He glanced nervously over his shoulder, the heavy weight of unseen eyes boring into his back. He frowned, scanning the muddy street as he scanned the surrounding area. There weren’t many people left on the street and those that did remain swiftly hurried into nearby buildings to shelter against the rain.
The heavy downpour soaked through Kieran’s cloak and traveling clothes. He struggled to keep his inner fire under control. He kept his skin wet, allowing the water to chill him to the bone. If he allowed the fire to dry his skin and clothes, steam would rise and people would become suspicious.
Kieran hurried through the rain, racing towards a nearby inn and tavern. He ducked inside, unsurprised to find the tavern was crowded with people. He cut his way through the throng, twisting his body to squeeze past different groups. When he reached the bar, he slid onto an empty stool just before a weasel-faced merchant could take it. The man glared at him, muttered something under his breath, and walked away.
“What’ll it be?” the bartender grumbled, barely glancing up from wiping a mug as Kieran sat down.
“One ale, please,” Kieran said. He knew he ought to eat, but his gut was so twisted with nerves he wasn’t sure he could keep anything down.
“Oh, he says please!” the bartender exclaimed, earning strange looks from nearby customers. “Well, I’ll get right on that for you, Your Lordship.” The bartender rolled his eyes and shuffled away while mumbling under his breath.
Kieran sighed and glanced around, peering into the faces of people nearby. Some gave him quizzical looks, while others sneered and stalked away. In the back of his head, he could feel Max’s amusement at his methods.
What are you doing? Max asked. You’ve never seen him before, and he’s never seen you. What were you expecting? Someone you’d recognize right away?
Kieran resisted the urge to roll his eyes. I don’t have a clue, he complained.
Then why are you staring at strangers? A strange chuffing sound echoed in his mind, and Kieran knew the dragon was laughing at him. He sent an image to Max through their bond, a distant memory of him glaring at Max, before he answered.
I don’t know, Kieran responded.
The bartender returned then, holding a mug with ale splashing over the sides. The bartender placed the mug on the bartop somewhat harshly before he turned to walk away. Before he had the chance to, however, Kieran leaned forward and said, “I was wondering if you might help out a friend?”
The bartender turned back to Kieran, glaring. “And what makes you think you’re my friend?” he growled.
Kieran smirked. He stretched a hand down, pushing his cloak aside to reach the coin purse tied to his belt. He pulled two gold coins from the purse and placed them on the counter, sliding them towards the bartender.
The man’s face broke into a wide grin at the sight of the gold. Moving as swiftly as a viper, his hand snatched out to grab the coins before he stuffed them into his pocket. “What do you need, friend?” he asked in a much more cheerful manner.
Kieran grinned. “I’m looking for someone,” he said. “Name’s Alistair Gaine.”
The bartender frowned. “Ain’t no one here that goes by that name,” he said. “You sure his name’s Alistair?”
Kieran nodded, his heart and mind beginning to race frantically. “Yes,” he said.
The bartender shook his head. “It’s like I said,” he grumbled. “Ain’t no one here that goes by the name of Alistair.”
Kieran sighed, clenching his hands into fists to fight his frustration. “All right,” he said. “Then is there a man in this town, or nearby, who moved here around twenty years ago?”
The man frowned, his eyebrows furrowing together in thought. After a moment, he snapped his fingers in triumph, his eyes shining with excitement. “Aye, there is!” he exclaimed. “Sometime twenty-two, maybe twenty-three years ago, a stranger rode into town, half dead. Hilde, our town’s healer, fixed ’im up. He stayed in the inn for nearly two months as he recovered from his wounds and built himself a cabin, not too far from the edge of town.”
Kieran’s heart lifted. “Truly?” he asked. “What’s his name?”
“Goes by the name of Fergus,” the bartender said. “He usually comes in for an ale or two at night, then he returns to his home. Save for his occasional trip into town for produce and supplies, he keeps to himself.”
Kieran nodded. “Thank you,” he said. He reached into his purse again and withdrew several silver coins and a gold. He placed the silver on the bartop and said, “For the ale, and I’d like a room for the night.”
The bartender nodded and pocketed the silver. Kieran held up the gold coin and flipped it into the air. The bartender caught it, a wide smile on his face as Kieran said, “My thanks for your help.”
The man nodded. “I’ll have one of the serving girls show you to your room when you’re ready,” he said. Then he turned and lumbered away, leaving Kieran alone to his ale and his thoughts.
What do you think? Kieran asked. Could this be our man?
There’s only one way to know for sure, Max replied.
Kieran sighed. I know, he grumbled. But do you think there’s a chance?
He felt Max shrug mentally, then he said, I would say that it’s a good possibility. He was a stranger that came into town around the time you were born, and he’s kept to himself while still mingling with the townspeople.
And there’s one other thing, Kieran said. Something else that could mean it’s him.
When Max’s empty, questioning thoughts drifted back to him, Kieran said, The bartender says he goes by Fergus. That was Nathair’s second name. Nathair Fergus Brennan.
Shocked silence answered Kieran’s words. He frowned, staring into his now half-empty mug. All around and behind him, the townsfolk continued to laugh and drink together, and soon music began traveling around the tavern. Kieran turned on his stool, nursing his mug in one hand and leaning back against the bar, watching the festivities around him.
As he was speaking with the bartender, more people had come into the tavern. Some of them were covered in crude leather armor, while others had their clothes hanging off their bodies in torn, bloody tatters. Some limbs were bandaged, and one man even had his arm in a sling. Despite the injuries, they were all happy.
Tables and chairs were shoved off to the sides of the room, and soon men and women were singing and dancing together on the floor. Mugs of ale were passed all around, and Kieran couldn’t help but wonder what had happened.
He turned to a young man seated beside him, the one whose arm was wrapped in a sling. He laughed and tapped his foot to the beat of the music, eyeing a young, redheaded beauty dancing in front of them.
“What’s the occasion, friend?” Kieran asked.
The young man jerked his gaze around, staring at Kieran in shock for a moment. Then he said, “You’re new to town, aren’t you?”
Kieran nodded. “Yes,” he answered. “I’ve been on the road for a while. This is the first town I’ve seen in a fortnight.” He jerked his chin to the dancing and said, “So? What are you all celebrating?”
The man smiled, holding out his good arm to Kieran. “Name’s Ethan,” he said.
Kieran grasped Ethan’s forearm in his hand. “Lewis,” Kieran said, opting to lie about his name at the last moment. Best to keep his identity secret for a while longer.
Ethan nodded as he released Kieran’s arm. “King Marjhen’s dog Nirnasha was killed about two weeks ago. The Dark King fled, and now Miren Diréthe is protected by the Rangers. We found an Imperial patrol not too far from here, hiding out. We took care of them.”
Kieran nodded. “So you’re celebrating recent victories, both here and at the capital?”
Ethan beamed. “Absolutely!” he exclaimed. “Well, it was a pleasure to meet you, Lewis. But I have some matters to attend to.” He turned to the dancefloor, grinning wickedly as he hopped off the stool. He rolled his shoulders and strode across the floor, towards the redheaded girl he had been ogling before. Kieran watched, amused, as Ethan grabbed the girl’s waist with his good arm, held her close, and kissed her in front of everybody.
Cheers went up among the crowd. Kieran laughed along with the people, their good mood infectious. As he gazed around at every face in the room, he came to a realization.
These are my people, he thought. Throughout his entire life, Kieran had grown up with the belief that he was as disposable as any common footsoldier, any farmer or merchant. After being chased from Miren Diréthe, and living on the run for the better part of eight years, he hadn’t had time to think about the rest of the people, and what his years spent in hiding meant for them.
Guilt and shame washed through him at the thought. I should have stayed, he said. I should have fought for my people.
Max gently brushed up against his mind, his deep, rumbling voice sending waves of calm to Kieran as he said, If you had stayed and fought, then we both would have died a long time ago. And then we wouldn’t be able to help anyone.
Kieran sighed. I know, he said. It’s just… I wish I had done something more. I should have done something more.
It wasn’t the right time, Max said. Neither of us was ready. But we are now. These people have done an amazing thing. For years, they kept their heads down, doing what they could to survive. Just like we did. They didn’t start fighting back until only recently.
Then they’re braver than I ever was, Kieran grumbled.
Max growled. And what is it that you think we are doing? That you are doing? You’re finding Alistair so that together we might fight back, strike against Marjhen. Your brother’s done an excellent job in leading his rebellion, but that is in the past. The people of Azkadia need more than just a rebellion. They need a war, and it starts here, in small places, much like Berafell.
Kieran nodded, thinking on his dragon’s words. A few short years after escaping the capital, Kieran had learned that his half brother Asher was leading a rebellion against Marjhen. It hadn’t been much, only a few skirmishes with Imperials, stealing food and supplies from the soldiers, and rioting in the major cities. However, Max was right. The time for small skirmishes and stealing in the night was over. Now was time for war.
His head jerked up as he felt eyes on him. He scanned the room once more, ignoring the happy singing and dancing. Instead, he inspected every face in the room, searching for anyone that was not engaged in the festivities.
There. Sitting in a booth in a far corner of the room, Kieran saw a man leaning back in his seat. His cloak was wrapped around his broad shoulders, and his hood was pulled up to cover his face. He was smoking a pipe, loose tendrils of smoke curling around the corner. Kieran frowned, staring at the man. Ever so slightly, he saw the man’s head tip forward in his direction.
Kieran frowned. Something’s happening, he said.
Be careful, was Max’s only reply.
Kieran finished his ale and set it on the counter. Then he stood and called one of the serving girls over to him. Her arms were loaded with trays of drink and food, and she seemed relieved to be doing something other than serving people their meals. She led Kieran up the stairs and showed him to a room, then turned and disappeared back into the tavern.
Kieran quickly shut the door behind him, then turned to the inside of his room. There was a single bed pushed up against a far corner, with a bedside table and wash basin beside it. Kieran hurried to the window, slid it open, then pulled himself outside. Being sure to shut the window behind him, he lowered himself so he was hanging from the window by his fingertips. Then, after sending a silent prayer to any god that would listen, he let go.
Kieran hissed in pain as his ankle rolled underneath him when he landed. He rolled it a few times, then drew his dagger and crept along the edge of the inn, stopping at the corner to peer around. It was still raining, but rather than a downpour, the rain fell down softly, much to Kieran’s delight.
Moments later, the cloaked man hurried outside, his head whipping back and forth. His hood was still up, but pulled back from his face enough to show Kieran that he had a steel gray beard.
After a moment, the man made his way into the street, the edges of his cloak snapping as he headed south. Kieran looked around him, then once he was sure no one was watching, he began to follow.
The man walked at a slow, deliberate pace. Kieran was both frustrated and glad. Frustrated, because he wanted to wait until they weren’t in an exposed area before he confronted him, and glad because it allowed him to keep a steady distance behind him. His ankle throbbed with every step he took and it required all of his self-control to keep from crying out in pain.
Soon, they reached the edge of Berafell. Here, there were no lights from inside houses to light the road. Darkness shrouded the woods, and it wasn’t long before Kieran discovered that he could no longer hear the man’s footsteps.
He froze, turning to stare at the forest around him. He narrowed his eyes, straining his ears to hear anything. Suddenly, the cool blade of a dagger was at his throat, and a man’s harsh voice was growling in his ear, “Who are you, and what do you want with Alistair Gaine?”