Huskway, Efrana, Tharia, 5:08 PM.
Huskway was five hours south of King's Court in the neighbouring county of Efrana. I'm certain that I'd have enjoyed the ride had my journey not been spent mulling the idea of Sara. Who was she? Where had she come from? What would she become? Every time I closed my eyes her piercing emerald ones illuminated the overwhelming darkness and the enigma called Sara continued to haunt me.
Every now and then Bjorn would start a conversation that I'd be willing to partake in as it temporarily spared me from my own thoughts, but those conversations would inevitably fade and I'd be back with the new redheaded captor of my mind. Usually it wouldn't have bothered me but nobody had ever held my attention in this way before. There was more to her than meets the eye, I was sure of it.
As we reached our destination I placed ten pieces of gold next to Bjorn, shaking his hand firmly before throwing myself off of the caravan.
"My thanks, Bjorn. I hope to see you again." whether I meant what that or not was yet to be seen, though I shan't deny I was warming to his company.
"Anytime, laddie! I'll see you around. Stay outta trouble!" Bjorn belted a laugh as he moved his vehicle onward, the rattle of various merchandise drumming from within. I couldn't help but smile at the dwarf's own amusement.
I'd been dropped off in the centre of Huskway, a circular park with an ornate fountain decorating the middle. It was tiny, as was the rest of the hamlet, and was gothic in architecture. Old buildings could be heard creaking in a light wind, painted with dark, brooding colours. There was one tavern located in Huskway and it was where I set off toward first.
As I strode through the dormant and seemingly abandoned settlement I drew a cigarette and match from a pouch hooked to the back of my belt. I indulged my bad habit for the first time in a while in an attempt to sooth my running thoughts. The smoke lapped at my lips before spiralling into the biting breeze.
My first stop was the Wolf and Ward, Huskway's only tavern. The accommodation was as rundown as the rest of the hamlet. The grey paint coating the wood was chipping and the decrepit oak frame looked as though it would give way at any moment. I'd stayed here only once before and it was a night that I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy. The walls moaned and squealed as the wind pierced through the ever-growing cracks, and I'd probably have been comfier sleeping on a pile of nails than the rock they called a bed.
I pushed the door open slowly and gazed over the intimately lit interior. Four circular tables sat snug in the middle with hardly any room to pass by. The bar at the back of the tavern held a disappointing collection of three liquors and an elderly, semi-senile man named Earl, currently hunched over his copy of the Kingsland Chronicle. His fraying white eyebrows furrowed as he focused on the small lettering, scrunching his already wrinkled face to the point where his thick glasses were teetering on the tip of his nose.
"Earl, great to see you again." I spoke quietly as I approached the bar nonchalantly. He slowly lifted his gaze, his expression remaining attentive.
"Ah, the man with no name returns. How long has it been?" the faint flicker of a smile curled his lips momentarily.
"Too long. I've missed Misha's cooking." I lied through my teeth. Misha couldn't cook to save her own life. The woman was going on ninety and managed to poison me more often than not. One could even say it was being done deliberately at this point.
"Oh? Well, what would you like? I'm sure she-"
"Bread. Bread's fine." I spoke firmly, offering a smile. Can't kill me with bread.
Earl hobbled into the back room with a nod. It was another two hours to Direthorne and I'd need something to keep my hunger at bay. I removed the cigarette from between my lips, exhaling a lingering slither of smoke whilst rubbing the item into an ashtray found on one of the four tables.
The elderly tavern keeper soon returned with a small sack, placing it on the bar. He looked up at me with a somewhat inquisitive glare.
"Misha wants to know whether you'd like some stew?"
Good Gods no.
"I'll pass for now. Make sure she's got a bowl waiting for me when I return though?" I smirked. I wouldn't be hurrying back.
Earl managed a weak chuckle as he asked for ten silver. I rifled through a coin purse I'd shoved into my coat pocket and placed fifteen coins on the counter.
"Keep the change." I said as I untied the sack, revealing the crudely burnt bread. Of course she managed to burn bread, I thought bitterly.
Bidding farewell to Earl, I made my way outside, embracing the cold air. The sun had begun to retreat behind the Star-Touched Mountain Range. The sight was undeniably breathtaking as the rays of light bursting through cloud-piercing spires created a bold silhouette, guarding Tharia's eastern landscape. I'd travelled more than most of the nation's residents but I'd never traversed the mountain range. Only stories were told of what lay beyond it and that only fed my desperation.
I began to push forward to the dirt path that connected Huskway to Direthorne. For most of the journey there was nothing but fields and the odd farmhouse. People often referred to it as The Stretch, due to the never-ending nature of the narrow, straight track.
The cobblestone beneath my boots clapped as I strode away from the Wolf and Ward. My gaze was washing over the few houses of Huskway I passed between, surveying their questionable lifespan, before a figure kneeling on a nearby rooftop caught my eye. I froze and tried to evaluate the shadowy form but the sun behind me was too far gone to be of any help. They didn't seem to run as I stared up, but simply stared back. I pulled my flintlocke free and aimed it toward the figure, causing them to roll out of sight. Probably just another thief, I thought. Or, more accurately, hoped.
I shoved my flintlocke back into the holster around my chest and carried on, keeping a watchful eye on the house as I passed. Huskway had been known to harbor petty criminals, I wasn't about to chase down a teenager for preying. What's the point? There's no reward.
It wasn't long until the cobblestone underfoot dripped off into the dirt and I was on The Stretch, leaving the settlement behind. Every so often I'd check whether I was being followed but, after ten minutes, I'd given the situation the benefit of the doubt and stopped looking. The Stretch was an open landscape, fields crawling out for miles either side of the path, there was nowhere to hide here.
The trek was tedious to say the least. There was no change in scenery and the route was as straight as could be. I passed only one caravan heading toward Huskway and the gnome driver offered a tip of his hat as a greeting. His horse looked exhausted and he looked no better but they persevered through the biting cold. My coat was wrapped tight around my chest and my hood had been draped over my head, shielding me from some of the frosty air. The sun disappeared an hour into the journey and was replaced by a crescent moon amongst a bed of stars. Folk in Efrana swore to Ascal, the county where Direthorne was located, that a wolf's howl was heard every full moon, followed by the disappearance of farmers or travellers. The majority of Ascal's citizens dismissed the myth but some people said they'd seen beasts roaming the fields with their own eyes. I personally thought it was just a story, much like the idea of magic, that made life seem less dreary than it really was.
The majority of my journey had been spent thinking of Sara again. Whether she'd stay where I left her or return to the streets. I questioned what I felt when thinking of her. I found her attractive, that much was obvious, but was it her emerald eyes that caught me off guard or her flares of personality? I was a man accustomed to not forming attachments, meaning the ongoing flurry of images I had rushing through my normally calculated head worried me. I'd have to face myself soon and decide whether it's best for me to forget her, a concept that made every muscle in my body tense.
The Stretch eventually came to an end when the path began to slope down into a lush valley below. Trees lined the descent and I welcomed the new terrain that glistened in the faint light of the night sky. I saw dots of light representing different settlements residing within Ascal, this beautiful county resting between two grand hills that soared up above the dirt path. A river, made apparent by the white ripples exhilarated by the moonlight, weaved between the many villages. One city sat upon a slightly raised plateau, larger than the rest. Direthorne.
I advanced down the slope and whenever a fork in the road appeared, a signpost pointed me in the direction of Direthorne; it wasn't a quick walk to the city but the new setting made it more enjoyable. I passed through Hearthden, a sleepy village at the foot of the plateau, and the warm glowing lights emanating from the frosty edged windows of wooden houses enticed me. My skin was numb from the cold and I'd have given anything to be sat in one of the lodges drinking myself to sleep. The tired gnome and exhausted horse from The Stretch rode into my subconscious and I felt inspired to continue until I'd reached my destination.
Hearthden had a small stone bridge that hopped elegantly over the winding river before trailing up the plateau standing guard over the village. I left the thought of a warm rest behind and followed the stone path up, guided by torches placed either side of the road. As I traversed the steep and winding path that began to overlook the villages below I admired the subtle grandeur of the county. Though cosy and nestled conveniently, the area was enormous, a total of fifteen villages spread out amongst the thick forests and peaceful lakes. There was the faint hum of life trickling from Direthorne but it was tranquil beneath the raised city.
The plateau itself was almost a hike and, by the time it began to lean horizontally, I was short of breath. The path spiralled up and made a sharp right turn around a rock pillar, engravings telling the tale of a long outlived battle. I couldn't help but grin as Direthorne's tall stone walls could be seen before me, exposed against the overhanging stars and dark purple sky. I picked up my pace and jogged up the gentle incline toward the city and could see two guards stood by the gate. As I travelled forward my hand plummeted into the satchel strapped to my waist and retrieved a small scroll with a band of red silk wrapped around the centre to keep it closed.
I arrived at the gate within a matter of minutes. One of the guards stepped forward, spitting to one side. His nose seemed lopsided and his right eye was milky, the colour deteriorated from the iris. My jog came to a gradual stop and I parted my legs slightly as the guard approached me, my arms folding across my chest.
"Five gold to enter, outsider." he said with a voice that resembled two pieces of metal scraping against each other.
"King's bounty hunter." I spoke with a calm tone, my voice husky as usual. I held out the scroll to him, which he took in one chubby hand and read portions aloud to himself.
"By decree of the King... Free passage... Personal friend of Tharia's Royal Family..." the guard scratched his chin and grumbled before rolling the parchment back into it's original state and wrapping the silk band around it. He passed it back with a grunt before spitting to my feet.
"Got something you want to say?" I sensed my icy gaze burn from beneath my hood and I could feel an intense burst of anger flourish in my gut, ready to pounce if he overstepped.
"I ain't got nothin' to say to outsiders that don't pay the toll." his words were meant to intimidate me.
"Maybe you should take that up with his highness." I kept my pitch low and refolded my arms once the scroll was back in my satchel. "Now, tell your men to open the gate."
We stood silently for a few seconds in an unannounced staring competition before the guard turned slowly and made his way back to the gate, whistling loudly followed by a sharp yell.
"Open 'er up!"
The gate clunked heavily and the sound of metal grinding poured out from the entrance as the thick bars were lifted from the ground, sliding upward, out of sight. I sarcastically bowed my head as I left the two guards behind, grateful that my new favourite didn't push his luck.
The aura of the city was regal, with tall buildings resting against each other and no alleys between them, only clean paths and roads meandering through the structures tastefully. By design, the city was split into four districts: the Military Quarter, the Market Quarter, the Lord's Common and the Reliquary. Upon passing Direthorne's threshold I found myself in the Lord's Common, where many of the citizens were housed and the majority of taverns could be located. I had a favourite accommodation that I'd used on my previous travels and rather enjoyed.
I hurried from the gate through Reign Street as the cold air began to howl and rip through the city's walls, making my way toward the Surly Gryphon.
Oh how I loved the Gryphon.