Chapter 4: First impressions are long lasting
The summer was almost over and it was time to reap the rewards of many months of hard work. It had been a decent year, not the best, but the yield was satisfying. There was enough to keep them fed until spring, even longer, if they were moderate. People were busy in the fields and the harvest fair, that is the market on the first autumn Sunday, was drawing close.
The long break proved beneficial, for Val did a fair bit of writing and managed to finish his book. Sylph healed completely and they took a trip to Ardaena, to give the manuscript to Ermid and get hold of some money—travel or no travel, they still had agreements to fulfil—but other than that they did not leave the village. It was not hard to keep themselves busy and Kiran was pleased to spend some time with their friends.
The news from the east were more frequent; the gathering of the army was no longer a rumour, though no soldier had marched on that road, yet. It was an unclear situation, as there had been no official announcement to state the reasons for these strange measures, and people were a little worried. However, since there had been no serious conflicts for so long and nobody knew what it was like to live in times of war, they went on doing what they always had, that is harvesting their crops and making provisions. The eastern border was far enough and whatever happened there, they thought, would not reach them.
It was on the morning of the fair that reality dawned on them, when a mounted company rode through the village in a long procession of dark uniforms, solemn faces and clapping hooves, filling the road from side to side. They had camped outside Ulmaby the night before, but whether they had arrived after dark or had sat camp far enough was unclear. Suffice it to say no one had been aware of their presence until they crossed the village the next day. They wore the the green and gold crest of the Royal House, which many knew of, but few had seen.
It was early morning, but people were already gathering in the marketplace, getting ready for the fair. It looked like the weather was going to be beautiful and everyone was in high spirits. But when the cavalry arrived, taking them by surprise, they scrambled aside to make way for the soldiers. The sight was impressive and unsettling at the same time and, at first, people gaped and talked and called their friends to come see somethin’ you won’t believe. Gradually their voices dropped to whispers, a feeling of uneasiness spreading among them when they realized what it meant. The children, however, roused from beds by the commotion, were laughing and clapping impressed by the beautiful horses—and indeed they were: tall, robust beasts with shiny coats and long manes—the leather breastplates and the swords most soldiers carried either on their backs or saddles. When, finally, the road was theirs again people resumed their activities, but for a while the spirits were not as high as before.
Soon the first carts from the neighbouring villages arrived on the southern road, animating the place and pulling them back into a lively mood. News of the cavalry spread like fire and those from Ulmaby who had seen it proudly described the procession to their neighbours, who had not had the fortune to assist such a rare event, as if they had a merit in it. The talk was not about the eastern border, though, the real sensation were the armoured soldiers, the long swords and the splendid horses which, as long time horse owners themselves, the villagers could truly appreciate. And of course the newcomers were envious and regretted not coming earlier to see it with their own eyes.
Conversations became even more excited with the arrival of those from the western villages, who had seen the company the day before, and those coming from the east, who met it on their way to Ulmaby. People were wondering, making assumptions, worrying, debating and generally talking loudly, but as more men and carts arrived everyone’s attention was drawn to their affairs and things turned back to normal.
The Ales & Tales and the Blue Firefly were also getting ready for the day. Despite being a local event, market days were busy and good for business, especially those during harvest. And this was the biggest of all. Nothing smoothed trade better than a good drink, so ales and stouts poured from the barrels all day, accompanied by chicken pottage, ham and sausages, all sorts of pies, cheese and griddle cakes.
If such an event happened to take place during one of their breaks, Kiran would often lend Tam a hand in the tavern, doing anything from serving customers to washing the plates or helping Enid in the kitchen, alongside Tam and his children. Enid was his wife and an excellent cook and Kiran had learned a lot from her. He was paid for his work, but he also enjoyed listening to people’s talk, so for all its exhausting aspects, it was an altogether pleasant engagement and he was looking forward to it. And Val thought a change of pace always did good and encouraged him to accept such help requests whenever there was time for them.
About two hours after the morning’s episode, a group of four soldiers returned to the village, looking troubled and in a hurry. Their presence caused a stir among people, though not as much as the first time. Those who had not seen the entire company were more curious than the rest, but the soldiers ignored everyone and went straight inside the tavern.
They picked a table in a private corner, followed by the intrigued looks of the earliest customers, and beckoned Tam with an imperative motion. A needless act since Tam was already heading their way, surprised and apprehensive. Among them Kiran recognized, not at all pleased, Grim-face and his subordinate from that evening, a year ago, in Ardaena. He had good faces memory, but even if he had not, it would have been quite hard to forget that sharp look that had put him on his guard. His only hope was that their memory was less impressive than his own. They lived in a large city, Fates knew how many people they saw in one day alone. Nevertheless, it was best to keep out of the way.
He busied himself behind the bar and let Tam take care of his gloomy customers. It was his place after all. But he could not resist the impulse to steal a glance. They were talking in low voices and seemed worried. One of them looked unwell; he was not talking, just sitting with his eyes half-closed as if he were tired, a deep crease cutting between his brows. Strange.
Just then Tam called him at their table. So much for keeping out of the way. Kiran sighed, then composed himself and walked towards them with a calm step.
“How may I help?” The tired man’s breath was difficult and his skin was shimmering with tiny drops of sweat. Kiran frowned. “Did you eat something bad this morning?”
The other blinked confused and tried to say something, but suddenly convulsed and covered his mouth. Kiran rushed to the bar and brought a bowl and the man retched a stream of vomit.
“Could you bring me a wet cloth, please?”
Tam complied and returned with a clean, soft cloth, which Kiran used to gently wipe the face and mouth of the sick soldier. Tam stood there, troubled and not knowing what else to do.
“I’ll handle this, don’t worry. Others are waiting for you.”
Three pairs of eyes were watching his every move with surprise and caution. Grim-face’s were cold and hard and Kiran imagined he saw a flicker of recognition in them. Damn it! He took a breath to ease the tightness in his stomach, utterly displeased with the situation. This was not how he had imagined that day would be.
“He is intoxicated. Fool’s berries probably, but it’s just a guess.” That was the popular name for the dark, purple berries of poisonous bramble. He managed to keep his calm.
“How do you know that?” asked Grim-face in a voice just as cold as his stare.
Because I’m not a fool, Kiran would have wanted to say. “I have seen it many times. They are in season and grow a lot in these parts. The taste is slightly sweet, it’s easy to mistake them for blackberries, hence the name… Is he the only one with problems?”
Grim-face muttered something unflattering about the poor soldier and his missing comrades. His subordinate—Kiran had nicknamed him Smile-face, because the last time they had met he was smiling a lot and, generally, he seemed the opposite of his superior—put a hand on his arm and turned to Kiran. “That is why we are here. Is there someone that could help?”
“I’ll send somebody to fetch the doctor. Watch him, please, I’ll be right back.” He turned to look for one of Tam’s children, but the man stopped him.
“Have we met before?”
“Not that I remember.”
“You look familiar.”
“You are confusing me with someone else.” He left them, followed by Grim-face’s icy gaze. Damn him, he does remember.
He asked Gelda, Tam’s daughter, to look for Val and went in the kitchen. A few moments later he returned with a mug. “Drink this, please. Slowly.”
“What is that?” asked Grim-face.
The doorbells stirred with merry jingles.
“Kiran? What happened?” Val rushed into the room, followed by Gelda.
“That was fast.”
“I met him in the market,” said Gelda with a demure smile, smoothing her skirt.
“Thank you Gelda.”
The girl nodded, blushing, and went to help her mother in the kitchen.
Val examined the weak soldier. “Fool’s berries,” he concluded.
The others turned their eyes to Kiran, looking impressed, but he ignored them.
“Not too many, fortunately,” added Val.
“Why so? Are they deadly?” asked the fourth man with a childish naivete that did not suit his hefty built.
“Did you eat some, too?”—The man shook his head—“They are not deadly, but their effects are very unpleasant and may last for hours. The more you eat, the worse. When did it happen?”
“This morning, before we left. There are a few more sick about four or five miles away on the road.”
“Five?” said Smile-face uncertain, looking questioningly at his ill comrade. The man finally brought up four fingers.
Tam came to the table, wiping his hands on the apron. “How bad is it?”
“He will be fine, don’t worry,” said Val.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Your hands are full already. Could I bother Enid for some milk?”
“I’ll bring a mug.”
“Make it a bottle, please. He’s not the only one.”
“Dear me,” said Tam and he went to talk to his wife.
“Thank you, Tam. Kiran, can you bring the horses and three—no, four rolls of powders?”
Kiran left, disregarding the curious customers.
“Charcoal,” threw his son over the shoulder, before reaching the door.
“Yes.” Then to the soldiers, “My son and I shall go with you to help the others.”
“Your son?!” cried them in a chorus of incredulous voices, startling Val. He stared at them puzzled, but Smile-face raised a hand, “Never mind.”
Half an hour later they were riding as fast as the queasy man could handle. His big friend had taken him on his horse, while his own followed behind. Roughly five miles away they were hailed by a small group of soldiers, half of which were either writhing on the side of the road or retching, faces twisted with pain, while their comrades watched them helpless. Their mounts were quietly grazing not far from them, but the cavalry was nowhere in sight. A few kind people, on their way to the fair, had stopped to offer their help, but now they saw them coming, they returned to the carts and moved on.
They dismounted and rushed to tend to the sick ones. The others hurried to help, following Val’s instructions without questioning. Fortunately none of the sick were excessively bad, only a couple worse than the first one, but they were in no condition to ride for a while. Val told that to Grim-face, who appeared to be the one in charge.
“We had no time to make proper introductions.”
The voice of Smile-face took Kiran unawares. Weren’t you with Grim-face? He tried to hide his displeasure. “The circumstances have not been the most favourable.”
Smile-face smiled as if he understood something. “I’m Bredan.”
“That is a beautiful name. Well met, Kiran.”
“That is something you say to a woman. Well met, Bredan.”
“Heh, I like your humour.” Then, pointing to Grim-face, “Bran is our Captain, and the other two who rode with us are Cai and Owein. Cai is the sick one,” he explained. “This lad is Bert and—”
Kiran stopped him abruptly. “I appreciate your civility, but I see no occasion for this. I shall forget most names and who is who by the time you finish enumerating them.” It was unlike him to be rude, but he was in a bad mood and making acquaintances among soldiers was the last thing he wished. He turned to the man named Bert, who was standing beside them. “I mean no offence.”
“None taken,” said Bert, rather amused by his bluntness. He was one of those left to watch over the sick till his comrades returned.
Bredan burst into laughter. It was rich, boisterous and infectious, so much so that Kiran could not resist smiling himself, for the first time that day since the soldiers had crossed the tavern’s threshold. But they attracted everyone’s attention and now Val and Bran were coming to join them. That spoiled the moment and his smile faded quickly.
Bredan noticed. “I still feel like I’ve met you before,” he mused, but Kiran ignored that.
“We did the best we could,” said Val, packing their things. The soldiers did seem a little better. “All you can do now is wait. They vomited and the charcoal will clean what is left of the poison, so the nausea and drowsiness should subside. I gave them something for the pain, but the fruits have irritated their gut. It will hurt them for a while, though not as bad as before. I shall leave you more powders for that.”
“How long before they can ride?” asked Bran.
“That depends on the person. A few hours, perhaps longer, I really cannot say that.” Val paused, studying the captain. “There will be other effects soon… their bodies will try to clean themselves. Your men will need plenty of water.”
Bran seemed to understand.
“High-Captain Pryce said we must handle this as we can and follow them,” said Bert. “They will not wait for us. They will leave in the morning, as planned.”
“The border is more important, they cannot delay,” said Bran. “But it won’t be hard to catch up with them.”
“I do not wish to sound meddling, but in that case may I suggest you wait until tomorrow?”—Everyone turned to Val bemused—“It’s already noon,” he said, undisturbed by their stares. “By the time they will be well enough to ride, you might not have much light anyway. I understand the urgency, but what is the gain if you rush at the cost of your men’s condition? You have a long journey ahead.”
He was quite right. That’s Val, thought Kiran with pride, always sensible.
Bran clenched his fists, but there was nothing he could do about it. “Very well. If they are not fit for riding soon enough, we shall leave tomorrow.”
The sick sighed with relief.
“But,” pointed out Bran in a firm tone, “we’ll have to move faster. No idling until we meet with the others.”
“Yes, Captain!” chorused the men.
One of the soldiers leaned closer to Kiran. “What was the charcoal for?” he asked in a low voice. He seemed the youngest of them, perhaps younger than Kiran.
“To soak up the poison. It’s like… a sponge.”
“And then? I mean I never saw anyone eating coals,” he added, a little embarrassed.
“This is not common coal. And it will not harm them, they will just get rid of it.”
The man was staring at him, waiting.
“Really?” Kiran forced himself to stay serious. “Ask your captain later.”
They were ready to leave and a soldier brought their horses, who had wandered off with the others, grazing.
Bran made a dignified, but heartfelt bow. “Thank you very much for all the help. We are in your debt.”
“Not at all, Captain. May the Fates keep you safe.”
“And you too, Doctor. Kiran.”
Another bow, slightly stiffer perhaps and using the name instead of an honorific, but still more sincere than mere courtesy. Coming from such a rigid person—arrogant was the word Kiran would have used—the surprise caught him off guard and he could not reply.
And while they were mounting, Bredan suddenly exclaimed, “You are the zealous fellow!”
Kiran almost fell off his horse.
“What was that?” asked Val when they had put some distance between them.
“A long story.” Kiran blushed, remembering he had not mentioned his first encounter with those men. Despite his initial hesitation, the following morning he had told Val about the assault and its conclusion. It was too serious a matter to hide from his father, but he thought the conversation with the guards was irrelevant and had skipped that part. Perhaps there was also a little resentment in there.
“We have plenty of time.”
Kiran sighed, but there was no choice, so, while they trotted leisurely back to Ulmaby, he recounted his father the unpleasant exchange between him and Bran, the night they met in Ardaena.
It was only the first week of autumn and the summer heat still lingered during the day, as if the world were not ready to change seasons yet. But the weather was more pleasant, the air not as hot as before and the nights were cooler. Still, the soldiers looked for shade to hide from the midday sun. It had been a pleasure to ride and camp at the edge of the woodland the day before, despite the fact their quest for berries had turned out a poor idea—the five sick were drowsy and their guts were rebelling. But the woods were behind them and the road wound forwards through beautiful, scented meadows, sprinkled with trees that grew solitary or in small groves. There was one not very far ahead, so they pulled the horses and trudged towards the shadow of the old trees.
There was even a small stream that flowed gently from the north and crossed the road, meandering through the grass like a silver snake. The water was cool and clear and the horses went straight to it, dipping their muzzles and drinking with noisy slurps. How fortunate, thought Bran. There would be no need to ride to the next village—just over a mile and a half away—to resupply.
They took shelter under a large beech, lying on a patch of grass. Two men went to fetch fresh water.
“What was that about, earlier?” Owein was curious, after they quenched their thirst. He looked older because of his big body, but he was not yet in his thirties. A capable man, albeit a bit naive. “The zealous fellow?”
“Aah, that.” Bredan glanced towards Bran and chuckled, knowing the subject always annoyed his friend. Which, in turn, amused him. Bran made a wry face.
Seeing their reactions, now everyone was curious. “Well?”
“There’s nothing much, really. We met Kiran a year ago, in Ardaena. One evening, when we were returning to the Garrison, we crossed paths with him just as he was about to be mugged.”
“You fought the mugger,” said Rowan.
So eager. “Um, not quite.”
Bredan turned to his friend. “What?”
“About to be mugged,” scorned Bran. “He scared the wits out of that bastard and then let him go. He practically helped him get away.”
“And how do you know he did that, may I ask?”
Of course he knew how, this was just teasing. They had talked a lot about it and both had agreed that Kiran’s behaviour had seemed off, his story made in the spur of the moment. But his proud friend hated to be mocked or patronized, especially by cocky brats. And there was also that eerie side of that meeting, which had disturbed Bran exceedingly, though Bredan never joked about that. They had made inquiries at the Miller’s Inn, after returning from a mission, but either Kiran had lied about dining there, or the innkeeper had already forgotten. And it irked Bran that he could not figure out the truth. That meeting had left a bitter taste in his mouth. No wonder then that, despite a year going by, running into him again had roused some resentments.
“Damn it, Bredan, you were there! He mocked us, it’s insulting.”
“That Kiran?” asked Owein, pointing roughly in the direction the doctor and his son had gone. The young man had seemed kind, perhaps a bit reserved, but certainly not hostile or menacing.
Bredan nodded. “He was not forthcoming,” he conceded.
“That’s a nice way to say he was lying. I cannot accept to be dismissed like that. Not by a cocky brat.” Bran stressed the words by pulling a handful of grass.
“Oh, let’s be honest, he’s not that bad. What about today, then?”
“It doesn’t change what happened.”
“No, but it does show there’s more to him than we thought at the time. He is not some shady fellow.”
“He’s still insolent.”
“He’s bold, yes. I like that. You are taking things too personally.”
“I think what really annoys you is that he defied you. But don’t forget you provoked him.” Bredan lay on his back, arms under head. A playful smile was tugging at the corners of his lips and he was trying to contain it. If Bran were not so serious, he would not have teased him so much, but as it was, he simply could not resist. “Honestly, I think you two are very similar.”
“Fates forbid!” snapped Bran, rising to his feet. He stretched and strode to the water without another word.
In the beginning it may had come as a surprise to some of them that Bran allowed his friend to openly tease him in front of his subordinates. He had not always taken it so calmly. But then again, their strong friendship was well known and no less surprising. Most saw them as different as day and night; only the closer ones had noticed the similitudes beyond their outward personalities.
“You are a just and caring man, but your strictness and self-discipline are intimidating. People find it difficult to understand you or meet your expectations. If you want them to follow you, let them see you have imperfections, just like them. They make us human,” Bredan had told him. The idea had revolted Bran. “I’m not saying you should expose yourself to derision. Just let them glimpse your true feelings. They need to know you’re not that different, that you can sympathize with them. Of course there must be limits, but a rigid attitude has never won loyalty or trust.”
Bran had never had any real friends before he met Bredan, and those who knew him from his days in the City Guard swore he was different now. Still serious and demanding, but more approachable. Less arrogant and easier to talk to. In truth he had never been arrogant, it was his austere manner that was misleading. But Bredan had been right. Although their comrades never dared to take such liberties with him as his friend did, most had a high opinion of him and respected him both as a captain and as a man. And even his best friend never crossed a certain line.
“Well? What happened that evening?” asked Bert with impatience.
Bredan told them the story. Not all of it, he was careful to leave out the disturbing parts, both out of respect for Bran and because it was wiser to keep that between the two of them.
Glen whistled. “That lad’s got courage to talk to the Cap’n like that,” he said when the story was over. The others agreed.
“Why? He was very polite,” said Rowan.
They regarded him with indulgence.
“Because he played with fire. You don’t cheek our Cap’n,” said Glen, like a father explaining his son the ways of life. He was older than the rest of them and not very educated, but he had a caring heart and more common sense than most.
Rowan quivered. “No.”
“That’s why it bothers him so much,” said Bredan. “I suggest you keep this to yourself. Don’t tell others and don’t make comments. Unless you want to deal with him.”
The last words were a warning and they nodded in silence. Bran was fair and reasonably tolerant, but still unnerving. Just like his father. They knew not to cross him. And because he was returning from the stream, they closed the subject.
The sick men stirred and groaned and a few stumbled away among the trees.
“Dear, oh, dear,” said Bredan, standing. “I fear we have to spend the night here.” He turned to Bran, who was watching them with concern and frustration.
The shadows were growing longer and by the looks of it they had no chance to meet with the rest of the cavalry that evening.
“We’ll stay,” decided Bran. “We don’t have much food, but at least there is fresh water.”
“That won’t be a problem for all of us.” Bredan looked towards the the trees. The sounds coming from there were very suggestive and unpleasant. “I bet food is the last thing they want to see right now.”
“They need strength. We should eat something and rest. We’ll take turns watching tonight.” Bran motioned to his men to unpack and set up camp.
“Good thing they left us some medicine,” said Bredan, while unsaddling his mount. “The Doctor said to give them some if necessary, but they will be well enough tomorrow.”
“I hope so. Hurry up, I want to take a look at the map.” He was understandably in a bad mood.
“The water is too cold, ha-ha-ha!”
Val was laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes and his belly ached. He was leaning forwards on his horse, to steady himself. Kiran’s nose wrinkled. He thought his father’s amusement was a bit excessive, especially when his own feelings were the exact opposite: Bran’s gratuitous, undisguised distrust had insulted him, both back then and earlier, at Tam’s place. Val’s enjoyment was off-putting.
“I hope you fall off that horse,” he grumbled.
“Don’t be ungracious,” admonished him Val, wiping his tears. “But that explains a lot. I was wondering at the animosity between the two of you.”
“He started it.”
“He had reasons, your behaviour was suspicious.”
“There was no reason to be sarcastic, I was neither condescending, nor uncivil.”
“No, but you were a little too stubborn for someone in your situation. Another would have welcomed their assistance. And I sense that captain cannot be deceived so easily. He may be reserved, but he’s sharp.”
“I don’t think he believed me—”
“That is obvious, from your account.”
“—But at the time I feared he might have seen more.”
“A little late to worry about that after you let the cat out of the bag.”
Kiran bit his lip. “I don’t know how to stop him. I tried, but he didn’t listen.” He was like a child trying to exculpate himself, knowing quite well he was guilty.
“That’s why I keep telling you to control your emotions.”
His son nodded without arguing.
“I don’t think he saw anything,” continued Val, “otherwise his friend would have, too. It is more likely that he was offended by your attitude.”
“I was nothing but polite!”
“In speech, not in message. I think he made the difference.”
“But he started it,” pouted Kiran.
“And you simply could not disregard the affront.” Val sighed. “Sometimes you are too proud and I fear it’s my fault. But keep in mind that pride can be offensive and it will draw attention to you. And some eyes see deeper than others.”
Val had this gentle, but firm way of reproving, always bringing arguments which his son could not disagree with. It made him feel ashamed and regretful, and that was why he feared his disapproval. He hated to disappoint his father.
It was well past noon when they reached Ulmaby, and the place was swarming with people. They filled the whole marketplace and even spread along the southern road, all the way to the edge of the village. Everyone was talking, bargaining, chatting and laughing, and in the middle of the market a group of locals were playing music. It was difficult to move around and they had to dismount and lead the horses by the reins to get through to the tavern. The Ales & Tales was full and just as lively. Tam and his children were barely managing.
“Thank goodness you’re back,” rejoiced Tam, wiping his forehead with the shirt sleeve. His round face was red and sweaty. “How’s that poor lad?”
“He will be fine,” said Val. “They all will.”
“They? Ah, yes,” remembered Tam. He turned to Kiran, uncertain. “You came back to help, I hope?”
“I promised, didn’t I?” Kiran’s stomach made a growling noise. “If we could just have a bit of that deliciously smelling stew before,” he added with an embarrassed smile. Val happily seconded him.
“Leave it to me,” said Tam and disappeared in the kitchen. He was short and fairly round about the middle, and had all the grace of an old goose, but he was unexpectedly quick.
Val looked around, spotting Alden and Belesni at one of the tables. Their friends saw them as well and waved them to join. Before they even had time to answer, Tam was back with a tray with two bowls of steaming stew, fresh bread and ale to push the food down.
“Thanks, Tam, I’ll take those.” Kiran took a deep breath. “Mmm, nothing compares to Enid’s cooking.”
Tam grinned with pride. “She’ll be happy if you tell ’er so.” He motioned a refusal when Kiran wanted to pay. “Never mind that. Come to the kitchen when you finish.” And he left to take care of the customers.
They took the tray and went to sit with their friends.
“Hallo there, travellers,” said Alden in a cheerful voice.
“How’s the sick lad?” asked Belesni.
“You heard about that already?”
“Good ol’ Tam told us.”
“He will be fine,” said Kiran, sitting. “City folk. Cannot tell the difference between berries.”
“Of course not, they don’t grow in Ardaena,” said Val in their defence.
“Don’t they ever get out?” asked Belesni.
“Not everybody does. When was the last time you left the village?”
“Then they shouldn’t go foraging if they don’t know what to look for.” It was common sense.
Alden snorted. “As if you never saw it happen to village folk.”
“Where’s Noll?” asked Val, blowing the hot stew.
“I sent him on a little errand,” answered Belesni in Alden’s stead. “My pies are selling like warm bread and I asked him to help me today. He should be back shortly.”
The stew had cooled enough and Kiran wolfed it down as though he had not eaten in days, it was that good. Enid could make the simplest of foods taste delicious.
“Someone was hungry!”
“I never get tired of Enid’s stew. And I promised Tam I will help him today.”
“That is very kind of you,” said Belesni. “But he ought to pay you for it. Days like this are exhausting.”
“Oh, he is, though I would have helped him anyway. He is always obliging.” Kiran emptied his mug, wiping his mouth with a clean handkerchief, and excused himself. He went straight to the kitchen.
Val stayed with their friends a bit longer, then they parted ways.
It was not until nightfall that Kiran came home. He found his father reading in the library.
“Why didn’t you come back to Tam’s? Everyone was asking about you. I’m too tired to drink, but you can go if you wish...” he trailed off, noticing their travel bags sitting open near the desk. “Are we going somewhere?”
Val glanced at the bags, but made no answer. He just closed the book and carefully placed it on a shelf between the others. Then he went to the kitchen, took the steaming kettle from its hook above the hearth and poured tea for both of them with reflex moves, as though his mind were elsewhere. That made Kiran frown, but he said nothing. Pestering his father with questions when he was in that mood never helped. He had to be patient.
“Let’s sit outside. It’s a beautiful evening,” said Val, at last.
They took their places on the porch, listening to the sounds of the night. The sky was dark already and the first stars were flickering with dim light, but the moons were not above the forest yet. The fair was over and most people were taking the long way back to their villages, but the Ales & Tales was still full when Kiran had left it. Faint voices and laughs occasionally reached them, drowned a moment later by the chorus of crickets. A dog barked somewhere, stirring a cacophony of answers from its neighbours, but their racket died quickly. The light breeze cooled the air, carrying pleasant scents from the woods.
“I love this smell,” murmured Val. “Always had.” He puckered his lips, blowing softly to cool the tea.
“Your mood is strange.” There was a worried ring in Kiran’s voice.
Val blinked as if waking from a dream. “Perhaps I’m getting old.” He smiled.
“You’re barely fifty,” protested Kiran. “What were you doing with our travel bags?”
“Remember that time we went to Fiodhin? The woods around it were so beautiful.”
“All woods are beautiful.”
“Yes. But I recall you were particularly delighted with those.”
Kiran took a moment before answering. “Near the border, where things are stirring… that’s where you want to go?”
“It’s the best time of the year to collect roots. There are some plants that grow in those parts, which are high in demand.” Val sipped from his tea, staring towards the black outline of the forest. “That captain—Bran, was it?—said they are assembling in Fiodhin. Since they are royal guards, I’m assuming a member of the royal family is there. The city will be well protected.”
“You want go there with the soldiers?”
“We. We could go there with the soldiers. And why not? It’s safer than travelling alone.”
Since when? Kiran was astonished. Firstly, ever since Val had taken him in they had avoided the eastern border. The week in Fiodhin had been an exception, because an old friend of Val’s had asked for his help, but they had been vigilant. During that time they had taken the opportunity to see the woods a few hours’ ride north-west of the city. Kiran had relished that trip, openly expressing his regret about its short duration.
Secondly, they travelled alone. Folk favoured travelling in groups or joining other folk on the road, for safety and company, but people were curious and tended to ask too many questions when they had nothing better to do. Not to mention the two of them were too fond of their independence to exchange it for company. So oftentimes they avoided the main roads. Thieves favoured the same ones merchants did, therefore there was less chance of running into them. That is not to say they had never been in difficult situations, but they were not helpless. On the whole their journeys so far had been pleasant and with little notable danger.
Val’s reasoning made no sense. Unless…
“Of all times, is there a particular reason to go there now?”
Val did not answer immediately. He fumbled with one of his pockets and produced an opened letter.
“This came from Ermid, two days ago.”
Kiran rushed inside and returned with an oil lamp, placing it on the stump table between them.
“What does it say?”
“You may read it yourself.”
“Old Plane Square, Vin. 1st.
“My Dear Friend,
“I hope this finds you well.
“Your manuscript is currently being transcribed. As usual, it is well written and an enjoyable read, even if the subject may not seem of interest for the average reader. You have a talent with words. But this is not the reason I am writing you. Something has happened and I thought I ought to let you know, since it appears to concern you. I daresay it is nothing of consequence, nonetheless you should decide that yourself.
“Yesterday, around lunch time, two gentlemen came to my shop and asked whether I have any books about the ancient race Eina. As it happens, at the moment I do not, but I was going to suggest them to return in a fortnight, as I have already placed an order for your book. With the recent events it is quite in demand. I sold the last one, my own copy no less, a week ago, to a gentleman who absolutely insisted to have it. Very unlike me, I know, but he was persistent and willing to pay more. Were he not so distinguished, perhaps I would have refused him. But I digress.
“Before I could make said suggestion the two gentlemen went on to describe the book they were looking for and, to my surprise, it was the same one I had in mind: yours. Not only that, but they spoke with an odd accent and I am fairly sure it was eastern, unless my ears have lost their finesse.”
For a moment Kiran thought his heart would stop. He raised alarmed eyes to his father.
“Have you finished? Then go on,” prompted him Val, when he shook his head.
“Rather unexpected, do you not agree? Of course I told them I do not have it, but I know of the book in question. Do I also know the author? Because they were very interested in meeting him. Another unusual wish. Though perhaps it only seemed unusual in that situation, because I felt there was something amiss about them and it made me a little uncomfortable. Their look or their tone, or perhaps the fact they had come so far with such purpose, I cannot say which. So I explained them I have seen hundreds of books in my life. I may remember one for its content, but I cannot possibly remember all authors. And here comes the strangest part: they were told the author was a certain Valan, though they knew not his other name. Apparently the man was also something of a healer. I suppose they thought it would ring familiar, but I told them I do not recall any author going by that name.
“Long ago you said the purpose of your pen name is to shield you from unnecessary attention. Had they asked about Ellis Greene, perhaps I would not have written this letter, but they did not even mention him. You understand why I felt the situation was strange. They were not very persistent, thankfully, and I have not seen them again since, but I thought it best to tell you that someone is looking for you. Rest assured, I spoke to no one else about this visit.
“Please let me know that you and your son are well and that I have done the right thing. And if there is anything I can help you with, do not hesitate to say. You can always count on my discretion.
Kiran’s hands were trembling slightly as they folded the letter and placed it on the table. He could not say anything for a few moments, knew not what to say or believe. And when he finally spoke, his voice was almost flat, very unlike him.
“Does anyone else, besides us and Ermid, know you are Ellis Greene?”
“Only Drest and Alden. I told them a long time ago, before you came here.”
“Nobody else in Ardaena? Another bookshop keeper, perhaps?”
“Nobody else anywhere. I will not deny that using a pen name was just a caprice when I started, but if I told people about it, wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?” Val gazed upon their garden, but the light of the lamp made the farther corners indistinguishable to his eyes. “Dear Ermid, he must have been quite worried.”
Kiran did not hear that. His thoughts were only about the content of that letter.
“He is still looking for me. For us… After eleven years, I was hoping he had given up.”
“Never underestimate a powerful man who wants something,” advised Val, turning a serious look at him.
“They know your name.”
“Someone in Maelifeld must have remembered me.”
“But why turn their search to you, after so many years? And what spurred this search?” Then he realized. “That evening…”
“That man must have spoken, despite your warning. Somehow, it reached their ears.”
“They have people in Ardaena.”
“As do we in Vres, I’m sure. Some are official, other not so much, but that has to do with politics, not us. It was pure chance, most likely.”
“But that was a year ago.”
“It must have taken some back and forth before they came across my name.”
“It’s all my fault.” Kiran sank in his seat. “I’m sorry, Val.”
“It is your fault. And it is also my fault. We both let our guard down and now regret it, but how does this help us? Instead of blaming ourselves, we should think about what to do. We are fortunate to have been warned.”
Kiran’s expression softened. “Did you answer Ermid?”
“Of course I did. I also sent him a little gift, though I’m sure he doesn’t imagine how much we are indebted to him.”
“What should we do?”
Val watched his son for a moment. Kiran had recovered from the shock of the news, but his fingers were restless, his lips tense and a few shallow creases still seamed his forehead. “They haven’t found us, yet,” he said gently.
“No, but now that they have your name, how long before they find someone who knows where you live? Why didn’t you tell me about the letter sooner?”
“Because I didn’t want to spoil the fair for you.” He stopped Kiran before he could object. “And I wanted a little time to think about it.”
“We could have done that together!”
“Sometimes you are too impulsive. But I’ll admit that you took the news better than I feared.” Besides relief, there was a hint of pride in Val’s voice. “Now that the fair is over, it’s time for a new trip. I don’t think they will find us so easily, nonetheless we should be on the move again.”
“What better place to hide? They may be clever, but I doubt they would expect that. It’s against common sense, especially at a time like this. And Fiodhin may not be the capital, but it’s a busy city, more so now that the soldiers are gathering there.”
“A needle in a haystack?”
“A well guarded haystack,” stressed Val.
“What makes you think Bran would let us join his group? They are not civilians. They have a mission and must move fast. We have nothing to do with it.”
“It doesn’t hurt to have a doctor around. We can handle ourselves and will not be a burden. If anything, we’re doing them a favour.”
“Another one?” Kiran’s eyes narrowed. “Is this why you didn’t take any payment this morning?”
Val slurped his tea noisily. It was something he often did when his son criticized him, either to show disagreement or to spite him, in a childish way. “Are you saying I cannot be generous without ulterior motives?”
“No, I know your generosity is wholehearted. But suggesting to join their group just after doing them a free service cannot be mere coincidence. You were contemplating the possibility, weren’t you?”
“Well, perhaps it crossed my mind earlier, while helping those poor men. But under better circumstances I would have helped them just the same. Make no mistake about that.”
His son smiled, because he knew that was true.
“Nevertheless, this morning’s events may work in our favour.”
“I doubt that stubborn stick will agree to it,” scoffed Kiran.
Even though Val’s suggestion was reasonable in the light of those news, he could not help feeling displeased. Not only were they supposed to leave their peaceful home in Ulmaby for Fates knew how long—which was not the same as their usual travelling; that was freedom, this was fleeing—but they would have to ride for days in the company of that obnoxious person, whose mere presence ruined his mood. It was an awful prospect and he was not sure he would be able to check his manners for so long.
“Don’t let resentment get the better of you,” said Val in a tone of mild reproof. “That man has faults, but they don’t seem of reason. You don’t have to like him and we are not looking to make friends. We will merely take advantage of a situation.”
“Suppose he would agree. We don’t even know where they are. Perhaps they already met with their company.”
“Perhaps. It would please me to know our assistance was so effective, but I think it is more likely that they will leave in the morning. We can catch up with them if we ride off before sunrise.”
“And if they left?”
“We have nothing to lose. If you don’t mind joining them, we’ll catch up in a few days. The company is much slower. If not, we’ll be on our own, as always. Whatever the case, we must set forth.”
“What about preparations? And the house? And our friends? We never leave without letting them know.”
“I may not have told you about the letter earlier, but don’t think I wasted that time. I paid Drest a visit after lunch and told him a friend needs my immediate assistance. You know he doesn’t ask questions. He will find a letter in which I explained a few things. I trust him to keep a secret and handle things in case someone comes looking for us. As for the house, it’s the usual arrangement, our friends will look after it. We will travel light, as always, but I did prepare a few things. This journey will be a little different, if only for the fact we cannot foresee our return.”
Kiran was astonished. “You thought of everything. Alone. This makes me feel even worse for not knowing about it sooner. Though it was you who withheld the news from me.”
“Don’t be childish, it is my wish to protect you.”
“But if it were not for me, your life would be—”
“Less rich and stimulating, no doubt. I’m sure I would have aged much faster. Shush, now, you’re talking nonsense. If I had wanted a dull life, I would have stayed in my home village and carved wood.”
Kiran chuckled, imagining Alden’s reaction at that statement.
“Not that I have anything against carpentering,” added Val, guessing his son’s thoughts, “Alden is a wonderful craftsman. It just never suited me.” He stood up and came in front of him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I know this is sudden and I’m not trying to force you. That we must leave as soon as we can is obvious, but we don’t have to ride with them if you dislike it. I just think it would be safer.”
“Think about it, but don’t take too long. There is not much time.” His fingers brushed a dark lock which had strayed from its bonds. “You have never been a burden, my boy.” He smiled fondly and went inside, taking the cups with him.
Kiran snuffed out the lamp and reclined in his seat, staring at the sky and the two moons that were rising above the trees, one silver and one gold, trying to calm the storm in his mind.
He opened his eyes. The room was still and pitch black, but he felt he was not alone. Something was there, a dark, heavy presence looming over him, weighing him down. His chest was too heavy. He blinked to clear the blackness from his eyes, but to no avail. Were his eyes really open?
Get up, sprang a sudden thought. Run!
It had an urgency which bespoke danger. Just as it came to his mind, trying to command his limbs, he became aware he could not move. His whole body was inert—not numb, just unresponsive, as if some force were standing between his will and his muscles. But his physical senses were very much awake and he felt strong, immaterial rings binding him, in the same way the hoops bound the staves of a barrel.
Fear came upon him as he realized he was standing naked and helpless in front of something overwhelmingly powerful, which could see into the farthest corners of his mind while staying hidden from him. A greedy, malicious will, whose intent—he soon understood—was not to end him, but to use him to end everything else and force him to behold the destruction without being able to prevent any of it. To rob him of everything he held dear and torment his heart, until nothing was left in it, save for pain and despair.
I’m dreaming, I must be dreaming. It cannot be I’m awake!
He screamed in horror, but he had no voice. His body was inert. His eyes were blinking to no avail, because everything was pitch black.
I must be dreaming! Why cannot I wake up?
Lost in that darkness, naked, powerless and stricken, all he could do was hold his breath and wait.
A tiny golden light flickered before his eyes. It throbbed, almost like a heart, and its faint glow grew to brilliance. Small though it was he felt warmth coming from it. He felt hope. Then another light flickered, and then another… and another. Tiny drops of golden light, fine as raindrops, drifting with him. Tens. Hundreds. Thousands. Engulfing him like a river, flowing gently, pushing away the darkness. There was something familiar about it.
The rings binding him snapped. The will shuddered; its grip weakened and gave. He could not see it, but he felt the river pushing it back—its malice struggling against the low drumming of thousands of hearts beating in unison. And, as it happened, the will took shape.
A dark, faceless silhouette, like that of a person hiding in the shadows. For all its brightness, the light of the river went past it without revealing any feature, but the shape was unmistakable.
Who is he?
The man was throwing long, clawed arms towards him, trying to grab him back and raging at the uselessness of his attempts.
Glints of gold and red on one of the fingers caught his eye.
I know this man.
Fear washed through him with renewed force, but the river of light flowed gently around him, sheltering him.
Am I safe? … Who am I?
He was one of those drops of light, drifting with the river.
I am safe.
But for how long?
Kiran opened his eyes. His heart was beating fast, echoing in his ears. His breath was short and his skin was slick with sweat. The room was dark, but through the slats of the wooden shutters came faint light. The room was still, but he heard a dog barking outside. He was alone. He stood up—he could move. He went to the window and opened it, breathing in the scent of the forest, feeling the cool wind, listening to the comforting sounds of the night. He stood there, bringing all his thoughts to the present, until fear let go of his heart.
Before the first light of dawn had brightened the horizon, he went to Val’s room and roused him with a whisper.