Dream of Embers Book 1

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Origins

Chapter 8

Origins

Every morning before saddling up Metrus would take flight, circling wide over their encampment, while below the rest of them woke up to tea and cold black bread, and then as they finished Metrus would come back to say their immediate vicinity was clear of danger. Today the routine was somewhat different and he took some time to address the Princess before they set out.

‘There is something you must know Highness. Back home, Naceus and a substantial number of the household guard has formed a group that is planning to move your father.’ And so Metrus told Shala of the Scholar’s plan to eventually see the King to Nem Nemuris. Shala listened intently and Metrus waited to see if she approved at all. Her thoughtful silence was not kind to the Druid afterwards. ‘I will act as a messenger between our two parties, although once you reach civilization I will mostly be with them. I will keep them safe,’ Metrus assured the Princess.

‘It is a dangerous road they have chosen. They should not have. I don’t think they appreciate what they might’ve let themselves in for,’ said Shala.

‘They care for the Kingdom Your Highness, and they care for your family. deBella, Gremhalden, Gibbon and Merohan are with them. They would not have decided to this because it sounds like an adventure. It is a grim task guarding a dead King and they know it.’

‘But you have to explain Naceus’s motivation for reacting like this. Yes, my father won’t last in stasis forever so I understand the haste, but you mean to tell me the assault on the castle has Naceus running for Nem Nemuris?’

Metrus reached into the inner pocket of his jerkin, then had second thoughts.

’Maybe not just yet Highness. I do have something to give to you, but I will wait until the time is right,’ said Metrus.

‘Don’t leave me with more secrets Druid,’ said Shala, almost hopelessly.

‘On the small chance that Naceus’s plans and our road take an unexpected turn I’d rather not burden you with this just yet.’

In the recesses of Shala’s mind she knew exactly then what Metrus had in his jerkin. What else could it be? But she wasn’t interested in discussing that at all.

‘Tell me about Kaell?’ blurted Shala.

‘Your Highness?’

‘You must know something about Kaell and why he has become so strange. You said he might take leave. I would like to know what is going on.’

’I think it is time you asked Bhask. Don’t be afraid to do so Highness. He’ll most likely give you an answer gladly. But I cannot. It is a thing among the Wolves, and maybe your input would resolve this matter quicker, which will be beneficial for all of us.

‘Does Bhask know about Naceus’s plan?’

‘Yes,’ said Metrus.

‘So you discuss everything with him first?’ asked Shala.

‘Always. Highness, Bhask can be trusted beyond a shadow of a doubt and I run most things past him first. Besides, I cannot leave the man in charge of your safety in the dark. You must admit Highness that at the moment you don’t have to make great decisions to guide the Kingdom. In the meanwhile Bhask needs every last bit of information he can get to ensure he gets the job done.’

In their current predicament it didn’t leave Shala feeling any better. She expected everyone to trust her judgement as well. After that Metrus took flight and left her in the care of the Wolves again.

Yet Shala did not approach Bhask immediately. The Master of Wolves had them riding hard for two days, changing their pace after one of those silent discussions he so frequented with Kaell. Both Kaell and Metrus of course scouted the road and surroundings, the Wolf doing so by land and the Druid from high above.

This left Shala riding behind Bhask, and he often threw a look over his shoulder to see that she was well, and still she never broached the topic of Kaell’s transformation. She did not fully understand her own hesitation. At the least she had Von Gillivez at her side, but he was good for nothing more than small talk right then.

When she tried to push Jingles to ride alongside Bhask, maybe to better approach in conversation, he cautioned her against it. ‘For the time being Highness, we’ll ride in file. This southern tip is notorious for pitfalls and bear traps. If we come across such unseen I’ll be the only victim.’

Shala agreed with the logic, but was finding the ride surprisingly lonely. By night-time it wasn’t much better. She would have Bhask and Metrus as company, but Kaell would always sit aside, away from the campfire, and to further his mystery he would do so with the strange wooden device he had recovered from the mill the other day.

Assuming he had no other duties to see to, he would tend the device. He did so privately and with his black mask of paint still on Shala did not once think of approaching him and asking him about it. But she often looked on, curious as to why the artefact was so important to him.

In the beginning Shala never got a good look at the device, save that it was clearly cylindrical and came up to his knee when he let it stand upright. Even from afar she could see that it was ceremonial, whatever it might be. It had markings engraved around its base and the top end was superbly crafted in likeness of a lion’s head, as big as a melon, the neck arching, the mouth open and fierce, the brows furrowed in defiance above the eyes, and the mane represented by backswept overlapping flakes, smooth and thick like the blades of a shrub, inclined to a slight curl.

From among the many jars and little pots he kept in his pack he produced a thin vial, containing an oil that scented the air with sandalwood the moment he unstoppered it. Carefully he would apply a thin coat of oil to it each time, and afterwards, when satisfied that it was dry, he would sit and watch it, as Shala watched him.

Deep in thought he would brush the many ridges with his fingertips, almost caressing it. It was precious to him, that much was clear. One night he planted the thing into the ground, it took Shala some spying to realize the device had a bronze spike at the bottom. Doing so he spread open features on the base, Shala hitherto not having seen the foldable eagle wings on the back. They too were marvellously carved, and set on small bronze hinges.

When he left it like that it gave the entirety a cross shape and the look Kaell gave the device then was of expectation, seemingly staring deep into the eyes of the lion. He seemed patient, but he definitely expected something, and this alerted the Princess. Shala was sure it must be more than a statuette of a winged lion. She didn’t sense any magic in it, but she knew better than to think that she could if there were. All in all it became unbearable for Shala, she had had enough of this mystery.

II

That next day they passed the southernmost tip of the Dunnoom mountain range, Bhask leading their path to where the black rock giants first emerged, nothing more than foothills at first and then with suddenness becoming one of the most imposing sights on earth as their height climbed further and further to the north. The marvel of the black mountains was that they were actually mostly white, being snow-covered almost year round, laying on it like a blanket and revealing only the black rock surface here and there where peaks and ridges poked through. The most beautiful parts were where the pine trees of the Grove crept up their slopes.

If they were to follow the eastern side of it they’d invariably return to Attoras. From here on though they would only travel farther and farther from home. Even here a shrill wind descended and ruined an otherwise fine day with a stinging coldness, so that Shala pulled her cloak Shadow tight across herself.

Bhask voiced his relief at coming to this point. ‘It’s all less forlorn on this side of the continent, nobody passes here easily as the Highwaymen guard the road.’

‘Isn’t that a bad thing?’ asked Shala.

‘No, if we encounter such we can negotiate with them, but Highwaymen will out and out destroy goblin packs.’

‘They failed to do so before the goblins attacked my castle,’ said Shala sourly.

Bhask frowned. ‘A conspiracy for another day. Someone saw them through these lands, someone aligned with Swarztial. I have wandered many places in the world. Sad to say if they had a guide as good as me they could sneak an entire army through the Norwain forest. Only Metrus would have had a hope of spotting them.’

With Gillivez taking his horse on a different route for the day, Shala felt she could maybe press Bhask with some questions best discussed alone.

‘Why is it that you wander so? Are you a traveller by nature?’ asked Shala.

Bhask took a moment to answer. ’In a way I’ve always had restless feet, and the old Wolves loved having one such as I who did not shy away from travelling long distances. I could complete far-off missions you see. But when I was a little older than Kaell I met a true wanderer, a madman rambling by himself, but sane enough to prey upon the darkness in men’s hearts. If I could ever concede to having made a mistake in my life, then that would have been it. By his behest I followed the man, hypnotised by his knowledge and his strange allure. I can’t ever remember seeing his face, or at least I can’t put a face to him in my memory.

’It was by the misdeeds of others that I realized I was under a spell and failing my order in following this madman. I saw good men do unspeakable acts and the sight of it awoke my senses. It was eerie to behold Highness. He could stroll into a village and craftsmen would drop what they were busy with, and simply follow him.

‘When I broke away from his hold he grew incredibly angry and so he cursed me with his power, making of me an eternal wanderer. Luckily I never grew mad, but if ever I stay in one place for too long I start getting sick and despondent.’

‘Then you have a harsh fate. I am sorry if my helplessness is piling onto your burden.’

‘Not at all Highness. The Wolves can only have one purpose, and that is to protect the light-bearer, and I’m glad our loyalty belongs to one such as you. Besides, the curse itself is not all bad. I’ve seen much of the world because of it, and the sickness that comes about I used to great effect in my disguise back in the castle infirmary.’

Shala’s eyes grew wide. ‘So that’s why we couldn’t alleviate your symptoms at first, and how you played sick so convincingly!’

‘Yes, strange how curses can become of use, isn’t it? All I had to do was stay still for a couple of days and inevitably the sickness comes.’

‘Coupled of course with your sudden recovery, just before the assault took place. Did you move without us realizing it?’ asked Shala.

‘At times yes, the infirmary is poorly locked to a man like me Highness. So I took midnight strolls, the nightshift guards thinking me a ghost at times!’ laughed Bhask. ‘That helped a little. There is in fact also a plant that helps me recuperate once I’m motionless. Kaell secretly administered it to me when he visited me in the infirmary as we anticipated the goblin invasion and I was fit by the time they came. When I stood up on my legs and ran to the armoury I felt the life return to me, and it was glorious to be truly moving again.’

‘How did you know about the goblins?’ asked Shala with some suspicion.

‘With the help of Metrus, Your Highness. He delivered the message to Kaell, but by then our efforts were limited to saving your life.’

Shala nodded. She then thought it was the ideal time to confront Bhask and finally felt comfortable doing so. Kaell was out riding ahead and Metrus was flying. And today she thought she knew exactly where to start.

‘I’ve been wondering, why is it Kaell fights with two bronze blades if the Wolves had some of the best steel forges up in the keep on the mountain?’ she asked. She felt this was an inauspicious enough question to talk about other things.

‘By the time Kaell’lam was taken to the keep the Wolves were all but disbanded, our activities rather secretive. The forges were in disuse , so we no longer produced weapons, but mostly, Kaell’lam uses those swords because bronze is the alloy they used in his homeland. They had not mastered iron or steel yet.’

Shala looked quizzically at Bhask and she knew she was on the trail of something here.

‘Your Highness does not yet know,’ Bhask reminded himself out loud, and Shala looked at him expectantly. For a few moments he looked skywards, as though making a decision. ‘I might as well tell I guess, because I fear Kaell will never reveal it to you himself. The question is Highness, how much do you care to know?’

’I feel the weight of something on Kaell that I have not seen before. Not on anyone. Tell me what I need to know and however much you’re willing to share.’

Bhask nodded in agreement. ‘Most of it can be explained simply enough. Kaell’s family, Highness, was of the Dureset tribes of Cerron.’

Shala took a moment to recognize the lineage, her knowledge of history making her draw some obvious conclusions. ’But they were driven out of Cerron! During my father’s second campaign. They had to leave the land!’

’Indeed. Uprooted by war from their home, the wooded Duaga region, they crossed the Enbair Ocean, past the Frozen Axe, and to the Freelands in search of refuge. It was a… hopeful new beginning for them, their people quickly establishing a settlement and adapting to a new environment. But the Marauders of Akurat had become an inescapable part of the Freelands. Kaell’s people were not prepared and so, virtually defenceless, they succumbed to the Marauder raids. It is known that there is no mercy in their attacks.’

Shala had a knot in her throat.

’Only Kaell survived as far as I know. Tough as he is, he escaped. I wandered the Freelands at the time and I found him near death, with no home and refuge, his body wasted away from hunger and his mind dull with suffering. I nursed him and naturally I intended to leave him somewhere where there’d be those who could care for him. When I realized what strength he had however, I decided to train him as the last of the Wolves. That said he will always hold onto what is left of his people. The bronze blades and totem and the paint on his face are all remnants of a culture now dead.’

‘I did not know... He never gave any indication that his family was murdered...’

‘As Kaell the cook he would have been aware of his past life, but not attached to it in an emotional way.’

‘So the paint he puts on his face...?’

’It is a tradition of his people, warpaint. Of course there were many kinds of painted masks, for manhood or marriage or mourning. The particular insignia represents vengeance, and by all that he is the paint is not supposed to come off until vengeance is achieved. I’m afraid even ten years later he has not accomplished retribution, because he has been too busy being a Wolf.’

‘So my House was responsible for his family’s tragedies! Does he know what role my family played?’

’Yes he does, he was very young at the time, but well aware of his people losing a homeland. After the Marauders had burnt their settlement, Kaell was extremely vengeance driven, and I used it to turn him into a Wolf. Even as a child he was as deadly as Ascentar, and nearly as well-balanced and quick as the Mighty Taggandus. But his training was far from easy and it was weighed against my prideful notion that I will make the best Wolf yet seen. The trouble was the very last of the old Wolves didn’t want to accept Kaell into our already dying order.

’So I had to take an obscure approach, because he was so adamant on living out his retribution, and I content in wielding this as a ways to his success, and proving him worthy to the others. While his physical regimen was in place from the very beginning, I had not yet brought the Wolven lore to his mind. He did not know yet what it truly meant to be a Wolf. So at first I fanned the flames of his vengeance and I gave him the notion that he would one day go against Evrelyn, the House that invaded Cerron.Enter Attoras like a shadow he would, and slay the king’s house that had robbed him of his family and homeland.’

Shala almost listened in disbelief. ’Really? And you had no fear that he would go rogue?’

Bhask did not satisfy her answer immediately.

‘It was a lesson, and a test. I had to teach this very dangerous warrior I was creating discretion. It was a road I had to walk once, so I knew the importance of teaching Kaell this. A double-edged sword is vengeance; in our world it is a driver to greatness, yes, but also a stepping stone to the tyranny of men who claim themselves masters of others’ fate. He was within the castle and I advised him to first hunt the daughter of the King.

‘The idea resonated with him, imagining inflicting on the King a similar pain to what he had undergone, before killing the King himself. I told him to follow you, to do as a predator would and enjoy having you within his sights and you clueless as to how vulnerable you’d be. I gave him words to haunt him, I told him to relish in having you as vulnerable as his family were to the Marauders. To a lesser man the significance would’ve been lost; Kaell however was quickly seeing himself becoming a Marauder himself. He would not stoop to that.’

‘So as I have it, he shadowed your daily comings and goings and no one was the wiser. When you rode in forests, he was there. When you spent your days reading, he was there, and when you started as a healer in the infirmary, he was there.’

’Afterwards he came back to me miserable. It was the only time I ever saw tears in his eyes. He told me that he could not follow through. He had watched you and followed you. He was angry at me for insinuating that he should kill an innocence that had nothing to do with his misfortunes. He told me all about you; he was enchanted by this young Princess that had just discovered her own hands of healing and how you were inquisitive to all things. He said he would stop me if I sent someone else to harm the King’s house,’ chuckled Bhask.

’That day a Wolf was born, he was finally what I wanted him to be – a just warrior- not a killer, and one that would protect a light-bearer such as yourself even against his own kind. I revealed to Kaell what the Wolves were all about, and he embraced it. The older Wolves were mostly gone by then, but they all would’ve approved of the way Kaell’lam turned out. King Anka took an interest in Kaell’s development, and as I discussed it with him, he decided there was no one more perfect than Kaell to become your protection.Your father, Your Highness, was greatly worried in the last few years and that is why the lengths were taken to disguise Kaell to the extent that we did.’

Shala sat there absorbing the story. And suddenly she choked up. She did not feel like she deserved the loyalty he had shown her. ‘He carries heavily on this vengeance still though?’

Bhask nodded. ‘That is true, and how he deals with it will be the test of his life. In him I sense the need to exact wrath that goes beyond just his family’s honour. I was unable to sway him from this road entirely and it might be an inextricable part of him always. ’

‘But then I don’t understand. He has found it in himself to look past my House’s involvement.’

’Consider this Highness: He knew it might’ve very well been a Marauder standing in his boots and watching you as helpless prey. Having found in you something worth protecting, do you think he would relent against the evil the Marauders carry in their hearts? No.’

‘A dangerous road for him then. I’d rather not he gets himself killed hunting down these men. Will he go after his parents’ murderers?’

‘He intends to. He knows you are safe with me so when he painted his face I expected he was announcing his departure. Owing someone death comes second to owing someone your life in their culture however. He has had great duty among the Wolves, chiefly protecting you. Until now he knew it was more important protecting you than settling some score, no matter how close to the heart this score may be.’

‘Ten years is a very long time to hold onto hate,’ said Shala.

‘Indeed it is. I hope it makes you understand him a bit better, because he will not be forthcoming with all of his histories.’

‘Despite some deceptions on his part I am truly grateful for what he has been to me.’

‘I was surprised you didn’t ask earlier, Highness.’

‘I tried, or rather I meant to. But it didn’t feel right.’

‘I must admit I’d thought Kaell would have taken leave by now and then I would have explained it all to you anyway. But he has lingered. He is unsure, this I know, and didn’t want to quite volunteer the information while he is with us.’

‘Why?’

‘If you know his story and you approach him about his situation he will feel obligated to stay with you. Like I said, I thought by now he would be long gone. He struggles to make a decision and you will one way or another influence his choice. Be mindful that he hasn’t been sociable because it will make his eventual departure easier. He won’t approach you in this matter. He might someday just be gone.’

‘I think I should talk to him then. Should I tell him I’m alright with him leaving?’

‘If you so wish Highness. But you’re allowed to be selfish in this. If you feel you need him with us then tell him that too.’

Shala did feel that way, but she couldn’t see herself saying that.

‘We’ll be on the main road that runs along the border of Norwain forest soon, then we can ride hard and fast on eastwards. If Kaell intends to leave he will not be able to linger much longer. The Freelands lay in the exact opposite direction to where we’re heading.’

‘And if he doesn’t?’

‘For our sake I will ask him to leave. I cannot allow him to trouble us with his uncertainty. If he wants to stay he’ll have to wash the paint from his face and commit to our cause. There is no other way.’

Von Gillivez returned to them at a canter.

‘I suggest we slow down a bit for the day. I laid out some traps not far ahead from here. If we bring down one of those pronghorns we’ll have meat for a fortnight. I’ll circle back if necessary.’

After some consideration Bhask said, ‘No, we might as well call it a day soon enough. Let’s make something of your efforts Trapper!’

When the day came to a close Bhask had them camping at a river stream. ‘This is the last known stream that we’ll cross that comes from the Black Mountain, so freshen up as best you can,’ Bhask had told everybody.

As usual Kaell wandered off and sat aside, further down the stream, to tend again to the wooden device. Tonight however Shala decided to bring the matter to finalization. She walked quite a distance following him, for a moment afraid he had decided not to stop and to leave them without notice. Coming through the woods hugging the riverbanks she caught up to him where he set up camp, his totem already planted.

Not for the first time Shala felt that the Wolf was looking for something magical within the device.

‘What is it?’ she asked. Kaell was taken out of his reverie and looked up and saw her pointing at the lion’s head.

He seemed to take awhile to find his voice, surprised that Shala had followed him. ‘It’s a totem my Lady, a sacred thing among my people. I have no idea how to work it, but I can feel it on my mind like the presence of a breeze tugging at my clothes. Many of the land’s dreams still linger in it, but I am wholly estranged from them.’

‘You know that I know then?’ asked Shala rather clumsily.

‘Yes my Lady, Master Bhask figured it fair to inform me that you are now aware of where I came from.’

‘Did you escape with it? When they destroyed your home?’

’No, I returned briefly before I was assigned as your protection, Your Highness. There I found nothing but ruin and sorrow. All that was left of the material possessions was the totem, intact even where a burning roof had collapsed on it. Of course I had to leave it in the care of Edran when I came to the castle.’

‘What purpose does the totem serve?’ she asked.

’I was born to be a Shaman, my Lady, like my father was. Don’t take us for an uncivilised lot though. My father brought in books and currency and agriculture to the Freelands and our towns grew ever bigger. I guess our sudden prosperity was the very reason the Marauders came to us. To answer your question, the totem is supposed to relay to us the will of the land. It’s much like the Druid’s magic I guess, but they don’t need totems, but neither can they make it rain or snow or sleet. Things that have a heartbeat and breathe and grow are in the domain of the Druids. We had a relationship with more lifeless elements.’

‘Your people commanded the weather?’ asked Shala.

’Among other things my Lady. Have you ever heard of the Arrhua?’ he asked eagerly.

‘I’ve read across it, but rarely understood it, spirits as I take it?’ asked Shala.

‘Yes, but not just spirits of the living or the dead, they are the fundamental constructs, the elements that are eternal. Fire, water and wind among others may seem like lifeless occurrences, but within them lurk a primitive and arcane consciousness, manifestations of the old titans. Even though it be very subtle.’

‘Old titans?’

’Yes, old titans and maybe to the eyes of others, false gods. They were the Arrhua having taken shape, so that they almost seemed human – or intelligent beast maybe. There is little be seen of them in our era, the world as it is now is tightly wound, guarded by the realms and its rules, and threaded together by the dreams of the Benevolence so that we cannot see the seams of it. Deep in the past, various forms of Arrhua spirits emerged quite freely and often wreaked havoc doing so. In our time magi communicate with them at best. All the better I guess.’

Shala nodded. ‘Now I wonder; do you think the wraith-kind has any resemblance to Arrhua?’

Kaell narrowed his eyes. ’In a way, yes. But from the realm of death they are an abhorrent manifestation, and product of the folly of man. They too are highly influenced by the Rules of Realm. Rest assured Highness, I would not use the totem to commune with their kind.’

‘And will you be able to commune through the totem? With any of the elements?’

Kaell shook his head doubtfully.

‘My father and the elders were murdered before I was taught the art, I’m afraid it’s lost forever. But where I’m denied one power I’ve gained others thanks to Master Bhask. He taught me the Savage Art of the Wolf and it has given me strength and pride where else I would have none. I owe him much. I have purpose and in that way I do honour to my deceased. It’s difficult to explain…’

‘I understand your meaning Kaell, I too deal with my father’s passing in duty. Sometimes it seems like the least we can do in their memory,’ said Shala.

‘It is still a shame you know, that the Shamans are gone; I’ve heard that great droughts are plaguing farmers all across the southern parts of the world. We could have done with good folk who could steer the weather and give them much needed rain.’

‘Do not confuse us with weatherwitches Highness. Yes, we did have a say in the weather, but there are those who mess and manipulate with nature as if it is a toy. They hoard clouds, deny rain and they make hailstorms with dark rites, and then ask for remunerations and payment to let it stop. We Shamans worked along with nature, listening to its ebb and flow, courting you might call it, instead of wielding it into inappropriate directions. We stood opposed to weatherwitches, but now that my kind is gone they play openly with the seasons and are surely to blame for the misfortune of farmers. Luckily their power is limited. Nature protests to being mistreated and it takes ten of them to accomplish what one of our Shamans could achieve alone. The harmony my people brought, I think it might be lost forever. Unless I do something.’

‘So what do you intend to do with the totem?’

’The only thing I can do Highness; I’ll let it touch the soil and breathe the air of all the places we might chance upon. It will take in the world, and be taught like a living thing, like a child almost. Maybe once its bond with Angaria is strong, it will act as a totem of old, reconciling different realms with one another and shedding harmony where it can. I might not see the power of Shamans restored in my lifetime, but I can at least begin its recovery. Another may be born gifted and use the totem in all its power. If there is a chance of that I will ensure the totem is ready by then. And what’s more, I’ll make sure it’s the most far-travelled totem in all of history.’

‘You’re a man of two worlds then. One that is of a destroyed homeland and the other of a dead order.’

Kaell’s dried up face paint cracked around his mouth as he smiled. ‘You make it sound so grim, Highness. But there is truth in what you say. Although the Wolves themselves are not far removed from a totemic culture. Spiritually they are bonded to the white wolves that dwell on the Black mountain. On the other hand the Freelands knew no King and had traditions that bounded its denizens to it forevermore. For me taking to the ways of the Wolf meant I laid down those traditions; not that I had a choice; my folk were obliterated. It seemed that the Freelands would provide a good life, but in hindsight I must say; I’m convinced it could have done with rulers and laws, which at least would have not given the Marauders such free access.’

‘Master Bhask has told me that your paint is a mask of vengeance against the Marauders.’

Kaell’s face hardened again as he nodded.

‘What were you planning to accomplish?’ Did you expect to find the Marauders on the road?’ asked Shala, ‘can you even remember the look of them, and the faces of those that were involved?’ It all came out more forcefully than she intended.

’No Highness. I will live out my vengeance against all who carry the Marauder name. They will learn to fear the paint on my face and the two swords I carry. At least then, and finally, I would have kept with my people’s ways and done them retribution.’

Shala sighed. ‘So you’re focusing all of this hatred on the Marauders when in fact my family played a role.’

Kaell looked almost a little surprised that Shala had dared to mentioned this.

‘Your forebears Princess...they could not have foreseen every little tragedy that would result from it. Or rather, how do you go about war without setting in motion all the tragedies that occur naturally? You can’t, and we all know it.’

‘My father and grandfather’s war forced your people to flee!’ insisted Shala.

’That is a poor light to see it in, Highness. Your father and his army were not murderers. They did not pillage and they did not rape. And they were almost unique in that regard. It was not they who killed my family. Had my family stayed, they would have been attacked by the dragon worshippers and their armies in any case.They were caught up in a storm of other men’s battles. It could not be avoided.When the Dureset people were wiped out, it was a Wolf of your father’s house that saved me, and gave me the privileges of the Order. And after I had come to the stark realization that I could not hold your House in contempt, I met your father, and by his honour I knew instantly that he would be my King.’

‘But the Marauders will remain your target?’ asked Shala.

‘It was my people’s way, Highness. I still see them and I still hear my people’s cries. I still have dreams, the kind a child would have of terror. Even as Kaell the cook those dreams came to me. Though their significance was lost as soon as I woke.’

Shala had an apology on her heart. But she was not going to say anything that was going to make him feel like he had to stay with her. She was not going to invoke the kindness in him with guilt and see him making a decision that he didn’t want to make.

With Kaell mulling in thought Shala’s gaze wandered to the mountain and given the growth of the forests of these parts it would be gone beyond sight from tomorrow onwards. She drank in its vision for a couple of moments and her thoughts strayed onto things she had not thought of before.

‘How much do you remember of your life as Kaell the cook?’ asked Shala.

‘Most of it Highness, but it drifts in my mind like mists on a river, losing all detail when I try to focus light on it.’

‘Do you think you recognize Von Gillivez, have we seen him before?’ asked Shala.

Kaell was then thinking of the only time he and the Princess had been out and about together. ‘He was in town, locked in a pillory with the other deserters. He is not just someone fleeing Attoras, Highness, he is a man who abandoned the garrison,’ said Kael in realization.

‘I thought as much. I think he has been lying to us, or at least, not telling us the full truth. His House fell from grace a long time ago like he says, but the reluctancy to serve another House remains,’ said Shala in a hushed voice.

‘Most certainly, when we saw him locked up in town his beard was overgrown.’ Kaell shook his head. ‘Should’ve realized it, he was being kept in the castle, imprisoned when he was not being displayed in town, and when the goblins attacked, he broke loose in the chaos. He could not stay in Attoras as a criminal, so in desperation he fled after the goblins and into the caves.’

‘So what will we do? Do you think he deserves a second chance?’ asked Shala.

‘I wouldn’t worry about it,’ said Von Gillivez, who had approached very silently through the woods. Shala and Kaell looked up at him in surprise. ‘I have decided to part ways here anyway, as I need to return to Attoras. I left the garrison when I heard the King had passed; it was clear to me that the Kingdom was going to the dogs then.’

Kaell stood up, moving protectively in front of Shala. She herself stood up, her hands closed in tight fists.

‘The kingdom doesn’t need men like you. Lucky for you we don’t have the luxury of trying to turn you in. Leave now in peace while you can. You might not get an opportunity like this again,’ said Kaell.

Gillivez smirked. ‘You know, when I escaped I was so sure I would never return to Attoras again. But gold is always a problem leaving this backwater continent. And then by happenstance I run into the most wanted person on this side of the world. Catch one little mark of royal flesh and I will live out the rest of my life in comfort. You might not turn me in, but you’re right Wolf, I won’t get an opportunity like this again,’ said Gillivez, and as he did Shala saw him moving subtly sideways, as though positioning himself for the attack.

‘Do not stray onto this path Trapper, no animal you’ve come across will ever compare to the Wolves.’

Gillivez smirked.

’My father always said that on any given day a well prepared man can take down any man or animal, regardless of how dangerous they think they might be. Run along back to your Master, little Wolf, I will leave you alive, and if you’re wise you’ll flee far from this land. I was worried that I would be pushing my luck, but the moment I saw you paint on that mask I knew you were the one to isolate. You are the weak one.

Kaell tensed up where he stood, but other than that he did not move an inch.

Shala saw the faintest disappointment on Gillivez’s face at Kaell’s timid response and then she knew something was wrong.

Von Gillivez chortled. ‘I’ve seen your kind before. Speaking of wars and vengeance, but never pursuing it, too cowardly to do anything more than talk about it.’

Right then Shala knew for sure he was baiting Kaell and before she could stop him Kaell leapt and ran at Gillivez. Shala was certain something was amiss, and looking for it she saw a small tree deliberately bent and set with a careful hand and some strong rope, looking like nothing more than a root among the vegetation. Gillivez had positioned himself in a very particular spot and despite Shala crying a warning Kaell did not stop.

When Kaell’s foot snagged on the noose, the pin keeping the tree in place was torn loose. The tree snapped upright and the noose plucked Kaell by the ankle into the air and wrenched him upside down and hanging. Having waited for just this moment, Von Gillivez charged forward and ploughed his shin through Kaell’s face, knocking the Wolf unconscious, swaying lifelessly as Gillivez trained his eyes on Shala, not sparing Kaell a further moment’s notice.

For the moment Shala could only turn and run and hopefully find Bhask or Metrus. She screamed as she did and the crunch of Gillevez’s boots hunted her down in moments. He pushed her down to her stomach, hitting the dirt, and Gillivez tied her hands behind her back faster than she thought possible with a length of rope. He pulled her upright with a strength that let her know this was a dangerous man.

‘Come Princess, there is a long way to go to Attoras.’

‘But you saved me!’ said Shala, as though reminding the Trapper would make him more reasonable.

’I won’t be able to collect a reward for your capture if half of you were eaten by goblin scum. I spared you Princess, but not for your own benefit. ’

‘I’ll give you something like I will give to Jenody when I’m restored as Queen!’

’You have nothing to give and I have no use for promises you can’t keep. Both you and I know you will never be anything again. Your House is dead. Von Gillivez kept them trudging through the stream, so that no one could track them until they came back onto land at random. When Shala tried resisting, sitting down, he merely pulled her along in a manner that was more painful to her than the effort was worth the trouble.

Shala wondered how long Kaell could hang upside down like that and if he’d choke on his own blood. That thought horrified her, and a desperate need surfaced within her to get away and help Kaell in any way she could. With nothing else at her disposal she tried to bite into his shoulder. He caught her by the face, her cheeks feeling crushed by his hand.

‘Don’t get me wrong Princess. If you trouble me on my road I will beat you senseless and more. You want to get the chance to defend yourself before the council in Attoras? Then don’t cross me!’

Shala kept looking over her shoulder as Gillivez dragged her along, Kaell’s still figure growing farther away and her hope of either Bhask or Metrus becoming concerned and come looking for them fading. They would come looking eventually, but not soon enough.

Ahead Shala spotted where Gillivez had tied down Merrigold upriver, primed for the escape back to Attoras the Trapper had envisioned all along. He would tie her to the saddle and ride hard to Attoras. She would be handed over to Swarztial and face an unforgiving council. Her only hope was... She kept looking over her shoulder, each time doing so becoming harder as Gillivez seized her by the back of the neck to haste her along.

That last time she thought her eyes deceived her, but the hint of movement was enough for her to risk breaking free for just a moment to have a proper look; Kaell came alive like a thing rising from the dead, snapping upright and reaching toward his feet above him caught in the noose. At this distance Shala had no idea how he did it, but the Wolf proved resourceful as he escaped his bonds and tumbled backwards to land on his feet.

Without hesitation he was in pursuit of Shala and Gillivez, although drunkenly so, and instead of trying to get away, Gillivez walked himself and the Princess into the centre of the river stream, watching on as Kaell came toward them in a furious run.

Again Gillivez waited for just the right moment. With Kaell bearing down on him he plucked Shala around and struck her through the face. At the force of the blow Shala capsized helplessly and when she met the sharp rocks of the riverbed her body and head exploded with pain. It was however the surprising strength of the river tide that would be the end of her, and with her hands still tied behind her back she struggled to keep her head out of the water.

Kaell veered away from Gillivez and bounded toward a stricken Shala to help her upright and to her own feet. And just as fast as he had managed to get her head above water was Gillivez coming from behind, opportunistically, and throwing a length of rope across Kaell’s neck. He wrenched the Wolf backwards, choking him and Shala was pitched back and taken by the stream again.

But the shallow river had no lasting power and by some mercy she came to a place where she could regain her feet. Gillivez had pitched Kaell into the water, holding his head submerged and pushing his knee into the Wolf’s back as he pinned him down. Shala splashed forward in a bid to help, and right then Kaell came upright with a surge, throwing Gillivez off of him. But they were into each other again like two dogs fighting and Shala backed away in fright.

They struggled, and maybe Kaell was still dazed, as Gillivez pushed him from his feet again and tried to hold his head underwater once more. Kaell was going to drown. Seeing this Shala ran forward and aimed at ramming her shoulder into the Trapper’s back. Bracing herself and closing her eyes at the last moment, she launched into the man.

Colliding with him, Von Gillivez was dislodged much too easily from atop Kaell and as he fell into the water along with Shala he did not move. The stream washed over him and a ribbon of blood came from his throat into foamy water, its origin a knife punctured into his neck. Shala took it all in with a great deal of shock.

While Gillivez had done his utmost to keep Kaell’s head underwater, the Wolf’s hand had blindly snatched a knife from the inside of the Trapper’s coat, and struck the Trapper with his own weapon. Kaell sat upright looking bewildered, as if there was a wish for his opponent to be alive still, so that he could pay dearly for his audacity. Shala’s body commanded a sharp intake of breath realizing they were going to survive this day and it got Kaell’s attention.

He wasted no time in picking her up and carrying her out of the river as though taking no more chances with their luck today. In his arms and with the rush of battle fading she was coughing up water, sounding as pathetic as she felt. When Kaell set her down he unbound her hands, and the life rushing back to them was all pins and needles. The two of them looked at the still figure of Gillivez and then finally turned to each other. Half of the paint was washed from Kaell’s face, his nose still dripping blood, and in turn he saw the swelling on Shala’s face growing worse by the minute.

He reached for her injured face, but she took his hand and held it with both of hers.

‘It’s alright Kaell… I’ll recover faster than anyone else alive.’

Kaell nodded, but he was not pleased that she had come to harm. Silently the two of them returned to where they had sat earlier, walking wearily back to where Kaell’s totem was still stuck in the ground.

Even now Shala had not forgotten the dilemma facing Kaell and seeing the totem she said, ‘You should go Kaell. I cannot ask you to stay with me even if I wanted to. I do not own you and neither do I deserve you. I cannot even understand how you ended up serving the House that invaded your homeland.’

Of course Shala dreaded he might really go, and she didn’t even feel it was the right thing for him to do. In her eyes he could not spend his life in hate, and even endanger himself by choosing this road.

For a while it seemed as though Kaell considered the offer, and Shala realized with some dread he might actually depart. He reached up to his own face where part of the mask was already removed by the river.

He sighed. ’It’s alright Highness. Gillivez was right, this mask has clouded me and almost cost us today. It would not be the first time I need wash the paint from my face. I cannot leave your side just yet. The cold will be my cloak. As Bhask said this is the last stream for many miles and I might as well make the decision here,’ said Kaell.

‘Should I come across Marauders, I will do my duty. I might not hunt them outright, but if they cross my path...’

‘Let me help you then, you cannot see yourself at this hour,’ said Shala, already taking a rag from Kaell’s pack and submerging it in the stream.

He sat stone-still as Shala washed the remainder from his face, him staring off in the distance. Shala saw by the look of him how he hated having the paint removed. Yet he did not protest.

‘There, you look much better... You frightened me with that visage, and I have enough trouble recognizing you as it is.’

‘It is something you must accustom to, Highness. Kaell the cook existed on borrowed time, as we planned it from the start.’

‘A pity then, I had a good friend in Kaell the cook.’

‘I’m still here to be a friend Highness, only, I must be a guardian above all else. But you will not be alone and I don’t want to leave until I see you restored to your rightful place.’ He said that with a kind smile and she thought about the boy he might’ve been before becoming a Wolf.

Shala was surprised at how quickly she felt powerless to tears and how quickly she felt overwhelmed. She tried her best not to, but her eyes welled up.

Kaell noticed the change immediately and looked at her in alarm.

I’m sorry Kaell’lam,’ she said, she leaned forward swiftly and kissed him on the cheek, and then jumped up, fleeing to her tent, leaving the Wolf dumbstruck.

That night Shala went to bed with a heart laden with so many mixed feelings, comforted immensely that Kaell would remain with her, but the guilt Bhask and Kaell had done their best to discourage remained with her. She was shaken that Kaell had come from a place like he did. It was a silly practice to feel sorry for every tragedy that happened on Cerron, but that someone had come from that place to become a Wolf for her had her baffled.

Aware that the others were still awake, she could not soothe herself to sleep. Tomorrow she would have to explain her swollen face and the betrayal of Von Gillivez, but she certainly didn’t want to make a big deal of it, her thoughts wrapped up with Kaell’s history. Feeling the need, she sat and turned up her little oil lamp and by its light said up a prayer. It was a clumsy prayer she felt, struggling with words even when all she sought to do was pray for everyone except herself. For her Kingdom, and for Kaell. Her whispers must’ve been noisier than she realized, as a pair of boots came through the grasses towards her tent. She knew it was Kaell by the way he moved, although he did come very hesitantly.

He sat just outside of her tent, his shadow against the canvas by the light of their not too distant campfire. Something told Shala he had some long tale on his heart that he wanted told. At that stage Shala waited for nothing else in the world as she sat stone still in anticipation, looking down at her folded hands in her lap. ‘The Marauders could never have sympathy for my people...’ He did not say anything for quite a while, until finally all he could manage was:

‘Sleep well Princess.’

And then he returned to the others.

It was hardly anything, but far greater than nothing. In a way she knew he had long ago accepted her father as his King, and that he had no malice toward her or her family. That made her feel better.

Later, she had a dream she remembered with some embarrassment. She and Kaell alone rode into the night, surrounded by woodland, as though it was a perfectly normal thing to do, guided on the road by fuzzy moonlight. With some anxiety she told Kaell the worries on her mind, things she would not utter in the daylight hours.’

‘I’ve lost much Kaell. I feel it now. I am as naked as when I wade into the Seluin waters. Here as I am, I’m not a daughter of a King anymore and I’ve never been anything else. It was my duty to be mother to all of Attoras, the last I could give for my father. But I’ve been bullied into exile. And the warmth is gone too. The road is not kind to me, I’m used to walls and hearths and cushions. I thought myself strong before now, but I’m not a traveller like you are. Above all I fear Attoras might forget me.’

Kaell steered Warrock to walk side by side with Shala’s white mare. ‘Even stripped from your throne there is still some good to consider, Highness. I will not leave you Princess, not on the coldest days, or the darkest nights,’ he assured her, reaching for her hand and taking it. Riding side by side he held it. As dreams go their destination was unknowable, but sleepily she thought it didn’t matter as long as they were together.

The End

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