The Border chapter 2 Princes of Purt

The Border

chapter 2

Princes of Purt         

 

 

It had been a speck of light on the far edge of what Jeddah could sense. They had followed it for days before they saw it: a small camp on the beach of salt. The ship was grounded and the pirates were spread on the shore with a camp of battered tar and sail tents, with trunks of their stolen goods, and a chain of kidnapped souls headed to life as slaves at whatever port they landed on.

Jeddah and Zou watched the camp for a day from the ridge. At dark Jeddah hid Zou back in the rocks and ran for the camp, low and fast. Whispering the words of the great black swamp cat, he dropped to all four, and ran silent and fast over the salt. Without a second thought about it, he made his way to the back of the tent of the captain. This one alone had fine heavy canvas, dyed in bold colors. He could smell that the man inside was drunk on rum. He was also passed out and snoring. Jeddah slipped his head under the heavy tent wall. He let his senses assure him the only person there was the captain before he slid under. Rising up to his full height, he let his eyes adjust to the dark before he rummaged for clothes, which he pulled on, a couple of blankets that he wound about his shoulders, and as an afterthought, a belt with a short sword on it that lay on the floor beside the captain’s cot.

Drooping low with the breath of the swamp cat, he slunk out the way he had come in and raced back to the ridgeline, cutting far west before coming back to Zou with his paws on the stone. At the small hidden camp where Zou sat by the rock fire, Jeddah dropped down. Zou screamed and scrambled back even as Jeddah reached out a hand.

“It’s just me,” Jeddah tried to reassure him.

“You didn’t tell me you could change shape!” Zou shouted in Dacan, his small chest heaving, his heart pounding.

“It’s just an illusion…”

“No, its not!” Zou pointed to the tracks in the sand. Jeddah looked at them in the firelight a moment, then laughed.

“Well, that’s interesting. I wonder how long I have been doing that. Look Zou.” He pulled off the blankets, then the clothes. “I know it’s not perfect, but the robe will protect you.”

Zou slowly got up to take the desert robe that Jeddah had stolen from the captain. He pulled it on, tying the small cords on the inside. Clearly he had worn such a robe before. He watched Jeddah skeptically. “I was warned about shape-shifters.”

“I am not a shape-shifter, Zou. I am just an old druid. My grandfather could shift his shape at times. He taught me the words of the animals, but that just draws their energy around you to make you seem as they. Some in the far past could draw up enough to actually assume the shape. I had no idea I was doing that. What you were warned about are the shape-shifters of Dacan. They are given the power to shift to demons and blood magics.  I am the same man that I was three hours ago.”

“Maybe you’re not. Maybe Druid got killed and you plan to steal his place.”

“No, Zou, its me. Shape-shifters only shift into what they see. Look,” he pulled out the small bird skins from his shirt. “See, no shifter would know about these.”

“How did you learn a magic you only know about from stories?”

“I have been in the swamps of Et for a very long time. Although my grandfather died when I was quite young, he had already taught me much. Beyond that, I remember the times when the Von Amells ruled Purt. I was alive before the Von Armond dynasty. I am very old, which has given me time to learn in many different ways.”

“No one lives that long, not even Purtans.”

“I do,” Zeddah shrugged. “I am me and there is only me of what I am.”

“You have no people?”

Jeddah shifted the belt he had stolen to fit better and let himself think back to the far past that haunted him as if it was far closer than it truly was. Never had he spoken of it. He had never had a friend or companion he trusted enough to whisper the truth to. He drew a slow deep breath. “When I was about your age, my grandfather gathered me in his arms and fled our home. We could smell the smoke… hear the screaming… it was days before we had outdistanced the great booming of the magics at war. We fled north to Purt.

“At one point my grandfather hid me in a small cave and went back to see if anyone else had escaped. When he returned, he was burned, his clothes in tatters, his eyes blackened and bloodshot. When I asked for my mother, for my sister, he wept. He put me on his back and we never spoke of it again.”

“What happened to him?” Zou whispered.

“We were hunted. He hid me in a tree… he had barely stepped away when out of the black night came a creature of darkness that took him down. Evil men, elves I think, tortured him on an altar. They drank his blood and bathed in his pain. I was alone after that.”

“Sort of like me.”

“You are not alone, Zou. I am here and I will help you and protect you till my last bit of strength. Whatever evil is after you will not have you as long as I live.”

Zou folded his hands in his lap and looked at Jeddah with a very sad serious look. “Why? I am Dacan.”

“That means nothing to me. To me you are Zou and that is enough and that is all.”

Zou let out a heavy breath. “We were headed to Purt. Every step had to taken carefully and in secret. But we were attacked by the serpent goddess…” he started to cry, “by Razz. My mother cried out in words I don’t know and had never heard.” He told his story between sobs. His small hands were gripped so tightly in his lap they were white. “To battle against her came the angel of death. My mother begged him to save me over her…. magic made a tornado around us… we were pulled apart… I woke on a coastline alone… a fisherman found me and took me to the city. I thought he meant to help, but he didn’t. He sold me to another ship and they were boarded by pirates. Everyone was killed but me, because the demon wanted to make me a toy for the captain.”

Jeddah could take no more. He took hold of the boy and held him tight. “It’s over, Zou. You are safe with me. I hunt demons and I will teach you how to do the same. I will teach the words of the creatures and of the elements as I know them and we will make it safely back to Purt.”

“I am supposed to go to the King of Norwood…” the boy sobbed.

“Then to Norwood we will go.”

Zou held onto him as tightly as his little arms allowed. Not since Jeddah had held onto his grandfather had anyone held him so tightly.

 

 

 

*************

 

 

“I see!” Jeddah said suddenly. “I see what you are doing. Our words are the same, but the what we are doing is very different. You are calling up the Elementals that are self-aware and individual, while I use the elements themselves, the energy of their creation. I do not ask an air elemental to do a thing for me; I use the air itself. Do you see? I whisper to the creation energy of the air, while you speak with a creature made of the element.”

“So you cannot do my magic and I cannot do yours?”

“I am fairly certain I can do yours, but I have no need to. If you can do mine, we shall learn that in time.”

Zou sighed heavily. “It is difficult to talk to them here. The salt has driven them away. Like smoke to bees.”

“The land here is very silent. Nothing whispers to me and it makes me uneasy. There is life, though, and as the silence deepens I can hear it. Ahead of us are far more people, but I do not think they are the sort we want to run into. We are going to have to travel very carefully.”

Zou nodded. “Druid,” he said, “do you think Raz killed my mother?”

“I don’t know. If she had an ally as powerful as you describe, I think she is alright, maybe far away and certainly worried for you, but alright. Until you learn otherwise, it is best to hold faith in that.”

“Can I…” Zou hesitated.

“Can you what?”

“Do your hair? It must bother you being in your face like that.”

“If you want to,” Jeddah said. He had never had anyone ask to do his hair. He had paid people to cut it, but that was about all. Zou jumped up, for a moment showing again how very young he was. He set to work picking out the windblown knots and making tiny layered braids. He hummed softly as he worked. Jeddah focused instead on the best route before them and how he was going to get them over a hundred miles with so little to eat that he wasn’t sure how to both feed them and leave the ecosystem able to survive.

 

 

 

The camp had been deserted. Broken crates, tattered canvas, scattered trash stained the white sand, half of it buried under salt that had blown over in the years since the pirates had left.

“Look!” Zou held up a belt with a buckle. “I win, I found the first useful thing!”

Jeddah laughed softly at Zou’s delight. He turned over the broken wooden crate. Once it had held salted pork, but now was long empty. Anything to help make things better was a good day. The meals of small birds and scorpions was getting very old and the lack of plentiful water was painful. They had not once found such a pool as the first one. Most days they ended by sucking water off of the back wall of narrow canyons.

Jeddah had lost enough weight the pants he wore were constantly trying to fall off his hips. Only the stolen belt kept them up. He had skipped more meals than not; Zou was a child and not eating at his age would leave permanent marks on his bones. He pulled out a broken bottle. Anything to carry water would be a boom, but as of yet they had found nothing larger than a bird stomach. Discarding the dark green glass, he rose and looked about the long-forgotten camp.

The canvas he would keep to make cloaks for them, as well as to make moccasins for Zou.

“Look! Druid, look!” Zou cheered as he found a finely woven sash of dark red. He waved it in the constant wind, sending salt dust flying away. He wound it under his long braids, made a twist and brought it back around. With practiced hands he bound up his hair and still had a length to hide his face.

“Good find, Zou,” Jeddah nodded. They would keep looking. If such a thing was left, maybe this crew had deserted rapidly and left more treasures to be had. “You seem to have a skill for this.”

Zou clapped his hands and set back to work. Jeddah moved to a larger heap of sand and tugged at an edge of buried canvas. The piece was larger than he had expected and he peeled back salt to show it had once been a tent, but that it had burned. With another yank, the tent wall tore along the burn to expose a petrified hand.

Jeddah knelt to brush away the salt. The man had been burned in part, but had also been stabbed in the chest. The salt had turned him into a mummy, reminding Jeddah of the husks of the frogs and birds the swamp water-spiders left in their wake.

The man here had likely been the captain and he still wore his fine clothes, bloodstained and burned, but clearly finer than most. The belt was burned beyond use, but the pouches he wore, the daggers on his hip, and the rings on his unburned hand were all worth taking.

Jeddah set to clearing away what had been the inside the tent. Little had been taken. Much was burned beyond use or even identification, but the finds began to pile up.

“What do you think happened?” Zou asked over his shoulder. “If it was just a simple mutiny, they would have taken everything. I don’t think they would have set fire to the tent with all this in it.”

“I think it was a rival crew.” Jeddah sat back, brushing the salt from a glass decanter. “This was not what I had in mind for carrying water, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

“I think there was a blood wizard involved. Look at his face; he was in agony when he died and it wasn’t the fire that killed him or that wound.”

“You know much about that?” Jeddah asked, a little surprised that Zou was so calm about seeing a dead man, let alone so critical about it.

“I have been trained as a fighter since I could walk. I have seen more dead men than I can count.” He shrugged and shook his head. “They only left him. Why? It seems that if they were out for just torture, they would have done that to the entire crew, but they took the rest. It seems odd.”

“It’s also very old. The salt stops things from rotting and he might have been killed a thousand years ago. We cannot tell. Not here.”

“I wish they had left some food, though. I would love to have a bite of bread, or soup. Soup would be good. Tea! Oh, for a cup of buttered tea,” he sighed. “Your pile is bigger than mine.”

“You still win, Zou; you found the first treasure. I think we will stay another day and look longer. Who knows what else is here, but let’s get up to the ridge and the pool. I don’t like being out here at night.”

“Me, either.”

 

 

 

 

 

***************

 

 

 

 

 

The hike had been worth it. Zou stood catching his breath, looking south. On the horizon, storm-heads flickered with lightning. They were so far away, no sound carried here, but the air was still.  In it they could taste the change that rain made. The outward ripples of the land that hinted at the creation of the Pusan Sea were curved here. They had made it to the far southeastern end of the sea. The ridges crumbled away from here. The salt left the land and stayed close to the sea; here they would find pirates, fugitives, and salt miners. To stay hidden was going to get far more difficult.

The hope of more food, of easy-to-find water, and drawing near edge of Purt’s southern border of Tiff was nearly outweighed by the fear of what hunted them. Zou had come to accept their life and feared the change they faced when they reached the safety of Purt.

“Wolves,” Druid pointed out to the valley that spread before them. Rain had come, the valley was turning green and smelled of life after the year on the salt coast. Zou had to look extra hard to spot the small pack that moved along the far side of the valley. Part of him wished that he and Druid could stay here always. Only the need to get to Purt made him not say as much. Druid had become the father he had always wanted. If not for missing his mother he would have had to admit he was happy.

He interlaced his fingers and rested his hands on his head. Over the last month, the valley on the back side of the ridge had begun to change and provide more life. The forgotten camps they came across had become almost commonplace. They had climbed over the ridge and Druid had hunted real food for them. Green things, flowers, and even a small deer had given them more food than they had for months combined.

“What are those?” Zou asked of the dark jagged-looking boulders along the bottom of the valley.

“Those? I have no idea.”

“Can we go look? We are about to head north; we can take a day.”

Druid nodded. “I agree. I’m not sure what we will find, but it’d be nice to camp in the open for once.” He said no more and headed down the steep slope. Zou jogged to catch up. Druid had been in a strange mood for the last few days, almost as if he was as uneasy as Zou was about the change in their habits.

The slope was steep stone, broken, and weathered, making for a difficult path, but Druid moved over it with a grace and speed Zou could only envy. Druid had reached the lower slope and taken a seat to rest and wait for Zou long before Zou had even reached the first tuft of grass.

When Zou arrived, they walked together without saying anything down to the first of the black boulders. It was larger than expected. It was taller than Druid’s head. Up close, though, it became clear what they were. Zou reached out to touch the ancient stump.

“It’s as hard as stone. What would do that?”

Druid reached out his hand and laid it on the blacked bark of the great old stump. Catching his breath, grief over came him. Bowing his head, tears escaped his eyes and ran down his cheeks. As if the past was burned into the stump, he saw it and understood it. Memory came up and made him choke on the smoke, to hear the vast concussions of the attacks, and to see the glow as he looked back over his grandfather’s shoulder as they fled north.

He jerked his hand away. With a shaky breath, he looked to Zou as he wiped his cheeks. “Let’s set up a camp father down the slope.”

“Druid,” Zou reached out and touched his arm. “What happened here?”

“I will tell you once we are settled.” He headed down the slope, among the vast stumps of black stone. He chose a spot for them to camp where there were several small thorny bushes and a little spring of water.

They unslung their water jugs, removed their wraps and bed roll before Zou built a fire. Druid walked away to hunt and gather while Zou waited. He watched his teacher kneel several times as he walked away. Druid returned just before dark with thee rabbits and handfuls of green herbs. He set to work preparing the rabbits, gathering his thoughts.

“Elves came. A great army of them with dark magics. They demanded scarifies and dues. The Druids refused them and turned their backs on them. When they set to attacking them, they transformed into great trees.” He was quiet as he set the rabbits on the fire. “The elves attacked them. They came without mercy or reason. They took axes to them, they used magic to force them to return to their own forms, but to do so meant rape and torture. They refused and the elves wiped them out. That is the war that created the wastelands of Malkoot. The elves wanted something and the druids refused to give it to them. I do not know what it was they sought, but they did not get it.”

“At what cost? If all of them were wiped out, an entire people…” Zou felt sick. “If all your people were wiped out… Did you flee from here?”

“I think so. I cannot know that for certain. When we fled, the Pusan Sea was not there – the land was rolling hills covered in vast forests. It was very long ago. The world has changed since then,” he said sadly.

“If you escaped, maybe others did as well.”

“I do not think so, Zou. It is a nice thought, but I do not think so.”

“At least you did. Your grandfather was wise enough to flee and so your people’s magics still survives. You really should have children.”

Druid smiled and shook his sad mood. “I have never considered it. Maybe I should.” He looked up to the stars that were just coming out, the moons both mere slivers allowed a thousand more stars to be visible. He drew in a breath and sang the song his grandfather had so often sung to him. He knew many songs of his childhood, but rarely felt moved to sing them.

His voice echoed back off the valley walls softly, adding to his song. Never in the swamp did his voice carry like that. It made it almost a fun game to hear his own voice. At songs end, he laughed softly.

“You are a very good singer,” Zou said seriously. “You should sing more often. What was the song about?”

“Stars,” Druid said. “I will teach you the words. I rarely use my own language, but it would be good to recall it, to share it.”

Zou cleared his throat and took his turn to sing a song. He blushed a little when he finished.

“And you, Zou, are a very good singer.”

 

 

 

*******

 

 

 

Druid managed to steal clothes and salt packs within days, allowing them to blend in should they need to. He and Zou were about to join a small camp when they spotted the ship they had escaped from, just off the coast with boats rowing in.

“That can’t be good,” Zou muttered.

“No. Lets keep moving.”

Traveling north they spotted the ship nearly daily. The ship stopped at camps while they ran ahead, but the ship always seemed to get to the next camp just before they did.

Weeks of trying to outpace the ship brought them to a massive salt camp with a dozen fires burning, offering food for the workers. Taking a deep breath Zou followed Druid from the shadows toward the camp. They kept close together and moved to a fire where many were coming and going to grab hot bread and a mug of mild tea.

The men at the fire didn’t even seem to notice them. They moved away to sit close enough to seem at the fire, yet far enough away as to not be noticed or seen clearly.  They were careful to eat slowly. The tea they sipped careful for the heat alone.

Zou finished and nodded to the shoreline and the dark out there. “There was a ship out there; I think we need to leave. They put the light out and are waiting for most to go to sleep.”

“Keep your cup. Let’s see if we can snag some more bread from another fire and move further from the shoreline.”

 

 

Henzada stood as a blurring jagged line against the horizon. That ancient city was the portal from the desert into Purt. Outside the gate was Malkoot. Once past that threshold, they would be back in Purt. They had hiked over five hundred miles along the southern coast to get this close, yet they stayed low, watching, neither of them moving or saying anything.

The city itself was ancient, build over so many times that no one knew who had first built it or when that had been. The city was made of rows of buildings with flat roofs that held potted gardens, canopies of brightly colored cloth, and even market stalls. Layer upon layer of these high-walled buildings created a city that was one vast maze and nearly impossible to invade should any enemy come from the south.

About the gates themselves were salt camps. The miners and traders worked outside the wall with very few actually going inside. Slave markets were set up like horse or cattle yards father east. Slavery was forbidden in Purt, but here, just over the border the markets were full and busy. Purchased slaves were smuggled in through the gate and thus into Purt itself.

It should have been an easy task to walk down and join the crowds until they could make their way into the city itself… still neither of them moved.

“There,” Zou whispered. He spotted what both of them had felt. The demon stood at the edge of the salt miners’ camp looking out at the desert in their direction. “How do they keep finding us?”

“I don’t know,” Druid breathed. “We have to get into Purt, but I am not sure we can make it through the gate.”

“Do you think we can circle the city? We could cut through the slave camps, blend in there.”

“We’ll try.” He backed up, careful not to kick up any dust that might give them away. They crawled, staying low, until the demon had turned back into the camps. Getting up, they set off at a jog. Druid ran only as fast as Zou could maintain. If he had to, he would grab up the boy and run, but the farther they went before he had to do that, the better.

They circled wide to the east, skirting the city. They reached the edge of the camps and made themselves walk as calmly as possible.

Druid caught Zou up as he spotted the ship’s captain. He ducked behind a slave tent. Zou held on tight. Druid had not carried Zou in months, but he would now. He held the boy protectively, trying to find a way to get through.

If he could get over the border, he could fight the demon, shatter him, but here in Malkoot he knew that would reveal him in a way he knew would be a death sentence. Whatever evil had killed his people, if he fought out here, without the salt to hide him, he would he revealed and his hunters would be on him. He could not risk an open fight south of the border.

Drawing in a deep breath, he moved. The hunters were close. Druid didn’t give them warning, but ran all out as hard and fast as he could. He had not gone more than a dozen steps when the demon spotted Druid and Zou and shouted. Druid threw everything into running.

He could sense the border, he could feel it like a cool shade line, or the humidity of a nearby river. There was no mark on the land, no change of vegetation, but he felt it. They were so close. The arrow hit him in the left shoulder blade, staggering him, but Druid refused to stop. Even if he died, it was imperative that Zou get over the border. It was as if the every blade of grass, even tiny cactus, every little insect was whispering at him in desperation to get Zou over the border at all costs.

The pain in his shoulder was no worse then a black giant ant bite, he told himself and kept going. A second arrow hit him almost in the same place, they were trying to get through him, into his heart. If the arrows had been shot with enough force, they would have, but both failed to get through his shoulder blade. The second one, however, made him stumble.

The ground dropped just enough at the same time that he couldn’t catch his feet. He crashed, rolling to avoid falling on Zou. One arrow jabbed deeper into shoulder blade and made him cry out as the other broke off.

“Run, Zou!” He shoved Zou toward the border that was only yards away. “Run and hide. I will find you.”

Zou scrambled up and ran. Druid rolled up, whispering the energy of a lion and turned on the men who had shot him. The pain remained, but was in the back of his mind and did not slow him. He charged at the four men who were far too close behind him. The first he leapt at and bit his throat, ripping it out. He did not pause. Even as the taste of blood filled his mouth, he caught the second man with his great paw. As the man crashed down, Druid was on his back and reached around to rip his throat out with his great claws. Roaring in rage, he caught the third, who was trying to back-peddle and lift the bow. Druid tore his face off with both hands and ripped open his chest as he landed on him. He turned to look at the last, but that was the demon.

Do not fight him here!” he heard a voice as surely as if someone had yelled at him. He drew up. The demon-possessed man grinned fiercely, his bow down.

“Get the boy, kill the man, that was my deal,” his grin grew. “So nice to see I was right, Druid. It’s been too long since your magics were in the world. Oh, the plans you could unravel; what fun! Go,” he shooed him as if he was a house cat. “Catch up with your little prince. We’ll be along soon enough.” He chuckled.

Druid turned and raced after Zou.

 

******

 

 

His shoulder and back hurt. It made moving his arm painful, made sleeping nearly impossible, and carrying Zou was out of the question. Zou held onto Druid’s right hand as they hiked across the rocky plain of Tiff. Back into the living world, Druid was more at ease away from people and in the wilder lands. Here he knew everything that belonged and what didn’t. They were being hunted, but out here he had the upper hand.

Despite that, he needed help with his shoulder. It had taken him time to seek out someone able to help who would not whisper of him or Zou’s passage. It had taken them far off the northern course, but eastward for days. The little village was tucked in the hills along a small river. The homes were modest, but ancient. They were made of massive stones and great old timbers that had to have been hauled from a very long distance, as neither boulders nor trees were anywhere near.

They picked their way down the hill towards the village. They couldn’t see anyone, but a dog jogged out to meet them. Wagging his tail, he accepted a head rub from Zou, then walked along with them. At his age Druid did not need to keep scanning. Once he found what he sought, he just knew where to go. He was a hunter and this was how his life worked. It worked for demons, for herbs, or for people. He went to the small house with its herb garden spilling over raised beds before it.

Letting go of Zou’s hand, he knocked on the door before pulling the boy close to his leg with his hand on Zou’s back. It took a moment, but the door was opened by a Purtan woman in her later years.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“I could use some mending,” Druid said. “Seems I was mistaken for a deer.” He turned enough to show his bloody back and torn shirt.

“Good heavens, man, come in!” Ushering him into the warm little house, she turned a chair at the table for him to straddle and sit. She fetched water and rags before she looked closer, and then cut away his shirt with a seriousness that Druid didn’t like. “How long ago did this happen?”

“About six days, I think.”

“And you have been bleeding since then?”

“I hid my trail, if that’s your worry.”

“No, well yes, but no. You were shot with Blood Arrows. There was a demon behind this and he has been feeding on you. Most men would have died.” She set to washing the injury clear before she went for a kit on a high shelf.

“Is he going to be alright?” Zou asked, showing his worry in his young voice.

“Yes, your gran’papa will be alright,” she smiled. “You have the look of salt miners. Headed north for better things?”

“For better things? I avoid the far north. I am no fan of the church of Gerome.”

“Gerome? Haven’t you heard?”  She paused to step around and look at him. “Gerome has fled. He has been exposed as an imposter and driven out of Purt.”

“Who is on the throne, then?” Druid asked.

“Tyredelle Von Shannon, the King of Norwood.”

“Von Shannon?”

“As I understand, he is the heir Tyredelle Von Armond, but Armond himself renamed him Shannon. The last Von Armond is Tydavrelle, King of Crouse now. Too long have the Von Armonds been from the holy places. The line ends with him though. His heir will be a Vel Armond.”

“But the new emperor, he is Purtan? He is of the line of Norwood?”

“Yes. We are far from Ulam Bac, but word has reached even us. Image captures have been sent across the Empire. His likeness to St. Tyredelle is unmistakable. Now, bow your head, this is going to hurt, but it will break the link with the demon. We will get you patched up, then eat and I’ll catch you up on all I know of the new empire.”

 

Jeddah stood watching the sun rise over the far eastern horizon. They had been fed, given fresh is worn clothes and a warm place on the floor to sleep for the night. Jeddah had woken early come out to think. They had reached Purt, that had been his only goal. Now that they were here he needed to think what to do next.

One of the few things he loved about being out of the swamp was the trading of day for night. Twilight held a sacred energy. It almost felt as if there was a key between the mundane and the holy hidden in the blue-light of dusk and the pink-golds of dawn. He had spent a thousand years and more in the swamp, slipping out to trade his black diamonds. Long had he removed his concern or care for the people of the world.

His heart and mind were of the swamp, of the hidden and murky world where men did not trespass. All his life men had brought only pain, loss, and isolation. Maybe it was Zou’s influence, maybe it was that the world was shifting, or maybe it was something else all together, but here he was. His heart beat a little stronger knowing a son of Norwood was emperor, as it should be. He felt driven to get Zou to him. Somehow it mattered; somehow he mattered to it all. He had a place in this twilight between dynasties.

“Your grandson is a brave boy,” the healer woman came out to join him. She offered a steaming mug of tea.

“He is,” Jeddah nodded. He wrapped his hands around the mug and let his eyes go back to the sky and the pink clouds that were becoming gold-edged. “I cannot thank you enough for the healing and the meal.”

“No, it is I who should thank you. I have been torn between the words and the fears. Your appearance is a prayer answered.”

“How so? You told me that the son of Norwood rules in Ulam Bac, but little else.”

“Honestly, I know little else.”

“Yet, you seem to feel that I offer some sort of hope? How so? I am just a traveler with a young boy at my side.”

She laughed softly as she took a sip of her tea. “And I am just a mid-wife. I recognize the ancient ones when I see one. If you have slipped the hidden places and come out in the open, then truly a new age is dawning.”

“Are you so old as to know one race from another? Most of Purt is so blurred and young, it is almost a crime for it to bear that ancient name.”

“There are those of us old enough and those who were trained in secret by ones older yet who know of truths. Some things are best left to whispers and hints, and not explained in open yet. Evil rolls in its deep slumber. Dark things stir in the hidden corners of my dreams. For once I think it is not the new emperor, but that he is our only hope against it perhaps. You? What do you feel of hearing of him?”

“Hope,” Jeddah admitted. He looked over at her. “I have watched the bloodline of Armond falter and fail. I have seen races turn on one another and sacred places become defiled. I have had no hope since the day the forests burned, but today I feel hope.”

She sipped her tea. “What will you do?”

“Head north. Purt will tell me to where.”

“I will pray for you, and we will do out best to hide your passage.”

“Thank you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*************

 

 

“What’s on your mind?” Druid asked Zou. Zou blinked and looked to his teacher.

“I feel uneasy. I keep thinking about the old healer woman who helped us in Tiff. War has broken out there. The common people are being hunted and taken as conscripted fighters or slaves.”

“What’s the difference?” Druid asked.

“Fighters have hope of a quick death,” Zou said miserably. He wrapped his hands around the mug in his hands. War had blocked and altered their path at every turn. Ulam Bac felt no closer than it had when they started out. It seemed utterly hopeless.

“Do not doubt your feelings, Zou,” Druid said. “I, too, feel what you do; I do not think it is the old woman we need worry about, though. I think we have left her reach and our path has become marked again. We will have to travel with more care.”

“We are inside Purt; we are supposed to be safe inside Purt.”

“Safe from what is the question. Yes, Purt offers both of us protection from enemies outside the borders, but Gerome broke many of the ancient guardian magics and I fear we will soon be hunted by the very allies of that vile man.”

“Demons; but you can fight them, right?”

“Yes, I can, but they rarely come alone. I think your training sword needs to be replaced, Zou. I think you are going to need a real blade. We will stop at the next merchant and get you armed. When we get to Kill-Abben, we will get you something even better.”

“How? With what money?”

“Money is not an issue. Has it ever stopped us before?”

“No,” Zou said slowly.

Druid laid his battered coin wallet on the table. He smoothed his hand over the details he had carefully worked into the leather. “This is a key to a vault. It allows either myself or you to reach in and take the coins or gems that are in vault. All you have to really do is think abut what you are looking for. It will be there, I am sure.”

“So I could think of a gold coin and reach in and find it?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“A Vault is a space between realms. Think of it as a store room. Once it’s built, it can get larger if it needs to in order to hold what you put in it. I built mine a very long time ago. I was a child. My grandfather keyed me to his and then taught me to make my own. I know what is in mine: its all coins and gems. What is in his? I have no idea, so I don’t know what to reach for, and thus…” he shrugged. “Whatever it was my grandfather wished me to have is out of my reach. If anything happens to me, this will help you. It will provide you with whatever you need. With this, Zou, you could buy an army; you could buy a castle if you wished.”

“Then why do we travel so… poorly?”

“So we don’t stand out and what more do we really need? We have good boots, well-made clothes, food, and,” he grinned and lifted his mug, “beer.”

Zou grinned.

“You must remember, Zou, I am not a Purtan prince who desires a high tower with fine robes and whispered tones; I am a creature of the forest. I prefer to sleep on the ground than in a fine soft bed. It is not humility; it is stubborn preference.”

“I think I have learned the ways of the forest and field,” Zou said seriously. “I fear I will not do well in the high towers or the halls of even the lowest noble, let alone the hall of the King of Norwood.”

“Then that, too, I shall teach you… starting with how you sit. Everything to the Purtan high court is a ritual and has a reason. The Purtan lord sits with a straight back, his left foot slightly forward and his hands either on the arms of his chair or with one hand on the table and the other on or near his hip joint. Why, can you imagine?”

“Uhm? Spinal health?”

“That is a by-product. The straight back helps a Purtan’s energy flow evenly between his cores and if he is well-trained in his stance, he is ever-ready to attack or be attacked. His left foot forward brings up earth-based energy faster and thus shows he is a warrior; he can move faster to attack than to defend. If you are a guard, a solider, or a servant, you put your right foot forward, you are there to defend and aid, not lead the war. His hand on his hip shows he is ever-ready and vigilant against enemies of Armond; on the hip was where the daughters of Armond wore their holy symbols For much of history, the priests of Armond tattooed the holy star on the inside of their hips and thus they remind the world and all who look at them that they are backed by Armond. The hand forward is to show mercy and trust, a peace offering. If you put both hands on your hips, it is very clear you do not trust; you see another as an enemy and you will go to war. If you can master such subtle ritual, we will move onto the more complex ones.”

“How do you know these things? Have you lived in the high courts?”

“No, but I have lived a very long time. Now look,” Druid shifted his pose. “Draw deeply though your nose when you breathe and gently exhale through your mouth. This manner of breathing is the breath of wizards. If you wish to be a great one or to be assumed to be one, you will breathe like this at rest and at war. The Purtan lord is a master of self-discipline.” He took a sip of his beer and grinned while he set it back down. “Zou, you’re already slouching. Sit straight.”

“Don’t they get tired?”

“There is effort and training to be had, but also the lords of Purt are born and raised with such a stance. If you want to fit in, you must master the manners they hold so close to their identity.”

 

 

THAT WOULD BE AT LEAST TWO YEARS.

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