1 Expedition North
The Moon was full, orange and low as if it was an effort to escape the horizon. There was a chill in the night air, but he did not feel it. The warrior knelt and scooped up some soil, which he rubbed between his fingers, put to his nose and then smelt. This was supposed to be the cleanest soil in all the lands. The wind whistled through the bushes. He glanced back across the commune; he had his own bitterness to shield him from realities. Razzan and Jarrad walked the outer walls like ghosts. It wasn’t his watch, but he couldn’t sleep again and Harrad was glad of the rest. His mind drifted back to the hill due south. The gatehouse tower was level with it and the cross was visible in moonlight. For nights, he had stood up there watching the cross. Now, he had only to close his eyes to see it again. He had no tears of grief, only a cold deep hatred. He wanted to kill. He could fight now with a fury before unknown. He could fight without fear, he wanted to die. Such a warrior makes a fearsome opponent.
He never understood the taboo of taking a life in anything but combat. “They never told me it would be like this,” he thought. Revulsion tore at his soul.
He had seen so many of his people die a slow lingering death from the poison spread on their lands in the great war many generations before. His enemies had better lie low for he would not rest until he bathed in their blood or died in the attempt. Death now obsessed him. What was the point of living only to die a death of pain and horror that lasted six months? A death which took most by the age of forty-five. Even in the commune, with its clean soil, the death took his father at fifty. He felt cheated, there was still so much unsaid, things he should have done. He felt an overwhelming loss, leaving him an empty shell. “They never said it would be like this.” He cried. “It must have been the kindest thing to have done. None survived it. Father had seen three months’ pain, crying out for release. Yet when it came, the look of horror on his face would be with me forever. Did he blame me? It was so quick, one thrust of the blade and it was over. Was it not the release he wanted? But the look on his face, disbelief, almost accusing me. I couldn’t even explain. They didn’t tell me it would be like this. The pain,” he thought in torment. “I have slain my own father.” He cried again.
“He has completed his cycle,” a voice behind him said. “It is the way. You have always told us that good can come from evil. His passing makes way for you to bring your woman here.” Arran turned.
“And that, Harrad, gives me a good reason for killing him?”
“We all know why you did it. It was the kindest thing to do.”
“But I did not realise that having such a benefit from my father’s death would cause so much guilt. I cannot live with it, Harrad.”
“It will pass. Send for her. She will take your mind off your worries.”
“Harrad, she can’t travel, the baby.”
“That’s what I came to tell you, stillborn.”
“Not another,” said Arran. “We can hardly give her a joyous welcome. It’s a wonder the women don’t give up. The birth rate is so low I sometimes think one good war and humanity would die out.”
“Perhaps it is the will of the Gods.”
“Fool, Harrad. Why should the Gods punish us?”
“Our law says that we must not exceed a particular population level, or the Com will suffer. Does it not seem strange that we have never had a problem with the number born? If they all survived, we would have to be turning them out to a harsher, shorter life. The Gods only allow the strongest through. Goodnight, Arran.”
The sun burnt its way into Arran’s room when he eventually fell out of bed “Ooh,” he moaned. “Must stop drinking. But I can’t sleep without it.” He steadied himself on the bedpost. A knock at the door and Harrad stepped in.
“So, you’re awake, eh? Everyone is getting a little restless. It’s been two weeks and you’re supposed to be our leader now. You should show them strength.”
“Is there still no sign of Zeb?” asked Arran.
“Stop this foolishness,” said Harrad. “In three days, you must lead the trek to Cam.”
“But he promised he would come this moon.”
“You must call on Nadine and tell her the news. She has waited a long time.”
“Only Zeb will know, he knows all, Harrad. He has travelled these lands and more.”
“He knows nothing,” said Harrad. “You must give up these ideas, life must go on. Cast off this gloom, Arran.”
“I will revenge us all, Harrad.”
“Maybe, but I would find it a great help if I knew what you were talking about or if you even knew yourself. You’re not going to achieve anything like this, not enough sleep and too much wine. You were the most able amongst us. You must resume your martial training, double your programme. You must be in shape in five days. It will keep your mind from other things and help you sleep.”
“Good old Harrad,” said Arran as the door closed. “He is so organised. Not the best of warriors, but he could run a good war. Make a bloody good general he would. I just wish he would not fuss so.”
The next five days were spent in vigorous training and exercise. Arran was still excused his chores. On the third night in the workroom he was making a new sheath for his knife when he was approached by Elven “You know that you promised to take me this time.”
“Elven, I have enough on my hands.”
“I am fifteen now, a warrior. I won’t be a burden.”
“Ah, a warrior. Have I ever broken a promise to a warrior? You shall have your wish. We leave on the dawn in two suns. Do you think you can be ready, young warrior?”
“Why, yes. Does the sun fail to rise each day?”
The first rays of sun struck the gatehouse from over the east hills. The rest of the Com was in half-light, but there was plenty of activity. Hands hauled on ropes, pulleys squeaked, timbers creaked as the barrows were lowered to the ground. The tower faced west, its gateway filled in with stone many generations ago to keep out robbers and marauding bands. Everything had to be lowered from the tower. The whole complex was contained within a huge oval wall sixty feet high. Terraced gardens stepped down from the top of the wall to a central oval garden, all of it given to growing food. On the top levels, fish were bred in large tanks. The fish waste was used as a source of nutrients for the plants. Thus, they had a contained system with no outside contamination. Beneath the terraces were dwellings, workshops, a gym and the rabbit pens, the peoples main source of meat, though most of it went for trade. Legend has it that the place was built for games, but no one knew what sort. The central gardens, stretching over a quarter of a mile, were planted with soya, other beans and vegetables. The terraces were planted with potatoes and food for the rabbits. This smallholding only supported four hundred people. This number was strictly adhered to. Rabbits goats and sheep were the only domestic animals left. There were plenty of rats of course, and the people in the small towns would happily devour them.
People were starting to move about in the lower gardens. Smoke drifted from the forge chimney. Nazine and Maleem were turning the capstan that pumped water up to the terrace cisterns. The women did not take their men’s name exactly, but something similar, perhaps what they thought the female version would be.
“I hate this job. I think it’s the worst job on rota,” grunted Nazine.
“We all do a turn, Naz,” replied Maleem. “Even the men take a turn.”
“This is men’s work, it’s too heavy for women.”
“Are you implying that we are weaker?” asked Maleem.
“What’s the point in pretence, Mal? Give in and make use of your feminine talents. Why make hard work of life? Is it not hard enough?” hissed Nazine.
“Because we are not ordinary women. We are warrior women. Part of the greatest warrior clan in the lands and we should be proud of it,” spat back Maleem.
“So where does pride get you, I ask?” countered Nazine.
“We are better than most men outside of this Com.”
“So what? Where does it get you? Hard work, that’s all. I tell you it’s not the way,” said Nadine. “Look at that Gemma. You see the cut on her new tunic she just ran up?”
“Yeah, it suits her. She has a fine figure, she should show it off.”
“Show it off,” laughed Nazine. “She is practically giving it away. And do you see the way she limps a lot and faints occasionally. The men all rush to catch her in their arms.”
“Well, she is on the slight side, Naz,” said Maleem.
“Slight! I wouldn’t call her chest slight. It probably drains her strength dragging it around.”
“Oh, grow up, Naz. I do believe you are jealous,” laughed Maleem.
“Just you take heed. She gets out of all the heavy work, and Gem does not like the way the others look at her. I tell you, no good will come of it.”
“Nonsense,” retorted Maleem.
“Have you noticed how thick she is with Tarrak? There is something going on between those two.”
“You are stupid. Tarrak is as queer as they come. Everybody knows that. Most women relate to Tarrak.”
“I’m not so sure about him. The times are a changing, Mal. Take Arran, killing his own father. It is written not to kill in anything other than combat. No good will come of it, you’ll see.”
“Well, I think it was a brave thing to do. I’m surprised no one’s done it before. There is enough killing outside of these walls. I think it was a strong thing for him to do. He has now got to bear the burden of that.”
“Times are a changing, you mark my words,” warned Nazine.
Arran looked below. The last barrow was on the ground loaded with rabbit cages and the excess furs that were not needed. The people had to trade everything they could for iron, grain and salt from the outside, three of the four main commodities of power and wealth. It was an enormous strain on their system. The one advantage was the quality of their meat. They had the healthiest animals in the land. But it was still a hard trade, and all had to be hauled over land to the town of Cam, a journey of fifty miles, and three days’ travel with the constant threat of attack by bands of robbers. If word got out that a food train was on its way to Cam, it would attract undesirables by the hundred, and most of them extremely dangerous.
The leader was not normally required to make this journey. Most of the men fought for a turn, but Arran wanted to get out away from the confinement of the commune. He picked up his broadsword and helm, bid farewell to those around him and ran down the stairs, which lowered alongside the lift platform. Leaping the last few steps to the ground he called out, “Gem and Jordan up front, not too far, but I want good warning of trouble. Vargen and Mallen trail, and don’t get lost. It’s a blow that Zeb has not made it, he would have been useful company.” Arran flung his helm into a barrow.
“Elven stay close, don’t make too much noise and keep your eyes open.” Arran did not like travelling with a supply train. It made too much noise. On their own, his men were stealth itself and slipped silently through the land unnoticed.
Looking up Arran yelled, “We will make good time, Harrad. Make fast the keep.” Arran watched as the platform and stairs were raised, turned and caught up with the others.
At least the first night of the journey would be safe. They would stay at the Jarsad Malkem holdings, a fortified dwelling built by two families and comprising of some five hundred people. They farmed the surrounding land which produced mainly grain and some goats. These families were some of the more fortunate in a land that produced little. It was good quality grain and Arran traded fur and meat for it. Its farmer Militia were always on the alert. Once trained these people also made fearsome opponents because they had something to fight for, unlike the official soldiers that policed the area, a band of vagabonds under the command of the Baron of Cam. They were undisciplined bullies who needed to outnumber their opponents before they were brave.
Arran’s spirits were high. He was beginning to enjoy being in the lands again, rough as they were. The time passed quickly and uneventfully. They were nearing the Jarsad Malkem holdings and the place of his beloved Nadine. His memories of recent events were already beginning to fade, replaced by thoughts of the joy ahead. Arran was glad that on his return he could take Nadine back to the Com with him, to its greater safety. Strong though the house of Jarsad Malkem was, other such great houses had been known to be sacked. There was a large number of robber bands about, even with the Baron of Cam policing the lands.
The baron had a limited control over the lands, although he thought it absolute. He taxed the great houses and in return had units of his soldiers patrolling the lands. Alas, far too few for the size of the land. Small bands of robbers went unnoticed. So, the great houses were just strong enough to keep out the smaller bands whilst leaving any larger threat to the baron’s men, hopefully. But like a lot of badly paid soldiers that were also badly trained and without discipline they were less than brave. A large band would see them off without a fight. The soldiers sometimes caused more trouble than they were worth. Thinking on this, Arran smiled at the fact that his Com was the only dwelling that did not pay tribute to the baron. The baron seemed happy to have the next strongest force on his southernmost flanks, and trading with him for the best meat around. However, the baron remained deeply suspicious and felt uncomfortable with a strong force beyond his control, but it seemed to work.
Arran could see the house plainly now its red brick walls and the absence of windows on the ground floor. East and west wings four floors high, huge doors towering two stories high, a noble house indeed. He could see someone in the watchtower, caught by the last rays of the sun. The people were all pleased to see him take Nadine for his wife. They were a popular couple and it was a union of the two greatest houses. A joining of meat and grain, a truly powerful union. Suddenly, there she was, rushing towards him, trailed by Zeel and Jon.
“We couldn’t stop her,” shouted Jon as Nadine leapt into Arrans arms.
“Nadine, darling,” said Arran. “I am so sorry for your loss, our loss.”
“It’s OK, we’ll have more.”
At seventeen, she was as light as a feather and as fragile as a flower in his hands. He knew the danger of choosing an outsider for she must have consumed more poison than his own people and could fall to the sickness any time, but his law said they must bring in new people now and then. Law and logic, however, had nothing to do with his choice.
Arran stared into the fire barely hearing a child’s voice complaining about rabbit stew again. He forced his mind back to reality. The fire was hot. It made him feel even more tired. It was early spring, and the nights were still cold.
Arran turned to Hal Jarsad and said, “I know last year’s harvest was not good, but can you supply us till next harvest?”
“We shall always supply you. We have been extremely careful this winter, but everything rests on a good harvest this year.”
People were clearing up and retiring to bed. Arran lay stretched out in front of the fire in the great hall. Hal said his goodnight and disappeared. Nadine came and snuggled up against him.
“I’ve waited a long time,” she said. “Your father’s death has deeply affected you. You must not allow the deceased to affect the living. We will join them soon enough.”
“I know,” said Arran. “The times that I have said the same thing to others, and could not understand why they could not accept it logically. Now everything just seems so pointless, I feel so uneasy. All my life has been based on logic and now it does not mean a thing. I’m falling down a hole in my mind. I’ve lost my bearings.”
“Everyone goes through that. It will take time, but you will come out of it.”
“And will I ever be the same again?” asked Arran.
“Of course, you will. It will just take time.”
“Nadine, I feel so uneasy, it’s almost painful.”
“Well, you’re not alone, there’s a lot of it about.”
“What do you mean?”
“The barons patrol was here last week. They were restless and talked of war.”
“What? Where? When?” cried Arran snapping out of his doze in confusion.
“I don’t know. They would not say. But something is very wrong, and they were asking about your place.”
“You had better start at the beginning,” said Arran, wide awake now.
“As I have said, it’s not what they said to us. I overheard the talk of war when they thought that no one was listening. It was their behaviour that alerted me. They usually have an air of being in charge, sort of dominant. You know what I mean.”
Nadine continued “We just laugh, but they are normally, open, nosy, jolly, into everything, chasing the girls etc., like big kids. Well, I have never seen such a change. They were quiet and kept to themselves, almost walking around in a bunch with their heads together muttering. I would say that they were very concerned.”
“What did they ask about my place?”
“How many you are, the size of your Com, how well protected, arms, food and so on.”
“Why has Hal not told me?”
“He does not know. Its only because I jump at the mention of your name that I noticed and kept my ears open. Most of it came from guards and duty staff who were asked just one question each. Not enough for anyone to suspect there was an enquiry going on. Is it true that you don’t pay the barons tax?”
“Who told you that?”
“Well, keep it to yourself.”
“I’m afraid,” said Nadine “I fear the baron is planning to destroy you.”
“No, there is more to it than that. My warriors are worth ten of his solders. He would have great difficulty in taking the Com. You know that to raise a full army the baron must call on the support of the great houses. No one would support him, for if they went against one of the alliance, it could be their turn next. That is why it works, a balance of power. You know these days the farmer warrior is a more fearsome opponent than many regular soldiers because he has something to fight for rather than just being paid to fight. Assuming he is well trained, of course”
“But they both have something to die for,” replied Nadine. “Death in combat is far better than the death itself.”
“That may be, but it is common to all of us. Look at the baron’s men, lazy vagabonds who get a guarantee of food, do no hard work, just hard drinking and easy living, kill robbers for sport and anyone else who gets in their way. It’s only the baron that prevents them from being more feared than the robber bands. Alone, there isn’t a true warrior amongst them.”
“Look, Arran, I know that your warriors average almost a foot taller than everyone else, live longer and outfight ten times their number, but we are talking about the baron. His control is absolute. The last great house that opposed him was totally destroyed.”
“That was before our time, and it was his grandfather, I believe. No, we have the confidence of the great houses. They would not help him. They would not like to see him in total control.”
“But there is a great deal of suspicion of you amongst the baron’s men.”
“They are of little importance.”
“There are great mysteries surrounding your Com.”
“Nadine, you know the reasons for our isolation.”
“Yes, but I can’t help fear for you, us. Things are looking so wonderful I keep thinking that I’ll wake up.”
“Do not fear for me, Nadine. Pray for me, and pray that I might escape the death, that my passing be a clean one.”
The morning came quickly, and the warriors were assembled by first light. Nadine packed them some bread and goats cheese. There was a great bustle in the courtyard, the farm workers preparing to go to the fields and the warriors loading their barrows. Nadine said, “I can’t wait another week. I am going with you.”
“No. It’s too dangerous.”
“Then I will face it with you. It’s been years since I went to the town. I don’t want to be locked up for the rest of my life. Where you go, I go.”
“You won’t like it.”
“Let me see for myself. I have packed food for two and my clothing.”
Nadine said her farewells. Nadine’s mother was tearful one. Hal comforted her. “She’s in the best possible hands, he said.”
Arran marched swiftly through the troop and shouted “Formation. Gem and Jordan scout, Vargen and Maleen trail. I know it’s one of your favourite jobs.”
The barrows made little noise as the earth was soft, sandy with a course grass. The was little cover to hide the groups progress, but only once that day did they see Gem and Jordan in the distance.
The next day the gently rolling hills levelled out to a bushy undergrowth giving them cover for the first time.
“Our journey becomes more sheltered now,” said Arran, as he stopped at another of Jordan’s earth signs, a small elongated pyramid of stones pointing North. “We turn due north now. This is the last sign today. We camp soon.”
“How do you read all that in the sign?” asked Nadine.
“Years of training,” answered Arran.
They set up camp a few miles on. It was an uneventful night, but everyone was a little excited and it could be heard in the general hum of activity. The next day continued much the same, miles of bushy undergrowth, people too excited to notice their surroundings. By evening, the bushes had thickened considerably, and the light was disappearing alarmingly fast as they reached the depth of the undergrowth. There was a whistle from some thick bushes ahead.
“There they are,” said Arran. Gem and Jordan held open the bushes and everyone passed through. They had a small fire going, the smoke filtering through the leaves.
“We can’t be seen here,” said Jordan. “We can build the fire up once its fully dark, and there is no trace of anyone being around here before.”
“That’s good, little chance of being disturbed,” said Arran.
“No, not just here, but for miles around. The bushes are thicker, like they have never been cut. There’s too much firewood lying around and there are no paths leading into this area. It is like it is taboo. We don’t normally go this way, but with the signs we saw yesterday and what we heard back at the house, we thought we would take the quiet route. I don’t like it, there is something very wrong here.”
“OK, double the watch,” said Arran. “And I was looking forward to a peaceful night. Go and guide in Vargen and Malone.”
“Is it safe here?” asked Nadine. “I have an uneasy feeling.”
“Don’t go getting jumpy on me. There’s not many who can trail us, and no one is expecting us.”
“I felt it as soon as we approached and stronger as we entered the thicket, like a heavy burden on me. There is something here, I can feel it,” said Nadine
“I have doubled the watch, no one can get through.”
“No, you don’t understand. It’s already here, it was here when we arrived.”
“Then we will search the area.” Arran and Gem walked off to organise the search leaving Nadine unpacking some rations.
“What can Nadine know?” asked Gem. “I told you the area is safe.”
“You know she is blessed with some of the divine powers. She can tell if a person is true or false, some sort of mind contact. A thorough search please.”
The search revealed nothing and almost everyone relaxed. People were moving around the fire, heaping dead leaves to lay their cloaks on for bedding and sending shadows dancing wildly around the camp. Nadine thought it was all very spooky.
“Jordan is a long time. Aren’t you worried?”
“I would be more worried about anything else out there if it bumped into him,” called out Argot on overhearing her.
“How can you be so casual?” she replied.
“We have no fear,” Argot said. “We are trained beyond such emotions. Fear is the destroyer. Fear is only an emotion, it does not exist. From our teachings, in times of stress, such emotions only confuse the mind when pure logic is needed most.”
“Now sleep, we must rest. We have a long way to go”.
Nadine curled up in Arran’s arms and thought, “I must not sleep until I know that the other three are safe.” Everyone seemed asleep. “Perhaps we are being watched now,” she thought. Nadine became more and more sure that she could see eyes looking in from the bushes. She was fighting off sleep as it pulled at her mind. She could hear movement. Was it Vargen arriving back? She looked around, jumped up and stared. She could see nothing. Not even her hand in front of her face. She reached out with her foot, where Arran should have been. Nothing. “Where could he have gone? Why was it so dark? What happened to the fire?” She wondered. She had never experienced such total darkness, as if she was blind. She could not sense anyone around her. “Hello,” she called. “Is there anyone there? Where is everyone?” Her words echoed, not likely in a wood. She was still too curious to be afraid. She reached out and took a step forward. Her hand touched a wall. It was the smoothest wall she had ever felt. The floor was smooth as well. “I’m indoors,” she thought. “The others have not left me. I have left them!” Her eyes started to hurt from forcing them open. “I have never experienced such total darkness.” She thought. She stood still and listened. There was a sound to her right. “I will go that way, it must be the warriors looking for me. Yes, I must have sleep-walked into a cave,” she said, trying to reassure herself for a moment, she felt relief and walked along with her left hand running along the wall. After a while, although the sounds grew louder she realised they were still a fair way off. “The warriors would not make so much noise,” she thought. Fear crept up on her, panic swept over her as she thought, “A cave with smooth walls and floors? Oh, no.” “Fear is the destroyer,” she chanted over and over as she walked along. The sound was still a way off. It was an echo and not as near as she had thought. She made her way along for a hundred yards or so when suddenly the wall vanished. It had turned a corner. The ground here should be level, but she realised that she had been going down. The noise, which had stopped began again, a shuffling sound, now much louder. It wasn’t around the corner. Nadine stood frozen, realising this she thought, “Why am I so slow to notice everything? It must be fear. Now I understand why it is the destroyer, it makes you too slow to function.” “Move,” she thought. “I must make conscious effort, push myself. She walked forward ten paces or so and her hand touched another wall. She could detect an echo on both sides. “Tunnels,” she thought. “I have come out of one into another, a T-junction, and the sound is approaching from my left. It does not sound human either.” Another wave of panic swept over her as her mind imagined all manner of unpleasant creatures. She ran to her right, keeping her hand on the wall, panic now guided her. Now she knew it was not a cave, but a tunnel made by something, and it must be underground. “I have been kidnapped,” she sobbed, tears rolling down her cheeks. She stumbled along, falling twice over unseen debris and came to an exhausted halt with her heart bursting in her chest. Once calm, she listened for the sound. It was farther away. She had a breather, it was either too slow or didn’t know she was there. She moved on now as quietly as she could. About half a mile on, she found a small door in the wall and a short tunnel beyond it. There was a faint glow at the other end. “At last, light, I might see something,” she thought, her fear beginning to subside. She crawled down the passage and out the other end. There was an orange square glowing faintly on the ceiling of a cavernous room. She walked over to it. Dim as it was, it took her eyes a while to adjust to its light. The floor was covered with earth and there were fungi everywhere. She was exploring further across the room when she heard something coming her way. It was near to where her little tunnel was. She would be cut off, nowhere to hide. She backed away, her fear rising again. Two large dark shapes appeared in the gloom shuffling towards her, the footsteps softened by the earth. She stood frozen, stifling a scream, her heart racing, feeling like it would explode, and her brain racing even faster. Then, two broad, stooped, humanoid figures covered with long hair lumbered into the dim light looking like everyone’s worst nightmare come true. She did the only thing her wheeling brain would allow, and she turned and fled.
She did not count the turns she made, or judge how far she travelled and did not see any more lights. She stopped and fought to get her breathing back under control. Now she was hopelessly lost. Her chances of retracing her steps were well and truly gone. Regaining her calm, Nadine realised that she must keep moving, she would not get out standing still. Moving again with her earlier caution, she edged along the wall back the way she came. She could hear more noise down here. It seemed that the deeper she went, the more activity there was. She had to get back to where she started.
After an hour or two, she could not tell, still feeling along the wall, having made several turns but not finding any more doors, she stopped. She thought she heard something just to her right. She froze, controlled her breathing like Arran had taught her and listened. If it was something, it was too close. Nadine thought she could hear breathing. Or was it her imagination? She slowed her breathing and heart and put every effort into her hearing. Yes, there it was again, faint but close, too close. It had slowed, and the sounds exactly matched her own breathing. She was wondering if it was just an echo or her own breathing she could hear when something hairy brushed across her face and a hand laid upon her forehead.
She screamed a scream of wild terror that would have made the most fearsome warriors nervous. Then another hand grabbed her. Then, another and another. She struggled and fought, and the more she fought the more hands grabbed her. A face appeared in front of her, she heard her name. Slowly, she recognised the face, it was Arran. It took a moment to realise that she was safe. Arran was saying over and over “‘Twas only a bad dream, it’s all right.” Nadine threw herself into his arms. “Oh Arran, there are tunnels with black hairy men in them.”
“No, it was a dream, that’s all. You’re safe.”
“I know when it’s real, that was no dream.”
“My love, you never left the camp.”
“Look, what’s this then?” holding up her left hand, the finger tips bleeding where the wall took the skin off when she ran along it in panic.
“That’s not possible,” said Arran
“Well,” said Nadine, “possible or not. I am not staying here. There is great evil here. It drew me away from here and was so powerful that not only could I not resist, but I could not identify what it was. I had no control whatsoever, Arran. I don’t like that. I think it is underground, below us. Take me away from here now. We cannot stay here.”
“You are overreacting,” said Arran, holding her close.
“No, I am not. I can feel it all around us. I told you that as soon as we arrived We must leave now. Please, there is great danger here. There is something probing my mind, pictures forming. Oh no, I see the tunnels again and a face forming. Ugh, it’s so dark and dingy down there. Hold on to me, don’t let me forget where I am, it’s trying to draw me away. What if it’s not restricted to people sleeping? Maybe its power is growing.”
“It’s all right, I’ve got you. Vargen, break camp, I want us out of here now. Come on, let’s get clear of this place.”
Arran led the men walked through the bushes and on until Nadine felt the threat go. There they waited for the others to appear. Shock overtook Nadine who began sobbing. “Arran, the face, it’s like an animal in human form. It wants me below ground, I am scared.”
“Don’t be. We will put several leagues between us before dawn.” Soon, they were all well on their way and as the eastern sky brightened, they could make out the area behind them as a small wood, one of the thickest they had ever seen, laying in a small hollow.
“We are well clear of that now. Are you sure you are OK now?”
“I’m fine, in fact I’ve never felt better, now the fear has gone. I’m sorry I couldn’t control it, it’s the unknown you see. I’ve got the strangest feeling, you know. I don’t think that there was anything to fear after all.”
“Well, you certainly fooled me.”
“Hey, I was confused into panic. I could not understand what was happening. I think whatever it was, was trying to communicate, but we did not seem to be in tune, probably because of my terror and fight to get away. You see, for two minds to communicate they must reach out for each other, want to touch each other. You can’t force your way into someone’s mind. I’m sure I felt it wanted help. Feelings are easier to transmit than words. There is something very sad there.”
“Well, we won’t go near there again. It’s light now, we should be in Cam by dusk,” said Arran.
On they toiled, the barrows large wheels giving little resistance over the rough ground, the warriors taking turns in pushing or hauling. By the time they stopped for their midday meal, their destination could be seen far into the distance. Arran pointed out a blur near the horizon. Before they had finished their meal of the usual dried rabbit and oatcake, Jordan warned Arran that there were soldiers approaching. Most of the warriors melted into the undergrowth. Arran, Nadine, Jordan and Elven remained in the open. Six soldiers walked along the path.
“Identify yourselves in the name of the baron,” cried one.
“Arran of Greyhaven on route to Cam to trade with the baron,” replied Arran.
“Welcome, Arran of Greyhaven, your arrival is expected. We shall return with word of your coming, in the name of the baron,” cried the soldier giving a formal salute which Arran returned with a tap on his chest with his fist as was the custom. The soldiers turned and marched off down the trail.
“Ha, those vagabonds won’t get there any faster than us, even with our barrows,” laughed Jordan. They all grinned but made no comment.
By mid-afternoon Arran and his troop marched past a group of very relaxed soldiers lying by the roadside. The soldiers looked at each other in silence as the group marched by. On they toiled through the afternoon. Arrans group reached the outskirts of town as dusk began to fall. It was early spring and night fell quickly, leaving a short day for travelling. They hurried now to beat the night. The road now passed between small groups of tiny dwellings, gathered together like little villages. Arrans troop were beginning to pick up a trail of children who followed them in the hope of food. Finally, the group crossed the southern meadows overlooked by the city wall. The baron forbade building on this land. It was kept clear, free of cover for any would-be attacker. The city gate was open, but instead of the usual two guards, there were four.
“Halt,” one cried. “State your name, business and origins.”
The group was tired and huddled into their fur cloaks. They had been through the odd patch of sleet and were all cold. They wanted to get in the warm rather urgently. Three more soldiers ran up looking nervous.
“Arran of Greyhaven. Here to trade.”
“Is there anyone here that can vouch for you?”
“I’m sorry, please enter our city. May your stay be profitable.”
“We’re here every quarter.”
“Where will you be staying?” asked the guard.
“You may not get in. I would recommend the Hog’s Head down at the water bay.”
They moved through the gate and across the square.
“They know who we are,” said Arran.
“Well, I do hope we get a room at the inn I’m dying of cold. I just want to sit in front of a huge roaring fire all night,” said Nadine.
“We will get a room all right. There are never enough travellers to fill the inns. Not many can afford it. Those on business usually stay with the people they are dealing with.”
“We have never been stopped at the gate before, have we?” said Razzan.
“Where is this Roundhouse?” asked Nadine.
“Over the river. There is nothing much on this side, it’s quite rough.”
They marched over the bridge and along the broad central avenue. It was almost dark when they stopped outside the Roundhouse.
“Just in time,” Nadine said cheerily.
Their heads held higher and their faster movement showed the growing excitement that they all felt. Arran, Nadine, Razzan and Jared went inside. It was a very old building, unusually sturdy and too large for a normal inn, but it made the most impressive hostelry known. Inside was immense; a huge hall with a bar, like most taverns, to the left of the door, but it had a sea of tables and chairs and a mass of people. Arran had never seen it so full. This did not mean that all the people were staying. The inns relied on sales of ale rather than guests, but he noticed that many of them were well-dressed. They must be from the great houses and can afford to stay. He fought his way to the bar. Two poor wenches were doing their best to serve under a barrage of abuse and crude remarks.
“Innkeeper, innkeeper can’t you keep this lot under control?” asked a customer.
“Do you want the job?” replied a small round man that flustered by. He slammed four flagons on the bar and turned to fetch more.
“It’s been getting worse all week,” he went on, amongst cries for ale.
“My friends and I need accommodation.”
“No chance. We are full, over full. You won’t find any round here. Try the south side, it’s your only hope.”
“Hog’s Head here we come,” said Razzan.
“I can’t manage another step,” sighed Nadine. “What’s a hog, anyway?”
Back outside the others looked up hopefully. But when Arran told them, he noticed their dismay. Elven looked fit to drop, but was too proud to say.
“The road’s good here, easy on the barrows. Nadine and Elven can ride on them.”
“I’m not a girl, I can make it,” Elven protested.
“We will need to guard the barrows, an hour each. Elven can take the first watch. I want you fit and rested when we get there, so get on it, that’s an order.”
Back to the river they toiled, across the bridge, turned left and along the quay. It was dark now and there was little moonlight. The buildings shed very little light and were huddled together like they were afraid.
“By the ancestors, this place is creepy. Are you sure it’s down here?” asked Razzan. “We will all end up in the river if we are not careful.”
“This is where the innkeeper said,” replied Arran. “Keep together, it can’t be much further.”
They crept along past barges moored along the quay. Soon they could make out the sound of merriment and their mood lifted. The Hog’s Head was a dump. Falling down and shored up, it didn’t look as though it would last the night, but the laughter from within was encouraging.
Arran, Razzan and Jarrad went in. It was gloomy, noisy and full of river people, who all went quiet as the warriors entered.
“Well, at least they have a roaring fire,” cheered Razzan.
“Innkeeper, have you any empty rooms?” enquired Arran.
“We only have two, and one of those is the loft. It is very large though.”
“Smile on you, friend. That is perfect for our requirements. We will take them.”
“And hot food,” said Vargen.
“And ale,” said Razzan.
“We only have fish head soup.”
“Ah, ale and soup all round then, in that order innkeeper,” demanded Razzan.
“We have barrows we would like to put somewhere safe,” said Arran.
“We have a yard next to us where goods from the river are stored. It’s pretty much empty now, but I wouldn’t say it was safe. I’ll get you the key anyway. With that he ducked out the back and reappeared with a large key. Arran gave the key to Jarrad. “Get the barrows away. Tell Elven to stay awake.”
“It’s done,” said Jarrad already at the door.
Soon, the weary travellers were all seated round the fire. The river people slowly went back to talking, even though one group had to move from the fire to accommodate the damp warriors, who now sat around in steaming clothes. Their fur cloaks had kept most of the rain off them, but their rough tunics were still wet. While the ale and soup were being served, Arran studied the river people. They were not different from the average townsfolk, apart from their clothes, which varied a little, especially their footwear, not having to march over rough terrain, was light and soft to protect the decks. He was brought back to earth by Razzan’s loud exclamation of “AARRGH! PHTOO. This is not food, it’s dishwater.”
“No, it’s bilge water,” cried Jarrad.
“The main problem is that there isn’t much in the way of food in it,” replied Nadine.
“I’m sure if we added some of our own porridge mix it would improve.”
“I expected better than this. I wanted a change from our food.”
“How can that be, Razzan? You know that no food matches our own, especially in the worst place in town. Jarrad, go and get some of our rations.”
Once alone, Elven had climbed onto crates that were piled up in the corner of the yard. He crawled into the corner of the two walls for shelter and tried not to sleep. He was disturbed by the gate opening. He heard a strange voice.
“Here they are.” Elven moved to the edge of the crate and looked down. Three men, dressed in black, were inspecting the barrows. They wore broadswords, were dirty and rough looking, not like any of the townsfolk he had seen so far. One pulled up tarp of a barrow, and rummaged inside. The others looked and nodded in agreement.
“Not now,” said one. “We will get it later.” They replaced the tarp and left. There was not much Elven could do. He sat there pondering, trying to make out what they were after. He was not in thought long, when the gate opened again. It was only Jarrad. Elven climbed down.
“I’ve come to get some proper food. You might as well take it back in, your time’s almost up.”
“That’s very kind of you, Jarrad. Did you see anyone outside?”
“No, what’s up?”
“Oh, nothing. I don’t know.”
“Here, take the food back with you.”
Elven peered round the gate with great caution, as though expecting the men to be still outside. He hurried into the inn, saw the others and went over. Still damp he de-cloaked and crawled into the huge fireplace. As he ate, he thought “I really should tell Arran of the strangers. Should I have challenged them? No, they did no harm and were too many for me.”
Before he could tell his tale, the place fell quiet. Everyone was looking at the bar where six soldiers were talking to the innkeeper, who was pointing and gesturing towards the warriors. The soldiers looked over, the silence was broken with the sound of the warriors putting down their ale, sitting up and adjusting their weapons. The soldiers made their way over, boat people scrambled out of their way. The soldiers were the masters most of the time, intimidating all before them, but they had great respect for the warriors and would not push their luck.
“I seek the Laird of Greyhaven,” said the first soldier.
“Greetings, Lieutenant,” replied Arran. “On whose business is it that commands such an hour?”
“The baron’s my lord, “he replied with a slight bow. “I have orders that you are to attend court at noon tomorrow.” A roar of laughter went around.
“Indeed. Tell me, are they your orders? For I don’t take orders and we have a market tomorrow, all day and possibly into the night.”
“Fine, in that case the market is closed until further notice. True they are my orders, but I must see that nothing gets in your way. The baron gives his warmest welcome.”
The group went quiet.
“Well, it looks like you can give the baron my acceptance. I’m sure my lads can handle the market without me.”
“Good, then we will see you tomorrow at noon.”
The soldiers bowed and left.
“What do you make of that?” asked Razzan.
“No idea. Something is amiss, the whole town’s wrong,” said Arran.
“And cancel the market,” put in Jarrad.
“They’re too bossy,” said Jon.
“They can’t tell us what to do,” said Argot.
Elven was tired. The discussion melted into a distant mumble. He was staring at something, a blur. He was on the edge of sleep’s frozen precipice at the start of a fall. Sleep pulled at him like gravity, but his mind refused to let go. He blinked, three men at the bar had caught his eye. In fact, three, in the crowd at the bar. The three men, he jumped. They were studying the warriors, not noticeably, but studying all the same.
“Can they see me? Of course, they can, so what! They do not know I was watching them.” He moved out of the fireplace.
“We can leave Jarrad in charge, not now boy, most of the others have bartered before, they don’t need us.”
“You’re right, you and Nadine should come with me. There must be something very wrong, though.”
“The men at the bar.”
“Which ones, Elven? At least we can get to the start of the market and see what’s worth having.”
Elven looked up. The men had gone.
“Oh dear, why won’t anyone listen to me?” He got up and went outside. He listened. Yes, he could hear them making their way towards the bridge. He followed them. They crossed the bridge. As he neared it, he noticed a building he had missed before. It looked official and stood out. Two men came out. They were river people.
“Excuse me, who’s in charge of the loading bay?”
“In there, mate,” was the gruff reply.
Elven went inside. He found a small room with a counter down one side. It was quite drab and dull. He picked up a bell and rang it. An old man came in and picked up a ledger from under the counter.
“Do you want to register a boat, son?” he asked.
“No, thank you. I’m looking for someone. Have you seen any strangers lately?”
“Ha, they’re all strange, matey. Although there was two men in day afor yesterday. They weren’t boat people dressed in black, too drab for boat people. Not that boat people are very colourful, but you know what I mean. He he, no, weren’t boat people sure a’nough. Not from these parts though, far off, came down river. But they not fishermen, didn’t come from coast.”
“Pardon me, sir.” Elven said wishing he’d never started the old boy off.
“Their boat, where is it?”
“Oh, um yes, no, gone clean out of my mind.”
“Thank you, anyway,” said Elven.
“Well, it’s all here in the ledger, it goes way back. There’s the time the baron himself went…”
“The name, please.” The old man opened the book, turned a few pages and said “Here we are. Odin, that’s it, Odin Simple, name reminds me of the time…”
“Sir, where is it now?”
“It’s berthed along away, number forty-three, four along from the Hog’s Head.”
“Thank you,” Elven called out as he ran out of the building thankful to be away. Back outside, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the dark. He made his way back, past the Hog’s Head and right up to the Odin, itself. He stopped and looked around. There was a dim light in the cabin. Did that mean that they would not be long? No, he had seen them cross the river. Elven crept onto the barge. He opened the cabin door, his heart pounding. He fought to control himself as he had been taught. “Should I go in?” he thought. “I could find out about these people, prove myself a warrior.” He went inside. He was becoming increasingly aware of his surroundings. There was no one on board.
“Perhaps the lamp was to keep nosy people away. They must be wealthy to burn oil like this,” he thought. It did not take long to have a thorough look round. There were only two rooms, one a small bedroom, the other the main cabin and galley. There was nothing strange here, except the amount of food. Flour, beans, dried meat, oil, the boat was incredibly well stocked. Far more than the boat people had, more than anyone he had ever seen before.
“They can’t be after our food, they don’t need it.” Elven thought “There is no sign of trade, either. Unless they have so much food because, they steal it. But who from? Such quality, it must have come from the baron himself.” Lost in thought, Elven forgot the passing of time, and having found nothing, was about to search the hold, when he almost jumped out of his skin. Heavy footsteps crashed across the deck and up to the cabin door. Fear turned into blind panic. He froze, his brain working overtime but making no sense. He darted through the bedroom door just as the cabin door opened. He could not escape. On the other side of the room was a small hatch. He went over and opened it. A small compartment of impractical space where the boat ended in the bows, used to stow rarely used articles. He crawled in. It was damp and smelt bad.
“With luck, they won’t look in here,” he hoped. The hull of the boat went down and under the cabin floor leaving a space between. There was not room for him to get under, but he could slide his legs in. He laid down on one bundle and pulled an old tarp over him, so if the men looked in, they may not see him. There was activity on deck and then he felt movement.
“Shit, we’re going. I’ll never get out of here now. Pulling out in darkness is unusual, there is trouble here,” he thought. Despite his fear, Elven soon nodded off to sleep with the gentle motion of the boat.
No one had noticed Elven disappear. Arran and his men soon forgot the soldiers and were busy getting drunk. It had been a long day and everyone was tired. Nadine kicked Arran.
“Are you going to sit here all night? I am going to bed.” She stood up.
“Not without me,” said Arran jumping up. He took her by the waist and pulled her body against his.
“Mmm. I want you upstairs,” she whispered into his ear. As they turned, Razzan called out.
“You can share our room, Arran, if you need sleep or rest.” There was a roar of laughter as the couple disappeared through the door. As soon as they were in their room, Nadine said. “Alone at last.” And slid her hand down his tunic, caressing him softly as only a woman’s gentle touch can. “I’ve been thinking of this all day.”
“Stop it, Nadine, ooh. Now look at what you’ve done.”
“Get out of these clothes and get into bed,” Nadine said as she shed her clothes on the floor. He was spellbound by her sheer beauty. The shape of her body stirred him beyond belief as she dropped her last garment and stood naked before him. Why had he not noticed this before? Why did he forget? She was out of this world.
“Don’t just stand there, get undressed.” She pulled his garment down to his ankles, held him again and began kissing him softly. He tore his top off, picked her up and laid her on the bed.
“Is this what we have got to do when you move in?”
“Yes, every night.”
The next morning everyone was up at dawn and gathered downstairs. Razzan came up to Arran and said. “Elven’s missing.”
“This morning. He never slept upstairs last night. Jarrad said he sent him in after his watch, and I vaguely remember him asking about something after the soldiers had gone. I don’t recall seeing him after that.”
“No one missed him? How could we? Nadine, you are always mothering him, how could you have missed him?”
“Come on, once we were all here I thought we were safe. Besides, I was distracted.”
“Oh, err yes. You’ve searched the building?”
“Get everyone outside then, we have work to do. Knock on every door, both ways along the quay side, ask everyone, look in every possible place. I don’t want anything missed.”
“I don’t think that the people around here will be up yet,” said Nadine.
“Then drag them out of bed. This is too important to worry about manners. We fear no one here.”
They worked their way along, knocking on doors, banging on shutters, calling at windows. Suddenly someone shouted, and many ran to see. Arran forced his way through the group to see Jarrad looking at some marks on the key side.
“It’s Elven’s sign,” said Jarrad. There were a few scratches on the stone pointing to the river.
“I hope it doesn’t mean he has gone in, it stinks.”
“No,” said Arran. “There is space for a barge here. He’s on a barge.”
“What for? Why? Where?”
“Wait! Wait!” Said Arran. “Razzan, what was he asking you about? Think, man.”
“Well, we were talking about the soldiers.” Razzan closed his eyes. “He was pointing at the bar. There was three men standing there. I did notice them, they stood out, dressed in black and all. Not boat people, but they were doing no harm.”
“So, he knew something about these strangers. Then got on a barge. But they were not boat people. There must be someone in charge of these landings.”
“Up near the bridge,” said Arrgot, who had just arrived. “I knocked there. A young man, of Elven’s description was asking about a boat last night.”
“Razzan and Arrgot, we will go and find out what we can. The rest of you get the barrows out. There is a market to do. Come on, Nadine.”
They walked up to the bay master’s lodge. The old man remembered Elven.
“He came in asking about three men. I told him of three likely men, their barge and where they came from.”
“Now tell us,” demanded Arran.
“Let me see.” The old man opened his ledger. “Yes, they arrived four nights ago, barge named Odin, captain Uric, business, looking for trade. They did not look like traders, though, any more than you do.” He said peering forward over the book. “Trouble makers, they were.”
“Where were they from?”
“North some ways, never heard of the town before. Not on the river, said it was Newmarch. The river snakes north from here, all the way to the northern sea. Never heard mention of that town before. I doubt if it’s on the river.”
“If it exists at all,” put in Razzan.
“If it does, it’s many leagues beyond our border, far into hostile lands,” replied Arran.
“The border is not strung with keeps and watchtowers for nothing,” said Argot.
“True, in the past we suffered endless raids and attacks, and the forts did their job. But there’s not been trouble for over two generations. The watchtowers are in ruins or abandoned. There are only two keeps occupied, guarding the main roads,” corrected Arran. “So, the land is not too hostile. Old man, how long will it take for the barge to reach the border?”
“One day, one night.”
“Thank you, let’s go. They’ve had one night already, we will send two of our lads. If they run non-stop, they will overtake the barge at the border.”
Jordan and Vargen were chosen as they were among the best runners. Their orders were to keep going and not to come back without Elven. The others would follow north by road after their business was finished and meet up at the keep on that road. Jordan and Vargen were to leave the river and turn west along the border to that keep. Drawing enough provisions for three days, they jogged off along the riverbank at a steady pace. Hour after hour they ran at a pace that normal men could not match for one hour. They cut off most of the bends, but kept the river in sight. Jordan was the lightest and liveliest, he wanted to run faster.
“Elven is one of us, speed could mean the difference between life and death,” he said.
“We could also have quite a fight on our hands when we get there, we don’t want to be fit to drop.”
“Perhaps you’re right, Vargen, we won’t be up to much by tonight.”
They spoke no more to conserve their strength.
Elven had cramp. He needed more space and tried to massage his leg. He shivered and sneezed.
“I might as well throw a party, the noise I’m making. Ow ow ow.”
One of the men was resting just above and lay there wondering what the noise was. The barge bumped alongside something and stopped. Elvens cramp subdued. He stifled a sneeze and tried to stop shivering. Suddenly the hatch opened and he was dragged out by two burly men.
“A big rat,” said one. “How long have you been in there, boy?”
“Answer,” said the other, thumping him in the back.
“What are you after?”
“Nothing, I was just being nosy.”
“Thief, that’s what you are, a thief. We’ll teach you, cut your hands off we will,” said the second, hitting Elven with a club, breaking his left arm and then kicking him to the floor. They shackled his ankles and threw him off the barge. Elven found himself on an old jetty. His arm was still numb and not bothering him yet. He felt humiliated and defeated. Shocked at being discovered and having no room to manoeuvre in the confined space, he was crippled without a fight. Several rucksacks were thrown off the barge, two of which Elven had to carry, once he had been clubbed back to his feet.
“I’m not going to survive much of this treatment, I must stay alert and do what they want before they hit me again,” Elven thought as they marched off across country.
Jordan and Vargen had settled into a comfortable pace, which both were happy with. They ate a light snack without stopping. Covering ground fast, they estimated their arrival at the border would be earlier than expected.
“We will be there long before dark,” said Jordan. “When I get hold of these men, I am going to slit them from crotch to throat. They will need a bag to carry their guts in.”
“Ssshh, look, three barges moored further up the bank. They look deserted, let’s jog past and check the names. We don’t want to waste time if it’s not them,” said Vargen.
“No Odin there, back to plan ‘A’.”
Everybody helped set the barrows up at the market. Nadine directed them, using her artistic flair, to make everything look as attractive as possible.
“We are a little late getting here. I’m afraid we have lost the best pitch,” said Razzan.
“That can’t be helped, we had to look for Elven,” replied Arran.
“I wonder if they will find him.”
“Perhaps, but we can’t let that distract us now. We have to be at the keep at noon and we haven’t got long,” said Nadine.
By the time they left, the market was still bustling. They had to push their way through. A great deal of their goods had already been sold. Not surprising, with the poor quality of food on the other stalls. The bulk of it went to the baron, his procurer trading it for salt, spice and steel, plus, taking his commission for market rent. The baron did all right. He got first choice at all the stalls before the market began, as usual.
Nadine, Arran and Razzan reached the keep with time to spare. There were more guards than usual, and all the flags were flying.
“Do you think the town’s overcrowded because of this meeting?” asked Nadine.
“Not at all,” replied Arran. “More likely the meeting’s because of the overcrowding.”
The three companions announced themselves to the guard, who summoned an usher to lead them to a waiting room off the main hall. There was quite a gathering already. Arran recognised some leaders of great houses, but not many. Greetings were exchanged, along with much gossip and rumours. Trouble in the north, but Arran did not know any of the northern houses. Some had been raided, and lost food. A few had been driven out and were now in town. Food, which was always in short supply, was now a very big problem. With five months to go before harvest and no food in the north, there would not be enough to go around.
“The baron must do more to protect the northern houses,” said Nadine.
“I suspect he’s done all he can, that’s what the meeting’s for. It sounds like a large and organised force. He has always been effective against wandering bands, but this time he is out of his depth,” replied Arran.
“Then this meeting is an attempt to find an answer,” said Razzan. “And the town’s full of homeless people. This is a problem, when the town runs out of food all hell will break loose.”
“I hope he is not going to demand food from the south,” said Nadine.
“That would not solve the problem, there wouldn’t be enough,” said Arran.
The large doors opened, and an usher asked everyone to proceed through into the hall. There was a dais at one end with a large ornate chair on it. Not quite a throne, but giving that impression. The chairs either side contained the barons first minister, Kai Snade, and various other officials. The baron’s officers were on one side of the hall, Arran’s men and the elders of the great houses, were on the other. Local VIP’s were in the centre. The usher went to a side door, and announced,
“The Baron of Cam.”
“He liked his bit of pomp, for a small-town crook,” thought Arran.
The baron swaggered in, wearing the biggest collection of furs ever seen, and sat on his throne. He was also wearing, his famous handmade hair piece, which was a taboo subject. Times being what they were, you never really saw a fat man, until, you see the baron. People found it hard not to stare, but no one had ever been able to work out how much was him and how much were furs. That was the luxury of having as much food as you could eat.
The usher announced the first minister, Kia Snade.
“I bid you welcome and thank you for your attendance to this meeting at such short notice. As some of you are aware, we are under threat from the north. The northern barbarians have been quiet for over two generations. Suddenly, they have begun to raid our northern houses, mainly for food. They do not linger any longer than necessary, taking only food. Some houses with external grain stores have stood by and watched their food go without losing a man. This arrangement must be stopped. From now, on all external grain stores must be moved into the house, or onto the side of it, with fortifications suitably extended,” said Snade.
“Alas, some houses have been totally overrun with few survivors. We are taking this very seriously the barbarians are not going to stop now. We must prepare for total war. It seems that they arrive in sufficient numbers depending on the strength of the house in question. So, their intelligence is good, and they always get what they come for.”
“The town is already overflowing with refugees, but we must decide whether to evacuate all the great houses north of the river.”
A groan went around the hall.
Snade continued. “If we must, we must. The northerners might be weakening us or testing us. but we cannot go on losing our allies. All the remaining northern houses will camp on the south side of the river. We are doing all we can to strengthen the town’s north walls. Everyone must share out what food they have and feed those without. We are declaring marshal law.”
Further groans went around.
“Yet we have no knowledge of where these barbarians come from, or how many they are. We are sending out scouts to try and gather information.”
“We are honoured today by the presence of our strongest allies, Haven warriors, who we know are the best scouts in the land. We hope for their assistance in this matter.” Snade gave a sly look in their direction.
Arran stood. “Gentlemen, it would seem that we are already involved. We have at this moment two scouts heading north. Tomorrow, we will travel to the northern border to meet them. Although it is the first that we have heard of these troubles, a boy in our party has been kidnapped by three strangers on a barge. I now suspect that they are scouts from the north, as it is easy entering the city by river without being challenged. It seems that we are already committed.”
“I am sorry to hear this, but we welcome you to our side.” Said the baron. “Jointly we have a chance, and I know that you will bring the support of some of the southern houses.”
“We are preparing for the evacuation of the northern houses. Our officers will co-ordinate the operation. There is nothing more we can do here today. We will meet again when we have more information of their movements. Thank you, gentlemen.” Everyone stood, and the baron walked out.
On the way, out everyone talked at once.
“This does not alter our immediate plans,” said Arran. “We must go north anyway. Find out what we can and take it from there. I think we should send the barrows home with orders to return with reinforcements and meet us at the border. Five of us will go north, and I can’t see any further than that.”
Back at the market, Arran told the others all that had been said. Some jumped up and down making war-like noises and some just stared, realising the possible horrors ahead.
They all made their way back to the Hog’s Head and being restless, they drank into the night, too excited to sleep. Suddenly, their little adventurous trip was turning into a nightmare that looked like seeping into reality and engulfing their lives and land. They talked the possibilities over and over.
Once in bed, Arran said to Nadine “This time you will do as you’re told and go home with the barrows. Tell your brother what has happened. Tell him to be prepared to send food to the town and to get ready every available fighting man for what may come.”
“I will go back,” said Nadine,” You’re right, it will be dangerous for just five of you. I accept that I could be a hindrance if you must move fast or are outnumbered in a fight. Also, I must see that my family understand the full nature of the threat and prepare properly. But I will be back with the reinforcements and you won’t stop me. My place is with you and we will have such a force, it will not have to run from anything.”
“All right, it’s agreed, but make sure your brother understands.”
They fell asleep in each other’s arms, too tired, too worried.
Nadine departed with the barrows before dawn, bidding each other farewell. Razzan removed his talisman from around his neck and gave it to Jarrad.
“Give this to Nazine for me and ask her to keep it with her until I see her again.”
It was a powerful talisman, which would bring him back to her safe.
Nadine once again reassured Arran and said that she would be back with the reinforcements.
“I am not going to sit at home and wait,” she said.
Arran agreed, and they broke away from each other. Arran’s group turned and went over the bridge, the others went towards the south gate. They were all somewhat sad, although excited.
“The Gods,” blurted Gem. “Tis a right turnout. This is not what I expected at all. We don’t know where we are going or what we’ll meet.”
“It’s just an inconvenience,” reassured Razzan. “We are much faster than they are. We will overtake the soldiers before they get to where they are going. Why, I expect Jordan and Vargen have Elven already and are on the way back to the keep? We can get back to Cam and join a fully armed company of warriors. Then my friends, we’ll see what’s what.”
At the gate, they were met by one of the baron’s sergeants, Sergeant Armstrong who asked if his men could accompany them.
“If you can keep up the pace,” said Razzan.
“We have supplies and reinforcements for the northern keep.”
“We had hoped to move fast,” said Arran “but it makes sense to stick together and ensure that the supplies arrive.”
Off they all marched along the northern road and on into the day.
Late the previous afternoon Jordan and Vargen staggered up to the river keep. They came to a fortified lock-tower where the river crossed the border.
“Whew, must be a record that,” panted Vargen.
“I doubt it, records aren’t broken that easily.”
“You call that easy?”
“Shut up and knock on the gate.”
A face appeared over the wall and said,
“Who’s there? What do you want?”
“We have come from Cam, we are looking for a boy.”
“Have you really? Filthy animals, we have none here.”
“He is off our people. He was kidnapped on a barge. Have there been any barges through here today?”
“None, not one, none, go away.”
“But there must have been, perhaps you didn’t notice.”
“Oh, we’d notice all right. They would need us to operate the lock gates. They are locked from in here.”
Jordan and Vargen looked at each other.
“The barges we passed, it must have been one of them,” said Jordan.
“Wrong names,” said Vargen.
“Then they changed the name. We should have stopped and had a good look around. More haste and all that. We must go back, hurry.”
“Oh no, I was just looking forward to putting my feet up and having supper. Wait for me.”
Elven and his captors marched on north through the afternoon. Although the pace was slow for him, his arm had begun to hurt a lot. He focused his mind on home and away from the pain.
As dusk begun to fall, Elven could smell smoke and hear noises ahead. The man in the lead made a call like noise, which was answered. They walked on into camp. About a hundred men were in and around it.
“A large scouting party,” thought Elven. “They travel too light to be raiders.”
He was left alone for a moment while his captors entered a tent to see whoever was in charge, presumably for debriefing. Lucky enough to be next to a pile of kindling, he selected a stick. Tearing a strip from his tunic, he bound the stick to his arm. He was in great pain and it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. A man came out of the tent with one of the captors, and ordered Elven over. The newcomer was dressed all in black, and his clothes were very well made. His head, however, was covered with a huge helm, fashioned like a big cat with large fangs. It was nothing like the common cats that the houses kept to kill vermin.
Cat mask looked at the other man and said, “Resourceful, isn’t he? This one should fetch a good price at market.”
“No,” said the other, “he has too much information. He comes from a warrior tribe that looks far fitter than should be naturally possible. They look rather formidable opponents.”
“Excellent, a challenge at last.”
“I recommend caution. We need to know more about them, how many and where they are before we do anything.”
Cat face turned to the guards and said, “I want him kept on his feet. He is not to be allowed to sleep.” Turning back to the tent he said. “Come tell me more about these warriors. They do sound a challenge. We have had it too easy.”
Elven was worried by this war party, no longer just three robbers. What plans had they for his lands? During the night, he saw two more cat helms walk through the camp, one had a light brown cloak with black spots on it.
Come morning, Elven was so tired that he didn’t care anymore. He still had a slight fever from lying in the barge. The camp was slow to rise and in no rush to go anywhere. The tents were eventually taken down and packed away, the fires dampened and the camp began to drift away to the north in a very disorganised manner.
Elven was under constant watch. The guards took little notice of him, apart from not letting him sleep or rest. As he trudged north, he felt his pain, tiredness and nausea all roll into one. His mind seemed to become detached from his body. As the day wore on, his mind became more and more distant. Barely able to think, Elven could no longer sense the pain and suffering of his body. He was unaware of how long or how far they marched.
Jordan and Vargen stood looking at the barge. At their feet, what was left of Elven’s sign scratched in the dirt, stared up at them.
“We ran right over it,” said Vargen. “How could we have missed it? We are supposed to be good trackers.”
“We weren’t tracking. We had decided on our destination and charged off. It wasn’t a tracking problem, it was a planning one. When will we learn not to take everything for granted? That’s todays lesson.”
“Our mistake could be Elven’s death warrant. How could we have been so stupid?”
“You can’t change nowt. At least we are back on the trail. It’ll be dark soon, we had better camp for the night.”
“Thank God, I can’t go on any further now anyway.”
“Don’t worry, Vargen. We can sleep on the barge, in real beds, I suspect.”
“Now you’re talking. Follow me,” said Vargen as he jumped onto the barge, walked over to the cabin and kicked the door off its hinges.
“Wow, this is great. Hey, there is a bedroom through here. It’s proper cosy, too.”
“Spoilt rotten,” said Jordan as he stepped into the cabin. “Look at this, Vargen. A food larder, it’s well provided.”
“Great, I’m starving. Well done, Jordan. It’s getting better and better.”
“No, it’s not. I’m not thinking of your guts, man. It means that they must use this barge a lot. Or at least that they will be back.”
“Not guard duty again. Why do you have this nasty habit of turning good news into a disaster? I wanted a full night’s sleep.”
“No, I don’t think they will be back tonight. We will make fast the door anyway. You will get your night’s sleep and a good breakfast.”
“I’ll put some beans in to soak. We will still catch Elven in the morning…”
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