lots of progress

Wrote 5,044 words today which, while short of my 10,000 word goal, is  the most I’ve ever written in a day.  I would have gotten more but had to take some breaks for baseball, family duties, and a really fun lunch date with my wife to this fantastic asian grill we have here in town.  I didn’t know it was so good, and I can’t wait to go back.

In any event, for those of you wondering, the group finally ventured out on their journey today.  Everything thus far has been culminating into the beginning of the quest.  Our story today covers their final preparations, leaving, some hiccups along the way, and the introduction, or further discovery, rather, of a sinister plot line involving a religious zealot bent on causing problems.

When you read well written books you take for granted the  pains the author goes through in building tension in a scene or making the dialogue flow smoothly.  I tried today to build up a scene where the group leaving the city comes across a gathering of people who are upset with the circumstances.  One thing leads to another and the crowd quickly grows and becomes riotous.  I’m not sure how well I did on the scene, and I’m going to have to go back through and reread it tomorrow.  I think I may need to add some detail to really give it continuity.  You know what?  I’m going to go ahead and post it here.  I hope you like.  Keep in mind, this is a work in progress, and I’m going to make some serious changes to this at some point.  Hope you like it.  PS – Remember this is a rough draft and I haven’t proofed or spell checked it, so read at your own risk!

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Leef and Chaman walked quickly down the dark street toward the imperial stables.  The sky over the eastern horizon was beginning to change from black to a light blue, a sign of the first of the three suns to rise each day.  As they rounded the corner into the stable grounds, Leef could see Dallon already standing by a group of horses speaking with the stable boy.

     “Which horse did you pick,” he asked.

     “Lera.  She’s not as big as Mantor, but she’s fast and nimble.  She’ll do you proud, she will.”

     “Not me, Citrin.  You.”

     “I’m sorry?”

     “You’re coming with us.  I need your help with the horses.  I will have enough to do without having to worry that they’re fed and properly cared for.”

     “But,” he began.

     “I’ve already spoken with Master Lorn.  He will hold your position until you return.”

     Citrin turned and looked to the stable master who was fastening a saddle bag onto one of the pack animals.  “I’m not happy about it, you can believe that,” Master Lorn responded curtly.  “I need you here.  But, it was made clear to me under no uncertain terms that you were leaving, and that if I valued my job, yours would be waiting for you upon your return.”

     “Where are you going?” Citrin asked, shocked.

     “We,” Dallon emphasized, “are going over the World Wall.”

     Citrin’s eyes sparkled with excitement and fear.  “What if I say no?” 

     “The choice is yours, Citrin.  But I am offering you a chance to be part of something commissioned by Shaa’s holy vessel himself.  The person riding that horse will find many doors opened to him upon our return.”

     Citrin stood quietly for a moment and then nodded toward Dallon.  “As Shaa commands.”

     “Well said,” Dallon responded.  “Ah, Leef, Chaman, it’s about time.  We’re all ready to go.  Introductions can be made on the way.  Leef, the brown stallion is for you, and Chaman the gray.”

     Leef looked excitedly at his horse.  Even though he was slightly shorter than Chaman, he had the larger mount which would surely be a relief to his brother, he thought.  Chaman approached his horse apprehensively, reaching out slowly with his hand so the animal could smell him.

     Leef did the same to his horse, a tall, burly stallion which stood a full head taller at the shoulders than Leef.  He could hear the horse breathing, and he reached out and caressed the horse’s cheek.  He could smell the hay and oats the horse must have eaten for breakfast on each breath. 

     “Citrin,” Dallon called, climbing onto Mantor, the massive black stallion.  “I think you miscounted, son.  You saddled one too many horses.”

     “No sir.  That’s for the priest.”

     Dallon’s smile faded instantly.  “The priest?”

     “Yes sir.  Just moments after you left last night a cleric visited me at the stables, he did, and told me I was to have an extra mount ready for a priest.  He walked in literally seconds after you walked out.  I’m surprised you didn’t see him.”

     “Did you get a name?” Dallon demanded, voice on the edge of anger.

     “Haktor,” a voice called in response to the question.  Leef turned to see an under priest, dressed in dark red robes, walking into the courtyard.  “Haktor Shoren, under priest to Krazen Dellar, High Priest to Shaa’s holy vessel.”

     “And where, may I ask, do you think you’re going?”

     “With you, I believe.”  Haktor held out a rolled piece of parchment and handed it to Dallon sitting atop his horse.

     Dallon didn’t waste time retrieving a dagger to cut the wax seal and merely ripped it open with his fingers.  As he read, Leef could see his face tightening.

     “I am aware of no such order from the Emperor.  If he intended you to come, he would have told me.”

     “With all due respect, sir, the Emperor does as Shaa wills.  Shaa wills me to accompany you on this trip.  The note is signed by Krazen Dellar, his High Priest.  If you doubt his authority, we can wait here while you wake the Emperor at this early hour.”

     Dallon sat quietly for a few moments, parsing through the new development.

     “Mount up.”

     Haktor smiled deviously and climbed atop his steed.

     Leef fell in behind Dallon who slowed as he passed Haktor, now mounted on a white mare.  He leaned over and in a whisper that Leef could barely hear, spoke to Haktor.  “We will most definitely have that discussion with the Emperor and Krazen when we return.  And letter or no letter, if you jeopardize our quest, I will kill you myself.”  Haktor’s smirk immediately faded. 

     “Of course, sir.” 

     Dallon rode forward and Leef watched as the man’s gaze turned to daggers pointed at Dallon’s back.  He mumbled something as Leef passed by which was lost in the clatter of hooves over stone.

     “Leef.  Chaman.”  The men turned to see Shamal, the council Sunner walking toward the group.  “Good morning.”

     “You decided to come too?” Chaman asked?  Though Leef was leery of him, it was nice to see a familiar face in the group.  Of those present, Leef knew only Shamal and Dallon who didn’t even really count since he had just met him for the first time yesterday.

     “If by decide you mean I was ordered, then, yes, I decided.”

     “Ordered?”

     “By his Holy Vessel himself.  He told me last night that Shaa desired me on this journey.”

     Leef looked at Shamal, dressed in the customary yellow robes of a Sunner, various bags of herbs, oils and poultices hanging from his belt.  He was not a tall man, by Kirini standards, nor was he stout, but his demeanor told a different story.  Leef had always been uncomfortable around him because of his firm tone and impatient manner.  He was good, no doubt.  But one did not cross Shamal, or he would find himself shoveling manure on the imperial pig pens for a day, a chore Leef had been forced to endure only once before learning not to get on his bad side.

     Shamal’s blonde hair was longer than most Kirini wore, covering his ears and hanging down over the back of his neck.  Around his neck hung a silver disk with the _____________, the Sunner symbol, the same symbol etched into the Sun Stone.

     He looked down at his own hand where his symbol was to have appeared.  Instead of a moonstone symbol, however, an entirely new symbol was there that he had never seen before.  He wished he had asked the Emperor about it, but there was not now time.  His father had certainly never seen it either.  He pulled his brown gloves back on his hands both in preparation of the ride ahead but even more out of embarrassment to cover the mistaken symbol.

     The blue sun was beginning to rise over the horizon when Dallon called everyone together.

     “Time is short, but we cannot leave without introductions.”  He nodded to Chaman who looked back unsure of what he was to do.  Dallon stared at him, stern face showing no emotion.  “Your name.”

     “Oh, Chaman Fildanner, son of Malek Fildanner, Gala to his Holy Vessel.”

     “Citrin Forrow,” came next.  “Stable keeper here.” 

     “Haktor Shoren, underpriest to his worship, Krazen Dellar, High Priest to his Holy Vessel.  I have been asked by his worship to accompany this fellowship on this journey to ensure Shaa’s lips are not closed by our distance from Palithor.  As Shaa teaches. . . .”

     “Thank you Haktor,” Dallon said, cutting off the rest of his sentence.

     Haktor glared at him from his saddle, hatred oozing from his gaze.

     Dallon nodded to Shamal who had not yet mounted his steed and had his back to the group as he loaded his precious herbs and healing devices into his packs. “I am Shamal, Sunner to the high council,” he said.  Leef looked at Chaman wondering how he knew it was his time to speak since he had never looked up from his pouches.  Chaman shrugged and rolled his eyes, causing Leef to smile slightly.

     “I am Dallon, See’en Dai to his Holy Vessel, captain of the guard.  These men are all from my detail, Ovsthus, my second in command, Horen, Reggatt, Con, Dyle, Koden, Johnai, Stovek, Montek and Borje.”

     The See’en Dai all wore their customary white uniforms, long sleeves and pants with a patch over their left breast which Leef noticed was a purple crescent with a red dot in the center, the same as on the imperial flag.  The men sat bolt upright, stature perfect, in their saddles, nodding one by one as their names were counted off by their commander, the utmost respect in their demeanor.  Only Ovsthus’ rank was distinguished by a black line, two inches thick, running over his right shoulder, down over his breast, over his waist and down the leg of his trousers.

     “These men are the Emperor’s finest soldiers.”

     “Lightspring from darkness,” the See’en Dai yelled in unison, a staccato pounding as fists met chests forming the sign of Imperial respect.

     “Lightspring from darkness,” Dallon replied, and the men all put their hands back onto their reins.

     “Everyone on your saddles.”

     “What about me?” Leef asked, irritated that he had been forgotten in the introductions.  Him.  The whole reason they were going on the trip, and Dallon didn’t even remember to let people know who he was.

     Dallon regarded him for a moment and turned to the group.  “Does anyone here not know who this is?  Raise your hands.”

     Leef watched expecting every hand to raise since he had never met any of these men before.  To his shock, not a single hand raised, and a couple of the riders made a point of pushing their hands into their laps so it wouldn’t even look like their hands were raised.

     He looked back to Dallon who simply stared back.  “Leef, do you honestly think there isn’t a person in all of Palithor or the entire Kirini empire for that matter who has not now heard of you, he who aligned with the five?  Like it or not, you are famous, for good or for bad.”

     Leef’s face turned red with embarrassment.  He hadn’t considered the fact that the ripples of his alignment would have spread so broadly so quickly.  “Sorry,” he said quietly.

     “Citrin, is everything ready?  Every horse and pack accounted for?”

     “Of course, sir.  I checked and rechecked them myself to be sure.”
     “He’s right,” Master Lorn added.  I came down early thinking I would need to help finish up, but he had them all ready to go as requested, including the two late additions.”  Lorn snorted as he said the last part, irritation obvious in his voice.

     “Very well.  We must go for we don’t make camp tonight until we reach the River Torn, and we’ll have to press hard to make it.”

     Every head perked up at the mention of the river.  All knew of its existence, but few had ever seen it because of its distance from Palithor, a good hundred leagues from the city gates.  The Kirini prided themselves on their homeland and travel was undertaken only for the necessities of life, all of which could be found within Palithor itself.  Thus, few Kirini had ventured outside its borders, let alone that far to the North.

     Leef had never been on any sort of adventure, and though he had travelled a few times with his father when he was younger, he had never seen the great river.  Every adventure tale he’d ever heard involved a fording of the River Torn.

     “Did you hear that, Chaman?  The River Torn,” he said, his excitement getting the better of him.  Chaman was smiling as well.

     “I heard, brother.  Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.”  He smiled, albeit halfheartedly.

     “Leef, you ride next to me,” Dallon called.  “We need to speak of various matters.  The rest, fall in behind, single file.  As I told each of you yesterday when you were invited on this journey, the Emperor insists that nobody know where we are going or why we go there.  He does not want panic, and the people cannot know the danger they are in.  That rule stands as we ride through the city and outside as well.  If people ask, we are an envoy to Shobel, the capital city of the Second Province.”

     His tone was firm.  His demand unquestioned.  One by one the group fell into line, Chaman immediately behind Leef and Dallon, Varden dangling from his belt.  Leef wore Mirrod strapped angled across his back so that it stood high over his right shoulder and pointed down toward his left foot as he rode.

     Leef looked around at the sprawling city as they rode.  Other than the Citadel, Palithor had no buildings taller than three or four stories, for the Kirini did not like heights.  They had never bothered Chaman, but Leef was terrified of them.  The buildings around the town center were all uniformly colored, browns, tans, greens and stone.  But the further one ventured from the center, the more vividly colored they became.

     As the group entered the crafting district, Leef smiled in spite of himself.  Gone were the bland earth tones, replaced by vividly multi-colored buildings.  Bright reds and yellows, greens and oranges.  It seems the more colors a crafting hall had, the more popular it was.  One building had so many colors that it almost hurt the eyes to look at.

     Chaman was smiling as well, taking in the sights of the city.  The screech of a hawk overhead drew Leef’s eyes upwards, the blue sun already climbing the sky.  The second of the three daily suns, the red sun, was preparing to rise, he noted, as the blue light on the horizon was turning a fiery orange.

     Leef loved the crafting district for its sounds.  He could hear merchants arguing with customers.  The clatter of wagon wheels bouncing over cobble stones.  The pounding of hammers on anvils in the smithies was loud in his ears.  He looked to Chaman expectantly, knowing he was fond of the smithies.  As expected, Chaman was staring intently off to his right at a large man pounding long flat metal pieces, barrel rings, he suspected.  The man looked up at the passing convoy, eyes wide.  He dropped his hammer and ran up to Leef and Dallon.

     “Pardon, good sirs, but is it true?”

     “Is what true?” Dallon responded kindly.

     “That the Empire is falling?”  The man’s large size was betrayed by the tears forming at the corners of his eyes. 

     “Of course not.  What gives you that idea?” 

     “Because, sir, the Emperor is dying.  A man ran through here last night shouting that the Emperor wouldn’t live the month, and that terrible creatures would come over the world wall and kill us all.” 

     The man’s face was contorted as he choked back a sob.  Leef looked worriedly at Dallon who stared stone-faced at the man, obviously contemplating his response.  Palithor’s peril was to be the tightest kept secret and already, it appeared, somebody had leaked it.  But who would do such a thing, Leef wondered.  Why scare everyone before the journey even began.  Leef looked around at his party wondering who might have told, for other than them and the Emperor nobody knew save his own father.  He knew neither he nor Chaman had told, and the thought that his father might have didn’t even cross his mind. 

     He was certain as well that Shamal wouldn’t have said anything, for he was on the high council itself and had dedicated his life to serving the Kirini empire.  He didn’t know Citrin but was certain it couldn’t have been he because he hadn’t even learned he would be going on the journey until that morning and had most certainly not been told the purpose for the packed horses.  The priest he didn’t know either, but why would a holy man want to create fear?  He wasn’t a logical choice. 

     Certainly Dallon wouldn’t have told, and the ten soldiers he brought were loyal to him and might not even have been told yet the reason for their journey.

     Leef was jerked out of his thoughts by a tug on his trousers of his left leg.  A woman was standing there, crying, face caked with dirt, clothing ripped and tattered.  Beggars were an uncommon sight in the crafting district because the merchants went out of their way to ensure their streets and shopfronts were free of the riffraff. 

     ”It’s true, isn’t it, what they say?”  She sniffed loudly.

     Dallon had denied the man’s question but Leef didn’t have the heart to look into the sad woman’s eyes and lie to her.  But, then again, he didn’t have the courage to tell her the truth.  The truth that they were all likely dead and didn’t even know it.

     “Dallon,” Leef called.

     Dallon had continued in discussion with the blacksmith, adamantly denying the questions.  He turned toward Leef and saw the beggar woman at his side.  They looked around and saw a small crowd of 20-30 people beginning to form, all talking loudly amongst themselves. There were dirty beggars and well kempt merchants.  Smithies still holding their hammers, seamstresses with their cloth and needles. Even the children in the street had stopped playing and were looking around at the men on horseback.

     “Where are you going?” one man demanded.

     “Can you save him?” a woman cried.

     “People, I assure you, nothing is wrong,” Dallon lied, barely keeping his frustration in check.

     The crowd closed in, panic showing on their faces.  “Please hurry, my Lords,” a child called out.

     “We don’t want to die.”  This came from a young woman, probably 18 or 19, Leef guessed, holding an infant in her arms.  Her eyes were red from crying.  “Save my son,” she pleaded.

     The crowd started pulling at their clothes and in their fear started pushing at each other.

     “People,” Dallon yelled, trying to gain control of the quickly rioting crowd, “nothing is wrong.”  More and more people began flooding in from the streets.  Some running, all scared.  The group had grown in size to more than one hundred.

     “You’re fleeing, aren’t you?” a man called out.  “Leaving us all here to die.”

     The crowd began getting angrier.  “Take us with you,” a faceless woman yelled from the back of the group.  “Don’t leave us here, please?”  Her cry was desperate.  The throngs of people began closing in on the riders.  “I’ll pay,” one merchant yelled out.  “Ten thousand Kir.”  Leef’s eyes widened.  The sum was probably more than the man made in a year, if he guessed right. 

     Leef looked out over the people in their panic, wishing there was something he could do to assuage their fears.  But, there wasn’t, he realized.  They were going to die, unless the group was successful on their quest.  Unless he was successful.  Unless he pulled a crystal from the Halai.  The weight of his task came crushing down on him.  How in the stones am I supposed to pull a crystal from the black moon?  Here he was terrified at the thought of this small group of people dying not to mention the millions of others throughout Palithor and the four provinces, and he had no idea how he could possibly do what was required of him.  All of Vorimaya would be gone if they—he—failed.

     He didn’t even know how they were going to get over the world wall, a task widely accepted throughout Palithor as impossible.  The crowd was growing quickly as people heard the commotion and left their houses and shops to gather around them.

     Ovsthus galloped forward to where Dallon was standing, trying to gain control of the crowd.  “We must go, and go now.  This crowd is getting out of control.  We cannot be caught in the middle of this.”  People were beginning to push each other and one man, Leef saw, punched another on order to make his way closer to the group.

     Dallon looked at him and back at the crowd.  “Give the order,” he commanded.

     With that, Ovsthus yelled down the line of riders, “Move out.  And be careful,” he added.

     “Move,” Dallon called out to those in front of him as he kicked Mantor’s ribs causing the large stallion to lunge forward.  Leef looked quickly down at the woman by his side still holding on to his trouser leg.

“Don’t worry,” he said, leaning down to her, “we’ll fix this.”  He heeled his horse, and soon the entire procession was racing forward.  Leef looked back as the crowd began chasing after them, trying to grab onto the riders’ clothes or saddles, anything they could get their hands on.  One woman was knocked down by one of the horses, falling to the ground in a puddle.  He watched in horror as none of the crowd even stopped to help her, so intent were they on escaping.

Leef looked forward at the sound of a scream only to see another large crowd down the street.  This crowd was in complete chaos, men punching each other, women pulling hair.  One man was being attacked by a dog in the commotion.  The crowd was growing, and people was bring in sticks and hammers. 

“Move,” Dallon roared to the people in front of him and, turning, cried, “do not stop.”  Several people in front of the charging horses dove out of the way, but some were not so fortunate.  Leef could see several knocked to either side by Mantor’s charge.  Men lay bloodied in the street from their fighting.

“We need those horses,” one man yelled holding a metal rod which he had just used to pummel a man lying at his feet.  “Stop them.”

Leef heeled his horse harder in the ribs, feeling a further jolt of speed as the stallion lurched forward.  Men shouted from behind him where the See’en Dai were kicking at the more aggressive members of the crowd as they rode by.  The city gate was quickly approaching, a massive wooden gate, thirty feet in height.  Guards stood atop the wall on either side of the gate, which stretched out as far as Leef could see in either direction.

The city wall was made of black glass, perfectly smooth on both sides, and a good ten feet thick.  Leef had always wondered why the city wall was so high, almost as high as any building in Palithor itself.  The city had never been attacked, since early in the Emperor’s reign, many generations ago, and he wondered if the glass could even withstand an attack.  But, now, understanding as he did the horrors that awaited over the World Wall, the city wall made more sense.

A narrow pathway arched over the top of the gate where to sentries stood guard as well.  One of the sentries saw the galloping riders and began ringing a bell perched atop the wall.  The other guards took defensive positions, unsure of what was happening.  The gate commander stepped into the path of the oncoming horses and raised his hand signaling a stop.

“Move,” Dallon yelled.  The guard began raising his spear when realization dawned on his face.  He jumped out of the way as the group ran by.  “Close the gate behind us,” he shouted to the guard as he rode by.

The group passed through the gate in a flurry of hooves and dust.  Leef could hear shouting behind him as the gates closed and the pursuers were stopped by the guards.  He looked up at Dallon expecting him to slow now that they have left the throngs of people behind, but his pace did not slacken.  He couldn’t tell who was pushing who, Dallon or Mandarb.  It was as if the great stallion lived to run.  It was all the rest of the group could do to keep up.

#

Krazen Dellar stood alone in the council chamber high above the city looking out the massive windows which overlooked Palithor.  From his vantage point, he could see the imperial stables where the group had assembled that morning.  Though he couldn’t hear their discussion, he could see when Haktor approached and the interaction between him and Dallon.  He must have played his part perfectly because the officer never entered the Citadel to confirm the nonexistent orders.  It was a gamble he had had to take.  It was imperative that he have somebody on the journey if his plan was to succeed.  Had Dallon done as he should have and questioned the emperor, things would have gotten very awkward.

His plan to leak out the information about the Emperor and the journey was genius, he thought, and had worked out far better than he had hoped.  He simply wanted to start sewing the seeds of fear and uncertainty into the street throngs.  Who would have thought that they would share information so quickly and assemble into riotous mobs.  If only Dallon had been heart in the scuffle, he frowned to himself.  He was a thorn in the side of his plans which would have to be dealt with at some point.

As was Haktor.  Though useful and sufficiently zealous, the limits of his loyalty to Krazen were as yet untried.  He would have used somebody else, but there simply wasn’t time after the Emperor’s horrid revelations about multi alignment.  Blasphemes, Krazen corrected himself.  Of all Krazen’s priests, Haktor was simply the most likely to feel the same level of betrayal as Krazen.  Everything Krazen had ever believed about the Emperor was shattered in those few moments the previous day.  Well, not everything, but enough.  If he had lied about his alignment, what else had he lied about?  Krazen was not one to give second chances of loyalty, particularly when it involved betrayal.  No, the Emperor would pay for his blasphemes.

Krazen smiled as the group blasted through a last group of people who from this distance could have easily as been hugging as fighting and ran through the gate which closed promptly behind them.  Thinking of his task ahead, he walked quickly out of the chamber and down toward his office which was much closer to the ground than the council chamber.  He hated the walk down the stairs, each step feeling more degrading than the last.  Not for long, he thought.

#

Upon leaving the city, the group started on the Gold Road, a large, aptly named thoroughfare that ran north from Palithor all the way to Shobel, the capitol city of the Second Province.  The road was wide enough for four or five carts to pass each other side by side without slowing, and three times as many horses.  It got its name from the curiously golden dirt which made up the path, the likes of which was not found anywhere else in either province.  As with everything else for which a logical answer could not be found, people believed it was a gift from Shaa.

On either side of the Gold road were grasslands and low hills which extended as far as the eye could see to the East and all the way to the World Wall which could be seen far to the west.  From this distance Leef should have been able to see the top of the World Wall, but it was covered by clouds, as it always was, a source of constant frustration for him and many others.

Vorimaya was a land of trees, which were the only obstructions to the view.  Leef watched the trees as they passed by, some short and skinny, others which seemed almost as tall as the Citadel itself, and wider around at the base than 10 Kirini could reach hand in hand.  The Red sun was now high overhead, with the blue sun, the first of the day to rise, two-thirds of the way through the sky.  The last of the three suns, the yellow sun, was by far the brightest and had crested the horizon, its light equalizing the colored light of the previous two.  The first two suns brought colored light but absolutely no heat, and so the morning, late as it was, was just beginning to warm.  The sky had been light for nearly three hours, and the plants and trees still had the morning dew.

The further away from Palithor the group rode, the fewer people Leef began to see.  What were initially clusters of houses began turning into solitary farms, farther and farther apart.  To his left, Leef saw a large farm with many different crops.  Corn, wheat, turnips and shoal, a leafy vegetable similar spinach but as red as a strawberry.  The farmhouse was larger than most Leef had seen over the last while, and a family was gathered outside on the yard sitting lazily in the sun.  A small girl, probably 4 or 5, Leef guessed, ran toward the road excitedly at the sight of the horses.  Her father ran over and grabbed her, hoisting her up into his arms and staring at the passersby, a concerned look on his face.

An armed contingent of soldiers was probably not a common sight to those living this far outside the city, Leef decided.  He looked over at Chaman to tell him about the little girl but decided otherwise when he saw Chaman bent forward, holding on for dear life.  Leef smiled and lifted his head high, feeling the rush of the wind on his face.  On a horse, he felt like he was alive.  Poor Chaman, he chuckled to himself.

After what seemed like an hour, Dallon slowed and veered off the road to the left toward a short but unusually large tree which had a massive trunk and a flat layer of branches on top as big as a keep.  On the approach, it looked like a plate set on top of a stick.  Leef had never seen its like and wondered whether it’s odd canopy was natural, though he couldn’t imagine how someone might have trimmed something so massive.

Dallon reined Mantor to a halt under the tree and turned around to face the group as it approached.  Ovsthus was pulling up the rear and had barely stopped when Dallon began shouting.  “Who in the stones broke my order of silence about this quest?”  Nobody stirred except Ovsthus who nudged his horse up next to Dallon, eyes scanning the faces of the group, each of whom was looking side to side to see who might take responsibility for the screw up.  Silence.

“By the stones, if somebody doesn’t answer me this instant. . . .”

“Permission to speak, sir.”

Dallon turned towards Ovsthus, his angered face slackening slightly as he looked at his friend.  “Please,” he said, forcing himself to calm further.

“Captain, I do not think anybody said anything.”

“You saw them, Ovsthus, they were rioting in the streets out of sheer terror because of what they heard.  They knew!”

“Perhaps I wasn’t clear.  I didn’t mean that the information was not leaked, just that I do not believe any in this group are responsible.  Our meeting ended quite late, and other than you and I and the Fildanner boys, none of the others had time to do anything but pack.”

Dallon looked around at the faces of the riders who quickly nodded and murmered in agreement with Ovsthus’ statement.  “Then who?”

“I do not know, Captain.  Very few knew of our journey and even less the reason for it.  In fact, other than you, me and the Fildanner’s, nobody else was told where we are going.  However, I do not know that to be true for the priest,” he added as an afterthought, gaze shifting to Haktor who sat lazily in his saddle, hands folded in his lap.

“Who sent you, Haktor?” Dallon demanded.

“I have already answered you, Captain,” the title finishing with just a hint of sarchasm.  “His Holy Vessel’s High Priest, Krazen Dellar on orders of the Emperor himself.”

“And tell me where we’re going.”

“That information was not shared with me.”

“Why are we going?”  Dallon’s eyes were alight with suspicion.

“Neither was that.  I know only that I was sent because a travelling group as large as this would be amiss without some spiritual guidance.”  He smiled, one corner of his mouth twisting up deviously.  “Why don’t you ask your own men.  I notice you haven’t pointed a finger in their direction.

Dallon regarded him blandly for a moment.  “It wasn’t them.”

“How do you know,” Haktor asked.

“Because they don’t even know where we are going or why.  They are not here because they want to be.  They are here because they are loyal to his Holy Vessel and follow orders to the letter.  Any one of them would give his life this second if I were but to command it.”

Haktor leaned in close.  “How do you know?  Lets see.”

“The reason they would do it if I asked, underpriest,” he said, emotionless, “is because they know I wouldn’t ask unless it were worth it.”  With that, he called everyone in close.  We still have many hours to go before we reach the River Torn.  We’ll make camp there for the night.  Horen and Reggat, you scout ahead a half mile or so.  Sound your horn if there’s trouble.”

“Aye, Captain,” Horen responded, a strong, vaguely familiar accent in his voice.  Leef looked at him wondering where he had heard that accent before but unable to place it.  He obviously wasn’t Kirini, at least not pure, by his bright red hair, a feature nonexistent in Kirini blood.  He was also shorter than the rest of the group by a full head, though his shoulders were broad and strong, by the look of them.  Both men took off at a swift gallop without another word.

“Con, you’re in charge of food.  I’ve seen a fair amount of wild game on our ride here,” Dallon continued.
     “We’ve got plenty of food, sir,” Citrin volunteered.  “I packed everything on your list, a full two weeks’ worth for everyone.”

“Our trip will likely last much longer than that, and I don’t want to dip into our stores unless absolutely necessary.  For the next two weeks until we hit the Shadowvale, I know we can subsist on the land.  What I don’t know is what we’ll find once we enter the vale or go over the wall.  So we’re saving our wares for then.”

At the mention of the Shadowvale, every head in the company turned toward Dallon.  All knew the stories of the vale and it’s unyielding claim on all who ever entered it.  Not one person who had ever entered had come back out according to Kirini legend.  Leef’s heart began to race, and he looked at Chaman who looked pale in the face.

“Isn’t there another way, Captain?” Shamal asked?  “This group is large, and I don’t know whether I have the herbs we need to combat what we may face in there.”

“There isn’t.  The only way over the world wall is on the other side of the vale.”

“Are you serious?” Citrin asked?  “When you mentioned going over the wall earlier, I thought it was just a figure of speech.  Are you really talking about going over?”

Leef looked at the man sympathetically.  Any time somebody planned a trip of more than a few hours, the joke was to say he was going over the wall.  In all the times he’d used the term throughout his life, he’d never actually thought he would be doing it.  He felt bad for Citrin who got pulled into the quest without the slightest idea what he was getting into.  At least Leef knew where they were going and, he had to admit to himself, if he had a choice, he would have opted to stay.

“Oh, we are definitely going over the wall.  We have no choice.”

“Sir, we’ve passed many farms, and I suspect we won’t be into completely open lands for some time yet.  How shall I hunt?” Con asked, bringing the discussion back on track. 

“If you see game, take it without regard to where you stand.  We are on imperial command and have domain on all lands in the first province.  We will not cross into the second for almost a week.  If anyone asks, and they shouldn’t given your uniform, be polite but assert imperial right.  They cannot refuse you.”

“Aye, Captain.”  In a flurry of hooves, Con was gone, a trail of dust following him into the distance.

“The rest of you, get back on your horses.  It’s time to keep moving.  I figure we have about 8 hours of light left, and we’ll need all of it if we’re to make the bank of the river tonight.”  Dallon rode over to Ovsthus and began speaking quietly, pointing in the direction they were travelling.

Those who had dismounted got back onto their horses.  “Leef,” Chaman said causing him to turn back around.  He was holding out a waterskin which Leef gratefully accepted, not realizing how thirsty he’d become over the last several hours.  The yellow sun was high in the sky, nearing its peak, and the temperature had grown warm.  All blue had gone from the sky with the setting of the first sun.  The second sun was not nearly as bright, and its red light was consumed by the yellow light of the third sun.  But, as the second approached the horizon on its setting path, the effect intensified causing it to appear much brighter than it had on its ascension. 

“Thanks,” he said, handing back the skin.  “Crazy, this.”

“You’re telling me,” Chaman winked, looking west toward the World Wall.  “I still can’t get over the people fighting in the streets before we left the city.  I’ve never seen them that crazy, not even the beggars on the days when the food carts deliver food.”

“I know.  Who do you suppose told?”

“No idea, brother, but I can tell you this.  Whoever did it had a reason.  It doesn’t make sense to cause that kind of trouble just for the fun of it.”  Chaman had always taken more of an interest in social issues than Leef had, and so he often took has advice on such matters.

“Agreed,” Leef replied solemnly.

“Maybe it wasn’t our journey that upset them,” a voice chimed in from behind.  Leef and Chamn both turned to see Haktor who had ridden up directly behind them.

“Of course it was,” Chaman responded assuredly.  “Didn’t you hear them?”

“I heard them,” he said through a smile, “and they never once said anything about our trip.  They thought we were leaving, and they wanted to come with us.  Maybe their fear doesn’t come from what’s out here but from what’s in there.”

“Palithor?  What could they possibly have to be afraid of in Palithor?”  It was Leef this time who responded back impatiently.  Even he knew that the Kirini of the city lived far better lives than those who tried to make it on the outer fringes of the First Province.

“Perhaps they learned that everything they believed in was a lie.  That’s a hard thing to overcome.  Maybe too hard.”  Haktor looked back toward the city as he said this.  Gone from his voice was all sarcasm or spite.  He sounded as if he were trying to convince himself of something rather than them.  Leef and Chaman looked at each other and, while Haktor was still looking away, Chaman rolled his eyes and nodded forward, inviting Leef to start moving away from the underpriest.

The pair rode over to Dallon just as he gave the command to start moving again.  The group began riding North, this time at a much more manageable pace allowing Leef and Chaman to ride side by side and talk.  “Are you doing ok with the horse?”

“I guess,” Chaman responded.  “I just hate these things.  Doesn’t seem right to ride something with more legs than I have.  I can’t even figure out how the dang horse can even keep them straight.  Back there when we were running I looked down and it was a blur of legs and hooves.  It’s a wonder we didn’t trip, or worse.”

Leef laughed heartily, forgetting for a moment everything that had happened.  In that moment, it was just him and Chaman, as it always had been.  As quickly as it came, the levity was gone, and Leef grew serious.  “What’s wrong?” he said, noticing the furrow in Leef’s brow.

“We’ve got each other’s backs, right?”

“Of course we do, brother.  What brought that on.”

“It just, we don’t know any of these guys, Chaman.”

“Well, we know Shamal.  Father trusts him.  So should we.”

“I know, but he creeps me out.  But, him aside, these are all strangers, every one.  Before yesterday, we’d never even seen these guys before. Dallon scares me.  The priest is, well, I don’t know what he is, but something’s not right about him.  And the others?  Random soldiers and stable boys?  C’mon.”

“I know.  I’ve thought the same thing.”

“We don’t know what’s going to happen before this is all over, but we know it’s not going to be good.  Let’s just promise right now that no matter what, we’ve got each other covered.  You and me before anyone else.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said, adding “baby brother” to irritate him.

Normally the name irritated him since Chaman was only two minutes older than he, but today it was comforting.  With everything that had happened and the uncertainty bearing down on them, anything familiar was welcome, even if it was his brother’s barbs. 

The two rode on in silence for a time until Leef remembered the pouch of stones tied to his belt.  He opened it, careful not to let a stone fall from his hand as he bounced along on the back of his horse.  In the sunlight, the stones sparkled eerily bright, particularly the yellow stone which was letting of enough light to illuminate a small room, he guessed. Right next to the yellow stone, though, lay the black stone of the shadow which seemed to absorb all light around it.  Whereas the side of Leef’s hand with the yellow gem was bathed in light, everything on the side of his hand with the black stone appeared to be darkened in shadow, as if he were standing under a tree.

Leef looked at the contrast between light and dark, wondering how the light of the yellow gem could disappear, almost as if it were being sucked into the black stone.  Impossible, he thought.

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