What is guilt? Halden thought as his horse, Sadee, crossed over the Gilval border. The silver mare felt nothing of Halden’s burden, proceeding as she had the past seventy miles. The rising sun hung low still over the plains, stinging Halden’s eyes. He forced himself to continue looking at it, penance for his decision to leave without a word. In his own way, he thought it might cause the guilt to disperse, attune his conscience, his honor. There are no bargains with a righteous man’s honor though. If he’d been a killer, a ravager, a pillager, a molester—then such a bargain could be made. Men of that nature executed their light-half in favor of the dark, bonded with wickedness in a matrimony of the damned—and damned men felt nothing. It brought him back to the original question, “what is guilt?”.
“Do you know, girl?” he asked Sadee.
The mare snorted like she understood the complexities of the feeling, the thought processes it required to resolve and how tiresome a prospect it was.
He chuckled. “You’re right to feel such way. Damn questions of life are wasted on one as simple as man.” He stared back into the sun, the stinging soothed, distracted him from the pain of guilt, if just for a little while. “Simplicity doesn’t spare you though.” He spoke softly to himself only.
He turned in the saddle and stared back at Gilval, home no more. The king’s castle, the villages, the towns, the ocean, his home, none of it was visible, just an endless green prairie. Never once did he think he would leave, not until five days ago. Life was simple six days prior; a home, a wife, a son, another child in womb, and working for the king no less. It was funny as well as cruel how one small thing could change all that. He lowered his eyes to the small chest buried beneath a blanket on Sadee’s saddlebag. Patting it, he felt the rigid leather, the golden steel, and breathed deep. Any man who laid eyes on it might think a bit of coin sat inside or a family heirloom, which held little value in the real world. He patted it again because he knew its true worth, its need to stay hidden. He must never find it.
The guilt panged again, bringing him back to his penance. What is remorse? He searched the caverns of his being for pain and found none as it related to that feeling. It only took a second for him to figure out why. Remorse and guilt were related, but not the same. Remorse was regret for a past action, one that a man wished could be erased or given the chance to do again. This was something he did not feel. A sliver of gratitude bubbled up inside him for not having to take on more pain, guilt felt bad enough. It left him more confused though. How could one feel unrelenting guilt without being remorseful for one’s actions? He looked at Sadee again, wanting to ask her advice. She snorted him away, sensing another unanswerable question.
He chuckled again. “I didn’t even ask you, girl.”
It felt good to laugh, considering everything that had happened the last few days. He focused on the action, the mission at hand to keep from feeling the dreaded guilt. It wouldn’t be long before it came thundering back and overwhelmed him though. A man’s will could not abide suppressing such a thing for too long. It would eventually eat through whatever blockades he set before it and after breaking through it would torment his mind.
Get to Reen. Get to Reen. Get to Reen. It remained the only mantra that could break the spell. He pulled out the map from his satchel and unrolled it while Sadee kept a steady pace on even ground. Tracking their progress, he looked ahead to a possible stopping point for the night. He had limited food but enough coin to afford him some basic meals, barring any setbacks, from the lowliest taverns on their way to Reen. Large cities, ones that had to cover hefty taxes and might have folks that would recognize him, were out. The food had to be rationed as much as possible. It was the emergency supply. Although he might be broke by the time he reached Reen, at least he’d be alive and well enough nourished to seek employment somewhere.
His father’s words of his youth sprang came to mind, “a man who can work the land ought never seek a trade where another is his master.” He shunned the advice from the grave, even though it rang true. Perhaps there would be an opportunity to farm in Reen, maybe even a place that was abandoned or uninhabited where he could live out his days in hermitage, away from anything and anyone that could discover what he’d stolen.
Returning to the map, he searched along the northern edge of Shimera, a country fraught with wealth in almost every corner. He came across a place that may suit his need of a lowly tavern. Barafon was more of an outpost for the disenfranchised than a village built from generations of family siring. He doubted whether they could piece together a meal of moderate substance for a few coin. In a place like that he need not worry about cost, merely whether his food had been feasted on by maggots before being served. He had no choice though if his own supply needed to last the entire thousand-mile journey to Reen. Weary but satisfied with his sole option, he rolled the map back up and returned it to the satchel.
The sun hung around the mid-morning point, which meant he had enough time to make it to Barafon by dark, if they picked up the pace in spurts. He put pressure on Sadee’s sides and the mare eased into a full gallop across the plains. Halden managed her exertion as they made their way; intermittent periods of trotting, stopping a few times for an apple for her and wherever a stream ran clean, all while managing their time. If it grew too dark, if there were no moon or the clouds veiled it by the time they grew close Barafon, he would never find the tavern, forcing them to pilfer his meager supplies.
Halden waited behind cover of a large pine tree as a carriage and its escort of ten heavily armed men on horseback scooted along the Shimeran Road. It ran north from the Shimeran Capital, Fraces, past the edges of their own borders all the way to Armai, capital of Hovan. It was a busy road and needed to be avoided. He looked back to the west, they had an hour possibly two before darkness. They had time enough to make their stop, but they had to hurry nonetheless. He saddled up and pressed Sadie into a full sprint as they crossed over the road.
The poor girl foamed at the mouth by the time they reached the village. As luck would have it, the last light shone upon a tavern, of just their seeking, at the northern edge: it’s stone was older than most castles in the western half of Prima Earth, the once luminous yellow straw that covered its roof in thick layers had turned from brown to black to decaying, a leaning chimney let out a pithy stream of smoke, and a man argued with a wooden sculpture of a dog over the scrap of meat he claimed it stole earlier that day. Halden grimaced at what he had been reduced to. If back home, he would be dining on what most would call a feast. His wife, even while close to bursting, still spent hours in preparation of their family meals, using far fresher ingredients than he was sure to find here.
He tied Sadee up to a teetering post and pulled a bucket full of water beneath her. She didn’t wait for him to remove his hand before diving in. Grunting in disapproval, she took a breath before plunging in for another drink.
“I know, girl. It’s the best we got right now. I can’t promise we won’t ride as hard tomorrow but I’ll make up for it with better food and water.”
She ignored him. Whether it was intentional or not, Halden couldn’t be certain.
He went for the tavern’s door and pulled back. It opened a few inches and slammed shut, pulling him with it. He latched both hands on the handle and jerked back. Swinging open, the door’s edge clipped his nose. Scooting inside, he just missed getting clipped again as the door slammed behind.
“Enough with the racket!” a grizzled voice yelled from the back of the tavern.
Halden looked at the door and turned back to the direction of the voice. “My apologies. Seems to be jammed.”
“It’s not jammed.” A plump woman in a stained apron said as she came out from behind the kitchen. “Hinges are worn.”
Halden nodded. “I see.”
“Take a seat anywhere. Be with you shortly.” She went to a keg and started to fill up four pints.
Halden ignored the looks from the other patrons as he made his way to an empty table near the back. The others soon lost interest in their new guest and returned to their conversations, their beers, or their conversations with said beers. He plopped down on a chair that wobbled on the left side. Stretching out, he could still hear the beating of Sadee’s hooves in his head; a full day’s ride would do that.
The table had been recently cleaned, which surprised him. He smiled as the look and quality of the inside of the lowly tavern surprised him further. Everything from the eaves to the bar to the floor was made of recently milled wood—they even smelled like trees still. All the candleholders, silverware, and pints were of expensive craftsmanship with intricate artistry etched into them. It appeared bigger than first glance on the outside. Halden wagered they could fit over two hundred on a frosty night—no more than thirty filled it at the moment. A quiet fire burned like a young man’s loins at the center of the wall opposite him. Although they were on the tale-end of winter, he welcomed the heat to relax his throttled muscles.
“What’ll it be, stranger?” The plump woman said, waddling up to his table.
“What makes you think I’m not born and raised Shimeran?”
She smirked, causing her face to wrinkle like a raisin. “I’m Shimeran. You’re like most of our customers, coming from somewhere up north.”
“You’re right about not being from here, but I didn’t come from up north.”
“Where did you come from then?”
He almost answered when he remembered this wasn’t some holiday where it was a treat to meet the locals—his journey was something different entirely.
“I’ll take any spiced wine you have,” he said moving past her question.
“One of those customers, huh?” She let out a worn out guttural laugh. “Anything to eat with that? We have chicken pie, if that suits you?”
She left and returned less than a minute later with his wine. He took a sip and watched as more people filtered in over the next hour. It climbed to well over a hundred, which put him more at ease—the more people, the greater anonymity; better to be one of many faces in a loud room than one of few in a church pew.
She dropped the pie on a silver plate as four younger men took the table closest to him. Steam rose from the healthy portion. It was more food than he could hope to finish in one setting, but he would force it down if it came to that, no telling when he would get a hot fresh meal again. He waited for the pie to cool down and continued to sip the wine. It wasn’t much compared to what he become accustomed to. The king’s wine back home had an unexplainable richness to it, this wasn’t swill, but it had a thin, watered down taste.
“Tryin’ the chicken pie, aye?” one of the young men, the only one not wearing armor, asked him. “It’s the tastiest recipe west of the Dragon’s Backbone.”
“Haven’t touched it yet. We’ll see,” Halden replied.
“Probably a good idea to wait. I usually dig in too fast and scorch my tongue.”
“That’s a shame.” Halden raised his goblet. “Then you can’t taste the wine.”
“Or beer.” The other three young men chorused as they raised their pints.
Halden smirked as all of them threw back their respective spirits. They let out a collective grunt of satisfaction and one of them belched, causing all but Halden to burst into hysterics.
Cutting into the golden buttered crust of his pie it released a savory aroma of chicken bathed in broth, peas, carrots, ginger, heavy pepper, mace, and ground cinnamon. The first bite jolted him back to childhood when he shot his first dear or stuck his first boar—a baser satisfaction that only freshly cooked meat could evoke.
“Oh, I know that look,” said the unarmed man. “He’s hooked, lads.”
Halden ignored the rest of his wine and shoveled every bite down his gullet, almost resorting to licking the plate, his wife’s voice lauding manners halted it.
The plump woman retrieved his plate with a smirk of her own. “What, left nothing for the dogs, did ya?”
“I don’t believe in spoiling mutts.” Halden replied.
Her unpleasant laugh startled a few nearby patrons as she carried the plate away.
“My name’s Zeth,” The unarmored man said. “This is Ran, Yesev, and Carrin. What’s yours?”
Halden took a long draught of his wine. “They just call me friend.”
All the men chuckled. “Well … friend, where’re you headed?” Zeth asked him, sliding his chair closer to Halden’s table.
His comfortable mood ceased and he felt his muscles tighten. He had let himself relax a bit too much and remembered that he had stolen from a king. He turned to the young man and scrutinized him: long dingy brown hair draped over the sides of a bearded face, caramel eyes that screamed “confidence man”, his shirt, pants, and leather coat had been resewn at least half a dozen times. If he was a fleece he wasn’t a very polished one. Halden relaxed as he had nothing to be tricked out of and even if the king did know what he’d done, this would not be the man he’d send to capture him.
“East,” Halden finally responded.
“That’s where I’m headed!” Zeth said with as much excitement that he had displayed for the pie.
“What are all of you heading east for?”
“Nah, it’s just him,” responded Carrin, the largest of the armored men. “He was just tagging along until we to turn south toward Eiram.”
“Passing the base of Briddor Ford … brave men you are.”
“Don’t give us too much credit, we are wearing armor after all.”
“What’s your destination?” asked Zeth.
He went to speak, but held. Even though he ruled out this man as an assassin from his former king, it did him no good to reveal his plan. “I’ll know when I find it.”
“My kind of fellow. I’m on my way to the Horseshoe Hills of Buck.”
Buck … a city of northwester Reen. It was more north than Halden intended to go, but the odds of someone traveling to the same country, the very eastern edge of the world—such things never happened.
“Would you mind a travel companion?” the young man asked like he’d done this a hundred times. “I have my own horse and all.”
“I don’t think so.” Halden didn’t hesitate, catching the four men off guard.
“Why not? It’s a rough go out there traveling a great distance by yourself.”
“Sir.” Carrin said as he raised a hand. “I know it might be a bit odd for a stranger to ask such a thing. Lord knows we weren’t seeking any company before Zeth came. But, he holds his own, he can hunt and no one, and I do mean no one, can cook by campfire better than him.”
The prospect of someone who could hunt and cook while traveling made Halden pause. There was no guarantee of when he would have another hot meal. The dried meat, nuts, and cheeses that he brought would spoil or grow tiresome eventually and he would be forced to hunt and forage. Having an extra hand and someone to talk to might have its benefits as well. He had three knights’ vouge for him as well. If they were in cahoots, they were picking a poor target, nothing about Halden’s dress or composure screamed wealth. Perhaps he was being too cautious and could afford the small luxury of company.
“I’m not one for deep discussions.”
“Don’t worry, he doesn’t need you to respond to keep a conversation going.” Carrin and the others laughed, including Zeth.
“If you split the hunting and the cooking duties and don’t hold me up, I suppose we can head east together.”
Zeth slapped the table. “Excellent! I look forward to it!” He threw back the rest of his beer, half of it spilling out both sides of the pint, coating his beard.
“We leave at first light.”
“I better limit my pints to ten then.” Zeth quipped as he hailed the plump woman.
Halden finished off the last watered-down gulp of wine and bid the men a good evening. The tavern patrons had double in size since he had eaten his pie, too much raucous for him to have a second glass. A few more men tied their horses off as Halden forced open the door. He found Sadee surrounded by geldings, mustangs, quarters, drays, and couple of surly rushers. She looked over zealous for his return and to be heading out to the woods for their slumber. Colts and stallions alike had always taken to her and it looked like a few were upset she was leaving. Ever since Halden had purchased her, she always preferred solitude and thwarted any advance, even in season.
On the other side of the road, in a green thicket turned black by moonlight, they found suitable dry grass and enough trees to give them some privacy. Halden removed the saddle and Sadee grazed while he set up his tent. A dull roar came from the tavern across the road, making him glad he didn’t have the money to stay there. It didn’t seem as though the festivities would be dying anytime soon. He valued his sleep and as much quiet as he could get.
“Don’t go wandering off, girl. I’ll leave you untied as long as you promise to stay close.”
She gave him a look that reminded him of his wife, one that detested being told what she already knew.
“Easy now. I was just making sure.”
She returned to her grazing with an irritated grunt. Halden simply smiled, but the thought of his wife returned, causing him to sigh. I’m sorry, my love … you didn’t deserve this. My only hope is that my actions will save you, Tam, and our unborn. Only time will tell though … a lot of time perhaps. He thought about it for a moment. It might be five or fifty years by the time it could be discerned whether his actions had the desired effect. Even if they did, would she know he was the one, the hero, the seer who acted before anyone else knew what had to be done. His stomach gurgled, as a slab of guilt dropped into it. What if I made a mistake?
He crawled into his tent, rolled up his blanket and squeezed it tight. The thought of what he’d done: stolen from his king, abandoned his family, deserted his country, all to prevent the contents of the chest from falling into the wrong hands—what if it didn’t matter? What if it never came to that and the very individual who he was trying to keep the object from died before learning of its existence? What if he had been wrong about who he thought the man was, that he misread the signs and he was just another marauder from the north, following in the footsteps of the most ruthless killer Prima Earth had ever known?
Unanswerable questions at this time. If he set out to solve them now, he would never leave the tent again. He squeezed the rolled blanket tight, wishing it was his wife. Oh, Ashla, how I miss you already. I wish things could be different. I wish I hadn’t stumbled upon that damnable chest! He opened his eyes and stared at it in his tent, still attached to the saddle. His fists balled as he thought about what was inside. He felt sweat drip from his brow as anger boiled within. On this very night, others got to hold and cherish their lovers without burden. All he could do was dream of his Ashla and wish that this cup had passed to someone else. His own words, which he uttered to his son countless times, echoed in the darkness, “life is not always fair, yet you always have a choice in the matter.” If that phrase was written in the dirt outside the tent he would have pissed on it that very moment. What choice did he have here? The anger, like a sickness, thrust and kicked inside him, begging to expel on something, anything. It poisoned his insides as he remained laying and squeezing the blanket in darkness.
He sought to reach out to someone at that moment to relieve it. But who? He held no god in high esteem, it had always been king and country first … now he had neither. There were plenty of gods to curse at or to beg removal of this task be given to another, but the prayers would be in vain, for he had no faith in them either way. His breathing wheezed as the burden of utter contempt manacled his lungs. No choice to make, no one to hold, and nothing to relieve him. Hopeless. Visions of his own wrists being slit a hundred different ways, his neck snapping on a hundred different nooses, bombarded his mind’s eye. He felt his hand nudge toward the knife on his hip without his guidance. It latched onto it and unsheathed. No don’t! Even his own pleading was powerless over it. Stop! He felt the steel scrape against his clothes as it made its way toward the other wrist. Please no! A thunderous cheer erupted from the tavern, causing his hand to drop the weapon.
His body trembled as anger withdrew into the cave of his being. The original thought, the one that set him on this path, bubbled up through his wine soaked head. His actions were for his wife, his son, his king, his country, and the rest of the realm. If he did nothing, he would have time with Ashla, but it would be fraught with a relentless unease, it would sour all merry occasions and turn life into a pale existence. Knowing the right thing and not acting would be worse than this, and in the end, everyone would perish. This way they had a chance … and that … he could live with.
A set of horse’s hooves shuffling roused Halden before the voice came. “Time to wake, friend!” Zeth called out in a jovial tone. “We’re already a few minutes past sun up.”
Stiffness caused his entire right side to ache as he released the blanket and stumbled to the tent opening.
“Good day, sir!” Zeth feigned a bow, looking as fresh as a spring tulip.
“You certainly are chipper at dawn.” Halden rustled to his feet and tried to alleviate the tension on his right side with a stretch.
“I met a woman last night and let’s just say we’re in love.”
Halden chuckled. “After one night?”
“Afraid so.” Zeth clutched at his heart. “If I knew a poem I would recite one for my lovely Etta.”
Halden shook his head. “Sounds like a charming woman.”
“Indeed she was. The most charming … at least the most charming a man could find at a dumpy tavern on the outskirts of Shimera.”
“Will she be joining on our trek?”
“God’s no! I bid my love adieu this very morning even though she begged for another go. I told her I had other things to attend to.”
“You abandoned your true love?” Halden asked as he folded up his tent and packed it in Sadee’s saddlebag.
“I’ve about fifty true loves. Each more beautiful than the last.” He looked all starry-eyed up at the sky.
“I figure since I can’t marry fifty women, unless I was a king, and I can’t stay with them, that I should just leave them with an untarnished memory of our magical evening together.”
Halden stared at him, waiting for a fit of laughter from Zeth at the moronic thing he’d just spouted. The young man simply cocked his head and looked back at him.
“Whatever you say, young Zeth.”
Zeth carried on about the night he and the three others had while Halden finished packing. They scarfed down a pair of apples and loaves of bread Zeth had pilfered from the tavern this morning while everyone slept.
They made good time as the ground was hard from no rain the past week. Zeth lived up to his reputation of being able to hold a conversation without the other party participating. It didn’t bother Halden, he welcomed it. After the scare last night and the guilt nearly taking over, the jabbering of his travel companion provided an adequate distraction. Occasionally the young man stumbled onto a topic that did interest Halden, such as: the training of messenger birds, how to properly ferment wine, or settling the age-old debate of which type of sword was better in one on one combat: a small light one, or a large heavy one. Halden offered only quick one sentence opinions, out of fear that if he spoke too much it would cause Zeth to lose momentum. It had the opposite effect. It gave him just enough of a breather to agree or retort and start down a whole new line of discussion.
For days they continued in this fashion. Halden never grew tired of Zeth’s constant need to fill the silence of traveling. The young man had an innocent confidence in himself that made it easy to be around. Even in disagreement, he made his point of view well know without torching Halden’s. A cooing stream, a white mountain top, or a dewy prairie allowed Halden to mute the chatter when he needed a reprieve. It was easy for him to drown it out and focus on the majesty of the land that they passed through. If Zeth were with his son, he might make it a teaching moment where he would explain what they were seeing, instead he could just enjoy it for himself—a bittersweet proposition.
The only time he silenced Zeth was on their fifth day together when they passed the former Elvish capital of Valvere Peak. A four-hundred-foot stone wall built around the circumference of the mountain burgeoned with life as the flowers, vines, and plants of early spring camouflaged the elvish-built barrier. Roads, carved before Halden’s own country was founded, stood the test of time and glistened like golden rivers, leading all the way to city above. The peak pierced the clouds on a gloomy day and touched the son on a clear one. Halden did the talking as Zeth listened. He detailed the meager beginnings of the elves; how they broke away from the darkness of the north, their enslavement, and built Valvere into the greatest stronghold in all of Prima Earth. From there they would form the most advanced civilization of the second age; medicine, inventions, military strategy—all surpassed their human counterparts. And last came the horrors of the civil war that saw the single largest battle of the modern age—Escarot’s Plunge. Man was not alone in their mutual destruction of their own species. It was written that the blood lost in the five-year war weakened the ground beneath the mountain and caused Valvere Peak itself to seep into the earth, dragging tens of thousands down with it to a gruesome death. The vision of a mountain sinking left Zeth speechless for the first time on the journey. Eventually the earth’s core stopped Valvere’s plummet, along with the war, and the race of elves broke into factions, never calling the Peak homeland again.
They stayed silent until making camp that night, both envisioning Valvere’s former glory and the spectacular war that toppled it. Halden had to speak first to get the conversation going. Nothing of merit came to his mind other than what path they would take tomorrow. Zeth had no opinion on the matter, still caught in a trance. The journey was made tougher by the less-used roads they had taken so far. In an effort to avoid any and all confrontation, Halden directed them such. He wanted to make up some time though, make it easier on Sadee and Zeth’s horse. The Easterly Road lay about a mile north of their campsite and if they gradually made their way up, they could hit it by mid-morning. Telling Zeth about the plan, he hoped to get the young man talking again, at least a smile of sorts; all he could manage was a grunt of approval. Something in his companion’s eye told Halden that perhaps he thought about more than the great tale of Valvere Peak, perhaps it was along the lines of Halden’s own situation. He decided not to pry and left the young man with his thoughts and a crackling fire for sleep before his own devils could surface.
A rejuvenating sensation quivered through Sadee’s body as she took her first steps onto the Easterly Road, Halden felt it and smiled. “I know, girl, it’s good to be back on suitable ground again.”
She neighed in irritation.
“Not that you couldn’t handle the slop we traveled through the past few days. Only that this is more pleasant.”
She snorted, which meant his answer was acceptable, but not to irritate her further.
“Quite a character that one,” said Zeth, his first full sentence since yesterday morning.
It sounded like his old self, which made even Halden happy.
“That she is.” He patted Sadee on the mane. “She’s the best horse a man could ask for though. Strong. Loyal. Fastidious.”
“Fastidious?” Zeth chuckled. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard a horse been described like that.”
“Oh, she is though. She won’t accept anything but the best treatment … under the circumstances of course. She’s always taken care of me and I’ll always take care of her.”
Zeth nodded as he stared at the mare. “Why did you have us off the main roads before today?”
Halden halted an immediate response. There was no risk in admitting his reasons, only he didn’t want to scare the young man. Although, Zeth had traveled far more than he ever had, according to his former companions, perhaps he would know of what he’d speak of.
“A danger we’ve not seen … well in our lifetimes … is stirring once again.”
Zeth threw him a questionable look.
“You know the legends.” Halden nodded, brow furrowed. “From the dawn of the first age, the great power that once existed and nearly enslaved the world. Trouble brews in the north and has spread throughout the realm.”
“If you mean who I think you mean, that’s absurd. We would’ve heard something. More than just whispers. Actual proof.”
“It is only the beginning. His followers march on cities as we speak.”
Zeth held up an open hand. “Before you go any further, they have always remained, lived on after their master’s death. They have attacked throughout the last millennia … dozens of times. They never amounted to more than brief skirmishes that might have razed a village or two, but no capital or city of consequence.”
“Do you consider Armai a city of consequence?”
Zeth’s eyes widened, mouth opened. He paused for a moment, looking like he was thinking. “The capital of Hovan? The largest city in the world has fallen? You’re mad, Halden.”
“Impossible. We would’ve heard something. A message. A cry for help.”
“All were suppressed.”
“Then how are you so bloody sure?”
The question struck Halden square between the eyes. The only proof he had laid in the chest; undeniable, irrefutable proof, just an arm’s reach away. Could he show him? Could he trust him? Those questions and more throttled his mind. Zeth had proven harmless, but this matter was entirely different. The chest held one of the most awesome powers of this world, an object that could be used to reign over Prima Earth, the guiding light of the original men, the first to inhabit the four corners of the world. With this knowledge intact, Halden did what he thought was right—he lied.
“I have no proof …” It stung to cover up such a secret. “Only the feeling that the tides of this world have been altered.”
Zeth shook his head. “Afraid I’ve been too many places and heard one to many tall-tales to take someone at their wo—.”
A hideous screech echoed off the tree littered hillside to the north of them, cutting off Zeth. Looking ahead on the road, they heard hooves shuffling around a blind corner. Zeth went to say something but Halden pressed Sadee into a sprint up the hill. She weaved through a collection of trees until they reached the peak. Zeth came quickly after, slamming to a halt, shooting dust into the air.
“What are you doing?” Zeth asked in a panicked whisper.
Halden threw up a fist to silence him. They both dismounted and walked carefully down the hill to a large oak that had split in half. Looking down at the road, two dark riders came round the bend toward their former position. Halden and Zeth backed behind the oak, exposing only their heads. The full battle armor that covered both the beasts, looked as though they’d seen a lifetime of battles. The sides of their faces where a nightmare of green and black, Halden might have lost his breakfast if he could see their entire aspects. Both beasts’ feet hung close to their drays’ knees, making them almost seven feet tall. One of them belted out another hideous screech, sending Halden and Zeth behind the stump. They poked back out after the horses’ footsteps drifted out of earshot.
“What were those things?” Zeth turned to Halden, horror rot in his face.
“They didn’t look like any goblin I’d ever seen … not that I’ve seen more than a couple.”
“I’ve seen my share and those beasts were much bigger, fiercer.”
Halden felt an unease as the beasts passed out of sight, like crossing a wolf’s den.
“Do you suppose there’re more?”
Halden ran back to the top of the hill and peered over the tree-laden countryside to the east. The road was visible for about a mile until it meandered into a copse, eliminating any visibility of any oncoming brigades. As far as he could see, there was nothing following the two. The sun hung just past midday and he didn’t want to waste hours waiting for something that might not be coming.
“I think we should press on.”
Zeth ran his hands through his hair. “What if they’re more of those things.”
“We won’t know either way. If we stay here and more come, we’re just as likely to be caught then if were on the open road. At least on the open road they’ll have to catch us on horseback, whereas here we have nowhere to go but down. I don’t know about you, but barreling down a hillside is not my idea of a getaway … more like foolish.”
Zeth took in a deep breath and looked to the east, shaking his head. Even Halden didn’t believe either option was a good one. However, there was a better one in his mind.
“We better get moving then.” Zeth finally answered.
They walked the horses down the hill and saddled up on the road. Both kept their eyes peeled in front and to the sides as they made their way east. Even Sadee seemed to tense up as she felt her rider’s unease. They rode hard until the light on their backs changed from sunlight to starlight. In order to feel safe and hide any chance of something seeing their fire, they set their camp a mile south of the road, deep in the thicket with a thousand trees in-between.
Halden offered Sadee a second apple for her effort on the day. “Thank you, girl.”
She gave no response other than accepting the apple and brushing her head against his arm. Whether it was intentional or not, Halden didn’t care, it was rare for her to show gratitude.
“Do you think we’re far enough from the road?” Zeth asked as Halden came back to the fire.
“I think so. Hard for anyone to see through a mile of trees.”
Zeth gave a slow nod, biting into a steaming breast of a fowl he had killed and cooked. Halden grabbed the last piece and sat across from him. The nocturnal critters of the forest had started to jabber in the distance, putting Halden a little more at ease.
“I think you might not be crazy after all,” said Zeth.
“What you were saying earlier, about the tide of the world.”
Halden sighed. “Nothing’s for certain. I could be wrong. I hope I am. It could be a fluke, my information about Hovan falling a lie.”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like we saw earlier today.”
Halden nodded. “Nor I.”
Zeth set down the piece of meat on a broken tree branch and looked Halden straight in the eyes. “That’s why your headed east … isn’t it?”
Halden set down his piece and steepled his hands. It pained him to hold such a secret. He had kept it from all the people he held dear and now from a man that could have died with him today if they hadn’t been warned. The need to unburden himself was too great. “Yes.” He struggled to say the word. “I lied earlier today. I have proof of the return of darkness. I wish that I didn’t, I wish I could have remained at my home, but for some reason, fate chose me.”
Zeth’s eyes widened. “Why didn’t you tell me before.”
“I didn’t know you—or if I could trust you.”
“It’s not like I could do anything with this information.”
“It’s not only information I carry.” He looked toward Sadee, still saddled with the chest. “I used to be a records keeper for a king—where—I won’t say. While manning the great library and halls of artifacts it was also my duty to teach the royal children the history of our great kingdom and that of this world. In my studies, I learned as much as I could about the darkness of the first age. How the most powerful of this world fell to the Great Shadow.” A stinging pain scrapped the inside of his breast at the mere mention of the name.
He collected himself and continued. “A fortnight ago as I was reading, a burst of light came from the corridor behind me. I followed it deep into the king’s castle, deeper than I had ever trespassed. It led me to a carving in a stone—a symbol who’s origin I’m not familiar with. The yellow light was so powerful it seeped through the mortar. I dislodged the piece of stone and found an object that had not been seen for five thousand years. One that confirmed the Dark One’s return, one that, in his hands, could aid his conquering of the world.”
Zeth shook his head. “Why did you take it? Why not just destroy it?”
“I tried everything. Torching it, burying it, drowning it, I even tried feeding it to starved dogs—nothing worked.” Halden sighed. “That’s when I knew I had to take it. Hide it. So, no one could find it. So, He couldn’t find it.” He looked back to the chest hanging so innocently off Sadee’s saddlebag. “I left my king, my country, my wife, my children … everything … in the hope it will always remain a mystery.”
The crackle of the fire and the cackle of nocturnal animals of the woods were the only sounds for minutes. His wife’s and son’s faces flashed before his eyes like a waterwheel, causing his stomach to concave like it hadn’t eaten in weeks. Zeth stared into the flames with pursed lips and what looked like the only burden Halden had seen him bare.
“You gave up everything.” Zeth spoke, eyes fixed on the fire. “I’ve never had anything. No family, an orphan since birth. No country, a drifter since I could walk. Forced to travel with a band of other abandoned children, we moved from town to town, country to country, thieving and conning until sixteen … ever since then I’ve made my way alone. I’ve never carried the responsibility of wife, child, or king.” He turned to Halden, his glassy eyes shimmered in the fire’s light. “I will help you make your destination, wherever that may be.”
His initial thought was to part ways with Zeth, a young man with so much life left, one who did not deserve this burden—no one did. However, an inner push caused him to think twice. What right did he have to make another man’s choices, to decide what danger was acceptable?
“Reen … Reen is my destination.”
A sliver of a smile crept reluctantly to Zeth’s face. “Reen it is then.”
A gentle nudge from Sadee’s head roused Halden from a deep sleep, the first sound one in a month. She knew he had a few more treats that remained locked away, so she couldn’t pilfer their supply.
“You couldn’t let the sun rise before waking me, girl?” Halden remarked.
A purple shade still colored the forest as the sun awakened. The trees, the grass, all had the delicate feel of early morning unlike the staunch, hardened look of dusk. Rising to his feet, he stroked the side of Sadee’s mane. “Give me a minute to handle some personal business and I’ll get your treat.”
The horse looked like her own logic dictated that she should be fed first and whatever his business could be attended to later. Zeth remained asleep next to the dormant fire. Halden decided not to wake him yet and made his way out of the camp to a place with a little privacy to relieve himself. Finishing, he went to turn back but held as mother bird cascaded down onto a nest near the top of a pine tree. Two babies waited impatiently, calling, and bobbing up and down for the meal she had caught. Halden grimaced as he watched, for the younglings were like his own now. In a month’s time when his wife would be giving birth, she would bear the burden of feeding two children—with no father to help.
He walked back to the camp, head down, wanting to start the day and be distracted by Zeth’s chattering.
“Time to wake up, Zeth. Best get an early sta—.” Halden halted as he raised his head.
He drew his dagger and reared back to launch it.
“Lower it!” one of the beasts they had seen on the road commanded as he lowered his own blade to Zeth’s neck. The other stood akimbo next to a restless Sadee, fixing his wretched green and black face on Halden.
Zeth held strong with a look of contempt, not fear, appearing unwounded. He wanted to throw the dagger and save the young man in that moment, but truth told, he was never very good with one and would most likely miss. As not to alarm the beasts, Halden lowered the blade slowly.
“That’s a good boy,” said the one holding Zeth. “Usually we’d kill a pair of scum like yourselves, but it just so happens our orders have changed and we’re to take in anyone we can find.”
“We have no quarrel with you. Leave us be.” Halden retorted.
“No! You’re to come with us, shackled, or, with slit throats.”
Halden fumed as he had no leverage, neither of them were fighters and the beasts size alone made a sword seem useless.
“What do we have here?” the other creature said, looking at Sadee’s saddlebag. He strode up to her, the horse shying away as he did. He ran a hand across the chest like one would a delicate piece of jewelry. “Give us the key for this. It’d be a pity to break such a pretty chest.”
“Sadee!” Halden screamed, startling the horse.
She swung around and kicked into the air. Both back legs smashed into the beast, impaling his chest on impact. Zeth unholstered a dagger from the other beast’s belt and jammed it into its leg. The creature howled and belted him across the face. Halden threw his dagger. The beast’s head thrust back as it lodged in his eye. Halden sprinted forward and plowed into it. His shoulder jammed as he ricocheted off the thick creature. Halden staggered to his feet, grabbing at his throbbing shoulder. The beast toppled over as it removed the dagger and threw it aside. Halden withdrew the one in its leg and plunged it into the creature’s other eye, twisting deeper into the skull. He barred down all his weight as its movement slowed to a halt.
He left the dagger in place and stumbled over to Zeth. The young man remained sprawled on the ground, his body convulsing as he clutched at his throat. Blood poured out a wound on the right side of his neck.
“It caught me,” said Zeth, his voice barely audible.
Halden ripped off one of his sleeves and pressed it to the wound. “Steady now. I can suture this.”
The young man placed a trembling hand on Halden’s arm and shook his head. “No … fixing … this.” He struggled to get the words out.
Halden allowed his hand to be taken away, a cup of blood burped out of the gash. Latching onto Zeth’s hand with both of his, he squeezed as if the harder he did it, the more strength would transfer to him. He sighed as reality washed over. It took every ounce of resolve to look Zeth in the eye, but he forced himself to watch as his only friend left in the world perished.
“Make it …” A shudder of pain rippled through Zeth as he spoke. He panted through a closed mouth, trying to quell it. “To Reen …”
Halden squeezed the young man’s hand with all his strength to prevent the uncontrollable sobbing he felt beating down the dams of his eyes from breaking through. He watched as another face added itself to his nightmares, those who he was once responsible for,
… and had failed …
Shoveling the last scoop of dirt on Zeth’s grave, Halden uttered no prayer, instead he etched the man’s face, his voice, his spirit into his own heart—where it would never be lost.
Halden sat outside his home, watching Sadee graze in harsh soil. When the sun hit her coat it no longer glistened like silver pearls in her youth, instead it shunned the rays like a gray stone. The waves crashed in the distance, far out of Halden’s vision. He thought they might take a walk along the beach later, one of the few luxuries of living on the island. Few animals lived there, making hunting a rare and calculated endeavor. When he was a boy, working the land with his father gave him a sense of pride and he often enjoyed the toil; rock and clay filled most of the top soil here, making the fulfilling task, a laborious one. Sitting a fortnight’s sail from the mainland, solitude was a certainty, so no help would ever arrive.
“Come here, girl,” he called to Sadee.
He struggled out of his chair to greet her. With one hand, he held out an apple and with the other, he ran it down the length of her mane. “That’s my girl.” He said as she finished the fruit. “I know you don’t like me saying it, but I’m sorry for dragging you to this place.” She grunted and shook her head in obvious irritation. “However, I’m glad you are here.”
They stood together and watched the sunset on their twentieth year in exile. The faces of those Halden once loved appeared in his mind, reminding him of the decision he made—to steal from a king. He thought of his wife, his son, the child he never met, whom he imagined was a daughter, and the last friend he ever knew—Zeth. Every day he prayed to the gods he did not believe in to keep his plunder a secret to all until his dying day … to never forget the righteous thief who gave up his world … to save theirs.