“I’m done with the war. I’m done with Jared. I’m done with the Duke. I want to leave Erik. Nothing good is coming for us if we stay, only misery,” complained Cloud.
“And where will we head? Jared has raised hell in every village we’ve passed, turning them into little more than ashes. If the King’s villages weren’t so weary, that would be an option but they’ve heard of the Warring Duke.”
“Maybe North. Neither the Duke nor the King have any relationships with the Carthinians. I doubt they’d send men to find us.”
“The Carthinians are cannibals. I don’t want to be eaten. We’d also be outsiders. I’m sure they’d want to taste us first. Besides, we’re better off sticking with the Duke until he reaches the capital than sneaking north through the King’s land”
“Well, maybe that’s the plan.”
“I still think it’s risky,” I said.
“Well do you have any better ideas. We only have a week before the invasion.”
I didn’t so I just shrugged.
I braced myself before opening the tent flap for a meeting, or more accurately Jared informing us what he’s planning to do. He never listened to advice, recommendations, or even reasoning. It was like trying to speak to a stone wall.
I pulled the flap open for Cloud before I followed him into the commander’s tent.
“Welcome.” Jared said before shaking Cloud’s hand vigorously. He just looked me up and down, no handshake for me. I wasn’t surprised. I was pretty vocal about my opinion with his tactics and Jared had never taken criticism well, even if it was the truth.
“Now that everyone is here we can begin. As I’m sure you’re all aware, we’ll be taking the capital soon. It is time to begin preparing for the siege. We’ll need information on the cities layout and perimeter defenses. I was thinking that Cloud and Erik could go on ahead and bring back that information since they don’t lead any battalions.”
Jared had just provided Cloud and me an excellent exit. We would only have to worry about the King’s informants if we decided to head north.
“Sarah will travel alongside the two of you since she is somewhat familiar with the area. Make sure you listen to what she has to say.”
Well, maybe not the perfect escape. It would be hard to slip away from her and when we did she’d report our mutiny to Jared. There was no point trying to persuade Sarah, since her loyalty to him was her singular focus. Cloud and I had come to the conclusion that she was determined to be in a relationship with him, even though Jared was oblivious to her advances.
“Ok, when do we leave?” I responded.
“As soon as possible. We’re tight on time and you’ll need to be quick. Also, the army will lend you some horses, since I know you’re too much a peasant to own your own.” Jared said in a snide tone.
“That’s very kind of you.” I replied sarcastically.
Cloud and I walked out to grab the few belongings we owned before spotting the temporary stables. Cloud quickly found his horse and I, well, just grabbed the first horse available and hoped whoever owned it wouldn’t miss it all that much.
Sarah was already waiting for us and her constant fidgeting told me that she was getting impatient with us. She wore simple leather armour, with a modest short-sword strapped to her waist. The only indication of wealth on her was the white stallion she rode on and that could easily be overlooked as her inheritance.
“Ready to leave?” Sarah stated more than asked. Her horse started trotting before the words left her mouth, so Cloud and I followed not wanting to be left behind.
“So when did you live by the capital?” I asked.
“I grew up in Grent, a small village a half days ride from the capital. If we have time, I’d like to stop there and reconnect with some of my family members that I haven’t seen since I was a child. Tell me about your family Erik.”
I thought about the headmistress, the one in charge of the orphanage I grew up in. While growing up, I learned quickly from how she distanced herself that I wasn’t family to her. All the orphans eventually came to this conclusion, some just took longer to realize this than others.
I thought fondly of my friends, but they never filled the emotional void left from not having parents. They never consoled me, taught me life lessons. They were supportive but not in a way parents were supposed to be.
Crom was the closest thing I had to a parent. For the brief time I had known him, he had mentored me, rambled about whatever he found interesting and even laughed at my terrible jokes.
“I’m an orphan so I never made a lot of strong relationships in my youth. Crom, the mage I came with, acted as a sort of father figure for a short period. He’s gone now. I’d like to know where he went.”
“Ah. I’m sure you’ll find him after the Duke’s victory. The peace will free up our schedules. You’ll be able to look for him, Cloud will be able to laze around, and I’ll probably settle down.”
“I’m not lazy!” Cloud responded in defiance. “Also, why are you so confident the Duke will prevail? We’ve lost half are troops from brawling with every village on our warpath.”
“I have faith in Jared. He’s spent more time leading an army then both of you combined!”
“And once he wins you’ll fly off into the sky and live happily ever after. Is that how you’re going to spend your peace?” Crom shot back. “How dare you.” Sarah harrumphed. She turned her head away from the road and rode in silence, ignoring all the pestering from Cloud.
I decided it wasn’t my place to speak up. I would only add fuel to the fire and I didn’t want to make this journey anymore unenjoyable than it had to be. Cloud and Sarah were already at each other’s throats, one war was enough for me.
Rolling hills and vibrant green grass stretched out for miles, with few trees scattered throughout the farms, prairies, and worn-down fences. It was beautiful but lacked the labyrinth of trees that provided privacy for my journey to Hedvor. I felt exposed.
Sarah looked at ease, Cloud would probably even say she looked like a fish in water. I had little experience with girls but I knew that would probably be unwise to say. Fish weren’t all that cute so I would replace that with an otter or some other small hairy creature. I hadn’t met a girl who didn’t like small hairy critters.
Cloud was… well he was staring at the clouds. There wasn’t much else to look at so I couldn’t fault him for it. The wind drifted them east, replacing old clouds with new ones. I wondered how long it would take before he accidentally veered off path or caused his horse to stumble.
So far we hadn’t we hadn’t come in contact with anyone but that was going to change soon. While looking down the seemingly endless road, I spotted a farmer pulling a food cart with an ox. I was a bit nervous even though I knew I shouldn’t be. I doubted this country bumpkin would have even a vague idea who we were.
“Hello folks. It’s rare to get travellers in trying times like these. Not sure where you’re from but you’ll be wanting to leave these parts for a solid month.”
“And why’s that?” Sarah asked.
“Rumors are spreading that the Duke of the South has gone feral. Madness is a sad thing. I wouldn’t wish anyone getting tangled with Demons. They’re a nasty bunch.”
“And what’s that got to do with us staying away from here?” Cloud asked.
“The Duke has sent his army north on a warpath, pillaging, raping, and torturing every good soul past BeigeBark. Some even say Duke was killed and is being puppeted by the Mad God Loki. Not sure what the King’s planning but I can tell you he’s taking every able bodied young man he can to the capital.”
“How far is the closest village? I think some walls and guards would do us some good.” Sarah stated.
“Village is just up the road. I wouldn’t recommend staying there. Villages draw trouble to them. I, personally, am going to camp up in a small shed I have by the creak two miles that way.” said the farmer while pointing.
“I trust you’ll keep that a secret. I don’t want others crowding my safe space.” said the farmer who winked at Sarah.
“We should be heading” I said. “Good luck hiding from that nasty sounding Duke.”
“Will do. Have a great day. For many, those will be numbered.”
Cloud, Sarah, and I left the farmer and trotted down the road. It was clear that we were getting closer to the small village. People had become more frequent in the fields and on the road. None were as friendly as the farmer. They were keeping to themselves. I wondered whether this was a custom of Northerners or the stress of war had glued their jaws in place.
The village was hardly a village. It was more like a couple of houses, a lone pub, and small stable that made me feel claustrophobic. I couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable it would be for the horses lodged inside.
I noticed that the farmer had not been exaggerating the lack of young men in the village. I only saw women, some elderly folk perusing the dirt pavilion. I spotted only one young man that night. He was a cripple boy, his legs malformed.
How many villages were in the Duke’s reign? Maybe 100, possibly 200. Thousands of extra troops would be at the capital. Sarah may be oblivious to it but I knew a lost cause when I saw one. The King was smart, he had years of success leading armies and pummeling rebellions. The Duke wasn’t the first to try and with the way things were looking he probably wouldn’t be the last.
No matter how much Cloud and I insisted the battle would be a death trap Jared wouldn’t listen. His pride was woven into every aspect of his life. It ruled over him. I thought it would be his downfall.
Soon Cloud and I would need to figure out how to slip away from Sarah.