Toren Jallist, a soldier in the service of the Lord of Eastgarde, is sent to collect a debt. However he meets a mysterious old man and a familiar foe, and Toren finds himself caught in powers beyond his reckoning.
‘You’ll be back though, won’t you Daddy?’
‘Of course, sweet, I’ll be back.’
‘But what if they stop you?’
‘But what if they do!?’
‘My sweet, sweet child, trust me. It’ll take more than this lot to keep me from you.’
She smiled when you promised her that, Toren thought bitterly, adjusting himself in the saddle again. The rain had drenched his hair, and it stuck gloomily to his head. The thick woollen cloak draped around him was soaked as well, and any camp tonight would have been miserable. Which is why Toren Jallist had resolved to continue his ride into the dusk, but that’d been near on three hours ago now, and he should have come by his destination by now.
He rolled his shoulders under the cloak, and stretched his back to the sounds of several satisfying clicks. You’ve lost more time than you’d thought, Toren. You would’ve been better off setting camp with the brief break in the rain this afternoon. He grunted under his breath, trying vainly to keep the doubts out of his mind.
‘Toren, she’ll catch a chill!’
‘It’s just rain Mary, she’ll be fine.’
‘But nothing, let’s just listen to her laugh for some.’
Toren swore under his breath, and cursed himself for stupidity. He couldn’t keep his wife and daughter out of his dreams, but if he tried to deny them their time there, then they’d just force their way into his waking life. He shook his head again, watching the tiny droplets fling out into the animosity of the world. This journey was meant to take three days on horseback, Toren had been expecting to come onto the town well before dusk, but to his dismay, the road continued on. But he resolved to keep on riding against the night, assuring himself a warm bed at the Yaen Inn.
A gust of wind came gushing from the east, sending a riot of wet leafs into the air. It swirled up inside his cloak, biting through the weak points in his leather, cloth and mail clothing as if it were naught. The hairs on the back of his neck went up, and goosebumps pimpled his skin. Toren gathered his cloak back into him, and shook his hair out again.
In the dark sheets of falling grey, a greyer patch caught his eye. He slowed his horse slightly, and nonchalantly loosened his sword in its scabbard. The grey figure defined itself as Toren rode closer, its blurred lines framing a distinct Human figure. The cloak he wore was a faded light blue, and looked as old as the man beneath it. A sodden white beard protruded out from his hood. The Old Man stood in the centre of the road, his walking stick resting beneath withered hands.
The dull ache in his bad shoulder thrummed to life, as it tended to do in the cold. The old man was yet to see him, so Toren called out to him. The man responded to his hail with words Toren couldn’t hear.
“What was that, friend?” the ahorsed man asked.
“Turn back, Toren Jallist of Kuraine’s Stand.”
He couldn’t know that! Toren’s words caught in his throat, what is this?
“You know me?” eventually Toren asked.
“You’d best turn back to Eastgarde, there’s naught but danger this way.”
Toren’s temper flared. “I haven’t the time for this.” He nudged his Stone Grey Gelding gently, and edged his way past the man. Quick as a flash, the man snatched out his hand and latched onto Toren’s wrist.
Pain roared up in his shoulder.
His vision flashed white.
His daughter used to dance around the yard, he remembered. She smiled so much, so much like her mother. They’d dance and sing together, when he wasn’t required in the Castle. Often, he’d play the fiddle while Mary sung and their sweet daughter would sway with the Melody, not making a sound but raising the Harmony tenfold.
When the horns had sounded that morning, he almost hadn’t believed it. He thought there must be a fire, maybe Lord Kuraine had died? But that was certainly the song of an attack. He couldn’t understand it. He slid into a cloth tunic, belted his leather over the top and donned a chainmail dress. Buckling his sword he’d taken the Girls the small stable behind their house. They rode bareback to the Castle, no time for saddles.
Once there he’d lost sight of them, they’d been taken inside, with all the other women and children; Too safety. He was of the Household Guard, this was his keep and he was to defend it. He’d been so certain of the walls and towers, but they were doomed to fall.
He tasted blood, and mud. He was still attached to the saddle by a painfully twisted (but not broken) leg. Water had run down his back and his shoulder was afire deep to its core. He untangled himself, and forced himself to a sitting position. The old man was nowhere to be seen. He didn’t know what to think. Eventually he remounted, even more determined for his featherbed that night.
A some ways down the road another figure began to shape itself from the rain, and this time Toren was on his guard. The shadowy figure grew and shaped itself into a man, as two others behind it did the same.
The man was ragged, and desperate Toren could tell; he was nervously glancing at the blanketed night sky. He and his companions were obviously farm folk, and their dirty faces screamed of desperation. They wore filthy hemp and wool rags, and had armed themselves with various farming tools. The one in front had a Scythe.
“You thar!” he called out, his voice thick with a swollen tongue and missing teeth.
Toren slowed his Gelding to a stop, and faced the men silently.
The lack of light and the veil of rain made it hard to see the man’s face.
“This be our road.” The thick farmer explained. “You be on it, you be payin’ our tax.”
“Is that so, Sir Farmer?” Toren growled back.
The man hesitated, and turned to look back at his fellows, and that was all Toren needed. Toren drew his sword before the man could turn, and swung down at the would-be brigand. He deflected Toren’s attack with a lucky parry from the Scythe, but the farmer was no match for a trained soldier. Driving his horse forward, and continuing his attack, the farmer was left off balance, and vulnerable.
Toren drove another strike down on him, and felt him give under the attack, the following strike came clean on the farmers head, cracking bone and splitting skin a mess of death. By then, the others had caught on to what was happening. Toren drove the Gelding forward again, gaining momentum. He caught the first pitchfork with a parry on his blade, with a twist he freed it of his attacker’s hands, and followed through with a savage, explosive blow to the neck.
Toren whirled around, his sword bloody, ready for the next thief. But he’d turned and run, Toren dismounted, the fleeing farmer still visible. He pulled his bow from the back of his horse, and stole an arrow quickly from his quiver.
He focused on the fleeing shadow, and in his mind’s eye saw the shot.