Chapter 21: Insidiae
There was now no reason to pass through Middletown and every reason to avoid it since a band of peacekeepers would surely be lurking there with the expectation of their arrival. Ava began to wonder about her brother Madsen and hoped for his safety. It had been many years since their last meeting. Stranth and Onar were very young and had no clear memory of him. He was always unpredictable. Still, the lack of communication led her to conclude he had not relocated. Surely he would have sent her word. She had always sent messages whenever Les had moved them ever closer to Dem. It was unsettling. Madsen filled her thoughts as they traveled down the Epangelia.
At long last, they spotted Anani and the other horses on the east bank of the Epangelia. They were exceedingly glad to leave the river behind and feel the solid ground beneath their feet. They were just north of a small village where they would try to slip in discreetly for supplies and perhaps news of peacekeeper activity.
Ava agreed to send Onar with Archer to scout the village because the sight of the four of them would draw too much notice. She couldn’t bear the thought of leaving both of the boys alone in the forest, and Archer felt more secure with Stranth staying behind to guard his mother and the horses. Ava gave her pendant to Onar, just in case there could be distant family in the tiny village, or perhaps those who might recognize the tree-star emblem.
“Keep it tucked away unless you see someone else with a similar pendant. Every tribe has its enemies, as well as friends,” she cautioned.
The canoe was the only item of value they had to barter. There were several merchants to choose from, however, and once landing at the dock, they carried it to the center of the trading district. Archer left Onar to guard the canoe while he visited each shop to view their wares. The village Insidiae was accustomed to strangers and passers-through. It was small but well developed, comprised of a tavern with rooms to let and a smithy, in addition to the several merchants. One of the merchant shops was merely an open-air market where a few local farmers sold their scrawny fruits and vegetables. From the looks of their produce, they were not very good farmers; but then the Terra Dombren soil was not adequate for the production of much more than weeds and tares.
A young girl left her mother’s stand and approached Onar while he sat on the backbone of the canoe. She was probably not more than ten, tall and gangly for a girl her age. Her features were pleasant, but she had a wild, ungroomed appearance that made Onar uncomfortable to look at her.
“I’m Sheghal,” she announced, hopping up on the canoe’s keel beside Onar. “What’s yer name? Where ya from?”
Onar glanced at her briefly, then looked away. Scanning the merchant’s square for Archer, he replied, “No where.”
“Zat yer name, or where yer from?”
Sheghal nodded and looked back at her mother’s vegetable stand. “Zat a pendant round yer neck? I got one too,” she said, pulling hers up close to Onar’s face so that he could get a look at it. He pushed it away from his face to see it more clearly. It was a wooden star shape, different from his, and it had a crescent carved into the center with the word “Islar” below it.
“Nice,” he said, turning his head away from her. How he wished she would go away!
“Gonna show me yers?”
Sheghal sat a moment longer without saying anything. Then she got up and walked back toward her mother’s booth. When he heard her footsteps shuffling away, he turned to watch her go. He looked past her to the market and saw two men who had apparently ridden up on horses now tied to a post on the far side of the market from where Onar sat. Instinctively, Onar slid off the backbone of the boat and squatted on the ground with the canoe at his back. He peeked back over the top of the canoe to get another look at the two men who were now haggling with Sheghal’s mother about some scrawny potatoes. Their backs were partially turned to him; but when it appeared they were turning in his direction, he quickly ducked down out of sight. He couldn’t be sure of their faces, which were shadowed by the canopy of the stand; but he suspected those were the very men that came home with his father several months back. He desperately wanted to take another look, but he didn’t dare.
Archer had a good view of Onar from his vantage point, though he was concerned that Onar could not see him. He casually inquired of the shopkeeper he’d been conversing with whether those two men across the way were from these parts. Apparently, they were known to pass through about once a year or so.
“As best as I kin recollect, I believe them men is boun’y hunters,” the merchant said.
“Hmm. I’ve often wondered if that’d be a profitable line of work,” Archer mused indifferently continuing to survey the two men in the distance. He lingered a moment or two more before he dispassionately made his selections. He hailed Onar to bring the canoe to the shop door. Onar obeyed, hoisting the canoe up to his shoulder, conveniently hiding his face from the view of anyone in the market who might observe him. When their business was concluded, Archer and Onar carried their supplies up through the village to avoid passing close to the market.
Onar waited until they had left the village to tell Archer about the two men in the market. He was relieved to hear that Archer had observed them as well.
“Do you think it’s just a coincidence that they’re here? Or could they have followed us?”
“Either way, they’re here.”
“What should we do?”
“Gather our things and go. I had hoped to travel across the plain, but it looks like we’ll need to stick to the forest for another day or two.”
“Whatever they were cooking at that tavern sure smelled good.”
Archer answered him with a shove.
They had been gone for a few short hours, but it seemed an eternity to Ava. Stranth used the occasion to get a nap. This discovery highly disappointed Archer, who admonished him to guard his mother in his absence.
“It was my suggestion,” Ava defended him. “He’ll take first watch tonight. I’m not incapable of watching myself.”
“You’re right. I apologize,” Archer said. “We spied a couple of acquaintances of yours, and I fear they’re not here by chance.”
Hearing Onar’s suspicions of who they might be brought Ava close to panic. “How could they have followed us on horseback?”
“Perhaps they followed Anani. The sight of three unmanned horses roaming together had to stir up some curiosity,” Stranth suggested.
“Anani traveled through the forest. He wouldn’t have been spotted by anyone on the main roads, which they must have taken to arrive here so quickly,” Archer countered.
“Could it just be coincidental? They looked like they had just arrived. Maybe they’re sweeping the area and just showed up here after going to Middletown first— or for all we know, they’re on their way there.”
“At this point, speculation is irrelevant,” Archer noted. “We need to be on our way. Mount up.”
Within minutes, they were trotting east through the woody groves on the outskirts of Insidiae. They picked their way along, coming upon a road headed north from the village. When they came forth from the hedges to cross it, they encountered an old woman riding a mule cart who appeared to suddenly emerge from a patch of shadowy fog. Standing behind the woman in the cart was the girl Onar had met earlier, Sheghal.
“Hey! No where!” she hollered upon seeing them.
All were startled by this salutation. The woman stopped her cart upon reaching them.
“I know you,” Sheghal said to Onar. “You’s in the square today.” Her tone was both friendly and accusatorial.
“Hello, there,” began Archer. “I don’t recall meeting you. Are you coming up from Insidiae?”
“Aye,” answered the old woman. “We run a market space there. Name’s Elah; this be Sheghal, my youngin’. She was tellin’ me of some tongue-tied boy she met up at the square. Said yer name was No Where! Zat so?” she asked, looking at Onar.
“These are my sons,” Ava interjected, “Stranth and Onar.”
“Nice lookin’ family ya got there, mister,” Elah said to Archer. “If’n yer jes passing through, yer welcome to put up at our farm up the way fer the night. It’s gettin’ late an’ a bad time o’ day to be out in the woods at this season.”
Sensing their hesitancy, she added, “I gots plenty o’ fresh hay in the loft; an’ maybe a hot meal an’ a hot soak in a tub would fix ya up from yer travels. Yer lady sure looks like she could use it,” she said, nodding at Ava. “I don’t charge fer hospitality. I does what I’d like done.”
She knew she was making them an offer they could hardly refuse. Indeed, they all felt compelled to accept her generous offer, if for no other reason than to be polite. But they each also had an uneasy feeling stirring in the pit of their stomachs, warning them to still be on guard. Hospitality was not a common characteristic anywhere in Terra Dombren.
They agreed, however, trying to appear more grateful than nervous and turned north up the road with Elah and her daughter. Sheghal was full of questions, most of which went unanswered. They had no desire to respond to her impertinence; fortunately, she didn’t usually wait long enough for a response before posing another inquiry.
Elah was an aged, haggish looking woman with a fairly large family at home. Her husband Bendt was just coming in from the fields with their twin sons as they turned onto her lane. They appeared to be a little younger than Onar, but older than Sheghal by at least a couple of years. Getting supper on the table were twin daughters about Stranth’s age, maybe a little older.
Following the introductions, Sheghal flatly informed them, “I’s a twin, too— but she died.”
The twins, Nell and Ina, did a fine job on the meal. Nell seemed to take genuine delight in playing hostess and made sure no one went away hungry. It seemed years since Ava and her sons had enjoyed such a feast. Full stomachs helped them relax. The travelers were content to listen to Bendt talk about his farm and the local people. Nell used the after-dinner conversation as an opportunity to slip away and draw a bath for Ava behind the barn where they kept a tub on a porch screened off by grass mats. She warmed the water with stones from the fire pit. Nell even added goat’s milk to the water to soften Ava’s skin. It felt like ages since Ava had experienced such a glorious comfort.
When the guests had all bathed and changed into fresh clothing, Nell gathered their soiled clothes to wash and hang over low coals to dry. Meanwhile, several torches were lit on the grounds surrounding the house. The twin boys, Dolus and Turpi, retrieved their instruments and began to play on the rickety front porch. Dolus played a fiddle and Turpi some manner of flute. Bendt whispered a suggestion to Archer that he ask his lady to dance; and he did, much to her surprise. Perhaps much more to his surprise, she accepted his outstretched hand. She managed to hold his gaze and return his smile for most of the first stanza, but it did not take long for her to perceive they were the center of attention, which caused her to look down as her cheeks filled with color. The dim light did not betray her embarrassment; it only accentuated her beauty. When she would have stopped, the whole company pleaded for them to continue. Archer gladly complied; but knowing the spectacle made Ava truly uncomfortable, he gave a quick nod to Onar, who stepped forth to cut in. Archer gallantly stepped aside, and Ava was both relieved and disappointed to change partners. Onar gave his mother a playful dip and then a twirl. The fun of exhibition was restored for Ava, and she was bold enough to engage Archer’s eyes while she danced with Onar and then Stranth. Archer gestured to Bendt that perhaps he should take a turn.
“Naw; the missus is the jealous type.”
“Aye, that I am,” she said and rose up to drag him off the porch to dance with her. Elah’s coarse, choppy maneuvers were a stark contrast to Ava’s naturally graceful movements.
Archer cut in on Stranth, who gladly stepped aside, but also immediately took the hand of Nell, who had just come upon the revelry after finishing her elected chores. The look on Ina’s face did not go unnoticed by Ava. She perceived an affront for Stranth’s having chosen Nell after Ina had been waiting for an opportunity, perhaps even hoping for an invitation. Ina had been present from the start, as she had no inclination for waiting on their guests. In that moment Ava was struck by how different the twin girls actually were. Nell wore an expression of complaisance on her face, while Ina’s countenance displayed only hauteur.
Ava also noticed something more. There seemed to be something of a spark between her older son and Nell. She had never witnessed this kind of behavior in her son before now. She was both amused and apprehensive but could not at all account for why she felt either. It dawned on her at that moment just how close to manhood her first born son actually was. Archer, as always, read her thoughts and decided to distract her with a series of twirls and dips. He succeeded.
They danced and played long into the evening. At one point, Onar began to observe Ina, who plainly felt left out of the merriment. He didn’t really know how to dance with anyone besides his mother and didn’t care yet if he ever learned, but he began to feel sorry for Ina, despite the sour expression on her face. He asked her if she would like to dance with him. She flatly refused. Witnessing this exchange, Nell began to feel sorry for her sister too and begged for a break. Archer and Ava followed their lead, joining the rest of the party seated around the large ramshackle portico.
When inquiries were made about where the travelers were headed, an awkward pause lingered in the air. They didn’t want to give away any useful information. After an exchange of glances, Ava finally said they were searching for some of her kin. She produced her pendant, having noticed the star-shaped pendant around Sheghal’s neck. Ava’s pendant was similar, yet markedly different from the farmer’s. Elah stepped forth to compare the two. She looked at Ava’s pendant and then at Ava with great scrutiny as if she were trying to trace a family resemblance in the lines of her face. She turned with a scoff to sit back down and said as she gazed off into the distant night, “Last I heered, yer folks is up ’roun Middletown.”
“That’s what we understood as well.”
Nothing more was said for some time. Elah nodded to Sheghal, who then walked down to where their lane met the north-bound road, grabbing a torch as she went. She lit a hanging lantern there on a post close to the road. Stranth and Archer both caught a glimpse of Nell’s face as Sheghal did this, and were curious about the look of fright that swept over her. She quickly checked herself and lowered her eyes to the ground.
“Time to be turnin’ in,” Elah said abruptly. Rising to go into the house, she called over her shoulder, “Everthin’ ya need’s in the barn.”
Ava witnessed the triumphant sneer Ina shot at Nell as she turned without a word into the house, followed by the twin boys, who both snickered a little under their breath as they went. The travelers were left feeling somewhat dismayed by this sudden change. Nell had yet to look up when her father slowly rose up out of his chair, shaking his head in a bemused manner. He stretched a little before he gently tapped Nell on her shoulder and said, “It’s late.”
“Comin’, Papa,” she quietly replied. She stood and slowly walked to the door with slumped shoulders. Just before going in, she paused, then straightened and turned to look back at her bewildered guests and said, “Ya’ll need yer rest. There’s blankets and fresh hay in the loft. Please make yerselves comfortable.” And then she was gone.
“That was strange,” Onar flatly stated.
Archer merely rose and nodded toward the barn. The others rose to follow. Stranth stayed below to take the first watch, while the rest of the family climbed up the ladder to the loft. Archer and Ava lay down in a line, end to end with their heads almost meeting in the middle. They both had a view of most of the lower section of the barn, the door in particular. They could hear Stranth quietly tending to the horses; and before long they could hear Onar humming softly beside his mother, a sure indicator that he was almost asleep. When the humming changed to deep breathing, Archer rolled over on his stomach and raised up on his elbows.
“Ava,” he whispered.
She rolled over to raise herself up on her elbows also.
I’ve got a bad feeling about our hosts. He placed his hands over hers.
Me, too. What should we do? Should we go ahead and leave now?
I sense we can risk a couple of hours’ rest. I’m going down to the road to extinguish the lantern. I suspect that it’s some sort of signal. He pulled a piece of straw or two out of her hair and ran his hand along the edge of her face. If anything should ever happen to me . . .
Don’t say things like that . . .
I have to. You need to know this. If anything should happen to me along the way, do not despair. Press on to the east until you come to the Wall. Do not hesitate! Go through it; and I promise I will be there to meet you at the city gates, no matter what happens on this side! I will be waiting there for you. Promise me you’ll meet me there.
Archereus, I can’t do this without you—
Yes! Yes, you can! And if it comes to that, I’ve arranged for another guide to come to you. Only promise me you won’t give up!
Ava didn’t even want to let her mind go there. She had come to rely on Archer and love him in a way that she didn’t ever know she could love someone. She drew her face up close to his and pressed her lips to his. The kiss ignited a passion in each of them that was both fiery and pure.
“I promise,” she whispered. “I won’t give up.”
Get some sleep. He waited until she rolled back over on her back, then gently kissed her forehead before stepping down the ladder to the lower level. He informed Stranth of his suspicion and his plan.
Stranth kept a watch on the house, while Archer sprinted down to the lamp post and extinguished the light.
“Should we mount up now?” Stranth asked him when he returned.
“We’ll wait until after the first watch. Will you be all right?”
“I’ll make it. I had a good nap earlier.”
Archer nodded, amused, then climbed back up the ladder. Ava was still awake when he reached her, though he could see her eyes were heavy. She held out her hand to him; he took it in his hand and pressed his lips to her fingers. He pressed her hand to his cheek, then kissed her open palm. Returning her hand to her, he said, “Get some sleep. We leave after the first watch.”
It was getting close to that time when Stranth saw the latch of the barn door going up and heard a muffled rattling. He was up with his sword drawn before the visitor could open the door. She stepped in. Looking shaken and scared, she told Stranth they must be off immediately. She also said she wanted to go with them.