Princes of Purt
Purt was not thought to be at war. No one marched great armies here or there, but war on was everywhere. In their endless attempts to go ever farther north Druid and Zou had been ducking skirmishes and starvation for years. The trip that should have taken months had stretched out into seeming impossibly. The new emperor forced no king to him, but allowed them to come to him when war and famine drove them to their knees. It may make for more humble lords but the people suffered. It also made travel very difficult and dangerous. Amdor was not on the route, but fighting had driven them far west.
Druid wanted to just stop. He wanted to find a deep wood and stay put. For a moment in he had thought maybe he could convince Zou to rest and stop his search for the King of Norwood. One damned night. One bloody night and the hope was broken.
“Scan for a safe spot,” Druid had told Zou as he grabbed up their small camp. Zou did not question but at once threw out his scan and stepped into a run. Druid whispered to the trees in thanks for their warning. He shouldered his pack as he moved after Zou. They were being hunted..again.
It seemed something dark had come to Purt, far more than just greedy lords bickering over land. Hopefully they could outpace what the forest warned him of. At least this time they had a head start. If nothing else, Druid reasoned, the state Purt was in had given him ample chances to teach Zou a thousand magics and a dozen weapons.
It was nearing dusk when Druid felt the follower. It was no man. It was gaining on them and running off to his right. He could almost feel its steps on the ground as if he was a spider on a web with the vibrations of a fly stepping on the threads, whispering to him of its presence. He became aware of another to the north of them as well, coming around to have on one either side of them.
Zou didn’t pause or stop, he just kept running with his eyes forward. Whatever Zou was headed for, he didn’t veer at all from his path, but ran at it as if he knew the way. Here the ground was nearly level, barely a hill at all and the running was easy under the massive trees, but if it was easy for them, it was easy for those who ran after them as well.
“They are getting closer!” Zou panted out as he tried to put on more speed.
“Just keep going, don’t stop.”
The creatures were closing in and while Druid had not actually seen them, he knew what they were without looking. They were goblins. There had been no goblins in Purt for so long, many Purtans thought them nothing but stories. No goblins would ever be here on their own. Someone had brought them in as trackers and hunters; someone who had been tracking them for far too long for it to be chance now. Even goblins were part of the natural world and the forest saw them as it would any top predator of the world, but these were no normal goblins; there was something dark and sick about them. The forest treated them more like it would a demon than a goblin.
The forest seemed to encourage Jeddah and Zou to keep running; run faster the wind seemed to whisper through the bare limbs above them. They had to be getting close to the place they were seeking when the ground began to rise; a hill was felt under their feet, making the running harder and their legs burned. The sun had set, but the moons were both out, allowing them to not stop or slow. The hill grew steeper – they could see their goal clearly. The hilltop was strew with massive boulders that were oddly out of place in this flat forest.
The goblins were getting closer. Cutting in, one of them barked a sharp high- pitched bark that sounded far too excited. The other’s breath began to be heard, panting and huffing as it grew closer; the reek was strong and felt toxic.
On the top of the hill was safety and both men knew it. Druid also knew they would never make it. The goblins were too close.
“Keep running!” he ordered and veered to the side as he drew his staff. He slid to a stop as fast as he could and swung his staff as hard as he could with as much power as he dared. The staff hit the goblin with a flash of golden power and energy. The goblin was slammed to the ground, but not killed. Druid’s hands were left stung and numb from the blast, but he flung what power he had at the moment at the other goblin, who was just about to grab for Zou’s legs. The blast hit a tree instead. Druid cried out in horror that he had missed and that Zou was surly gone until the tree shivered. He watched in shock as a root shot up out of the ground and speared the goblin, even as its claws caught Zou’s leg. Zou went down with a cry of pain. The goblin screamed, but only for a moment as it died. The root shot back under the ground, dropping the goblin on the earth like a wet rag. Druid turned as the other was getting up, shaking off its shock.
Its eyes swirled a moment, then began to glow red. Druid hit it with the magic of a banishment and felt the demon in it scream, but hold. It was not a normal demon, it was darker; powerful against banishments, and the magics slipped.
Druid turned and bolted after Zou. He could already feel the demon from the dead goblin pulling the corpse back up to its feet. This was not good. He caught up to Zou, who was bleeding, but running. Druid felt something odd; the forest was reacting to Zou’s blood in an odd way… as if it was smelling it, testing it for something… There was no time to wonder if that was good or bad.
On the hilltop, the trees stopped and there was the ruins of a tower perhaps. Inside it nothing grew but a few rose bushes. They felt the magic in the site as soon as they jumped the low wall of stones. Zou collapsed sobbing and tore at his pack for bandages, horrified that he was bleeding as badly as he was. Zou had always been very worried about bleeding and very, very careful about it. He always wiped himself utterly clean and burned the rags and bandages if had bled at all. Even slivers had sent he careful care. To have bled so much had to be hard for him.
Druid stood at the wall of the ruins and watched the demon’s goblins come almost within bow shot of the ruins, but their attention was shifting. They darted about, glancing at him until the ghoul one stopped at the blood and licked it up.
He shivered and then let up a very strange howl. It made Druid’s skin crawl and reminded him of the thing that had hunted in him the swamp. Zou was almost frantic to stop the bleeding. Druid glanced back with worry.
“Don’t panic, Zou, it will do you no good. Calm your heart, slow your bleeding!”
Zou choked on his tears and worries. He began to master himself with the focus of Druid’s calm presence. The two goblins began to lick up every drop of the blood on the ground and in the leaf matter. Again the ghoul howled, the sound vibrating so powerfully Druid could almost see ripples in the very air. How could he stop the ghoul? How could he silence it? The only thought was desperate one. He had never had been so desperate nor about to think himself powerful enough, but he had to stop the howling. He stepped back from the wall and walked over to the young who was binding his leg. He lifted his hand to the sky and the other to the earth and closed his eyes. Eyes closed, he let his memory shift down to the song he needed. His grandfather had so often sung it as they walked, not activating it, but teaching the boy at his side to know it as surely as he knew his name.
It was the call for a Familiar. It was magic of vibration just the same as the ghoul had used, but to another realm, another alignment. The ripples had actually made him think of it. He opened his heart to the magic and began to sing.
“Maybe now isn’t the time…” Zou started to say, then fell silent. Druid had never sang the True Songs before his young friend, only the children’s songs that all children knew. Druid, however, knew his as well as a bird might and he knew the power of the True Songs.
He felt it vibrate out of him as surely as if he was part of the very air about him. He felt his awareness spread out beyond anything he had ever felt before. His voice was simply a key to the power that was within him. He could feel the forest, the trees, the water, the minerals, and the magics that all moved and flowed as one. He could feel the energy that was out of place like a scar or a sliver in the greater whole. He reached far beyond the hill top and farther, to the ocean, to the mountains of Gauleraunt, so far beyond that he stopped being himself on the hilltop for a moment and was one with nature. In that moment, he felt both coasts, the salt seas of Malkoot, and the great magic barrier of Norwood. Then he was back, himself, song ended. He stood in the dark quiet forest.
It had been an image of such great beauty and wholeness that he felt small and weak, utterly insignificant and old. He felt old and abused, but even as he felt himself sinking to the ground to cry, he knew the feeling was of the very stones of the land of Purt. Joy had left; life was failing, like an old man left by a dying fire to fend for himself.
The world was cold, dark, and lifeless. He stood reeling in the state of Purt. He was so utterly alone, there was not even a tear that could be cried for it.
He was so consumed by the grief of Purt that he didn’t see what was before him. It took him blinking the light away before he became aware. The rising sun seemed to melt into form and before him stood a lion. He sat on the wall looking at Druid with calm deep golden eyes.
“It’s about time,” the strong rich voice said in his head. “I have been waiting.”
The bond was formed, drawing Druid out of the dark sadness, back to himself. He felt himself connected to the earth in a way he had only during trances. He had always felt the magics like winds about him, no less real. Now he was truly connected and felt himself the guardian of it all. He caught his breath and bowed to the lion.
“I have needed your help before,” he said.
“We should go now; you drove them back, but they will return and not alone. Go, I will hide your trail.”
Druid turned to Zou, who was standing looking at a white eagle perched on a branch of a tree.
“That eagle just talked,” he said to Druid. Druid looked at the bird and saw it clearly, slowly, softly with power. He bowed his head to the Familiar.
“What did he just say?”
“That we should run now.”
“Then I suggest we take his advise and do so.”
The village of Demrah had once been nothing but a train station. On the southern end of Kill-Abben, now its residential area reached to the out-layers of Kill-Abben itself. The train station however had not grown up from the small station made to bring farmers and their wares to the markets of the city.
In recent years walls had been built. They were made of white wood from trees that had died in the weather swings of the last few years. Whoever had built the walls, it did not seem like anything the lords of Kill-Abben would have done. Druid could feel that the walls had been empowered. They were as hard and fire-proof as stone. They were too well-built and too beautiful to have been done by local builders.
Every timber had been cut and melded together to form a single smooth wall that had no seam. The exposed wood showed the grain of the wood, but it was as white as any Purtan granite might hope to be. Along the top of the wall were carved lines of power. Delicate, complex, but easy to follow, the magic was truly Purtan. The lines glowed softly in both welcome and warning. Druid ran his finger tips along the wood with great appreciation and approval of it. Whoever had built it had done so with care and with thoughts of the lands of Purt.
They were stopped at the gate by a guard who wore a uniform of dark green with sapphire rope braiding on it, gold bands were across his arms, and a sash of yellow – all the colors working well together. He belonged to the army of Purt; his homeland shown by his belt was Amdor. He served the new Purtan emperor, not the king of Galuerant – or the colors would be reversed.
“Names and purpose,” he said, with a clipboard in his hand.
“I am called Zou and this is my mentor, Druid,” Zou said. “We are headed to Ulam Bac that I might find a place in service to the Emperor.”
The guards smiled and nodded. “Where are you from?” he asked, easily writing it all down.
“Fossa,” Druid said.
“Hmm, how is it down there? I heard it’s pretty rough, that the last few winters have devastated the crops.”
“It’s hard. People suffer,” Druid said simply.
“It is too bad,” the man said sadly. “All they need do is turn to the regent or the emperor to declare the rightful king and aid will come.” He shook his head. “The greed and corruption of the courts is shocking. They would fight over ranks and thrones while their people suffer like that…” he shook his head. “Welcome in then. No magic in the village, we ask, so that we have no storms triggered. There is a bishop at the church if you wish to ask any questions of faith of him; there are three inns and various shops, as well as the train station, of course. There is also, I must add, a jail. This is an imperial town and the emperor’s laws will be enforced. If you wish to know them, they are posted at the train station…the basics, anyway.” He smiled and let them in.
The energy shifted as soon as they entered. It was pleasant here. The village was well-kept, clean, and shielded. It was safe. Neither the goblins nor their allies would get in here. Both Druid and Zou let out a breath of relief and laughed at each other.
“How about a meal and a bath? Maybe some new clothes?” Druid offered. He hated to admit it, but he did like to shop for Zou. The wealth he had piled up over the centuries was finally being put to a use. Zou smiled, excited at the idea. His clothes were getting just a bit small and were terribly worn.
“Lead on,” he said. Druid smiled at the day. Zou had never been asked what he saw Druid as, and to hear him be called a mentor was both odd and heart-warming. He glanced up to watch the white eagle settle on the peak of a building, watching them with quiet protectiveness. There was no doubt the eagle was for Zou and that he was far more than just a bird. Druid again bowed his head to the bird and took Zou to get new clothes.
The tavern was far nicer than most they went to. It was spread out with an open floor plan and high ceilings of golden pine. The food smelled wonderfully of herbs and garlic. The stone floor was clean, the tables polished, the mood relaxed and comfortable. They sat at a small table near a window looking out over the track where the train would roll past on its way to the station just down the street. On the far side of the track was a small church with an attached wing of small apartments and a park-like yard about it. Everything about it seemed to whisper of peace and tranquility.
Druid let his mind wander as he watched the yard beyond. He came back to himself only as Zou shifted, making his chair drag on the stone floor a little. Zou had bought new pants and blouse, as well as a very nice vest that was embroidered with bold lines of red and blue in a pattern of leaves and birds. It suited his dark skin well and made his eyes seem darker than they were.
Zou’s focus was not on Druid or the yard though. His attention was on a woman at another table. He was trying not to look at her, as she was not alone, but he couldn’t help it. Druid glanced over. The woman was pretty to say the least. She was a human in her late twenties perhaps. She sat with a book that she was reading, while the man she as with sat turning a glass of wine, his eyes lost out to the yard beyond. The man was far more impressive to Druid. He was dressed plainly, but Druid could see him almost glowing, like running a hand over static on a blanket at night, little flashes of power seemed to flicker on him when he shifted.
He was a Purtan man who had once had red hair, but it was mostly white now. He wore it braided and tucked under itself. The man looked over at Druid, as if feeling eyes on him. Druid knew the man shifted a wizard’s shielding, but Druid was not a wizard by the term Purtans were. It changed nothing. Druid saw the man as a tree might, or a bird, or a river… he bowed his head in respect of the whiteness of the man’s power and of the mass amount of it before he looked back to Zou.
“She is pretty, but she is not your type,” he said.
“Not my type? I don’t have a type, Druid. I don’t even know any women. I want to…” he blushed suddenly and dropped his eyes. “I mean I want to know one, as a friend, like to…” he huffed at his own flustered state. Druid laughed a little.
“I know. You will. But she is not the type you will desire for more then a few nights at most. You are a creature of wind and magic, not of books and rules. She will bore you. You need a woman with a sword at her hip, a stallion between her knees, and a crown on her head.”
Zou laughed. “A queen then? I do not think I will ever know a queen.”
“Not all things are as they are said, Zou. If she seems to you to wear a crown, then to you she does; if she has the heart of a warrior, then a warrior she is. She might be a street dancer, or a seamstress, or even a maid in a tavern. A warning, though, for such women – they are like lions; you do not seek to tame them. They will devour you if they so choose or they will stand up to dragons for you. Invite them to walk with you and if they say no, let it be. They might say no, but if you walk away they might well just walk with you.”
“For a man who lives in the swamp, you seem to know a lot about women.”
Druid laughed and leaned back in his chair. “Just advice, Zou; if you take it or not is up to you.”
Zou smiled, his eyes darted back to the woman and he shifted again with a laugh at himself. “What do you suppose she is reading?”
“Oh, I would guess something about history or buildings or some such thing you and I would be glad someone knows, but is painfully boring to us.”
“Maybe I like such things,” he challenged with an open grin.
“Then I shall begin to buy you such books so you might learn to talk to library girls.”
They turned to look as a train rushed past them. They could feel the floor rumble a little, but there was next to no sound. It was black with polished silver accent lines. The engine rushed past so fast, they barely saw it. Cars followed with rows of windows that seemed to have people in them, but it was hard to say.
“Train to Wageinheim,” a man called from the door. “Train to Kill-Abben coming in shortly.”
They stood from the table to make their way to the station for the train to Kill-Abben. They walked down the street after others who moved to get in line. At the station, which was built very like the tavern, they watched the train that had just come in begin to unload. Very few passengers, all things considered. Zou stopped to watch the woman from the tavern talking to the man she had been with.
She nodded as he spoke. He seemed to not want her to go, but she was going to go and that was all there was to it. He relented with a sad nod and watched her walk for the line headed to Kill-Abben.
“Zou!” Druid called to him. Zou shook himself from watching to jog over to where Druid already had their tickets. He blushed again, caught his ticket, and climbed onboard with Druid behind him. Walking past the rapidly filling booths that lined the central aisle, they took the first empty one and slid in. Druid took the other side, setting his pack on the seat.
They were just settling down when the woman got on the train, followed by the man. He spoke to her a moment longer, then handed her a small pack. She bowed her head to him and almost curtsied. He shook his head, then got off. He gave no hug, no kiss, not even a hand-shake to say good bye; he just left. She looked for a place to sit, but the train was full.
Zou got up so quickly as she walked down the aisle that he almost hurt himself. “If you want you can sit with us,” he said in Dacan. She looked at him with a slightly confused look.
“You’re welcome to sit us,” Druid said with an amused smile. “The train seems full and we have room at the table.”
She smiled. “Thank you; I will.” She slid into the bench next to Zou, who suddenly looked like he was about to choke on his own air. Druid ignored him.
“I am called Druid,” he said. “That is Zou. What is your name?”
“Victa,” she said with a bow of her head to the both.
“Was that your father you were with?” Zou asked, mastering himself.
“No,” she laughed. “That was…a teacher,” she said not sure how to put it. It was clearly more than that, but Druid wasn’t sure how. “I came to Wagienheim to study; he is friends of my mother and he was asked to look out for me. He is not happy I am headed into what he calls a red zone.”
“You don’t seem worried,” Druid said.
She shrugged a little. “There have been no attacks on trains in or out of Kill-Abben in a year. I am certain I will be fine. I have to get back to Ulam Bac and this is far faster than heading up to Norwood and running that route. Ugh, I hate that line; it is so long and so boring. Did you know most of the north line is nothing but grassland.”
“You could read a book to relieve the boredom; it would be safer,” Zou said.
“Maybe, but my mother is not well and she asks that I come and see her before the end. She is an old woman and time is not a think I can risk not care to waste.”
“You do not look old enough to have an old mother,” Zou said.
She smiled at him. “I am older then I look. Also, she was very old when I was born. I am the last of her children and the only one still alive.”
“You do not seem sad,” Zou said.
“I’m not,” she said. “I will miss her, but she is ready and she has lived a very long life. She is happy now and eager to move on.”
“Can I get you anything?” a maid asked as the train began to move.
Victa nodded. “Yes, we will have meals and a bottle of wine, please.”
“Right away, lady,” she said and left.
“How long till we get to Kill-Abben?” Zou asked.
“It will be three days at best. Longer if there are storms or any other issues.” She dug in her pack and pulled out her book. “I have several books if you wish.” She set them on the table for Zou and Druid, even as she opened her own and settled in to read. Zou sighed, looked at them, and picked one. Druid did no such thing. He shook his head and settled back to watch the world outside the window.
After reading for an hour or so, Zou set the book back on the table. He sighed with almost annoyance. He folded his arms over his chest and looked out the window at the rain that was running down the side of the train at an angle across the glass.
“Don’t you like it?’ Victa asked.
“Honestly?’ Zou asked.
“Well, yes,” she said.
“It’s very dull,” he said. “Not only is the author clearly not a woodsmen, he has no idea what he is talking about. Besides that, the story is slow and silly at best. It is neither exciting as an adventure nor creative as a novel.”
“It’s a true story,” she said.
“It’s not,” he said, clearly aware it was no such thing. “I am telling you the author has never been on the ocean and his use of language is pathetic. I would guess the man didn’t even like women. He writes about his affair as if he was putting that in there to hide the fact he preferred goats or some such thing.”
Druid tried not to laugh, but failed somewhat.
“Goats?!” she asked shocked. “This is a very important book. It is the only one where you will find the hero to be a Razzan and it puts the magic used into context without the myths so often attached to it.”
“Razzans?” Zou asked, shocked himself. “There is nothing yet about any Razzans in this book. All I get is a bunch of false outdoors living and the attempt to seem to have a crush on some girl.”
“The hero is a Razzan; Almak is a Razzan!” she objected. Zou snorted and tossed his hand in the air with disgust.
“Nonsense. The book is rubbish.” He dropped back into the seat of the bench and glared at the window. Victa opened and closed her mouth several times with a flustered reaction to his dislike of the book.
“Anyone who is going to try and write a story about a Razzan and make them a hero should get some credit.”
“It’s pointless if he has no idea what he is writing about. It’s a fantasy and foolishness.”
“I do not think that making a book about a Razzan all that hard,” Druid said. “At different times and in different places every race and religion has been disliked by others.”
“Razzan’s are a little different then say… elves,” she objected. “We aren’t in such good terms with elves right now, but you could write or read a hundred books about elven heroes.”
“That may be, but honestly, I am not much a book man. What I know I know from the work of my hands.”
“Reading is very important; you learn a great deal from it,” she said.
“And I am very glad you know that and strive to learn. I on the other hand prefer my own way.” He smiled at Zou to say that he had told him about this one. Zou sighed and relaxed.
Druid leaned back comfortably; it was late and he would be able to sleep just fine on the cushioned seat. They had another two days of travel at least.
Kill-Abben was said to be a city state as much as one was to be found in Purt. It was massive and held more people in it than all of Et and Fossa combined. Many of them were homeless and uncounted, but obviously there. The poverty was shocking to most who came to the city. There was no way to maintain power and there was no way to enforce laws, so those who had the might enforced what they wanted.
Trade here was so black the Emperor had stripped his banners from it. The guilds had been mandated to either enforce guild laws or to step out of the city altogether – and they had stepped out with a bow. While most of Gauleraunt was being slowly rebuilt under the new emperor despite land wars and power struggles, Kill-Abben seemed worse than ever.
Even as the train neared it, both Druid and Zou could feel the place like a heavy cloud. The air stank long before the sight, smoke, or filth reached them.
This train, however, did not run though the city, but stopped and then headed back to Amdor. They had to get off the train, get tickets to go eastward, and get on another train. Bodies crushed and jostled for the door.
Zou, Druid, and Victa were nearing the door when Victa pushed back away from it. Her face had gone white and she looked scared. “Do you have a place to stay?” she asked fearfully. Druid could see whatever shields she had been wearing were slipping under her fear.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her, pulling her aside.
“There is an evil…” she looked toward the window. “I must get through. I cannot be taken by her.”
“Druid, it’s her,” Zou said pushing back from the window as he looked for whatever evil Victa was clearly afraid of. He had a very good idea whom the young woman was referring to and another fight with her was nothing Druid wanted. He pushed back, just as concerned as Victa was scared.
Druid caught them both to him, one by each arm. “Breathe! Both of you just breathe. Her magics will feel fear faster than her eyes will spot you.” He drug them back up the train, away from the door.
“You can’t get off this way,” a train man said. “You have to get off at the door.”
“She forgot her pack,” Druid lied. “We just have to find it and then we’ll be off.”
The man sighed at them. “Fine, go on, then, but hurry.”
Druid nodded and pulled the two young people with him. He didn’t take them down the length of the train at all, but ducked into a cabin. Forcing the window open, he tore out the screen facing the back side of the train. Zou, wasting no time, jumped up, caught the lip, and slipped out of the train to the yard below. Victa looked worried, but took a deep breath and followed suit. She didn’t move with half his grace, but she did make it out. Druid slipped after them and dropped to the yard, even as Zou helped Victa move out of his way.
There was no time to spare. He pulled them down the track at a run. They raced past the engine of the train and up the track to the outside again. They had to get out of the Train Barn before they were known to have slipped out. If they were caught in here and Druid had to fight her here, hundreds, possibly thousands would get hurt.
He sent Zou racing ahead, while he ran with the young woman, who was so afraid she could barely move.
“Keep going,” Zou grabbed her as they came around the end of the wall, spinning her to run another direction, up a side street. Following a step behind, Zou caught Victa as she stumbled. They tore around another corner and out into the street where the traffic from the train station sluggishly worked its way out into the city.
Beggars lined the street, hands out for any who passed, desperate for coins or food. Carts, mounted men, and those on foot crushed together so thickly that the three of them were lost to the crowd and had no more luck pushing through than anyone did.
She was here and she was far from alone. They had walked right into her stronghold. This was very bad. Druid kept them moving long after the girl had calmed. The evil woman was following with care to be discrete, but Druid could feel her on the web of energy under him.
Somehow he had the feeling it was not he and Zou that she was after, but the girl. He had to know why. He aimed them toward a park and found it nearly as full as the street. Here people camped for lack of anything better. The stink of the city was pure filth and disease was breeding; it would not be long until the population of Kill-Abben would crash. His heart ached for the children, but more pressing matters kept him moving.
He found a tree large enough and motioned. Zou jumped up and vanished into the limbs above. Low clouds were moving in to hide even the light of the moons and soon it would be utterly dark.
“Why is she after you?” Druid demanded of Victa. “If you want my help, you will tell me right now.”
The woman caught her breath, almost crashing into tears again. She drew in her breath slowly and mastered herself. “I am a letter carrier. I have important news for the Emperor,” she said softly. “If she takes me, she will not only have a vessel to slip into the palace, but will know all that I know and it would be better if I were to just die right here, right now. Not that I want to,” she added quickly.
Druid almost growled and motioned. He had no time to make her climb the tree. The woman and her guards were already at the park. He grabbed Victa and pressed back into the tree, shifting energy to hide against and with it.
Darkness became a realm of light, as energy painted a picture of all that was happening. Everything seemed to cast its own faint glow, as if candles were set about everything… everything but the woman herself. She sucked light. She looked old, twisted, and grotesque. It almost looked to him as if little black beetles were crawling all over her, eating her, and yet holding her flesh smooth for the realm of men to see. Her beauty came at a price, a very dark and vile price.
The group was nearing in, but Victa was still, quiet in his arms, safe in the energy of the tree. He prayed the darkness of the night would hide them from mere eyes and that his tricks would hide them from other ways of seeing.
The men and the evil woman closed in on the tree, calmly, with stalking patience. They were only yards away when she stopped and looked north.
“Let’s go,” she said in Awens. “It’s only a stupid girl,”
“There is something else here,” a man said, resting his hand on the tree trunk, not a foot away from Druid. He looked up to where Zou was hiding.
“Forget it. I am done walking about in the filth.” She turned and strode away at a much faster pace than she had followed them. The man slowly backed away and followed her, but with the same reluctance as she might have if she had any idea who was in the tree. Her men were not like her, but they were not good men. Every one of them was black-hearted and smelled of death and blood. Druid stayed where he was long after they had gone.
When he released Victa, she gasped and nearly collapsed to the ground.
“Time to go,” Druid said to Zou, who dropped down softly.
“I don’t know what she smelled off to the north, but it was very good for us, I think,” Zou said, helping Victa up. Even as the girl struggled to get her breath back, they moved. Druid wanted out of this city. He doubted they would get another chance.
The fighting started without any real warning. The streets had been full of shouting day and night, but tonight it changed; there was the clash of weapons and screams of pain. Druid moved to the window in time to see fire spring up over the filth in the street. People were running away from something, screaming. A woman with a child was cut down as she fled by a man on a horse. She fell with her back slashed open, the child falling from her. Druid turned away feeling sick.
Zou was already getting up from the bed on the floor.
“Fire! Fire! The building is on fire!” a man yelled as he ran past the room that they shared with a dozen other people. Below in the halls, new screaming was heard.
“Out the window,” Druid ordered Zou as he pulled Victa up to her feet. “Come on,” he pulled her out after him. In the night they could see fire was everywhere; men on horses were killing anyone and everyone with no regard for who they were or their age.
They ran down the roof of the inn, looking for a path to take along the roofs, but there was just no way that Victa could hope to jump them in her skirts. He and Zou might have been able to do it, but she just had no hope.
They clambered down from the building that was now on fire, the doors being barred by the men on horseback.
They had to get to the train tracks and out of the city. They had crossed the city for days now and were almost to the track house that would take them out of Kill-Abben and into Kain. They could walk safely from there, as safe as anywhere right now.
They didn’t get far when a mounted man charged at them. Druid let the man charge until the last moment and then threw up his hand. The horse reacted and spun, rearing up on his back legs, leaving the man struggling for a grip.
Druid grabbed the man off the back of the horse and threw him to the ground. He grabbed the man’s head in his hands and slammed it as hard as he could to the street, crushing the back of the man’s head. He grabbed the sword, even as Zou caught the horse.
“Get her up on that thing!” he ordered. Zou helped Victa up into the saddle. He grabbed the horse’s head and looked into its eyes, as he would any of his beasts. “Get her out of this city safely; take her to the Ulam Bac with all the speed you can!”
The horse snorted, turned, and galloped away so fast the woman had to cling to its back. Rid of the burden and yet having given her every chance to escape, Druid now could focus on himself and Zou.
“They can’t do this!” Zou shouted over the roar of fire and the screaming from buildings and side streets. “They can’t do this!” The young man sense of justice flared and righteous rage was about to get them into trouble again.
“We are only two men; we cannot take on an army!”
“No, but we can kill those who bar doors and let the people out of the fire traps.” He turned and ran for the nearest door where a man on horseback stood watch over a building that was on fire with men trapped inside. The man laughed at what he took to be a boy running at him. He was very mistaken when that boy jumped and kicked him in the chest, right out of the saddle. Druid was right behind Zou; he tore the bar free and jerked the door open. Smoke and people poured out.
Zou grabbed the horse and swung up into the saddle. Druid had no choice but to follow the young man as he attacked the next man on a horse. Druid pulled that man out of the saddle as Zou fought him with the sword that he had taken from his first victim. Druid snapped the man’s neck and taking this one’s sword, he tossed it to the strongest looking man on the ground that he could spot. He swung up on the man’s horse and joined Zou, who had already moved on.
They crashed into a yard full of mounted men and attacked headlong. Druid nearly cheered when he saw a black lion leap off a roof top to take a man down from the far side, throwing horses and men into confusion. With a scream, a white eagle shot out of the sky to rip the face off a mounted man.
Clearly they had not expected such an attack and a number of them went down very quickly. Druid stood in his stirrups and cast his voice to the horses, speaking in the language of his grandfather.
“Be free of evil riders! Crush them under your hooves!” He didn’t know if it would work; maybe two or three might react. All at once the horses went wild. They began to wildly buck and twist. Biting at each other’s riders and crushing any who fell, the herd reacted together to be rid of evil men. Zou fell back in shock, his and Druid’s horses alone stayed sane. Even after the riders were down, the horses crushed them to nothing but a bloody mash in the yard.
“Take riders worthy of you or take none! Be free as warriors of Purt fighting for the light, blessed by angels and gods!” he called to them and thanked them for the huge task they had just done. The horses stopped their assault. Some moved to men who had come up behind the Zou and Druid. Others charged down the side street tossing their manes and screaming with rage.
Zou looked to his friend. “How did you do that?” he asked, shocked.
“Are we done now? Can we leave?” Druid asked.
Zou looked to the men who were still filling the street behind them. Many had grabbed what they could, from brooms to pick forks. Some moved to the yard to look for swords in the bloodbath; a few were mounting up on the horses that had chosen them.
“We can lead them to fight back,” Zou said. He looked to Druid with pain and pleading in his eyes. “We can give them back their will and souls.”
“You can save many souls tonight,” the lion said to him from wherever he had gone.
Druid sighed in surrender. Zou cheered and led the way up the city street to find more battles and this time it was with a small army of very angry men behind him.
They walked the horses slowly to the great yard. People had been gathered and forced to their knees. Guards with uniforms of red robes and black armor peices patrolled. On the steps at the far end, before what seemed to be a new palace, were a line of people who had been drug out of the crowd.
They were stripped bare, bound, and lined up. Most were Purtan, a few were human, even one was clearly of elven descent. It didn’t matter; they would all die to torture. The machines of their end were already set up and in the shadows near the door were blood wizards. Druid could feel them clearly.
“This is what happens,” a man on the steps called out to the crowd, “when rumors are heard that you wish to call on the would-be emperor of Purt! Kill-Abben does not heed the words or the weakness of Ulam Bac! The only thing we have in common is that both are city states and the law of its ruler holds. This is the fault of you who speak of the desire to appeal for aid! There is no aid!”
People were weeping and sinking to the ground. It was terrible.
“These,” the man went on pointing to the victims, “have one chance to live through the night! They have been charged with treason!” he roared. “For it, they are nothing but beasts now. For that, out of my mercy,” he sneered, “I offer a safe way out. If they can hold the seed of one of the worthy, then they shall be spared!”
A very young woman was grabbed. She screamed and tried to struggle as she was brought to the man on the steps.
“I, as your king, warn you again: do not think to challenge me!” He was already tugging at his belt when Zou stood up in his stirrups.
“Have you ever seen such a fat jackass? Since when does Purt allow a donkey to bray on the steps like he has a voice? He thinks he is a king!” Zou said, clearly shocked, in a voice that could be heard all around.
“Oh, Zou,” Druid sighed.
“Does all it take to be a king of Kill-Abben is to rape a child and bellow like a walrus in heat?”
The men behind them laughed. One of them started to bellow and another to bray like a donkey. Already guards were moving toward them.
“Oh, come on now!” Zou pointed at the wizards. “You who suck your power off the screams of children, come and see how real wizards play!” he stood up and pointing to the sky, he shouted wordlessly, but opened his heart. With a crack that was deafening, the sky flickered with light. He pointed to the king and out of the sky lightning exploded. It struck the man, reducing him to a statue of black char and bone for a moment before it collapsed. “Get out of the way or be trampled!” he roared at the crowd. His horse reared and he charged. Already a storm was exploding over them. Zou’s magic had once again set it off.
This time, however, Zou had not acted without thought or reason. Druid let his horse charge forward at the blood wizards; they were the ones to worry about, but they were already fleeing. Zou was not about to let that happen. Druid was caught in the fight with the guards, but they fought half-heartedly, as they had just seen their king turned to charcoal and shattered bone.
As the bloods tried to escape to the shelter of the house, someone had already bolted the door. From the side of the yard appeared a horse with rage in his eyes and blood up to his mane. He charged the step and attacked. The blood wizard’s magics shattered off him as if he wore a shield. The horse was not even slowed. He crushed a blood wizard under his feet as Zou took the head off another. Druid dismounted to attack on foot.
The storm unleashed its fury, ending the battle for most. Rain poured out of the sky as Druid, the lion, the horse, Zou, and the eagle ripped down the blood wizards. Standing over the dead, out of breath and nearly blind with rain, they turned to see the yard still full of men.
Lightning cracked and lit the yard. The doors behind them swung open under the might of a young man.
“Come in!” he yelled.
Zou and Druid led the other fighters inside; many rode their horses right into the great front hall. Zou wiped rain and blood from his face. He smiled at Druid a bit sheepishly.
“That wasn’t so bad was it?” he asked.
Druid laughed softly and shook his head. “Are you hurt at all?”
“No,” Zou replied after checking to make sure he wasn’t bleeding. He stopped and looked at the white eagle, who was hobbling toward him, his wing clearly broken. Zou moved to grab him up.
“You have set us free from the man who claimed kingship. Will you not be our king?” a man asked Zou.
Zou looked at him shocked. “Only the emperor can make a king. It is not up to the people. It is a divine right, made in the soul before birth. Only the emperor can feel it and know who is king.”
“But you have a white eagle!” another called.
“No,” Zou said to them. “This is a white eagle, yes, but he is injured and needs healing; he came to me for that alone. He is not mine.”
“Tonight,” Druid called to them, “you have won the right to call on the emperor for aid. He will give it.”
“The emperor has not helped us yet.”
“He will,” Druid promised. “Send runners, – tell him you have removed the man who claimed kingship and wish him to come to your aid and name a true king. He will.”
“Have you not heard?” Zou asked as he stepped forward lifting his hands. His manner and his exotic appearance made all eyes turn to him and the hall to rapidly fall silent. “Awens has the Light of Kings; Ulam Bac glows with the blessing of Armond himself. The emperor is the son of Armond, but in this time of war and strife, as a warrior and a soul tasked with rebuilding Purt, he has been renamed Von Shannon. His wife is human woman, the mother of Armond!” he nearly yelled at them. “Turn to her! She is your benefactor, she will send you aid and seek fairness and give you hope. We, as the men of Purt, must stand together as brothers, with the emperor and against evil, not scrabble for the scraps of corrupt and evil men.”
“How?” a man asked. “How do we ask him?”
“Send letters, send runner, too many for the evil men who would grab the throne to stop. All you need is one to get through.”
“We can’t write,” another said. “Who can do that?”
“I can,” Druid said. “Bring me paper and pen and I will write for you; all you need do is put your thumb prints on them and he will know it is true.”
“You would do that for them?” Zou asked softly.
“We need to get moving, Zou; we have enemies far more dangerous than a perverse fat man. We cannot be here. If this hurries things along, then so be it, but we must hurry.”
Paper was found somewhere and a pen was brought. Druid picked up the pen and wrote on the paper. When he was done, he held it up for the breathless crowd.
“I wrote this…. ‘To his Divine Majesty, Lord and King of Norwood, Son of Armond, Emperor of All Purt, Tyredelle Vel Armond Von Shannon. We, the men and women of Kill-Abben, have been brutally assaulted for seeking to beg aid. In response to the burning of our homes and buildings with doors locked and loved ones inside, we have risen in revolt. The man who claimed kingship falsely has been executed. We hold the palace, but we are not warriors. We beg your aid before other would-be lords with armies arrive to remove us. We lift out hands and our wills to you. Please help us. Give us a true king, bring us back to the grace of angels’…. will that work?”
“Yes,” a man said; the affirmative was whispered throughout.
“Then come up and wipe your thumb on the ink pad and press it to the pages of the letters and send them at once, via different routes.” He reached into his wallet and spilled out a fistful of coins, “to pay the messengers.” He laid his letter on the stack of paper, closed his eye and bowed his head. There was a pause before light flushed though the page. His plain black ink became green and shimmered as it imprinted on every page under the one he had written.
Zou reached for the pen. “Druid, I think we should sign at least one.”
Druid debated, then took the pen and wrote a stunning glyph on one page. The ink shimmered gold. Zou wrote simply ‘Zou’ under it.
“Now, Zou, we need to go.” He paused to show one man how to press his thumb. “Every letter needs your print, so if only one gets through, you stand with the men who will be honored by him. Show them how, let them know.” He took hold of Zou’s elbow and guided him through the crowd for the door.
“He is in pain,” he said of the eagle in his arm.
“We will mend it on the train, for now we must go.”
The city was in utter chaos as mobs of men roamed the city, burning guard houses, manors, guild halls, tax offices; anything that seemed to represent authority was a target. The rage against the lords of Kill-Abben had been unleashed and would turn to harm for others soon enough. Druid wanted out and fast. All he could hope was that the mess of energy and fighting would confuse their trail.
The madness had carried far beyond the inner city and reached out far enough that the worry became the trains themselves. If they had stopped running, escape would become rapidly less likely. Zou carried the eagle under his cloak. The bird was still, curled up in pain, his wing limp. Druid could almost feel the pain he was in, but they had to get to safety before he could work with him.
“Hurry, a train is just starting to roll. If you cut ahead and run, you can catch it,” the lion told him. Druid burst into a run; Zou followed at once. They took a narrow side street for the train tracks, not the station at all. Druid reached and had no trouble running up and jumping onto the side steps, catching the handle.
Burdened with the eagle, Zou was not so lucky. With a shout he tossed the bird to Druid, who caught him as the train lurched forward with speed. Zou was rapidly falling behind.
“Get on!” Druid roared at him. If Zou did not, he would have to jump off. Zou reached for the next train car steps, but missed. “Zou!” Druid shifted the eagle to get ready to jump, but Zou caught the third car’s handrail. His feet caught at the ground with the speed. Druid swore, but Zou managed to pull himself onto the step.
Druid ducked into the car, shoved past the passengers in his way to race down the three cars to Zou. The young man sat on the platform at the top of the steps. His knees were torn up and bloody. He was too shaky to even seem to notice.
Druid passed the eagle to Zou. He pulled of his pack to dig out a bandage roll. As fast as he could, he used his canteen to wash the blood from Zou’s knees. The tears were fairly deep, but nothing critical. The trouble was the blood itself. Those that hunted them would have Zou’s blood in their noses. Bowing his head, he laid his hands on each knee. He had never worked the magic he began to draw up on any person, only on animals. He had planned to use it on the eagle, but they had to hide Zou before the train left the city.
He felt the pressure build up in his lower gut, rise up his spine, seep into his brain and radiate down his arms. Only then did he direct it. Zou made a gasp of pain and almost pulled away. Druid could not care; he had to mend the wounds. It was impossible to tell how long it took, but he knew when it was done.
Druid opened his eyes slowly. Color bled together, the energy of all things softly radiated from its source, including Zou. Zou had a deep power that was sealed up, hidden and locked away, but Druid could see it in his chest, like a slumbering star not yet ready to explode into life. Zou had pressed himself back against the wall, his body tense, with tears on his cheeks from the pain. He stared at the sky above the gap between the train cars and tried to keep from crying.
“I’m sorry, Zou. We had to stop the bleeding,” Druid said softly.
“I know…” Zou answered, his voice shaky.
“Zou,” Druid told him softly, “breathe. I will not abandon you. I was getting ready to jump, do you understand? You will not have to fight alone.”
Zou let out the fear in his chest and broke down in tears. Druid held his shoulders and put his forehead to the teenager’s head. When Zou had stilled his weeping, Druid took the eagle in his arms and pulled Zou to his feet. They had just gotten up when the train master stepped out.
“Tickets,” he said holding out his hands.
“You already took our tickets,” Druid said to him, letting his own will push at the man’s unshielded mind. He normally never used that trick, but right now they needed no more trouble.
“That’s right. I already took them. Thank you, sir.”
With an arm around his shoulders, Druid guided Zou inside the car. They took the first empty cabin. Inside Druid locked the door as Zou sank to the bench. Druid took the bird who was being remarkably good through this all, and set him on the side table. Carefully he took the broken wing and began to examine it. The bird panted in pain, but allowed him to work.
“Normally I would just mend you,” he told the bird in his own language, “but I had to help Zou; you understand I hope. We’ll splint you up until I can mend the bones.” He dug for anything he could use to bind up the wing and settled on the handle of a cooking spoon. He broke off the end and used the shaft. With the bandage, he carefully saw to the wing as best as he could without damaging the feathers too badly.
“Both of you rest,” Druid said, taking the other bench. “I have to sleep to recover.”
Zou nodded. Druid laid on his side on the short bench as best he could and slipped off to sleep, hoping they had escaped the city without being tracked. It was a long empty stretch to cross the plains of Spizen with no place to run and no place to hide.
Waking after such a deep use of magic always took effort. In the swamps he usually crawled into a tree and slept for days at a time. This time, however, Zou woke him.
“Druid,” he shook the man’s shoulder again. “Druid, wake up.”
The fear and concern in Zou’s voice made Druid peel his eyes open. It took him a long moment to focus and remember where he was. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
“We stopped. The track has been damaged. It will take days to repair.”
Druid pushed himself up. The chance that this track at this moment had gone bad at the loneliest part of the empire was unlikely. Struggling to clear his head he sat up, so tired his bones hurt.
“Druid are you alright?” Zou asked worried.
“It’s just what happens after I use that spell. I had hoped we would have days I could sleep it off.” He rubbed at his eyes. “It’s alright, Zou, I’m just tired.” He took a moment to breathe deeply and seek aid from the life around him. Energy lifted to him, whispering off the vast sea of grass around them. He thanked the grassland as he got to his feet. “Do you know how far we are?”
“Three days into Spizen.”
“Three days? How long have I been asleep?”
“Almost five days,” Zou whispered. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“No, not really. I will be later though. Come on.”
Zou offered his arm to the eagle. The bird stood from his nest of a blanket on the table. He carefully walked up Zou’s arm to his shoulder.
“Careful of those talons, Zou. Not even meaning to, he could puncture you to the bone.”
“I am trying not to think about it too much,” Zou said. “He told me he wouldn’t hurt me.”
“He talks to you still?”
“I guess so. I was worried about you; he said you needed to sleep and that he would not hurt me, that’s all.”
“Interesting,” Druid looked at the utterly white eagle. He had never seen such a bird before and while he was aware that the bird was a Familiar, he had assumed he came out of curiosity, not to bond to Zou. “That explains why he was so patient and didn’t hurt us before.” He offered his hand. The eagle bowed his head to expose the back of his neck. Druid smiled and scratched at his neck a little. “The more allies we have, the better.”
They left the cabin to join others who had wandered out of the train to mill about along the side of the track. The central rail that connected to the magics of the train cars had gone dark. The energy lines had been broken and drained of power. It was no mere accident.
Druid shifted his pack on his shoulder and headed east. They left the track behind to cut out into the open landscape, away from people and straight for Ulam Bac. They were not going to wait or follow expected trails.
“Once we are over the ridge line, we will pick up speed and gain some distance. I want to be as far from that train by dark as possible.”
They made their way slowly up the slope. Druid picked herbs as he went, kneeling by them to touch them, smell them, even taste a few before moving on.
“What are you doing?”
“Learning the language,” Druid said. “Also, making it seem we are just out for a stroll. We stand out a bit here.”
“I stand out no matter where I go.”
“I didn’t mean like that.” Druid looked up from touching a small fuzzy grey leafed plant. “I meant that the two of us as men stand out for having left the crowd and being the only men out here. We need to know the language to fit into the landscape.”
“That’s all it takes for you? To touch them?”
“It takes an openness of heart, a surrender to listen to their wisdom. Plants breathe their awareness in a course of day, in and out. Forests breathe season to season. You must slow yourself to match them. I was several thousands of years old before I could do it. I do not expect you to learn in a few dozen years.”
He stood and looked to the southeast. “The lands of Purt are trying very hard to be heard right now. They want me to stop and listen. They want to tell me of things that have happened and are happening and might yet happen, but first,” he looked to Zou and smiled, “let’s get you someplace safe.”
Zou did not like it. The wind was cold, the grass was coarse, and the little bits of dirt that blasted his face were less than pleasant. He looked at the land that surrounded them. It was certainly not his favorite. Part of him missed the salt deserts and the beating heat of the sun.
The hills and course grass seemed to go on endlessly with neither mark nor tree to break the view or offer landmark. He did not care for Spizen.
“It’s cold,” he said with a scowl.
“Today it is, but I bet when the spring hits these hills, it will be stunning. The land has a grace few places do.”
“I heard once that the Lost Army was in Spizen when it got lost. Why would they come south from Ulam Bac and end up getting lost here when Norwood was where they were going?” Zou asked, pulling his collar up against the wind.
“There are places all across the earth where there are natural deep wells of power. These wells have all been tapped, one time or another, for one purpose or another. Spizen had one great such well in the time before angels and it had a great gate. The gate could open and take a full army in a moment to any of a hundred places. That gate is what took the army of the empress to the land of Razza. The Purtans did not go by sea.”
“Did Tyrell know where it was? Did he get to it?”
“He might have known the location, but he didn’t make it. If he had, the army would have gated to Norwood and all this would be very different. It seems more likely he knew the vague area and hoped to find it.”
“Maybe someone else knew and he was following them.”
“Or someone said they did and led him into a trap. He escaped only because he was powerful enough to gate his army away. They purged the land you know – Gerome and his demons – they wiped it clean so the place could not be found. The touch of his demons still lingers, but Purt itself fights back like a body healing from a wound.”
“Why would he bother to take the time?”
“To hide his involvement, I am sure.”
“Druid?” Zou asked after they had traveled for hours without talking at all.
“You told me you lived in the swamp.”
“But if you lived in the swamp and do not like books, how do you know so much about things?”
“I listen when I go to the city and I go every year. Sometimes I go more than once. I learn things from those I hunt, and sometimes the trees and beasts tell me things.” He sighed, “Just because I don’t think books are the best way to learn things does not mean I cannot read them.”
“I can read any language if the words still linger in the world. The very ancient or very secret are difficult and often take great deal of study, but common words as are obvious to me as the sunset and the moons.”
“I worry my guardian will be upset when she learns how little my study has been.”
“You might not have a great list of books you have read, Zou, but you have had a very balanced education. You know politics, religion, how to travel unseen, how to fight and hide from demons, how to use a bow or a sword, you can ride a horse, you have a Familiar, you carry the words and lore of Malkoot, and that is just to start with. I expect there will be a day when teachers will look down at you because you stumble over a word here or there, but you will learn that you know more of the subjects at hand than they do. Much of what you must study now is the ancient ritual manners of the high court. On that note, you need to stand up a bit straighter, even when hiking. Remember that your stance, how you set your foot, and how you swing your arms are all means to gather in, hold, and command power. You become empowered by your every move.”
Druid began to feel something as they traveled east. At first it was a whisper, as if he kept hearing something to the south. His attention kept getting drawn to whatever it was. He could almost say he was hearing something, but he didn’t know what. The large black lion came into camp and laid down by the fire. He said nothing, but set to working licking his paws of whatever it was he had caught for his dinner. Druid took his time setting up camp, then wandered to the top of the nearest hill while Zou hunted for edible anything. The pull seemed to remind him of the ruined tower on the hilltop where he had called the lion to him. Something ancient and powerful was south of them. It was impossible to say how far, but it had grown closer as they traveled, so he suspected it was not far.
As the sun set, he returned to Zou who was not real pleased with his collection of herbs. He had started a broth of them. Druid knelt by the fire a moment before he took the cooking spoon to stir the broth, whispering in the words of strength and energy. Sitting back on his heels, he watched Zou working his whet stone and dagger.
“You’re in a pensive mood tonight, Druid. Everything alright?”
“There is a calm before the storm and it feels as if one is drawing closer. I do not know if it is something to do with us or not, but a storm builds.”
Zou put away his dagger and stone. “You don’t think they followed us do you?”
“I am certain they still do, but I am not certain this storm I feel has anything to do with us. I do not like it.”
“What do I do if something happens and we get separated out here?”
“Run for Ulam Bac. I will follow. I will find you. If anything happens, you run as hard and fast as you can. If something confronts us and I tell you to run, do it. You mean more to me than anything else in this world; I will follow. Even if I have to trail behind and hide your tracks, I will find you. Do you understand?” Druid told him seriously.
Zou nodded, but looked unhappy and a little ill.
“It will be alright, Zou.”
End part 3 edits