Hu

I… I don't know! way to put me on the spot!

Moderator: Kimra

Re: Hu

Postby Jiro » Sat Nov 12, 2011 7:28 am

With their official business concluded, Samantha dragged them to her house. It was a blue two-storey building, with a neatly kept garden and a stone pathway leading to the front door. Marcus was impressed. It was the most visually pleasing building he had ever seen, better than any he had come across in Zabra or Ciel.

Samantha danced up the pathway and rang the doorbell. Her feet tapped rapidly, an extreme mix of excitement and impatience. It wasn’t long before the door opened though, and she shot inside, nearly barrelling her mother over as she dove into a hug.

‘It’s me mother, I’m home!’ she said. ‘Did you miss me?’

‘Samantha darling!’

‘Father will be here before long, we rode ahead this time. I just couldn’t wait to see you!’

‘Oh my! You sure have grown since I saw you last. But never mind that, I see we have guests!’

‘Of course,’ Samantha giggled. Marcus suspected she had forgotten they were even standing there. ‘These are my friends: Alex, Marcus and Tori. Everyone, this is my mother.’

‘It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, all of you,’ Samantha’s mother said. ‘Please call me Lucia.’

‘It’s a pleasure to meet you too,’ Alex said. ‘We’re very happy to be here, and glad that Samantha is home again after so long.’

‘Almost a whole year, you know?’ Lucia said. ‘She left here the day after her eighteenth birthday last year. I was terribly sad for weeks.’

‘You’re not allowed to be sad,’ Samantha said, wiping away a single sneaky tear. ‘Besides, I’m here in time for my birthday again so we can enjoy it together as a family again.’

‘That’s right,’ Marcus said. ‘I remember you telling us that you always returned home around the time of your birthday. How far away is it?’

‘Why it’s tomorrow,’ Lucia said. ‘I was starting to worry I would miss you this year.’

‘Don’t be silly mother, nothing could keep me away.’

‘Well the weather might! We even had snow last week, can you believe it? It was a terribly cold winter, I thought snow might have delayed you.’

‘We did change course because of the snow,’ Samantha said. ‘We ended up skipping a visit to Garif because…’

She trailed off and was silent for a moment. ‘You know father’s friend Georg, right mother?’

‘Of course I know Georg, he was such a lovely man. Him and his Hayley both.’

‘Well these two were their sons,’ Samantha said, gesturing at Alex and Marcus.

‘What a pleasure to have the sons of the mighty and handsome Georg here in my home,’ Lucia said.

‘Well I, uh…’ Marcus said. ‘He wasn’t actually my father. I was… adopted.’

‘Just the one son of Georg then,’ Lucia said. ‘Welcome! How are your parents faring these days? It has been such a long time since I last saw them. Why, you weren’t even a twinkle in their eyes at that point I’d say, and neither was our sweet Samantha.’

‘My parents are no longer with us,’ Alex said. ‘It’s still not something I am quite ready to discuss, my apologies.’

‘I understand completely dear,’ Lucia said. ‘Come in, come in everyone. Sit at the table while I fix us some tea.’

She disappeared into the house, leaving Samantha to lead them inside. Marcus and Tori shared a look. He sighed.

‘I guess neither of us are anything special,’ he said. ‘Not like Georg was. Alex has a lot to live up to.’

Tori gave a faint smile. ‘It could be worse.’

‘But it can always be worse.’

‘Exactly.’

****

The celebrations were extravagant, and the party nearly lasted until the sun rise. Marcus and the others danced all night, meeting Samantha’s friends and generally relaxing. Crossing the Yensan wilds had been taxing on everyone, and it was a great opportunity to kick back, relax and unwind. As the night wore on, and the lack of sleep from the night prior caught up with him, Marcus decided it was time for bed.

‘The guest room should be made up,’ Samantha said. ‘Just go past the stairs, the first door on the left.’

Marcus nodded and bid them all good night. As he walked back to the house, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to look, but there was nobody there. When he spun back around, Tori was standing in front of him, grinning.

‘That was too easy,’ she said. ‘You need to be more aware of your surroundings.’

‘I’m too tired,’ Marcus said. He continued walking, Tori trotting beside him. ‘Shouldn’t you be enjoying the party?’

Tori shook her head. ‘Alex and Samantha are talking, Eric has disappeared off somewhere with the other “adults”, probably to talk about boring adult things, and I don’t know anybody else. So I’m retiring to bed too.’

‘Sleeping because you’re bored,’ Marcus said. ‘Makes sense. I’m sure there’ll be books or something for you to read, if you like.’

‘If you’re offering to read me a bed time story, then I graciously accept.’

Marcus laughed and pushed open the front door. ‘After you.’

‘Such a gentleman,’ Tori said, curtseying.

As she skipped inside, Marcus closed the door behind them. He felt slightly strange, being in somebody else’s house without them home, like he was a burglar or an unwelcome guest, and at any moment they would return and throw him out. He shook his head, shooing away the strange thoughts.

‘I’m more tired than I thought,’ he said.

‘Hmm? What did you say?’

‘Never mind that,’ Marcus said. ‘Come on, let’s see what we’re dealing with in the way of beds.’

When he opened the guest room door, Marcus was greeted with a double bed. A desk and bookcases lined the far wall, but there was no sign of another bed, another mattress or even a camp stretcher.

‘I guess we’re sharing,’ Marucs said. ‘Assuming there aren’t any objections, of course.’

‘If you snore, you’re leaving the room,’ Tori said. ‘If you take up all of the bed, you’re sleeping on the floor. Understood?’

‘Yes ma’am.’

‘And no funny business either!’

‘Funny business?’ Marcus laughed. ‘And what do you mean by that?’

Tori leant in and kissed him. ‘That’s what I mean.’

Marcus blushed and stammered, before forcing himself quiet and taking a deep breath.

‘I guess I can follow those guidelines,’ he said finally.

He removed his shoes, feeling the soft carpet beneath his feet, and sat on the edge on the bed. Tori pushed him backwards and laughed, bouncing onto the bed beside him.

‘You’re such a push over,’ she said, moving so she was lying properly in the bed. ‘But I like that about you.’

Marcus rotated so he was lying beside her. He smiled and kissed her on the forehead. Tori smiled and moved forward once more, kissing him again.

‘Sweet dreams, Marcus.’

****

The following days were all vitally important and increasingly busy for the Golden Trail Caravan. While Jonathan had set aside a week for them to rest and recover in Opal, it was essential that their equipment was checked, maintained and replaced if necessary. Opal was both the end of one journey and the beginning of the next for the Golden Trail Caravan, and any mistakes or oversights would cost them over the next year.

Alex and Marcus spent their mornings assisting Cid with the smithing and trading with the stores in town. They were worked hard and Cid often left them unattended, but it gave them the opportunity to talk, just the two of them; something they hadn’t done for many weeks.

‘How are you enjoying our travels so far?’ Marcus asked. Garif was a long way behind them now, in time and distance. ‘Is it the adventure you expected?’

‘It’s not what I had expected,’ Alex said. ‘Though I’m not sure what I expected. I just wanted to escape everything. Losing mother and father was hard, and I didn’t know what to do.’

He stopped work for a moment. ‘I think I’m coming to terms with it now,’ he said. ‘But the travelling… It isn’t what I expected, it has been so much better than that. I’ve had so much fun, seen so much more of the world, learnt so much and met so many new people.’

Marcus nodded. ‘I agree with you, it has been quite the adventure. I wish it could have been under different circumstances, but we can’t change the past. All we can do is enjoy the present.’

‘I bet you’re enjoying it too,’ Alex said.

‘What are you trying to say?’

‘I’ve seen how much time you’re spending with Tori. I see the way you look at her too,’ Alex laughed. ‘But good on you. I’m glad to see it.’

‘Speak for yourself,’ Marcus said. ‘You have been chasing Samantha since the day we met her, and don’t even try to deny that.’

They laughed, and returned to work. Things had improved for the both of them, and they’d both found somebody else that was important in their lives. After a few minutes, Marcus sighed.

‘Do you think we’ll ever go back?’ he said.

‘Back where?’

‘To Garif. I know it’s a destination the Golden Trail Caravan usually stops at, but I mean, do you think we’ll ever go back there, ever live there again?’

‘It’s hard to say,’ Alex said. ‘It still feels like home, in my head. When I think of Garif, I think of our house, of the smithy. I know none of that will probably be there when we go back though. It will all be different. But so will we. We’ll have changed from all our time travelling. And who knows? Maybe we won’t want to go back.’

‘You’re right. Best not to worry about it for now,’ Marcus said. ‘Besides, I still have to visit all the places on those maps first.’

‘We’re about to tick another big one off the list too,’ Alex said. ‘We’re leaving for Reinham tomorrow. It’ll be the biggest city yet!’

‘I’m looking forward to the adventure.’

21269

The sad thing is that I removed about 90% of the sappy bullshit in this section. It was necessary though, that crap was gag worthy. I've also removed a lot of filler from the original draft; there is no need for them to go to a whole new town just to show that time is passing and people are getting to know each other better. Instead, just send them on a two week trek through absolutely nowhere. :D

Pirates coming up soon. Exciting times.
Last edited by Jiro on Mon Nov 14, 2011 3:37 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Hu

Postby Jiro » Sun Nov 13, 2011 7:29 am

The port city of Reinham towered before them like a colossus. It was situated on a peninsula, and the city covered every inch. The limited land hadn’t stifled expansion however, as every single structure appeared to be several storeys tall. The ocean was almost completely obscured by these structures, blotting it out. The sprawling city covered the landscape in a sea of buildings alongside the actual eastern sea. Marcus consulted his map book and found a city plan for Reinham. Though it had expanded since the map was made, the sheer size depicted on the map was enough to overwhelm him. The faint sounding of a horn caught his attention, and Marcus watched as a large vessel rounded the peninsula and turned northwards.

‘Incredible,’ Marcus said. He didn’t think there was much left that could impress him, but Reinham was a giant of a city and could make many feel overwhelmed and small.

‘If you think that’s impressive, wait until you see the ships,’ Samantha said. ‘We’ll go down to the docks and I’ll show you. They’re bigger than houses!’

Everything was big in Reinham, and their inn was no different. The bottom level of the Cactuar and Tonberry was purely stables and storage area. The roof was higher than usual, to accommodate most carriages and wagons. The Golden Trail Caravan’s wagons were all stored here, and the horses left in the hands of the stable master and his assistants. Upstairs was the reception area, and behind it a full bar, restaurant and show lounge. A jazz band was performing on stage currently, the music wafting into the reception area.

With their rooms booked, they were free to enjoy the city. Jonathan warned them to be back at the inn before the sun set; a city that size could be dangerous after nightfall.

‘We’re just going down to the docks,’ Samantha said. ‘We’ll be back before long, promise.’

The docks had a different atmosphere to the rest of Reinham. While the streets had been bustling with a magnitude of different people, the docks had a clear cut stereotype: rough, burly men sporting tattoos, bandannas and the odd occasional eye patch. Anyone of them could have been a pirate as far as Marcus was concerned.

As they strolled along the maze of piers, Marcus gazed around in wonder. There were a handful of smaller ships docked on the lower piers, but the majority of vessels were gigantic wooden beasts propelled by steam engines and large sails. Marcus looked on in awe, watching as they were loaded with supplies.

Alex smacked him in the back of the head. ‘Pick up your jaw, you’ll get splinters!’

Marcus threw a half hearted punch towards him, but Alex deflected and poked him in the chest.

‘Too slow!’ Alex laughed. ‘Gotta be quicker than that if you’re going to beat me.’

‘I’ll show you,’ Marcus said.

He jumped forwards, but Alex sidestepped and pushed him. Marcus stumbled backwards before catching his foot on something and falling backwards. He felt a jolt as he hit someone, and then another as he crashed onto the ground.

As he dusted himself off, Marcus apologised. He looked up and saw a large sailor standing above him. His singlet was tight across his chest, showing off his powerful arms. Marcus spied an eagle, wings spread in flight, tattooed on his upper left arm. The man’s head was covered with a blue bandanna covered his head. He extended his arm, and helped Marcus to his feet.

‘Sorry about that,’ Marcus said. ‘And thanks for the hand up.’

The man shook his head. ‘Name’s Roger. Keep out of trouble. Some people down here would sooner take your hand than offer you one. See ya round, kid,’ he said, and wandered off.

Marcus nodded and continued dusting himself off. ‘Weird.’

‘You two need to stop messing about,’ Samantha said. ‘That could’ve ended badly, and you know it.’

‘I thought he was going to hit you in the face,’ Tori said. ‘I wouldn’t have blamed him.’

‘Real nice of you,’ Marcus said. ‘Glad to know everyone is on my side.’

‘At least we don’t hate you, right?’ Alex said. ‘That has to be a good thing.’

‘A real good thing,’ Marcus said. ‘Thanks.’

**

Several days later, Marcus was able to have a closer look at the ships he had admired so much. The Golden Trail Caravan was going abroad. To the east was another continent and further opportunities for trade. They would sail to the coastal city of Aizon, and peddle their wares there briefly before returning. It was an expensive and long journey, but the distance between the two cities meant traders between Reinham and Aizon always came away with a profit.

When they arrived at the docks, Jonathan was already expecting them.

‘We’ve started preparations already, so we’ll be leaving before long,’ he said. ‘You had better hurry on board. Try and get your sea legs before we leave; it only gets worse out there.’

Marcus nodded, distracted by the ship before them. Like so many others he had already seen, it was a giant. A large chimney rose from the rear of the ship, extending into the sky. There was nothing coming from it yet, but the steam exhaust would be channelled through it once they departed.

Jonathan turned his attention back to the ship’s captain, while his first mate led the others on board. The captain was a portly man, nearing his late forties. His first mate was the opposite – tall, well-built and blonde, in his late twenties. Despite their almost opposite features, the two shared an uncanny resemblance. Marcus asked if they were related.

‘That’s my pa alright. He been sailin’ these seas since afore he met my ma. Soon as I were able, I’ve been out on his ships, learnin’ everythin’ there is about sailin’,’ he explained.

‘Have you ever seen pirates?’ Alex asked.

‘Aye, I done more than just seen them. Even fought ‘em, on my very first trip I did. Pirates came aboard, and I kicked one in the shins – I was only a young boy at the time ya see – but it didn’ even faze him. Lucky my pa clobbered ‘im and tossed ‘im over board, else I might’ve been clobbered meself.’

‘Do you think we’ll see any pirates on this trip?’ Samantha asked.

‘Doubtful lassie. Pirates ain’t attacked a ship this big for many a year.’

Samantha was relieved. She had enough experiences with brigands to last her a lifetime. While the others proceeded to the cabins, Marcus headed downstairs to assist in the loading process. The wagons were moved into the bowel of the ship along with the rest of the cargo. They were chained into place, to ensure they wouldn’t overturn in rough seas. Marcus was impressed at how much stuff was down here; obviously they weren’t the only passengers.

As he climbed the staircase towards the top deck, he heard the whinny of a horse. All the livestock, including their horses, were secured on the level above the cargo. Marcus peeked inside and saw several men tending to the horses, as well as a variety of farm animals, including cattle. Animals were a large import for Aizon.

When he finally got to the top deck, Marcus rushed to the front of the ship and looked out onto the water. They were so high up that Marcus began to feel dizzy, but he merely gripped the railings tight and steadied himself. This was an experience you didn’t get every day. The sea breeze whistled as it whipped through his hair. It was perfect sailing weather.

Marcus watched as the crew members ran about. The ship was ready for departure and now they were performing the last few checks, making sure all passengers were present and accounted for. Then the engines started. It was a dull roar at first, but steadily increased in volume until it was almost deafening. Smoke shot out of the chimney, like a signal.

‘Don’t mind the noise,’ one of the deckhands said. ‘The engines have to run at max power when they’re first turned on. The ship is so large that it requires a lot of power to start moving. Once we’re out to sea, the engines will be slowed and the sails will pick up the slack.’

‘Thank you,’ Marcus shouted. ‘I was worried we’d have to deal with this the whole trip.’

‘Nobody would ever get sleep if that were the case!’ the deckhand laughed. ‘You get used to it after a while too. It fades into background noise, just you see.’

Marcus nodded and thanked him. He was feeling unsteady on his feet already, with the gentle sway of the ship, so he decided to head below deck and investigate his room.

Along the way he met Tori, who lead the way.

‘Isn’t this just fabulous?’ she said. ‘I love ships, I wish I could live on one.’

‘Why’s that?’ Marcus asked. ‘It’s too nausea inducing for my liking, I’d never be able to do this for a long time. At least this one is huge, so you wouldn’t feel quite as isolated.’

‘Living on a ship gives me a sense of freedom. You can go anywhere in the world,’ Tori said. ‘Besides, you get used to the swaying.’

‘That’s what everyone keeps saying,’ Marcus said.

‘That’s because it’s true,’ Tori said. ‘Anyway, here we are, this is our room.’

She directed him inside. The doorway was low; Marcus had to duck to get inside. The roof wasn’t much higher either.

‘Why is it so cramped in here?’ Marcus asked.

‘It encourages you to sit down, which lowers your centre of gravity and makes you more balanced. The more balanced you are, the less likely you are to get sea sick,’ Tori explained. ‘Or fall over.’

‘That makes sense, but that doesn’t really change the fact that it’s cramped in here,’ he said. He sat down on one of the bunks. ‘Are these double bunks?’

‘Indeed they are,’ Tori said. ‘We’re sharing with some of the other children. The room across the hall is for the rest.’

‘Who made the decision to put us in the same room?’ Marcus asked. ‘It wasn’t Jonathan, surely.’

‘It was me,’ Tori said. ‘Give me some credit, please! I discussed it with Samantha, and she agreed to swap places with you.’

‘How very sweet of you. I have one rule if you’re going to be sleeping in my bed though.’

‘And what is that?’

‘No funny business.’

**

The bulk of their time on board was spent in the dining hall, playing cards, eating or just sitting around and talking. It was a wholly monotonous journey, with only the occasional visit above deck to have a breath of fresh air. Marcus found himself slowly growing accustomed to the sway of the ship, and rapidly growing tired of being trapped inside.

He climbed the stairs and wandered out onto the top deck. The sun was bearing down on him, but he could see dark clouds in the distance.

‘Looks like a storm is coming,’ he said. He wandered to the edge of the ship; here, towards the bow of the ship, the width was narrow. ‘The water is nice and calm now. Probably won’t be later tonight.’

He heard footsteps behind him. Samantha stood beside him, leaning onto the railing as well.

‘It’s so lovely up here,’ she said. ‘Don’t you think?’

‘Yeah.’

‘It’s a nice change from forests and plains too,’ she laughed. ‘You should see the architecture in Aizon. It’s so… different. Everything looks important, magnificent, and orderly. Like an artist planned it that way, the whole city is one elaborate art piece.’

‘Sounds wonderful,’ Marcus said. ‘I still can’t believe everything though. It has been such a blast, seeing so many new things and new people, and now I’m sailing on a huge ship to a distant land which will have even more things to witness. I’m just disappointed we can’t stay there longer, or go anywhere else. Why are we only stopping in Aizon?’

‘I’m going to have to give you a quick lesson in geography to explain that.’

‘Go ahead.’

‘Well there’s these two continents: the one we’re from, which is called Reis, and the one we’re going to, which is called Sakemeshimo,’ Samantha said. ‘The original inhabitants of Sakemeshimo were very different to the people of Reis. They’re quite different to us.’

‘I think I follow,’ Marcus said. ‘But what do you mean they’re different to us?’

‘Father said something about them being elves, like from fables and children’s stories, but actual real people, like you and I,’ she said. ‘I don’t know much more than that. But apparently our two races haven’t had the most peaceful interactions in the past, and there’s a lot of tension, secrecy and mistrust.’

‘Elves… this adventure keeps getting better and better!’ Marcus said. ‘I guess I’ll have to do more research into it then. Maybe I can learn what caused the divisions?’

‘Maybe you can,’ Samantha said. ‘Who knows what you could learn, there’s so much mystery in the world, I wouldn’t even know where to start.’

Marcus nodded. ‘Thank you for that, I feel motivated and full of energy now,’ he said. ‘But I think it’s time we went back below deck; those storm clouds don’t look too kind.’

**

The storm struck as Marcus was preparing to meet with the others. He had packed his map book into a small bag and slung it over his shoulder when a large wave crashed against the ship. The impact threw him off his feet, smashing him into the wall. The ship rocked back and forth for a moment, regaining balance. It had been built short and fat to create a low centre of gravity and prevent it from toppling, like Tori had mentioned earlier, but in wild weather anything was possible.

‘That was unexpected,’ he said, rubbing his head. ‘I’d better head out to make sure everyone’s doing alright.’

The dining area was in a small state of disarray. While the furniture was all bolted to the floor for this very reason, the cutlery and plates had not been, and so there was a crowd of people picking up fallen plates and removing food from their clothes.

Marcus spied Alex and jogged over to meet him. He was seated beside Samantha, and several of the children, including Joanna and Khloe were with them.

‘Hey guys, everything okay here?’ Marcus asked. ‘Say… where’s Tori?’

‘We thought she was with you,’ Alex said. ‘I haven’t seen her for a while.’

Marcus paused for a minute, trying to think of the last place he had seen Tori. They ate lunch together, but he couldn’t remember anything past that.

‘I’m worried about her,’ Marcus said, ‘so I’m going to go look for her, alright?’

He turned and sprinted off before they could respond. The top deck was his first priority; if she was up there, she would be in danger. Everywhere else on the ship was comparatively safe. At the top of the stairs he stopped, sheltered by the small cabin. He scanned the area, peering through the windows, trying to find any sign of her.

‘There!’ he shouted.

Tori was clinging to the mask as the mini tsunamis crashed against the ship, flooding the deck and battering her drenched form. He darted forward, through the doorway and out onto the deck. Cries from Samantha and Alex came from behind him, but they were drowned out by the howling wind.

‘Marcus, wait!’

It was Eric’s voice this time, but it was too late. Marcus was already sliding along the deck, struggling under the sway of the boat, slipping on the wet and being battered by waves. He reached Tori and wrapped his arms around her, pressing her tighter against the mast.

‘I’ve got you,’ Marcus said. ‘You’re okay Tori, just hang on.’

He turned, looking for a break in the waves and a chance to escape, but instead saw a large flood of water heading straight for them. The impact shook them loose, launching them across the deck and crashing into one of the safety railings. Marcus rolled onto his stomach, climbed to his knees and crawled over to Tori, wrapping his arm around her once more.

‘It’s going to be alright Tori,’ Marcus said. She looked up at him with eyes full of fear. ‘Don’t panic. You’re going to be just fine.’

Instinctively, Marcus turned and looked over his shoulder. Eric was almost upon them, rope in hand, but behind him loomed the largest wave yet. He gripped the railing tighter, and pressed Tori tight against him.

‘Run Eric,’ he breathed. Then he shouted: ‘Run!’

As he reached them, the wave struck, shifting the ship beneath them. There was a groan as the boat tried to right itself, and a large crack as a mast broke. Then all Marcus could hear was water, as the wave hit them. He felt the railing behind him give way as he was lifted up and then dropped like bricks into the ocean below. As Tori’s grip disappeared, he screamed out. There was a clap of thunder, a flash of lightning, and Marcus could see Tori and Eric above him as they hurtled down into the violent ocean.

**

Seagulls. Whiteness. A flash of red – pain. Marcus sat up and opened his eyes. The sun was too bright - the sun? He tried to remember. The storm, the waves. Tori. He coughed. Where was everyone? Where was he?

Seagulls again. The whiteness was fading, his vision was returning. The pain remained; his shoulder ached and throbbed. It had broken clean through the railing. He could see his surroundings now. This was an illusion, or so he thought. The sparkling blue waves rolled onto brilliant white sands. Behind him, sand dunes lead to lush grass and green trees. He was dead. Was he?

He was walking, but he didn’t know it. Marcus didn’t know a lot of things, couldn’t remember many more. At his feet he could see grass; he was atop the sand dunes already. Down the shoreline he could see a dark form. His mind flashed – he watched as Eric and Tori toppled after him – and he was sprinting down the sands.

He fell at her feet; it was Tori, unconscious, dead? Marcus checked for a pulse. There was a steady beat. She lived, so this was not Hell after all. He brushed the hair from her face and picked her up. Tori needed shade, and rest. She would be alright; Marcus would make sure of that.

He placed her on the grass, beneath a palm tree. There were no coconuts; she would not die from head injury now, after all this. Marcus gathered some sticks and fallen leaves, building a shade tent over her. As he finished, he collapsed on the grass.

**

A voice was calling out to him, and Marcus felt a hand on his shoulder. He groaned and tried to sit up. His body disagreed with him. Carefully, he opened one eye, then the other. A dark shape stood above him, and slowly came into focus. It was Eric.

He tried to sit up again, and was successful this time. Eric knelt, patting him on the back.

‘You’re alright,’ he said. ‘Good. Are you in any pain?’

Marcus nodded, gesturing to his shoulder. The rest of his body was aching from exhaustion, but there was no pain. He felt Eric take hold of his arm, moving it around gently, up, out, back down. After a few moments of tests, Eric released his arm.

‘It doesn’t seem broken,’ he said, ‘but we should try and avoid strenuous activities, okay?’

Marcus nodded. He suddenly remembered Tori, and spun around quickly. She was there, resting beneath the palm tree, where he had left her before. A sigh of relief escaped him.

‘Settle. Tori is okay,’ Eric said. ‘She’s a lot tougher than she looks, tougher than you and I even. She’ll recover quickly, don’t worry.’

Marcus wasn’t sure what he meant, but nodded in agreement. He opened his mouth to speak, but his throat was parched and no sound came.

‘Dry throat? Here, drink this.’

Eric handed him a hollow coconut shell full of water. ‘There’s a small spring just through the trees there,’ he said, pointing. ‘Refill it as you need to, you need your strength.’

‘Thank you,’ Marcus managed. ‘Much better.’

‘While you’re recovering, let me tell you my plan,’ Eric said. ‘There is an island not far from here. It’s significantly larger than this one, with a large mountain shielding a small open bay.’

Marcus nodded.

‘Earlier, while I was climbing a tree to gain a better view of this island, I noticed a ship sail into this bay, disappearing behind the cliff face,’ Eric said. ‘Unfortunately, my instinct tells me that this is a pirate settlement of some description. However, it presents us with an excellent opportunity to get off this island and return to the others.’

‘But how will we get there?’

‘Like I said, it isn’t far away at all. We could probably swim, though I dare not risk it. Instead, I propose we build a small raft and paddle our way across. You’re good with your hands, are you not?’

‘I make horse shoes and shields,’ Marcus said. ‘Not rafts. This is completely different.’

‘It is an easy skill to obtain, do not worry.’

‘If you say. Where do we start?’

‘Excellent, glad to have you on board,’ Eric said. ‘Now, these are the materials we need to collect…’

**

The raft was completely quickly and they immediately commenced the journey. Their island had not escaped the storm, and so many of the materials they required were strewn about from the damage. Marcus was grateful; he didn’t want to think about how they would have felled trees without any tools. Eric managed to salvage the rope he had grabbed before they were washed overboard and used it to bind the logs together.

Tori was feeling stronger now, recovering quickly after her rest. Marcus sat beside her on the raft, letting her paddle for him. His shoulder was still causing him grief, but Eric assured him it was only bruised and would heal soon enough. The island approached, and it wasn’t long before their raft landed on the beach.

Eric and Tori dragged their raft onto the sand as far as possible. If the plan was a failure, the raft would probably be needed again. Letting it float away after all their hard work was not a good idea. As they rounded the mountain, entering the small bay, Marcus spied a ship. A large black flag adorned the mast.

‘Pirates,’ he sighed. They didn’t have a choice; if they wanted to escape this island, that pirate ship was the only way.

From the ship’s anchoring point, Marcus traced the line of the pier inland where he saw several small buildings, hidden amongst the trees.

‘What’s our plan?’ Marcus asked. ‘Should we try to steal the ship? I wouldn’t know the first thing about operating it though…’

‘We stow away,’ Tori said. ‘We’ll hide in their cargo hold until they make port, or until they attack another vessel. If we’re lucky, we can surprise them from behind and help their victims in exchange for safe passage.’

‘That sounds risky,’ Eric said. ‘But there is no other way. We will need supplies though. Let’s steal what food we can find from those buildings; we might not have an opportunity while on board.’

They crept slowly, keeping to the trees, until they reached the first building. Marcus peeked through the side window. He couldn’t see any pirates inside, and there was no sound coming from anywhere. The building appeared to be a mess hall, tables and benches arranged in rows, with a small kitchen area towards the back.

‘I think we’re in the clear,’ Marcus said.

He slipped around the corner to the front of the building and then quietly opened the door. The others were right behind him, and one by one they snuck inside. As they moved towards the kitchen area, Marcus spotted several large freezer boxes. Quietly, they approached them.

Tori opened the nearest one, and grabbed a large, chilled bottle of clear liquid. ‘Water!’ she said. ‘Cold water!’

As she went to drink, a voice came from behind them.

‘Plenty more water where you’re headed.’

Tori froze instantly, dropping the bottle onto the wooden floor. It shattered, sending shards of glass scattering across the floor. Marcus spun, and was met with the sight of three pirates, each armed with dangerous looking blades.

Marcus blinked. ‘Roger?’

The middle pirate laughed. ‘Didn’t expect to see you this soon, kid,’ he said.

Marcus nodded. ‘So it is you. I didn’t pick you for a pirate Roger,’ Marcus said. ‘You seemed too… nice.’

‘Just because I don’t seem like a bad guy doesn’t mean I ain’t,’ he retorted. ‘Now, you’d best be telling me what you’re doing snooping around my kitchen. And be quick about it!’

Marcus took a step forward, watching the two pirates either side of Roger closely. One step at a time, Marcus slowly crossed the room until he was only a half metre from Roger. He mimicked the pirate, folding his arms across his chest.

‘Who says this is your kitchen anyway? I don’t see your name written on it!’ Marcus scowled.

Roger stared him down, unblinking. Marcus returned his fierce gaze. He wasn’t about to be intimidated.

Roger slowly unfolded his arms. Before Marcus realised, Roger had sprung forward, grabbing Marcus and twisting him into an arm lock. Roger pressed downwards, and Marcus dropped to his knees, grunting. Though he struggled, the pirate was too powerful.

‘Nice try kid,’ Roger said. ‘You’ve got guts for a shrimp.’

‘And you’re pretty quick for a big guy,’ Marcus grunted. ‘So what now? You going to kill me or what? Don’t keep us waiting, we’ll die of old age.’

Roger laughed, deep and bellowing. Marcus was caught off guard; it was a warm laugh.

‘You’ve got the wrong idea kid.’

He slowly released his grip on Marcus, letting him climb to his feet.

‘Sit down.’

Marcus complied, sitting down at one of the tables. Roger sat opposite him.

‘Dan, see what we’ve got to eat,’ Roger barked. One of the pirates nodded, sheathing his sword and running off. ‘Billy Grande, clean up the glass for the young lady. We don’t want our guests to be put off by our mess.’

Eric and Tori were wary of the pirate named Billy Grande. They moved towards the table and sat beside Marcus. Eric kept his attention on the sweeping pirate.

‘To business,’ Roger said. ‘How did you get here?’

Marcus explained how they had been caught in the storm and thrown overboard. He mentioned the raft, but made sure to leave out its current whereabouts.

‘So you thought you could sneak aboard a pirate ship?’ Roger asked.

‘That was the general idea.’

Roger laughed. ‘Brave, very brave. Where were you headed?’

‘We were going towards Aizon. The rest of our party will be there waiting for us, no doubt.’

‘This is a fortunate turn of events for you,’ Roger said. ‘It so happens that Aizon is our next port.’

‘And you offer us passage?’ Eric said. Marcus could tell he was suspicious, and with good reason. These were pirates they were dealing with.

‘Safe passage?’ Eric added.

‘Unless you would like otherwise, that is what I am offerin’, yes,’ Roger said. ‘I know ye don’t trust me. That is fine; stay here if you wish. The food and water will last a week, maybe two.’

Roger grinned. ‘No ships pass by here ‘cept ours good sir. You don’t have any other choice.’

Eric shifted forwards, resting his hands on the table. ‘And what would you have us give in exchange for this so called safe passage?’

Roger laughed loudly, slamming his fist on the table. ‘You misunderstand my intentions,’ Roger said. ‘I seek nothing of you; what could you offer me that I could not take? But, if you’re so insistent, then the first round of ales is on you when we make port!’

Marcus shrugged. ‘He’s right. We have no other alternatives. I suggest we take the offer. It’s better than staying here,’ he said. ‘But I’m not buying your drinks.’

Eric grudgingly agreed.

‘Good,’ Roger said. ‘So we have a deal. Welcome aboard the Dark Fortuna.’

26039 words currently. BAM halfway.

I like the random section that's all disjointed and about him being dead or not dead or whatever. I decided early on that I wanted this to be a first person piece so I've been writing with that in mind, despite it being all third person. I think that bit will be a perfect representation of the fact that he is confused as fuck.

I had some sort of rationale behind naming everything, but we're up to the point now where I cannot remember what the hell everything was supposed to reference. Sakemeshimo? What in the hell? Anyway.

Oh, and the pirate ship doesn't have a name yet. Taking suggestions. I will buy the best name a pizza. I will seriously order a pizza online to be delivered to your house.No joke.

And uh yeah. Back to work I suppose.
Last edited by Jiro on Mon Nov 14, 2011 3:38 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Hu

Postby smiley_cow » Sun Nov 13, 2011 9:35 am

Pirate Ship Names:

Concord
La Niña
Nonesuch
Dark Fortune
Terror
Hell's Fury
Devil's playmate
Cat's Cradle
Black Heart


Some of these are actual historical ship names I've always liked, a lot are just made up names. The Concord I'm pretty sure used to be Blackbeard's ship's name before he renamed it The Queen Anne's Revenge
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Re: Hu

Postby Kimra » Sun Nov 13, 2011 5:01 pm

Eeek you need another colour sign. It's too late for me to put it on the internet now, but I just wanted you to know a new colour is coming your way.

Edit: I failed to colour this! How embarrassing. Also here is your half way mark prize:

Image
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Re: Hu

Postby Jiro » Mon Nov 14, 2011 3:32 am

Thank you for the updated avatar!

I like the Concord. The trouble is that, while he's a pirate, nobody realises. I mean in the very next scene they dock at port. Although I am considering giving it a piratey name and having him comment on how it's ridiculous nobody realises. I should do that.

I have decided to go with Dark Fortuna. So you will be winning a pizza of your choice whenever you would like to redeem it!
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Re: Hu

Postby smiley_cow » Mon Nov 14, 2011 3:56 am

The only pizza place here that has pizza I can eat doesn't let you order online, so don't worry about it. I just like naming things.
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Re: Hu

Postby Jiro » Mon Nov 14, 2011 12:23 pm

The offer is transferable. I will give someone a pizza for this goddammit.

Also derp I didn't write any more today. Slack :( Gonna try and get a couple hundred out before bed and then maybe do some study for my exam tomorrow :p
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Re: Hu

Postby carbonstealer » Fri Nov 18, 2011 12:39 pm

Feel free to transfer the pizza on to me, Carbon
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Re: Hu

Postby Jiro » Mon Nov 21, 2011 7:47 am

When he heard the sound of a ship’s horn, Marcus ran up the stairs and out onto the deck of the Fortuna. They had made it to Aizon! As the ship slowly pulled into port, Marcus was joined by Tori and Eric, celebrating their arrival. Roger joined them as they came to rest, and clapped them on the back.

‘You’ve reached your destination,’ Roger laughed. ‘Safe and sound, as promised. A pleasurable cruise, I hope?’

‘We are very grateful to you,’ Eric said. ‘Your generosity will not go unrewarded, I’m sure.’

‘I hope you aren’t planning on paying me,’ Roger said. ‘I’m a brigand, I don’t look too kindly on honest deals.’

Marcus laughed. ‘Even so, your help was appreciated.’

‘Any time. But for now, let us go ashore! I hear the ales calling me.’

Marcus was the first to jump onto the pier. He landed awkwardly, and unsuccessfully tried to recover his balance. His legs toppled from beneath him, unused to solid ground, and he fell forwards, sprawling onto the pier. Roger laughed and casually stepped over him, making his way to the Docking Authority. Tori and Eric followed after him, slowly regaining their equilibrium as they went. Marcus climbed to his feet behind them and followed along behind, cheeks flush red.

Roger was met by a dock worker, dressed in a flashy uniform. Marcus eyed him with caution; they were travelling with pirates after all, and they weren’t home free yet. Tori ducked behind Eric, and walked back towards Marcus. She smiled faintly and grabbed him by the arm.

‘Excited to be back on the shore?’ she asked.

Marcus thought he heard her voice quiver. ‘The ground still feels like it’s rocking beneath me. Otherwise, it’s good to be back.’

‘That’s good,’ she said.

‘Are you okay?’

‘I’m fine, just a little tired,’ she smiled, clutching him tightly.

‘We’ll meet up with the others soon,’ Marcus said. ‘I’m sure they’ll be around here somewhere.’

She nodded and smiled at him again. Marcus heard Roger and the worker talking.

‘Me and my crew will be here in this city of yours for a week, if you aren’t opposed,’ Roger said.

‘That is not for me to decide,’ the worker said, though it was clear he was suspicious. ‘Your paperwork checks out. You’re free to go.’

He handed a folder of forms back to Roger and swiftly walked off before Roger had time to thank him. The pirate captain turned and gave a grin.

‘You would think, by now, they would know we’re pirates,’ he said. ‘Fortuna is not a suspicious sounding name, to be fair, but what business does a crew of burly, tattooed men like us have in a city like this? We don’t bring much for trade.’

Marcus shrugged. ‘Perhaps you’re good for business.’

‘Good for business!’ Roger bellowed. ‘Aye, right you are kid. And with that, it sounds like high time for a drink. I trust you can find your way from here?’

‘We can, thank you,’ Marcus said.

‘Good, good,’ Roger said. ‘If you run into trouble, just tell them you’re with me. I’ll sort it out. See ya ‘round, kid.’

‘Thank you again,’ he said. He turned to Eric and Tori. ‘Let’s be on our way then, shall we?’

Roger waved farewell as they headed towards the main office of the docking authority. If they had docked already, they would have had to pass through the office, or at least made contact with them in some respect. They would know where to look, or at least point them in the right direction.

Inside the small brick building was a wall of teller windows. Eric took charge, leading them up to the nearest window and clearing his throat politely.

‘How can I help you today?’ the woman said.

‘We’re trying to track some friends of ours,’ Eric said. ‘We were separated from them on the way to Aizon, and we’re not sure if they’ve made port yet.’

‘And what was the name of their ship?’

Eric turned to the others, hoping for some assistance. None of them knew the name of the ship though. Eric turned back to the window.

‘We’re not sure of the name, unfortunately,’ he said.

‘The ship was huge though,’ Marcus said. ‘Biggest I’ve ever seen. It fit all of the merchant wagons on there, all eight of them.’

‘Would that be the Golden Trail Caravan, by chance?’

‘Yes indeed!’ Eric said. ‘They’ve docked, then?’

‘They docked earlier this morning,’ the woman said. ‘I imagine they will be staying at one of the inns in town.’

‘Thank you for your assistance,’ Eric said.

As they left the office, and Marcus gave a little shout of joy. The others were here, and they’d be reunited soon.

‘Now we just have to track them down,’ Marcus said. ‘Where do we start?’

‘Let’s just ask at every inn we can find,’ Tori said. ‘We’re bound to find them eventually.’

They walked down the busy streets, looking for any signs labelled ‘inn’. Marcus stopped, asking a passerby for directions, and was pointed towards the Hobblin’ Goblin. It was on the edge of the city, and stood out from the rest of the architecture. There were irregular angles on every feature and trim, and the front doors seemed more suited to a castle than an inn. The bust of a large, hook-nosed goblin protruded from the front of the building, a mug in its left hand and a cane in the other. It didn’t appeal to Marcus in the slightest.

‘In here?’ he said. ‘Really? I doubt they’re staying in a place like this. It just doesn’t feel right.’

‘We have to start looking somewhere,’ Tori said. ‘And we haven’t found any other inns yet.’

‘Perhaps someone inside will know where to look,’ Eric said. ‘Don’t lose heart. We will find them yet.’

Marcus sighed and nodded. ‘You’re right.’

As he turned to approach the door, he was winded as something hit him. He was knocked off his feet and rolled a little, before coming to a rest.

‘What the?’

He climbed to his feet and saw a man sprawled out on the ground, his bag open and its contents scattered on the street. Marcus offered him a hand up, and suddenly felt a sense of déjà vu. There was something familiar about this strange man. Something about the way he was dressed…

The man was muttering to himself now. He seemed flustered and confused.

‘Ooph, hmm, how did I end up here on the ground? Nevermind, nevermind, someone is offering a hand up. Thank you, thank you,’ he said, accepting the help. ‘Oh, upsy-daisy, there we go.’

Marcus helped him to his feet, and then it hit him. He had seen this man before, back in Ciel. He was dressed in the same peculiar robes, though they were a light purple this time. By his feet was the strange branch he had been carrying before. He bent to pick it up and examined it carefully.

‘Sorry about that,’ Marcus said. ‘I didn’t see you there.’

‘Yes, yes, yes. No, that's okay. Just an unfortunate accident, yes, yes, an accident is all. No need to worry dear girl, no worry needed at all. Do make sure you get home in time for supper, it’s starting to get dark you know.’

He wandered off, continuing to mutter to himself, as Marcus looking up into the afternoon sun. He turned to Tori and Eric, who simply shrugged at him.

‘I don’t know what to make of that,’ Marcus said.

‘Me either,’ Tori giggled. ‘Dear girl.’

Marcus shrugged it off and entered the Hobblin’ Goblin successfully this time, stepping into the dank room. The roof was low, and there was very little light, save for a few lanterns around the room and the light sneaking in through the open door.

‘I don’t think they’re in here,’ Marcus said. ‘It just looks like a pub.’

‘Never mind then, let’s continue. A pub is no place for you two young ones, off you go now,’ Eric said, closing the door behind them.

When they at last found an inn, it proved to be a stroke of good luck, as the reception confirmed that the Golden Trail Caravan was staying with them. The trio celebrated once again. They were directed upstairs, but as they climbed towards Jonathan’s room, they ran into Alex and Samantha.

‘Marcus! Tori! Eric!’ Samantha shouted. ‘You’re here! But how? Why? I don’t understand!’

She continued to babble, asking questions and celebrating. She ran up and hugged each of them.

‘Slow down Samantha,’ Alex said. ‘They’ll answer your questions if you give them a chance!’

She quietened slowly, until at last there was silence.

‘That’s better,’ Alex said, smirking. ‘Now, it’s good to see you are all safe. We were just on our way down to the docking authority to try and organise a search party. Tell us, what happened to you?’

‘It’s a long story,’ Marcus said. ‘Full of drama, suspense, perseverance and pirates.’

Tori giggled and nodded. ‘There actually were pirates.’

‘While you two fill Alex and Samantha in on the details of our detour,’ Eric started, ‘I’ll find Jonathan and let him know we yet live.’

**

After an evening of relating their story to the eager children, Marcus enjoyed a restful night. It was the first night in over a week that he’d slept on a stable surface, though he started to miss the gentle rocking and the sound of waves washing onto the ship. When he awoke, his body ached; the adrenaline had worn off and he was starting to feel the events of the last few days. He stretched and climbed out of bed, joining Alex and the others in the dining room for breakfast.

Tori was wearing a flowery scarf around her head, which reminded Marcus of the first time they had met. This scarf was lighter, and nicer, but still it seemed to cover her face.

‘It will keep the sun off me,’ she explained. ‘The weather is beginning to heat, and I wouldn’t want to become sunburnt.’

Marcus nodded. It made sense.

‘We’ve got the day off,’ Samantha said. ‘Alex and I are in charge of making sure you two relax today, unwind and get your heads back to business. I’m sure it was a traumatising experience.’

‘It was more traumatising for me,’ Alex said. ‘Not only did you go and worry me like that, but I had to deal with her freaking out all the time. It was a little draining!’

Samantha pouted and slapped his arm. ‘That’s not funny, we’re being serious here.’

‘Everybody is okay,’ Marcus said. ‘So joke’s sound good to me.’

‘It’s a pity you didn’t bring any coconuts back with you, I would’ve liked to try them!’ Alex said.

‘Next time I get lost at sea, I’ll remember to bring a few back with me,’ Marcus laughed.

‘The day is wearing on,’ Samantha interrupted. ‘Let’s go out and explore!’

They left the inn and headed out into the street. There was no destination in particular, they just wanted to explore more of this strange new city, see its architecture, meet its people. As they walked, Samantha spotted a clothing store, and quickly dragged Tori inside to try clothes on.

‘Wait for us out here, okay?’ Samantha said to the boys. ‘We girls have some shopping to do!’

‘This sounds familiar,’ Marcus said to Alex. ‘Should we go find a bench somewhere?’

Alex agreed, and they took a seat just outside the store, watching the people walk past. The style of dress was completely foreign to them; Marcus wasn’t sure how there could be such variety in clothing. A slender man walked past wearing a three piece suit and top hat.

‘What’s his deal?’ Alex asked. ‘He looks important, don’t you think?’

‘Could be royalty of some kind,’ Marcus suggested. ‘Maybe he’s a city official or something? It’s hard to tell.’

They watched the passing public for some time before the girls returned, both wearing sparkling new dresses. Tori’s dress was a gentle red, matching the scarf she was wearing and highlighting her soft skin tone. Samantha chose a short white dress which let the cool sea breeze flow over more of her bare skin.

‘Well don’t you ladies look lovely,’ Alex said. ‘Very nice choices indeed.’

Marcus nodded in agreement. ‘Couldn’t have picked them better myself.’

‘Well of course not,’ Samantha said. ‘Men aren’t any good at shopping; it’s a fine art instinctive to a lady.’

Marcus shook his head and laughed. ‘If you insist. But where should we go next?’

Several hours later they found themselves seated outside an ice cream parlour, attacking their dishes with intent. Breakfast was a long time ago now, and they were beginning to hunger. Samantha had suggested ice cream, and the boys stared at her confused.

‘You don’t know what ice cream is?’ she said. ‘You’re kidding.’

Marcus and Alex both shook their heads.

‘Then we must rectify this at once!’

It was a pleasant treat for the boys. Though the ice cream looked similar to the snow they had seen more than enough of home in Garif, the taste was unlike anything they had ever experienced. It was rich and creamy like fresh milk, but there was a certain hint of sweetness that separated the two.

‘They add sugar during the preparation,’ Samantha said. ‘Among other things, I imagine. But the sugar is what gives it that sweet taste.’

‘And it makes it taste like this?’ Alex said. ‘Get me some of this sugar, I will add it to everything!’

Marcus laughed and leaned forward in his seat. A flash of light caught his attention and his eye was drawn to a man seated at the next table, playing with a pocket watch. His dark brown jacket was hanging over the chair beside him, but his attention was fixated entirely on Tori.

‘Don’t look now,’ Marcus said. ‘But there’s a guy over there who’s taken a liking to you Tori.’

She casually threw a glance towards him and gasped.

‘What’s wrong?’ Marcus said, looking over to the man. He was leaning forward now, his expression one of strong interest.

‘I know that man,’ Tori said. ‘And I think he knows who I am.’

Samantha looked backwards over her shoulder, and then leaned forward.

‘Who is he Tori?’ she whispered. ‘Who is this guy?’

‘If he’s a threat, I can get rid of him,’ Marcus said.

‘We’ll take care of it, just say the word,’ Alex added.

Tori shook her head. ‘His name is Darik. He works for… he works for my father; or at least he did, before I left home.’

She clammed up as soon as the words left her mouth. Marcus felt questions tugging at him – ‘but she was an orphan!’ his mind cried out. No, she never said that, he remembered. She just didn’t talk about it. He leant back in his chair.

‘I guess we can relax then,’ Marcus said.

‘No. We have to leave. Now,’ Tori ordered. She stood abruptly and darted into the market crowd. Marcus and the others followed quickly.

As they weaved through the mass of shoppers, Marcus threw a quick backwards glance to the ice creamery. The man – Darik – had gone now, but Marcus wasn’t sure where. He couldn’t see him in the crowd either. He had disappeared.

Tori turned, leading the way back towards the inn. Her pace was swift; whoever he was, his presence troubled her. Still the questions tugged at Marcus. Who was Tori, really? Did he know her at all?

They reached the inn’s entrance, and Marcus stole one last glance back, to make sure they weren’t followed. He bumped into the back of Tori, who had stopped dead in her tracks. When Marcus righted himself, there, sitting at a table, was Darik.

He stood and bowed. ‘Good to see you again, Princess.’

**

Marcus glanced back and forth between Darik and Tori, his jaw dropped. Who was this man and what was he talking about? Marcus rubbed his ears, wondering if maybe he had misheard him. Surely he did not just call Tori ‘princess’. But as he thought, Marcus realised just how little he knew of the girl. Her home town, her family, her childhood; all of these were a mystery to Marcus, and he suddenly felt a pang of betrayal. Did she not trust him?

‘You’ve got the wrong girl,’ Tori said. ‘I don’t know where you got that strange idea from.’

‘I beg to disagree. You are the girl I speak of, Princess Tori,’ Darik said. ‘You see, we have been trying to locate you for some time now. After your disappearance, your father sent many of his operatives out to track you down. We searched far and wide, but to no avail.’

Marcus took a step forward, standing next to Tori and resting his hand on her back. This tale was intriguing, to be sure, but he could see Tori in distress and he wanted to calm her.

‘It wasn’t long before we realised you had left Sakemeshimo and gone abroad,’ Darik said. ‘Several of us were sent to Reis, ordered to scour the countryside and not return until you had been found. Your father was very worried, as you can see. Even as the years passed, he still demanded reports on any possible leads. And then, suddenly, we received word that you were in Reinham. The details were scarce, but they were insistent. The missing princess had been found.’

Darik leant forward now, resting on his hands. ‘We never thought you would come back here.’

‘Look, I’m telling you,’ Tori started, ‘you’ve got the wrong person. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Imagine my surprise when I saw you arrive myself, accompanied by some very rough looking characters, the boy,’ he said, gesturing towards Marcus, ‘and traitorous Eric.’

He turned and glanced towards the top of the stairs. Marcus followed his gaze; Eric was standing there, confusion written across his face. He looked to Tori, seeing her distress, and clenched his fists.

Marcus watched as Eric leapt down the stairs, vaulting the railing and landing on the table Darik was sitting at. Eric grabbed him by the collar and lifted him until he was at eye level.

‘You will leave us immediately,’ Eric said. ‘Run back to your king. Tell him he can send every one of his lap dogs after us, but never again will they catch our scent.’

Eric threw him sideways, but Darik twisted nimbly and landed gently on the polished floor.

‘I’m afraid that isn’t possible,’ he said, standing. ‘The king is no longer with us. He departed this past winter.’

A small cry escaped Tori, and Marcus saw a tear slide down her cheek. This stranger was right then; Tori was a princess, and her father – the king – had died. It was still too much for Marcus to comprehend. He did the only thing he could, pulling Tori into his arms. She clung to him as she began to sob.

‘Well I would say that is conclusive evidence,’ Darik said. ‘She is m’lady Tori Sörenson, heir to the Horan throne and leader of our people. And this is her guardian turned kidnapper, ser Eric Stendahl.’

Eric took a step towards Darik, but grunted, turning his attention to Tori instead. Marcus released her into his care and sat. He looked around at Samantha and Alex, trying to see if they were as overwhelmed as he was. As he rested his head, he heard Eric speak.

‘We knew the risk when we chose to come here,’ he said. ‘We knew that we might be found. Now the decision is yours; you can return home, if you wish. If you wish to return home, then we may do that.’

‘But you can’t!’ Tori said. ‘They would not let you return, not after what happened. It was my fault, my choice, but you will be punished.’

‘Not necessarily,’ Darik interjected. ‘If you were to return, then you could present a case and have his crimes absolved.’

‘Truly?’ Tori asked.

‘As it stands now, there would be little hope,’ Darik said.

‘But–’

‘But were you to take the throne…’

Eric growled. ‘Cease your trickery Darik,’ he said. ‘You seek to guilt her to return. She would seek my freedom; you would seek only a monarch you could influence. She will not be your puppet, now or ever!’

Darik shook his head. ‘I assure you, it is not for my benefit that I suggest such things,’ he said. He looked around the room, eyes resting on each of the others. ‘But perhaps this is a discussion best had privately?’

‘Pardon?’ Marcus said. ‘No, I don’t think so. I don’t trust you, and I don’t like the idea of you going anywhere with Tori.’

‘Quiet boy, this does not concern you,’ Darik snapped. ‘Mind your place. You are an outsider here.’

Marcus clenched his fists, but remained silent. He was an outsider, and he didn’t understand what was going on. Perhaps it was best for him to stay out of the discussion. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to see Alex, a look of concern on his face.

‘Come on Marcus,’ he said. ‘Let’s go back to the room.’

Marcus nodded. It was all he could bring himself to do. He gave one last glance to Tori and forced a faint smile, before following Alex and Samantha upstairs. Behind him, he heard Darik’s voice.

‘Well then, if you’d follow me…’

**

‘I can’t take this!’ Marcus shouted, smashing his fist against the wall. ‘I want to be there, I want to hear what is going on.’

‘I understand how you’re feeling,’ Samantha said. ‘We’re confused too. I don’t understand it at all. But getting angry doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t make anything better.’

‘She’s right Marcus, and you know it,’ Alex said. ‘Just sit tight for now. Tori didn’t seem all that pleased to see that Darik guy anyway. I’m sure they’ll talk for a little while and then he’ll leave, nothing to worry about.’

Marcus nodded. ‘Alright, I see your points. And thank you,’ he said. ‘But I’m just so shocked. I don’t understand why Tori would hide this from us, why she would hide it from me. I thought…’

‘Stop worrying about it,’ Samantha said. ‘So Tori is a princess is some distant country, who cares? That doesn’t change what was between you, does it? It doesn’t change anything. You’re still the same people, we just know more about her now.’

‘Stop being so down on yourself. I’m sure it was hard for her to keep that sort of stuff a secret from you. I’m sure it’s not easy for her either right now. You need to hold it together, for her sake and yours.’

Marcus sank to the floor and began to fidget. He just needed to bide time until they were finished talking. Then he could see her – hug her – and everything would be alright. All he needed to do was wait.

‘I still can’t believe it though,’ Samantha said, breaking the silence. ‘To think we not only had a Horan with us, but royalty!’

‘And Eric was a knight or something,’ Alex said. ‘It’s like all the old tales my father used to tell us, right Marcus? Knights and princesses… and dragons, of course!’

‘This isn’t one of Georg’s stories though. This is happening to us, now. Tori is down there, distressed and talking to some stranger who wants her to leave us.’

‘She did say she knew who he was,’ Alex offered.

‘It doesn’t matter. I don’t want her to go. I don’t want her to leave,’ Marcus said. He was pleading, like the decision was theirs. ‘I don’t want to lose her Alex, you must understand. I love her.’

He climbed to his feet. ‘I’m going to tell her,’ he said, his resolve growing. ‘If Darik is allowed to try and convince her to leave, I can convince her to stay.’

He burst through the door and ran towards the staircase, leaping down several steps at a time. There, seated at a table, were Tori, Eric and Darik. Marcus ran to them and stopped beside Darik, spinning him around to face him.

‘You get your chance, now I want mine,’ Marcus said. ‘It’s my turn to talk, and I don’t care who you are, you’re going to shut it and let me.’

‘Marcus…’ Tori started.

Eric stood and took him by the shoulder. ‘Come with me Marcus,’ he said.

He gritted his teeth, but complied. Eric was trustworthy. He was lead outside and then they stopped, just past the entrance to the inn. The street was still busy, though it was starting to become late and the sun was setting. The ocean would look alight with crimson flames from the setting sun, but the sight was blocked by a large belltower, which began to ring.

‘I need you to listen to me,’ Eric said. ‘And I need you to let me finish speaking before you respond. Can you do this?’

Marcus nodded his head, though he knew it was a lie. That didn’t sound like a promising start to the conversation.

‘This decision hasn’t been an easy one, but it is one Tori has made of her own free will,’ Eric said. ‘It is important that you recognise that. We’re not taking her away; it is her choice.’

Marcus clenched his fists.

‘She has decided to return home and pay her respects to her father. She has a responsibility now, which she might choose to accept or reject,’ he said. ‘That will be up to her when the time comes. Regardless, from this point onwards, we will no longer be travelling with the Golden Trail Caravan. We part ways tomorrow morning.’

Marcus dropped to his knees. His knuckles were burning, but he clenched them as tightly as possible. He felt tears begin to well up; he brushed them away quickly. There had to be something he could do or say to change this. She couldn’t be leaving him now.

‘I understand this is hard for you,’ Eric said. ‘I know the two of you have grown close.’

‘Close? Close! That doesn’t even begin to describe it!’ Marcus howled. He began to explain, but cut himself short. ‘No, you wouldn’t understand. Even if you did, you wouldn’t care. I won’t waste my breath.’

‘Cool yourself Marcus, you’re over reacting,’ Eric said. ‘I want you to take a walk. Go down to the docks. Clear your head. Your mood will impact upon Tori. Do not make this harder for her than it already is. This is something she needs to do, and you will only cause her more unnecessary pain and grief.’

He grunted in acknowledgement and took off. He ran down the street and disappeared down an alley. Like a wounded animal, Marcus wandered the backstreets, trying to find somewhere to recover. Eric’s words, however true, struck him hard and echoed in his head. Marcus screamed, kicking a pebble lying at his feet. It ricocheted off the buildings, coming to rest at the end of the alley. He fell back against a wall and sank, hopelessness spreading through his entire body. His hands began to shake and he sobbed.

‘I can’t just leave her!’ he screamed aloud. His voice switched to a whisper. ‘I won’t let her go. She means too much to me.’

His resolve flared. He slowly composed himself and rose to his feet, fists clenched.

‘I will follow her. I don’t care what happens to me. I can’t just give up.’

**

Marcus sat atop his bed, staring out the window. He hadn’t slept at all – he was waiting for the sun to poke its head above the trees. He heard stirring in the next room, as Tori and Eric prepared to leave. Darik would be there any minute. Marcus would follow them.

His ears pricked as he heard doors open and then close again. The sound of hushed voices crept into his room as he slid off his bed. Taking care not to wake Alex or the others, he opened his own door a crack and watched Tori and Eric descend the stairway. As they disappeared from sight, Marcus spun and fetched his own belongings.

Everything he needed had been packed already; everything else would be left behind. He couldn’t afford to be weighed down. He hastily scrawled a note for Alex, leaving it on top of the desk. Marcus dared one last look at Alex’s sleeping form, bowed his head and then slipped out the door. He snuck slowly through the inn, his eyes sweeping over every corner to ensure he wasn’t being watched or followed. Nobody could be given the chance to stop him.

He pushed the front door open, the faint sun lighting up his weary face. The early morning hustle and bustle had already begun: the postmen doing their rounds, city maintenance sweeping the streets and collecting rubbish, the night shift workers of taverns and inns returning to their homes and beds.

Marcus spied Tori, being escorted by Eric and Darik. They were heading towards the far side of the city, away from the sea – inland. Marcus paused, inhaling deeply. He held the breath, cleared his mind, and then exhaled slowly.

‘I’m ready.’

**

When he awoke, Marcus found himself lying on the ground. He opened his eyes and blinked. A stone wall faded into focus, and he could see the tips of rooftops above it. Groaning, Marcus tried to climb to his feet, but collapsed back onto the dirt. Pain shot through his body; the entire left side of his body felt like it had been run over by several fully loaded wagons. He managed to prop himself up with his right arm, manoeuvring himself into a seated position.

The scenery was unfamiliar, and Marcus wasn’t sure how he’d arrived here. He glanced around, and noticed a horse grazing nearby. It was one from the merchant caravan: Lightning.

Marcus patted his forehead. ‘I was following Tori,’ he said. ‘Night fell, but I kept riding…’

He pieced the puzzle together and it suddenly clicked. ‘I must have fallen asleep while I was riding,’ he said. ‘Lightning must have found his way here. But I guess I fell, which explains the pain.’

He winced as pain shot up his arm again. ‘I’ll have to get this looked at. I need to establish where ‘here’ is first though.’

He slowly rose to his feet. Movement was restricted and slow, but he managed to fetch Lightning and lead him into town. There was a stable near the entrance, and Marcus left Lightning in their care. After he had paid the stable master, Marcus asked him where he was.

‘What sort of question is that?’ the man replied.

‘I arrived here unexpectedly, and I have no idea what this town is called.’

‘You’re a strange lad. This here is Sungai Ceuta, the border town.’

‘Border town? What do you mean?’

‘Sungai Ceuta exists on the edge of Horan and Makt Adrein territory. We’re independent, part of a coalition of cities along the eastern edge of Sakemeshimo. Everywhere to the east and north is Horan land, and everywhere south of that is Makt Adrein.’

Marcus was confused by this new term. ‘Who or what are the Makt Adrein?’

‘You’re really not from around here, are you?’

Marcus shook his head.

‘Let me explain this before you get yourself into trouble then,’ the stable master said. ‘A long time ago, folks from Reis migrated to Sakemeshimo. There was violent conflict between them and the Horan people, and eventually they settled the southern half of the continent.’

‘So the Makt Adrein are the people from the southern half of Sakemeshimo?’ Marcus said.

‘Correct. Problem is though, a lot of people don’t draw a line between the Makt Adrein and the Reisan. You’re all enemies, and the divide is deep. Non-Horans haven’t been permitted to enter their lands for centuries.’

‘Thanks for the heads up,’ Marcus said, starting to hobble away.

‘You should get those injuries looked at,’ the stable master shouted after him. ‘You sure you don’t need a hand?’

‘I’m fine,’ Marcus replied. ‘Thanks for the chat.’

Marcus stumbled through town until he found a tavern. He entered and took a seat on a barstool by the front counter. Georg had always told them that taverns were good sources of information, and nobody knew more than the barkeep. Marcus called the bartender over, who was still polishing glasses.

‘What can I do ya for?’ he asked politely. ‘Wait a minute… I ain’t serving you, you’re still jus’ a kid.’

‘I’m not after a drink,’ Marcus said. His injuries were causing him a great deal of distress, and he was beginning to feel light headed. He gritted his teeth and tried to focus. ‘I’m looking for some travellers; friends of mine. They would have passed through here last night or early this morning, maybe even stayed the night.’

‘Oh yeah? What’d they look like?’

‘There were three of them. One was a young girl, blonde hair, blue eyes. Short, young, looks about sixteen or so. There were two men with her. One of them was very tall, dark hair, no facial hair. The other was shorter, middle-aged, light brown hair and a beard. You seen them?’

‘Ya got names for the men?’

‘Eric was the tall one. The other is named Darik.’

‘Walbridge Inn. The two men met with another 'ere last night; no sign of the girly. Whatever your business with 'em, drop it – they’re headed east, and they don’t let outsiders like us that way.’

‘So I’ve heard,’ Marcus said. He wasn’t going to let that stop him from following Tori. ‘Thanks for the help. I’ll be on my way then.’

‘Ya sure you don’t want a drink?’ the bartender offered. ‘Ya look like shit. Might perk ya up. Here, on the house.’

Marcus took the glass and drained it. It burnt the back of his throat, causing him to cough and splutter. ‘Thanks,’ he said, putting the glass down on the bar and leaving.

He stumbled out of the tavern and out onto the street. He walked towards a small stall, hopping to get directions. He bumped into the back of someone and stumbled aside.

‘Sorry,’ Marcus offered, but the large man just turned and glared.

‘Get out of my way,’ he said, swiping at Marcus. ‘It’s punks like you that make my blood boil.’

‘Look, I didn’t mean to bump into you alright?’ Marcus apologised. ‘I’m not feeling too good, and it was an accident.’

‘I care not for your excuses,’ he growled. ‘Your kind has gone unchecked for too long. I’m going to teach you some respect, even if I have to beat it into you.’

He started forwards, cracking his knuckles.

‘You know that’s bad for your fingers, right?’ Marcus said.

‘Okay wise guy, I’ve had it with you.’

As the brute wound up his punch, someone darted past Marcus and tackled his opponent. As they wrestled on the ground, Marcus saw a familiar face.

‘Alex!’ he shouted. ‘What the hell are you doing?’

‘Little busy at the moment,’ Alex said.

He managed to free himself and jump to his feet, grinning.

‘Just like old times, huh?’ he laughed.

Marcus shook his head. ‘Not even going to comment on that,’ he said, a smile creeping onto his face.

‘Time to get you outta here,’ Alex said. He turned to face Samantha, who was standing in the crowd. ‘Get him back to Lightning!’

Alex spun around just in time to face the Horan as he approached. The big man easily lifted Alex off the ground and tossed him to the ground. Alex endured a few blows to the chest and face before managing to kick his opponent and climb to his feet.

‘Come on!’ Marcus shouted, Samantha dragging him by the arm.

‘Come back and fight me!’ the Horan growled.

‘Like hell! I’m a lover, not a fighter. You can fight all you want, but I’m outta here!’

Alex sprinted towards the spectators, forcing his way out. He was just behind Marcus and Samantha, clawing his way through the crowd. The Horan was trapped, unable to break their lines. Marcus was grateful; it looked like someone was looking out for him today. They sprinted back towards the stables as quickly as they could. When they arrived, Marcus collapsed on a bale of hay.

When he woke, Marcus was lying on a soft bed. A ceiling fan slowly spun above him, humming softly. Lying on the other bed was Alex, his face bandaged. Marcus looked down and saw a sling on his arm. As he sat up, he heard Alex stir beside him.

‘How are you feeling?’ Marcus asked.

‘Not too bad,’ he said. ‘You?’

‘About as bad as you look,’ Marcus laughed. ‘Were you trying to beat him to death you’re your face?’

‘Something like that, yeah,’ Alex answered, laughing. ‘Any idea where we are, or how we got here?’

The door swung open and slammed against the wall. ‘Why do I even put up with you boys?’ Samantha shouted. ‘All you ever do is give me a headache!’

Marcus and Alex were silent. Samantha sighed. ‘No thank you, no sorry, nothing! You guys officially suck.’ She poked her tongue at them.

Alex’s stomach growled loudly. ‘Uh, I’m not good at apologising on an empty stomach.’

‘I could eat too. To ease the pain of my arm, you know,’ Marcus added.

‘You guys really suck,’ Samantha said. ‘But come on then, let’s get you some food.’

As they followed her out of the room, Alex whispered to Marcus. ‘Do you suppose she’s angry at us?’

‘Hurry up. I thought you two were hungry! Stop loitering!’ Samantha shouted back to them.

‘Yep,’ Marcus whispered back. ‘Definitely angry at us.’

**

After a short walk, they stopped at a small restaurant. Samantha sat them inside, to make sure they didn’t have a run in with their friend from earlier. After they ordered something to eat, Samantha explained what had happened to them.

‘Well, firstly, once you got back to the stable Alex, you passed out,’ Samantha said.

‘You’re getting soft,’ Marcus laughed.

‘Shut it you, by that time you’d already fainted too,’ Samantha pointed out.

‘Ouch,’ Alex said, grinning. ‘Looks like you’re getting soft too!’

‘Both of you be quiet while I talk, geez! You get me so worried that I can’t think straight and now you just won’t be quiet!’

‘Okay, okay, we’re sorry Sam,’ Alex apologised. ‘We’ll be quiet, you can continue now.’

‘Thank you. So, with both of you out cold, I had to ask Murray for help,’ Samantha continued. ‘Before you ask, Murray’s the stable master. Just so you know.’

‘Oh,’ Alex and Marcus said in unison.

‘Once we dragged you both to the inn, we organised a doctor for the both of you. He put your arm in a sling Marcus, and put some healing balm on your leg as well,’ she said.

‘I guess that explains that,’ Marcus said, gesturing to his arm. ‘It’s sure awkward having my arm stuck.’

‘And me?’ Alex asked.

‘The doc said you’re going to be ugly for the rest of your life. I told him not to worry, it seemed like an improvement.’

Alex’s jaw dropped, crashed through the table and bore a hole into the earth. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’

‘Of course I am. All he did was rub some balms on there to reduce the swelling,’ Samantha said, trying to contain her laughter. ‘You won’t even scar.’

‘That’s good to hear,’ Alex said. ‘Is that the end of your story? Or at least the end of your cruel jokes?’

‘Neither,’ Samantha answered, smirking. ‘After that, I did some recon work.’

‘What do you mean?’ Alex asked.

‘She means she was looking for Tori, right?’ Marcus said.

‘Exactly. They left for Koto Crisco while you two were out of action,’ Samantha said. ‘The good news is that I know which direction that is.’

‘And the bad news?’ Alex asked.

‘Only Horan are allowed to go there,’ Marcus answered. ‘Everywhere along the west coast is independent, but everywhere east is Horan territory. We can’t go there.’

‘That’s exactly right,’ Samantha said.

Marcus stood, his fists clenched at his side. ‘I’m still going.’

‘Sit down and shut up, I’m not done yet,’ Samantha said. ‘Registered traders can still travel throughout the country. It’s hard to get a license; father couldn’t get one for the Golden Trail Caravan. It’s even harder to get a license that lets you enter Koto Crisco.’

‘That doesn’t sound positive,’ Alex said. ‘Tell me you have a solution.’

‘I found a trader, and he’s willing to take us there. Directly there. He leaves town in the morning.’

‘What’s the catch?’ Marcus asked.

‘We pay him upfront. His fee isn’t too large. He’s dropping us once we’re in the city. We’re on our own then.’

‘I understand if you don’t want to come with me. It’s dangerous. But I have to go,’ Marcus said.

‘Not without me you’re not,’ Alex said. ‘I have to make sure you don’t do anything stupid to get yourself killed.’

‘I’m coming too,’ Samantha said. ‘Somebody has to take care of you next time you both get knocked out. You can’t drag yourselves to the inn.’

‘Wait,’ Marcus said. ‘I remember something now. I spoke to a barman earlier today–’

‘Yesterday,’ Samantha interjected. ‘You both slept through the night.’

‘We have to hurry then,’ Marcus said. ‘Walbridge Inn, they were staying at Walbridge Inn!’

**

Good news was not awaiting them when they reached Walbridge Inn. The receptionist informed Marcus that Tori had long since left. The opportunity to catch them here in Sungai Ceuta had passed, but Samantha’s arranged transport would still take them to the capital. They could still catch up.

‘Where are we meeting?’ Alex asked.

‘He’ll be awaiting us by the east gate at sunset,’ Samantha said. ‘It will be easier to slip out under the cover of darkness.’

A single horse drawn cart awaited them. Leaning against the wagon was their driver, dressed in a long brown duster, a wide brimmed hat hiding his face. In his left hand was a gold coin. He flicked it upwards, catching it on the back of his right hand.

‘Are you sure that’s the guy?’ Alex said.

‘Positive.’

‘He seems… odd.’

Marcus strode towards him. He didn’t care what he looked like, so long as he took them where they needed to go. ‘You’re taking us to Koto Crisco?’

The man looked up and flashed a grin. ‘Indeed I am. Nice of you to buy in,’ he said. ‘I’m Hideyoshi.’

‘And you can take us the whole way?’

‘All the way,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘Once we’re in Koto Crisco, your luck is your own then.’

As he nodded, Marcus was joined by Alex and Samantha. They introduced themselves, and asked about the journey ahead.

‘We’ll roll straight into Koto Crisco,’ he said. ‘No stops, no diversions. Just a nice little jaunt across the countryside.’

Samantha handed him an envelope.

‘Ah, the payment. I expect it’s all in order.’

‘Of course,’ Samantha said. ‘I hope you can extend the same level of trust to us that we’re showing you.’

‘I mean no offence pretty lady,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘Chance and I go hand in hand, but we’re heading into dangerous territory; have to make sure I can buy my way out of trouble.’

‘You expect trouble?’ Marcus asked.

‘I expect everything,’ he said.

‘Then we should have no trouble,’ Alex said. ‘Shall we go?’

Hideyoshi nodded. ‘Climb into the back and close the cover,’ he said. ‘Once we’re a ways out of the city, you can poke your heads out. Travelling with company will be a pleasant change of pace.’

Marcus climbed into the back of the cart and lay on his back. The hard wooden boards dug into him. He closed his eyes and sighed. He could hear Alex and Samantha climbing in beside him, and then the cover pulled shut.

‘Silence is golden,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘We don’t need to arouse unnecessary suspicion, so try and keep the chit chat to nil.’

They rolled along in darkness. Marcus couldn’t tell how long they had been travelling, but when Hideyoshi finally gave them an all clear, the sky was already dark. A small lantern hung off the side of the wagon, gently illuminating their surroundings, but the path ahead was dark.

‘Rise and shine,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘The night is ours now. I highly doubt we’ll meet anyone else on the road.’

‘We’ve done it then,’ Samantha said, clapping. ‘We made it to Hora.’

Marcus looked up at the stars. Somewhere ahead of them, beneath the same sparkling sky, was Tori. He would find her. He would see her smile again.

‘Grab a bite whenever you’re hungry,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘Nothing fancy here I’m afraid. No rest for the wicked, and we’re being quite devilish indeed. You’ll have to make do with the fruit and bread.’

‘We’re not stopping?’ Alex asked.

‘We’ll keep travelling through the night to cover more ground.’

‘You’re not going to take a break and sleep?’ Samantha asked.

Hideyoshi turned to face them and winked. ‘No respite for the wicked,’ he said. ‘And we have wicked in spades.’

Marcus yawned. ‘Wake me if anything comes up.’

‘I only have a single blanket,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘But it will keep you all warm. Sleep well. Safety and peace.’

**

The sun was shining when Marcus woke. He wiped his eyes and sat up. Samantha was still asleep, wrapped in Alex’s arms.

‘Morning Marcus,’ Alex said. ‘You sleep alright?’

‘Surprisingly, yeah.’

‘And another awakens,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘Welcome back to the land of the living.’

‘Did you really ride through the night?’ Marcus asked. He climbed onto the front of the cart and sat beside Hideyoshi. ‘Aren’t you tired?’

He shook his head and laughed. ‘I will sleep when I need to, and no sooner. It has given us the winning edge,’ he said. ‘We will be with your friends before long.’

‘How do you know?’ Marcus asked.

Hideyoshi reached inside his coat and produced a spyglass. ‘Here, look.’

Marcus peered through the eye piece. Beneath the shade of some trees he could see three tents.

‘That could be anyone camped there,’ he said. ‘What makes you think it’s Tori?’

‘A little bird told me,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘But you will see them soon enough.’

Behind them, Samantha stirred.

‘Where are we?’ she asked.

‘Nowhere and everywhere,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘Yet still close to where you wish to be. Rejoice! Tomorrow you will be with your friends once more.’

Marcus hopped off the side of the cart and stretched his legs, striding along beside them. Out here in the open, Marcus felt at peace. The wind blew just the same as it did it Garif, the birds called the same, flying above them. It was hard to believe he was walking on forbidden ground and that, at any moment, they could be discovered with disastrous consequences.

Marcus jumped onto the back of the cart and pulled himself back in, taking a seat.

‘You said we’d be with them tomorrow, right?’ he asked.

‘Indeed. We could catch them tonight when they stop to camp,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘But I must request some respite of my own this eve. Tomorrow is a brand new day; use today to prepare yourselves.’

Marcus was silent. Hideyoshi was right; today was a good opportunity to think about what would happen next. Everything he had done so far was impulsive, designed to bring him closer to Tori, or her back to him. Tomorrow they would meet not just with Tori, but with Eric and Darik as well. He would have to face them, stand up to them, and make both of them understand how he felt.

And they would listen to him; he would make sure of it. Marcus wasn’t going to be ignored. He wasn’t going to let Darik speak down to him, toss him aside like he was nobody. Marcus would state his case, he would talk to Tori, and he would find out what she was thinking, what she was feeling, and help her.

‘You awake?’ Alex asked.

‘Huh?’ Marcus said. He hadn’t realised anyone was talking to him. ‘Did you say something?’

‘I said, did you want something to eat?’

‘Sure.’

Their journey was quiet, only interrupted briefly by another group of travellers. The cover was pulled back over the wagon, but Hideyoshi had no trouble, passing them with a simple nod. After that, Tori’s group came into sight.

Marcus blinked, and asked for the spyglass again. He was certain that was Tori, but there were four other riders with her. Eric and Darik only accounted for two riders; two more had joined them since they left Aizon. He remembered the barkeep saying Eric and Darik had met with a third man. Were these reinforcements? Why would they need them?

‘Problems in the capital,’ Hideyoshi said, as if answering the questions Marcus was thinking. ‘Not everyone is playing the same game now, and not everyone is on the same team.’

‘What do you mean?’ Marcus asked.

‘Your lady friend is caught in the middle of quite the mess,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘There are going to be some who find her presence in Hora problematic.’

‘How do you know about Tori?’

‘I make knowledge a priority. Important happenings can affect even the loneliest of wanderers.’

Marcus grunted. ‘How do I know you’re not looking to sell us out? You know more than you’re letting on.’

‘I am not the only one that knows more than he shares,’ Hideyoshi laughed. ‘You too are guilty of that. And you have already paid me, I gain nothing by betrayal. Not worth the ante.’

Marcus remained silent. There was something suspicious about Hideyoshi, but Marcus couldn’t detect anything malicious lurking beneath the surface. He was wary, but they were relying on him for transport and guidance. They would be wandering lost without him, assuming they could have passed through Sungai Ceuta to begin with.

‘You forget that I am in as much danger as yourself,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘Trust in me is not misplaced.’

‘Then I will put my faith in you,’ Marcus said. ‘You have steered us right so far.’

‘And so it will continue! Until we reach Koto Crisco, or you would be rid of me, I will ensure a safe and hasty trip.’

Again Marcus thought of his plan of action. He considered the possibility Tori would not return with him to Aizon, but was instead determined to reach Koto Crisco. Marcus would go with her, he knew that much. But would they part ways with Hideyoshi?

‘What draws you to the capital?’ Marcus asked. ‘What business do you have there?’

‘Nothing in particular. You required transport, I saw an opportunity for company. Simple.’

‘And if we were to part ways before we reached the Koto Crisco?’

‘The weather in Kita’an is nice this time of year.’

‘Do you approach everything this whimsically?’

‘Stress is a deadly poison, and rigidity causes me much stress. Freedom is food for the soul.’

‘You are a peculiar character, Hideyoshi.’

‘And you are an observant one. An admirable trait, indeed. May your vision guide your and make your path straight and true.’

**

When they made camp for the night, Tori’s group were only a few hundred metres away. Marcus could see the glow of their fire flickering on the side of the tents. He took the spyglass once again and sat, watching Tori. She was seated and eating, her back to them.

‘Soon,’ Marcus whispered.

He heard Hideyoshi behind him and turned. The cover had been draped over the edge of the cart and fastened to the ground, creating a small tent.

‘There’ll be a storm tonight,’ Hideyoshi said. Marcus wasn’t sure who he was talking to.

‘But there weren’t even any clouds in the sky today,’ Samantha said. ‘What makes you think there’ll be a storm?’

‘Clouds aren’t the only sign,’ he said. ‘We’re in for a wild night. I suggest you stay here, in comfort and security. Wander too far and you’ll get caught up in the current.’

Marcus sighed. Everything they were told by Hideyoshi seemed mysterious, like he deliberately chose to speak in riddles. Dwelling on his words wouldn’t help.

‘Not to alarm you, but I must wander now,’ Hideyoshi continued. ‘There is a stream nearby and my water canteen needs refilling.’

He fetched a branch from their fire and walked off towards some trees. He soon disappeared out of sight and Marcus felt a chill on the air.

‘Maybe there is a storm coming…’

The sound of shouting broke his concentration. It was coming from the other campsite.

‘Tori!’

Marcus leapt to his feet. He could see several torches racing around: riders on horseback. He didn’t know who they were, but he could tell they were unwelcome guests.

‘Where are you going?’ Samantha cried out behind him.

‘I have to help!’

‘But if somebody sees you…’

‘And what if they hurt her?’

Marcus ran off, not bothering to await a response. There was no time to talk it over. Tori was in danger, and Marcus had to help her.

‘Give it up Darik, her life belongs to us now!’

Marcus heard the voices clearer as he approached. He was close now, close enough to make out what was happening. Tori stood, surrounded by her travelling companions. Circling them like vultures were a dozen riders, several wielding viciously curved blades.

‘You will not touch her,’ Eric shouted.

‘Give it up Nero, you can’t win here,’ Darik said. ‘We have the heir, and you can’t defeat us all. Your losses will be great. Are you willing to risk your own life here tonight?’

‘I would risk everything, but the fact is that you are outnumbered. There is nobody here to save you.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ Marcus shouted.

He leapt forward and grabbed Nero by the leg, unbalancing him and causing him to fall. Marcus pounced on the fallen man, dropping a knee into his chest and hitting him in the face. If Nero were to gain the upper hand for a brief moment, he could draw his sword and Marcus would be defenceless.

The distraction gave the others a chance to launch their own attacks. As Marcus wrestled with his enemy, he could hear the battle intensify as swords clashed. A pair of strong hands grabbed Marcus by the neck and threw him off Nero. He rolled to a stop and looked up to see a brutish man above him, an axe gleaming in his hand.

There was a flash of light and Marcus blinked. When he looked again, Tori was hanging from the man, dagger embedded in his neck. He thrashed about, knocking Tori away, before collapsing in a heap.

Marcus jumped to his feet, fetching the axe lying discarded on the ground. Before he could help Tori to her feet, she was off again, running towards Eric and his opponent. She shouted and kicked the enemy in the knee with a sickening crunch. As he fell, Eric struck him across the face with his fist, knocking him out.

----
35294 words.

Hideyoshi has been a bitch to write. Why is it so hard to think of gambling metaphors? Once I'm done, his dialogue will be the first thing I fix. Goddammit.

Also yay for not being able to remove every bit of teenage idiocy re: romance. It was a necessary plot device.
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Jiro
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Location: Ausland

Re: Hu

Postby Jiro » Tue Nov 22, 2011 1:10 pm

There were screams and shouting behind Marcus, but he ignored them. Tori was standing in front of him now. He’d made it.

He called to her as he ran. She turned and was wrapped in his embrace.

‘Marcus, what are you doing here?’ she said. ‘You can’t be here!’

He pulled her tighter. ‘I had to come,’ he said. ‘I needed to see you. There are things I have to tell you, things I want to say. You left before I even had a chance to say goodbye.’

Before Tori could respond, there was a loud cry behind Marcus, quickly drowned out by Eric.

‘No!’

When Marcus turned, he saw a man lunging at him, one of Tori’s companions, blade outstretched. Eric’s own weapon was blocking the strike, protecting Marcus from death or injury. They thought he was an enemy.

Marcus was angry at the thought, but he knew he couldn’t blame them. He had appeared from nowhere; he could have been reinforcements, lying in wait. He had incapacitated the enemy leader though.

‘Hold Rostum,’ Eric said. ‘He’s not an enemy.’

‘If he is not an enemy, then where is his brand? I see nothing. He is an outsider. Trespasser!’

Marcus stared at Rostum. He was still holding Tori’s hand tight.

‘That’s the sort of thanks I get?’ Marcus said. ‘I save you, and you try to kill me. There is something very wrong with that picture.’

‘Be quiet,’ Eric snapped.

‘No, let the runt speak,’ Rostum said. He turned to face Marcus. ‘An enemy of our enemy does not make a friend. You are not Horan. You are just as much an enemy as they were.’

He gestured to the bodies on the ground. ‘I suspect you of being a spy, or an assassin!’ he said. ‘You attacked our charge and even now you hold her!’

‘Attacked?’ Marcus shouted. He could feel his head pound as he became angrier. ‘You bastards took her from me and have the hide to accuse me of attacking her?’

Marcus strode forward, fists clenched at his sides, rage pumping through him.

He felt cold steel on his neck and stopped dead.

‘Take another step. I dare you.’

‘Easy Tavaryn, he is not a threat!’ Eric said.

Marcus took a deep breath and felt the blade press tighter against his throat. He relaxed his clenched fists and slowly raised his hands.

‘Peace, easy now.’

Tavaryn stepped backwards, withdrawing his weapon. ‘Move like that again and I won’t hesitate.’

‘Everybody, just stop!’ Tori shouted. ‘Why are we fighting? Stop it, please.’

Marcus spun and watched her kneel, holding back tears. He went to move, but Tavaryn shot him a look.

‘Explain than,’ Rostum said. ‘Who are you, trespasser? What is your name, why are you here? And speak quickly now!’

‘My name is Marcus,’ he said. ‘I was travelling with Eric and Tori until recently. I came here to… I came to see her. I don’t care if I’m trespassing on your lands.’

‘You don’t seem to understand how grave a mistake you’ve made,’ Rostum said. ‘By rights we should cut you down where you stand. You’re too close to the capital here, you’re a threat to the peace and stability of our country.’

‘How am I a threat? I’m one man.’

‘One man has toppled an empire before,’ Tavaryn said. ‘And you are not alone.’

He pointed towards some trees and Marcus watched Alex and Samantha emerge from their hiding place.

‘Oh, hi,’ Alex said. ‘Nice to meet you all.’

‘You followed me?’ Marcus said.

‘Of course we did, you took off so quickly,’ Samantha said. ‘Everything looked under control, but Alex said we should wait and see what happened once the dust settled.’

‘Obviously I had the right idea,’ Alex said. ‘Just needed to hide better.’

‘You couldn’t hide from me,’ Tavaryn said.

Eric cleared his throat. ‘Well now we’re all here, how do you propose we resolve this?’

‘I’m not leaving,’ Marcus said.

Alex sighed. ‘I thought as much,’ he said. ‘I’m not leaving him on his own, so I’m staying too.’

‘And me,’ Samantha added. ‘You can’t send us back, not now.’

Tavaryn drew his weapon. ‘Then I will cut you all down where you stand.’

‘No!’ Tori shouted. ‘Don’t hurt them. They’re my friends, you mustn’t hurt them!’

Darik stepped forward and whispered something in Eric’s ear. He nodded.

‘You cannot be trusted to leave, and you have made it clear that you have no intent to return to whence you came,’ Darik said. ‘So you must come with us. You will be dealt with accordingly, but for now there are more important things afoot. Be warned though; any misstep and you will be ended.’

‘Those terms are acceptable,’ Marcus said.

‘You don’t have the choice,’ Rostum said. ‘If you disagree, you die. Simple.’

‘Enough,’ Eric said, cutting them off. ‘You are troubling Tori.’

Marcus shuffled his feet. Eric was right. Tori was visibly distraught. He blamed Tavaryn and Rostum; all their talk of death, murder and betrayal was obviously the cause.

‘We can’t stay here tonight. We must carry on and put some distance between us and here, and bring us closer to Koto Crisco,’ Eric said. He turned to face Alex. ‘And how did you gain on us this quickly? Where are your horses?’

‘Well, uhh…’

Marcus looked over his shoulder, towards their campsite. Strangely, there was nothing there. The camp fire had been extinguished, and there was no sign of the cart.

‘It doesn’t matter how we followed you, our transport is no longer with us,’ Samantha said.

Rostum growled. ‘We’d best hope those horses haven’t run too far then,’ he said.

‘Tavaryn and Eric, please go and find some mounts for our guests,’ Darik said. ‘We can’t afford to be slowed down.’

With their departure, Marcus, Alex and Samantha were left under the watchful eyes of Rostum and Darik. Neither of them liked the situation they were confronted with, but Rostum had a particularly strong distaste. Marcus could see him grinding his teeth as they waited, his eyes never leaving them.

‘What’s your problem?’ Marcus asked.

‘You,’ was all Rostum said.

Darik had moved to comfort Tori now, and try to calm her nerves. She seemed shaken, understandably so. Only moments ago she had been attacked by people Marcus was sure wanted her dead, and now her allies had turned against each other, fighting amongst themselves. Marcus wished he could talk to her himself, but that wasn’t going to happen now, not tonight. Once again he found himself waiting.

**

The journey to Koto Crisco had been swift. Darik feared another attack, so they paused as infrequently as they could physically manage, and always had a guard awake and watching. Marcus felt the sentry was just as much for him as it was for outside attacks, but he paid it no mind. He was with Tori now; that was all he cared about.

As the great stone walls stood before him, Marcus realised just how far he had come from the sleepy village of Garif. Each new location along his journey had been larger and grander, but Koto Crisco eclipsed the rest. The town proper had expanded past the walls, escaping into the rolling hills and forests. Inside were organised and paved streets, planned like clockwork and in pristine condition.

The centrepiece of this majestic city was, of course, the palace, whose three spires rose upwards, a symbol of Horan strength. Marcus knew he was gawking, but he couldn’t take his eyes away from the elaborate patterns. The palace appeared to be designed purely artistically and reminded Marcus a great deal of the temples he had seen in Aizon, and even in Reinham. There was no doubt that the palace held significance to the people of Koto Crisco, and presumably all of Hora, but Marcus just sat, his jaw agape, admiring the beauty.

As they trotted through the city, eyes watched them. Marcus didn’t notice it at first, but then his neck and face began to itch. Then he looked down and saw them; men and women in the street, staring at them as they passed. He wasn’t sure how, or why, but he knew they weren’t looking at Tori or her Horan companions. They were staring at Marcus, Alex and Samantha.

‘They know we’re outsiders,’ he whispered to Alex. ‘But how? What makes us different from Eric, or Darik, or the others?’

‘I’m not sure,’ he replied. ‘There are too many possibilities, yet nothing stands out. Is it our dress? The way we look? I cannot see a difference between us and Eric that I cannot see between Eric and the other Horans. It makes no sense to me.’

‘Maybe it’s not physical,’ Samantha said. ‘Maybe we just… feel different.’

‘How do you mean?’ Alex asked. ‘Are you saying there’s something supernatural at play here?’

‘She could be right,’ Marcus said. ‘I remember Rostum saying something about a brand, a marking of some kind. He couldn’t see one on me. I assumed he meant a physical marking, but how would he be able to tell I didn’t have one?’

‘If it was a marking on your face or arms, somewhere visible, we’d have noticed them on the others by now,’ Samantha said.

‘So you’re saying they have some kind of sixth sense when it comes to identifying their people?’ Alex asked. ‘I don’t know if I can believe that, but it’s the closest to an explanation we’ve got.’

Marcus noticed Tavaryn glaring back at them, so he quietened the others down. They were in unfamiliar territory now, and the Horans had the upper hand. Displeasing them further was not the smartest plan.

They passed underneath a portcullis and entered the main courtyard. Guards patrolled the area, and Marcus could see archers standing atop the smaller wall surrounding the palace. They were met by stable hands who would stable and look after their horses.

Darik stopped ahead of them and turned.

‘This is as far as you go,’ he said to Marcus. ‘You will follow Rostum to the holding cells, where you will stay until we decide what to do with you.’

‘You’re just locking us up?’ Samantha shouted. ‘You can’t do that!’

‘Shut your mouth,’ Tavaryn said. ‘Or I shall shut it for you.’

‘You couldn’t think we were going to just let you walk free,’ Darik said. ‘You knew what you were getting yourselves into. Until the present situation is resolved, you will remain here as guests.’

‘Prisoners,’ Alex corrected.

‘I’ll take them,’ Eric said. ‘I would like to speak with them further.’

‘I leave them in your care then,’ Darik said. ‘Rostum, Tavaryn, let’s escort the princess inside. I’m sure she’s eager to rest.’

Eric whispered something to Tori, and she nodded. He leant forward and kissed her on the forehead, before leading Marcus and the others away.

‘Follow me, if you would,’ he said.

Marcus watched as Tori walked towards the main entrance, the eyes of every Horan in the vicinity trained on her. He didn’t know if they were all welcoming looks, but was reassured in the fact that she was accompanied by ruthless and protective men.

Eric led them through the palace gardens until they came upon a small wooden house, nestled amongst the trees and surrounded by bright and colourful flowers.

‘This is where you’ll be staying.’

‘Here?’ Marcus said. ‘Does the groundskeeper not live here?’

‘Until recently. He passed away, and no replacement has been found yet. It seems the issue fell to the wayside as the fight for succession escalated,’ Eric said. ‘Darik assures me it will be adequate lodgings for you.’

He opened the door and showed them inside.

‘Not what I was expecting,’ Alex said. ‘It’s certainly a step up from dank, dark dungeons with rusty chains and rats. You treat your prisoners well here in Hora.’

‘We have those dungeons too,’ Eric said. ‘But an exception has been made for you. You owe Tori thanks for that. Don’t expect freedoms. A guard will be stationed outside, day and night.’

‘So we’re just trapped in here?’ Alex said. ‘We can’t even go outside?’

‘I’m afraid you are correct, but you should count yourselves lucky. You are the first foreigners in Hora for many years. Consider it an honour and privilege.’

‘And what of you?’ Marcus asked. ‘Your return is hardly that of a hero.’

He grunted. ‘I will no doubt find myself enjoying the company of the rats once I enter the palace. There are many who still believe I kidnapped Tori. Darik assures me he will handle that, until I am freed and Tori has cemented her place as the next Queen of Hora.’

‘You’re just letting them lock you up?’ Alex said. ‘You’re not even going to fight?’

‘You can’t win everything by fighting. Sometimes you have to let things happen as they may. You will learn that in time, young Alex. You as well, Marcus. You can’t always change fate.’

Marcus turned his back and left them. He wasn’t going to listen to Eric attacking him like that. He knew he had made the right decision in following Tori, and he would get his opportunity to talk to her soon enough.

He wandered into the kitchen area and looked out the back window. Apple trees were flushed red with ripened fruit. The others were still talking in the background – he heard Marcus mention them staying hidden and out of sight – so he decided to sneak out and fetch himself an apple. The kitchen window slid open without issue, and Marcus climbed up onto the bench and then slipped outside.

He landed on a flower bed. He whispered an apology and quickly jumped out of the garden. He scooped an apple off the ground and took a bite. It was sweeter than all the apples he had eaten previously. Marcus gathered a few more and returned to the window, taking care not to trample the garden any more than he had already.

Halfway through the window, Marcus heard someone cough in the kitchen. He looked up and lost his balance, tumbling forwards and scattering apples everywhere.

‘You’re not treating this seriously,’ Eric said. ‘If you are going to continue being a self centred buffoon, you will ruin any chance you have to get out of this situation.’

‘Don’t expect me to sit here and enjoy being locked up,’ Marcus said. ‘I came here because I love Tori, I couldn’t care less about everything else.’

‘Everything is linked. Please, I beg you. Stay here. Do not cause trouble. Everything will be righted soon.’

Marcus sighed and collected his apples. Honestly, he didn’t want to make things hard for Eric. He respected the man, and he knew Eric had played a vital role in helping them get this far. Sitting around wasn’t something Marcus could do easily though. For his sake, for Eric’s sake and for Tori’s, he would do his best to cause minimal trouble. They would weather this storm and, once it had all blown over, he would be able to see Tori again. Everything would return to normal.


37821 words. Ding ding 3/4 done. Getting to the pointy end of this now. Gonna see some war soon. Big war.

That quota line is catching up to me :/ Wanted to make sure I wasn't under it at any point in the month but I think I'm going to need a big weekend to catch up for this week.
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Jiro
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Posts: 225
Joined: Thu Oct 20, 2011 2:56 am
Location: Ausland

Re: Hu

Postby Jiro » Wed Nov 30, 2011 12:25 pm

**
After weeks of being trapped inside the groundskeeper’s house enduring the monotonous repetition, Marcus soon found life suddenly whizzing around him. It was as if he was back home in Garif and was suddenly skating along the ice without any control of his direction or speed. His birthday had passed without celebration – he felt no reason to celebrate – but now the beginnings of dramatic changes had arrived.

Eric brought news of his freedom. Tori had explained that her absence had been her own decision, and that Eric had accompanied her to ensure her safety. His service to his charge was recognised and well rewarded: he was reinstated as a loyal knight of Hora and given the responsibility of being Tori’s royal bodyguard. It was the best possible outcome for him, and he was deemed the ideal choice for Tori’s personal security.

The fighting for control of the Horan throne subsided after Tori made her intentions – or, as Marcus saw it, her responsibilities – clear and it wasn’t long before all factions had recognised her as the rightful Queen. Until she had come of age, however, an advisor would lead in her place. Darik had been appointed to this position, having worked closely with Tori’s father and being a supportive. Eric was adamant he, above all others, could be trusted.

‘Where does that leave us?’ Marcus asked. ‘When will we be freed?’

‘Your case is an exceptional one,’ Eric said. ‘Tori is fighting against nearly the entire country to have you freed, or at the very least, spared death.’

‘You mean everyone is still trying to kill us?’ Alex said. ‘They do realise we helped rescue her, right?’

‘Hora is wildly xenophobic,’ Eric said. ‘Irrespective of your actions, you are foreign and perceived as a threat. Most would rather see you hang and have the potential danger eliminated.’

‘What a bunch of jerks,’ Samantha said. She sighed and sat on the sofa. ‘I suppose there’s no hope then. We’ll be trapped here forever.’

‘I wish there was something we could do,’ Marcus said. ‘Some way to prove ourselves. A way to show them we’re not their enemies.’

‘I will do all I can,’ Eric said. ‘And Tori is doing everything she can manage, but things are tumultuous still. Until then, I ask that you wait patiently.’

‘Not like we have a choice,’ Marcus said. ‘Sitting around all day makes me angry. I’m so bored I could die.’

**

The next time Eric visited them, he brought with him news both positive and negative. They had been released from their imprisonment, but they were not yet free. As conditions of their release and presence in Hora, they would be required to serve in the military.

‘That’s not so bad,’ Alex said. ‘We can do that. Easy.’

‘Don’t count your blessings yet,’ Eric said. ‘There is talk of war with the Makt Adrein kingdom of Falos. There are signs suggesting they seek to capitalise on Hora’s recent confusion.’

‘They think Tori is a weak leader and now would be a good chance to attack,’ Samantha said. ‘Am I right?’

‘That is what our reports suggest. The struggle for control of Hora implied that there were divisions and rifts within the aristocracy. It would be a perfect time to strike, when they are too busy fighting each other to prepare a defence.’

‘What about now? Everyone is unified under Tori, aren’t they?’ Marcus said. ‘Surely that acts as a deterrent.’

‘Perhaps they think everyone will turn on each other and use the war as a way to gain the upper hand and wrest control for themselves. Ultimately it would only ensure that Hora is divided and then conquered.’

‘But there aren’t any rifts in the aristocracy, right?’ Samantha said.

‘There is no doubt that Tori’s arrival caused problems for those seeking power. She was attacked by Nero, remember? We know he was working for someone else, someone behind the scenes, but nothing can be confirmed.’

‘Great, just great. So we should expect to be sent off to war then?’ Marcus said.

Before Eric could respond, there was a knock at the door. Eric opened it and spoke quickly with the quest. When he turned back to face them, his face was pale.

‘Yes. You should expect as much,’ Eric said. ‘We sent two envoys to Falos. Their carrier pigeon has return, its feathers coated in blood. The preparations for war begin now.’

‘Just our luck,’ Alex said. ‘Wait, Samantha isn’t going too, is she?’

‘No, she will remain behind and work in the palace.’

‘Good. Now I just have to worry about this idiot.’

He smacked Marcus on the back. He gave a faint smile.

‘Guess it could be worse,’ Marcus said. ‘At least we get to leave the house.’

Their guest entered behind Eric and bowed slightly. ‘My name is Fynn. If you would kindly follow me, you are required at the barracks.’

‘Right now?’ Marcus said. Fynn nodded. ‘You’re kidding me.’

‘I was told to bring you with all haste,’ Fynn said. ‘You are to be tested and examined before you are let loose on the battlefield. Our commanders wish to know they will not be dealing with deserters or turn coats.’

‘I am loyal to Tori and will tell them as such. I care nothing for Hora, but I will protect her, no matter what.’

Behind him, Marcus could hear Alex whispering words of comfort to Samantha. He felt a pang of guilt; they shouldn’t be caught up in this mess too.

‘Come on Alex,’ he said. ‘The sooner we leave, the sooner we can get this done. You’ll be back soon enough.’

He turned to Samantha. ‘He’ll come back in one piece, you have my word.’

‘Thank you,’ she said.

‘Now then, if you would follow me,’ Fynn said. ‘There is much to do, and time is running short.’

**

The glass gleamed back at him. He signalled for a refill. Marcus couldn’t remember how many he had drunk, and he didn’t care. All he knew was that drinking helped him forget about…

‘Dammit,’ he said, smacking the glass down on the bar. ‘Damn it all to hell.’

The bartender watched him carefully.

‘Not gonna break your mug,’ Marcus said. He drained his drink and left the empty glass sitting on top of the bar. ‘There, done. Happy?’

‘You’re obviously not, sonny,’ the bartender said. ‘What troubles your mind?’

‘Ain’t nothing I want to talk about,’ Marcus said. He rocked back on his stool. ‘She’s up there in her fancy palace doing her fancy queen things. I ain’t nothing but scum to her, a dog’s chew toy.’

‘Should have figured it would be a woman.’

‘Course it ain’t as easy as just forgetting now, is it? Always remember in the end. Nothin’ I can do to change that. Can’t have her but sure as hell can’t manage without her.’

The door swung open violently behind him and he heard Alex shout.

‘What the hell are you doing here?’ he said. ‘We continue our march early tomorrow morning. Shiyoki is not far now, we must be on our guard. The commander would be furious if he knew you were here, drinking yourself half to death!’

‘Could not care less. Not an ounce, not an inch, not a bit.’

‘So you’re soldiers?’ the bartender said. ‘Suppose you’re on your way to oust those Falosian bastards then. A great service you’re doing.’

‘We have to halt their advance and force them back,’ Alex said. ‘We cannot afford to let them gain any more territory. If we can take Shiyoki, then their major foothold will be lost and their campaign will be hurt. The towns and villages will be safer then.’

‘Always were more the leader type,’ Marcus said. ‘Weren’t ya? All this talk about halting and advancing. None of it matters to me none. Don’t care about none of it.’

‘So what are you fighting for, son?’ the bartender asked. ‘Fighting for your country? Fighting for your Queen? Fighting for that girl you were talking about?’

Marcus laughed. ‘Ain’t none of them. Not my fight, not my country and not my Queen, not by a long shot,’ he said. ‘You wanna know why I’m fightin’? ‘Cause I got nothin’ else to do. ‘Cause I got nothin’ else worth doing.’

Alex grabbed him around the waist and hoisted him to his feet. ‘That’s enough out of you. Let’s get you back and to bed. Tomorrow is going to be a hell of a day, that’s for sure.’

Marcus tried to resist, but his arms weren’t listening. He stood there, swaying, like a marionette.

‘All the best to you lads,’ the bartender said. ‘You’re a brave sort, whether you chose this path or not. Stay alive out there, and come back safe. You’re welcome here any time, on the house.’

‘Thank you. We’ll all be doing our best to keep Hora safe. Everybody has loved ones they don’t want to see harmed, even this pathetic excuse for a man. We will return, and I’m sure at least one of us will indulge your offer.’

‘Gonna be me,’ Marcus said. ‘Gonna indulge it all.’

‘Shut up now Marcus. Go to sleep,’ Alex said. ‘I’d rather carry you than listen to your drunken ramblings.’

**

Camp was made in the hills surrounding Shiyoki, and the Horan armed forces prepared their assault. Falosian forces had poured through the mountain pass and taken Shiyoki before a proper defence could be mounted. It had become the enemy’s foothold and given them a secure point of entry for troops and supplies. They had fanned out from this location, taking several more towns and villages, but not without resistance. They had obviously planned on a quick and decisive attack, but militiamen from surrounding towns and villages had slowed them down. They had not been beaten though; that was where the Horan army came in.

They would rout the enemy here, at Shiyoki, and turn them back. As the enemy fled back through the mountain pass, the Horan armed forces would give chase, pursuing them to the capital, capturing it and cutting off the head of the snake. It was a dangerous mission. Though the Falosian capital lay close to the mountains, it would be heavily fortified. Attacking it head on would be risky, but it was the only way to ensure a swift end to this war and a return to peace. It would also serve as a warning to other nations; the punishment for attacking Hora was severe and would be dealt quickly and without mercy.

Until they reclaimed Shiyoki, however, such hopes were out of sight. Marcus kicked some sand towards the fire. Tomorrow was the first of many bloody battles, he was sure. How many until everything was resolved?

‘You look distracted, utländska.’

Marcus spat. Aeryn had been tormenting him for days, always calling him utländska, or foreign one. It was a strong insult at the best of times, and the malice with which Aeryn said it only made it worse. He despised Marcus purely because of his race, and took every opportunity to remind Marcus that he was not welcome in these lands.

‘Be careful you do not choke on those words and die,’ Marcus said. He spat again, sizzling in the fire. ‘What a tragedy that would be. Oh how I would mourn your death.’

Aeryn continued eating. Marcus watched him from the corner of his eye. Tensions between the two had escalated as time wore on, but each tolerated the other’s existence if only to provoke and annoy them further. The cycle would only continue.

‘Make sure you’re prepared for the battle tomorrow, utländska,’ Aeryn said, rising. ‘I’ll be watching you. Any sign that you’re trying to defect and I’ll kill you myself.’

‘A nice cheery conversation to end the night then,’ Marcus said. ‘Go then, leave me to finally enjoy some peace and quiet. Sweet dreams, bastard.’

Aeryn disappeared from sight, and Marcus relaxed back against a tree. He watched the flames flicker and tried to clear his mind. Regardless of what the day brought, he would be content. Death would be a release from his trauma, his longing for things eternally outside his grasp. Victory and survival would win him another chance to repeat the process.

‘You still up?’ Alex asked.

Marcus glanced over his shoulder as Alex sat beside him. They had been forced to march in their squads, and the two had been separated. Less chance of them planning an escape, and less of a danger to any squad members they abandoned. Neither Marcus nor Alex had any intent to betray the Horan army. There was little to gain; the Falosian soldiers would hardly believe their story.

‘Lost track of time,’ Marcus replied. ‘Though I doubt sleep would come, even if I wanted.’

‘You nervous?’

‘Should I be?’

Alex gave a nervous laugh. ‘Confidence is good, but nervousness is allowed. Nobody would blame you,’ he said. ‘I’m nervous. I don’t know what to expect. I never thought I’d be fighting in a war.’

‘Life is unpredictable. We’ve seen that first hand. Battered by the tides of fate. Rarely has it gone our way.’

‘You only see the negatives,’ Alex said. ‘Take a minute to appreciate all the positives. We’ve seen much of the world. Met many people, good and bad yes, but people we never would have met otherwise.’

‘We’ve lost many people too,’ Marcus said. ‘Or would you prefer to just leave that part out?’

‘Easy Marcus, we’re on the same side here. I’m just trying to reassure you, help you realise what you’re fighting for.’

‘I’m fighting because I have nothing else to do.’

‘Your words hurt me friend. We are brothers, I would have thought you cared for me as I for you. Your death would take the last of my family from me.’

‘You have Samantha,’ Marcus said. ‘Regardless of what happens, there will always be someone waiting for you.’

‘She waits for you too,’ Alex said.

‘Don’t try and fool me with these deluded fantasies. Tori and I will never be together.’

The wind picked up around them, and the flames began to flicker again. Marcus brushed the hair from his face and glanced up at the bright night sky.

‘It seems our conversation has run its course,’ Alex said, standing. ‘I won’t ask you to promise me you will survive. I won’t ask you to promise me anything. Just know that my thoughts and prayers are with you.’

Marcus watched him leave. Somewhere, deep down, the words had resonated with him. A part of him was glad to have the supportive, and appreciated the fact that Alex had stuck by him through all their trials. Where that part of Marcus lay now was anybody’s guess, hidden somewhere beneath his growing sadness, anger and apathy. When the spark would return, he did not know. Tomorrow was another day.

**

They attacked at midday. They charged down into the valley from the west, rendering a dawn attack completely unviable. It surely would have let them to total defeat, blinded to the enemy and their actions by the sunlight. Instead, under the dry, hot midday sun, the Horan army clashed with the foreign invaders, desperate to push them back and reclaim Shiyoki.

Marcus and his squad were not a part of the main force however; they had been sent along the right flank, circling around through the forests to attack from the south. Other squads had been along the left flank, to attack from both the north and east, trapping the enemy.

For Marcus and his squad, their instructions were to cut off the enemy’s retreat, work their way into the town and engage them from behind, creating an assault on two fronts and crushing them between the two arms of the Horan army. They would be supported by the other flanking squads, tightening their grip. Their combined actions would be swift, ending the battle quickly. From there, it was onto Aeoden, the Falosian capital.

A wagon slowly rolled north along the winding road. This was the major supply route for the Falosian conquest, and the wagon would likely be full of supplies. Crippling them here would undoubtedly be advantageous in the battle ahead. Marcus eyed it suspiciously; there was something curious about its slow pace…

‘We attack the wagon, then continue north,’ the squad leader Jase said. ‘This is an opportunity we can’t pass up. Everyone move up and take them by surprise!’

They started towards the wagon before Marcus could protest. As they drew alongside, the cover flew from the wooden cart and a number of enemy troops leapt from their hiding place. The trap was sprung.

Marcus charged forward to support his unit. They had the numbers, but the enemy weren’t supposed to even be expecting an attack from this direction, let alone having a trap prepared. Marcus picked his target and spun, slashing the unsuspecting enemy across the chest and arm, removing him from the battle. Around him, men fought, duelling each other. The Horans had been taken by surprise, but they fought back with vigour now.

As he turned to locate his next opponent, Marcus found himself trapped against the side of the wagon, surrounded by three advancing foes. Before they knew it, two had been felled by a flurry of sword strokes. Marcus didn’t see who his saviour was, and he didn’t care. He leapt forward, taking the brief moment of distraction to launch his attack on the third enemy, running him through with his sword. He kicked the wounded man to the ground, where he lay bleeding. Death would catch up to him soon, but for now, there were other enemies to face.

Marcus and his squad managed to crush the ambush and regroup. They had lost several men to the initial surprise attack, but their mission was still of vital importance and would be carried out. Caution ran through them now; they could not afford to be surprised by the enemy again and suffer such losses. The rear entrance to the village was in sight now. Marcus looked back over his shoulder and saw the large imposing figure of the Kluven mountain range.

Outside the northern gates of Shiyoki the main battle raged. Between the clashing of steel and the cries of men, Marcus could hear the shouting of enemy soldiers. There were calls for archers; they would be both a nuisance and a thread to the main force of Hora. While their own archers would have the advantage of the high ground, the enemy bowmen could use the buildings of Shiyoki as cover, providing protection from volleys.

Jase signalled for them to split into two teams and filter through the town. Stealth would be their greatest asset now. Dispatching the enemy without alerting them would mean avoiding open combat, and that would mean less chance of friendly casualties. Speed was still imperative though; every moment they wasted was a moment the other soldiers had to keep fighting.

Marcus followed his team through the streets. His eyes scanned the rooftops and windows for any signs of archers, but they met no resistance. The ambush seemed to be the only defence the Falosians had set for their rear guard; the rest of their troops were dedicated to repelling the frontal assault.

Suddenly Marcus spied the enemy. There were two archers using the church belltower as a vantage point, raining arrows down on the battle below. The bell itself protected them from return fire, providing them freedom to continue taking shots at Horan soldiers. He had to stop them now, before they could cause any more damage.

As he sprinted off, Marcus could hear the other members of his team calling out to him. No doubt they thought he was abandoning them, running away from the battle. He didn’t have time worry about what they thought; Alex was out there on the battlefield, and even a single stray arrow could cut him down. Marcus had promised Samantha that Alex would return home safely; he had no plans to break that promise.

He burst through the thick church doors and made for the tower stairs. Fortunately the building was empty, though the echoing clack off his boots on the polished stone floors unsteadied him. The staircase was circular, spiralling anti clockwise, giving Marcus an advantage against any foe he might meet as he climbed. As he cleared the landing he kicked out, booting the unsuspecting enemy off the tower and screaming down to the street below.

The second archer shouted in surprise and drew a small dagger from his belt. The bell was between them, but Marcus knew he would find it difficult to use his sword in such close quarters. His only choice was to fight barehanded, aiming to disarm his enemy, or throw him off balance to join the other.

He circled clockwise around the bell, matching the movements of his opponent. He was obscured by the large bell, but that also gave the opportunity to take him by surprise.

Marcus darted back anti clockwise. He caught the archer off guard, hitting him once in the chest and then knocking the dagger away. He threw a jab, but it was blocked. The enemy retaliated with a left hook and a knee to the stomach. As Marcus coughed and tried to recover his footing, he struck out with his foot, stumbling the man and giving him a chance to gather himself again.

The enemy rushed him. Marcus planted his feet and threw a wild punch. It connected cleanly, smacking the man into the bell and causing it to ring. He slumped and fell flat on the floor, unconscious. The bell rang again, and Marcus watched as several Falosian archers looked up at him. Down on the main battlefield, the enemy troops appeared distracted and concerned about the echoing bell. Marcus assumed it was some kind of signal, a signal to retreat perhaps. He rang it again and again; even if they were distracted for only a split second, it gave the Horan forces an advantage.

He was right. The Falosian forces began to pull back, believing the signal to retreat and regroup had been given. Instead, they were met by more Horan soldiers, blocking their escape. In their confusion, many Falosians were killed, unable to defend themselves against the surprise attack. Some surrendered, or were captured, with the remnants of their outpost somehow managing to slip past and escape into the mountains.

The Horans regrouped immediately and began to plan the next step of their plan. With everyone assembled, Commander Raubtier explained the next mission; they would march into Aeoden and seize control of it. With their capital and king captured, the Falosian armies would have no choice but to surrender and flee Horan territory.

‘No doubt Aeoden will be heavily fortified. A direct assault is incredibly risky,’ Commander Raubtier said. ‘Many lives could be lost. But a swift assault now offers us the chance to put an end to this war now, potentially saving more lives.’

There were murmurings throughout the crowd. The chance to end this conflict and return to their families was a strong draw card.

‘If the Falosians are able to dig in, we could face a lengthy uphill campaign. The war will be fought on multiple fronts as they move towards Koto Crisco. If we act now, we can change all that,’ Commander Raubtier said. ‘I know it may seem like a suicide mission, charging in headfirst. That is why I am prepared to let you decide what our course will be. We can choose to wait for reinforcements, bolster our own forces and then engage the enemy. Or we can strike now while the iron is hot and defeat the Falosians here and now.’

**

‘Have you gone completely and utterly insane?’ Alex shouted. ‘What has possessed you and convinced you that joining this suicide party is a good idea?’

‘The more men we have, the greater our odds,’ Marcus explained. ‘I know what I signed up for. I advise you to stay behind, defend the camp. Wait for us to secure victory and go home to Samantha.’

Alex went to protest, but Marcus cut him off. ‘I promised her Alex. Don’t make me a liar.’

‘I know exactly why you’re doing this,’ Alex said. ‘The fact you would lie to me about it is insulting. But if you want to throw your life away, there is nothing I can do to stop you.’

‘I made my choice and I can live with it.’

‘That might not be much longer.’

‘You should go,’ Marcus said. ‘We’re leaving immediately and I still need to prepare my gear.’

Alex stormed off without a word, leaving Marcus to pack.

The decision to attack Aeoden swiftly was easily reached by the majority of the soldiers. Nobody wanted the war to drag on, and nobody wanted the war to spread further into Hora. Even those who were hesitant to volunteer supported the idea. Many volunteered however, eager to help put an end to the conflict. Commander Raubtier was grateful for their support, and began preparations immediately to march into the Kluven mountain pass.

Marcus felt a wash of anger at Alex. It was caused by a combination of things. The doubts and accusations he had hit Marcus with was the first reason; the second was that he was right. This mission, if not suicidal, would no doubt result in heavy causalities.

At least if Marcus was to die on the battlefield, fighting to protect Hora, it would have some sort of impact. He had no family to mourn him, but Alex and Samantha would no doubt be torn between begrudging him for his actions and appreciating his contributions to their freedom. Perhaps Tori would experience some remorse and wish she could have done more to stop him from being conscripted in the first place. Eric would also feel the guilt as he watched Tori suffer over the loss…

‘Not that she actually cares,’ Marcus spat. His illusions faded; he was fighting because he wanted to kill, to vent his anger, and release his frustrations. He was fighting because there was nothing else he could do.

He steeled his resolve and gathered his things. It was time to depart. As they marched, the soldiers cried out salutes to their country – for Hora! – but Marcus remained silent, his mind at work, creating and running scenarios through his head, breaking them down and beginning anew. He would discover the best outcome and make it happen. That was the only way his adventure could continue now.

**

The mountain path was rough and punishing, but the Horan soldiers marched on bravely, as if propelled by something supernatural. The wind was at their backs, pushing them forwards and helping them carve a path into Falos. They had not come across any fleeing soldiers yet, though they walked long into the night and rose again early the next morning. Marcus suspected they had fled on horseback, but time would tell.

As he walked, Marcus could feel the back of his neck begin to warm as a pair of eyes watched him. He glanced back and saw the snarling face of Aeryn staring at him.

‘Didn’t expect to see you again, utländska.’

‘Disappointed, perhaps?’

‘Surprised,’ Aeryn said. ‘Maybe you aren’t as weak as you look. Or maybe you just hid, cowering in the face of the enemy, while the rest of us did the work.’

‘I rang the bell,’ Marcus said. ‘I created the disorganisation and retreat of the Falosians. I handed the victory to Hora. But no, you definitely did all the work. Give yourself a pat on the back.’

‘So you’re the big hero now, humble and modest to boot,’ Aeryn spat. ‘Do you expect me to thank you, or grovel at your feet in reverence? You’re nothing. We will see who the true heroes are when Aeoden falls. You will go back to your prison, trapped in there forever, while we celebrate the victory and are showered with gratitude.’

‘No heroes will come of this battle,’ Marcus said. ‘We are going to throw our corpses at them until they are too tired to defend themselves. There will be no glory in this victory.’

‘Why then are you fighting? You are not fighting to protect your home or your family? Why enlist for this mission?’

‘Suddenly you’re curious as to how I think?’ Marcus said. ‘No, I won’t answer you. I see no reason to explain myself to you. There is no single person I detest more than you Aeryn, and if we both survive this then I will take great pleasure in punching you in the face.’

Marcus turned back to the front and continued the steady march. They would soon reach the peak of the path, just over a third of the way, and the city of Aeoden would be visible to them. It was built onto the side of the Kluven mountain range to provide security, which gave them a significant tactical advantage. They would have to formulate some sort of strategy soon. The fleeing Falosians would have a significant lead on them and would undoubtedly reach the city before they did. Once they arrived, defences would be prepared and an attack would be expected, but not quite this early. That was where their advantage lay.

Marcus looked up and saw Commander Raubtier riding beside him.

‘We are in need of advance scouts to ride ahead,’ Commander Raubtier said to Marcus. ‘Your ingenuity in Shiyoki paints you as a prime candidate. Are you willing?’

‘Sure, why not. I’ll be glad to be off my feet for a while.’

Marcus heard clinking as someone jogged up from behind him. He knew who it would be before he even had a chance to look.

‘Please allow me to ride ahead too sir,’ Aeryn said. ‘I wish to join the scouting party.’

Marcus was impressed by how civil he was when talking to his superiors. Obviously the spite was reserved purely for Marcus.

‘Then that rounds out our team. Horses will be brought to you shortly; make your way to the front and you will be briefed from there.’

**

The scouting team consisted of five members: Marcus, Aeryn, a tall Horan named Kotora, a shorter, bulkier Horan named Mikael, and Jase, who would be serving as the squad leader. They each saddled up, taking only the bare necessities, and rode off ahead. Commander Raubtier speculated that the enemy might have established outposts along the path in case of a Horan push, but their primary objective was to reach the outskirts of Aeoden and, as Marcus had predicted earlier, try to formulate an attack strategy. The defences would be examined and any possible weaknesses noted.

Marcus listened to Kotora and Mikael talking. He learnt they were from the same coastal town of Kita’an, far to the north, and guessed they had been friends for many years. Their relationship reminded Marcus of his own with Alex, and he suddenly felt nostalgic for life with the Golden Trail Caravan, back before all of this started. When things were simple.

They had been riding for several hours already, at a quick pace. They had slowed once they cleared the summit, keeping to the edge of the road. The highest parts of Aeoden were visible to them now, meaning they would also be visible. Stealth was essential now, and all discussion was quiet and short.

‘Watch the edges,’ Jase said. ‘They could be lying in wait, preparing an ambush. Mikhael, keep an eye on our rear. We don’t want them to sneak up behind us.’

Everybody nodded in understanding. They scanned the area closely. The vegetation was dense along the road, with many trees and small plants obscuring the rock walls. As they rode on, the trees grew taller and even denser than before. Marcus focused on every shadow, watching every flicker, every movement. His concentration was broken when he heard a whistle.

‘What was that?’ he said. ‘Did you hear that?’

Before anyone could respond, they were hit with a volley of arrows. Marcus managed to avoid being hit, though his horse was not as lucky. As his horse collapsed, he was thrown free, landing hard on the rough ground. He quickly fetched his shield and glanced up.

Kotora was kneeling over Mikael, shield raised in one hand while the other tried to tend his fallen friend’s wounds. Arrows protruded from his chest and legs. Jase had been thrown clear of his horse as well, and appeared to be unconscious. Marcus heard Aeryn shout in pain, and watched as the Horan tore an arrow from his shoulder. He tossed it aside and drew his sword.

‘Fight me like men!’ he shouted into the trees. ‘Enough of your trickery, you cowards! Come out from where you are hiding, if you dare.’

He quietened as they complied, a wall of archers, bows knocked and drawn, aiming at the squad. From this range, they would easily be able to kill everyone. There was no way for Marcus or the others to defend against them, let alone launch their own attack.

They were defeated.

A man stepped forward and lowered his bow. ‘Lay down your arms, surrender to us and you will be spared,’ he said. ‘Or you can die where you stand, if you wish.’

Aeryn cursed and dismounted his horse. ‘Why would I surrender to Falosian dogs like you?’

An arrow whizzed past his ear.

‘The next shot won’t miss. Drop your weapon and kneel. The longer you wait, the closer your friend there gets to death.’

He nodded towards Mikael, who was still being tended by Kotora. Marcus lowered his shield and strode forward. There was no use resisting them now; it would only result in them being slaughtered.

‘Fine. We surrender,’ Marcus said.

‘I don’t think you have any authority here,’ Aeryn said. ‘Keep out of this, utländska.’

‘You would be wise to listen to your friend, Horan.’

Aeryn grunted. He knew there was no other option, but the thought of submitting to Falosians made his blood boil.

‘Swallow your pride Aeryn,’ Kotora said. ‘There is more at stake here. Do not risk our safety over your petty grievances.’

He nodded. ‘So be it.’

‘Good, excellent,’ the Falosian said. ‘Now then, hold still while my men bind your hands. We will be in fair Aeoden soon. You will enjoy your stay, I am sure.’

**

They were led into the city and taken to the prison. Mikael was given medical treatment for the injuries he had suffered, and Jase was nursing a headache and several cuts and bruises, but was otherwise unhurt. They were split between two cells facing each other: Aeryn, Marcus and Mikael in one, and Kotora and Jase in the other.

After several hours of sitting in the darkness, a guard came and escorted Marcus down the corridors.

‘Are we going anywhere in particular?’ Marcus asked.

He didn’t get a response.

‘It sure is dark down here. You should put in some windows, maybe a few lanterns. Throw down a nice rug, it’d really spruce the place up.’

The guard remained silent. Marcus gave up trying to make conversation. He could guess where they were going; the Falosians had no doubt realised they had captured a scouting party. They wanted to know what the main force was doing, when they would attack, and how.

‘Bugger,’ Marcus sighed aloud.

He didn’t know much, but what he did know was of great value to the Horan army. If he gave away their secret…

‘In here,’ the guard said, and shoved Marcus into a room. He slammed the metal door shut behind him.

‘Well that was nice of him,’ Marcus said.

He spun around, examining his surroundings. In the centre of the room was a wooden table, with a man seated there.

‘Sit,’ he said.

Marcus obliged; he guessed this wasn’t going to be a pleasant exchange. Starting on the wrong foot wasn’t going to help him.

‘I have some simple questions for you,’ the man said. ‘If you answer them, you can go back to your cell.’

‘If I don’t?’

‘You will answer the questions.’

‘I see,’ Marcus said. ‘Shall we make a start then?’

‘I have been informed that you are not Horan,’ he said. ‘Is this true?’

‘Yes.’ Marcus wasn’t going to divulge any information that wasn’t directly asked for.

‘What then were you doing with a Horan scouting party?’

‘Scouting.’

‘Hora has strict restrictions against foreigners entering their country. How did you manage this, and how exactly did you come to serve in their military?’

Marcus sighed. Open ended questions meant he couldn’t just give one word answers. He would have to be careful not to give too much away. A little bit of imagination would keep him entertained, at least.

‘I came to Hora unexpectedly, and was imprisoned,’ Marcus said. ‘As you would expect. The Horans are not the most welcoming people.’

‘Trespassers often face death,’ he said. ‘You escaped this by joining their military?’

‘How very perceptive of you. I wasn’t exactly given the choice.’

‘Then you owe no loyalty to Hora and its brat Queen?’

Marcus stifled his anger. ‘No, I suppose not,’ he said. ‘But I wouldn’t want to make a habit of being a turn coat.’

‘We shall see,’ the man said. ‘But now, onto the more important topics. We know the Horan army is headed this way. We want to know when they will be here, the size of their forces and their strategy.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t help you there,’ Marcus said. ‘I don’t know what they are planning or how many there will be. We were to report back when we determined an appropriate strategy. Anything could happen now.’

The Falosian man sat quietly for a few moments, watching Marcus, studying his body language. Marcus relaxed, easing back into his chair.

‘Perhaps you need a little encouragement,’ he said finally, and stood. ‘I’ll be back in a moment. Don’t go anywhere.’

He chuckled as he left, closing the metal door behind him. Marcus heard it bolt shut; he was stuck. He tapped on the table while he waited, trying to think what would happen next. There was little more he could tell the Falosian interrogator, and everything he had said had been half truths at the very least. What possible way could they provoke more information from him?

The door opened and the interrogator returned. Behind him came Aeryn, who was struggling against the guard pushing him forwards.

‘Ah, you’re still here,’ the interrogator said. ‘How nice of you.’

‘Very funny,’ Marcus said. ‘What the hell is the meaning of this?’

‘You will recall a part of our little chat from before where you admitted you had no loyalty to Hora. If that is so, then you also have no loyalty to its people either.’

The interrogator took the guard’s sword and waved it around. Aeryn continued to struggle.

‘Get off me you dogs!’ he shouted.

‘Now, if there is anything else you would like to tell me, you should do so immediately,’ the interrogator said. ‘I will give you to the count of three before I kill this man.’

Aeryn shook his head. ‘No, you can’t be serious!’ he shouted. ‘Unhand me damn you. Let me go or I swear I will gut you filthy animals.’

‘Charming,’ the interrogator said. ‘One.’

‘Do something!’ Aeryn shouted at Marcus. ‘Anything! Just stop them!’

‘Two.’

What could he do? He had told them everything else. If he told the Falosians about the imminent attack – if it was even still coming – then the Horan forces would be decimated. It was true that he felt no loyalty to Hora, but Tori was their Queen, and still he loved her. Could he betray her like that? And what of the innocents who would surely be killed and injured if the war dragged on?

‘Three.’

‘Stop!’ Marcus shouted. ‘Put the sword away first, then we’ll talk.’

‘Interesting,’ the interrogator said. ‘Perhaps you are a loyal Horan lapdog after all.’

‘That’s not it at all,’ Marcus said. ‘This soldier you were about to kill? He’s mine. I will be the one to kill him. He has caused me enough suffering already, and I will not let his pathetic country’s war stand in the way of my revenge.’

Aeryn tried to protest, but no words came. Marcus willed him to be silent; do not ruin what he had started.

‘So then, the Horan attack on Aeoden. What do you know?’

‘They’re awaiting reinforcements in Shiyoki before they strike. They want to amass an army so large that they will simply wash over Aeoden like waves over sand, destroying everything in its path,’ Marcus said. ‘You have a week, two perhaps, to prepare. Then you will die.’

The interrogator watched Marcus closely, and then turned to Aeryn.

‘Does he speak the truth?’

Aeryn hesitated, then nodded slowly. ‘It will be closer to two weeks,’ he said. ‘They will wait for our report as long as possible, but they will not wait forever.’

‘So quick to betray your own people,’ the interrogator said. ‘The foreigner held out longer.’

‘His life is not in jeopardy!’ Aeryn shouted. ‘A man’s strongest instinct is that of survival, of self preservation.’

Marcus crossed the room and struck Aeryn in the face. Blood dripped from a small gash on his cheek. He spat at Marcus.

‘We have what we need,’ the interrogator said. ‘Take these two back to their cell where they continue their little scuffle.’

The guard shoved Aeryn out the door, and Marcus followed behind. They had escaped with their lives and, somehow, convinced the Falosians that they had at least a week to prepare their defences. They would start their work immediately, Marcus thought, but the attack will be here tomorrow, the day after at the latest. The Horan assault would take the Falosians by surprise, catch them while they were distracted. It was possible they had just assisted the attack, rather than hindered it.

**

Back in their cell, Marcus and Aeryn suddenly found themselves on friendly terms. Having escaped imminent death, Aeryn felt he owed Marcus more than just thanks; he owed Marcus an apology, and an explanation.

‘I have to apologise,’ Aeryn said. ‘For my behaviour, for the way I’ve treated you.’

‘I would like to say it’s fine, but you’ve been a constant pain since I was conscripted. Even now I am hesitant to listen.’

‘I realise this, but you have to give me a chance to explain.’

‘Go on then,’ Marcus said. ‘I got to hit you in the face. It’s cheered me up slightly.’

‘Most of Hora has a deep mistrust of foreigners, but the laws weren’t always isolationist. Before I was born, under the rule of the previous king, the borders were open and travellers could come and go with little trouble. Many still feared them to be spies, but there was peace.’

Marcus nodded.

‘My father was a well respected advisor to the king,’ Aeryn continued. ‘One day he was charmed by a woman from across the sea, and fell madly in love with her. My mother was an utländska, you see, and her wanderlust infected my father too. Just before they took off, my mother gave birth to twins: my sister Kristina and myself.’

‘You fight to protect your sister then.’

‘Yes, she is my entire world. Immediately after our birth, we were abandoned to an orphanage. Our parents left Hora without a word. As far as I’m concerned, they died that day. But I could never forgive my mother for what she did to us. My father was a selfish fool who abandoned his life and his children to follow some woman. Kristina and I were shunned. Not just for being mixed race; our family name had been stained by my father’s actions.’

‘So you blame them for your hardships, and so you hold a grudge against all foreigners. We’re not all the same, Aeryn,’ Marcus said. ‘Your parents were not good people, but that doesn’t mean every non-Horan is out to betray you.’

‘It seems so simple when put that way,’ Aeryn said. ‘But it hasn’t been that easy. It was hard, taking care of Kristina, enduring the torment. The animosity against your people exists everywhere. It is nature, now. We do not all get an opportunity to meet someone like you, Marcus. I fear it will still take me time to change my ways. I cannot imagine the time it will take for perceptions in Hora to shift.’

‘There is a new Queen,’ Marcus said. ‘She will start the shift. Tori knows that we are no different to you. She…’

He fell silent. He wasn’t sure what Tori would do, but he could hope. Perhaps she would be powerless, serving only as a puppet for the machinations of the aristocracy. Regardless of what the situation was, it was outside of his control and his understanding.

‘Tell me. Why did you protect me, why did you save my life?’ Aeryn asked.

‘Because I didn’t see any reason for you to die. And I wanted to hit you.’

Aeryn laughed. It was the first time Marcus had seen him smile since they had first met.

‘I owe you my life, and Hora will owe you her gratitude when we are freed from this place.’

‘I deserve no thanks,’ Marcus said. ‘I fought in this war because I didn’t have a choice. If it had gone the way I planned, I would have died out there.’

Mikael limped over to them, sitting beside Marcus. ‘And what drives you to embrace death like an old friend? You are still young, with the world ahead of you.’

Marcus laughed. ‘There is nothing remarkable about my heritage. I am nothing special. Yet I fell for a woman who is now forever outside of my reach. I would sooner be able to hold the stars than hold her again.’

‘You would rather die than be without her?’ Aeryn said. ‘Surely she is not as unobtainable as you say.’

‘I came to Hora because I was chasing this girl. The only reason I escaped death was because her name is Tori Sörenson. She is your Queen.’

There was silence from the others.

‘I thought that if I could talk to her, I could make her realise what she meant to me. I don’t know what I expected to happen from there. Obviously her responsibilities lay here, with her people,’ Marcus said. ‘But I thought I had finally found someone to call my own. When I realised that it would never work how I wanted…’

Aeryn stood and faced the door of their cell. He shouted and kicked at the bars. The sound echoed through the prison, but the bars didn’t budge. He kicked again, and again.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ Marcus said. ‘Sit down before you break your leg.’

‘You saved my life,’ Aeryn said. ‘And made sure our army still had a chance at victory. My sister will be safe, thanks to you. If we can break out of here, we can take Aeoden ourselves. You will be a war hero. That will be enough for you to see Queen Tori again.’

‘You’re delusional. The five of us can’t take the whole city.’

The sound of footsteps echoed down the corridor. ‘Quiet down in here,’ the guard shouted. ‘You should be more welcoming, you’re getting another cellmate.’

Marcus peered out between the bars and watched them approach. The new prisoner had his head hung low, his long dark hair messy and filled with twigs and leaves. He shuffled into Kotora and Jase’s cell, the doors slamming shut behind him.

He turned and held his chained hands out between the bars. As the guard went to unlock them, the man grabbed him by the shirt and smashed his face into the bars.

‘Now that’s playing your hands well,’ he said. ‘Can I get a little assistance here?’

‘Hideyoshi? Is that you?’ Marcus said.

‘Mister Marcus, isn’t this a stroke of luck,’ Hideyoshi replied. ‘I suggest you and your friends prepare yourselves for a prison break. The cavalry approaches.’

**

Hideyoshi led them through the prison. Mikael limped slowly behind them, still suffering from his injuries. They cleared a corridor and heard shouting behind them.

‘The prisoners have escaped!’

‘That’s our signal to walk away,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘And by walk, I mean run, with as much haste as you can muster.’

‘I can’t do it,’ Mikael said. ‘I think I broke my foot when I fell. I’m afraid I will only slow us down. You have to go without me.’

‘Not necessary,’ Kotora said, grabbing his arm. ‘I’ll drag you if necessary. You’re getting out of here alive. We’ll see Kita’an again.

Jase grabbed his other arm. ‘Let’s go then, time is wasting and they draw nearer with every second.’

‘The bonds of brotherhood are warming. Let us hope they hold,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘Lady Luck, grant us safe passage from this place.’

They set off again, working their way through the labyrinthine corridors. The exit suddenly appeared ahead of them.

‘Hurry, we are almost clear,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘Chase your freedom, give it your all!’

Marcus heard Aeryn falter, and turned. He had stopped, and was facing the guards who were approaching rapidly.

‘What are you doing?’ Marcus shouted. ‘The exit is right there! Move, run!’

‘I’m staying here,’ Aeryn said. ‘They’ll catch up to us at this pace. Even once we’re outside, we’ll be just as easy to catch. Mikael is too slow. So I’m going to hold them off.’

‘Aeryn…’

‘Get out of here. I don’t need help from a stinking utländska,’ he said. ‘Stay safe, friend.’

‘Make it back to Kristina,’ Marcus shouted. He turned and sprinted after the others.

Outside, the city was in disarray. Horan soldiers flooded the streets, heading towards the castle. Minor skirmishes were being fought as the Falosian soldiers tried to defend against the unexpected onslaught. Most were defeated instantly, caught outnumbered or unarmed. Hideyoshi was leading the others down the street, against the wave of soldiers. Marcus sprinted to catch up to them.

They reached an empty part of the city. The citizens had already fled and the Horan soldiers had already moved closer to the castle. Hideyoshi paused here, outside of a stable, and signalled for the others to join him. He gestured inside.

‘Let’s get the wounded one off his feet and onto a horse,’ Hideyoshi said. ‘The rest of you too. Ride to Shiyoki and don’t look back. The rear guard will be waiting for you.’

‘What about you?’ Kotora asked. ‘You’re not coming with us?’

‘My part in this play is over!’ Hideyoshi said. ‘My life is too valuable a chip to wager on something as wildly unpredictable as this. I prefer to know my odds. Besides, you’ve already got one utländska on your side, two is too many. Safety and peace upon you.’

He darted inside and leapt onto a horse, before riding off.

‘You heard him,’ Jase shouted. ‘Mount up, let’s get to safety.’

‘I’m going back for Aeryn,’ Marcus said. ‘See you back at Shiyoki.’

‘Make sure you get there soldier. That’s an order.’

Marcus nodded and took off. He arrived back at the prison to Aeryn kneeling before a pile of bodies.

‘Aeryn, you did it!’

He didn’t respond, simply glancing up and raising his bloodied hands. Marcus rushed to him.

‘No, you’re hurt,’ Marcus said. ‘I’m too late.’

‘Did everyone make it?’ Aeryn croaked. ‘Are they safe?’

Marcus nodded. ‘You bought them enough time. Everyone made it thanks to you.’

‘Good.’

‘I wish there was something I could do to help you,’ Marcus said. ‘But I was too late. I’m sorry Aeryn, I should have stayed here with you.’

Aeryn shook his head. ‘It’s too late for me now. Just make sure Hora is safe.’

Marcus took his hands. ‘I will go to the castle and see to it myself. Your sacrifice will not have been in vain.’

‘You honour me even at the last. Thank you, saudara.’

He closed his eyes and fell back. Marcus punched the ground.

‘Damn it.’

He whispered a prayer for Aeryn and stood. There was no time to waste here. He had to join the assault of the castle and ensure its success as his last promise to Aeryn. He collected a discarded sword and set off for the castle. He would not rest until this war was over.

**

The battle had already begun when Marcus arrived in the castle courtyard. He leapt into the fray, charging at the ring of guards defending the entrance. If the line could be breached, the battle would flow inside and the enemy would be spread then, unable to hold back the torrent of Horan soldiers.

Marcus picked his man and struck, slashing downwards with a two handed swipe. The Falosian was able to parry in time, but was knocked unsteady. Marcus thrust his sword forwards, catching the man’s side and drawing blood.

‘Surrender and you need not die!’ Marcus shouted.

‘I will never surrender to you, Horan dog.’

Marcus deflected an attack and swung downwards, cutting his opponent’s leg and causing him to fall. He left the Falosian there, instead rushing towards the castle entrance. If he made it inside, the guards would be forced to retreat and regroup; it would a repeat of the battle in Shiyoki.

He could hear the guards shouting behind him. Marcus jumped at the great double doors, and kicked them open. They hadn’t had a chance to barricade them shut, which meant it was likely all the soldiers were outside the castle. Any remaining would be personal bodyguards located with the king.

‘Charge forwards, Horans,’ Marcus shouted. ‘Take the castle!’

Marcus ran into the foyer and headed straight for the stairs. The most defensible spot would be the throne room; it would have only a single entry point, which would serve as a bottleneck and slow down the attack. All he had to do was follow the red carpet. Behind him the Falosians scrambled to catch up, slowed down by the pursuing Horans. Marcus ignored them, focused purely on avenging Aeryn, crushing the Falosian campaign and creating peace.

He reached the top of the stairs and turned. There were several Falosians climbing the stairs now, gaining on him. Marcus looked to his left and saw a vase sitting on a small table. He carefully placed the vase on the floor and tossed the table. It struck one man in the chest, causing him to fall backwards and barrel over several others. The confusion as they toppled down the staircase gave Marcus a chance to kick at the door to the throne room. They shifted, but didn’t open.

Marcus swore under his breath. Without help, he wouldn’t be able to breach the entryway. Until the rest of the Horan forces reached him, he would have to defend the top of the stairwell. He backtracked to the top of the stairs, deflecting the wild swing of one attacker. While he was recoiling, Marcus kicked another man in the chest, sending him crashing backwards and toppling others.

An attacker leapt from the side, but was felled by a Horan blade. Marcus turned and saw two soldiers join him on the landing.

‘You keep at the door,’ one shouted to him. ‘We’ll keep them at bay!’

Marcus nodded and turned his attention back to the doors. He tried to stab through the gap, but met solid wood.

‘Open up, damn it!’

He slid his sword lower, and then pressed it forwards. It slid in smoothly, until the blade had disappeared.

‘Bingo.’

Marcus lifted his sword and heard a clunk as the wooden barricade dropped onto the floor. He kicked at the doors and they swung open, revealing a line of heavily armoured guards standing in front of the king.

‘Sorry about that, I was looking for the restroom,’ Marcus said, laughing nervously. He glanced back, over his shoulder, and was relieved to see a crowd of Horan soldiers. Several Falosian men were knelt.

‘On second thought,’ Marcus said. ‘We’re here for the king. Surrender and nobody else need die here. End this madness!’

From behind the throne, another man appeared. ‘Who are you to approach the king? Know your place, scum!’

Commander Raubtier appeared beside Marcus. ‘Is that you, Lucas Gunvald? We should have known there was more to this war.’

Lucas grunted. It was obvious he had been found out, but Marcus needed more information.

‘Wait, who is this guy?’

‘Lucas Gunvald is a Horan aristocrat. He was a prime candidate for taking the throne before Queen Tori returned.’

‘It was rightfully mine!’ Lucas screamed. ‘You cannot understand how many days I devoted to serving Hora, and for what? For some brat to steal what was supposed to be mine! I wasn’t going to have it.’

‘So what, you had Falos invade?’ Marcus said. ‘You had them attack and kill your own people. How does that make any sense?’

‘I don’t have to explain myself to you,’ Lucas said. ‘You are not even Horan!’

Commander Raubtier strode forward. ‘He’s saved more Horan lives in the past few days than you have. How does it feel Lucas, to know that your actions have allowed a lowly utländska to become a Horan hero, while you will only be remembered as a traitor.’

Lucas screamed. ‘Hora is mine! I would see it burn before I give it up.’

He drew a sword and charged. The armoured soldiers stood aside as he passed; until the king ordered their charge, they would not move. Commander Raubtier drew his own weapon and stepped in front of Marcus. He deflected the first strike from Lucas, and grabbed him by the throat, pushing him to the ground.

‘Your scheme is ended. Surrender and you might live.’

The king leapt to his feet now. ‘Attack them now! Bring me their heads!’

They hesitated. Skilled and equipped as they were, the guards would only be able to defeat a small fraction of the assembled force before they lost their lives.

‘Lay down your weapons,’ Marcus said. ‘Don’t throw your live away on the whim of your mad king. He only seeks to spare himself from the punishment he deserves.’

Several of the guards complied, and strode towards the Horans with their hands raised. They had chosen life. The king screamed again.

‘How dare you betray me!’

He leapt at the nearest guard, relieving him of a bow and quiver.

‘I’ll kill them all myself!’

Before anyone could stop him, he knocked the arrow, drew the string and loosed. The arrow struck Marcus in the chest. He stumbled backwards and fell to his knees.

‘Now?’

He fell backward and looked up at the roof. There was a mural painted onto it: winged men and women, clutching spears and flying towards a floating castle. Marcus closed his eyes.

He heard Commander Raubtier shout for medical aid. Then he blacked out.

**

When Marcus awoke, he found himself lying on a thin mattress. He could feel the wood beneath the mattress move, and heard the sound of wheels crunching along gravel. He was in a wagon then.

He tried to sit up, and felt a pain in his chest. The arrow had stuck deep, and his wound was still tender. Obviously not much time had passed since the attack on Aeoden. He wondered what had happened. Lucas had betrayed his land and people in an effort to obtain power. The Falosian king had lost his composure when he realised the war had been lost. And then Marcus had been injured.

He sat up properly, clutching at his chest. Behind him, he could see more carts, carrying wounded soldiers and supplies. Ahead of them, the Horan army marched.

‘Ah, he awakens,’ the driver said. It was Jase.

‘What happened?’

‘We won,’ he said. ‘Victory is ours dear boy, and we have much to thank you for. After you were wounded, Commander Raubtier scrambled to get you out and into the care of a medic whilst several of the Falosian guard subdued their own king.’

‘They turned against him?’

‘It was the king who turned against his own people. This war was not for them. It was for him, and for Lucas, two men seeking to increase their own power. Together they were a dangerous combination, but now they will no longer be a threat.’

‘What now then?’ Marcus asked. ‘What happens to Falos, and what of the soldiers still in Hora?’

Jase laughed. ‘Wouldn’t you prefer to rest and hear all of this later?’

Marcus shook his head. ‘I want to know.’

‘That’s fair. Falos has surrendered; we’ve left some soldiers in Aeoden to keep an eye on things. Another ruler might have annexed it, or installed a Horan as the new leader, but I imagine Queen Tori will want them free. Lord Darik will no doubt follow her wishes.’

‘They would just give up control?’

‘Falos borders Hora, true, but administrating such a large area would be an almost impossible task. Better to leave Falos in Falosian hands, and make allies of them at the same time.’

‘I see,’ Marcus said. ‘And the remaining soldiers?’

‘Messengers have been sent to every remaining section of the Falosian army to spread word of the cease fire. Until then, we just hope few lives are lost,’ Jase said. ‘But come now, these are sad thoughts, not ones of celebration! We have put an end to this war and saved Hora. There will be peace thanks to your efforts.’

Marcus sighed. Aeryn was not here to relish this victory. It was his homeland; Marcus didn’t belong here. How many other Horans had died in the defence of their homes and families? He wished he could have taken it all back, that the war had not come to pass. Failing that, he wished it had been he who had stayed behind, and not Aeryn. Kristina was now without her twin brother, she had lost a very part of herself.

‘Peace doesn’t alter what has already happened,’ Marcus said. ‘Too many died here, unnecessarily. On both sides.’

‘Such is life. It can be a cruel mistress at times, but we cannot do anything about that. You just have to hang in there and do the best you can.’

‘Or you can lay down and sleep, pretending the world around you isn’t there,’ Marcus said. ‘Travel safe, Jase. Wake me if you need me.’
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Re: Hu

Postby Jiro » Wed Nov 30, 2011 12:27 pm

**

The journey back to Koto Crisco was long, but it gave Marcus the chance to rest and recover his strength. The army arrived to a grand parade; Marcus wondered how many of these soldiers just wanted to go home to their families and rest. The streets were lined with cheering citizens, and the procession led them straight to the palace courtyard.

The soldiers assembled, with the crowd packing in behind them. Tori and Darik appeared on the balcony and waved. The crowd cheered back at them. After a few moments, Darik quietened them.

‘It is a day of great celebration for Hora, as I can see you are already enjoying,’ he said. ‘Our brave and valiant soldiers have turned back the enemy, and pursued them to the very heart of Falos: the capital city, Aeoden.’

The crowd cheered and clapped again.

‘We owe a great debt to these soldiers, some of who gave their very lives to defend our lands. We honour them, as we honour those who are still with us. Heroes and champions of Hora, you have made us all proud.

‘We must take a moment to reflect on the casualties of both sides, however. War is not a grand thing. War is not something to be celebrated. There are wives and children without their husbands and fathers, on both sides. It is in the pursuit of avoiding such things that we must extend the hand of friendship to Falos now, and forge a relationship which will see both our peoples flourish, prosper and rebuild.’

The crowd clapped and cheered again. Perhaps the seeds of understanding and acceptance had started to sprout already. Maybe one day the mistrust would be completely eradicated.

Marcus stood up and tapped Jase on the shoulder. ‘This is my stop.’

‘You’re leaving now? In the middle of our congratulatory speech?’

‘My service is done,’ Marcus said. He glanced up at Tori. ‘I have no reason to stay in Hora for much longer. I think it best to leave, before I get caught up in another war.’

‘It was an honour serving alongside you,’ Jase said. ‘Kotora and Mikael would say the same. As would Aeryn, I am sure. Despite your differences, I think he genuinely liked you.’

Marcus nodded. ‘Once he got past his fears, he was a good man. I will miss him, as I’m sure many will. His sister especially.’

‘I will tell her he died protecting his friends,’ Jase said. ‘But now, it is time for you to go. May your journey be safe. I am sure you will always be welcome in Hora.’

‘Perhaps one day I will return,’ Marcus said. ‘But until then, farewell Jase.’

Marcus hopped off the cart and into the thick of the crowd. He pushed past them, making his way towards the groundskeeper’s house. It took a few minutes, but he finally found his way past the energetic crowd and into open air.

The door swung open and Marcus called out. No response; Samantha must have gone to the parade too. All the better, Marcus thought. He wouldn’t have to say goodbye to anyone else. He collected a bag and began packing. He had only a few worldly possessions: some clothes, the spyglass he had borrowed from Hideyoshi, the broken watch which was his only memento of his parents, and the battered and smudged book of maps he had brought with him from Garif. How the book had survived when he had fallen overboard, Marcus didn’t know. Many of the pages were ruined now, but several of the maps were still readable – including one of Hora.

‘That could have proven useful,’ he laughed.

He scanned it quickly, looking at the places he had been. There was Aizon, on the border. There was Sungai Ceuta, and Koto Crisco in the north. He traced the path they had marched, from the capital south, through the holy village of Baskar, onwards to Feylan and then through Shiyoki to the Kluven mountains.

Inadvertently, Marcus had been fulfilling his goal. He had travelled much of the world already, seen maybe towns and villages, walked through the countryside. Granted, most of it had been carrying a heavy pack, marching with the Horan army, or fighting in the smoke and haze of battle. But he had been there, and he had stories to tell.

He traced his finger east from Koto Crisco.

‘Arche,’ he said. ‘Never been there. It’s close enough.’

He smiled to himself. ‘Time to start my adventure anew.’

The front door swung open and Alex entered, followed by Samantha.

‘I thought I saw you sneaking off,’ Alex said. ‘What are you doing? You should be resting, you’re still wounded!’

‘I’m well enough,’ Marcus said. ‘And I never was one for formal occasions.’

Alex gestured towards the bag. ‘What’s this then?’

‘I’m leaving. I realise that might be quite frustrating, considering my insistence to stay is what got us into this mess. But I never asked you to come with me.’

‘And don’t ask us this time, because we’re not,’ Samantha said. ‘Things are good here, they’re starting to work out. I’m working with Tori directly now.’

‘It’s going to be hard for Tori to adjust to her new life,’ Alex said. ‘We want to help her, and we actually like it here. We’ve been given complete freedom to live and work in Hora now.’

‘That’s all well and good for you,’ Marcus said. ‘But there is no chance that we could be together. I am not going to stay here, with her so close to me but forever out of reach.’

‘Don’t leave us Marcus,’ Samantha pleaded. ‘Stay with us, please. We’re trying to get father and the other merchants trading passes so they can visit, and we’ll get a nice house and everything will be perfect.’

‘Perfect for you, but not for me.’

‘Where will you go?’ Alex asked. ‘What will you do?’

‘Your father once travelled the world,’ Marcus said. ‘And I have a book full of his maps. They need updating, and many of them are waterlogged or damaged. I just want to travel, to be far away from here. I don’t know what will happen, but that is part of the excitement.’

‘If you go, you go alone,’ Alex warned again. ‘Just know that we will always welcome you back.’

‘Cut the mushy stuff Alex,’ Marcus said. ‘I know for certain that I will return here at one time or another. I have no doubt I will see you again. I’m happy for you, and it’s good to see you are settling here.’

‘Just don’t go and get yourself killed out there,’ Alex said. ‘Come back safe, you hear?’

‘I’ve made it this far already.’

‘Not unscathed you haven’t!’ Samantha said.

‘But I’ve made it, and that’s the important thing,’ Marcus said. ‘The open road is calling me now, so I think it’s time for me to depart. Take care of yourselves, of each other, and of Tori for me. Make sure she’s happy.’

‘We will, don’t worry,’ Alex said.

‘You should get back out there and enjoy the parade,’ Marcus said.

He picked up his bag and walked through the door, leaving behind every last ounce of comfort and security he had known. Alex had been with him for as long as he could remember, and Samantha had become a dear friend. Now they were staying behind, and Marcus was tackling the future on his own.

As he pushed past the crowd and disappeared into the empty streets of Koto Crisco, he turned, glancing one last time towards the girl he loved. There was no way the Horan Queen could ever be seen with a foreign commoner, whether he had been a war hero or not. It would be best to cut those ties completely.

‘Who knows what awaits me out there,’ he said. It was more to reassure himself than anything.

The sun was beginning to sinking behind him as Marcus exited the city. East was his bearing, Arche his destination. Where he would end up was anybody’s guess, but Marcus knew that above all else, he would have an interesting story to tell.

**

The sound of horns filled the air, drowning out the seagulls and the sound of the waves. The port was as busy as it had ever been, and would only grow from here as trading restrictions were lifted. Arche was already a hive of activity, nestled between the mountains, and close to the many island nations to the east. From his table on the boardwalk, Marcus could see several glimmering islands just off the coast, favourite destinations for holidaymakers and adventurous kids.

He leant back in his seat and sipped his drink. It had been two weeks since he left Koto Crisco. To think that, a month ago, he was thrust into the middle of a war and somehow, against all odds, had not only survived, but managed to be of some significance.

Nobody knew who he was this far away from the capital though. The news had come, certainly; Hora was victorious, and a young man from Reis had been instrumental in their major battles. Here on the coast, where foreign traders were plentiful, Marcus was just another man looking to make some coin.

He pulled the map book out of his bag and sat it on the table. He hadn’t picked a destination yet, and wasn’t sure what where he would go. A part of Marcus urged him to return to Reis, to locate the Golden Trail Caravan and tell Jonathan that his daughter was safe and working hard to help his merchant group even now. Another part of Marcus wanted him to pick a ship at random and walk aboard, letting the tides of fate take him where they may.

He drained his glass and signalled for another. While he waited, he flicked through the pages. He saw Kita’an, and thought of Kotora and Mikael, the two Horans who had also been captured with him. No doubt they would be home by now, back to their families. Then Marcus was reminded of Aeryn, and his twin sister Kristina. A pang of guilt flooded him; he wished he had spoken to her directly. Jase would have already taken care of it, and was no doubt comforting her during her loss, but Marcus still felt responsible in some way. Losses were to be expected in war, but that didn’t make the pain stop.

‘When I return,’ he promised himself. ‘I will see her when I return.’

He was still unsure of where he was going now, so when he would return was a complete mystery. The waiter brought over his drink, and Marcus smiled. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a man rush up and sit quite abruptly at the next table. He was wearing emerald green robes, and was muttering to himself.

Marcus laughed. This was the third time he had seen this man, and each time had stuck perfectly in his mind. There was nothing pressing, he had no obligations, so Marcus thought it was about time he introduced himself. He quickly packed his book away and joined the man at his table.

‘Good afternoon,’ Marcus said. ‘I’m Marcus, nice to meet you.’

The man looked up and nodded thoughtfully. ‘Yes yes, Marcus is it? Pleasure to meet you, pleasure is all mine, yes. I’m Nikolai, that is my name, and as you can see I’m a wizard.’

‘A wizard?’ Marcus said. ‘Like, magic wizard?’

‘What other kind of wizards do you know? Certainly a magic wizard, with spells and potions and what have you! Definitely not a sandwich wizard, no, not at all. And not a fish wizard either, though sometimes I wonder.’

He paused for a moment, a glazed look passing over his face. ‘But yes I seem to be having some trouble recently, the magic isn’t quite working as it should. I can’t remember the last time it worked! Troublesome thing that it is. Unpredictable, like.’

‘That’s unfortunate,’ Marcus said. ‘Say, I’ve seen you before, in Reinham, and in Aizon. Do you travel often?’

‘Yes yes, I travel a lot, it’s always an adventure. I’m going on a boat soon you see, I have to go to an island. Very strong in mystical energies you see, a shaman lives there. He can help me with my broken staff.’

He gestured to the branch lying beside him. Marcus wasn’t sure whether it had ever contained magical powers, or was simply just a branch Nikolai had happened upon one day. His demeanour suggested slight insanity, but of the entertaining and endearing kind.

‘Would you care for company?’ Marcus asked. ‘You see, I’m a traveller too, but I don’t have a destination yet. Wherever you’re headed suits me perfectly.’

‘Come with me, you say? Yes, yes that might work. We could use some company, Staffy and I. It gets awfully lonely sometimes. He’s not much of a talker, you see.’

‘I imagine not. But where exactly is this ship of yours, and do you think I can still get myself a ticket?’

‘Yes yes, you can still get tickets, I’m sure. I bumped into a very big man, he was quite frightening really, big arms and tattoos and the like. Asked him if I could borrow his ship, but he said he needed it. Unfortunate really, but he did offer to take me where I needed.’

He glanced up and looked past Marcus.

‘Oh look at that, marvellous timing, swell, just dandy. He’s here already! Must be time to go I should think.’

Marcus turned and stared straight at the broad chest of a man.

‘Told you I’d be seeing you ‘round, kid.’

51419 words. Ding. Not nearly as many words as I thought I would get out of this plot. Time to dream up something to add in and then edit to hell and back.
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Re: Hu

Postby Kimra » Wed Nov 30, 2011 12:58 pm

Congrats on the finishing of the story! Random stranger has now won a Pen. Well done. :P
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Re: Hu

Postby carbonstealer » Wed Nov 30, 2011 1:29 pm

Congratulations, victor!
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Re: Hu

Postby smiley_cow » Thu Dec 01, 2011 8:20 am

Huh, not the ending I was expecting, but I like it. Princesses, pirates, political intrigue, I'd say overall it was pretty fun. Also congrats on finishing!



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