How Zantheus Fell into the Sky

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There was a booming sound, which woke Tromo up. There it was again, a deep, jolting boom. There was a curled-up shape next to him on the bed that he remembered must be the lady he had met yesterday. At the third boom, she began to stir. A bleary-eyed face and a mess of tangled brown hair emerged from somewhere under the blanket and she managed to moan over Tromo’s head “Be quiet, Zantheus, I’m still trying to sleep!”

At once a voice answered her, but it did not come from Zantheus.

“Anthē, are you in there?” it shouted from the other side of their door. “Open up!”

Immediately Anthē shot upright, as if struck by a bolt of lightning, standing up wide-eyed with fear. “It’s them!” she said in a loud whisper. “They’ve come back for me!”

Zantheus was getting to his feet from his place on the floor on the other side of the bed. He noticed that Anthē had not managed to stay on the floor for the whole of the night, but it did not seem like the time to bring this up. They had a quick, heated exchange as Tromo looked up at them, still feeling fragile from the lingering memory of his dream and totally perplexed as to what was going on.

“Who?” asked Zantheus. “Who has come for you?”

“Keleb!” hissed Anthē, trying not to be heard. “The man that you rescued me from!”

Another boom. The whole room shook this time. Tromo put his hands over his ears.

“Open up!” the voice called out again in anger. “We know you’re in there, Anthē! Your tailor friend came and told us where you were staying!”

“What do they want from you?” asked Zantheus.

“Don’t you understand?” said Anthē. “They’ve come to take me back, to recapture me! You stole me and they’ve come to get me back! Chito must have followed us and told them where I was! They won’t be afraid of being violent! They’ll probably kill you!”

“Then no, I do not understand!” said Zantheus. “I did not force you to leave that place! I am not to blame for this!”

Another boom, and this time it was followed by a terrible cracking sound as part of the wooden door started to give way. Anthē was thankful that she had thought to lock it last night.

Zantheus wasted no time and dashed round the bed to the other side of the room, flinging himself against the door with all of his weight to act as a barricade. On the other side he heard an “Oof!” as someone who had been leaning against it was knocked backwards. He was not about to let his journey be brought to a close just because Leukos had decided to pick up this stray girl.

“Is there not any way to reason with them?” he said.

“No! You can’t reason with these men!”

Yet another boom. Zantheus was knocked back from the door slightly, but threw himself against it again straight away.

“Just hand over the girl, and we’ll spare you!” came the voice. It must have heard them.

“Are you sure you do not wish to go back with them?” Zantheus looked almost pleadingly at Anthē. From the mixture of shock, fear and now outrage on her face he discovered that the answer was definitely ‘no’. He realised that this line of action was not going to work. “Then use the window!” he said in a whisper as quietly as he could manage. There was a little window on the other side of the room, with shutters.

“How-?” said Anthē.

“Tie some blankets together or something!” said Zantheus, thinking fast. He held the door, just about, against more blows while Anthē, helped by Tromo, hurriedly stripped the bed of its sheets and blankets and rolled them up, tying them together to make as good a rope as they could fashion. At each jolt the door gave way a little more with the horrible sound of straining wood.

“What should I tie it to?” Anthē asked, her heart pounding inside her head.

Knowing that the door would not hold much longer, Zantheus came and grabbed one end of the makeshift rope, then kicked the shutters of the window open. “I’ll hold it,” he said, and flung the other end out of the window. “You go first, then you can help Tromo down.”

Shaking with fear, Anthē awkwardly hoisted herself up onto the window ledge, took hold of the blanket-rope and moved out of sight. With a crash the door to the little bedroom gave way as the wood splintered and it came off its hinges. Zantheus grabbed Tromo and heaved him up, out of the window and down against the outside wall where he hoped he would brace himself and grab the rope. He turned as two large men burst into the room with a shout, another behind them, both brandishing curved swords. Seeing the open window and the rope he was holding, two of the men turned and ran out of the room again, one yelling “She’s gone out the window! Come with me!” Zantheus was left with the one remaining man, who roared at him and sprung forwards swinging his blade. Zantheus dodged to one side, as fast as he could manage, but realised at the same time that the swing had not been meant for him as the man’s blade tore through the length of twisted sheet that he was holding. He heard a cry from outside and hoped that the girl and the boy had made it to the ground safely in time. But there was no time to think about that; his attacker had left himself exposed. Quick as he could Zantheus charged into him with his shoulder. The man almost went out of the window himself, but Zantheus took hold of him before he did so and slammed his head into the side of the windowframe, just hard enough to render him unconscious, he hoped. It worked, and the man slumped to the floor with a groan.

Zantheus thrust his head of the window and looked around urgently. Tromo and Anthē had just made it to their feet after a bumpy landing.

“Go! They’re coming!” he called out to them.

Anthē picked up Tromo and sped off, running for her life, just as the other two men exploded out of the front door of the inn, shouting after her. Zantheus had only a moment to think. He did not know if Leukos was awake but he guessed that if he lost the girl and the orphan then the writer would be reluctant to continue their journey without finding them first. And it was his duty and the noble thing to do to protect them anyway. He made his decision. Grabbing onto either side of the window, he put one foot on the ledge and watched carefully. The two men had started to chase after Anthē, which was about to take them underneath him. Remembering his training, Zantheus took a deep breath, chose his instant, and flung himself out of the window. He timed his jump perfectly, colliding with one of the men, lucky not to impale himself on the drawn sword. He rolled as he hit the ground to try and absorb some of the force of his fall, but even so his leg and side and side cried out with pain –there would be heavy bruising there later. The man he had crashed into with went down instantly, completely winded and floored. He was not going to be getting up again in a hurry.

Zantheus wrenched himself to his feet and looked up. The last of the three men wasted no time and in spite of his fallen comrade was still charging after Anthē and Tromo. Zantheus willed himself after him in pursuit. A few early-morning bystanders gaped open-mouthed at what they had just seen, watching him charge off, wondering what was happening. It was hard for Zantheus to run with the pain from his jump out of the window but he made himself, keeping the last assailant in view. He blinked away the dust from his quarry’s steps and followed him down streets, through the twists and turns, that Anthē took as she tried to lose her pursuer, barging past street-sellers out arranging their wares, ducking under lines of washing, mumbling the odd “Excuse me!” as he careered across the paths of the townsfolk. But Anthē was still too slow while carrying Tromo, Zantheus too slow with his pain from the jump, and eventually the third man caught up with her. She made a mistake and took a turn down a blind alley, finding herself backed against a wall between two buildings.

When Zantheus got to them the man was holding Anthē by the hair, a dagger at her throat, with Tromo trembling face-down on the floor, his hands over his ears. Zantheus recognised the man at once. It was Keleb, the owner of the brothel. For a large man, he could run surprisingly fast when chasing a quarry such as Anthē.

“Don’t come a step closer or I’ll slit her throat!” spat Keleb.

Zantheus remained where he was, rooted to the spot, unsure what to do next. Again, he did not know how his guide back at the inn would react if the girl was murdered, and he knew it was his duty to protect an innocent life. But there was nothing he could do. He had not caught up with them fast enough and now Keleb had the advantage. “Alright,” he said, “I will not come closer. Do not hurt the girl.” He glanced around the alleyway as subtly as he could manage, looking for something that could help him. It was sheltered and quite dark, except for one ray of sunlight slanting in at its opening, near where he stood.

“That’s right,” said Keleb, an arrogant smirk forming on his face, “you won’t.” He was drenched in sweat from the pursuit, but pleased to have caught his prey. Anthē was pale and dared not speak, the dagger close to her throat. “Now, here’s what’s going to happen,” Keleb continued. “First of all, you’re going to put your weapon carefully and slowly on the ground.”

“My sword?” As he spoke, playing for time, Zantheus’s mind whirred. He realised something. The whole reason that Keleb had come after them was to get Anthē. He wanted her back working in his brothel. She was the equivalent of valuable trade goods to him. He was not going to slit her throat.

“Yes, your sword!” shouted Keleb angrily. “Put it on the ground!” While his eyes were on Zantheus, the knight noticed that Tromo, who had obviously been dropped by Anthē or tossed to one side by Keleb, had gotten shakily to his feet just behind and to the side of them. An idea formed in Zantheus’s mind. It was an old trick, but it might work.

“Fine,” said Zantheus. “I will do as you say.” He took hold of his scabbard with the sword in it and removed it from his belt. “Look –here you are.” He held it up in two hands, then lowered it slowly and meaningfully down.

Before the sword reached the ground, however, he grasped the hilt in a sudden movement and drew it, tilting it so that the ray of sunlight coming into the alley was reflected into Keleb’s eyes. A flare of white lanced forth into the alley off the blade. Zantheus started forwards to rush Keleb while he was still blinded, but stopped. Something was not right. It had not worked. Keleb was still standing there in exactly the same position, one hand holding Anthē by the hair, the other holding the dagger, completely unaffected.

“Did you think that was going to be enough to stop me?” snarled Keleb. Either Zantheus’s broken sword had not reflected the light in the way that he had hoped it would –he kept forgetting that it had been shattered– or Keleb had simply shut his eyes for a moment in expectation of the trick. “NOW PUT YOUR SWORD DOWN!” bellowed the whoremonger, bubbling over with rage.

Just as he was shouting this, Tromo bit him on the leg, hard. The light-reflection trick had not worked, but it had bought just enough time and attention for the boy to rally with an unusual display of courage. Keleb cried out, this time in pain, as the boy’s teeth sunk into his shin. Anthē screamed as he fell sideways, pulling her over with him by the hair.

Zantheus catapulted down the alleyway and was on him at once. Anthē had managed to wrestle free, but Tromo was still holding onto the man’s leg by his teeth, making him thrash around in fury and pain. He grabbed Keleb’s dagger arm just in time to stop him from stabbing Tromo and twisted it so that he dropped the weapon. Tromo released the leg from his jaws and, for the second, possibly third, time today Zantheus rendered a man unconscious by employing his training, hitting Keleb on the head very hard with the hilt of his sword. Keleb folded up and collapsed in a heap on the ground.

Stillness. Zantheus just looked at him, panting quietly, still out of breath from the running. “Well done, Tromo,” he said to the boy, who was a bit worse for wear but well enough to stand up, a frown on his face as he grimaced from the aftertaste of Keleb’s trouser leg. Zantheus was surprised at him and quite pleased. “That was a very brave act. You should be proud of yourself.” He remembered something and turned. “Are you alright, Anthē?”

Anthē too had got to her feet and was now holding the dagger that Keleb had dropped. She was looking at her former employer as he lay unconscious on the ground, still white as a sheet, a very serious expression on her face.

Zantheus did not think that she had heard him, so he repeated the question. “Are you alright, Anthē?”

Anthē could not hear him. She wasn’t paying attention to anything much else right now, except Keleb. She clutched his dagger in her hand. She thought of all the horrible things that this man had done to her, that she had been made to endure by this man, that he had done to others as well. She thought about all the other women who had suffered, whose lives had been ruined, who had been mercilessly exploited by this man. This was her chance to end all if that, to take her revenge, to stick him like the pig he was with his own knife, like he deserved. After some time Zantheus guessed what she was thinking. He was not about to stop her. This was a wicked man, an evil man. He deserved death. Who was he to stop this girl from giving it to him?

Anthē remained where she was, Zantheus and Tromo watching her. Thoughts were still pouring through her mind. She thought about how much she wanted to kill Keleb, to pay him back for all he had done. But she wondered if that would make her no better than him. She thought about how if she did kill him, someone would probably just step into his place and take over the running of the brothel from him after he had gone. Eventually, she thought about the little boy, whom she had just met yesterday, who was right here, watching her. Very slowly, she lowered the knife.

“You chose well, Anthē,” said a voice from behind them. All three of them turned in shock.

“Leukos!” exclaimed Zantheus. “How in Mashal did you find us?” He had clearly picked up some of the sailors’ turns of phrase from his sea voyage.

“Simple,” said Leukos. “I just followed the trail of destruction. You haven’t gone very far.”

Zantheus sighed.

Tromo was staring up at Leukos, wide-eyed and curious, though this expression was normal for him.

When Zantheus noticed this, he said “Oh, Tromo, this is Leukos. I met him when I washed up on the beach after our escape from the pirates. He has very kindly offered to show us the way to Qereth.”

“Pleased to meet you, Tromo,” said Leukos, with a twinkle in his eye.

If Tromo had been able to speak, he would have said, “Yes, I know your name already. I’ve met you before. You were in my dream last night. You told me to go after Zantheus and then I followed him into a tunnel under a mountain.”

But he wasn’t, so he didn’t. Instead he just nodded, and kept his puzzlement and wonder to himself.

“Are you ready to go, Anthē?” asked Leukos. “I imagine Keleb will be unconscious for a while.”

“Yes, he will,” said Zantheus.

Anthē only nodded, bewildered and still recovering from the ordeal, not taking much comfort from the brusque manner of the men. Only Tromo made any effort, coming up to her and shyly taking her hand in attempt to comfort her after what had just happened.

They returned to the inn and Leukos paid the perplexed and mildly traumatised Luma, not wanting to waste any time by staying for breakfast, before leaving.

Back in the street, Leukos announced “Well, we’re almost ready to set out for Qereth.”

“Almost?” said Zantheus despairingly.

“Yes,” said Leukos. “We need to buy some provisions first. Avarah is a very bare country, and we have a good couple-of-weeks’ or so trek across it before we arrive in the forest.”

Zantheus conceded that it would be necessary to purchase some food. He was not used to having to think about feeding himself. In the Sanctuary he had long ago risen to a rank at which he did not need to be involved in meal preparation.

Anthē led them to Ir’s market street. She acted efficiently, now nearly as eager to be moving on as Zantheus had been for the past few days. They set about trying to furnish themselves as bountifully and as lightly as they could manage. For transporting the foodstuffs, four fine cloth-packs were chosen, designed so as to hang over their shoulders while allowing them to walk uninhibited. Even Leukos consented to wear one, and Zantheus caught him removing an enormous wad of paper from somewhere in his tunic and depositing it inside. In addition to his pack, Zantheus was also to carry a small collection of pans and cooking utensils, which he hung off of it, turning himself into a reluctant sort of mobile kitchen. He made no complaint about the weight, he could cope with that easily; it was the minor dent in his pride to which he objected. But he kept his grumblings to a minimum.

Anthē was confused when Leukos kept asking her opinion on different purchases: “Is this too big?” “Can we cook potatoes in this?” “How many of these do we need?” When he did it for a fourth time, she had to ask him “Why do you care what I think?”

“Well,” said Leukos, “I assume you’ll be doing most of the cooking...?”

Anthē was incredibly annoyed by this. Though she supposed Leukos would not be much good at cooking, since he insisted on always scribbling away in that book, and she almost suspected that Zantheus had never had to cook a meal for himself in his life. That left...her and the orphan boy. She cursed under her breath. It was bad enough she was travelling with a pompous knight and an enigmatic lunatic, now she was going to have be their maid as well! She was not even a particularly experienced cook. But, resigned to her fate, she took over the buying of provisions to stop Leukos from asking her incessant questions. She chose the fruit and vegetables she thought would keep for longest, selected a few joints of salted meat, made sure they had plenty of rice. She did all this in a slightly preoccupied fashion; she still had something else on her mind, besides the trial they had just experienced. Leukos still paid for everything—neither Anthē nor Zantheus had a shekel to their name—somehow producing all of the money that they needed seemingly out of nowhere. They each wondered where a ‘wanderer’ such as himself had got hold of so much money, but they did not ask him about this. In any case, after they had acquired a good deal of food he suddenly announced that his reserves had run out.

“Oh, that’s the last of it,” he said jovially. “Onwards to Avarah, then.”

“Yes, let us be moving,” said Zantheus.

“Wait,” said Anthē. Zantheus’s heart sank within him. “Before we go, I have just one more errand to run.” She had decided something.

Zantheus very nearly lost his temper. “What could there possibly be left for you to do? We have wasted enough time in this town.”

“You don’t understand,” said Anthē. “I have just one more thing I really have to do. Alone.” She stared him down, dead set on this one more thing. “I have to return a message to someone before we leave. It won’t take long, I promise.”

“Do you have to do it alone?” he asked. Now that she had taken on her new role as head chef Zantheus was less keen to be rid of her. Now he was worried that she would wander off on her own without them. “Would you not let me come with you?”

Anthē was surprised. She did not want any of them to come along with her. They were part of her new life. She wanted to deal with this one thing from her old life quickly, get it out of the way, and then leave. She thought of Keleb, and the possibility that he had come round and was still after her returned to her mind. Maybe it was a good idea to keep the knight with her for this errand. Just in case.

“Alright, you can come, Zantheus. Leukos, we won’t be long. Do you want to wait for us at the top of the high street?”

“Alright,” said Leukos. “I will take Tromo and meet you at the top of the east end of the high street.”

“Do not let him out of your sight,” Zantheus said to him as Anthē set off. “Go straight there, and stay there.”

“Yes, Zantheus,” said Leukos obediently.

Zantheus and Anthē walked through Ir, engaging in the now familiar practice of dodging the hurrying people and vehicles. They turned off down one of the side streets, and soon down another. This was clearly another residential area, it looked a lot like Yashar Street. After about five minutes’ walk, Anthē stopped in front of a door. For a moment, she just stood in front of it, without doing anything.

“Are you going to go inside?” Zantheus asked.

Anthē took a deep breath. “Yes,” she said.

She knocked.

The door was opened by a short middle-aged woman. One look at Anthē and she blinked with surprise.

“Hello, Mum,” said Anthē.

“Anthē...” The woman did bear quite a strong resemblance to Anthē, though she was slightly broader, slightly shorter, her skin tawnier. Her hair was dyed an artificial red, clearly to cover up the grey of age, and she was wearing a large amount of makeup. But only this small hint and a few wrinkles around her eyes and mouth betrayed her. You could see that, once upon a time, she had been quite beautiful. After being struck temporarily speechless by the sudden apparition of her daughter, she recovered herself swiftly. “How are you?” she asked. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!”

This was not the response Anthē had been expecting. She was not prepared for this. She had been ready to unleash a torrent of anger at her mother, but here she was, standing looking at her, acting as if nothing had happened, as if she had simply been away on a holiday for the last three years. She had to fight back tears.

“ know...I’m alright...” she said, falling back into old habits.

“And who is this strapping young man?” said her mother.

“Um...this is-” started Anthē, but Zantheus required no introduction.

“Greetings, madam. I am Zantheus, First Paragon of the Aythian Order, Champion of Awmeer.”

“Well, lah-dee-dah!” said Anthē’s mother. This too was not the response Zantheus had expected or desired. “And how have you come to be acquainted with my daughter?” she continued, putting on her most refined accent. “Won’t you both come in?” Zantheus struggled to find words.

Anthē found them for him. “No, we’re not coming in, Mum. I’m going to Qereth with him. That’s what I came to tell you. I’ve run away from Keleb with Zantheus and some They’ve offered to take me with them. I’m leaving. You won’t be receiving money from me anymore.”

At this news, her mother’s face, which had put on a smile when she had recovered her wits, turned quite sour. Her voice went lower, she spoke more slowly. “Now look here, young lady. I know we haven’t always gotten on at the best of times, but you’ve got no right to leave me in the lurch like this. I’ve always acted with your best interests at heart!”

Anthē altered her tone also. “Best interests! Ha!” she said with venom. Zantheus could sense the conversation was about to take a turn for the worse.

A new voice sounded from behind Anthē’s mother. “What’s all the noise all about? Who is it, Dendra?”

Another face appeared in the doorway. It belonged to a slightly chubby, brown-haired man who looked a little younger than “Dendra”, whom he was addressing.

“And who’s this?” spat Anthē.

“Anthē...this is Atos,” said her mother cautiously. “Atos, meet Anthē, my daughter.”

It was clear that Atos felt uncomfortable, but he offered his hand by way of greeting all the same. “Pleased to meet you.” He looked surprised.

Anthē erupted. The extended hand only had the effect of releasing the tidal wave of rage that she had been keeping at bay. “Don’t offer your hand to me!” she said. “I don’t want to even touch the latest parasite that’s attached itself to my mother!”

“Please, calm down, Anthē,” said Zantheus. It had no effect.

“Don’t you talk to him that way!” said Dendra.

“And you!” Anthē focused her anger on the middle-aged woman, terrible in her fury. “How dare you forbid me to leave? Best interests! If you had my best interests at heart, why did you send me to go and work in a brothel for three years?”

“Please, calm down, Anthē,” said Zantheus again, and again to no effect.

“Have you any idea of the horror you’ve put me through?” said Anthē. “How could you do it, Mum? How could you live with yourself, knowing where you’d packed off your darling little Anthē to? And the money! You’ve been living off it all this time! Do you have any idea of half the things I’ve had to do to bring you that money? Here’s your stupid message back!” Anthē produced the paper message she’d received from somewhere in the folds of her cloak and flung it scrunched up at her mother. “‘Dear Anthē, I hear you’re back in town’! I ask you! It’s like I’m your friend who’s been away travelling for a while! How dare you write to me like that! You’re a poor excuse for a mother!”

“Please, Anthē...” said her mother. Atos hugged her with one arm, staring disapprovingly at Anthē. “When your father left-”

“Don’t bring Dad into this! What would Dad say? Dad would never have let you do this to me! Dad wasn’t scum, like you are!”

“Now that’s enough,” said Atos. “You have no right to speak to your mother that way!”

“Don’t you tell me what to do! You’re not my Dad! He would never have let you do this to me! Maybe I’ll go and live with him instead. Maybe I’ll go and find Dad! For all I know he might be in Qereth!”

“No, he’s not in Qereth, Anthē,” said her mother sorrowfully.

“How would you know? Has he written to you?”

“No, he hasn’t.”

“Ha! I thought not! Why would he ever want to say anything to you again?”

“No Anthē-”

“What would he have to say about any of the men men you’ve had since he left? What would he have to say about this latest fool?”

Atos went red.

“Anthē, please. You don’t understand,” said Dendra.

“Oh, I understand all too well, mother!”

“No, you don’t understand... Your father hasn’t written to me because he’s dead.”

The word hit Anthē in the chest. She flinched. The world twisted around her. For a moment she was silent.

Then: “Wh-what..? What d’you...?

“I’m so sorry, darling. I was going to tell day. He didn’t walk out on us. He got in a fight at the tavern one night and...and...I didn’t want to tell you because I knew it would break your heart.” She had been right. Anthē couldn’t breathe. “What could I do? I had no means of supporting you... And you always reminded me of him. You’ve got his eyes, you know. It was too much for me. I had to send you away...I had to...”

Tears poured down Anthē’s cheeks. She was in shock. The three of them waited to see what she would do.

Somehow, Zantheus realised first, just in time. He jumped in to restrain her, catching her arms and holding them behind her back as she threw herself at her mother, screaming profanities and incomprehensible insults in equal measure. She was surprisingly strong, but still nowhere near being able to escape Zantheus.

“Please, stop, Anthē!” he implored her. “This will not help you! Forget her! Let us leave!”

“Let me go! Let me go!” she shouted at him. He was both repulsed and moved by her plight. He wanted to let Anthē go and leave her to attack her mother, and to turn and leave for Qereth without her. But something in him had resonated when he had seen her break down on being told that her father was no longer alive. So he held on tightly. What was more, it was the noble thing to do.

Anthē’s mother could only mutter platitudes. “I’m sorry, Anthē...” she said, looking at the floor.

Anthē went limp, her rage defeated by her despair. “You’re lying! You’re lying!” she said. “I never want to see you again!”

“Goodbye, Anthē,” said Dendra, head bowed in shame. Atos shut the door.

Anthē sat down in the street and wept. Zantheus was not used to seeing anyone cry, not least of all a woman he had only known for a matter of days. It was a habit of Anthē’s he would have to get used to. He did not know what he was meant to say. After a while, when it seemed she had cried out most of her tears, he tried saying “Come on, we should go and find those other two ‘men’ you mentioned.”

Anthē sniffed. “Zantheus, was that a joke?”

“It may have been…” said Zantheus, more than a little embarrassed.

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