The Knights of Nevertheless: Escape from the Shadows

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Chapter 10: The Pendant


Days passed in like manner. The boys would hunt and practice their swordsmanship and archery. Archereus would instruct. Ava would ponder. Stranth and Onar were stoic in response to the news of their father’s demise. Onar remarked that he never really felt as if he had a father anyway. He seemed to shrug it off without much alarm or sorrow.

Some evenings Stranth would take an elpece plant to the north ridge and sit, staring into the triangle patch of sky. Ava would follow him there. Sometimes they would just sit and commune in silence. Other times, Stranth would try to articulate what was in his heart.

“Is it all right to wish for something you know you can’t have?” he asked one evening.

“I suppose we can’t help what we wish for.”

“I realized a long time ago that father didn’t care anything about us. But as long as he was alive, I guess I always hoped that someday he would have a change of heart, that he would take an interest in us— love us. There’s no chance of that happening now.”

Ava could feel the pain throbbing in her son’s heart as if it were her own. Only, because it was his and a hurt she could not repair, the ache was more acute than any pain she had ever felt herself. She had no answer, just a lump in her throat and hot tears rolling silently down her face. She reached out to take hold of his hand. They sat there for a long while, holding each other’s hand in silence. An occasional tear rolled down Stranth’s face as he grieved for the loss of something he had never had, and would never know. She would never be able to fill that emptiness in his life, no matter how hard she tried. Silent tears poured down Ava’s cheeks for her son’s loss. When the pain subsided, they silently walked arm in arm back to the cave. Archer and Onar were roasting the day’s catch of rabbits. Archer was telling Onar all about Menetoy, its towns, its rivers, its fields and orchards, and especially of its king. Onar listened with fascination. As Ava and Stranth began to listen too, the pain in their hearts began to turn to hope.

Archer drew maps on the cave floor to help them plot their course to the Great Wall. He drilled them on the locations of safe villages and towns to avoid. He pointed out good water sources and hunting grounds, as well as areas where fowls, dragons, and other predators clustered in their own havens. He cautioned them to stick close to the rugged terrain for cover, though they would eventually have to cross a wide flatland. He was a great counselor and teacher. Archer promised to make as much of the journey with them as he could. However, he had been commissioned by the king to aid and protect many other Seekers as well. He would have to leave them from time to time, promising to rejoin them and ultimately guide them through the Wall.

Ava was quick to frequently interject that the boys should make their way to Middletown if they were ever separated. She had always taught them to go to the place they were last together. But if that was fruitless or impossible, Middletown would be the next place to look, and they should try with all their might to get there and wait for the others to arrive. Her brother Madsen would surely accommodate them for however long they might be in need. She hoped he would, anyway. She voiced no doubts about his hospitality. Of course, she did not intend to let her sons out of her sight, but because anything could happen on such a trek, she always felt it best to know what to do before an unplanned calamity. Archer suggested the letter M as a sign to be marked in obvious places if they were ever separated from each other and felt compelled to go to Middletown.

“That way, the others might at least discover your intentions.”

They agreed this would be a sign between them, and Ava admonished them to leave marks along the way, as well.

Plans and preparations were drawing to a close, when Ava recalled one morning that she had left the pendant her mother had made for her at the cottage. She could not account for being so thoughtless at the time when she was packing to leave. That pendant meant the world to her! It was the only material possession she had of her mother’s; and now with Roxie gone, she absolutely had to have it.

“It’s too dangerous to return for a trinket, Ava! The peacekeepers have surely been to your home and burned it to the ground by now. They’re probably having it watched, as well.”

“I must go, Archer. It’s all that I have left of her.”

“She would not have you risk your life for a pendant!”

“But it would identify me as part of our clan. It may purchase us safe passage in some parts.”

He had to concur she had a valid argument. Yet, the pendant was not the only means of securing safety and it would as likely garner more adversaries than advocates. It was just too risky a scheme.

“I also drew a map in the sand to Middletown,” she admitted. “If peacekeepers are looking for us, they may have seen the map I drew and would likely go there. Shouldn’t we try to determine if we might be walking into a trap at Middletown?”

“You must have other family in other villages, Ava. We’ll have to amend our plans, but we can’t risk going back to the cottage for a pendant. Would you want your boys to take such a risk for some trinket you gave them?”

Of course she wouldn’t. But she wasn’t planning to take her boys with her, and this wasn’t just a trinket to Ava. It was a piece of her mother to her, all that she had left of the only person, other than her own children, who had ever loved her completely and unconditionally. She would be lost without it. Ava turned back to the cave with her heart sinking inside. She knew Archer was right.

As the day wore on, Archer and the boys continued in their exercises and training. Archer was impressed with their skill level. He asked to examine the shields they had made from the breastplates of the fowl they had killed. Heading back to the cave, they expected to find Ava inside busy either about the fire or mending clothes. The boys greatly anticipated the commencement of the journey in a day or two. However, their mother wasn’t there and did not answer their calls.

“I’ll check the tunnels for her,” Stranth offered without any apprehension.

“She may be hunting roots and berries,” Archer casually suggested, knowing full well that that was not the case. “I’ll see if I can lend her a hand.”

Outside the cave, Archer dashed up the side of the ridge to see if both horses were tied there. Anani was gone. He set off in a blaze toward the cottage. Racing behind her, he couldn’t decide if he was more angry or worried.

How impulsive! And reckless!

As he approached the edge of the tree line, he saw the smoke rising from the distant cottage, or what was left of it. He also observed Ava’s slow approach. He did not want her to reach the gate without him. He bolted down the slope in pursuit of her. When she heard his horse thundering toward her, she turned around in terror, drawing her sword. Relieved to see his face, she stopped to wait.

“Do you never shrink from throwing yourself into harm’s way?” he nearly barked at her.

She made no answer but turned Anani toward the gate. Her heart was fixed on retrieving her mother’s pendant.

“Dismount,” Archer ordered, grabbing Anani’s rein.

Ava silently obeyed continuing toward the gate on foot. Archer paused to take a deep breath, then followed the stubborn woman on her quest. Coming up beside her, he offered her Anani’s rein.

“We must not linger here, Ava.”

She nodded.

They could see from a distance that both the cottage and shed had been burned. A few smoldering embers remained, but the fire was apparently days old. Archer was on high alert. He sensed an unknown presence but could not pinpoint its location. Ava raced to the ashes; sifting through an area she judged to be the location of her bedside table, she found her clay jar, charred and ashen, but still intact. Removing the lid, she was grateful to find her mother’s pendant, a hand-carved wooden star still attached to its leather cord. Her name was engraved across a tree etched in the center of the star. She turned to exclaim her discovery to Archer, but he was kneeling on the ground examining a find of his own. Coming up to him, she knelt down beside him.

“The map I drew to Middletown for the boys,” she confirmed.

“The question is, did they see it before they trampled it? Or did it escape their notice altogether? Animal tracks are leading away from the shed, goat and piglet. My guess is, they let the animals out before they burned the barn. They walked off in a straight path as if tied up and following the person who brought them out. See there?” he pointed to a line of foot prints. “There are boot tracks along side.”

“Perhaps Farmer Harris got here before the peacekeepers.”

“Were you expecting him to call?”

“Not exactly. He and his wife come by with some regularity. It’s been a while since they’ve come, so they would be about due for a visit.”

Archer seemed pensive, preoccupied.

“What are you thinking?”

“I’m wondering if we should check on your neighbors. How far away is their farm?”

“Not more than 5 miles.”

Ava did not perceive Archer’s removing his dagger from his boot as she answered. They stood to an immediate halt. Three men on horseback glared at them from just outside the gate. One was pointing a crossbow at them. Each wore a sick, sinister grin.

Archer hurled his dagger at the man with the crossbow and pushed Ava to the ground as one man charged them on horseback. Archer pulled the peacekeeper to the ground and engaged him in battle. The third man dismounted to retrieve the crossbow his slain companion had dropped. Not having a good shot at Archer, he crouched behind the stone wall; assuming his friend would triumph, he turned his attention to Ava. When he peeked over the wall, she seemed to have disappeared. He reached across the wall to grasp the rein of his friend’s horse as it returned to him. To his surprise, Ava rolled over the top of the horse, leapt over the wall, and cut off his arm just as he was raising the bow to take a shot at her. He pulled her to him with his other arm and gave her a stunning head butt. Ava fell back as he fought to take her sword from her. Half dazed, she took a wild swing at the man right as Archer came up behind to finish him.

“Not bad,” he commended. “We need to work on your thrust.”

“We needed a couple more horses,” she remarked, nearly out of breath. “Should we take all three?”

Sounds of gurgling and gasping drew them to the man who had first held the crossbow. Archer pulled his dagger out of the man’s chest and offered to relieve the man of his suffering in exchange for answers.

“Where are the others searching for us?”

“Follow the map,” the man labored to laugh.

“What did you do with the animals?” Ava asked.

The man turned to sneer at Ava and said no more. As he began to spit and sputter blood, Archer gave him a quick end.

“We should check on the Harrises.”

“Lead the way.”

When they arrived at the Harris farm, they found the tiny house intact. Yet an eerie silence hung in the atmosphere like the echo of silent screams. No sounds came from the house or the barn. Just dead silence. They knocked. No one answered. Just as Ava was calling out to Mrs. Harris, Archer instructed her to wait on the little porch while he went inside. The few moments that passed seemed like an age before a grave-looking Archer returned, shaking his head. Ava moved toward the door, as though she would go in to see for herself, but Archer prevented her.

“You do not want to see them, Ava.”

Impulsively, she moved as if to press past him. He restrained her.

“No. They made a slow and ugly death for them. You should not see it.”

“But they didn’t know anything!” she protested through tears.

“That’s irrelevant! This is sport for the peacekeepers,” he spat.

Ava felt hysteria rising within her, threatening to overtake her. Archer watched her begin to shake uncontrollably and knew she might be going into shock. They needed to get back to the cave before it got too dark. She did not respond to his saying her name. She was unable to focus and dazed. Her breathing was labored, and her knees were about to give way when he pulled her to himself and hugged her strong and close. He briskly rubbed her back and arms to circulate her blood. He kept calling her name.

“Ava, look at me,” he repeated several times, holding her head in his hands. “Look at me,” he demanded.

She tried to catch her breath, to stop shaking. Desperately, she tried to make everything stop spinning out of control. Finally, she found Archer’s eyes close to her own, those crystal blue eyes that were like light themselves. She closed in on those eyes— eyes that were like windows to peace and strength. There she saw wisdom and understanding and knowledge. She let herself be pulled into those eyes and found that she was no longer shaking. She felt calm. Her breathing slowed, and everything else came to a stop. She allowed herself to bury her face in his chest and cry for just a few minutes. He held her close and let her cry. He consoled her with patience. She mustered all of her will to pull herself together.

“Forgive me,” she barely managed to say as she pulled away, “for being so weak.”

“You’re not weak, Ava,” he whispered close to her face. “You’re human. You’re a very strong woman with a tender heart, which is why you belong in the courts of my king— ” and why I will

fight legions of peacekeepers to deliver you there.

Her eyes said thank you, though she could not form the words. A shudder passed over her, and a troubled expression returned, clouding her eyes. “I need to get back to my boys.”

As they mounted their horses, an earthquake shook the ground beneath them. It was not a terribly violent or long tremor. Earthquakes were quite a common phenomena in Terra Dombren. But one never gets used to earthquakes. The horses brayed and danced in nervous circles. Ava was almost toppled to the ground, not being secure or experienced with riding. Archer’s hand reached out to steady her, and she managed to stay in the saddle with his help. He calmed the horses as well. When the stillness returned, she pleaded with Anani to carry her back as fast as he could.

Chapter 10

The Pendant

Days passed in like manner. The boys would hunt and practice their swordsmanship and archery. Sovran would instruct. Ava would ponder. Stranth and Onar were stoic in response to the news of their father’s demise. Onar remarked that he never really felt like he had a father anyway. He seemed to shrug it off without much alarm or sorrow.

Some evenings Stranth would take an elpece plant to the north ridge and sit, staring into the triangle patch of sky. Ava would follow him there. Sometimes they would just sit and commune in silence. Other times, Stranth would try to articulate what was in his heart.

“Is it alright to wish for something you know you can’t have?” he asked one evening.

“I suppose we can’t help what we wish for.”

“I realized a long time ago that father didn’t care anything about us. But, as long as he was alive, I guess I always hoped that someday he would have a change of heart; that he would take an interest in us; love us . . .There’s no chance of that happening now.”

Ava could feel the pain throbbing in her son’s heart as if it were her own. Only, because it was his, and a hurt she could not repair, the ache was more acute than any pain she had ever felt herself. She had no answer; just a lump in her throat and hot tears rolling silently down her face. She reached out to take hold of his hand. They sat there for a long while, holding hands in silence. An occasional tear rolled down Stranth’s face as he grieved for the loss of something he never had, and would never know. There was an emptiness in his life that she would never be able to fill, no matter how hard she tried. Silent tears poured down Ava’s cheeks for her son’s loss. When the pain subsided, they walked arm-in-arm back to the cave. Sovran and Onar were roasting the day’s catch of rabbits. Sovran was telling Onar all about Menetoy, its towns, its rivers, its fields and orchards, and especially he spoke of its king. Onar listened with fascination. As Ava and Stranth began to listen too, the pain in their hearts turned to hope.

Sovran drew maps on the cave floor and helped them plot their course to the Great Wall. He drilled them on the locations of safe villages, and towns to avoid. He pointed out good water sources and hunting grounds, as well as areas where fowls and other predators clustered in their own havens. He cautioned them to stick close to the rugged terrain for cover, though there was a wide flatland they would eventually have to cross. He was a great counselor and teacher. Sovran promised to make as much of the journey with them as he could. However, there were many Seekers he had been commissioned by the king to aid and protect. He would have to leave them from time to time, but always promised to rejoin them, and ultimately guide them through the Wall.

Ava was quick to frequently interject that they should make their way to Middletown if they were ever separated. She had always taught them to go to the place they were last together. But if that was fruitless or impossible, Middletown would be the next place to look, and they should try with all their might to get there and wait for the others to arrive. Her brother, Madsen, would surely accommodate them for however long they might be in need. She hoped he would, anyway. She voiced no doubts about his hospitality. Of course, she did not intend to let her sons out of her sight, but any thing could happen on such a trek, and she always felt it best to know what to do before an unplanned calamity. Sovran suggested the letter M as a sign marked in obvious places if they were ever separated from each other and felt compelled to go to Middletown.

“That way, the others might at least discover your intentions.”

They agreed this would be a sign between them, and Ava admonished them to leave marks along the way, as well.

Plans and preparations were drawing to a close, when Ava realized one morning that she left the pendant her mother made for her at the cottage. She could not account for being so thoughtless at the time when she was packing to leave. That pendant meant the world to her! It was the only material possession she had of her mother’s; and she absolutely had to have it.

“It’s too dangerous to return for a trinket, Ava! The peacekeepers have surely been to your home and burned it to the ground by now. They’re probably having it watched, as well.”

“I must go, Sovran. It’s all that I have left of her.”

“She would not have you risk your life for a pendant!”

“But it would identify me as part of our clan. It may purchase us safe passage in some parts.”

She had a valid argument there he had to concur. Yet there were other means of securing safety. It was just too risky.

“I also drew a map in the sand to Middletown,” she admitted. “If peacekeepers are looking for us, they may have seen the map I drew and would likely go there. Shouldn’t we try to determine if we might be walking into a trap at Middletown?”

“You must have other family in other villages, Ava. We’ll have to amend our plans, but we can’t risk going back to the cottage for a pendant. Would you want your boys to take such a risk for some trinket you gave them?”

Of course she wouldn’t. But she wasn’t planning on taking her boys with her, and this wasn’t just a trinket to Ava. It was a piece of her mother to her, all that she had left of the only person, other than her own children, who had ever loved her completely and unconditionally. She felt she would be lost without it. Ava turned back to the cave with her heart sinking inside. She knew Sovran was right.

As the day wore on, Sovran and the boys continued in their exercises and training. Sovran was impressed with their skill level. He asked to examine the shields they made from the breastplates of the fowl they had killed. Heading back to the cave, they expected to find Ava inside busy about the fire, or mending clothes. The boys greatly anticipated the commencement of the journey in a day or two. However, their mother wasn’t there, and did not answer their calls.

“I’ll check the tunnels for her.” Stranth offered without any apprehension.

“She may be hunting roots and berries.” Sovran casually suggested, knowing full well that that was not the case. “I’ll see if I can’t lend her a hand.”

Outside the cave, Sovran dashed up the side of the ridge to see if both the horses were tied there. Anani was gone. He set off in a blaze toward the cottage. Racing behind her, he couldn’t decide if he was more angry or worried.

How impulsive! And reckless!

As he approached the edge of the tree line, he could see the smoke rising from the distant cottage, or what was left of it. He could also see Ava’s slow approach. He did not want her to reach the gate without him. He bolted down the slope in pursuit of her. When she heard his horse thundering towards her she turned around in terror, drawing her sword. Relieved to see his face, she stopped to wait.

“Do you never shrink from throwing yourself into harm’s way?” he nearly barked at her.

She made no answer, but turned Anani towards the gate. Her heart was fixed on retrieving her mother’s pendant.

“Dismount,” Sovran ordered, grabbing Anani’s reign.

Ava silently obeyed, but continued toward the gate on foot. Sovran paused to take a deep breath, then followed the stubborn woman on her quest. Coming up beside her he offered her Anani’s reign.

“We must not linger here, Ava.”

She nodded.

They could see from a distance that both the cottage and shed had been burned. There were a few smoldering embers, but the fire was apparently days old. Sovran was on high alert. He sensed an unknown presence, but could not pinpoint its location. Ava raced to the ashes and sifting through an area she judged to be the location of her bedside table, she found her clay jar, charred and ashen, but still intact. Removing the lid, she was grateful to find her mother’s pendant, a hand-carved wooden star still attached to its leather cord. Her name was engraved across a tree etched in the center of the star. She turned to exclaim her discovery to Sovran, but he was kneeling on the ground examining a find of his own. Coming up to him, she knelt down beside him.

“The map I drew to Middletown for the boys,” she confirmed.

“The question is, did they see it before they trampled it? Or did it escape their notice altogether? There are animal tracks leading away from the shed, goat and piglet. My guess is they let the animals out before they burned the barn. They walked off in a straight path as if tied up and following the person who brought them out. There are boot tracks along side.”

“Perhaps Farmer Harris got here before the peacekeepers.”

“Were you expecting him to call?”

“Not exactly. He and his wife come by with some regularity. It’s been a while since they’ve come, so they would be about due for a visit.”

Sovran seemed pensive, preoccupied.

“What are you thinking?”

“I’m wondering if we should check on your neighbors. How far away is their farm?”

“Not more than 5 miles.”

Ava did not perceive Stranth removing his dagger from his boot as she answered. They stood to an immediate halt. Three men on horseback glared at them from just outside the gate. One was pointing a crossbow at them. Each wore a sick, sinister grin.

Sovran hurled his dagger at the man with the crossbow and pushed Ava to the ground as one man charged them on horseback. Sovran was able to pull the peacekeeper to the ground and engage him in battle. The third man dismounted to retrieve the crossbow his slain companion dropped. Not having a good shot at Sovran as he crouched behind the stone wall, and assuming his friend would triumph, he turned his attention to Ava. She seemed to disappear. He reached across the wall to grasp the reign of his friend’s horse as it returned to him. To his surprise, Ava rolled over the top of the horse, leapt over the wall and cut off his arm just as he was raising the bow to take a shot at her. He pulled her to him with his other arm and gave her a stunning head-butt. Ava fell back as he fought to take her sword from her. Half dazed, she took a wild swing at the man just as Sovran came up behind to finish him.

“Not bad,” he commended. “We need to work on your thrust.”

“We needed another couple of horses. Should we take all three?”

Sounds of gurgling and gasping drew them to the man who had first held the crossbow. Sovran pulled his dagger out of the man’s chest and offered to relieve the man of his suffering in exchange for answers.

“Where are the others searching for us?”

“Follow the map,” the man labored to laugh.

“What did you do with the animals?” Ava asked.

The man turned to look at Ava with an evil sneer and said no more. As he began to spit and sputter blood, Sovran gave him a quick end.

“We should check on the Harrises.”

“Lead the way.”

When they arrived at the Harris farm they found the tiny house in tact. Yet, an eerie silence hung in the atmosphere like the echo of silent screams. There were not sounds coming from the house or the barn. Just a dead silence. They knocked. No one answered. Just as Ava was calling out to Mrs. Harris, Sovran instructed her to wait on the little porch while he went inside. The few moments that passed seemed like an age before a grave looking Sovran returned shaking his head. Ava moved like she would go in and see for herself, but Sovran prevented her.

“You do not want to see them, Ava.”

Impulsively, she moved like she would press past him. He restrained her.

“No. They made a slow and ugly death for them. You should not see it.”

“But they didn’t know anything!” she protested through tears.

“That’s irrelevant! This is sport for the peacekeepers,” he nearly spat.

Ava could feel hysteria rising within her, threatening to overtake her. Sovran could see her begin to shake uncontrollably and knew she might be going into shock. They needed to get back to the cave before it got too dark. She did not respond to him saying her name. She was unable to focus and dazed. Her breathing was beginning to be labored, and her knees where about to give way when he pulled her to himself and hugged her strong and close. He began to briskly rub her back and arms to circulate her blood. He kept calling her name.

“Ava, look at me,” he said several times, holding her head in his hands. “Look at me,” he demanded.

She tried to catch her breath. She tried to stop shaking. Desperately, she tried to make everything stop spinning out of control. Finally, she found Sovran’s eyes, close to her own, those crystal blue eyes that were like light themselves. She closed in on those eyes; eyes that were like windows to peace and strength. She saw wisdom and understanding there. There was knowledge. She let herself be pulled into those eyes, and she found that she was no longer shaking. She felt calm. Her breathing slowed, and she realized that everything else came to a stop. She allowed herself to bury her face in his chest and cry for just a few minutes. He held her close and let her cry. He consoled her with patience. She mustered all of her will to pull herself together.

“Forgive me,” she barely managed to say as she pulled away, “for being so weak.”

“You’re not weak, Ava,” he whispered close to her face. “You’re human. You’re a very strong woman with a tender heart, which is why you belong in the courts of my king; and why I will fight legions of peacekeepers to deliver you there.”

Her eyes said thank you, though she could not form the words. A shudder passed over her and a troubled expression returned, clouding her eyes. “I need to get back to my boys.”

Just as they mounted their horses another quake shook the ground beneath them. It was not a terribly violent or long tremor. Earthquakes were quite a common phenomena in the Shadow Lands. But one never gets used to earthquakes. The horses brayed and danced in nervous circles. Ava was nearly toppled to the ground, not being secure or experienced with riding. Sovran’s hand reached out to steady her and she managed to stay in the saddle with his help. He managed to calm the horses as well. When the stillness returned she pleaded with Anani to carry her back as fast as he could.

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