has no grievance with me; as high marshal he has duty to serve.”

Daniela nodded; the answer fitted what she knew of Riven. “Let’s find Azleah and get out of here. I want to see home.”

Home. Osyron repeated the word in his head; it suddenly found its full meaning again. Osyron offered his hand and Daniela took it. The pair made their exit down the corridor of faces, leaving the gloomy chamber and its politics behind. Osyron pushed aside the tangle of roots that served as a doorway, turning towards Daniela, he bowed and gestured an invite with his free hand. Daniela offered a curtsey in thanks before stepping outside into the day’s brilliant sunshine.

Chapter Twenty Seven

The plummeting temperatures were a strong indication of how close the liberated pair was to home. Daniela taught Osyron the basics of sailing so they could work in shifts, maximising the head start granted by the elder but killing the chance of spending time together. Just as with Daniela and Zinaria on the voyage towards the island, one sailed while the other slept. They dropped anchor for a few hours each day when they swapped roles, taking time to freshen up and share food. The Hornet was considerably quicker than the bulking ship used by Riven, however, he wished to take no chances. The islanders could have taken a liking to the invading ship and sent the crew home in one of the smaller, faster vessels pilfered over the years. Even without the threat of Riven, they wished to spend few days at sea as possible.

Daniela finished chewing a mouthful of fish stew. Osyron sat across from her, staring at darkening skies as evening turned to night. In an hour he would be alone, guiding the ship in the all-consuming darkness with the moonlight denied him by a blanket of grey cloud. He longed for the sight of land and the guiding lights of the coastal towns. The prospect of setting foot on land was both alluring and terrifying. Riven was far behind but Osyron’s crimes were against the land he sailed to.

“You look lost in thought,” said Daniela, pulling him out of his daydream.

“I suppose I am. I was thinking how well my conversation with Riven went and more to the point, what our next one will be like,” replied Osyron.

“Do you really believe he will arrest you if the chance arises?”

“I have no doubt; he is a child of duty.” Osyron made a stabbing motion with his fork to his plate. “This is delicious.” He gripped ahold of his plate as it started to slide across the table with the swell of the tide. Sliding plates was another reminder not to set foot on a boat ever again, not that he needed such a reminder.

Daniela’s nose furrowed. “A child of duty—what do you mean?”

“It’s a concept of my father’s. We all have something we resonate with beyond everything else, something we deem most important in life. It guides our conscience and directs how we act. Riven’s would be duty,” explained Osyron.

Daniela nodded her understanding. “So what are you a child of then?” she asked.

“My father used to say I’m a child of justice. I liked that so never questioned it. Besides, I don’t think the concept is best served with self-proclamation. We would all be children of heroism or something equally grand if we picked our own.”

A playful smile touched the corner of Daniela’s lips. “So what am I a child of?”

Osyron froze with mouth agape and fork half way between plate and lips. Daniela had been a constant in his mind of late but to his own surprise had never thought her in the context of his father’s concept. He feared giving an answer that sold short of just how enchanting he found her.

“Well,” he began slowly,” I would say, if I am really pushed, that is, if you back me into a corner, that you are a child of compassion.”

“A child of compassion,” Daniela repeated the statement aloud. “I like that.” She gave an approving nod.

Osyron let out a slow breath and his heart started beating again. “So, child of compassion, what is it you intend to do when we return? I mean, I have no idea if Parkcross will be safe indefinitely; the marshals may come looking for you to carry out the court case Riven was telling us about.”

Daniela let out a sigh. “I don’t know, go back to fishing I suppose, somewhere far from anywhere.”

It was Osyron’s turn for a playful smile. “I may be interested if you are looking for a first mate—I could get used to calling you Captain Daniela.”

Daniela laughed and tossed her napkin at him.” She struggled to see herself as a capable fisherwoman let alone a captain.

A sudden gust of wind rattled the boat’s rigging, drawing their attention.

“In the next few days we should be able to see the coastline of Olbaid—you can tell we are close by how overcast it’s getting.”

Daniela shifted her amber eyes to take in the sky. “I was just starting to get used to the heat, now I have to become accustomed to our climate again.” She cleared her throat softly. “I wanted to thank you, for everything you’ve done. You’ve sacrificed so much to help me. I can’t put into words how much I appreciate you staying by my side no matter how grim the situation.”

Osyron waved his fork dismissively. “I sacrificed nothing, only did what was right.”

“Nothing? You gave up weeks of your life, destroying your livelihood in the process. Being a marshal was more than just a profession to you, it was a vocation. I still remember you referring to Marshals’ Hall as ‘she’. The marshals was your passion and now you’re on the run from them because of me.” She paused, letting her words sink in. “You dismiss all of this as nothing?”

Osyron shrugged. “It’s nothing.”

Daniela laid down her fork, leaned back and folded her arms. “Explain.”

Osyron finished chewing before speaking, waving his own fork for emphasis as he spoke. “I look at it like this: everything I chose to do I did because I perceived it as the right call. That’s always been my primary motive, doing what’s right, what’s just. Becoming a marshal was a dream come true but being a man of law was just a means to an end, the most practical way to see justice served. My actions may have cost me my job but I kept my integrity.” Osyron set down his fork and held up a finger to stress the point he was making. “If I had to choose between a job and my integrity, I would make the same choice every time. Had I chosen the marshals instead of helping you then I would have lost something—my self-respect.”

Daniela remained still with arms folded, considering his words. “Are you telling me you don’t believe in the marshals anymore?” she asked.

“No, I still believe they are a force for good in the empire and being a marshal is a noble profession. It’s just not my path anymore. As to what my path is, that’s a question I don’t have an answer for. Not yet anyway.” Osyron ate his last bite, giving a moan of satisfaction as he patted his stomach in appreciation.

“I admire your onwards und upwards spirit but can you really dismiss all that’s gone without feeling any loss, any regret?” said Daniela.

“I wish things had gone differently, it would be nought but bravado to deny that. But I also recognise what I’ve gained from this experience.” He held her eyes. “What I have gained from being with you.”

Daniela returned his gaze sceptically. “I’m not sure if you are just trying to make me feel better. I was beginning to think you saw me as some type of jinx.”

“Why would you think such a thing?” asked Osyron, matching her puzzlement.

“I was worried I had ruined your life. It’s been playing on my mind this whole trip home. I was thinking you would be happy to see the back of me once we got to Olbaid.”

Osyron shook his head, letting out a good-natured laugh. “Daniela, I’m no good at being tactful so I’m going to speak plain and direct.” Daniela raised an eyebrow. “If I’m sure about one thing, it’s making you a permanent presence in my life. You have made me feel things I was always too busy to indulge in and yet when I have never been more occupied you found a way into my thoughts.” Osyron paused. “And heart.” Daniela shot an involuntary hand to touch her bottom lip as Osyron stood and glided around the table to sit next to her. “I want to be with you, Daniela. I want to make a go of…” his hand made a circling motion as he tried to find the right word, “well, make a go of being together, make a go of us.”

Daniela stared at him wide eyed. “I wasn’t expecting this. I thought you would be parting company with me the first chance you got. You’ve seemed distant since the night we almost embraced…I thought it was something you had come to regret or maybe something you had done on a whim.”

Osyron shook his head. “I was planning an escape; I hoped your innocence would see you spared whatever punishment should befell me were I caught.”

Daniela bit her lip in a coy smile as she considered his words. “I have thought about you, about us, in the romantic sense, but I dismissed it as fanciful. I was beginning to think you were just playing games when you almost kissed me… This really has come as a surprise.” She met his eyes, adding, “A nice one.”

Osyron gazed into her sparkling amber eyes, surrendering freely to their enchanting allure. No matter how dim the light, her eyes always captured it. Daniela felt the now obvious silence between them, the obvious next step he should take. The boat tilted on the tide, daring him to lean in and kiss her. Daniela turned her gaze away, aiming a bashful smile at the deck.

“Daniela,” said Osyron softly.

She looked back at him, the face he had grown to adore inches from his, smiling, waiting. Her lips parted slightly. He placed his hands on her shoulders, gently turning her to face him. She slipped her arms around his neck with a welcoming grin. He traced his hands down her shoulder blades, settling around her waist before drawing her body close to his. This time, neither held fear of onlookers or consequence. They were miles from everyone and mere inches from each other. With patience thrown to the wind, their lips met in a passion-driven rush. As they kissed, the empty plates slid across the table and crashed to the wooden deck. Neither noticed or cared; both were lost in the fulfilment of each other’s embrace. Everything dissolved into nothing safe for the entwining of two longing souls finally bathing in the promise circumstance had denied them.

Daniela drew her head back; her voice came as a breathy whisper. “Let’s keep the anchor dropped; I think we’ve earned a night off.”

He placed his forehead against hers and answered through a broad grin, “Aye aye, Captain.”

She led him by the hand to her bunk below deck. Osyron would not be sailing alone in complete darkness this night.

The following morning a chilled breeze on Osyron’s naked shoulder woke him from slumber. Despite the unsought awakening, he revelled at the reunification with the familiar climate of home, treating it as a welcoming committee. A few days travel would see them back on the dry land of Olbaid, and the rejuvenated winds suggested that estimate might be exaggerated.

Osyron pulled the blankets over Daniela’s still sleeping shoulders to spare her the same chilly wake-up call. He stared at the unkempt tangle that was her hair. A smile grew on his face at the recollection of how it got into such a state. He slid out of bed, careful not to wake her. After getting dressed he tiptoed out of the cabin and into the overcast morning. On deck, he stretched his arms and inhaled the sweet, cool sea air. As his lungs held the breath, an idea struck him. If I am quick, I could bring her breakfast in bed. Osyron got to work, hoping to carry on the practice of giving Daniela nice surprises.

Daniela awoke alone to the smell of cooking food and a shrouding blanket of guilt, the desire that blazed within her the night prior now doused to smouldering embers by a sense of betrayal to her husband’s memory. Daniela lay on her back and laid both palms on her face, searching unsuccessfully as to why Henry had not crossed her mind until now. She sat up and swung her legs out of bed, touching the cold wooden floor with her feet. The jolting chill on her soles helped dissolve the lingering cobwebs of sleep. However regret was proving more resolute.

Instead of finding her clothes strewn across the floor as expected, they were gathered and laid neat on her cabin chair. She gave a sad smile at Osyron’s sweet gesture and began to dress. A melodic whistling caught her ear; the merriment in the tune hinted that Osyron did not share her sense of remorse over the previous night. She brushed at her hair, taking out her mounting frustration on the knots that snagged. Once satisfied, she laid down the brush and released a calming breath before making for the door.

She stepped out of the cabin and into the overcast morning. The wind whipped at her hair, undoing all the effort she had just gone through. The brush inside the cabin caught her eye but she knew that would be a pointless endeavour. She smiled. The thought was reminiscent of Osyron and his leaf foraging trips into the jungle.

Daniela found Osyron standing behind the sandpit fire on deck, the rising steam from the suspended pot implied he had been at it for some time. She anchored her hair behind an ear and looked at him working behind the suspended cooking pot. Osyron lifted the wooden spoon to his lips. A broad smile accompanied by a moan of satisfaction suggested he was pleased with his culinary efforts. He lifted his head to meet her waiting gaze. “Good morning! Your timing is impeccable. This is ready and it may be my best yet.” He wore a joyous grin, the sort of grin that normally warmed her heart.

“Good morning. Smells good,” she said, mustering the best smile she could. It felt false. She was certain it looked fake too.

“Still sleepy?” asked Osyron. “A bowl of my soup will set you up for the day, just see if it doesn’t.” The optimism in his voice and pep in his movement was killing her. She was about to rob him of both.

Daniela sat at the table, choosing her usual bench with her back to the sea. “We need to talk about last night.”

“Last night was wonderful, but I would rather talk of tomorrow. You know, where we are going, not where we’ve been,” replied Osyron, ladling soup from the bubbling pot into a bowl.

“Well, that’s good, because I wish to talk about tomorrow too.” Daniela paused, taking in his attentive, smiling face. She was about to break his heart. You oversaw multiple burials at sea when last embarking on this this journey home. You can do this.

“I may have acted a little hastily last night,” she began. “I wanted to, don’t get me wrong, but I think this has happened too soon. I feel like I have betrayed my husband’s memory.”

The joy melted out of Osyron’s face. “What are you saying?”

Daniela shrugged a solitary shoulder. “I’m not sure how long a person is supposed to wait after their spouse has passed, but I know it’s longer than I have.” Her head sank. The hurt on his face intensified with each word and she could look at him no longer. “Please, understand I never wanted to hurt you. I’ve just made a mistake…” Daniela trailed off. Her own sorrow cut her words short, leaving the rhythmic lapping of water to fill the hanging silence between them.

Osyron extinguished the fire then brought the bowl over to Daniela. “I see. You’ve made an error of judgement.” He bit his bottom lip. “Maybe there’s a compliment in that if I look at it the right way.” Osyron slumped down opposite her. Muscles in his face flexed as he digested the meaning of her words. “I apologise if I acted inappropriately. If I have, then I beg your forgiveness.”

Daniela stretched a hand across the table, laying it atop his. “You did nothing wrong. It’s my grief therefore my responsibility to honour. I am the one who should be saying ‘sorry’.”

Osyron withdrew his hand from hers and waved it dismissively. “Let’s both put apologies aside then,” he said sliding the bowl of soup to Daniela. “Here, try this.”

Daniela let the rising steam permeate her nostrils. “It smells good. The aroma made my tummy growl and woke me.”

Osyron offered a tight smile. Daniela raised a spoonful but the soup was too warm for consumption. She almost forced herself to eat just to alleviate the awkwardness that was descending around them. Instead she stirred it slowly while Osyron drummed fingers on the table to fill the growing silence. Daniela gazed into the bowl, guessing the ingredients with contrived attention. Osyron’s eyes flicked around the table, his finger picking at imaginary imperfections in the wood. Both forced smiles when their eyes met, Daniela reverted to listing vegetables in her head and Osyron feigned fascination in the horizon.

“Do you still plan on visiting your mother when we return?” asked Daniela, hoping the change of subject would also change the mood.

“Yes, she’s not heard from me in such a long time, she’ll be frantic given what happened to father. I look forward to putting her mind at ease about my well-being.”

Daniela tried another spoonful of soup. It had suitably cooled. “You’re right; this is your best yet.”

Osyron stood and ran a hand through his hair. “Wind is blowing in our favour. If we take advantage we may get home earlier than anticipated. I’ll raise the anchor and set sail.”

Daniela smiled up at him. She wanted to say more, wanted to take the evident hurt from him, but there was nothing to be said. No magic words that would ease his pain; he had to endure it. Pain was now his burden as guilt was now hers.

Osyron forced a smile in kind and made for the anchor.

The previous night had dared Osyron to find optimism in his future; the previous five minutes had stolen it all away. Despite the hurt, he understood Daniela’s perspective.

After his father’s disappearance, the influence of High Marshal Riven on Osyron had been noted by those around him. They commented how lucky he was to have such an outstanding role model as a father figure. The remarks had been well intended but Osyron had felt guilty over replacing his father so readily. As a result, he’d harboured a strong resentment for Riven. In time, he came to realise such feelings unwarranted. After all, Riven was not to blame for his father’s disappearance.

Chapter Twenty Eight

A lone figure sat, reading in the orb of light emitted by the recently lit fire. The popping of burning wood intermittently broke up the boisterous gusting outside. The winds carried the cold promise of winter’s imminence, giving an appreciation of being inside. The man read the folder sent to him by his employers as he waited for his colleague to arrive. He had met dozens of fellow Brotherhood members in his time, never the same one twice and never in the same location; however, today was an anomaly. Today he knew precisely who was coming.

The wait would not be enduring; punctuality was never a problem in the Brotherhood and least of all with her. A gentle knock on the cottage door confirmed his presuppositions. The man raised his head and looked at the closed door. “Enter.” The door opened, revealing an elderly woman who hurried inside before promptly closing it behind her, cutting off the wind’s impertinent attempt at inviting itself in.

“This is my brothers’ home,” the man said as he rose from his chair by the fireplace.

“Then we are related, for this is the home of my brother,” the woman replied, taking off her coat and hanging it on the hat stand by the door.

The man smiled and extended an arm in invitation to the seat across the table from him. “Please, be seated, Lilly. I have a fire on the go and a pot of tea ready.”

She gave a nod of thanks and accepted the offer to sit. “So considerate, Gilroy; if only it was you I met every time. The newer brothers insist on setting up meets in the darkest corners of the foulest taverns and never once has a glass of port or a drop of sherry been sitting in wait.”

“Subtlety and consideration comes with age, Lilly.” replied Gilroy. “I’m afraid you will have to make do with tea.”

Lilly cocked her ear at the wind as it huffed its discontent at refused entry. “Tea is ideal,” she replied, rubbing heat back into her hands.

Gilroy set down a tray containing two cups of tea and a fresh honey cake. “The tea was considerate; the cake was subtle,” said Lilly, smiling up at him. Gilroy gave a tilt of his head as he sat back down. “Now this makes braving the chill worthwhile,” said Lilly, inhaling the sweet aroma of cake.

“As will our reason for meeting, I hope,” said Gilroy, patting the folder on the table.

Gilroy was Lilly’s favourite among the Brotherhood. He was easily recognizable with his curly mop of blonde hair and buttermilk complexion. But it was less the look of the man and more the class and maturity he displayed beyond his years that enamoured her.
“I have been reading up on young Brother Driskal,” said Gilroy, shaking his head. “A tragic soul and a sorry story. He’s been a genuine asset to the Brotherhood, but a recent altercation has been nothing short of horrifying; he needs our help.”

Lilly frowned, the few pieces of the puzzle offered by Gilroy not yet enough to ascertain what had happened and, more importantly, the required remedy. “Please, from the start, Gilroy. All I know is that I was to meet you concerning a matter of internal affairs and offer my assistance if possible,” she said, wrapping her fingers around her cup. She let out an audible sigh as her hands absorbed the warmth.

“Allow me to colour the canvas then.” Gilroy picked up the folder and opened it, however, recounted mostly from memory. “Driskal’s childhood was an enduring nightmare. An only child with an absent father and alcoholic mother. The boy was habitually abused in the vilest of ways for most of his early life, an acquaintance of his mother’s being the alleged violator. He endured this torment for a time but when he reached the cusp of manhood sought the means to defend himself. He consorted with common street thugs before graduating up the ranks of the villainous hierarchy in his hometown, Broxvil. He ran errands for cutthroats and assassins in exchange for their insights and expertise. Guided by obsessive determination, he spent his waking life mastering knives. By age thirteen he was more accomplished with daggers than any solider in the empire.”

Lilly raised a finger and set her cup down. “Does the Brotherhood know of the proposed abuser?”

Gilroy closed the folder and set it back on the table. “Our records state there was a man under consideration in Broxvil for alleged atrocities against children. This man disappeared just as the investigation got underway. It’s unclear if the target detected he was being watched or if he met his end. Driskal never claimed to have killed him but it is noted that he speaks as though the man was dead. Getting Driskal to recount his years before joining the Brotherhood was a task before, but since the incident, he does not speak at all.”

Lilly nodded her understanding and gestured for Gilroy to continue.

“Well, thanks to his inside knowledge, he helped the Brotherhood disassemble every credible criminal organisation in and around Broxvil. Things seemed bright for Driskal. The brotherhood had given him a family and a sense of purpose.” Gilroy let out a sigh. “Then his mother passed into the eternities and it changed him.”

Lilly reached for a piece of cake as the wind refused to relent in its protests at denied access.

“It was at the funeral that some slumbering insanity awoke. A relative in attendance indicated to Driskal that his mother knew what sort of man this acquaintance of the family was. She had left Driskal alone with him on numerous occasions, exchanging alone time with the boy for alcohol.”

“Her own child,” whispered Lilly.

Gilroy nodded. It had been his first thought too. “After hearing this, Driskal’s persona changed. He turned dark, sullen. While the casket was lowered into the grave, Driskal wandered over and proceeded to urinate on it.”

Lilly withdrew the piece of cake she was about to eat and set it back on the plate, reverting to clutching the comfort-giving cup.

Gilroy continued. “When questioned, Driskal had no recollection of his behaviour and was mortified upon hearing the story retold. We all put it down to a temporary, grief-fuelled loss of sanity.” Gilroy stood and placed another log in the fire. He stared into the flames as they curled and licked their way around the new piece of timber. “This initial diagnosis held up, except the temporary part.” He turned to face Lilly. “Driskal is now in manacles, both physical and mental. The Brotherhood are watching him until a solution is found. The rest is classified, Lilly.”

“I think I know more than I wish too,” replied Lilly.

Gilroy sat back down and tapped a finger on the folder. “There is hope for Driskal. He may yet have that solution we seek. There is a shaman in Miria who can potentially mend his mind, return him to the man he was before his mother’s death. The Brotherhood have been in contact to arrange for Driskal to see him. All we need is a chaperone for the journey. It is an ideal assignment for the man you have been monitoring; his background makes him perfect for this task. Did you find Osyron Rymore a suitable candidate for the Brotherhood?”

Lilly sat down her cup as Gilroy picked up his. “It would seem Osyron Rymore is no longer a man of law,” said Lilly. “A fracas with the high marshal has brought his career to a premature end. Driskal would technically be a prisoner until he reaches the shaman; Osyron’s marshal training compliments that requirement perfectly.

“And is he suitable, Lilly?” enquired Gilroy again.

“I believe so. Having studied him, I’m certain the Brotherhood’s philosophy will appeal to his nature. The timing is God-sent too; Osyron would be seeking a new path to tread now that his time with the marshals is over. I propose we reach out a hand, and soon.”

Gilroy rested his cup back on the table before picking up the folder. He tapped the bottom on the table twice, straightening the papers inside. “I accept your recommendation, Lilly. I will write a letter to Osyron requesting a meeting.

Lilly gave Gilroy a knowing grin. “Then it’s the straight forward task of convincing a man of law to join a league of assassins.”

Chapter Twenty Nine

Captain Brendan Bastine. He had carried the title for over a month. Since war officially dawned, he and his battalion had reported more victories than all others. “I want a squad comprised of believers in Hixel. Grant me this and I shall deliver victory.” It had been his lone request upon swearing allegiance to Olbaid as captain. The Olbaidian general granted his wish and in return, Brendan made good on his promise. He forced the Mirian army into a retreat at his stretch of the border and fended off all attempts to intervene in his steady march into enemy territory.

He and the men at his command now sheltered in trenches dug outside a church several miles past the twin empire border. The remaining band of enemy soldiers Brendan had been feverishly pursuing currently sought sanctuary inside the church. The landscape surrounding the church was a scattering of villages and farms spread across a flat landscape of wheat fields and hedgerows. The Mirian soldiers had ransacked the area before taking shelter inside the church; they slaughtered the livestock and torched the nearest village to rob their pursuers of any ready-made shelter. With food and livelihoods gone, the villagers formed a refugee caravan convoy and belatedly trudged for the safety of far-off city walls. This mass exodus was the sight that greeted Brendan and his men upon arrival.

The Mirian citizens gave information freely in light of their own soldier’s actions. In return Brendan let them pass, but not before his own men searched their caravans for supplies.

With knowledge of the enemy’s location, Brendan’s men tended to life in the trenches, digging latrines and keeping continual vigilance for rats. The vermin in the area earnestly sought vengeance by claiming back the acquired provisions from the refugee caravan. The company of rats caused worried whispers to spread through the trenches. Many of the men shared tales from their fathers who’d fought in the war of the unification of Olbaid. It seemed every combatant in that conflict had a story concerning the sickness-inducing combination of trenches and rats.

While the men fought off the siege from vermin, Brendan finalised plans for their siege on the church. A solid, defendable base in Miria would be deemed a fine coup; however, lingering here harboured the possibility of starvation. Their pilfered rations would feed the men for a day but with the outlying area barren, future sustenance was a valid concern. Brendan carried no such worries for he saw not only the full painting, he saw the artist holding the brush.

Finishing off the Mirians in a false god’s church carried a profound scene of destiny. The church was a dreary grey stone rectangle with a sloping roof, topped with a crooked steeple. The weathervane mounted on the steeple summit indicated a steadily blowing easterly wind. While moderate in scale, the flat surrounding farmland made the structure visible for some distance. Narrow slits for windows lined the four walls of the church, ideal for firing arrows from within and too small to permit intruders from without. Brendan had men scouring for a suitable tree for shaping into a battering ram, a crude strategy but also the wisest. The church’s wooden double doors looked stalwart; nevertheless, keeping out an onrushing tide of soldiers was never the church door’s purpose. Even without Hixel’s blessing Brendan was certain the doors would have no answers for the questions posed by a battering ram.

Brendan instructed the men to fill their bellies. The attack would arrive with cover of night. The men obligated the command. Setting no rations aside, they ate all they had acquired from the fleeing villagers. One of the items was a jar of homemade jam. Brendan was one of the lucky few to sample it, by way of a spoonful spread over a crust of bread. It tasted identical to Marsha’s own. Brendan sank back against the trench wall and closed his eyes. He pressed the bread against the roof of his mouth, forcing the jam to spill over the sides of his tongue and coat his palate. He sat in silence, savouring the sweet taste and reminiscent overture it conjured.

At times, he missed Marsha, but sparked memories grew increasingly infrequent now that he fully grasped God’s plan for him. Marsha was a trial sent by Hixel to test his suitability for the path of priesthood; he had failed, choosing marriage over a life donning the cloth. His wife’s illness was his second test and through prayer and devotion, he had proven to God just how dedicated a subject he could be. Marsha’s anguish-ridden letter requesting him not to join the front lines was another test. This time he had not failed. It was difficult as is the nature of tests, but in the end, what was the wish of a mortal against the will of God? Marsha had been part of God’s plan. Brendan prayed she would have the wisdom to see this someday and take pride in her role. He included her in his nightly prayers, taking time out of his devotions to Hixel. It was his final gift in closing the chapter of his life with her.

“Captain, a word if you please.” Brendan opened his eyes to see Vice Captain Turrock trudge along the trench towards him. Brendan had liked Turrock from the moment they’d met. Like himself, Turrock was a man of God. But Turrock was not privy to the insights Hixel revealed to Brendan, leading to continual disagreements. Nevertheless, Turrock was a loyal man and a seasoned soldier. Brendan swallowed the bread along with the bittersweet nostalgia. “Turrock, what’s on your mind?”

Turrock’s coal black hair stuck to his head with sweat, indicating his lack of reluctance where hard labour was required. His forehead bore deep lines, hinting his thoughts carried considerable weight. “It’s about our current position and upcoming siege, Captain.”

“Speak your mind, Vice Captain.” Brendan purposefully used rank rather than Turrock’s name, a subtle gesture that conveyed the chain of command.

Turrock licked his lips before unleashing his tirade of concerns. “We have advanced beyond the hawk messenger network, meaning we have no communication with home; our battalion will be written off as dead. We are in real danger of being flanked and cut off from both a retreat and reinforcements. We also have no clear idea how many Mirian soldiers are taking refuge in that church—we could be outnumbered, and even if the numbers favour us, it counts for little given the church is a sound, defendable structure. We have no idea of the interior…there could be catacombs below, giving ample hiding room…maybe even an escape route. And that’s only if we manage to get inside through the inevitable rain of arrows. In short, Captain, I don’t like this siege one bit.”

Brendan smiled and gestured for Turrock to sit beside him on the dugout ledge in the trench. Men carrying shovels squeezed past them in the slender dirt corridor as Brendan scooted over to make space. Both men sat facing a wall of earth not three feet in front of them. “So many concerns, Turrock, and here was I thinking you came for the view.”

Brendan noticed a worm writhe on the trench wall opposite. A small stone lodged in the earth was all that stopped it from falling to the trench floor and an inevitable death by trampling. The worm foraged its way back into the dirt while fighting against the pull of gravity. As the worm toiled, the tiny stone loosened from the dirt. “You are a good man, and I am glad I have you as a vice captain. Your advice is always welcome and sound.”

“Forgive me, Captain Bastine, I feel there’s an inevitable ‘but’ coming on.”

Brendan watched the worm work as he swung an arm around Turrock. The tiny stone dropped to the ground, causing the worm’s back half to thrash wildly for momentum to burrow itself deeper into the trench wall. “Indeed, there is my friend, indeed there is. You see, everything we have accomplished has been by the guiding hand of Hixel. I know the men put our success down to superior soldiers and strategies; I certainly won’t argue that point. But there is more at work here, things they don’t see. They will see tonight when we take this church; they will reach the level of comprehension I have.” Brendan gave Turrock’s shoulder a squeeze and turned to face him. “As will you.”

Turrock stared at Brendan. It was impossible to miss the imbedded conviction in the man at such close proximity.

Brendan turned his head back to the determined worm. Enough of the tiny creature’s body was now burrowed inside to overcome the threat of falling. “I am on a path that’s been laid out by Hixel. That path has led me to this church, to this temple of the false god, Danu. It’s my destiny to take this place in Hixel’s name. Once captured, we will fortify the building, use it as a foothold for Olbaid inside Miria.”

Turrock listened, wrapping his arms around his shins. It was the only posture permitted by the claustrophobic space.

“If we pull this off it would be astounding, sir, which goes without saying. But it’s the odds of pulling it off that concern me. We may lose most the men in doing so. The chances of success are too slight.”

The worm was barely visible now, a tail end toiling as the rest of the body took sanctuary inside the earth. “We have Hixel on our side,” said Brendan. “He guides me. He guides us. The odds are in our favour, not the enemies’, and any man who dies tonight dies a martyr and a hero, guaranteed of a spot by Hixel’s side in the brightest part of the eternities. Once we liberate this foul sanctum no one will question who guides us.”

“As you know, Captain, I too am a man of God,” said Turrock.

“You’re about to offer me an inevitable ‘but’ in return, my friend.” Turrock gave a conceding nod.

“But,” Turrock continued, “I don’t think we can pull this off. I am officially suggesting a full retreat back to Olbaid. We can give the men much-needed respite and gather reinforcements and supplies. Our original objective was to repel the Mirian drive into Olbaid—we’ve done that; there’s no shame in returning home. I think we need to report and receive new orders, Captain.”

“We have new orders, and they come from a far greater source than any general. As soon as we take this church, I will send men to report our position and request reinforcements. If we’re granted enough new bodies, I will allow the men who took this place to return home for a spell. Right now, I need the men’s belief. I won’t have that if I don’t have yours, are you with me Turrock?”

Turrock pursed his lips, nodding slowly. “My sword and will are yours, Captain. I pray you are right and I have misread the situation.”

“I have not let the men down and I do not intend to start now. I fear not getting cut off from Olbaid with mountains to the north and uninhabited woodland to the south that stretches for days, ending at the sea. We’re nearer the Olbaid border than the closest Mirian city.” Brendan watched the tail end of the worm wave and disappear into the wall, successfully completing its endeavour to penetrate the dirt.

Brendan turned his attention back to Turrock. “I see the signs sent by Hixel and I have learned to interpret them. This is a private war, Turrock. One we will win. Make sure every man eats their fill; we need them at full strength. Set aside fear of starvation for tomorrow we break our fast in that church over the corpses of our enemies.”

As night approached, Brendon gathered the men before him. The soldiers were emboldened by their string of victories but held no naïvety over the enormity of the task ahead. The church was wreathed in shadow in the dark of night. The moon loomed large and hung low in the night sky behind it, causing the steeple shadow to reach out to the trenches.

Well out of arrow range was Brendan, standing atop an abandoned cart. The remaining men of his battalion before him waited for the call to engage.

“Tonight is like any other; we stare death in the face and come sunrise, it’s the soul-collector who averts his eyes. Tonight will be no different. Look death in the eye and smile, men, because when dawn breaks tomorrow you will either be a hero at Hixel’s side or alive and triumphant, having conquered the enemies of God!

“Praise be to Hixel,” one of the men cried in response. Brendan acknowledged the cry by pointing at the man.

“Hixel lays siege with us. Hixel is the sharpness in your blades. Hixel is the fortitude of your shields. Revel in His presence for he is the inextinguishable fire in your belly. He is the courage in your hearts and he is the voice in your head that screams victory!”

The men cried out in response, letting loose primal roars, quickening the blood rush in their veins. Their volume quickened the heartbeats of those around them and they too unleashed bared-teeth roars at the dark skies above.

Brendan’s voice was on breaking point as he struggled to be heard over the ruckus generated by the soldiers. “God is calling each one of us, will you answer Him? It is to greatness He leads—have the mettle to follow! For Olbaid! For Hixel!”

With his final words, Brendan drew his sword from its scabbard, holding it aloft over the men. Men drew their own swords and pumped fists in the air in response. The collective roar carried over the trenches and through the dilapidated surroundings. The men clattered swords against shields, further amplifying the intimidating din.

So this is what destiny feels like, thought Brendan. It was the catalyst for another epiphany. If this is my destiny then Marsha was no test, she was a necessary piece in Hixel’s plan to divert me away from priesthood. I was destined to become a warrior. Kneeling and praying in robes has its place, but I’m a man of action. Yes, Marsha was a pawn. I can forget her in my devotions and now offer them all to God. Thank you for granting me this insight, Hixel.

Chapter Thirty

Casandra Rymore sat curled up, reading in her husband’s favourite chair. The familiar creak of her front door opening caused her heart to stop. Only two things would enter unannounced, family or trouble. Life had changed for Casandra since her son left for the city. She had not fully realised the extent her life revolved around taking care of her husband and son. The feeling had first arisen when her husband disappeared, but she’d dismissed it as grief and reasoned it would pass in time. Now that her son was gone too, her life had lost a degree of purpose. Casandra was young when she married but harboured no regrets; Richard had made a good husband, delivering on his promises of contentment and happiness. However, his abrupt disappearance followed by the departure of her son had overseen an evacuation of her fulfilment. With no way of telling if Richard would return, seeking alternative companionship felt wrong. Furthermore, she was not as young as she once was. She was too old to be considered for courting yet too young to be accepting such a notion. Her situation, her age, her life had all left her in a marginalising, lonely wilderness. She was beginning to feel like unwanted dregs, languishing at the bottom of a discarded bottle.

“Mother?” The voice was unmistakable and the term could only come from one source. The book tumbled to the floor as Casandra launched herself from the chair. The door swung on its full axis, presenting undisputable confirmation that her son was home. Her feet propelled her faster than they had since time out of mind. Her momentum forced Osyron to take a step back as he caught her headlong charge.

Osyron laughed with joy at the affectionate welcome. Casandra held her son tight, tears escaping her eyes as she pressed her cheek against his chest. ”How are you, are you well? Where have you been? Why did you stop writing to me? Is everything all right? Why has your skin darkened?”

Osyron beamed a smile, holding his hands up in surrender to the avalanche of questions. Casandra pulled her face from his chest so she could look at her boy in the face.

Osyron stared back and beamed. “Oh, mother, do I have a story to tell you.”

Osyron proceeded to share the events that had shaped his life since setting off on his first assignment as marshal. Casandra sat back in her husband’s chair with feet tucked under her, keenly listening to all her son divulged. She had no intention to interrupt, no matter what questions crossed her mind. Each word he spoke banished the solitude that had been accumulating inside the house since his departure.

It was not far into her son’s dialogue that she made a discovery. Once he finished talking, she put words to her observation. “I want to know more about her, if there’s anything left to tell.” Her elbow rested on the arm of the chair, her chin resting in her upturned palm.

“Who?” asked Osyron.

Casandra lifted her head and stared at him. “Playing coy with your own mother.” She gave a disappointed shake of the head before continuing. “Daniela. I want to know more about the girl that my son fell in love with.”

Osyron bunched his face. “I never said I was in love.”

Casandra gave a little smile as she rested her chin back into her palm. “You did, Son, many times. You told me tales of the marvellous, the wonderful, and the outright unbelievable, all the while relaxed with your fingers interlocked in your lap.” Casandra raised a finger. “But you shifted to the edge of your seat whenever Daniela was involved. Your eyes widened and your pupils vibrated every time you said her name.” Osyron persisted with his mask of defiance. Casandra pushed on. “Your voice was impassioned and you waved your arms around while telling me of her.” She let out a chuckle. “You were more animated telling me about sharing bread with this girl than speaking of jailbreaks, sea monsters and mysterious islands. You didn’t say you were in love but that doesn’t mean you didn’t tell me.”

Osyron closed his eyes and took in a deep breath; he released it, letting his head drop into his hands. “I can’t get her off my mind. I thought we were going to be together, but it’s over.”

Casandra got out of the chair and walked over to comfort her son; she sat on the arm of his chair, slipping an arm around his hunched shoulders. “What happened? I assumed she was letting her family know she was fine and you would both be meeting up at some point.”

Osyron shook his head. “There will be no meeting…not today, not this week, not ever. One night we…” Osyron trailed off and let out a frustrated breath. “This is impossible to speak to you about.”

Casandra rubbed circles on her son’s back. “You’ve said all you need to; tell me what happened after.”

“Osyron cleared his throat. “She said it was too soon after her husband’s death, said she had betrayed his memory. When we got back to Parkcross we shared a horrible mess of a goodbye—handshakes, hugs, a bow and a curtsy, all awkward and unsynchronised. She walked down the pier, into the village and out of sight.” Osyron lifted his head and cupped a hand around his mouth. He drew it down his chin, gazing up into the rafters. “I watched her go. She didn’t look back. She didn’t look back once.” He turned to look at his mother through watery vision. “After everything we had shared, everything we had been through…she didn’t even look back.”

Casandra rose, walked back to her chair and sat down, tucking feet back under her. Osyron’s puzzled eyes followed her movement. “Sing for me,” said Casandra.


“You heard me. Sing,” she repeated. Osyron opened his mouth but Casandra pre-empted the protest and repeated her request once more; it came as a demand. “Sing.”

He found himself clearing his throat. Osyron sang of a drunken pirate saved by a mermaid after falling overboard. When he finished, his mother put her hands together in a praying pose and smiled, offering a nod in thanks.

“How do you feel now?” she enquired.

Osyron pushed fingers through his hair before giving a nod of his own. “Strangely, I feel better.”

Casandra rose and took her place at his side again, sliding a comforting arm across his shoulders.

Osyron looked up at her. “Do I have a good singing voice, mother?”

Casandra twisted her lips and stared at into the fire hearth before answering. “I like it.”

Osyron glanced at her with narrowed eyes, a smile creeping over his lips. “I think you missed your calling as a politician.”

Casandra laughed before taking on a confidential tone.

“Listen to me, I can’t tell you the mind of someone I don’t know nor will I feed you false hope to make you feel better, but give the girl time. If she carries you in her heart as you carry her then want will become irrepressible, forcing her to do something about it. If she feels nothing or she can repress it then you’ve lost nothing worthwhile.”

Casandra moved off the arm of the chair and positioned herself in front of her son to meet his gaze. She placed a hand on each shoulder. “You have a lot to contend with right now. You need to find somewhere to be, and soon. Riven may be preoccupied for now but your transgressions against the crown won’t be forgotten. They will come for you, and this house will be their initial inquiry.”

Osyron sighed with relief. Immediately after basking in his mother’s welcoming embrace, he dreaded telling her that his stay would be fleeting. He was glad she grasped the overshadowing reality of his visit. Embarrassed at his emotional outburst, he tried to lighten the mood. “You could see me whenever you wanted through visitations if I was incarcerated.”

Casandra laughed. “Son, I’ve missed you so much; now is not the time to put tempestuous thoughts in my head.” She suddenly stood upright. “Oh, you’ve reminded me, a hawk messenger came for you this morning.” Casandra disappeared into the kitchen before reappearing a moment later, clutching a letter. “It’s a mite coincidental a hawk arriving the same day you return home, don’t you think?” she said, handing him the letter. “I don’t recognise the seal. It’s initialled TB.”

TB,” Osyron repeated the letters aloud, hoping they would hook something familiar in his mind. “I’m as in the dark as you, Mother,” he said after a moment. He frowned as he turned the envelope over in his hands. The wax seal was unlike any he had seen. While most prided themselves on intricacy, this seal was plain safe for the two bold letters stamped in its centre.

“Well, are you going to open it? I almost drove myself crazy staring at it all day.”

“There is nothing else for it, is there.” Osyron cracked the seal and unfolded the parchment.

Potential Brother Osyron,

I represent an organisation that is interested in a meeting to discuss your inclusion in our ranks. We have been monitoring you for some time and in this, have you at a disadvantage. Please allow us to extend our hand in friendship so you can know of us what we know of you. Should you wish to accept our invitation then memorise this address and time:

The Golden Mill

Argyle Road

10:00 PM

Punctuality is insisted; being unaccompanied is compulsory. We await you with hope and anticipation.


“Well?” Casandra asked.

“It’s an invite, to what and from whom, I’m not sure.”

“Didn’t you just read it?”

“It’s not generous with words or explanation and it’s signed with the same TB.” Osyron stood and offered it to his mother. “Read it yourself; see if you can make more of it than me.”

His mother took the letter and stared at it. She flipped it over to look at the reverse. “It’s blank.”

“Blank? I just read it, it’s not blank,” replied Osyron.

“Look for yourself.”

Osyron moved beside his mother so he could see the letter. “It’s blank!”

Casandra raised an eyebrow. “Yes, that was my point.”

Osyron walked back to the table and picked up the envelope. The wax seal has dissolved into nothingness, a damp stain on the envelope all that remained.

“I don’t like this, Son. Who has the power to make ink disappear? How can a letter know it has just been read?” said Casandra, her eyes wide and full of foreboding.

“I’m a little uneasy myself but I get the impression that whoever sent it bears no hostility, just a desire to be secretive.” Osyron hoped he sounded more convinced than he was.

“Does this mean your time with me will be shorter still?” asked Casandra.

“I have no idea what this means, but I will do my all to make sure that’s not the case. Riven should still be days away from Olbaid if he is returning on the same ship. My intention is still to spend as much time with you as I can.”

“Losing you would be the end of me. Please, be careful, Son.”

Osyron smiled. “That you can count on, Mother.”

Casandra glanced around the room. Talk of her son leaving triggered the encroaching solitude anew. The brief banishing interlude her son’s presence had brought left and the house stood around her larger than before. “I have been thinking about selling this place, starting a new life somewhere. It’s too big for my needs and I fear I shall stay stuck in the past should I dwell here.”

Osyron looked around the kitchen. This was the only family home he had known. However, the thought of his mother spending life rooted in the past overcame his sentimentality. “You could have my place in the city. I can’t return there so it’ll be sitting empty for some time. It’s perfect, a whole city on your doorstep full of spectacular sites and new people. It’s guarded like no other due to the emperor’s residency there; it may be the safest place to be right now given the war with Miria. We can start packing tonight if you’re ready to.”

For a fleeting moment, Casandra flirted with nostalgia. She let hope that her husband was about to walk through the door fill her head and rule her heart, then let it go. This was a case of want versus need, a case of looking forward instead of back. There were enough people in Cloverstone to direct Richard to her place in the city should he ever show up. To stay here hoping and wishing was to martyr herself. “Son, I think that’s a fine idea.”

Osyron and his mother spent the rest of the evening packing. They laughed and reminisced over the items decórating their family home as they wrapped them in paper and set them in boxes for transportation. As Osyron’s place in the city was much smaller, Casandra needed to be strict over what items would make the trip. Osyron took down the tapestry that hung on the lounge wall. It had been part of the family longer than he had. He had passed it countless times both as boy and man but this was the first time he really looked at it, took note of the fine detail, the craftsmanship. He realised he was lost in a daydream and raised his head to find his mother lost in one of her own. She stood by the fire, staring at the chair he had made for his father. He walked over and cradled a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, I know it’s too big to take; it needs to be left behind.”

His mother never answered. She shook her head and clenched her eyes shut as tears tumbled down her face. Osyron took his mother in his arms. He felt her tears dampen his shirt. “His pipe, take that. It meant more to him than the chair. Just don’t take up smoking it; it’s not very ladylike.”

Casandra laughed and sniffed before looking up into her son’s eyes. “What about you? The hours you spent designing and crafting—they’re now all for nothing.”

Osyron drew his thumb across his mother’s cheek, wiping a tear away. “That time has already been paid back fifty times over by the use he got from it. The chair’s purpose has been fulfilled; yours has not. Leave it behind, Mother, it’s time to move on.”

Chapter Thirty One

Osyron headed out to the mill early with the hope of catching sight of the mysterious note sender. A sparse wood overlooked both the mill’s pathway and entrance. Osyron perched motionless in the treetops, scanning both. The mill stood on a solitary hill on the city’s outskirts. Each night the setting sun reflected against the cream exterior, giving the building a brilliant golden hue and consequently its name. With the ten in the evening deadline approaching, the darkening hour saw a full moon that cast the mill in a contrasting, cold blue. The slow cycle of the mill’s sails carried a high-pitched screech on every turn, the sound carrying across the deserted, surrounding crop fields. Osyron had endured the noise for two hours. He witnessed the sun disappear and be replaced by the moon. He witnessed a farmer and his wife argue over the price their cow had fetched as they ambled past the mill. However, no one walked up to the mill and the door remained shut. It was clear whoever sent the invite had eclipsed his prompt arrival and was waiting inside. As the meeting time neared, self-assuredness gradually melted away to be replaced by worry. Instincts suggested he run. Had Osyron somewhere to flee, he might have listened. He ran a hand through his hair. If malicious intent waited inside the mill then not showing up would not see it vanish. The letter’s sender knew his whereabouts, knew his mother’s address. The mill meeting at least kept his mother at a distance.

That thought forced him down from the tree. At some point in his life, tree climbing had switched from feeling natural to feeling wrong. It had been among his favourite things to do as a child; he’d never gave a second thought to scampering up a tree trunk or swinging from a branch. Now, shimmying down the tree induced an awkward self-awareness that signified a certain loss of innocence. Osyron shook off the thought while wiping away clinging flecks of bark. With options and time spent, he strode towards the mill. He circled the building, looking for alternative exits; there were none. He would leave through the door he entered or not at all. After circling back to the door, he stared at the hardwood boards. A lone cloud drifted across the moon, shrouding the world in a deeper darkness. Inhaling deeply, Osyron knocked. The door creaked inwards, revealing a familiar but unexpected face. “Lilly?”

“Hello, Osyron, I’m glad you decided to come.”

“If this is a sales pitch, Lilly, I have to say it’s above and beyond any I’ve encountered.”

Lilly chuckled. “Sales pitch, hmm, yes, I suppose it is, but it’s the spices of life that’s on offer tonight, young man. Come in and we’ll explain.” Lilly extended an inviting arm as she creaked the door open further. Osyron stepped into a well-lit interior. Sacks of grain lay piled against chalky walls. A ladder leading to a platform above sat on the opposite side of the room. The light did not quite reach the higher level, making Osyron wary of the possibility of a hidden threat. The mill carried the dual odour of timber and mildew, the sort of aroma appreciated only by country folk.

In the centre of the room, a curly headed man sat behind a sturdy table with a chair opposite him. The man rose, introducing himself. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Osyron, my name is Gilroy.” Gilroy gestured with his hand towards the free chair. “Please, have a seat.”

Osyron gave an unsure nod in greeting before walking over to the waiting chair; Lilly’s presence had smashed every preconception he’d held of this meeting.

“There’s much I wish to discuss and it’s doubtless you have questions of your own. I will answer any and all that I am permitted,” said Gilroy, settling back on his chair.

Osyron frowned. “Permitted by whom?”

Gilroy gave a wry smile and cock of his head. “That’s one that’s not permitted.”

“Of course not, that would be too straight forward now, wouldn’t it.”

“Not as straight forward as you might imagine, Osyron. Let me fill you in as to why we’re here.”

Osyron looked at the man, hoping to discover something from his actions that words would not reveal. Gilroy was articulate and well spoken, there was no intimidation factor about him yet he commanded respect with a natural aura of authority. His physique was slender but stopped short of being considered gaunt. “I recognise our letter was a little mystifying but as I am about to explain to you, anonymity is vital to our cause.”

“And just who are you?” asked Osyron.

“For the duration and purpose of this meeting you may refer to us as the Brotherhood,” said Gilroy.

“Should that mean something to me? I don’t think I’ve heard the name before.”

“No, it shouldn’t; it’s a pseudonym me and some colleagues use in place of our real name, not that we have a real name of course.”

Osyron pinched the bridge of his nose. “The more you speak the less I understand, Gilroy.”

“I represent an organisation that has no name yet has a thousand names. Tonight while we interview you, we are the Brotherhood. Next week when we interview someone else we’ll be the Alliance, the time after we’ll be the Guild and so it goes on.”

“Okay, you give false names to keep your organisation’s real identity a secret, is that it?” asked Osyron.

“Correct, only, I’m not certain we have a fixed name. My superiors in this organisation may know it but I don’t. It’s just as likely that we do not have an official title. This helps keep marshals at arm’s length.”

“So, it’s criminal activity you are involved in. I’m a man who spent his adult life becoming a marshal and you see me as a potential recruit for your ranks?” Osyron rested his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “Do I have to point out the flaw in your logic?”

“No, but I’ll point out the flaw in yours. You see, we don’t always operate inside the law but this does not mean we have a blatant disregard for it or the marshals. Our primary objective is justice, always has been and always will be. We have simply removed bureaucracy and installed common sense in its stead.”

“Unlawful justice? You’re making no sense again.”

“Come now, Osyron. You of all people should recognise my meaning. Aren’t you the one who knocked out the high marshal? Did you not carry out a jailbreak? Did you not imprison an employee of the crown at sword point? Did you not steal a boat from the emperor’s own fleet? All illegal, yet you decided to take wilful part in each.”

While Osyron was not surprised Gilroy knew of his actions, hearing them listed aloud by a stranger was disconcerting. “It’s not how you make it sound. Circumstance dictated my actions. I was left with no choice.”

“And here is where we find the flaw in your logic, Osyron. If there was no choice, then every marshal who found themselves in those situations would’ve acted exactly as you did.” It was Gilroy’s turn to lean forward. “You know this is not true. Most marshals would have accepted Riven’s decision to lock up the village girl and make her await trial. Some may have offered a verbal protest, maybe even a threat of resignation. But you, Osyron, chose to act.”

Osyron struggled to find an adequate rebuttal for Gilroy’s statement. “I know what I have done and I know my reasons for doing them—this tells me nothing of you and who you represent.”

“Then let me paint the canvas, Osyron. We also choose to act; we also choose justice. We relinquish the red tape and legislation when they obstruct these objectives.”

“You make justice sounds like an umbrella term that you can shelter any action under. What exactly do you do?

“We monitor the world and the people who control it, the people who wish to control it, their motivations and desires for doing so.”

Osyron placed both palms on the table and met Gilroy’s eyes. “You kill people, don’t you? You can try to dress it up any way you like but that’s where this is headed, isn’t it?”

Gilroy glanced at Lilly. They shared a knowing look. “I will not lie and tell you that we have never killed but it does not define us, we are no mere assassins’ guild if that is what you imagine. Let me present a scenario. We know of a man who involves himself in charity work. He holds events to raise money for orphanages, medical research and things of a similar ilk. Only a fraction of the money donated actually reaches its promised charitable destinations; the majority goes to lining his pockets. We have watched this man move from his humble home to a grand mansion, now guarded with his own private army of mercenaries. The people know nothing of his countryside mansion and still assume him a man of humble means. Simply put, this man is a vampire, feeding on the hopelessness of some and the generosity of others. What would you do with such a man?”

Osyron drummed his fingers on the table as he considered. “Surly he can be spoken to, be informed that he is being watched.”

“And if he didn’t listen?”

“Then apply a little more force; threaten him.”

“And if this venture brought no happy resolution?”

“Then a thrashing—show him your threats are not empty.”

“Let’s suppose this happened and the private army of mercenaries appeared as his response.”

“Then alert the marshals. If you have evidence of this it can’t be ignored forever.”

Gilroy smiled. “If only every marshal had your passion for justice. This may sting somewhat, but marshals are often bought. There is a reason you don’t find prisons saturated with the rich, Osyron. I can assure you, it’s not because wealth begets morality.”

Osyron’s brow came down. “Is this a hypothetical or a real person we speak of?”

Gilroy raised a finger for each point he made. “Nine new orphanages in the empire with the finances to run them for decades. Seven thousand gold coins invested into various medical research projects.” Gilroy paused and sucked his bottom lip. “And one less vampire in Olbaid.”

Osyron ran a hand through his hair. “So that’s where the orphanages came from. I thought it strange for the emperor to be investing money in such ventures with war brewing.” Osyron looked at Gilroy. “I have to admit you make a persuasive case, but I don’t think I could assassinate folk. It’s not my nature.”

Gilroy spread his arms. “You wouldn’t have to. What we have in mind for you is aiding in redemption, a journey into Miria to save a young man’s mind. After that, we would offer you work that you are free to accept or decline. Given what you said tonight, you’ll never be offered an elimination. Maybe you would like to deliver the gold of these vampires to towns for the construction of medical facilities and other required infrastructure. Does this not interest you?”

“It might, but how can I be certain the people you kill are as diabolical as you claim, that you’re not just eliminating targets to support some hidden agenda?”

“You’ll be part of our intelligence, asked to watch and witness the behaviour of certain individuals that have been brought to our attention. You will see and experience first-hand just what monsters we have walking out streets, filling out town halls and controlling our churches. We don’t eliminate unless we have tried every other possible avenue and we are absolutely certain that a death sentence is merited,” said Gilroy.

Osyron leaned back in his chair, thinking over everything Gilroy had told him. “So what happens if I join and decide it’s not for me, do I then become a target?”

“No, we have nothing to fear from you,” replied Gilroy.

“How long do I get to decide if this is for me?”

“Unfortunately, you have to tell me if you are interested before we part company. Should you decide you are not interested then we wish you the best in life and we never speak again. If you understand and subscribe to our philosophy then I have the details of your first mission right here.”

“If I say ‘yes’ to this redemption mission, I don’t ever have to do anymore work for you; I can walk away, no life-long pledge, no strings attached?”

“There are no strings; you work as you please, take what pleases you, reject what doesn’t,” replied Gilroy.

Osyron glanced over to Lilly. She stood, quietly observing the conversation, her serine smile permanently etched on her face. Even as a figure lurking in the half-dark, she emanated naught but wholesomeness. “Why are you part of this Brotherhood, Lilly?”

“Simply put, young man, I grow tired of bastards getting away with being bastards. All through my life, I witnessed monsters commit atrocities with no recompense. On my own I was always too scared to do anything, but now I’m with the Brotherhood, monsters fear me.”

Osyron nodded and mirrored her smile before turning back to Gilroy. “Tell me of this redemption mission.”

“We have a young man working for us who goes by the name of Driskal. He specialises in the work yourself and most others will not touch; think of him as our vampire slayer. He has a torrid history, one we need not delve into, but without expert intervention, he’ll remain a broken man. We’ve found someone that can help, a shaman that lives on Kimber Ridge in the Mirian Empire. What we need from you is to get him to this shaman and home safely again.” said Gilroy.

Journeying into Miria and back would take a month; it seemed an ideal place given he was wanted by the crown. With man power stretched, the search for his whereabouts would be brief and would not stretch into the neighbouring continent. While the idea held appeal, it also posed problems. “How do I get to Kimber Ridge? The border is a warzone; even if I manage to somehow get past the front lines my accent will flag me as an Olbaidian.”

“We have a boat ready and—”

Osyron slapped both hands on the table as an outburst of laughter shot out of him.

“Gilroy glanced at Lilly for understanding. Lilly shrugged, offering nothing but her own confusion.

Osyron’s laughter diminished. The look on Gilroy’s face suggested this was no joke. Eventually, Osyron’s amusement fizzled out to a resigned sigh. “Tell me your proposal then.”

“Well, you sail across the southern border of Miria in the boat we have prepared.” Gilroy paused in anticipation of another outburst. He continued when it never came. “You then sail up the east coast and travel on land from there. No one there will recognize an Olbaidian accent in that part of Miria. The land is sparsely populated. The few folk that reside there consist of fishermen and farmers. Should anyone confront you, claim to be from a distant part of Miria. No one will be any the wiser. We have chosen a route that keeps you well away from the towns and villages. A few hours’ travel will take you to a shack that we own; you can spend the night there. A further half-day from there will bring you to Kimber Ridge and the shaman.”

Osyron rocked on his chair, mulling over the proposition offered. “Very well, I accept, on one condition.”

Gilroy raised his eyebrows then drew them down again. “A condition? It’s unprecedented in my experience, but if it’s reasonable then we’ll oblige the request.”

“Oh, it’s quite reasonable,” said Osyron.

Chapter Thirty Two

Rows of moored boats bobbed on the choppy waters as Osyron stood on the rain-soaked pier, awaiting the arrival of Gilroy and his cargo, Driskal. The downpour was a welcome addition to the night. Torrential conditions made the hooded cloak he donned less conspicuous. The rain also kept the harbour master cooped up in his outpost, not that he had any business on the public pier, but loneliness could cause him to wander in search of conversation. Making his way through the city to the docks was no easy task given how recognisable Osyron was to the marshals, but his inside knowledge of patrols and routines helped him slink through the street unnoticed.

He clutched the cloak tight at his neck, indulging in a private smile at recollection of the afternoon’s events. Gilroy had graciously met the requested condition. Five men from a secret organisation that practiced selective annihilation of vampires had packed his mother’s belongings onto a cart for her move to the city. The arduous task of loading the cart was over before his mother had the chance to get her hands dirty. Gilroy had promised another five men to be waiting in the city to keep her hands clean.

The silhouette of two approaching figures pulled Osyron out of his thoughts. He peered through the rain as Gilroy and a presumed Driskal walked along the pier towards him. Their footfalls echoed heavy on the wooden planks, making Osyron glance at the harbour master’s outpost.

“Osyron, glad to see you and in timely fashion too. Allow me to introduce you.” Gilroy half-turned to the man at his side. “Osyron, Driskal. Driskal, Osyron.” Driskal’s chin remained tight to his chest. He took a half step to stand behind Gilroy like a shy child.

Osyron was unsure what an assassin looked like but Driskal’s appearance contradicted any preconceptions he held. The young man’s head remained low, leaving Osyron nothing to look at other than his rain-sodden black hair. His shoulders were slumped, giving the impression the covered manacles on his wrists were a considerable toll. Osyron tried to take the picture Gilroy had painted of a vampire annihilator and apply it to the dripping wet, timid frame.

“Nice to meet you, Driskal, looks like we’re to be traveling companions. I hope you don’t snore,” joked Osyron.

Driskal’s head remained bowed with eyes fixed on the floor. “Hello,” came his weak response, barely audible above the raindrops bouncing on the wooden pier.

Osyron and Gilroy exchanged glances through the rain.

“Right, well, we best get going before we draw unwanted eyes. Lead us to your boat, Gilroy,” said Osyron.

“Of course, right this way.” Osyron fell in behind Gilroy next to Driskal and followed. “It’s well stocked with provisions so no need to dock anywhere along the coast until you reach your destination, provided you fish along the way,” said Gilroy over his shoulder.

“Thank you, the less people we interact with the better.”

Gilroy gave Osyron a rundown on the boat’s storage and contents. He handed Osyron a bag containing the folder on Driskal and the keys to his manacles. After Gilroy offered the pair his best wishes, he freed the boat from its moorings and waved them farewell. He turned to leave but then faced them again. Cupping a hand to his mouth he called, “You’ll know the shack upon your arrival by two cart wheels outside.”

Osyron raised an acknowledging hand before he, Driskal and the boat disappeared into the rain-soaked night.

The days at sea melted into each other, each daily cycle a routine of repetitive chores and duties. Miria’s southern coastline loomed on the horizon. The coastline comprised of rugged rocks for the first few days but the land eventually rose into colossal chalk-white cliffs. For two days the small boat sailed in the shadow of towering cliff faces. Carved sentinels lined the cliff face every few thousand meters. Each sentinel stood with a shield-covered arm, with the other held straight out with an upturned palm in a ‘halt’ motion. The time and dedication invested in carving these giant chalk soldiers was almost beyond comprehension, these gargantuan effigies created in defiance of the supposed demonic invasion from the southern seas. Even though the spectacle ran for days Osyron was sad to see it pass; dreary rocks and barren stone beaches where considerably more drab in the wake of such majestic craft.

The persistent creaking and moaning of the boat offered more conversation than the mute Driskal. When Osyron asked him to carry out a task, he did so with docile obedience, occasionally offering one-word answers in response. Osyron used Driskal’s uncommunicativeness as a chance to speak freely of Daniela. There was no interruption, no judgment, no reactionary advice, just ears willing to listen. It was during one of Osyron’s outpourings that Driskal engaged in his first conversation.

“I killed a woman,” he said.

Osyron felt the hair on his neck lift as he stood at the boat’s wheel. He was suddenly aware his sword was by his bunk and not sheathed at his hip. The dispassionate nature of Driskal had coerced complacency from him. Driskal sat with his back to the boat mast, his head limp and low. The boy spent the majority of the days in this same spot with the same limp posture.

Osyron stopped looking ahead and stared directly at Driskal. “You kill people for a living, Driskal.”

Driskal’s gaze remained fixed on the deck but his focus was somewhere distant. “I put monsters to sleep. But I killed someone else, someone innocent, a woman.”

Osyron’s tongue darted out to wet his lips. They carried the now familiar salt of the sea. “Your mind is broken right now, Driskal, but we’re on our way to remedy that. You can’t be held accountable for your actions when you turn; you are no longer yourself when that happens.”

“When I turn? You make me sound like some shape shifter, a monster in my own right. I too should be eliminated then.”

“You are a shape shifter, in a way. Only, it’s not your physical form that morphs but your mind. You’re a good soul, Driskal, a boy who has a monster living inside him. That monster will be eliminated when we reach our destination.”

Driskal sat in quiet contemplation. “What of the woman’s family? The monster dies too late for them.”

“We can’t reverse the past. All we can do is make sure it never happens again. I’m certain the Brotherhood will look after her family any way they can.”

Driskal picked himself up and moved towards the boat’s cabin. “Doesn’t bring her back,” he said, disappearing below deck before Osyron could respond.

Osyron turned his full attention back to steering the boat, letting out a whisper. “I hope you’re safe, Daniela, wherever you are.”

Driskal’s confession was the only real conversation the pair shared in their weeks of travel around the coasts of the Mirian Empire. Osyron was pleased given the troubling nature of the brief exchange. He ceased mentioning Daniela for the remainder of the journey after the perturbing conversion with his travel companion and privately resolved to find Daniela once he was back in Olbaid. He’d known her for such a brief interlude and yet shouldered an emptiness now that he was without her. He thought it would pass in time, but the gnawing feeling of missing something important lingered.

After three full weeks, they conquered the southern coast of Miria. It was another ten days sailing up the eastern coast before they found the place to dock indicated on Gilroy’s map. A few hours’ travel through pleasant countryside brought them to the secluded shack as Gilroy had predicted. Two abandoned cartwheels lay against the front wall on either side of the doorway, confirming they had found their home for the night. The shack’s roof sagged from absorbing countless rainfalls. The weathered walls seemed to buckle under the over-burdened roof. A brooding storm on the horizon underscored their fine timing as Osyron turned the key in the lock and made his way inside. A lone lantern hung on the wall. The fading light made Osyron waste no time in lighting it. The modest flame that burned suggested it was running on fumes. With daylight dying and the meagre fuel in the lantern, Osyron thought it best they settle down for the night. Each blast of wind sounded like it would be the shack’s demise; the dilapidated structure moaned at the force of the howling gale outside.

The shack was unassuming with a partitioning wall down the middle converting it into two rooms. A thin layer of dust coated the contents, making it evident the shack had gone unused for considerable time. A table with a single chair was all the furniture it boasted with wooden planks and discarded worn sacks strewn across the floor. A filthy four-panel window begrudged muted light into the room. The back room sported dust and cobwebs as decór, a similar grimy four-paned window nullified the fading light from outside.

“I never brought oil with me from the boat so let’s settle down for the night before that lantern burns out. I don’t fancy stumbling around in the dark trying to lay our bedrolls,” suggested Osyron.

“That makes sense, only...” Driskal’s words trailed off.

“Only what?” Asked Osyron.

“I’m not tired.”

“After all that walking? Well, we don’t really have any alternative other than finding a village to trade oil. But meeting folks carries the potential for trouble.”

“I know,” conceded Driskal, nodding his already sunk head. “It’s just, I don’t like being in a dark room alone.”

Osyron froze, the potential ramifications of Driskal’s words racing through his head. “There’s nothing I can do about the darkness but we can bunk in the same room if that helps with the alone part.”

“I hope that helps,” replied Driskal, walking through to the other room.

“You and me both, Driskal, you and me both.” Osyron picked up the lantern and followed Driskal into the back room. Both men got to work laying out their bedrolls. Driskal placed his under the window with Osyron laying his against the opposite wall.

“Driskal, listen, I’m keeping you in manacles tonight but once we reach Kimber Ridge it’ll be the last time you’ll wear them, ever. Just one night and it will be over, the madness, the guilt, everything. You’ll be a blank canvass and people who care for you are going to paint that canvas with beauty and life. You‘ll be a blessing on this world again; all you have to do is stay strong tonight,” said Osyron.

“You make it sound so straight forward. I like the sound of being a man of worth. Thank you, Osyron, I am glad it is you who accompanied me on this journey. I apologise, my own company has been less than riveting but as you can understand my mind has been somewhat preoccupied,” replied Driskal, flattening out the lumps in his bedroll.

“I prefer the company of someone who says too little over someone who says too much. With that said, I guess I need to apologise over my constant chatter about Daniela.”

Driskal gave a dismissive wave of his hand in answer as the lantern gave one final blossoming glow before extinguishing.

“I guess that’s our cue to go to sleep, but we can still talk if it makes you feel better. I don’t feel much like sleeping myself just yet,” offered Osyron. Rain started pelting the world around them before Driskal could respond. Its gentle introduction gathered pace until it beat a constant, obnoxious drone on the shack. Driskal said something that Osyron never heard, the chance to converse stolen by the hammering rainfall. “I can’t hear you,” said Osyron.

“It’s fine, forget about it,” replied Driskal.
“Okay, sleep well, Driskal,” said Osyron, laying his head down.

Osyron began to drift off to sleep, using the rainfall and distant thunder to his advantage. He counted the time between each thunderous roar, starting over when a new rumble filled the sky. He shut out all thoughts and before long, sleep took him.

An almighty crash of thunder directly overhead accompanied by a blinding flash of lightning made Osyron sit bolt upright. In the fading of the flash, he saw the outline of Driskal who appeared to be sitting upright too. Osyron offered a reassuring nod but the flash of light had passed. The sky continued to rumble its discontent, providing an accompanying backdrop for the relentless rainfall and rampant wind. The shack did little to stifle the torrent of noise. “How do you feel about thunderstorms, Driskal? I like them myself. I wouldn’t mind being in a building with thicker walls all the same,” said Osyron, doubting he would be heard over the raging elements.

There was no reply. How long has Driskal been sat up like that? wondered Osyron. He peered into the gloom. He thought he could make out Driskal’s silhouette against the glass window. The near perfect darkness made certainty impossible. A further deep rumble quickly followed by a brilliant flash banished the dark for the briefest of moments. Much to Osyron’s relief, Driskal had not moved; he was in the same upright position as before, but this time Driskal was grinning.

As the light abruptly vanished, Osyron began patting his hands across the floor in search of his sword. He’s in manacles. He woke up with that loud thunder clap, same as you. The attempted calming thought didn’t stop his hands from searching the dusty floor. Osyron felt himself leaning as the blind, patting search had him stretching farther from his bedroll. Soon it was apparent the sword was gone. Osyron strained his ear, hoping to catch any movement from Driskal. With Osyron’s arm now at full stretch, his hand took a sweeping arch across the floor. His fingertips traced dust and tiny debris but found no sword. I didn’t lay it this far away.

From the blackness, Driskal spoke in a voice loud enough to be heard over the storm. “No point in screaming, little boy, no one will hear you. No one will care if they do.”

Osyron froze. The gathering rumble overhead indicated a lightning strike was imminent. Osyron was not sure if he welcomed or dreaded it. A brilliant flash banished the dark, filling the room with pale blue light. Driskal was gone. Osyron’s eyes darted, trying to take in every corner before the light departed. Darkness descended with no sign of Driskal.

Another blinding flash revealed open manacles abandoned on the floor.

Osyron threw off his blanket and stood in a half-crouch with arms outstretched on either side of him. The periods of pitch black were agonizingly long while the flashes of light mockingly brief. Osyron took a long, calming suck of air. His heart hammered in his chest. If he wanted to kill me I would be dead by now, he tried to tell himself. He focused on his breathing. What do I do? What do I do? The words raced and repeated in his mind. Instincts screamed for him to bolt while another part of him warned against sudden movement.

Inch by agonising inch he started moving towards the doorway. The flashes of light were now an enemy; for as long as he could not see Driskal, Driskal could not see him.

Every carefully placed foot brought a traitorous groan from the floorboards, screaming his whereabouts. As he closed in on the doorway to the front room, the outside door of the shack began to creak open. Driskal was leaving. The outside door shut and Osyron thought he could hear the rustling of clothes, like someone shaking off the rain. Driskal had not left; someone had entered. Sounds were difficult to identify over the still raging weather but Osyron picked up footsteps coming closer. Another lightning strike revealed a hooded figure in the front room. The rain-slicked cloak confirmed it was an outsider. No one knows we’re here except the Brotherhood. It must be a passer by looking for shelter for the rain.”

The stranger raised their hands to remove their hood as the world fell to blackness again. Osyron wondered if he should scream a warning but had no idea if this intruder bore ill intent or if the sudden noise would spook the elusive Driskal into action. Osyron walked through the doorway that separated the two rooms towards the figure. Again, a flash revealed his surroundings for a fleeting few seconds. What he saw in that brief illumination made his heart stop. “Daniela?” As quickly as the light revealed her, the darkness stole her away. “What are you doing here? How did you find me?” Osyron blurted out to the gloom. All at once, he remembered Driskal. “Daniela you need to get out of here, now!”

The noise of the furious gale still rattled the structure of the shack. Osyron reached blindly through the dark to take her hand and lead her outside.

“I came a long way—“ Daniela’s words ceased mid-sentence.

“Daniela?” said Osyron, panic rising in him. The sky rumbled once more in promise of incoming light. What seemed instantaneous earlier became a prolonged dread before the flash introduced itself.

The room filled with light; time slowed then stopped. Osyron had long enough to observe everything in that suspension of time. The table with its solitary chair half-tucked under. The wooden planks leaning lazily against wall, some stacked in neat piles, others haphazardly strewn across the floor. He saw the empty, worn sacks on the floorboards. His eyes even noticed the thin layer of dust that blanketed it all.

In the centre of the dishevelment stood Daniela. Her sodden hood was down, revealing her long fair hair, the tips wet with rain. It hung loose to her shoulders, framing the face he had come to adore. Her magnificent, twin polished amber eyes were wide and staring into his own. He noticed her perfect lips; they quivered in an attempt to speak words that never came. He took in the two paces between himself and Daniela’s two outreaching arms, the two inches of steel protruding from between her breasts; the blood stain around the sword tip growing bigger, darkening her dress under the opened cloak. He even had time to look back into her eyes, see them grow bigger and brighter than he had ever witnessed before, then watch them fill with shock and pain. He witnessed the slow descent of her eyelids closing, winking out the life that previously dazzled there.

The flash of lightning vanished from the room suddenly, horrified at what it bore witness to, causing the world to turn black. Time came racing back in a headlong rush. Osyron’s mind voiced a million protests to what his eyes had just seen. A trick of the light. Fear-induced illusions. It’s a dream, a nightmare. Wake up, just wake up! Again lightning struck and there was Daniela, standing before him. This time his eyes took in the long fingers gripping each of her shoulders. Creeping over Daniela’s right side was the sickly grin of Driskal. “I got the bitch, she won’t trade you to him.” His words came with evident satisfaction between the roars of thunder.

Osyron stood, drowning in confusion, disbelief, horror, pain, fear and denial. The cocktail of emotions subsided; one feeling powered its way through them all. Rage. Osyron was moving before even he realised. Driskal was still revelling in his kill, his eyes focused gleefully on the sword protruding from Daniela’s chest. His gaze rose just in time to see a diving Osyron reach for his throat. Darkness descended as Driskal toppled to the floor. The onrushing weight of the fury-filled Osyron crashed atop him. Driskal bore the weight of the two bodies as his back met the unforgiving floor.

Osyron straddled Driskal’s chest and wrapped a hand around his throat. He clenched the other, smashing it into Driskal’s face. He pummelled Driskal’s head repeatedly as tears stung his eyes. He rained down blows, embracing the fury that possessed him. Osyron stopped only when exhaustion demanded it. Even then, he shed tears of frustration he could not deliver more. His jaw muscles ached from his continually gritted teeth. His hand throbbed from the multitude of high velocity encounters with Driskal’s skull. He panted from the exertion. The lightning flashed again to reveal his hand around a bloody pulp where Driskal’s face had been.

With the rage thirst quenched, he turned towards Daniela. She lay slumped to the floor, his own sword still skewed through her torso. He removed it as gently as he could and took her lifeless body in his arms. Tears blurred his vision, robbing him of seeing her clearly in the flashes of periodic lightning. “Daniela, what are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here.” Osyron held her tighter still. “I was coming for you, soon as I had finished my business here. I let you go too easily and I wanted to try again. I know you felt inadequate next to the women on the island, but you shouldn’t have. While they may have been prettier not one of them could match you for beauty. It was your heart, your nature that enchanted me. The way you made me feel when you smile at me—it was the greatest feeling I had ever known when I realised I was the reason for that smile.” Osyron drew back a little so he could see her face; he hurriedly wiped the tears that poured from his eyes, trying to see her better. “Won’t you look at me, Daniela? Won’t you smile at me one last time? I will trade all my tomorrows for just one more smile. Please, Daniela, please smile.” Osyron looked at her through watery vision as lightning struck. Daniela did not look at him nor did she smile. Her head hung at an awkward angle. Osyron repositioned his hold on her to keep it straight. “Please, Daniela let me see those amber eyes one last time.” Her eyes remained closed. The room fell back into darkness. Osyron pulled her close to him and whispered in her ear. “Put your arms around me then, just lift up your arm and wrap it around me. I need to feel you hold me. I need it now more than ever.” Daniela’s arms lay limp and lifeless.

The undeniable reality of what had passed gripped Osyron, forcing a wail. He gently rocked her in his arms. “I love you, Daniela,” he managed before grief overcame him.

Chapter Thirty Three

A full moon hung low, filling the sky behind the church that sheltered the Mirian soldiers. From the trenches, the building stood silhouetted against the brilliant silver backdrop. Four consecutive blows on the church doors with the battering ram had failed to see them give. Initially, two dozen soldiers ran with the oak trunk to breach the doors. As arrows picked them off, other men dashed from the trenches to replace their fallen comrades. Now Olbaidian corpses littered the church grounds, curtesy of relentless Mirian archers.

“Call the retreat, Captain, this is folly!” cried Turrock.

Brendan stood in the foremost trench, his men lining the dugout shelter on both sides of him. Brendan kept his frowning face fixed on the church ahead. “The doors will give if we persevere.”

The soldiers operating the battering ram readied themselves a fifth time. They picked up the pace, hoping to drive the ram through the stubborn doors. The man holding up the tip of the ram snagged his foot on a dead comrade as they charged. As he toppled forward, so did the man at his back, causing a chain reaction down one side of the ram. With one side of support gone, the mighty oak trunk came crashing atop the fallen mens’ legs, pinning them to the ground. The soldiers on the other side endeavoured to heave the oak off their fallen comrades but the Mirian archers remained relentless and picked off the stationary targets with ease.

“Call a retreat, Captain!” Turrock did nothing to mask his building anger.

Finally, Brendan turned to face him. “Next squad, advance!”

Turrock gritted his teeth and lashed out a punch at the trench wall as another two dozen men went over the top.

“You need somewhere to vent that insubordination, Vice Captain? Then follow me.” Brendan began lifting himself from the trench. “Next squad, with me. Move the bodies so the ram gets a clear path. The doors will yield!” Brendan sprung over the lip of the trench and dashed towards the church. Turrock came on his heels along with the next group of soldiers. The battering ram lay surrounded by the dead and dying.

Men lay strewn over the top while others filled the night with howls of pain as the burden on their legs grew unbearable. With the ram rendered redundant, the Mirians turned their arrows to the onrushing men from the trenches. Only half made it to the abandoned ram. With too few bodies to lift the mass of wood, the remaining soldiers once again became easy pickings for the archers in the church windows.

“Retreat, retreat! Fall back, men!” The desperate cry of Vice Captain Turrock called out into the darkness of the night. The prone men took no time to seek confirmation from Captain Bastine and sprinted back towards the trenches. Brendan shot Turrock a murderous glare, however, offered no contrary command. The ‘thunk, thunk’ of two arrows embedding themselves into Brendan’s shield punctuated Turrock’s point.

“To the trenches, men, fall back!” Brendan heard himself cry. He strapped his shield to his back and dashed for cover.

His driven footfalls accompanied by the whistling of arrows did little to hide the cries of the dying. What’s gone wrong? Brendan’s head was a mess of confusion. What he knew to be true was in direct contradiction to the reality surrounding him. Why have You abandoned us, God? This, out of everything he had done in Hixel’s name, should have been most favourable. Brendan took the next step in his sprint for safety to find the earth missing from under him. Before he realized it, he had reached the first trench; his face clouted against the back dirt wall before toppling sideway onto the trench floor. His face slapped the muddy bottom; the cold, wet shock saved him from unconsciousness. He lay in a heap at the bottom of the dugout refuge, the world an unsteady blur. Bodies began to fall and fill the trench around him as two fists shot out of the blurry confusion to grab him by his tunic.

“Scores of men dead, and for what? Your pride, your arrogance? I should never have allowed you to talk me into this.” Brendan could not see the face the fists belonged to, nevertheless, Turrock’s voice was unmistakable. Turrock hoisted Brendan up, slamming him against the trench wall.

“The doors should’ve broken,” Brendan managed.

“Well, they didn’t. The Mirians have been fortifying them all day,” replied Turrock, showing no sign of loosening his grip.

When Brendan had regained some of his focus he was greeted by a clenched-jaw stare from Turrock. A strand of white saliva adjoined Turrock’s curled lips; Brendan could see it bend with every laboured breath. Something over Turrock’s shoulder caught Brendan’s eye. There was a fist-size indentation in the trench wall opposite, from Turrock lashing out Brendan presumed. Brendan set a narrowed eye at it. He thought he could see a crushed worm inside; the slanting shadow of the hole denied him certainty. “It’s your fault, Turrock. You killed God’s worm.”

Turrock slapped Brendan across the face, hard enough to set Brendan’s ear ringing. “This better be a concussion, Captain. If I’ve been following a mad man all this time then blame really is mine.”

Brendan didn’t answer; instead he rubbed at his face where he had been struck. Turrock raised his voice, hoping to pierce the veil of fog that was evidently clouding Brendan’s mind. “If the Mirians decide to charge it will be a slaughter!” As if hearing Turrock’s words, the two doors of the church swung open. A horde of Mirian soldiers began funnelling out into the church grounds, letting loose a cry that carried over the trenches. “Oh, dear God, no...” breathed Turrock, loosening his grip on Brendan’s tunic.

Brendan shook out the last of the fog clouding his thought. “To arms, men, the enemy is setting upon us!” he bellowed, swatting Turrock’s fists away. Brendan risked a glance over the top of the trench; something was wrong. He was about to ask Turrock if he sensed it too when it hit him. It was the cry of the Mirian soldiers; it was unfitting of men intent of putting their enemies to the sword. Then it struck Brendan; the cry was not born of rage but fear.

Brendan stared open-mouthed as the Mirian forces poured out of the church doors. Instead of running at the trenches with drawn weapons they scattered in every direction, dropping swords, shields, and anything else that slowed their escape. “What’s happening?” asked Turrock as his head peered over the trench lip.

Brendan was already halfway out when he spun to meet Turrock’s gaze. Brendan’s eyes were wild; his lips stretched wide to reveal a toothy grin. Dirt rolled into the trench and onto Turrock’s head from Brendan’s feet. “Why, isn’t it obvious? Hixel is here.”

The directionless stamping of the Mirians saw them gradually disappear into the night. Before long, they were nothing but terrified cries, echoing in the darkness across the surrounding flat lands. The Olbaidians glanced at each other for answers before settling their gaze into the darkness beyond the open church doors.

“What’s that noise? It sounds like clattering bones…” said a soldier, peering into the darkness of the church.

With an ever-growing grin, Brendan stepped forward and planted a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Present yourself correctly, men, for you are about to have a meeting with God.”

The men stared at each other for the second time. No one wanted to disrespect the captain yet they all bore collective sceptical expressions at Brendan’s claim. Some soldiers rubbed at their dirty tunics with even filthier hands. Others shrugged in answer to the unspoken question written on each other’s faces. The men formed into lines in front of the church. They stared past the battering ram and dead bodies strewn across the ground, hoping to glimpse movement inside the impenetrable darkness. “Throw a torch in there so we can see what’s happening,” suggested Turrock. One of the soldiers moved from formation to fetch a torch. Brendan shot the man dagger eyes, forcing him to shrink back into line.

Expectant eyes focused intently on the church entrance. A clattering, crunching sound grew louder as something drew closer. A soldier standing in line fainted and another turned and sprinted at a pace that would see him in Olbaid before the turning of the hour. “Drop to a knee, men, avert your eyes.” The men did as instructed before Brendan finished giving the command. The repetitive clattering became louder and more intent. Brendan thought it sounded like an army marching. Hixel is accompanied by a contingent of angels. He never imagined the reward bestowed upon him by God would be a personal visitation. Guaranteed legendary status in Olbaidian history awaited him. He, a rookie captain had driven the Mirian forces back from the borderlands, defeating them on their own soil and captured a false god’s temple. He would go down in holy scriptures as the man so righteous he enticed Hixel himself down from the heavens. The empire would grant a knighthood while he lived and sainthood upon reaching the eternities. Everything had fallen into place for Brendan.

A low, guttural moan carried on the breeze, adding to the crunching noise emitting from the church. Brendan risked a glance up. From between the doors, scores of illuminated red eyes stared out at him, routinely shifting with the sway of walking. “Back on your feet, men, draw your swords,” Brendan tried to say. His clamped throat struck him mute. He coughed and tried the words once more. “Draw your swords, men.” This time he managed a hoarse whisper.

One by one, the men looked up to see what approached. Their cries of horror and anguish filled the night air as undead spilled from the church. Bodies that were little more than skeletal husks, crept ever closer. Blood red light shone inside hollowed eye sockets. Each corpse donned rotting rags that fluttered on the breeze. Lipless mouths hung open. Skeletal arms ending in clawed fingers of bone reached outwards for the living, signifying their intent.

“Draw your weapons,” Brendan attempted again, his voice forsaking him a third time.

“To arms, Olbaid!” Turrock yelled in a thunderous boom.

The men came to life, breaking from their paralysing horror. The sound of drawn steel was heard as soldiers rushed forward only to stop dead in their tracks. Their fallen brothers littering the ground began to rise. Heads jerked up and stared with the same blood-red glares. The reanimated soldiers joined the shambling mass coming towards them. Others still trapped under the battering ram hissed like malevolent snakes. Their fingers clawed at the earth as they tried to free themselves from their pinned predicament.

Turrock burst through the stalled rank of soldiers and lead the charge “Fight or die, men!”

The soldiers reacted to the battle cry, charging at the risen with renewed courage. Steel rattled against bone as battle erupted in the shadow of the church.

Brendon had not moved. He struggled to come to terms with the events unfolding around him. “The dead have risen?” he managed, his voice still a timid whisper.

“Get it together, Captain!” yelled Turrock from the melee of battle.

“The dead have risen?” Brendan said aloud. His brow drew down upon hearing his own words.

Panic threatened to override discipline in the men.

“We need you, Captain, draw your weapon!” yelled Turrock, his voice but one wave in a sea of voices, all screaming in fear and frustration.

“The dead have risen?” Brendan cocked his head like a curious dog, then he went wide-eyed as his words finally connected with their meaning.

Turrock spat orders while stealing glances at the stationary captain. A skeletal hand reached for Turrock’s face, forcing his concentration back on the fight.

At last, Brendan burst into life; he snatched his shield off his back and held it up in front of him. He ran south towards the woods, knocking over soldiers and risen alike. He needed to get away, needed to think. He needed time to piece together all that had happened. He bolted into the cover of the woodlands before slowing just enough to weave between the trees safely. The moon did little to illuminate the thick forest, making visibility low. He cast off his weapons belt and shield, letting them drop to the forest floor. He ran with outstretched arms to help manoeuvre around the trunks and low hanging branches coming at him from the darkness. As the sound of battle gave way with distance, he felt the restriction in his throat recede. “Flee!” he cried with all the gusto he could muster, long clear of the church and out of earshot of his men.

Chapter Thirty Four

Osyron awoke to muted sunlight accompanied by chirping birds sometime in the mid-morning. He wondered when and how he had fallen asleep. He lifted himself up; the pain in his knuckles forced a wince. The dull throb brought the previous night’s events crashing back into his conscience. He had slept on the dusty wooden floor next to two dead bodies. One he’d loved, the other he’d bludgeoned to death with his bare hands. He cupped his face in his palms as he sat up and began rubbing the sleep from his head. Wake up; you’ve funerals to take care of. Daniela’s unquestionably came first. He wanted to bury her at sea. Daniela had given sea burials to the island children that did not survive the journey to Olbaid; it seemed fitting she be sent off the same way.

Utilising his carpentry skills, Osyron used the two wheels that lay against the outside wall and the strewn wooden planks to form a handcart. He attached the arms of the chair as handles, enabling him to pull the makeshift cart behind him as he walked. The time invested in building would be more than made back in traveling to the sea. Once complete, he walked back inside to retrieve her body. The blood stain beneath Daniela had dried and browned. It snagged her hair and clothes as Osyron lifted her. He let out a mournful cry at the sickly sound of peeling Daniela out of her hardened blood.

Still dumbfounded over her appearance the night prior, Osyron laid Daniela atop the cart, covering her with the sacks from inside the shack and set off. He trudged onwards, down the dirt path that led to the sea, passing harvested fields and groves of moulting maple trees. He’d enjoyed the scenic merits of this countryside when heading to the shack, but now wondered why. The previous night’s downpour had washed the colour from the landscape, leaving a bleak, watercolour world to replace the vibrance he’d witnessed the day prior. A contaminating grey tint found its way into the terrain, the abundant beauty of nature now a dreary, despondent sight.

Drab fields and crooked trees rolled passed him as he trudged down the dirt pathway, his feet kicking through the dead leaves that littered the ground. Osyron lost interest in his surroundings, causing him to retreat inside himself. Denial swirled inside him. He toyed with the notion the corpse on his cart was not Daniela, just some stranger bearing an uncanny resemblance. Daniela was somewhere safe in a different empire and he would see her again. But he knew it a lie. He would never mistake her face, those amber eyes for any others. Desperation had him clawing at further wild notions on his funeral procession to the sea. It was not until the expanse of shimmering silver in the distance came into view that he finally accepted Daniela was dead and this was the final goodbye.

Upon reached the shore, Osyron constructed a raft to carry Daniela on the waves; he layered it with sweet pea flower petals he picked along the coastline. The recollection of etching the ‘Good night, Sweet Pea’ message in the sand outside her cabin played in his mind, her frown dissolving into a joyous smile as she’d read the words he left. The memory brought a sad smile that grief abruptly overwhelmed.

Osyron retrieved white sheets from the boat he and Driskal had arrived in. His faced trembled with restrained emotion as he cocooned Daniela in them. He then sprinkled yet more pink and violet sweet pea petals atop the white sheets. The small flowers seemed to be the only part of life that held their vivid colouring.

He stared at the cocooned corpse as he waded out into thigh-deep waters with the vessel. “If you see my dad, tell him I love him and I hope he’s proud of me.” He leaned in and kissed her forehead but instead of releasing her, his grip tightened. She gone. His fingertips bit harder against the raft, defying the thought. “Let it go, she’s gone!” he said aloud. His grip slowly loosened. He patted his pockets in a frantic search for flint and tinder before his heart could sing further protests.

After sparking the fire, he waded back to shore, leaving Daniela’s corpse to the will of the water. He watched the tide carry her farther out to sea; the flames licked up and around the white sheets before the flaming pyre subsided to the water. The raft sunk, leaving a small plume of smoke in the air. The curving smoke grew faint then indistinguishable against the backdrop of grey sky. “I’m really going to miss you, Sweet Pea,” He whispered.

Osyron collected a shovel and pickaxe from the boat and placed them on the cart. Another two-hour walk lay ahead, with a grave needing dug at the journey’s end. Driskal would receive no ceremony; a hole in the ground deep enough to quell the stench of a rotting corpse would suffice. Osyron hated the idea of tending to Daniela’s killer but Driskal would not take common decency from him too. Every man deserved a burial and the responsibility was solely his. Osyron cupped his hands around the cart handles and made for the shack once more.

Two hours later, Osyron gripped the shack’s door handle; taking a deep breath, he pushed it open. Lying on the floor was Driskal, his face a pulped, mangled mess. The blood had dried into a darkened varnish on the floorboards that had started drawing flies. Driskal’s face was always going to be difficult to look at but Osyron was thankful he had not yet eaten. Osyron walked over to Driskal and wrapped his arms around his body, standing him up in the process. Osyron crouched and let Driskal flop over his right shoulder. A faint moan escaped the supposed corpse’s lips.

Driskal was alive.

Osyron laid Driskal on the shack’s table and paced the blood-stained floorboards. His fingers slid back through his hair and interlocked behind his head. Every inhalation flared his nostrils; every exhalation inflated his cheeks. His fatigue cast off as grief screamed for vengeance anew. His periphery vision caught sight of his blood-stained sword. He strode for the weapon, crouched, grabbed it and spun back towards the table. He stood over the unconscious Driskal, sword clenched in both hands, the blade tip poised above Driskal’s heart. One swift downward thrust would avenge Daniela. Daniela. Her name gave him pause; would she want this? Would the child of compassion thank him for what he was about to do? Driskal, you cannot be held responsible for your actions when you turn. Osyron’s own words echoed in his head. Frustration replaced anger. He turned, launching the sword at the wall; it spun through the air before bouncing off its target, clattering to the floor.

Osyron bunched his hands into fists; his arm muscles tightened as he raised his chin, releasing a primal scream at the ceiling. He spun back to face Driskal and leaned close, spitting words through gritted teeth. “If you have a God then pray that this shaman can fix you. If he can’t, you die.” Osyron took a step back and drew a hand down his face. I think this is what you’d have chosen Daniela. I beg forgiveness if I’m wrong.

For the second time that day, Osyron loaded a body onto his handmade cart. He devised a plan should they be approached by Mirian soldiers or other unwanted attention. He would pretend to be a mute, taking his brother to see the shaman as Olbaidian troops had beaten him within an inch of his life. Osyron scribbled a note explaining this, complete with spelling errors to reflect the literacy level of the farm hand he masqueraded as. The poorly written note offered his otherwise non-existent disguise authenticity. However, the note remaining superfluous to requirements was Osyron’s desired outcome.

Osyron took a last look at the dilapidated shack before taking the cart handles in a firm grip and setting off for the shaman.

The journey to Kimber Ridge passed without incident; the incessant internal conflict toiling within Osyron made for poor company but offered distraction from the agony taking refuge in his flesh and bones. As Osyron pulled the handcart the last few feet up the ridge, he spotted the shaman sitting outside his grand abode; it had the hallmarks of a circus tent. A pinned back section of fabric allowed access inside. The bright opening was exaggerated against the deep brown canvas of the shaman’s tent and twilight skies beyond. The small, grey bearded man puffed contently on a pipe as he watched Osyron take the last few steps of his ill-fated journey.

On the horizon over the ridge’s edge, the Mirian capital filled Osyron’s field of view. Countless candles and lanterns in widows stretched in both directions, displaying the vastness of the city. Tall buildings climbed towards the sky only to be overshadowed by towering buildings at the city’s centre. The multitude of structures fading into the distance hinted the city stretched as far back as it did wide.

“Are you the shaman? I have a delivery for you,” panted Osyron, approaching the tent.

The small man removed the pipe from his mouth, taking in Osyron and the cart. “A delivery you say, a strange way to speak of a human is it not? Nevertheless, to answer your question, yes, I am the shaman. But please, call me Bovik. I’ve never understood folk who enjoy being defined by their profession.”

“Okay, Bovik. I’m a bit late, sorry. It was unavoidable.” Osyron gave a flick of his head over his shoulder. “This is the man you have been paid to attend to; I will leave you to get on with it.” Osyron lowered the handles of the cart and made to turn away.

“Are you hungry? Walking up here with the burden of another man must’ve made the hike quite taxing,” said Bovik.

Osyron stopped in his tracks; his belly growled, demanding he offer an ear to the Shaman.

“Lots of people cannot afford to pay in coin so they pay me in food; I always have more than I can eat. Would you consider taking the time to eat a meal? I hate food going to waste.”

Osyron turned to face him.

“I’ve baked bread too, fresh from the oven,” added the Shaman.

Osyron nodded his agreement and swallowed away the sudden saliva building in his mouth. Bovik smiled. “Good, good, come inside and take what you wish but please eat outside as I need serenity while I work on your friend. I have a table that sits on the cusp of this ridge that overlooks the city. The visuals are a phenomenal accompaniment to any meal.”

Osyron grimaced at the word ‘friend’. If the shaman noticed, he didn’t say.

Bovik led Osyron through the entrance of his home. A tirade of decorative rugs overlapped each other, covering the floor inside. Cluttered shelves encompassed the tent’s perimeter, housing vials and jars filled with various coloured liquids. Osyron only had eyes for the table where the bread lay; the smell alone had him locked in.

“Plates are to the cupboard to the left and the cupboard to the right contains cheese wheels and preserved meats. There is also a pot of soup on the hearth if that interests you,” said Bovik, flicking fingers for each comment.

Osyron moved to slice into the bread. He reached for the knife and stared at his hands. His knuckles locked and cupped in the shape of the cart’s handles from sustained use. He willed them open but they did not budge. He stared blankly at his paralysed fingers. He wanting to cry with frustration but lacked the strength to weep.

“Give them here,” said Bovik, plucking a jar from a shelf. It appeared the little shaman had noticed Osyron’s predicament before even he had. Bovik took Osyron’s hands in his and began rubbing in a red ointment. A heat grew then one by one, the joints in Osyron’s fingers loosened and popped free of their rigor mortis.

Osyron gave a double flex of his fingers to confirm they were in working order. “Thank you,” he said in a thin voice.

Bovik gave him a pat on the arm, “Eat.”

Osyron wasted no more time; he filled a bowl with soup and stacked a plate with cheese, meat and bread. Bovik handed him eating utensils as they made their way outside.

Osyron found the table Bovik spoke of and sat down. The sound of the shaman wincing caught his attention. Osyron guessed he’d just seen the state of Driskal’s face. The familiar sound of wheels turning filled the air as the shaman pulled the cart into his home.

“Cure him or kill him in the attempt, shaman, he is far too dangerous a man to let loose on the world if you fail.” Osyron said to the night. As he ate, he heard mutterings accompanied by the sounds of bottles and jars clinking through the canvas of the tent as the shaman began his work.

With hunger satisfied, exhaustion demanded its needs be tended to next. It was all Osyron could do to slide the plates aside so he could rest his head on the table.

Osyron woke early to the sound of the city morning bustle below carrying on the wind up the ridge face to meet him. The unfamiliar view left him momentarily disoriented; he swung his head from side to side to gain his bearings. His dinner plates were gone and in their place lay a small vial and a tub of water. The reason for the water was obvious but the vial was unlabelled and the dark liquid unfamiliar. Osyron frowned, wondering the purpose of it. He reached out a hand; the protest of pain from his shoulder to his wrist gave him a profound answer. His arms and torso ached from yesterday’s prolonged cart-dragging efforts. Osyron got busy freshening up then applied the contents of the vial to his aching body. The sound of muffled voices caused him to turn and take in the shaman’s tent. After a stretch of his muscles, Osyron made for the tent’s entrance.

The flap that had been pinned back the night previous was down; Osyron circled the tent twice before finding the camouflaged entryway and going inside.

“Ahh, you’re awake. I’m pleased to report your mission a success.”

Osyron barely heard the words of the jovial shaman; his eyes took in Driskal lying unconscious on the cart. His hair lay in clumps on the floor. His cropped cranium displayed several long scars complete with stitches. His face still showed severe swelling but the blood had been washed off. Osyron still recognised the misshapen, bruised skull despite its loss of hair. Behind Driskal’s discarded hair on the ground, five disproportionately large jugs sat. Each jug was filled with smoke and each a darker shade than the last. The last two jugs contained black smoke rather than the differing tones of grey of the others. The smoke moved as if alive. Hands seemed to form inside the swirling vortexes and grab for the glass. “What are those?” asked Osyron his eyes fixed on the evil-looking vessels.

“Those? Why, they are the ingredients of madness. This young man played host to them, but no longer. I have them trapped inside these receptacles,” said Bovik. The shaman’s fist rested hands on his hips while he smiled contently at his work.

“Ingredients? Can they escape? What happens if they escape? How did you get them in those jugs? Come to think of it, how did you get them out of Driskal?” Osyron churned out questions as they formed in his mind.

“Well, in answer to your first question, yes, ingredients. In Driskal’s case shame, rejection, betrayal, humiliation and depravity. These were the main ingredients comprising Driskal’s condition, along with a few others that I have left inside him,” replied Bovik.

Osyron took his eyes off the jars for the first time to stare at the shaman. “You left some inside, why?”

Bovik turned to look at him. “You are giving me more questions before I have answered your previous ones, but as you put the most passion into the latter I will answer that one first.” Bovik waited to make sure Osyron would remain quiet before continuing. “Anger had a huge part in making Driskal what he was, but his anger was being manipulated by these other ingredients, these other emotions and feelings. Anger in itself is not a bad thing. There is much in life that you can justifiably feel angry about. It only becomes a problem if it falls in with the wrong crowd so to speak, as it had with Driskal. Anger is a good servant but a bad master. Do you understand me so far?”

“So far, yes.”

“Good,” a gleeful Bovik replied.

“Now, to answer if they can escape. Technically, they can if the glass is shattered, but in all my years as a shaman it’s never happened. I will house these in the back room and leave them there never to be touched again. They are quite safe I can assure you. As to what will happen if they do escape, well, I can’t say for certain as I never had any escape before.” The shaman scratched his beard. “Best guess is they would seek their former host and try to take root once more. If that concerns you then think on my flawless record at keeping bottles safe. As to how I got them out of Driskal and into the bottles, that would take best part of a month to explain. The short, but no doubt unsatisfactory answer is, I’m a shaman.”

Osyron studied the little grey bearded man. The food and rest had not banished Osyron’s grief but it did make him remember his manners. “I want to say sorry for my mood when I arrived last night; it’s been a strenuous time of late. Yesterday was pain personified. I wasn’t myself, but I’m embarrassed at my lack of consideration. I want to offer my thanks for your kindness and generosity.”

“Think nothing of it,” said Bovik. ”I am glad you enjoyed my hospitality. Your employers paid well above my asking price; it’s only fair I go beyond my normal levels of service. A meal was the least I could do. In fact I was about to offer you breakfast.”

“That sounds wonderful and this time I will give my thanks in advance,” said Osyron. His eyes shifted to Driskal lying on the shaman’s table. “Is he conscious? I thought I could hear more than one voice when I woke.”

Bovik stepped over to the table to look at Driskal. “He drifts in and out. He’ll be like that for most of the day. It will be at least a day before he is able to travel.”

“I was hoping to get back to Olbaid as soon as possible. Can I take him on the cart and carry him back to the boat?”

Bovik tapped a finger on the table. “I suppose you could, but it’s almost a full day’s travel to the coast from here on foot—longer if you’re pulling a cart. You’d be in no fit state to travel after that exertion. Best rest here for tonight and set out tomorrow when you can both head out under your own steam.”

Osyron considered the shaman’s words. “I guess you’re right. The benefit of a further day’s rest will see the overall journey completed quicker.”

A moan from the table drew both men’s attention. “Where am I?”

“Hello, Driskal, how are you feeling? You have had quite an adventure, young man,” said Bovik.

“Driskal?” Driskal said his name as if trying on boots to see if they fit.

“What will he remember?” whispered Osyron.

“Nothing that shaped his madness. Along with the ingredients I removed, I took the memories that caused them too. This means huge parts of his mind will be blank. It will be like trying to recall the future for him,” answered Bovik.

Osyron looked to the shaman. “Can he get these missing memories back?”

Bovik considered before answering. “It is within the realms of possibility, but unlikely to the extreme. The likelihood of such a thing happening does not warrant concern.”

“What am I doing here?” asked a groggy Driskal.

“You’ve been suffering from a serious illness, one that I am glad to say is gone,” smiled Bovik.

“I need to thank you.”

“No need, my boy. I was happy to help.”

Driskal glanced at Osyron. “Who is he?”

“He is the man who brought you here and will take you home again,” replied Bovik.

“I remember being on a boat. Yes, I remember your face now. Are we fishermen or something like that?” asked Driskal.

The mention of fishermen brought Daniela back to the fore of Osyron’s mind. He bit his lip before answering, “No, we are not anything like that; the boat you recall was simply part of our journey here. My name is Osyron. We have not known each other long so it’s no surprise you do not recognise me.”

Driskal offered a weak smile in greeting. It made him wince. “I feel like I have had my head smashed in,” Driskal gingerly touched his face, drawing another wince. “What happened to me?”

Bovik cut in before Osyron could answer. “You had a bit of an accident while you were ill. It’s all done and dealt with, so don’t worry. All you have to concentrate on is recuperating and then you can travel home.”

“Thank you…I didn’t catch your name,” said Driskal.

“Bovik, at your service,” said the small man, giving a dramatic bow and sweep of his arm. “I am going to talk to Osyron and discuss how best to get you home again.”

Driskal did not answer, having drifted back into unconsciousness.

Bovik put his hand on Osyron’s back and led him outside. He pulled Osyron in close, speaking in a confidential tone. “I’m not going to ask the history between you two but between your thinly veiled hatred and his mangled face it’s evident you share no bond of friendship. Can I trust that the journey home will be incident free?”

Osyron stared off down the ridge’s incline. “There’s no payoff in the two empire’s substantial enough to compensate what I have lost on this journey, but if you’ve genuinely rid him of madness then I will do my all to get him back to Olbaid.”

“I believe you can forgive Osyron, but can you forget?” asked Bovik.

Osyron shook his head. “Never, but I can restrain myself between leaving here and home. After that we’ll have no more involvement in each other’s lives,” replied Osyron.

Bovik turned Osyron round so he could look him in the eye. “You’ve both lost huge parts of yourself on this journey; there are parts of his life that are now gone forever. Try to remember this when personal pain threatens to become bigger than you.”

Osyron only nodded in answer. He liked the shaman and did not wish to offer a promise he could not keep.

Chapter Thirty Five

Seabird caws rang like mocking laughter in Riven’s ears on the voyage home from the island. The birds’ presence signified the ship neared the land mass of the Olbaidian empire, a small mercy in an otherwise cursed voyage. The islanders relieved the ship of its cargo and sent the survivors home dejected. Grief and an air of failure continued to reign over the ship, a lingering melancholy that Riven could not dismiss. Not that he tried; the very attempt would be disrespectful to those lost. Captain Whisky, her crew and himself needed to endure the period of mourning. The crew, now down to bare bones, worked double time performing their own tasks while carrying out the work of those who’d perished. Work hours were long and sleep short but no one complained. Those on board still breathed; they were the lucky ones.

“Scoops, take the wheel, lad,” called Captain Whisky.

“Aye, Cap’n,” came the deflated reply. Whisky meandered over to Riven who rested both palms on the ship railing while aiming a vacant stare to sea. “How you faring today, High Marshal?”

Riven turned to face her. The question bordered on embarrassing. “Surely it is I who should be asking you that question, Captain?”

Whisky shrugged. “Don’t feel bad ’cause I got there first. We’re all preoccupied with woe. Can’t hold a man to proper polite procedures under the circumstance, not that I do under any other anyway.”

“You’re a good, woman, Whisky. I’ve learned a lot from you.”

Whisky shrugged off the compliment, as was her nature. “Tell me, High Marshal, how will the emperor react to our less than successful outcome?”

“He won’t like that we lost so many men; he won’t like that we never met our objective either.”

“What will he make of the fact we never ran into any demons?”

“Hard to say,” replied Riven thoughtfully. “He’s deeply religious and engaged in a holy war. I guess he will dismiss it as inconclusive; we sailed so far in a set direction, who can say what we would run into had our journey been longer or a few degrees different. The ocean is vast. If it held this island secret who can say what else it hides with any certainty.”

Riven’s own thoughts responded to his words. The church and the emperor say with great deal of certainty what is out there.

Luckily, the thought never occurred to captain Whisky or Riven would struggle to find an adequate response. “I take your point. Maybe somewhere down the line I will be sent on a voyage to find out once and for all. That’s appealing to me, but one thing at a time.”

Riven nodded in response, too tangled in thought to continue the conversation. Whiskey could see Riven was not in the talking mood. She swung an arm to give a pat on Riven’s back and turned to leave. Riven watched her take a few strides across the deck and called out to her. “Rupert.” Whisky stopped and tuned to face him, her face contorted in confusion. “My name, my first name, Its Rupert, I’m Rupert Riven.” Whisky stood and gave him a smile and a nod before walking off to take control of the ship’s wheel again. Riven let out a sigh and went back to listening to the seabirds. Escaped prisoners, failed missions, befriending pirates and blasphemous thoughts. What has become of me?

Despite the disastrous outcome, Riven knew the emperor would spin it into a triumph. Emperor Horim would publicly hail it as the first ever ship to sail south and make an exultant return, even though it was a lie. Daniela, the girl from the fishing village had managed the feat twice. Even if he chose to ignore the girl’s conquests, the regularity of the islanders crossing the great sea rendered the feat a banality. However, Olbaid was oblivious and where there is ignorance, there is room for exploitation. Ignorance and fear were Horim’s favourite toys. “Truth is not rock but clay; it can be shaped and moulded to a more desirable contour,” Riven often heard him say.

Though Horim would praise the voyage publicly, privately it would be a different beast. Once the emperor learned they were returning with a quarter of the men they set sail with and no consignment to show, Riven would receive a lengthy lambasting. The immediate future was not an alluring one for the high marshal, from scoffing seabirds to a scolding emperor.

Chapter Thirty Six

Brendan clung to a silver birch trunk, heaving breath through an open mouth. Exhaustion forced him to lean his body weight against the trunk as his eyelids began to droop shut. Sweat matted hair to his face as he sucked in much needed air. The dead maintained a lethargic pace but never deviated from advancing. They did not require rest as he did. Since the pursuit began, Brendan had spent the daylight building up a distance so come dark he could snatch some sleep. Every morning he awoke and scavenged food from the forest until the dead came into view. The pattern continued until this morning, when things changed.

Instead of waking naturally, he’d awoke to the smell of rotting flesh. He opened his eyes to witness an army of corpses close in around the tree he slept in. He recognised men from his own battalion in the shuffling horde reaching out for him. Terrified, he dropped from his perch and scampered off in a panicked rush, the chance to find food lost.

Now he indulged in much-needed rest against the trunk of the silver birch. A wet gargling sound from the trees behind him caused his eyes to snap open; the dead had found him again.

The forest playing host to the pursuit stretched out in every direction; a never-ending army of trees filled the world around him. Traveling east would see him deeper into Mirian territory; west would take him to the borderland war zone. Brendan pushed himself off the tree trunk and continued his steady path south. As mid-afternoon approached, he found he was unable to build any distance. Days of constant exertion coupled with meagre food intake began to tell. He slowed to a pace that matched his pursuers. Brendan now leaned on the trees he passed. With his legs spent, he hooked a hand around every tree trunk and dragged the rest of his body forward, then pushed off it to reach the next tree in this path.

As the need to recuperate increased, the luxury to indulge declined. With no head start to trade for sleep come dark, this would be the last day of the hunt. He was isolated and beyond the help of any man. Hixel, hear me, cast these creatures back whence they came and let me return to carrying out Your will. Where are you, Hixel? I need You now more than ever. Please, show me the way

Brendan was unsure where he’d strayed of the path laid out by Hixel. As he forged his way through unkempt woods panting and praying, it become apparent God wished to teach him a lesson; he just needed to figure out what exactly that lesson was. He vehemently refused to believe Hixel would allow these soulless monsters to be his demise.

That’s all this is, a test of faith. Hixel wants to know if I will abandon him. I will show You, Lord, I will show you I’m worthy, I will prove to You that— The sound of crashing waves ahead sliced through the thought. Time, and now land had run out.

Where are you, God? I need You; don’t let it end like this.

The trees and bushes gradually thinned as the ground started to rise and become rocky. The incline started as dismissible but Brendan’s fatigued state soon made every upward step a war. The ground continued to ascend, forming cliffs looking out over the sea. A glance over his shoulder revealed the mindless horde shambling towards him through the thinning trees. Every eye burned an angry red. Every eye was fixed on him.

Hixel, hear my plea. Deliver me from this Godless nightmare!

A dirt path between a break in the cliffs led towards a stony beach. Other than throwing himself from the cliff summit, it was the only way forward. Brendan considered the cliff for a second, but the dead would have him long before he managed the steep climb. Even without the dead perusing him, exhaustion put the climb beyond him.

He meandered forward on trembling legs through the pass in the cliffs onto the shore. I have been Your servant, carried out Your will. What more do You want from me?” Forward he stumbled; desperation gave way to panic as he lost his footing. On hands and knees, he crawled over pebbles, the sea and his end now in sight. My God, what did I do wrong? He tried to stand but toppled over, his legs finally announcing their final surrender. He stayed on all fours, crawling towards the water washing over the shoreline. The carpet of pebbles shot pain into his knees as he dragged himself the last few yards to the sea.

Where are You, Hixel? Have I not pleased Thee, have I not offered enough thanks and praise? Brendan heard the crunch of pebbles in answer. The dead funnelled down the cliff pass and spilled onto the stony beach.

The water, they will not venture into the water.

Fuelled by hope rather than knowledge, Brendan waded into the sea until the water hugged his waist. He turned to face the dead and blessed the sea around him in Hixel’s name. He tensed to see if his thought held true. The cliff path was now an army of animated corpses all with one goal in mind: his demise.

This is not your realm, this is the realm of the living! I command thee to return to thy rest!”

The horde advanced, approaching the water’s edge. It was his last defence, his last hope that somehow the sea would act as a deterrent. The reek of decaying flesh channelling down the break in the cliffs contaminated the air. Waves sloshed over the pebbles then retreated from the approaching smell of death.

“You’ll not have me—I’ll drown myself before you take me!”

As the feet of the undead crossed the water’s edge Brendan let out a growl and slammed a fist into the water. He spun, and braced himself for the oncoming wave.

Bless this water, Hixel. Burn them with it. Save Your loyal subject, I implore You.

With no answer and the relentless stalk nearing its conclusion, Brendan had to choose between death at the hands of the risen and drowning. Brendan put the last of himself into one final cry to the heavens. “Why hast Thou forsaken me!” He stood neck-deep in the sea, the moving water repeatedly kissing his neck just under his chin. One more step and he would be out of his depth. “You won’t have me! I will swim all the way to the demon-infested lands if I must but you will not have Brendan Bastine!”

Physically exhausted and mentally exasperated, Brendan peeled off his captain’s tunic and chainmail shirt. He pushed on the sand underfoot and swam towards the horizon. He clawed desperately at the water but the incoming tide stifled his forward progress. Each swing of his arms, every kick of his legs took tremendous effort and granted little momentum in return. He called for Hixel but a wave caught him, filling his mouth with saltwater. He resurfaced to gasp in a precious breath; the desperate inhalation carried the stink of rotting flesh. Another wave crashed over him, forcing him under. His lungs burned with need. He kicked frantically to break the surface, suddenly desperate to inhale the tainted air. His legs stretched for the seabed, finding nothing. As he broke the surface and gasped, another wave came crashing down sealing his fate.

Chapter Thirty Seven

Driskal sprung to life and strode across the boat deck, his eyes wide with awe as he gaped at the Mirian coastline. “Look at those giant chalk soldiers!” He spun towards Osyron. “Have you ever seen the like before?”

Osyron’s eyes shifted from the sea ahead, first glancing at the chalk sentinels then at Driskal. “Yes, on the first leg of the journey, we both saw them.”

Driskal frowned and a palm came up to slap his forehead. “Of course, I remember now.” His frown deepened. “I think.”

Osyron shook his head and focused back on the hull slapping through the expanse of sea.

The voyage home from Miria was almost complete. Tending to life on the boat offered Osyron distraction from grief but sunlight hours also meant interacting with Daniela’s killer. Sailing through the night offered respite from Driskal’s presence, however it carried a loneliness too perfect and a darkness too profound. Osyron longed for home, longed to be off the confining boat, longed to be free of Driskal and yearned for the opportunity to mourn Daniela’s passing in private.

Teaching Driskal to sail would hasten the voyage but involved levels of interaction he could not stomach. The idea of passing on Daniela’s skills to her killer was nauseatingly wrong. In his resentment-ridden heart, sirens sang songs of vengeance and twice they almost serenaded him to act. While drawing close to the fateful shack, Driskal’s wicked grin creeping over Daniela’s shoulder flooded his mind. The blood-stained floor. The flashes of lightning revealing Daniela’s head twisted at an awkward angle. Her limp, lifeless arm he’d willed to hold him. Each nightmare image flashed, rubbing salt into raw, open wounds. Osyron scanned the ground for a suitable rock to smash into Driskal’s skull. He diverted their path to avoid the shack, foreseeing it a test he would not pass.

Temptation’s second calling came as he lay in his bunk, mulling over the absurdity of stewarding Daniela’s killer back to safety. He stood over Driskal’s bunk with a clenched jaw and drawn dagger. A conflicting torrent battled inside. He forced himself to remember why he kept Driskal alive. Daniela would not have chosen this. Killing Driskal in his sleep would be an act of selfish cowardice. He wandered on deck and cast the dagger to the sea before retreating to his bunk and a sleepless night.

“You don’t like me much, do you?” said Driskal, curious over Osyron’s continual cold indifference.

Osyron glanced sideward to Driskal but offered no response. The return journey had seen the pair switch roles. When Osyron was not sailing, he aimed vacant stares at the deck whereas Driskal talked at length. He now viewed the world with childlike wonder; everything needed questioned and explained. Driskal was a different man now, nevertheless Osyron saw Daniela’s murderer whenever his eyes fell on him.

Driskal edged a step closer to Osyron at the wheel. “Whatever I’ve done, I’m sorry.” He paused. “I just don’t remember.”

Osyron could feel Driskal’s eyes on him, obliging a response. “I’ve told you before, Driskal, it’ll do no good going through what’s past.”

“I have done something that hurt you though, something you can’t find any justifiable recompense for. You just have to deal with it. I want to make up whatever I’ve done in any way I can.”

He understood Driskal’s sentiment, but that made it worse. Osyron wished to steer the boat, stare dead out to sea and privately loathe him. Driskal’s polite consideration made passive hatred impossible. “I appreciate the offer, Driskal, but there’s naught you can do. Just forget about it.”

Driskal raised his eyebrows while fingers scratched his head. “Forget about it? I’d laugh if I thought it wouldn’t offend you. I’ve forgotten almost everything, Osyron. Earning your ire is one of the few things I’m sure of.”

Osyron felt his fists tighten on the boat’s wheel. His fingers gripped the wood in private rage, forcing a small creak of the wood. “Then I wish to forget it, Driskal. If you wish to help then drop it.”

Driskal studied Osyron for a long moment. While he held little recollection of his life, he still remembered enough about the workings of the wider world. He continued on a hunch. “What was her name?”

Osyron spun, spitting words through gritted teeth. “For the last time—” Something in the water caught Osyron’s eye; he strode to the bulwark for a better look. “Man overboard!”

Driskal zipped by Osyron, dove into the sea and swam towards the floating body. Osyron dashed to the anchor and lowered it before scanning the sea for others in trouble. The Mirian coastline loomed on the horizon. The chalk cliffs with stoic sentinels stood over a thin beach at their base. Osyron peered; scores of people populated the shoreline, however, distance rendered him uncertain.

“Lower the rope ladder, Osyron, I have him!”

Driskal’s cry caught his attention; Osyron sprang into action, releasing the catch holding the ladder. “Let him be alive, I’ve had had my fill of death,” whispered Osyron, stretching his arms out to haul the body on board.

The half-drowned man was alive but breathed shallow breaths. They carried him below deck. Osyron noticed the new arrival was dressed in an Olbaidian captain’s uniform, minus the tunic. They stripped him of wet clothes and laid him to recover on a bunk. Once the stranger was comfortable, Osyron went back on deck to stare at the coastline.

“Should we head for shore?” said Driskal, popping his head up from below deck.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea; he is wearing Olbaidian attire and I think that may be the Mirian army,” replied Osyron, pointing towards the land.

Driskal came to stand next to Osyron. His eyes narrowed, trying to identify the dark mass in the distance.

“We’ll take him back to Olbaid with us.” Osyron turned to Driskal. “We need to get moving; our boat’s position has just been compromised.”

Driskal scurried across the deck to raise anchor while Osyron dashed back to the wheel.

Osyron continued with boat duties, leaving Driskal to look after their new guest. The man fidgeted in his unconscious state, letting loose a series of incoherent ramblings before waking up. “Where in the eternities am I?” he croaked.

“He’s awake!” called Driskal, walking over to the bunk.

Osyron made his way below deck and leaned into the small cabin, not wishing to abandon the wheel for any time. Driskal rested a reassuring hand on the man’s arm. “Relax friend, you’re safe. We fetched you from the water and brought you on board. The eternities will have to wait a while before receiving a visit from you.” Driskal smiled before adding, “What’s your name, sir?”

The man on the bed licked his lips; a sly grin touched the corners of his mouth. “So I am not delivered unto Him but it is salvation that is delivered unto me.” The man let out a small chuckle that developed into an angry cough.

Driskal glanced at Osyron while the stranger got his coughing under control. Driskal turned back to rephrase his question. “Your name, sir, can you recall it?”

“Why of course, young man, I am Captain Brendan Bastine of the Olbaidian army.”

“Pleased to meet you, Captain, this is Osyron and I am Driskal. We’re Olbaidians too; on our way there right now as it goes.”

Brendan gave a throat-clearing cough and a nod in greeting. “Pleasure to meet you both, but I know where you’re from and where you’re headed.”

Osyron tensed, silently cursing his decision to cast his last weapon to the sea. “How do you know that exactly?” he enquired.

“Because Hixel wouldn’t send Mirians on their way to Miria, now would He?” Brendan broke into his chuckle-inducing cough again and cradled his chest in his arms as his face turned purple and his body racked with the effort.

Osyron and Driskal shared a look. Driskal patted Brendan on the back and answered. “No, I don’t suppose he would.”

Osyron risked a step further into the cabin. “I have to ask, Brendan, how did an Olbaidian captain end up in the Mirian side of the great sea, can you remember?”

Brendan’s eyes went wide and his skin turned ashen. “The dead have risen!” he said, snapping upright in the bunk.

Driskal reached out a hand, easing Brendan down again.

“They killed my men, the entire squad; they stalked me across Miria, hunted me to the edge of the land. Miria is raising the dead! We have to warn the emperor, in Hixel’s name we have to warn Olbaid!”

Although they’d saved Brendan’s life, Osyron mused they were not so fortunate regarding his faculties. “Take it easy, Captain. We’re on our way home; you can give your report once we dock. In the meantime, focus on resting,” said Osyron. He offered Brendan a smile before departing to resume control of the wheel.

Brendan settled into his bunk. A figment of recognition had washed through him when the shaven headed boy had smiled. Brendan chased it but it fizzled out, a firework that never exploded, so Brendan dismissed it. Seeing the journey out was all he could do now. He needed strength to carry out the will of God. He grasped the meaning of the near-death experience. Forgive me my doubts, Lord. You have taught me and I have understood. I will never fail or falter again, my Saviour. He felt a degree of gratitude towards the two young men who helped him; however, just like Marsha, they were pawns. Hixel orchestrated this journey; they needed to be here at this precise moment to save him. Deliverance from death birthed fresh understanding. This was both a test of faith and a display of God’s love. Even in seemingly irrevocable situations, Hixel would protect him. For as long as he obeyed God’s will he was immortal.

Driskal climbed on deck, approaching Osyron at the wheel. “What do you make of all that?”

“I think he’s delirious; if he’s fortunate the effects will be temporary.”

Driskal shifted the weight on his feet “Did you see the look in his eyes? He was really scared; he almost had me believing.”

“In his head it is real. Let us hope food and prolonged rest will see him right before we drop him off in the city.” Osyron paused, recalling his troubles with the crown. “I have to leave his well-being in your hands when we get there, Driskal.” Osyron sucked his bottom lip, pondering a suitable lie. Driskal frowned at him, waiting for an explanation. Osyron let out a resigned sigh. “I am a wanted man, Driskal. It’s too complex to explain and almost as unbelievable as Brendan’s story; but it wasn’t anything malicious, just a difference of opinion with a high-ranking law enforcer.”

“No problem,” said Driskal with a shrug. “I’m going to prepare food for our new shipmate.” Driskal gave Osyron a slap on the arm before departing. Osyron flinched at the contact. His hand brushed where Driskal touched him. It was impossible to hate the man Driskal now was yet impossible to forget he killed Daniela. The bruising and swelling from the beating were all but gone yet Osyron’s grief endured. The healing process was impossible with Driskal still around. To succumb to the tide of grief would mean killing Driskal. Osyron needed time alone. Witnessing Driskal’s pains dwindle, watching his wounds heal while his own inner torment endured further flamed Osyron’s resentment. The grief-fuelled beast that resided in him longed to catch a glimpse of the madness-driven monster dwelling in Driskal. The wickedness in Driskal’s smile or the glint of madness in his eye is all it would take to snap its rusty chains of restraint.

Osyron brushed his arm again where Driskal had touched him and steadied his focus on the sea ahead. A bird in flight caught his attention; it glided lower than the gulls and its dark plumage made it instantly recognisable. The hawk messenger glided in, landing gracefully on the bulwark. Osyron stroked the bird’s chest before retrieving the note from its talon.

Driskal made his way on deck; he had forgotten to ask Osyron if he wanted food. He cocked his head to the side as he approached Osyron and the bird perched on the boat’s wheel. Osyron heard the approaching footsteps and pre-empted Driskal’s obligatory question. “It’s a hawk messenger.”

“How does it know where to find us?” asked Driskal, staring at the bird in open amazement. Driskal stared at Osyron in wait of an answer.

Osyron turned white.

“What, does it say?” asked Driskal.

Osyron lowered the note with trembling fingers. He stared Driskal in the eye. “It says Brendan is not insane—the dead are here.”

Chapter Thirty Eight

Emperor Horim’s throne room was commonly a busy place but the chaos currently reigning was beyond anything Riven had witnessed. Olbaidian Army generals gathered around stout tables laden with maps of the twin empires. They quarrelled over troop positions and tactical necessities that balanced risk versus reward. Runners carried messages from the tables to various stations around the palace and city at large. Hawk messenger cages lay predominantly empty, their hosts flying over rivers and mountains, carrying commands that would shape the world. Kitchen staff buzzed around war tables, picking up discarded plates littered with bones and gristle. The hierarchy of Hixel’s temple was also present, monitoring the commotion while offering confidential whispers amongst themselves. Amid the maelstrom of activity, High Marshal Riven finished reading his island expedition report to the emperor.

“Failed? What do you mean failed—in what aspect did you fail exactly?” Emperor Horim peered through narrow slits, spitting venom-laced words audible over the accumulative noise. Reading a report to the emperor was never a pleasurable task but the outcome of the expedition made this a particularly gruelling presentation.

“We did not return with the boys we were sent for, we lost three quarters of the crew, we lost the diplomats and both soldiers. Without wishing to sound flippant, Emperor, the mission was a failure in all aspects.”

Horim’s hands gripped the gold-adorned armrests of his throne. His voice grew louder with each word. “Failure is becoming quite synonymous with you, Riven; do I need to start looking for a new high marshal? You have one of these islanders held captive and you let her escape; you have the girl responsible for the child trading and you let her escape. You let a marshal knock you out and aid in these escapes. On top of all this you let a bunch of woman kill most of the crew that I entrusted to you and some of the best diplomats in all of Olbaid!”

Riven knew it both pointless and dangerous to argue with the emperor, nevertheless, standing mute with his hands clasped at his back was not an option. “Daniela was innocent of any wrong-doing, Emperor; she had nothing to answer for nor was she a danger to the empire or its people.”

Emperor Horim spoke to Riven as a man would an insolent boy. “Her capture and death would go a long way to shutting up the critics of this war. It would highlight how well we can keep law and order in the empire. A child seller in a far-flung corner of the empire caught and executed would be the perfect example of just how far Olbaidian law can reach regardless of how preoccupied our forces are. The anti-war protesters are still putting this case on a pedestal and using it to highlight what is allowed to go on because of the conflict with Miria.”

Riven knew the emperor to be a man of action and that he had the ability to make tough decisions, but this was the first time he heard Horim say he would kill an innocent to further his cause. Riven thought if the emperor ever held noble intent for starting this war, it perished in that statement. “You would kill her? She’s done nothing wrong.” Riven tried to sound inquisitive rather than accusatory.

Even with the taken precaution, Emperor Horim’s ire ran rampant. “She did nothing and is nothing. I could have made her something by hanging her from the gallows. Her death would have signified the end of a child-selling market thus displaying our ability to control our borders. Yes, she could have done her empire a great service by dangling from a rope, a far greater accomplishment than anything she will achieve with her life.”

Riven felt his jaw clench and managed to swallow words that would have seen him a patron of the gallows.

A servant girl entered through the double doors of the throne room and made her way towards Horim. The girl carried a silver tray with a fine crystal decanter containing brandy. A solitary glass of equally fine artisanship sat beside it. Horim pointed to the table at his side and dismissed the servant with a flick of his hand. In his periphery, Horim caught the darting glance of a church representative fall on the brandy; it was quickly follow by a cupped hand and a whisper to a fellow representative’s ear. Horim called to the departing servant. “Fetch more glasses for our guests, girl.”

A self-contented smile spread on the whispering man’s face. Horim turned his attention back to the high marshal who stood stationary before him. “I want her brought to me and I want your former golden boy too. He has been nothing but trouble for me and this war.”

Riven spread his hands. “They could be anywhere by now, Emperor, the chances of finding him are—”

Horim cut off the high marshal with a raised eyebrow.

“Are you reporting failure before you’ve begun, High Marshal? Head to the fishing village where she hails from. If she is not there then someone there will know of her whereabouts. Find the girl and you will find the traitor marshal. Horim adopted a condescending tone. “Think you can manage that, High Marshal? Do you need soldiers and some great tactical minds to help you strategize catching a common village girl?”

Riven refused to react to the taunt, letting the emperor continue.

“Now leave; time is the enemy.”

“I can’t leave right away; I have letters of condolences to write concerning the lost crew members of the expedition.”

Emperor Horim let out an impatient sigh. “You really need to get your priorities straightened out, High Marshal. I said go and I said now. There is no room for negotiation and no time for sentiment. Now go!”

The double doors of the throne room crashed open as a panting boy ran the length of the room, skidding to a stop next to Riven. The boy took a deep breath before calling aloud. “More reports of the dead rising, Emperor; they are coming in from every kingdom!”

Emperor Horim and the church patriarchs shared a meaningful look.

“What is this, some Mirian trick?” asked Riven.

“It’s my concern; your concern is finding the girl and the former marshal; dismissed.”

Riven offered an insincere bow and turned to leave, the emperor’s voice stopped him in his tracks. “Don’t fret too much over failing; I have captain Whisky and what’s left of her crew locked up at Marshals’ Hall. If you don’t bring the girl back, we hang the pirate captain in her stead.”

Chapter Thirty Nine

Osyron guided the boat towards the Olbaidian docks looming on the horizon. The sea held the appearance of black silk, watery ripples resembling countless kinks in the cloth. The distant city skyline was a black mass of towers, steeples and imposing angular rooftops set against the starlit night. The lights from buildings and streetlamps bloomed bright in a world otherwise shrouded in darkness. Driskal sat cross-legged with his back against the mast, reading over the hawk messenger’s note by moonlight. His personal world had been a mysterious place since waking in the shaman’s tent, but by contrast, the note suggested the world was an unfathomable mess. “I just can’t bring myself to believe that corpses are vacating their graves. I don’t know much about the world but I know the dead are not supposed to rise, right?”

Osyron’s head sank at another inquiry. He detested answering Driskal’s questions, but at least any that alluded to Daniela had dried up since the note’s arrival. “I’m sceptical myself Driskal. Our employers in Olbaid will be waiting for us at the pier; I’m sure they can shed some light.” Osyron let out a frustrated sigh. “I don’t know what to make of it. Let’s just be on guard for any eventuality.”

“Mirian bastards!”

Osyron jumped at the sudden cry from below deck.

Brendan had made a steady recovery since arriving on the boat; he was on his feet again, albeit gingerly. He remained insistent Miria’s meddling in dark magic was behind the rising dead. The volume in his rants intensified as the likelihood of coughing fits diminished. Osyron longed to have Driskal, Brendan and sailing out of his life for good. If the note turned out to be true, those desires could be impossibilities. Osyron picked up a glow on the pier; it grew into a blooming yellow orb of light. As the boat drew closer, two figures became evident in the illuminated circle.

“It’s them!” A voice shaped by relief cried out from the pier as the two animated figures danced on tiptoe in anticipation of the boat docking. The pair nervously glanced between the approaching boat and the city behind them. They cut an eager dash to the lowered steps as Osyron and Driskal neared. The dark cluster of buildings alongside the pier offered no clue as to the truth of the note. Shadows swallowed any secrets the streets might contain.

The two passengers gave a nodded ‘thank you’ as Osyron let them on board. It was then he recognized them fully. “Lilly, Gilroy, good to see you both.” Lilly pulled back the hood of her cloak to reveal her profoundly pleasant smile. Despite it, Osyron noted worry harbouring in the lines of her face.

“It is good to see you again, Osyron, although I never quite envisioned it would be under these circumstances,” said Lilly as she looked at the faces on board. “Where is Daniela, below deck?”

For an infinitesimal moment, Osyron’s eyes flicked towards Driskal before dropping to the floor. That split second glance was enough to let Lilly know Daniela’s fate. The meaning was not lost on Driskal either.

Lilly’s eyes took on a wet glaze. “Oh, my dear boy, I am so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, Lilly.” Osyron kept his eyes fixed on the floor, adding, “It’s no one’s fault.”

Lilly’s hand gently lifted Osyron’s chin. The brimming tears in her eyes spilled over and tumbled down her face. “I sent her.” Lilly swallowed the growing lump in her throat.

Osyron ran a hand through his hair. His face twisted as he tried to make sense of Lilly’s words.

Driskal’s hand covered his open mouth. His eyes bulged. Osyron’s coldness was no longer a mystery; the key piece of the puzzle slipped into place, revealing the horrific truth it sheltered. He was a murderer, a woman killer. Osyron’s continual apathy was enough to spark suspicions, the short glance enough to confirm them. Driskal suspected ruining a romance for Osyron, but not murder. With his hand still over his mouth, Driskal sank to a crouch as the weight of his action slowly dawned.

Osyron bit his lower lip before meeting Lilly’s tear-filled eyes. He motioned to speak but Gilroy interjected. “I don’t wish to be improper, especially at such a moment, but the sooner we’re clear of dry land the better.” Osyron glared at him. Gilroy’s Adams apple bobbed at the stare. He hastened an explanation. “I may be able to shed some light on what’s happening but I need time to study,” he said, patting the satchel he carried.

“He’s right,” confirmed Lilly. “I’ve seen the truth of things with my own eyes, child.”

“Then I’m not leaving here without my mother,” said Osyron.

“Fine with us, we just need some peace and quiet; there is good reason to believe we will find some explanation to this madness in the tomes we have,” answered Lilly.

“You’ll pay, in this life and the next!”

All eyes turned to the voice.

“We’ve a guest on board,” explained Osyron. “He was stranded at sea. We thought him mad, but given what you’ve told us I’m not sure what to make of him. He ceaselessly talks of God. He’s convinced Miria are the reason for the dead rising. If he asks if you’re a believer, say yes, or you’ll find neither peace nor quiet. Even then, there’s still no guarantee.”

Lilly nodded understanding as she processed this. “We will, child, we appreciate the briefing…”

Osyron turned to Driskal, who remained squatted in stunned silence; his saucer eyes bulged as he continued processing the news he was a murderer.

“I need your help, Driskal.”

ihHDriskal’s still shaking fingers hung over his agape mouth as he pondered what other horrific realities lay beyond the banks of fog obscuring his memory. He moved his lips to speak but no words came; a disbelieving shake of the head was all he could offer in way of reply.

“If you wish to make amends, help me reach my mother.”

Driskal’s hand fell away from his mouth, his headshake becoming a nod.

Osyron turned to Lilly and Gilroy. “Do you have weapons?”

Gilroy pulled a sword out from under his robe while Lilly produced two daggers from her sleeves. Osyron looked at Driskal, gesturing towards the daggers while taking the sword.

“We’ll hold as long as possible. Should trouble arise we will hang just off shore till you return,” said Gilroy.

Osyron nodded then disembarked. Osyron ran along the pier with Driskal on his heels. Their pounding footsteps on the wooden planks echoed loud in the night as the two disappeared into the shadows of the city.

Olbaid buried its dead outside the city walls. If the dead had risen then foot-thick stonewalls encasing the city kept Osyron’s mother safe. “What about the city gates?” some internal voice asked.

They’re closed at night, its fine.

“Cannot gates be broken? You of all people know how brittle wood can become if not maintained,” pressed the voice.

The emperor would not allow gates to fall into disrepair, not with a war on.

“But think of everyone who’s died over the years—this city has buried bodies for centuries; there are more dead bodies than living.”

This time Osyron had no answer.

Osyron and Driskal sprinted along the cobblestoned streets of the city. It was not long before they put the docks out of sight. Moonlight cast the deserted streets in mellow blue, interrupting the congregating black shadows. A sign advertising shoe repair rocked on the breeze, the squeak exaggerated in the stillness of evening. A stray dog took time out of sniffing the ground to watch the pair speed past. The canine lifted its ears at the sound of approaching footsteps, monitoring the men run around the corner with keen interest. The dog raised its nose, giving the air a sniff before resuming its shuffle along the street.

Osyron and Driskal sped past store-lined streets, all locked for the night. Osyron ticked them off in his head as he passed, each one a checkpoint in his race to his mother. They took another corner and Osyron stopped dead. A drunk stood nose to nose with him, his breath thick with consumed spirits. Osyron spat a silent curse before shifting around the man and charging along Telfer Street. He continued to run, counting to tick off the stores as he passed. Hardy’s General Goods. Molly & Molly’s Bait Shop. Henderson Taylors. Each an incremental milestone achieved. They spun the second corner into Blackwell Street; Osyron’s heart leapt into his mouth as he recalled the order of buildings. The Flying Carpet emporium…Olbaid City Morgue.

They took the corner. The splintered doorway to the morgue lay broken on the street, smashed from the inside out. Osyron lifted his eyes from the mess of broken wood and shattered glass and saw them. Shambolic corpses walked the street, their eyes alive with a red glow. They donned Olbaidian soldier regalia matted with brown patches of dried blood where wounds had claimed their life. They shuffled away from the morgue towards unknown destinations. One was missing a forearm but seemed undaunted by the lost limb. The creature pounded its stump on a neighbouring doorway, a hiss gargling in its throat. Osyron closed his eyes, hoping to dispel the vision but could do nothing to shut out the screams or the stench that filled the air. Farther ahead a torch had been knocked from its wall perch, igniting the collected trash where it fell. The fire illuminated the circus of horrors playing out in front of the dumbstruck pair.

Somewhere beyond this chaos was his mother. Osyron drew his sword; Driskal quickly followed, brandishing his twin daggers. Osyron ran at the dead soldier still pounding on the doorway. A man’s muffled scream could be heard in between the thumps on the door. The plea did nothing to dissuade the thing. Osyron swung his sword; it bit deep into the neck of the corpse. The red lights in its eyes dimmed then disappeared. The undead body collapsed to the ground. Osyron stood over the cadaver, sword poised, ready to react to movement. Suddenly he was bathed in a red glow. The risen dead all stared at him then closed in.

They came at him collectively. Osyron lifted his boot to meet the chest of the first and sent it sprawling. It fell back, taking another undead with it. Driskal sprung into Osyron’s peripheral vision with brandished blades, moving with a dancer’s grace. Every action was well-rehearsed choreography, a string of precise, poetic movements. Relentlessly his knives embedded into flesh, every thrust finding its target. Every pivot and twist of his body avoided clawing hands or snapping teeth. Osyron swung his sword to find his target already downed. Driskal pulled a dagger free from under the chin of the last restless and let the body sink to the floor. It lay unmoving with the rest of the dead on the cobbled street, the burning red eyes all extinguished.

Driskal blinked at the two daggers in his hands. His grip loosened, leaving them dangerously close to slipping to the ground. “What am I?” he whispered, meeting Osyron’s stare. Osyron shook his head. For the first time since meeting Driskal, Osyron saw Gilroy’s vampire killer. “You’re the man who’s helping save my mother, Driskal.”

Driskal said nothing, reverting to gape at his dagger-wielding hands.

“When we get back to the boat, Gilroy and Lilly can tell you more, but right now I need you to focus. Can you do that, Driskal?”

Driskal nodded but kept his stare on the daggers. “Yes, I think so.”

“Follow me then.”

Two streets later Osyron approached the inn where he and his fellow marshal recruits bonded each end-week. The noise coming from inside was boisterous but undeniably merry. Music grew loud as he drew near and faded as he put distance between himself and his former watering hole. Osyron wondered just how widespread the problem and knowledge of it was. The city is not overrun yet. That means it’s not too late.

They turned the next corner, leaving the inn and its memories behind. What if she’s not home, what then? What if she’s already… Osyron refused to finish the thought. “Shut up!” he yelled audibly. Driskal glanced his way but said nothing. Osyron felt the look but also remained mute. He had yet to visit his mother in the city; he had no idea who she deemed as friends, no clue where she could be if not home. That was her reason for coming to the city, to start a new chapter in her life, to make new friends. The hour was not so late as to be unsociable. Please be home, please be home, please be home. He repeated the wish over to shut out any further, difficult questions. Street names flashed through his mind for his duration speeding through them. He remembered the way perfectly but never recalled the streets ever being this long. His heart pounded with effort as he strode along Creswell Street and turned one last corner onto Oxwell Street, his destination. “This way!”

They both charged forward, feet patting rhythmically on the ground as their breath dispersed like white clouds in the cool night. They skidded to a stop and found the door closed. Please be home. Please be safe. Osyron stretched a hand to the handle; it swung open before he reached it. The imposing figure of High Marshal Riven filled the doorframe. His sword was drawn, the blade poised over his shoulder, ready to strike.

“Osyron?” The high marshal lowered the sword but did not sheath it.

Osyron took a cautious step back, drawing his own sword. “I have no time for this, Riven; I came for my mother and nothing will stop me.”

“It’s alright, she’s safe. I heard approaching footsteps, thought you were one of those…things.”

Before Osyron had a chance to reply, his mother’s voice came from inside the house. “Is that you?” Her face peeked around Riven’s barrel chest. “It is you!” she cried, squeezing past the high marshal to embrace her son.

Osyron met her halfway and threw his arms around her. “Mother, we need to get out of here. The dead have come for the living.”

“I know, Riven said. He’s been looking after me.”

Osyron gave Riven a nod of gratitude but kept a cautious eye. “What are you doing here, High Marshal?”

“Officially, I’m here to take you into custody. But somewhere between setting out and right now, I resigned my post.”

Osyron blinked. “But you’re the high marshal.”

“I was. Now I’m just someone who wants to get out of here alive.”

“We have a boat waiting. Get as many people as you can and bring them. The route should be safe now and if not,” Osyron gestured towards Driskal, “we have him.”

All eyes turned to Driskal but Driskal’s stare fixed on Riven.

“Who are you?” asked Riven, feeling uneasy at the stare. “This is Driskal, he’s here to help,” answered Osyron.

“I know you,” said Driskal, furrowing his brow.

“I am…” Riven paused, correcting himself. “I was High Marshal Riven. I’m mainly known to criminals and marshals and I don’t recall ever seeing you in a marshal’s uniform.”

Driskal was suddenly abashed, realising he was staring. “Sorry, it’s just, my memories are gone and the sight of you triggered the memory of a memory… I don’t know, my head is a cloudy labyrinth right now.”

“Well, let’s discuss who knows who and how when we are on the boat, shall we?” said Casandra.

“The boat will be over capacity. We need to find something bigger,” said Osyron.

“The Citadel, the emperor’s personal ship. It’s huge and readily stocked with supplies should he need to flee. We could save a lot of people with that thing.”

I don’t know if I could sail a ship, I’m still green with boats,” replied Osyron.

“I know a captain,” said Riven. “She’s imprisoned in Marshals’ Hall along with her crew. I’ll get her out, but first let’s secure that ship from the royal dock and alert as many people as we can en route.

The group made their way towards the docks. Casandra banged on friends’ and neighbours’ doors. The loud thumps echoed down the dark, empty streets. Other nearby residents opened doors to investigate the noise. Maybe they trusted her or perhaps it was the sincerity in her tone but families began hurriedly evacuating their homes and headed for the docks for fear of being overrun by the dead. As they progressed through the streets the group grew in number. A full contingent of men, women and children all carrying bundles of sentiments shared nervous mutterings as they pressed on through the streets towards the docks. Driskal and Riven headed the group while Osyron and his mother knocked on doors and followed at the rear.

“Hear that?” said Casandra, gripping Osyron by the arm.

Osyron squinted in concentration and cocked an ear to the night. A distant, collective moan drifted through the streets. Men barked commands in the distance, breaking up the dead’s lament. Oysron took his mother’s hand as she moved to catch up with the group. “The dead are at the gates. I’m sorry mother, we’ve no time to gather more people.”

“We can’t leave them here,” Casandra protested, pulling her hand free.

“We run the risk of saving none if we endeavour to save all. Even if we had time to spare, the ship can’t carry a full city.”

Casandra noticed the group getting distant. “You’re right. I hate it, but you’re right.” Casandra and her son quickened their pace to catch up, casting sorrowful eyes at the homes they passed without knocking.

A group of ten marshals came running along the seafront, halting Riven and everyone else in tow. Riven noticed Driskal reach for his daggers. “Let me handle this,” he said. “To me, marshals,” Riven’s voice boomed across the seafront.

The patrol presented themselves upon recognising their direct superior whose newly retired status was not yet known to them. “We’ve been ordered to guard the city gates, sir, seems like there is—”

“You’re marshals; it is I who gives you orders. Let the soldiers do their work and you focus on yours.”

The men gave an acknowledging bow in unison.

“You see these people behind me? They are traitors to the empire. Take them down to the royal dock; hold them on The Citadel while I fetch enough men and manacles to escort them to Marshals’ Hall.”

“Sir, the emperor’s ship?”

“There’s too many to be policed in the open. Get them on that ship and guard the gangplank; it’s the only way on and off.

“Aye, sir.” The marshals herded the group and steered them towards the royal dock. Confused conversation broke out amongst the townsfolk with many questioning eyes turning towards Casandra.

“Is he betraying us?” whispered Casandra to her son.

“No, it’s part of a plan to get us that ship,” said Osyron, noticing the lack of conviction in his voice.

The group of townspeople huddled together and funnelled along the pier by guidance of the marshals. They shuffled up the gangway onto the deck of The Citadel.

“Keep them here; let no one escape,” instructed Riven.

The people on board glanced around the ship of splendour, taking in the finery and artisanship. The deck alone was as fine a surface any of them had graced. Others exchanged wild theories about their circumstances. Casandra talked double time, reassuring them. She moved from group to group, shutting down more troubling scenarios conjured by collective fright and lack of understanding. Admitting the situation was a ruse was impossible with the marshals in earshot. Even if it were an option, she feared her words would lack the conviction her son’s did.

Osyron and Driskal stood, looking out over the city. The elevated deck of the Citadel offered a fantastic view of Olbaid. The stars shone over the conjoined silhouettes of buildings, but both men kept close vigilance over the lone figure of Riven. The high marshal hurried along the pier and onto the seafront. It was not long before the shadow of the city consumed him. All they could do was wait and hope.

“Have we been tricked?” asked Driskal.

“No,” came the instant reply from Osyron, although he privately thought, child of duty.

Chapter Forty

As Riven drew close to Marshals’ Hall, the prevalent stench of death began to dominate the air. In the houses around the city, citizens awoke from their slumber, the foul stench pulling them from dreams into a nightmarish reality. Worried wives knocked on neighbouring doors to trade speculation as to what was afoot. Riven quickened his pace. Once news spread, the streets would be pandemonium. He had yet to witness the dead walk but had been around enough death as high marshal to recognise its stench.

He entered Marshals’ Hall and headed for his office. He was still high marshal as far as the world knew yet voicing his resignation aloud had changed something within. Marshals’ Hall was familiar to him as his own home yet it looked different now. The structure had not changed, neither had its décor. It was his perception that had altered; he now viewed it through the eyes of an intruder.

He pushed open the door to his office, slid open his desk drawer and recovered his keys. “Thief,” accused his conscience. He left the office, closing and locking the door behind him. He paced the corridor of former high marshal portraits towards the stairs leading down to the cells. Each high marshal of bygone ages stared down at him, every step a monitored and judged movement. Had their faces always look this contemptuous? Riven hung his head, focusing on the floor rather than facing the gallery of high marshals. Averting his gaze made little difference; his familiarity with the corridor was such, every face in every painting crossed his mind as he passed them, the disdain etched in each face intensified by his shame. Halfway towards the stairwell, the faces on the paintings melted away, replaced by solid black background. On the black paintings in ornate golden frames was bold red lettering spelling out a solitary word: TRAITOR.

He reached the final painting in the row, a portrait of his immediate predecessor, Jasper Warren, a man who’d held the title so long he became the oldest high marshal ever, eventually retiring on the eve of his sixty-seventh year. Riven often considered how Jasper had played a part in his own promotion to the role. Jasper was deemed too old for the job for a considerable time before his retirement, a factor that may have swayed the election committee in appointing the youngest ever high marshal as a replacement.

Riven’s eyes drifted from the floor up to the portrait of Jasper. The paintings did not read ‘TRAITOR’ as his imagination promised. Jasper’s lined face gazed back at him. However, like the rest, it stared with derision. Riven stopped, his eyes shifting to the blank space on the wall next to Jasper, the spot where his portrait would hang one day. But that day would never come.

Or would it?

Officially, he had not resigned; officially, his marshal’s watch was over the man he was sent to retrieve. He could return to the boat and bring Osyron before the emperor. Horim may even free Whisky if approached the correct way. This was Olbaid’s darkest hour, and he was turning his back on it. Riven’s eyes stared at the wall where his portrait would hang. He stared at a legacy unfulfilled, at a life’s work uncomplete.

“Jailer, a rat is getting free!” a familiar voice shot along the corridor underneath and up the stairwell to meet him. It was Whisky. Riven turned to face it and saw the stairs draw close. It took him a moment to realise he was taking meaningful strides forward. He took the stairs two at a time and traversed the under-corridor with equal haste. He passed Sam the jailer, sitting as his desk, offering a nod in greeting. Sam had cards sprawled out on the table in front of him. He glanced up, returning the nod in kind.

“Taking the cargo from cell six, Sam. Got some questions for her.”

“Yes, High Marshal,” stammered Sam, a little self-conscious he was caught playing cards.

Riven reached cell six and found Whisky inside. Cages of rats lined the walls of her cell. Riven raised a finger to his lips and hushed before opening the lock. “I’m getting you out of here,” he whispered.

Whisky’s lids dropped closed as she let out a sigh. “My crew are at the end of the row.” She opened her eyes and her face sank. “What’s left of ’em anyway.”

Riven scurried to free the crew and returned to Whisky. “Let’s get out of here,” he muttered, heading for the exit.

The men lined up in single file with Riven and Whisky at the tail end. They marched past Sam and started down the corridor to the stairs leading up to the hall. Sam’s eyes darted between the line of prisoners and the drawer on his table where he kept ‘Jack’, his long-serving blackjack for unruly prisoners. Even with weapon in hand, Sam did not fancy confronting dozens of men. He remained seated, hoping he was somehow invisible. As the line passed, Riven gave Sam a glance and stopped. He could not leave Sam here. They had worked together for more years then Riven could recall. In all probability, leaving him here ignorant to the situation meant his death. If the undead did overrun the city, the prisoners faced starving to death, trapped in their cells. Riven turned to face the jailer still sitting frozen in a wide-eyed stare behind his desk. “Who are you loyal to, Sam, me or the emperor?”

Sam frowned up at Riven. “Why, both, High Marshal.”

“Sam,” said Riven, the sharp tone informed fence-sitting was not an option.

Sam swallowed. “You’ve been my direct superior for best part of a decade sir; I daresay we’ve become friends in that time too. My loyalty is yours.”

“Release every prisoner then take yourself home. Get your family and as much food as you can carry. Head to the docks and find a boat. Leave this city, Sam. Not tonight, not in a while; do it now.”

Riven began marching with Whisky down the corridor towards the stairs and freedom. That was the last time Riven saw Sam. He may have taken the advice; he may have remained forever frozen behind his desk with surprise etched onto his face. Maybe Sam fled the cells to inform the emperor that high marshal Riven had gone rogue. Riven gave him the chance, gave the prisoners a chance; it was all he could do.

Before leaving the hall, Riven decked out Whisky and her crew in marshal uniforms. Under any other circumstances, Riven might have laughed at dressing pirate prisoners as marshals, but then, what other circumstance could bring about such a peculiarity?

Once outside under the night sky, the masquerading marshals strode for the docks. Riven wondered how long he’d spent freeing Whisky. He’d entered Marshals’ Hall to a simmering curiosity in the streets and now re-emerged to borderline panic. Doorways hung open as families shoehorned themselves and their belongings into carts. Tempers flared as fear rose, adding a further tinge of danger to the night. Whisky and two of her crew broke up a scuffle over allotted space. Two families shared a cart and the two fathers rolled on the floor in a torrent of swinging fists. The women levelled fingers in each other’s faces while children cried and clung to legs.

“A cap’n in the emperor’s fleet one week, a marshal on the streets of Olbaid the next. Getting nabbed by the royal fleet sure has lead to some strange career options,” joked Whisky as the commotion passed on down the street. The wind changed direction and with it, Whisky’s tone. “By the salt in the sea, what’s that smell?”

Riven looked at her. “I told you, the dead have risen. We need to get off the land if we want to live.”

The stench polluting the air and the tension in the townsfolk was enough to make Whisky ponder if this was actually real. At first, she thought it was a rumour Riven had taken to heart to justify a jailbreak. However, as Whisky closed in on the docks, she reconsidered the validity of Riven’s ludicrous story. The emperor’s ship came into view; a crowded deck eroded the last of Whisky’s scepticism.

“He’s brought a squadron of marshals,” cried Driskal, arching an incredulous finger towards Riven emerging from the dark.

Osyron’s blood turned cold as dozens of armed marshals appeared out of the shadow-heavy seafront and closed in on the royal dock.

“Course he did, that’s what he set out for,” a marshal replied.

“What you expecting, jugglers?” mocked another, bringing a collective laugh.

Osyron stared with disbelief as the score of marshals strode along the pier towards the emperor’s ship. He felt his mother’s gaze on him. He was about to offer his apologies when one of the marshals with Riven caught his eye. Osyron raised a hand to his brow and peered. The conspicuous marshal carried the unmistakable sway of a woman.

“Whisky!” he blurted out as he turned to his mother, offering a broad smile.

“Not where you’re going, traitor, only cloudy water and mouldy bread,” sneered a marshal. Sniggers broke out amongst the marshals anew.

Riven and the crew climbed the ramp and boarded the ship. “Right, I want a word with you,” Riven said, levelling a finger at Osyron. The big man closed the distance between them, grabbing Osyron and pulling him close, he spoke in a confidential tone. “The boat you said you had ready, where is it?”

“Public dock, pier four,” Osyrong replied.

Riven relayed the boat’s position to his marshals with the instructions, “The ring leaders will be on board; bring them here to me.”

Before long, the group of marshal marched Lilly, Gilroy and an irate Brendan onto the Citadel’s deck. Osyron heard Brendan before he saw him. “Wait till the emperor hears of this; I’m a captain in the Olbaidian army by recommendation of Patriarch Bannon, by appointment of Emperor Horim himself, and you have the gall to accuse me of treason? Unhand me, pawns.”

A marshal shoved Brendan off the gangplank and onto the deck, indifferent to his unrelenting outburst.

“Good work, marshals.” Riven eyed the trio who’d just boarded. His gaze stopped on Gilroy. Snatching the bag he carried, Riven peered inside. He raised the satchel to his nose. After a brief scan, he raised an eyebrow towards the returning marshals. “Did you search the vessel?”

“No, High Marshal.”

“Go back and search that boat for any incriminating evidence. Paperwork, documents, anything you can find.”

The men bowed their understanding before striding down the ramp onto the pier. The population on board watched in silence as the ten marshals marched down the gangplank and out of sight.

“Right, get to work. Free this ship of its moorings and let’s get moving.”

Whisky and her crew sprung to life as the citizens shared bewildered looks. They huddled together while the pirates in marshal uniforms untied ropes mooring the Citadel to the pier and scaled the rigging to set sails. Whisky took her place by the wheel.

A string of distant cracks echoed through the streets, causing all heads to snap towards the city. “The gate’s support beams have given!” cried Riven.

The sound of battle cries carried on the wind as Whisky’s crew continued working on freeing the Citadel. Civilians clutching bundles to their chests scampered from the seafront onto the various piers in hope of an escape by boat. Beyond, the emperor’s personal guard appeared in the distance. “The emperor is coming for this ship—move, move, move!” cried Osyron.

Riven peered over the bulwark to see the flag bearers lead a throng of soldiers towards the seafront. Somewhere in that advancing sea of faces was Emperor Horim. A soldier came sprinting into view from the direction of the city gates, then another in hot pursuit. The leading soldier tripped and sprawled forward, crashing to the cobblestones. His comrade tumbled over him. The man’s arms wind-milled through the air in a losing battle to remain upright. Both men crashed to the ground in front of the emperor’s contingent, who’d watched them from their initial entrance on the seafront to their graceless tumble to the ground. The blood-chilling wails that came on their heels forced Horim’s guard to snap their heads to the left. The shadows began to disperse as a dim red light grew. The red bloom traversed the contours of the cobblestones. It carried over the ground and crept up the legs of Horim’s personal guards until the blood-red hue bathed their faces. The army of undead shuffled into view in a fearless advance. The two fallen soldiers scrambled back to their feet and shot towards the front line of Horim’s guards. They laughed with relief upon drawing close to the safe haven. The two men met drawn steel as Horim’s guard thrust swords into them. Both lay on the ground. This time there was no rising.

The first battalion of Horim’s guard let loose battle cries and charged to meet the advancing dead, cutting the front line down in a savage display of aggression. For every dead that fell, five replaced it, forcing Horim’s men on the back foot. Ever-increasing numbers of dead shuffled into view. A sea of outreaching grey arms grabbed at the soldiers, tearing them apart where they stood.

The evacuating citizens lining the different piers scrambled onto what boats remained. Fights broke out, causing many to tumble into the sea. Overmanned vessels struggled to make headway as they pulled away from the docks. Desperate individuals took lunges in an attempt to get on board the departing sanctuaries.

Yet more undead came, some corpses so fresh they could almost be mistaken for the living, others so decrepit they were nothing more than skeletal frames with rotting rags as skin.

“It’s Miria! It’s those false god-worshiping bastard Mirians!” shouted an incredulous Brendan.

“Riven, shall we help?” called Osyron through the bustle on deck the Citadel.

“To what end? If we overcome the undead we will be thrown in jail or beheaded on the other side of battle.”

Osyron thought as much, nevertheless, hearing his thoughts confirmed made it no easier to watch the living struggle to repel the undead horde. Worse still was the rising panic now rife in the people filling the docks. Osyron watched desperation overrule reason as people tossed each other off piers to secure an ever-dwindling spot on a boat. Others grabbed onto those already on board, hoping to be dragged along, only to pull the unfortunate overboard instead. Some maintained their humanity, pleading with those on board to accept their children as passengers. Osyron felt his throat tighten as he watched couples cling to each other as their babes sailed off into the unknown with strangers.

Many lined the royal dock, crying up for the Citadel’s ramp to be lowered. Riven read Osyron’s thoughts. “Don’t do it, lad. Once the gangplank touches that pier we won’t get it lifted again. It’s a death sentence for everyone.”

Osyron slumped, putting his back to the bulwark. He was almost glad Daniela was not on board. She would not have ignored the wanting cries from the pier. His heart shot to his mouth. Was she now one of those things? Osyron let a muffled wail escape into his hands. The current hell he occupied revealed a trap door to a lower level.

The overwhelming undead number forced Horim’s soldiers on the back foot, edging them towards the palace. Those crowding the piers became isolated, a retreat to their homes now impossible.

“She’s free of her moorings, Cap’n, and everyone’s on board. Set her to motion,” called a crew member to Whisky.

The triple masts all boasted sail and the last of the crew scurried up the mooring ropes. A few desperate civilians managed to haul themselves on board with the ropes while others plummeted into the water. Riven cast one last gaze over the carnage-filled seafront as the ship drifted from the docks. The pier let out a low, mournful moan that echoed and carried across the water’s surface. The citizens crammed atop fell silent and held their collective breath. A quick series of cracks rang out as timber buckled under the combined weight of people. Section by section the wood gave way, sending screams and bodies into the dark waiting water.

Riven raised a hand to his mouth as the ship gathered momentum and pulled away from the horror. “Hixel help them,” he mumbled through his fingers.

The multitude of ruffling sails combined with the might of the Citadel crashing through the water soon drowned out the screams from the docks.

The ship turned in the water, heading south. The city and its horrors swung out of Riven’s field of view, leaving him staring at the sea stretching out to the starlit sky on the horizon. With the sound drowned out and the city gone from view, Riven spent a surreal moment wondering if any of it was real. He considered running to the back of the boat, up onto the rear quarterdeck, but stopped; witnessing more would do neither him nor those in trouble any good. He turned to face the lucky few who had made it on board. They conversed tearfully, wistful over friends and family left behind in the city and beyond. Gradually, they gathered their salvaged belongings and filtered into doorways leading down to the lower decks. Riven turned around and faced out to sea again. Other than the men that served under him, he had no one to fret over, his family long dead or strangers to time and distance.

The hunched figure of Osyron leaning against the bulwark caught his eye. The boy still held his head in his hands, evidently still haunted by the wanting cries of those left behind on the pier. Riven was glad the lad had not witnessed the pier sinking. “Where do we go once we are clear of Olbaid?” was the question at the front of his mind.

The answer at the back of it terrified him.

Chapter Forty One

The Citadel, dubbed by locals ‘The Floating Palace’, was a veritable castle with sails. The bottom deck was the ship’s hold, initially designed to house livestock. But animals quickly took to sickness away from sunlight in the dark bowels of the ship. This was compounded by the buckets of dung constantly being carried up the stairwells to be tossed overboard. The smell only cleared in time for the next battalion of ship hands hoisting yet more pungent buckets up through the decks. A luxury ship smelling of animal waste soon underlined the naivety of such an idea. Horim hastily recognised the hold’s potential as a prison and the livestock became human. Directly above the converted prison cells lay the storage deck. A corridor ran the length of the ship with storage rooms lining it on both sides. Food, water, sails, rope, medical supplies—every eventuality catered for, from the obvious to the obscure. Above storage was the gallery, complete with grand dining halls, housing tables so large it was a mystery as to how they got there; having been in place while the ship was under construction seemed the only explanation. A fully equipped sickbay and crew barracks made up the rest of the deck. On top of these lay two hundred luxury cabins, constructed with the finest hardwoods Olbaid could boast. The floor, the walls, the furnishings were all coated with contrasting and complimenting varnishes, bringing an elegant finish to the entire deck. Those rescued from the city now all resided in the cabins, but most sat painfully unoccupied.
Riven was alone in his cabin. Carved into the table where he sat was the Olbaidian crest, a crowned sword vertically piercing the letter ’O’. Riven was engrossed in the engraving.

He repeatedly traced a finger over the carving as he sat, struggling to comprehend what he had become. Treason and rebellion were the most reprehensible of words yet he found himself in bed with both. Rebelling against the emperor was the appropriate course of action given his plans to hang Daniela, yet the act of rebellion was so against his grain it left him feeling nauseous. He’d had a choice, betray the emperor or betray his own moral code. Riven broke his stare at the engraving, taking in the bottle of rum he’d fetched from storage. Letting out a sigh, he reached out a hand and curled his fingers around the neck. He uncorked the bottle and raised it to his nose. His face bunched and a teetering need to sneeze overcame him. Despite the volatile reaction, he poured a measure into the waiting glass.

Drinking had never been part of his life. The few times alcohol had touched his lips had been at functions and only because it was expected at such occasions. This was the first time he drank voluntarily since mourning the passing of his mother. He raised the glass to his lips, tilted his head back and tipped back the rum. His face contorted yet he forced himself to gulp. He sucked in cool air, causing his chest cavity to burn. As the burn mellowed, he poured another glass, then another. A gentle rap on his cabin door interrupted the forth.

“It’s Casandra Rymore. May I come in?” came a muffled voice though the thick door.

“Of course,” replied Riven, placing the glass back on the table.

Casandra entered and flashed a smile in greeting. “I never took you as a drinker, High Marshal.”

Riven looked at the bottle and glass as if seeing them for the first time. “Despite the evidence, I’m not. Not usually anyway. This is…well, I am not sure what this is. One of those days I guess.” Riven realised he felt like a boy who’d been caught sneaking into his father’s liquor stash. “Please, take a seat.” Riven extended an arm towards the free chair.

Casandra sat next to him but her eyes remained on the bottle. “You remind me a lot of my husband, you know.”

Riven gave a tiny grimace at being compared to the man who’d murdered his mother. He swallowed the glass of rum, saying, “Strong stuff,” in the hope Casandra would mistake the expression for an after-effect of downing spirits. Riven settled on accepting the intent of a compliment rather than the compliment itself.

“This very scenario is almost identical to a vivid memory I have of him.” Casandra cast her eyes around the lavish cabin. “The surroundings are considerably more extravagant but nonetheless, the comparison is distinct.”

“Can I offer you one?” said Riven trying to change the subject. He had no wish to discuss the man but at the same time did not want to offend a woman reminiscing over her lost love. Considering his part in that loss, lending an ear for making her a widow was a lenient penance. The rum was there should the ordeal become too gruelling.

“No, thank you. Rum is no friend of my palate,” replied Casandra.

“So what can I do for you?” asked Riven

“Well, I was worried about you. You don’t seem like yourself. And this bottle of rum says I’m right to worry.”

“I appreciate the concern but I just need some time to chew over and digest recent events.”

“I understand,” offered Casandra before adding,

“Although I think talking things out will help more than a bottle of rum.”

“You may very well be right,” agreed Riven, his stomach already beginning its protest to the sudden intake of alcohol.

Casandra looked at the rum again and then back to Riven. “I am going to tell you more than I initially intended. I’m sure I don’t need to point out this is in the strictest of confidence.”

Riven met Casandra’s eyes. “It goes no further than you desire it to.”

Casandra looked at him a moment before continuing.

“Several years ago I awoke in the small hours of the night alone. My husband was not by my side as he should have been. After several minutes, I went looking for him and found him downstairs alone, save for a bottle of rum. My husband never drank so this was strange in itself but as I got closer to him I realised he was crying. I asked what was wrong and after several attempts to fob me off he eventually confided in me.”

Casandra looked at the rum bottle again. “On second thoughts, may I have one?”

“Of course,” replied Riven, reaching for the bottle. He retrieved another glass and filled it before handing it to Casandra.

“Thank you. As I was saying, it took a little verbal jousting to get him to speak, but in the end, he did. He told me of a woman’s plight. This woman lived in near-constant agony and wished to be released from her pain. All the medics who tended to her declared ending her life against the oath they swore upon their medical registration.”

Casandra took a sip from the glass and made the same feature-bunching face Riven had. “You were not kidding— strong stuff.”

Riven remained silent and merely nodded in reply.

“My husband visited this woman, found her pain to be both legitimate and profound. She had a son who cared for her, tended to her selflessly. She knew she was a tremendous hindrance on her son’s life; her constant need for care was stifling his growth as a man.”

Riven raised his glass to his lips. He noticed his fingers tremble and sat it down on the desk.

“See, this woman’s pain was not only crippling her but crippling him too. My husband corresponded with this woman for a time, not only to give her time to think on her decision but to evaluate her rationality. In the end, he agreed to help her. My husband said he gave her a vial of slumberroot so she could pass peacefully and painlessly in her sleep. He advised writing the son an explanation or some kind of farewell note but the woman declined in case the boy blamed himself. She reasoned it better her son think she passed naturally in her sleep than by her choice.”

Casandra stopped and took another sip from her glass.

Riven reached for the rum bottle and swallowed down several gulps, making no reaction to the taste.

“My husband was in pieces over granting this woman’s wish. He had broken his medic’s oath and it weighed heavy on him. We talked till dawn. Eventually, I convinced him he had done the right thing. A mercy killing is a noble act, especially when it is by request of the person crossing the veil.”

Riven was ridged in his seat, his fingers turning white such was his grip on the armrests. “Why are you telling me this, Casandra?”

“Well, two reasons. Firstly and selfishly, I’ve been thinking about my husband since we left Olbaid. I never received word from him nor was his body ever found. I guess now with the dead rising the possibility of finding out what really happened has gone forever. I have been reminiscing over old memories of him and that bottle of rum reminded me of the one I just shared. That brings me to the second reason.” Casandra took another sip of rum. “You look burdened and like someone who would benefit from talking things over. Perhaps your burden is secretive. Now you know a secret of mine, maybe you’ll be more inclined to share yours. We can help each other carry burdens and keep them safe at the same time. Who knows, you may slay a few demons by simply conversing. I don’t know what’s going on but from the outside you look to be in similar shoes I found my husband in that night.”

Riven relaxed the crushing grip he had on the chair’s armrests. They gave a timid creek at the release of pressure. “I feel privileged you confided in me. It will go no further than these walls, you have my word on that.”

Casandra gave a small smile. “I knew I could trust you.”

“If you will excuse me, Casandra I think the rum has bested me; I need to lie down.”

“Of course,” Casandra replied standing up. She placed her empty glass on the table and made for the door. She turned back to face him. “If you feel the need to talk then I will be all ears; my confidentiality is a match for your own.”

“I will keep it in mind, I promise,” replied Riven, sensing a headache beginning to set in.

“Good night,” said Casandra, offering a final nod before gliding through the door and closing it behind her.

Riven waited for Casandra’s footsteps to fade. He walked to the cabin wall and pressed his forehead against it. His lower lip quivered. He drew his head back and repeatedly drove it against the hardwood wall, increasing the ferocity with each slam. After a dozen drives he abruptly stopped, realising the noise could attract attention. He turned and walked to the table, scooping up the rum bottle on the way to his bunk. “She asked for it.” The words Casandra’s husband had spoken when Riven had asked him why he had done it. “She asked for it.” His final words in between having his face slammed into the water.

Riven sat with shoulders slumped on the edge of his bed. He threw back another hefty swig from the bottle. Being a traitor seemed suddenly irrelevant in light of being a murderer.

Chapter Forty Two

Osyron lay on his bed, staring at the knots embedded in the cabin’s wooden ceiling. The wanting screams from the crowded docks still echoed through his thoughts. Half the luxury cabins lay empty, the soldier barracks deserted. Even the ship’s prison cells were preferable to the fate shared by those left behind. However, Riven was right; lowering the gangplank would have been death for everyone already on board. Despite knowing there was nothing to be done, the echoes of their screams refused to cease. When not thinking of the atrocities at the Olbaid docks, he thought of Daniela. He could not shake the image of her a risen dead, a hairless, scorched face atop a bloated grey body dragging itself from the depths to stalk the living. When that thought surfaced, he wished for the screams to return. Worse still, he remained stuck in her killer’s shadow. Osyron’s anger had come off the boil since Driskal’s assistance in finding his mother, but he still yearned to be free of him. Every time he saw Driskal’s face, anger built under his own. Every conversation was a test in restraint. Every encounter was resurfacing pain. While forgiveness remained impossible, there would be no end to it.

A gentle knock on the door cut into his thoughts. “Are you awake? May I come in?”

Osyron recognised the voice. “Come in, Lilly,” he said, rising from his bunk and setting his feet on the floor. Lilly opened the door partway and leaned her head inside. “Gilroy has requested your presence in the main dining hall; he has pieced together what’s going on.”

“This should be interesting. I’ll be right there.”

Lilly gave a nod and made to leave.

“Wait.” Osyron’s voice stopped the door from shutting, “Please, Lilly, tell me how Daniela ended up in Miria.”

Lilly’s head drifted back into view. She looked at him a moment before entering and closing he door. “I suppose this conversation was inevitable.” She turned the chair by the desk to face him and sat down. “I was packing to leave Parkcross. The Brotherhood needed me elsewhere. Daniela came to say goodbye; we chatted and she told me what happened between you two. She spoke with finality but regret so I gave her some advice.” Lilly crossed her legs and rested interlocked fingers on her knee. “I told Daniela that I too became a widow many years passed. I waited five years after my husband passing before entertaining my next indiscretion. Even so, I awoke to guilt and shame the following morning. She asked if I believed such feelings are simply part of the process regardless of how much time passed. I nodded, told her to act on her heart’s desire rather than allow guilt and shame to bully her into lonely solitude.”

“Are you saying she cared for me, Lilly? I don’t understand. She didn’t even look back at me when we parted. It seemed cold, and definite.”

Lilly smiled. “She told me about your goodbye. You dropped her off at Parkcross pier, where her late husband’s boat lay. That was as close to having Henry’s eyes on her as it got. Her guilt robbed her of the gall to turn around and look at you.”

Osyron ran a hand back through his hair. He recalled Daniela walking down the pier and disappearing into the village. He’d longed for her to turn around and say she’d reconsidered or at least give a final departing smile. He was so fixed on this he’d never considered Harry’s boat docked there. “So she was coming to Miria to be with me?”

Lilly met Osyron’s eyes. “I told her I knew of your whereabouts and if she wanted to be with you I would help. At the very least she would be safe from any investigating marshals.” Lilly sucked her bottom lip. “I thought she’d be safe with you in Miria. News had broken of the Olbaid army driving Miria back on a stretch of the borderlands, I guess we can thank Brendan for that. We used the opening to sneak Daniela across. I gave her the location of the shack and the Shaman and saw her off.” Lilly tapped a fingernail on the table. “Had I honoured the Brotherhood’s code of secrecy, she would still be alive.”

Osyron shook his head. “You meant well. Had I rejected the role then there would have been no need to send her to Miria. We can all point a finger inwards but it does no good. It doesn’t change what’s passed nor does it bring her back.” Osyron sighed. “My anger wants someone to blame, someone to pay, but we are all victims of circumstance, none more so than Daniela.”

A lone tear ran down Lilly’s cheek in spite of her smile.

“Wise and noble words from one so young. I’ll remember them when grief demands remorse. Thank you, Osyron, for sparing me the pain and guilt I would willingly accept from you.”

Osyron nodded, giving a tight-lipped smile. “Let’s go and see what Gilroy has to say.”

Osyron pulled on his boots and followed Lilly down the staircase to the deck below. How someone could explain the unexplainable both intrigued and worried him. Lilly lead him along the lower deck corridor and into the dining hall where Gilroy sat at the head of the mahogany banquet table. Seated around the table were Osyron’s mother, Riven, Driskal and Brendan. Whisky leaned against the wall with folded arms. She had assumed the role of ship captain.

“Ah, Osyron, I am glad you’re here. Please be seated so I can share with everyone what I believe is going on,” said Gilroy.

Lilly and Osyron meandered over to the table. They offered smiles and nods in greeting to everyone before pulling out a chair and sitting down.

“It’s the Mirians practising black arts; I was there at the first incantation, witnessed it with my own eyes,” insisted Brendan.

“It’s not quite straightforward as that. What you witnessed was happening all over Miria, all over both empires for that matter. It’s best if you let me start from the beginning; it’s quite a tale spanning quite a period of time.”

“How long a period?” asked Riven.

“I can’t say for certain—centuries, maybe longer.

Whisky let out a whistle.

“Yes, quite,” replied Gilroy, looking over the plethora of pages and books spread out on the table. “As I was saying, the catalyst for our current predicament goes back an age and originates on a different land, the land that we commonly call the demonic lands. You see, from what I’ve pieced together those lands were once the home of our ancestors. Our forefathers faced the same problem we have now; they were driven off the land by the undead, and that is why we now inhabit the northern continent we call Olbaid and Miria.

“Back then, the continent had an indigenous people. They had not reached the cultural advances of our forefathers and led simple lives as farmers and hunters, living in small villages, even in caves in rural parts.” Gilroy paused. “There is no easy way to say this so I will just come out and say it. Our forefathers killed them and claimed the land as their own. With the indigenous people slaughtered, our preachers and holy men ordered the indigenous idols and temples destroyed. Especially their holy scriptures as these were viewed disgraceful in light of the One True God, Kotal.”

“Kotal! Who is Kotal? Everyone knows that Hixel is the One True God,” spat a frowning Brendan.

“I am getting to that please be patient,” said Gilroy, raising his hand in a settling gesture. “Most of the texts were destroyed but the founders of our Brotherhood stashed away a copy of each book, many of which lie in front of me here today.” Gilroy opened his arms to the mass of manuscripts in front of him.

Whisky let out another whistle. “Ancient manuscripts you say.” She tapped a finger to her chin, adding, “Worth much?”

Riven tutted and shot Whisky a scolding look. She winked at him. “What? An innocent inquiry is all.”

Gilroy glanced between the pair before continuing. “These indigenous manuscripts warn of a great invasion coming from the south, much like is preached in modern religion.”

“Which means?” asked Casandra.

“It means we stole the southern invasion claim from their religion. Only their documents did not foretell of demons, but people.” Gilroy paused to see if they were taking in the significance of what he was saying. “Do you get it? The southern invasion proclamation has already come to pass; it wasn’t demons, it was us.”

“What is this nonsense?” demanded Brendan.

“Let the man finish. I feel there’s more to come,” said Whisky, caught up in the historical tale.

“Ohh, there’s more, lots more. As well as the southern invasion, we have proof of another proclamation coming to fruition. It’s written in an ancient and long dead language, but there are notes from those who have studied and translated the text over the years.” Gilroy shuffled through some papers before picking one up. “It translates like this: ‘When those killed in God’s name outnumber the living, they will rise again for vengeance’.”

“Now, the church knew this proclamation true as they fled north for this very reason. Simultaneously, their arrival confirmed the southern invasion claim too. So our ancestors witnessed two very distinct prophesies realised, making the indigenous northern religion impossible to refute. However, instead of casting off their old religion and following the new one, they decided to weave the two doctrines together and inked a new holy book, the one found in every bedside cabinet across the empire today. They took the invasion from the south but changed the invading humans to demons. They changed the name of their god from Kotal to Hixel. So the religion that people follow in Olbaid today is nothing more than a hodgepodge of our forefathers’ religion and the religion from the indigenous people on the northern continent. People are killing and dying over a plagiarised, phoney religion cobbled together by people too stubborn to admit being wrong.” Gilroy glanced at the people gathered at the table, gauging their faces for comprehension.

“Hodgepodge!” screamed Brendan, rising to his feet. His hands fisted at his side, his face a deepening red.

“Last chance, Brendan—hear the man out or leave. The choice is yours,” warned Whisky.

Brendan inhaled deeply through his nose and let the air out through his mouth. He gave the slightest hint of a nod and lifted his nose in the air.

“So it’s only those killed in God’s name that rise, not anyone else?” said Osyron.

“According to what I have in front of me, yes,” replied Gilroy.

Osyron closed his eyes, breathing a sigh of relieve. It was a small mercy hearing Daniela would be at peace. With luck, the traumatic imagine of her dead body resurfacing from the depths would leave him.

“So where did all the differing religions come from, the ones fought over in the unification of the Olbaidian empire?” asked Casandra.

“As our ancestors spread out across Olbaid and Miria, they took with them this merged religion. But as time progressed and kingdoms formed, they independently made amendments to the doctrine to suit their laws and morals. The unification of Olbaid wars were fought over different versions of the exact same religion.”

“So if I understand you correctly,” said Riven, “our ancient ancestors lived in the southern continent. They had a holy war, killing each other in God’s name, triggering a prophecy. This prophecy states that when those killed in the name of God outnumber those left alive, the dead will rise and claim vengeance. As a result, our ancestors fled the southern continent and discovered the northern continent that we all live on today. They then proceeded to wipe out the inhabitants of the land but found truth in their holy texts, predicting both the invasion and the dead rising. We then amalgamated their religion with ours to create a hybrid religion that we now kill each other over today, causing the dead to rise on the northern continent.

Gilroy nodded “Yes, that’s the crux of it.”

“Does God want humankind dead then?” asked Casandra.

Gilroy shook his head. “If that were the case then why not set the world aflame or submerge it in water or simply wink it out of existence? This is more like a self-correcting system or a predetermined punishment put in place by, well, that’s still a mystery. These ancient manuscripts have no god’s name attached so it is impossible to say exactly where and when these prophesies originated.”

“If not a god, then who or what?” asked Whisky.

“This is where I get uncomfortable. Everything I have told you thus far I can back with documented proof. You are now asking a question I don’t have answers too.” Gilroy raised a finger and pressed on. “But we know from first-hand experience these ancient claims are true. Is it not the very reason we are on a ship, is it not the very reason we are in this room having this discussion? The dead have risen because of a holy war, because people are being killed in a god’s name.”

The faces around the table looked at each other as they grasped the significance of what lay on the table.

“That would explain the boats never returning from voyaging south; they must have reached the southern continent only to be taken by the undead,” said Lilly.

“You’ve just reminded me of another important factor that might help us with our destination,” said Gilroy, fumbling through his notes. “I have something written down, now where did I…ahh, here it is. Listen to this. ‘The undead will only attack those who have killed in the name of God or those who raise arms against the undead in their pursuit of vengeance’.”

“The sight of the dead walking would cause anyone to take up arms. Those men would’ve drawn swords on sight pulling an entire continent of undead upon them.” Riven shook his head, adding, “They stood no chance. I’m not sure about the radius of the lure. It seems there is a limit to the aggravation range of the risen. The dead did not follow our forefathers’ ships north, for example. So it seems once a sizable gap is built up then the dead can no longer detect the guilty. You said the dead only attack those that have killed in God’s name, which helps us with our destination. What have you got in mind, Gilroy?” asked Riven.

Gilroy looked at all the faces gathered around the table; his gaze rested on Osyron. “There is but one place left for us to go that is certain to be free from undead, a place that abandoned religion nearly three hundred years ago. And Osyron is the key to getting us there.”

Osyron shook his head and let out a laugh. “You’re out of your mind If you are talking about the island of women. I’m not welcome there nor is any outsider.”

“Correct me if I am wrong but is it not true that they dispensed with gods and religion when they killed off the males on the island? That would mean no one on that island has been killed in a god’s name for at least two hundred and fifty years, which in turn means no risen dead.”

Osyron dragged a frustrated hand through his hair. “Forget the undead, the women will kill us. Ask Riven or Whisky. They have been there and witnessed the situation first-hand. They were capable and prepared. Going there is suicide.”

“He speaks true,” offered Riven. “These women are accomplished warriors. They’ve turned the jungle into a death trap. Most of the men we took there were killed by the island itself.”

“Well, if you have alternative destinations, now is the time to offer them. The ship is well supplied but not infinitely. We will be forced back onto land sooner or later and while I do not doubt what you say of these women, I still think it preferable to deal with humans rather than the undead,” said Gilroy.

“If the undead won’t attack innocent people then can’t we send innocents on to land for supplies every time we are running low? They would not harm us if what you say is true,” suggested Whisky.

Gilroy nodded at a sulking Brendan. “We have a captain here who served on the front lines. Has he not only killed in the name of God but commanded others to do so as well? His presence would be like a lighthouse for the undead wherever we docked. Even if we left Brendan on a rowboat far out to sea while we hit the shore, how long could we go on like that? Do you really wish to spend the rest of your days on a ship? What happens in the long term when we populate the ship beyond its capacity? Do we start killing each other for space, for food? Raids on the mainland might suffice for a time but the end of that road is not a pretty one. We need dry land for any long-term survival,” said Gilroy

Osyron turned up his hands. “There has to be an alternative to the island.”

“Then offer it. While I take your point that it’s not an ideal option, it’s at least an option,” replied Gilroy.

Osyron heaved a heavy breath. The broad spectrum of possibility had shrivelled into a lonely, dark alleyway, one that fate insisted he walk down. “They’ll kill me, kill me on sight. I am no long-lost friend; a lot of them still resent me.”

“I’m still all ears for an alternative; the only one I can come up with is for humanity to become scavengers of the land. We also have to consider we are not the only boat that has taken to sea. A ship of this stature would be the prize of prizes for envious eyes.”

Osyron sat in silence, considering Gilroy’s words. The rest of the room tried unsuccessfully not to stare at him. “Let’s set sail for the island,” he conceded, “but I want everyone thinking of possible alternatives en route. We have a long time before we get there and I am certain we can come up with something better.” Osyron stood and made his way for the door. He longed for someone to halt him in his tracks by screaming, “Wait, I have an idea!” but it never came. He made his way back along the corridor, up the stairs, and trudged back to his cabin. He had a speech to prepare, one that he knew he would never get to voice. Precise arrows would stop him before he uttered a word, making for a profound but fatal ‘I told you so’.

Chapter Forty Three

Brendan climbed the stairs to the main deck from the meeting in the ship’s dining hall. Fresh air and thinking time were required after absorbing the collective blasphemy spouted by his shipmates. Strong daylight and a parallel breeze met him as he pushed open the door and stepped out into the day. On deck, Whisky’s crew were instructing the Olbaidian survivors the mechanics of running a ship. Some citizens stood in a half-circle, listening and nodding as a crewmember instructed them on how to raise and lower sails. Another stood by the main mast, listening to ship commands and their corresponding response. A young boy perched in the crow’s nest scanned the horizon while a crewmember versed him on the protocol of ship’s lookout.

Brendan walked through the scattering of bodies towards the bulwark. His fingers gripped the rim as he stared out to sea, filling his lungs with sea air. He held the breath in, counted to ten, and then expelled it in a rush. The exhalation ended with a wicked grin.

Hixel had revealed his final plan for him. A secluded island populated by godless women. The others on board viewed such a setting as a last hope for humankind, but he knew better. This was not an end but a beginning. He would bring the light of Hixel to these women, saving their souls in the process. However, more immediately, everyone on board the Citadel had to die. Their agenda was simply not compatible with Hixel’s plans. Once everyone was dead, Brendan would sail to the island alone. Hixel would be his guidance and his crew. Hixel would be the wind and water that carried him to an island utopia where he would reign as God on earth, the man to sire every future generation. Every child born would be of his blood.

Hixel rules in heaven and now He shall rule on earth.

Brendan fished around in his pocket, fetching out a handful of coins. He let one fall through his fingers before launching it overboard at the waiting water. The coin skipped the surface six times before succumbing to the surf. Venting frustration was well and good but he needed a plan. Brendan’s assigned role on the Citadel was kitchen hand. Not his first choice, but his time in the army offered some relative experience.

Brendan rolled another coin in between his thumb and forefinger before skimming it across the water. The reason for his near-drowning became apparent. If this ship led to the survival of humankind then he needed to be here. The risen driving him to the ocean now made perfect sense. A sharp gust blew Brendan’s hair across his face; a sweeping hand set it back in place, revealing a face struck with an idea.

His last chore of the day had involved moving a souring pork leg from storage and placing it with the fishing bait. It was now fit for nothing else. If he retrieved it then swirled it in a fresh water barrel, everyone on board would become sick.

A piece of rotten pork…a deliciously ironic way for blasphemous pigs to die.

Then it would be a simple task of going cabin to cabin and slicing their throats. Brendan skimmed another coin across the sea. It sailed a full ten skips before it surrendered to the depths. One by one, he would send them all to Hixel for judgment. Let’s see if they have anything to say about hodgepodge religions then. Let’s see if they dare utter the names of other gods while facing His judgement.

“Captain Whisky requests your presence on deck, Master Osyron,” came a voice through Osyron’s cabin door.

“I will be right there,” he called back. Osyron made his way up the stairs and onto the deck. He spotted Brendan alone, skimming coins into the water. The enigmatic fellow pumped a fist in triumph after each new throw.

“She’s on the stern’s quarterdeck,” said the crewmember, pointing a finger at the back of the ship.

Osyron nodded his thanks and climbed the staircase leading up to Whisky. “You wanted to see me, Captain?”

“Yes, have a look off the port side, would ya?” replied Whisky, handing Osyron a telescope. Osyron took it and held it to his eye. “See it?” asked Whisky, gently guiding the direction of the telescope.

“Yes, I see it.”

“At first I thought it was smoke, but where would smoke come from in the middle of the ocean? Then I thought it was clouds, but it’s too low. Also, it seems to be following us. I’ve altered direction a few degrees portside then starboard; it changes with us. You’ve been this way before; did you encounter anything like that?”

The eye Osyron held shut suddenly popped open. He lowered the telescope from his eye with shaking fingers.

“You okay? You’ve gone white as armada sails,” said Whisky, staring at him.

“It’s not smoke or clouds,” Osyron said in a voice barely over a whisper. “It’s ingredients.”

Whisky frowned as she stared Osyron up and down. “Ingredients? Ingredients for what?”

Osyron pulled his gaze from the distant grey wisp and turned to meet Whisky’s stare. “Madness.”

Captain Whisky searched his eyes for any trace of humour; she found none. “Yae look pale. P’rhaps you should lay down for a bit, lad.”

Osyron gripped Whisky’s shoulder. “Please listen, Captain, we cannot stop and we cannot slow. That cannot catch us, no matter what. Our lives depend on it.”

Whisky looked at the hand gripping her shoulder. Her eyes travelled along Osyron’s arm before resting on his face. “Yae sound crazy and that’s worrying, but you also sound sincere, which worries me more. Just what exactly are we dealing with?”

“I will explain in time, but we need to act now. Order the crew to set full sail and order them kept up at all times.” Osyron pursed his lips and added, “We need to lock up Driskal.”

Whisky puffed her cheeks, letting out an exasperated breath. “Will the lad be alright with that?”

“I think he will. He’s figured out enough of his past to know I would not ask this if it were not essential.”

Whisky rubbed a finger along her jawline. “If it needs doing I’ll see to it. I just hope the boy agrees. Forced imprisonment doesn’t sit well with me.”

“I’ll do it.” Driskal’s resigned voice caught Osyron and Whisky off guard. They turned to see him standing at the top of the quarterdeck stairs.

“That’s the rotten part of my mind tracking us, isn’t it? Hunting for its home. And if they catch me, I begin hunting you.”

Osyron drew a hand down his mouth as he searched for the right words but Driskal filled the silence. “This big ship sure will seem smaller with an expert knife fighter and deranged killer on the loose. I guess neither of you fancy playing hide and seek with me, huh?”

Driskal’s attempt at humour brought sad smiles from Osyron and Whisky.

“Yer a decent lad, Driskal. Soon as we figure out how to fix this then you’ll be free again, yae have my word.”

Osyron spared a thought for the shaman. If the ingredients to Driskal’s madness were now free from their holding cells it did not bode well for Bovik. Osyron recalled the shaman saying others could perform the same procedure he had. He also recalled the shaman referring to such persons as butchers who ‘hack out the bad’ without paying much heed too what is hacked out. Osyron did not like the thought; nevertheless, he liked the thought of these butchers being dead and gone even less. Perhaps the women on the island knew of a remedy. They had cultivated ointments and such to aid in their survival. Perhaps they had developed their own cures for sicknesses of the mind too. If only he could get to explain the situation before they killed him. Osyron dismissed thoughts of the island; more immediate issues needed his attention.

“It’s damn decent of you understanding, Driskal,” said Osyron.

Driskal shrugged. “I don’t want anyone to be in danger because of me.”

Whisky walked to Driskal and placed an arm around him. “C’mon then, lad, lets pick you out a comfy cell. We’ll furnish it with the best this ship has to offer. I’ll even donate the emperor’s bed.”

Osyron watched Whisky lead Driskal down the stairs and out of sight. He heard Whisky call out to her crew for full sail. Soon, ruffling cloth filled the day as the extra sails hoisted loose from their rigging.

Osyron raised the telescope. His eye honed in on the perusing grey and black wisp following the ship.

Osyron had partitioned his mind between Driskal, the considerate boy and Driskal, the man who killed Daniela. Whisky now locked up the boy while Daniela’s killer stalked the ship. Osyron lowered the telescope and turned to gauge the breeze. The wind blasted a reassuring gust, causing him to squint as the parade of sails ruffled above him. The huge blankets of white puffed and arched as they caught the wind and drove the Citadel forward. The winds could be relied upon here, but once they became shy to the south, Daniela’s killer would board the ship. Osyron recalled the wicked grin and saucer eyes rising over Daniela’s shoulder. The prospect of seeing his mother in a similar circumstance became a distinct possibility. An involuntary shiver coursed through him. He decided staring out to sea served no purpose and made his way down the steps from the quarterdeck and back to his cabin.

Perhaps Driskal could teach his mother how to handle knives. He would feel a lot better if he knew his mother could defend herself and Driskal would be glad of the company down in the ship’s hold. A few lessons would be no match for the years of dedicated training Driskal had mastered, but doing nothing was rarely if ever the correct path. “Train her to kill you, in case you try kill her,” thought Osyron as he opened the door leading below deck. He decided to leave the thought unspoken when pitching Driskal the idea.

Chapter Forty Four

Riven stood alone in his cabin, staring at his reflection. A reluctant tear traversed his check, taking refuge in his greying beard. The meeting over their destination had concluded many hours ago and Riven had spent the time since staring, searching. The ship was now asleep and he should be too, but moving away from the mirror seemed impossible. Since conversing with Casandra, Riven had lingered in a constant state of self-reflection. His vindication on his mother’s behalf had always felt righteous, but since hearing Casandra’s council, the meaning behind his life’s most defining moment changed. He was a murderer and now lived aboard the same ship as his victim’s widow and son.

Casandra was considerate enough to offer an ear and share his burdens; Riven wondered if she would hear the troubles that now haunted him, hear how he’d killed her husband and let her live in ignorance all this time. Then there was Osyron, who now travelled with Daniela’s killer and his father’s killer. Two men who had stolen people he loved from the world. Driskal’s defence was insanity; Riven could take no such shelter. He had always acted with a calculated coldness that endured decades. I can’t carry this. I need to confess. They deserve to know his fate. Riven dragged both hands down his face and stared hard at the eyes in the mirror.

Would it be too much for him right now?

It was a genuine question. Riven searched inside himself, probing to see if the objection was born of cowardice. He didn’t think so. Self-objectification carried certain bias but Riven believed now was not the right time for a confession. Riven pictured the storage cupboard that housed the alcohol two decks below. There was enough rum there to drown these thoughts out all the way to the island. Riven felt his mouth go dry; he moved his tongue to generate saliva. “No,” he said aloud. For as long as he hid the truth, he would not escape it by hiding in a bottle. Years prior, a rare dive into the bottle had surfaced a confession to Emperor Horim about his vengeful night in the woods, a confession that would ultimately be used against him. Riven decided it best to stay dry.

A soft rap on the cabin door caused his head to spin towards the sound. It was too late at night for a visit to be reasonable. Riven swiped away the tell-tale trail of tears from his cheek.

“Hello, its Casandra. May I come in?”

Riven tilted his head back and took in a prolonged deep breath. It re-emerged as a low moan. Despite wishing to be alone, he heard himself say, “Come in.”

The door opened and Casandra hurried inside. She poked her head back out and glanced in each direction along the corridor. Satisfied, she closed it and turned to face Riven. She stood with her back to the door, holding Riven’s gaze. Hixel help me, she’s found out. Riven cleared his throat and offered a hand towards the chair Casandra had used on her previous visit. Casandra did not respond. Instead, she remained motionless, staring at him intently. Riven swallowed and turned his palms up, prompting Casandra to speak. Still she stared blankly at him.

Eventually, she broke the silence. “I need you to kill me.”

Chapter Forty Five

Riven had never understood the term ‘lost for words’. No matter the situation, he always found something to say. Not often tactful, nor often profound, but he always found something to say. Riven’s lips moved but no words came. The bottles of rum stored a few decks below flashed in his head. He swallowed words that were not coming before managing, “I’m sorry.” He offered it as a statement, however, Casandra took it as a question.

“I know the enormity of what I ask, but I have to protect my son.” Casandra broke her stare at Riven. Her head sunk and she stared at the floor. “I have thought about taking my own life, but I can’t bring myself to.” Her head snapped up, fixing Riven in a fierce stare. “You need to help me.”

Riven’s eyes went out of focus as he drifted his gaze across the room. There was no escape from the madness. He shook his head and bought his eyes back to meet Casandra’s. “What are you saying?”

Casandra walked towards the vacant chair used on her last visit. She spun and sat down in one fluid movement. “Take a seat and pin your ears back.”

Riven dragged the chair on the ground and slumped into it.

“When I was young, I served as a maiden of the altar. One one occasion, the final sermon was over for the day and everyone had gone home. I was cleaning up in a deserted temple as I did every week. I’d swept the floor and cleaned the pews so all that was left was to clear the altar. I gathered the ceremonial dagger, the chalice and everything else and headed to the priest’s office. I turned the corner and walked straight into two men, dropping the box and its contents in the clash. I think they expected to find it empty because they jumped just as much as I did when we collided. I tried to run but one of the men tackled me around the waist and I fell to the ground. I fell onto my back. The look on this man’s face had changed from surprise into…something else. The man who tackled me paid no attention to the things I dropped and started pawing his way up my body. He tried to force his lips on mine but I turned my head and spotted the ceremonial dagger lying on the floor. I grabbed it and plunged it into his back. His accomplice ran off and I wriggled free.”

Casandra fretted with a button on her dress as she continued. “I dragged the dead body down into the temple cellar; there is an underground river down there. I lifted the grate and rolled the dead man into the hole. I scrubbed the blood from the floor until morning so it was clean for the morning sermon. Come sunrise and the priest’s arrival, I told him what had happened. He said he would treat my story as a confession, binding him by sacred oath to keep it secret. However, he turned his back on me and renounced me as a maiden of the altar.”

Casandra realised she was fretting with the button on her dress and snatched her hand away in annoyance. Her eyes locked with Riven’s once more; she had fire in them again. “I’d almost buried the memory entirely, but it too has risen from the dead. I will not put my son’s life in danger. The continued existence of humanity hinges on this ship’s success. I cannot jeopardise that.”

“Casandra, lots of boats took to sea,” reassured Riven.

“Yes, other boats may have escaped but do they know what’s really happening? Do they have our resources? Do they know an island free from the risen to sail to? This ship is humanity’s best hope for survival. I won’t endanger that or my son.”

Riven help up both palms. “Let’s rewind a bit here; I doubt what you did counts as killing in God’s name.”

Casandra’s eyes drew to narrow slits. “But you can’t rule it out, can you?”

“I’m no expert but it sounds accidental, or in self-defence. I can’t see how it qualifies as killing in God’s name.”

“But you can’t rule it out,” repeated Casandra with more force.

“No, I can’t, Casandra, but think about if you’re wrong. You’ll be ending your life for nothing.”

“If I’m wrong, it’s one life; if I’m right, I endanger our chances of survival.”

Riven swallowed as his palms continued to pat the air. “Let’s talk to Gilroy; present your story as a hypothetical question. He’ll give a definitive answer.”

Casandra shook her head. “He’s already told us what he knows. And let’s suppose we do and he confirms I am a danger—do you promise to end my life?”

Riven thought of Osyron. He had robbed the boy of his father and now his mother requested she die by his hand. “You know I can’t.”

“I appreciate your honesty,” Casandra said getting to her feet. “I’m sorry I wasted your time and I know I don’t need to repeat our understanding of confidentiality. I bid you good night.” Casandra made for the door and opened it.

Riven started after her. “Hold up,” he called.

Casandra strode down the cabin-lined corridor, her hair and dress billowing behind her. Riven gave pursuit, his big frame hampering his advance down the ship’s narrow corridor.

Cabin doors flashed passed Casandra as she powered down the corridor. She grimaced at the thought of asking Brendan, but it was her only viable option. She did not know the man well yet suspected he would not refuse her request. Claiming to worship the Mirian God would be enough to persuade him should he be hesitant.

Casandra closed in on the corridor junction leading to Brendan’s cabin. She stopped, struck with an idea. Riven may guess her desired destination; she needed to shake him off before visiting Brendan. She glanced over her shoulder, making sure Riven had not taken the last corner. He was still out of sight. Grabbing handfuls of her dress, she marched up the stairs. As she pushed open the main deck door. The wind whipped it, almost yanking the handle from her grip. Billowing sails towered above her, blocking out the night sky. Casandra put her shoulder against the door to heave it closed against the rampant wind. As she struggled with the door, the sails wavered and tumbled down one after the other, landing on the deck in a series of crumpled heaps. A trio of naked masts now rose into the cloudless night sky. The previously puffed out sails lay motionless, absorbing the residing sea spray on the boards of the main deck. Casandra caught a glimpse of a lone figure disappearing into the doorway opposite before calling out for the man she hid from. “Riven!”

Casandra’s voice forced Riven to spin and dart back down the corridor. The panic in her voice surged urgency through him. What panics a woman that wishes to die? The thought made hairs on his arms stand. He reached the stairs leading up onto deck and took them two at a time, bringing the night air onto his face in a rush. The sight of the open sky answered his question.

“No...” he said as he took in the bundled sails. A quick glance to the ship’s wheel revealed a slumped body; it was one of Whisky’s crew.

Casandra stood with one hand covering her mouth; the other pointed at the opposite doorway leading below deck. “Brendan,” she managed through her fingers.

“Did he see you?” Riven asked, already skirting the fallen sails and striding for the door.

Casandra scurried after him. “I don’t think so; his back was to me and he left just as I arrived.”

Riven pulled open the door and listened. The quick-fire thumping of feet on stairs echoed up towards him. An orb of light, presumably from a hand-held lantern, dimmed with distance as the carrier descended down further flights. Riven began his descent, cautious not to give away his presence. He was aware of Casandra close behind. He wanted to tell her to wait on deck but knew she would not comply. Riven was struck with the realisation he no longer held any authority. He was just a man now, a citizen with experience in an obsolete profession for a fallen empire. Riven looked up the stairs towards Casandra and pressed a finger to his lips. Once certain she understood, he continued carefully down into the ship’s depths.

Brendan’s thumping footsteps continued to echo up the stairs towards them, betraying his whereabouts; he had traversed every staircase down into the Citadel’s prison, down to where Driskal was caged. Riven reached the last flight and crouched on the stairs. He peered through the handrail into the ship’s prison. From the bow to the stern, cages lined each side of the deck. The bow end of the ship succumbed to darkness but lanterns lit the opposite end that housed Driskal. The boy stood in a lavishly furnished cell; both hands gripped the wooden bars with his face pressed between them. It looked like he was staring at something, or someone. Beyond the cells, at the far end of the room was the master lever and winch system that raised and lowered the cells. Each cell had its own lever and master level that operated all cells concurrently. On either side of the lever-pulley system sat fresh water barrels. Brendan stood over them, stirring the water with a pork leg. Riven strained to hear Brendan over the turbulent ocean pounding against the ship’s creaking hull.

“We met in that piss-stained alley, do you remember, killer? I remember. When that blasphemer, Gilroy, stepped onto the boat at the Olbaid docks, I remembered you both. He, the fraudulent marshal and you, the woman killer. Think ol’ Brendan Bastine would just forget, did you?”

Driskal repositioned his grip on the bars but said nothing. His gaze remained locked on the Olbaidian captain.

“Can’t have you squealing before they drink this, that won’t do at all. Still, no need to fret; I’ve made sure you’ll receive the gift God intended for you, the gift others deny you. Once you’re whole again, everything that passes your lips will be dismissed as the ramblings of a mad man because that’s exactly what you’ll be.” Brendan continued to swish the sullied meat in the water barrel as he spoke.

“I’m a killer, a woman killer?” asked Driskal timidly.

“Slit that defenceless woman’s throat from behind you did, and you loved it.” Brendan laughed then stared at Driskal with renewed disgust.

Riven had observed enough. With two witnesses in Casandra and Driskal, Brendan’s confession was enough reason to act. Riven took the last few stairs and paced in between the cells into the lantern light. “Did God send me to witness your actions as well, Brendan?”

Brendan’s eyes went wide before tightening to narrowed slits. “No, he sent you to die!” Brendan dashed forward, drawing his sword as he let loose a primal scream.

Riven anticipated and drew his own sword in kind. The pair met before Driskal’s cell with a clash of steel. Both men circled in the orb of lantern light, looking for an opening. The ship’s motion set the lantern to rocking, causing shadows to skirt across the two intent faces. Driskal stretched an arm between the bars and swiped to snag Brendan but found him out of reach.

Casandra stood at the stairs, unsure how to help. It was mere moments ago she’d sat alone, building up the resolve to visit Riven. If Riven killed Brendan then she was the only one on board who would draw the dead. Once she died the ship would be safe, her son would be safe. She advanced through the shadows towards the swordfight.

Brendan ducked under Riven’s sword swing. He took a step before diving into a forward roll, popping up behind the big man. Riven anticipated and spun to parry the sword intended for his back. The Olbaidian captain was no slouch with a blade, but each attack sequence came directly from the training ground, a series of well-drilled but rehearsed manoeuvres. A thrust would follow Brendan’s next swing, Riven planned to side step it and deliver his own sword up into Brendan’s rib cage.

Riven saw Casandra lunge between himself and Brendan. He dropped his sword before it struck her. Brendan’s sword hung above his shoulder, poised to strike. As Casandra fell between the two combatants, Riven stood unarmed. Brendan’s sword began its arc of descent. Riven shot out his hand and caught Brendan’s sword arm by the wrist. His other hand swung, connecting flush on Brendan’s jaw. Brendan dropped his sword as his body went limp. Riven caught him before he collapsed to the floor. Riven began marching Brendan backwards towards the open barrel. He spun the still dazed Brendan around and took a fistful of his hair. Brendan mumbled incoherently as Riven slammed his face underwater.

The cold wet enveloping Brendan’s head snapped him awake. The recollection of how he ended up face first in a barrel eluding him. It did not matter; a sea had failed to drown him, an army of undead had failed to bring his end, so what chance did Riven stand? There was no need to struggle; the grip on his hair would release in time. Oh, that big oaf’s face when he sees me still alive. He will drop to his knees when he realises just what he’s facing. Maybe I will spare his life; a hulk like him could prove useful as a right hand man, as a pet on the island. The women would prove entertaining but occasional male company would be welcome. He would know his place too, after witnessing my immortality first-hand; he would know what I am and whom I serve. His face when he sees I’m alive—his face when he realises! Brendan laughed, sending a rush of bubbles to the surface of the water.

Riven locked his arms straight, waiting to brace the inevitable struggle from Brendan. It never came. A stream of bubbles broke the surface either side of Brendan’s head but no hands rose to contest Riven’s grip nor did Brendan push back against the weight forcing him down. A final few straggling bubbles popped and then nothing. Riven’s grip on Brendan’s hair was no longer forcing him down but holding him up. Riven let go of Brendan’s hair; the body slumped to the floor. The Olbaidian captain lay in a heap next to the rotting pork leg.

Driskal stood transfixed as events unfolded before him. Riven holding Brendan underwater caused some internal mental flicker. Seeing a man drown was shocking yet carried undertones of familiarity. That flicker of familiarity tempted him to reconcile with something lost, something forgotten. A strange feeling of déjà vu washed over him; memory ricocheted and flirted with departure before definitive recollection slammed home. He released his grip on the bars and levelled a finger at Riven. “I remember you.”

Riven faced Driskal but his attention was grabbed by the black and grey smoke drifting from the shadows into the light. Riven’s eyes darted for his sword but could not locate it.

Driskal back stepped into the far corner of his cell. His head turned, searching for an escape route that was not there. His back hit the far side of his cell. “No,” he whispered as the cloud curled and drifted between the bars towards him. The transparent swirls of grey and black coiled as they drew closer to home. “No,” he said again, louder this time. Still the cloud closed in. “No!” he said a third time, a demand laced with fear. The smoke stopped. It sat, suspended in the air before Driskal’s face. “No,” he repeated again. The smoke shot forward into Driskal’s open mouth. Driskal fell to his knees. He wobbled before tilting forward, landing face first on the floor. His leg twitched then stillness set over him.

Riven and Casandra watched on helplessly before turning their attention to each other.

Osyron lay awake, listening to the ocean outside, guilt forbidding any sleep. Despite Driskal’s compliance to be caged, the thought of him in the bowels of the ship while everyone occupied luxury cabins gnawed at his conscience. The crew had furnished Driskal’s cell with the best the Citadel had to offer, but a well-furnished cage was still a cage. The boat itself was a prison; every soul on board was there because they had no choice. This did nothing but magnify Driskal’s situation. His existence was now a prison within a prison.

Lilly had requested Osyron work on what he would say to the islanders. He’d explained the real problem was being killed before having the chance to talk. Lilly had pointed out if he thought his time better spent preparing for that then he should go right ahead. Osyron took her point, however, Driskal’s situation had interrupted his concentration. There are empty cells down there; I could volunteer myself to be imprisoned. It would remedy Driskal’s loneliness and relieve me of guilt. Might even get my speech done too.

Osyron packed his belongings and began his descent down. The late hour put consideration in his step. He tiptoed down the stairs, passing the gallery and storage decks down to the ship’s hold. As Osyron took the last flight of stairs, familiar voices carried up towards him. The late hour and aggravated tone caused Osyron’s brow to furrow. Dual lantern light revealed Driskal and Brendan incapacitated on the floor while Riven pointed an accusatory fingers at his mother, who stood defiantly with hands on hips.

“What were you playing at, I almost killed you!” spat Riven.

“That was the idea,” Casandra shot back. She took a deep breath then exhaled her frustration. “I need you to kill me in order to save my son,” she said, sounding out each word as if Riven had failed to grasp their meaning until now.

Riven felt his face burn red. The determination and finality of Casandra’s attitude enraged him. She did not comprehend the magnitude of her request. “I can’t do that to you and I can’t do that to Osyron after killing his—” Riven caught his temper two words too late.

“Killing his what?” replied Casandra, peering at him.

It was Riven’s turn to take a deep breath. He glanced at Driskal who still lay motionless on the floor before turning back to Casandra. “The story you told me about your husband ending a woman’s life, that woman was my mother. I found the empty vial of slumberroot he gave her; I tracked down her killer with it.” Riven scratched at his temple as he took in Casandra’s watery eyes. “Casandra, I killed your husband.”

Casandra’s hands covered her mouth. Her eyes brimmed with tears. Her head shook in denial at the confession.

Riven continued. “How could I ever look Osyron in the eye having killed both his parents? I will not kill you, Casandra, even if it’s proven that you are a danger. I will not—I cannot. Do you understand?”

“All this time, all these years… He looked up to you, he loved you as a son loves a father, and you—” Words caught in her throat.

“Casandra, I’m sorry. I thought it was murder; I was guided by grief. I didn’t know his true motives until now, and the truth is ripping me apart.” Riven raised his hands to console Casandra. He realised the mistake the second he did so. Casandra shot him flaming eyes, forbidding any contact. She walked away and slumped to the floor, cocooning herself in her arms. Riven stood, too terrified to move, to speak. Breathing felt like a liberty.

From his cell, Driskal let out a low moan as he returned to consciousness. His hands covered and rubbed his face repeatedly to help dislodge the murk that lay under the surface.

Riven gave him a precautionary look before turning back to Casandra. “Let’s get out of here. I don’t mean to change the subject but I do think a conversation with Gilroy would be advisable.”

Casandra didn’t move or speak. She sat with her back to him, still wrapped in her own arms.

“If you desire retribution against me, I will not oppose it.”

Casandra spun her head and barked at Riven. “I see the mess vengeance has made of you; I would not visit that upon myself. I know you have a conscience which will do more to you than I ever could. Your death will only free you from its constant disgust. A life of self-loathing—that is your burden now. I hope you live a very long time, Riven.”

Riven gave a slow nod and bit his lower lip. His shoulders slumped, arms hanging limp at his side. Casandra’s voice brought his head back up.

“What happened to him? You’ve told me why, now tell me the where and how.” The hull creaked a mournful wail from the pressure of the sea, filling the void of silence hanging between them.

“Do you really want to put yourself through this?” asked Riven.

Casandra marched up close and extended her neck. Her eyes fortified with intent. “No, Riven, I want to put you through it.”

Riven felt his own eyes begin to fill, causing Casandra’s face to grew blurry. After another moment he spoke. “The woods that run parallel with Old Mill Road, I dragged him in there and…” Riven glanced at Brendan’s corpse before meeting Casandra’s eyes. “I drowned him.”

“His body, what did you do with his body?”

Riven drew a sharp breath and help up his hands in surrender. “Please, Casandra, there are things you don’t need…”

“What did you do with his body!” Casandra pounded fists on the big man’s chest.

Riven offered no resistance and remained with his hands held high. “It was approaching night; I knew there would be no trace if I left his body to the nocturnal creatures that dwell there.”

The force gradually went out of Casandra’s blows, replaced by wracking sobs. Her hands came to her mouth as she sunk to the floor again, her eyes filling anew. “You killed my husband, you really killed my husband… You didn’t even bury him.”

“I tried to warn—”

“No!” Driskal’s scream from the cell cut Riven off. “Not your husband, depravity!” He had a death grip on the bars, his face pressed tight between them, causing his normally pale complexion to redden.

“We need to get out of here; his screams might wake the whole ship,” said Riven.

Casandra said nothing but did not object to Riven’s hand reaching under her arm and helping her to her feet.

Casandra cursed her weakness. Her son and everyone aboard would be safe had she the strength to end it herself, but the chance had passed. Brendan was dead and Riven would never comply. Now, she faced being locked up like some crazy woman, forced to eat with her fingers in case she tried to take her own life with cutlery. Yet even that daily humiliation would be nothing compared to facing her son. She hoped the letter she had left in her cabin would be the only words shared with him. She glanced through fingers at Driskal as she passed his cell. Maybe there was a chance. It was reckless and desperate but it was all she had. Driskal only kills women; freeing him would be no danger to Osyron. He offers no resistance to detention if the stories are correct. Casandra slowed, letting Riven build up a lead. Once certain she had enough distance, she spun and ran towards the cell’s operating levers.

Riven spun at the sound of hurried footsteps behind him. He watched as Casandra took the master lever in both hands.

“One day you may have children of your own, Riven. Maybe then you’ll understand. If I’m correct, my actions make that day possible.” Casandra took a deep breath and pulled the lever.

The sound of whirring ropes filled the hold. The wooden cells let out a unanimous creak as they were hoisted into the air. The twin rows of cells swayed in their resting place from the force of their sharp ascent.

“No!” cried Riven, but it was too late. The cages were up. Driskal was free.

Chapter Forty Six

Osyron crouched, frozen on the stairwell. His mother’s demand to die coupled with Riven’s confession incited stunned disbelief. The ship’s hull continually groaned against the sea’s constant pressure but the exasperating exchange between his mother and former mentor carried through the hollow hold towards him. Osyron wanted to scream, wanted to cry but managed neither. He stood rigid, afraid to react, fearing any response would somehow legitimise the madness he’d just heard.

The sound of the cells rising slapped reality back into him in a rush. His feet propelled him from the eavesdropping position on the stairwell along the rows of now raised cells. Driskal stood with one hand around his mother’s waist; the other pressed a sword to her throat. Most troubling of all was the glint in his eyes; Osyron knew the meaning behind its presence. Daniela’s killer had arrived.

Riven stood with his arms raised and his palms up to Driskal in a gesture of surrender. Off to the side, Brendan’s open, dead eyes watched. Water clumped the corpse’s hair in tendrils that dripped onto the wooden floor. With all the composure he could summon, Osyron walked up alongside Riven, mirroring his pose of surrender. “Please, Driskal, she’s all I have left. Please, let her go.”

Driskal’s eyes fell on the new arrival. “In time, Osyron. First, you must listen; sit on the floor, both of you.”

“Okay, we can do that,” replied Osyron. He stated at Riven, giving an encouraging nod to comply. “We will listen, then you let my mother go, okay?” stammered Osyron as he sat.

A wave crashed hard against the ship, splashing water onto the main deck.

“In time,” repeated Driskal. “You must listen; you both need to hear this.” Both men nodded while forcing painted smiles. “First, a question. Osyron, did you hear Riven’s confession?”

Osyron glared sidelong at Riven. “I did.”

Driskal nodded. “Then listen to me and listen close. Too much has been said tonight and not enough of it true.”

Casandra screwed her eyes closed. However, it did not prevent the tears brought on by Osyron’s arrival from rolling down her face.

“Say your piece, Driskal, I’m listening. We both are.” Osyron kept up his fake smile; it shook and faltered with continual effort.

“Riven didn’t kill your father. I was there.” Driskal turned his attention to Riven. “The woods at Old Quarry Road, right?” Riven gave a confirming nod. “Yes, I remember it,” said Driskal.

Water poured down the stairwell from the main deck. A steady rush spilled onto the floor, which shortly subsided to quickened drips.

“When I was a boy, depravity visited me; this particular piece of depravity went by the name of Daniel Louston. I will not go into what he did to me or the timescale involved, but it was grotesque and enduring. That prolonged ordeal planted the seeds of madness in me. Nevertheless, I stopped him by standing up for myself. I felt free, but my joy was short lived. I hadn’t stopped anything; I had only shifted depravity into someone else’s bed. I saw him with a girl in town. I recognised the look in her eyes because it was the same one I saw in my reflection every night. I paid her a visit, pleaded she tell her parents. After initial reluctance, she finally agreed. But, instead of telling her parents, she confronted depravity like I did.”

Driskal’s own eyes screwed shut tight and his teeth gritted. “Depravity decided to silence her permanently. I went to the girl’s house that night to confirm the story to her parents. When I got there, I saw him, dragging her off. I followed them into the woods at Old Quarry Road. I followed, hoping to rescue her, but...” Driskal’s lower lip gave a discreet shudder. His eyes hinted at horrors lurking beneath.

“But he killed her. He picked up a rock and smashed her head in. I hid behind a thick oak. I wanted to help but I was just a boy. I froze.” The hand clutching Driskal’s sword began to shake; a thin line of red ran down Casandra’s neck and collected on her collarbone.

“I understand, Driskal, you were just a kid and this man terrified you. If you confronted him it would’ve been two dead children instead of one.”

Driskal seemed to remember where he was and proceeded with his story. “A man was passing the quarry road; he must have heard the girl scream and ventured to investigate. When he entered the clearing I saw he was a medic.” Driskal gave a sad shake of his head. “Depravity was cunning though. ‘Thank the eternities you are here,’ he said, ‘I think this girl has been attacked.’ The medic ran over to the girl and crouched beside her. Depravity picked up the same rock and smashed the medic’s skull in too.” The hand holding the blade began to tremble again. Lantern light glinted off it as it wavered at Casandra’s throat. “I hid; I did nothing. I was just a boy, you see, I was just a boy.”

Riven’s smile faded, his expression set into lines of profound curiosity. “It’s understandable, lad, tell the rest of it.”

“Depravity dragged both the bodies out of the clearing. I didn’t see where he took them but when he returned he was wearing the medic’s clothing. He was smiling; probably thinking of all the doors his new clothes would open, all the trust it would buy. Then he left. I remained frozen behind the oak, finally able to cry. A few moments later I heard twigs snap and bushes rustle. You walked into the clearing, Riven, and you had depravity over your shoulder.

“You slammed his face into the pond in that clearing. You pulled his head out to ask him, ‘Why?’ He referred to the girl he’d been abusing. ‘She asked for it.’ You thought that meant your mother. You drowned him soon as you had that answer.” Driskal flicked his eyes to Osyron. “You see, Osyron, Riven did not kill your father; he killed the man who did.”

Riven’s eyes drifted across the hold as he stared off into memory. The prison cells still swayed mid-air, in tandem with the tide. He initially thought Driskal was twisting what he’d overheard into some deluded fantasy. However, quoting the dying man’s last words seemed irrefutable.

Osyron sat, numb. His newfound loathing for Riven still resided inside like a poison. Riven had actively worked to see his father dead but avenged him while pursuing his demise. He did not know if he should feel angry or indebted. The man who revealed this truth was a man he himself had tried to kill. Driskal was inches from death that night. Had Osyron succeeded, the truth of his father’s fate would have died with him. Then there was his mother. She wanted to die for some inexplicable reason he did not care to hear. She now lay at the mercy of the man who killed his love.

Casandra sat through Driskal’s revelation with her eyes closed, fearing what she would find in her son’s should she open them.

“Do you understand, do you all understand?” asked Driskal. “I apologise for holding your mother hostage. Much like your predicament with the island, I feared being killed before getting the chance to speak. I had no intention to harm her,” said Driskal, letting go of Casandra. He took in the fresh bloodline on her neck and cringed. “Ohh, that must nip…my apologies.”

Casandra nodded absently, her finger came up to touch the cut; she winced at the contact.

“This is yours I believe.” Driskal handed Riven the sword. Riven accepted it with a nod; he too was preoccupied with the revelations. Driskal turned to Osyron. “You may not believe me, Osyron, especially since you have witnessed first-hand the worst of me, but I’m in control now. I’m not a threat, but if you cage me, I understand.”

Osyron stared at him a long moment before replying. “Why are you different now?”

“I’m not sure. My memory reconnected before that madness-filled smoke did; Riven drowning Brendan triggered my recollection. Everything’s there, but I’m not broken by it now.”

The Driskal in front of Osyron was not the timid boy who constantly helped around the ship nor was he the knife-happy nightmare that had ended Daniela’s life. The Driskal in front of him was neither yet both. He was the amalgamation of two separate psyches in one. Hearing Driskal speak with such calm reason made Osyron inclined to believe him. While heart-stopping, Driskal’s actions had averted disaster. Osyron’s intent was to avenge his father or die in the attempt. Now as Osyron looked at Riven, he felt a nostalgic desire to be forgiving, to reach out and reconnect. Nevertheless, there was a newfound uneasiness preventing affection from manifesting fully.

Riven noticed Osyron staring at him. Osyron scrambled for something to say. “What’s the story with him?” he said, gesturing at Brendan’s body.

“Your mother and I caught him poisoning the water. He cut down the sails so Driskal and that cloud of smoke would reunite. An attempt to silence Driskal, or at least have anything he said dismissed as madness. When I confronted him, he drew his sword.” Riven shrugged a shoulder. “So I killed him.”

Casandra had stemmed the bleeding from the sword nick. She searched for the right words. “Son, forgive me. I got so lost in my parental need to protect you. I acted out of love, please understand.”

Osyron stared at his mother for a long time. His finger rose and his lips shaped to speak, but he spun and headed back to the stairwell.

“Wait, don’t go,” called Casandra.

Without turning around or breaking stride Osyron answered, “You’re the one trying to do the leaving.”

Chapter Forty Seven

The Citadel spent a further three weeks at sea. Driskal remained caged for five days before convincing Whisky he was not a threat. Upon release, he filled Brendan’s kitchen hand position. The job was minimally demanding so he spent most his time helping others who struggled with their assigned roles. Since being released from his cell, Driskal was acutely aware of the eyes still on him. With his memory fully restored, he understood why.

Brendan received an unceremonious burial at sea. After word spread of his actions, only a fraction of those on board attended, more curious to witness a sea burial than to pay any last respects. Captain Whisky refused to speak on behalf of a mutineer so Lilly offered a few formal words before committing his body to the ocean. It rained during the process, causing most of the small gathering to scurry below deck before the funeral’s end.

Osyron embraced solitude whenever possible, purposefully avoiding Riven and his mother for the remainder of the voyage. Despite being confined to a ship, it was surprisingly easy. Preparing meals for almost a hundred people every day demanded time. He assigned tasks to Driskal only when overburdened, giving the boy little reason to be in or around the kitchens. His history with Driskal was far too confusing to make sense of and the sight of him made focussing on work impossible. A continual cycle of toil and sleep devoured Osyron’s days and nights aboard the Citadel. In the brief window of reflection time, his mother’s efforts to end her life still angered him. She continually tried to spark conversation but he refused each attempt, his emotion still too raw to speak on the matter. Eventually Casandra gave up, telling her son, “When you’re ready, I’ll be waiting,” leaving the onus on Osyron to initiate the much-needed conversation. Osyron let the obligation linger.

Over the course of the voyage, the sky changed from an unbroken grey to deep blue, mottled with puffed clouds of white. These gradually thinned, leaving the sky an unbroken bright blue. As the temperature rose so did rumours of demons amongst the Olbaidian civilians. Whisky quickly doused such gossip; there were very real problems to contend with. The sea conceded its choppy temperament, mellowing to a placid wavering. One morning when the sun seemed particularly bright the much anticipated call from the crow’s nest finally came. “Land ahoy!”

The Citadel lowered its sails, dropped anchor and called for Osyron. After a heated but brief discussion, Osyron insisted on swimming to the island rather than utilising a rowboat. He stood on the bulwark, staring at the sandy coast in a trance-like state. The sun beat on his bare shoulders and the water sloshed against the ship’s hull, promising relief from the burning day. He could feel eyes and the weight of anticipation on his back. The population of the ship gathered on deck to witness his departure. Those gathered shared not-so-confidential whispers about his madness refusing a rowboat. They remarked on the swimming distance teetering somewhere between improbable and impossible. As time passed, the crowd dispersed. One by one, they returned to tending to their daily duties. Those who worked on deck cast questioning eyes at Osyron’s back as they carried out their chores.

Only Riven, Whisky and her returning crewmembers understood his decision to swim, having witnessed the diplomats and soldiers be picked off effortlessly in the rowboat. Swimming seemed the wiser option. It guaranteed nothing of course. Lurking monstrosities in the dark depths could eat him alive. Yet Osyron struggled to care. He stared at the shifting surface of the sea, pondering the prospect of becoming a meal for a sea beast. Countless animals had given their lives in nourishing him through the course of life. Succumbing to the jaws of a creature higher on the food chain seemed hardly unjust. With that thought, he dove off the ship’s edge. The zizzing air whipped his hair to his skull as the water raced upwards to greet him.

As the water enveloped him he was struck by a thought. Zinaria swam because there had been no rowboat to utilise. Osyron recalled her returning to Daniela and himself by canoe. Strange how realisation tended to dawn after the fact. He briefly considered re-boarding the citadel and using a rowboat. But after his delayed dive and continual insistance to swim, the endeavour felt foolish. But more than that, the engulfing water felt incredible. Having stood in the bleaching sun, the sea was the perfect tonic—an all-encompassing, cooling embrace resulting in a surreal, cocooned calmness. He hung, suspended in the water, savouring the sensation before propelling himself to the surface for air.

Osyron powered through the water towards the island, the hundreds of words he had scribbled down over the weeks wiped from his mind. He should feel fear, fear from giant jaws or searching tentacles clamping around his body and dragging him under. Fear from deadly, precise archers on the island. He felt neither. He felt nothing.

The island was further than Osyron had ever swam. In reality, he had no idea if he could swim that far despite the assurances he had given everyone. He snatched the occasional glance at shore; it didn’t seem to be drawing closer. He glanced below; the translucency of the water eventually gave way to a deep, obscuring blue. A shrouding darkness, capable of playing host to all the monsters the mind could conjure. His limbs continued to motor through the water. He snatched another glance towards shore; this time it did seem closer, as did exhaustion.

Memories of the island washed through him. The buzzing, biting insects, the hatred and mistrust in the eyes of the women, the fear of every breath being his last, and falling in love with Daniela. Daniela. Her memory jolted feeling back into him. He gasped and inhaled water. Panic forced another gasp and more water. The shoreline was close but not close enough. His tiring arms flailed wildly as he tried to scoop the water behind him, tried to lunge himself closer to dry land. His lungs screamed for air. His arms demanded rest. He dared not stop for fear of cramping. He snatched what air he could when his face broke the surface. He realised he had not glanced at the shore for a time. Had he turned around? He had to fight the urge to look forward and focus on sucking in air in his timed, rhythmic motions. A glance to shore meant missing a precious breath. The taste of salt water caused his mouth to pucker. His stomach tried to wretch out the mouthful he had swallowed. He clawed desperately at the water in panic, hoping beyond hope to touch the sand beneath him. Hope deserted him and realisation of his imminent death attached itself like a stone. His enduring coldness towards his mother would be the last she remembered of him. He was dying. Worse yet, he was dying rife with regret.

Osyron’s toes skimmed something gritty. He franticly swung his other foot. It too swiped through the familiar texture of sand. His fingers combed through the seabed and he crawled the remaining distance to the sanctuary of dry land. He collapsed gracelessly. The sun-heated sand coated his wet cheek and torso. Now that the fear of drowning had passed, he did what circumstances had so cruelly denied him since Daniela’s death. Laying face down on the sand, Osyron began to cry. He let the tide of grief he had held since her death reach the surface and spill out. Sobs, coughs and pants for air jostled for priority, eventually evening out to a repetitive cycle.

He was uncertain how long he lay on the beach. He no longer felt sodden from the sea; the sun had mostly dried his back. Once the emotional outpour subsided and his breathing returned to normal, he wondered why he was not dead. He should be host to several arrowheads by now. He cautiously rolled over, expecting spear points and angry faces to surround him. The uninterrupted blue sky greeted him. There were no islanders. Osyron listened; the sea lethargically sloshed over the sands by his feet, interrupted only by the breeze rustling through the foliage of the jungle.

He pushed himself upright and looked around. Coming out of the sea was the dripping figure of Driskal. “What are you doing here?” asked Osyron.

Panting, Driskal hitched a thumb over his shoulder. “I watched you through the telescope. Looked like you were struggling. I dove in after you to help.”

Osyron brushed the sand off his face. “I’m fine, thanks, I just need to recover. That was more difficult than I gave it credit for.”

Driskal continued to pant. He leaned over, resting his palms on his knees. “Yeah, me too.” Driskal shot upright and hitched the same thumb over his shoulder again. “Did you see that thing? It almost ate me. I had to kill it.”

Osyron stood and looked behind Driskal. The waters had reddened in an ever-increasing cloud of blood. The water thrashed violently. Teeth ripped into whatever manner of monster had attacked Driskal. Osyron swallowed at the thought of just getting out of the sea. “I was going to say you should go back, but that doesn’t strike me as wise.”

“What should I do then?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know what my next step is; something’s not right.” Osyron turned and peered at the jungle. “We should be dead or at least surrounded. We can’t get through there without the women. It’s riddled with traps and only the women know the safe paths through.”

Driskal smiled and spread his arms. “Traps are my specialty.”

Osyron frowned. “I thought knives were your specialty.”

“Knives are more of an offshoot. Knives are the weapons you carry because they are least cumbersome when sneaking around dealing with traps.”

“Let’s suppose you can spot them. The time it would take for you to disarm them would be too great. The jungle is saturated.”

“I don’t plan to disarm, I plan to pass.”

Osyron shook his head. “You can’t pass, they are too many. You’ll sidestep one straight into another, that’s how dense they are. I witnessed Whisky’s crew falling foul to what lies in there. The jungle beat dozens of men into surrender, smashed to bits and torn apart before they even swung a sword.”

Driskal pointed to the jungle canopy. “Not pass around, Osyron, pass over. It’s natural to set traps where prey will tread, not where they don’t.” Driskal scanned the beach. He spotted a pebble and picked it up. He held it up in between his thumb and forefinger for Osyron to observe. “Watch this.” Driskal whipped the stone fast and hard into the treetops.

Dozens of birds broke from cover and took flight. They circled twice before settling back inside. Driskal turned to Osyron. “Did you see or hear any traps get sprung? With that amount of activity it should have set some off if they are as plentiful as you claim.”

Osyron nodded his agreement. “You just might be onto something, Driskal.”

“Follow me,” said Driskal. A hint of a smile flashed on his face. Driskal dismissed several trees before choosing one to shimmy up. Osyron followed after into the tangle of branches. The limbs of each tree overlapped, creating a gnarled labyrinth of close-knit branches. Driskal looked over his shoulder to Osyron, offering an ‘I told you so’ smile before advancing through the canopy. Osyron watched Driskal progress for a moment before taking pursuit.

The two men made slow progress through the treetops, backtracking more than once due to sparse trees forcing a change of direction. The prospect of coming face to face with the women loomed ever closer. Osyron’s stomach sloshed at the thought. “It would have been wiser to send my mother given this island’s attitude towards men and more specifically, towards me,” he muttered mostly to himself.

Driskal stopped and turned to face him. He sat on the branch, letting his feet dangle. “Then why not let her do it?”

Osyron sat on the branch opposite and stared at him. “I couldn’t let my mother come here with the traps and beasts and the women’s hostility towards outsiders. I’m angry with her. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving her.”

Driskal cocked his head. “Isn’t that the reason you’re angry with her? She put her life on the line to keep you from danger because she loves you.”

Osyron snatched at a leaf and crushed it in his fist. The muscles in his jaw flexed, revealing gritted teeth. “Driskal, I swear, if...” Osyron abruptly stopped; he shot the rest of the heat out in a nasal breath and started over. “Yes, Driskal, it’s the same thing. I know I have no right to be angry, I know it makes me a hypocrite. I just don’t want to so readily dismiss the fact she tried to get herself killed. I want her to know how I feel should such a crazy situation arise and with the way my life is going, I don’t rule out the possibility, in fact I’m expecting it.”

Driskal opened his mouth to speak but Osyron cut him off.

“Then there’s Riven; he tried to kill my father, plotted his death for years and in his pursuit ended up bringing retribution down on his actual killer. That man would’ve gotten away with it if not for him. How am I supposed to feel about that? And you. I’m not sure I would’ve made it past the morgue in Olbaid to reach my mother if not for you. I would’ve never known my father’s fate if not for you. Even if I’d made it here still, in all probability, I would still be on that beach, hoping that the women would chance upon me.” Osyron jabbed a finger at Driskal’s nose. “Yet that face, your face haunts my dreams.” Osyron grabbed Driskal by the wrist and held it in between their faces. “This is the hand that drove a sword through her. It was you, Driskal, you killed the woman I loved. You killed her, Driskal, you killed her right in front of me and I can’t forget it. No matter how many days pass, no matter how crazy the world becomes, I still think of that night. The storm, the shack and Daniela lying dead on the floor. But fate has decreed that I need to see her killer’s face every single day. And I need to smile because the killer is a new man, a genuine sweetheart who can’t do enough for others, a selfless soul who cares about everyone around him. And most convoluted of all, you’re probably the closest thing I have to a best friend now.”

Osyron released Driskal’s arm and ran a hand through his hair. His fingers stopped and grabbed a handful. “And now God has abandoned us. He’s raised an army of dead to claim vengeance on the living. Two continents crawl with undead and I have to approach a tribe of women who have made it clear they will kill me if I return and ask if we can take refuge with them. I’m scared, I’m angry and I want to be far away from you so I can mourn her passing, so I can release the anguish I’ve carried since that night without worrying if her killer might knock on my door and ask me if I need anything. I would say I’m close to breaking, Driskal, but I don’t think there’s a part of me left that’s whole enough to break.”

Driskal stared at Osyron for a long moment in the silence that hung between them. “God’s not abandoned us. If we kill in His name generation after generation, century after century and He does nothing about it, then He’s abandoned us or simply doesn’t exist. This just means God cares about what we do in His name.”

Osyron did not look up; his face stared at the jungle below.

“If it’s any consolation, I remember the beating you gave me. I remember being pinned to that dusty floor. I remember the rain of fists. I remember trying to breath and gagging on blood. I remember looking up at you till my eyes had swollen shut. I remember trying to speak, but a punch to my head or mouth forced words back down my throat. I remember waking up in that shaman’s tent; I didn’t recognise him; I didn’t recognise you, but I did recognise something. Hatred. It was burning in your eyes when you looked at me. I knew I was despised before I knew my name. From leaving the shaman to picking up Brendan at sea, I only knew a single soul in the world, and that soul detested me. Osyron, I would take fifty beatings before I would spend another day in that forlorn hell. I can say without fear of exaggeration I was the loneliest person in the twin empires while I was returning to Olbaid with you. No, you never attained the justice for Daniela you wanted, but you did get more than you realise.”

Driskal stared a long moment at Osyron’s sunk head. “Osyron, I’m sorry. If there were any chance of reversing what I’ve done, I’d hunt it every waking hour of my life.”

A hot breeze rippled through the leaves around them, setting the smaller branches to swaying. Osyron lifted his head. “I know you’re sorry, I see it in everything you do. I just needed to get some things off my chest. I need some time alone to mourn. I’m sorry too.” A distant animal call split the air, causing them both to stare out through the trees. “Let’s get moving, Driskal, a lot rests on our shoulders and time might be an enemy we are yet to be aware of.”

Both men started manoeuvring between the treetop branches. Abruptly, Driskal shot a halting arm across Osyron’s chest. “Hear that?” he whispered.

Osyron repositioned himself on the branch and cocked his ear to the wind. Somewhere beyond the cacophony of birdcalls and jungle sounds, Osyron picked up war cries. “Is that battle?” he asked.

“I think so,” confirmed Driskal. “Let’s keep moving forward and keep our guards up.” Driskal nodded then advanced through the tangle of branches.

As they closed in on the camp, the trees began to thin and become sparce. Drums thumped to life accompanying the barking orders. The pounding beat sent the island women running in synchronised formations into the jungle trees opposite. Osyron snagged occasional glances, however, shifting leaves and the thicket of branches prevented any prolonged view of the settlement. The pair reached the edge of the treeline then ran parallel with the camp’s outer defensive wall. An expanse of knee-high grass was all that stood between them and their goal of the women’s camp. From their vantage point, they could see women arm themselves from weapon racks. The southern drawbridge lay open. The women continued to exit the camp and disappeared into the jungle. Osyron climbed down a few branches, hoping to see under the jungle canopy opposite. His eyelids slowly closed at what he witnessed. “No…it can’t be.” Driskal dropped down beside him to share his line of view. In the distance, in the darker parts of the jungle, was the heart-stopping, glowing red eyes of the risen. They numbered in the thousands. “This doesn’t make sense; Gilroy said they only attack those who have killed in the name of God. This island gave up on God centuries ago,” said Osyron.

Driskal pushed aside an obscuring leaf for a better look. “Maybe they’re not attacking; maybe they’ve come from the abandoned southern continent on their way to the northern continent, drawn by the conflicts there. A war between empires might be a big enough pull for them to feel. This island is just en route and the women have assumed they are subject to invasion.” Osyron shivered at an entire continent of dead, advancing along the ocean floor on their way to Olbaid and Miria. “We need to warn the women. They’ll be wiped out if they continue to engage.” Osyron spotted familiar territory on the jungle floor; it was the area he had cultivated the raw ingredients for ointment. He pointed a finger. “Move to that tree; the area below is safe.”

Both men laboured through the branches towards the tree picked out by Osyron. The humidity and effort beaded sweat to their brows and backs. Once in place, Osyron wasted no time and scampered down the trunk. He sighed audibly at feeling solid ground underfoot. The drums continued their rhythmical pounding as he looked across the grass plain toward the camp. He pondered if the women rotated the position of their traps. The surrounding knee-high grass suddenly gave off a dangerous aura. The blades swayed, seeming to entice and dare him to cross. “Driskal, I need you.” The words felt contradictory and awkward to Osyron given his not-so-distant rant.

Driskal seemed to understand Osyron’s need without explanation. He crouched and scanned the grass at eye level. His head drifted in time with the sway of blades, searching for concealed secrets. His stare was unblinking, steadfast as he seemed to retreat into a trance-like state. “It’s clear,” he said getting to his feet.

“Are you sure? I mean, that didn’t look like a comprehensive analysis.”

“I’ve been evaluating this area from the trees since you pointed it out. There is a reason you beat me down to the ground; I was busy.”

Feeling foolish, Osyron nodded and turned to the camp and took his first tentative step into the grass.

The settlement’s defensive wall towered larger than Osyron remembered now that he stood at touching distance. The shouting from inside had stopped; Osyron assumed most of the women had vacated the area to meet the approaching threat. However, the drums reverberated in his chest, shaking his internal organs. The wall comprised of hundreds of trees halved and lined up next to each other. The craftsmanship was such that not a single gap was visible. Osyron suddenly remembered why the wall existed; his head turned and scanned the jungle they had come from. Should some beast attack, there was no circle of armed women shadowing his steps now. He scurried around the circumference of the wall towards the open southern gate. It was unguarded. For a brief moment he stood at the camp’s open mouth wondering if he should enter or search the jungle to the south. Something razor sharp touched his windpipe and fingers wrapped around his jaw. A lean, taught body pressed against his back. A voice hissed at his ear. “Are you behind this male?”

“I’m here to help,” said Osyron as calmly as possible. “Your people need to disengage.”

The voice let out a sudden breathy gasp. The hand released its grip and the knife fell away from his throat. The body peeled away from his back before something slumped to the dirt.

Driskal, no

Chapter Forty Eight

Osyron swallowed, or tried too. The mouthful of seawater, the scorching heat and the sweat-inducing effort of progressing through the trees had sapped his mouth dry. He closed his eyes and turned, opening them to a hauntingly familiar sight. Driskal stood, clutching the island woman with a knife to her throat. Osyron’s eyes brimmed at the sight of Driskal’s face staring at him over the woman’s shoulder. Her sword lay abandoned at their feet, discarded in silent surrender to the steel at her windpipe.

“What should I do with her?” asked Driskal.

“Let her go. Just let her go.” Osyron’s voice came as a hoarse whisper, closer to begging than the intended demand.

Driskal took his knife away and stepped back. The woman put a hand to her throat and gave a narrowed-eye stare over her shoulder at him. Bending to retrieve her sword, she turned her glare back to Osyron. “Coincidental you showing up while we’re under attack.” She moved in behind Driskal so she had the camp at her back and both men in her sight. It was apparent the woman remembered Osyron although he did not recognise her.

“I won’t lie, the two are connected but I’m here as an ally. Your sisters need to disengage; those things are not here to attack you, they’re on their way to the twin empires. If you lead the ones that you are engaged with to the traps in the north of the island the others will walk past without attacking.”

“You expect me to trust you, male? Our young and elderly are in this camp. We cannot risk those monsters getting close.”

“They are too many; they are coming this way and won’t be stopped. If you tell your sisters to retreat, the majority will pass without incident. You need to trust me, every single one who takes up arms against them will die.” Taking a step forward, Osyron brought both his wrist together and held them up before him. “Me and Driskal will volunteer our hands bound. If those dead attack the camp, kill us. my life that I speak the truth.” Osyron gestured at Driskal to copy him. Driskal let his knife slip to the floor and complied.

The island woman let out a sharp, deafening whistle. The drums stopped. Two young girls popped their heads around the camp entrance and ran up behind her. “Banone, fetch rope. Kala, retrieve that knife and bring it to me; search them both for other weapons.” Both girls did as instructed then bound both Osyron and Driskal’s hands behind their backs. “Move,” said the islander, indicating with a flick of her brandished blade towards the camp.

Once inside, both men were ordered to kneel before they had sacks flung over their heads. Osyron heard whispering and hurried footsteps disappearing into the distance. The bright sun enabled partial vision through the fine fibre. He could see the outline of the two young girls holding weapons out before them. Leaving them under the supervision of the youngsters meant every able-bodied adult was committed to repelling the invading undead horde.

“I don’t feel so good,” whispered Driskal.

“Silence!” barked one of the girls. It came sharp and loud but carried unmistakable fear.

Osyron silently hoped Driskal was talking physically ill. Osyron remembered how effortlessly Driskal had slipped his manacles in the shack. Freeing himself from his current ties would be simple enough. Osyron risked a reply. “Hang in there.”

“I said silence!” The shrill cry pierced Osyron’s ears, causing him to wince. The girl had taken a step closer and the blade was inches from his eye. Although thin, the sack around his head acted as an oven, making the very air he drew heated and unpleasant, further drying his arid throat.

Driskal let out a low moan and collapsed face forward. The two girls sprung back to avoid his descent. Osyron could see them exchange a nervous glance and mutual shrug. “Please, he needs water as do I.”

One girl poked Driskal with the blade; it looked forceful enough through the sack to cause bleeding. Driskal did not stir.

“Water, please.” Osyron began to felt light headed. His eyelids felt heavy, his mind dull. The sack sapped his body dry, dangerously so. All at once, the two girls fell below his field of view as the sky spun forward to face him. A sudden thud on the back of his head brought still and complete blackness.

Osyron awoke. He was dimly aware of the feeling of cool soil on his cheek. His head was a cacophony of competing pains, clambering atop one another for attention. He instinctively tried to rub away the grog lodged behind his eyes. His restricted hands held tight in their bindings; it brought a vague semblance of recollection. The collective clamour lingering in his awareness began to separate into distinguishable sounds. Hurried steps and consistent chatter were the predominant two; a symphony of undeciphered others merged into a singular blanket of noise.

Osyron creaked open an eyelid. Through the fog in his head and the obscuring sack, he saw dozens of legs from the knee down surrounding him. A pair of the legs stepped closer. The sound of drawn steel close to his ear dissolved any lingering lethargy. Both eyes snapped open. He tried to cry out, only for his dry rasping throat to prohibit any noise. Fingers wrapped around his bicep and rolled him onto his belly. Cold metal slid between his bound wrists and sliced though the ropes holding him. Almost simultaneously, the sack was whipped from his head. The sudden unfiltered sunshine forced him to squint. A hand grabbed him under the chin. Extended fingers squeezed his cheeks, forcing his mouth open. “Drink,” came a solemn instruction. Osyron swallowed back the water; he could have let himself drown in the relief if brought. His unseen saviour let go of his chin and relinquished the supply of water. With eyes screwed tight, Osyron sat up and rubbed his rope-burned wrists. His eyes darted, sneaking half-second peeks at his surroundings, but the piercing sunshine continually forced them shut.

“What are you doing here, Osyron? I made it quite clear you would die should you ever return.”

Osyron could not see her, but the authority of the elder’s voice was distinctly recognisable. He raised a sheltering hand to his brow and tried to make eye contact with her. “Do you also recall saying that mankind will inevitably destroy itself? Well, that’s the reason I’m here. Olbaid and Mirian have fallen to the risen dead.”

The elder stared at him a long moment. “I cannot say I am glad to be proven right. Why have the dead risen?”

Osyron proceeded to tell the chief elder of the holy war evoking God’s wrath and triggering prophecy. His eyes began adjusting to the light as he spoke; the faces surrounding him came into focus. A dozen stern expressions looked down at him sitting in the dirt. Drawn weapons hung nonchalantly in each woman’s hand in the half-circle around him. Driskal lay unconscious beside him. His sack had been removed and his drenched hair suggested he had received water at some point. The camp as a whole seemed in mourning, the islanders bunched in various groups. Many shed tears as others embraced and consoled. Lives had clearly been lost. “They’ve been sent by God to seek retribution against those who kill in His name. I know this island abandoned religion a long time ago therefore the risen would have no cause to be here. We have a ship; on it are the last known survivors from Olbaid. There is a man on board by the name of Gilroy; he can fill you in on the finer details.”

The elder turned to the woman at her right hand side, giving a nod. The woman took off and called to a nearby group to follow her out of the camp. “Keep going, Osyron.” instructed the chief elder.

“Both empires have succumbed to the dead. The people on that ship may very well be all that’s left of the population of the twin empires,” said Osyron.

“You mean to tell me no one else escaped?” asked the elder.

“Other boats left the docks, that’s probably the case for all cities and towns on the coast, but they have nowhere to go nor do they possess the resources for a prolonged stay at sea. Several strongholds in the twin empires can provide shelter from the dead, but it is a matter of time before numbers overrun them. Even if they keep the dead out, they’ll lock starvation in. In all probability, we are the last.”

“And here you are, presenting the shattered remains of that superstitious culture. Do those on your ship plan to sow those same destructive seeds here? Are we to conform to the worship of your god or die for refusing? We have no need for gods here, male, nor the self-righteousness it breeds in those who subscribe to such ideologies. We will accept your shipmates as refugees provided they publicly renounce any god that they would bring to our people. Any who decline can stay on their ship and pray for an island to the god of their preference. That poison will not be permitted here.”

Osyron wanted to protest. He was certain some on board would hold steadfast faith that they would not renounce. But given history, given the current state of Olbaid and Miria, the elder’s terms were reasonable. “The choice is fair, elder. We face extinction; your sisters and the people on that boat may be the last humans alive. We have destroyed two continents; this island is humankind’s last bastion.”

“We destroyed nothing, male; you destroyed, religion destroyed, men destroyed,” replied the elder.

“Careful, you’re pointing a finger that drips red. We both could take the unearned high ground, point out the blood that stains each other’s hands and see where that leads. Or we can help each other wash off the stains that shame us. We’re already divided before we begin; we have gender and cultural differences that we have to bridge. But when human extinction is the penalty for failure, just how dearly can we cling to tradition?”

“I will meet your people on the shore and see who wishes to join or side with your god. As long as these Olbaidians remember it is our society they are joining, not the other way around.”

“I understand, but please consider because they’re joining, your society will alter.”

The elder huffed a breath. “Tonight we figure out tomorrow, tomorrow we figure out the next day. We take it from there. You look a beaten mess, Osyron.” The elder indicated to one of the women to toss Osyron her waterskin. “Drink that and go to the huts you used last time.” She gestured at Driskal. “We’ll have him carried there too. I don’t want you coming to the shore and trying to influence the answers people give. They will give them freely without influence or not at all.” The elder looked him up and down. “Now get some rest.” With that, the elder and her accompanying guard made for the camp exit.

Osyron stood and glugged down half the waterskin. He dusted himself down and checked if Driskal was still breathing. Once satisfied, he paced the path towards the twin huts where he and Daniela had once resided. He knew his mother’s answer to the question posed by the elder. When he awoke, his first priority was to find her and hold her. Repairing the bridge between son and mother was higher on the priority list than cultural bridge building.

Osyron meandered past the enigmatic great tree; never had he feared more for his life than inside that colossal wooden wonder. He recalled how young and timid Whisky’s crew had looked while in captivity there. He supposed Whisky and her crew would not hold any god dear being former pirates, nevertheless there was potential for some of them to hold a grudge given their last visit. He would need to speak to Whisky on the matter. Any personal grudge could lead to catastrophe.

Then there was Riven. Riven had followed proper religious procedure while serving as High Marshal. However, Osyron suspected Riven seen this as duty while serving under Emperor Horim. Osyron was unsure what answer Riven would give of his own accord. Should Riven stay on the island, Osyron had to forget any grudge he may have toward the former high marshal. Any prospect of violence between them both would send alarm bells ringing through the indigenous island women. He was unsure how to feel about Riven. Letting circumstance decide on his behalf seemed the only option. After all, greater matters than personal vengeance loomed.

Gilroy and Lilly would be smart enough to recognise the reason for the question. Even if they had a god, Osyron imagined they would put him aside for practical reasons then ask for forgiveness in the private darkness of night.

Driskal had the potential to be the best relation between the two cultures. Everyone on board remarked how helpful he was. The women here would be no different. He could also be the reason every male ended slaughtered in thier sleep. There was too much to contemplate while exhausted. Osyron took another sip from the waterskin, careful not to drink it all down at once. Water had never tasted so delicious. The thought of a real bed on dry land put keenness in his step.

Osyron gave a private grin as he passed through the chickens pecking at the ground. He passed by Daniela’s hut and placed a foot on the entrance step of his own. As his fingers curled around the doorframe to hoist himself inside, he stopped and glanced over at the other hut. He recalled the morning he’d stood on this very step after hearing their summonses by the chief elder. Daniela had stepped out from her hut and smiled at him; with everything that was on the line, she actually smiled. Osyron took a moment, savouring the memory before pulling himself inside.

At the last second, something by the steps leading into Daniella’s hut caught his eye. It can’t be, he thought, peering at the object on the ground. He walked over and scooped it up. It was Daniela’s orange, now a shrivelled, shrunken husk. Osyron knew next to nothing of the fruit; their longevity was a mystery to him. However, it had to be the same orange. The memory of her sitting on the step, turning the fruit over in her hand encapsulated him. That same evening they’d almost shared a kiss. He remembered the confusion on her face when he pulled away and the way her features softened when he explained why. Osyron turned the orange over twice then climbed inside Daniela’s hut.

Internally the hut was identical to his, the same placement of furnishings and shelves. He kicked his boots off and lay down on the bed. Resting his head on the straw-stuffed pillow, Osyron thought he could smell her hair, cherries and vanilla. It had to be his imagination, however, he didn’t let the realisation ruin a perfectly good smile. He turned on his side and inhaled deeply. His arm hung over the side of the bed, the hardened orange still clutched in his hand. He thought about the rebellious strand of hair that always escaped the anchoring of her ear; he remembered the way it danced on the breeze in joyous celebration of its liberation. He remembered the way she dipped her head and tucked it back behind, never frustrated or losing her patience with the regularity of the strand’s escapades. As Osyron’s breathing deepened, his grip on the orange relaxed. The small, hardened fruit slipped from his hand, hitting the floor with a dull thud. Osyron never heard it. He was asleep and dreaming. Dreaming of a girl called Daniela, the girl with amber eyes, the child of compassion.

                                            THE END

                  THE CHILDREN OF DUTY & JUSTICE


                                          JGJ Fairhurst

                       Copyright © JGJ Fairhurst 2016

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