Chapter 14 - Melkar (P3) - Rencounter
Part 3 -
They brought their horses to a halt. The night hours had stretched slower than normal and no one had managed much sleep. Although they hadn’t shared it in words the entire group felt slightly anxious, wondering about what would await them the next day.
Just like Mahel had estimated they’d taken eight days to reach Melkar’s gate.
Elian frowned, looking at the tall columns flanking the large gate, the weight he carried in his chest growing increasingly heavy. His thoughts were constantly assaulted by suppositions and concerns he could do little about. Lidya’s words still rung in his head and he couldn’t help wondering if he had in fact done the right thing, leaving Allana behind, ignoring the condemned woman’s final request.
On the other hand the fact that he hadn’t heard a single word from Mithir left him restless. He’d never realized how much he loved his small, peaceful Kingdom and, by his counts, there was a real possibility that, by now, there was nothing left of his family and home ..
For an instant that whole trip seemed utterly useless. After all, what were they really looking for? Help to save what?
Denar returned to the group and scratched his head, his brown hair in need of an obvious wash.
“That I could see there are at least two men guarding the gate. But there are probably another couple or so inside,” he reported and Elian tried hard to pay attention to what he was saying.
“Do you think they’ll believe that story again?”
“Maybe … Probably yes. But this time lets try not to be so careless. Lets hide any insignias that might identify our origin. And put your most fearless, threatening expressions on your faces!” he added and Arkel growled as if to emphasize his words.
It was past midday and everyone longed for a table to seat at and a hot meal to fill their stomachs.
Denar, as it had become customary, took the lead, and the guards crossed their spears in front of him, forcing him to a halt. As the Knight had suspected these men were in no position to act as careless and relaxed as the men they’d found on the road. And although they showed a healthy measure of fear after he’d explained their line of work, they still questioned them thoroughly, about their origins, reason to travel, where they’d been to, where they were going, and so on. They searched their bags greedily, as if hoping to find a hidden treasure, and finally informed the travelers that there was an admission tax to be paid.
“Oh, but of course,” Denar said, smiling sarcastically. “Please excuse our ignorance. Let’s see, how much would said tax be?” he asked, untying the pouch hanging from his waist, and the man’s eyes glowed at the tinkling sound of coins.
“Five silver coins, sir … each!”
Denar gave him a murderous look and the man took one step back.
“Hum … I tell you what. I’ll give you fifteen coins and my honorable word that I won’t mention this matter to your superiors. And, of course, that you’ll still have your head attached to your neck come morning. What say you?”
The man’s face twisted in anger but, even so, he didn’t dare get any closer to any of the group’s members.
“Are you threatening me?”
“Oh no, no at all. I wouldn’t dare threaten a noble man of the law. I’m just offering you a deal. Fifteen coins and, of course, my protection. And you let us pass,” Denar calmly explained, offering him the fifteen silvers, and the man hesitated, but ended up grabbing them with surprising speed, last he get caught or worse.
Denar smiled, amused, and urged his horse forward, followed by the rest of the group that, like instructed, glared threateningly at the guard.
They pushed forward a bit more and stopped near the corner leading to the main avenue.
The houses there were all big and made of stone, sometimes with two or three floors. It was clear they belonged to the city’s wealthiest class. However, the houses they could see on the secondary streets told a complete different story. The stained, darkened, wooden walls and zinc rooftops only made the streets look even gloomier.
All the stores and commerce warehouses were located on the main avenue but, even at that time of day, the city looked almost inhabited. The few people they saw walked in quick steps, their heads bent down, covered by cloaks or mantles as if they wanted to go unnoticed.
“Hum, I know the perfect place for us to stay, unless they were forced to close their doors,” Denar told them and Elian gave him an inquiring look “I’ve been here before …”
“And it would seem you didn’t make many friends, or am I wrong?” Lamar asked, noticing that the moment they’d crossed the city gates he'd covered his head, and the Knight smiled but didn’t answer.
They followed him through narrow, dark streets, and progressively less and less inhabited blocks of houses. In there the air seemed heavier and an foul stench of something putrid scraped the back of their throats, leaving them nauseated; a repugnant smell that seemed to be the result of something long dead, mixed with excrements and rotten food.
Elian raised the collar of his cloak so it would cover his nose. There were whispered voices all around them, and ghostly faces peered here and there from the shadows. Occasionally they would shamelessly pull apart the ragged clothes that covered them, exhibiting their naked bodies, and only then did he realize that those faces belonged to women … that they were actually Human Beings and not ghosts from some unnatural world. The smell of rot was so strong and rank that it left a bitter, pasty taste in his mouth.
The sound of screaming woke him from his torpor and his gaze fell on the two soldiers that had grabbed a woman, tearing her clothes to shreds. The fruits she’d carried in a basked were now rolling over the dark stone of the pavement, ending up in the gutter where they remained covered in fetid water. She was still fighting them, despair contorting her young face, but it was clear that she had no chance to escape.
Elian clenched his fists hard and was about to make his horse turn around when a hand held his reigns, forcing him to avert his gaze. Elipson simply looked at him, understanding and sadness clear in her eyes, and all he had to do was face that gaze to know what she was thinking, and that she was right. Stopping now would compromise everything and put everyone’s lives at risk. And that was something he simply couldn’t do. After all he was responsible for the lives of those that followed him. And then the dark, narrow alley was behind them and that pleading face of suffering was lost in the shadows, her screams no more than a murmur like the ones that filled his head every time he woke up from his nightmares; meaningless echoes, with no origin or destiny.
Denar brought his horse to a halt and the rest of the group followed his lead. And only then Elian realized that the foul stench had been replaced by the characteristics smell of wine and bear.
“This is the place I told you about …”
“Well, one can always trust you to find the best places to spend the night!” Arkel said with a board smile on his lips. “You could have chosen a more pleasant route, thought …”
“As long as it’s discreet,” Elian added in a whisper but no one seemed to hear him.
They dismounted their horses, leaving them under the small porch built for that purpose, and, after giving a silver coin to the dirty, skinny boy taking care of the animals, made their way to the door.
The warmth coming from inside touched their faces and they quickly looked around the room, gathering their bearings. There were few guests, at that early hour, but the general mess promised a lively night.
All the better. The more people it got, the easiest they’d go unnoticed, Elian thought to himself.
A sudden smile stretched across Denar’s face and, in quick steps, he marched towards the shadowy table in the corner, where a dark-haired man was sitting, his clothes shabby and patched in several places. Placing a hand on the man’s shoulder, he bent forward to better look at his face.
The man sitting at the table raised his head in alarm, trying to recognize the man talking to him. And then he jumped to his feet and, in one fluid movement, pulled the Knight down, forcing him face down on the table, and twisted his arm behind his back, pressing the point of a sharp dagger to his neck.
“I thought this day would never come, you traitor!”
Denar remained very still and simply smiled.
“Come now, Mandrake … I’m sure you don’t want to do this …” he said softly, signaling him to look to his right and the strange slightly averted his gaze, which was enough to allow him to see the sword pointed at his head and the deadly expression of the green-eyed man holding it.
Another man, this one taller and stronger-looking, placed one booted foot on the bench on the other side of the table and looked at him.
“Not that we like him all that much, but he’s rather useful, now and then,” he explained in a calm voice and Mandrake released the Knight as if nothing had happened, sitting down again in front of his broth that miraculously hadn’t been spilled.
Denar straightened his back, rearranging his clothes, and gave Lamar a reproving gaze.
“We’ll talk about that later …” he grumbled and Lamar smiled condescendingly. Arkel, following the other Knight’s relaxed demeanor, sheathed his sword, and Denar turned to the strange man again. “Come on, Mandrake … I'm really happy to see you. To see you’re still alive!”
“I don’t want … I refuse to talk to you!”
“Fine. At least tell me how Terran and Mikha are.”
Mandrake looked up at him, anger hardening his gaze, and clearly tried his best to remain seated.
“Dead!” he replied dryly and, as if that talk had never taken place, took a spoon of that yellowish broth to his mouth.
For a moment Denar was at a loss for words, disbelief marking his his face.
“And your brother …?” he asked again, this time with fear in his voice, and Mandrake shrugged, filling his mouth again.
“As far as I’m concerned, could be dead as well.”
“Then he’s alive!”
“I rather not talk about him. Much less with you.”
Denar smiled and replaced his friendly hand over the man’s shoulder.
“I really missed you. And I’m very sorry for Mikha and Terran …”
“You have no right to talk about them! Not you, who abandoned us when we needed you the most!” Madrake rebuked, shrugging his hand away.
“I didn’t abandoned you, and you know it! I tried to warn you time and time again. But you and Caleb, you just wouldn’t listen.”
The stranger dropped his spoon on the plate and took a deep breath, shaking his head.
“You were just an annoying kid …”
“But I was right.”
He smiled sadly and nodded once.
“Yes. You were always very perceptive.”
“What good would it have done if I had stayed? We would all have died, together with the others. And then you were always telling me I had to look out for Arista. I had to take her away from that place.”
“Arista … I can’t even imagine her right now. And to think I promised her so many things …”
“Tell me what happened, please. Until this day I never really understood how things got so out of control …”
Mandrake raised his head and, for the first time, look at the other members of that strange group.
“I see you got yourself new companions …”
Denar smiled, knowing that that meant he’d eventually tell him what had happened all those years ago and that, more importantly, he had partly forgiven him, and decided to introduce the others.
“This is Elian. The one with the sword is Arkel. That one is his brother, Mahel. The one with the sense of humor is Lamar. And the lady is Elipson.”
Madrake lightly nodded his head at the ‘lady’, and looked back at Denar.
“It doesn’t take much to see that they were all carefully chosen …”
Denar laughed and shook his head.
“No. To tell you the truth they weren’t chosen at all. They just came from a place where there are plenty like them.”
Mandrake’s dark eyes glowed enthusiastically.
“Oh really? You have to tell me where that place is. I wouldn’t mind surrounding myself with people like these. But please, take a seat. You must be tired from your travels,” he invited and the Knights took places around the table. Mandrake signaled the girl that seemed to be in charge of waitering the tables and they all asked for something to drink and eat. Elipson could only hope that she wouldn’t end up with a bowl of yellowish-green liquid like the one in front of Mandrake, or she would surely throw up.
“So tell me, what happened? And where’s your brother?” Denar insisted and a shadow seemed to fall over the stranger’s face.
“That night … When I woke up it was still dark. I thought I heard voices and remembered what you had told me, that they would end up ambushing us if we remained within Melakay’s borders. I moved carefully and saw a shadow near a bush, a shadow too similar for me to be unable to recognize it. I relaxed, telling myself I was a fool to believe in some boy’s ominous tale. And so I stepped out of my hiding place. I was about to walk up to Caleb and share my own stupidity with him when I saw he was talking to someone I had never seen before. And then I heard him tell the other man to get his men. That he’d like to get it over with as fast as possible. That we should be caught by surprise, while we slept. I think I’ll never forget those words. I can still hear his voice say them every time I close my eyes. For a moment I couldn’t understand what I had heard, then I didn’t know what to do. I ran back to our camp and shout them awake, telling them to grab their weapons. I looked for Arista but couldn’t find her. I looked for you too, but you were gone. And then our camp was surrounded by men holding swords. Ours had barely woken up. Many died before they could stand and pick up their weapons. And suddenly I saw Caleb looking straight at me. I saw Terran run to him, telling him something, probably asking him for guidance. And saw him be impaled by my brother’s sword … his gaze cold, merciless.” Mandrake stopped for a few minutes and took a deep breath as if to cast away the images that had taken over his mind. “They didn’t kill me. To tell you the truth I was the only survivor … Caleb spared my life. They blindfolded me and locked me up in some tower. Caleb came to see me many times … If I could have killed him then …! Every time he came he would tell me how much he loved me. As if someone could do what he did and still love anyone. He explained that he had realized that ours was a lost cause. That we were fighting for the wrong side, and that we’d never win. Now he could have anything he wanted, all we had dreamed of. I’m sure you can imagine. My brother ... Finally he told me that all I had to do was join him … and it was then he told me the truth. Melakay’s rebellion had been this big scam, something that had been carefully planed. Of course the soldier’s didn’t know, but it was all a big game. A bloody game destined keep everyone busy while his new Lord took over the government. In said rebellion the King and his heirs would have to die, which in fact happened not long after. The youngest Prince made a deal with Caleb’s Master, agreeing to serve him if he’d give him the Crown. And Denar, everything happened exactly like he told me it would. Their plan worked perfectly. But more than that he told me what would happen next. You know how Caleb always enjoyed bragging about things only he knows. He told me that once the great Kingdoms of the West had been subdued, a great Army would come from the North to destroy the smaller Kingdoms of the East, so that they’d have complete control over the Continent. According to Caleb this was a great vision …”
Denar shuddered and looked briefly at Elian.
“The Kingdoms of the West?! Does that mean they are all overthrown?”
“Melakay is for sure. Rumors say that Saltan is under they influence as well. As for Thundel I don’t know. Thundel is always hard to understand, since they don't have a central government. Since I constantly refused his offer to join them he stopped bringing me news. And I remained his prisoner for five years, until I was finaly able to escape. He hunts me down even now … As far as I know he was here yesterday, looking for me, so beware. I’m sure he’ll recognize you if he sees you again.”
“And you’re here, now? In the daylight? Are you insane?” the Knight asked and Drake gave him a crooked smile.
“Don’t worry. I have people everywhere in this city. He gets even a bit closer and I’m immediately warned.”
Elian dove into his own thoughts. He had been told him to look for help in the West but it would seem that the great Kingdoms of the West were in need of help as well. Could it be possible that the entire Continent had been overtaken by their enemies and that, contrary to what they had initially thought, Mithir, Leips and Harver were the last free Kingdoms of Altier? And if so … what hopes of success could they hold?
Forcing himself to put such dark thoughts behind him he tried to focus on the conversation taking place right in front of him. Now Denar wasn’t the only one making questions, Mandrake’s story worrying everyone else. But Elian could hardly hear them anymore. He felt as if a dark hole had suddenly appeared beneath his feet and he knew all too well that nothing good could come of allowing himself to plunge into that darkness. Suddenly Elipson’s childish voice echoed in his mind. As long as you’re true to yourself, it doesn’t matter if you lie to everyone else. But if you start lying to yourself then it will be the same as punching a wall. You’ll be the only one getting hurt.
He looked at her. She was carefully listening to the strange man. He wondered if she could still tell him those words even now. Or if she’d tell him that all children are innocent, and that loosing that innocence is the price one must pay for growing-up.
He took a deep breath and forced himself to pull back from that dark path. Be true to yourself! No excuses!, he told himself and allowed the images he had been blocking from his thoughts to return to his mind. The golden haired girl on that balcony … the only goodbye … maybe the last … Allana.
He’d broken his promise. He’d left her alone in his past. The girl he’d searched for his entire life. But how could he have brought her in that increasingly hopeless quest? Above all he wished she could be safe. And to make sure of that you treated her the same way everyone else did. As if she were some porcelain doll. You locked her in a box. You betrayed her trust and worse … you betrayed yourself! He could still see the anger hardening her golden eyes, hear her harsh words. Who did he think he was?
Yet, none of that mattered now. It was no use hurting over a decision he’d made. Nothing would allow him to go back and do things differently. And even if he could go back. Would he have chosen to bring her? Would he have risked her life? Her safety? And yet he couldn’t help missing her terribly, as if a part of him had been torn and left behind.
The sound of a murmur woke him from his thoughts. He raised his head, looking around, but none of the Knights seemed to have noticed it. They were still asking Mandrake about the safety of the roads and about news of the other Kingdoms. Elian still managed to hear something about a storm that would reach them in … five days?
That same murmur filled his ears again. It felt as if someone was calling him, but the sound was far from sounding like his name. By then he’d established that only he could hear it and, as it came closer, the murmur became something like a melody, even though he still couldn't establish its origin.
“Excuse me. I’ll be right back …” he said almost unconsciously and left the table.
He walked without thinking, as if someone else were in control of his legs. Crossing a small arch, that he hadn’t even noticed that existed, he found himself in a smaller room, also furnished with tables and chairs, but obviously much less frequented.
His gaze immediately fell on a small table where a couple seemed to be arguing, although their voices could hardly been heard from where he stood. And yet the sound of that melody was much stronger there, echoing enticingly inside his head.
Walking towards the table he could see that, sitting on the other side, facing him, was a tall, harsh-looking man. However, his companion, sitting with his back to him, wore a dark cloak that covered his head. He looked much smaller than the other man, and suddenly he was on his feet, a sword quickly appearing in his hand. The sound of the metal leaving its sheath silenced the melody inside Elain’s head and he could clearly hear his clear voice.
“Get out of my table this instant!”
His heart jumped a beat … that voice!
Wake up! You’re dreaming again!, but this time the image refused to disappear.
He walked to the table in a firm pace and faced the man that had also stood up, apparently willing to take their argument to the next level.
“You heard the lady. Scram!”
The sword fell on the floor, the clanking sound of the metal filling the air. And yet, although the weapon threatening his life had disappeared, the tall man chose to leave, rather than having to deal with that newcomer as well.
She stood motionless … Elian could almost imagine he could hear her heart racing. He raised a shaky hand and pulled the hood of her cloak down, revealing a long, golden braid.
She slowly turned around, as if fearing he might suddenly disappear, and looked up at him.
“I can believe it … Allana …” he whispered and she threw her arms around him, hugging him with all her strength.
For a moment he just stood there, feeling her … feeling her body against his, her warmth, the scent of her hair, of her skin. Then he wrapped his arms around her as well, and allowed his eyes to close as a deep relief flooded his every cell. Always be honest with yourself …
“You’re here … I’m so happy you’re here …!” he whispered, caressing her hair, and gently pushed her back to touch her childish face, her smile making him smile as well. “I can hardly believe my own eyes.”
“I was afraid I’d missed you, that you might have already left Melkar …”
“Elian? Is everything all right?” Allana peered towards the archway and smiled at the owner of that new voice. “Allana!!”
She quickly left Elian’s arms and ran to hug Elipson, Who stood there, too stunned to say anything else.
“Elipson! So good to see you!”
Elipson looked at Elian, her eyes filled with questions, but he was too overwhelmed to notice it.
“Allana … How did you get here? Where are the others?”
Allana released her and raised her head proudly.
“There are no others,” she calmly replied and Elian seemed to wake up from his dreamy state of mind.
“No others? You mean you traveled all alone from Mithir?” Allana looked at him, still smiling, and nodded. “Are you insane?!” he demanded, raising his voice, and the girl’s smile quickly faded away.
“Elian … this is hardly the appropriate place to discuss that,” Elipson reminded in a hushed voice but he didn’t seem to hear her.
“When did you leave?”
“The day after you left.”
“You crossed the Silver Forest?! You must have! It’s the only way you’d be able to get here before us!”
“I did, but …”
“Do you have any notion of the risk you took? How stupid can you be?!”
“Elian …” Elipson tried again, noticing the girl’s sad expression, but Allana raised her head and faced him, her golden eyes glowing coldly.
“Just let it be, Elipson,” she said and turned to him.”I don’t have to explain myself to you! I thought I’d made that clear the last time we spoke! I don’t need you! Is it so hard to accept such basic truth?!”
Elian’s dark gaze glowed dangerously, his rigid expression hardly containing his anger and indignation, but Elispon placed herself between the two of them.
“This is not the place, Elian! You’re drawing too much attention,” she added, lowering her voice and looking around at the few people present, noticing they were all looking at them, and Elian seemed to swallow his own words.
Instead he walked by Allana, grabbing her arm, and dragged her away with him.
“We need to talk!” he said dryly and dragged her roughly towards the stairs.
Elipson followed them and stopped by the table where the other Knights sat, looking intrigued at the strange company Elian seemed determined to take with him towards the bedrooms’ floor.
“What happened?” Lamar asked and Elipson sighed, facing Denar.
“Allana is here …”
“Allana?!” Arkel repeated with a pensive expression that said that the name wasn’t’ strange but that he couldn’t quit place it, and Mahel looked towards the stairs where they’d both disappeared.
“The Princess …”
“Princess? But wasn’t she supposed to have died in Everlyn?” he asked, apparently unconcerned with the matter, and Elipson sighed, sitting down.
“It’s a long story …”
“Hum … I knew it. Things were just going too smoothly to be true,” Denar sighed.