‘What on earth has been going on here?’
Crashing the door open with a bang, the butcher had come storming into the street. He looked from the dead Endelash to the injured Forze in astonishment, then turned to Delwind and Amaria.
‘Never, as long as I’ve lived …’ he muttered distractedly. ‘You’d better come in …’
Delwind led the way into the butchers’, a small, cool room smelling of meat. A door was ajar behind the counter that obviously led to the abattoir – Delwind could see rows and rows of breasts, joints and legs strung up from the ceiling. Rolls of dried goat, beef and venison were sitting on the sides, salted pork joints were stacked neatly in the corner, and some venison was being smoked over an open fire in the middle of the room, filling the tiny space with the musty smell of woodsmoke.
The butcher, Evan, was a plump man with greying hair and a bloodstained smock. He was bustling around the room, pulling out chairs and a foldaway table from under the counter. After swiftly setting them up, he motioned them to sit down.
‘Good grief,’ he began, heaving himself into a seat. ‘I’ve no idea how you managed to survive that, that was some fighting …’
Neither Delwind nor Amaria said a word. They were both still shocked by the events of the evening.
‘Those two men … were they from Ildar, by any chance?’
‘It sounded like it,’ said Delwind hesitantly. ‘I thought they didn’t speak our language in that country?’
‘Some of them don’t,’ said Evan, ‘some of the eastern towns don’t … but most speak our language in a different dialect. Did you find out what they were doing?’
‘Not really,’ said Delwind, trying to remember. ‘They said that they had been looking for a camp in the mountains, where some of our lot were sending forward spies to see what was happening out there. They had a map with them, and –’ Delwind hesitated as he pulled out the huge roll of parchment he had taken from Forze. ‘– the scouts marked a place near Thorsbridge,’ he said, pointing at the red cross next to their settlement on the map. ‘Obviously they couldn’t find where it was, and thought that by coming here they would be able to find out more about the camp, but they didn’t see anything. Then they insulted each other a bit, they obviously didn’t like each other, and that’s all I heard, really, and then they noticed Amaria …’
‘Amaria …’ said Evan thoughtfully. ‘I’ve never seen you in our village before. Are you travelling?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘My parents died in a – in a house fire. No-one else would take me on, so I’ve had to move, er, to another place to try and find work, and er, lodging.’
‘Dear me,’ said Evan sadly. ‘And at such a young age …’
‘I can’t stay here now,’ she said quietly. ‘Not when everyone finds out that I’ve killed a man.’ Silent tears were dribbling down her face.
‘If you hadn’t, you would have died, dear, it was in self defence.’
‘No, it wasn’t, he wasn’t even attacking me!’
‘Then you saved someone else’s life,’ said Evan kindly. ‘Those two men attacked you without provocation; you had a right to defend yourselves.’
‘Have you ever killed someone?’ said Amaria stubbornly.
‘No,’ said Evan.
‘Then you have no idea how it feels, to take a life …’ She turned away.
‘But you know how bad things are with Ildar, now,’ said Delwind. ‘They’re saying that the Emperor’s making a huge army, and he’s going to try and overthrow Lionforge. Killing those men might make his army attack us instead.’
‘Codswallop,’ said Evan, chuckling. ‘I’d like to see him try.’
‘Don’t you remember what happened with the centaurs? One of them killed a trader and it was like a spark to tinder. Everyone was fighting after that.’
Evan looked surprised. ‘How do you know about all that? It was about two hundred years ago!’
‘My mother used to tell me stories when I was little,’ said Delwind. ‘Said my father went away to the centaurs to fight the war …’
Evan fell silent, reminiscing the day that Delwind’s father had bidden the village goodbye and set off over the mountains towards the south and the border of Ardor, where the centaurs and the humans had been fighting for nearly two centuries.
‘Your father was a good man,’ said Evan. ‘I remember well when he used to come in here to buy meat. He would have been a great father to you had he not gone running off with the army to fight in that good-for-nothing war.’
‘Yeah, well, no-one knows, because he never actually did any fathering, did he?’ said Delwind grumpily. Evan opened his mouth, but could find no reply to this and fell silent.
‘Ildar is definitely not happy with us,’ said Amaria. ‘My f– I’ve heard stories from hunters in the mountains that Chalea’s name is mud over there, and who knows what might happen when they find that two of their spies have been killed.’
‘What are we going to do?’ said Delwind. ‘We can’t stay here. We’ve killed one of their spies and injured the other. That’s only going to make the Emperor good and riled at us.’
‘I suppose so,’ said Evan thoughtfully.
‘And the village isn’t going to trust either me or Amaria, not now this has happened.’
‘We’re going to have to go into hiding,’ concluded Amaria.
‘No, you are not,’ said Evan firmly. ‘Two children, out in the world on their own, without food, water, anyone to guide them – madness.’
‘We’re not children,’ said Delwind. ‘We’re perfectly capable of looking after ourselves.’
‘No-one needs to know that you two did it,’ said Evan, but Delwind stood up.
‘If their battalion that they’ve been leading around decides to come after their bosses and find out why they haven’t come back, they’re going to find one with a broken ankle and one with an arrow through the gut. What do you think that’s going to make them think?’ said Delwind loudly. ‘If they don’t find out who exactly did that then they’re going to kill the whole village. Then, they’re going to go straight back into their own country and tell the Emperor what happened.’
‘And how will you two disappearing save the whole village from being killed?’ snapped Evan.
‘Because one of the men is still alive,’ said Delwind, pacing up and down. ‘He knows exactly what us two look like. If his gang comes down here after him and he can’t find us, he’s going to order them to go and look for us in case we try to tell the king. That means that if you point them off in the wrong direction, they’re going to go straight after us to try and stop us and leave the village. That should stop them going back as well, so the Emperor won’t know anything about it.’
‘Aren’t you going to try and let the king know, then?’ said Evan.
‘We’ll have to go in a different direction,’ said Delwind. ‘Probably south, towards Rockhelm, they won’t think of looking for us there.’
‘What about me?’ exclaimed Evan. ‘I’m going to be endangered as well because the alive man is going to know that you talked to me.’
‘No he isn’t,’ said Delwind. ‘He’s fainted. Look.’
Evan went to the window and looked out. There was now a large pool of blood dripping away from Forze’s ankle, and he was as white as a sheet.
‘I think he’s going to die,’ said Amaria anxiously. ‘He’s lost so much blood …’
‘So what if he does die?’ said Evan scathingly. ‘He attacked you. I swear, if I’d’ve had my butcher’s knife ready I would have come out there and helped you.’
‘So, will you help us?’ said Delwind determinedly.
‘Oh, of course I’ll help you,’ said Evan jadedly. ‘I can’t say I like it, and I don’t know what on earth your mother’s going to say, Delwind, but … I think it’s the best course of action.’
‘Right,’ said Delwind. ‘We need to get ready, then.’
‘What on earth has been going on here?’