By the time the tiny town came into view, it lay engulfed in darkness. Fabius sensed a chill in the air absent until now. They were travelling north, into the warmer climes. How is it cold? It’s still the peak of summer.
The town of Katak had no historical significance he knew of. The bandits had raised the importance of the town as the conduit to the northern states, which showed in the makeshift wall of wooden pikes at the bottom of the valley.
“Seems quite dark and glum even for a town this size.” Fabius turned in his saddle to look at Ainsley. “I’m stuck with solving salt riddles and boring towns like these while Darius is draining rum with Tarvus.”
His childhood friend drew up Ahearn beside him. “Whether Tarvus can corrupt your brother or whether he’ll be converted into a serious responsible captain, I cannot wait to see.”
Fabius laughed. It’d been a while since the company had any merriment since Baldor’s death “Don’t be that harsh on my brother, Ainsley. If he weren’t the responsible one, we’d never have had the trips we’ve made.”
“I guess so.” Ainsley sighed. “There’s really no point in going to the town tonight. And something about this town is wrong, Fabius. I can feel it in my bones.”
“Your northern bones have grown old and creaky, that’s all.” Fabius ribbed. But he sensed it too. A town should not be so dark. Fabius concentrated on picking out the few lights that lit up the cliff on which Katak stood.
The bulwark, although dimly lit, was unmanned, which appeared strange to Fabius, given its fragile nature. “Why will a town invest in building fortifications, if it does not mean to defend them?”
“Either because it has been left with no people to man the bulwark or there is something else at work in the town that we do not yet see,” Ainsley replied, mirroring Fabius’ own deduction.
Ragnasary came up to them. The cook of the company was still taped around the middle but Master Layan’s orange halite treatment had worked wonders and the man had been ready to ride in less than three days. “Someone is still following us.”
“Still? This someone has been on our trail since we left Lushrow.” Fabius looked over his shoulder. “Don’t think it’s more than one man, though.”
“Like I said before, it could be a scout,” Ainsley weighed in. “ Probably sent by your fathers to tail your exploits.”
Fabius rolled his eyes.
“Then, what do you propose we do about it?” Ragnasary asked. “Let him tail us?”
Fabius scratched his chin. “No. Set up camp. He will too. And when he does, we pay him a short visit.”
It took only about half an hour for the men to set up the tents. Fabius sharpened one of his daggers in the soft glow of the fire stoked by Ardagh.
“Where’s Ragnasary?” Ainsley’s eyes shone a deep red in reflection of the few hot coals they’d put in the fire.
“I sent him to scout. I don’t want him in any skirmishes till he heals up but you know he won’t sit idle.”
“So, we nab him when he sleeps?”
“No. He may have set traps by then. A lone man will always have some protection. And if he is a scout, there may be others keeping watch over him. We can’t give them time to catch up. He may be alert right now but we have the advantage in numbers. We go as soon as Ragnasary returns.”
Fabius bit into a bread roll with chunks of meat stuffed in the crust, one of Ragnasary’s own creations. Why would anyone be trailing us? Because I’m a prince? He shook his head. Thinking too much only gave rise to paranoia. He’d been unsure that someone was following them. After all, the path through Katak was the only route to the north. But the man had camped just out of sight for the past two days.
Ragnasary’s return broke his thoughts. “He’s setting up camp near the lone mahogany tree we passed. No fire though.” The cook gestured towards the south.
Fabius leapt up. “Then it’s time we pay the man a visit.”
Ainsley turned towards the cook. “Ragnasary, you better have more of these breads stored.”
Fabius sighed. Nothing dampened that man’s spirits.
The tree stood a tenth of a league to the south away from the tree line to the west of the free road. Ainsley, Ardagh and Leonton accompanied him. The surviving member of the Royal Guard had been unusually quiet since Baldor’s death. Fabius had tried to talk to the man to no effect. He looked at the gaunt face of the man, only the outline visible under the starlight. Maybe this will help get some blood back to his face.
The mahogany loomed ahead, its wide boughs spreading out in the darkness. Fabius raised both his hands, palms down, and split his fingers. They would circle the man from all four directions. He drew his dagger out as did the others. A sword wasn’t the best weapon for stealth.
He would approach from the front. He waited for the others to reach their vantage points.
“Oh, come now, Prince Fabius. Do we need to do this whole routine?” A voice sounded from the tree as a silhouette emerged from its trunk.
Fabius squinted and moved forward, his hand clasping the dagger. He knew the voice. A fire cackled to life in front of him. “Showman Thormane?”
Fabius raised his hands and waved his men forward. He hesitated but did not sheath his dagger. “What in Quindor are you doing here? And why have you been following us?”
The old man sat down, the bright glow of the fire making him look more storyteller and less showman. “Just heading home.”
“Home? Without your show?”
“The show goes on without me. Besides I think you’ll need my help getting those seven votes, even though you did manage to get Droullin’s.”
Fabius peered at the old man, the hold on his dagger firm. What game is he playing? “How do you know about the votes? Did Droullin tell you about that?” The king had commended the showman and his troupe for their bravery in the tunnels. “Never mind. You’re wrong. I still have all eight northern states to go to.”
“I think you can safely count on my vote. The Blaints have always been staunch believers of the Throdden rule.” The showman bit off a piece of bread.
“What…” Fabius’s eyes widened. “Lord Tremane Blaint? Of the House of Blaints?” Fabius took a few steps back. “You rule Kashmu?”
“I don’t and haven’t in a long while. My grandson does.” The old’s eyes glinted in the fire as a wide grin broke out over his face.
Fabius dropped down on his knees, running his gloved hand down his face. “I can’t believe I didn’t see through you. And fathers. They never had any faith in me to get all of this done alone. They planted you to keep an eye on me, didn’t they?”
“Just to guide you.” Lord Tremane shrugged.
Anger welled within Fabius. “So you decide to follow and childmind me? I’m grateful for saving our lives down in the sewers but this is my task and my quest. I solved the salt carvans mystery on my own and I can get these votes without any favours from you.” Fabius rose and turned away. Fathers will never trust me.
“Don’t be a fool, Fabius. I’m here to aid you in becoming who you should be. From what I’ve seen, you need a lot of polishing before you approach the nobles for their votes and not be manipulated into doing something catastrophic. And since you’ve never been to the north, you don’t have the nous to know what the northern states want or how they operate.”
“I have Ainsley.”
His friend stepped in front, cocking his head to the right.
Lord Tremane guffawed. “This boy who’s more southern than you are? Tell me, do you know that the Lord of Strathaven despises the Fimdoms and if you promise to increase a cavalry in one you’ll have to promise more to the other? How do you plan to resolve that?”
Fabius stared back. “By providing two legions of archers to one to compensate. The more amount of soldiers will placate them but will cost the same as one cavalry legion. Do not take me for a fool, Lord Tremane. I just hate politics.”
The old man had a wide grin on his face. “And yet, you exhibit the perfect judgment required for it. You may yet make a king.”
Fabius moved closer to the showman. “I’m no king and I never want to be one. Besides Darius is far more adept at all this. I’m collecting the votes on his behalf.” He hoped pressing the man would intimidate him but the old lord remained unmoved, the smile stuck to his face.
“Whatever be your reasons, you need to collect those votes. The northern states are nothing like the prosperous trading cities of the south. You haven’t even been to the lands, much less know and understand the people.”
“Lord Thormane, your deceit does not rest well with me, whatever your intentions may have been. Do not follow us. I do not need your assistance.” Fabius turned and marched away from the tree.
“Hold up, Fabius.” Ainsley ran towards him. Dropping his voice, he pulled Fabius closer. “Are you mad? If he says who he is, getting the votes will become that much easier. Not to mention you won’t even have to go to Kashmu.”
Fabius smiled. “I know. I do need the man. But if I accept his aid this easily, I will never hear the end of it from fathers. It is one of their bloody tests and as mad as that makes me, I will not let my ego get in the way of my freedom from this ludicrous task.”
Ainsley smiled back. “So you intend to let him follow and then prove his usefulness to you?”
Fabius laughed. “You know it’s eerie what you do. Yes, so that he cannot report back saying I took the easy way out. Besides, we still have to make sure that he is who he says he is and that he really is working for my fathers.”
Ainsley rolled his eyes, as the other two members of the company caught up to them. “Maybe that old man is right. With this much plotting, you sure could become king.”
“Travelling like this is painful.” Tarvus quipped, rubbing the small of his back.
“It’s much better than our shipmates our doing. Cooped up in the wagons all day and being baked under this sun cannot be healthy.” Darius stretched out his own arms. The vardo they had been given was barebones and as comfortable as a stone floor, but between the two of them, had more space than given to many of the bandits.
“Yeah, and that’s thanks to your culinary delicacies,” Tarvus laughed. “I’ve heard they even want to dispose Barak and give up banditry if they get food from you the rest of their lives.”
Darius smiled. “If that was the price to turn them away from this life, I would gladly cook all meals for all their lives.”
“Not all is lost, dear friend. Food can be a strong motivator, especially when it’s as good as yours.”
Darius responded with a half-smile. Most of the bandits did seem like normal folk, only with the bandits because they’d nowhere else to go. A lure of a home may have actually pulled them away from this life. Except for Courash and his masters, whoever they were. They somehow held sway over every man, woman and child among the bandits. He’d tried to plant the seeds of thought for leaving, but none would listen to him and he couldn’t pursue it with any force without seeming suspicious. Talks about trying to leave from him were expected, since he was a new captive, but trying to raise a rebellion or an exodus wouldn’t be taken kindly to.
Saving the people here couldn’t be a priority anymore. The capture had already delayed his original mission long enough and he had to find a way to escape. Who knows what the Halans have been up to? But neither could he leave his men to die brutal deaths or be forced to pillage and rob others.
His thoughts screeched to a halt along with their wagon. Tarvus peered out. “We’ve reached some village.”
“Doesn’t look like a place for one of your fights.”
“No, according to Rorash, there won’t be one till another fortnight.” Tarvus sighed.
Darius raised a brow. “Are you enjoying them?”
Tarvus smiled sheepishly. “They aren’t really fights. I’ve been in three and like I told you, all have been against men who barely know how to step, forget how to swing. I’ve made them look vicious but I could have knocked them out much before I did. No blood and no injuries; all my crew enjoys it. Keeps us limber.”
Darius knew his face wore a scorn as Tarvus sighed.
“I know it’s difficult for you to imagine all Halans as savage warriors. But we are travelling deep within their territories and these are small villages. Their renowned warriors must be in their cities.”
Darius scoffed. “Halan cities!”
Tarvus smiled. “Whatever passes for a city in these lands. The point is these are common folk. That isn’t going to change in any kingdom. Not even in the bandit lands. And besides, it has been twenty years. Things may have changed, Remus,” Tarvus cringed. “By Sucellok’s beard, I’m going to forget your real name if this keeps up.”
Darius scratched the bridge of his nose. “Unless we get out of this Arbokkian captivity, my name won’t matter.”
“No debating that, my friend. But for now, all I can do is keep my men strong and trained and hope we don’t meet the actual warriors of Halaa.”
“While I’m stuck stirring broths and chopping meat for the hungry warriors,” grumbled Darius.
“Get off you sea rats,” someone scraped the side of their vardo.
Tarvus rolled his eyes and pushed the door open.
Rorash stood with his club studded with large nails, in his hands. The uncanny resemblance to Courash struck him every time but he had been told that he was not related to the vile bandit.
“You two go and fetch your food supplies.” He raised his club towards Tarvus. “Pick some good spices, so that this lad here can make the famous fish you two were talking about.”
He moved the club towards Darius. “And you better make a darned good dish, coz if I don’t scarf the fish down, bones and all, I’m going to powder all the bones in your body and make soup out of them.” Rorash walked away.
“Fish-breath,” cursed Tarvus. “I’ve a good mind to feed him some kelmroot.”
Darius turned his eyes towards the village. Small thatched houses dotted the countryside around him. They stood at what Darius suspected to be the village square, which had a few shops, a marketplace and a large fountain in the centre.
That he now stood in Halan lands was apparent from the appearance of the villagers, who all sported a darker forehead than the rest of their faces.
“Come on, Remus. Let’s get your spices.” The captain clapped his shoulder.
Darius nodded. The bandits were all stretching out their legs, while his crew-mates were being put to work.
“Where is that eel slipping off to?” Darius saw Barak step out of his house-sized van and shy away from the others. Courash had remained at the bandit outpost and Barak had taken charge of this expedition. The man seemed more reasonable than the vile Courash but also much more dangerous.
“Why do you care? Must have an old wench here he doesn’t want his men to know of.”
“Because for a leader of the bandits, he does very little. He stays cooped up in his van and barely speaks to anyone, even to give orders.”
Tarvus shrugged. “I’ve known many men like that. What’s so strange about wanting privacy? Besides he seems much like a noble among commoners. Maybe he was one before he sided with the bandits.”
“Maybe you are right, Tarvus. But I have a hunch that he’s up to something much more than looking over a bandit tour. Maybe hatching a plan with the Halans.”
“You’re too obsessed with Halan conspiracies.” Tarvus scratched his week old stubble. “But what do you suggest?”
“We have a look in his van.”
Tarvus raised his eyebrow. “And how do you propose to do that?”
Darius cracked open a wide smile. “Being a chef gets you a lot of favours. Come with me.”
Tarvus threw his hands up. “Right now?”
Darius didn’t respond. He’d been sitting idle too long. He led them to the central tent being set up by the bandits. “Tharvit,” he beckoned to a middle-aged man carrying ropes.
“Remus, what are you cooking for us today?” the man jogged over to them, his bright yellow flannel shirt billowing in the strong wind.
“Fish, most likely, if I find the right stuff. But I need rosemary as well. Do we have any in stock? I doubt we’ll find any in this small village. Doubt these Halans know what rosemary is.”
“Well you know Barak keeps all the exotic stuff with himself. He must have it.”
“Oh too bad, I guess fish is off today’s list,” Tarvus chimed in with a sigh.
“Wait…wait, you really need rosemary that bad? I can get you some.”
“Thanks for the offer, Tharvit but I would need to select the sprigs myself. No issues, I’ll probably cook up a potato mash with pumpkin.”
Expectedly, the portly bandit made a face. “No pumpkin, Remus, I beg of you. I think Barak is out. Let’s get you some rosemary.”
“What? You mean sneak into his van?” Darius feigned concern.
“He’s never going to notice if you don’t take too much. Besides, he cooks his own food, so he’ll never know what you put in the fish.” The bandit stowed the rope and beckoned them to follow.
“I guess you’re right. I’ll only take a minute. And I so badly wanted to cook fish.” Darius egged the man on.
Tarvus passed him a sly smile as they headed to Barak’s van. Darius felt a tinge of guilt leading the man on but he was one of the only two with access to the van for repairs. He hadn’t managed to get friendly with the man who cleaned it.
Tharvit produced a small key on reaching the large van. “You should get away from here,” he motioned to Tarvus. “I can explain Remus’ presence, not yours.”
Tarvus nodded, looked at Darius to let him know he would be waiting and left.
The bandit opened the door. “Get in quickly. I don’t want to take the chance of explaining your presence.”
Darius skipped up the steps and stopped on the top stair. He’d known a van needing four horses to pull it would be huge but the insides of this one were truly fit for a noble. The entrance was fitted with plush cushions and a lanthorn made of glass hung from the roof. A doorway led further in.
“No time to be impressed, Remus. The spices are this way.” The bandit closed the door behind them and climbed two steps to pass through the doorway.
Darius followed. The doorway was carved and gilded. Tharvit had passed through the room and through the next doorway. But it was this room that held his attention, filled from the floor to the ceiling with books.
Darius picked up a blue bound book with bronze-gilded edges. The book cover felt like velvet and the paper inside slipped through his fingers. “Even the royal library in Sen-Tian does not have such books.” Darius murmured to himself. It was in no language he’d ever seen, either from his kingdom or from Halaa. Why is he collecting books?
“Remus, get over here. No time to dawdle,” Tharvit popped in, cringing.
“All this, it’s beautiful.” Darius turned around the room.
The bandit grabbed his hand and dragged him through to a room full of edibles. Shelves were stacked with pickles and spices from all across the land. Tharvit hadn’t noticed the book in his hand, so he slipped it under his vest.
“Barak sure knows how to stock up on the good stuff. The things I could create with these.” Darius examined a jar of cinnamon, the aroma seeping through even the sealed jar.
“Find the rosemary. I don’t want to be caught pillaging Barak’s store if I can help it.”
“Already did.” Darius pulled out a few sprigs and dropped a couple back into the jar.
“Good. I better get a full fish, then,” The bandit smiled, leading them out.
“You certainly deserve it.” Darius took a look at the store of books before following Tharvit out. Barak is certainly up to something.