Ihloden hoisted the last of the bundles of cloth onto the back of the wagon. The sturdy wheels of the wagon groaned in protest in the cold early morning air. His mother gazed a trifle fearfully at their caravan. Ihloden saw her gaze and went over to her, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“It will hold mother,” he said, “It always does.”
“I know,” his mother replied and patted his hand. She then called out to his sister a Sheila came out wearing a beautiful emerald green dress. Ihloden whistled loudly. Shila blushed.
“Oh shut up,” she said as she strode past him.
“Yes, my lady,” he said with an exaggerated bow. Shila tossed her hair and sat in the wagon seat. Ihloden grinned and jumped into the back with the bundles of clothes and they set off.
Ihloden waved to the various ones that he knew as they passed through Molvn and called out insults to the young men who called to his sister. Shila kept her head in front gracefully and Ihloden gazed at her fondly; a better sister a boy could not ask for. A pang of guilt hit him suddenly and he hung his head. It had been three weeks since the incident in the forest. It had been torture to hide such an important discovery from his family. It had kept him miserable for days. And of course, he had tried to drown his misery in the ale. He snorted softly to himself; like that tactic every worked. He knew he was a drunkard; but he could not help it. And with the trees yapping in his head about the dangers of ale, it just made him want to go and sit under a tankard and let the whole thing flow into his mouth.
The dust billowed up from the path and he pulled his jersey over his nose. He looked forward and saw the Krogas looming up in the distance. The sight of the mountain range made him uneasy. ‘Suppose those Karvaahs were still in there?’ the thought made him feel sick.
“They are not,” the trees whispered.
“Oh yeah, how do you know?” he thought back. The silence of the trees made him feel stupid. It was well past sundown when they reached the gentle sloping base of Mrata; which was the peak where the FairRoad Pass began. Shila and his mother set up camp while he went to hobble the horses. He patted their great necks and they nuzzled against him.
“Keep safe,” he whispered to them, “There are strange things in the forest.” The great horses looked at him straight in the eye and nodded. Ihloden looked at them in astonishment. They had understood him, he was sure of it. He opened his mouth to ask a question when his mother called. He shook his head and went to her.
They woke early in the morning and made breakfast. Ihloden hitched the horses back to the wagon and gave them a suspicious look. But they paid him no attention. ‘I must have imagined it’ he thought and got back in the wagon. Ihloden sighed as they set off. They travelled around the base of Mrata for a while and then the FairRoad Pass yawned before them. This was one of the five paths that led to Overed; the mountain city of the Krogas. The Pass ran steeply up and disappeared into the rocks. Ihloden slipped off the wagon as he usually did each time they made this trip and strode to the front to guide the horses up the Pass. As he took hold of the reins and began to lead them up the slope, the horses pulled back.
“Oh come on, you know I am not going to let anything happen to you,” he said soothingly. The horses looked at him with a look that was a mixture of fear and trust. Ihloden felt a tingle run down his spine. He was sure this time that they understood him. He swallowed hard as the horses nodded to him and set their faces to the path. This was something he had to talk to the trees about.
There were only rocks and faint wheel trails to see. The road was hard and dry so the dust did not billow up; Ihloden was glad for that. He would have been cleaning dust out of his ears like the last time. He smiled a grim smile at the memory. The horses tossed their heads. He placed a hand on their necks.
“Easy,” he said, “I know it’s dreary but we will be at the first of the Way Stations by nightfall if we don’t stop.”
He looked back at the wagon. His mother was sitting with the reins held loosely in her hands, but her eyes were ever on the road darting this way and that, making sure that the wagon stayed true to the middle of the road. Shila sat with her hands in her lap. Her hair was blowing slightly in the breeze. She looked so beautiful that Ihloden caught his breath. He turned away quickly. They rounded a corner and Ihloden gave a cry and pulled on the reins sharply. His mother and sister jerked forward.
“What is it Ihloden?” Shila called. Ihloden stood shaking his head. The road was blackened and there were huge holes in the pathway. Usually one side of the road hugged the tall walls of the Mrata and the other side ran along a gentle slope that flowed into a deep valley which linked the Mrata with the Sihgli Mountain. However that gentle slope was now gone and replaced with a steep drop down; almost like a ragged cliff. The horses snorted and Ihloden sighed.
“I think we are going to have a rough time getting to Overed,” he called back.
“But can you get us through?” his mother called. Her voice was a little desperate. This was the time that she made enough money to get them through winter.
Ihloden set his jaw, “Yes, I’ll get us through. But I shall need your help.” He turned to the horses and whispered softly to them, “You have to help me too. This is for your benefit too.”
The horses neighed and tossed their board heads; he allowed himself a tense smile. He gripped the reins harder and they set down the road. At first the holes that they met were shallow but wide. They made it through without much difficulty. But as they went on the holes grew into pits and the going was harder despite the fact that the sides had been worn down into steep but smooth slopes. Ihloden gave thanks that the WayStation Masters had at least tended somewhat to the road this far away from the WayStation.
As the sun began to pass overhead, the slope finally curved away to the left and the slope became almost straight. Ihloden sighed in relief; his legs were beginning to feel sore a bit after the constant up and down of the pits. For some reason the inside of the pits where the rock was black was very hot, hotter than what would be normal. The heat scorched his skin through his clothes and boots, whenever he stepped on that patch of black earth.
“Alright, we’ve reached the Gentle-Way of the Pass, so this will make it much easier for us,” Ihloden called back to his mother and Shila, “If anyone wants to stretch their legs, now would be a good time.”
His mother and Shila nodded and Shila slipped down and came to walk beside him. The road now was normal. She nodded to him and rested her hand on his shoulder briefly and flashed him a smile. Warmth and strength coursed through him at her gesture of comfort.
“Thank Retgonea we are past those pits,” she said sighing and looking ahead.
“Indeed,” Ihloden said following her gaze, “I hope there are no more surprises up the road and we will reach Nefar by nightfall.”
“So do I brother,” Shila said then she reached and tugged the reins from his hand, “Now go and rest your legs, I will walk for a bit.” Ihloden let the reins go, flashed her a smile and dropped back, pulling himself up onto the caravan driver seat beside his mother. His mother ruffled his hair with one hand as he slouched beside her and propped his legs up on the front board.
Despite his comfortable lounge unpleasant thoughts ran though his mind; could this be the work of bandits, rebels or maybe a dragon? It had been so long since a Dragon had been seen in Molvn. He swallowed hard and tried to forget the horrible stories about the things that dragons did or worst, their Riders. But soon the task of getting the wagon through the holes took over his thoughts. He huffed and puffed and pushed and pulled and nearly broke his shoulders off but he got them through in the end. His skin felt well and truly cooked. He then took back his position at the head of the wagon and the set off again. Ihloden sighed; they had lost much time in getting through that road. That meant another night before they reached Overed.
They set up camp far into the night. And Ihloden felt as though he had just closed his eyes and his mother shook him awake. He woke up in a very bad mood. The day went along slowly. His legs and back was aching and his head was swimming in his head. Then as they rounded the last set of high rocks; the great mountain city burst into view. There was something in the high battlements and the great Central Spire that rose high over the massive walls that sent all the strength that he had lost back into him. He straightened up and the pain left him. He took a deep breath and walked the horses the last few steps to the gates. A shadow fell over them from the stone platforms that jutted off the walls and were held up by stone griffins. Ihloden looked up to see the great birds a gasped. The griffin’s faces were scratched off and huge claw marks disfigured the stone. Ihloden bent his head to hide the tears in his eyes. Lyficen had truly claimed this City. The Great Gates were open and steady streams of people were flowing out the gate. Ihloden pushed his way through the onslaught of people and into the City.
Suddenly noise filled the air and a frown came over Ihloden’s face. In Overed he could not hear the voices of the trees. The only thing was the deep rumbling of the earth at the back of his head. It was a small comfort, but it was better than none. Colourful tents dotted the streets and various people in magnificent hues of cloth strode about the spotless streets. Ihloden guided the wagon down the cream stone streets and settled them in a convenient place against the walls of the city. His mother and sister leapt off and began to transform the wagon into a stall. Ihloden unloaded the parcels of cloth and helped set up the tent and change room. He then slipped the large feather out of a parcel and into a hidden pocket in his sleeve. He smiled to himself, remember the long hours, pricked fingers and silent curses that went into making that pocket. Then he took the horses and set off to find a stable that was not yet filled. He headed down the massive pathways that rounded the entire city. Ihloden looked up at the battlements of the walls. He ginned again, remembering how he had scaled the wall pat the tower guards and had seen Overed from the top. It was huge and more magnificent than anything he could have imagined. The outer road was a huge circle and from it the smaller roads led into the Spire walls. And beyond the Spire walls was a huge fresg green lawn with many trees aand the Tall Spire Castle of the King of Overed. Ihloden felt the same exhilaration he felt when he had actually seen it and the humor of running away from the tower guards who were bad runners due to the their armour. Suddenly a young man appeared in front of him. The horses reared up and Ihloden tried to step back, but it was too late. He ploughed into the young man. The fellow stumbled back and sat with a bumb on the ground. Ihloden calmed the horses and reached out a hand to the young man. With a snort of disgust the man hit his hand away, and leapt up. His face was cortorted with rage.
“Watch where you are going next time peasant!” he spat the words at Ihloden.
Ihloden looked at him in astonishment, “Peasant?” he said, “I am no peasant!”
The young man put on a face of mock surprise. “Oh really?” he asked in a sarcastic tone, “What are you then? An official?”
Ihloden felt confused, “No,” he replied.
The young man smiled a nasty grin, “Oh then you must be a guard, a stable boy at the palace, or some aristocrat?” yes?” Ihloden frowned, this boy was making fun of him.
“No,” he replied again, feeling stupid.
“Then there remains only one conclusion,” the young man said his face turning serious and he looked extremely evil, “you are nothing but a smelly no good, swine bred, son of a hag and are worth nothing to this land. You are a failure of mankind and I assure you that nothing you do will ever benefit this land. Ever!”
Ihloden wanted to open his mouth and say something, but the fire that started in his chest bound his tongue. He clenched his fist around the reins tightly and felt comforted to hear the leather groan in protest. The young man waited for a while but when Ihloden said nothing, he laughed. “Just as I thought,” he said, “Peasants have no wit!”
Ihloden clenched his jaw. The young man snorted and walked away. Ihloden sighed and loosened the grip on the reins. The horses nudged his shoulder. He smiled and patted their noses but his heart was heavy. He started walking, but the streets seemed clouded with grey mist and the blue skies had turned to grey. He took a deep breath and retched. His hand grasped his nose and he looked around in disgust. He had reached the stable parts of the city. Here the cream stone of the streets were almost black with horse waste and food scraps. Ihloden put his hand down and tried to not breathe too deeply. He moved carefully down the refuse coated streets. The way the place around the public stables was kept was disgraceful. The soldiers were in Lyficen’s pay. They did not care about what happened to the well fare of their own people. Rage blocked out the smell for a few moments. It was betrayal to forget one’s birthplace.
Then as Ihloden’s anger went away, the smell returned with full force. It took all his courage to keep from running to a wall and emptying his gut. He strode up to a stable and brief chat with the stable boy, a dirty, raggedly dressed young man. The boy tookt he horses and the gold from Ihloden’s hand and disappeared into the stables. Ihloden walked away; glad to escape the foulness of the place. He decided to take the long way back to their stall. He hadn’t seen Overed in a very long time. With a light heart he set off. The streets were the same as he remembered, but with a few more holes. The stones were more discolored as well. Ihloden frowned, didn’t the King of Overed care about how his castle was faring? Surely he walks or takes a look outside of the Spire’s walls to see his kingdom? The heaviness of his heart returned. He looked around more carefully as he strolled the streets. And suddenly he felt the power of the Land roll over him. His vision seemed to grow brighter and the world exploded into an array of colours. But more so the emotions. He felt things that he never felt before. The sadness of the air that blew in Overed, the gloom of the very stones that lay in its walls. He stopped and raised his eyes to the Spire and richness of its red walls were gone. It stood as a dying bleached memoir of a glory past. Ihloden turned slowly around. The faces of the people were also sad. Beneath their smiles and laughs he caught the undercurrent of emotion, a depression, a shame of defeat, the agony and wounded pride of a people that had lost the right to their own freedom. It was overbearing. Ihloden chocked down a sob, and began to cough.
That snapped him out of the trance and he shook his head. Everything was back to normal. He swallowed hard and then a fright took him and he raced back to the stall. When he got there it was evening and his mother ans sister were just sending some customers off.
“Ihloden,” his mother called and he waved. “Take your sister to the baths,” she said. Ihloden nodded. He came and took the bags that Shila was holding out to him and they set off. The baths of Overed were crowded and they had to wait for a while. Finally Shila got in and Ihloden stood outside. It was like an eternity before she came out and handed him her bag
“Were you making the water in there?” he said her and received a light slap on the cheek.
“Owww,” he mocked pain, “what was that for?”
“I am cranky,” she replied, “and you were there for me to take out my frustration.”
“Glad to be of service,” Ihloden said rubbing his cheek, “Now I am going to bathe.”
“Where?” Shila asked.
“The Public Bath,” he said with a grin.
“You are so disgusting,” Shila snorted and grabbed her bag from him. Ihloden grinned wider and set off.