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. Â 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.Â 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.
â€œVirpan! Whatâ€™s wrong?â€ 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 Risawalâ€™s dismay it appeared abandoned.
â€œJust a bit further,â€ 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.
â€œStay here,â€ he whispered to Virpan.
â€œDonâ€™t think Iâ€™ll travel far,â€ 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.
The man shook his head. â€œNot faring so well, are you my dear?â€
â€œHmm, there are a number of reasons. Though I suppose itâ€™s selfishness, at least partially. Iâ€™m after the same object youâ€™re after.â€
â€œThatâ€™s the one.â€
Virpan tried to squirm, tried to escape.
â€œOh relax, if I wanted to kill you I would have simply shot you with my crossbow.Â And I didnâ€™t do this for information either, if thatâ€™s what youâ€™re wondering. No, I already know everything I need to.â€
â€œReally, I just wanted to have a word with you,â€ he said nodding. â€œYou see, Iâ€™m-â€
â€œYou can stop calling me that, by the way,â€ he said swiftly, â€œJust some name I thought up. What is a name anyway? Ah, well, this is all for the best, Virpan.â€
â€œThalut!â€ 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.
â€œI think about an hour before the drug wears off,â€ 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.Â â€œBon voyage.â€
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.
â€œTsk, tsk, my-my. Some chosen one, eh?â€
â€œGergerer.â€ Risawal moaned, pulling hard against his bonds.
â€œDonâ€™t bother, little hero. I know all about your little mission and Iâ€™ve put a stop to it. Youâ€™ve been disarmed and disabled; Iâ€™ve disposed of your little friend over there. Now, weâ€™re going to have a chat before I send you on your way.â€
He reached down and yanked out the gag.
â€œIâ€™ll kill you!â€
â€œAh, ah, temper,â€ the man said, â€œcome now, letâ€™s be reasonable. I havenâ€™t killed you nor do I intend to.â€
â€œW-what are you going to do then?â€
â€œIâ€™m going to untie you, then send you home.â€
â€œYouâ€™re mad,â€ Risawal breathed, â€œIâ€™ll give word to the brothers, send out riders! You, youâ€™llâ€¦â€
â€œNot likely,â€ The man said calmly. â€œYou see, your monasteryâ€™s horses are going to be ill for the next few days. Plenty of time for me travel deep into Mahlapren territory.â€
â€œY-youâ€™ll be, out of our, reach.â€
â€œExactly. Your mission has failed, and good-â€
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 bruteâ€™s prone body.Â In a flash, the man known as Zharâ€™oth drew his sword. The woman shook her head before pulling out her own sword.
â€œWhy did you do that?â€ He demanded. â€œOh, wait; youâ€™re with Karriv, arenâ€™t you?â€
The figure remained silent, advancing towards them. Risawal began sweating, hoping that things werenâ€™t about to get worse. The figure advanced to within striking distance, eyeing her prey with cold, green eyes.
â€œWait,â€ Zharâ€™oth said, â€œJaâ€™eshuk?â€
â€œHmm, do I know you?â€ She asked pulling off her shawl. â€œI must admit, you do look familiar. Perhaps I once kill a relative of yours?â€
â€œOh, come now, thatâ€™s not very nice,â€ he said calmly. â€œLetâ€™s put away these silly pointy things and talk reasonably, shall we?â€
â€œGive it up; you know I could kill you in the blink of an eye. Now that was some impressive work you did, Iâ€™ll admit that. Saved me quite a bit of stalking. So give me the scrolls and Iâ€™ll let you live awhile longer.â€
â€œVery well, Iâ€™ve no use for them. Oneâ€™s in that old shanty and hereâ€™s the other.â€ He pulled out the scroll and tossed it to Jaâ€™eshuk
â€œExcellent,â€ she said, a smile spreading across her lips.
â€œWhat now? Just deliver the scrolls to dear old Karriv like a good servant?â€
â€œThose are my orders.â€
â€œOh, interesting. He didnâ€™t tell you what was in those scrolls, did he?â€
â€œNo,â€ she replied, her smile vanishing. â€œWhat are you blabbering about?â€
â€œNow, Iâ€™d never want to second guess the great Karriv,â€ he chuckled, â€œmust not be important.â€
â€œTell. Me. Now.â€
â€œThat scroll holds the key to finding the Helm of Valtor.â€
â€œIâ€™m sure youâ€™re right,â€ he replied amiably. â€œGo on then, you have your prize. Â Return it to your master and be done with it.â€
Unable to resist, Jaâ€™eshuk unfurled the scroll and absorbed the glyphs it bore. As she read her eyes widened in shock. It was indeed written about the Orderâ€™s most sacred artifact. A hot pain spread through her midsection. The scroll fell from her numb hands as Jaâ€™eshuk collapsed into dreamland.
The man known as Zharâ€™oth poked her several times before he was satisfied she wasnâ€™t faking. Then he tucked the scroll into her hands and turned to Risawal. Without hesitating he undid the ladâ€™s bindings.
â€œGo home, son,â€ he said politely. â€œWe donâ€™t have toâ€¦â€
â€œDIE!â€ Risawal screeched, lunging.
â€œI told you not to do that,â€ he scolded, a poison dart pricing Risawal. â€œNow, take a nap and think about what you did.â€
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.
â€œWhatâ€™s that you have there?â€ Rugn, the caravan leader called.
â€œItâ€™s Virpan,â€ Howngthirr breathed.
â€œThe girl from the cave,â€ he said, â€œThe one I rescued from the cold.â€
â€œAh, was wondering where sheâ€™d run off to.â€
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.
â€œVirpan, awaken, please,â€ Howngthirr repeated.
â€œI-em-awak-uh,â€ she murmured, shaking her head from side to side.
â€œGet her some strong tea,â€ the caravan leader said, appearing overhead.
â€œOf course,â€ 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 Zharâ€™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.
â€œIâ€™ve got to go back,â€ she whispered.
â€œSay what?â€ Howngthirr asked, leaning closer.
â€œI need to go back upriver and find Risawal, or at least find the trail of that man.â€
â€œBut, do you really think itâ€™s wise to do that by yourself?â€
â€œI gave my word,â€ she replied, â€œI have to try.â€
â€œOh,â€ Howngthirr said quietly. â€œIâ€™d hoped youâ€™d accompany us to Tilgruk, but, if you gave your word then itâ€™s a matter of honor.â€
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.
â€œThank you very much,â€ she said, slinging the pack over her shoulder.
â€œNow, now, canâ€™t have you wandering off to stare, now can I?â€
â€œUh, good bye Howngthirr,â€ Virpan said softly, turning to leave.
â€œYeah, good bye.â€
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.
â€œGo on after her,â€ he said quietly, â€œweâ€™ll be fine without you.â€
Howngthirr hurried after Virpan, hoping he was making the right choice.
Jaâ€™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.
â€œGrowing careless are we?â€
â€œWhoâ€™s there?â€ 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. Jaâ€™eshuk sheathed her sword and bowed to him, quickly drawing a shawl back over her face.
â€œWhat have you discovered?â€ He asked.
â€œThis monk and a young woman were dispatched to recover the Helm of Valtor.â€
â€œInteresting. The letter from Sanja, then, contained nothing of our masterâ€™s designs?â€
â€œNo, I pilfered it last night,â€ she replied, holding it up, â€œit 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.â€
â€œFascinating nonsense,â€ he said, stroking his short beard.
â€œAs it so happens, this boy was the one chosen.â€
â€œHmm, and the other scroll you possess, I trust it contains the rest of the details?â€
â€œIndeed,â€ Jaâ€™eshuk murmured. â€œMore nonsense, from what Iâ€™ve read.â€
â€œThen there is nothing more for us on this side of the mountains. Slit his throat and let us be off.â€
â€œAh, wait,â€ she said hastily, â€œI had a different idea.â€
â€œIf we, ourselves, claim the Helm of Valtor, than Lord Karriv will have complete control over the order. They could never pose a threat again.â€
â€œAn interesting ploy, but, since the Helm is a myth, claiming it would be impossible.â€
â€œMaster, 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.â€
â€œOh, surely you do not believe the monks stories? You of all people ought to know better.â€
â€œAllow me a month, I shall find it and return it here.â€
â€œIf you fail to locate it, Our Lord will be unpleased. It will be twice that long on swamp guard duty.â€
â€œI know what Iâ€™m doing.â€
â€œVery well, though you had best not return empty handed.â€
â€œYou may assure Lord Karriv that will never come to pass.â€