The river and the foliage presented a welcome change to the dry and parched desert Caranne had been in for the past week. How does Aldric stay in that forsaken land?
The man riding beside him also knocked his palm across the side of his head a few times. The spell was wearing off.
“Feels weird to feel like myself again.” The man spoke, giving his head a vigorous shake.
Caranne stopped a snigger. It was ironic how the return of his memory meant his death. Dah-Kun’s spell had worked exactly as predicted.
“I did well, didn’t I?” the man asked, his voice quivering a little.
Caranne nodded. The man had pulled off the bandit lord’s imitation quite well in spite of meeting him only once. “You were more useful than I anticipated. Most of the weird and unexplainable events have been occurring in the northern states. We could never find out where, because of the stupid stubbornness of the northerners to keep to themselves. You pointed us to Maray.” He peered at the bearded man, who was clutching at the horse’s mane. The man didn’t smile but he didn’t look to flee either.
Dah-Kun had been right. Most men would part with their lives for the right impetus. Five thousand golden flowers for a starving wife and child in captivity, was more than enough to last them a lifetime and much more than the man could have provided for himself.
Caranne stopped his horse at the river bank and dismounted. The man dropped off near him.
“Here?” he asked, his eyes glimmering with faint hope.
Caranne looked around. They were far off the road and the trees lining the bank provided ample cover. “I don’t see why not.”
The man dropped to his knees on the edge of the river and closed his eyes. “Please make sure my wife gets the flowers.”
Caranne did not bother replying. Dah-Kun honoured his promises. That was the only reason he’d stuck with the bandit lord. He unsheathed his dagger and stepped behind the man.
He grabbed the man’s neck with his left hand and stabbed the man through the heart, twisting the blade. He convulsed for a moment and then fell face down in the muddy banks as Caranne withdrew his dagger. He hauled up the body and dragged it into the water as far as he could and then pushed it deeper. The corpse rolled twice in the current as it was pulled deeper and then sped away.
Caranne wiped his blade clean on the oilcloth he pulled from his trousers. It’d been used so often and for so many purposes, that the grime on it almost seemed to welcome the blood. The river would carry the body into the borders of Sen-Tian.
Does my life have a price too? Caranne knew the answer.He would willingly sacrifice himself to see the glory of the Viallans restored and bring down the man who’d turned them into puppets and slaves for hundreds of years.
He walked to the tree where the horses stood tied. He did not need the second one but leaving a well-bred horse out in the wild for no reason would be a waste. Besides I’ll get good coin for it. His mission had been a drain on the Viallan coffers, albeit a necessary one. It wouldn’t do to have nothing left when they returned to power again.
Caranne swung himself up on his horse and grabbed the reins of the rider-less horse. Aldric’s finally come through. He’d rebuked his younger brother time and again for following in the mad footsteps of their father, stuck in ruins, researching artifacts and brushing off centuries of dust of useless trinkets. But for once, a tiny sliver of pride filled his heart. Caranne turned off the forest trail and made for the free roads.
“We will be a legacy that matters, Aldric,” he murmured to himself. And I’ll make Droullin beg for his life. Viallans will rule Awad, not him. His grip on his reins tightened and the horse neighed veering to the left. Branches scraped against Caranne’s head. He turned the horses back towards the road. His anger would have to wait. Right now, Dah-Kun needed to know about Maray.
Elena’s mind hummed in the light throes of sleep.
“Elena, you need to leave. Now!”
“Quint?” Elena rubbed her eyes. “What are you….”
“Elena, there is trouble in the town square. Your father had gone down to hold a council meeting to soothe the people about all the weird things that have been happening with Dirma and sending him away. And…” the guard looked away, his lips contorting in hesitation.
“What is it, Quint? What happened?” a knot formed in Elena’s throat.
“The crowd turned violent. They were baying for Dirma’s blood. And when your father said that he and his family had already left Maray, they turned on him.”
“What do you mean turned on him?” Elena’s chest tightened with a sudden pang of fear.
“They overwhelmed the guards and a big fight broke out. I think they’ve taken everyone captive including Lord Tarbon. He told me to get you out of the town before they come after you. It’s quite ugly out there. We must leave immediately.”
“I can’t leave just like that. My father needs me. I must go to him.” Elena slipped on her shoes and made for the door.
The tall guard threw his hands out and barred the way.
“Get out of my way, Quint.” Elena pushed him hard.
“Elena, you can’t go there. You don’t understand. The people of this town have gone rabid with hate. The deaths have turned on a bestial rage in them.” Quint lowered his hands and sighed. “I know this is tough for you, Elena. But your father has all his guard with him down there. And the Captain was just informed. He’s heading to the town square. The guard will protect him with their lives, if necessary. Besides, your father has led this town admirably. He may yet be able to convince the people out of this madness. But if they get their hands on you….” Quint shook his head. “You’re too innocent to understand what hate can make even the most peaceful and simple of people do.”
“You can’t make me give up on my father.” Elena clawed at the leather jerkin of the guard.
“I’m not making you do that. But the best thing you can do is to leave now.” Quint paused. “Listen, Elena, you’re like my younger sister. I’ve always protected you. Please listen to me. Besides the Throddens will have sent somebody and they would be reaching soon. As enraged the townfolk are, they will not dare oppose the King. And we’ll be back once this unrest has died down.”
Elena nodded, wiping away the budding teardrops. “Where are we going?”
“South, to Katak.”
“But that’s about a two months ride!”
“I know, but I have family there. My mother can cook a much better meal than I can.” Quint smiled. “Besides, if things get sorted out here before, we can always turn back. Now, pack up clothes and anything else you might need quickly and come down to the stables. I will go and saddle your horse.” The guard turned and left.
Elena plucked out her travelling satchel from the cupboard. She travelled to the nearby towns with Dirma quite frequently to buy rocks and metals for the shop. The basic amenities and cosmetics she always carried. She would just need a few more clothes than she usually carried.
Elena’s hands brushed the silver jewellery box. She flicked it open. Inside lay three brooches which Dirma had given her – her badges of excellence in jewelcrafting- a star ruby, a cabochon cut opal and a radiant cut sapphire. Dirma had let her craft them as a measure of her progress. Carving those had actually made her feel she could create the most intricate of all jewellery and maybe one day even match Dirma’s prowess. She sighed and left the box inside. I’ll be back soon, father.
She rushed downstairs to the kitchen. Quint had probably packed them food already but it never hurt to have a little extra. She picked up three fresh rolls of bread delivered that evening and wrapped them in paper and turned to pack in some cheese. Carrying butter during battles was a bad idea, as a stained dress in her drawers attested.
Elena hoped that her father would be able to control the mob. She had a sinking feeling that the people were close to snapping.
“Elena, let’s leave.” Quint poked his head in through the window next to the stables.
Elena nodded and hurried out the back door. Her brown horse, Eachann, stood fully saddled. She strapped on her satchel on the hook by his side and patted the horse’s back. Her father had got him as a colt for Elena when they’d first moved to Maray. He’d told her of the famous proverb of the north – “A good horse should have three properties of a man, three of a woman, three of a fox, three of a hare, and three of an ass”. She’d never quite understood what it meant but she knew Eachann fulfilled all those conditions.
Quint trotted out his own white and black gelding. “We leave by the north-west lane beside the flour mill. Most of the crowd is gathered in the town-hall.”
Elena nodded and jumped up on Eachann. The horse seemed as calm as ever. She’d always drawn great pleasure and solace from spending time with the horse, so much so that sometimes she felt that Eachann understood her better than any human could. Even more than her father. She tugged on his reins. Eachann turned and followed the other horse on his own accord.
The lanes of the town were unusually dark. After sun-down, most of the houses put out lanterns outside their porch or the light from the windows illuminated the roads. But today, no lanterns flickered and the only light came from the half-moon in the sky and the occasional fire-fly buzzing around the stacks of hay.
As they passed from behind the houses and emerged near the farms and fields, Elena could see a soft orange glow emanate from the town square. May Sucellok grant the people the vision, wisdom and compassion to turn away from the path of ignorance. She’d never prayed much; like most of the folk in the north who did not believe in the God of hope. But tonight she needed as much hope as the God could spare.
Quint dropped back and whispered. “Once we turn past the windmill, we cross Cumbria and head south along its bank. By then, we should have put enough distance between us and anybody who can raise an alarm.”
Elena nodded. She had forded the stream many times. She had also caused Eachann to break a leg trying to jump across in one go.
A whizzing noise made her duck against the neck of her horse. A scream of agony went up from Quint, who clutched his thigh and toppled off his horse.
“Quint!” Elena jumped off in a single motion and ran towards the guard. An arrow shaft stuck to his right thigh, the fletching and the nock having splintered in the fall.
“No, Elena, run!” the guard cried out, seating himself upright. Elena stopped and looked back at her horse. How could she abandon Quint?
Another arrow whizzed past her and she flung herself to the ground. But even as she fell, she saw the arrow catch Quint on the throat.
“Nooooooo!” Elena scrambled towards the guard, but felt large hands heaving her off the ground.
“Trying to flee, Elena? Why am I not surprised?”
Elena was turned around. “Captain Roald?” Elena’s face turned ashen. “But why would you….”
Elena launched herself at the tall captain but the two guards pulled her back.
“Because your father had been protecting a murderer. You southerners are all the same. You don’t care about our lives.”
“Are you crazy? Father’s always looked out for the best of Maray. How can you even say that?”
The Captain stepped forward and yanked back Elena’s hair. “Really? I told him to apprehend the bastard jeweler but did he listen? No. And now my little Raisie is dead.”
“Wait…Raisie…when did this…”
“Last night. And how do you care?” the captain pulled back his hand.
“What did Dirma have to do with this? Raisie’s been down with fever all though the year.”
“And she was getting better, she was, my little Raisie,” roared the captain. “And then she died. All because of that accursed jeweler and your father.”
“Captain, Dirma left a week back. And my father’s done nothing. He loved Raisie too.”
The Captain guffawed and stepped forward and cupped Elena’s face. “You think I can’t see that the evil has spread so far that Dirma leaving makes no difference. He’s infected the whole town. And your dear, dear father helped him do it.”
“Captain, please listen….” Elena cried out, struggling against the guards who held her tight.
“No more yapping from you. Carry her back to the town square.”
Elena twisted back to catch a glimpse of the fallen Quint, before the guards hoisted her back on Eacchan. One of them climbed up behind her.
Elena shook with fear. The whole town had gone mad. What are they going to do?