Chapter 10: On the road again

The prison cart trundled down the bumpy road, Virpan and Howngthirr nervously eyeing the other passengers. Filthy and clad in tattered clothes, the rebels hardly looked menacing. Still, at least one of them hadn’t given up. His eyes were full of fire and looking side to side for an opening. Bringing up the rear was another wagon, loaded with corpses. Virpan looked over at it, wondering what in the world these men had died for.

“So, uh,” she began, looking at one of the guards.

“Corporal.”

“What are these rebels? Why are they doing this?”

“Started near the end of the bloody times.”

“Bloody times?”

“The civil war,” Howngthirr said quickly.

“Nothin’ civil about this war…” the corporal said bitterly. “Those damned Valtor worshippers, took to the forest and kept fighting. Thought His Majesty, King Shvalah, would close their temples unless they fought.”

“And did he close the temples?” Virpan asked, suddenly feeling nervous.

“Of course, they were sending the vagabonds money and arms. Made him no friends in the north or west, but to hell with them anyway.”

“So, where is Glusdan going?”

“Wanevap, the last rebel stronghold. Sheriff’s given Torvipan every chance in the world to turn over the rebel leaders and stop aiding the fighters. But the old man won’t see reason.”

“Now he’ll see the end of a rope,” the driver said.

A feeling of dread crept over Virpan. She held the Karuzat charm close, trying to fit everything together in her mind. The Sheriff was going to Wanevap, there were rebels there. The images of the market there took on new meaning. She remembered seeing weapons in the stalls, seeing shady figures prowling. Or was her mind playing tricks on her, she thought.

Across the wagon the active prisoner eyed her, searching for something. She dodged his gaze, remembering what he had almost done. Quietly, almost inaudibly she spoke. “Are you fighting for Valtor?”

He nodded, a grin coming across his face. They hit a large bump in the road sending everyone up in their seats. He took this opportunity and leaned back over the side, hoping to fall from the cart. Virpan stuck her foot over his leg bindings, holding him in place. The cart came to a stop. The guards hauled the prisoner back upright, the man looking at her horrified.

“I saw what you did,” the corporal said quietly, rubbing Virpan on the head, “thank you. This murderer has an appointment with the gallows, I’d hate for him to miss it.”

Silence fell over the wagon, the rebel now staring at his feet before glancing at Virpan.

“Why?” he mouthed.

She turned to the corporal. “How many has this rebel killed?”

“His group was behind the tax office raid. Four officials were killed, and a guard, and some poor bastard just trying to get his paperwork in order.”

“For Valtor, correct?”

The man fell utterly still, a corpse awaiting its official end. The trees broke before them and vast countryside erupted before them. Fields of flowering plants stretched in all directions, a town in the distance. The nearest town to the forest, she thought, that Zhar’oth would stop there.

-#-

Risawal trudged through the forest, light streaming through the treetops ahead of him. The woods were thinning now and the end was within sight. Ja’eshuk followed a few paces behind, checking the surroundings for any foes. Risawal crashed through the last bush and emerged onto a long grassy plain. Instantly he made a break for it. He took two steps before something caught his leg sending him toppling forward. Ja’eshuk sighed, releasing his ankle.

“You’re really quite predictable, you know that?”

“Hmmgf,” he mumbled, his mouth full of grass.

“Hmm, I say,” she said, surveying the surroundings briefly. “Looks like a change in costume is in order.”

Risawal, hands still bound, pulled himself into a kneeling position and then upright in an awkward fashion. Behind him, Ja’eshuk pulled off her dark outfit and turned it inside out. A pinkish floral pattern emerged. Risawal stared in amazement as she undid her ponytail, produced light shoes, and finally pulled on her dress. A different woman stared at him with her soft eyes. If he hadn’t known better, he would’ve never have mistaken her for an assassin.

She drew out a small knife and cut loose his bonds. As he rubbed his wrists the urge to flee returned. In a flash her eyes turned cold, and he was staring at the assassin again. At least his hands were free, he thought, clapping them together.

“So, are we going like this now?” he asked, “like a pair of normal people?”

Ja’eshuk looked at him through raised eyebrows. “Do you object to this?”

“Uhm, no, but you see those people down the road?”

He pointed to a party of travelers appeared in the distance. About a dozen people, either riding a slow moving cart or strolling around it.

“Yes, I see them.”

“I could run to them, or make a scene, get their attention.”

“I would knock you out and kill them,” without even batting an eye. “Do you really want that?”

“What, what if we come to a town?”

“We’ll go through the outskirts; I’ll tie you to a tree at night if necessary. Most of the villages around here are small so I could probably kill everyone in them anyway. If you do manage to get away, I’ll find you. I’m patient and quite good at tracking.”

Risawal lowered his eyes, defeated. “So…walk forward then?”

“Now you’re getting it,” She said brightly.

Feeling bound all over again, Risawal turned and walked down the road. Ja’eshuk strolled just behind him, always at arm’s length. The party approached them, two patriarchs atop the wagon looking down on their families. The two men and their wives looked quite distraught. They gazed forlornly at the approaching strangers.

“Travelers, what news of the north do you have?” one asked gravely.

“W-we just fled from the woods, good sir,” Ja’eshuk said in a quivering, vulnerable voice.

“Seems to be the order of the day,” said the other patriarch. “It is a dark day indeed.”

“Where are you headed?” Risawal asked, “North?”

“Yes, we must,” the elder Patriarch replied, “the rebellion is lost, the heathen gods have claimed this land. Simkagle is our only refuge.”

“Good luck on your travels,” Ja’eshuk said sweetly, patting one of the children, “Be brave.”

“And good luck to you, Miss…”

“Watul, my name is Watul”

“Well, Watul, if all goes well, a better day awaits us all.”

With that, the families passed into the distance, growing smaller with each passing minute. With a shrug, Ja’eshuk pushed Risawal forward, trying to get back on track. Risawal however, could not stop staring at his captor.

“Watul?” he said quietly, “is that your real name?”

“Just something I came up with,” she replied. “You have to think on your feet in my business. Otherwise you won’t last long.”

“Was that really an act?”

“Of course, everything we do is an act.”

“You really think that?”

“Not like you’ll believe a word I say, so there’s no point answering honestly or otherwise. Just keep walking and you’ll be fine.”

With nothing else to do, Risawal trudged down the long road toward their unknown destination. Every now and again he checked back, looking at the woman who held his life in her hands. Who was she really, he wondered, and what was she ultimately intending to do with him? He vowed that somehow, some way, he would escape her clutches before he ever had to find out.

-#-

The prison wagon trundled through the narrow streets of Hudne, gliding smoothly over the new cobblestones. Virpan gazed at the stone buildings lining the roadway, checking for a place Zhar’oth was likely to visit. A tavern appeared down a short side street.

“Stop the cart!” she called, “let us off here.”

“What?” the driver said incredulously, “this place, are you sure? We were going to take you to the courthouse for the night, there’s a curfew in place.”

“And to take down your testimony,” another guard added.

“We’ll find lodgings before nightfall,” Virpan assured him, leaning out as the building passed. “Please, this is important.”

“Look, I can let one of you out,” the driver said quickly, “but I need a witness’s testimony on my report, otherwise this villain might escape the gallows.”

“I’ll stay,” Howngthirr said.

“Thank you.”

With a sigh, the driver pulled back on the reins and let her out. Once on the road, Virpan made a beeline for the tavern’s front door. She hesitated at the threshold, wondering what the odds of finding Zhar’oth within really where. Then she pulled the doors open and was bombarded by a cacophony of noise. Ears ringing, she passed into the den of drunkenness.

The warm air was thick with the smell of frying food and stale beer. Tables crowded every corner of the small room, people crammed together more tightly than seemed possible. A serving woman dodged through the maze somehow and passed out the cheap booze and food.

“Welcome to civilization,” she murmured as a pair of men staggered past her.

Virpan pushed into the barroom. With the constant shuffling of chairs and movement of people, the search was difficult and slow. While squeezing through a particularly tight gap, a man pushed his chair out and pinned her to a table. Without thinking she wrenched out of the gap, sending the man forward into his stein.

“Hey, look what you did!” he spluttered, jumping up from his spilled beer.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to,” Virpan offered, noticing the knife near his hand.

“You owe me a new one!” he shouted, hiccupping.

“Don’t be that way,” another patron called, “you pinned her with you chair.”

“Oh, great, I guess that brings back my…”

“Shut up the lot of you!” A familiar voice called.

There he was, the man who had nearly killed her, seated at the bar. As the drunk before her sank back to his chair, Virpan began fingering her own knife. With his back turned it would be easy to plunge the blade in and be done with it. After a second of pondering, she realized that such a coldblooded murder might result in a misunderstanding.

She carefully tiptoed towards the man, still unsure what exactly her plan was. Several times she held her breath, though the noise of the barroom would have covered a hacking cough. Zhar’oth was chatting with the barkeep, appearing blissfully unaware of her approach. Virpan moved to within arm’s reach.

“Why hello my dear,” he said calmly. “Can’t say I expected to see you again so soon.”

“Guh, what?” she breathed, jumping back.

“Oh, you look surprised,” Zhar’oth said without turning around. “Hilnguth, my good friend, please excuse the young lady and myself.”

The barkeep grunted, walking into the back room.

“W-why aren’t you surprised?”

“Was that your intention?” he asked, at last turning to face her. “Perhaps you should have shouted ‘Boo’ very loudly into my ear?”

“Y-you drugged me, tied me up, sent me down river.”

“It was for your own, my dear. This is not something I can allow you to get involved in.”

“Allow, me, guh, you are something else,” Virpan said shaking her head. “Where is Risawal?”

“Haven’t the foggiest. I suspect he is in the company of Ja’eshuk or Glusdan, though I couldn’t tell you for sure.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“I have never lied to you. Not once. Nor do I intend to.”

For a moment they stared at each other, Virpan trying to discern what this man was all about. He chose this moment to stand up and straighten his shirt.

“Now, I’ve got to be on my way.”

“You’re not going anywhere!” Virpan said, grabbing his shoulder.

“I have to get away from the fire.”

“Fire?”

“FIRE!” he shouted as smoke started to pour from the back room.

Instantly the barroom erupted into chaos as people jostled for the exit or windows. Seizing his opportunity, Zhar’oth sidestepped away from Virpan and shoved her out of the way. A stool toppled over, pinning her momentarily. By the time she had gotten back onto her feet the man was gone. Flames erupted across the ceiling, telling her it was time to leave. Before she had taken two steps, the liquor casks ignited and fire spewed all over the rest of the room, trapping her inside.

Virpan looked all around for an avenue of escape. She paused for a moment realizing that she didn’t feel hot. Tentatively, she reached out her hand towards a flame. The streamers of fire danced harmlessly around her glowing hand. Then she reached down and pulled out the Karuzat Charm was. It was glowing in the firelight

“It’s protecting me.”

A tendril of smoke rose from her sleeve. She looked down and realized her clothes where beginning to smolder. Several flaming planks fell from the burning ceiling, clattering to the ground inches from her.

“Sort of,” Virpan wheezed.

Acrid smoke trailing behind her, Virpan took a running leap through the front window and into the street. Coughing she looked back as the entire bar was consumed. A large group of people had gathered to watch the blaze, none of whom seemed to notice her. Another familiar face appeared in the crowd.

“Virpan!” Howngthirr called, racing to her.

“Thanks,” she said, reaching up and taking his hand.

“I saw him,” he breathed, “that Sharhoth character; I think he set the blaze.”

“Or had it arranged,” Virpan said, “I was inches from him, but-but he’s long gone by now.”

Knowing they had to move fast, Virpan grabbed Howngthirr and dragged him through the confused crowd. With people running to and fro it was easy to find an alley several blocks away to hide from the authorities. That last thing Virpan wanted was to spend all night answering questions.

“We need a map to find our way to Sushwuk, we have to beat Zhar’oth there somehow. He couldn’t have gotten far; if we hurry we may be able to overtake him.”

Howngthirr tapped her shoulder, causing Virpan to jump. “What is it?” She snapped. Soundlessly, he handed her a map.

“Where did you..?”

“Got it at the courthouse after I gave my testimony.”

“I’m sorry Howngthirr,” she murmured, turning read, “I didn’t mean to snap at you like that.”

Howngthirr smiled and laid out the map for them to study. “It looks like about three days journey to the northeast,” he said, tracing his finger along the route.

Virpan nodded. “I think we should leave immediately.”

“Isn’t that a bit risky? What about the patrols? It’s close to dusk and there’s a curfew in place.”

“We have to beat him,” she said determined. “To the place of Twelve Weeping Maids in Shushwik and the temple on Kagnangk. I made a vow, and I must keep my word.”

Howngthirr nodded. With a long trek through the darkness ahead of them, Virpan knew they needed to leave at once. They ducked through alleys, heading towards the outskirts of town. After nearly running into a fire wagon loaded with water buckets, Virpan and Hownghthir finally arrived at the edge of a long wheat field. Seeing the tree line in the distance, she barreled through the tall stalks.

Once in the safety of the woods, they slumped against a tree for a quick rest. Howngthirr pulled out a canteen and handed it to Virpan. She drank greedily, trying to put a plan together in her head. Finally she decided they would just have to go to Shushwuk and hope for the best.

“The Twelve Weeping Maids,” she whispered to herself, “The Key of Fate, sarcophagus.”

“I really hope we don’t run into any more assassins,” Howngthirr muttered.

Virpan silently agreed with him as they set off again.

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