Archer turned out to be an interesting travelling companion. Talkative, cheerful, and quick-witted, he also seemed to have a good number of maps for the area, leading them along unlikely but effective shortcuts and routing them through a number of small villages. During visits to these, he proved to be especially useful on the matter of supplies, coming back with several loaves, half a pound of cheese, several chicken legs, a smoked fish and a bag of strawberries. No one wanted to ask just how he was getting them, but Feral would have sworn that he had spotted a sciurel-like shape hopping from rooftop to rooftop as he and his less agile friends made their way along the streets of the villages.
Feeling slightly guilty, Feral waited until they had made camp for the night, when he was sure Balthor and Cassanya had fallen asleep before mentioning anything to Archer.
“Steal?” the sciurel blinked, a crease appearing between his eyebrows.
“Yeah,” Feral looked uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to…”
“No, it’s ok mate,” Archer raise a hand. “You’ve a right to ask.” The sciurel was silent for a while, stirring the fire with a stick for about a minute before he continued.
“I don’t… like to think of it as straight stealing,” he said eventually. “I’m always careful, an’ I never take anything from people who’ll really miss it, just those who’ve got a bit to spare. Believe me, guv, it’s not something I’m proud of, but… there’s times in life when you ‘ave to do things you’re ashamed of. You probably wouldn’t know what I’m on about,” he gave Feral a wry smile. “You’ve got decent clothes, even if y'are a bit mucky. Look like you’ve had enough money comin’ in while you was growin’ up. I guess your family are pretty well off, least as compared to some.”
Feral looked away, his chest feeling suddenly tight.
“But that ain’t how it is for everyone,” Archer continued, not noticing Feral’s expression. “Some people, they grow up with nothin’. I mean really, nothin’. My mother… she tried, I’ll give ‘er that, but our home weren’t much more than a hole in someone else’s wall. My dad… well, I think all ‘e left me was his sense of duty. I don’t remember him, tell the truth. All I ever knew was that he was a Knight of the Silver Dragon. Guess it kept me going when times got tough… thinking that maybe one day, I’d be like him. A knight.”
Shaking his head sadly, he sighed. “Not that it seemed likely to ‘appen. By the time I was eight, I ‘ad four younger 'alf sisters to look after by myself, and nobody gave a damn about any of us. I hated the city… I mean, we all did, but we were trapped. You can live out in the wilds for a time, mate, as you’ll know, but over winter, with no shelter, when you’re that age… no.”
The sciurel sighed again, looking sad. “So yeah, there we were. ‘Ungry, cold, and nobody cared. To spare you the details, I learned to live off the streets. Stole food where I needed it, money wherever I could. But you can’t live like that forever, guv, even when you're good at it. It wears away at you, inside like. Even after… after I’d impressed the thieves’ guild. They gave my sisters some shelter, kept the worst of the scum away from ‘em, but it were at a price.”
Archer took a deep breath, looking at the ground between his feet. “You can imagine that the price went up as they came of age. I feel sick to my stomach every time I think about it, but there’s… there’s nothing I can do,” he looked up at Feral, his expression imploring. “I couldn’t do a damn thing for ‘em, Red! I couldn’t bring in money enough to keep the guild’s hands off ‘em, and they’d have been even worse off outside. I… I just didn’t know what to do. About a month ago… my youngest, Gerriena… she came of age.” He swore, punching the ground on which he sat, his expression contorting with anger.
“There was nothing I could do to stop it. Nothin’…” he covered his eyes with shaking hands. “All I could do was look away as they dishonoured her, cos in the end, it was better than the life she’d ‘ave outside the guild’s ‘protection’.”
Archer was silent for some time, staring into the fire, as Feral watched him, not sure what to say.
“So, there you go,” Archer looked up suddenly. “Now they’re members of the guild on their own... merits. Nothing more I can do there. I figured it was time I set out to be what I’d always wanted to be; a knight, like my dad. Sounds a little crazy, I know,” he rubbed an ear ruefully. “But maybe it ain’t so. They don't listen if you ain't got blood or money on your side, but I can deal with that. There was onething my dad left, other than me,” the sciurel held up a hand, a silver ring glinting in the firelight. “This ring bears the mark of the Silver Dragon. Nobody gets them except the knights themselves. My dad left this with my mother before he went. Don't know why. Don't care. Guess I should just be glad ma never took my advice to sell it…”
Feral watched as the sciurel sank into silence for several seconds.
“That’s what I want, Red,” Archer said, his voice low. “I'm not a bad bloke, I'm just stuck. I wanta life where I don’t ‘ave to steal to make ends meet. A life where I can do the right thing, instead of the thing that keeps me alive. A life where I can maybe give summit back for all the things I’ve had to take in the past, and maybe… maybe do something to help my sisters. The life I should’ve had, if my dad had stuck around.”
The muscles at the sides of the sciurel’s jaw worked several times, cast into relief by the firelight.
“I dunno why he left when he did. If it was cos… he didn’t think I’d measure up, then I want to prove him wrong. I want him to know that… even after the start he gave me, I can still be worth somethin’. I can still do the right thing, if I can just get a chance to prove it.”
“Maybe… maybe uncle Felli can…” Feral started, but Archer gave a small laugh.
“No, don’t worry about it, Red. My problem, mate, you got your own, I’m sure. You just get yourself home, don’t worry about me. I’m a survivor, I’ll be fine.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t help. I have a sister too. She was taken, not long ago. I'd move the world to get her back. Right now I don't know where she is, or how to get to her, but I willfind her. Believe me when I say I understand how you feel. If I can help you, I will.”
Archer sat back a little, surprised at his young friend's intensity. “Cheers, Red,” he said quietly. “I'm gonna do what I can for you too, all right?” he stuck out his hand.
Feral shook it solemnly.
The companions reached the port of Stonebridge after three more days on foot. The town was easily visible from a distance due to the presence of the tall masted ships moored in the harbour. With the sails furled, they seemed as a strangely uniform forest, vertical trunks rising above the low thatched roofs of the town, their rigging like black cobwebs against the clear blue sky.
Nestled at the back of a sheltered bay, held safe in the protective arms of the cliffs that rose forty feet on either site, Stonebridge made an ideal harbour. With room for seagoing ships to moor in the bay, it catered to inland traffic by way of three wooden piers that jutted from the bank of the Westflow river. Reinforced with slabs of granite, the riverbank provided a solid loading and unloading area for heavy cargoes, as well as protection against the surge of the tides.
Behind this stone barricade, a cobbled street ran parallel to the riverbank, ending dangerously close to the edge of the narrow beach. A set of steps by each pier led down to water level, to allow the use of the numerous small rowboats tied to the wooden supports.
The riverfront street was bustling with people of all races and occupation. Two lutrani were trying to unload a bulky crate from a small, square rigged freight ship, whose deck was considerably below the level of the pier. In the next berth a lupari and another lutrani were loading heavy rolls of cloth onto their ancient looking vessel. Swearing fluently in a deep voice, a large leonin oversaw the loading of several cartloads of mixed vegetables by his rapidly tiring crew. A vulpani clad entirely in bright red was winding his way through the crowds, selling jewellery and trinkets, weaving stories of the mystical powers that each little bauble was infused with.
Across the street from the ships, a row of casinos, taverns, and other less reputable establishments, each one proudly advertising that it catered for all races, tastes and requirements. One building, separated from its neighbours by narrow alleyways, had a large and elaborately painted sign hanging above the door. It showed a portrait of a sleek furred lady vulpani, eyelids half lowered and wearing a distinctly coquettish expression. Gold writing above the painting announced to all passers that this was “The Saucy Vixen”. A smaller sign in the window announced that all were welcome, and recommended the house ale as the best in town.
A high stone bridge spanned the river, taking three wide arches to do so before it finally touched down on the far bank. Even looking across the water, the companions could tell that the higher class buildings were on the far side. No docks lined that riverbank, and every shop and home was both taller and cleaner, a predominance of whitewashed walls shining in the sunlight. Ascending the hill beyond, each street seemed to have been built incrementally grander than the last, churches, temples, even some that looked like mansions along the crest of the ridge.
“The news archive has to be over there, surely?” Feral wondered aloud. His companions agreed this likely. After a brief discussion, they decided that Cassanya would accompany him to the archives, while Balthor and Archer would see about purchasing supplies for the road ahead. Under the pretence of handing over her coin purse, Cassanya slipped the pointer charm into Balthor's hand, and he winked his understanding. Just in case.
An hour after they had split up on the river front, Balthor sighed and looked out from the window of a small tavern that overlooked the water. Restlessly, he drummed his fingers on the table, trying not to get too agitated.
“Just relax, 'ave a wander, and I'll meet you there at mid day,” Archer had told him, pointing at The Saucy Vixen. “And don't ask.”
“Don't ask what?” Balthor had wondered.
“Don't ask that either,” the sciurel had said, narrowing his eyes, before slipping down a dark alleyway, vanishing into the shadows.
And that was the last Balthor had seen of him. In the meantime, the lupari had browsed the stores and worked his way through the market, looking for suitable food supplies to carry with them. Towards lunchtime, burdened with an assortment of heavy grained bread, jerky, and hard fruits, had retreated to his rendezvous location.
Except Archer wasn't there, and was now half an hour later than expected. Leaning close to the window, trying to see the road outside, Balthor sighed again, turned back to his drink and nearly jumped out of his skin as the sciurel grinned at him from the opposite seat.
“Not funny,” he grumbled as Archer chuckled.
“Sorry, couldn't resist. Been 'ere long?”
“Too long – where were you?”
“Told you, don't ask,” the sciurel said again.
“Listen, guv,” Archer leaned forward across the table, beckoning Balthor to do the same.
“The lad's journey, it matters, right?” the sciurel said quietly, clearly not wanting to be overheard.
“I mean, really matters, as in someone's life might be at risk if he doesn't find them?”
“I think so, yes.”
“Right. Then it's for the greater good.” Glancing over his shoulder, Archer swiftly shoved a coin purse over the table, hard enough that it slid straight into Balthor's lap. The lupari unfastened the draw string and raised his eyebrows as he realised he was holding a significant quantity of silver coins. “Don't ask.”
“Ah!” Archer held up a warning finger.
Balthor eyed him.
“All I'll say is as I've never 'urt nobody, and I ain't started today. And never from those as'd miss it.”
Rubbing his furry temple, the lupari stared down at the purse in his lap. Cassanya wouldn't like it. Nor would Feral – though perhaps he'd be willing to make the moral compromise given how determined he was to find his sister... or at least travel fast to his uncle's and thenfind his sister. Yes, it would matter enough to Feral to be worth it, and there was money here to buy not just travel equipment but passage on one of the river boats that hauled freight better than fifty leagues eastward.
And Cassanya would follow Feral, Balthor concluded.
But he wasn't looking forward to the argument.
Feral's voice echoed off the white marble walls and arching ceiling of the lobby.
“Not that there's money in publishing stories about people's miseries,” Cassanya muttered under her breath as they approached the desk at the centre of the large, octagonal room. On three sides away from the main entrance, vaulted doorways lead off into the three major wings of the building; Writing and Editing, Duplication and Publication, and Archives.
The elderly vulpani behind the desk peered over the top of a pair of silver rimmed spectacles at Feral, large ears swivelling downwards as his tall chair spun in place.
“Trade entrance is round on the north wing, boy,” he snapped in a breathy voice perfectly suited to work in a large and echoing room.
“Do we look like a delivery?” Cassanya sighed at the grey furred clerk.
“Hmm,” the vulpani sucked the end of a quill with which he had not been writing. “No. Which makes me wonder how you got past the doorman.”
Cassanya narrowed her eyes – much as she had at the doorman, who had swiftly decided that the tall leonin probably did have business to attend to and that he shouldn't get in her way. Unfortunately the same approach seemed to be failing on the clerk.
“We're researching a story,” Feral said with a sudden flash of inspiration. “Got most of the facts, but we'd like to cross check a few things before we submit it to the editor. Might be some links we haven't connected yet. Sorry about the clothes,” he added, gesturing to his travel worn attire. “Been under cover a while, wanted to get here while it's fresh in our heads.”
“Hmm,” the vulpani said again, eyeing Feral's ears for a few seconds. “I see. New here?”
“A bit, yes,” Feral admitted.
“Very well, very well,” the clerk relented. “You'll want Archives,” he pointed the feathery end of the quill towards the door at the back of the room. “You can ask the curator for what you need.”
“Right, thanks,” Feral nodded earnestly, and hurried towards the indicated door.
“And for goodness sake, tread a little more softly!” the clerk urged.
Forcing himself to a slower pace, Feral carefully tiptoed across the stone floor, wondering how it was that Cassanya, nearly twice his size, hardly ever seemed to have an audible footstep, instead just padding along silently in her open toed boots. No wonder leonin made such good hunters.
They winced as they entered the archive wing. Aisles of shelving stretched out in all directions, rank upon rank of decades worth of news. Any idea Feral may have had about quietly researching matters on his own vanished. They were going to have to find help.
When they eventually found him, the curator turned out to be another vulpani, perched atop a tall set of wheeled ladders, hands busily flicking through a high shelf of indexed volumes.
Cassanya nudged Feral with her elbow. “Do allyour lot work here, or what?” she asked.
Feral was not used to having vulpani described as “his lot,” though on reflection it occurred to him that there was no real reason why a leonin should favour the human half of his heritage. Indeed, perhaps there was no reason he himself should do so, except it was visually easier to pass as the one than the other.
“Can I help you?” the curator asked, leaning out at what looked like a rather dangerous angle to peer down at them.
“We need some information,” Cassanya answered.
“Well of course you do,” the vulpani huffed his way down the steps, carrying a leather bound tome under one arm. “Why else would you be here? What information is it that you're looking for?” he asked, regarding her from the third step, which was approximately eye level with the tall leonin.
“We need to know about any attacks or raids on small towns in the last few months. Specifically towards the coasts.”
The curator blinked at her.
“And where, exactly, have you two been all that time, eh?” he asked, hopping off the steps and bustling down the aisle. “Everything you could want to know has been published of late, if you've been reading the scrolls.”
“Uh... we... haven't,” Feral admitted, following the vulpani as he made a sharp left turn between two large blocks of shelves.
“Typical,” the curator muttered, possibly to himself. “All the information in the world at their fingertips and instead they come asking me to summarise it for them. I don't suppose I'll be mentioned in the byline of your article?”
“Would you like to be?” Feral asked, and the vulpani stopped, turning to look at him.
“Yes. By title only, if you please. Just the Curator of the South Counties News Archives will do nicely.”
“Done,” Feral nodded.
“Right then,” the vulpani nodded, taking a right turn back along the aisles. “Yes, of course there have been attacks against Freelands' townships. It's all Lordenor of course.”
“Lordenor?” Cassanya exclaimed from behind them.
“Where haveyou been?” the curator snapped. “Goodness, girl, do please try to pay at least a little attention. Don't you know there's a war on?”
Amazing what a few weeks away from a normal life will do for your knowledge of currant affairs, Feral mused. Well, that was certainly news to him.
“Where were they happening?” he asked, as they took another left to avoid a large stone column.
“Oh, westward, mostly.” The curator flapped a hand in what might have been the right direction. It was hard to tell in the cavernous archive. “Half a dozen reports, not all of them verified. Latest one was Deepsby, if I recall correctly. Which I always do.”
“What do you think happened, lad?” the vulpani asked, taking another right. Surely they must be nearly at the far side by now? “Same as always happens when one nation wants to take territory off another. March up, lay siege, batter the walls down, and dispose of or assimilate any defending forces.”
That didn't sound a lot like Feral remembered. Still...
“Do you have a Lordenor flag? Or a picture of one?” he asked.
“Oddly specific,” the curator said over his shoulder. “Yes of course we do. In fact I believe one was rendered in that edition. Just a few more aisles. What do you want to see that for?”
“Just checking something... A badge I've seen.”
“Really? Well, there is of course talk of undercover agents. You know how it always goes, that they've got emblems or rings or secret handshakes and passwords and all that lot. Paranoia if you ask me. What would be the point of an undercover agent here? Surely they'd to better asking their own commanders where they should be, rather than reading about it a week afterwards. And here we are,” he announced, stretching up to a shelf that was just beyond his reach. Cassanya stepped forwards. “Ah, yes, the sixth one from the end. Chronological ordering, always,” the curator said. “Indexing is over on the east side, if you ever need it,” he gestured to the completely invisible far end of the room.
Feral took the scroll as Cassanya handed it to him.
News Scroll September 10th, he read. Deepsby Taken! the headline in heavy ink. A description followed of an invasion by beach under cover of a heavy storm, the attacking army using anunknown siege weaponto break down the city walls. Inset along the right side of the test, a small rendering of a rank of half a dozen soldiers, a flag waving behind them.
That was the crest he remembered.
Feeling Cassanya's hand on his back, Feral realised he had closed his eyes, and that he felt none too steady on his feet. What on earth had that woman been doing in a Lordenor uniform? Had she been at Deepsby too? Was she leading the army now? And if so, why hadn't she had one before? And what was the siege weapon that knocked down city walls...
Hurriedly he scanned down the scroll, but there was no further mention of it.
“The siege weapon, what was it?”
“Hmm?” the vulpani curator cocked his head to one side, his ears taking on a bemused slant that Feral might have found familiar had he ever looked in a mirror.
“The siege weapon! They don't say what it was!”
“I imagine that's why it says unknown,” the curator said gently. “We only print the facts here, if we can't verify it, we don't report it.”
“What about the other attacks? You have those stories too?”
“Of course we do,” the curator told him. “Though if it's the siege weapons you're interested in, I'm afraid they all say the same.”
“But was it a dragon?” Feral shouted, his patience snapping.
The curator regarded him as if he'd gone mad. Cassanya winced.
“Young man,” the vulpani said, softly but with sincerity. “This is a news scroll. Truth and fact. If you want folk tales, you are in the wrong place.”
“But whycouldn't you print it?” Feral pressed. “Because I'm right, and you don't want to roll out something nobody will take seriously.”
“Because dragons don't exist,” the vulpani said gently. “You really won't find stories about them here.”
With a word that Cassanya didn't think he knew, Feral turned on his heel and paced back down the aisle, dropping the scroll onto the floor in disgust.
“I'm sorry,” she said to the curator, bending to recover the parchment. “My friend has a very active imagination.”
“That's no crime,” the vulpani said, with a small smile. “But he does rather need to learn the difference between imagination and reality. Seems like a nice boy otherwise, be a good reporter once he gets his head out of the clouds. I'm sorry we couldn't help your research.”
“That's ok,” the leonin assured him. “Thank you for trying.”
The vulpani bowed his head graciously as she hurried after her friend.
Angrily, Feral wiped the back of his hand across his eyes as he strode away. Surely, surelythat was it. They knew the truth they just didn't want to admit it because they were too scared of looking stupid! How many more people were going to die or go missing because the authorities wouldn't admit the problem and take action against it?
“Excuse me, sir?”
Feral let out an exclamation, teetering on his toes as he leaned over the small figure he had nearly knocked over.
Like all muscai, this one was short, barely topping three and a half feet, with large ears and a pointy muzzle full of long whiskers. And like all muscai, he was quiet and easy to miss when one wasn't looking for him. Regaining his balance and just managing not to fall on the small rodent, Feral stepped back.
“I couldn't help but overhear,” the muscai said in a timid little voice, holding his long tail nervously between his hands. “You asked about dragons.”
Feral nodded cautiously. Peering round him, the muscai checked the aisle as Cassanya advanced on them. The curator seemed to have disappeared.
“Follow me please?”
The chase through the shelves was starting to get wearing, but their diminutive guide outright refused to say anything further on the matter, simply repeating, “Follow me!” in his soft little voice as they edged closer and closer to the long wall at the side of the archive wing.
The muscai glanced up and down again as they finally reached the end of the shelves, apparently wanting to be certain nobody was looking before ushering them through a small and plain door. There followed a hustle along a narrow corridor that took almost as long as getting out of the archive, before they finally entered a tiny little room containing a chair and a desk. Cassanya had to bend down to fit inside.
“Sorry,” the little muscai apologised. “I need to be sure nobody hears us.”
Feral thought it unlikely that anyone would be eavesdropping on that quiet little voice even if they were stood next to its owner, but didn't mention it.
“You asked about dragons,” the muscai said again.
“Yes,” Feral nodded, sensing Cassanya giving him a weary look but ignoring her.
The muscai licked his lips, glanced around, then scurried over to the small window and pulled the shutter closed.
“This wasn't my first choice of job you know.”
Feral wasn't really sure how to respond to this. “Oh?”
“Cataloguing and indexing dusty old stories from last year? Do me a lemon,” the muscai rolled his eyes huffily, and flopped down in his small chair. “I wanted to be a reporter,” he confided, toying with an empty inkwell on his desk. “But there's a certain type they like for that. I'm not it. At least not at the South Counties News,” he gestured vaguely at the building. “But I do,” he went on. “Sometimes get to take dictation notes.”
“Ah,” Feral tried to look as if he knew where this was going.
“You asked about dragons,” the muscai said again, scratching one side of his muzzle with a quill tip, absently getting ink between his whiskers.
“Yes,” Feral nodded keenly.
“You might be right,” the muscai said, so quietly that even Feral's keen hearing struggled to discern the words. “There were only two witnesses, both from the Deepsby attack, smart enough to come here to try to get word out. Both claimed to have seen a... flying monster assaulting the city.”
Feral felt stunned.
“I–“ he winced as Cassanya cuffed his ear.
“Watch your mouth!”
“I knew it,” Feral tried again, more politely, and with less words, eyeing the leonin in case of another surprise censorship.
The muscai raised a cautionary finger. “Witnesses under such circumstances cannot be considered reliable evidence. That's why we cannot print such a thing here at South Counties News,” he paused. “We will of course, quietly keep records of original testimony, should such information be useful in the future, but SCN will not be the source of such a thing. There are other news scrolls, however...” he looked slightly smug, and Feral prompted him to continue.
“Look, it's well known, anyone publishes a news scroll without membership of the Scribes' Guild is considered second rate and untrustworthy, and membership costs more than the average small publisher will ever earn. Of course, the membership fee can be negotiated down if the publisher agrees to send stories here for editing before they send them out. But there's always someone, who'll go to press without membership of the guild – someone who doesn't like the propaganda factory we run here. Lucky if they can get a single page together, most of them, but they try. Sometimes I... like to pass them things that I know South Counties can't print. Just to know it's out there if anyone's paying attention.
Feral nodded. It suddenly occurred to him that he hadn't really gained much from this expedition. Yes, he had identified Shara's kidnapper – as a soldier of the biggest single kingdom on the continent.
“I don't suppose you know where they're attacking from?” he ventured.
“Lordenor?” the muscai answered quietly, evidently suspecting this was not the answer Feral wanted. “No,” he shook his head. “Nothing more than that, I'm sorry.”
Sighing, Feral nodded. It had perhaps been too much to hope. Still, he knew somethingnow. Perhaps uncle Felli could use that information. He thanked the muscai, who seemed very happy to have been involved in a little bit of an adventure, and together with Cassanya, made his way outside.
Back out in the street, the leonin looked down as he rubbed his ear where she had hit him earlier.
“You all right?”
Leaning over, Cassanya brushed back the hair behind his ear and peered at the side of his head. “Ooo, sorry, that might bruise. I got used to whacking my little brother to cure his potty mouth. Guess you reminded me of him for a minute.”
“That's kind of nice, but terrifying at the same time...” Feral suggested, and she laughed.
“Don't worry, kid, you'll be fine. I'll just have to remember that leonin can take more of a pounding than you can.” She patted his shoulder, but only gently.
Feral wasn't entirely sure whether to be pleased, or offended.
As Balthor had predicted, there was quite an argument over using funds from the Bank of Archer to purchase faster travel. He watched as Cassanya weighed the two conflicting problems, balancing her desire to get home quickly, and to help Feral and his sister, against her naturally honest nature. In the end, after a rather earnest plea from Feral, she relented – but refused to touch any of the money thus acquired. Instead, she took what was left of her original funds back with a scowl, then sent the three of them to book passage and purchase some tents and other proper camping equipment, fishing the pointer charm out of Balthor's pocket as he passed.
Archer ran a finger around his collar as they walked away. “Bloody hell, that lass can be scary when she's angry.”
Nodding, his companions agreed as they made their way down to the dock front. A few enquiries at the various merchant ships led them to a neat, sturdy looking vessel named The Sandbar. They were soon directed across the deck to someone who’s only visible feature was two rounded ears, the rest of the body being hidden by a large crate on the deck. They approached curiously. Their target turned out to be dressed in a tunic of deep green, was about five feet four inches in height, and was as typically cheery as all lutrani.
“Cabins? Yeah, I got a few spare, mates,” she said, pulling hard on a rope and pulley, slowly hauling a heavy looking barrel out of the hatchway leading down to the hold. “Where to?”
“As far upriver as you go,” Balthor said.
“Ah, that’d be Ravenbridge that would. Take about ten, mebbe twelve days, dependin’ how the wind blows.”
“Long time,” Feral raised his eyebrows.
“Darn site quicker than walking, squirt,” the lutrani pointed out.
“Fair call, missus,” Archer agreed.
“How much?” Feral asked.
The barrel finally reached the level of the deck. “Grab that a mo, will you, big fella?” Balthor took hold of the rope as requested, easily holding the barrel’s weight with one arm as the lutrani swung it onto the deck planks.
“And let ‘er go. Cheers. For three cabins?”
“Righty ho. Talking full bed and board for ten days. Might take more, might take less, but I'll charge you for the journey not the time. One silver per cabin per day, so gonna have to tap you for forty.”
Archer whistled, and eyed his bag of collected coins.
“Any chance we can drop that a little?” Feral asked hesitantly, peering into Archer’s bag of money. “I’m not sure we can quite make that…”
The lutrani paused for a moment, then sighed. “What can you do?”
Archer tipped the money into Feral’s hands and he counted it carefully.
“Thirty six,” the half-race looked apologetic.
“Nine per…” the lutrani looked thoughtful for a while, then sighed. “Well, I’m a fool for sayin’ it, but go on we’ll call it enough, but only cos you’re such a cutie,” she tapped Feral’s nose with her finger, and he blushed. Archer made a note to take Feral along next time he needed to buy anything from a female storekeeper. “And you can ditch the hood, it doesn’t cover much.” Still blushing, Feral complied, feeling half embarrassed, half grateful not to be expected to hide his heritage.
“That’s better,” the lutrani smiled at him as he fished his increasingly crumpled hat out of a pocket. “Like to see who I’m dealing with.” She led them below decks, into a small cabin containing numerous cupboards, maps and charts, and one table. She motioned for Feral to place the money into a bowl on the table.
“Right then then. My name’s Tarsha, and you can call me that, or Skipper. We leave at low tide, in about five hours, that way we get the incoming sea up our rudder and shoving us along. Don't be late, because I won't hold the ship for you. You can come aboard any time you like before then, but stay out of the way, eh? We’ve got cargo to load and I don’t wanna be trippin’ over you lot. Your tickets,” she produced four slivers of engraved metal, “are here. Look after ‘em, ‘cos I’ll want ‘em back.
“Once under way, you're welcome to raid the games cupboard – most things you'll find in a good tavern are in there, might help pass the time a bit. If you wanna get drunk, that's fine, but stay out of the way or you’ll swim the rest of the trip. Right, any questions?” She looked expectantly at the quartet who seemed stunned by this barrage of information.
Feral shook his head, and the lutrani continued, “Good, that’s settled then. Remember, five hours, so if you hear the town clock hit seven, you'd better start running after us cos we're already under sail.” She led the companions back onto the deck, and saw them back onto the dock with a cheery wave.
“Well,” said Feral as he watched the lutrani thread her way back to her ship. “That worked… Do we have any money for the tents Cassanya wanted?” he looked at Archer, who grinned, and handed him a second bag of coins.
Upon returning to Cassanya, or rather, having her locate them as they left the docks, they briefed her on their ship of choice. Nodding curtly, the leonin sent Balthor and Archer alone to get the tents, and towed Feral off towards the other side of town. Feral could tell she was still annoyed, and decided just to let her have her way for a while until she'd cooled down.
Their destination turned out to be an armourer. A sign hanging outside might once have had lettering on it, but now all that could be made out was the outline of the logo – a crossed sword and mace – barely visible in the peeling paint. As Cassanya pushed the door open, a bell rang to attract the attention of the owner, and Feral, ducking in under her outstretched arm, was just in time to see him poke his head out from a door at the back of the shop.
He was a broad shouldered man, dark haired, and square of jaw, and had dark grease smeared across his fingers and arms. He wiped them on a rag as he walked around the counter. Around him, the contents of his store hung on walls, rested in racks, or lay in drawers and cupboards, glinting dangerously in the light that came in through the dirty windows.
The man nodded at Cassanya. “Good afternoon, huntress,” he said, using an old fashioned but respectful leonin form of address. “What can I do for you and your friend?” he asked, looking curiously down his nose at Feral for a moment.
Cassanya’s motivation in finding an armourer was, Feral suddenly discovered, apparently himself. “Weapon? Me?” he asked, surprised.
The leonin nodded. “We need to get you something, boy. Can’t have you wandering ‘round with just that little rabbit sticker,” she gestured to the small knife on his belt.
“What’re you good with?” the shopkeeper asked.
“Uh, nothing, really...” Feral gave Cassanya an apologetic shrug, while the man rubbed his chin, looking thoughtful.
“Someone must have trained you with something,” she frowned.
Feral shook his head.
“Hmm,” Cassanya’s eyebrows drew even closer together.
“He blood shy?” the shopkeeper asked, looking at the leonin over Feral’s head.
She looked down at the half-race for a moment. “Probably, but I don’t know as he’ll be able to swing anything heavy very fast...”
“Hmm,” the man looked thoughtful. “Any good with a bow?”
Feral shook his head again, feeling about a foot shorter than he actually was.
“You sure don’t want to just give him a shield?” the man looked at Cassanya again.
She shook her head. “On its own, it won’t do much good, and I don’t think he’s up to using that and a weapon at the same time. Maybe it doesn't matter, just showing something will help a lot.”
“I don’t really want…” Feral started, but was cut off by the store owner.
“Just a light sword, then?”
“Have to be, I guess,” Cassanya nodded.
“All right, young... man,” the shopkeeper said, with just a hint of hesitation, his eyes flicking to Feral’s ears for a moment before politeness pulled them away. “Why don’t you try this?” he took a slim steel sword down from a rack on the wall.
About two and a half feet in length, it was balanced well, and Feral found he could swing it quite easily – though he felt pretty sure he’d rather not have to. If Cassanya felt it necessary however... he looked up at her and nodded.
“Well, I guess Thor can give you some tips,” she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “With luck, you won’t need this, but I want the insurance, ok?”
“Ok,” Feral agreed, sounding a little dubious.
The shopkeeper chuckled as he took the sword back, and carried it over to the counter. “I wouldn’t worry much, huntress. You don't look the sort that the average ruffian targets for a quick mugging.”
Cassanya nodded. “Thanks, but I’m not taking chances. I let this lad get hurt, I lose my job.”
The man smiled, and pulled a swordbelt and sheath from behind the counter. “Six silver for the sword, and I'll add a belt for fifty copper if you want?”
“Might as well,” Cassanya agreed as he looked at her. “Can’t have him carrying it in his hand all the time.”
By the time they exited the armourer’s shop, Cassanya looked somewhat happier, though Feral wasn’t quite sure he felt any safer, and now he had five pounds of steel beating against his leg with every step. He caught Cassanya looking down at him. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, his eyes on the ground. “I don’t mean to be difficult.”
Cassanya smiled and put her hand on top his head, ruffling his russet hair and ears. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sorry to make you carry a weapon, and I wish you didn’t have to, but I won’t feel safe otherwise. At least I didn't get you one of these,” she said, unclipping the mace at her belt and handing it to him, laughing gently as Feral had to use two hands to lift it. He looked at her with a new respect as he passed it back. Do not underestimate leonin strength, he noted to himself. “Just carry it openly when we start getting away from the towns, make it obvious you're not the easiest target out there, and stick with me, ok?”
“Ok,” Feral nodded.
“Hey! What in the deeps do you think you’re up to?” Tarsha vaulted from the stern and strode along the deck, her boots thudding on the planks.
Feral paused, the dawn light glinting on the naked sword in his hand, looking up at Balthor as the lupari loomed over him threateningly.
“You better have a good reason why I shouldn’t throw you both overboard!” the lutrani squared up to them both, jabbing a finger up at Balthor, ignoring the lupari’s drawn sword.
“Um…” Feral hesitated.
“Put that thing away before you hurt someone,” the lutrani snapped, swatting the flat of Feral's blade away with her palm. “If you two have something to work out, you go do it on shore, not on my ship!” she pointed to the slowly passing riverbank.
Feral noticed that several crew members were making their way towards their captain, all of them bearing some variety of blunt implement.
“No, wait, look,” he lowered his hands, and incidentally, the sword held in them. “It’s nothing like that, really. It’s just… well… Cassanya says I need training before we disembark, and…”
“Training?” Tarsha looked at him through narrowed eyes. “You’re training him?” she turned to Balthor.
“Yeah,” the tall canine nodded. “Figured there was enough space up here, there’s nobody else awake yet, so…” he trailed off under the captain’s penetrating gaze. “Sorry,” he said.
“That’s all? No funny business? No fight?” she looked at Feral, shaking her head and laughing. “Well, all right. You got an honest face, I’ll believe you, but tellmenext time, right? Pull a trick like this without warning again and I’ll have you both scrubbing the decks all the way to Ravenbridge, got it?”
“Got it,” Feral nodded meekly.
“Got it, big fella?” Tarsha eyed Balthor, who dipped his head. “Right. If you’re planning on this all trip, I’ll give you till seven every morning. After that, too many people about. You take an ear off one of my passengers, I’ll see you pay in kind before you start your swim. And keep your elbow up a bit more,” she added, turning and gesturing to her crew to back down. “Stay back, if I were you, lads,” she told them. “I’d give these two some space. I think they’ll need it…”
“She’s right you know,” Balthor said, scratching his ear as he watched the captain return to the wheel.
“Yeah, I know, we should have asked first.”
“I meant about keeping your elbow up.”
Tallow ran down the corridor, the jingling of the alarm bell having finally intruded upon her consciousness. She wasn’t quite sure how long it had been ringing, having been indulging in a little time spent in her favourite corner of the library, something that always left her somewhat oblivious to the outside world. Reaching the room with the shivering silver bell above the doorway, forgetting that she had oiled the hinges earlier that day, she hit the door hard with her shoulder, accustomed to it being stubborn. Unfortunately the oil had changed its disposition considerably, and the door politely admitted her entrance without resistance, dumping her full length onto the floor just behind with a surprised exclamation.
“Ow,” Tallow shook her head as she levered herself upright again. Realising that she was wasting yet more time, she reached one hand down to the surface of a pool of water that sat right in the middle of the room, and which she had almost skidded into.
An outsider may initially have been forgiven for thinking that the chamber was some type of elaborate bathroom. The circular pool of water was echoed on the wooden ceiling by a ring of quartz crystals, each identical in size and shape to its neighbour. From this crystalline ring, an intricate web of silver lines radiated outwards, tracing their glittering paths down the curved walls and across the floor until they met a second ring of quartz, this one just below the surface of the still pool.
As soon as Tallow’s fingers had touched the surface of the water, it hadn’t been water. Or rather it was, the shifting ripples could be made out still, but the silvery bottom of the pool was no longer evident. Instead, it was as if she was looking up, out of the water into another room.
“Valiant?” Tallow’s eyebrows rose as she saw the young man leaning over – or was it under? – the water.
“Hey, Tee,” he smiled a neat, white grin, brown eyes shining happily. “Good to see you again. How’re you doing?”
“I’m, uh… good,” she said, slightly thrown off guard, having expected there to be some emergency which she should be aware of. “Is something wrong, did someone need to talk to me?”
“Only me,” Valiant laughed, brushing a strand of his neatly cut brown hair out of his eyes. “I just heard you were on your own for a bit, and thought I should check you’re doing all right. So, are you?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m fine,” Tallow smiled, relaxing as she realised there wasn’t an emergency after all.
“You sure? You look a bit roughed up…” Valiant looked at her more closely. “Is that a bruise?”
“Hmm? Oh!” Tallow raised a hand to her face, rubbing away a smudge of dirt she had picked up upon her meeting with the floorboards, smoothing her hair down again. “Just tripped. You know me,” she gave a wry smile.
“You’re sure?” the young man looked concerned. “I mean, Tee, if there’s anyone thereabouts giving you trouble I can…”
Tallow smiled, settling herself cross-legged by the edge of the water. “No, really, I tripped. As in fell over, landed on the floor.”
“But you’d tell me if…”
“Yes,” she nodded. “Of course I would. Trust me, if I was worried about someone being around here, the whole Order would know by now.”
Valiant chuckled, pushing the sleeves of his beige coloured robe up to his elbows, leaning upon the rim of the pool as he looked into it. “Good. You’re doing fine otherwise, though?”
“Fine,” Tallow nodded. “Went into Riverwood yesterday, picked up some food for the week. Need to get some washing done, but otherwise…”
“Otherwise…?” Valiant prodded gently.
“Well, I am a little lonely, I guess,” Tallow admitted.
“Yeah, I can imagine,” the young man smiled ruefully. “But look, you don’t have to be. You know you can call for me, if you want…”
“Well, yes, but…”
“I kinda get the spell wrong most times,” she felt herself blush and looked away.
“Hey, don’t worry, Tee,” Valiant said reassuringly. “It’s not an easy one to remember – I’ve seen some of the seniors fumble it too. You’ll do better if you practise, though. There’s not a thing you won’t get the hang of if you take a bit of time over it.”
“You think?” Tallow smiled hopefully.
“I know you can,” Valiant nodded. “Master Forester was right to take you on, you’re a damn fine student. Might even be better than I am!” he winked.
Tallow flushed again, this time for a different reason. “Thank you,” she mumbled. “How are things there?”
“Confused,” the young man shrugged broad shoulders. “Nobody’s quite got an answer to what set the detectors off yet, but there’s a lot of rumours flying around, none of which I pay attention too.”
“I see,” Tallow nodded, biting her lip. “Any news on the Fortitude conference?”
“No, not yet,” Valiant said with a shake of his head. “But they only kicked off a week ago. I’m sure Master Forester will get back to us with a full report by the end, I’ll let you know. If they let me see it, of course. I swear old Master Rockhead’s been telling everyone to give me the mushroom treatment...”
Tallow giggled. “Master Rockwell,” she corrected.
“I know what I meant,” Valiant frowned. “I swear he’s the most uncompromising man I have ever met. I do kinda envy you, Tee, getting to study with someone like Master Forester,” he sighed.
“If he’s that bad you could ask...”
“Nah,” Valiant waved a hand. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s damn good. The punch he can pack into those spells of his is something you have to see to believe, I wouldn’t miss out on it for the world,” he paused for a moment. “Though I admit its occasionally annoying. Tends to keep the good stuff hidden, you know?”
Tallow nodded. “It happens. They do it for our protection, you know. Trying to run before you can walk...”
“Would cut out a lot of wasted time. Its not like running and walking, Tee, its more like flying and walking. Birds don't walk, they jump out of their nest and go for it! You don’t need the ground, just the air under your wings. Not the same thing.”
Tallow frowned slightly. It was an old argument she had with him, and not one she really wanted to get involved in again.
“Ah well,” Valiant shrugged. “I guess I’ll get there one way or the other. I learn a lot more than he thinks,” he winked, then looked at something out of Tallow’s line of sight. “Damn, sorry, Tee, I better go. I’ll get back to you soon, all right?”
“Ok,” Tallow nodded.
“Good. Take care of yourself, Tee, and don’t worry about giving me a shout if you need anything.” With those words, the young mage reached down to slice his fingers through the surface of the water. His image broke into a myriad of ripples for a moment, then vanished, replaced once more by the silvery lining of the pool.
Tallow smiled, suddenly feeling much less isolated.
The oak tree that appeared around a bend in the river was both large, and ancient. Its sweeping boughs leaned over the shimmering water, casting dancing shade upon the surface, and upon the object hanging from one of the branches. Standing near the ship’s wheel, talking with the captain, Feral watched it curiously as the Sandbar approached, recoiling suddenly in recognition.
A body. The rope around its neck keeping the head obscenely upright, vacant eyes staring out at the approaching ship.
“You’re in the wilds now, squirt,” Tarsha said quietly. “Ain’t no police this far from the cities. Law takes on a new meaning when the only people to keep it are the victims of the crime. They’re not barbarians, mind, this bloke probably did far worse to someone else than’s been done to him. Probably.”
Feral nodded, feeling slightly sick as the Sandbar slid past the tree, Tarsha steering well clear of the overhanging branches. The wind turned the hanged man slightly, and for a moment Feral had the impression those dead eyes were following the ship. He shivered and looked away.
“You’re going further than Ravenbridge?” the captain asked.
“Yeah, over the Skystones.”
“Then you take care out there. That,” she nodded at the body. “Is the last of the peace you’ll see. Gets rougher past Ravenbridge, and there’s some queer folks live in the foothills. Lot of people who aren’t welcome in the townships end up out here too, rather than where they deserve. I reckon you’ll be grateful for those big friends of yours, before you’re done.”
“Already am,” Feral smiled, looking down onto the deck where Cassanya and Balthor seemed to engaged in an arm wrestle across a barrel. Balthor appeared to be winning, but it was obviously costing him a lot of effort. Above them, Archer was hanging upside down from the rigging, looking bored. Besides the crew, they were the only people left on deck, the rest of the passengers having disembarked at other towns along the river.
The lutrani gave a short bark of a laugh. “Yeah, they do seem like they’ll keep you safe. I wouldn’t worry yourself, just don’t get separated until you’re over the other side. And there's Ravenbridge,” she added, pointing beyond the prow of the ship.
The town was small and shabby, having a general air of dilapidation that hung over the buildings like an invisible fog. The Sandbar pulled into the single mooring bay, the crew swiftly tying up to the stumps of several trees that seemed to serve as anchor points.
A mile or so upstream, the river split into three tributaries, none of them sufficiently big to allow passage for a ship of the Sandbar’s size. From here onwards, the terrain was going to get steadily rougher, until they reached the Skystone mountain range, whose white peaks already rose high above the horizon.
“If you’re wondering,” Tarsha said as Feral looked at the town, feeling somewhat nonplussed by its appearance. “It’s because the Ravenwood brewery is about a mile up the east fork there,” she gestured upstream to where the tributaries merged. “’Bout the only thing that makes this route worth running, that is. Great bunch of lads, always do me a good deal. You should get yourself a few drinks there before you go on. Keep you warm for a bit, at least,” she grinned, then looked thoughtful. “Though don’t go telling your friends I said that, I don’t encourage drinking at your age, right?” she winked at him, and Feral smiled.
The quartet disembarked shortly after, bidding a grateful farewell to the skipper and crew. Their stay in Ravenbridge wasn’t a long one, just enough to pick up a few perishable supplies.
According to Archer’s map, ten leagues of foothills lay ahead of them before they would reach the Skystone range itself. They planned to keep alongside the central tributary of the river, thus taking the easiest path through the mountains, and meaning that they would pass Sapphire Lake, where they could replenish food and water.
That first day’s walk was a relaxed one, reasoning that with plenty of supplies, it was better to save their energy for the mountains proper. Before them, the snow capped peaks of the Skystones shone in the afternoon sun. One corner of the Heavens’ Circle, the mighty band of mountains that ran intermittently through all the known kingdoms, the Skystones formed the highest, and the widest part of the range. Only Sapphire Lake made the mountains passable, a regular stopping point of those who chanced Devils’ Pass.
They made camp in the shelter of four large pine trees as the sun was setting. A chill wind was blowing from the west and they were grateful for the tents that put a barrier between them and the clear, cold sky. Above them the familiar constellations shone coldly beautiful, while the moon in its third quarter spread its pale light across the land below.
Three days out from Ravenbridge, the green clad foothills had given way to increasing expanses of bare stone, with the occasional rocky bluff and outcrop. Over uncounted aeons the river had cut a deep gorge in the rock over which it flowed. During the spring thaw, the entire canyon would be filled with rushing meltwater, but now towards early autumn, most of the floor was dry, leaving a rocky roadway that would lead travellers halfway through the range.
The night brought a cool rain, and the companions sat around their spitting fire listening to the increasingly turbulent flow of water as it hurried on its way. The rock strewn floor of the gorge was not inviting to plant growth so the wood had to be carefully rationed if the supply was to see them reach the trees around Sapphire Lake.
Looking up at the sky for a moment before retreating to his tent, Feral decided that this was definitely progress. It wasn't fast, and it wasn't even obvious how it was going to help him find Shara, but uncle Felli would help, he was sure, and he had a name for Shara's abductor – or at least, an allegiance. It was a start, it felt right, and he decided he was going to follow that feeling.
It might perhaps have been a less optimistic feeling had Feral known that he would awake in less than an hour to the feeling of two harsh hands reaching into his tent and grabbing his ankles.
He had barely time to cry out before had been dragged bodily out of his tent and onto his feet. Still groggy with sleep, he reacted slowly. Was he still dreaming? No, the hand pressing him flat to the ground was decidedly real - as was the cloth that landed over his mouth and nose. He struggled for a moment, a strange, sharp scent taking hold of his senses, and then the world was spinning, around and around into a well of darkness and silence.