Troyle’s eyes darted from the spacious rest area before him to the surrounding trees, then back to the large convoy that was trailing behind. In contrast to the morning’s march, their pace had slowed considerably and had even began to drag.
“We will stop here for lunch.” He decisively issued to the four men in blue who had been riding at the front alongside him. Narrowing his gaze toward the tree lines in an attempt to discern their depths, “Neiran. Rey. The both of you survey the area. I do not want any surprises while we rest.” With the simple order, he turned to face another two men in Varath blue, “Russell and Jurit, you will both ride ahead and see if there is anything beyond that upcoming bend in the distance. Keep alert and come back as soon as you have done so.”
At his commands, ““Yessir.”” The four stoically answered together and hastily rushed off in pairs.
Taking a solemn moment to see them off, Troyle slowly turned his horse around to face the oncoming convoy.
Possibly due to the continued unrest within the city or their loyalty towards the lord, instead of only around ten families like what they had initially anticipated, the size of their group was almost three times as large.
Like an enormous beast snaking along the road, their lot consisted of thirty-one supply wagons carrying food, equipment, furniture, and various other necessities.
There were also twenty-seven luxurious carriages, each for a family who had wished to follow them to Losboros, including both the families of the deceased Oris and Kanaar.
To help escort them all eastward, the lord had also hired eight notable warriors from the Droxxon Mercenaries to join them.
Closing his eyes, Troyle took a deep breath.
As if it had been waiting on cue, the memory of their last excursion immediately skirted his thoughts, reminding him of what had occurred because of his negligence.
Quickly forcing his eyes open again, he brushed away the tragic ordeal and quietly raised his right arm into the air as the convoy approached.
Catching the eyes of one of the guards riding at the front, he hammered the air twice, signaling for the group to slow down and stop.
“As you have requested, we’ve been on alert all day, but there’s been nothing out of the ordinary so far.” A stout man with a deep barreling voice spoke graciously before shoveling a spoonful of thick soup into his mouth. With a full-faced beard and unkempt brown hair to hide his hardened but childlike visage, the man was chewing and swallowing quickly like it was his first meal in a long while, “Not even a whisper from the woods, I’m afraid.” The man added.
Sitting in a small circle with the mercenaries, “If that’s the case, then it’s fine. Please continue to keep vigilant.” Troyle replied and mouthed a spoonful of his own soup.
They were only half a day’s ride from Ferrent so it was expected, but if their group was to be targeted again, he wanted to be ready at all cost.
“Of course.” The stout man grinned back. “We’re getting paid handsomely for this. Doing some half-assed work would only drag our names through the mud.”
“Speaking about yourself there, York?” A handsome woman with short brown hair and a set of deep green eyes sneered from across them. Looking striking in her combat leather, she was wearing a metal holster with a number of throwing knives on one side of her waist, and had a curved saber on the other.
“And just what exactly do you mean by that?” York replied, narrowing his eyes curiously.
Raising one side of her brows at York, “You know exactly what I mean.” The woman answered, the right side of her lips curving upward into a provocative smile.
“I can’t read minds, Vasara. If you’ve got something to say, then spit it out.”
“Should I?” The woman named Vasara grinned.
“What? What are you trying to-” As if he had suddenly come upon something, York’s mouth twisted, “You… you’re talkin’ about that pompous leech??” York retorted, barely holding onto his composure. “Bastard deserved everything he got!”
“Pompous leech?” Troyle interjected in intrigue.
“And the Fahgrind escort job?” The woman pressed.
“Hey! That wasn’t my fault, alright? That stupid dolt would not listen to reason. If anything, he should be grateful. Cutting through the Vistiri forest? Idiot should be thanking me instead for getting us all out of there in one piece.”
“Vasara, don’t forget the Motroe cleanup.” Another man’s voice added from the side, their face also grinning from ear to ear.
“Of course not.” Another devilish smile came from the woman. “I was simply working him up to that. Wanted to see how deep he would dig himself this time.” She quipped.
“Wh- what is this, huh? You both tryin’na bully me?” York grumbled back.
“York…” Troyle spoke, voice somber as he stared at his friend.
“What? W-what is it? Why are you looking at me like that?”
Hearing the uncertain and somewhat shameful reply filled with irresponsibility from his longtime friend, “How in the world did you ever become 13th chair?” Troyle dryly questioned.
“He paid Endalt off to take a dive during the challenge. How else?” Vasara snappily answered, and, “Pff-hahahhahaha!” The circle exploded into laughter.
With a dumbfounded expression across his face, “I… I expected such things from these domaz, but you Troyle? I thought we were brothers?!”
Grinning along with everyone else, “We are, which is why I asked. Wouldn’t want you in anything over your head, you know? There are many dangers and responsibilities that come with the reputation as one of the seated.” Troyle replied.
“Was that why you-” About to say something, York hesitated briefly then, “You would know, wouldn’t you?” He snarled and displayed a teething grin as his face mellowed back to its cheerful self.
“Obviously. Why else would I be asking?” Troyle quickly retorted.
Quietly bringing his right arm over to his left shoulder and looking unabashed, York pretended to pull and twist his upper body as if to stretch. “Wanna try me for yourself and see how I got 13th chair then? Mister… former 14th chair?” A glint in his eyes, York questioned with a confident smile.
“You… you do know that the number of your seat has no meaning beyond being one of the twenty, and that my shoulder has recovered, right?” Troyle remarked at the coy display in an effort to get a rise out of him.
The truth was that the number of one’s seating within the Droxxon company did not correlate directly to one’s strength and abilities within the circle at all. It merely signified that one was part of the twenty most capable, and even without winning it through a challenge, the title was conferrable as long as one had the skills and aptitude.
It was how he had attained his title of 14th chair, having been granted it from his sword master the former 14th after surpassing the man.
“Oh this?” Freezing his motions, York’s eyes smiled and lowered themselves at his shoulder, “I was just stretching in case you grew some balls and decided to take me up on my offer. Mister 14th chair.”
Hearing the disparaging tone, “Hmmm… you’ve become quite brave, haven’t you? How about I put you back in your place like the old days?” Troyle grinned and locked eyes with his friend.
“It has become apparent to me that the older a dog gets, the louder they bark.” With a smirk, York glared back. “So? What’ll it be, mister number fourteen?”
For a silent moment, they gauged each other as those around them watched with intrigue, and then, “KWAHAHHAHAHAH!” “PAHahahahah!” Both burst into bouts of joyful laughter as others chuckled.
“Ha…hahaha! You- you stupid idiot! That beard doesn’t help at all!” Reaching forward, Troyle quickly grabbed at York’s beard, tugging on it playfully.
“Gah! Stop that!” Fighting off Troyle’s hand, “You’re just jealous. You wish you could grow something as magnificent as this!” York exclaimed while carefully and protectively running his fingers through the beard. “I’ll have you know. All the ladies love it.”
Turning his head to the two women across from them, “Vasara. Agnai. You’re both ladies. What do you think?” Troyle probed.
“I think he needs to burn that thing off.” Agnai, a woman a few years their junior coldly answered.
“Burn it off, and then peel off his face as well so that such an unsightly monstrosity can never see the light of day again.” Vasara added.
“Piss off, the lot of you.” Still stroking his beard, “It’s gorgeous, and you know it.” York retorted.
“You’ve a few bits short of an ern if you think that mop is gorgeous.” Vasara snapped back with a grin.
“She’s right, you know. It’s definitely not helping your baby face. That’s for sure.” Troyle added, fighting down a grin of his own.
“Yea, yea, whatever. At least I can grow a-” York suddenly stopped his words and all their laughter immediately died off.
“What’s this?” One of the mercenaries questioned, standing up and walking over to the edge of the road.
Though faint, they had all felt the light trembling of thundering hooves.
Seeing that the families around them had not noticed what was happening but had taken note of their sudden silence, Troyle calmly stood up. Nodding to the few guards who were eating with their own families, he silently reassured them with his eyes before turning his gaze toward the road as well.
With the wagons and carriages forming two circular walls around their group, the only venue of attack was through the front opening beside the road where he and the mercenaries were currently guarding.
“Jheene, what do you see?” He questioned, walking over to the man who had stood up earlier as the rest followed behind him.
Beside the road, the man named Jheene had rolled one hand in front of his right eye like a spyglass and was focusing his attention toward the oncoming bend in the distance. “Three, four… four- no, make that 5 incoming riders. It looks like there’s a carriage or something behind them too with another two riders beside it.” The mercenary answered after taking a moment to count.
“Seven riders and a carriage?” Troyle voiced curiously as the others joined them. “Can you see what flags they are flying, or what colors they are wearing?”
“Mmm… no visible flag, and it’s too far to discern any colors right now.”
“Luezhin. Agnai.” Troyle swiftly called out, naming two of the mercenaries. One, a fair-haired woman with a rapier at her side. The other, a lanky man with large bulky arms holding onto a two-handed broadsword with only his right hand. “You two go and stay beside the lord and his family.” He instructed and the two both nodded before departing.
“Jheene. How long until they arrive?” He looked back at the man who was watching the road.
“At this speed, five of them will be here soon.” The man answered, not taking his eyes away from whoever was coming toward them.
“Kyne, Lestra, Vasara, Arne. You four spread out around the site. Let the guards know, but tell them to keep calm and to keep an eye out for any signs of an ambush. Jheene and York, you’re with me. We will greet them if they stop.” Troyle watched the six that he had named nodded in compliance before quickly splintering off.
Having given his orders, he stalked back to the seat where he had leaned his two swords and armed himself.
With York and Jheene following alongside him, the three of them walked back to the edge of the road once again.
Curiosity abound, Anise strolled through the large site, having already finished her lunch posthaste.
Barely recalling the first time she had been out of the city beyond going to the arms competition, she was keen on exploring as much as she could before being bound to the dreaded inside of the carriage.
With her elder brother’s two rings on a small metal necklace around her neck, she quickly made her way through the group, heading toward an area where she had spotted a patch of seasonal and wild perathaian crystalyne blooms while they were setting up for lunch.
“Young lady… where do you think you’re going?” A man’s gruff voice stopped her as she reached the layer of carriages that were surrounding them.
Turning to her side, a bearded man in blue with a sword at his waist was walking toward her.
“Mr. Sumpter! Hi!” Anise quickly greeted, giving the man a wide grin.
“Ah, it’s little Anise. What are you doing back here?” The bearded guard replied, while returning a kind smile back at her.
“I saw some flowers earlier. I wanted to pick one for mommy!”
“Flowers for your mother?”
“Uhn!” She nodded back.
“Hmmm…” The man took a good look at her, then turned and looked toward the outside. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think your father would allow that.”
“Daddy will. I know he will!” She swiftly asserted, standing up proudly and confident in her own words.
The man tilted his head playfully at her statement, “Now… why do I get the feeling that you’re being less than honest with me?”
“But I am being honest!!” She argued innocently, seeing that her words were being questioned.
“Are you sure?” The man squatted and lowered himself to eye level with her.
“You promise it’s the truth?” There was a gentle grin on the man’s face, as if he already knew.
And, “Uhk…” She held her tongue, unwilling to make the promise.
“I… ehehe. I’ll go ask daddy.” Quickly returning a forgetful smile, she turned around and hurried away.
Rushing through the site toward the front to where she had seen her father earlier, she noticed that he was no longer sitting with a group of people, but was standing outside their site’s enclosure. Two familiar faces belonging to two men whom she had met the previous day were also standing by her father, along with five others and their horses.
Upon seeing what the five strangers were wearing, she froze momentarily as the fear of her father being taken away struck at her.
Hurrying forth, “Stop it! Don’t take my daddy again!” Anise screamed, interrupting their conversation as she rushed to stand between them.
“Anise, what are you doing?” Her father’s voice questioned from above and before her, “Hm?” The five men and women who were wearing red, white, and black, all turned their eyes down to look at her.
“I won’t let you take him again!” She cried out, spreading her arms protectively.
“Spirited little one, aren’t you?” A tall man with long gray hair, a clean-shaven face, and light brown eyes spoke as he smiled down at her.
“Apologies, my lords and ladies. My daughter is overly excited after the long ride.”
Seeming to be in charge of the group, “I understand. Traveling is certainly a chore in of itself.” The man cordially replied and nodded understandingly.
“Come Anise, don’t be rude.”
Dragged back by her father, she continued to keep her eyes fixed upon the five.
She listened as they asked about the state of Ferrent, and she stood sentry as a good helping of bread and meat were handed off to the five for their trip back.
By the time the group had finished their conversations with her father, two more riders and a carriage had pulled up.
Riding on both sides of the carriage, one of the riders easily stood out compared to the others.
Wearing a different set of colored robes instead of the white and red like the rest, the man was also wearing a set of armor underneath his robes.
“Since the rest of your party is here, why not join us for lunch? Rest a little before you all continue.” Her father invited, offering their hospitality to the strangers.
The group of five looked to one another, and then the man who appeared to be in charge calmly walked over to the carriage that had just joined them.
The man knocked twice, and the carriage’s window opened itself to reveal an old lady with short and curly hair within.
Covered in a few wrinkles and elderly in appearance, the old woman’s face was pale and almost as white as her hair. Yet what was even more peculiar, were the woman’s two pale and almost transparent eyes that swept through them all without blinking.
“What do you say, my lady. Should we stop here for lunch, or press on toward the city?”
Unable to hide her curiosity, Anise proceeded to stare at the woman.
The carriage the woman was riding in was as dark as the night and its insides were no different and could not be seen, yet the old lady herself appeared to be glowing.
She continued to stare, and, “Ah!” she yelped as the old lady suddenly turned to look at her as well.
A gentle smile slowly emerged upon the old woman’s face before the woman looked away.
“There is no need to impose upon these travelers.” The old lady replied, speaking to the man before her.
“Are you sure, my lady?”
“I still have strength enough to reach the city. We can rest along the way if the need arises.” With the simple answer, the elderly woman closed the carriage window and vanished.
The tall man brusquely walked back toward them and cupping his hands, “Thank you for the offer, but we shall not impose as my lady said. I wish you safe travels, and may the gods continue to watch over you and your lot.” With another gracious nod, the man gestured to the others and they all quickly mounted their horses again.
Within moments, the group of strangers were gone.
“Now… just what were you doing?”
She looked up, and her father was frowning down at her. “Hehehe!”
Though she had hid it as much as she could and had tried to contain it as much as possible, her body continued to tremble within the carriage.
Even the darkness around her had split itself into twain out of fear, and was now wailing in horror within her mind as they hurried away.
Having been born in darkness and surrounded by it for as long as she could remember, she had thought herself used to it. Had thought herself a master of it, due to her capability in wielding it to her whims.
Yet. Before her unseeing eyes, she had glimpsed true darkness.
Swirling around the child who had been peering at her, it was like an endless tunnel darker than the void itself, and had threatened to swallow her mind the moment her senses touched upon it.
“I’Narha…” She quietly whispered, trying to sooth the shadow that was now cowering within the dark corners of the carriage. A Rhas of shadow, she had been cultivating the spirit for decades already and had never seen it reacting in such a way before. “It is alright. It is gone now.” She gently coaxed, curious as to what manner of being could possess such an entity.
“Lady Rhasula. Is everything alright?” A voice questioned from outside, undoubted inquiring about her whispering.
“I am fine, Niron. Just a little uncomfortable because of the bumpy road.”
“Oh. Should we stop soon?” The voice responded with concern.
“No.” She calmly answered, not wanting to sow further distress.
As they continued to ride in silence, she slowly opened the open and peered at the man riding beside her with her senses.
Wearing a set of plate armor underneath his masters’ robes, the younger mage was skillfully imbuing his mana in the armor and keep it from weighing down on the horse too much.
“Niron.” She called out.
“Yes, my lady?”
“Do you happen to know the people whom we passed by earlier?” She questioned curiously.
“I do.” Niron’s voice immediately turned grim. “The man Lord Eravier was talking to, is the personal guard of his Lordship Alzin Shuziel Varath. A man by the name Troyle Paltos.”
Unsure as to why Niron’s tone had suddenly changed, “And the girl who was with them?” She queried.
“That is his daughter.”
Apologies for the delays everyone.
I’ve been busy and distracted over the past month. Things are better now so hopefully I’ll be able to get out another chapter before the month’s end. Please look forward to it.
As always, thank you all for reading and please leave any errors or corrections in the comments!