Chergua was like nothing Rolland had ever seen. The towns they’d passed had been different in strange ways. The city, however, was something else. The streets were packed, and there were more types of people than Rolland thought there would ever be. The roofs of the houses and buildings were pointier here. The towns they had passed had slanted roofs, not much different to the ones in Ashrennon. In Cheruga, it was if the roofs were trying to pierce the sky. That was never more true than when it came to their towers. The academy’s tower had stood tall, taller still than the towers of the palace, though not as tall as the Tall Wall.
The towers of Cheruga’s castle dwarfed the academy’s. If these towers stood in Ashrennon, the Tall Wall would have to be renamed. Cheruga wasn’t even the capital of the Sloa’tan Kingdom, not from what Rolland had heard.
It was home to Duke Merrin. There were no dukes in Ashrennon, just kings and nobles. The concept was strange to Rolland, but it seemed logical. If the kingdom was as big as it appeared to be, the King of Sloa’tan would not be able to govern it all alone.
The guards were different here, too. Rougher.
‘Keep an eye on your purse,’ Koel said. ‘I heard some of the beggars here are more clever than the ones we have at home. Rather than just ask for your coin, they’ll take it from you when you’re not looking.’
‘There’s a difference between beggars and thieves, Koel. Besides, we have thieves in Ashrennon,’ Jenna said. ‘I should know, I’ve caught a few.’
‘This city’s bigger than Ashrennon,’ Stanton said. ‘Best be watchful. We shouldn’t get too comfortable. We’re not from around here, and people can tell.’
Rolland wondered if that mattered. There seemed to be a lot of travellers in this city. He couldn’t tell the natives from the foreigners. It was warming up, summer was almost in full, though it was not hot here. Not hot like Ashrennon was. It was cool enough for Rolland to keep on his coat. Not everyone wore coats. He imagined those baring more skin were the locals. This summer must be hot for them. But there were others around, some bundled up in more than just coats. How hot must it be where they are from that this place could feel cold?
Koel approached a friendly looking merchant who had a stall out on the street. The tongue they spoke in the Sloa’tan empire was different to the one spoken in Ashrennon. It seemed similar, whenever Rolland heard it he thought he recognised a few words, and he was learning some more fast, but it was Koel who spoke the most. He was more than just a bodyguard. He was an experienced hunter, and he seemed almost fluent in this foreign tongue.
The merchant’s friendly face soured when Koel began to talk. Koel was asking the man for directions. The merchant no doubt disappointed when he realised he would not be making a sale. Koel walked back to the group.
‘He said there’s a cheap inn down this road.’ Koel set off down the road. The rest of the group followed, Jenna leading the donkey through the busy streets.
They had reached the city in the late afternoon, but that did not seem to stop the foot traffic. There were still vendors hawking their wares, and there were still customers buying, despite the fact that the sun was leaving the sky.
The inn was a dingy looking one, which made Stanton smile. The dingier the inn, the cheaper their stay. The owner shouted for the stable boy after they haggled on prices. The stable boy gave their donkey an odd look.
The stable boy mumbled something, taking the lead after they unloaded their luggage.
‘What did he say?’
‘He is confused that it is not a horse.’ Koel grinned, patting the donkey’s neck, saying something in the boy’s tongue.
The stable boy took the reins. He stood a few feet further from the donkey than needed as he led it around the back. Koel shook his head, still grinning.
They took a table inside the inn, all eager for a well-cooked meal. The hunting had been more scarce closer to the city. The animals more skittish. Koel hadn’t caught anything but rabbits for the past few weeks.
Stanton stood from the table, off to order them food. ‘I’ll get a round of drinks while I’m at it.’ He looked at Rolland and smiled. ‘Anything for you, boy?’
‘I’m not allowed to drink. You know that, Stanton.’
‘Three mugs it is.’ Stanton walked off in the direction of the bar. His skills in the language of the land weren’t quite so good as Koel’s, but he knew enough to get by.
‘Why aren’t you allowed to drink?’ Jenna asked. It wasn’t a large table, and the three of them were packed in close. Koel avoided Rolland’s eye, as usual. Jenna was looking his way, not right in his eyes, but close enough. Like Stanton, she didn’t seem as bothered by what he was.
‘It’s one of the many rules lighttouched have to abide that I don’t understand. I’m sure many of us have broken this rule. The headmaster himself has a liquor cabinet in his office. I doubt the punishment would be too steep, but I’d rather not develop a taste for it.’
‘Damn the rules,’ Koel said. ‘You gotta live a little, son. I haven’t seen you have a lick of fun since we left the walls.’
‘Fun? What fun is there to be had on the road? I thought there would be adventure out of Ashrennon, but so far all I’ve gotten is sore feet.’
‘Adventure? What do you want adventure for? It only leads to trouble, trust me. I’d rather walk a thousand miles than have an adventure.’
‘Koel here might sound a little harsh,’ Jenna said. ‘But he’s right. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you laugh. What do you do for fun in that academy?’
Rolland was searching for an answer when their conversation was interrupted. Stanton brought back a pitcher of ale and mugs for all but Rolland.
‘The food’s on its way. By the look of this place’—Stanton wiped the lip of his mug with his sleeve—‘I doubt the food will be especially fine.’
‘I’m sure it will be better than rabbit,’ Jenna said. Koel looked at her sideways. Jenna put up her hands. ‘I appreciate your hunting skills, Koel. I’m just sick of eating rabbits.’
‘I’m sick of sleeping on the ground,’ Stanton said. ‘If this endeavour comes off the way I hope, I’ll be sleeping in one of those mansions near the palace.’
Koel frowned. ‘I know I’m just a bodyguard, and bodyguards aren’t usually hired for their opinions, but I can’t help but wonder. How exactly are you going to transport grain all the way from Cheruga, to Ashrennon? It’s at least a four month walk.’
‘Grain lasts longer than you’d think. Depending on the type of grain, it can last anywhere from a year to twenty. If stored correctly.’
‘Exactly. You’re going to be storing it on carts. And who’s going to be transporting all this grain?’
‘My employees, of course.’
Koel looked around. ‘I do hope you don’t mean us, because that’s not what you hired me for.’
‘If everything goes to plan.’ Stanton glanced at Rolland, then looked back at Koel. ‘I’ll be able to hire more people, from here in the city.’
Koel didn’t look convinced. He went quiet and focused on his ale.
‘What is this plan of yours, anyway?’ Jenna stared at Stanton. ‘We’ve been walking together for four months, still you haven’t enlightened us. How are you going to convince these people to give you their grain?’ She took a sip of her ale, still looking at Stanton. ‘You’re not a rich man, you can afford to hire us, I know that much. But you’re not a rich man. Grain costs money.’
‘There are ways to make money in this town, if you know the right places.’ Stanton gave a greedy grin. Though he was not looking at Jenna, he was looking at Rolland. Over the last few months, Rolland had learned to turn off his Reading ability, or at the very least ignore it. The feelings from Stanton’s eyes were hard to ignore. It made Rolland think it was him who was going to have to make that money.
A barmaid came toward their table. She had four plates of food expertly balanced on her two arms. She said a few words as she dropped off the food, though they were none of the words Rolland knew.
Koel grabbed a knife and started cutting into the meat on his plate. ‘As long as your plan doesn’t get as killed, Stanton.’ He bit into the food and closed his eyes as if pleasure. He must have been sick of rabbit too.
There was a knife for the meat beside Rolland’s plate. The meat on the road had always been cut into bite-sized pieces. He grabbed the fork with his only hand and stared at the meat, wondering how this was going to work.
‘Oh,’ Jenna said, watching him. ‘Let me cut that for you.’
Jenna pulled his plate away and sliced the meat into smaller portions. Rolland couldn’t help but feel useless. He wondered why he’d been brought along. Even if he had been allowed to touch the knife, he didn’t have two good hands to cut with. He’d learned to write with his right, after writing with his left all his life. The handwriting was sloppy, it took longer, and his hand always cramped when he wrote. But what use was writing on the road? What use would his writing be here? He couldn’t even speak the language. How would he be able to tell what people were lying about for Stanton, if he didn’t understand what they were saying?
‘There you go.’ Jenna pushed the plate back to him.
Rolland mumbled a thank you and forced a smile before digging into his food. He could see the food wasn’t anything special, but it had been weeks since they’d passed the last town.
It tasted amazing.
He watched the others as they ate and drank. The ale became more and more tempting, especially in his current mood. People in books he’d read always drank when they were in down moods. He didn’t know if it helped them, but it seemed like the thing to do.
The food was all eaten, and Stanton stood to get another round. ‘After all that walking, we deserve it.’ He started toward the bar.
‘Stanton, can I have a mug?’ Rolland called after him.
‘Thought you’d never ask, lad.’ Stanton smirked at him over his shoulder.
‘What about those rules?’ Jenna said.
‘Like Koel said, damn the rules. Besides, we’re in a foreign land. The rules might be different.’
‘Do they have lighttouched here?’ Jenna’s eyes darted around the room.
‘I haven’t noticed any. But I tend to keep my eyes down.’ Rolland glanced at Koel, careful to avoid his eyes so as not to offend him. ‘Koel, you speak the language. Have you heard of anyone… anyone like me, around here?’
Koel leant back in his chair. ‘I haven’t asked.’ His eyes were fixed somewhere across the bar. ‘I think we’re being watched.’
Rolland resisted the urge to twist his head around and look.
Jenna sat forward in her chair. ‘Where? How many? Do they look armed?’ There was a sense of urgency in her voice Rolland hadn’t heard before. He looked at the knife still sitting beside his plate. The last time he’d held one he’d killed two men and lost a hand from it. Since then he didn’t know what he would do if his life were in danger again. Staring at the knife now, he thought to himself, damn the rules.
‘Just the one I think. Noticed him while we walked the streets. Thought nothing of it, then he walked in here.’ Koel’s eyes were still focused on the same place. ‘Could be a coincidence.’
‘Best not to bet on coincidences.’ Jenna casually glanced over her shoulder. ‘The man in the corner? Long hair, heavy cloak?’
Stanton returned, this time with four mugs, and set them down. His smile fell when he noticed their demeanours. He slipped into a chair. ‘Something wrong?’
‘Koel thinks we’re being watched,’ Jenna said.
‘Oh, well, that’s not good.’ Stanton brought his mug of ale to his lips and took a long sip. ‘You think they’re friendly?’
‘There might be a way to figure that out,’ Koel said.
Stanton stared at Koel blankly, then his eyes flitted to Rolland. ‘Yes, that would be the way.’
‘Rolland. You think you can get a good look at him?’ Koel paused. ‘Into his eyes?’
Rolland hesitated, then nodded. Maybe he wasn’t so useless after all. Koel was sitting beside him, so Rolland wouldn’t have to twist his head all the way around, just to the side. He turned his head, trying to seem casual, and glanced at where Koel was staring. There was nothing but a wall where Koel’s eyes had been focused, but just to the right of that was a man. Sitting in the corner. His head was down, and he was seemingly staring into his mug. His long hair obscured his face. Suddenly the man’s head came up. He looked directly at Rolland.
Rolland turned back around, a little too fast. His eyes were wide. Jenna and Stanton looked at him expectantly, whilst Koel still stared off into the distance.
‘Well?’ Stanton asked. ‘What did you see?’
So far Rolland hadn’t touched the mug of ale Stanton had placed in front of him. Now he took a big gulp of it. It had a strange, almost familiar taste. It burned as it flowed down his throat. Rolland put the mug down and breathed out, settling himself.
‘I—I saw nothing,’ Rolland said.
‘Nothing? What do you mean, nothing? Nothing like he isn’t a threat?’
‘Nothing like he stared directly into my eyes, and there wasn’t a thing in his.’
‘Huh?’ Stanton frowned. ‘What does that mean?’
‘I’ve no idea. Never seen anything like it.’
‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this,’ Jenna said.
‘You and me both.’ Rolland took another gulp of his drink.
‘Well, it’s just one man.’ Stanton smiled weakly and glanced in the corner. ‘One sinister looking man with a serious expression on his face, sitting in a dark corner with nothing in his eyes.’ Stanton forced a wider grin. ‘What could go wrong?’
‘All manner of things,’ Koel said.
Stanton sipped his ale, all the while tapping his his thumb nervously on the table. ‘Why would someone be watching us?’
‘You tell us, Stanton. Why would someone be watching us? We don’t look rich enough to rob.’ Jenna looked around the bar. ‘We don’t stand out in this dirty old inn. You sure you haven’t been here before?’
Stanton looked around warily. ‘Pretty sure.’
‘You’re not known for making friends,’ Koel said.
‘Now now, what are you trying to say? I’m as friendly as they come! I’ve no enemies.’ Stanton tapped his thumb on the table and looked into his drink. ‘No enemies here, at least. I’ve been gentle with my dealings outside the walls. I can’t think why my problems would follow me here.’ He looked at Koel. ‘What about you, Koel? You’re a traveller, after all. You’ve been outside the walls more than anyone. You can’t say you’ve never made enemies.’
‘Aye. I can’t say that,’ Koel said. ‘But all my enemies are dead.’
Stanton looked at Jenna.
She raised her hands. ‘Unlike you two, I don’t tend to make enemies.’
Stanton looked at Rolland, still tapping away with his thumb. ‘Maybe it’s nothing. What do you think?’
Rolland sighed. It was the first time since they’d left the walls that Stanton had asked his opinion. Maybe it would help him feel less useless if he knew what to do… Maybe he needed to make it up as they went along.
‘When you booked our rooms, did we all have our own?’
Stanton nodded. ‘Thought you all deserved as much. Besides, the rooms here were cheap.’
‘And I’m guessing yours is the biggest?’
‘Well, I’m the boss.’ He smirked.
Rolland thought for a moment. He had no right giving those more experienced than him advice. He supposed they didn’t have to take it. He looked at Koel. ‘You’ve been paying attention. You think he knows we’ve seen him?’
‘If we’ve seen him, he’s seen us seein’ him.’
‘He’s definitely alone?’
‘He hasn’t talked to anyone, but there are no definitelys in this.’
‘No, I suppose there aren’t.’ Rolland tapped his thumb on the table, echoing Stanton’s nervous habit. ‘I say we don’t do a thing. It doesn’t look like he’s gonna start any trouble here, right? Tonight, we’ll all stay in Stanton’s room. That way, if he tries to slip in and slit out throats, we won’t be alone.’
‘That’s some sour thinking there boy,’ Koel said. ‘Where’d you learn to be optimistic?’
‘I say we confront him,’ Jenna said. The table looked her way, even Koel’s eyes slid to hers for a moment. ‘What? Four against one.’ She smiled at Rolland with a wink. ‘Well, three and a half.’
‘It’s better than nothing,’ Koel said.
‘If it means it gets you all out of my room.’ Stanton grinned.
‘And if he’s not alone?’ Rolland asked.
‘Then we’re in the shitter either way.’ Koel stood up, skulled the rest of his drink, then went to confront the man with nothing in his eyes.
How could he have nothing in his eyes? Rolland had never seen anything like it. He hadn’t heard or read anything like it. Everyone had something in their eyes.
Even animals had something. It made him shiver. He turned his head to get a look at what Koel was doing. No sooner had he turned than Koel was already on his way back from the long haired man.
‘Well?’ Stanton asked as Koel slumped into his chair.
‘I think I may have overstated the problem.’
‘So we can stop being nervous, get back to our drinks, then sleep in our own beds?’
‘I think I know why you didn’t see anything, boy.’
‘Care to share?’ Stanton’s incessant thumb tapping had stopped. He was once again relaxing in his chair.
‘So,’ Jenna said. ‘We’re being watched by a man who can’t see?’
‘Evidently, I was mistaken.’
Rolland looked back at the man. He had never looked someone blind in the eye. Could that be why he saw nothing? It still made him shiver, but at least he knew why.
The table relaxed, but they had trouble falling back into easy chatter. Rolland took a last swill from his ale. It was the table’s third round, and his second. He wondered why such a thing was forbidden to him. It tasted strange, though not entirely unpleasant, but didn’t seem to affect him much.
That was, at least, until he stood up. The room felt whirly, his feet unbalanced. He tipped a little to the side and felt Koel’s hand steady him.
‘No wonder they don’t let you drink, you’re a lightweight.’ Koel chuckled. ‘Guess it’s time we all got some sleep.’
‘Ah, yes!’ Stanton practically jumped out of his chair. ‘Rest our weary bones and blistered feet.’
‘Perhaps even bathe.’ Jenna sniffed the air around them and waved her hand.
The bath was beautiful, though it was only a large wooden bucket with water no warmer than the air at night. He lowered into it slowly and it sent a shiver right through him. It was beautiful, nonetheless.
There was only one room in which to bathe. He let the others go first, though only Jenna took the offer. Stanton and Koel seemed content to wait until morning. Rolland didn’t like the idea of sullying the first bed he’d seen for months with the road dirt caked into his very skin.
Despite the dank room, with the cold bath water and not even soap to clean himself, the bath was good. So good he almost fell asleep. He was roused by a knock on the door before he did. Rolland got out of the bath, reluctantly, and wiped himself down. He’d no doubt overstayed, something he did a lot at the academy. He almost called out that he would only be a moment, until he remembered he wouldn’t be understood.
Rolland grabbed fresh clothes, glad Stanton had made them stop by a clothing merchant on their way to the inn.
When he opened the door the inn’s proprietor was standing on the other side, arms crossed. They locked eyes and all Rolland saw was impatience. She would have to refill the bath before the next person was able to bathe. Though Rolland saw no one waiting.
He slipped past her with an innocent smile and made his way to his room one floor up. The wood creaked on the stairs. An unfamiliar creak. Rolland was used to the stone steps of the academy. It was reassuring, however. It would be hard for anyone to sneak around the creaky inn and get up to bad business, and bad business was exactly what the patrons of this inn looked like they were likely to get up to.
Why did Stanton have to choose a place so cheap in a city none of them knew? He hoped his other plans were better thought out. Even the door to Rolland’s room creaked as he opened it. His room was dark. The shutters closed from the chill breeze and the moon’s light. He closed his door, felt around for the bed, and lay down. It was a hard mattress, but anything was softer than dirt.
Rolland fell asleep faster than he had in months.
Rain fell on the cobblestone street. It was slippery, dark, but he knew this city well. Better than those who pursued him. They rode in the day before, with a Stone and a charge from the queen. Already, two of his friends had been lost. The Stone sought them out, and the inquisition delt with them.
He had half a mind to turn around, let them catch up, face them. If they’d only had swords, he might be able to face them all. But the bastards had crossbows, too. They knew they couldn’t take a man like him with a sword. Not with five men. Not with ten.
He rounded a corner into a dead-end street and sprinted to the wall. He jumped at the brick kicked his foot against them, propelling him upward. His fingers latched onto the ledge. Almost slipping in the wet, he pulled himself up. Smooth. Fast.
He was up and on the roof before they’d caught up. With the Stone, they would find him, but at least this would slow them down. Give him time to get out of the city. Get somewhere safe. He ran across the rooftops then dropped into another alley. The sword scabbarded on his hip tapped the ground as he landed low. He was breathing hard now, but he had to keep running.
The alley came out onto the main street. Then it was a short run to the city wall. He would be far enough from the gate not to be seen by the guards. Up and over, then he would make it to the forest. They might follow, but if he made enough distance, the Stone would lose his scent. They would have to track him the old fashioned way.
He came out of the alley fast. A bolt flew by his head.
‘Shit.’ He glanced behind him, still running. There wasn’t just one. How did they get there? They must have spread their men thin. Which was good for him. Another bolt sped by, this time missing his head be mere inches.
The wall was close. He pulled from deep and got to the wall with a burst of speed. The wall was higher than the one in the alley. He wouldn’t be able to run up it. He would have to climb. Fast. He heard the bastards on foot behind him. No doubt those crossbow bolts would be reloaded in another second.
He made it to the wall. Almost ran his face into it. There were just enough grooves for him to climb. He set his feet, his fingers, into them, and clambered up.
Something sharp hit his left shoulder, the shoulder of the hand that had just gripped the top of the wall. All the strength in it fled. Must have seeped out with the blood.
Another bolt lodged itself into his leg.
There was no climbing now. No running.
He dropped down from the wall and turned, drawing his sword. Three of the inquisitions’ soldiers ran toward him, swords drawn. They weren’t fresh faced pups; these men had seen wars.
But they hadn’t seen him.
He stepped toward them, hiding a wince at the pain in his leg. They stopped running, they were close now. They looked confident, but he saw past their masks. Saw the fear written deep within. He smiled, and lunged.
There were worse ways to go.
Rolland woke to a clap of thunder. Rain pelted the inn’s roof. He was wet. He’d sweated right through the sheets. Lightning cracked and flashed through the open shutters.
A man stood at the foot of his bed. The man from the bar. The man with nothing in his eyes.
Rolland threw off the covers and rose to his feet. The darkness seeped away, his eyes adjusting to the light of the night.
The man raised his chin. ‘Don’t be afraid.’
Todd Herzman writes fantasy, science fiction, and anything else that catches his fancy. He has a Bachelor of Writing degree from the University of Canberra, and his debut novel, A Dark Inheritance, is a SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist and is available on Amazon.
If you'd like to read his free prequel to A Dark Inheritance, The Seeker and the Sword, you can grab it by going to his website and signing up to his author newsletter.
He's also the writer of the web serial Ashrennon.