The young man sits on the top of a hill, looking out across fields and open countryside. Below the hill is a small town, containing a single church with an old and crooked spire. A few moments later a much older man walks up the hill, panting from the exertion of doing so. The young man starts to rise from his sitting position, but the older man shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter what position you are in, young William, and you certainly do not need to rise on my account.” The older man sits down next to William. “The time has come to see what kind of talent you have, my young friend. Remember, our order does not focus on preparation or study, so it is important you do not concern yourself with what you do not know. If you have The Blood, you can obtain all the knowledge you require.”
William nods. “I understand, and I am ready to prove I have what it takes, Kiran.”
Kiran smiles briefly. “Of that I have no doubt.” He pauses. “Remember, The Blood is within you; you were destined to use the power.”
William closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, but Kiran puts a hand on his shoulder. “Do not attempt to shut off what is around you. That is where the power comes from.”
William opens his eyes and looks around, apparently confused by that notion.
“Focus on something that is living. You can draw power from that.”
William looks around the hill, but sees nothing living in the immediate vicinity. He turns to look at Kiran, about to complain, before he sees the tree.
Kiran’s voice is a hiss. “Yes! It does not have to be moving to be living. Focus on the tree.”
William looks at the tree, and makes a gesture with his hands, extending them gently towards it. He continues for a short while, before he lowers them again. “It is not working, Kiran. What am I doing wrong?”
“You are not throwing your whole will into it, William. Let go of your inhibitions and channel through the tree!”
William nods and turns back towards the tree, and this time throws his arms out in a faster and more animated manner. Once again, nothing happens.
Kiran’s voice grows harsh. “That is pathetic! You have The Blood! Use it, or I swear I will kill you and take your wife and unborn child for my own!”
William turns towards Kiran, his eyes flashing dangerously. At the same time, some branches on the tree begin to waver.
The older man continues to mock. “Is that the best you can do? I’m afraid I must kill you, William. The Order does not tolerate failure.” Kiran draws a nasty looking knife from under his tunic.
William snaps. “No!” In an instant, Kiran and the knife are separated, the older man knocked yards away by a force of unseen energy, leaving the blade on the ground. A few moments later, laughter emanates from the prostate form of Kiran, before he gingerly pulls himself to his feet. “You have taken your first steps in a new world, William.”
William looks visibly shocked, and looks from the knife to Kiran. It is the older man who breaks the gaze, looking behind William at the tree, which has burst into flames.
Lia awoke with a start and her heart was pounding; she felt thirsty and once again had a throbbing headache. It also felt like she was moving, up and down at a steady rhythm. She tentatively opened her eyes and saw a poor quality road ahead of her, but nothing else of note except for two horses, which were both carrying riders. It was then when she realised her hands were tethered to a third horse, and that she was not the only person being carried. Lia choked back tears and tried to ignore the terrible clenching of fear inside her chest. She then turned her head around to see a scruffy looking man in the saddle behind her, who smiled a rather devilish smile.
“I see you have decided to join us, my lovely.” Upon hearing the sound of the bearded man’s voice, the other two men turned around. One was fairly young, with unkempt and greasy hair; the other was more middle-aged, and was wearing a cloak of fine quality. Lia recognised the older man immediately. After taking a brief look at her, they turned and continued to drive their mounts at a strong pace.
“What do you want with me?” Lia’s cry was full of anguish. “Where are my parents!” There was no response. She looked down at the bonds attaching her hands to the horse’s reins and tried to release the knots.
The bearded man let out a soft chuckle. “They are very tightly bound, my lovely. You are going to hurt yourself if you try to remove them.”
That was enough to make Lia try harder, but after a few frenetic minutes the bonds felt tighter than before and threatened to cut off the blood supply to her hands. Lia forced herself to calm and looked up at the sun, which was behind her; it was after noon, so she must have been unconscious for a number of hours. She also realised that she was still in her sleeping garments, hardly appropriate for horseback. Lia risked a longer look behind her, and tried to ascertain where she was, but all she could see was the road. “Where are you taking me?” She said it in a normal voice, and to the bearded man only.
He grunted. “We have a long and hard journey ahead of us, my lovely. That is all you need to know at the moment.”
Lia was completely confused. Why did they want her? Why had she not been raped and murdered? That at least would have made sense. Her family as she knew it had no enemies, and no wealth. She bowed her head and fought back the urge to weep. “I don’t understand…” She said it aloud despite herself, but the bearded man said nothing more.
Carly was deeply concerned for Lia and frustrated she was not in a position to help her friend, and she slept badly. She awoke early, and it was some time later when she realised it was the day of her Test. To her surprise, Carly did not feel the usual jump in her stomach at the thought of the Test; instead she felt a sense of calm. Carly then wondered if she had connected with Revan the previous day without trying. How else could she have heard Lia’s cry of anguish? Carly thought back to her studies on the connection: it was very unusual for anyone to see or hear visions while at Peace, and Carly was not even a Priestess. She decided to seek out Priestess Elspeth; if anyone could help explain what happened, it was her.
Carly dressed in her usual white robe, had a brief breakfast and walked the short distance to the main part of the temple and through to the library, where Priestess Elspeth usually was. Elspeth was an elderly lady and highly respected due to her immense knowledge of all things theological. She also had been a highly influential Priestess before old age got the better of her. Carly, like most acolytes, had not spent a great deal of time with her, but she had a reputation of being willing to speak to all members of the church, and didn’t keep a rigorous appointment diary like some of the other Priestesses. The young acolyte walked through the library to the north-eastern corner, where Elspeth was sat among piles of manuscripts and books. She was quite deaf, and Carly had to clear her throat three times before the elderly lady’s eyes moved away from the written word to the young woman in front of her.
“Acolyte… Carly, isn’t it?” Carly nodded. “Come child, sit next to me.” The Priestess gestured to a seat next to her, which was completely covered in manuscripts. Carly stepped forward, paused, and the old woman chuckled. “Oh, don’t mind this mess, my dear! Just put it on that table over there.” She inclined her head towards an ancient looking table adjacent to a bookcase. Carly did as requested and carefully transferred the papers to the table. After picking up the few she had dropped, she returned to the older woman’s side and sat down.
Priestess Elspeth put her hands in her lap. “So, what can I do for you, my dear?”
Carly explained the situation regarding her lack of connection to Revan, and the vision she had the previous day, which appeared to depict a real event.
The older woman considered what she had heard for what seemed to be an eternity. “Well, this is an interesting one.” She paused again. “You are correct in your thinking that this is very unusual, my dear, and you should be commended on your diligence for that. Only occasionally does a Priestess experience such a thing, and as you have already said, for an acolyte to do so is extremely rare. The last time I can recall this happening was at least twenty years ago, when Priestess Lorna had a vision that Suria would to be invaded by forces from the north. That vision turned out to be valid, but because Revan had given us the warning, we were prepared for the invasion, and it was abated.” Elspeth paused and looked at the young woman in front of her. “It is usual for a Priestess to have multiple visions, my dear, so we should wait to see if you have any more.” Her face softened. “In the meantime, try not to worry; Revan can sometimes work in mysterious ways, and what you experienced may have been nothing more than a dream; perhaps you drifted off to sleep while at Peace?”
Carly was not convinced, but let it pass; she was inexperienced, and not confident enough to challenge the older woman. “Thank you, Priestess. I will come and see you in a day or two, if I may.”
Elspeth smiled. “Of course; as you know I am usually here.”
Carly left the library and started to walk through the main hall of the temple, where she noted a small boy and who she surmised was his father at the desk. She walked past and smiled at the boy, who stuck his tongue out at her. While she grinned, Carly caught some of the conversation his father was having with the acolyte on duty. “Yes, three men on horses, with an unconscious or sleeping blonde girl with them. Rufus is certain she was being held against her will: she was tied to one of the horses.”
Carly stopped dead where she was, turned to the man and moved closer. “Where was this? How long ago?” She ignored the frown from her fellow acolyte and waited for a response, which came from the boy.
“After breakfast, miss. Our farm is near the trading road.”
Carly grew more excited. “Where were they going?”
The boy shook his head. “I don’t know, miss. They just rode away.”
The father interjected. “East, Priestess.” Carly did not think to point out that she was a mere acolyte.
“Thank you. I would appreciate it if you would tell the watch.”
The man frowned. “We have just come from there, Priestess. They asked us to report it here as it is now outside of their jurisdiction.”
Carly nodded. “Thank you.” She turned, ran along the main hall and out of the temple.
Carly was not used to running, and when she arrived at The Piebald Lamb she was hyperventilating. Warnock Spicer was behind the counter as usual, and he studied the young woman intently. “I must say, young lady, I am surprised to see a member of the Church of Revan here. How may I be of service?”
Carly stopped and spoke between gasps. “Is Olbane Jonson here? He came to stay here last night.”
Spicer nodded. “He returned about half an hour ago, acolyte. He has been looking for Lia all morning, and has not found anything.” The man shook his head sadly. “She is a special young lady.”
“Can I see him?”
Spicer pointed to an open door through the tavern. “He is upstairs, third door on your right.”
Despite the burning in her chest, Carly jogged up the stairs; she found the third door on the right and banged on it. “Olbane! Olbane!”
After a few moments the door opened, and Olbane appeared. “Carly?” He looked at her face. “You know something, don’t you?”
“They have been seen heading east; Lia is alive!”
Olbane ran to the bed, where a backpack was lying, full and ready for travel. “How long ago?”
“At least three hours ago. They were on horseback.”
Olbane looked as if he was going to curse, but didn’t. “I do not have a mount in Crossmoor. Do you?” It was a ridiculous question: an acolyte of Revan had no such resources and Carly’s face said as much.
Olbane smiled weakly. “I am sorry. I will have to find one, somehow.” He made for the door but Carly stepped in front of him.
“I am going with you.” She said it with authority and he instantly nodded his agreement.
“Do you know anyone who can loan us mounts?”
Carly thought for a moment. The temple had mounts, but they were reserved for Priestesses. Lia’s family did not own one either. “No, I do not. Do you have coin?”
Olbane smiled weakly again. “I left Susanon in a hurry.”
Carly looked distraught. “We will never catch them on foot!” She forced herself to stay calm, and found inspiration. “Michael! His father doesn’t deal in mounts, but he has some for transporting goods around. He is also a friend of Lia’s.”
“I believe I have met him. He and his father saved my life yesterday.”
The pair hurriedly left The Piebald Lamb and ran the short distance to Thomas Eustace’s premises, although Olbane had to stop periodically to allow Carly to catch-up. For the second time in two days, Olbane burst through the door, and for the second time in two days, the old man nearly jumped out of his skin.
“You again!” Eustace yelped as Carly joined Olbane. “And this time with a friend!” Eustace was about to make another exclamation, but stopped when he realised who Carly was. “So what brings an acolyte of Revan and a young man on the run to my premises?”
Olbane stepped forward. “Forgive the intrusion, sir, but we were wondering if you and your son would offer us assistance. Our friend Lia has been abducted, and we need mounts to give chase.”
The old man raised an eyebrow. “Have you notified the watch?”
Carly stepped forward. “We have, sir, but they will not do anything as the captors have left Crossmoor. May I speak to Michael?”
The old man sighed. “He is through the back, loading up some carts. We have a very important shipment to make tomorrow.”
Olbane nodded his thanks to Eustace, opened the door to the next room and walked through to the yard where he boarded the cart the day before. Michael was hauling large sacks of grain onto a cart. Upon hearing footsteps, the broad-shouldered young man spoke as he turned around. “I am working as fast as I can, father…” He stopped, looked at the slightly older man in front of him, and scratched his chin. “Twice in two days. Who are you running from this time, goblins?”
Olbane was about to respond when Carly burst through the door. “Michael! Lia has been abducted!”
Michael’s body went rigid and his face turned white. “What?”
Carly nodded. “They have gone east, we know that for sure. They are on horseback, so we need mounts to give chase.”
Michael was apparently struggling to comprehend what he was being told. “The watch…”
Olbane interrupted. “The watch are not interested as they have already left the outskirts of Crossmoor. Do you have mounts we can use? They are already at least four hours ahead of us.”
Michael managed to gather his wits about him. “We have two reasonable horses tethered outside. If you must charge off, I will find you some provisions; there are no villages east of Crossmoor for a good day’s ride, so you will need something to keep you and the horses going.”
Olbane nodded his thanks and he and Carly went to inspect the horses. She was silently apprehensive at the prospect of riding with a man she had only known for a few days, but she felt drawn to do so. She knew Lia would do the same for her. Carly considered Olbane’s motives: he clearly had developed a fondness for Lia, but his actions appeared a little extreme; none of the young men she knew would risk their life to save a girl they had only just met. She looked at Olbane as he stroked the mane of one of the horses, a chestnut mare. He was handsome, there was no doubt of that, but it was the way he carried himself that impressed her the most. If the church of Revan had accepted male priests, he would have had a lot of the attributes required.
Michael returned a few moments later with two saddlebags, which he carefully placed over the backs of the horses. “Wait here.” He jogged into back into his father’s premises. Moments later he returned holding a sword in a scabbard, which he handed to Olbane. “I suspect you know how to use one of these, even if you have not used one in anger before.”
Olbane accepted the blade and nodded. “It is important for a merchant to be able to defend himself.” He smiled wryly. “Or at least for his son to be able to defend him!”
Despite the situation Michael chuckled. “You are not wrong.” Carly noticed then that Michael also had a blade, which was already attached to his belt. The young man’s eyes met hers. “I am going with you.”
Olbane clapped him on the back gently. “You are an honourable man, Michael Eustace. It will be a pleasure to ride with you.” He looked at the horses, and then to Carly. “Carly, if you wish to remain behind, we will not think ill of you.”
Carly thought for a moment. She was nearly offended by Olbane’s suggestion that she might not want to go with them, but then she considered his motives for giving her the option to stay. First, she was not the type to charge into battle with a blade; second, she was not permitted to leave the temple very often, let alone Crossmoor. It was only during her studies that she had more freedom. Carly’s stomach suddenly knotted: her studies! For the first time in her life Carly was faced with an impossible decision. Her Test was later that day, and she would be condemned to life as an acolyte if she was not present. However, she knew she would never forgive herself if Lia did not return, and felt compelled to go with Olbane. “I appreciate your concern, Olbane, but I am coming with you.” She looked up at the chestnut mare. “She looks like she can cope with both of us, so I will ride with you.”
Olbane smiled grimly. “It is settled, then. We ride east.”
They joined the trading road after half a day’s travel and set a relentless pace, and the hard journey drove Lia to the point of exhaustion. It appeared that the bearded man was also tiring, probably because Lia was tethered, which made riding more difficult. He groaned a little and slowed the mount down to a trot, then yelled ahead of him. “Rastlin! The girl needs a rest!”
It was a few moments before the two horses ahead of them slowed and stopped. They both turned around and trotted towards Lia and the bearded man.
The older man in the fine cloak moved his mount alongside to theirs and faced Lia, who did her best to maintain eye contact. He nodded before turning to the man with the greasy hair. “I think we can afford a short rest, and we need to keep the horses fresh.” He took in their immediate surroundings and pointed to a grassy area near some trees. “The horses can graze there while we take refreshment.” Rastlin’s accent was not local; in fact Lia did not recognise it at all.
Rastlin and the greasy-haired man tethered their mounts to a tree and allowed them to graze. The greasy-haired man went to the saddlebags, pulled out a waterskin and drank deeply, which made Lia’s mouth feel even drier. Rastlin walked over to his own mount and pulled out what looked like a leather nosebag. He then took out a waterskin of his own, moved to his mount’s head and stroked it gently. “Here you are.” He placed the nosebag over the horse’s head and poured some water into it. He then turned to his companions. “You two would be wise to do the same. At times like this your mount is the single most important thing between success and failure.” His tone was dismissive, almost like he was talking to a pair of children. Rastlin then moved to Lia’s horse and gently untied her hands. He then offered her a hand to dismount.
“I can manage, thank you.” She said tartly.
He nodded. “As you wish, my dear.”
Lia did her best to slide off the horse gracefully, but when her legs hit the floor they were so weak they gave way, and she ended up on the dusty ground. Rastlin offered her a hand again, which she grudgingly accepted. Moments later he offered his waterskin to her, which she gladly took and drank deeply. It was only when she had finished did Rastlin himself take a drink. While he did, the bearded man tethered his own mount, gave it a drink and took a long draught from his own waterskin. When Rastlin finished his drink, he went back to his saddlebags and pulled out a bundle of clothes and a pair of boots, which he gave to Lia. “I took the liberty of bringing these from your home, my dear. They are more suitable for travel than your current attire.” He pointed to a large bush. “There is a secluded area over there.”
Lia looked around, walked towards the bush and changed quickly. While she pulled on her clothes, Lia surmised they were on the trading road, and still heading east. Unfortunately for her, there was no sign of any settlements close by, and no passing travellers or caravans that might help her. She considered running away, but quickly concluded that would be folly: she had no supplies, and the men were stronger and would easily catch her. Lia had no choice but to bide her time; they would not be able to travel on the trading road for much longer without encountering others, or at least a small village. As she walked back to her captors she studied the man called Rastlin, obviously the leader of the three. He was middle-aged, but his hair was still jet black and hardly receded at all; his eyes were also dark, and very searching. The majority of his clothing was bland, but his well-made cloak was almost as dark as his hair. He was tall and slim, but Lia had a feeling he was also physically strong: there was something about the way he carried himself that told her he could deal with most threats comfortably.
“Where are you taking me?” She asked the question again, directly to Rastlin, who was taking another drink.
He looked across at her, a serious expression on his face. “I am afraid we need you for a task.” He paused for a moment, and Lia felt his dark eyes searching for her soul. “I am sorry about your parents, my dear. We could not have anyone follow us.”
It took a moment for Lia to comprehend what he had said. “Murderers!” Her eyes filled with tears, and she leapt towards Rastlin in an almost feral rage.
Lia did not reach him, however, as the man with the greasy hair stepped in, caught her arm and threw her to the ground. He bent down and was about to strike her, but Rastlin’s voice bit through the air. “Franklin! Do not harm her!” The greasy haired man stopped and shot a look of irritation at Rastlin, whose voice softened to calm the situation. “She has every right to hate us for what we have done. It was a necessity to us, but her point of view is different, at least for the moment.”
Franklin scowled, rose to his feet, and Lia shuddered when she noticed the sword attached to his belt. Rastlin moved over to his mount and began to organise his pack. “We have dallied enough; it is time we were back on the road.” He turned and looked at Lia and once again his dark eyes searched out her soul. “You will ride with Goadsby again. If you agree not to try and escape, you may ride without bonds.”
Lia resisted the urge to make a sarcastic comment, but settled for a brief nod of her head. She would not be able to escape unless there was help, and at some point they had to encounter someone: the trading road was well-used, after all.
It was when the sun was starting to set that they noticed half a dozen mounted forms in the distance, moving towards them. Lia’s heart leapt; surely six people could overpower three murderers? Lia was seated behind Goadsby and felt she could easily leap off the horse before he could to react.
The six figures moved closer, and Rastlin slowed his horse down so it was just behind Goadsby’s, which allowed him to speak to Lia easily. “Now my dear, I just want to make something clear. I am sure you have already decided you are going to jump off this horse and make a break for it, but if you call for help we will kill the travellers up ahead.” Lia was about to say something about the odds but he raised a long, thin hand and stopped her. “My companions may appear to have the combined brainpower of a hound, but they more than make up for it in other areas, if you take my meaning. Any blood spilt will be on your hands.”
Lia set her jaw in defiance. “You cannot hold me forever. At some point someone will stop you.”
Rastlin shrugged. “I hope that by the end of our journey together, Lia, you will realise you want to be with us.”
Lia had no idea what that meant. “How do you know me? Why me?”
He spoke softly. “Now is not the time. I give you my word that I will explain everything, sooner or later.”
Lia nearly spat. “The word of a murderer is nothing to me!”
Rastlin nodded sadly. “I cannot blame you for your view. I hope that one day you will realise your parents’ lives were not taken in vain.” Lia had no response to that and turned her head away from him.
The six figures grew closer, and Rastlin resumed his position at the front of the group alongside Franklin. As the figures approached, Lia asked a question of her unlikely travelling companion. “Why do you accompany him? He speaks of you as if you are an animal. No man deserves that.”
There was a long pause, then he responded with a grunt. “Coin; I am told the riches at the end of our journey will make anything worthwhile, including Rastlin’s tongue.”
Lia spotted an opportunity to gain some information. “So why do you need me?”
He barked a rather nasty laugh. “You, my lovely, are the key to us getting hold of that coin.”
Lia continued to press. “How can an eighteen year old girl be the key to anything?”
Goadsby shook his head and laughed again. “I am not that simple, my lovely. Rastlin would have my guts for breakfast if I said any more.”
It was at that point the first of the six riders rode by: he was well-dressed and wore a wide-brimmed hat, which he tipped in their direction as he rode by. Lia forced back tears as she saw him pass; Rastlin appeared to be very serious and she believed him when he said Franklin and Goadsby were more dangerous than they appeared. She also believed him when he said they would kill the other travellers; they had murdered her mother and father, after all. Lia saw the second rider go past, then the third. It was only when she saw the fourth, fifth and sixth she had the courage to act. All three men were armoured and wearing swords, most likely there to protect the other riders. Surely three armoured men could defeat her captors? “Help me! They murdered my parents and abducted me!” Her cry was shrill and loud, and she surprised herself.
It was over in moments. The first armoured man went down almost immediately, when a dagger thrown by Franklin lodged in his neck. The second man reacted to his companion’s fate and drew his blade, then urged his mount forward and aimed to repay Franklin in kind. The greasy-haired man was quicker, however, and his own blade parried a somewhat rushed attack and he counterattacked with incredible speed and power. He thrust his sword through a join in the armour’s side, and the man screamed and fell from his mount. Goadsby, meanwhile, drew his own blade and was upon the third armoured man almost before the first hit the floor. He launched a savage blow that knocked the man’s sword from his grasp just as he was drawing it from its scabbard, then followed with a deadly thrust. Moments later, the third man fell from his horse.
The three men ahead, relieved of their protection, kicked their heels into their mounts and urged them away at a gallop. Franklin turned his horse in their direction and was about to drive on, but Rastlin stopped him. “Let them go, Franklin; we cannot afford to waste time chasing them.” Rastlin turned his mount towards Goadsby’s and came face to face with Lia. He leant in to her and his dark eyes were menacing, which caused Lia to recoil in fear and wonder what retribution he might take. “I warned you my dear, and yet you didn’t take heed. If it wasn’t for the fact I need you unharmed, I would turn you over to Goadsby here and let him teach you a lesson.” He turned away and raised his voice. “Let’s move on, and pick up the pace! We need to get distance between ourselves and those three in case they send someone behind them. We will ride until it is no longer safe to do so.”
Lia tried to not look at the corpses on the ground. Instead she focused on the three horses that were mulling around the area, seemingly oblivious to what had just happened.
Terence Black sat drumming his fingers on a table in a corner of The Piebald Lamb, and occasionally sipped a cup of Spicer’s best wine. Two men entered the inn and the older, heavier one looked around. The second man was much slighter and more nervous than his companion, and his eyes darted around the inn. Eventually, the heavier set man’s eyes came to rest on Black and the two men approached the table.
Black raised an eyebrow. “Well?”
The heavy set man met the other’s gaze. “We believe Jonson has left Crossmoor. We haven’t seen him since yesterday morning, but we’ve asked around and someone fitting his description went east earlier today, accompanied by another man and a young woman in white.”
Black thought for a moment. “Likely he’s heading to Surian to deliver the papers himself. I need you to go there and speak to a contact of mine, who owes me a debt. He will do what you and your imbecile of a friend could not.”
The heavy set man scowled, but did not say anything. Black continued. “I have planned for this possibility. There is a horse-merchant a few doors from here who also owes me. Tell him I sent you and he will give you his two fastest mounts.” He held out a letter, which the heavy set man took. “Give this letter to Rogen Flaun when you arrive at Surian. He will know what to do.”