Caranne lugged his pack of provisions on his back from under the collapsed horse. He pulled out his shiva to end the horse’s suffering but stopped. The last two had no chance but this one still had some breath in it. It would fetch him some coin even in bandit lands.
Wooden pikes outlined the bandit outpost. Archers manned slots behind them. This close to the border with the states, they needed to be prepared.
A hoarse voice rang out from behind the pikes. “These roads are not free, stranger. Turn back.”
Caranne bristled with frustration. These fools have no idea how the world is changing around them. But he removed the scarf from his face and withdrew the colour changing disc from the folds of his robe. Dah-Kun had given the magic imbued metal disc to all those who he expected to travel through the lands. If the person it had been given to, held it up, the disc turn to gleaming bronze from its original battered dull silver. Caranne had often marveled at it and it was one of the first things that had him believing in magic and Dah-Kun’s power. However, only the people holding the discs knew the truth and the rest of the bandits believed that the disc-holders held the power themselves.
He trudged forward raising his right hand with the disc and dragging his satchel with his left. Within moments the makeshift wooden gate opened up and two men with torn leather jerkins ran out.
So, this post sees action. The bandits posted on the border often had a rotating schedule where they were sent out to pillage resources from the villages and defend the post. Which also meant there would be a Voiceless at the post.
“Lord, were you attacked? Is somebody pursuing you?” The lead bandit ran up to him.
“What?” Caranne started and then realized the manner of his approach raised the possibility. “No, I’m fine but take me to the Voiceless.”
“But Lord, your injuries…” the bandit hesitated.
Caranne whipped out his shiva and nicked the man’s cheek. A small sliver of blood spurted out as the man fell backwards holding his face. “I said take me to the Voiceless. Now!” These dimwits will get us killed.
The man nodded, blood creeping out between his fingers and scrambled to his feet. The other bandit warily reached for the satchel which had fallen behind him. Caranne shot the man a glare but hurried towards the gate. The bleeding man ran ahead.
The bandit outpost was the standard fare Caranne had seen before. Twelve large sturdy wooden houses stood organized in a big square. One of them housed the leader of the post but no one else was told which one it was. He appreciated giving unimportant pawns the feeling of superiority to drive them to operate with loyalty.
The man led him around the west corner and to the second house. Few of the bandits outside gawked at him. Evidently, visits by one the commanders was rare.
The hut was sparsely furnished with a few tables and a few rooms with curtains draped over them at the back. Five men and two women sat at the tables, their swords and leather armor strewn about. Two of the men jumped up at his entry but only one managed to draw a small dagger.
Caranne smirked. These guys would never hold up in the face of an actual assault. “Where?” he growled towards the man who led him. The man pointed to one of the girls sitting with one of the bandits.
“Everyone but the Voiceless, leave.” Caranne flipped the disc between his fingers.
The Voiceless girl looked up at him but the other bandits hesitated. The bleeding bandit shouted immediately. “What are you waiting for? Leave the lord alone with her.” The man removed his hand from his cheek which was now dripping with blood. It had the desired effect.
Caranne stepped towards the Voiceless girl, who stared at him with big black eyes, albeit not with fear. The small amount of sunlight streaming in from the two windows highlighted the young pretty face. If she were not Voiceless, I’m sure she would have been bedded by all the men in this post. But any hurt caused to any of the Voiceless entailed swift retribution. And no one wanted their secrets used against them, so anybody using their services trod carefully.
Caranne flashed the girl a smile. “I am Caranne Viallan and as you can tell, I’m one of the commanders. I have a message to send to Dah-Kun.” He paused. The girl remained impassive even at the mention of the bandit lord’s name.
He took a deep breath. It had to convey all he had seen. He shuddered at the thought of the rocks rising from the ground. “Maray is the village we have been searching for but a powerful magician is already there. She calls herself Empress and is collecting other magus from all around the northern lands. And she has raised fifty foot high black stones from the earth.”
She closed her eyes, as if memorizing the information and then nodded.
“Good. I cannot stress how important this message is and how this should be delivered as soon as possible.”
The girl raised two fingers in response.
Caranne raised an eyebrow. “Two days? You can get the message to him that soon?” Was the bandit lord closer than he’d thought?
The Voiceless did not reply.
Caranne sighed. The question probably was an insult to them. They never failed their promises, which is why Dah-Kun had employed them in such great numbers. He turned to leave. This meant he wouldn’t have to spend too many days at this refuse of an outpost.
The girl tapped his shoulder and raised her right hand to symbolize a circle with her fingers.
“What do you mean?” Caranne asked. “Oh, you mean the disc?” He held it out and the disc turned bronze once again.
The girl nodded and the beckoned him towards the far end of the room.
“Do you have a message for me?”
The girl did not respond but pulled out a white sheet of paper and then looked up at him.
Who would send me a message? And how did they know I would be here? Caranne nodded to give his assent to be shown the message.
The girl pulled out a sharp quill from the pocket of her dark brown skirt and ran the tip over her left palm drawing blood. Apparently the Way of the Voiceless deigned them to use blood to signify that the message was original and was being delivered as commissioned.
The Voiceless scribbled and handed the paper over to him.
“Meet me at Baravth in two weeks. Courash” Caranne read it out. “That is it?”
The girl nodded, her black eyes indicating irritation.
“What does that hothead want?” he muttered. “Can you tell me when this message was sent?”
The girl held up three fingers and then moved them sideways.
“Three weeks.” Caranne turned and walked out of the hut. He would have to leave immediately. Baravth lay a week’s ride to the west deep in the bandit lands. The message wasn’t meant just for me. It must have been for all commanders.
He sighed. He would not ride without a hot meal though.
The morning breeze felt cold and heavy on Fabius’ cheek. The sight of the man suspended in mid-air had chilled his bones. The opaque white barrier seemed impervious to anything thrown at it. The Throdden Guards had forbidden any of townsfolk from approaching or touching the barrier and kept a constant watch.
They approached the inn where a town-hall meeting had been summoned by the mayor to discuss the exigencies. Lord Tremane rode behind him. Why did I ever trust this man? On some level Fabius knew his anger for Darius’ disappearance was misdirected towards the old Lord but the man had done nothing but lie to him.
Ainsley had asked to be left out of the meeting. The others had stayed back with him. He had never seen Ainsley that shaken up. But for once he could not bring himself to care about even his best friend. Darius is gone. And he felt guilty for having managed to sleep last night. Even though his dreams were plagued of visions where Darius was alive and healthy. And had never gone on the Arbokkian journey to Halaa.
The small inn was packed to the hilt with all townsfolk except the children, although Fabius spotted the inn-keeper’s young daughter peeping in from one of the rooms. Besides him and Tremane, the only other outsiders were a couple of Ilthan traders with long oiled beards.
Fabius was allowed to move to one of the tables in the front. Lord Tremane sat down beside him. The inn seemed to be rather quiet for a gathering of over fifty people and only hushed conversations hung about the hall.
The mayor, a slim balding man with graying hair stood in front of the bar, rubbing his hands together. “Thank you all for coming. And we are most honoured to have the Throdden prince Fabius in our midst.”
Loud gasps emerged from the townsfolk and loud chatter broke through at the announcement. Fabius bristled with anger. Why Lord Tremane had so boldly announced his identity was beyond him but he didn’t get the opportunity to reprimand the old man.
“Why is the prince here?” “Are the Throddens behind all of this?” “Bless the Throddens. They will save us.” A chorus of cacophony broke out.
“Everyone calm down. The prince was travelling through our town and has very kindly decided to consider our plight because of this…wall.”
“Wave to them,” Tremane nudged him.
Fabius shot him an angry glare but raised a hand and waved around.
“We request all townfolk to stay away from the wall. The Throdden Guard is keeping a watch. Keep your children away. The wall is dangerous as some of you may have seen. The Guard will also try and figure out how to get past the wall.”
“But what about the trade? If we can’t get out, people cannot come in either. We will starve.”
Lord Tremane stood up. “No one is going to starve. I speak on behalf of Prince Fabius and the Throdden kingdom that we will ensure that requisite aid is sent from the northern states till this crisis is subverted.”
Fabius snarled. “Who gave you the right to speak for me?”
The old Lord betrayed no expressions. “It appears the Prince wishes to address all of you himself.”
“What?” Fabius snapped. But the Lord had suckered him in like a fly trap. The people in the room were all looking towards him. He stood up and faced the crowd. “I do not know what caused this but I promise I will find whoever is responsible and make sure that this lovely town does not suffer, as it has suffered from the wrath of bandits.” He shot another look at the old Lord.
A few claps rang out among the people, the mayor encouraging them.
Fabius turned to sit down as an old man shouted. “You all will perish. Sucellok is punishing the faithless, don’t you see? Travel north and bow down to the Empress. She’s the only one who can pardon your faithless existence.”
“What is this man rambling on about?” Fabius asked aloud.
The mayor motioned for the man to be led out. “Do not worry about him, my Lord. He is a loon. But… there is some truth to it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Word has it there is this really powerful lady…I think she calls herself the Empress, whoever she is, is gathering an army of people like her, you know the weird sort. And she is also raising a castle for them. Or maybe a city. If you believe these loons, some are saying she will raise a city larger and better than Sen-Tian right from the ground.”
Fabius scoffed. “Horse-dung. It took over two centuries for Sen-Tian to be built. How can anybody do that?”
“The same way they cordoned off an entire town.” Lord Tremane intoned.
Fabius shot the man a glare. “I suppose a show-man would know a lot about these things. After all, the art of deception is your expertise.”
“Fabius, irrespective of what you think of me, there is only once course of action you must take?”
“And what is that?”
“You must go north and understand what is happening.”
“I do not care about magic. I intend to go and kill some bandits. Not that you care.”
“You’ll need an army to crush the bandits. And with us currently unable to send any messages across to the south and your father, I suggest you gather one yourself. Go north and collect votes and maybe you can convince them to aid you.”
Fabius hissed. “What makes you think I will do anything you say?”
“I’m not telling you to do anything. I’m merely offering my suggestions.”
“I do not want them. I will not be a pawn in your or father’s schemes.” Fabius walked out of the building and walked towards the cliff.
He needed to be alone but when he reached the top, he found Ainsley sitting on a rock wrapped in a cloak. He looked up.
Fabius approached the cliff face and looked down to the churning muddy river below.
“Fabius, I…” Ainsley lay a hand on his shoulder.
Fabius closed his eyes. A tear rolled down his cheek. The hand on his shoulder squeezed down.
“Maybe he is still alive.” But even Ainsley’s voice held no hope.
“It is all because of me, Ainsley. If I had gone and collected the votes, he never would have had to go to Halaa.”
Ainsley turned him around. “Listen to me, Fabius. You cannot blame yourself for that. I will not see you wallow in self-pity. Going to Halaa was not what caused this. It’s the bloody bandits.” He pointed over the ridge. “They did this. No one else.”
Fabius clenched his teeth. “I know and I want to ride in there and find every single one of them who sank Darius’ ship…No…no!” He screamed, stepping back as the force of realization hit him. “Tarvus…he’s dead too.” He looked up at Ainsley. “And Dorian. And Sunnah. I have sailed on the Morning Tide for years. And now it’s gone. All of them are gone.” Fabius dropped down on his right knee and picked up a clod of earth, crushing it in his fist. “Those wretches will pay. Are you with me?”
Ainsley nodded. “They were my friends too. And I will happily gut any bandits we find. But we cannot hope to traverse the entire bandit lands with our company.”
Fabius let out a roar of frustration and threw the fist of earth over the cliff. “I know and this Arbok cursed barrier stops us from calling on the Throdden armies. I would have taken them and crushed the bandits once and for all and not even fathers would have objected.”
Ainsley went pale at the mention of the barrier. “That invisible wall is…” he gulped and looked towards the ground. “Do you think all that talk about this evil witch is true?”
Fabius started to rebuke him but stopped because of the scared look on his friend’s face. “You know how when word travels it gets exaggerated. Heck, we’ve been the source of so many stories.”
“But you saw the frozen man and the invisible wall. I can watch a beheading without flinching but what I witnessed yesterday…” he shivered. “And if someone can do that not being present here, who knows what they are capable of.”
Fabius sighed. As angry as he was, he couldn’t blame Ainsley. The suspended man was creepy and to have witnessed it must have been unsettling. “Tremane thinks they are a bigger threat than the bandits and that I should go north and gather the votes.”
Ainsley looked up. “So that you can get control of their armies and then go attack the bandits.”
Fabius smiled. Even through all this, Ainsley completing his sentences reminded him that he had a brother right by his side. “Yes and maybe take care of this evil witch while we are at it.”