The den was empty as we stepped out into the darkened dump. Having spent the rest of the day packing and making final preparations we were at last ready to leave. I led the way, ears pricked, eyes scanning all sides. We moved down the streets towards Coran’s house. We reached his shop without seeing any guards.
Quietly warning the others to stay put I moved towards the front door and tried the handle. As I had hoped it was locked. I pulled a key from the inside of my tunic and opened the door. Moving quickly through the house I entered the workshop and immediately saw the wrapped package on the bench. I moved towards it and saw two words written in what looked suspiciously like blood. It read ‘for Serah’.
I moved out of the shop and slowly locked the door behind me. Watched by Dameon and Catarina I slowly knelt and unwrapped the package. As the last layer of canvas fell away, the bright half moon sailed out from behind its bank of clouds. I lifted up the two short swords that lay gleaming in the moonlight. They were both about half a meter long with blades that formed a shallow curve. The metal was slightly blued and the hilts were made of plain hardwood wrapped in gold wire. The pommels were inscribed with the ancient coat of arms of the Ki’miri royal house, an indistinct figure with eagle wings, a cat’s tail and dual wielding swords.
We quickly moved on and exited the city through a small side gate that led to the river. We ran through the forest for hours. Finally, emotionally and physically spent we found a place to camp and fell to sleep.
The early morning sun in my face woke me. I slowly opened my eyes and looked around for a second, confused. Then remembering what had happened I turned around and saw Dameon and the girl, Catarina lying beside each other still asleep. I stood slowly and stretched both arms. As I stood the swords fell to the ground and stooping I picked them up to have a closer look. The craftsmanship was of a very high standard and I doubted there were any craftsmen this skilled in Valhall. Both swords were fitted with soft leather scabbards and a belt.
I turned around as I heard Dameon stir and moved off to look around the clearing for any food. Sadly, I came up empty-handed. When I came back from my little foray I noticed that Catarina was also up. I nodded at the staff lying on the ground beside her.
“Where did you get that from?”
“I sang it from a tree,” she explained.
“Sang it…from a tree?”
“It’s one of her many skills”, Dameon explained, “tree singing.”
I nodded, after seeing what she had done to the guard and Dameon’s chains I was willing to believe anything. Dameon picked up the two swords and tossed them to me. “So, you figured out how to wear those yet?”
Catching the swords I looked at the belt arrangement for a few moments before I realised how it worked. I flapped open my wings and holding them out from my sides I lowered one sword over my right shoulder and the other over my left so that they formed a cross on my back with one hilt showing over each shoulder. I folded my wings back and felt the swords gently pressing into them.
“Where are we headed?” Catarina asked.
Dameon shrugged, “Serah?”
I looked up at the sky for a few minutes and then came to a decision. “Chalamore”.
“Chalamore. We need to tell Coran’s brother,” I explained.
Catarina thought about it for a moment then nodded.“We’d better get a move on then, we have to cross the Twelve Kingdoms.”
We moved out. The day was young, the sun high and the sky clear. Dameon walked in the lead with Catarina behind and me bringing up the rear. After a few moments I quickened my pace to catch up with Catarina.
“So Cat, tell me more about these skills?” I asked.
“Skills she received from the Gods,” Dameon said over his shoulder.
I glanced at Catarina. “The Gods?”
She nodded wordlessly.
“What kind of skills did they give you?”
Catarina shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m just learning the full extent of them now”.
I nodded and dropped back to digest what I had been told. Suddenly Dameon held up a hand.
“What is it?” Catarina asked.
“Listen,” Dameon hissed.
In the sudden silence we heard an easily defined sound. Hoof beats, coming from behind.
“Run.” Dameon cried.
We ran through the forest, leaping over logs and ducking under branches. As we ran I angled both ears backwards and heard the sound of three or four horses.
“There’s only…three or four…following us!” I gasped as we dashed through the forest.
“Here take these.” Dameon pushed a small microphone and earpiece into my hand then handed the same thing to Catarina.
“Where did you get these?” Catarina asked.
“I’ll tell you later. For now let’s split up”.
He kept on going straight ahead, Catarina slid under a branch and shot away to the left. Vaulting a fallen log I went right. Behind me I heard a brief confusion of horses and men as they reined in their mounts and held a brief muttered discussion. After a couple of minutes two took off after Dameon, one after Catarina and a fourth one spurred his horse towards me.
I took off running lightly through the closely packed trees. But unfortunately the horse was also light footed and with four feet, was beginning to gain. I leapt between two trees and found myself in a small clearing with a wide, deep river running through it. I looked behind but could see no sign of the pursuing horseman. I dived into the river and started stroking for the opposite shore. Reaching it,I hauled myself out and ducked back into the cover of the woods. I quickly climbed a tree and wedged myself into a fork between two thickly leaved branches. Looking down I saw the horseman burst into the clearing and came to a halt. He looked around searching for some sign. He walked his horse along the edge of the stream and then around the edge of the clearing. Finally snarling with frustration he wheeled his horse around and rode out of the clearing. As I dropped to the ground my earpiece buzzed and Dameon’s voice sounded in my ear.
Dameon glanced backwards in time to see the soldiers and their horses pause and then split up. He ran on knowing he could not hope to outrun the horses. He ducked left then right dodging around trees and through small bushes. He leapt over a small stream, landed awkwardly, fell and rolled back onto his feet. Dameon ran on trying to ignore the pain that was starting to burn in his side.
“Serah…or Cat” he gasped into his microphone. “If either of you can hear me… I could do with a hand.”
Running as fast as she could Catarina cursed her decision to wear a long skirt. It hampered her ability to run and leap. A fallen tree loomed in front of her and gathering herself she used her staff to pole vault over it. As she landed my voice crackled through her earpiece.
“Did you hear Dameon’s call?”
“Yeah… but I’m in a… a bit of trouble here”
“Fine. I’ll help Dameon then come for you”.
I swung myself back up into the trees and using the vines quickly moved towards Dameon’s position. I landed on a branch in a crouch and looked down to see Dameon with two different soldiers converging on him. I drew one sword from my back and spread my wings.
Below one of the guards lunged at Dameon with a spear. Dameon ducked and rolled away. I dropped from the tree and landed on top of the second guard knocking him from his horse. As he leapt back to his feet I slammed the flat of the blade against the side of his head. He collapsed in a heap. The other guard spun around but by then I was already in the air again. I drew the other sword and flicked both into the Shien reverse grip. I hovered a metre or two from the guard daring him to come within my reach. The only sound in the clearing was the snorting of the two horses and the steady beating of my wings.
The guard approached cautiously. As he got closer I started to drift back to the ground. Suddenly he leapt forward and thrust at me with his sword. I flicked one sword around sending his blade past me and as he stumbled forward again, kicked him in the chest sending him slamming into a tree. Dameon climbed to his feet as I landed on the back of the horse I had knocked the guard from earlier. The horse, a powerful chestnut mare with a pitch black mane and tail shifted restlessly. Dameon climbed aboard the other horse, a tall, long legged jet-black stallion with white flecks in his mane and tail.
“Well, now that we have horses we should move a lot faster,” Dameon said triumphantly.
I rolled my eyes, “and what do you think the King will do when three of his horses suddenly go missing?”
Dameon deflated suddenly. “No you’re right. I guess we’ll have to walk.”
“We had better go and get Cat before she gets into trouble.”
“What about these guys,” Dameon gestured at the unconscious guards.
I dismounted and slowly walked towards the guards and muttering under my breath, erased their memory of this encounter. As the guards slumped into a deep sleep I vaulted back onto my horse and wheeling it around, spurred it towards the other side of the clearing. Dameon was a second or two behind me.
We dashed through the trees, the horses surefooted and steady. We burst into a clearing to see the remaining guard thrown from his horse by a powerful wind and hit the ground hard. As he struggled to get up Catarina stepped in and slammed the edge of her staff into his head. His eyes rolled back and he fell to the ground.
“You took your time getting here,” she snapped.
“You didn’t have two guards chasing you,” Dameon retorted.
“Can’t we use these horses?” She asked. “We’d move faster”.
I rolled my eyes again. “As I already explained to Dameon if we do the King will send word ahead of us”.
Catarina shoulders slumped. “I suppose you’re right”. She reluctantly turned the horse’s head back in the direction of the castle and sent it on its way with a gentle slap on the rump. I jumped off my horse before it followed and Dameon quickly followed suit.
Watching them go, Dameon was struck by a thought and turned back to me. “What do you think the King will do when three riderless horses come back?”
“Damn,” I swore quietly. “I didn’t think of that”.
“So should we catch them and ride them?” Catarina asked.
I shook my head. “We can’t catch them now”.
Sheathing both swords I looked up at the sun. “We had better get moving,we only have half a day of daylight left”.
We moved off again pushing past low hanging branches and clambering over logs. After three minutes of silence we broke out of the forest and scrambled up a small rise to stand on the edge of the mountain on which Valhall was perched. Spread out below us in a patchwork quilt of brown, green, red and scattered blue and gold with patches of grey was the land of Erazona.
“The Kingdom of Valhall stretches to the east as far as the Thunderfoam River and to the west and north as far the Forest of the Misted Realm,” Dameon explained sweeping his arm to the left and right.
“The Misted Realm?” Catarina asked in confusion.
“A dark and dreaded place,” I muttered with distaste.
“But a useful short cut through the edge of Chief Marrek’s realm” Dameon added.
“Whose Chief Marrek?” Catarina asked.
“Head of the Cathrak Clan the only remaining group left from the old tribe of the Mind Benders”.
“They had the power to infiltrate the minds of their opponents and control them.” Dameon explained leading the way down the hill. “My grandfather led a campaign to exterminate them about eighty five years ago. He thought he’d killed them all”.
“But apparently not?” Catarina asked, following him.
Dameon nodded. “Apparently. Fourteen years ago there was an assassination attempt on my father. Needless to say it failed. I don’t know the full details but it seems as the assassin was escaping from the guards, the Mind Benders somehow broke his mind”.
“Broke his mind?” I asked, frowning. “How could they do that?”
Dameon shook his head. “As I said, I don’t know the full details but it appears that as the guards were chasing him down the stairs to the main hall, he cried out, missed his step and tumbled the rest of the way down. When they found him, he was a babbling, mindless wreck. He had no idea who he was or where he was. All he could say was two words over and over again. He kept on shouting ‘Marrek’ and ‘revenge’”.
“Cathrak men come to rule at the age of fifty and normal men come to working age at thirty and they can train as assassins at the age of thirty five,” I mused thoughtfully, scuffing out our tracks as I followed Dameon and Catarina down the mountain.
“Well this man would have been pushing forty nine,” Dameon said, as we reached the flat ground at the bottom of the mountain.
“So that would make Marrek about…” Catarina began, before Dameon butted in again. “I remember when I was learning about the tribes my mother told me of the last visit made by Queen Camardian twelve years before and she told my father that a new leader had been elected three years before in the Misted Realm.”
“So,” Catarina began again, “that would make him…”
“Ninety,” I finished, jumping down beside them.
“But if he was that old won’t he be too weak to comm…”
“The mind benders have found a way to prolong their life or so the rumours say.”
But before Dameon could respond I interrupted him. “If anyone’s interested we’re about to be surrounded by town watchmen”.
As I said these words the grass and bushes around us rustled and six town watchmen suddenly rose up. Spears hemmed us in and we were told in a gruff voice to hand over all our weapons. I reluctantly relinquished my swords and Catarina handed over her staff. “You’re to come with us,” the head watchmen told us and still hemmed in we were herded towards the small town of Sammathrace.