Several Days Later
Late evening took its hold over the land and the sky began to darken. Truaine plunged into obscurity for yet another night.
As the lingering light finally seeped away, a ravage of burook flew against the setting sun, reached out towards the silent clouds and soared away into the distance. Once again, darkness spread through the eerie hollows and lumbering hills of Liaport. And with the quickly approaching shadows, the fearsome predators of the night could skulk back out into the open.
But tonight, there was more to stalk than just edapar, buckwri and vunaki.
Three men, lost and afraid, trudged through the wild shadows. Darkness was not only gathering all round them, but gathering in their hearts. Long had their journey been since they left the city, and the endless nights they'd spent hauling themselves through the gloom preyed on their thoughts. Each hour in Liaport took them further from their past, towards an even more dangerous, unknown future. But, even with full knowledge of what was hidden beyond their sight, they dared not stop.
Hamsol, the oldest of the three men, coughed with a rasp grinding at the back of his throat. Suddenly, his legs gave way under the weight of his aging body and he fell to the floor. One of his companions rushed to him, eased him onto his back against a tree and said, "Here, drink this."
He quickly unhooked the canteen from his leather belt, pulled out the stopper and pressed the bottle against Hamsol's chapped, quivering lips. The old man tried desperately to drink the water inside, but his throat was too tight. He coughed and spluttered again. Slowly though, he turned his head away and wheezed, "Thank you, Lakor," through short, pained breaths.
Lakor brushed his hand over Hamsol's forehead; it was hot and covered in a thick wash of sweat. His long, grey hair was sodden and ground in with dirt and dead leaves.
This was the fifth night they had spent in Liaport.
The third man, Rantil, approached them from behind. He spent a second staring at the twilight sky, thankful that the moon was still shining through the mottled clouds. Then, he turned back to Hamsol, whose frail body was resting at the base of the tree. Lakor brushed the hair from his face again, just as Rantil asked, "How is he?"
There was a pause.
"He's not doing well."
Carefully, Lakor pulled down at the muddied collar of Hamsol's robes to reveal an inflamed bite on the front of his shoulder. It throbbed with the slow beating of his heart and steadily oozed dark purple puss.
"I told you we should never have come through Liaport," Lakor scowled.
Rantil glared at him.
"What else could we have done?" he replied with a snap of anger. "This was our only chance."
Lakor returned the canteen to his belt.
Hamsol coughed again, but with a violence that brought blood to his mouth. Exhaustion was aching through his entire body and the longing to rest, and fall into a deep, painless sleep, was more tempting than ever. The bite was drawing away any energy he had left, and now, all his strength was gone. Only the shell of a weak old man remained.
"We need to get him some place safe," Lakor said. "We've got no food left and very little water."
The two men stared down at Hamsol and watched his thin, grey beard rise and fall with the struggled movement of his breathing.
"Maybe we should turn back," Lakor continued. "At least in Siale we'd have
"We've got to keep going," Rantil interrupted. "Siale isn't safe for us anymore
you know that
Lakor sighed, painfully reminded why they left the capital. "I hope you know what you're doing."
"We keep going east
then, we catch a merchant ship at Laybar, cross over the Panu Straight and head towards Illik Forest." He paused and with all the sincerity and assurance he could, he said, finally, "We can escape."
"And what then?" came Lakor's earnest reply.
During the silence that followed, they heard something rustle in the bushes nearby. It drew the attention of both men, and they knew: they had to keep moving.
Together they helped their master back to his wearied feet, pulled his arms over their shoulders and tried, as hard as they could, to help him onwards through the wilderness.
Siale, the capital of Truaine, faded into a vague thought. But the memory of why they left remained as strongly as ever. Distant were the times they walked through the immaculate halls of the Regallum, with similarly immaculate robes. But, as the sun surrendered to the eternal shadows of Liaport and night replaced day, branches tore at their skin and clothes, and soil, grime and fear stained even their hearts.
Rantil paused suddenly under Hamsol's unconscious weight, turned to Lakor and whispered, "Look
do you see that?"
"Over there," he pointed with his free arm.
For the first time in days, they could see firelight shining through the shadows. Through the lumbering trees, faint flames flickered and reminded them of the power of light. With Hamsol barely able to walk, they continued on, cautiously.
"There's another," Lakor nodded.
Each step they took revealed another gently flickering flame between the trees. Eventually, they saw a row of lights surrounding a small village just ahead, hidden and concealed from the rest of Truaine. Beyond the border of fire torches, a gathering of darkwood buildings sat out of the reach of Liaport's night.
Rantil stopped, and helped Lakor lower Hamsol to the ground.
"Wait here," Rantil said suddenly, as he moved away.
"Where are you going?!" Lakor whispered. "We don't know anything about this place; She could be
Hearing his friend's plea, Rantil paused. He glanced back to Lakor and then to the village again. After fighting for so long in Liaport, the safety of the village beyond seemed like their salvation. Yet, they couldn't ignore the potential danger that also came with it. He was about to turn away, when something caught his eye beyond the firelight.
"Lakor!" he called, quietly.
Following Rantil's gaze, Lakor saw a well, surrounded by a collection of small houses. The moonlight shone through a parting in the clouds and for a moment, lit the path towards the water they so desperately needed.
"Hamsol won't survive the night without water."
"We've come all this way," Lakor stuttered. "We can't risk losing everything if we're caught."
"We risk losing everything if we don't try."
Hamsol groaned and strained his sweat-drenched neck. It was enough for Lakor to see the bite under his robes and remind him, not only of why they left Siale, but how desperate they had become.
Seeing the reluctance in his eyes, Rantil continued, "You stay here. And if I am caught, take Hamsol somewhere they won't find you."
Nothing else was said between them. Rantil pushed his way through the bushes, skulked passed the firelit border and followed the shadows into the unknown village.
The loudest noise above his breathing was the crunching of leaves and the snapping of small twigs under his feet. He trod as lightly as he could and approached the well.
In the surrounding houses, he could sense watching eyes stare at him through darkened windows. They bore down on him and forced his heart to beat a little faster. They forced him to quicken his pace and flinch when he heard a door slam in the wind further down the path, away from the well and further into the village.
Slowly pulling at his belt, he unhooked the canteen from his waist. He glanced around one final time, and listened to the overwhelming silence of the night. All was still, save for several burook that flew overhead before vanishing back into the trees.
He placed a nervous hand on the edge of the well and felt its cold, rough surface against his fingers. If anything, the village seemed more real to him now, and the danger he faced was even more apparent.
He peered down over the side of the well, and into the dark shaft below. A rope dangled in the darkness, and then, above his head, it coiled around a wooden beam where it could raise a bucket from the well's murky depths. He placed his canteen down on the rock and shuffled over to the handle.
It creaked loudly into the night when he first started to pull on it, but after several turns the scraping of wood vanished. Being careful to stay silent, it wasn't long until the bucket was in sight. Clear water splashed around inside it as he hoisted it onto the wall, pulling on the old, fraying rope.
Dappled moonlight reflected in the water, sloshing around inside the worn, wooden bucket. He quickly lifted his canteen and plunged it inside. He watched until the bubbles faded and the bottle was full.
The wind blew again, and when it blew against the same, loosely hinged door as before, Rantil jumped and knocked his canteen into the side of the bucket in panic. It fell, which quickly uncoiled the rope around the beam, and the bucket hurtled back down to the bottom of the well.
Immediately, his imagination drew all his attention back to the prying eyes of the village. Even the burook that cawed in flight across the houses again seemed to squawk as an alarm to his intrusion.
He held his stifled breath and through an expectant gaze, glanced around. For an agonisingly long few breaths, he daren't move a single muscle, kept his body ridged and listened as the loud splash of the water far below echoed out into the night.
Time passed, and it looked as though no one heard. But, in the seconds that followed, at the moment when he finally thought it was safe to breathe, he heard a door click open directly behind him.
Against his better judgement to stay completely still, he scraped around on the gravel and spun around. A small girl walked out from one of the buildings carrying a painted terracotta bowl. She walked forwards into the night, humming a soft tune that matched the way she had a slight bounce in her young step. But, on seeing Rantil, all innocence vanished with the smashing of the bowl on the cold, hard ground.
She turned and ran back inside. Back into the faintly glowing safety of her home.
Fear caught hold of Rantil, and he stood, paralysed, staring at the broken bowl ahead. And as it dawned on him what was going to happen next, he quickly tried to replace the stopper into the spout of his full canteen. The cold, however, had made his hands numb; he fumbled, and dropped the bottle to the floor.
Instinctively, he scrambled on his knees to catch it, but it rolled out of reach. Scurrying like an animal, he quickly scooped it up and stood back to his feet. But before he could turn and run back into the wilderness he thought he'd never miss, a voice growled harshly at him from the entrance of the nearby house.
"Who are you?" it demanded.
Rantil turned slowly to see a woman holding a firelit torch in her long, winding fingers. Her gown was dark and tied in the middle, a little too tightly, with a knotted length of rope. It fell around her loose, wiry body, similar to the way her long, straight hair draped over her shoulders. But against any impression of authority she possessed, her voice seemed even more powerful. Rantil, then, said nothing, and tried to slowly step away.
The woman mirrored his moves and repeated, "Who are you?" holding the torch higher.
He was reluctant to answer her question. Though it was obvious she didn't recognise his face, he might not be so fortunate if she recognised his name.
The woman stared at him distrustfully, and then turned her head away and spoke to someone behind. The child he saw before was standing in the doorway, trying to stay out of sight.
"Mirria," the woman said. "Go and find Saru."
The girl took one last look at Rantil, clutching his canteen beside the well, and then started running up the path, further into the village.
When the child was out of sight, the woman tightened her already firm grip on the torch and moved closer. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.
Rantil said nothing.
"Are there others with you?"
Again, he stayed silent.
There were several shouts from along the path, and he could no longer afford to keep quiet. Whatever chance he had to escape was quickly vanishing.
"Please," he urged, trying to appeal to the woman's humanity, "try to understand. We just needed water."
As soon as he'd said it, he knew he'd said something wrong.
"We?" the woman repeated.
But there was something different in her voice, now. She seemed just as scared as he was.
"I mean I," Rantil stuttered. "There were others, but I lost them to Liaport." He paused. "I'm alone."
Along the path, in the centre of the village, he could see a crowd of people gathering, several holding torches of their own. Two men parted from the group and ran towards the woman, who shouted to them. "Bora, Prost," she hollered, "he's not alone. Search the village."
The two men separated and vanished between the houses.
Further away, the crowd of villagers had started walking towards them, following behind a large woman whose face Rantil couldn't see. With others in the village quickly approaching, the woman turned back to Rantil.
"Why are you here?" she asked again.
"I've already told you," Rantil panicked. "I just needed some water, I've been in Liaport for days," he frantically tried to show her his ripped robes. "Please, I only needed some water. Please, just let me
"I don't believe you."
The woman said nothing else, but didn't invite Rantil to speak either.
Suddenly, there was a commotion in the bushes, and Lakor was pushed forwards, Hamsol's arm over his shoulder. He barely managed to keep his balance, as one of the men Rantil saw before emerged from the shadows and pushed him forwards again.
In the moment when Lakor raised his head, and stared at Rantil with a look of anguish, doubt and terror, the woman knew she was right. She'd known from the start not to trust him, and his lie about his companions was proof enough for her.
"I can explain
" Rantil urged.
But before she could speak, the large woman at the head of the crowd interrupted, "Ganarth! What's going on?"
The woman looked away from Rantil and over to the crowd in sudden shock.
"Saru," Ganarth muttered. "We have unwelcome visitors."
The large woman, Saru, moved closer and stared at Rantil and his companions, huddled together by the well. Her robes were much richer than any others, and were stained with dark ochres and reds. Laden with pendants and jangling chains, they wrapped around her oversized frame with some difficulty and stretched against her skin as she turned back to Ganarth.
"Unwelcome?" she repeated, questioning what was said.
"They were stealing from us!" Ganarth protested.
Saru looked back to Rantil. "That may be, but I'm sure they have a perfectly good reason for doing so." She frowned.
Something was different about Saru, and any fear Rantil still had for the village seemed to vanish. There was a kindness in her face that told him she loathed frowning and her face was more suited to a smile.
"We needed water," Rantil answered. "It's been a long journey for us." And then, without first thinking of the words, he said, "We were afraid you wouldn't understand."
"Why wouldn't we understand?" she questioned, without a single moment of pause.
Rantil glanced back at Hamsol, and immediately, Saru understood.
"Oh," she exclaimed, softly. "Of course."
Ganarth noticed Saru's sudden change of mood concerning the three men who had just wandered into their village, but she knew better than to question her motives. So, she crept backwards towards her house and reluctantly, let Saru continue.
"You're more than welcome here, in fact I'd like to
Hamsol's chest convulsed and forced a mix of saliva, blood and a strange black liquid to dribble down his chin. Lakor, fearing for his master, lowered him to the floor and checked his pulse.
"Is he alright?" Saru muttered as they clambered to Lakor's side.
"I can barely feel a pulse," he said frantically.
"He was bitten," Rantil explained, with a similar franticness in his voice, "in the woodlands. He's been getting worse and worse and now
"Well," Saru announced. "Bora!"
Bora appeared at Saru's side.
She pointed down at the frail, apparently lifeless body of Hamsol. "Take him to Qzen," she ordered.
Bora quickly scooped up Hamsol from the floor, and carried him in his arms. Rantil and Lakor followed quickly on behind their master, whose body looked like a child in the arms of the great man marching down the path. Hamsol's head fell over Bora's arms limply, and for a moment they began to assume the worst.
Saru turned away and addressed the other villagers that had come to see the midnight commotion. "The rest of you," she hollered, "return to your homes, there's nothing else to see here tonight." She smiled.
Rantil watched Ganarth grumble and skulk back inside her home, with Mirria, her daughter, right behind her. The rest of the villagers scattered, urged on by Saru. Rantil lingered behind, and waited for her to re-join him.
Still shrouded in darkness, he couldn't see the path he was walking as he followed behind Bora, who walked like a giant in the moonlight. His muscular body strained under Hamsol's dead weight, but he didn't show it on his face.
"I'm sorry about this," Saru confessed. "I only hope there is something we can do for him."
"Thank you," Rantil stuttered.
Saru glanced over to him, just as they were approaching one of the houses to the north of the path. "Don't thank us yet. Hamsol's in a bad way."
Rantil paused, but by the time he'd asked, "How did you
" Saru was already out of earshot. She was helping Bora through the low door to Qzen's house, who appeared at the top of the wooden stairs inside a few seconds later.
"You have a patient, doctor," she said to him, ushering Bora to lay Hamsol on the straw bed on the far side of the shadowed room.
Qzen hurried down the steps and briefly examined Hamsol in the gentle candlelight Saru brought forwards. "What happened to him?"
"He was bitten," Rantil explained, moving into the light, "by something in Liaport."
Qzen pulled back the cloth covering his shoulder. Now the bite was twice the size and spreading dark purple venom around his body through contracted veins. In the centre of the bite was something small and white, wriggling through his skin.
"A daskit larvae," the doctor muttered and hummed.
"Can you help him?" Lakor asked, bending down to his master's side.
"I believe so," Qzen replied. "But I will need space."
After taking the candle from Saru, he used it to search over the shelves behind the bed for a particular ointment for treating this sort of wound. He quickly found it, and glared at those still standing dumbly in his house. "I would be grateful if you all left," he stated, hoping to be clearer than before.
Saru nodded her head, and on making her way to the door, she ushered everyone out.
Lakor, however, turned to the doctor, "Please, can I stay with him?"
Qzen raised one of his bushy eyebrows and sighed. "Very well," he said.
Lakor quickly reached over to Hamsol's neck and brushed the thin hair away from his shoulder. Qzen continued examining the infection, and as Rantil finally left the building, he poured a few drops of wax onto the middle of the bite. Hamsol barely reacted.
Saru gently closed the door, sealing her, Bora and Rantil back out into the cold.
"I hope he's alright," Bora spoke in a deeply harsh, but caring, tone.
"Get some rest," Saru said, leading him away.
He bid them farewell, "I'll see you in't morning," he said.
Saru strode back to Rantil, "Come this way."
She lead him away from Qzen's house, a little south along the path, until they walked out into a small clearing, in what appeared to be the centre of the village. A large tree stood before them, which had grown tall over all the other houses. Its trailing, vivid-green leaves blew in the wind, and looked as though they were shimmering in the moonlight that suddenly broke through the clouds. It was one of the largest acrun trees Rantil had ever seen.
Saru ushered him onwards, towards a bench that faced the tree. "I'm sorry for how Ganarth treated you."
Rantil said nothing, and instead followed Saru's example and sat down on the bench. It creaked under their combined weight, but stayed strong.
"Can I ask you something?"
Saru was lost for a moment, gazing up at the stars beyond the high branches of the tree. When she realised he was staring at her, she turned back to him.
"You knew his name," he continued. "You know who he is, and you're still willing to help us?"
Saru sighed. "You know better than most that She has control over many things. But this village is not one of them."
"How have you
"Kept ourselves hidden?" Saru guessed. "It hasn't been easy keeping clear of trade routes, living somewhere as dangerous as Liaport. We know all too well the hold She has over Truaine, and that's one of the reasons we fight so hard to keep ourselves separate. Since She has been in control of the Sett, so many things have changed."
There was a moment's pause between them. "Thank you
for helping us."
"I knew it was only a matter of time before you left Siale. The Council has not been in She's favour in recent years and sooner or later you would realise it was too dangerous to stay. I just never imagined that you would find your way here."
"We didn't know where we were heading."
"In truth, it seemed unlikely you would be able to leave Siale at all. With the Settian Guard, patrolling the city day and night, I thought it would be nearly impossible to slip away. The river inlets are closed off to all but the Guard and the City Gates are manned at all hours."
"You seem to know a lot about Siale."
Saru smiled. "If you live as we do, hiding from She and the Sett, you soon learn that you have to keep a close eye on them and everything they do. We may be isolated this deep in Liaport, but we are certainly not ignorant of the world in which we live."
"Then you know," Rantil admitted, "how dangerous it is, helping us."
Saru said nothing.
She glanced ahead of them.
"You see that tree?" she asked.
Again, Rantil stared at the magnificence of the acrun tree, towering above the rest of the woodlands.
"It was planted by my great, great grandfather. He founded this village when Isenco died and the Sett fell into chaos."
A sudden gust blew at the tree and for a moment, its gentle, trailing leaves twisted and fluttered in the wind.
"Isenco's descendants became more ruthless and more dangerous than my grandfather could ever have imagined."
The wind continued blowing the clouds above across the sky, and they blocked out the light of the moon. Darkness shrouded them briefly, but as Saru continued and said, "He founded Nichal, this village, under the decree that it would be forever a place of freedom," the moonlight returned and the wind died away.
A burook flew up and perched on one of the highest branches of the acrun tree. It cawed into the night, echoing eerily through the silence in Nichal.
"Why are you telling me this?" Rantil asked.
"I could no more turn you away than I could anyone else." She paused. "Maybe, if others learn of your survival and escape from the Sett, they will start to believe that there is hope left for Truaine. Just as this tree
gives us hope that there will be a better tomorrow."
Silence fell between them again.
"You're welcome to stay here as long as you like," she offered. "It will take time, but eventually, you'll be able to call this place your home. Your place of safety." She took one last look at the tree. "You're part of our family now."