Dream of Embers Book 1

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Exile

Chapter 7

Exile

Shala woke at noon the following day, and her heart sank, her hard straw bed and a few quiet minutes reminding her of the horrors they had endured. They were in some valley on the other side of the Black Mountains and already Attoras felt so very far away. At least she had slept deeply, the marvel of the Druid’s magic having given her a good night’s rest. She felt much renewed, even if she was hungry again, a hollow spot forming on her stomach. She found the shed empty and she exited, swinging open the barn-like door, and was exposed to the onslaught of a very sunny day.

Down below against the river she saw Edran, sitting alone with his fishing rod, and whistling a tune as old as time itself. There was no sign of the others. Shala’s feet ruffled through the long grass and Edran jumped up at the sound of it. Again he swept off his straw hat from his head, and bowed deeply. ‘G’morning Your Highness! I trust you slept well?’ he asked.

‘Yes I did. I have to thank you for your refuge, Miller. I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if not for all the help I have had. If only there was some way to compensate you. I fear I have no money on me as I stand here.’

Edran shook his head. ‘No payment needed Your Highness, it’s enough for me to know that I could serve the crown, and have provided our very own Queen-to-be a meal and a bed. It’s enough for me,’ he repeated, nodding.

Queen-to-be,’ Shala sighed, ‘I’m afraid that seems very unlikely now. If only I had men like you on the Council I would never have been dethroned,’ said Shala to Edran.

The man Edran blushed deeply, ‘Afraid I’m not smart enough to be on any Council Your Highness, can’t even rightly read!’

‘I had many men in my service too clever for their own good. Kingdoms thrive on loyalty and respect, not on the intellect of sinister minds.’

‘You do me too much honour Lady, I would not know what to say,’ said Edran.

Shala smiled. ‘Then say nothing. Where have my companions gone?’

‘Kaell scouts the road, he makes sure your way to the stables is clear, while Metrus hunts so that we may sup. And Bhask wanders as he always does. They should all return soon.’

‘I’ve noticed Bhask’s skin is as bronze as a man who spent time wandering deserts. And his dialect is profoundly neutral, like diplomats who travel the world. Why is it he wanders so?’

Edran shrugged. ‘Heard he’s cursed to wander, though I do not mean to speak out of place, I do not know if there is any truth in it.’

Shala realized she might’ve stumbled onto somewhat awkward subject matter.

‘Have you caught anything yet?’ she asked nudging her head at the river.

‘Not yet Highness, but its due time. If you’ll excuse me I’ll get back at it, in case the Master Druid fails at his hunt, although I highly doubt that he will.’

‘Go ahead,’ Shala said smilingly.

Shala sat on the sloping bank next to Edran, and he seemed uncomfortable for awhile, as though he felt pressured to entertain the Princess.

She rather turned her attention to her surroundings, as best to show Edran she was more than comfortable in the silence. She would wait for Bhask or Kaell or Metrus, and only then return her thoughts to what will come next. For the moment she was content listening to the river, and revelled in the idea of maybe finding the privacy later on to wash the goblin blood from her. But the river itself became a distraction. She followed it with her eyes as it wound back to the mountain, where Attoras sat on the other side. Watching the mountain sternly she somehow found no smoke rising beyond the peak where she imagined Attoras would be. Are we too far to see it?

‘You slept two nights and a day Princess. The fires subsided sometime yesterday. Master Bhask watched them for a long time. Although he might’ve been more concerned about potential pursuers coming from the mountain,’ said Edran intuitively.

Shala snapped her head toward Edran. ‘I slept that long?’ she asked in surprise.

‘You sure did Highness. You were tired, Bhask said, and the Druid said his magic would let you sleep as long as you need.’

Shala nodded. Her gratitude for the chance to rest notwithstanding, she felt she had lost out on precious time. She had no idea on how, but she would need to return to Attoras in some way to clear her name. Having not done so immediately raised certain anxieties and she instantaneously started considering things she thought she could set aside for at least awhile.

‘Did you say Kaell is clearing the road to the stables?’ asked Shala.

‘Yes Highness, the Arwark stables are west of here. There you’ll take horses from one of Master Bhask’s contacts for your road ahead.’

‘Road ahead? I didn’t even know we intended to go anywhere,’ said Shala in uncertainty.

’Master Bhask mentioned something this morning; said you still have to decide exactly where you’re going. But he did say Attoras isn’t safe anymore, that you’ll need to flee the continent,’ recited Edran.

Shala was shocked. She had not expected to simply waltz around the mountain range and into Attoras again, but she had certainly not considered the need to flee any further than they already had. Who would come look for them here? Simple-minded goblins? But she had second thoughts on that. There was nothing simple-minded about the goblins of last night, they looked to be a fighting force, maybe not organized, but effective and deadly all the same. And then of course there were the wraith-kind and Shala wasn’t sure it was possible to escape them even to the ends of the earth if they truly decided to hunt a person.

It became abundantly clear to Shala that she could indeed not stay here. In the whole world there was only one place she wanted to go and only place where she would find proper refuge, wherefrom the wraith-kind and any other foul creature would be repelled. Allandiel; I want to go to the Crimson City, she thought by herself.

II

Kaell was first to return, Shala barely noticing him above the excitement of Edran having caught another fish. The miller had come upon a passing by school of steelheads, and always one of them was baited by the too-good-to-be-true display of food. Edran kept the caught ones in a net pinned down in shallow water. Having seen them up close for the first time in her life, Shala considered them rather beautiful in their ugliness.

When she saw Kaell again she found herself a bit surprised. All of last night, or rather the night before that, Shala reminded herself, had not been enough to accustom her to this stranger he’d become. For some reason she’d thought he might have woken to be Kaell the cook again.

It was a fabrication, he had said. The disciples of Evrelyn and those who commanded the wrath of dawn in Allandiel were taught revealing spells, designed to take away illusions spun by other magical agencies, most often the forces of darkness. There was a temptation for Shala to bring such a spell over Kaell, to see if there was illusion at play here. She turned away from Edran awhile to speak to him.

He in turn did not approach her like Kaell the cook would have and make small talk. The familiarity was gone, in fact, he ignored her presence wholesomely, except for a curt, ‘good morning, Highness,’ as he passed, busying himself inside the mill afterwards. Shala did not know what to make of it. The Kaell she knew seemed as good as dead in the rampage of the assault.

Unable to bear such a thought she stood up, excusing herself from Edran’s side and followed Kaell into the mill. She would see just how extensive the change over him had become.

She found him hastily preparing a pot on a fire, for some meal or another and the sight of it alone was enough to hearten Shala. There must be something left of Kaell the cook in this man.

‘Will you prepare our meal then?’ asked Shala hopefully.

Kaell turned in surprise, his face always reverting back to a serious mask. ‘Yes Highness, and I’ll wager I’ll do a shade better job at it than Edran, bless him. Without his kindness we would have spent the night in a cold camp.’

‘So you have lost nothing of your acuity?’

‘I’m still Kaell of old, Your Highness,’ he said.

’But you have changed,’ insisted Shala before she could stop herself.

‘No Highness, it is like I’ve said, I am only back to what I was before. Anything in-between was a ways of protecting you.’

Shala was despondent. She found little of what she was looking for. ‘What would have happened to the castle?’ she asked, as Kaell continued to light a fire on the stack of wood.

‘The guard will surely have won it Highness. With the intervention of myself, Bhask and Metrus, Attoras would not have sustained severe casualties. But then I must admit, the goblins never had a hope of defeating the entire guard and holding the castle.’

‘What was it all for then?’ asked Shala.

Kaell stood up, leaving the tiny flame that seemed alright on its own by now. Shala had never felt overshadowed by Kaell, but as he stood before her she looked up at a hardened man in all ways, inspiring a subtle fear that Kaell the cook could never do.

‘It was all for you...’ he said. ‘The goblins were, in one way or another, a force arranged with purpose. Of that we have no doubt. When the killing began the Wraith-kind could surface - where death flows freely, there they are sure to emerge. There was no hope of conquering the castle, only killing its ruler.’

‘So that someone like Patrick may take over,’ said Shala, downcast.

‘Yes, failing that you died in the assault, and escaped as you did, they now would persecute you and make you an enemy of Your Highness’s own kingdom, calling you a witch-queen for all the atrocities you engineered.’

‘Me having sealed my father in stasis, and finding me in that accursed room with all the ritual killings... What kind of mind could have turned everything against me?’

’That of Swarztial and nothing less. He is a menacing schemer, and even your father-king feared him.

‘My father feared no one!’ said Shala.

‘No disrespect intended Highness. He did not fear for himself, but he feared for the kingdom and above all else he feared for you. It is why he wanted to make the Wolves resurgent, if only partially so, and why he assigned me to be Kaell the cook, and keep a close watch on you.’

‘It seemed my father had a small victory in the end, as I’m still alive at least.’

‘And we’ll keep you that way Highness. And what’s more, we’ll not be content to let the Kingdom slip into the hands of Swarztial so easily.’

Shala nodded with a slight smile, showing she found some solace in that. ‘Do you have any notion of where Master Bhask might lead us?’

‘Not yet, and I’m not sure he is certain either. Our contingencies were aimed toward making a smooth escape, but the destination was to remain flexible, for reasons you can well imagine, Your Highness.’

The Princess nodded. ‘We’ll have a talk then I’m sure. I hate to sound weak, but I am tired again. Is it Metrus’s doing?’

‘Maybe Highness, but know that back there in the Dragonwell, when you fought off the wraiths - that was the first time anyone of your lineage performed Stallich alone. You did it all on your own.’

‘I had almost forgotten about that. It was all I could do, there was no other way of defending an area that big,’ said Shala.

‘And it was all Master Bhask could talk about yesterday. He spoke with some reverence about your talent,’ encouraged Kaell, but a smile never touched his face.

Somehow that did not console Shala much, even if it did explain her fatigue.

Edran then knocked cautiously at the entrance as though scared of intruding, and entered the mill. He had a select few of the steelheads he had caught in the net. ‘Master Wolf, if it pleases you, something for the pot if you’d have them,’ offered Edran.

‘Better than anything Metrus will bring. I’ve had enough hare to last me a lifetime. This will do just fine. And you don’t have to call me Master. Leave that title for Bhask.’

Shala found that Kaell didn’t enjoy the rapport Bhask and Edran seemed to share. The three of them stood silently for a moment.

‘You have a knife on you Miller? Clean and sharp if you can spare such. The meat needs to be cut precisely.’ Edran nodded and was away.

Kaell turned to the Princess. ‘Highness, the food will take awhile, feel free to rest up if you wish. You will need all your strength when we leave here.’

Shala was happy to oblige, returning to the little room with the straw bed, and yet she realized Kaell had dismissed both her and Edran from his company rather deftly.

Metrus arrived with a pair of hare on his heels, alive still, but ready for the slaughter, a contingency planned for if Edran were unsuccessful in catching some fish. Seeing that they weren’t necessary the Druid released the two creatures from his spell and they were off into the wild again with a leap and a bound. They all ate in silence on the steelhead later that afternoon. Stew again, but much better than what Edran had cooked up the other night.

Bhask waited until everyone was done and said, ’best be prepared when we set out by morning. Edran, if you’d be so kind, I think it is time for us to retrieve our things. At this Kaell’s face lit up, but only just. Shala would have missed it if she hadn’t been looking right at him.

‘Of course Master Wolf,’ said Edran, first offering to take everyone’s bowls away before he led them outside again. Shala was uncertain whether she should follow, rather waiting behind until Bhask peeked in by the barn door again.

‘Come along Princess, there’ll be things for you as well.’

Shala hurried to keep up, the lot of them marching through the grass to the secondary building, or rather the main building of the mill.

Before Shala could know it they bunched up in the shed where the mechanical gears were kept .The room was dedicated to their enterprise only and she knew not what business they had here.

‘Did they raid the place?’ asked Bhask.

‘Many times over Master Bhask,’ answered Edran.

‘Suspicious schemers,’ said Bhask with disgust.

‘But suspicious for a reason, eh?’ said Edran.

‘Yes, I suppose,’ said Bhask, finding reason to be amused. ‘Although I’m sure they would never have guessed that they need fear the Wolves again.’

‘No indeed, you have some point to make Master Bhask, these politicians and rioters of men are arrogant, and forget all too quickly how deadly the Savage Art weaves.’

’Yes, and I would love to take a blade to every fat soft-bellied man who speaks ill-will, but I know beforehand our path will be a quiet one and our mission best served by being quiet. I’ll not have the whole world know of us, even if they should rightly fear us.’

‘Wait! What would they hunt here for? Were there men here while I slept?’ asked Shala.

‘No Your Highness. We speak of times long before we arrived, and so you are not what they were after.’

‘What then?’ asked Shala.

‘Conspirators, or anything that links a man to said conspirators. Looking for caches of weapons or instruments of destruction. They don’t want them in the hands of common men.’

‘They anticipated you?’ suggested Shala.

’They anticipated something and unfortunately they are well revised with Edran’s past, helping the older Wolves with escape and supplies as he often did.’

‘They didn’t hurt you did they?’ asked Shala worriedly.

‘No, never Highness, they don’t think enough of me to consider me worthy of much attention. And that’s their mistake!’ said Edran with a smile.

‘Would you?’ gestured Bhask at the machine.

‘Of course,’ said Edran, already wrapping his hands on a crank operating the apparatus, and with a tug he disengaged the main shaft propelled by the wheel outside. The wheel in the water still turned and groaned, but all the other devices came to a halt.

‘They of course never expected to look where you suggested,’ said Edran happily, ‘they were so damned sure they’d caught me when they found that cellar at the forest edge – nothing but rats and empty wine flasks down there!’

Bhask strode forward, groping through the gears and shafts established high and low, looking like a man forcing his way through a jungle.

Shala could see those gears tearing a man apart should they move like they were meant to. No wonder the men who came to raid on Edran didn’t look here.

Bhask came to the other end of the room and then trekked back, making a mission of it to stomp his feet on the floor, until he hit that hollow spot.

He hunched over and with his little finger pried open the trap door, lifting a good deal of the wooden floor section away.

From the chamber underneath he lifted a giant trunk, his hands clasped on handles on each end. Suddenly Shala understood why he specifically had to retrieve it; the thing was big and by the look of it, filled to its capacity. With some careful angling Bhask marched back with it, and he set it down as gently as he would a child.

‘At last!’ Eagerly, Kaell flipped open the locks, and lifted the lid. Shala could make little sense of all the contents at first, especially with Kaell rummaging through the tightly packed supplies looking for his own devices, which were odd things to Shala’s eyes.

He gathered all his things in a pack and without a further word Kaell walked off with it, leaving their company, and rushed straight out the door, surprising Shala. Bhask attended to the rest of the contents, checking to his satisfaction that they were well supplied and equipped. There were bags and packs, each with water skins and pots and foods that preserved well. Bhask took a bundle of cloth and handed it to the Princess. ‘This is for Your Highness, we anticipated a change of clothes for you, they are a very common cut, but they will fit you just fine if my eyes are to be trusted.’

‘Did you truly believe all along it would come to me running scared across the country?’ asked Shala, sounding more cynical than she intended.

‘No Highness, for both your father and yourself this would have been the worst play of events. We had Kaell in the castle to possibly stop a betrayal like the other night, but it seems little will avail against Swarztial’s malice.’

‘I will not falter to him!’

‘Not that I expect you to my Lady, only now we have to ensure your safety and in the same stride, best plan to return you to the throne.’

‘What if Patrick takes the throne?’

‘Those loyal to you will stall proceedings, I’m certain, but we’ll make haste either way. Till then, its best you carry this on your person,’ said Bhask handing her another object wrapped in cloth.

‘A poniard Highness,’ said Bhask as Shala let fall the cloth from the knife almost as long as a short sword, the Princess already pulling it from its sheath.

‘Short and sharp, don’t bother swinging it around - an underarm stroke rather, straight out if anything attacks you,’ he said demonstrating with one arm punching below the other. ‘Pray you never use it, but it may protect you where the light within the waters can’t. Unfortunately not all enemies are of pure darkness. Most are of flesh and bone.’

Shala stroked the tapered length of the blade, avoiding the needle sharp point. ‘Edran said that you have a plan for us to leave the continent.’

Bhask thoughtfully scratched his stubble on his chin. ’Ah, and there’s my trophy,’ said Bhask as Metrus uncovered it at the other side of the trunk. Stooping Bhask swept up a smoking pipe and a large flat packet that had a pleasant earthy smell to it. ‘How I’ve longed for my pipe. Highness let’s talk outside. My mind is often sharper after a smoke.’

Outside he took a knife and flint and struck sparks, of which enough caught the weed in the pipe. With some long forgotten satisfaction Bhask puffed rhythmically and then pulled deeply, blowing clouds of sweet smoke skywards. It had the scent of berries.

‘Well?’ asked Shala, wondering if Bhask had forgotten her question.

’You see my Lady, Metrus tells me of goblin movements all across the north. The wraith-kind now seem welcome here, as they were never before, and Swarztial will have alerted all of our “rogue presence.” I would say, leave the continent, if only to regroup.’ Bhask did not see satisfaction on the Princess’s face. ‘But I take it you have a plan as well, Your Grace?’

‘Yes. I don’t sorely think fleeing that far is a bad idea, but I believe my case must be taken to the Crimson City, before the Grandmaster there, and before His Benevolence.’

Bhask bit his lip. ‘A good plan Highness, but you must know the Wolves are not welcome in Allandiel.’

‘I know, but by the look of this dress you laid out for me I would assume we stay covert anyhow, I would have us go to Allandiel quietly, and you will only be my loyal escort, no one needs to know better. I will be a commoner or better yet, a minor noble if it’s a more convincing disguise.’

This made Bhask thoughtful again. ‘It is a bit further than I intended to travel, but I must admit, this plan of escape was firstly set in place for a haunted pilgrim wishing to travel as far as Nem Nemuris, to answer the Dream. The Crimson City is but half of that travel, so I would certainly not complain.’

Shala suddenly blinked, struck by a thought. ‘That door we opened in the Dragonwell, it had the horn on it...’

‘Yes Highness, like I said, your father put it in place, knowing Evrelyn was the last eligible House, knowing enemies might target Evrelyn for exactly their responsibility to the tradition. The door was made to aid a speedy journey to Nem Nemuris.’

‘Is that why you all came for me? I had thought differently, but if it is something that I must do then-’

‘No!’ said Bhask. ‘Not in any way Highness. The Wolves were established to protect you as a light-bearer, and nothing else. We have no expectation of you other than your conduct being noble. To us, it is all the same if you take to the Dream or take to the throne.’

‘My father left a note you know, one that still rings in my mind. He made it sound as though I must complete the Dream. He said Evrelyn would come to an end!’ said Shala.

‘And yet he asked himself to be sealed in his own body afterwards?’ said Bhask.

Shala was taken aback for a second. ‘I forget that Kaell would have told you much in his visits to the infirmary. That’s right however; I think he was growing enormously desperate as his strength waned.’

‘Yes indeed. Desperate to save his only daughter and his family. Highness, he knew your disposition, and he knew you would shoulder the burden of the Dream if you must, if you were left alone in it and the world turned to chaos. I did not know the man in his last days and I cannot speak for him, but I would guess he himself stared at that note and refused it. That is why he asked you afterwards to seal him, it was a plan he made, hastily and frantically, but maybe it would give you the chance to simply make your own fate as Queen.’

‘And yet Swarztial quashed that plan. My father rests buried now and the magic sealing him will wane! I don’t know what it is I must do...’

‘Highness, look at me,’ said Bhask, ‘the world and all its people cannot decide for you. The Dream and whatever it contains needs conviction if nothing else. I of course know of a Kingdom that will desperately need its Queen, and will certainly fail without a sound ruler. The world will not fall apart, not if we have faith in the Crimson City, but Attoras may very well be in peril and no Dream will save it. If I was allowed to make any suggestion on your course, I would say do not leave the people of Attoras unattended. Let us go to the Crimson City, let us make a prayer and a plea there, and see you restored as you should be. As Queen, Evrelyn will live on, and in time should you take a husband, Evrelyn will have heirs. Out of that many more of the healing hands could come, and even a son or daughter that will, at the ripe end of their lives, gladly take to the Dream.’

Shala’s face broke into a smile. ‘Thank you Bhask. Your insight has lifted my spirits. You must know that I’ve felt robbed of allies of late, it is good to have your loyalty even when I’m unmade as Queen.’

’Not yet Highness, not unmade yet. Now, let us plan a route. There’s a map inside...’

‘I don’t need a map,’ said Shala, realizing she sounded rude she added, ‘I mean, unless if you want to have a look at it...’

’No need Highness, I am a wanderer of note and have no need for maps. Very well, I would say; our best course lies first east and then south through Cuddenheim and Harowan. After that we’ll find the railways, where we may take a locomotive carriage, which should speed our way to Allandiel considerably.’

Shala opened her mouth and closed it again, swallowing her retort. She had always wanted to ride the trains through the Rivver continent, but getting there seemed to her like a troublesome road.

‘Say what you would say Highness, we speak openly to each other, and I would have your input on the matter.’

‘I’m only afraid that we might find hassles in Cuddenheim and Harowan, there would be no escape in the sprawl of a city. Why don’t we take the first leg of the continent? It is much nearer anyhow.’

‘For a good many reasons my Lady,’ said Bhask clearing his throat, ’the Mighty Eraffilas river bends and warps the landscape on the first leg. It is a very difficult journey if one is not prepared for water, and we have no craft for it. Second, I hope to hide in the sprawl of a city. On the road we are exposed. Besides in cities we’ll replenish our stocks much more easily. We could of course take a craft over the Celecethian sea, but as of the moment I know of no reliable ship masters that could guarantee us both safe passage and anonymity. Lastly Highness, I grow weak when I am not wandering. Sitting still for a day or two does not bother, but I’ll be left weak and powerless taking a boat or ship.’

Shala frowned at the last of Bhask’s statement, but did not ask him what he meant by that. She trusted his judgement.

‘Then I’m content as long as we make it to Allandiel. We’ll go east the moment we have horses.’

‘Good!’ said Bhask, taking to his pipe again. ‘We will set out by morn, until then, rest and recover your strength my Lady. And if you so wish, the waters here are fresh. We’ll grant you some privacy to clean up. If you follow the river upstream you’ll find a particularly pleasant pool.’

Later Shala waded into the stream, and found the water pleasant, not at all as cold as the Seluin waters. Here the river had already pooled at intervals, taking in the warmth of sunlight. With her clothes, old and new, left on the bank of the pool she washed herself, relieved at ridding herself of soot and dried blood. She was alone, but high above a familiar eagle kept watch, and as it was now it was not bothered by the arousals of men and neither was the Princess the least bit troubled about it.

Afterwards she dried and dressed in the shelter of the woods, regretting leaving Shadow at the mill as stepping from the water had left her surprisingly cool.Small blasts of wind rustled the trees, and it was these that robbed her of warmth. And then when the wind stopped the rustle strangely persisted, until a snapping twig underneath a boot made it very clear Shala had something to worry about.

A man approached her from dead ahead; the suddenness with which his garb no longer faded with the woods a trickery Shala thought was terribly unfair to his prey. He had keen eyes and a fine-trimmed beard lining his mouth.

More pressingly, the moment Shala had spotted him he approached with an upraised hatchet in his right-hand, and put his finger to his lips with the other. Somehow Shala was just as worried about whether he had seen her exposed as about whether he posed any danger.

He beckoned her to come closer, slowly… and then lunged forward with the hatchet just as she started moving.

He had been looking over her shoulder, so she knew he was not aiming at her, and true enough when she turned around she saw he had downed a goblin that had evidently been stalking her. When the little creature took its deathblow, the rest of its brethren emerged from hiding.

Metrus came down in a swoop and just in time as well, landing some thirty feet from where Shala was stranded in a snare of enemies. Becoming a man with bow in hand his powers prevailed as the goblins met the green fiery arrows spitting from his bow. The Druid was not merciful, as he kept on firing even as the goblins fled from arrows that hunted them down deep into the woods.

The stranger with his hatchet watched in awe of the Druid’s powers and after the last goblin cry had faded, turned toward the Princess.

‘Thank you sir,’ was the first thing Shala could think of to say.

‘Not a good place to wander so alone, my Lady,’ he replied.

‘Not a good place to wander for anyone,’ said Metrus approaching, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’

‘There’s plenty of movement in the west, Master Druid. More than usual anyhow. My name is Von Gillivez, of a House fallen from grace many ages ago.’

‘Well met, but we need to take our leave,’ said Metrus curtly, ‘farewell traveller, keep your wits about you.’

Shala was surprised at Metrus, although she suspected she knew exactly why he wanted to get them away from this stranger, even if he had probably saved her life just now.

‘Allow me to be forward,’ said Von Gillivez, ‘I fled the destruction of Attoras and only made it out alive by some exceptional luck. The goblins have flooded the continent; you will know this better than anyone with your eagle eyes. If you’d have me, I would like to stay under your protection until we are within a stone’s throw of civilization. I might not make it on my own!’

By the look of the Druid Shala knew he was going to refuse Von Gillivez, and she couldn’t get it over herself to leave the man stranded.

‘Let’s take him with us Metrus, at least for awhile,’ Shala interceded.

He looked reluctant. Finally he said, ‘You will need to speak to Bhask and convince him.’ Shala realized that would not be an easy task.

Kaell and Bhask did not look impressed upon seeing the Princess and the Druid returning with another man. They had been intent on keeping their whereabouts a mystery to the world, and moreover, they did not want everyone to know that the Princess was reunited with Wolves of old.

Bhask wasted no time in confronting the newcomer, looming over him even when Von Gillivez was not a small man.

‘Goblins Master Bhask, they are already on this side of the mountain, and we found this man as unexpectedly as the goblins found us,’ explained Metrus.

‘Have you ever seen this man before, Edran?’ asked Bhask over his shoulder.

‘No, Master Wolf,’ answered the Miller.

’I am new to this valley I admit. My name is Von Gillivez. Call me Gillivez when it suits you. And I know who you are,’ he said to Bhask. ‘I know the Princess by the look of her, and I’ve heard rumours of the Wolves returning to Attoras.’

‘How did you get to this side of the mountain?’ asked Bhask.

‘I was caught between two goblin companies during the assault. When the guard was gaining the upper hand, a group of goblins fled into the mountains. Going the other way was not an option for me, as I would have been dragged down in the crossfire. I followed the goblins into the mountain caverns, as they are too scared to try and climb over it. Underground though they are at home and I used them to come safely out on this side. I would have been hopelessly lost had I not followed them closely and I certainly wouldn’t be able to trace my way back if I had to brave the caverns again,’ said Gillivez.

‘We came through just fine,’ said Kaell.

‘It is not like the Dragonwell, Kaell; the caverns he speaks of are dark and treacherous. They were not made for man,’ said Bhask.

‘Indeed!’ said Von Gillivez.

‘What is your profession?’ asked Bhask.

‘A trapper, Master Wolf, and consequently a very good tracker as well.’

‘That at least explains how you kept up with the goblins,’ said Bhask, ‘and I hope your talents will keep you alive. Know that you cannot take refuge with us. Our mission is too important for anyone to ride our coattails. We cannot offer you protection.’

’I would not need stay with you long, only until I can count on safer roads that I may follow all the way to Nortalon!’

’He did help save me, Master Bhask, before Metrus could do anything he struck down a goblin that had been hunting me,’ insisted Shala.

Bhask seem to go through the same reluctance Metrus had shown.

The Wolf looked hard at the Trapper. ‘The Princess has a kind heart that would save creatures that once endangered her kingdom. Do not betray that trust.’

Von Gillivez looked relieved. ‘Of course, and I thank you for your kindness. I will put my talents to use for your benefit, and help carry the load until such a time that we part ways.’

Bhask turned to Edran. ‘Do you have spare fittings for our friend here? A tent and some tools at least if nothing else.’

‘And some rope!’ added Gillivez boldly.

‘Of course! I can provide for all the ghosts of the mountain!’ said Edran, who looked pleased that his role had not come to an end just yet.

III

In the morning they were off with heavy packs, lucky that Metrus and Gillivez could help them carry for now, at least until they could get to the stables. They had a brief parting with Edran, Shala fondly saying goodbye to the humble man for whom she had gained a lot of respect in the last few days. Shala hoped he had the sense to stay out of trouble. Staying alone as he did and helping Wolves did not predict longevity.

The westward roads were sorely neglected, and there was little to justify keeping them maintained. For all purposes the Kingdom of Attoras ended on the western edge of the black mountains, being a great physical divide as they were. Very few people made of the west their home. For Shala’s sake they marched slowly and did so all through the morning, following the marks that Kaell had laid out the previous day. Evidently he could travel much faster on his own it seemed, as he claimed to have made it to the stables in just half a day previously. ‘So we’ll trek all the way back when we turn around?’ asked Shala.

‘Yes, but we’ll be on horseback at least. And we’ll take a more southern route to the pass around the foothills of Black mountains.’

‘Why did Kaell have to mark the road? Are you unfamiliar with the way?’

Bhask shook his head. ‘Some places hide themselves better than you might suspect. Strange woods like these repel sensible folk and lure institutes like the Arwark stables. They are rumoured to be mystical, or rather, these woods have fooled one too many travellers onto stray paths.’

At midday they stopped for a spell and lunch, which was more or less the same dried food they ate all through the day. After that their road became even slower, both because of the increasing difficulty of the road and their dwindling pace.

At some stage Kaell and Bhask talked at length, almost whispering. Shala did not hear what they discussed, but the conclusion was that they all came to an early stop that day, leaving the rest of the way for tomorrow.

At first Shala thought this was simply practical, as Bhask showed Shala how to set up the tiny tent rolled up in her pack. The Wolf had it up with the efficiency of someone who knew exactly how to operate a loom. ‘A fine demonstration Master Bhask, but I might ask you on the occasion to help me,’ said Shala, not really sure she could replicate what Bhask had just done.

Bhask smiled, ‘Of course Highness, I was only showing you out of interest’s sake. You can leave it to either me or Kaell to prepare your tent every evening.’

Spreading her blanket roll herself inside the tent, Shala realized the thing was so tiny it was really only fit for a person to crawl in and sleep, and really nothing else other than that. Not that she was in any mood to carry a heavier tent’s fittings during the day. No, this is just fine.

Leaving her tent ready for the night she saw Kaell by the stream, vestiges of the same mountain river having followed them all the way. Shala frowned as she came closer and then stopped entirely: He was sitting on his knees, and using the last light of day to paint his face as he stared down on his own reflection. She then knew why he wanted to stop for the day.

There was a foreboding feeling about it all. He had a collection of clay jars spread open around him, filled with different pastes that he used as paint. The jars of paint he must’ve obtained from that trunk of Edran’s, but the idea of what he was doing Shala knew not.

The paint on his face was mostly black; the shapes intricately pressed over each other, around the fierce blue eyes were thin linings of white, and from the temples down the cheek to the jaw were slashes of red paste, looking truly as though his skin had been split open and the flesh peeled to either side. It downright scared Shala, and her companions’ silence about it scared her even more. It was a mask of death Shala decided. Was this a thing of the Wolves? She had never heard or read of such a tradition. There were of course the silver masks they wore made in the likeliness of a wolf’s head, but this seemed wholly strange.

‘What’s gotten into the lad?’ asked Von Gillivez, ‘does he do this often?’

Shala shook her head. She wished she was in a position to answer him.

When Kaell was done their eyes only met once that evening and it was abundantly clear he wasn’t going to discuss what was going on. It wasn’t long after that, that she retreated into her tent. She felt suffocated and morbid, but it had little to do with the tent she would have to get used to. Outside some of Bhask’s berry flavoured pipe weed reached her inside the tent. She would count on him to explain to her Kaell’s behaviour, because she was not going to ask him herself.

IV

The next day the Arwark stables were truly not far, and so they did not have to carry too heavily for too long. Bhask carried the heaviest load and seemed not bothered by it at all.

Kaell was even more silent the next day, as though forgoing all conversation now. There was a determination to him and Shala could swear she knew the look of rehearsal on the man’s face, as if he was reliving something, or more troubling, planning something. After a while she tried to avoid looking at him altogether.

Shala wondered at the stable’s purposes, for the buildings were grand and could house many stalls. It seemed too big to simply be there to equip a runaway Princess with a steed. On top of that it was remote, removed from the network of roads that connected the cities of the Attoras kingdom. Here there was little traffic of other men, and most were not of the kind to buy expensive horses.

‘They were here when the kingdom was established and they’ll be here when the kingdom is undone,’ answered Bhask to Shala when she asked about it. ‘It’s a common phrase answered to your question.’

‘Is it supposed to answer my question at all?’

‘I don’t know Highness and good luck getting a better answer from the proprietor.’

They took awhile to find this proprietor, a man named Jenody. Stable boys and grooms pointed them in the supposed direction of the man until they had almost circled the entire premise.

Kaell threw down the heavy packs like a child on the verge of a tantrum.

‘Enough of this! You! Fetch us the horse master! And you! Bring us drink now, and enough of it to fill our skins as well!’ He shouted at two nearby stable boys. They obeyed and scurried away, looking ready to soil themselves at the command of Kaell with his painted face.

There they waited, and being tired they had no will in them to talk amongst themselves. At least I’m tired, thought Shala, having found her companions sparse on conversation at the best of times.

Jenody the proprietor arrived no sooner than the boy who brought the water in two large pails accompanied by cups. They quenched their thirst while greeting the man. Jenody was courteous and well dressed, wearing a rugged tailcoat over a white linen shirt, his boots clean and shiny even for a man who supposedly spent his days managing stables. Because of this Shala realized Bhask wasn’t nearly as warm toward this man as he had been toward Edran, who had been underdressed even for a country bumpkin. She decided to give it little thought, after all, Bhask would not consort with those he didn’t trust would he?

‘You’re one man more than you said you would be, Master Bhask, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,’ said Jenody as he approached.

‘I had thought the west devoid of movement, and we found this Trapper and a cohort of goblins. Lucky for us the Trapper was kind enough to prevent the Princess’ demise.’

’There is always movement in the west Master Bhask. Fools and runabouts that flee from civilization and get lost. Mostly convicts and other unsavoury types, even a Highwayman on the occasion. The latter likes to buy a horse every now and then, the others of course can’t afford what we have.’

‘What of types that pose a danger?’

‘Convicts and Highwaymen are not considered dangerous? Why Master Wolf if a host of dark purpose rides our roads I assure you they too are quite lost. Men don’t come west willingly, even the Druids seem to prefer Groves that are surrounded by cities,’ said Jenody, casting a glance at Metrus at the last bit.

Metrus did not seem to appreciate the remark.

‘Humour me then, let’s suppose that the dangers that drove us here start searching in the west.’

’Not to worry Master Bhask, the minute I set you out on the south road you will be well covered, or at least until you set foot again on the main roads. But first let’s get you these horses that would carry you there, wherever there may be. Walk with me.’

Jenody wore fingerless gloves, often snapping his fingers and pointing at the grooms to indicate them toward some duty, orchestrating effortlessly even as he talked to Bhask.

‘What have you in mind for your horses, Master Bhask? The horse must fit the purpose. Might I ask where you will be heading?’

‘I’d rather not say.’

‘Fine, describe the horses you would have, bearing in mind the terrain and distance you wish to cover.’

Bhask was thoughtful. ‘A strong steady horse for myself who can bear heavy saddlebags and more. For the Princess, a fine horse, well-trained and light to the touch, with a temperament that is both patient and resilient. For Kaell…’ he looked at the young Wolf, ‘A fast horse that will relish being pushed, and will not shy away from dangerous roads. They must all be ready for a long road.’

‘And the newcomer?’ asked Jenody, ‘or will he be going on foot?’

‘Any fine horse you can spare,’ said Bhask.

‘Very good, I already have three particular horses in mind, and a spare as you say,’ said Jenody as though not any one of his horses could be considered a spare.

Jenody led them to stables detached from the others, the building set in a lengthy hall that made a cross shape. ‘Here we hold our finest horses, fit for Kings and warriors of renown. Only in the south do they have horses of our stature, and still then some of those come from our stock. No one admits to it of course, they’d rather keep the source of our horses secret.’

‘We will not be able to pay,’ said Shala quietly as they entered the stables. She had only just realized this problem.

Jenody looked at Shala, at Bhask, then back at Shala with a querying eyebrow that lifted toward his hairline.

‘Our method of payment has already been discussed long before this day Highness,’ said Bhask. Jenody took a parchment from his tailcoat, and brought out a writing quill as well, handing Shala the parchment to read while he held to the quill, ready to give it to her.

Shala shook her head. ‘I can’t sign this. It expects an unspecified favour from the throne, or in such case that I do not comply a sum of gold to be paid once I sit on the throne again. Only the amount you disclose is worth half of Attoras’ treasury!’

‘Which is why I assure Your Highness that most in your position sign in hope of returning a favour to us,’ said Jenody.

‘Princess, we have little other choice. We need these horses and the passage out on the south road. Jenody is a reasonable man, and the favour he will come to ask will not cripple the kingdom.’

‘You should have told me this was going to happen,’ said Shala angrily at Bhask.

Shala was flushed. This was just another matter that felt beyond her control. Snatching the quill from Jenody she signed the parchment with a stroke that almost pierced through at the bottom. ‘These better be enchanted horses Jenody, if I fail to recapture my place on the throne you will not have favour nor gold from me.’

Jenody smiled. ‘No enchantments Highness, only the magic of vigorous training and proud genealogies that can be traced back at least ten generations.’

‘Lead on,’ said Shala.

‘First, a horse for Your Highness,’ said Jenody taking them to a snow white mare. The big-eyed face peeked out curiously from the cabinet, the fringe of the well groomed mane covering one eye like a patch. The mare had all the charm of a well-proportioned pony, without being as small as one.

She’s beautiful,’ said Shala, in awe, for the moment forgetting the contract she had just signed.

’From the line of the best troupe horses, very finely trained as a rule. The grooms called her Jingles, as they often work bells into her mane and saddle, and have her prance around. Of course I would not advise that kind of decoration on your quest.’

‘Certainly not, no bells,’ agreed Bhask, laughing huskily.

Jenody snapped his fingers at the grooms and indicated to them to prepare Jingles.

‘To you, Master Bhask, I give Dompel,’ said Jenody, showing them what must’ve been the largest horse in the stables, its coat brown and its mane and tail dark. ‘Don’t let its sleepy look fool you. Strong and steady as you ask, from a line of the strongest draft horses.’

‘It’ll do just fine,’ said Bhask, giving the horse a pat on the cheek, its flat ears writhing in acknowledgement.

Then, for the Trapper, a horse I believe is fitting that can tie a knot and leap free from dangers! Merrigold is her name, a fine beast of convincing swiftness. Although if she does illustrate any skills with a rope it will be entirely coincidental.’

Gillivez laughed. ‘As long as she runs hard and strong then I’m appeased,’ he said as they brought him a horse with a brownish-gold coat and a yellow mane. ‘She’s a pretty one also,’ said the Trapper as he inspected her closely.

‘Come along, come along, we are not done yet!’ said Jenody.

With a flourish that made his tailcoat sweep the floor Jenody showed them the final stall, a groom opening it up even as he spoke.

’Last and best of our ensemble is Eigmar, for our... masked friend here. Fast as the wind and tireless altogether! If you wish to brave the high places of the world then this is your horse. It goes without saying that it comes from the finest line of race horse and destrier charger. And its value is beyond measure.’

Bhask and Shala nodded at the splendid horse, but Kaell looked at it indifferently. ‘It prances,’ said Kaell in dismay.

‘A gesture of greeting and courtesy,’ said Jenody.

‘I want a fiery horse, one that will not frighten off.’

‘Kaell just take Eigmar, we are not off to the under-earth you know,’ said Shala, infuriated that he did show gratitude at what was being offered.

Kaell did not respond, looking unimpressed at the chestnut horse before him. With her being tense since the very minute Kaell had painted on the mask, Shala was just about ready to confront him there and then about his change in behaviour. Quite bizarrely though another horse barged in at the far end of the stables, putting halt to all such thoughts, and came to them with an ear piercing whinny, a groom desperately trying to hold it back.

Jenody froze and the other grooms took panicky steps backwards as it approached, the horse as dark as night, the mane wild and somewhat tangled. It whinnied frantically as it circled them, like a charger in battle.

‘Having trouble with this one?’ asked Bhask in amusement.

‘We’ve never come across an animal we could not rein in,’ assured Jenody, although pulling nervously at his collar as the horse stood ever closer, barely kept in check by a growing number of grooms.

‘You have not broken him?’ asked Bhask.

‘We tried,’ admitted Jenody shaking his head, ‘and still he terrorizes the other horses, and none of the boys here take to him. We care only for it at a distance.’

Metrus studied the animal. ‘He is not from around here.’

‘That is correct sir, the brand on his rear signals him as a horse of Avandar. But he was a lone and wild horse when he came to us. We took him in as we do for stray horses and since no one had come to claim him we simply kept him, sometimes to our regret mind you.’

The black horse stamped a hoof impatiently as though trying to have its say.

‘Such a long journey and such daring escape to flee Avandar stables,’ said Kaell

’Indeed, the horse is proficient at opening locks and doors, which is the very reason it stands here I guess. We let it wander as it wills on most days, but to save us from hurt to our reputation we prefer to keep it locked up when we have guests. Properly locked up mind you, yet it seems someone has forgotten that anything less than a chain and a padlock are insufficient,’ said Jenody, with a stern look under which the groom wilted, the one that had arrived with the horse.

Then, as though to demonstrate Jenody’s point the black horse reared and made a show of flying hooves,aimed at Eigmar and the chestnut gelding Jenody favoured panicked and jolted, running for the stable doors, a host of grooms after him.

‘Warrock!’ cried Jenody in dismay.

Kaell walked to the horse, a fire still in its eyes. ‘His name is Warrock?’ he asked.

The owner nodded. ’It is the name of a cursed horse. That is the nature of the other mark you see on him. It is warning from his previous owners and since we did not have a name for him we simply called him by his mark. When a steed returns time and again from battle, unhurt and alive, but its rider lost and dead, it becomes the Rock of War, or else called Warrock! Undying and preposterously lucky, but its rider always doomed to perish,’ explained Jenody.

‘That’s alright, I’m a Wolf and ill-fortune does not plague those familiar to the cold.’

Jenody looked unconvinced. ‘We’ll have Eigmar back in a moment,’ he said.

‘I don’t want a scared horse,’ said Kaell, ‘we have not even taken to the road yet and it bolts off in fear.’

‘I assure you, he is a fine steed and not at all skittish! It is just Warrock has made such a nuisance of himself that the other horses fear him...’

‘Then give me the horse everything else fears,’ said Kaell.

‘You would take a cursed horse?’ asked Jenody in such surprise it sounded like an accusation.

‘I don’t bother myself with curses or superstition. A horse is a horse, and this one can be great beyond reckoning. You call it wild? Well, I need a horse that would charge at the gaping maws of death. Besides, this horse has already chosen me as much as I have chosen it. Look at it, it will follow me even if I do walk away here with another horse,’ said Kaell.

‘Very well, it would be good to have him off our hands. He was testing the limits of our patience as it is. Be wary, he will test you as well, and if his reputation is anything to go by, I pray that you do not succumb as his previous riders did.’

‘Maybe his previous riders were simply unworthy, and the men that attended to him here, clueless.’

‘Enough Kaell, we have no reason to spark animosities here,’ said Bhask.

‘No worries, I am happy as long as he is happy,’ said Jenody, who now looked more than appeased to keep Eigmar and send Warrock off.

‘Well then, we have the majority of the day open to us and I would have us gone as soon as we can. Jenody, if you’d be so kind as to show us the south road, we’ll saddle up the horses ourselves.’

The Proprietor nodded. ‘A pleasure as always Bhask, although you always seem to arrive with the strangest of happenings at your heels.’

Almost as soon as they arrived they were leaving again, Jenody having pointed them in the right direction. For the moment the three of them slowly rode on their newly obtained steeds as Metrus walked alongside them. Shala found Jingles the mare just as finely mannered as Jenody had promised. Bhask and Dompel, saddled with most of the party’s goods in one big lump of moving weight looked ready to march right across the face of Angaria. Kaell however now had a horse that matched the mask on his face and clearly it wasn’t lost on the others as Metrus called attention to it.

‘There is something otherwise about this horse Kaell,’ said Metrus, ‘I can’t feel it as I would other creatures of the Grove.’

‘He is not from around here, Jenody said so himself didn’t he?’ rebuked Kaell.

‘It has a foreign mind, and I fear it bodes ill for us to have this horse in our company,’ said Metrus.

‘Do not start with me as well Druid. You expect every creature and critter to be open and submit before the power of the Grove. You would shun an animal just because it is strong-willed and needs to keep to itself?’

Metrus shook his head. ‘I’m only afraid you chose this horse because of that mask on your face. Strong-willed indeed, but to what purpose? Will you tell anyone what this is about? And I must ask, would you still be a Wolf, even as you chose a horse that is ready to bolt away and fulfil a conquest that has nothing to do with Her Highness?’

Kaell gave Metrus a look as dark as his mask. ‘I’m always a Wolf, other matters have no say in it.’

’But you would become a lone Wolf, loathe of words and company, and your service to the throne nothing but vengeance!

‘Enough! You tread too close to truths I do not want heard!’ said Kaell.

‘If it is in you to make a decision, then make it fast. There’s no reason for us to abide one who will take leave,’ said Metrus. The Druid turned into the eagle and took flight, finally letting the others ride with speed.

Kaell is going away? thought Shala despondently.

She wanted to ask; ask about Kaell that is, but she wasn’t quite ready yet. She would wait to have Bhask alone, and then she’d have some much needed answers.

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