Within five minutes, Evan had prepared them a bag of dried meat, some fruit and vegetables to keep away scurvy, and his longest broadsword.
‘I insist,’ said Evan, handing it to Delwind. ‘That rusty old thing won’t last a week.’
‘But I’ve already got another sword!’ Delwind protested. ‘I got it off that man who fainted!’
And Delwind unsheathed the mighty blade from its elegant scabbard – a sword meant for a brave warrior, not for Forze with his cowardly arrogance.
‘Well, that is some weapon,’ said Evan. Threads of gold chased their way up the blade; a firm steel mesh below the crosspiece gave extra grip; and a heavy ruby set into the pommel and encrusted in silver acted as counterbalance.
‘You’ll need that, though,’ said Evan. ‘I’ve got a ring of sorts in the back – something to sell if you get stuck.’
‘What?’ spluttered Delwind, shocked.
‘At least let me help you a little with your journey,’ said Evan firmly, and before Delwind could protest he went into a back room and came back carrying a ring, also with a ruby, though a lot smaller and set with copper.
‘Where did you get that?’ said Delwind, open-mouthed as he gazed intently at the precious stone.
‘It was a gift from my grandfather,’ said Evan reminiscently. ‘I don’t have any need for it. I’ve got a funny feeling that you’ll need it more than I will.’
Evan’s expression made it clear that he wasn’t about to refuse, so Delwind put the ring on his finger with a word of thanks. Evan clapped him on the shoulder and they walked outside.
Outside in the street, people were now approaching the two men on the floor. No-one had touched Endelash, but the town healer had taken Forze back to her house on the edge of town.
‘I bet he’s filling her up with loads of lies about what really happened,’ said Delwind bitterly, as he tried to force some more bedding into his pack.
‘It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,’ said Evan. ‘I’ll go and get him later – I’ve got a great hiding place for both of them – that doctor’s too kind for her own good. But we must keep you two hidden, so stay away from the window.’
‘How else am I supposed to see what’s happening?’ said Delwind loudly. ‘We’re on the second floor; no-one’s going to see me.’
‘I wouldn’t bet on that,’ said Evan darkly.
A crowd had now gathered around Endelash. Dark muttering was coming from the group. Delwind caught a few words such as ‘– no wonder Ildar don’t like us at the moment –’ and ‘– who’s going to clear him up?’
Amaria came back into the room. Her pack was on her back again, her quiver was ready and her boots were on. She looked ready to go.
‘Is it time to leave now?’ she asked.
‘We should wait until dark,’ said Evan worriedly, looking at the sun, which was dribbling down behind the jagged silhouettes of the mountains.
‘We can’t,’ said Delwind. ‘Their force might be here then. We can’t wait.’
Amaria held open the door for them. Delwind led the way out, and was closely followed by Evan.
‘Well, I hope you get on fine,’ said Evan as thought hey were only going out for a picnic, opening the back door for them so that they could avoid the crowd. ‘Don’t get into trouble, whatever you do.’
‘Oh, you know me, Evan,’ said Delwind in a would-be jovial voice. ‘Trouble usually finds me.’
‘Before you go,’ said Evan, as they made to walk out of the door, ‘what am I going to do about you mother?’
‘Tell her I had to go,’ said Delwind. ‘Tell her I will definitely come back some day, but it won’t be anytime soon.’
‘Look, Delwind, I don’t think you should leave your mother behind, your dad’s already run off to go fighting, and he hasn’t come back. If the same happens to you –’
‘It won’t, I promise,’ said Delwind determinedly. ‘If I stayed she would be in danger – this is to protect her. Please don’t think this is easy for me.’
Evan chuckled. ‘You’re just as hot-headed as your father was.’ He didn’t know what else to say. He could only smile sadly, and send the pair of them on.
‘Thank you for helping us,’ said Amaria.
‘Yeah, thanks,’ said Delwind, raising a hand in farewell. ‘Look after Mum and Banech for me.’
‘I will, don’t worry,’ said Evan, shutting the door behind them.
* * *
‘Right,’ said Delwind. ‘Off we go.’
As they crept quietly through the maze of tiny little streets in Thorsbridge, the sun sunk even lower and stained the sky a deep, blood red. Shadows lengthened, darkness gathered and flickering firelight shone from the windows of houses.
Delwind was a little uncomfortable. His pack was digging into his shoulders, and Forze’s sword was knocking against his leg. He was also alone with someone he had known for barely an hour.
‘Where do you reckon we’re going, then?’ said Amaria inquisitively.
‘We need to go somewhere where they won’t find us,’ said Delwind, ‘and we need to stay away from the border. I think if we go south, towards Rockhelm, we’ll be able to find work or something and we should be alright.’ But he didn’t sound very optimisitic. ‘How did you end up here?’ asked Delwind.
‘Oh, it’s complicated,’ said Amaria evasively. ‘Bit of a long story.’
‘Well, we’ve got about a week ahead of us,’ said Delwind reasonably.
‘I suppose so,’ she sighed, pulling up her hood again against a chilly breeze from the mountains. ‘I used to live in a house in the middle of nowhere, and it burnt down. I just travelled until I could find somewhere I could rest. But as it turns out … I didn’t get a lot of rest there anyway.’
‘I know, I’m sorry,’ said Delwind.
‘Don’t be sorry,’ said Amaria. ‘I didn’t really know how bad the situation was with Ildar, I’m just glad I was armed.’
‘Thank you for saving my life,’ said Delwind, in a subdued voice.
Amaria fell silent. Then, very quietly, she said:
They were silent for a while as they meandered through the narrow, sloping cobbled streets, listening to the sounds of night appearing around them, seeing the dark envelop the world in its dark shroud. They rounded the corner, and saw the edge of town: the south road out of Thorsbridge, winding its way through the foothills and into a copse in the distance.
‘We’re nearly out,’ said Delwind. ‘I just hope everyone here’ll be alright.’
Suddenly, there came a clank of metal on metal. Quick as a flash, Delwind grabbed Amaria’s arm and pulled her into a dark side alley.
Warily poking their heads round the corner, they saw a dozen men, armed with spears and round, bossed shields similar to Endelash’s, donning blue and silver jerkins and wearing pointed helms with steel noseguards. Their heavy boots were drumming on the cobbles, and their armour clanked and squeaked and echoed off the hard stone walls of the houses.
‘This is bad,’ said Delwind. ‘There must be at least fifty there … they’re not going to stand a chance.’
‘The whole village.’
‘They should be alright, you heard what Evan said.’
‘Yeah, but I want to make sure.’
‘We can’t, we’ve got to get out of here –’
‘I’ve lived with these people all my life,’ retorted Delwind under his breath, ‘and I’m not about to abandon them.’
‘But –’ spluttered Amaria, but Delwind had already started off in the direction of the square where Endelash’s corpse was still presumably spread-eagled on the cobbles, taking the dark alleyways where they would be neither seen nor heard. Timber houses loomed above them, blocking out the fading light and imposing them on either side by the overhang on the floors above.
Silently they crept through the labyrinth of eerily silent streets, poking their heads around every corner, listening as hard as they could with their ears, Delwind leading the way towards the town square.
‘Look, I don’t see why we’re doing this –’
‘Oh, right! So you weren’t upset when your parents died in that fire? I’m just trying to stop that from happening to me.’
‘But my parents d–’
But Delwind was not listening, as he had fixed his concentration on another conversation that was happening around the corner of the Six Spears tavern, between several silver-and-blue clad soldiers, and which was taking place in the same thick accent as that which belonged to Forze and Endelash.
‘They’re not here,’ said one defiantly. ‘I reckon they’ve blown their cover and been put in the stocks.’ He laughed loudly – the thought seemed to amuse him.
‘That’s not funny,’ said another sharply. ‘They’re the best spies in the country. They must still be here.’
‘We haven’t been able to find them,’ said the first soldier reasonably. ‘So they can’t be here.’
‘They might have been hidden in one of these houses,’ said a third soldier. ‘We need to start raiding them.’
‘What, so you’re saying they were killed on purpose then?’
‘We can’t search houses, no-one must know we’re here, you heard what Forze said.’
‘I think he’d say summat a lot differen’ once he’d bin caught up ’n’ hanged.’
‘But we don’t even know that they came here, they said that they’d head out to find the camp alone so they didn’t get discovered, then come back and discuss tactics with us. If they didn’t turn up before dark, come and look for them.’
‘It’s not even properly dark yet.’
‘And how can we look for them if they didn’t tell us where they were going?’
‘They said that they would look in the mountains, you dolt, we should’ve stayed there, but no, I was outvoted, everyone thought we should come down here to –’
‘– have a pint!’ yelled a fat man at the back. There came a few hearty guffaws and a shout of, ‘Hear, hear!’
‘Shut yer cake-hole, Emparigus,’ he added. ‘Stop bossin’ us around, let’s just go ’n’ have a pint. It migh’ be sloppy Chalean mead, but my belly’s bin complainin’ since we set off, an’–’
‘Can you think of nothing but your fat gut?’ snapped Emparigus. ‘I was supposed to be in charge until Endelash and Forze got back, and I will not have my authority disregarded by a bunch of clumsy, idiotic beer-bellies like you, ranting on about how hungry you are!’
‘You sound like a spoilt child,’ said the first soldier. ‘Stop speaking out of your backside and let your mouth have a chance.’
There was an outbreak of chortling at this, and Emparigus’ face turned an ugly shade of pink as he boiled up with apoplectic fury.
‘Get out there and find them,’ he growled furiously, ‘or goodness help us when the Emperor hears about it …’
The group dispersed. Delwind and Amaria pulled their heads back and shuffled around to the back door of the tavern. Opening it noiselessly they crept into the shadowy building.
They had emerged behind the bar. Barrels of every drink imaginable – of mead, cider, ale, beer, wine, whisky – hung on the wall behind them, looking stooped and eerie in the half-light. Bar stools were empty and candles were unlit and cold in their brackets.
‘Right, we’re safe here,’ said Delwind, relieved. ‘I knew this would happen, we should have left ages ago.’
‘How do you know all this stuff about fighting, when all you’ve done all your life is live on a farm?’
‘I don’t know. I think it’s in my blood. I’m quite good with a sword because me and my brother have been sparring with cypress sticks for King knows how long, and then I used to enter the sparring tournaments that the traders always used to organise – it was how we survived last winter, with the money I won at the end. And my mum always told me all the old stories about the wars with the centaurs, because that was where dad was supposed to have gone.’
They fell silent for a while, listening to the chilly autumn breeze whistling through the cracks in the building, ears pricked for any sign of voices.
And sure enough, voices they heard – right outside the door of the tavern.
‘– might be in here, Forze always liked the Chalean cider.’ There came some jeers, a few chortles, then the door bashed open.
Delwind and Amaria had crouched down behind the bar. Delwind had drawn his sword and Amaria had her bow in her hand, which she quickly strung. She notched an arrow and prepared for battle.
Suddenly there came a clunk from upstairs, and then they heard someone galumphing down the stairs. Before the soldiers could speak, a beer-bellied, warty old man had stormed into the kitchen.
‘I don’t know what on earth you think you’re doing!’ he roared furiously. ‘Get out of my pub!’
‘We have warrants to search these buildings for our two leaders,’ said Emparigus, who was leading this group.
‘Oh, aye, probably come to spy on us to report back to that good-for-nothing tyrant who rules you lot,’ said the landlord mordantly.
‘We do not take insults to the Emperor of Ildar lightly,’ said Emparigus acidly, drawing a broadsword and advancing on the landlord.
‘And I don’t take your breaking and entering into my pub lightly either,’ retorted the barman.
Emparigus darted forwards, but with more dexterity and agility than Delwind had expected, the barman dodged away. At the first sound of fighting, more trampling was overheard as the barman continued to dodge Emparigus. Soon, the barman’s three sons had charged into the room, each wielding a heavy hammer. Taking out ten men with sheer surprise, they quickly advanced through the haggle in the middle of the room and knocked Emparigus to the ground. But Emparigus slashed his sword and the youngest of the barman’s sons cried out in pain as his hand was cleaved off. Blood spurted over the floor and the young man recoiled, clutching the stump. Angrily the barman charged forward and struck Emparigus in the face. Then, he seized him bodily and threw him out of the room, which his fleeing men had left open.
Before Delwind and Amaria had even time to move, Evan came hurrying in through the door, his eye bleeding profusely.
‘What monstrosities do we have in our village?’ cursed the barman as he hurried to help his son. ‘What’s the situation?’
‘They’ve blockaded the village,’ said Evan. ‘No-one can get out or in. Soldiers are raiding everywhere. Rusl’s new baby is dead.’
Delwind stood up at this, and came around the counter.
‘Ho! More intruders!’ roared the barman.
‘Ssh, Angus, they’re alright.’
‘Rusl’s baby’s dead?’ exclaimed Delwind. ‘We should go and kill them all!’
‘We can’t,’ said Evan. ‘You know we’ve been saying it for years. Thorsbridge is one of the first towns they’d go for, and we have neither men nor arms, nor any decent defence. I think, instead of finding the two you got earlier, they’ve decided just to take over the town. There’s no way we can stop them.’
‘We’ll have to get past the blockade,’ said Amaria. ‘How are we doing that then?’
‘I don’t know,’ mused Evan. He was cleaning out his eye with a rag Angus had given him.
‘Why can’t we all get through, if we all tried?’ suggested Angus reasonably.
‘Have they found Forze yet?’ demanded Delwind.
‘Is that the alive one or the dead one?’ asked Evan.
‘The alive one.’
‘They’ve found neither. They’re in my cellar, in a secret compartment, and they’ll never find them. The one who’s alive is bound and gagged, and the one who’s dead is – well, dead. I told off that silly doctor for being too thoughtful for her own good.’
‘So they don’t know that it was us who attacked them?’
‘Not yet. But how we’ll get you past the blockade I don’t know …’
Angus, who was nursing his son’s arm, was taking no further part in the conversation. Evan got up despite his bleeding eye, and Delwind and Amaria followed him to the door.
‘I have a plan,’ he said. ‘Follow me.’