Voices rose from the mist below and the dark shadow of a cart and horse came to a stop. The larger figure held up his hand and then pointed to the ground in front of the other's face. He then rose, vaulted the crest of the hill and sped off down the slope. The smaller figure stayed put. There was the muted sound of a scuffle. Then silence.
"Tybalt, you can come now."
The smaller figure rose and joined his fellow tentatively. They were both obviously rangers, although this was very much not their usual line of work. The larger figure lowered his hood and grinned broadly. He was stood on the road holding the reigns of the cart horse. Around him the bodies of at least seven men lay were they were stood only moments before, the unfortunate driver now slumped against the tree he had stopped to use with an arrow in the back of his skull.
"Should we bury them, Masa?"
"What?" The taller figure casually retrieved his arrows, causing the driver's corpse to slide to the ground unceremoniously "Knock off the 'Masa' business."
"No need to bury them. They will be up and around again in a few hours either way, and we've no time to set a fire." Adam turned the horse around and after making sure that it's cargo was still secured, began to lead the cart back towards the city on foot.
Tybalt folded his arms and began to walk with him "Well then I suppose we may as well steal their horse too."
"We're not- okay well technically we are stealing the horse. But! The contents of this Wagon were never theirs to begin with. Plus I don't fancy hauling these crates at all, do you?"
Tybalt's hood was still raised but at close quarters his frown was still clear "What did they steal?"
"Don't know, not gonna look."
"Questions get you killed, lad."
Tybalt looked away with a pout "I thought the Guild of Dragons had honour."
"And we do. We're just not fools with it. This commission came from the de Farunelle so it's probably not against the law." Adam caught the filthy glance from Tybalt. "What? I'm nearly fifty percent sure. Sixty... at a push. Well maybe fifty five."
There was an awkward silence. "Aren't they... you know."
"Wizards? Aye. No hiding it too."
"So it's true that they're in the guild then." Tybalt stopped in his tracks. Adam kept walking for a short distance before half turning with a disinterested look.
"Is that a problem?"
"Well you know..." A chill went up the younger man's spine as he caught Adam's gaze. He began to walk again but kept his head bowed. "They're hunting them in the south. For good reason too."
"Uh-huh." The cart began to move again. "Well at least now I know why you were sent with me."
"What?" Tybalt scowled, the ranger's words had carried a note of accusation.
"Listen lad, you're what eighteen, nineteen?"
"And from the southern provinces too, near the Sea of Teeth no doubt. Atican?"
"Yes." Tybalt tried to catch Adam's eye, but he was staring straight ahead into the mist.
"I was too." The horse snorted and began to nudge the ranger from behind. He responded by quickening his pace. "Before the witch hunts though."
"Exactly. On the wagon." Without slowing the horse Adam quickly scaled the moving cart. Tybalt hopped up beside him with ease and tried to read his expression. The driver's seat was not wide but no amount of closeness would allow him to guess it, the ranger's features were stony and set. "Atican puritans burned the whole place off the face of Eliz not even twenty years ago and put the fear in all the south so no-one ever talks about it or even admits it was there. An' you know why?"
"Because it was full of Witches?"
"Yeah but also no. 'Cos we told them to go stuff it and they turned around and accused us of all manner of things and the king jes' let 'em." Adam cleared his throat and forced his accent back below a civilised veneer, "Point is you can't always trust what the priests say. They have their own agenda and it's got nothing to do with the gods."
"So now you have no faith."
"No I have faith. There are those in our guild who've seen Atis himself walk the face of Eliz. Wizards to the last."
Tybalt looked truly horrified. "That's blasphemy."
"That's the blasted truth. Esa and Favinis haven't lied a day in their lives." It was clear that Adam was irritated.
"If Wizards are so close to the gods then why are the priests burning them?"
"Exactly." The ranger sighed "Look I'm not saying that you should renounce your faith or spit on your father's ways, but Puritans are no better than the Maithans currently makin' slaves of all the people north of here."
The cart rattled on along the road, gently jostling both passengers and cargo as their speed began to once again increase. Whether this was Adam's irritation or something worrying the horse Tybalt wasn't exactly clear, he was too busy sulking anyway. They were getting closer to the city now and the hills were falling away to meet the approaching wetlands in a thickening fog. They had come quite a distance during the hunt although Tybalt hadn't really noticed, now as then he was distracted. After a long silence he finally gave up his sulking. He'd never been able to hold it long anyway.
"So what are you saying?"
Adam's eyes were fixed on the road ahead "Keep your head down and your views to yourself and you'll live a lot longer. 'Specially out here in Vocis."
Tybalt folded his arms sulkily "What's so bad about it? You can leave your doors unlocked in the city and we haven't see a single person all the way from town to here... other than the ones you shot."
"It's not living people that's the problem," He afforded the younger man a sideways glance "It's not Wizards either."
Tybalt went pale. He had heard the rumours coming out of this region, it was not possible at this point for anyone in the country not to have. For the best part of thirty years something had been fouling the waters of the Bizan mountains and causing the dead to rise. The fear of it was slowly tearing the country apart and had lead to a great many cruel acts, chief amongst which was the Puritan Inquisition and the execution of all those it deemed as 'lost souls'. He looked nervously over towards Adam for some sort of conformation but saw that he was still fixated on the road ahead. Tybalt looked out into the mist squinting for some sort of sign that something was there but saw nothing. His thoughts flickered back to the corpses they had left by the roadside. Adam had said they would be up and around in a few hours, was he telling the truth? Gathering his cloak he asked another question to distract his mind.
"So if I should keep my peace, what are you keeping to yourself then? Aside from the fact that you're a casual horse-thief."
Adam pulled the reigns at an angle, guiding the cart around tricky bend. There was an uncomfortable squelch as they neared the edge of the road and soft thud as they rejoined it fully. "I already told you."
"You haven't told me anything. All you've done is preach."
There were a few more minutes of quiet before the older man seemed to relax and the unmistakable sound of hooves on stone started to clatter before them. The horse seemed to calm with him, although it still kept a swift pace. Adam turned to face the sulking younger man with a dangerous look in his eyes. "You think on it, and then decide whether or not I put an arra' through your skull to keep you from talkin'"
Tybalt laughed nervously but it was clear from the ranger's face that he wasn't joking "So you're from a city that doesn't exist anymore. That's your... big..." A slow realisation dawned as he thought on it properly. Between Eli Silas and Eli Gris was the one place that all the children of the southern lands were taught to fear, and it had been the only way and the only winter road open to Tybalt when he set off to join the Guild of Dragons: the haunted woods where demons were said to dwell; where all the trees were young and dead; and the one place that no-one ever claimed to be from, for to do so meant a swift death at the hands of the Blades of Atis. His memories of the forest were still clear enough for the connection to be made instantly. Dark trees and twisted roots around carved stone where none should be and smooth well built roads with many forks. "Where was Eli Varah?" He was afraid of the answer.
"So you've figured it."
"You're from the Fellwood." The mood was tense and the sense of danger sent a dark prickle of heat across the back of Tybalt's neck.
"So arrow or no arrow?"
He didn't even need to think about it, "I'll keep your secret," Tybalt eyed the quiver and bow nervously and noticed that Adam's hand had strayed to the hilt of his dagger. Catching the expression on the older man's face, Tybalt swallowed his pride. "And I will learn to keep my peace."
"Good!" Adam's mood suddenly brightened. "'Cos it'd be a shame to lose a good tracker so early on. We don't get many through who can follow a trail as good as you."
"You're not joking. Are you?"
"I'm as serious as this fella." He nodded at the horse and slowed it to a more gentle trot. The clatter of hoof, stone and wheel became louder.
"You're not funny."
"Ahh..." Adam grinned widely and sat more comfortably. The mist started to thin as they approached the city but they were still the only traffic on either side of the road.
"So what are we going to do with the horse?"
"I'm sure someone will need one."
Tybalt looked back over his shoulder at the crates they had stolen from the would be thieves, at the cart of unknown pedigree, the stolen horse, and the the grinning ranger sat beside him. He couldn't help but laugh. "This is the Guild of Dragons?"
"On a slow day. Normally it's much more interesting." Adam nodded in agreement with himself "Be better once you're in your team!"
"What? What team?"
But the ranger merely winked and said nothing all the way back to the gates of Eli Vocis.
< Prologue Part 4 ||