The Dreamscaper Chronicles
It began with the dawning of the new Age and the splitting of the land.
The Northern Provinces were given to the Rock people, or Mountain-folk. Reclusive and savage, they receded in to their craggy domain, never venturing out, others not daring to venture in. They fortified their borders with creatures they had drawn out from deep within the mountains, their roars often reaching the fields of workers, far in the distance.
The Western meadows fell to the farmer and stone-listener clans. Skilled in the ancient practices of earth manipulation, they had a strong connection with the spirits of the land, and a great respect for the power that lay therein. Unconcerned with wealth, they were content to live modestly and found great peace in the simplicity of their existence.
The forest realms of the East were claimed by the Elven races, each staking out their individual territory with their subtle enchantments. Cold and cloaked in secrecy, they revealed little of themselves to the outside world. Considering all others pursuits inferior, they preferred to spend their time perfecting their mystical crafts and intricate arts.
The South housed the capital and the Fortress of Learning. Here, all those with a desire for wealth and power could be found. The learned elite and the nobility skulked in the shadows and made deals in the darkness. The lust for ultimate power was palpable.
In this newly designed land, where each race governed itself, integration was not encouraged. No one mixed. Fear of what stalked their borders was enough to keep everyone inside their designated area. The High King believed this would allow him to live out a peaceful and uneventful reign, but he was young and malleable. Corruption swept through the Royal Court like a disease and the greed of those around him, stirred a lust in the heart of the king. In the darkness of his chambers it consumed him. His every moment was spent writing and rewriting strategies that would broaden his sphere of power until his rule would be unchallenged and met without question or hindrance throughout the entire land. He was to become the greatest king of all the ages, all the realms of this earth under his thumb.
All this was watched by the Dreamscapers. Although small in number they were creatures of untold power. Since the genesis of man and being they had been the secret protectors of the land and those who lived off it. A great war was fast approaching, one that would leave the land scorched and soaked with the blood of the defenceless: the old, the young, and the weak. It would stretch from the cities, to the mountains, from the forests to the shores. Chaos and devastation would replace peace and prosperity. Thus, it was now, before the dawn of death and terror, that the Dreamscapers took up their positions and dispersed throughout the land to do as they must for the salvation of all.
A Moment of Vision:
Kaleb stared absently past his tutor and gazed at the mountain peaks in the distance. He longed to walk their rocky trails and discover what truth there was to the terrible tales spun by the wandering bards. He saw himself running, impossibly freely, his legs working as they were meant to, his back straight and his arms at ease. He could almost feel the euphoria of that release, the release he could never know. The tutor’s cane across his brow pulled him roughly from his dreaming.
“Kaleb!” he barked. “Pay attention. Do you wish to humiliate your father in front of the whole town tomorrow evening?”
“No, Isaac,” he mumbled. “Of course.”
“You are already late in coming. You’re skills are barely past those expected of boys half your age. Now, prepare yourself.”
Isaac tapped his cane lightly on a rock and then stepped back from it. Kaleb looked at the rock. It wasn’t far from him, maybe a few steps. He reached out with his hand, but his tutor swiped at him.
“Do not touch it.” He snapped. “Have you learnt nothing? Approach first. Empty your mind.”
Emptying his mind was not something that came easily to Kaleb. He looked again at the rock, then at his legs sprawled beneath him, jutting out at awkward angles, and with a sigh began struggling to his feet.
He had always been this way. As a baby he had been seized by a sickening disease that had accelerated his bone development. Although the affliction had long passed, the phantom of its presence remained with him, causing his bones to become too brittle, stuck rigidly in an unnatural set. Walking was painful, slow and clumsy and fine movements were beyond the capabilities of his fingers.
He hobbled to the rock and then, with difficulty, crouched beside it. He knew Isaac was watching him closely and that made him nervous. The thought of having to perform in front of the town at the feast the following night, multiplied his nerves. He took a deep breath and tried to remember what he had been instructed.
He had tried rock listening before, but had never actually managed to distinguish the voices of the stone spirits. Somehow, they always remained annoyingly out of his grasp, taunting and teasing him as though they relished in his frustrations. He doubted what use this skill would be to him anyway. All he wanted to do was read the Arch-Rock the next night, deliver the tidings to the town, save himself and his family any further embarrassment, and be done with it.
He closed his eyes and tried to block out all other sounds and distractions. He slowly began to let himself feel the flow of the earth and then to hone in on the single power of the rock. It was difficult to discern it in the blurry shadows, but he thought he could see it begin to formalise into a definite structure. He didn’t like the feeling of drifting into the realms of spirits and forces, and as he swam through the ocean of strange sensations, he panicked. Floundering desperately, he reached out and touched it.
Immediately, he lost any sense of the power he had been about to tap into and the stone was cool and empty under his fingers. He expected to feel the cane across the top of his head, but the blow didn’t come. He looked up at his tutor.
“Do you know what kind of rock this is, Kaleb?”
“A key rock,” Kaleb answered, relieved that he at least knew that.
“That’s right,” Isaac nodded. “Look around you, they lie all around us. Ages are born and then pass, kings rise and fall, races multiply and then die out, but the key rocks are constant, never changing but always seeing. Think of the knowledge, Kaleb! Do you not desire to taste it? It can be yours, the spirit of the land flows through you as it does me, but you are yet to learn to wield it. Tune into its melody and hear the notes it speaks to you. You are prevented many things, but the spirit knows nothing of your physical handicaps. This is a power that can be yours.”
Kaleb looked at the old man and saw the fire in his eyes. It unnerved him. Isaac was old, but there was a power that lay behind his aged features that both fascinated and terrified Kaleb. He had often wondered what secret skills he possessed that sometimes shone in the tired creases of his face. Wondered, but never dared ask.
“If I can’t connect with a key rock, how can I expect to read the Arch-Rock tomorrow?” He said eventually, growing uneasy under his tutor’s gaze.
“Practice,” Isaac answered sharply. “That you grasp it today, is all we can hope for. Prepare yourself, and go again.”
The next evening arrived swiftly. The whole town had gathered to celebrate the harvest and to hear the foretelling for the year to come. The stone-listener clans and farming families ate, drank and danced together in an atmosphere of jovial contentment. Kaleb’s father moved amongst the people, greeting them individually, enquiring after family members, and asking how the harvest fared with previous years. He was socially adept in ways that Kaleb could only dream of, but then that was probably why he was the town leader.
Kaleb himself remained seated throughout the dancing and instead, fretted about reading the rock. He was glad he could worry about that rather than worry about being unable to dance. He decided that if he could not read it, he would just make up something vague, and hope for the best. He looked at Isaac, sitting a little way down the table, and found him looking at him with the same fiery gaze he had had earlier.
“Do not make anything up,” he said, as though he had been casually reading Kaleb’s thoughts. “You must say exactly what you see, repeat exactly what you hear. Understand?”
“Yes,” Kaleb mumbled, both slightly startled and slightly annoyed that his plan had been foiled.
“Speak up boy!” Isaac said sharply. “Don’t mumble. If I can barely hear you, how do you think the people at the next table will hear the foretelling?”
“Yes, Isaac.” Kaleb said, raising his voice a fraction.
Isaac shook his head and sighed, before turning back to his wine. Kaleb slipped into an increasingly greater state of panic. If he couldn’t read the rock honestly, and he couldn’t do it dishonestly, where did that leave him? He looked across the townsfolk and wished he could just be one of them.
* * *
Slightly away from the main scene of the celebration, a cloaked figure drifted like smoke amongst the shadows. Nobody noticed, simply because the character wished not to be noticed. Taking up a position close to the Arch-Rock, they fixed their eyes on the ill-formed boy beside it, and waited.
* * *
“Stone brothers and farming friends,” Kaleb’s father boomed. “Welcome!”
The crowd responded with one voice in a general shout of appreciation. Kaleb’s father raised his hands for quiet, and the people scrabbled into their seats or hurried into better standing positions.
“It has been a bountiful and prosperous year,” he began. “We offer our thanks to the land and honour it above all things. As is tradition, we shall have the foretelling for the year to come. For this honour, I present my son. May he see clearly and deliver true.”
The crowd craned forward to see how the crippled first born of the town leader would cope with the task. The figure loitering in the shadows, also leaned forward. Kaleb’s father stepped back and turned to his son. He briefly grasped his shoulder and then nodded at the rock.
Although he was trying to hide it, Kaleb knew his father was terrified that he would be the first leader to have a son unable to perform the foretelling. Kaleb wished that he would offer him some word of encouragement, but none was forth coming, so he stood and moved shakily to the rock.
Looking out over the sea of faces, some expectant, most sceptical, Kaleb cleared his throat.
“I am Kaleb, first born of the rock, and stone-listener,” he said with a slight tremor in his voice. He concentrated on remembering the words and trying not to stutter. “Through the power of the Arch-Rock and my acquired skill, the spirit of the earth will pass on the foretelling.”
His eyes fell on Isaac, who nodded slightly, but then he blurred as sweat dripped in to his eyes. He blinked it away, bowed slightly and then closed his eyes and tried to focus on the rock. At first he was unable to shake the feeling of the town’s eyes centred on his back, and a wave of nausea swept over him. He forced himself to concentrate and the weight of their gaze lifted and he found himself drifting into the other realms.
The Arch-Rock was unlike anything he had ever seen. In the swirling darkness it gave off a primeval glow. It seemed to suck everything towards it and then engulf it into its ancient depths. Kaleb couldn’t help but feel it’s pull and was instinctively drawn towards it. He could hear the voice of the spirit drifting from obscurity until he could feel its suffocating proximity. It was all around him, smothering him, constricting his throat so he couldn’t breathe.
Although he could not discern the words, he knew it was calling him, asking him to reach out and touch the rock. It was holding him in a trance, and he felt as though he was being pulled from his body. Unable to resist its strength, he pressed his hand against the flat surface of the rock.
Expecting it to be cool, he was surprised at the heat radiating from it. Instantly, he wanted to pull his hand away, but found he couldn’t move it. He was welded to the rock, and he was terrified. Suddenly, all the sound stopped and the rock flared under his fingers. Terrible visions flashed before his eyes, unspeakable scenes of destruction and pain forced themselves on his brain and then, from the very depths of the earth, came a deep rumbling sound.
The sound kept coming until it was deafening. Kaleb tried to scream but he couldn’t produce any sound. The rumbling continued until it eventually moulded into a voice. An ancient voice, great and powerful, and full of untold dangers. When it spoke to him, Kaleb felt as though it was actually inside his head.
“Hear me,” it thundered in his ears. “The time for the union of the three powers has come. Protected, restrained, unknown must hasten under the mark of the Red Gold.”
The voice, apparently satisfied Kaleb understood what was going on, began to wind down until it was once again, only a deafening rumble. Confused and terrified, Kaleb remained glued to the rock.
All of a sudden, the rumbling ceased and the rock felt like ice. He wrenched his hand away and felt as though he was tumbling downwards at great speed. He screamed and flailed wildly to find something solid.
The next thing he knew, he was on the ground at the foot of the Arch-Rock. His father was leaning over him, at his side was Isaac and hovering behind was a darkly dressed figure.
Then everything went black.
The Vision and The Visitor:
Kaleb awoke in a room that was not his own. His head felt as though it was splitting open and in a tumbling rush, he remembered what had happened. He groaned and struggled into a sitting position, taking in his surroundings. The room was fairly large and spacious, though the low ceiling made it appear squashed and cramped. Through the window he could see it was dark out, but there were candles dotted around the walls which illuminated the room. As his head began to clear, he realised he was in Isaac’s house.
“Ah, you are awake at last,” a familiar voice said.
He saw Isaac sitting in a chair not far from the bed, an air of restrained agitation surrounding him.
“How long have I been asleep?” He murmured.
“Several hours,” Isaac shrugged, as though the question held no relevance.
“Where is my father?” Kaleb asked casting his eyes to the door in the hope he would walk through.
“You brought the festivities to a rather abrupt end,” Isaac said, rocking back in his chair. “Your father is reassuring the people. He will be with us shortly.”
Kaleb sank back miserably in to the pillows, and closed his eyes.
“Do not fall asleep, Kaleb,” Isaac said sternly. “There is much we need to discuss.”
Had Kaleb wanted to sleep, he would not have been able as the door was opened so roughly it strained loudly on its hinges. His father strode purposefully through and glanced first at Kaleb, and then nodded at Isaac. A tall figure, cloaked and hooded, followed behind him and silently shut the door.
“Father…” Kaleb began, but his father held up his hand and turned to Isaac.
“Is it true?” He asked.
Isaac looked at him steadily before answering. “I am not yet sure.”
Kaleb looked from one to the other, before they both turned and looked at him. He tried to shrink back from the accusation in his father’s eyes, but he had nowhere to hide.
“Boy,” the dark figure said in a silver edged voice. “You must tell everything.”
Kaleb stared at him. He had no idea who he was but neither his father, nor Isaac, seemed surprised in the slightest at his presence or at his request. The figure took off his hood and stepped towards him. He had an unsettling appearance, one that made him look at once very old and at the same time very young. His eyes were a penetrating blue and held Kaleb’s unwilling gaze with an unblinking intensity.
“Come,” he said. “We have not time to waste.”
There was something commanding in his voice that filled Kaleb with dread. He glanced at his father who, to his surprise, looked slightly adrift, and then to Isaac who nodded reassuringly.
“What did you see, Kaleb? What did you hear?” he was leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, his hands tightly clasped.
Kaleb found that all eyes were fixed on him. He despised being the centre of attention at the best of times, but the current company made it even worse. He shifted position and debated how to begin.
“Speak!” The darkly dressed man snapped, growing impatient.
Kaleb jumped, and stumbled into a stuttering account of the visions he had seen and the voice he had heard. The memory came back with full force and he broke out in a cold sweat and feared he would pass out again. He saw again with acute clarity the nightmare images that had been imprinted on his mind, but struggled to convey them to his audience.
“Slowly, Kaleb,” Isaac said softly. “Don’t work yourself into a state. It’s all right, take your time.”
The other man stiffened as Isaac said this, as if he feared some great consequence of any such delay, but he said nothing. Kaleb tried to steady his breathing before going again.
“There was pain everywhere,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper. “Widespread suffering. The houses were burning, burning with people trapped inside, families were dying, the children were screaming, everywhere was tainted red, the fields and forests were just smouldering remains and then…then,” his body shook with sobs and he shook his head unable to continue.
“Then what? Gather yourself, boy. I must know!”
“You are too hasty,” Isaac said, shifting his eyes from Kaleb. “There will be time when he is rested.”
“You know what is at stake and yet you are content to wait?” he said, his voice suddenly bland, but his eyes still flashed dangerously.
“Do not assume I do not share your anxiety, but not tonight.” Isaac said firmly. “He has had an arduous few hours, let him regain his strength.”
Anger crossed the man’s countenance but passed almost immediately, and he inclined his head slightly at Isaac.
“As you wish. I shall return in the morning, and the boy will tell wholly what he knows. I shall wait no longer than that.” With that he swept silently from the room, taking with him a large portion of the tension that had been pressing itself on Kaleb.
“Who is he?” Kaleb asked, as the door swung shut.
“His name is Shahlok,” Isaac said hesitantly. “But I shall let him introduce himself to you tomorrow.”
Kaleb just nodded dumbly and lay back down on the bed, suddenly overcome with fatigue.
“Are you well?” Kaleb’s father said, looking at him with an expression heavy with doubts and concerns Kaleb didn’t understand.
Well? Kaleb thought bitterly, what is it to be well? But, he nodded at his father.
“Good,” he sighed. “Isaac, I will leave my son in your hands tonight. I must leave, but I shall return with the dawn.”
Isaac stood and nodded as though he had been expecting this. Kaleb found himself fighting back tears. Was his father so ashamed of him that he wouldn’t take him home? He so desperately wanted to win his approval. He cursed his wretched body and the poor limits of his skill, and found he could not even bring himself to look at his father as he left.
“Be at ease,” Isaac said blowing out the candles. “Rest well. You will need all your strength for tomorrow.”
When Kaleb awoke, the sun was streaming in through the window, bathing the room in the watery sunlight of the morning. Isaac was sitting not far from him and on the other side of the room were his father and Shahlok. Once again, they were all watching him.
“Ah, you rejoin us at last,” Shahlok said coolly. “And are you now rested?”
“Shahlok,” Isaac said in a voice that suggested he didn’t care for his presence. “Perhaps you should explain a little before demanding anything more from him.”
Shahlok looked annoyed but conceded to Isaac’s request.
“Very well. Listen carefully boy, I do not care to repeat myself. As you may know, my name is Shahlok. As you may guess, I am not of your kind. However, that matters not. Let it suffice that I travelled far to attend the foretelling and I intend to know all that passed to you. Much is at stake here, perhaps you are not aware of your role yet, but I need to know everything that you saw and heard.”
Shahlok spoke in a bland, uninterested voice but it seemed to belie an undercurrent of anxious excitement. When he had finished, Kaleb realised he knew nothing more about him that he had before he had spoken, but he thought it wise not to mention that.
“Now, tell me everything, take care to be exact. It will not do to report inaccurately.”
Kaleb felt trapped between the fear of recalling what he had seen and the fear or incurring the anger of Shahlok. He eventually took a deep breath and began again from where he had left off.
“There was a presence, I couldn’t see it but I could feel it.” He looked up and saw Isaac and Shahlok exchange a look. “Then a shadow, it reached up and seemed to swallow the sun. Darkness stretched to the corners of the world, it touched everything, and its touch brought death.” He stopped. He didn’t want to say the last image he had seen. But Shahlok knew he was holding back.
“There is no more?” He asked.
Kaleb shook his head. “There is no more.”
Shahlok’s eyes flared and he stepped closer. “Do not lie to me!” he hissed. “Finish, now.”
Kaleb looked at his father, who was surveying him questioningly. He couldn’t bear to look at him as he delivered his finale.
“The shadow reached this village,” he mumbled reluctantly. “Nobody escaped it.”
His chest tightened as he remembered the last blow the vision had given him. As his village burned and died around him, he had watched helpless as his father lay dying merely feet from him. But it was his dying words that had ripped him open. “This is your fault Kaleb.”
“Then there was a voice,” Kaleb said, forcing himself past the image. “It said that it was time for a union, a union of three powers and that they had to unite under the mark of the red gold.”
“Then it is true,” Shahlok murmured, and then added decisively, “he must come south.”
“The union,” Isaac muttered thoughtfully. “The powers, Kaleb, what were they?”
“Protected, restrained and unknown.”
“So soon,” Isaac continued to himself. “Can it be so soon?”
“Soon?” Shahlok answered. “Time does not move so slowly in the rest of the world as it does here. We must be swift. He must come south.”
“South?” Kaleb stammered. “Why?”
Shahlok ignored him. “We must make haste. He is fit to ride?”
“He rides passably,” Isaac answered slowly, looking at Kaleb, and then at his father. “I shall go with him. He will come to no harm whilst I am alive.”
“He will not manage the journey,” Kaleb’s father said in a hushed voice that did not stop Kaleb from flushing. “Is there no other? He is weak.”
“There can be no other,” Shahlok replied. “Fear not, he rides with me.”
Kaleb sat on the bed as those around him discussed him like he wasn’t there.
“Why must I go south?” He asked. “I don’t want to.”
“Want?” Shahlok said with a cruel laugh. “You speak with all the foolishness of youth. There is no want for you, boy.”
“Kaleb,” Isaac said, frowning at Shahlok. “You have been chosen, this path can lead you to greatness. Destiny has given you a mixed hand, but play it well and you will be remembered through the ages.”
“I don’t want to be remembered through the ages,” Kaleb said, looking to his father for support. “Father, please, let me stay.”
“I have no choice, Kaleb.” He said not meeting his eyes. “And neither do you. I wish you success and await your ready return.”
With that he left the room, closing the door tightly behind him.
“We leave at sundown.” Shahlok said, his face displaying none of his eager readiness. “Pack only what you need. Rest up boy,” he added with a short laugh. “You will weary fast and I have no patience for lagging.”
Despite Shahlok’s advice, Kaleb was unable to rest. He reflected on the strangeness of the events and his current situation, and found it all incomprehensible. What awaited him in the south, he couldn’t guess. He had always dreamt of leaving the town and heading out into the wider world, but he never expected it would be like this.
There was a soft knock on his door and then Isaac stood in the doorway.
“Are you ready?” he said quietly.
Kaleb shrugged and picked up his pack. “Ready for what?” he asked.
Isaac didn’t answer him. Instead he beckoned him outside, checking both ways as he did so. Kaleb followed him, as they made their way out of the town, Isaac stopping at every corner as they did so and scanning the area.
There were lights in the houses that they passed, but not many people were outside. The air was still and the moon bright. Had the situation been different, Kaleb would have thought it a very nice night.
When they reach the trees that bordered the town, Isaac gave a low whistle. A response was almost instant, and then from nowhere, Shahlok was at their side. His cloak was on and his hood up.
“The horses grow uneasy,” he said in his silvery voice that Kaleb found so unsettling.
As he said this, Kaleb noticed three horses waiting amongst the trees. Shahlok whistled and they trotted over.
“You will ride Iori,” Shahlok said, grabbing Kaleb roughly and lifting him on to the horses back.
“Iori,” Kaleb murmured to himself, running his hand along her mane. She was a beautiful animal, completely black, and Kaleb felt suddenly that this wasn’t going to be such a bad trip after all.
“You were not seen?” Shahlok said quietly to Isaac as Kaleb admired Iori.
“I am not a fool,” Isaac hissed back, irritated. “Of course not.”
The two of them mounted their own horses and the party was finally on the move. At first they moved slowly through the trees and in single file. Shahlok rode at the front, then Kaleb and Isaac brought up the rear.
Kaleb had never been a great rider, but he loved the feeling riding gave him. It was the closest thing to freedom he ever felt, and he was at his happiest on the rare occasions his father had let him ride one of the horses and gallop over the fields. Iori made riding easy and Kaleb spoke softly to her until Shahlok barked at him to be quiet.
“Cease with your inane mumbling,” he snapped as they cleared the trees and drew to a halt. “I can not endure it any longer.”
Kaleb stopped immediately. Everything Shahlok said to him made him feel stupid.
“It’s just I have never seen such a beautiful horse,” he mumbled.
“She is a fine horse, Kaleb,” Isaac said drawing level with them. “Finer than any in the town, for sure.”
Kaleb beamed, and from then on, paid little attention to what Shahlok and Isaac were saying. They were on the move again before he knew it, their pace noticeably quicker. Kaleb lost count of how many fields they passed through and he began to grow tired.
“When do we stop?” Kaleb asked with a yawn.
“Tired?” Kaleb could hear Shahlok’s sneer although he could barely see him.
“No,” Kaleb said quickly, but Shahlok had turned back around.
“Dawn,” he said, thrusting his heels into the sides of his horse, speeding up again. “We stop at dawn.”
They rode silently through the night. Every so often, either Shahlok or Isaac would stop and speak in hushed tones with the other. Sometimes they would take a sudden turn and head off in a different direction. Kaleb barely noticed how alert they were, all he wanted to do was lie down and sleep.
Finally, the first rays of the morning sun appeared on the horizon. Shahlok led them to a small copse and dismounted. He held up his hand signalling for Kaleb to remain silent and surveyed the area. Isaac dropped to the ground and crouched beside Shahlok. He placed his hands palm down on the ground and remained that way for a few moments, before standing and nodding at Shahlok.
Kaleb tried to swing his leg round to dismount in the manner he had seen Shahlok do, but he was stiff from the ride and his legs weren’t really up to it anyway. He ended up in a crumpled heap on the ground.
“You’ll need to work on that,” Isaac said pulling him to his feet.
Kaleb nodded but he was still unsteady. He wasn’t used to riding and was surprised at how sore he was. He groaned and sat down with his back against a tree. Almost within moments, he was asleep.
When he awoke, Isaac was sleeping and Shahlok was nowhere in sight. He stood up shakily and decided to try and walk off the effects of the ride. He patted Iori, who snorted in response, and then turned and wandered into the trees. After a while he began to feel a growing sense of unease come over him that he couldn’t place or shake off. The unease turned in to fear and then to dread. Suddenly, the wood seemed to spin around him and come alive with the sound of childish laughter. He felt someone take his hand and pull him gently, leading him deeper into the copse.
He looked down and saw a child’s hand in his own. The hand belonged to a girl of maybe five or six years and she laughed at him as she tugged on his arm. They passed into a clearing and other children came running out of the trees, all very young and all trying to take hold of Kaleb and steer him still deeper into the trees. Others of them danced and ran in and out of the trees.
“What are you all doing here?” Kaleb heard himself asking but his voice seemed so far away.
They just laughed in response. He followed them willingly, until without warning they all stopped laughing and dispersed into the trees, completely out of sight. All except the one holding his hand. He suddenly realised, her grip was incredibly strong, to the point it was actually quite painful. Then he saw what had made the children scatter.
Shahlok stood a few feet from him and he did not look happy.
“Let go,” he commanded.
“I can’t, she…” Kaleb began.
“Not you,” Shahlok snapped. “Let him go.”
The girl stood perfectly still but her grip increased again on Kaleb’s arm until he actually gasped and tried to shake her off. Shahlok took a step forward and reached inside his cloak.
“Let him go.” He repeated. “Now.”
Suddenly the girl threw herself at Shahlok, clawing and snarling madly. Kaleb stared open-mouthed. Shahlok struck her hard, but she recovered and attacked again even more savagely. He flung her against a tree with such force that the tree shook on the impact. She landed in a small heap at the base of the trunk and didn’t move. Kaleb looked at her and then at Shahlok.
“Is she dead?” he whispered.
“No,” Shahlok said, seizing Kaleb’s shoulder and ushering him back towards their camp. “They do not die.”
“Who are they?” Kaleb asked as Shahlok pushed him roughly through the scrub.
“They are The Unclaimed,” he said. “They move here and there, innocent they appear at first, their laugh enticing the unsuspecting. Do not wander off, boy, I do not wish to scuffle with infants every time we stop.”
“What were they going to do with me?”
“Kill you.” Shahlok said flatly.
Kaleb stopped. “Why?”
Shahlok shrugged. “Why not?”
When they arrived back, Isaac was saddling up the horses.
“We must move on,” Shahlok said. “Thanks to our young friend here, we must travel in daylight.”
“I know,” Isaac snapped. “It’s not coincidence I’m packing up.”
Shahlok snorted and lifted Kaleb onto Iori’s back.
“Are they coming after us?” Kaleb asked.
“After you,” Shahlok corrected him. “And yes, undoubtedly. Hence our departure. They will not venture further than the wood until dark, and we shall be long gone by then.”
He lead the way as they accelerated away from the copse, but as they crossed the sun-drenched meadows, the sound of their laughter rang in Kaleb’s ears and made him hold on even tighter to Iori.
They rode for the rest of the day. Kaleb was hot, tired and uncomfortable but he didn’t dare complain. He was grateful when dusk fell, bringing the cool breezes of the evening. By now, they had reached the foothills of what Isaac assured him was a ‘small’ mountain range. It was still larger than anything Kaleb had ever seen and he gaped up at it.
“There’s a lot more to this world than the stones and fields you’re used to.” Shahlok said jumping gracefully from his horse and scanning the area as he always did.
“True,” Isaac agreed, also dismounting. “But nothing is as beautiful.”
Shahlok scoffed and began gathering some wood for a fire.
“I think the Elven forests could be more beautiful,” Kaleb said, carefully edging himself off Iori’s back.
“Then you are in luck, boy,” Shahlok said. “We will pass them on our way south.”
Kaleb felt his heart leap. If only he could see the elves, then maybe they could help him. He watched as Shahlok picked up a handful of dust from the ground and muttered something in a language completely foreign to Kaleb, before scattering it over the pile of wood. It immediately leapt into flame, but Kaleb realised it was not like any fire he had seen before.
“It hides the smoke,” Shahlok said, noticing Kaleb looking at it. “We don’t know who is watching.”
Kaleb watched him as he pulled some food from the saddlebags and proceeded to cook it. It remained suspended in the flame.
“What?” Shahlok demanded, looking at him suddenly. “What is your question?”
“Who are you?” Kaleb said his eyes leaving the fire to focus on Shahlok. “Where did you come from?”
Shahlok poked the fire a few times before answering.
“I come from everywhere and nowhere,” he said, the light from the fire giving him an otherworldly look. “I am old and yet still young. I have knowledge and power, yet I have never craved them as men do. I can disappear for hundreds of years and it pass like a day. I can kill in an instant and heal as quickly. In short, boy, I am beyond your comprehension.”
Kaleb moved closer to the fire and looked again at Shahlok. “But, who are you?”
“He is a Dreamscaper,” Isaac said seating himself by the fire and held his hands to the heat. Shahlok looked annoyed, as though this was some sort of anti-climax to the image he had been building. Kaleb raised an eyebrow sceptically.
“Dreamscaper? They are a myth, peasant hocus pocus. No one has ever seen one.”
“Then consider yourself in esteemed company,” Isaac said sourly.
Kaleb again looked at Shahlok, who was lifting the food from the fire. “If you’re a Dreamscaper, what do you want with me?”
“You have communicated with the ancient spirits of the earth. It is the earth that wants you, not me.”
Kaleb was still dissatisfied. Shahlok was being deliberately evasive, his vague answers telling him almost nothing. He still wasn’t wholly convinced that he was a Dreamscaper, or that Dreamscapers even existed, and he was quite certain that both Shahlok and Isaac were keeping things from him. He determined to ask Isaac about it when Shahlok wasn’t around. He had noticed Isaac didn’t view Shahlok all that positively, so he may be willing to share some information.
The opportunity arose later that evening. Shahlok went to higher ground to see that they were taking the right course, leaving Kaleb and Isaac alone. Kaleb moved towards the dying embers of the fire where Isaac was sitting and took up a spot opposite him.
“You want to know more about Shahlok,” Isaac said without looking up.
“Yes,” Kaleb answered, not too surprised that Isaac already knew that.
“And you think I can help you with that?”
“Yet you don’t believe what I have already told you about him,” Isaac said raising an eyebrow.
“Well…” Kaleb said shifting uncomfortably. “I didn’t know that Dreamscapers were real.”
“They are very real,” Isaac said sharply. “And they are very powerful. Shahlok is a typical example of his kind; arrogant, unforgiving and cold. Take caution with him, Kaleb. The Dreamscapers are not noted for their patience or their care.”
Kaleb nodded slowly, and then asked, “have you met Dreamscapers before?”
“Suffice it to say, I am acquainted with their power,” Isaac replied, poking the fire.
Kaleb wanted to ask more but Shahlok reappeared beside them.
“Get some sleep,” he snapped. “We have many miles to cover tomorrow, and you are far too slow as it is.”
Shahlok’s usually even countenance seemed taut with the weight of something Kaleb could not even begin to guess at.
“Isaac,” he said sharply. “A word.”
Isaac stood slowly, clearly displeased with the manner in which he was being summoned. He told Kaleb to stay by the fire and disappeared with Shahlok beyond the reach of the firelight. Kaleb stayed by the fire for a few moments, debating whether he should attempt to over hear their conversation. Overcome with curiosity, he struggled to his feet and headed in the direction they had taken.
He moved painstakingly slowly, terrified of being seen. Adrenaline seared through his veins and his heartbeat was pounding in his ears. A few metres further and he heard the hushed voice of Isaac, although he could only see their vague outlines.
“What do you mean?” Isaac hissed angrily at Shahlok. “I was assured…”
“Your assurances were on poor authority,” Shahlok snapped back. “The situation is changing. We must change with it.”
“No. I will not subject him to this.”
“It is not for you to decide.”
“And what are you basing this on? A feeling?”
“Do not attempt to understand.” Shahlok was becoming angrier. “It is decided. The boy must not know. He is feeble as it is. He will be no use if he dies prematurely.”
Crouching in the darkness, Kaleb’s heart quickened its beat. He didn’t understand exactly what they were talking about but he knew who they were talking about.
“He could survive this, Shahlok.” Isaac said.
“You and I both know that is highly doubtful,” Shahlok shrugged. “His fate is sealed. You know that, and as I said…”
Shahlok stopped suddenly and Kaleb was gripped by an even greater fear. Shahlok knew he was there. From nowhere, there was suddenly a bright light and then Kaleb felt Shahlok grab a hold of him roughly and pin him to the ground. Kaleb yelped with pain, but Shahlok only tightened his grip. He was furious.
“Eavesdropping, are we?” He hissed.
Kaleb felt a burning sensation in his chest, which seemed to render him incapable of speech. He gasped and struggled against Shahlok, but the feeling intensified until he was crying out in agony.
“Release him, Shahlok,” Isaac commanded.
Shahlok continued as though he hadn’t heard. Kaleb felt like he was going to die. He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.
“Shahlok, let him go.”
Suddenly, the weight pinning him down was gone, but Kaleb still lay gasping on the ground. The pain in his chest was beginning to lessen but he didn’t dare look at Shahlok.
“What are you doing here, Kaleb?” Isaac asked sternly.
Kaleb just groaned and clutched his chest. Shahlok was pacing furiously, seemingly lost for words.
“See to the horses, Shahlok,” Isaac instructed. Shahlok seemed to consider staying, but decided against it and stalked off in to the darkness.
“Here,” Isaac said pulling Kaleb up. “Get up.”
“Get off me,” Kaleb said, still breathless. He shook off Isaac’s help and struggled to pull himself up. Once on his feet he leant against a tree, breathing deeply.
“Look, Kaleb,” Isaac began, but Kaleb shook his head and looked him squarely in the eye.
“Am I going to die?” He demanded. “Are you leading me somewhere to die?”
“Kaleb,” Isaac sighed. “You were not supposed to hear that conversation.”
“Answer me,” Kaleb demanded, his anger overriding his fear.
Isaac hesitated and shifted uncomfortably. In the gloom, Kaleb struggled to make out his features. He heard Isaac sigh deeply, as though resigning himself to some terrible fate.
“You are in great danger here, Kaleb,” he murmured softly, moving closer towards him. “You’re right, if you continue with Shahlok you will almost certainly die. You must get away.”
Kaleb felt as though his legs, already so unsteady, would give out from beneath him. He just couldn’t cope with this latest piece of information. Everything he knew was so fractured, so incomplete that nothing made any sense to him. Get away? How was he supposed to do that? And to what end?
“What do you mean?” Kaleb whispered.
“I can’t explain now,” Isaac responded, gripping Kaleb’s shoulder and pulling him upright. “Make for the eastern border of our province. I will meet you there. Keep off the trails, avoid any settlements. Trust no one. Do you understand me?”
“What about Shahlok?” Kaleb asked. Although he had a thousand questions filling his head, that was the only one he managed to form.
“I’ll deal with him. Don’t worry. Now go.” With that, Isaac pushed him in an easterly direction and disappeared back towards Shahlok and the fire.
For the first time, Kaleb felt truly afraid. He was all alone, with nothing and no idea where he was going. The night seemed to suddenly fill with eerie sounds and shadows. Driven by the even greater fear of Shahlok, Kaleb headed in the direction Isaac had pointed him. He knew nothing of what Isaac was going to do about Shahlok, and he shivered at the thought.
He tried to move as quietly as his body would let him, wondering how futile it was to try to outrun and outsmart a Dreamscaper. The mountains loomed ahead of him as he pushed on towards them. His way became increasingly steep, and he had to stop regularly to catch his breath, and ease his aching and sore joints. Eventually, the first light of dawn touched the mountain and he sat amongst some rocks to survey his position.
His prospects looked bleak. If he was heading east, to reach the border he would have to get through these mountains. That was not going to be easy. He had no food or water. He was tired and his body ached with the unfamiliar strain it was being put under. He sighed; his progress was going to be slow and painful.
He looked down to see if he could see where Shahlok and Isaac had been camped but he couldn’t tell. Everything looked different in the daylight. Looking up, he tried to determine a path that would be the least hazardous. His body just wasn’t designed for this. With a groan, he got up and began to walk again.
By noon, he had found a small stream, which he drank from thirstily. He took off his shoes and placed his aching feet in the icy water, letting them go numb. His stomach growled. He had to find food soon. Easing his feet back into his shoes he stood and began again, keeping his eyes peeled for anything that he could eat.
Night began to fall, and he still had found nothing to eat. He looked behind him at where he had come from, and felt oddly proud at the distance he had managed to cover. The evening had come in cold. Kaleb didn’t dare light a fire and so decided to stumble on to try and keep warm.
When dawn arrived, he was completely exhausted. He had reached a densely wooded area and felt secure enough to stop. He sat and rested against a tree. He tried not to think about how hungry he was, or about the dangers that lay ahead of him. Within moments he had drifted into a dreamless sleep.
He woke to the sound of shouting. Dragging himself up, he concealed himself in the undergrowth, his heart pounding in his chest. From his hiding place, Kaleb could see two men, both dressed in dark green, pulling something that he couldn’t quite see. They were taunting and goading something and then laughing. It took a few moments for Kaleb to realise that they were dragging a girl.
The girl’s wrists were bound and they were pulling sharply on the rope, making her stumble and fall. She was yelling and cursing them but that only made them laugh louder. He couldn’t make out what the men were saying, but the girl was clearly distressed, so he decided to follow them. As he crept from tree to tree, he wondered what on earth he was doing. He had no idea who they were, where they were going and what he was going to do when they got there. He looked down at himself and saw again how useless his body was. He couldn’t help the girl, if indeed she even needed help. Didn’t he have enough problems of his own? He stopped his pursuit and turned away.
A sharp yelp of pain made him turn back. He could see they were approaching a clearing where he could make out huts and he could see smoke swirling up from several fires. The girl began fighting even more frantically but the men paid no attention. Kaleb hesitated and then made his way towards them. He hid himself just outside the clearing, where he hoped to be able to see and hear what was going on. The men were greeted by another man who looked down at the girl and shook his head.
“Running away, again?” Kaleb heard him say. “You are turning out to be more trouble than your worth. Put her back.”
The two men nodded and pulled the girl towards a hut just in front of Kaleb’s hiding place. He pressed himself deeper in the bushes and watched. They took her inside and then shortly appeared outside again. They walked away from the hut and Kaleb lost sight of them.
He stayed where he was for a while longer. No one came to the hut and no one came out. He crept towards it, checking that the coast was clear, before pulling open the door and slipping inside. At first he thought there was no one there but then he saw the girl standing by a post, her hands still tied and the rope then tied to the post. She looked up at the sound of the door.
“Umm, hi…” Kaleb said quietly moving towards her.
The next thing he knew he was on the ground gripping his jaw. The girl’s hands may have been tied, but her feet weren’t and she had kicked him squarely on the jaw, sending him sprawling.
“Stay away from me,” she spat.
Kaleb groaned. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he gasped as she lurched at him again.
“Yeah, like you could,” she snorted. Kaleb flushed in humiliation, and struggled to his feet.
“Fine,” he said tightly. “Stay here. I don’t care.”
He turned his back on her and made his way to the door, still rubbing his jaw. As he reached towards it, it opened and a man stood looking at him, slightly baffled.
“What’s this?” He said, suddenly regaining his wits and grabbing Kaleb by the shoulder. “Who are you?”
Kaleb couldn’t think of anything to say, so he just remained silent. The man didn’t seem impressed by this. He called out to someone and the man who had spoken to the girl when she had been brought in came over. He looked at Kaleb and then at the girl.
“A friend of yours?” He asked her.
The girl ignored him. Kaleb looked up at the man. He was not very old, but had an air of authority that belied his years. His face wasn’t cruel, but then it wasn’t friendly either.
“What are you doing here, boy?” he asked.
Kaleb followed the girl’s example and said nothing.
“He’s in with her,” the other man whispered. “He’s another traitor.”
Kaleb had no idea what he was talking about.
“Perhaps,” the man said. “Tie him up with her. That might make him more inclined to talk.”
The man took hold of Kaleb’s wrists and bound them tightly. Kaleb yelped at his roughness. The other man saw the unnatural set in Kaleb’s joints and stopped him.
“Just make it so he can’t escape,” he said softly. “He is already damaged.”
The man nodded and loosened the bonds slightly before tying him to a post opposite the girl. Then he and the other man left. Kaleb sighed and leant heavily against the post. This was not going well. Why had he followed them here? How long was he going to be stuck here?
“Are you one of them?” The girl suddenly demanded, after a long silence.
“One of who?” Kaleb said tiredly, glad he was out of her range.
“One of the Post,” the girl said, eyeing him critically.
“No,” Kaleb said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Well, I suppose you couldn’t be, given that you can barely even walk.” She said with a cruel laugh.
“Have you finished?” Kaleb snapped, annoyed that he was stuck here because he had tried to help her.
“Well, what are you doing here?”
“I saw you being brought here. I came to help you.”
“Good job so far,” she snorted. “What’s your next move?”
Before Kaleb could offer a reply, the door opened and the man who seemed to be in charge came in. He looked first at Kaleb and then at the girl.
“Well, well, Lyra,” he said. “What’s all this about?”
“He is nothing to do with me,” Lyra shrugged.
“So who are you, boy? Have you found a voice yet?”
“My name is Kaleb,” he responded. “I don’t know her. I came here by mistake.”
“Is that so?” the man mused. “Then why did you come to this hut?”
“He came to help me,” Lyra answered. Kaleb gaped at her.
“I thought he was nothing to do with you?” the man replied, eyeing them both closely.
“I lied,” she shrugged. “So did he.”
“I see,” the man said standing up. “Well, Kaleb, were you better made I would have the truth beaten out of you. Since that would most likely kill you, I’ll leave in the delightful company of Lyra. By morning, I’ll expect a full account of who you are and what you are doing here. Goodnight.”
With that he left. When the door shut, Kaleb rounded on Lyra.
“What did you say that for?” he demanded. She just shrugged. “You know, I did come here to help you, I could have just left you, it’s not like I don’t have my own problems.”
“What did you think you would be able to do anyway? You don’t know who I am, or who they are.”
“Yeah well, it seemed to me like you needed help. I wish I hadn’t bothered.” He sighed and rested his head on the post.
“Where were you headed?” Lyra asked, after a heavy silence.
“The eastern border.”
“What’s it to you?”
“All right, I was just asking. It just so happens I was heading that way myself.”
“No you weren’t. You were being brought in from the opposite direction. Why were you being brought here anyway?”
“Treason.” She said proudly.
“Oh right, of course.” Kaleb smirked.
“I don’t care if you believe me or not,” Lyra said, angry at his disbelief. “But I can’t wait around until morning.” She looked at him and then said quietly. “Do you want to get out of here or not?”
Out of the Frying Pan...
“Try again,” Lyra urged him as he tried forcing his hands out of the loop of rope binding them.
“I am trying,” he said, annoyed. “It’s not that easy.”
In truth, it would have been easy for anybody else to do, but Kaleb’s shoulders screamed at the strain they were being put under, and his wrists were raw where the rope had rubbed.
“That’s it, that’s it,” Lyra said excitedly as the ropes finally relented and Kaleb managed to pull his hands free. “I have a knife in my belt. Cut me free.”
Kaleb felt slightly awkward as he lifted the knife from her belt, and quickly busied himself with cutting the ropes. He was standing so close to her that he felt all his deficiencies were being magnified and scrutinised. She was, however, only looking at his hands as they fumbled with the knife and ropes.
“Be careful,” she snapped, as the knife slipped slightly and scratched the back of her hand.
“Sorry,” Kaleb mumbled.
After what seemed like an eternity, the binding dropped free and Lyra brought her arms down and rubbed feeling back into her wrists. Kaleb felt exhausted and, realising he was sweating, wiped his forehead.
“So, what do we do now?” he asked.
“First, you need to be quiet,” Lyra said in an irritated whisper. Kaleb flushed, but Lyra was already creeping towards the door. She opened it slightly and looked through the tiny gap. Deciding not to move until she told him to, Kaleb remained where he was.
“There is hut to the left of this one,” she said, gently shutting the door. “Go to it, without being seen, and once you’re inside, you will see a broken shelf. Under it will be sacks of grain lying on the floor. Move them. Underneath it the floorboards are loose. There’s a tunnel beneath them. Follow it. It will take you just beyond the trees.”
She had issued everything in these short, sharp commands that whilst she spoke Kaleb didn’t consider not following them.
“You get all that?” She said snappily.
“Why do I have to go first?”
“Because you’re slow,” she replied simply. She opened the door again and checked the coast was clear, and then gestured for him to go. As he moved to the door she seized his arm. “Don’t screw this up. If you’re caught don’t tell them anything.”
With that she literally pushed him through the door. Stumbling, he scanned the camp for the hut she had described. Night was falling and the edges of the camp were marked with torches. He couldn’t see or hear anybody, but didn’t doubt that they were around. His blood rushed, and his heart pounded against his chest. He realised he wasn’t moving and began to make his way clumsily to the hut, silently cursing his body all the way. His body resented quick movements at the best of times, but having been exhausted from his travels the day before, and then being bound, albeit loosely, it screamed protest with every step. Gritting his teeth and ignoring the sweat dripping into his eyes, Kaleb reached the hut.
Scared to go inside in case someone was there, but scared to stay out in the open where anyone could chance upon him, he dithered by the door. A dog barked somewhere near by, and Kaleb suddenly found the motivation to open the door. Once inside, he was faced with another problem. He couldn’t see; it was pitch black. Feeling his way tentatively along the wall, he found the broken shelf, but not before he had banged his head on a low shelf, almost fallen over some sacks on the floor, and he also had at least four splinters in his hands.
He grunted with the effort of moving the sacks, but eventually managed to get them out the way. Lifting the broken boards was at least easy enough but lowering himself into the tunnel was not. It was small, even for him, and progress was slow, and, as always, painful. Being in the tunnel was horrible, Kaleb felt it pressing in on him, and his head began to spin. Worse, he felt the presence of the rocks in the earth around him in a way he never had before. Since reading the Arch Rock he had tried to avoid the sounds of the stones, by refusing to connect with them. He gave a sour laugh. What he wouldn’t have given to be able to hear them so easily a few days ago. Now he felt they were always on the peripheral, ready to capture him if he let down his guard.
Now in such a tight space, surrounded by their whisperings, he felt panic rising, and began crawling as fast as possible along the earthy floor. It wasn’t so much light that told him he had reached the end of the tunnel, as a sudden rush of cool evening air in his hair. Struggling upwards he emerged on to the floor of the forest. Lying on his back gasping, he thought about his father, Isaac and Shahlok. What was going on that they all knew about and he didn’t? He didn’t wonder about it long. Instead he moved away from the tunnel and positioned himself where he could see it, and then waited for Lyra.
She emerged with infinitely more grace than he had, and he stood to alert her to his position. She came over to him and looked him over.
“So you made it,” she said blandly, as though she had not expected he would. “You left a pretty obvious trail. We’ll have to move quickly.”
“You are going to the eastern border?”
“Yes, but not with you.”
“You think you’ll survive do you? These woods are littered with members of the Post. If you know as little about them as you claim, you will be dead before dawn.”
Kaleb stared at her. She delivered messages of doom as though she was commenting on the weather, or a good spot for fishing. She ran a critical eye over his awkward body in a way that Kaleb was swiftly beginning to loathe. Resignedly, as though it really was as bad as she first thought, she sighed and looked towards the east.
“Besides, maybe you can be of use to me somehow. Either way, we do have to move from here. They will soon notice our absence.”
She started to move and Kaleb dumbly followed her. She didn’t speak again and he didn’t much feel like talking, so they trudged through the darkness in silence. Lyra was always a few steps ahead of him, which annoyed him, but he said nothing. He didn’t want to highlight his already patent inadequacies. Every so often they would stop, and Lyra would signal for him to be quiet (this also annoyed him, as he hadn’t spoken since they left the tunnel) and would then signal to crouch or hide. They would stay still, sometimes for minutes, sometimes longer, and then Lyra would give the all clear to move on. This would happen at least once every hour. It was very tiresome, and Kaleb began to doubt the existence of any such ‘Post’.
“What is the point in this?” He finally sighed, after he saw Lyra raise her hand in the now familiar signal to stop.
“The point, boy, is to stay alive,” Lyra hissed furiously, dragging him under a bush with a speed and strength that surprised him.
“Boy?” Kaleb murmured softly, as they lay cramped and close in the undergrowth. Who was she to call him ‘boy’?
His answer was an elbow in his ribs, and Lyra’s hand over his mouth. She gestured with a slight movement of her body, and Kaleb saw that where they had been walking minutes before, a group of people dressed in dark clothing now stood. There were five of them; two of them had bows with arrows notched in them. The others held quarterstaffs. Kaleb swallowed nervously and watched.
They seemed to be communicating through a series of hand signals, as no sound escaped from the lips of any of them. This went on for some time, and as it went on, Kaleb began to feel the presence of a key rock pressing on his consciousness. It must be nearby, but he couldn’t see in this light, although dawn would be arriving shortly. He suddenly thought it might be possible to connect with the rock with out actually touching it; what’s more, he realised with surprise, that he wanted to. The urge for the rush of tumbling into the spirit realm surged through him, and it terrified him.
A sharp yell drowned out the call of the rock, and Kaleb focused again on the situation at hand. Lyra’s hand no longer covered his mouth; instead it was tightly clutching his sleeve. A loud crack brought his attention to the clearing where there were now three more men, dressed differently and slashing at the others with swords. Two bodies lay unmoving on the ground.
It was three on three, locked in combat, swords flying gracefully against the dull weight of the quarterstaffs. Kaleb stared, paralysed. Beside him, Lyra had also frozen. A crack like the one that had caught Kaleb’s attention sounded again, followed by a yell, and the men with quarterstaffs were joined by three more, and then three more. The odds now tipped dangerously against the swordsmen, but they continued to fight as though nothing had changed. It wasn’t long, however, before one fell, and then another. The last was surrounded, disarmed, and seized by two rather burly men.
Dawn’s rosy fingers had reached the forest, and in the morning light, Kaleb watched in horror as a hooded figure emerged from the group and approached the captured swordsmen.
“Well, well, well,” he said slowly, his voice deep and gravelly, an accent Kaleb had never heard twisted on his tongue as he spoke the words. His back was to Kaleb and Lyra’s hiding place so they could not see his face. “You are a long way from home, captain. Why are you…how you say…trespassing?”
The man he had called captain did not move or respond. The hooded man sighed and removed what looked like riding gloves and gave them to a man standing beside him. With a wave of his hand, the men holding the captain let go. The captain remained motionless.
The hooded man circled him slowly, muttering words Kaleb could not understand, with each one, the captain’s face darkened slightly. Still he refused to move or speak. Suddenly, the hooded man struck a blow to the side of the captain’s head, sending him to the forest floor. Still he did not cry out. The hooded man knelt down in front of him.
“You will die here,” he said softly.
The captain looked at him, smiled slightly and then, with the sharpness of a military manoeuvre, held up a fist and then with his other hand put three fingers in front of it. The hooded man obviously understood the sign, but Kaleb had never seen it before. The hooded man barked out orders in a foreign tongue, and the captain was seized again. His hands were bound behind his back, and then his ankles were tied with a longer piece of rope, which was then thrown over the branch of a tree. Two men pulled the rope until the captain was hanging upside down, about four feet above the ground. They fastened the rope, and then the captain’s sword was handed to the hooded man.
Kaleb heard Lyra take a sharp intake of breath, and realised that they were both trembling. Her grip on his arm had not lessened, and he found that his hand was clutching the grass just as tightly.
The hooded man gave another order and the captain’s jacket and shirt were removed and thrown dangerously close to where Kaleb and Lyra were hiding. The hooded man stood in front of the captain, and examined his sword.
“Ironic, no?” he said quietly. The hooded man suddenly removed his hood and just as suddenly he slashed the sword back and forth across the captain’s back. The captain didn’t scream, instead he only managed a strangled grunt. Kaleb suddenly felt sick, but he couldn’t look away. The man then did the same across the captain’s front, then leant forward and spoke to him, before calmly replacing his hood and waving his group on.
When a few minutes had passed and they could no longer see any of the hooded man’s people, Lyra and Kaleb stirred. Without speaking they crept from their hiding place, their bodies stiff, and their clothes filthy. The captain wasn’t dead, at least not yet, but he was silent and not watching them. Kaleb saw the bodies lying on the ground, battle ruined, and promptly threw up. When he recovered himself, Lyra was staring at the captain.
“Marked,” she whispered. “They’ve marked you.”
At this, the captain seemed to stir into life, and looked up. Kaleb was rooted to the spot, but Lyra seemed to leap into action.
“Get over here,” she barked hoarsely. “Lower him down so I can cut his bonds.”
Kaleb did as she commanded, but was uneasy about cutting the man’s bonds. What if he turned on them? How did they know that he was good and the hooded man was bad? Maybe they were both bad. Like it mattered, Kaleb thought with a stab of bitterness, Lyra could probably take him if she wanted to; at least a man wouldn’t be as shameful as being killed by a girl.
“Get his clothes,” she barked, as she cut him free. All the while, the captain stayed silent, watching both of them closely. When Kaleb returned with the clothes he saw for the first time that the slashes on the man’s body were clearly some sort of sign. A circle with two lines through it was on his front; a broken line and a bolt of lightening were on his back, despite the oozing blood, it was clearly visible. It meant nothing to Kaleb.
“Take off your shirt,” Lyra said. Kaleb started. He didn’t want to do that. Lyra looked up frustrated. “Take one from one of the bodies, then. Just hurry up, I want to stop the bleeding.”
Kaleb looked at the bodies; he didn’t want to take off their shirts either. Reluctantly he went over to the bodies that had just been left by the hooded man’s group. To his horror the first one he came to was a woman. He retched again, but Lyra’s shout for him to hurry forced him to move on and he hurriedly removed the shirt of one of the captain’s companions. Forcing himself not to throw up again, he thrust the shirt at Lyra. She began to mop up the blood and then sent him to get another one and told him to tear it into strips to bind the captain’s wounds. All of this he did without a murmur of protest, dumbly following her every instruction. The gruff laugh of the captain startled him.
“You’re well trained, lad, that’s for sure.” The captain laughed roughly, and then grimaced as Lyra finished her binding. He was of middle years, dark hair and dark eyes, lean in the way travelling soldiers often were. He wasn’t bad looking Kaleb supposed, at least he had the look of a man who had known many women, and he of course had free movement of his body. Kaleb frowned at him, decided to ignore him, and turned to Lyra.
“We should bury them,” he said jerking his head towards the bodies.
“No,” Lyra said, handing the captain his shirt and jacket, and helping him into them. “We have to leave, and quickly.”
“We can’t just leave them,” Kaleb said, though the dead woman’s face flashed in his mind and he almost retched again.
“We have no choice,” Lyra said. “You can’t even look at them without throwing up, and we have no tools to dig with, and even if we did, you’re hardly up to it. Plus,” she continued, “we are still in the domain of the Post. Likelihood is they’ll be tipping of their friends that they strung up a captain, and they’ll be here soon enough. And…”
“All right,” Kaleb snapped.
The captain laughed again. “Don’t look so sour, lad. Tis the lot of a man to be bossed about by his woman.”
Kaleb flushed indignantly. “They’re you’re men lying there as well. Don’t you want to bury them properly?”
“I do,” he said shaking his head. “But we must leave this place now. They would do the same were it me. Tis often this end for a soldier.”
“Well, are you able to walk?” Kaleb asked, and flushed even deeper at the captain’s raised eyebrows.
“Lyra here will keep us both safe I think,” he said with a grin and a wink.
Kaleb frowned again, and let them walk ahead of him. The captain leant on Lyra’s shoulder for a while, before reckoning he was ‘almost good as a spring lamb’ and could walk on his own. They were deep in discussion, a discussion that did not include Kaleb. Kaleb thought Lyra rather foolish, having this man who they didn’t know with them was dangerous. But then, he didn’t know Lyra either. Kaleb wished that Isaac was with him, and hoped that they reached the eastern border with no further obstacle so he could be rid of both Lyra’s demands and the trouble she brought with her.
He was lagging a few steps behind them when Lyra suddenly squealed. Kaleb looked up, to see her clutching the captain’s hand. The captain laughed, and they seemed to forget entirely that he was there.
“What?” he said, looking at one then the other. “What is it?”
“Treyl has seen my family, not two weeks past!” Lyra explained excitedly. “He knows where they are!”
“Treyl?” Kaleb repeated.
“Captain Treyl,” the captain said, clapping Kaleb on the shoulder. “And I am mighty glad I ran into you two. Haven’t seen any of the resistance for months, then run into two of you!”
“Resistance?” Kaleb knew he was sounding dumb again.
“He isn’t resistance,” Lyra explained.
“Ah,” Treyl said. “I see.”
Kaleb hated the way they were both looking at him. He hated that they were in some sort of ‘resistance’ club that he knew nothing about. He shrugged of their looks, and nodded in the direction they had been walking.
“Hadn’t we better keep going?”
“Indeed we had,” Treyl agreed, but didn’t move.
Kaleb began walking, and the others followed, but they were soon a few steps ahead of him, occasionally looking back at him but then continuing their conversation. From the snippets of their conversation that he caught, he gathered that Lyra’s family were of the Mah-ren, or ‘home searchers.’ Kaleb had heard of them, but never met any. They were travellers, essentially, but not gypsies. They searched always for the lost home of the ancestors, though they knew not where it was or how they would know it when they saw it. Treyl had chanced upon them, and he and his men had been offered and had accepted their hospitality. Treyl expressed surprise at Lyra being both Mah-ren and Resistance, to which Lyra’s manner had darkened and she had not said more on the subject. What their Resistance was about, Kaleb didn’t know. He didn’t care. He was exhausted, hungry, his body ached all over, he had just witnessed the most horrible scene of his life, he had no idea really who his present company was, and night would be falling soon. They should find shelter.
“We should find shelter,” he said, not caring that he had interrupted their conversation.
“Ah, the boy speaks,” Treyl said with that same gruff laugh.
“Not yet,” Lyra responded. “We need to clear these trees.”
“And camp in the open?” Kaleb replied irritably. Why did she always dismiss everything he said? Who put her in charge?
“No,” Lyra said as though he was stupid. “There is a small village nearby. We can find food and shelter there.”
“Yeah, so can everyone else who traipses through here,” Kaleb snapped.
“Not so, lad,” Treyl said shaking his head. “It is beyond the easy reach of the Post and other unsavoury characters. They know where they are not welcome. Tisn’t perfect, but will do for one night.”
Kaleb snorted, but they were already involved in their conversation again. Kaleb lagged behind wishing fervently he was anywhere else. Isaac had specifically told him to be careful, not to trust anyone and to avoid settlements. He could almost feel his tutor’s cane on the back of his head. Well, he thought to himself, it’s all well and good for Isaac to say that but his body wasn’t ruined. Nobody understood how difficult everything was for him.
“What?” he barked angrily. Lyra had pulled him from his wallowing. As if she hadn’t done enough to him already.
“Night’s falling,” she snapped, irritated by his response. “We aren’t going to make it to the village after all.”
“So,” she said her voice rising, “we are going to chance it in the woods.”
“Look here, Kaleb, if you think for one second…” she rounded on him.
“Quiet, both of you. You’re giving me a headache.” Treyl was scanning the area and directed them towards a large fallen tree. “This’ll do nicely. Lyra you know the edible roots, see what you can find. Kaleb, fetch some firewood.”
“Do you think a fire is a good idea?” Lyra asked uncertainly. Kaleb agreed with her, but said nothing. It annoyed him that Lyra wasn’t nearly so free in insulting Treyl as she was with him.
“Gets terrible cold at night. We can take it in turn to guard if it makes you feel better.”
Lyra didn’t seemed overly satisfied and Kaleb wasn’t either, but he wasn’t going to say so to her. Instead he went in the opposite direction and gathered dry wood. It was everywhere so he returned quickly. Treyl already had a piece of wood smoking and signalled Kaleb to drop his armload.
“That’ll be enough,” he said, motioning for Kaleb to sit.
He lowered himself awkwardly to the ground, and then leant back against the trunk of the tree, and closed his eyes.
“Not Resistance,” Treyl said as he stacked the wood. “And clearly not a member of the Post. Yet you have been in the hands of both. Lyra tells me you came to be in the hands of the Post by attempting to help her.”
Kaleb thought he could hear amusement in the captain’s voice. But why shouldn’t a man like Treyl find his pathetic attempt amusing. He couldn’t even help himself, how could he help a girl like Lyra. He wondered about who the captain was, where he had come from, what the resistance was, what the sign had meant that he had made to the Post, who even were the Post… so many questions in every direction.
“So, what lies in the East?”
Kaleb shrugged. He didn’t feel like talking.
“Bet people tell you you talk too much, right?” Treyl said and laughed. He held up his hands at Kaleb’s frown. “Nah, it’s understandable. You don’t trust me. Ask your questions, lad.” He raised an eyebrow. “I know you got some at least.”
Kaleb regarded him for a moment, debating which of his many questions to ask.
“What kind of a captain are you?” he said finally.
“Well,” Treyl said rocking back on his heels, “years ago I was packed off to the Royal Academy, to train as part of the Royal Guard. I graduated and was quickly promoted to captain. Since then, I have fallen out with the capital, and well…” he made a sweeping gesture with his hand. “The king recognises the faithful.” He gave a bark of laughter and poked the fire.
“You are in a resistance against the king?”
“No, I am not part of it,” Treyl shrugged. “I sympathise with those who are, but as a soldier I swore never to raise arms against my king.”
“But you support those who fight him?”
“No, I said I sympathised with them. I understand their grievances, but as they pour their scorn and hate on the king, they blind themselves to the real problem, the shadows in the corridors of power that pull the strings of the kingdom…” Treyl’s good humour had left his face, and Kaleb saw an angry set in his jaw and bitterness in his eyes. As if Treyl knew he was betraying something rawer than he intended, he managed to wipe his face clear of it.
“So you will go with Lyra?” Kaleb said.
“She is a little young for me,” Treyl said, the same gruff laugh back again. “But then, young women do inspire men’s younger feelings.”
“I didn’t mean…”
“I know, relax. You’re so jittery.” Treyl poked the fire again, but didn’t say what he planned to do once they reached the border. Kaleb tried to dismiss it as a problem that wasn’t his, but instead told himself they would all know soon enough anyway.
They didn’t say much more, and Lyra soon arrived back. She gave Kaleb a reprovingly look and handed Treyl the bundle of roots and berries she had found. There weren’t many, and Kaleb was starving. He said nothing, but disappointment must have shown on his face.
“If you think you could do a better job, feel free,” Lyra said hotly, glaring at him.
“I didn’t say anything,” Kaleb protested.
“It’ll be fine, Lyra,” the captain said.
“It’ll have to be,” Kaleb muttered, and slouched against the tree again.
Lyra distributed the food into three equal piles, handed Treyl his and then roughly nudged Kaleb with her foot. He reached past her and picked his up. He didn’t recognise any of it, and for a moment panicked that they were trying to poison him. He rejected the notion upon seeing both Lyra and Treyl devour theirs. It tasted bitter, but he didn’t care and found it was finished all too quickly. He sighed, and Lyra glared at him again. Before she could say anything, Treyl spoke.
“Kaleb and I will take shifts,” he said, raising his hand to stop Lyra’s protests. “Don’t argue. Just because you choose not to behave like a lady, doesn’t mean we have to stop behaving like gentlemen.”
Lyra snorted. “Stop? I wasn’t aware you had started.”
Treyl waved her comment away. “Get some sleep. I’ll go first.”
“No, I will.” Kaleb suspected that Treyl wouldn’t wake him when it was his turn, and he hated that both he and Lyra treated him as though he always needed to be specially catered for. This at least was something he could do.
Treyl inclined his head, and settled down by the fire. Lyra reluctantly followed his example. Almost immediately they were both asleep. Kaleb poked the fire thoughtfully, and listened to the forest to see if he could hear anything unusual. He immediately wished he hadn’t. A calling he had heard whispers of all day now battered his mind. Rocks and stones lay all around him, he was instantly aware of the ones that were buried, or broken, and he felt keenly their fractures as though they were his own. They all called to him, a barrage of rumbling demands and half buried whispers almost knocked onto his back.
A few steps from where Treyl lay was a key rock. Kaleb felt its presence more sharply amongst the clamour, though he couldn’t say why. He felt that same urge to touch it that he had earlier, and he now realised, it was similar to how he felt when reading the Arch Rock. He felt repelled and attracted to it in equal measure, and found he had moved towards it. He felt again that he could connect with it without actually touching it, but the surrender of his mind in that way was too terrifying a prospect. At least, some part of him reasoned, if he touched it he could always just let go. That would break the connection, wouldn’t it? His hand hovered over it for a moment, and then he touched it.
He was tumbling faster and faster, a swirling fog whipped passed his face, blinding him. He could hear a deep rumbling, but it was distant and Kaleb could not distinguish any words in it.
“What do you want?” He shouted, his voice distant, not his own.
There was no answer, only a sense that he was being propelled forward. Suddenly the mist cleared and he felt that he was hurtling over countryside. Mountain, stream and village went past so quickly they all became one, until suddenly a hooded figure hovered in front of him. It turned slowly and before Kaleb saw the face he knew who it was.
“There you are,” Shahlok’s silvery voice said inside his head. “I have been looking for you.”
Kaleb felt a massive pressure in his chest and then felt as though he was tumbling backwards. With a thud, he realised that he was lying face down on the forest floor. Gasping, and with sweat matting his hair, he struggled to his feet. Nausea washed over him and he threw up. Supporting himself by holding one of the roots of the fallen tree, he breathed deeply. The forest was silent except for its usual sounds, and Kaleb sank to his knees in relief. He turned his head to where the others lay, remembering suddenly that he was supposed to be watching over them and saw instead that Treyl was sitting up and watching him.
“Well, well,” he said softly. “You are more than you seem.”
you need to bathe,” the woman said, but Kaleb sensed that Treyl had every confidence he could win this, and any other woman to his cause.
“We are quite different people when we are clean,” Treyl said. “And we can pay, good madam, we ask no charity.”
The woman ran her eye first over Treyl, taking him in, and then looked quite disgusted at Kaleb. Lyra she completely ignored.
“Very well,” she conceded, her eyes going back to Treyl. “There be more than one way to settle a bill, good sir, just remember that.”
Treyl smiled as though he didn’t know what she meant and then followed her through the door. Lyra and Kaleb followed him.
“There is only the one room left,” she said leading them up a narrow stairway.
“One will be wonderful,” Treyl replied walking into the room she indicated. It would do, Kaleb thought, but it certainly wasn’t wonderful.
“There’s some hot water all ready through there,” she said waving to a room across the hall. “You should use it before you do anything else. But don’t be all day about it, I got other paying guests you know.”
“You have been most kind,” Treyl said graciously.
Lyra made a disparaging sound in her throat, but the landlady didn’t hear. She said if they needed anything, she would be downstairs preparing their breakfast and they need only ask, but as she said so her eyes remained on Treyl. When she left, Lyra announced that Treyl should bathe first so she could examine his wounds. Treyl declined, and told her to go, as was only polite. She raised an eyebrow at that, but Kaleb saw that she was actually grateful.
She disappeared into the other room, and returned about ten minutes later. She had wrapped a towel around herself and carried her clothes in her hands.
“Both of you give me yours, so I can wash them,” she said holding out her hands.
“Well, no sense putting a clean body into dirty clothes,” Treyl said, pulling his shirt over his head.
“I’ll give you mine after I’ve bathed,” Kaleb said. He desperately didn’t want to undress in front of Lyra, especially with a much better formed man standing beside him.
“Kaleb, it’s not like it makes any difference to me,” she said slightly impatiently.
“It makes a difference to me,” he said softly.
Whether she pitied him, or she heard the genuine plea in his voice, she relented.
“Fine,” she said throwing up her hands. “Get in there now. And be quick.” She called after him as he hurried into the bathing room.
He pulled off his clothes and discarded them in a heap. He climbed into the tub and felt the benefits of the heat immediately. It soothed his aching body, and for a minute his head cleared of every other worry. Ducking his head under he washed himself free of all the dirt that he had accumulated since leaving his village. When he stepped out of the water, it was filthy. He grinned. For some reason, it amused him that he had gotten so dirty. He wrapped a towel around himself, pulling it up to his chest to cover as much of his body as possible. Scooping up his clothes, he crossed back into their room.
Lyra was removing Treyl’s bindings, and didn’t look up.
“Just drop them over there,” she said waving behind her.
Kaleb did so and then sat down in a chair. The bath had relaxed him, and in seconds he was asleep. He was woken by Lyra shaking him.
Kaleb sat up and realised his towel had dropped to his waist, revealing his chest to the scrutiny of Lyra and Treyl. He suddenly felt that while he had been asleep, they had been jeering at him. In fact, his chest was not ill-set at all, but ever conscious of his inadequacies, he flushed a deep red.
“Where are my clothes?” he said tightly.
“Hanging up to dry,” Lyra said handing him a plate.
He stood up and walked over to where his shirt hung over a chair. It was still wet but he pulled it over his head anyway. Lyra watched him but said nothing. It was only then that Kaleb realised Treyl wasn’t with them. He took the plate from Lyra, and sat back down in the chair. He ate in silence and then put his plate back on the tray. Lyra stood up and moved to one of the beds.
“Treyl has gone to find out what he can, and to buy some herbs,” she said climbing under the covers. “He said to catch up on sleep.”
Kaleb nodded stiffly, but was still glowering at what he felt was his exploitation.
“You don’t have to sleep in the chair,” Lyra said. “There are two beds.”
“I’m fine here,” Kaleb answered shortly.
She shrugged and lay down. They were silent for a few minutes, and Kaleb began to wish he had gone to the other bed. Not wishing to give her the satisfaction, he remained where he was. He felt sleep coming again, and surrendered himself.
“It’s not as bad as you think, Kaleb,” Lyra said softly, just before he fell asleep.
Rest and Recuperation
Kaleb woke to the sound of Lyra screaming. In a panic he tumbled out of the chair, tripped, and sprawled on the floor, skinning his knees.
“What?” he said, his voice high pitched, as he scrambled to his feet and her bedside. “What is it?” he asked again, at the same moment as realising what it was.
“Lyra,” he said taking hold of her wrists, as she thrashed about. “Lyra, it’s just a dream. Wake up!”
Her eyes flew open, but she was not properly awake. She thrashed one arm free of Kaleb and tore at his skin, her nail catching his neck and drawing a dark red scratch from his ear to his collar bone.
“Lyra,” Kaleb said firmly, grabbing hold of her again. “It’s okay, it’s just a dream.”
He repeated this, until the shouting and thrashing subsided. Tears spilled down Lyra’s cheeks, waking her up fully. When she saw Kaleb, she wrenched her wrists free.
“Leave me alone!” she barked.
“I said leave me alone,” she yelled again, turning her back on him and pulling the covers tightly around her.
He stood up and backed away from her. He wasn’t sure that leaving her alone was the best idea, but she was too proud to want him to remain there. Scooping up the rest of his clothes he got dressed, pulled on his boots and quietly left the room.
Once outside he saw that it was early evening; they had slept most of the day. He inhaled deeply, and wandered to the low wall that surrounded the inn and leant against it. People walked past, barely giving him a second look, but Kaleb couldn’t see Treyl. He wanted to move on tomorrow and reach the border by the following evening. He didn’t know how big a lead he had on Shahlok, but he knew every second of it would count.
“What are you doing?” the landlady said sharply from behind him.
“Nothing, madam,” Kaleb said, straightening. “Just getting some air.”
“Aye, well that’s one way to put it,” she said. Kaleb didn’t know what she meant. She gestured to the scratch on his neck. He had forgotten about it, but blood was leaking from it. “Your girl give you that, eh? Bit unwilling was she? Heard the kerfuffle from downstairs. You want to watch yourself sonny, don’t take kindly to your type here.”
“You have it wrong…” Kaleb began indignantly, raising his fingers to the cut.
“Sure I do,” she said hoisting a basket on to her hip, and then leant closer to him. “What folks do behind closed doors is their own business, but don’t be disturbing no one else, you hear? I’m trying to run a respectable business here.”
She turned back inside, muttering about ‘his sort’ and ‘reputable business’ all the way. Kaleb sighed and leant back against the wall. He wiped at the blood on his neck absently and wondered how many more injuries he would take before this whole thing was over. With a stab he wondered whether this would ever be over.
“Huh?” Kaleb said dumbly.
“Lyra, where is she?” Treyl said. Kaleb hadn’t noticed him approach, but now saw that he held a bundle under one arm.
“Upstairs,” he said. He noticed Treyl’s eyes go to his neck questioningly. To avoid them, he nodded at the bundle he was carrying. “What’s that?”
“Some things that might be useful,” Treyl said vaguely.
“We should move on tomorrow,” Kaleb said, thrusting his hands in his pockets as the evening wind brought a chill with it.
“Indeed,” Treyl nodded, and then grinned. “I have good news about that. I’ll tell you over dinner. Get us a table inside and I’ll put this away and fetch Lyra down.”
Kaleb shrugged, slightly relieved that he didn’t have to go and get Lyra, and they turned inside. Treyl went upstairs and Kaleb turned into the main room of the inn. It was already quite busy, as people came back from working the fields but he spotted a table in the corner. He made his way over, and sat down. A serving girl came over to him.
“You’re with that young gentleman, aren’t you?” she said, looking him over.
Kaleb nodded slightly.
“Will he be joining you?” She asked, unmasked hope in her eyes.
Kaleb nodded again.
She beamed at him. “Very good, I’ll be back with two drinks then.”
“Three,” Kaleb said. “There will be three of us.”
She nodded and scurried away. Kaleb looked around the room and his eyes fell on a group of three men by the bar. They were looking at him in a way that made him wish that Treyl would hurry up. He looked away, hoping they would soon get bored, but instead, to his horror, they began making their way over. As they approached he saw that they were already quite drunk; this did nothing to calm him down. He told himself he was in a crowded bar and nothing could therefore happen to him. He was still telling himself this when they reached his table. Two slid in opposite him, one took the chair next to him.
“Evenin’” one of them slurred. “Want a drink?”
“Nah,” the second one said. “Look at him, ain’t nothing to him. He’s just a scrap of a lad, don’t be pushing the drink on him, Scape.”
“I weren’t asking you,” the one called Scape said before turning his attention back to Kaleb. They all reeked of alcohol, but Scape insisted on leaning across the table to speak to him. “Now, like I said, drink?”
“No, thank you,” Kaleb said, which caused them all to roar with laughter.
“What do you reckon, some rich man’s son?” one of them said.
“Gots to be,” the other said, “ain’t no one got manners like that round here!”
“Here, I do,” Scape protested, which sent them all into another fit of laughter.
“What do you reckon we could get for him?” the one next to Kaleb said.
“Not much,” Scape slurred. “You seen him come in, the boy barely walks.”
“Aye, Scape,” the one next to him said, again laughing. “If I were his pa I wouldn’t pay nothing for him neither.”
“Be rather glad to see him go,” Scape said slamming his palm on the table as though it was all uproarious. They were all laughing manically, when Scape suddenly leaned across the table and seized Kaleb by the front of his shirt.
“You got any rich friends?” he hissed.
“Gentlemen, be so kind as to release my friend.” Kaleb had never been so glad to see Treyl.
“He’s with you?” One of them said, flashing a look at Scape.
“Yes he is.” Treyl said, an unspoken threat in his words. “Here, get yourselves a round.” He tossed a coin at Scape who caught it and nodded at his friends.
“Just being friendly,” he said as he stood up.
“Yes,” Treyl said with an unpleasant grin. “I’m sure you were.”
When they had gone, Treyl caught Kaleb’s eye. Kaleb shrugged as if to say he was fine, and Treyl and Lyra sat down opposite him. Lyra saw the mark on his neck, but when she saw him looking at her, she dropped her eyes and said nothing. The serving girl arrived back and put the drinks on the table, apologising profusely for the delay. Treyl flirted effortlessly with her over it, and she left the table blushing.
“So,” Kaleb said, bringing Treyl’s focus back to the table. “What’s the good news?”
“We leave tomorrow morning,” Treyl said leaning in, “but I have secured us a ride on a cart all the way to the border!”
Kaleb wasn’t sure if that was a good idea. A cart meant sticking to the main roads, something Isaac had told him not to do. But then the ride would be much friendlier to his body.
“Well, don’t all thank me at once,” Treyl said, sitting back. Lyra had apparently not said anything either.
“What time are we leaving?” Kaleb asked.
Treyl shrugged. “Whenever they come and get us. It’s a farmer and his son. We don’t always have do things the hard way you know.”
The serving girl return with bread and stew, and continued her exchange with Treyl. Kaleb didn’t care; this was the first decent meal he had had in ages. If Treyl wanted to waste time twittering with some girl that was his choice.
As it turned out, the girl got called away so Treyl ate at the same time as them. When he was done eating, Kaleb felt tiredness wash over him. He yawned.
“Go to bed,” Treyl said. “And you Lyra. I’m going to stay here for a bit, get to know the locals.” He grinned, but Lyra frowned.
“You are not,” she said sharply. “I have to clean and dress your wounds. You have the herbs, I have the opportunity.”
“Lyra, I’m a grown man, I can do it myself.” Treyl said with a smile.
Lyra snorted. “Being a grown man is exactly what stops you being able to do it yourself. You want it to get infected?”
Treyl laughed. “I see what it must have been like for you, lad. Very well, Lyra, very well.”
They left the main room, much to the serving girl’s disappointment, and returned to their room. Once there Lyra took charge of Treyl again, ordering him to remove his shirt. Kaleb offered to help mix the herbs, as Lyra removed the dressings. Treyl winced as she did so, but in the candlelight of their room, Kaleb again saw clearly the strange markings.
“What do they mean?” he asked.
Treyl and Lyra exchanged a look. “I’ll explain later,” Treyl said finally. “This is no place to talk of such things.”
Kaleb handed Lyra the herbs and accepted that this was just another question which he would have to wait for the answer to. As he watched Lyra apply the herb paste to Treyl’s chest, he wondered about exactly who these people were. Treyl was a soldier who had fallen out with the capital and the king, but what else was he? How often had he had pretty girls tend his battle wounds? That thought led him to thoughts about Lyra; how many men had she done this sort of thing for? As she told Treyl to turn around so she could do his back, he looked at her properly for the first time. She was around his age, long dark hair that she always bound, and a slight frame. But that he had noted all before. Something about her tonight, maybe the way she moved, made him realise that she was actually quite pretty, if not in the conventional way. He realised why he hadn’t noticed before; she was always shouting at him or ordering him around, so that is all he had seen of her.
He watched her hands apply the medicinal paste to Treyl’s back; did part of her enjoy this? Treyl could charm every other woman, why should she be any different? His attractiveness could not have escaped her notice. Then he wondered if Treyl enjoyed having Lyra touch him; one look at his face told Kaleb that all Treyl felt was the stinging pain that came with every one of her touches. Somehow, that pleased him.
“You don’t have to watch,” Lyra said without turning around. “Go to bed.”
“Have the bed, boy,” Treyl said, when he saw Kaleb was heading for the chair. “I’ll take the chair. I’m not going to be able to lie down with this anyway.”
Kaleb nodded and climbed into the bed. He lay down and felt comfortable for the first time since he had left home. Lyra was irritably telling Treyl to ‘stop fidgeting like a child’ and he was muttering about her ‘making it sting on purpose’ but Kaleb fell asleep before he heard the end of their exchange.
On the Road Again
Some hours later Kaleb awoke. Lyra was asleep in the other bed and Treyl was asleep in the chair. He climbed out of bed and made his way into the bathroom to relieve himself. As he walked back into the room, he heard Lyra start to murmur something. He shut the door quietly, in case that had been what disturbed her. She moved restlessly in the bed and her murmurings became louder.
“Lyra,” he said softly, moving towards her.
Sweat beaded on her brow, and her hands clutched and unclutched the blankets. She cried out, names and places that Kaleb didn’t recognise, and Kaleb saw tears beginning to spill down her cheeks again. Reaching out he took a firm but gentle hold of her hands.
“Wake up, Lyra,” he said. “It’s just a dream. You’re safe.”
She resisted him, just as she had earlier that day, but this time he was more wary. He repeated what he had said, as he had done earlier until she woke up. When she did, she gasped, and then snatched her hands away from him. He realised he was sitting on the edge of her bed and stood up quickly; too quickly. He lost his balance and almost fell, catching himself at the last minute. He flushed and stammered something about the bathroom and that she hadn’t woken him, and then wished he hadn’t said anything.
She was sitting up still but not meeting his eye.
“Are you all right?” he said quietly.
“Yes,” she snapped.
He nodded and began to make his way back to his bed.
“Kaleb,” she said quietly, as he stepped away from her bed. “It’s…I don’t…I mean…” she sighed.
He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it.” He got back into his bed and lay down. Lyra didn’t speak again.
He was woken by Lyra’s cries twice more that night, and each time he went through the same procedure. Each time she would fight against him, and then recoil when she woke up. The second time, as Kaleb returned to his bed, he realised that Treyl was also awake.
“Nicely done, lad,” he said softly. Kaleb barely heard him as he sank again into his bed.
Morning came and when Kaleb woke, Lyra was checking Treyl’s binding, much to his annoyance.
“You checked it last night,” Treyl was saying. “All I’ve done is sit in that chair, what could have happened?”
“Stop moaning,” Lyra replied.
“I’m fine, I don’t need to check it every five seconds to know that.”
“Complain, complain, complain. That’s all you’ve done. You’re starting to make me wish I’d left you on that tree.”
“I already wish you had!”
“When are we leaving?” Kaleb said, easing himself onto his feet.
“When mistress healer here is finished,” Treyl said, and nodded at a tray of food.
Kaleb went over to the tray and began eating. As he did so, a thought occurred to him. “How are we paying for all of this?”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Treyl said, wincing as Lyra finished tying the bandage. “It’s covered.”
There was a shout from the street.
“That’ll be our cart,” Treyl said, pulling on his shirt and jacket. “Let’s go.”
Treyl grabbed his bundle of ‘useful things’ and settled things with the landlady before they came outside. An oldish man and a young man stood by a cart. Treyl went to them and greeted them, and then introduced Kaleb and Lyra. They tipped their hats at Lyra, and shook hands with Kaleb. If they were surprised by how he looked, they didn’t show it. Treyl must have warned them, Kaleb thought as the farmer’s son pulled him onto the back of the cart. He pulled Lyra up next to him and Treyl jumped up gracefully. The son then climbed onto the driver’s seat next to his father and they started off.
They travelled in relative silence, until Treyl announced that if Kaleb and Lyra were going to be such dull company, he would leave them to it. He got up and stood behind the driver’s seat, and conversed with the farmer and his boy. Kaleb leant back against the hay bundles and closed his eyes. He was woken when the cart went over a large bump in the road. The sun was much further along its cycle, and the air was cooler.
“There’s some food for you here,” Lyra said handing him some bread and an apple. “You were asleep; I didn’t think I should wake you.”
Kaleb took the food from her and ate it hungrily. It wasn’t brilliant, but it was food, and he could never be too sure when his next meal was coming.
“How much further is it?” he asked between bites.
“Not much further, I think we’ll get there by nightfall.”
“What will you do then?” Kaleb asked.
Lyra scowled and then shrugged.
“I thought you wanted to go east,” Kaleb said, tossing away the core of the apple.
Lyra shrugged again. “East, west, north south, doesn’t make much difference.”
“Where is your family?”
Lyra gave a bitter laugh and shrugged again.
Kaleb looked at her in confusion. “But, I thought when Treyl said…”
“You don’t understand,” Lyra said angrily, but then with what seemed an effort, brought her voice back under control. “What’s in the east for you anyway?”
“A friend I hope,” Kaleb said.
“Oh,” Lyra said in surprise. “I assumed you were hoping to see the elves…”
This time Kaleb scowled. Yes he wanted to see the elves, but the chance of that was even slimmer now that he had a dreamscaper on his trail. And what if they couldn’t help him? Then there would be no hope for him.
“I mean, I hear they can do magic that we can’t imagine,” Lyra continued. “So they could probably heal you.”
Kaleb tried to muster a nonchalant shrug.
“Don’t you want to be normal?” Lyra asked.
Of all the things she had said to him, that one stung the most. He looked away from her, and she seemed to realise what she had said.
“Kaleb, I didn’t mean…” she began.
“Lyra,” Treyl said sharply. “Get up here and hold this lantern.”
When they arrived on the border, Treyl thanked the farmers and pressed some coins into their hands. They tipped their hats and were on their way. There were lights in the windows of the buildings of the border settlements, and Kaleb wondered which one had Isaac in.
“Well, lad,” Treyl said looking around. “Where is this friend of yours going to be?”
“I’m not sure,” Kaleb said. “One of the inns I suppose.”
Treyl nodded. “Well we can work our way along some of them tonight, see if we can find him.” He grinned suddenly. “Or her.”
“What do you want me to do for you?” Kaleb asked.
To his surprise a guilty look flashed across Treyl’s face. “Ah, later boy, I haven’t fulfilled my side yet.”
They started towards the street, this time Lyra lagged behind.
“Listen, these border towns are usually pretty rough,” Treyl said as they approached the first inn. “Just be careful what you say, and how you look at people. And don’t say anything about where we’ve come from, or who we are…”
“Treyl,” Lyra sighed. “Just go in.”
Treyl pushed open the door and went in. It wasn’t too busy yet, but Kaleb scanned the crowd for Isaac. He hadn’t really expected to see him, but was still disappointed that he wasn’t there. Treyl asked at the bar, but the tender shook his head.
“Tis only the first try,” Treyl said as they walked outside again. “Plenty more to see.”
They tried a further three inns, each time Kaleb became a little more disheartened and as the time passed, that turned to anxiety. Where was he? He should be here already. As they reached the end of the main street, Kaleb sighed.
“We can check again tomorrow,” Treyl said. “Maybe he’s out for the night.”
Kaleb shook his head and looked back down the street. Treyl started to talk again, but Kaleb was looking past him, sure he could see movement in the shadows. He walked past Treyl and Lyra and headed towards it. He hurried as fast as he could, but the shadow moved down a side street.
“Kaleb,” Lyra called. “What are you doing?”
Kaleb ignored her and pursued the figure down the alley. He heard Lyra and Treyl’s footsteps as they ran after him, but he turned behind a building. Suddenly his back was against a wall, a fist was tightly gripping the front of his shirt, lifting him about a foot off the ground. It was too dark to see who it was, but he was quickly released as Treyl’s fist came into contact with the figure’s jaw. Lyra came tumbling round the corner and seized Kaleb’s sleeve, pulling him towards the entrance of the alley. Treyl had tight hold of the man and pushed him against the wall.
“Who are you?” Treyl demanded.
“You pursued me!” the voice said indignantly.
Treyl raised his fist.
“Wait,” Kaleb said, and then, “Isaac?”
“Kaleb? Is that you, boy? I can’t see in this damned light.”
“Isaac!” Kaleb said, relief bursting into his voice.
“Oh,” Treyl said, releasing his grip. “Sorry.”
The old man pulled Kaleb into a rough hug.
“What has happened, Isaac?” Kaleb asked. “Where’s Shahlok?”
“Quiet, don’t mention that name here,” Isaac said. “I’m staying at the Horse and Rider, we’ll talk more there. Come on, I do not wish to lurk in the shadows of a border settlement any longer.”
They scurried to the inn where Isaac was staying, and the four of them gathered in his room.
“Well,” Isaac said as they sat on the available flat surfaces. “You’ve swelled your ranks since we last spoke. Who do we have here?”
“This is Treyl, he’s a captain. We found him; he was strung up on a tree.” Kaleb said nodding at Treyl.
“A soldier,” Isaac said rubbing his jaw. “Of course.”
“Apologies,” Treyl said with a casual shrug.
Isaac made a disgruntled sound, but turned to look at Lyra. “And who is this? Surely you didn’t find her hanging from a tree as well.”
“Not a tree,” Kaleb said slowly. “But she was tied up. We both were. She helped me escape.”
“I think,” Isaac said taking off his cloak. “You should start from when I left you.”
And so Kaleb began his report. When he got to the part about the calling of the key rock, and seeing Shahlok, he left it out. He also left out Lyra’s nightmares, and his deal with Treyl. Isaac questioned him as they went along, and seemed to know he was holding back, but he didn’t press him.
“Well, that is quite a story,” Isaac said. He looked up at Treyl and Lyra. “You looked starved, why don’t you get yourselves something to eat before the kitchens close?”
Treyl took the hint and he and Lyra left, closing the door behind them.
“Now, boy,” Isaac said quietly, “why don’t you tell me all the things you’ve left out?”
So Kaleb began again. He told him all he knew of both Lyra and Treyl, but left out Lyra’s nightmares. He told him how he felt the oppressive presence of the rocks, how he had touched the rock and seen Shahlok and what Shahlok had said.
“This is very bad news,” Isaac said standing and beginning to pace. “He has located you through the earth. You will be like a beacon to him now. Are you sure there is nothing you still need to tell me?”
Kaleb shrugged. Isaac eyed him closely.
“Why does this captain stay with you?”
“We saved him,” Kaleb answered.
“So it’s gratitude? No, Kaleb, he’s a soldier, beholden to no one below him, and you are below him. Why does he stay?” Isaac stopped pacing. “Does he know you can stone-listen?”
“Yes,” Kaleb said slowly. “He was there when I saw Shahlok.”
“Did he make a deal with you?” he almost whispered.
“He said if he got me to you safely then…” Kaleb’s heart was pounding.
“Then what? What, boy? What were the terms?”
“He didn’t name them,” Kaleb stammered. “He asked would I do him a favour…”
“Foolish boy,” Isaac snapped. “You are bound, and you don’t even know for what. My back is turned for a minute and you throw your lot in with a deserter and a rebel, and then lock yourself into a deal with him! Who knows what he is going to demand!”
“I needed help,” Kaleb replied. “There was nobody, and he offered!”
“Of course he did,” Isaac muttered angrily. “And the girl? Why does she stay?”
“I don’t think she has anywhere to go,” Kaleb mumbled.
“What does she mean to you?” Isaac asked, looking Kaleb in the eye.
“What do you mean?” Kaleb asked, taken aback by the question.
“I mean how far are you connected? Do you like her? Do you desire her?”
“Isaac!” Kaleb cried blushing.
“Has she changed at all since you connected with Shahlok?”
“Well, not really,” Kaleb said, flustered. “Except…”
“What, boy, except what?”
“She has nightmares,” Kaleb said reluctantly. “She cries out most of the night.”
Isaac looked slightly paler than he had done.
“What is it, Isaac?” Kaleb whispered.
“You have exposed her to Shahlok. He will use her to find you, get to you any way he can. He is a dreamscaper, Kaleb, and he is scaping her dreams. She was asleep when you read the rock?”
Kaleb nodded miserably.
“You are now bound to her. You cannot leave her, or Shahlok will destroy her. He knows you won’t allow that. He is ruthless, boy, and whatever dreadful images he is polluting her sleep with, I will have to find out. He wants you and he doesn’t care who he has to remove to get to you.”
Kaleb felt sick. “How did you get away?”
“Shahlok is arrogant. He considers himself vastly superior; once you left, he considered me an irritation, but not a threat.” Isaac shrugged. “He took my horse.”
“What do we do now?” Kaleb asked bleakly.
“Well, you have managed to ensure that our new friends join us,” Isaac said sitting down with a sigh. “But we must move through the elven forests, and then south to the capital.”
“Isaac, why?” Kaleb said quietly. “Why do we have to? What is going on?”
“A storm is approaching,” Isaac said slowly. “One that will destroy everything we hold dear. It must be stopped, Kaleb.”
“But what can I do?”
“Anything you must,” Isaac said sadly. “I’m sorry my boy, you have the future of us all resting on your shoulders. It’s a burden I can’t take from you, destiny has chosen you.”
“But I can’t do anything,” Kaleb said, “I don’t know anything. I don’t understand Isaac.”
“You will when you need to,” Isaac said softly. “For now, rest up. We begin a new journey tomorrow.”
*** I haven't finished. This is as much as I've done so far.****