The Bird and the Beast: X
“Hear ye! Hear ye!” The Town Crier’s bell thundered sharply in the cold and pale morning. “Westbridge has been overtaken by the demons!”
Another couple of sharp knells echoed between the buildings and people started to peek their slumberous heads out of doors and windows.
“Hear ye all and hear ye well! The beasts have departed towards Kingshaven!”
Juniper and Isobel both awoke by the sudden noise. Stumbling out after putting their boots on, both wrapped in blankets, they watched as people moved along the streets towards the Town Crier’s yells.
“Hear ye! Hear ye! They passed the Crossroads yesterday morning and are expected to be upon us within three days! The demons are coming!”
The Crier’s voice echoed between the buildings as he repeated his message, and Juniper and Isobel looked at each other with widened eyes.
Juniper wasted no time. She rushed back in and pulled on her clothes.
“What is happening?” Isobel asked as she followed her.
“He’s coming,” Juniper muttered. “I must go, now.” Looking up at Isobel, she took a few ragged breaths. “Come with me, Isobel. You can’t stay here.”
“What are you going on about?” the woman spat.
Grunting in frustration, Juniper grabbed Isobel’s shoulders. “The Crimson King! He’s coming! He’ll be here in three days, and I need to be far away by then. So do you.”
“I’m not leaving.” Isobel took a determined step back.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” muttered Juniper. “If you stay, you must submit to—” Isobel scoffed, but Juniper persisted. “If you don’t, they will kill you.”
“How do you know so much about them?” Isobel asked as she narrowed her eyes.
Juniper set her jaw tight and crossed her arms. “Very well, stay here. But whatever you do, don’t defy them. Submit and they will let you live. You might even get to keep your tavern. It’s not a bad life, not if you follow their rules. They’re good people. They’re just different from what we’re used to, and they have very little patience.”
Isobel narrowed her eyes even more, and then they widened as she gasped. “You’re her, aren’t you? The Duke’s daughter?”
Juniper froze in place. Slowly, she moved her arm to where her belt was. If needed, she would have to use it against her—she would not be captured, not now when the Kas were already on the march.
Isobel thrashed her head about before she closed the door behind her and hissed, “Do you have any idea how dangerous it is for you to be here?”
Swallowing, Juniper nodded.
Isobel huffed as she started to pace the room. “You lot—so many people are after you! Good people!”
Juniper frowned. “My brother has already been taken to Illyria.”
Isobel’s eyes were filled with unshed tears. “Well, if that’s true, then whoever took him has robbed a very good man of his honour and redemption.” Then she sighed. “No matter. It can’t be helped now. If you think they are such good people, they why did you run in the first place?”
Juniper sighed and sat down on the bed. “I overheard the general as he spoke to one of his officers. We’ve had some—well, problems in Noxborough with people refusing to bow down to the Kas, the Grey Ones. There’s been rebellion, violent encounters.” She swallowed. “And quite a bit of death. Executions, mainly. I’m not saying that they kill willy-nilly! They have quite a rigorous judicial system. It’s just—”
She sighed again and looked at Isobel. The woman seemed quite distraught.
“Changing unwilling people’s minds is a challenge,” said Juniper and shook her head, “and the Kas don’t have much patience for that. So, I knew I had to leave once I heard the general speak to his officer about conquering the whole of Nornest before River’s Wakening—and if the people refuse to bow to them, they will burn the cities.”
Isobel brought a hand to her mouth and slowly sat down on a stool next to the door.
“They won’t accept another long feud like the one in Noxborough,” Juniper continued. “They want total compliance from the very beginning or they will eradicate whoever was there before them. We are the ‘rot’, the ‘corruption’, and the Vasaath will rid the land of us if we prove too lost to save.”
“They don’t sound like very good people to me,” Isobel muttered.
Juniper dropped her head. “They are better than most. He is better than most. He just lacks patience, perspective, and have the means to take what he wants.”
“He sounds like a very dangerous man.”
“So why did you escaped him to warn the cities, if you think they are good and fair?”
“I never said they are fair,” muttered Juniper. “They are just, but justice and fairness isn’t always the same thing.” She rose to continue dressing. “I need to go. The Vasaath, the Crimson King, can’t find me here—if he does, there is no one to warn the other cities. I know the true size of his army and I know his tactics. I know his mind and his heart better than most. I am, or was, his—” She swallowed. “Advisor. I know what he’s capable of.”
Isobel narrowed her eyes—and then she gasped. “He’s the one you’re in love with, isn’t he? The enemy?”
Juniper only glared at her. “Duchess Sophia refused to listen to my warnings, but perhaps the others will.”
“Builder’s balls! Hang the other cities!” Isobel spat and quickly helped her to pack her few belongings. “If the Crimson King catches you, you will surely lose your head! I say you flee Nornest altogether! You’ve committed treason, against your lover!”
Juniper felt coldness spread within. It was true—she was a traitor, and she wasn’t sure whether or not the Vasaath would spare her, no matter how much he loved her. “Thank you for the reminder.”
“Oh, don’t be like that! You know what I mean! Men’s egos are astounding—I don’t suspect grey men are any different.”
As Isobel helped her with her coat, Juniper turned to her. “Come with me. I don’t know you very well, but I wouldn’t consider you to be a malleable woman. While the Kas do appreciate strength, and they are much kinder to women that Edredians, they also demand obedience.”
Isobel smiled. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be all right. I can’t leave my father, and he’s too sick to travel the Pass.”
Juniper grabbed the woman’s hands and held them tightly. “Don’t go against them, whatever you do. They will seize much of your freedom, your dreams, but don’t oppose them. Promise me.”
Isobel nodded. “I promise. If I’ve handled Robert these past few months, I can handle this.”
The two of them embraced and Juniper held on tighter and longer than needed—it was rare of her to experience such female companionship as she had done during the past few days she had spent in Kingshaven, and she would miss it terribly. But she could not linger.
She still had Old Nellie and she received a warm bedroll, a blanket, and a generous sack of food and a flask of water from Isobel. The Builder’s Pass was a dangerous road through the mountains. It would take days before she reached the other side, and then a few more days until she reached Eastshore.
Isobel warned her to keep to herself and don’t accept anyone’s offer to “warm” her during the night. With a promise and a farewell, Juniper was on her way east.
The sun had barely risen above the mountain peaks, but she was far from the only one on the road towards the Pass. Many people had decided to move as far away from the approaching danger as possible, but many remained in their homes. Many men from the cottages hurried to the Red Fortress, farmers and cobblers, and Juniper guessed it was their militia gathering. Poor people, she thought. They would stand no chance against the Vasaath and his warriors.
Old Nellie was perhaps not a young mare anymore, but she was a fighter. Trotting and cantering in turns, Juniper made good headway towards the towering White Mountains. She ate her lunch while still on horseback and kept wiggling her toes to keep the cold from seeping too far into her boots.
She passed many people walking in the freezing winds, some of which were children. She felt a sting of sorrow in her heart as she saw their red faces. Poor little ones, they had nothing to say in the matter. They clung to their mothers and fathers for dear life—thankfully, it was a clear day and the sun shone brightly.
It was late afternoon when Juniper reached the foot of the mountains. The falling darkness coloured all the white snow to a soft blue that deepened by the minute. Soon, it would be pitch black. The stars glittered brilliantly in the sky and the crescent moon cast looming shadows behind them.
Juniper was far ahead of the refugees. Only other riders had made it as far as she had. The Builder’s Pass began at a steep uphill and led into a tall ravine that was too narrow for any two horses to travel beside each other. They had to wait for a guide to lead them up the mountain, and they had to ride in a tight line and keep a watchful eye on falling rocks.
If one gazed up, one would see the jewelled sky in the thin opening in the majestic mountain. Torches were burning along the walls, illuminating the narrow passage in the darkening night.
She kept one steady hand on the reins and another on the hilt of her dagger; most of the other riders were men, and they did not look very pleasant. Some of them reminded her of the Stone Wolf in the woods, and it made her skin crawl and her heart quicken. She had killed a man once—if needed, she would not hesitate to do it again.
The hooves echoed between the mountain walls as the row of riders advanced along the inclining trail. In the slim passage, the winds howled and the massive blocks of ice on the mountain slopes wailed and sang in ominous echoes. Juniper was neither far back nor far ahead of the line. Travelling in the middle, she was heated from the horses and the horsemen surrounding her, but she could barely imagine the cold the first rider must suffer through.
The narrow ravine curved and ascended steeply, and when the travellers finally arrived out of the confined stretch, late at night, they were faced by a line of ropes and lanterns and a sharp turn.
As she rode past the markings, Juniper looked over the rope and swallowed hard as she gazed down into a dark abyss. She wondered how many unfortunate souls had fallen to their deaths from that very spot. She knew then that she was indeed very lucky the skies were clear.
The horsemen ahead of her stopped. There was an opening in the mountain, a cavern that was lit by torches, and one by one, the men dismounted their horses and brought them inside.
Juniper looked at them and thought about stopping, but she had neither the time nor the will to do so. She was tired, yes, but she was only one of two women amongst at least fifteen men.
As she urged Old Nellie up the mountainside, a man yelled at her to stop.
“What are you doing, girl? Are you mad? You can’t cross the mountain in the dark!”
Juniper stopped and looked over her shoulder. It was the man that had ridden behind her through the narrow passage.
She sighed, and a puff of smoke surrounded her face. “I must continue. I cannot wait until morning.”
“It’ll be your death, girl,” said the man. “A storm can come at any time up on that summit! Come back, warm yourself and your mare. We’ll continue on tomorrow at first light.”
Juniper bit her lip. Looking up along the path, she shivered as it disappeared into thick darkness. Sighing deeply, she turned Old Nellie about and joined the others in the cavern.
A fire was burning inside it, and the back of it revealed deeper tunnels. An old man soon stumbled out of one. He looked rather wild with thick pelts around his body and a big, bushy beard. He greeted them, and some of the others referred to him as the Mountain Keeper.
The old man looked around at the travellers. The other woman sat next to what Juniper assumed to be her husband, clinging tightly to him. The other men seemed tired and cold, and the old man finally turned his beady eyes on Juniper and chuckled.
“A young woman, travelling alone? I dare say! You’re getting feistier, my dear.” Looking around at the men, he said, “This lone woman will be respected. If I hear of any vile acts, I will personally throw you off my mountain. Baeltic is always hungry!”
The others mumbled as a response, and Juniper nodded in gratefulness. Her heart stilled a little and she sat down as far away from the others as she possibly could, right next to Old Nellie.
The Mountain Keeper had hay and water for the horses, and with all the animals and people inside that cavern, it was actually rather warm and comfortable as she lay down on her bedroll. Despite having to sleep with one eye open, she felt rested when the first light spilt in through the opening.
It was another clear day and as the riders carried on, Juniper found the view from the mountain to be quite beautiful. The cold was, however, relentless. Juniper drank as little as possible, because relieving oneself in this kind of weather was not preferable.
The summit was rather humble when compared to the tall mountains surrounding them. The trail had been used for hundreds of years, and at the summit, there was now lodging and stables for weary travellers.
The party stopped for a well-deserved rest after hours of difficult terrain and freezing winds, and just in time for supper. There were a few people already in the tavern, people going the opposite way, and they were terrified and appalled by the news. Many had family in Kingshaven, and some were even on their way home to Westbridge.
Juniper joined the husband and wife by a table in a corner and kept her hood low as she drank from her flask of water. She spied around the room, watching the devastated faces.
Nornest hadn’t seen war in five hundred years; to many, it was just a frightening tale. Those who had seen war had seen it overseas, so when war came to them, they knew not what to do.
Suddenly, her gaze settled on a man in another corner. His stern face, his silver temples, and his dark locks—she recognised him. Pulling her hood further down, she felt her heart suddenly thud so violently against her chest, she feared it might jump out her throat.
It was Duke Cornwall’s personal guard. She remembered his displeased countenance from the day they had arrived in Noxborough but she could not remember his name. If he saw her, however, she was sure he would recognise her.
He did not seem very upset by the news, but neither did he speak to anyone. He just sat in his corner, tense and brooding.
“Callahan!” a man called and joined the Dukesguard by his table. Sir Callahan. Yes, Juniper remembered now. “Where in the world have you been?”
“I’ve been around,” muttered the knight and had a chug of a wineskin.
“By the Builder! Last time I saw you, you were heading up North to fight the demons!” The man’s laughter boomed as he slammed the knight on his shoulder. “How five thousand Illyrian trained soldiers ran like frightened little girls from a guaranteed victory is beyond me!”
Sir Callahan glared daggers at the man. “You weren’t there, were you? You didn’t see the carnage left by the Grey Ones, did you? You don’t have to keep seeing torn off limbs or the severed head of your brother with the spine still attached to the skull every time you close your fucking eyes, do you?”
Baffled and taken aback, the man shook his head so violently, his cheeks fluttered. “No.”
“No. Then I’d advise you not to jest about it,” growled Sir Callahan. “You’re clever running from those beasts.”
The man was silent for a moment before he asked, “I suppose you’ll turn back to Eastshore now? I mean, with Westbridge gone and the beasts marching on Kingshaven, I don’t see any point in moving west. I’m boarding the first ship to Varsaii, myself, once I get to Eastshore.”
“I have unfinished business in Kingshaven,” muttered the knight and took another swing of his wineskin.
“Only a madman would continue west.”
“Guess I’m mad, then.” That was the last thing Sir Callahan said all evening.
Juniper kept a watchful eye on him, but he seemed none the wiser.
The same room they had had their supper in turned into sleeping quarters when the time had come. Juniper wrapped her scarf high over her face to make sure that she would be as unrecognisable as possible before she fell into a restless slumber.
The sun rose early on the summit. At first light, the travellers were back out in the cold. The party heading to Eastshore had nearly doubled with the ones returning, but at few—Sir Callahan included—said their farewells and headed west.
Juniper watched with regret as they disappeared behind the rocks, but she was also relieved. At least now, she was amongst people who had never seen her before.
The way down the mountain was not as steep and perilous as the way up, but it still proved to be a challenge. Old Nellie struggled to walk down the mountainside, and in some places, Juniper had to lead the horse down the path.
By midnight, they had reached their final campsite before they were clear of the mountain, and after a cold, gruelling night, they descended into a deep forest leading them down the eastern foot of the mountains.
When the ground seemed to level and the air wasn’t as thin, both Juniper and Old Nellie seemed much lighter. Looking over her shoulder at the high peaks above her as they basked in the rising sun, she felt in awe. Four days on the mountain at winter was far more than an inexperienced rider or an old horse should be capable of, but they both made it through.
Despite being both weary and depleted, the road ahead seemed almost blissful.
She wondered, as they exited the forest and entered onto the eastern steppe, whether Kingshaven still stood or if it had already burnt to the ground. One thing was for certain—the White Mountains stood adamant between her and her beloved.