by Sarah Ann Watts
Kyran, a king’s son, has been disinherited and exiled to a remote temple. One snowy morning, a messenger arrives to recall him to court, where he is to serve as governor of the king’s other children. Kyran is a seer and a child of the Falcon, but his paranormal abilities do not protect him from court intrigue. He must ultimately set out on a quest to find the Winter Ship and its destination.
Chapter 11: Night Has Come
Now I must face my ‘friends’. I brought them here. The servant leads me to a room where there are stores and arms and invites me to choose what I need.
I’m grateful to Mathuin for his generosity, he has behaved like a prince to me, but as I select daggers and shield and bow, I wonder what my companions will make of this change in our fortunes.
It would be easy to run away but I have seen their skills in the field and even with the gifts I still command, I would not care to have them on my trail. Or fancy my chances against all three. Even as I muse on this, I am indicating the stores I will take and the servants are stowing them away into packs.
The doors open, ushering in Daan, Lorcan and Naraya. Naraya’s hair hangs loose around her face, the ends damp and curling from her bath. I am relieved to see that like me they have had the chance to wash away the grime of the road and change their clothes.
With Mathuin’s men looking on, I can hardly ask them if they have been well treated, but from what I can see, they look all right. ‘You have eaten?’
Naraya says, ‘Yes’ and looks at my throat. The marks are fading but I pull my collar close to hide them.
Daan is all eyes, inspecting the treasures of the storeroom. Lorcan sets down with too much care the empty cup he is holding.
I’m happy to see the glow of comfort and good cheer that hangs around them, though I also think of what might happen when the glow fades out in the chill of the night later. It could all go sour very easily.
They say little, merely greeting me with no overt show of hostility but not much friendliness either. I realise there will be no discussion here. Instead, I show the stores to Lorcan. He nods in approval and takes tinder, flint and a knife for himself.
Naraya fills her quiver with arrows and takes another knife that she slips in her boot. Daan selects a metal skull cap and a warm cloak and a new blade for his axe. We all take blankets, and when I see Daan help himself to a bulging wine skin, I don’t have the face to stop him.
I hope he appreciates this is easier pickings than taking spoils from the shadow people; that is, if he ever thinks at all. Briefly I wonder if I dare ask Mathuin for his life as a bed gift.
But there is Lorcan as well. I remember the gift of the flints and the scanty fare he shared with me, and I am ashamed. If I want him dead I should kill him myself. Naraya’s bruise is fading.
When we are all equipped, they lead us to an antechamber and bring our horses freshly shod for the journey. There is a stranger waiting for us. I think perhaps Mathuin sent him as a guide. His shield wards lead us through the galleries and lighted caverns. The passageways, hewn from rock, are big enough to take our horses, and I’m amazed at how far this underground domain extends under the mountains.
Finally we come to a ramp that leads up to the world outside. The horses’ hooves slide on the wooden ramp, and we have to urge them on. The portal is guarded. There is a waterwheel with a donkey to open the gate.
As we emerge into the light, I understand this underground journey has spared us much of the rough terrain over the heights. I’m looking down at the old trading road that leads to the desert and the sea.
* * *
At the gateway, Mathuin’s shield wards leave us, save for the stranger who settles himself more comfortably in the saddle, nods to me and then falls in beside me on the path. It gather he is coming with us. I’m not going to argue with his size or his strength. Maybe Mathuin plans to keep me under surveillance, as any cautious ruler might.
The stranger smiles as if he has read my thought and says, ‘I share your route to Kota Samur. Like you, I am a pilgrim and seek healing.’
I nod with what grace I can muster. ‘You are welcome, sir, to join us.’ I feel the exchange of glances behind us like needles piercing my cloak, but for now we ride at speed for the first staging post upon our route, the last settlement at the edge of the desert.
Mathuin has told me there is an old hostelry that will take us in for the night. Thanks to him I have gold to pay our way, and tonight we can make our plans and dispositions for the days ahead.
Here, we are in the wilds. There is only one road that leads to the sea. Unless we choose to stray off the road and blunder into the marshes or return to the haunted valley, we must ride together. Explanations and accusations must come later. Do they know that I saved their lives? Not that I plan to tell them what I did.
I look up at the sky and judge it is an hour before noon. We have perhaps another seven hours of light left to us and must make the best of it. For now there is no time for dissent, just ground to cover before night falls. No one would ride this road alone; what security we have is in numbers.
Even that confidence fails as the day wears on and I see Daan taking a furtive mouthful and then swigging openly at his wineskin. He makes a pretence of handing it round, but after my curt refusal fails to deter him, he rides at the tail of our company.
The skin empties until finally he almost falls from his horse and spews his guts at the side of the road. Naraya shakes her head in disgust and rides past, as he clutches at her rein. Lorcan is more direct. He grabs the wine skin and empties the dregs.
Daan curses weakly but scrambles back onto his horse and passes out, clinging to the mane. Very soon he begins to snore. The horses are weary now and we walk, a sorry procession.
* * *
I scent smoke on the air and flakes fall on my collar like snow, soft ash that crumbles at my touch. We ride into air that reeks with a stench of burning and what is worse, roasting meat. I set spurs to my horse and ride ahead. The stranger matches my pace, both of us winding scarves around our faces to keep out the noxious fumes.
Night has come too early. The air chokes us and tears the breath from our lungs. I fall into a fit of coughing, and tears run down my face. Then I hear a creak like a gibbet and see where the charred and defaced inn sign hangs like a crazy remnant above my head.
The chain breaks, and the sign falls at my horse’s feet. He startles and bolts, and I have to haul on the reins to halt him. Then I dismount and lead him back.
Behind the fallen sign is a charred ruin, still smoking with the scent of blood. I throw my reins to the stranger. One look through the blackened doorway — its door wrenched off its hinges, leaving a gap where it has been torn out like a rotten tooth — and I am out on the street, doubled over, retching until there is nothing left but bile. Even that turns black. The stranger holds me up and pulls me away.
I try to break free. ‘I must go back... warn the others. Naraya... she must not see this!’
He holds me in a grip that threatens to rend my shoulder from its socket as I writhe. He says, ‘You fool, do you want me to break your arm?’
‘Let me go!’
Then I hear it: a thin scream like an owl on the wind, haunting, with an edge of terror. I struggle, but he quells me easily. My horse breaks away and he lets it go. The stranger drags me into the shelter of an abandoned outbuilding and pushes me beneath filthy straw.
Through the open door I see riders lit by flame; they cast a burning brand through the doorway and ride off laughing. I do not see their faces, bound in bloodstained rags.
Already the stranger is dragging me to the back of the stable. He uses his axe to hack through the rotten wood; then pulls me through a splinter-filled hole. Every fibre in my body is urging me to run, but he holds me down in a grip like iron. ‘Wait. If you run now they will see us.’
I can’t reply because he has me pinioned, a huge hand across my mouth. The riders are near and will be upon us any minute. I feel him let out his breath in a slow exhalation.
I lose track of how long we wait, crouched in the shelter of the barn, burnt straw choking us. Even when the hoofbeats are gone, he waits. They must have taken my horse. I dare not think of Naraya, Lorcan and Daan, fearing they are dead or worse.
Finally the stranger lets me go. ‘Move before they come back!’ The horror I saw rises again to haunt me and it is all I can do not to cry out.
I open my mouth in a silent wail, but the image gets me moving and I scramble up the rocks, following my rescuer. He doesn’t look back, and I know it is up to me now. He has done his best to save me, but if I fall by the way, he will let me lie.
I have a knife in each hand and I use them as picks as we scramble up the steep escarpment. I know that if I can’t hold them — means to a swift death before the Shadows fall on me — I will go mad.
Inside the gaping door, the dog basket, a tangle of lopped limbs thrown there like so much rubbish and the tiny hand of a baby, the great gash in its mother’s belly where they ripped it from her. I am moaning and crying out to the gods, but they do not hear me.
I’m blinded by tears, as I flee until finally I stumble and fall. Once again he is there and hefts me over his shoulder like the carcass of a deer. I marvel at his strength even as I drift into a night without any stars.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts