Chapter 13: Twocasts
An ugly, but sturdy, rustic covered wagon, awaited them in the courtyard at dawn the next morning. The cart - harnessed to two pinto tinker cobs, was crafted from the roughly cut wood of a variety of different trees. Some hardwood, some soft, some fine-grained, some rough, some dark, and some light. It was a patchwork quilt of a wagon.
Its ragged bonnet was made up of a similarly eclectic collection of pelts from various creatures including bears, beavers, rats and rabbits, all roughly sewn together with thick hemp twine. Unsightly as the bonnet was, it had been skilfully crafted into a snug and weatherproof cover. Wooden pots, buckets, barrels and brooms hung from the wagon’s frame, together with strings of colourful beaded necklaces, baskets, belts and boots.
“Will there be any room for us?” asked Ash as he peered inside, resting his hand on the top of its small hinged gate.
A loud rap cut the air.
“Ouch!” Ash said, snatching his stinging fingers away.
He shook them fiercely in an attempt to lessen the pain as he looked over the gate and into the amused eyes of a Twocast male, who was brandishing a large broom handle. He was a short, burly, man with a straggly beard and mouse coloured hair. His face had seen better times, its mismatched features damaged by scars and bruises, some old and others which seemed to be more recently acquired. His bulbous nose looked as if it had repeatedly been broken and his mouth, with lips that seemed much too full for a male, was crammed with badly stained, broken and crooked teeth. There was a gap at the front where one had evidently been knocked out. His clothes were like his wagon, made up of patches of various different types of material none of which seemed to go together.
“If you’re t’ journey with me, young man,” he said, with a thick Ferrish accent as he waved one stubby little index finger slowly from side to side. “Then you’ll need t’ know that I have me rules and I’ll expect you t’ heed ’em well, so I will.”
He pointed towards Ash’s throbbing fingers.
“Rule twenty-seven, for example, is that you never touch a thing, unless you’ve been invited to do so that is.” He paused, “is that all fine n’ clear M’ Lord?”
Mockingly, he doffed his thread worn hat, his eyes creasing in amusement. Ash frowned warily, still rubbing his fingers.
“Err, yes, err… perfectly clear, err… sir...” he said backing away from the wagon.
The man raised his brows at Ash’s respectful, if naive, use of the salutation.
“Most folks call me Vega,” he said, unlatching the gate, and stepping out of the wagon, “when they’re nay minded to use a mite more colourful language, that is. Don’t worry yourself, just heed me rules young Mud, an’ we’ll get along just fine.”
“How many of these rules do you have?” asked Lee.
“Umm... well on the last count,” said Vega lifting his hat and scratching his head thoughtfully, “a couple o’ hundred or thereabouts.”
“Do you have a list?” said Lee with a troubled frown.
“No need for a list,” said Vega, chuckling away to himself, “you’ll soon be learning ’em, or you’ll be having a long walk, so you will.”
“No list...,” said Lee, perplexed, “ surely there has to be a list?”
“I wouldn’t worry about whether or not there’s a list Lee,” said Ash, shaking his head in dismay. “With that many rules, we’d better go back and get some thicker gloves because I’ve a sneaking suspicion that we’re expected to learn them by experience, and that will be a painful experience.”
Dux walked down the Oratory steps to join them. He was accompanied by Rose, Auriel and an anxious looking El-on-ah with her two servants. They were escorted by six centurion guards who hovered around Rose like bees around a hive.
“Vega, my friend, is all still fine with you?” said Dux smiling warmly and extending his hand which Vega grasped with both of his, shaking it firmly.
“Aye, M’ Lord, we be fine for sure,” said Vega.
“I see you have met Lords Ash and Lee,” said Dux as he glanced curiously at the two novices, who were squirming uncomfortably, their faces glum.
Dux, noticing the wicked twinkle in Vega’s eyes, gave a small chuckle and placed an arm around his shoulder. Dux towered over the tinker who was much shorter.
“I gather you have just introduced them to your sense of humour,” he said, with a slanted smile.
Dux turned suddenly sober and bending his head closer to his friend his voice became hushed.
“I cannot thank you enough for doing this, my friend,” he said, “I am well aware of the danger it puts you and your family in.”
“Aye,” said Vega, his face clouding, “ but from what you tell me, we are none of us safe now are we?”
Dux turned to Rose and taking her hand he led her forward.
“Vega, this is the young ascendant of which I spoke,” said Dux. “Rose, may I introduce you to Vega, a dear friend of mine. He has agreed to take you where you need to go. Under our present circumstances, there is no one I would entrust more with your safety.”
“M’ Lady,” said Vega, his eyes widening as he took in Rose’s strikingly silver-white hair and violet eyes. With a small bow, he removed his ragged hat and waved it before her with a flamboyant flourish.
“You have no need to bend before me sir,” said Rose holding out her hand “it is I that should salute you, for your benevolence and your valour. Thank you for agreeing to help us.”
Vega’s face glowed. He took her hand gently in his.
“M’ Lady,” he said, glancing over his shoulder into the wagon.
He waved his arm frantically at three figures hiding in the shadows.
“Please, Lady Rose,” he said, proudly, “ may I present me family.”
Out from the wagon emerged a shy-looking young woman with long silver white hair and two silver-haired children, a boy and a girl. Their dark violet eyes looked striking against their golden skin and their features, like Roses, were delicate and angular. Rose, taken aback by their appearance turned to Dux, her eyes full of questions.
“They are not Whytes Rose,” he said quietly, reading her thoughts. “Look at their skin colour; it’s much darker than yours, as are their eyes, which if you look closely, you’ll see are tinged with green. They are not like you Rose. They are Twocasts, not Whytes.”
Vega took his wife’s hand and pulled her forward to greet Rose. Reluctantly she complied, though her eyes were lowered and she would not look directly at Rose’s face.
“This is my wife, Lyra,” he said, his face brimming with pride.
Lyra was a beautiful woman, delicately boned and slight framed. She dipped her head and bobbed respectfully. Rose could not take her eyes off the woman’s face. It was true that her skin was darker, but it had been tanned by the sun, and her eyes were strikingly similar to Roses, barely a shade darker and with tiny flecks of green. They could have been sisters.
“Lady Rose, I would also like to introduce you to my children.” He said, looking down at the two small figures attached to his legs, their delicate faces peeping out from a mass of silver white hair.
“Tau and Lilly,” he said, pointing out each one in turn.
Rose pulled her gaze away from Lyra letting it fall on the children. A faint smile flickered on her lips as she crouched down to greet them.
“Well hello Tau and Lilly,” she said, looking into their shy violet eyes. “Are you going to help me learn all about your people because I would very much like for you to teach me?”
They looked up at their father who nodded and smiled reassuringly. Tau, released from his nervousness, reached out his hand and took hold of Rose’s middle three fingers. He gave them a surprisingly firm tug.
“D’ya wants to see me toad?” he asked excitedly.
Rose nodded and allowed herself to be pulled towards the cart. Two guards followed closely behind her.
“His name’s Bart,” said Tau earnestly, “ ’cause that’s what noise he makes, baaart, baaart, baaart.”
Dux and Vega watched them as they climbed up into the wagon.
“Have the rest of the supplies been loaded?” asked Dux.
Vega nodded. “Aye, we’ve everything you asked us t’ take, including the wee skep, though I’ve had to hang it beneath the wagon. There’s nay room for a flea inside there now. We’ve everything we need.”
“Good, Then you should go quickly, we do not know how long we have.” Dux turned to the others. “Come, it is time to go. “
When they were all seated in the wagon, Dux leaned in closely to Rose.
“Be safe Rose, and remember what I told you.” He said, squeezing her hand.
Then he lifted his head and addressed the others.
“Take care of each other.”
As he spoke the words, his eyes flicked to Rose, and they all knew that what he really meant was ‘take care of Rose’. He patted the back of the wagon as it jolted forward and then stood a while, his hand raised in farewell. ‘Nothing is ever going to be the same again’ he thought, watching the wagon trundle through the Oratory gates and slip out of view.
Within an hour, they had left the city far behind them and by noon they were rattling along one of the ancient byroads to Ferrum. Vega had avoided taking the main highway, preferring to take the old road as it was less travelled and likely to be safer.
The track was uneven and broken due lack of use and years of disrepair. Weeds and grasses had pushed their way up through its numerous cracks. Broken branches and fallen trees littered their way like the flotsam washed up from an invisible sea. Consequently, the journey was much slower than it would have been on the main highway. However, the byroad meandered through woods, copses and valleys, affording cover from both land and sky and therefore it was indeed, much safer.
Vega and Lyra sat out on the driver’s board. While the rest of them remained inside the belly of the wagon and hidden from view behind the canopy. At first, the mood had been tense and subdued, but Tau’s incessant questions, chattering, and giggles soon relaxed and cheered them. Sloley was a big hit with the young boy. From the moment Tau caught sight of the little loris he did not leave Lee’s side, much to Lee’s frustration.
“What you feed him on?” Tau asked as he petted Sloley, who obligingly raised his arms to be tickled.
“The optimal diet for a pharmacon loris,” said Lee “is a variety of plant gums and nectar, but he is rather partial to the occasional piece of fruit.”
Tau considered this information carefully for a second.
“Would he like some bread?” asked Tau.
Lee appeared nonplussed.
“Did you not understand what I just said?” he sighed with irritation. “As I have told you once already, the optimal diet for a pharmacon loris is a variety of plant gums and nectar, with the occasional addition of fruit. I said nothing about bread. He does not eat bread. He’s a loris!”
He turned to Ash shaking his head in exasperation.
“Do these people not educate their children?” he said throwing Ash a pleading look.
Ash appeared to obligingly come to his aid, but Lee quickly noticed that Ash’s face wore the impish grin that often preceded impish behaviour. Lee sighed in dismay and lifted his eyes upward where he saw bunches of dried vegetation hanging from the frame of the bonnet.
“Bread would not be good for him Tau,” said Ash gravely, narrowing his eyes and raising one finger in the air like a chastising teacher. “It would make him sick...”
With a crooked smile, he bent down to Tau’s level, lowering his voice to a loud whisper.
“As we discovered to our cost when we fed him fruit cake,” he said, looking sideways towards Lee. “When we also discovered that Loris vomit stinks like skunk spray and stains everything bright yellow,” lowering his voice further he put his lips to the boy’s ear, “and you are far young for me to mention what happens a few hours later, at the other end. So best not feed the loris mate, okay?”
“Fine, me Lore Ash, I’ll not,” he said giggling infectiously, “but yah mean he got the skits don’t yah?”
“Why’s the sky gone all red?” said Lilly, who was peering out of the back of the wagon between the flaps of the overhanging canopy.
Arjan stood up and pulled back the flap to reveal the hilly skyline of Aureus, just visible over the trees of copse they had driven through. The sky above the city had turned a deep shade of crimson. Auriel gasped, realising instantly what it was. Arjan threw her a questioning look.
“It’s the Afreet,” she said, her eyes swimming. “They’re attacking Aureus, and it’s way too soon. They won’t have had time to evacuate the city.”
“What can we do?” said Ash jumping up to take a look.
“We can’t go back,” said Arjan, with glum resignation. “All we can do is send apis to warn the other cities.”
Auriel’s eyes brimmed.
“All those people, the Magisters…” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “What will become of Lord Dux, Saffron, and Tammy ...our friends…?”
Rose and El-on-ah regarded each other steadily.
“It would appear,” said Rose, fixing her eyes on El-on-ah, “that something or someone has prompted Ka to bring forward his attack.”
“What is it?” asked Vega on hearing the alarm in their raised voices.
He peeked through the driver’s canopy flap, noticing Auriel’s distraught face he followed her gaze to the scene revealed through the flap at the back of the wagon.
A red heaving cloud was rapidly expanding over the city, elements within the mass dived and swooped like great flocks of starlings. Then one section of the red cloud curled, broke away and began heading towards them at speed.
“Close the flap!” Shouted Vega “Then get yourselves down, hold on t’ your hats, an’ prepare for your insides t’ be rearranged.”
Arjan quickly tied the canopy straps as Vega raised the whip, cracking it loudly in the air.
“Haaahhh!” he shouted “Haaahhh! Move yer useless bags o’ bones...”
Arjan was thrown off his feet as the wagon lurched forward. He landed hard on top of Che, who had raised his arms to steady Arjan’s fall. However, the wagon jolted violently, bouncing and jerking along the track and he was unable to steady even himself.
They seemed to hit every rut and pothole, the rumble of the wheels became deafening. Arjan shouted to Ash as he grabbed hold of Lilly and held her to his side.
“HOLD ON TO TAU!”
Ash caught hold of the boy just as he was thrown violently backwards across the wagon. Vega cracked the whip again, and again, as he sensed the hellish red cloud gaining on them. Each time the wheels hit a pothole with another thunderous crack, he feared that they would shatter into a thousand pieces and that all would be lost, but somehow they continued to hold.
Vega could see the Burntwood forest up ahead, and he knew it was their only chance to make cover before they were seen. They could hear the Afreet now. The beating of hundreds of pairs of wings was like thunder in the air around them, and the Afreet’s shrill piercing cries made their blood turn cold in their veins.
“I think they’re turning away,” said Lyra, who was desperately trying to hang on to the side of the wagon as it lurched and bumped dangerously along the road. “I don’t think they saw us, they’re turning to the east.”
“They’ll be heading for one of the eastern cities Aurora or Gelton,” said Vega, “ unless they’ve caught a sight of us.”
The wagon hurtled into the cover of the forest as the swarm of Afreet veered off towards the east. Vega, still unsure whether or not they had been seen, continued to push the horses on until they were deep in the thick of the forest. Finally sensing that they were safe, he gently eased the horses back into a slower, more manageable pace.
Pulling off the road, Vega followed the path of a shallow, rocky stream which led them to a canopy covered glade, deep within the forest. He brought the wagon to a gentle stop and let out a long sigh looking across at his wife with a look of concern.
“Fine?” he said, a worried frown creasing his brow.
She smiled, giving a small sigh of relief.
“Aye, I’m fine,” she said.
Anxiously, Vega peered over his shoulder and into the belly of the wagon, his eyes searching for his children. Arms and legs seemed to be poking up from everywhere. His passengers were busily attempting to disentangle themselves from the pile of groaning bodies on the floor. One by one they extricated themselves until they uncovered two figures at its centre.
Arjan and Ash were locked together in a tight embrace. Auriel’s hand flew to her mouth in an attempt to stifle a nervous giggle. As the boys opened their eyes, they realised almost instantaneously that everyone was staring at them, but instead of embarrassment, the look on their faces was one of mutual admiration and respect.
Their faces broke into broad grins, as they moved apart and revealed the two tiny figures of Tau and Lilly, huddled together between them.
Vega nodded, smiling warmly at them.
“Hey, you two,” he said, looking from Ash to Arjan, his eyes narrowing as his face appeared suddenly serious. “Don’t you be breaking rule seventeen now.” There was an almost unperceivable glint in his eye. “No sitting about when there’s work t’ be done.”
Vega chuckled to himself as jumped down from the wagon and walked around the two horses. He ran his hands down each of their legs, giving them an affectionate pat on their neck before checking the wheels and frame of the wagon. Then he unhitched the horses and led them to the stream.
“Woman,” he yelled to his wife, with an impish wink “It’s time we ate. A man canna’ be expected to flee from Afreet on an empty stomach.”
An hour later, they were sitting around a small fire eating corn dumplings and forest mushroom soup seasoned with wild garlic.
“We’ll rest here until dark,” said Vega, slurping loudly as he greedily guzzled his soup. “It’s nay safe to travel by day now. We’ll travel at night and rest up somewhere safe during the day. I’ll plan our journey accordingly. Is everyone in agreement?”
“Surely, it would be more prudent,” said El-on-ah hesitantly, “to put as much distance between the Afreet and us as possible, and as quickly as possible?”
“I canna’ argue with that.” Said Vega, “but I ask you M’ Lady, would you rather be two feet away and completely hidden, or a mile away and in their line of sight? Afreet are airborne, and they’re fast. Distance is nought to the Afreet, if they can see you, they’ll have you. So we canna’ afford t’ be seen.”
“At least, it’s to our advantage,” said Arjan optimistically, “they probably don’t know about us, so they’re not likely to be actually looking for us.”
“I wouldn’t be quite so sure of that,” said Rose, glancing pointedly at El-on-ah, who met her gaze head on and without a flinch. “Although they are probably not looking for us here, so I have to agree with Vega, we should stay hidden during the day and travel by night.”
“Do you think Lord Dux and the others would have had time to escape?” asked Auriel, her voice quivering.
There was a sudden crack as Vega snapped a stick in half and added it to the fire.
“Well, I’ve known Lord Dux almost all of me life,” he said. “He’s, without doubt, the most resourceful wizard that I’ve ever met. If anyone could get out of there safely, it’d be him, and I know that he’d not leave a soul behind… That’s rule number one by the way; we never leave anyone behind.”
“Well, that can’t be right,” said Lee “because if it was, then we have all broken it. We left all of them behind didn’t we?”
Ash shook his head in frustration.
“Vega means when in battle Lee,” he said, “never leave anyone behind when in battle.”
“Well, he needs to be clearer,” said Lee sulkily, “how am I supposed to follow all these rules if they are not made entirely clear?”
“Just check with me first,” said Ash with an amused snort. “I generally seem to have a good feel for breaking rules.”
Rose moved to sit down next to Auriel and put an arm around her shoulders.
“I know it is hard Auriel,” she said steeling herself, “ but we cannot afford to worry about the others. Remember, they’re relying on us. We have to maintain our focus and concentrate on what we must do. We cannot afford to fail.”
“I am going to find it very difficult,” said El-on-ah, overhearing them, “ to focus on an objective to which I am not privy.”
Rose glared back at El-on-ah making no attempt to hide her feelings regarding the Blood ascendant.
“I was not addressing you El-on-ah.” She said coolly, “but as you’ve introduced the subject, I should tell you that Lord Dux insisted that the fewer people that knew our plans, the better. You will find out eventually of course, along with everyone else if we make it.”
Lyra began collecting the empty bowls. Rose attempted to take them from her.
“We’ll do those Lyra,” she said.
Lyra, embarrassed, shook her head.
“Nay me Lady, ’tis not your place….”
“Lyra,” said Rose, taking her hand. “My place is where I wish it to be. Please allow us to show our gratitude to you, for your hospitality? It’s the least we can do.”
Reluctantly, after a moment’s hesitation, Lyra allowed Rose take the pots and bowls from her and to take them the stream to be cleaned. Arjan, Auriel, and then El-on-ah, picked up the remaining dishes and followed her.
As they bent down to swill out the bowls in the clear, cool water, dappled sunlight danced upon its surface. Rose was dazzled for a second by a glint of light. Looking up, she squinted into the glare and saw that the sunlight was being reflected off a pendant strung around El-on-ah’s neck. It swung to and fro, catching the light as she leant forward and washed the bowls.
The pendant, a half moon shaped natural stone, had been strung with a cord from a hole at its centre. It had a faint green glow, like a firefly. Rose caught her breath and looked away. Suddenly she understood why she had felt so strongly that El-on-ah should remain with them. El-on-ah carried the incantatio.