Part IV. “Departure”
Jaun was coming to the conclusion that Fel didn’t like him very much, or at worst didn’t trust him. Ever since he came back to Aldred’s home with their costumes he had been acting strange. He would never initiate a conversation, even though Jaun had initially taken him for a talker. He too, would sit by the fireplace smoking a pipe or reading a book, while watching Jaun. He tried to make it look like he wasn’t watching, but he could see a cold stare floating over the rim of his pipe. They were the watchful eyes of a predator.
Vulden had been right about mankind. They are a fickle lot, full of strife and envy at their best, and murder and mayhem at their worst. Aldred was seemingly a good man, at least as far as he could tell, never having met more than one other man before, but even Aldred was not pure of heart. He was full of anger which seemed to come mostly out of fear. He was uncertain of whether it was fear of death or of the unknown. After having come so close to death, Jaun felt like he had some understanding of that fear. It was a visceral reaction, and one that still came on every time he closed his eyes. Those things, the Avatars, were unnatural. After spending a whole lifetime among nature, he could tell what was and was not present in the creation of things, and the Avatars were decidedly not natural. He could still see their glowing eyes when he laid down and when he got up. When his fingers grazed fresh scar on the side of his ear he remembered the feel of steel brushing against him, nearly taking his life. They were still out in the world looking for him, and as he put on the uniform Fel had brought him, the more he realized he may have to face them. As he clasped the last button on his black leather doublet, he saw the quake in his hand. He quickly put his hand on the hilt of his father’s sword to steady it.
Jaun stood in front of a large mirror in one of Aldred’s bedrooms. The uniform was stiff, and more constricting than what he was used to, but it had enough movement in the arms and legs that if his training needed to be called upon, he would be able to fight effectively. The uniform was weather worn from use, no doubt Fel had killed someone for it, probably the real Sir Brisbane’s squire. The original squire was probably no older than he was, which meant he too had been raised in Mazaroth’s Anaroth, and not the kingdom of his father’s. To him, this new, twisted world was normal. A world at war was natural. What must he have thought about the kingdom that came before, about the Elves, about the Magi of Unidor? Were they evil to him? Did he know the truth, or a different kind of truth? Whether he knew the truth or not, Fel had killed him, making him another victim in a war full of them. It was enough to make Jaun want to scream. Vulden was right about men.
He heard the creak of the door behind him. Aldred pushed through with a pack. It was a canvas bag with two solid leather straps, clasped with copper buckles.
“These are some provisions for the road. The last I have. It should be enough to get you there as long as you eat light.” He looked Jaun up and down, letting his eyes linger at the sword and dagger at Jaun’s belt.
“Thank you Aldred,” Jaun replied. “And I mean it. Thank you for everything. I doubt Fel knows how to patch up broken bones as well as you.”
Aldred hesitated before he spoke. Jaun was uncertain if it was because he didn’t know how to accept praise, but Aldred quickly turned around and closed the door with a soft click.
“It is very important,” he began, turning around. “That on your travels you conceal that sword of yours.”
Juan felt the cold grip of fear tighten his stomach. He had been so careful to watch his words and make sure none slipped. No one could know it was him the Avatars were after, if people did, then his life would be in more danger than it already was. Vulden had taught him to keep the secret regardless of the costs. If the old elf were here, he would not have hesitated slitting Aldred’s throat, but Jaun felt something different in his chest that caused him to hesitate from making the killing blow. He had been trained how to kill, but now that the time had come, he did not want to.
“I, uh, don’t know what you mean?” His body tensed up, waiting for the inevitable accusations.
“I mean you can’t go walking around flaunting across all civilization that you have a fucking paladin’s sword. Do you know how many of those damn things were even made? Do you know how powerful, how valuable, and how fucking recognizable those things are?” Aldred paused for breath, as he tried to contain his anger that was seeping out of his pores. “The fact you have one of those means one of two things, either you are working with or against Mazaroth. There are no in-betweens. The preponderance of evidence suggests you are working against him, which means you need to watch your fucking step. He has eyes everywhere, which means the Avatars will find you. So if you won’t throw that thing to the bottom of the nearest fucking river, keep it covered up.”
Once again, without any reserve and against all forethought, Jaun spoke, “I can’t get rid of it. It was my father’s.”
Aldred’s eyes narrowed. “Then once you get to Haven, find a man named Razon. He can tell you about your father. I have no right, nor place, to tell you anything more than that.”
“Because I’m lowborn, boy. Because I have no right to be speaking to you. Because I’m an old coarse fool of a bastard who still thinks the old way is the right way, and I’ll say no more on the subject.” Aldred turn around and quickly shuffled out of the room, leaving Jaun in a heap of confusion. Obviously the old man knew more about the world than he did, and apparently, more about himself than he did.
In addition to stealing some uniforms, Fel had also taken two horses. He had brought them around and into Aldred’s small stable that was just adjacent to the house. The few provisions that Aldred had left Fel were strapping onto the horses. He gave hardly a glance at Jaun as he walked under the hay thatched roof of the stable. Fel was wearing the uniform like a man who knew how to wear it. He exuded a confidence much like Vulden did during the long fencing sessions in the woods. It was nice to know that someone was still sure about something, even if Jaun wasn’t.
He wasn’t sure about anything anymore.
For years after Vulden told him of the destruction of Marui’r for the first time he could do nothing but think about how Anaroth must have perished as well. The grand citadel of the Carsca still stood no doubt, but its walls would be blackened and stained with smoke, and the land about it a twisted ruin now full of weeds and skeletons. Now he knew it was a fantasy. Vulden had never explicitly said anything about what had occurred to Anaroth, other than it had fallen, but Vulden had never discouraged his interpretation of events either. If only he was still here he could have all his questions answered without anxiety of exposing his secret. Fel was a killer and a thief, and though he hated Mazaroth, Jaun knew he couldn’t trust him. There was a reason Aldred had closed the door before he spoke to him.
“What’s our plan?” Jaun asked as he strapped his pack onto his horse.
“We ride out of here. They keep the gates open here, so just keep looking ahead and no one should stop us to ask any stupid questions.”
“Seems simple enough.”
“Because it is simple, boy. You keep your chin up, eyes straight, ride with purpose, and everyone will as soon as assume you belong rather than question it.”
Somehow, in three days, the town had become even more disgusting of a hovel than it had been when Jaun first arrived. It may have been he was in too much pain to fully take in the travesty that was this town when he first arrived, but now he was certain of how ugly civilization was. The roads were wet and stinking worse than a bog. Muck was the only word he could think of to describe it, and the smell was at its worst closest to the docks, near Aldred’s. The smell concentrated of human refuse mixed with whatever fuel the steamships in the bay used. A perpetual black smoke hovered above the town, choking out the sun. The people too, seemed more dour than he remembered as the two trotted along. It was not that they were downtrodden, exactly, more like dirty. Their clothes were darkened with soot, torn from use, and stinking from the muck and sweat. The buildings of the town, seemed to have the same languid slouch toward the docks that marked the character of Sweetwater. Everything centered around it.
Jaun rode up beside Fel, who atop his mount projected an aura of confidence and vigor unmatched by those they passed.
“Are all towns like this?”
“Like what?” Fel replied, an unfamiliar arrogance tinging his voice.
“Mostly. All except the capitols. Those get nicer the closer you get to the people in power. Otherwise they all smell like shit.”
“Why is that?”
“Everybody’s got to shit somewhere.”
They continued to ride until they got closer to the main gate of the town. As they came close Jaun could see men standing above it on the ramparts and two standing in front of it. All of them were wearing similar clothing as he and Fel, except many of them had loose fitting brigandine armored coat. Of the two on the ground, one carried a spear and the other had a sword at his belt. The three men at the top had a dark colored shafted weapon that looked similar to a spear, they seemed to be hollow and were the height of a man. The men had them strapped across their shoulders with thick leather straps. He had never seen anything like it. Jaun made sure his cloak fell over his sword to conceal it from direct view.
“Halt!” The man with the spear shouted.
Fel pulled up close to the men, projecting the arrogance and confidence expected of a knight.
“I am Sir Carter Brisbane.”
“That’s all well and good, sir,” the spearman spoke, a hint of disrespect in his voice, “but no one gets to leave. The gates are closed until further notice.”
Fel appeared to bristle at the disrespect, and he shaped his voice to project over the whole assembly. “Listen, you little worm. I am under orders, and must be on my way immediately. Out of my way before I give you forty lashes.”
“I’m afraid you don’t have that authority,” said the other man on the ground, who had been leaning up against the gatehouse. “We are under strict orders to let no one out of the city.” The man had the same sort of clothing as Jaun and Fel, and stitched into his shoulders were bits of polished brass as well.
“I have every authority,” Fel growled back. “I am under direct orders from Lord General Alberton. If you don’t move aside I am certain when I do finally arrive at his camp, late, that he will be none too pleased to hear his personal attache was held up by some gatekeepers.”
The man in command of the gate seemed to pay no attention to Fel’s bluster.
“If you don’t turn around and go back into town, I will have my men shoot you in the street.”
They all stood there, disgruntled and annoyed by the opposite party. Fel let out a long deep sigh. That was when Jaun saw Fel’s hand come out of his cloak and a small blade fly into the spearman’s neck. The spear dropped to ground with a thud as the gatekeeper put his hands up to the wound to stop bouts of blood shooting out his neck. The three men on the rampart pointed their thick dark spears at Jaun and Fel and pulled what he now realized were levers as they made a “click, click” sound. An enormously loud boom came out of the spearhead, followed by a discharge of gray smoke. It was louder than anything he had ever heard before and caused him to jump nearly off his saddle. He saw what looked like a pellet slam into the muck beside the horses almost simultaneously with the loud crack. While all at the same time, his horse shrieked and reared up, knocking Jaun into the muck. He heard the sound of swords leaving their sheaths, and looked up in time to see Fel run his blade through the space between the officer’s neck and shoulder. His sword arm twitched and as Fel’s sword came out, he sat down on the ground, twitching as the life drained out of his body.
The men on the rampart were tamping something down into the hollow end of their weapons.
“Open the bloody gate!” Jaun barely heard Fel shouting over the ringing in his ears. Fel quickly sheathed his sword and reached inside his coat and began throwing knives at the men above. A man on the rampart managed to catch one in the chest, but his armored coat kept it from being a killing blow.
Jaun scrambled to his feet and began running to the gatehouse. Shocked by the commotion and ears feeling as if they had been stuffed with cotton. He frantically began looking for a way to bring the gate up. He saw in the corner of the small wooden shack a wheel wound in a tight, fibrous rope. Close to it was a lever wedged to keep the wheel from unspooling. He grabbed the lever and pulled. Nothing. This was obviously a job for several men. Jaun ran back to the entrance of the room, turned, and took off running towards the lever, feeling every ache and pain that he had accumulated over the last few days. He jumped and knocked the lever loose with a kick and the wheel spun under the tension. He heard a buzzing sound and the sound of rattling metal as the gate lift above the muddy rut the people of Sweetwater called a road.
Fel charged up to the gatehouse and held out his hand, “Grab on boy!” He lunged up, grasping Fel’s hand, and used the momentum to mount the horse just behind where Fel sat. As he kicked off and dashed out on the plain, he heard two more loud booms from the ramparts and felt the wind part around his ears. Within seconds he heard the bell at the gate ring out and carry on the wind past them. They were out of range of whatever those weapons were, but not out of danger yet.
The next installment will be published January 29th.