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. The day had been hot and bright, and even now that the sun was down, it was still stiflingly warm. It had not rained in the week since they left their hideout by the river, and they had been pushing hard down the Kings Way ever since. Orc patrols and warbands were everywhere, and they had been forced to fight more than one skirmish with the greenbacks. Thankfully, Nyla had lost none of her proficiency with magic, and she was quickly back to her old spellcasting self, it seemed. Further, Morris was very skillful with a sword, and Dellandria was as skilled with a bow as Tarn remembered her being. Even Lady Imelia had proven to be proficient with the short little rapier she carried. When Tarn asked her about it, she simply replied that “Aahron insisted I be able to look out for myself.” He didn’t feel the need to push her further. The good gods had blessed them in that they had found a farmer who gladly offered to sell Lady Imelia some of his horses, rather than let the orcs find and slaughter them. This meant that all ten of them were mounted. And so, despite all the hardships, they had covered nearly a hundred leagues in a week of travel. Food was short, but Dell’s skill with the bow kept them eating, and having a cleric along meant they had water provided for them by magical means. Tarn simply wished their journey was over. He didn’t care who or what they found anymore. As long as they weren’t orcs, and he could stop and rest, it really didn’t matter. He was simply too tired to care. He put the waterskin back in his saddle bag and clucked his horse a little farther toward the front of their little group, and soon came up alongside Sir Morris. “We should be getting close to civilization, Tarn. We’ll enter Storm Creek lands by morning, if I’m any judge.” “Not that it matters. We’ve seen no sign of the army that should be marching this way. Elegant proof that Ten-Kill was right.” Morris shook his head. “I still can’t believe it, Tarn. I only met the Earl a few times, when I was a boy. But my father would never go along with this. He would never sell out the kingdom to anyone, let alone orcs.” Tarn shrugged. “There was a time when I would have believed you, Morris. But after all that I’ve seen and heard since winter, I am no longer so sure. You say your father is a good man, and I will not argue with you, but I think you must face the fact that your father may no longer have the influence with the Earl you say he once had.” The two men rode in silence for a while after that, the quiet of the night broken only by the call of a wolf off in the distance. Eventually, Morris looked at Tarn and asked, “You never knew your father, did you, Tarn?” Tarn shook his head. “No, I didn’t. Maybe that’s part of the reason Alec never liked me. He may have been only a minor nobleman, but at least he knew who his father was.” - 259 -
Morris was about to respond when a voice cracked through the still night air. “Halt! In the name Earl Stoutheart, who goes there?” Tarn and Morris reined in their mounts, each seeing relief mirrored on the other man’s face. Morris cupped his hands to his mouth, “It is Sir Morris Blainesdale and party, arriving from Traazon Keep with news for Earl Stoutheart. Is he here?” The sentry’s voice went from incredulous to pleasantly surprised in a heartbeat. “Morris? Is that really you? It’s me – Sir Handulth’s squire, Koltan! Remember me? We was on patrol together last fall, right before youse was knighted!” Morris shouted in joy as he recognized the voice. “Koltan! Yes, by the twelve gods! It is you!” He dismounted and walked over toward where the voice came from. Tarn watched as a lantern came into view, and he could see there was a small party of men-at-arms guarding the King’s Way. A sense of relief washed over Tarn as his companions rode up beside him. It’s over! Finally, I can rest! Let someone else worry about things for a while. There was still the minor little issue of dealing with the truth of the story about the Earl’s treachery, but even so, they were among men. He sucked in a breath, controlling his glee. We are still at war with the clans, though. That we can’t deny. The soldier looked at Tarn and asked “Who are these people with you, milord?” Morris turned and gestured toward Imelia. “It is my sad duty, Koltan, to tell you that I escort the Lady Imelia and her party, the last survivors of orc butchery at the fortress of Traazon Keep.” The guardsman blanched white and stammered a greeting. “Milady… it is an… I mean, I’m glad… Um… It is an honor.” She waved him off with a flash of her hand. “I’m too bloody tired for this ‘milady’ nonsense. All I want is place to lay my head and a tub to soak my feet in, soldier. If you would direct me to your commander?” The soldier looked surprised to hear a lady speaking in such a manner, but recovered soon enough. He nodded and replied, “Certainly, milady. The Earl’s tent is this way. I am sure His grace will see you even at this late hour; we’ve had no word from the east in many days.” “That, soldier, is because there is no one left in the east to give word. Behind us are twelve thousand orc clansmen, and a lot of dead humans, all because your Earl is here and not there attending to his duties.” Tarn and Morris both bit down responses, surprised at the vehemence in Imelia’s tone. Women – even noblewomen – simply did not talk that way about high ranking nobles. The soldier looked aghast, but managed to turn and bid them to follow him, even though he was now as white as a sheet. “Milady, if you’ll follow me?” the man squeaked. “My comrades will see to your companions and their horses.” “No, soldier. They stay with me.” The footman squeaked again, “As you wish, milady.” The party rode up the Kings Way and entered the outskirts of a vast campsite. Tarn looked around and estimated that there must be at least ten thousand men here. Enough to take back the Keep! - 260 -
Koltan led then past more sentries and guard towers, identifying himself to the various watchmen with several different signs and counter-signs, and Tarn was impressed with the security precautions they had taken. Even more so, he was impressed by the number of banners he saw flying. They’re all here! All the East! Terrick Vale, Storm Creek, Lord Timmis… It truly was more than he could have hoped for; more than any of them could have hoped for. Koltan came up to a large tent, and a servant in fine livery – obviously not that of a soldier filling the role of servant – came out and introduced himself to Lady Imelia as Henrick, the Earl’s field secretary. “His Grace is dressing at the moment, but will be out to see you in the briefest of moments, milady. He told me that he bids you well, and is beyond sorrowful that we could not arrive in time to save your home.” Imelia was about to answer when Tarn heard the tent flap open, and a booming voice called out, “Henrick! Go and find us some wine. I am sure the lady could use something to drink – I know I could. Imelia, I hope this evening finds you as well as can be expected?” Tarn was about to turn around when he saw the color quickly drained from both Logan’s and Nyla’s faces. What would cause that to happen now, when they were safe inside the army’s main camp? He mouthed “What?”, and Logan pointed off behind Tarn’s shoulder. Tarn spun around slowly, and his jaw dropped. The man standing before him, the man who had just stepped out of the tent, could be no one else. By the gods. By all the twelve gods, both of light and darkness. It can’t be! But it was. He now knew the truth. The resemblance was uncanny. At long last, he knew, for there could be no other answer. “Hello, Father.”
- 261 -
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