Ainsley was waiting for them at the gates of the tall iron gates of Ianthine, flanked by two Ianthine guards with violet tabards with the white gemmed spire.
“Couldn’t wait for us, eh?” Fabius ribbed half-heartedly. His mind kept flitting back to Elena.
Ainsley did not answer but hopped on to Ahearn. He looked at the old Lord. “One of your scouts came looking for you. Ragnasary went out to scout the countryside to find herbs for his food and met him. An army atleast three thousand strong is marching towards this city right at this moment.”
“What? Whose army?” Fabius looked at the Lord, who looked confused as well.
“At least two banners, maybe more. Seems somebody’s pissed with the Empress.”
“About the Empress…” Fabius started.
“It’s Elena.” Ainsley interjected. “Yes, I know.”
Before Fabius could ask how, he continued. “One of the farmers in the tavern claimed he was an original form Maray.” He shrugged. “The northeners like petals like all of us. Tarbon isn’t a common name to have up north and I’m not surprised that she turned out to be the hot-head I always told you she was. So how did that go?”
“Not at all how I had always imagined it. She…” A longing mixed with anger filled within him. He didn’t know what to do.
“It must be Lord Sheamerg’s army. I’d heard of unrest in his state but I never thought the fat blob would ever move.” Lord Tremane looked at him with keen eyes. “We must ride and intercept them. We cannot allow a war.”
“A war?” Fabius sputtered but the Lord had already kicked his horse into a gallop. He’d never thought he would ever let himself be involved in politics let alone wars.
Fabius and Ainsley galloped after the Lord.
Rounding up the company didn’t take long for they had barely set up camp. They left behind Ragnasary to cook.
But all through, Elena’s descent down the stairs kept Fabius’ mind occupied. A smile broke through his face every now and then.
Ainsley nudged him. “She is that pretty?”
Fabius blushed. “Beautiful and beyond compare. But she’s behaving like a different person. The Elena I knew…”
Ainsley laughed. “Maybe she is still the same and this is just politics talking. She is the head of a city now. And funnily, if you want her, you can’t run away from your princely responsibilities.”
Fabius rolled his eyes. “Not you too. Instead of handing out at bars and taverns, we are stuck visiting cities cropping up from the ground and now meeting armies! This is definitely not what we signed up for.”
“Actually you did. You said you would get the votes for Darius.”
Fabius closed his eyes. The turmoil of emotions in his heart was maddening. He’d never felt elated, sad, angry and frustrated all at the same time. He hadn’t thought it even possible.
Lord Tremane had not spoken to him since they had left the Council Hall. Fabius dropped back to him. “Did you really not know who she is?”
The old Lord shot him an angry glare. “I do not keep information like this secret. Especially if I’d known that seeing a girl would make you go cuckoo and behave like a complete loon.”
“What? I did not behave… I followed your lead. I stood up for the Throdden Empire. Is that not what you wanted when you pulled that water trick?” Fabius paused. “How did you do that?”
The old Lord did not answer. “Me saying something does not have the same effect as the prince of the bloody Empire saying it. I am an old man who is not even in the political circles anymore. What I said acted as a warning. What you did may very well create a war. They will call our bluff. They know we don’t have the forces to enforce out threats. We cannot call for aid from Sen-Tian because of a magical barrier probably created by your hot –headed muse.”
“You really didn’t like her?”
Tremane’s eyes widened in exasperation. “Stop behaving like a nuzzling goat. I know it is beyond you to act like a prince but do not throw away the Throdden legacy like it means nothing.”
“Oh my…they are marching fast.” Ainsley called out.
Fabius let out a low whistle on seeing the size of the contingent approaching them. He had heard of armies marching and he had seen batallions practice but seeing one in reality made him appreciate the coordination.
Orange banners with a black hawk flew along with the Throdden wheel. “Did they empty their lands or what?”
Lord Tremane sighed. “These forces do not include the nobles’ own armies. They have simply sent out the Throdden standing forces. So in all likelihood, Sheamerg is cowering behind his sister’s skirts, while his captain fights the war.”
Fabius looked around at the marching army. “But this is great!” he exclaimed. “The Throdden Imperial Watch are the best trained soldiers in the kingdom. And as a prince I can choose to command them as and when I so please.”
The showman turned towards him. “And what will you command them to do, Prince? Take down Ianthine? I am surprised you know that you can command the Watch.”
Fabius felt irritated at the quips. No, I will not shirk away from my duties. I will honour Fabius and I will convince Elena as well.
“I do not intend to launch an offensive. But a show of strength never hurts. I will collect the Throdden Imperial Watch from all of the states. With the threat that Ianthine poses, I’m sure the nobles will also be inclined to give me their votes if they want the continued protection of the Throddens.” He looked at the Lord, holding his face stern.
To his surprise, the old Lord nodded, a glint of approval in his eyes. “You are playing a dangerous and tumultuous game, Fabius. But I’ve yet to meet a Throdden who wasn’t bold. We must move fast if we want to cover all the states.”
Fabius nudged Bretun forward towards the clanging stomps of the army. “We deal with this army first.”
Caranne felt a tad nervous tracking this many people. A five member party chasing an army to take control of it sounded ridiculous even with the most powerful magician by his side.
It had not taken them long to catch up to the contingent. The empty villages and the trampled ground would not be missed by even novice trackers.
However, the amount of tents in front of them gave Caranne pause. They had been canvassing the entire encampment and it stretched on for miles. Of course, they had to keep a distance given the propensity of all others except him and Dah-Kun falling under the spell.
A full circle had taken them well over half a day. The camp bustled with activity and he heard pots and pans clanging, nails being hammered in and even clothes being put out to dry but no sounds of any human interaction came. Caranne felt spooked, the goosebumps from his hands refusing to recede even when he rubbed his skin.
“They seem perched here for a while at least. Some of the tents are still being set up and given their size, I don’t expect them to move before another three days.” Caranne reported to the bandit lord.
Courash reported that the area around the encampment was surrounded with light woods for miles.
“That is good. We have enough cover.” Dah-Kun commented.
“Sorry, Master, but what is the plan?”
“We have to reach the man in the red cloak. Somehow I am not able to replicate the magic of these vines. I can break his control over the people but that will not help us.”
Courash scratched his head. “But why not?”
“Because as you dolts swoon, the vines can make you loopy once more. And there are a few thousand people in this encampment. I am not about to go release everyone from their torpor all at once. Can you imagine the mayhem that will cause? And besides I like how well-behaved these men and women are. I would like to keep them that way.”
Caranne smiled. Dah-Kun was shrewd. He himself had been wondering how to get control of the entire contingent. It would give them a force already collected and if Dah-Kun could control them, an army ready to march at a moments notice. “So what is the plan, Master?”
“We need to find their leader. Only then can I get this magic from him.”
“But how do we find him in this circus? You said you didn’t even see what he looked like. And he may not wear a red cloak all the time.” Caranne cringed as soon as he asked the question
The bandit lord shot him a withering look but did not reprimand him. “These morons here remembered their hours on the horse. So I suppose one of these slaves remembers anything once I remove their stupor. Caranne, go find me somebody who is not a threat yet looks important enough to know the information I want.”
Caranne nodded and headed into the encampment. He didn’t expect an attack but his right hand fidgeted around his shiva under his cloak. The tents were evenly spaced and properly keeled to the ground. They do retain their senses. It isn’t like the men showman hypnotise. He’d long known the magic of showmen to be fake but he’d seen Aldric been hypnotized to slap himself silly.
The first men he saw were dressed in plain farmer’s clothes, sitting outside and staring up at the sky. A couple of them did turn their heads at him but ignored his presence otherwise. He then encountered a long line of men working with setting up tents and unloading various things from the carts. He cut across the wagons to go further deep inside.
He accidentally knocked over a pot of water as he stepped over a rope and almost fell into a large washing tub where women with the same glazed eyes were hard at work scrubbing clothes. A girl righted the fallen container but did not even look at him.
All this feels wrong. At least I am not affected by this. But the world as he knew it was changing and he would have to keep this in mind once the Viallans came back to power. Magic was a useful tool which could be used to devastating effect.
He ducked behind a tent flap as three fully armed guards marched through the clearing. Caranne’s eyes widened at their gear, which bore the shining crest of the Throddens. This man managed to get members of Throdden Imperial Guard? Is he collecting an army himself? And what for? The level of caution shot up in his mind.
The soldiers did not pay attention to their surroundings but Caranne felt sure that were they to spot him, they would raise an alarm. As he scanned the people, a wine red cloak caught his eye. He darted after it, keeping a watch on the guards. But he soon realized that the cloak was simply being carried by a woman. But we don’t know if there are more like the man in the red cloak. The thought scared him. Could Dah-Kun take on multiple threats like these? He tailed the woman past a few tents, till she entered one.
Caranne waited for a minute to make sure no one was paying attention and then walked over. The woman he had been following came out and almost bumped into him but turned right and walked away. She didn’t have the cloak anymore. He cursed himself for being lax and peeled open the tent flap slowly.
Even during the day, the tent was well-lit with lanterns all around. A woman stood around a table facing away from him, smoothing the red cloak out, before bending down and examining a part of it. Caranne slipped into the tent quietly.
The woman paid no heed to him but instead held up the cloak, examining a tear. The rest of the tent was lined with an abundance of clothes of different varieties from linens, to fine silks to the rough woolens worn by the peasants of the north. Shears and needles of varying sizes were kept organized in on a wooden rack and thimbles lined another.
Caranne smiled. This woman being a seamstress would know most of the people and the red cloak meant she probably knew the leader of the contingent as well. But he quickly realized there was no way he could bring the girl out. He hadn’t been able to move Courash and the other bandits when they were in trance.
The woman turned around and faced him. To his surprise and shock, unlike the others in the camp, she kept looking at him. Caranne felt an immediate urge to jump at her and pin her down before she could call for aid but held himself back. There was no telling who had magic and who didn’t. The woman kept looking at him and then extended a hand towards him.
He stood confused for a moment and the realized she expected him to give him clothes for repair. He fumbled around his cloak and then realized he could use this to lure the girl out. He started to speak but quickly realized no one in the camp spoke. How in Arbok’s cracked teeth do they communicate?
He cursed himself again. He would have to bring Dah-Kun here. He turned and peeked outside and then slipped out of the tent. Hopefully, the seamstress would not raise an alarm. He looked around to mark the location of the tent in his mind, when a rustling behind him gave him a start. The woman had come out with a basket full of needles and patching cloths.
Caranne smiled, thanked Sucellok and started walking east. He had figured a shorter way out of the encampment. He led the woman past the clearing with washing tubs and turned right, slipping past a three large dark-grey tents which he had noticed during his scouting. He stopped at the edge. Would the woman come out of the camp? Caranne took a deep breath and stepped out towards a tree. To his relief she followed. Evidently, this wasn’t out of the ordinary.
He quickened his pace and led her to where the bandits awaited him. She however, did not hasten.
Dah-Kun’s eyes narrowed on seeing the girl approach. “How did you manage to get her out?”
Caranne shrugged. “She’s a seamstress who repairs the camps clothes. I’m guessing she followed me out thinking I would had clothes for repair.”
“Then give her some.” The bandit lord growled as the girl came up.
Caranne snatched a hole-ridden shawl from one of the bandits and handed it to her. She took it without question and unfolded it for examination.
“Shouldn’t she snap out of it?” asked Courash. “She’s pretty far from that stench.”
“She’s been under the influence of the weed for too long. It will take time to wear off. And I’m not about to wait for that.” Dah-Kun raised his staff and closed his eyes. A second later, the girl dropped the shawl and looked around, the glaze over her eyes disappearing.
“What…who are you?” She scampered back against a tree trunk at the sight of the bandits and their non-scabbarded swords.
Dah-Kun stepped forward. “Relax, what is your name, child?”
“What…” She shook her head. “Uh…Mariam Strannick…who are you….” She looked around. “Where am I?”
Caranne held back a sigh. If she didn’t remember anything, she was less than useless as would be others in the camp. “Strannick? Do you hail from the fair city of Sen-Achen?”
The woman looked confused and held her head but eventually nodded. “Yes, and I remember meeting a man and travelling alongside thousands of people, but I have no idea why I did it.”
“Listen woman, we do not care about your pitiful stories. Tell us about the man.” Courash stepped up and hauled the girl up to her feet.
Caranne flicked out his shiva. He needed but a chance to slit the arrogant bandit’s throat but before he moved, Courash doubled down with pain on his own accord. He noticed the bandit lord had moved his staff an inch.
The woman scampered back in fear. “Who...who are you? What do you want with me?”
Dah-Kun’s expressions softened, something Caranne had never seen, not even in the trance he’d been in. “Mariam, a showman is deceiving thousands of people and taking them away from their lives, their families and their homes. That is what happened to you. We are here to free you and the others from this curse. The camp lies just over that clearing. If you can tell us where the leader of the camp stays, we promise we will get everyone free.”
The girl looked at all of them, her eyes flitting from one to the next and then she turned away. “I…it’s all like a blur. I can’t even remember how many days I have been on the road, or…how I got into these clothes?”
“It is all right, Mariam. You are safe now. But just help us free the others. Please think of where the man in the wine red cloak stays in the camp.”
Mariam looked up with a sparkle in her eyes. “I remember the man. He has such clear green eyes. So bubbly and bright. He’s the one who invited me in.” She looked up at them, her face twisting in torn emotions. “He’s the one who is doing this?”
Dah-Kun nodded. “And I can end all of this once I confront him.”
“He always puts up in this huge yellow and red tent. It isn’t very high but it is quite large, like several tents joined in side by side.” She explained moving her hands to show something resembling a mountain range.
Caranne smiled. “Can you show us?”
Dah-Kun shook his head. “No, Mariam, you have helped us enough. Sending you into the camp may put you in a trance again. Stay here, while we find a way to free these people.”
The woman nodded and then asked for water. One of the bandits gave her a skin.
Caranne walked up to the bandit-lord. “So what are we supposed to do? There are armed guards inside that camp patrolling. Men from the Throdden Imperial Guard. I am sure that tent will have protection.”
Dah-Kun lips curled upwards. “Good good. You and I will enter and find this tent. I will ensure we do not face any undue impediment. However, I am not adept with a blade, so carry your sword but only use it when we need it.”
“And what about these three and the girl?”
“What about them? We leave them here.”
Caranne looked at him, surprised. “They will tear into her. Don’t you see the way Courash is leching at her?”
Dah-Kun’s face had returned to the impassioned state. “How do I care about her?”
The woman approached them. “Thank you for freeing me and my mind. I just remembered the man called himself Looc, and preached that he was the Lord of Luck and that he would make the entire world a better place.”
Dah-Kun acknowledged the information and turned towards him. “So that is where the Lord of Windkash has been hiding.”