Last Full Chapter Post: Chapter 6 – Burns

This will be the last of the sneak-preview chapters that I will post here on the blog. Not for any particular reason, but I figure I have to stop somewhere! Anyone reading these preview chapters who wants to see more, just send a message or drop me an email and I will gladly forward the full manuscript. The only thing I ask for in return is feedback! Both positive and negative, I crave it.

Chapter 6 takes us back to the Galleon with Max, Brien, and Varix, within what I hope is a pretty exciting near-catastrophe within the crowded tavern.

* * *

6 Burns

Panic ensued in the Galleon; men and women leaping to their feet, screams of terror filling the long room, and a massive push of people surging suddenly away from the front of the tavern in a single crushing heave. Just a few heartbeats had passed, but already the marsh-oil piping along the ceiling had begun to burn out of control.

Then the rear wall, towards which they all were being thrust, exploded into a massive ball of fire as well.

The hundreds of people in the crowded tavern milled and pushed their way towards the last remaining doorway, the one leading to the kitchens. But this one narrow door could not support such a mass of men and women. It looked to Brien as if someone had managed to rip the kitchen door clear off of its hinges in an attempt to allow a faster exit, but the horrific screams of people burning at both ends of the room stole whatever organized exit they were trying to create. It was turning into a stampede.

“GET DOWN!!! ALL, GET DOWN!!! CRAWL!!!” came Captain Britness’ booming voice. Thick smoke was beginning to fill the room already as the ceiling and many of the walls were boiling in a marsh-oil fueled rage. Many of the soldier listened, but the crawlers were quickly being used as stepping stones for the panic stricken as they fought to make their way to safety.

Through the orange and black roiling haze, Brien heard Varix’ voice call out in a near scream.

“Max!! Brien!! This way! Help me!!!”

Brien turned and pushed across the grain of the surging mass of people, hunching down in a near crouch while working hard to not be pushed flat to the ground and crushed by the crowd. He reached Varix and was shocked to see his blonde friend hunkered down next to Max, unharmed.

Brien saw that both Max and Varix were not moving with the crush at all, but were moving across the flow… towards the burning front wall of the Galleon. Varix wasn’t in trouble at all. He coughed with each breath, but he looked quite calm.

“Help us, Bri!!” Yelled Varix again, pointing toward the massive, burning double doors at the front of the tavern. “I need to get there, NOW!”

Brien and Max began clearing a path with their arms and bodies, thrusting with all their might against the soldiers, servers, and townsfolk.  Varix leaned against both of their backs with all of his weight, and soon they broke free.

They were less than fifteen feet from the crackling, churning inferno of the front wall. Brien and Max dropped to their bellies immediately, coughing and gasping as the oxygen was ripped from their lungs by the flames. Brien was surprised that he wasn’t burnt already.

Varix didn’t stop. He crawled forward, right into the flames. His linen shirt and leather pants were burning, flames licked along the sides of his face. Brien watched in horror as the flames consumed his friend.

Then cool air came rushing in, bathing Brien and Max’ faces. Both of the thick rainwood front doors of the Galleon stood open. While the flames licked at the door jamb and walls all around the entrance, there was a nearly eight foot clear space leading out into the chilly Spring air of Gilston.

“EVERYONE!!! THIS WAY!!!!!” Brien yelled, then Max joined him as they grabbed the backs of the nearest panicked people and spun them to see the open doors.

Soon, the crowd caught on, and the rush split in half. The flames all around the room grew more and more intense as the fresh outside air mixed with the blaze. But with two exits, now they stood a chance.

Brien and Max joined the rush towards the front of the Galleon. As they neared the doors, they could hear commands being bellowed and the sizzle of water at the base of the outside walls. The fire brigade had arrived.

Moments later, they were out in the main street of Gilston. Men and women lined the path from the pump wagons full of water to the Galleon, holding several long leather hoses, while others worked the huge pumps themselves. While several teams attacked the blaze itself, others doused the walls of the adjacent buildings to insure they did not burn as well. Many of the Pathwatch who were uninjured had immediately joined the fire brigade, heaving on the pumps, anchoring hoses, or joining in the bucket brigade from the nearest well.

Physicians were already triaging the many burned and wounded even as the last of the survivors made it out of the building.  Several men and women were being carried, their breathing either shallow and nearly absent or loud, racking, and painful.  Gilston was far too small of a town to have a comprehensive cuperative, but by the look of it the local physicians were doing a fair job.

Brien and Max didn’t see Varix anywhere among the many victims. Still coughing and wheezing, they made their way to the edge of the mass of people, asking if anyone had already been taken away for medical care. No one had.

Then, near the wide alley between the Galleon and the Gilston General store next to it, they heard a sharp whisper.

“Guys! Over here!! Come quietly!”

It was Varix.  Max and Brien made sure no one was watching them, then slowly made their way over to the store’s front. First Brien, and then Max slid around the corner into the alley.

Varix knelt in the shadows, close to the side-door of the store. He had only a few scraps of burned clothing left clinging to him, some of them still smoking. Only his boots and socks were still in working order.

He was smiling.

“Okay, forget what I said earlier about that sword point being the ultimate test,” he said, holding what was left of his pants together with both hands to retain some modesty.

Brien’s eyes were as wide as a weight of gold as he stared at Varix’ face. “You’re okay? You’re not…”

“Not even warm, Brien,” finished Varix. “In fact, I couldn’t feel the flames at all. Can’t say the same for my clothes, though.” He gestured with his eyes at the tatters he still wore. “I had a feeling it would work, so I figured, why not? Especially since all I had to do was open the doors.”

The friends looked at each other in disbelief. Varix shrugged.

“So, all of this aside, guys… how about finding me some clothes?”

“I’ll take care of it, Var,” Brien said. He spun on his heel and walked back out into the crowded street. The fire brigade still worked at a feverish pace, but it was becoming obvious that the aged wooden building was not going to survive. Even with the buildings supply of marsh-oil having long been shut off, there was just too much seasoned wood in the 2-story structure.

More townsfolk had arrived, many bringing additional blankets, buckets of water, and packs full of first aid gear. Brien headed over toward a clear area where an older woman was laying out fresh clothing on a blanket. His eyes searched the crowd for another face, however. One whose absence was already making him worry.

“Ma’am, could I take a shirt, trousers, and underwear, please?” Brien asked her. She was a smiling, white-haired grandmother of a woman wearing a matronly blue cotton dress and a white shawl.

“My friend, over there,” he indicated no particular direction with a wave of his hand, “he’s fine, but his clothes are just in tatters. He’ll be wanting… needing… a whole new set, if you can spare them.”

“Here you are, dear,” she said gently, handing over a stack of clean clothes that probably belonged to her grandsons. “The distance between want and need is infinite, of course, but nevertheless.  Take these to him, and this cloak, too. It’s chilly out tonight!” She smiled again as she placed a light blue cloak on top of the stack.

“Thank you, ma’am, thank you,” Brien replied, taking the garments in one arm as he reached for his waist-pack with the other. He couldn’t help but be perplexed at her strange manner of speaking. The distance between want and need? “How much can I give you for these?”

“Oh, nothing, you dear boy! These belonged to my grandson, gone on Venture these past years,” her smile turned wistful, and her wrinkled hands shook ever so slightly as she began arranging another stack of clean clothes.

“This gift has value, to be sure,” she continued, looking up at him with old eyes that reflected the street lamps around them. “But this time, someone else has paid.”

Brien thanked her again, bowing ever so slightly as he retreated. He couldn’t help but smile. She reminded him of his own maternal grandmother, just as he remembered her before she died some fifteen years before.

“You can go there anytime you like, you know…” the old woman’s dry voice called out after him as he walked away.

Brien froze, blinking hard.

“What?” he said, spinning on his heel.

“What do you mean, what?” asked the big, middle-aged man who was passing behind them at that moment, dragging a large cow-hide hose behind him. A member of the fire brigade here in Gilston, he looked exhausted.

“Sorry, sir, I wasn’t speaking to you,” Brien apologized, ducking past the man and over to the—

She was gone. As was the blanket, and the clothes, and cloaks. There was nothing there but the packed dirt of this side of Gilston’sMain street. Not even a trace of the old woman or her wares remained.

Brien felt the blood drain from his face, and his knees began to shake. But right there, tucked under his left arm, were the clothes and cloak that she had given him. She was there, just a second ago, he told himself. She must have just moved on.  Right?

He began to back away, still feeling a little shaky, scanning the crowd for any trace of the old woman. The clouds gave way just then, and the dimly lit main street was suddenly bathed in cool blue moonlight. As he made his way around the still growing group of survivors, he was spotted by his own Squadleader Morlan as he stood watching the burning Galleon begin to collapse in on itself.

“Ho, there… Page!” he called out, waving Brien over in his direction. Morlan was a short, stocky man with an overly husky voice that sounded like he constantly needed to clear his throat. He was a lifelong Grey Shield soldier, and his graying hair and beard showed that he was nearing retirement. Morlan never smiled, except when drunk, instead choosing to wear a nearly perpetual grimace on his wrinkled, hairy face. Despite spending the past year serving on Morlan’s squad Brien did not feel like he knew the grizzled man at all.

“Yes, squadleader?” Brien replied, pulling to a stop with a hasty salute. Now that they were no longer in the tavern, the rank protocols of the Pathwatch would again be in effect. Morlan was a stickler for protocol.

“You all right?” Morlan growled, casually waving to another couple of his men that shuffled by carrying buckets of water to the wounded. “Any burns? Any bruises?”

Brien was working hard to forget about both Varix’ walk through the flames and his conversation with the old lady – what had she said??? You can go there any time… so that he could focus on Morlan’s annoyed expression.

“No, no burns, sir. Came through fine. Plenty of smoke in the lungs, of course, but none the worse for wear,” Brien answered, trying to slide his bundle of clothing out of sight at his side.

Morlan grunted and nodded. He stepped closer, holding Brien’s eyes. “Glad you’re unhurt, Page. Not everyone was so lucky.  We’ve lost two men. So far. And one of the serving girls might not make it through the night.”

“That’s too bad, sir. A tragedy, that’s what it is.”

“That it is. That it is. And your friend, Varix? And your chief, Max? How are they?” The squadleader’s voice lowered and his frown deepened as he mentioned Max’ name.

Brien stood his ground, but fought to keep the concern from his voice. Had Morlan seen what Varix had done? Brien had assumed that in the stampede toward the side door no one had seen what happened at the front of the room.

“All fine, sir, all fine. Thanks for asking, though. If it’s okay with you, though, I am going to get back to them. We want to help the fire brigade with the—“

“So tell me,” Morlan interrupted, stepping closer still, “tell me, watchmen Page, where is your chief Max? I’d like to have a word with him.”

Brien’s brow furrowed. There was no missing the menacing tone that Morlan used now. Something was wrong.

“He’s around here somewhere, sir,” Brien replied, confused. “Not sure where exactly. I think he is already helping out the fire brigade.”

“Really. Is he now. Well, when you see him, you’ll send him my way, yes? After this disaster I expect both blades to be ordered back to their camps for the night. I’ll be near my tent. You send him my way, okay?

“Yes sir,” Brien answered, and saluted again, right fist to heart. Morlan nodded, and Brien took his leave at a very brisk walk. He intentionally headed away from the alley where his friends waited, trying hard to not look as confused and worried as he felt.

A few minutes later he ducked into the alley. Max and Var were still there, sitting in the shadows.

“Max,” Brien began in a low whisper as Varix quickly got dressed, “Morlan is looking for you. I have no idea why, but it doesn’t sound good. He looked… grumpier than usual.”

“I know, Bri,” Max whispered back. “Morlan and squadleader Jonas were just outside the alley right after you left. We heard them talking. About me. About my standing up in a panic right before the fire started.”

In the dim moonlight Brien could not see either of their faces. But Max sounded scared.

“They think you had something to do with it?” Brien whispered, shocked.

“Wouldn’t you? Look, I saw what was happening. I could see the guy, toothless, dirty, and old, who set the fire. He was running back towards the stables seconds after he lit it.”

“Just like you saw Mrs. Galleon when she was tripping and falling at you with all that ale,” Brien said quietly.

“Exactly. And there was a shady-looking big man back there too… in a shiny silver cloak. Not the kind of thing you wear when you want to hide, but still. I think he was involved too. But who’s gonna believe me? Nightwings, I look completely guilty. Or at least highly suspicious.”

“Well… but Max, Morlan knows you! He’s been our squadleader for more than a year! He can’t possibly—“

“Brien, I’ve already told Var,” His voice sounded deathly serious. And a little afraid.  “I’m leaving. I was going to tell you both right before that last song started, but this makes my choice even easier. I’m heading back to Greystone City. I’m going to register for Venture.”

Brien leaned back against the wall in silence. Varix sat down next to him, once again fully clothed.

“I can’t possibly explain to them how I knew, guys,” Max continued, “Creator! I can’t explain it to you two! Or to myself!  I’ll end up in the Greystone dungeons awaiting trial… and what will my defense be?”

“How about the fact that you were in the room yourself when the fire started?!” Brien interjected. “What about the fact that you helped get the front doors open, helping to save all of our lives?”

“People died here tonight, Brien. Under Britness’ and Jonas’ command. While relaxing and drinking. That is not going to look good to the Conclave. They will need to crush someone for this. You know it as well as I do.”

Brien did not respond.

“I am not going to just run away. I will tell Britness. He trusts me; he’ll believe me despite how crazy it must sound. But I am not going with the blade to Pallas. I’m heading back to Greystone.”

“And I am coming with you,” Brien replied quietly. “Strange things are happening, to us all. I don’t know what it all means, but I don’t think that climbing up the ranks of the Pathwatch or the Grey Shields makes sense any more. I want to go on Venture as well.”

Varix grunted. “Well it’s about time you guys came around,” he said. “I’ve been planning on registering for Venture since Winter season.” They could hear his smile through his whisper.

“All right,” Max said. “Thanks, guys. Really.”

“Morlan was irritating me anyway…” Brien said, standing. Max and Varix joined him.

“Now Brien,” Varix added, adjusting his overly large shirt and trousers. “Are you going to tell us what happened out in the street? You don’t look this scared just because you heard Morlan breathing out threats about Max…”

Brien stood stone still for a moment. “How do you always figure things like this out, Var? I mean… that’s uncanny!”

“No, I wouldn’t make too much of it. Just good people instincts. Now walking up and through a wall of burning, marsh-oil soaked wood? That was uncanny.”

“Point taken,” said Brien with a snort. He looked up at the clearing night sky, littered with clusters of stars, but didn’t speak.

“Well?” said Max.

Just then they heard Captain Britness’ booming voice coming close to the mouth of their alley. He was clearly not happy about something.

“Hold that thought, men,” Brien said, walking toward the street. “Let’s have a chat with Britness now if we can, and then take it from there.”

 

* * *

 

Captain Britness’ face was still flushed red with anger as he listened to Max explain himself in the darkness of the alley. Britness had been furiously explaining to the Captain of the other blade that apparently no one had seen anything and no one knew anything about who started the fire… despite the fact that there had to have been 20 or 30 people out on the street when it began. On top of that, the local constable had diligently rung in the fire brigade while completely failing to send any of his local patrol out in search of the arsonists. Somehow, doing something to catch the attacker had slipped the constable’s mind.

“Bloody idiots!!” he had raved, still fuming, as Brien hustled him into the alley. “Bloody empty-headed country night-brains!!”

After calming the big Captain down, Max did his best to explain away his actions before the fire without outright lying. He closed his story by announcing that the three of them intended to head to Greystone City and register for Venture.

“Maximus Chemael, I consider you a friend,” Britness said in his deep voice as he cut Max off toward the end of the story. He had to make a real effort to speak as quietly as the others. “You know that. And even if I didn’t, I would give you the benefit of the doubt for a whole season just based off of your father’s Trust,” he added, using the formal term for a soldier or a lord’s heritage.

“Thank you, sir,” said Max.

“But I have no idea how you really could’ve known that fire was about to start. I don’t buy for a minute that it was a coincidence, Max. I don’t believe in coincidences!”

Britness scratched his beard thoughtfully in the dim light. “Based on that, Morlan and any number of other men, especially the friends of the wounded, are gonna want your head on a spear. No doubt about it. Someone will pay the price.”

Max suddenly remembered his vision of a balding, raggedly-dressed older man without a tooth in his grinning mouth running for the barn behind the Galleon. Laughing as the fire started. He was the culprit, the one responsible for almost killing two blades of Pathwatch soldiers. But how was Max to explain his knowledge of the unkempt arsonist? That would only point more blame in Max’ direction.

And what of the big man in the silver cloak?, Max thought. He wasn’t running, and hadn’t looked guilty, but he certainly had been trying to hide.  Was this some sort of conspiracy?

“So you have my leave, son,” Britness continued. “I will vouch for you if Morlan or anyone else tries to soil your name. The good news is that Holvik, Saron, and Serx also declared for Venture this very afternoon, right after the battle. When I announce their departure tomorrow morning in camp, I will just lump you in with them. They left about an hour before the Bard arrived, hoofing it back to Greystone.”

“Captain, you honor me. Thank you, sir!” Max replied, grabbing the man’s huge paw of a right hand and shaking it vigorously. “If I am ever in a position to do something for you, Captain, know that I am at your service.”

“Ha! You might live to regret that statement, young Maximus!! I think your future is bright, young man. Bright indeed! And I am always in need of a favor or two!!  HA!”

Britness turned to leave, but Brien spoke up instead.

“Captain, sir… many of the men’s clothes are totally smoke-charred or worse, sir. Did you see what happened to the old woman who was giving out clean outfits? Over on the far side of the street? I lost track of her.”

“Clean clothes? Well, that would be nice, watchmen Page, but I think you are mistaking the local physicians and their burn wraps for something else. I’ve sent ten men out into the outskirts to gather extra clothes from camp. There’s just too little of everything in a trade-town like this! Lots of men are gonna trek back to camp wearing nothing but burn-salves!”

Brien nodded, but didn’t respond. Varix stayed well back within the shadows with his crisp linen shirt, clean trousers, and unsoiled cloak.

“Be well, men,” the Captain said, quickly shaking hands with Varix and Brien. “And remember me when you’re all fancy knights in your private villas! Ha!” He laughed a good-natured chuckle, then strolled out into the street to resume his berating of the local constable and his men.

“What was that about, Bri,” Max asked. “Where did you get the clean clothes?”

Brien stared into the darkness for a moment, then shook his head as if trying to wake up.

“You want to know where I got these, Max? Well, let me tell you. I get the feeling that there isn’t anything we three should keep from one another, so why not?”

Brien stepped away from the shadows and into the center of the alley, where a stream of clear moonlight lit the hard-packed earth. He turned and described exactly what he had seen… grandmotherly old lady, stacks of neat clothing and boots, all organized, etc. He left out no detail, including her cryptic final call.

Max and Varix blinked hard, wide-eyed.

“By the Kings, Brien…” Max breathed, “I don’t even know what to say about this.” He shook his head, but then gestured toward Varix. “But look, the clothes are real. They are real! So…”

Brien shrugged.

“Well, regardless, we have to move,” said Varix. “If we run, we can get back to camp and get our gear before most of either blade arrives.

“Agreed,” replied Max, already walking deeper into the alley and toward the side street it joined at the far end. “Not that I am a fan of running that far on a full stomach, but it beats having my head on a spear – as Britness so gently put it. I tend to like keeping my head pretty much exactly where it is.”

 

* * *

About an hour later, the midnight moon gleamed off of the form of the three lone men as they walked briskly east along the Palladon Road out of Gilston. They each had a heavy pack on their backs, holding their sleep-sacks, one-man tents, cooking gear, toiletries, weapons, cooking gear, water, and a decent assortment of dried fruit and salted meat.

They spoke little for the balance of the night, choosing instead to travel at a light jog that both ate up the miles and kept them warm. Brien’s thoughts were circling around the events of the past day within his ever-present visions of white clouds, lights, and wind. The battle in the fields north of Gilston, the celebration at the Galleon, the fire… the old grandmother. It was a wonder that the clouds and lights couldn’t be seen by everyone. They were so clear, so overwhelming.

And of course, thoughts of My intruded at almost every turn.  It was for My that Brien had been looking after the Galleon had been evacuated, but he never saw a trace of her. She had been sitting on the bar rather near the kitchen door, so he was sure that she must have gotten out okay. But he still wished he could see her, just one more time. White clouds and winds… and My’s face. Beautiful.

For Brien the miles passed almost effortlessly as the hours rolled by. He could tell that Max and Var were both getting tired, slowing to a walk more and more often as the glistening moon retreated towards the western horizon. While Brien was never one to turn down rest-stops, he rarely felt like he actually needed them.

As dawn approached, they slowed to a relaxed walk and ate a light breakfast.  It was the coldest part of the morning, and a light frost had settled on to the packed clay road ahead of them. In the distance to the right, the sparse growths of rainwood trees that dotted the landscape of this part of the country gave way to the dark gray flatness of the Ash Barrows. They would spend their next several days with that bleak expanse as their silent companion.

Brien brought himself out of his reverie to stare out at the Barrows in the pale light of sunrise. As he chewed on a wedge of dried, salted pork, he thought back to his grade school teachers at Erinor College in Greystone and their lessons about the Ash Barrows. They were slow to admit that no one really knew the origins of the thousands of square miles of dead earth that made up the Barrows. Some of the professors in the Upper School claimed that they were the result of a tremendous ancient forest fire, which burned with such an intensity that they changed the very makeup of the soil in the region. Some of Brien’s own teachers taught that this was the site of an ancient star-fall which brought some celestial plague to the local countryside. None of the explanations even attempted to cover the one feature of note within the Barrows; a village-sized set of black stone ruins half buried in the ashy ground in the center of the region. The Palladon Road skirted the northern edge of the Barrows, more than one hundred miles from those ruins.

Of course, the soil wasn’t really like common ash. It was a dark gray granular clay that was far too heavy to blow away with the wind or wash away in the rain. More than anything else it was the smell, like old campfire remnants that had been left long enough to begin rotting, that gave the Barrows their name. Nothing grew there. Not a blade of grass, not a bush, not even moss. It was a county-sized expanse of rolling flat deadness.

Staring out into the distant Barrows, Brien again let his thoughts wander. Almost instantly, his mind’s eye was filled with billowing white clouds in a sky of clearest crystal blue. Lights as bright as the sun itself were in motion in every part of his vision, some circling wildly and erratically from horizon to horizon in the far distance, others moving in slow, measured arcs in the foreground. Their intensity was amazing, but Brien never had any trouble looking at them. In fact, just casting his eyes in the direction of one of the lights always seemed to bring them closer, almost on top of him. Sometimes he saw faces in those lights. Sometimes, places he had been before or that looked completely unfamiliar.  The winds always blew steadily, seeming to stream up at him from below as if keeping him buoyant in this fanciful place.

He again thought of My the Bard, and almost at once he could see her face in one of the soaring white lights. She wore her scarlet trimmed black cloak pulled tight, hood covering most of her face. She looked tired, but at peace. She seemed to be moving, somehow. He thought he saw horses near her. Horse? He thought. How odd. Why am I picturing her with horses?

But all the while, he was still walking along the Palladon Road, and he knew it. He could still see the ground in front of him, the Barrows off to his right, Max and Var walking on his left. He truly was in two places at once.

“Riders!” Max called out.

One of the benefits of travel in this part of the Land was its complete openness.  There were few places for bandits or Mindonites to hide in ambush, allowing travelers to move with a little more freedom. This openness made it easy for Brien, Max, and Varix to see the horses following their path from a long way off.

“Looks like six of them,” Max continued, shading his eyes from the morning sun. “Lightly loaded for the most part.  They don’t appear to be in a hurry, but they’ll overtake us in about 20 minutes at our pace.”

Brien walked backward like his comrades, looking at the distant riders as they drew closer. But unlike them, he also seemed to see them within the swirling clouds and lights in his mind. It wasn’t the first time he had seemed to see images of the real Land among the clouds and winds, but this time it was particularly clear.

“Shouldn’t be an issue,” Max said, turning around. “They’ll see we’re Pathwatch and probably try to hire us for protection.”

“This close to Greystone City?” asked Brien.

“Sure! Nowadays, with highway crime being what it is, these light travelers don’t think they can ever be too careful. Besides, if they came through Gilston, they’re probably scared to death after hearing about the fire last night.”

It was a good point. Brien again retreated into his own thoughts and the image of My in the lights before him. He was shocked at how clearly he could remember her face after having just seen her for one evening. It was as if he had her visage locked into his mind. On a whim, he concentrated more intensely on that light, wishing he could see more of her.

To his shock, the light grew brighter and the picture grew larger. Or maybe it just got closer, he wasn’t sure. He was still looking at My, but he could see her in full – riding a sleek brown mare at an easy walk. She was surrounded by other mounted companions, some slender of build like My, a few larger and broad-shouldered. They were on a broad road of packed earth, but the ground next to them was… gray, like fallen ashes.

Brien froze in place, his jaw dropping. This wasn’t his imagination. That was… that is…

“Bri, what’s up?” Max asked, also stopping. Varix stopped as well, a blank look on his face.

Brien couldn’t answer. His mind was locked onto the image as he realized that what he was seeing was real. He closed his eyes, and focused even harder on My and the riders, trying to see more of the picture in his mind.

Suddenly, a scream split the morning air, and a cascade of yells and grunts followed an instant later. Brien jerked his eyes open as loud horse whinnies and the sound of swords being drawn met his ears.  He saw three brown horses less than ten feet in front of him, bucking and rearing in fright, nearly throwing their riders. Three other large horses, one a tremendous roan war-horse, were charging his way, their riders brandishing swords that gleamed in the morning sunlight.

Brien cried out in shock, jumping backwards and running as he turned to alert Max and Varix and drew his broadsword.

But Max and Var were not there. They were nowhere to be seen.

Brien spun to face the riders, three large men in plain brown cloaks and leathers. He gripped his sword by the blade, point downward and hilt to the sky in the common gesture of peace, but kept backing up as the riders closed.

“Peace! Peace!” he yelled to the men, still glancing around for Max and Varix.

“Who are you!!! And if you mean peace, why were you hiding out in ambush!” Challenged the leader from the war-horse’s back.

“I’m with the Pathwatch, 5th Blade, under Captain Toll Britness!” Brien called back, showing the Pathwatch sigil sown onto the short collar of his cloak . “I meant no harm!  I… I just got lost, lost my head a little, and got separated from my friends.” Brien’s thoughts raced as he realized how flimsy his story sounded. The riders were still advancing, if slowly, and he had no way of knowing what they would do if they succeeded in surrounding him. “I’ve been sick recently,” he lied. “Fevers. I think I just wandered away from our camp last night.”

The leader stopped his horse and the other two men followed suit. But they kept their swords at the ready.

“Fevers, huh,” the leader said with a grunt. “Right. Then where are your squadmates, soldier? Just how far did you ‘wander’ last night, eh? I’m not buying it, young man. Drop your sword and pack and then maybe we’ll discuss!”

Brien stopped retreating, working out his options. He could handle any one of these men, he was sure, but all three at once? While they were mounted? He also realized that if these were shady highwaymen or troublemakers they would have already attacked and been done with it.  It was much more likely that they were just random travelers, just like he was.  He sighed, looking around once more for Max and Var. There was no sign of them.

He opened his mouth to surrender, but just then a woman’s high crystalline voice cut him off.

“Trimell, no. I can vouch for this man. He was in Gilston last eve, at the Galleon. He is with the Pathwatch.”

A sleek brown mare walked into view, its rider wearing a black cloak trimmed in scarlet. She threw back her hood and nodded to Brien. As her three bodyguards sheathed their swords.

“Watchmen,” My said with a gently smile, “Whatever has befallen you, you are among friends. We are on our way to Greystone City. Will you travel with us?”

* * *

Thanks for reading!

~Kevin

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