Blending of Worlds
A short fantasy story with a unique premise that ties into my Alexa Skill The Dark Citadel!
Blending of Worlds is a standalone fantasy short story set in a world I would eventually like to write and bring more fully to life!
If you are interested in reading more from this world, please let me know in the comments below!
After careful thought and much deliberation, Gregory Colton decided that the days were too long in these northern countries.
He yawned, reclining back against the bench and lettings his tired eyes slip closed. The thought was a recurring one since he first entered this northern territory and was overwhelmed by heat and light. Even though he was indoors, he knew the sun was outside waiting for him. It rose too early in the morning and refused to dip below the horizon until late in the evening.
He had arrived in the kingdom of Comer two sweaty days ago on foot. It was miserably humid with barely any breeze. Now he lived in a perpetual state of sweaty exhaustion.
How could people survive such stifling weather? True, the land was beautiful: a tapestry blending into the horizon that would make even the most talented of artists envious. But such beauty didn’t make him chafe any less.
Gregory let out a deep breath and wiped the sweat and salt off of his brow. He lived far to the south, where the weather was less consistent and the days shorter. Clouds dominated his home, and rain was a near constant companion.
Thinking of the city he grew up in made him homesick. Here, in a tavern two hundred miles away from his family, he couldn’t help but be curious what the people he used to know where doing. It was summer back there as well, but that would mean cool days and relaxing temperature, tending to crops or fishing. No doubt the sun had already set and many would be preparing to sleep.
He missed it. But, to return home now would certainly put him in prison.
“You drinking anything?”
Gregory turned on his stool, facing the barkeep and letting out a yawn. He was a short man, balding and fat and wearing overalls. “I haven’t decided.”
“You haven’t decided?”
“Not yet,” Gregory replied. “I’m not sure if I want the wine that tastes like vinegar or the beer that tastes like piss.”
The barkeep narrowed his eyes and Gregory realized he’d offended him. He hadn’t expected to meet a sensitive barkeep, and the heat was making him cranky.
Still, if he had been thirsty, he wouldn’t risk it now. No telling what would actually come in the cup.
“I don’t think I’ll have anything today.”
“Then it might be best you move along,” the barkeep said.
“That it might,” he said. He let out another yawn and stumbled off his stool. His legs were tired, but he knew he had to keep moving, just in case someone was following him.
He’d spotted a caravan upon first entering Marisburg—the sad little town he found himself in—several hours earlier, and he knew that it was heading north as well. These were dangerous territories, and it would be ill advised to travel the roads of Comer alone. If he didn’t get passage on this caravan, he would be forced to wait until he found another. And that might not be for weeks.
The route he had chosen would end up in Bridane, the capital city of Comer two hundred miles further to the northwest. But the road would travel immediately north and then cut west after bypassing the mountains.
There would be no civilization until they reached the outlying city of Mulrich, and since the territory Mulrich sat in was only recently acquired by the Kingdom, it wasn’t often patrolled.
Bandits were the mainstay from this point on in his journey, and Gregory wasn’t much of a fighter. The modest training his father had given him might help against, perhaps, a rabbit, in close combat.
There would be safety in numbers if he could join the caravan, but he also didn’t like the idea of traveling while exhausted. He wondered how these local people were able to maintain such high levels of energy throughout these long days. The heat was too oppressive for him to desire anything except find a comfortable bed.
Gregory headed out of the tavern into the streets. The city was small but harried, with a great many tradesman and citizens perpetually running to accomplish one task or another.
Where he grew up, people rarely came to town at all. They kept to themselves and went about their private business. Town was a place to stock up on supplies and swap stories as far as Gregory was concerned, and it seemed unreasonable for so many people to confine themselves in so undersized an environment.
With a shrug, he shouldered his pack and began walking down the main thoroughfare. He was confident in his decision to seek out the caravan, now that he had made it, and was glad that he’d managed to motivate himself.
The caravan had gathered several wagons and passengers near the north gate and was in the final stages of prepping to leave. Gregory saw several hired hands loading food and supplies into the back of one of the wagons and a man with a clipboard checking the goods in.
The atmosphere was professional, Gregory noted with surprise. During his two hundred mile trek to reach Marisburg, he had traveled with four different caravans from one city to the next, and those were sloppy at best and negligent at worst.
The men working this caravan were smooth and methodical. But it wasn’t the hired help that surprised him as much as the hired protection. A contingent of thirty soldiers milled nearby, more than twice the number he might have expected for a caravan this size.
Maybe the roads were even worse than he’d thought. Gregory didn’t recognize any insignia or colors on their uniforms, but assumed they were part of the Comer military.
Whatever they were transporting must be valuable. Gold? Precious gems? No, they had entered Mulrich from the East, where there was little mining. Spices, mayhap. Many spices in his home country of Olestin were worth a fortune this far north. Masalas and saffron were locally grown herbs near his home, and yet they were considered rare here.
Dozens of crates were stacked neatly inside the wagons and varied wildly in size and shape. The boxes were too inconsistent for spices. Spices were often shipped in bulk on an individual basis.
Liquor, then, seemed most likely. The latter possibility gave Gregory hope. After choking down the harsh beers from Comer, maybe he would finally get his hands on a bottle of the sweet brandy Olestin was famous for. It would lack the nutrients and calories of a full meal, sure, but at least it would taste good.
Gregory approached the man with the clipboard with a smile. “Good day,” he said, offering a slight bow. “Might I inquire where this caravan is heading?”
“We aren’t looking for tagalongs—”
“I can pay.”
“—nor passengers of any kind,” the man finished, barely glancing up from his clipboard.
“I see,” Gregory said.
He studied the man, and determined that he was a mouth piece and nothing more. Someone who was pretending to be in charge, following a script. If Gregory was going to accomplish anything, he would have to figure out who owned all of these goods and ask them.
The problem was, no one else was making themselves obvious. Whoever was in charge didn’t want to stick out. Gregory scanned them over, looking for any insignias or expensive clothing.
It was only after careful observation that Gregory was able to confirm his suspicion: the hired hands went to the man with the clipboard for their orders, but continually snuck glances at someone else after every order. It was as though waiting to see if he would contradict the clerk.
This man was several years younger than the soldiers, also wearing a nondescript uniform. No medals or insignia; in fact, he looked to be nothing more than a bland mercenary who recently joined the company.
The young soldier sat on a pile of crates, eating a piece of thick bread and engrossed in his own thoughts. An older soldier sat next to him, attentive. He was wearing a Captain’s insignia on his shoulder and looked to be in charge.
“Have a great day,” he said to the man holding the clipboard, and started walking toward the young soldier. The clerk waved vaguely at him, not paying attention.
Ten steps from the crates, Gregory heard scrambling behind him.
“Stop!” the clerk shouted, somewhat frantic as he rushed to catch up. The soldiers exploded into motion as Gregory’s destination became clear, and he knew that he had been right in his guess. This young man must be the merchant, perhaps a dignitary from a rich family, and the soldiers were here to protect him.
At least they were efficient. Gregory paused six feet away from the young merchant, crossing his hands passively in front of his stomach and giving them plenty of time to react.
Except, they reacted much more aggressively than he had expected. In seconds, Gregory was surrounded, and all of the soldiers had weapons drawn.
“Is that necessary?” he asked, forcing himself to relax.
“What do you want?” the Captain asked, fingering the hilt of his sword. He hadn’t moved, but his eyes bored into Gregory in a way that made him uncomfortable.
Gregory tucked his thumbs into his belt, pulling his coat out of the way to show his sides and hips. He was unarmed—except for a dagger he kept tucked in his boot—and he wanted them to know it.
“Just to ask a question,” he offered softly.
“Then speak quickly and get lost,” the Captain said, with only the slightest edge of contempt in his voice. Gregory saw him nod to the guards behind Gregory, and he heard footsteps draw away. A few swords were put away, but not all.
“Not of you,” he said, then nodded at the young man sitting on the crates. “I was hoping to speak to him, since he’s the one you are here protecting…”
His voice trailed off. There was a sharp intake of air from several of the guards behind him. Gregory realized that something was wrong. The merchant had a lock of shock on his face that quickly shifted to fear, and the Captain slid his fingers a little lower down the hilt of his sword.
That blade, Gregory decided, would be better remaining in the guard’s hilt than buried in Gregory’s stomach. Time to backpedal.
“I seem to be mistaken,” he said.
“Dangerously so,” the Captain said. “Move along.”
There was finality in his voice, and Gregory said nothing else.
This was not the exchange he had been hoping for, and his plan to impress the merchant had backfired. The young merchant still had a look of worry on his face and was staring down at his feet. Gregory bowed to the Captain as calmly as possible and walked down the road to the south, further into the city.
“Damn it all,” he muttered.
How could he have guessed that the caravan wouldn’t want passengers? Since when did a caravan or any merchant turn down a paying customer? He cursed his luck. He would have to wait a few days, maybe weeks, until another caravan passed through the city, and then hope that things went better the next time around.
Now he needed to find some way to keep busy during his extended stay in Marisburg. He would have to lay low, but he didn’t have a lot of money. Maybe he could find work in the city for a merchant; he was good with mathematics and fair at scribe work, and both those traits were in high demand in a city like this.
It might even turn out to be a positive venture in his monetary situation. His funds were running low and he’d been hoping to find somewhere to restock anyway. Plus, adding a few weeks to his trip wouldn’t have negative consequences unless Olestin actually was looking for him, and there was always the possibility that they weren’t searching for him after...
Lost in thought, it took him a few minutes to realize that he was being followed. Two of the caravan guards were shadowing him, and obviously so. No discretion at all.
Which meant, they probably meant to kill him.
Gregory’s breath caught in his throat, and he felt his stomach tighten into a knot. Who, he wondered, did I just pissed off?
He drew a deep breath to calm himself and slipped down a side street, turned a corner, and circled back to the spot where he first noticed the men following him.
Sure enough, they were still there.
“Uh oh,” he murmured.
Where to go? Could he outrun them? Maybe, but he didn’t like the proposition of running through the streets chased by uniformed soldiers. The city guardsmen might intervene on their behalf, just in case he was a criminal.
Maybe he could slip into one of the many shops lining the street and hide, and then find somewhere he could lay low until the caravan left the city.
His two shadows were about thirty feet behind him, not increasing their pace. He doubted they knew the layout of the town any better than he did, so they might not know where to look if he slipped out of their sight.
He walked at a leisurely pace to the other side of the road and turned the first corner he came to. As soon as he was in the alley he took off at a sprint toward the next corner, slipping around it before his pursuers could catch up.
In another street, he sprinted across, dodging pedestrians and horses, and dipped into another alley. He heard shouts behind them but didn’t stop to apologize.
He ducked into the first shop he saw on the next street over and crouched behind a rack of hats. Less than twenty seconds later, the soldiers sprinted past the doorway and down the street, cursing.
Gregory panted and fought down the fear in his stomach. They were just making sure I don’t follow them, he told himself. They might even assume he was part of a bandit group, scoping their defenses before they left.
In any case, the caravan would leave Marisburg soon, and as long as he laid low and didn’t do anything suspicious, they would forget he existed.
“Can I help you?” a voice asked directly behind Gregory. He flinched and let out a sharp scream, and then laughed.
So much for not looking suspicious.
Gregory turned and saw a middle-aged salesman standing behind a counter, watching him with an amused expression. His jowls gave him the appearance of a jolly old friend, which no doubt helped his salesmanship. Gregory stood up from behind the hat rack and brushed dust off of his jacket.
“You were looking for a hat?”
“What you mean to say, son,” the salesman said, “is ‘by golly yes, sir, I need a hat to protect my fair skin!’ Those were the words you were looking for, else why would you be in a hat store?”
“I mean, if you weren’t here to buy a hat, I might assume you were a criminal hiding from those soldiers that just ran past. And that most certainly isn’t what you are, is it?”
Gregory laughed. At least he wasn’t shouting to the guards.
A hat? Sure, why not? The sun was bright.
“My skin isn’t that fair, is it?”
“Quite. From Farrsburrough?”
“You’re practically albino, son. Take it from me kid, this sun will chew you up, spit you out, and then set you on fire. That is, of course, unless you buy one of my fine hats to protect you.”
Gregory smiled. “You’ve convinced me.”
He glanced around the racks at various hats.
The merchant hadn’t exaggerated, at least on quantity of merchandise. On the quality, Gregory wasn’t so sure. He saw several with floppy brims, and decided that he didn’t like the way they would settle over his eyes, no matter how much protection they offered. One rack was elaborate and annoying, coming in every disgusting color combination imaginable.
“People actually wear these?” he asked. The salesman nodded gravely.
“Those are my best sellers.”
“Rich young gents like yourself purchase them to attract ladies. Shows their wealth. It is called peacocking.”
Gregory couldn’t tell if the salesman was serious, then decided that he couldn’t possibly be. Peacock hat, he thought, and couldn’t suppress a laugh; and just when I don’t want to be noticed.
He moved to another aisle and found a selection of safari hats. The brim’s were smaller, but still enough to protect most of his face. He picked one and slipped it over his head. It felt smooth and sturdy, a shade of deep brown. It rested comfortably and he couldn’t shake it loose.
He decided it was his best bet, and he’d probably wasted enough time that the guards had given up the chase.
“Will that be all, sir?” the merchant asked as Gregory approached the counter.
Of course, he started to say, reaching for a bag of coins tied to his hip.
“Yes,” a voice said behind him in the doorway.
His heart skipped a few beats, and he didn’t have to turn around to know who it was: the Captain.
Doing his best to act unperturbed, Gregory pulled a few coins out of his pocket. He heard footsteps on the wooden floor behind him, and they stopped only feet away.
“I would suggest you hurry and pay the man.”
Gregory started to pass the money over, but dropped one of the coins on the ground. So much for unperturbed. The Captain reached down and grabbed the coin, passing it to the merchant, and took Gregory by the arm. The merchant’s look of amusement was gone, and he could only offer a shrug and a frown as Gregory was led away.
They went outside, where he saw two soldiers waiting, and then on down the street. His legs felt like rubber, and it was all he could do to stay calm.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
No response. The soldiers dragged Gregory down an alley, and he considered making a run for it. He was fast on his feet, and he doubted they could keep up with him once he got going.
But they had iron grips on his arms, and he wasn’t sure he could slip free. He was sure, however, that they could draw their weapons and stab him before he got far enough away.
They turned a corner in the alleyway and came upon orphans and vagabonds huddled around empty boxes and crates. Several of the crates were covered with paper and wood to fill in cracks, creating makeshift homes. The children lived here. Most of them were on the verge of starvation, protruding bellies and disproportionate limbs.
“Beat it,” the Captain said, drawing his sword.
Gregory winced. The kids sprang to their feet and jolted down the alley, disappearing around a corner. Maybe, Gregory thought, they will run for help and warn people that an innocent man is about to be murdered.
The thought almost made Gregory chuckle.
The soldiers held Gregory up and the Captain turned to face him.
The look on his face was calm, eerily so. “Who are you working for?”
“I don’t work for any—“
The fist came fast; Gregory hadn’t even seen the soldier move and suddenly his head was rocked sideways. He reeled from pain and saw his new hat fall free to the ground. He fought through the pain and moved his jaw.
Nothing broken, but he could taste blood. He saw the soldier in front of him, clenching and unclenching his fist—his bloody fist, Gregory noted—and couldn’t help but shudder.
“Want to run that by me again?” the Captain asked.
“I’m by myself. I don’t know anyone.”
The next punch was in the stomach, knocking his air out. He struggled for air.
“I came from Olestin looking for passage to Mulrich.”
Another punch to the jaw, this time from the opposite side.
“Who are you working for?”
“No one! I swear. I’m just traveling north, trying to reach the Capital. I didn’t want to travel alone.”
His mind was spinning and he felt dizzy, but he could also feel his body flooding with adrenaline.
Gregory was getting mad; pissed off, in fact. Who do they think they are? Nothing he had done justified this kind of treatment: you don’t go beating people up because they are clever enough to see through your stupid disguises.
“Are you done?” he asked
“I don’t like liars,” the Captain said.
“Then you must love me,” Gregory said. This time a guard kneed him in the crotch. Gregory saw stars.
Sure, goad him. He coughed and felt blood run down his chin, but was even more pissed off:
“Is this how you treat all foreigners? No wonder you don’t get many tourists.”
A dagger appeared in the Captain’s hand. “You have quite a mouth on you. Trained to resist torture?”
“By my mother,” Gregory said, narrowing his eyes. “She made me eat broccoli.”
The man stepped forward and stabbed the dagger into Gregory’s stomach. The pain was beyond anything he could imagine, and he felt himself slipping out of consciousness. Time passed, and he felt himself drifting. Did the Captain hit him again? He didn’t know.
“Patch him up,” he heard someone say distantly. “We might need him.”
And then he passed out.
Gregory awoke tied down on a wooden surface, unable to move. Waves of agony rippled through his body and it felt as though someone had jammed a hot poker into his stomach. His memory started flooding back and he realized how close to the truth that was.
Leather wraps bound his wrists and ankles, and he could feel the floor shifting and creaking beneath him. No, he realized, not a floor at all: he was on the bed of one of the wagons in the caravan, tied down. He tested the wraps, ignoring the pain, and found them to be secure.
“I wouldn’t try to escape,” a voice said.
He looked past his feet and saw the Captain seated behind him on the hardwood flooring. Gregory also noticed that his stomach was wrapped in a thick white cloth.
Little splotches of red dotted the fabric, and he wondered how much blood he had lost. At least he wasn’t dead.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he said, laying his head back with a sigh. “Where am I?”
“Tied to a wagon.”
“I know that much. I meant to say: where are we going?”
“Ah,” he said. “I suppose I got what I wanted: a free trip to the Capital.”
“I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”
“Of course not,” he said. “I am tied down, after all.”
“Who hired you?”
Gregory couldn’t contain a groan.
“Should I lie this time? The truth got me stabbed.”
“Humor me. How did you know Bryce would be here?”
The name sounded vaguely familiar to Gregory and he spent a moment wracking his brain for the connection.
Then it hit him. Gregory grimaced.
“Bryce Hunner. Are you kidding me? And just when I thought my day couldn’t get any worse.”
“He was in disguise and you approached him directly.”
“I thought he looked important.”
“He is. Addressing him was foolish.”
“I know that now,” Gregory said. “But at the time it seemed like a good plan.”
“If it was only an honest mistake,” the Captain said, “then you have my sympathy. And my pity.”
“Lot of good that does me.”
“No,” the Captain said. “I suppose it doesn’t.”
“I thought he was just a paranoid merchant hiding in a disguise. Why would the Prince of Comer travel discreetly?”
“To avoid the prying eyes of assassins,” the Captain replied.
“But not the eyes of innocent bystanders?”
“He has been on the road in that disguise for four months, and you were the first to approach him.”
“Just lucky I guess. Did you ever consider that maybe I didn’t know who he was?”
A long pause. “I knew you weren’t an assassin when I was interrogating you.”
“You mean when you were beating me…?”
The Captain ignored him. “Or, at the very least, you were a terrible one. You passed out with little provocation.”
“You stabbed me!”
The Captain waved his hand in dismissal. “Barely a scratch.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but all I was looking for was passage to Mulrich with a well-protected caravan.”
The Captain eyed him for a long moment and then sighed. “I believe you.”
“I had hoped you were a criminal, or at least a vagabond. It would make what is going to happen to you now a lot easier.”
There was a stab of cold fear in Gregory’s stomach. “Should I ask?”
“You will be executed.”
“I’m innocent,” Gregory said, tensing up. “You know I’m innocent, and yet plan to kill me anyway?”
“You are leverage. The Prince was an idiot to make this journey in person. I told him that, and he refused to believe me. The world is a dangerous place for someone as important as Bryce. When you are executed as his attempted assassin, he will see that.”
Silence held, and Gregory felt weak. He couldn’t tell if it was the injury to his stomach or the sickening realization of his predicament, but he felt himself losing consciousness. They must have given him drugs to soothe his wounds.
The Captain spoke again: “If it is any consolation, the wound to your stomach missed all of your vital organs and did little damage. You should recover fully within a few days,” the Captain said. “You should be fully healed by the time of your execution.”
“Great. I feel better already…” Gregory said, feeling his eyes slipping shut. He felt exhausted, though he kept trying to speak.
He felt his lips moving, but wasn’t sure if he had managed to say anything else or not. At some point he might even have mumbled about wasted money on a lost hat.
The next several days were a blur; he awoke at various intervals to be fed and cleaned. They untied him regularly to relieve himself at first, but it was difficult and monotonous with the bindings, and they finally settled on a system of manacles and ropes to bind him to the back hitch of the wagon.
The Captain didn’t come to see him again, and instead he was cared for by hired hands who eyed him with disdain. They either didn’t know he was innocent or didn’t care. His wounds were patched and cleaned, but he was not offered any more pain medicine. Dead man walking, why bother with expensive medicines?
He decided to wait until he recovered, then try to find a way of severing the bonds and disappearing into the forest. He didn’t know the surrounding region, and he was sure that it was uncivilized and dangerous land. Dangerous, but he would risk it.
Better to face death unknown in the forest then at the hands of his captors. Once he was free of the caravan, he would rely on his own luck to keep him alive.
Of course, luck hadn’t done much for him yet.
Finally, five days later, he found himself quite a bit stronger, and free of infection. He had seen what infections could do to the human body, and prayed that he would be spared such a painful death.
There was residual pain and discomfort, but not enough to debilitate him. He continued acting as if he was in pain, hoping that his newfound health would remain secret from his captors for a while longer.
Hopefully they would think he was still weak and helpless up to the time he disappeared. Now he just had to find the perfect opportunity.
He listened to the conversations of those who walked near his wagon, as well as those who brought him food and water. The caravan was one only day from the course change due West. Then, in another five days they would arrive in Mulrich.
Seven days into the trip, and six days left in which he might escape. He tested the strength of the rope and tried to find weaknesses. It was tied firmly to manacles on his wrists and the wagon itself with around eight feet of slack. The ties on both the manacles and the wagon were tested by a soldier every hour, so he didn’t bother trying to work them loose.
His best course of action would be to find a weak point in the rope to exploit. It wasn’t long before he found such a point; some of the threads had split inside, and the rope felt thick and bunched in that section. It was about half as strong as the rest of the rope, and he might even be able to break it if he got a running start.
‘Might’ wasn’t enough possibility to waste his chance, though, and he decided cutting it would be worth the wait. Besides, he wasn’t in a hurry. Not yet.
On the seventh night of the journey, Gregory ate the food they gave him quietly and stared into the woods. If only they allowed him this trip under different circumstances, he might have found it relaxing and beautiful.
He had never traveled in such a deeply wooded area, and he found the enclosure to be both inspiring and stifling. His eyes couldn’t pierce more than a hundred feet in any direction through the trees, and he wondered what lay beyond his immediate surroundings.
How long would it take him to get lost? An hour? Less? He wasn’t in the mood to test it: despite his looming death, he was too comfortable.
His wagon was fifth in line out of eleven. They formed them into a semicircle, arching from the right side of the trail, across the left side, and back again to the right. They used the inside of the arc for a campsite, so that they had wagons at their back.
A pathetic line of defense, Gregory noted, but he wasn’t about to offer suggestions. Worse, it put his wagon near the center of the road. He wasn’t close to the forest on either side and would have a lot of open ground to cover to slip into the trees. Still, at least one side faced away from the soldiers, which was better than nothing.
He could hear them bustling around him, building fires for the night and preparing bedrolls. They used rotating watches through the night at four hour intervals, but only on the side opposite the wagons. Stupid, Gregory thought, and predictable. They relied on their numbers to keep enemies at bay.
He climbed out of the wagon, stretched his eight foot slack of rope away from the camp and relieved himself. He managed to stay out of sight of the soldiers, but nowhere near the tree line. There would be a twenty foot run before he could disappear into the foliage, and that was only if he managed to break the rope. Enough time to be spotted. With a sigh, he climbed back into the wagon and tried to sleep.
He ended up staring out the rear of the wagon at the night sky, wondering what death would be like. He’d been running for weeks now, afraid that his enemies back home might catch up to him, so he’d never imagine stumbling into a problem like this. It seemed ridiculous to go through so much effort to stay alive to die by a fluke of bad luck.
He didn’t have a family, other than his parents, and he had even less in the form of possessions and money. Death, he told himself, wouldn’t be much of a loss because he didn’t have much to lose.
Except he knew that wasn’t true. He knew that the only reason he wasn’t afraid of death was because he didn’t believe he would die. If he was being perfectly honest, the thought never even crossed his mind. He closed his eyes and let his body relax. The night was calm and peaceful.
When he first heard the sound, he passed it off as wind rustling through the trees. It was like a soft whooshing in the air above him, and he only asserted importance to it when he heard cries from off the right side of camp.
Did he fall asleep? Was this a dream? Gregory sat up quickly, and then dropped again as he heard the canopy of his wagon rip above his head. Something tore through one side of the cloth and passed out the other with only a flicker. An arrow.
Another cry split the air.
“Form up!” the Captain hollered in the camp. Gregory silently applauded the man for his quick response, but he was certain that it would be too late to get out of this battle unscathed. Whoever was attacking the camp was close enough to fire arrows. Still, it was only seconds after the attack began and already he was prepping his soldiers to fight.
Gregory crawled along the bottom of his wagon, trying to get as close to the back edge as possible. His back sat above the wooden sides and a few inches were exposed, but it would offer more protection than he had currently.
He allowed himself to admit how scared, confused, and out of sorts he was. He heard more shouts and screams, followed by the clash of metal as the soldiers engaged their attackers. Gregory had been in fights before, but this was something worse. Something far more chaotic.
He wracked his brain for a way out of this situation. Bandits were the most likely culprit, launching a nighttime raid. Nighttime or not, he held no illusions about who would win. This was a caravan of the Kingdoms finest soldiers: no bandit group stood a chance. Whoever was attacking would soon understand that they had greatly misjudged their enemy.
But maybe this would be a perfect opportunity to escape. Gregory worked his way to the back of the wagon, ignoring the arrows slicing the canopy as best he could, and perched near the edge. He glanced at the bulky knot tying him to the wagon and shook his head. Not a chance he could unravel it in time. No, he would have to cut himself free.
He could hear screaming, cursing, and the clash of metal nearby. The battle was intensifying.
He leaned out the back of wagon the tinniest bit and tried to see inside the soldiers’ camp. From his angle, he couldn’t spot any fighting, but he could hear it. Less than thirty feet away, he estimated with a shudder.
If he was going to have any chance of survival, he would need something sharp. A rock might even do the trick if it had an edge. With a deep breath and an appeal for courage, he slid out of the wagon and to the ground, ducking as low as possible and crawling underneath its belly. The light in this section of the camp was inconsistent, and he was certain that he wouldn’t be spotted in the shadows. He began searching.
No rocks. The road was clean.
The sound of battle picked up even more. It surrounded him completely now, which surprised Gregory. The soldiers were being pushed back in his direction, which wasn’t what he expected. Well trained bandits? Could they possibly win out over the soldiers, and even if they did, would that put Gregory in a better situation than his current one?
No, better to try and escape than hope for any particular outcome. A scream came from his left, and he tried to ignore it as he broadened his search. After a few seconds he spotted something useful: one of the arrows had lodged itself into the wooden lip of the wagon in front of him in the semi-circle instead of ripping through the canopy.
He started moving that direction, crouched, and reached for the arrow. He almost had it, only inches away, and then his hands stopped moving. He was at the end of his rope.
Three inches, but it might as well have been a mile. He crawled back to his wagon, cursing how exposed he was in the open, and wracked his brain for a solution.
The wheels were locked in place during nights to keep them from rolling on unleveled ground. He moved to the rear axle and searched for the locking mechanism. If he got the wheels loose, he might be able to drag the wagon enough to retrieve the arrow.
He began fiddling with the locking pin. It popped loose and he crawled to the other wheel. There was another cry nearby, much closer, and he heard a sickening thump as something heavy hit the ground. He focused and began working on the axle.
More cries and he saw light enter his area. The area was getting quieter as sounds of battle went away. Torches. He worked frantically, in a panic now, but the second axle was stuck. He couldn’t work the pin loose.
He was breathing heavily and sweating, and it took him a moment to notice that the sound of fighting had dissipated. Everything was quiet. He stopped struggling with the axle and slid into the shadows under the wagon, regulating his breathing and heart rate as best he could.
Not that it did any good. Adrenaline was coursing through his veins, he was terrified, and he couldn’t stop panting. And, worse than anything, he needed to pee.
Which side won? He heard horses neighing in the distance, followed by the trampling of hooves into the darkness. They had just released the guards’ horses into the night.
The guards didn’t win.
Gregory gulped. Not bandits; bandits would never send valuable horses away. No, this was something entirely different.
He huddled beneath the wagon and saw legs come toward him. They were clothed in animal hides and furs. Gregory tried to stay out of sight, ducked beneath the front edge of his wagon. Another pair of legs joined the first, and he heard murmuring. He didn’t recognize the language.
Gregory shifted slightly, hands out in front of him and stretched at the end of his rope. If only he had reached the arrow he could have disappeared into the night. He forced himself to remain silent, watching and trying to stay calm. A long minute passed.
Maybe they wouldn’t find him after all.
Gregory felt the rope jerk and stumbled forward onto his face. He hit the ground with a loud thud and groaned in pain as his stomach collided with dirt.
The thud was followed by a sharp command in another language; he didn’t understand the word, but he knew the tone. So much for hope he might go unnoticed. He felt the rope pulling him and was forced to crawl out from under the wagon.
He was roughly forced to his feet and came face to face with a man of angular features and cold eyes. The man and his companion were wearing a mix of hide armor and pelts covering half of their bodies and all of their vital organs. Not bandits for sure, but military in their demeanor. These were soldiers.
The man said something Gregory didn’t understand, and he could only shake his head in confusion. The man exchanged a glance with his companion and spoke again in the common tongue.
“Who are you?”
“Nobody,” he replied.
“No soldier?” the man said awkwardly.
Gregory shook his head adamantly. The man stared at him, and then looked at his bindings. “Prisoner?”
Gregory nodded. “Yes.”
The man seemed hesitant, and then cut the rope connecting Gregory to the wagon. He didn’t cut the rope off Gregory’s hands, keeping him bound, and there was still about six feet of slack dragging from his wrists to the ground, but he wasn’t about to complain. The man patted himself on the chest.
“Leader,” he said. “Mahkinson.”
Still bound by manacles, Gregory made a rough gesture with both of his hands, trying to touch his chest.
“Gregory,” he said. The man nodded and walked away, not seeming to care. The other man watched him go, then grabbed Gregory by the shoulder and started guiding him along.
So much for friends.
They came around the edge of the caravan, and Gregory felt a sharp intake of breath. The Comerians, nearly thirty soldiers and half as many hired hands, were lying on the ground. Some had arrows sticking out of them, and others had gaping wounds crossing their torsos and limbs.
Some were still alive, crying, moaning, and trying to scream in agony. A fair number of the enemy soldiers who had attacked were dead and dying as well, though not as many as he would have expected.
Enemy soldiers? The thought came unbidden, but he knew it was true. He was disgusted by the scene of carnage before him, and they caused it. This was their devastation, attacking travelers in the night. Nevermind that the soldiers had been intending to murder him, this was far more brutal.
If they killed these soldiers so easily and efficiently, how could he possibly believe they wouldn’t kill him?
No, Gregory decided, they definitely couldn’t be friends. And if they couldn’t be friends when killing is involved, they might as well be enemies.
Gregory watched as one man in hide armor moved to a crying soldier. The Comerian started begging and pleading for his life, but the man didn’t seem to notice. Instead he knelt next to the Comerian; Gregory saw that there was a dagger in his hand.
Muttering something under his breath, the man plunged the dagger into the wounded soldier’s throat and yanked it out, one fluid motion. Gregory winced. Even in the dim glow of the campfire, he could see the terror and pain in the soldier’s eyes as his life ebbed away. A moment later and there was nothing left except gushing blood.
Gregory averted his gaze away as the man moved to the next soldier. He held his breathing steady and focused on showing no emotion. No doubt they would continue crying, moaning, or any other show of emotion as a sign of weakness.
Confronted with death, he found reserves of courage to help him stay strong. The executioner moved through the crowd of wounded, treating his own mortally wounded in the same fashion as the Comerians. This man embodies death, Gregory thought with a shudder. He refused to think about what would happen next.
Gregory heard a yelp from his left and saw a man stumble into the clearing. It was one of the Comerian soldiers, wearing chainmail, and Gregory looked away as he saw one of the enemies close behind. Gregory didn’t want to watch this man die; he didn’t want to see the Prince executed…
The thought stopped him and he glanced back up, taking in more of the scene before him. The Prince stood there, still in uniform and terrified. Bryce was looking at the soldiers around him, helpless and young and surrounded with carnage. The executioner behind him had his sword ready and was preparing to plunge it into the Prince’s heart.
“Wait!” Gregory shouted, then immediately regretted it. The camp fell silent, all eyes turned to him. The grip on his shoulder tightened, but the man about to plunge a sword through the Prince’s heart paused.
Seconds passed in silence, and no one seemed sure what to do. Mahkinson appeared from behind one of the wagons and moved through the carnage to Gregory. He walked with smooth and purposeful strides. His face was a mask of rage, and Gregory suddenly felt very small.
“They no speak to you,” Mahkinson said slowly, stopping in front of Gregory and gesturing toward his men. He spoke calmly, accentuating his words. “You speak to them?” he asked, and Gregory could feel the barely controlled rage in his new captor.
He couldn’t help but blink and take a deep breath. Mahkinson turned, eyes still on Gregory, and waved a hand at the executioner. The sword was raised once more. Gregory knew that what he was likely getting himself killed, but didn’t give himself time to make a rational decision. He didn’t want to watch anyone else be murdered, and it was the only way he could think of to stop the bloodshed.
“Prince,” he said. Mahkinson spun in a flash and slapped Gregory across the face. Hard. Gregory winced in pain; Mahkinson was wearing rings. It felt like a knuckle duster.
The death was halted, however. All eyes were again on Gregory.
“No speak!” Mahkinson said, and the rage was clear now. The man was only a few inches taller than Gregory, but he seemed to tower above him now. The hand came up, preparing another attack, and this time it was bunched into a fist.
“Bryce Hunner!” Gregory said, forcing himself to stand up and speak clearly through the pain. For the love of all the Gods understand! Mahkinson stepped forward to hit Gregory again and stopped, his eyes going wide.
Recognition appeared in his eyes. Mahkinson stepped back and turned to face the Prince. Everything was silent once more. Mahkinson said something quick and the executioner stepped back, lowering his blade. Mahkinson whirled on Gregory again, but the anger was gone…
No, not gone, just diminished behind shock. But at least he understood what Gregory was trying to tell him.
“Bryce…” Mahkinson said, “Hunner…?”
“Prince Bryce Hunner.”
Mahkinson spun and yelled a stream of words in his language. Cheers and screams filled the air from the raiding band. When the cheering died down, Mahkinson reached for Gregory and grabbed the slack of rope attached to his manacles and dragged him forward.
He searched around for bodies and eventually found the Captain. Gregory saw the dead man’s face, and the look of pain he died with. There was nothing glorious about the man’s death. It was just…the end. This man told Gregory that he knew he was innocent, yet would kill him anyway as an example.
Would the Captain be an example? Or even a footnote in history? The man wanted to kill Gregory, yet when he asked himself if he felt pity for the dead Captain, the answer was yes.
Mahkinson reached down and began digging through the Captain’s pockets, letting go of the rope holding Gregory. There were no illusions about escape. Finally, Mahkinson stood up with a key in hand.
He motioned to Gregory, who held his hands up mechanically, and in a moment the manacles were off. Gregory rubbed his wrists and felt a tingle of relief; despite everything, all the dead bodies, the sickening smell of blood mixed with urine and feces, he was relieved to have his wrists unbound. He felt as though he was free.
No, not free. The moment passed. He looked at his new captors and knew that he wasn’t in a better position. Mahkinson turned from Gregory and went to where Bryce was being held. The Prince hadn’t moved. He looked confused and scared, nearly delirious. Gregory watched as they put his manacles on Bryce and two men led him away.
They disappeared into the forest. Exactly as Gregory had feared, they went East. The opposite direction he wanted to go. Gregory looked around at more of the dead bodies. Many of them were older than him, but not a lot.
Pain and fear were the most common expressions, and he couldn’t help but wonder what he would look like when he died. Would it be like this?
Would it be tonight?
He didn’t know. His eyes fixed on a location. He was looking at the ground about ten feet away, where one of the men who had captured him in the city lay dead. But, more importantly, he saw his hat lying on the ground next to him. Gregory walked slowly over to him and knelt down next to him.
As predicted, the man also had Gregory’s money pouch and dagger, both attached to his hip. The emotional side of him told him to ignore the affects. This wasn’t his scene of carnage, and these weren’t his spoils, but the practical side of him objected. These were his. They might not be much, but they belonged to him.
He forced down his disgust and unclipped the pouch from the guard’s belt. He decided to leave the dagger, lest his new enemies thought he was planning to disobey them. He slipped the money pouch into his pocket, and on impulse picked up the hat and slipped it over his head.
He stood up as Mahkinson came over, smiling now and at ease. It was as though he hadn’t just murdered some fifty people.
“Yours?” Mahkinson asked, gesturing at the hat.
“Prisoner,” he said, and Gregory thought Mahkinson was talking about him.
At least that would clarify their positions. Then he saw that Mahkinson was pointing toward Bryce, not him.
After a second, Mahkinson motioned toward Gregory:
Mahkinson wasn’t asking.
How could Gregory refuse?
Gregory was modestly relieved the next morning when it became clear that his new captors were actually intending for him to be treated as a guest, though one lacking total freedom. They didn’t force him to travel with them, but they also didn’t offer him a chance to leave.
They actually didn’t seem to care much about him at all; they had the Prince of Comer, and that was all that mattered. Gregory was just extra baggage. Not that freedom would have mattered either way to Gregory at this point. Within a day of marching through the forest he was totally lost, unsure even which direction led back to the road where they had been attacked. As far as he could tell, they seemed to be meandering, with no clear destination, but he knew better.
Even the fanfare that they had captured a Prince died almost as soon as it built up. At first everyone was watching Bryce in mixed awe and disbelief, but when they saw that this mythical enemy was a tired and scared boy who seemed resigned, they paid him no more mind.
Even his guards were disinterested, forcing him to walk behind them and dragging him by a rope. The Prince, too, soon became no more than extra baggage for the soldiers.
Gregory knew who their captors were; he had been confident in his guess when they were taken, but now that he could see them in full daylight his guess was confirmed. A rival nation to the East called Otagin. Years earlier, this land had belonged to them, but the Comerians had forced their way into the territory. The Comerians had won a bloody war years earlier and signed a peace accord.
It looked like peace had just ended.
They camped in a wooded clearing for the night. They light a few fires, but too few for everyone to be warm, so he was left out in the cold. He considered leaving at one point, but the posted guards gave him a few glances and he decided it was a bad idea. It looked like Mahkinson didn’t quite trust him yet.
They started early the next morning and set a quick pace. Gregory was growing more and more disparaged by the fact that they were heading east, the opposite direction from where he wanted to go. There was nothing he could do to change course.
He thought of searching out Mahkinson to try and converse with him, but the leader disappeared early that morning with no explanation. They offered Gregory food and water, but no one would converse with him in the common language.
As the day dragged on, he wondered what would happen if he just turned and walked the other direction. Would they stop him? Would they kill him? He didn’t know, and wasn’t willing to risk it yet. By the third day of hiking, he broke down and decided to try and find someone to talk to. He made his way up the line of marching soldiers and occasionally asked someone if they spoke his language.
Few of them made eye contact, and of those none offered any response. The most frequent expression he saw was annoyance, with anger a close second. He was an outsider, not worth their time.
When he reached the front of the line he saw Bryce. The pPrince’s uniform was bloody and ripped from the hike. Two soldiers flanked him, and he looked miserable and uncomfortable, but more dignified now.
Bryce was the only person Gregory might be able to talk to, but he might jeopardize himself if he tried to communicate with a prisoner. After all, he had allied himself, in word alone, to the Otagin.
Then again, it was Mahkinson who Gregory had spoken with. Maybe the guards wouldn’t care if Gregory spoke to Bryce. At the very least, he had no way of knowing without trying, and trying to communicate with someone seemed less likely to cause problems than trying to escape.
Gregory thought about it and decided, for better or worse, to talk to the Prince. He didn’t want to wait around for the Otagin to decide his fate, and worst case scenario they would force him away from the prisoner. He closed the last twenty feet between him and the Prince slowly, lest he look suspicious.
When he finally fell into step beside Bryce, he stared at the forest in front of him and tried to keep his voice low.
“Hello,” he said. One of the guards walking in front of him glanced over his shoulder, but only for a second. He didn’t seem interested. “I’m not an assassin,” he explained, wondering if this was a wasted venture.
“I know,” Bryce replied. “If you were an assassin, Farin wouldn’t have risked keeping you alive. You were to be hanged as an example, if Farin had his way.”
“Farin was your Captain?”
“He was the leader of the Guardsmen in Comer. One of my father’s personal bodyguards.”
“He wanted to kill me as an example for you.”
Bryce spared a glance to the side, a slight smile on the edges of his lips. “Don’t worry. Farin wouldn’t have had his way. Not once we arrived in Mulrich. I would have persuaded by father to release you, and Farin couldn’t object. He is much too protective of me.”
“With good reason,” Gregory said, nodding his head toward the guards in front of them. “He wanted to protect you from this.”
Bryce didn’t immediately respond, and they walked in silence for several minutes.
“They intend to sacrifice me,” Bryce said, with only a trace of despair.
“You are worth more to them than as a sacrificial lamb,” Gregory offered. Even to him, the levity seemed misplaced. “I’m sure they will end up killing me, too.”
“Then leave. They won’t stop you, and I can create a distraction if you think it’s necessary.”
Gregory thought for a moment then shook his head. “I couldn’t make you risk yourself and then leave you here to die. Besides, I could never find my way out of this forest anyway. I’m a terrible navigator.”
A slight smile curled at the edges of Bryce’s lips. “I hoped you wouldn’t take me up on that offer.”
“So we both die here anyway?” Gregory asked
“I myself am an excellent navigator.”
It took Gregory a minute to catch on, and another minute to realize that his mind was already working on a plan to escape. Or maybe he had one all along, and it was only now coming from his subconscious to conscious mind.
They walked in silence. Gregory noticed that the guards were paying more attention to them now, and he knew that he wouldn’t have much more time to speak to the prince before they forced him away.
“One guard stays awake to watch you at all times. When I motion to you tonight, lead him into the forest as far as possible to relieve yourself.”
“And then what?”
“By then I’ll have a plan,” Gregory replied, and slipped away from Bryce, falling in line with another pair of guards. They ignored him and now that the foreigners weren’t communicating everyone relaxed again.
His mind was jumbled with information, and he tried to figure out what to do. If he disappeared in the night, alone, they probably wouldn’t follow him. Or they might decide to kill him just to make sure he didn’t warn anyone about the captured Prince.
If he tried to get Bryce free and escape with him, he would have a better chance of making it to civilization; but they would definitely chase him, and then summarily kill him if he was caught.
And what if Bryce was lying, and was only using the navigation excuse as reasoning for Gregory to risk his life? His third option was to do nothing, but then he would be entirely at the mercy of the Otagin with no idea of what lay in store.
Once he made the decision to help Bryce, he realized that his mind had already pieced together some of the details of a plan. He needed something that was quick and efficient with only minimal supplies if he was to break Bryce free.
If only he had taken the dagger…but no, he had no intention of killing anyone either way. After all, Bryce was the only other person who spoke his language, and Gregory wasn’t willing to brave the wilderness alone.
Sentries were posted in the woodland around the outside of the camp that night, but they were only interested in guarding the exterior. They were more worried about being attacked than a prisoner trying to escape, and the only people that had Bryce’s attention were his immediate guards. Everyone else went about their duties in a methodical and practiced manner. This lax attitude would play into Gregory’s favor.
The first guard lay down to sleep as the other kept watch on Bryce. On the first night with the Otagin, Gregory learned the watch rotation: in the woods, and it was exactly the same as the Comerians: they traded every four hours, and the guards watching Bryce traded after six.
Exhausted with hiking all day, everyone trusted completely in the sentries keeping lookout. After only an hour, the only people still awake were Gregory, the guard watching Bryce, and the three patrolmen walking the exterior of the camp. Even the pattern of their walk was predictable, and Gregory knew that he would have no trouble slipping into the woods without them noticing.
Gregory waited until around three hours had passed before he stopped pretending to sleep. He yawned, stretched, and slipped to the outside of camp to urinate, then looked into the forest around him. On schedule, one of the sentries cast him a glance—the man looked exhausted, Gregory saw—then continued walking. Gregory might as well have been alone.
He searched the sleeping guards around his feet. Most of them were carrying rope, so he just needed to find one that didn’t store his rope too close at hand. It didn’t take long, and after a moment of finagling he managed to procure a twenty foot length of rope out of a sleeper’s haversack. This rope was thick and strong, but pliable. It would do what he needed with perfect precision.
Easy enough, he thought, but knew that was a lie. He was terrified, worried that at any second he would be caught and killed. His legs felt like lead and he couldn’t hold a coherent thought in his mind for longer than a few seconds. Everything felt and sounded surreal.
No turning back now. He held the rope tight to his side and made his way to Bryce’s position. He started manipulating the rope into a lasso, making sure to form the knot exactly as his father had taught him. It took another ten minutes to catch the prince’s eye.
Bryce nodded, then stretched and motioned to the guard with his manacled hands. The man seemed annoyed, but didn’t object when Bryce stood and started walking into the forest. They disappeared into the foliage, and Gregory thought again of how arrogant these men were.
If he were in charge of this camp, he wouldn’t allow a prisoner to step to the edge of the camp, manacles or no. No sense cursing good luck. Gregory waited, and then silently followed them.
He ducked behind a tree and waited as a sentry passed. The sentry glanced at the escorting guard, yawned, and was on his way again. Gregory moved closer to the pair, his newly fashioned lasso at the ready. He would have to be quick, getting the lasso tight before the guard could shout.
He had very little slack in the line, and was afraid the circle wouldn’t even fit over the man’s head. So many things that could go wrong, and yet now he was too deep in to change his mind. He dispelled his doubts and worries. They were far enough that a struggle might not reach the camp, for which Gregory would have to thank Bryce, but a scream for help would be more than enough to ruin any escape.
Gregory heard the sound of his breathing, seeming loud enough to wake the entire forest. He was less than a dozen feet away. The guard sat facing away from Bryce, and seemed on the verge of dozing off. The rope connected to Bryce was tied around his wrist, keeping Bryce nearby and unable to slip away.
Gregory took a deep breath and wiped the sweat from his palms: now or never.
He rushed forward and slid the lasso tightly over the surprised guard’s head, down to his neck, and yanked it tight. He put his knee into the man’s back and pulled as hard as he could. The guard reached for his neck, gagging and sputtering, and tried to hook his fingers under the rope. Bryce was there in an instant, using the manacles to hook the man’s arms and force his hands down.
The struggle seemed to last an eternity, but doubtless it was less than thirty seconds before the man stopped sputtering and twitching and fell limp.
Gregory laid him down gently on the ground and slid the lasso off. His arms were shaking as he untied the rope from the guard’s wrists, and he handed the now free end to the prince. The only sounds of breathing came from him and Bryce. They exchanged a glance, and then started moving silently into the woods away from the camp.
Gregory felt lightheaded and dizzy. The guard wasn’t breathing.
Sure, they were free, but he hadn’t intended to kill anyone. He shuddered and forced himself to keep walking. Just walk. Stop torturing yourself, just walk. There was no sense worrying about what was past, and now he worried that the sentries would discover something amiss and catch up to them.
Bryce seemed to have the same fear and maintained a rapid pace. Once they were a few hundred feet away they started jogging, avoiding trees in the night. Gregory’s eyes adjusted, but he still stumbled as he tried to keep pace.
“What now?” he asked once they were about a half mile away. He was still only willing to whisper.
“I thought this was your plan.”
“Mine ended at killing the guard.”
“He isn’t dead. You didn’t hold the rope long enough. He might even have woken up by now to warn someone.”
“Then we better hurry.”
Bryce nodded and kept moving. They came to a shallow river and looked both up and downstream. After contemplation Bryce jumped into the water and started wading to the middle. Gregory climbed in after him, and to his surprise watched as Gregory started trekking upstream.
“We aren’t crossing?” he asked.
Bryce didn’t answer, and Gregory reluctantly followed him. They waded in the river for miles, and by the time Bryce exited on the far bank it was near morning. Gregory was exhausted and collapsed to the ground.
“We need to keep moving,” Bryce said.
“I need a minute, at least,” Gregory said, panting. Adrenaline had long since worn off and now he wanted nothing more than to sleep. Bryce hesitated, and then sat next to Gregory on the ground.
“I appreciate what you did for me, risking yourself.”
Gregory hesitated. “I almost killed him.”
Bryce shook his head. “If anything, we almost killed him. But he isn’t dead.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because neither of us wanted him dead. It takes a different kind of person to actually finish the job.”
Gregory winced, but didn’t speak. His memory raced and he felt his heart thudding into his chest. He had killed someone before, accident or not. That was the reason he was in Comer to begin with. Gregory was a murderer.
He forced the thought away. Maybe he was a murderer, and maybe not. He honestly didn’t know. But he did know that this was neither the time nor the place to have an internal debate. This moment was about survival. Neither spoke for a few minutes, and both felt the oppression of silence. They didn’t like being alone with their thoughts.
“We hear stories, you know,” Bryce said, forcibly breaking the silence, “about brave heroes that fight for justice, slaughtering almost everyone they meet. But think about it: imagine if every time you found a criminal, you killed him. And every time you met someone not your same race, you assume he’s a criminal and kill him. You have to be a psychopath to do that.”
Gregory chuckled. “What about during war?”
“War is a special case,” Bryce replied, “where everyone gets to pretend to be a psychopath.”
After the words were spoken, he fell silent, brooding. Something Bryce said ended the conversation. Bryce stood and started walking away from the river, and Gregory wordlessly followed him. They walked in silence, listening to nature until they were certain there was no pursuit.
“When we reach Mulrich I will remain outside while you procure food and supplies. We can’t risk anyone recognizing me,” Bryce said. Gregory didn’t reply. “Once we arrive at the Capital City I will slip in unnoticed and clean up before speaking to my father. I know a blacksmith who will remove these manacles, and he will be discreet.”
“Why? What’s the point in remaining hidden?”
“This will end in bloodshed, if anyone finds out I was captured by the Otagin. My grandfather told me about the wars when he was a child. He was never scared of the enemy; he was scared of his own people. They slaughtered the Otagin without mercy. I won’t let that happen again.”
“Someone will find the caravan,” Gregory noted.
“By that time, I can have any story ready that I want.”
Gregory was surprised by Bryce’s attitude. He had heard great things about the young and intuitive prince, but to actually see him ready to defend the people who planned to kill him was altogether different.
“You want to protect the tribes from being slaughtered by your people.”
“Partly,” Bryce replied. “More importantly, this isn’t a war I believe we can win.”
They spoke only sparingly for the next few days as they traveled. Bryce knew a lot about the forest, and he foraged for enough food that they were able to stay healthy on the road. If there was pursuit, it never came close enough to cause them worry.
They slept little, determined to make it to Mulrich as fast as possible. In two days, they merged with the major roadway heading west, and without a caravan to slow them they made the five day trip to Mulrich in three days.
They arrived just in time to watch the city burn.
As soon as they saw the smoke, Gregory felt the Prince tense up next to him. Bryce was on edge, clearly affected, though his face was calm and devoid of all emotions. They stopped walking and stood in a clearing, watching the smoke filter into the clouds.
“How long?” Bryce asked.
“How long do you think it’s been burning,” Bryce said. “A few hours?”
“I don’t know,” Gregory said. “I’ve never seen a city burn before.”
“I have,” Bryce said, then began walking again. He said the words casually. Gregory rushed to catch up.
“What do you mean?”
“I saw a village burn when I was younger,” Bryce said over his shoulder. “I think I was six.”
Bryce was silent for a long minute. “We didn’t have a name for it, but the locals called it Mistan. Only a few hundred people lived there.”
“I haven’t heard of it.”
“Few people have,” Bryce replied. “It was built in Comer’s territory, inside the set boundaries we allocated for the natives. My father threatened them if they didn’t remove the village, and they were steadfast.”
“So he burned it down.”
Bryce nodded. “He brought his army in, forced the citizens out, and then set the village on fire. It burned for days. I was there with my mother. He insisted I be with him, so I could learn how to be a good leader.”
“You were six?”
“If even that. The only thing I learned was how scared and sad people could be when they were forced out of their homes.”
“The natives must have been pretty upset.”
Bryce laughed sardonically. “They thanked him.”
Gregory scrunched his face in confusion. “Your father?”
Bryce nodded. “They thanked him and gave him gifts, saying he was an honorable man for protecting his border.”
“I know,” Bryce said. “That’s how powerful Comer is: my father kills the natives, and they thank him for it.”
The smoke plumes were getting larger as they got closer.
“How big is Mulrich?”
“Big?” Bryce said.
“It’s about forty miles from the border?” Gregory asked. He had seen the city on his map, the closest to the territory of the natives.
“Closer to thirty. The maps exaggerate the border to make our territory look bigger.”
“Do you think...?”
“That the natives did this?” Bryce finished. “We have a lot of enemies, but none that would have gone out of their way to attack Mulrich except the Otagin.”
“But, why would they attack at all?”
“To start a war.”
“But, don’t they remember how the last one went?”
“We destroyed them without mercy, killing hundreds of thousands and taking their territory,” Bryce replied. “But, there were considerably more of them we didn’t kill, and if they have united against us they can deal considerably damage to us.”
“So you think that they have united?” Gregory said.
Bryce shrugged. “I think it is the most likely scenario.”
Gregory grabbed him by the shoulder, stopping him. “Then where are we going?”
“To the city to help.”
“Help with what?”
“You said yourself that it is probably an army that burned the city down. An army of enemies who already captured you once and intended to execute you.”
Bryce opened his mouth to respond, then changed his mind.
“If that really is an army of the Otagin, than we shouldn’t go anywhere near it. Even if it isn’t, it isn’t worth us risking our lives to get close enough to find out.”
“We can’t just leave the people, if they need help,” Bryce said. “They are my people.”
“And right now, there is nothing you can do for them,” Gregory replied. “If you want to help your people, then right now we need to warn Comer that there is an army marching toward the Capital.”
“The army isn’t a threat to the Capital,” Bryce said, looking west toward Comer.
“No,” Bryce said. “But it could destroy over a hundred towns and cities before we could stop it.”
Bryce moved quickly through the brush, heading directly west, and he set a pace fast enough that Gregory was struggling to catch up. He was panting from the exertion and wanted to ask for a break to catch his breath.
But he knew that wasn’t going to happen just now. Bryce wasn’t going to slow down for anything, not until he’d made it to the Capital and spoken with his father.
They traveled until dusk before Bryce finally stopped walking. They were in a small clearing deep in the forest.
“We can stop here,” Bryce said.
“Okay,” Gregory said. “I’ll start building a fire.”
“No fire,’ Bryce said. “We’re only going to be here a few hours.”
“A few hours?” Gregory said. “It’ll be the middle of the night!”
Bryce nodded. “And then we can start trekking again.”
“We’ll be lost as soon as we start.”
“We can use the stars to guide us.”
“I hope by ‘we’ you mean that you can, because I sure as hell don’t know how to navigate by starlight.”
“Then I’ll show you. Take a rest, if you like. I’ll handle the first watch and wake you up in two hours.”
Gregory felt like arguing further, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good, and he didn’t have the energy to spare in either case.
“Fine,” he said, settling down in the dirt for a rest.
It felt like as soon as he closed his eyes, he was being shaken by his shoulders.
“What…?” he started to mumble, and felt fingers covering his lips.
Bryce knelt next to him. The prince leaned over and whispered. “Someone is coming.”
Gregory felt his body tense, all the weariness washed away by a flood of adrenaline. Bryce slowly removed the finger and pointed to the east. Gregory looked that direction, straining, and then heard a snapping sound.
It couldn’t have been more than twenty feet away.
Bryce slipped back away from Gregory, ducking behind a tree and out of sight, and Gregory began climbing to his feet. He winced as every movement created a noise.
He was up to one knee, moving gingerly, when the person came into the clearing. It was sudden and loud, two men shouting and waving spears at him.
Gregory stumbled back, throwing up his hands.
“I’m unarmed! I’m unarmed!” he said, cowering.
The men continued coming closer, shouting in a language he didn’t understand and jabbing spears at him. These were probably more of the natives, though it was difficult to tell without decent light.
“I’m unarmed!” he said again. The men gradually quieted down, and one walked closer to him, placing the spear against his stomach. He felt the tip slice his clothes and draw a cut on his skin.
The man leaned in, close enough to be seen. Gregory saw that it was one of the natives, and the look on his face was one of utter contempt.
He spoke slowly in his language. Even though Gregory couldn’t understand the words, he knew that the man was telling him that he was about to die.
Gregory closed his eyes, stifling and sob, and then he heard a loud thwacking sound several feet away. It was followed by a thud.
Just like that, the spear was gone. He heard more shouting and opened his eyes to see his attacker charging at Bryce. Bryce stood over the body of the other native, holding the man’s spear. The man was unconscious on the ground, and broken log lying next to him.
The standing native stabbed and slashed, and Bryce dodged away and used the spear defensively. After only a few seconds Gregory could see that Bryce was severally outmatched by the native.
Gregory climbed to his feet and started looking around for anything he could use as a weapon. There were short sticks, grasses, and a few rocks he could find. He picked up the rocks, figuring they would serve him best.
The fight wasn’t going well, and he could tell Bryce was losing confidence. The native moved methodically, practically dancing, and he’d already cut Bryce several times with the spear. Blood ran down the prince’s arm from an open wound and one of his legs was wobbly.
Gregory found a good position, readied one of the rocks, and waited for his opening.
The first throw missed completely and Gregory cursed. He steadied his aim, took a deep breath, and threw his second rock.
It hit the native in the neck, sending him off balance. Bryce took the opportunity and ran forward, jabbing the spear into the man’s stomach.
“Yes!” Gregory said, laughing.
Not even a split second later the native twirled his spear, whacking Bryce in the head. The prince staggered down, collapsing to one knee and groaning.
He held up his hand toward the native, pleading and begging. The native ignored him, smacking the hand out of his way with the tip of his spear, and then plunged it directly into the prince’s chest. Bryce made an awkward noise, clenching and unclenching his fist, and then collapsed.
Gregory stared in mute fascination, watching the life flow out of the prince’s eyes.
And then the native looked up, directly at Gregory’s hiding place, and grunted.
Gregory turned and ran.