Princes of Purt
It wasn’t going to be alright. Druid felt as if he was about to walk into a spider den. His skin prickled and his heart rate was up. He did not know the grasslands well enough to understand what he was being warned of, but it was coming close.
“Zou,” he said softly. “You remember what I told you yesterday about if anything happens?”
“Yes,” Zou said.
“I meant it. As matter of fact, I want you to run – right now,” he glanced back over his shoulder.
“To the sun, run east, due east as best as you can. The grass whispers warning at me; you need to go. You need to run. Now, Zou!” he said softly, but urgently.
Zou looked ill, doubtful, then stepped into a run heading due east. Druid kept up a steady pace, falling behind Zou. The lion was as tense as Druid was. He walked swinging his head side to side as if trying to catch the scent of whatever in the air.
Druid watched Zou disappear over the low hill to the east. He felt a little better about things with Zou out of sight and he slowed his pace. The farther Zou got, the better. Reaching into his vault, he grabbed his staff and began to breathe up power. The attack came out of nowhere. Never had he been attacked in such a way. It came from across realms.
The blow hit his chest so hard he was knocked back off his feet. The air was crushed from his lungs and his heart felt as if it had been bruised and no longer beat right. The lion leapt over him, becoming a shield. With a roar, the lion fought to stay on his feet as the attack seemed to crush him downward. Druid rolled aside, sucking in air painfully. He knew the attack was demonic, but at a level he had never had to face.
Gasping hard, he swung his staff up as he struggled to his feet and cast out a realm wave that crashed against anything close at hand on another realm, allowing him to see just where his attacker was. He saw his attacker, a massive creature that looked to be a cross between an orc and a bull. The demon wasn’t alone though.
He held dozens of men and women. They were bound by chains about their necks that attached to his belt. They lingered about him, clearly beaten down and broken. Beyond that were the ghost images of trees, an entire forest, as well as Purtan guards. They watched as if not fully awake and yet they were not bound. Somehow their souls were caught between realms and they lingered here.
Crying out and pulling on all the energy his soul had to offer, Druid cast it at the demon. The black lion was crushed down to the ground, light flickering through him and on him. Whatever the magic was that the demon used, the Familiar had no way to fight it. He could only endure and buy Druid time.
The blast of light that poured out of Druid hit the bull demon. The demon was moved back a step, but it seemed to have little affect other than that. Druid did not relent. Whoever this demon was, Druid had no choice but to win or be chained to his belt with the others; of that Druid was fairly certain.
“Help me!” Druid cried out to the wandering souls of the Purtans and the ghost trees. “Help me!” he yelled at them. The lion burst into flame with one last gasp. The bull’s attention turned on Druid. He snarled, showing cat-like teeth. The beam of light still poured from Druid’s staff, but he was drawing near the end of the fight.
It was the ghost trees that reacted, coming to his aid. One of them that the demon walked right though responded by stabbing a limb though his back. The demon swatted at it as if it was an annoying insect. Druid held his ground.
A second tree shot up a root at the demon’s feet. The trees flickered and moved, seeming to draw closer, almost as if trying to hedge in the demon. Druid called out to the plains, to the grass, to Purt herself to aid him. There was no way he could fight this thing alone.
Irritated by the trees in his way and their pricking at him with their ghost limbs, the demon lifted his hand and drew down power. Druid felt it coming, but had no defense against it. He was for a moment like a mouse under a lion’s paw. He grit his teeth and still held his ground. His only hope was that the power of the banishment reached a point to cast the demon back to the abyss.
Druid took a step back, ready for the pain that he fully expected.
“Help me!” he cried out to any power in Purt who was against ancient evils. Rumor was the angels were taking an active role; maybe, just maybe, they would help him, or perhaps these lost souls of Purt would shake off their daze and come to his aid.
The last thing he expected was for another demon to answer. He materialized just as the attack came. He was stunning in every way. His robes were night sky swirling with stars, his black wings were graceful, yet bat-like; his hair was the deepest red and his skin so white it seemed he had never seen the sun.
He lifted his hand and shattered the attack. The bull demon snarled, but took a step back.
“Shannon…” he growled. “This is none of your business!” The demon’s voice hit Druid with such unexpected force he was dropped to his knees grabbing his ears in pain.
“Everything in Purt is my business.”
“The Druid is mine. I laid claim before you were born.”
“The Druid is mine!” Shannon snarled. “I am Norwood; all Druids are mine. One day I will take them all back. Be content that I allow you to simply leave.”
“No,” the bull demon shot back, “you might have the power of Purt when you walk the world, but here you are one of us.” He lifted his hand to attack. Shannon was faster. Black power shot out of his hands into the demon’s chest. Ice cracked out over the grassland. The ghost trees wavered and vanished at its touch, but the Purtan souls seemed to wake as if doused in cold water.
The pain Druid felt was like nothing he had ever endured. It was as if all the moisture on his skin had frozen, that his lungs were both crushed and about to explode. His lips split and breathing seemed utterly impossible.
The bull staggered back with a roar of rage, his own spell failing. Shannon was relentless. He did not falter or slow, but hit the demon again with another spell that left Druid weeping and gasping for air. Peeling open his eyes, he watched as the bull demon was driven back until with a staggering step he swirled into nothing and was gone.
Druid struggled to suck in air. There was one moment where he met the stunning demon’s eyes, then Shannon was hit hard with a banishment. For a moment a look of angry irritation crossed his face, followed by concern – but not for himself it seemed. Then he was gone as fast as he had appeared.
“Now that was interesting,” a woman said. Druid struggled to make tears to save his burning eyes. “How in the hells did you managed to summon Shannon? As far as I know, only my son can manage that.”
The woman that Druid had fought before had caught up to him. She circled around Druid, who still held his chest, simply trying to breathe. He bowed his head. He was utterly drained of energy; he was burned inside and out and was pretty sure the metallic taste in his mouth was more than a split lip. His nose had to be bleeding.
“You know you’re not even that bad-looking. I might keep you around for a while. I have not had a baby in decades now. Finding a father worthy of siring such energy as I demand has become truly a challenge.” She grabbed his hair and jerked his head up. “They really did a number on you,” she said amused. “Your pain is exhilarating. Now tell me where the boy is. One does not allow the son of David Sailor to simply wander off.”
Druid still could not breathe, but he was not unarmed. She was already so close and so unprotected. He took hold of her shoulder for support, still so badly hurt he could not stay steady. She actually laughed at him. Druid fell toward into her, pulling her to him and drove his dagger into her, up under her rib cage, toward her heart.
She shoved him back, grabbing her side with a shriek of rage. He fell on his side coughing for lack of air. She grabbed his own staff off the ground. Blood pouring down her side, she slammed it down into his gut. The feeling was like getting punched, but was so less than the burning of his skin and lungs that he actually laughed at her a little.
Wheeling, she vanished again though her gate. Druid laid his head back. Stabbed to the ground by his own staff, the irony was fairly sad. Saved by a demon to die at the hands of a necromancer. Hopefully she was about to join him in death, wherever she was.
Zou jerked awake. The moon offered light in ever-shifting patterns as clouds raced across the night sky. He was alone. The eagle was gone, Druid was gone, and now even the fire had gone out. His body ached from the long run and the subsequent fall down a ravine. He was bruised, battered, and lost.
He moved to try to breathe life back to the fire. It had been years since they had used the elementals to make fire, but tonight he was about to when he saw a form shambling down the far slope. His mouth went dry with fear. He did not move, but froze in place. He watched in the shifting moonlight to see what it was. The staff was what gave it away. The cord of gems and beads hanging from the top caught the light just right. Zou got up, forgetting his own bruises, to run to Druid. As he drew closer, he slowed. Druid held his stomach as he shuffled, a low limping motion.
“Druid,” Zou said softly. His voice seemed to echo in the still of the night. Druid stopped. With trembling effort he lifted his head.
“Zou…” Druid collapsed to his knees. Zou raced to him and helped him up, and all but carried him to the camp. Without thought, he made the fire roar up and only then saw the condition Druid was in. He cried out, seeing how blood-soaked Druid was, the bit of intestine that was being held onto by a bloody hand. He could see the burned skin, eyes red as if every blood vessel had exploded, lips cracked and chapped.
“No, no, no…” Zou didn’t know what to do.
Druid let go of his gut to find Zou’s hand.
“Zou,” he used what strength he had to hold the young man’s hand. “If I don’t do this thing, I will die. I had to find you, I had to let you know, but I understand now.” Pain made him shudder.
“What thing?” Zou cried. “Druid…”
“I know I promised never to leave and I will find you just as soon as I can, but if I do not do this now, I will die. Do you understand?”
Druid rolled to his side and pressed his staff into Zou’s hand. “I will seek you out as soon as I can, but you must not wait. You must go to the emperor, you must seek his aid. I do not know if she is dead, but I hurt her for sure. You must run and not stop.”
“Druid, I don’t understand…” Zou watched as Druid forced himself up with a small cry of pain.
“I’m sorry, Zou. I love you like a son, remember that.” He lifted his hand upward. Zou cried out as power swirled out of Druid, spinning about him; he began to grow; to alter, so shift into something else, something massive. Zou had to scramble back as Druid shifted. As the light of the power was traded for the first light of dawn, Druid was gone. In his place stood a massive tree, its trunk ancient, gnarled, and twisting upward. Great boughs spread out in a vast canopy. There were no leaves, no sign of life at all, but it was still early spring.
Zou got to his feet, stumbling to the tree. He ran his hands over the ancient bark. It was rough and layered, but warm. He had always known Druid was old, but to see it this way put an entirely new concept of how old into Zou’s mind. He collapsed to knees, hands and forehead against the tree and wept. He was going to have to go on alone and whatever had done this to Druid was possibly still out there.
Zou jerked awake. Nightmares of a demon dressed as a wolf had plagued him. He rolled up to catch his breath; sweat-covered and heart pounding, he looked to Druid for advice, but he was alone. The earth had been churned up by the vast network of roots that raced out from the great tree he had slept under. Choking on his breath, he remembered.
Looking down at himself, he saw Druid’s dried blood on his hands and clothes. He knew Druid would have died, but not since Druid had saved him from the ship had he been without him for more than a few hours. How could he hope to survive alone in this world, being hunted by something that had nearly killed Druid.
Making himself breathe, trying to prove himself a good and strong student, he looked up at the branches so high above him he could not even guess at the height. He struggled to calm himself and to find the courage to leave the shadow of the tree. He leaned a hand on the trunk.
“I don’t know how,” he said bowing his head. The words nearly made him start crying again. Squeezing his eyes shut to force the tears away, he saw Druid sitting at the fire with him laughing. He shook his head.
“No matter what, Zou, I will always follow you, even if you are a moody teenager. Just remember, if we get separated, you head east to Ulam Bac. It might take me awhile, but I will find you. And don’t forget to take my things if you can. They will help you, and it will help me help you if you do.”
Zou opened his eyes. The “memory” seemed real, but he knew that it wasn’t a memory. It was a mix of various conversations all rolled into one. There before him, though, where he was sure he would not have missed it before, was Druid’s sword, leaned up against the tree trunk. His belt was wound about it with the wallet still on it. Swallowing hard, Zou took hold of it.
“Alright.” His hands trembled as he wrapped the belt around his waist. The buckle slid past the worn notch to three past. He had not realized he was so much thinner than Druid. “Not thinner…” he muttered, “just less. I could hide here. I could hide here with you,” he looked to the tree, desperate for an answer.
He got an answer, but not the one he had wanted. The eagle screamed at him as he flew out from the tree, the splint causing him to land awkwardly on the ground. Waiting for Zou to come, the eagle ruffled his feathered with annoyance. Zou swallowed hard; he wasn’t totally alone then. He drew in a breath and turned from Druid to his eagle. The bird hopped several awkward steps eastward.
“Oh, stop it; just get on my pack and let’s go,” he said kneeling down. The eagle fluttered up, catching carefully at Zou’s arm to get up to the top of the pack where he hunched down to be stable to allow Zou to run as they had learned to do. Zou got up, drew a breath, and headed east toward the rising sun.
Zou had not realized a tree could be so big. Three days out and looking back from the rise of the hill, Zou could still see the top of Druid’s boughs. Whatever enemy had attacked him, Zou was certain Druid would have influence on the magics all about the area. Druid would hide his trail, at least for a while.
He chewed on the dry root he had found. It was better boiled and strained, but it was edible and healthy simply washed. It was, however, very bitter and tough. Spring seemed to have arrived overnight. The sweeping hills were green with a sudden burst of fragrance. The sun seemed a warm welcome and the wind was warm on his face and hands.
The eagle stretched his wings and picked at his splints. Zou had never seen him do that. “You want it off?” he asked. The eagle looked at him intently, blinked once, then held out his wing to him. Zou sat to carefully unbind the wing. With relief, the eagle flapped his wings full force and took off with three great hops before becoming airborne.
Zou watched him beat his wings several times, then catch an updraft and become a rapidly shrinking spiraling dot in the sky until Zou could not see him at all. Zou tossed the last little bit of the root and drank down the last of his water before he stepped into a run.
Druid was always able to find water, even in the salt waste, and he had worked to teach Zou the same way of “smelling” the water and going to it. Zou had serious doubts he would be able to do it as well as Druid. However, he let his feet lead him and ran at that steady pace Druid had so regularly set for them. It was what Druid called Trance Motion, when you moved in time with the rhythm of your heart and how it connected to Gai. It could be a run, it could be a weapons drill, it could be as slow and deep as simply breathing. You just had to find the matching pace and fall into it.
His day was nothing but green hills and endless running until he topped at a small rise to find a damp little trickle at the bottom of hidden little gulley. He slowed, and catching his breath, he stumbled down to it. Only then did he realize how thirsty he was. He dropped down to suck up water. Filling his canteens, he laughed a little. He had done it; he had found water without Druid. Maybe he had hope of making it.
He looked up as the eagle came down to land on a snag of an old tree that had once lived by this little spring. The eagle settled his feathered.
“Camp here?” Zou asked.
The eagle answered by starting to preen for the night.
“Alright,” Zou nodded. “You know I need to know what to call you.” The eagle looked at him. “Why can’t you talk to me anymore? Is it because Druid is gone?”
The eagle made a sad little chirp. Then he looked at him very intently.
“TyRandan?” Zou asked with a doubtful tone. The name just came to him, but he doubted an eagle would wear the name of a Purtan. The eagle puffed up and chirped the sweetest little chirps that Zou actually laughed at him. “Really? You’re Purtan?”
TyRandan chirped at him and clicked his beak as if insulted by his reaction.
“Sorry. I just thought you would have some crazy exotic name, but you know if I walk around calling you TyRandan, it’s a bit breathy. What about just Randan? I mean we are sort of in this together I think, so…”
The eagle tilted his head sideways and seemed doubtful, but then gave in with a little chirp and launched off. Zou watched him circle a moment, then set to making a fire and a place to sleep that he could easily hide in the morning. He was just about to pull out rations when Randan returned with a rabbit in his talons. He tore off one leg, then hopped away to shred and eat it, leaving the rest to Zou.
“Thank you, Randan,” Zou said and bowed his head. He sat up. If Randan was a soul worthy of being a Familiar of such power and insight as to come to Druid’s call, he must be a wise and old soul. It was time Zou treated him as such and work on the skills of Purtan nobility. He shifted his breathing, his manner of sitting, the angle of his spine, and how he moved.
Randan looked at him and with a gentle click of his beak, he let Zou know he saw and approved.
The plains of Spizen turned into the hills of Amel, with the mountains that separated Amel from Couse rising slowly on the horizon. Open endless grassland turned into swaths of fields, divided by roads, long bands of trees, small rivers lined with willows, oaks and various nut trees that Zou didn’t know. His endless running became a discrete jog with, after so long on the go, the option of an inn.
Arriving at a small travel inn alongside the road, he dared to risk it. He left the late spring heat for the cool dark of the inn. Various travelers sat about in their groups eating and talking softly. Zou made his way to the keeper’s desk. A human man came over and cleared his throat.
“What can I do for you?” he asked in Amel.
Zou knew he didn’t speak Amel well, so went with common. “A room, a meal, and a bath if you have one.”
“Three half silver.”
Zou knew it was expensive, but his dark skin had made for trouble more than once. He didn’t argue, but dug in his wallet. With reluctance, he handed over the equivalent in copper. The man counted them and nodded. He handed over a key.
“Up the stairs, last room door. Bath is out back. You can get a meal when you show the key.”
“Thank you,” Zou said. He went to find his room. It was on the back side of the inn with a small window overlooking the yard where there was a privy and a bathhouse. It was crude, not exceptionally clean nor well taken care of, but it was better than a ditch or hiding in a barn.
He took off his pack, pulled out his cleanest clothes and what soap root he had. He stashed everything under the bed and carefully laid a glyph over them to hide them from sight. It was an easy enough magic that would never hold up to even the lowest level sight, but to a common thief it would simply not be seen.
He headed down to the bathhouse. It had three stalls with tubs that could be filled from a single great heated tank. He filled a tub, scrubbed the clothes he had been wearing, drained the water, and refilled it for himself. He took his time to wash his hair thoroughly before pulling on the clothes he had taken from the pack. Clean, he headed back up with his wet clothes and dripping hair.
In his room he found everything askew. Clearly the room had been searched. He peeked under the bed to find his things still safely hidden against the wall. With a chuckle he hung his clothes about the room. From his pack he took a comb and began the long process of redoing his braids. It had been too long. It took hours.
When he made it down the stairs, the main room had filled with several dozen civilian locals. An elven bard was in the corner playing a small lute. The rattle of dice, the mix of talk and laughter filled the room. Zou took a seat at a small table. He showed his key and waited. The young woman who brought the bowl of stew smiled a little.
“You travel from far?” she asked.
“Et,” he said.
“From Et?” she asked awed. “I thought Et was at war.”
“It is. I refused to be a part of it. If I am to be a soldier, then I will do so for the emperor alone.”
“You know he will be passing through Amel.” She pulled out a chair and sat with him. “There is a new king of Gauleraunt. Tyeldwar. I guess he is a powerful healer. He even moved the capital to Rathdrum. The emperor is on his way home. He will pass through Eracrow in three days. I wish I could manage to go.”
“Eracrow in three days?” Zou said. “How far is that?”
“About three days,” she said sadly. “Faster by horse, of course, but the train is under repair so it’s not running right now.”
“I would love to see him, but I think I shall keep on my path to Ulam Bac. Do you know the fastest way?”
“Of course, to Eracrow and then on a boat across. Or if the train was running, that would be faster still, but you would have to cut north quite a ways to get the train. It might end up being about the same, so I guess it’s if you like the water or not.”
“Tanna!” a man yelled. “You’re needed, girl!”
“Have to go,” she groaned as she got up. Zou watched her go. Girls never approached him when Druid was around. Maybe this traveling alone might not be so bad.
The road to Eracrow was suddenly packed as people rushed to get to the city to see their emperor. It gave Zou the chance to run openly again. He wasn’t the only one. Randan stayed high and showed up only at night to drop off a dinner before settling in the near trees.
Each night Zou was again haunted by the dreams of a demon hidden in a wolf who seemed to have everyone around him convinced of goodness. Nights were far from easy and he left predawn just to outrun the nightmares.
It did take three days to reach the capital city. The crowds were crushing and reminded him of the packed train station in Kill-Abben. The noise was deafening, the smells almost painful, but he wanted to see the emperor as long as he was here and then likely get a ship to Ulam Bac. Maybe the emperor would be going the same way and he could find a way to present himself.
He followed Randan through the packed streets to get near the center of the city. He was completely lost by the time he heard the drums. Pushing forward despite the crush, he wanted to get close enough to see. He was taller than many about him and that helped him, but he still felt too far back.
The Elite warriors of Norwood’s Black Force came first. They walked in perfect rank and file. They all wore black chin to toe, with their hair bound in a perfect pleated single braid down their backs. They wore no visible swords, but they were said to have magic weapons that appeared when needed.
Guarded on either side by the Elites came several ranks of mounted men. They were certainly lords of some sort. By the words of those around him, he knew the next major face to appear was the Steward of the Throne, followed by the emperor. Zou felt his heart stop. The crowd bowed, breathless and awed. Zou felt his heart almost stop. Every motion was perfect. Every lesson Druid had taught him about how a true Purtan moved seemed to be personified in the man.
Most of his life had been spent seeking to get to that man and now that he was so close, Zou could not even breathe; he could not imagine him a real man at all. There was utterly no way he was going to be seen as worthy to ever be presented to Von Shannon.
On the verge of tears and utter despair and purposelessness, he saw the last person he expected to ever see again. She rode a great horse, her face stone-still. She wore a uniform very like that of the Elites, but different in very subtle ways. He saw nothing other than that. His heart exploded in his chest.
“Kelly!” he called the name of his mother, trying to be heard over the drums and the cheering crowd. “Kelly!” He pushed forward to get to her, to be seen. If she could just see him, she would know him and he would be back with her. He shoved a man out of the way and fought to get close with no other thought. He called her name again just as three guards moved in and brought him down so suddenly he wasn’t even sure what had happened. He was numb, saw stars, and was being taken away with his hands cuffed and his ears ringing.
He tried to talk, but he could make no sound and he couldn’t focus beyond the flashes of stars in his eyes.
The cell was clean enough, but a cell. He was on a cot that was likely less than clean. Zou sat up with a pounding headache and a sick stomach. The cell door clanged open so loud he winced down and covered his eyes.
“Yes, that’s him,” a man said.
“You certain?” another man asked. “The governor thinks he’s a black elf and possibly a spy or an assassin.”
“I’m tell you I know this man. He is the one who led the revolt in Kill-Abben! I’m tell you he is no spy. He serves the emperor.”
“And I’m not elven, either,” Zou winced up into the light, looking toward the guard. “I’m as much Purtan as you,” he added to the half Purtan man in the door.
“I tell you he is the Purtan hero of Kill-Abben!” The man moved to help him up. Zou accepted the assistance and allowed the man to get him on his feet. “I will pay the bounty and vouch for him.”
“I don’t think the governor will let him go.”
“Let who go?” A big man walked to the cell and looked at Zou with a scowl. “So this is the one who was trying to attack the emperor?”
“What?’ Zou asked shocked.
“I tell you he wasn’t!”
“He was shouting in elven and trying to break the line!” a guard said in a contempt-filled tone. “I tell you, sir, this man is the one.”
“I was shouting at…” he stopped himself and grabbed his head in pain. “I was shouting the name of the big woman in the parade.” He winced and looked back at the man. “Is her name not Tyrakelleshen? Kelly for short? She is a friend of my father’s. I wanted to get her attention. I was not shouting in elven; I don’t even speak elven!”
“You have an accent!” the guard shot back.
“An Etan accent you, jackass!” Zou snapped back. “Really? You think I’m elven? You sure you’re not a court fool? Nothing about me is elven.”
“If you’re not elven, then you have to be Razzan and that is worse,” the governor said. “You sure you’re not elven?”
“You sure you’re not a blood wizard to play such corruption?” Zou said back at him. “If I am such a threat, I dare you to put me before the emperor as such.”
“Fine, we will,” the governor stepped forward and stabbed him with a needle. Zou watched it go into his arm and the world went black.
Zou woke to Randan clicking his beak. Zou struggled to get his head back. He was on the hard cold ground in dampness and reeking smell.
“Not good,” he muttered and looked at the bindings on his wrist. They were spelled ropes, but nothing that he couldn’t be rid of. Whispering to his elementals, he set them on the ropes. They consumed them in a flash of red light. Free of the wrist bindings, he untied his ankles before he moved.
The door had a barred window where Randan had squeezed between the bars. Zou crawled to the door, his head blurred with whatever drug they had given him. Randan jumped away as Zou pushed. The door groaned open, too loud in the night. He crawled out and pushed the door shut behind him.
He got up unsteady and dangerous dizzy. An executioner’s wagon was parked close by and dawn was far too close. Stumbling a step, he followed Randan, who moved from one house to another. He hunched down once to let Zou know to hide. A night patrol passed by talking easily together. Zou tried to shake the drugs from his mind, but was not having much luck. He needed to purge his system, water, lots of water would be good.
He lost track of how many turns and how many times he had to duck and hide, but Randan led him to a clothes line where he perched, waiting for Zou to figure out to put on a long cloak and pull the hood up.
They only had a few more turns to go before they saw the city’s eastern gate and through it the first light of sunrise. Hood up, he boldly walked from the wall and shadows for the gate. The man on duty glanced up and nodded to him.
“Bit late to duty, aye?”
“Aye, but my girl’s happy,” he said back, trying to sound like Druid might in such a game of deception. The man chuckled back and let him walk right out under the lights of the gate.
He didn’t stop, but kept walking. Any moment they would realize he was gone and the call would go up. He ached for the loss of Druid’s sword and wallet, but he had to get away. Once out of sight of the gate, he took off at a run. Maybe if nothing else, running would help clear his head.
Zou pushed how far he could run. The last thing he needed was for his previous hunters to know where he was because some stupid guard had thought he was yelling in elven. He knew better than to shout out, but it was his mother, and he couldn’t seem to help himself. His heart pounded just at knowing for certain she was alive. She was alive and with the emperor.
Zou ran until sunset, when Randan led him to a small barn off the main road. It was dry and clean, offering a place for him to lie down in the straw and he dropped to sleep almost at once. His body was sore from the long runs, he had not eaten enough, and he knew he needed more water – but if he was murdered, it wouldn’t matter if he took time to eat and drink enough.
He jerked from a dream of the emperor and his mother to Druid yelling at him to get up. Randan was picking at his sleeve. Zou got up at once, shaking off weariness and sleep to crawl to the door.
Across the yard, mounted men were talking to the farmer at his house. Zou could not imagine that the city guards had been so fast to follow him. A man drug the farmer’s wife out of the house by her hair. It took a moment for Zou to recognize him as the man who had once tracked him and Druid and had put his hand on the very tree they had been hidden in.
It was not just city guards; it was the evil woman, the one who had nearly killed Druid. Zou moved as fast and carefully as he could, crawling from the barn toward the nearby trees. He wished he could aid the farmer and his wife, but he had to get away.
He rolled under the wooden rail fence into the tree line. He got to his feet and at once sprinted as hard and fast as he could. He did not have Druid to make him vanish into the trees now and those men were on horses.
He jumped a stream, cleared several fences, and cut across an open field as fast as he could. Randan was ahead of him, showing him the best path, but even so it was difficult in the forested area.
Every time he wanted to stop and hide in place, he heard Druid telling him to run, as if the man was right there with him. His lungs were burning and he caught the next fence as he jumped it.
Staggering, he barely managed to keep his feet, but he kept running. He hit a road and turned up it. His body could not run any more over the unknown and uneven ground of the forest. His only hope was to get among people who might help him somehow.
He heard the horses behind him, their hooves pounding on the road. He didn’t need to look back to know who they were. He cut sideways off the road and into the trees for one last hope to escape. Tripping, he tumbled into a ditch. Scrambling up, he struggled into an open field. He wanted to cry out to the trees for help, he wanted the animals to aid him, he needed help. He needed Druid to help him.
As the men behind him jumped the ditch, he heard the horses’ hooves clear it. There was nowhere for him to go. He crested a hill just as mounted men charged up from the other direction. He fell back, trying to miss the men. The leader’s horse reared and came down with his hooves barely missing Zou’s head. He stayed still, gasping and panting. Randan dove in, causing the horse swerve around Zou as they charged at the men who had been after him.
He could hear the shouts, the clash of weapons, and yet his heart pounded in his head so hard he could hear little. All he could do was lay there and suck in air. His long run, his lack of food and water had caught up to him, and now he was left gasping on the ground. Druid could have pulled him up and walked him to a tree; there they could have simply hidden, letting the battle pass and their trail be lost.
As he lay there, a man on horseback came to stand over him as the fight moved on. He was an incredible man. He wore the uniform of Crouse, but with golden belts, earrings with gems, sashes of bold colors, and swords more like a pirate than any soldier. His eyes were powerful and a deep blue like nothing Zou had seen. His hair was streaked red, black, and gold, bound back into a free-flowing tail.
“They are down,” one soldier announced as they returned. “What of this one?” he asked, motioning toward Zou.
“He’s not one of them, take him to camp. I’ll question him later.”
Three men pulled Zou to his feet and cuffed him. Zou looked to Randan, who was perched in a nearby tree. The eagle didn’t seem the least bit upset, so Zou relented and went with the men.
His cuffs were tied to the saddle of one of the three men. He did, however, let his horse walk at Zou’s pace and not push him. The other captives were not treated so well. They passed Zou and his guard at a run, injured or not. They all had beaten faces, magic bonds, and several were draped over their own horse’s backs.
Zou was so tired his mind spun and wandered; he should not be so tired at all, but he was. He staggered along and recalled being bound this way before. No, it was not him – it was his mother. She had been so bound. They had come over the desert sand to the ridge of a mountain where they looked out at and over a city.
The sun had just been rising and the chants of the morning drifted to them. He could see the ancient golden city with its yellow stone plaster walls, its tall tower, and the temple ruins on the far hill. For a moment his heart ached for that place exactly as once his mother had ached for her home.he was an exile and he knew it, exiled not only from her goddess, but from her own body.