Chapter 8: Crossing the River

They penetrated deeper into the woods, Virpan keeping close to her guide. Risawal seemed to know the way, darting between the trees and hopping over boulders. Around noon he decided to take a break. He stopped in a circular clearing where a berry bush grew beside a pond.  They sat down on a flat boulder and ate a handful of juicy red berries apiece.

A breeze blew through the clearing, causing Risawal to look around nervously. Virpan followed his gaze, wondering what the matter was. Then he smiled and shook his head. She smiled too; glad it had been a false alarm. He rose and led them out of the clearing.

Not far from the berry bush clearing Virpan heard a babbling brook in the distance. Risawal glanced towards the sound and quickened his pace. Virpan ran after him, hopeful that they were approaching somewhere important. Without warning a terrible pain shot through her stomach. She doubled over, grabbing her waist. The burning in her gut began spreading throughout the rest of her body. Then the burning faded, replaced by a cold numbness.

“Virpan! What’s wrong?” Risawal called, rushing to her side.

Unable to speak, she tapped her midsection. Risawal plucked a dart from her belly, eyes widening. He looked in all directions, putting his arm around her. The shooter was nowhere to be seen. The two hobbled down the path, Virpan growing weaker with each passing step.

They reached the riverbank, a small shack standing just upstream. Hoping there might be someone home, he helped Virpan towards it. He pulled her across the clearing. The shack stood on stilts, half over the river, a small pier built just below the porch. To Risawal’s dismay it appeared abandoned.

“Just a bit further,” he assured her.

He pulled her into the shack. Through the door was a sparsely adorned room barely ten feet across. A musty old bed sat in one corner, a tiny table and rickety chair in the other. With no strength left, Virpan collapsed upon the moldy sheets, trying not to breathe through her nose. Risawal turned her over and laid her in a more dignified position. He looked around all the while, as through expecting the owner to return at any moment. The shack still appeared long abandoned. Risawal shook his head in frustration before rising to his feet.

“Stay here,” he whispered to Virpan.

“Don’t think I’ll travel far,” she mumbled, barely able to part her lips.

She watched as he exited the shack in search of help. A loud commotion broke out just beyond the door. Confused, she strained to see what was happening, fighting a losing fight against the paralysis. Risawal cried out in pain, sending a pang of panic through her heart. Moments later a familiar looking man walked nonchalantly through the door. The sandy haired man dropped his hat on the table as he sat down in the rickety chair. After several tries she finally managed to speak.

“Zhar’oth?”

The man shook his head. “Not faring so well, are you my dear?”

“W-why?”

“Hmm, there are a number of reasons. Though I suppose it’s selfishness, at least partially. I’m after the same object you’re after.”

“H-helm?”

“That’s the one.”

Virpan tried to squirm, tried to escape.

“Oh relax, if I wanted to kill you I would have simply shot you with my crossbow.  And I didn’t do this for information either, if that’s what you’re wondering. No, I already know everything I need to.”

“Wh-w-h…”

“Really, I just wanted to have a word with you,” he said nodding. “You see, I’m-”

“Zhar…”

“You can stop calling me that, by the way,” he said swiftly, “Just some name I thought up. What is a name anyway? Ah, well, this is all for the best, Virpan.”

“Thalut!” He called

A brute entered the room and grabbed her off the bed. Like a sack of potatoes she was hauled out to the small pier, passing a bound and gagged Risawal. They exchanged a final look before the brute put her into a canoe.

“I think about an hour before the drug wears off,” He said, picking up a hatchet.
He slammed it into the rope, freeing the boat from its mooring. With a final nod he put his boot against the stern and pushed Virpan out into the current. “Bon voyage.”

He watched the canoe drifting down the river, almost feeling sorry for her. As the canoe vanished from sight he strolled to Risawal and looked over his captive.

“Tsk, tsk, my-my. Some chosen one, eh?”

“Gergerer.” Risawal moaned, pulling hard against his bonds.

“Don’t bother, little hero. I know all about your little mission and I’ve put a stop to it. You’ve been disarmed and disabled; I’ve disposed of your little friend over there. Now, we’re going to have a chat before I send you on your way.”

He reached down and yanked out the gag.

“I’ll kill you!”

“Ah, ah, temper,” the man said, “come now, let’s be reasonable. I haven’t killed you nor do I intend to.”

“W-what are you going to do then?”

“I’m going to untie you, then send you home.”

“You’re mad,” Risawal breathed, “I’ll give word to the brothers, send out riders! You, you’ll…”

“Not likely,” The man said calmly. “You see, your monastery’s horses are going to be ill for the next few days. Plenty of time for me travel deep into Mahlapren territory.”

“Y-you’ll be, out of our, reach.”

“Exactly. Your mission has failed, and good-”

A loud crash stopped everything in its tracks. All eyes turned to the brute who had fallen to the dock. A new figure leapt into view. Lithe, garbed in black, her face hidden by a shawl, the assassin woman stood atop the brute’s prone body.  In a flash, the man known as Zhar’oth drew his sword. The woman shook her head before pulling out her own sword.

“Why did you do that?” He demanded. “Oh, wait; you’re with Karriv, aren’t you?”

The figure remained silent, advancing towards them. Risawal began sweating, hoping that things weren’t about to get worse. The figure advanced to within striking distance, eyeing her prey with cold, green eyes.

“Wait,” Zhar’oth said, “Ja’eshuk?”

“Hmm, do I know you?” She asked pulling off her shawl. “I must admit, you do look familiar. Perhaps I once kill a relative of yours?”

“Oh, come now, that’s not very nice,” he said calmly. “Let’s put away these silly pointy things and talk reasonably, shall we?”

“Give it up; you know I could kill you in the blink of an eye. Now that was some impressive work you did, I’ll admit that. Saved me quite a bit of stalking. So give me the scrolls and I’ll let you live awhile longer.”

“Very well, I’ve no use for them. One’s in that old shanty and here’s the other.” He pulled out the scroll and tossed it to Ja’eshuk

“Excellent,” she said, a smile spreading across her lips.

“What now? Just deliver the scrolls to dear old Karriv like a good servant?”

“Those are my orders.”

“Oh, interesting. He didn’t tell you what was in those scrolls, did he?”

“No,” she replied, her smile vanishing. “What are you blabbering about?”

“Now, I’d never want to second guess the great Karriv,” he chuckled, “must not be important.”

“Tell. Me. Now.”

“That scroll holds the key to finding the Helm of Valtor.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” he replied amiably. “Go on then, you have your prize.  Return it to your master and be done with it.”

Unable to resist, Ja’eshuk unfurled the scroll and absorbed the glyphs it bore. As she read her eyes widened in shock. It was indeed written about the Order’s most sacred artifact. A hot pain spread through her midsection. The scroll fell from her numb hands as Ja’eshuk collapsed into dreamland.

The man known as Zhar’oth poked her several times before he was satisfied she wasn’t faking. Then he tucked the scroll into her hands and turned to Risawal. Without hesitating he undid the lad’s bindings.

“Go home, son,” he said politely. “We don’t have to…”

“DIE!” Risawal screeched, lunging.

“I told you not to do that,” he scolded, a poison dart pricing Risawal. “Now, take a nap and think about what you did.”

-#-

Howngthirr waded through the cool river water, glad to have a rest. The caravan had stopped for a rest along a bend in the river. Most of his comrades were relaxing by the rocky shore with some pleasant ale. Taking advantage of the warmth, Howngthirr had waded into the river, searching under stones for hidden treasures. After disturbing a particularly angry crawfish, he noticed a canoe bobbing down the river towards him.

Hoping to find something a value within, Howngthirr waded over to it. He grabbed the gunwale and gently brought it to a stop. With a great pull he tipped it over to peer inside. Virpan rolled out into his arms. He released the boat in shock, almost dropping her into the river. She wobbled slightly, unfazed by the water. Stunned, Howngthirr tried to shack her awake. She gave no response. Worried, he carried her back to shore.

“What’s that you have there?” Rugn, the caravan leader called.

“It’s Virpan,” Howngthirr breathed.

“A what?”

“The girl from the cave,” he said, “The one I rescued from the cold.”

“Ah, was wondering where she’d run off to.”

All eyes turning to Howngthirr as he carried Virpan to the fire pit and laid her beside the warmth. Wrapped in the towel, he kneeled down and tried to awaken her. After wafting some particularly strong spices under her nose, Virpan began to stir.

In her foggy state, she barely registered what was happening to her. A figure materialized through a haze of horrid smells and dancing shadows. Sounds began flooding her ears, the numbness receding from her limbs. One sound was clearer than all the others.

“Virpan, awaken, please,” Howngthirr repeated.

“I-em-awak-uh,” she murmured, shaking her head from side to side.

“Get her some strong tea,” the caravan leader said, appearing overhead.

“Of course,” Ngathnlit said, grabbing the kettle.

A light rain began falling. Virpan huddled beside the fire, teeth chattering. Rugn draped a blanket over her shoulders while Howngthirr put a kettle on the fire. Once it was boiling he filled up a small wooden mug and mixed in a pouch of brown spices. The elixir gave off an odd odor. Virpan graciously accepted it, the smell helping to clear her mind. She sipped her tea and though back over the past few hours.

The fog in her mind had been lifted, leaving behind an empty despair. She had failed to assist Risawal, who was now in the hands of an unknown man. Images of what Zhar’oth might be doing danced through her head. She clutched the small pendant Torvipan had given her, wishing she had not accepted the errand. Virpan stared into the fire, wondering how far down the river she had come.

“I’ve got to go back,” she whispered.

“Say what?” Howngthirr asked, leaning closer.

“I need to go back upriver and find Risawal, or at least find the trail of that man.”

“But, do you really think it’s wise to do that by yourself?”

“I gave my word,” she replied, “I have to try.”

“Oh,” Howngthirr said quietly. “I’d hoped you’d accompany us to Tilgruk, but, if you gave your word then it’s a matter of honor.”

After finishing her tea, Virpan stood up and started pacing. Though unsteady at first, her balance soon returned. Now confident she could make the trek up rive, she waited for the rain to let up. When the drizzle subsided, Howngthirr glumly helped put out the fire and repack the mules. The caravan prepared to get underway. Just as Virpan prepared to head up river, Rugn handed her a spare backpack loaded with some supplies.

“Thank you very much,” she said, slinging the pack over her shoulder.

“Now, now, can’t have you wandering off to stare, now can I?”

“Uh, good bye Howngthirr,” Virpan said softly, turning to leave.

“Yeah, good bye.”

Feeling quite down, he turned and helped get the donkeys moving again. As they started down river he turned and looked at Virpan as she vanished from view. He slowed his pace, staring at the spot where she had been. Rugn appeared before him, his eyes darting between him and the place he was looking.

“Go on after her,” he said quietly, “we’ll be fine without you.”

Howngthirr hurried after Virpan, hoping he was making the right choice.

-#-

Ja’eshuk staggered to her feet, cursing her lapse in attention. To her surprise she found the scroll still in her hands. After making certain it was still the one from earlier she tucked it beneath her clothing. Then she took a deep breath and carefully checked her surroundings. Her eyes landed on the boy from earlier, laying unconscious just a few feet away. Curious, she walked over to him, finding the he was unbound. The leaves above rustled in the wind.

“Growing careless are we?”

“Who’s there?” She cried, spinning around. Her sword flashed out as she searched for the speaker. Hishlozu, the master of blades, lightly stepped out from behind a tall tree. The tall, goateed man wore a simple brown tunic covered in sheathed blades of every description. As ever, his face was a blank slate, betraying nothing of his thoughts. Ja’eshuk sheathed her sword and bowed to him, quickly drawing a shawl back over her face.

“What have you discovered?” He asked.

“This monk and a young woman were dispatched to recover the Helm of Valtor.”

“Interesting. The letter from Sanja, then, contained nothing of our master’s designs?”

“No, I pilfered it last night,” she replied, holding it up, “it spoke only of his zeal that the Helm would save them, and that one born beneath the sign of Allushuk would be the one to seek it.”

“Fascinating nonsense,” he said, stroking his short beard.

“As it so happens, this boy was the one chosen.”

“Hmm, and the other scroll you possess, I trust it contains the rest of the details?”

“Indeed,” Ja’eshuk murmured. “More nonsense, from what I’ve read.”

“Then there is nothing more for us on this side of the mountains. Slit his throat and let us be off.”

“Ah, wait,” she said hastily, “I had a different idea.”

“Speak.”

“If we, ourselves, claim the Helm of Valtor, than Lord Karriv will have complete control over the order. They could never pose a threat again.”

“An interesting ploy, but, since the Helm is a myth, claiming it would be impossible.”

“Master, whether or not the stories of its power are true, there is lost golden helmet that the order reveres. Finding it could be the key to putting them in their place once and for all.”

“Oh, surely you do not believe the monks stories? You of all people ought to know better.”

“Allow me a month, I shall find it and return it here.”

“If you fail to locate it, Our Lord will be unpleased. It will be twice that long on swamp guard duty.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“Very well, though you had best not return empty handed.”

“You may assure Lord Karriv that will never come to pass.”

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