Chapter Three - One Day at a Time

 

 “There was certainly some resentment among the Morlakians when Baroness Syrella announced she would be joining the expedition north to Klief. A small but vociferous group accused her of shirking her duties and abandoning her people. I do not believe that to be true. I have not known the Baroness long, but she is no coward. If she chose to go to Klief, it was because she was convinced something or someone there would provide the means to strike back at the creature that had destroyed her Barony. A means for her to have her vengeance.”

From ‘The War of the Twelve’, 427 AT

Reed was going to die. He was sure of it. There was no other explanation for the mind-numbing pain slowly crushing his brain to a pulp. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, hoping it would help soften the steel hammer thudding against his forehead, but it did nothing whatsoever.

What in the Pit had happened last night? He vaguely remembered some sort of argument between Vohanen and Ner’alla. Something to do with which was better, wine or ale. A stupid, stupid question. He should have left the campfire while he still had the chance. Left with his dignity. In fact, he probably would have, if Syrella had not intervened. The Baroness had not only assured them all that red wine was the far superior beverage but also insisted that the Morlakian variety outclassed the Arelian-grown vine in every respect.

Vohanen had bristled at hearing this, running to his tent to fetch his own ‘personal’ supply of ale. Ner’alla, not to be outdone, had asked his servant, Stick, to bring out a few choice bottles of Morlakian red. And they had started drinking. Then what?

He sorted through a blurry hodgepodge of memories.

Vohanen, badgering Kriari to give his opinion on two near-identical glasses of wine (and only getting a bemused ‘Kriari’ in reply).

Krelbe, taking an unopened bottle for himself and wandering off into the darkness to drink it alone.

Reed, his beard wet with white froth, bellowing out the lyrics to “The Girl at the Country Fair” and miming spear thrusts with an imaginary spear.

Caddox, fumbling his mug of ale with his broken hand and spilling the contents all down his front.

Reed, taking Syrella by the hand and spinning her around, marvelling at how her dress bloomed outwards as she danced, like the petals of a flower caressed by the wind.

Reed, bending close and kissing Syrella on the mouth.

Kissing the Baroness of Morlak, the White Rose, one of the most powerful women in the nine Baronies, on the mouth.

Pit.

He groaned, pulling the sheet cover over his head, willing himself to disappear into the darkness.

What had he done? What sort of idiotic, foolish, Pit-spawned thing had he done? For once in his life, he had found someone who seemed to be at least partially interested in him, and he had thrown it all away.

Idiot.

It was only early morning, and already he knew that the day was ruined. It could not get any worse. Definitely not.

There was the rustling sound of a parting tent flap.

“Good morning, my Lord, I trust you had an excellent evening?” The familiar bland voice filtered down through the sheets into the warm den Reed had made for himself. He groaned. He was wrong. It could always get worse.

“I believe it would be best for you to get up now, my Lord,” the voice continued, a tad smugly. “We will be departing soon, and it would be a shame for his Lordship to be left behind, would it not?”

Reed lifted one corner of the sheet and cracked open his left eye as much as he dared. A nondescript middle-aged man stood in the centre of his tent, a pile of clean clothes balanced delicately on one arm and a jug of cold water held in the other.

“Jeffson,” Reed croaked. “You’re back! What are you doing bringing me clothes? We don’t have to keep up this charade anymore. I saw you stab Mithuna in the face, remember? I know who you are now. I release you from my service.”

“Nonsense, my Lord. A noble of your standing cannot arrive in Klief without an entourage. It would most assuredly be frowned upon.”

Reed risked opening his other eye. “An entour-what?”

“A retinue or group of followers, my Lord. The rules of high society state that—”

“Fine. Fine. I’m too tired to argue, we can discuss this later. When did you arrive?”

“Late last night, my Lord. We made good time from Lostthorn to Morlak. One of the side-effects of the wyrm’s onslaught seems to be a slight change in the weather. We encountered little snow, only a few hours of rain, and not enough to make the roads impracticable.”

“How did you find us?”

“Some guards at the refugee camp told us you were heading to Klief. And the trail was still fairly fresh. Enough for someone with my … particular talents to follow you without much trouble.”

“Hmm.” Reed sat up and immediately clutched his head as the movement sent more angry pulses thudding into his skull. “You said ‘we’. You found them?”

Jeffson paused. “I did.”

“That’s excellent news! You must be overjoyed to see them alive again after all this time.”

“It was … I mean … yes, I was pleased to find them.”

Reed scratched at his beard. “Well, you’ll have to introduce me, I have lots of embarrassing stories to tell.”

“I … you will have to ask Ner’alla. My wife and child are staying with him for the moment.” Jeffson’s unflappable facade slipped for a moment, and Reed caught a look of anguish in the manservant’s eyes before the mask dropped back into place.

“Of course, Jeffson,” he said softly. “Whenever the time is right.”

“Thank you, my Lord. Now, do you require any assistance in dressing yourself?”

Reed let out a short laugh. “That may have managed to embarrass me a few months ago when I had just arrived in Arelium, Jeffson, but it will take more than that to fluster me now. Bring me a basin to go with that jug of water, help me get this nightshirt off, and we’ll see just how much of last night’s shame we can scrub off me in the next half-hour.”

Reed emerged a short time later. It was a crisp, winter morning, and the trees at the edge of the campsite were covered in a thin sheen of frost. Armoured Knights of Kriari, their fur mantles ruffled by the breeze, were packing up their tents and securing their travel bags. Reed was pleased to see Taleck among them. The veteran had his arm in a sling but at least appeared sufficiently recovered from his poisoning to stand on his own two feet again.

 At the far end of the clearing was a line of four wagons: Ner’alla’s cart, a covered wagon for supplies, a makeshift prison currently housing Verona, and one that was used by Syrella and her handmaiden. Syrella … Reed cringed inwardly at the prospect of seeing her again after last night’s debauchery.

The man known as ‘Stick’ was sitting on the back of Ner’alla’s cart, picking at his teeth with a sliver of wood. Reed gave him a hesitant wave, which was acknowledged by a brief nod.

“I would suggest some sustenance, my Lord,” said Jeffson, appearing silently behind Reed’s left shoulder.

He grunted in reply and traipsed across the hard earth to the cooking pot still simmering in the glowing ashes of the campfire. He ladled what appeared to be vegetable soup into a bowl, the steam making his eyes water.

“If you will excuse me, my Lord, I will start dismantling the tent.”

Reed had a mouthful of stew. It was watery and far too salty. He swallowed with difficulty. “Pit, that’s foul! Not one of Krelbe’s better efforts.”

“Wasn’t Krelbe,” said Stick from his perch. “That old grump spent the night with his bottle. I think Vohanen made that, and I wouldn’t tell him you don’t like it, he’s in a terrible mood this morning.”

“I wonder why?” said Reed sarcastically, massaging his aching forehead with his free hand. “He must have drunk twice as much as me. And why are you so chirpy?”

Stick shrugged. “Walked it off.”

“Kriari,” came a rumbling baritone from behind Reed, nearly making him drop his soup. The First of the Twelve was standing a few feet away, his smile stretching the burnt skin of his face. The burns were recent, acquired when the giant had rung the bell atop Morlak keep just before the entire building had been consumed by the wyrm’s fiery breath. A selfless act that had surely saved many Morlakian lives and earned him Reed’s respect.

“Good morning, Lord.”

“Kriari,” the colossus corrected gently.

“Good morning, Kriari. I hope you … slept well?

The First of the Twelve turned his gaze on Reed, and he shivered. All of the Twelve had those same dark reflective orbits that sucked you in and pulled your psyche apart. No one, not even Vohanen or Jeffson, could stare into those eyes for more than a few seconds before being forced to look away.

“Come,” Kriari said.

“Can I finish my meal, first?”

“Come.”

Reed put down his soup. The palm of his right hand was starting to itch. There was a three-inch-long scab there, running from thumb to little finger. A gruesome souvenir of his time spent in Morlak. Sighing, he got up and followed Kriari to the supply wagon.

“Barrel,” the colossus said, pointing inside.

“Yes, it is,” Reed replied cautiously. “It’s definitely a barrel … um, well done.” Was the First of the Twelve still inebriated?

“Barrel,” Kriari repeated and wandered away, still limping slightly from his wounded leg.

Reed frowned and clambered up into the back of the wagon, using one of the rimmed wheels as support. Six wooden bows arched overhead, covered with canvas. The interior was packed with burlap sacks, crates, and barrels. Strings of onions and garlic hung down from the arches, along with various other herbs and condiments that Reed did not recognise. A creaking sound came from one of the barrels at the very back of the wagon, almost indistinguishable in the gloom.

“Right,” muttered Reed to himself. He clambered over sacks of grain and squeezed round a salted leg of pork, narrowly avoiding hitting his head on the wagon roof. The barrel creaked again.

“Um. Hello?” he asked, feeling stupid. There was no reply. He rapped his knuckles on the side of the barrel. The barrel knocked back.

“I … I think you should come out now,” Reed said tentatively.

“Am I in trouble?” came a high-pitched, quavering reply.

“For hiding in a barrel? I don’t think so.”

With a final creak, the top of the barrel slid open, and the grimy face of a young girl appeared, an apologetic look on her face.

“Mila?” said Reed incredulously, recognising the child he had carried out of Morlak while the town was collapsing under the wyrm’s bombardment.

“And bunny,” the girl said seriously, reaching into the depths of the barrel and producing a scruffy stuffed rabbit with one ear missing and an eye hanging by a thread.

“What are you doing here? I left you with a nice man who was going to help you find your parents; why are you not with them?”

“We couldn’t find them,” answered Mila with a sniffle. “We looked and looked everywhere, but we couldn’t find them. Then, the man told me that Daddy and Mummy were de … de … dead and that I had to go with a n … new family, but I don’t want to go with them, I want to go with you and the magic lady.”

“The magic lady?”

“The one with the special eyes.”

“Ah, Syrella. Well, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Syrella and I are both very busy and—”

Mila burst into tears.

“No, no, listen,” said Reed hurriedly, the girl’s cries further adding to the pain in his skull. “We can find a solution, I’m sure someone will—”

“I want the MAGIC LADY!” Mila bawled, tears streaming down her face.

There was movement outside.

“Reed, is everything all right?”

Pit! Syrella.

“Um, yes, my Lady!”

“Merad?”

“Yes, my Lady?”

“Come out here right now, and bring whoever’s with you.”

“That’s the magic lady!” Mila exclaimed happily and pushed past Reed to climb out. He extricated himself from the labyrinth of food to find that Mila had wrapped her arms around Syrella’s leg and was chatting with her animatedly, apparently forgetting to breathe in the process.

“So, then I got inside when the guard wasn’t looking, and I saw that the barrel of apples was half-empty, and I knew that I shouldn’t have gone inside, but I really wanted to see you again, and there was nothing else for me to do so I hid, and then I thought that maybe you didn’t want to see me and that you’d be angry so I didn’t want to come out, and then the kind man found me.”

“He is a kind man, isn’t he?” said Syrella, patting down Mila’s hair that was sprouting out in all directions like it was trying to escape her head.

“Sorry, my Lady,” Reed said, staring firmly at a point behind Syrella’s shoulder. “I didn’t mean to bother you with this.”

The Baroness let out a peal of laughter. “You are so … honourable, Merad, it’s something I like about you. Mila? Would you like to ride with me in my wagon today? It’s better than hiding in a barrel, and my handmaiden is an excellent seamstress, I’m sure she can fix bunny’s eye in a trice!”

“Oh, yes please, magic lady, that would be wonderful!”

“Off we go then!”

Reed rubbed his head. I should probably say something.

“Um, my Lady?”

“Yes?”

“About last night … I would just like to apologise for being a bit too … I mean for my improper behaviour.”

“Merad?”

“Yes?”

“There’s no need to apologise. One must only apologise when one has done something wrong. Everything that happened last night did so because I wanted it to.”

“I … right. Um. It’s just that all this is a bit new to me, and I’m not quite sure how to proceed with the, er, courtship …” he floundered about as if he had just been thrown into the sea and didn’t know how to swim.

“My father was not a great parent,” said Syrella, coming to his rescue. “He berated me, kept important things from me, tried to manipulate me and emotionally break me. I do not have very many good memories of him. Although I do have one. I must have been seven or eight years old, and I was trying to learn to ride a particularly stubborn pony. There was to be a parade at the end of the year, and I wanted to be part of it. The mean animal kept throwing me off. My father found me in tears. “I will never be ready,” I remember telling him. “It’s useless.” He smiled and told me he would share his secret with me, a trick to help me tackle every challenge life puts in my way.”

“What was that?” Reed asked softly, lulled by the sound of her voice.

“Take things one day at a time,” Syrella replied simply, her eyes sparkling. She took a step closer and kissed him on the cheek.

“One day at a time,” mused Reed, rolling the thought around in his head. It didn’t sound so bad.

“Magic Lady!” came the impatient cry.

Syrella smiled warmly. “Coming!”

Reed watched her leave, his addled mind desperately trying to make sense of the conversation. Everything that happened last night did so because I wanted it to. So that meant …

“Think she likes you.” Stick had not moved from his spot on Ner’alla’s cart. He smirked.

“I think so too,” agreed Reed. “We’ve been spending a lot of time together since leaving Morlak. Although I’m not sure what to do about it.”

“I could give ya a few pointers if ya like. Why, when I was last in Kessrin, we went to this ’orehouse and … ’Old up, ’ere comes more bother.”

Vohanen was storming across the campsite, his face a dark shade of crimson. “Was it one of you?” he yelled angrily. “Well? Was it?”

Why is everyone shouting today? thought Reed wearily as the knight’s voice bounced around his skull.

“One of us what?” he asked innocently.

Vohanen scowled. “Verona’s no longer in her cell,” he said. “The door was unbarred from the outside. Someone let her out.”

“What? When?”

“Probably last night while we were pissing drunk, Reed! Damn that Pit-spawned Da’arran and his Pit-spawned wine!”

“No, that doesn’t sound right. There were dozens of us gathered around the campfire, and you can see the door from here. One of us would have seen something. It must have been after that. Which means she hasn’t gone far.” Reed turned and called loudly to his manservant. “Jeffson? Would you join us by the prison wagon, please? Oh, and bring my spear.”

The prison wagon was just a flat-bedded cart with a wooden cabin bolted on top. They could immediately see that Vohanen was right; there were no exterior signs of effraction, the metal-banded door was ajar but otherwise untouched. Reed peered inside. A cot, a slop bucket, and a half-eaten plate of food. No Verona.

“Jeffson, you told me you arrived here late last night, did you see anything?”

“No. At least, nothing seemed to be amiss. But it was dark, and we were all tired …” He knelt in the dirt next to the wagon, his hand tracing a faint footprint. “It appears she went north into the forest. Barefoot.” Jeffson stood, walked a few paces, and found another print. “Walking on the balls of her feet.”

He followed the tracks to the edge of the campsite and disappeared into the trees. Vohanen looked at Reed, shrugged, and set off in pursuit.

They had gone about a hundred yards when Jeffson pointed at something spattered on one of the pine trunks; a dry, sap-like substance. He scratched at it with his fingernail and touched his finger to the tip of his tongue.

“Blood.”

“This is bad,” Vohanen said quietly. "Someone let her out. Someone from the campsite did this.”

He turned to Reed, his face grim.

“One of our travelling companions is a traitor.”

 (c) Alex Robins 2022

 

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