Two unlikely adventurers travel through treacherous territory, trying to beat an invading army, but with different goals in mind; by Dante Cross.
It was the stench that woke him. Not the sound of the nearby babbling brook, nor the light from the sun peeking over the horizon, nor the birds joining each other in song; no, it was the stench of blood and corpses not yet a day old.
Rile’s eyes fluttered open, his head throbbed. He tried to push himself up but was unable to, and he just spotted why. Two bodies were piled on top of him. The one on top he recognized: Markus, his old drinking buddy from Lamia. The other body he didn’t know. It bore a different crest from him and Markus. He nudged the bodies off enough to where he could more easily push himself out from under them. He then sat up and looked at Markus; his eyes were still wide open, staring back at Rile vacantly. He stared back, hoping to will his friend back to life with some unknown magic power from the stories he liked to read.
Rile got up and looked around. The field of lilies that dotted the riverbank had been littered with dead knights, more friends than foes; the petals had turned a deep shade of rose. Light sparkled off of the tiny crests of the river like pixies dancing atop the water. The sun, now fully over the horizon, was being constantly eclipsed by a mixture of clouds. The birdsong began to echo in his ears, causing his head to throb more. The stench no longer bothered him.
It took Rile a while longer to realize that he was the sole survivor of their battle with Almsong’s army and that he should be dead. But why was it that he was the only one, he wondered? His eyes then widened with a terrible realization: had he died, his wife, Olivier, would be widowed and his newborn without a father. He collapsed back to the ground and clutched his chest. He had promised he would come back; he would win the war over the untamed region of Lüthor and come back to her. Sol needed soldiers and he wanted to protect his family, he wanted to keep anyone that would hurt them far away, so it only made sense to enlist, right? He was nearly at the point of hyperventilation when the clouds parted and the sun’s light shown down upon him. He looked up, directly at it, and saw a hand reaching down at him. Was it the gods’ hand? Did they spare his life?
Rile reached up towards the hand and was surprised when it grabbed him and hoisted him up. Standing in front of him was a girl, short and toned, who looked young, but it was hard to tell under all the grime. Her clothing appeared to be made of the hides of deer that Rile had seen in the region, and she bore no crest.
The girl eyed Rile up and down as he was trying to reacquire his ability to breathe. His armor was caked with blood, and his sweat was mixing with the dirt on his face.
“You look like shit,” she said as she unhooked a canteen from her belt and handed it to him. While Rile looked at it, then back at her face, she simply shook the vessel. That was all it took. Rile hastily grabbed the canteen, opened it, and began to chug. As the liquid hit his throat, however, he quickly spat it out as an unexpected burn began in his throat.
“Sorry, left all my water back at camp. If you wanted water you could’ve just grabbed some from the river instead of hiding under a couple of corpses.”
Rile looked at her, puzzled. “Who are you?”
“A local.” She began to walk away, towards a nearby hill, but she only walked a few yards before she turned around. “Well, are you coming?”
“I don’t think you can afford to ask that question right now.”
What did she mean by that? Was she a messenger sent by the gods? Did she truly know his plight? Was she a hero, like in Olivier’s favorite story, Lady Serila and the Battle on the Eternal Sea? Rile shook his head. Hero or not, this person could help, no, would help him get home. He took a large swig from the canteen and began to follow the girl as the two went up and over the hill, leaving the battlefield behind.
The camp was fairly small. Only a few medium-sized tents had been erected, and several people were roaming around the camp, all wearing similar clothing and seemingly around the same age as the girl. She beckoned Rile to sit down next to the small firepit, which he did, and, after taking one last swig from the canteen, he handed it back to the girl. She took it back, took a swig, and then headed inside a tent.
She walked out with a different canteen and a piece of dried meat, both of which she handed to Rile. He took a sip from the vessel and was relieved that this time it was actually water. From one of her belt pouches she pulled out her own piece of dried meat, which already had a few bites taken from it, and chomped down on it. “So what’s your name?’
“Rile. Rile Forrest.”
“Ah, only two names.” She took another bite. “If you’re not a noble, how’d you get roped into the whole scuffle for our land between Sol and Almsong?”
Rile looked at her, shocked. She knew about the naming conventions of Sol, but from how she described the conflict he knew she wasn’t from there. Just who was this person?
“What’s your name?”
“I asked you a question first.”
He was intimidated by her, that much was true, and he was tempted to give the whole story, but now, after regaining his sense of logic, he was beginning to question her motives. If she wasn’t a hero, she could easily be a spy and use the information he was about to give her to target Olivier and their child. Rile gulped down some water, which gave him enough time to give a satisfactory answer for the time being. “I volunteered. The king promised a reduction of taxes for any commoner that fought in the war.”
The girl looked at him and squinted her eyes, and after a few seconds, she nodded in satisfaction. “Do you happen to know any nobles?”
“Aren’t you going to answer my question?”
She shook her head. “In case you haven’t noticed, you’re our prisoner.”
“Our?” Rile looked behind him and saw the other residents of the camp had stopped whatever they were doing and had surrounded him, knives in hand, one practically poked at the back of his neck. He suddenly lost his appetite. “What do you want with me?”
She got up and started circling the fire pit. “Well, I really would’ve preferred a noble, but it looks like you’re the best I’m going to get. I need you to get me an audience with your king.”
“Reasons.” She stopped right across from Rile, then took out a knife and pointed it at him. “I’m going to give you two options.”
He had a pretty good feeling what those two options were, and he wasn’t going to throw away his second chance. Even if her plans for the king were nefarious, he didn’t care. He had to see Olivier, no matter the consequences.
“I’ll do it. I’ll help you.”
The girl lowered her knife a little bit, as did the others. Their intimidating looks morphed into confusion. “You will?”
The girl sheathed her knife, and the others followed suit. “Well, that was much easier than I thought it would be. Maybe it’s a good thing you aren’t a noble after all.” She patted him on the shoulder and ushered the others away. They resumed their duties while she returned to her spot next to the fire pit and sat back down.
Rile, inspired by his own burst of confidence and drive, stood up. “We leave now.”
“We need to leave now if we want to beat Almsong’s army to the capital.”
“I thought the war was only for control of our homeland.”
This was true. Almsong wouldn’t dare cross into Sol’s borders. That was a battle they would surely lose. Rile figured the girl knew this but was hoping he could use the remnants of the last battle to convince her otherwise.
“It’s clear that Almsong brought a large force into Lüthor, and with such a large force they could easily cut through Sol’s borders and march straight into the capital, razing the rest of the kingdom along the way.” He tried to infuse an urgent tone in his faux-confidence, hoping it would be enough to convince the girl.
She looked deep in thought for quite some time until she nodded and stood up. “Okay. We’ll leave now. Just you and me.”
“What about the others?”
“You said we need to get there fast, right?” Rile nodded. “Well, we’ll get there a lot faster if it’s just the two of us.”
“Makes sense. We’ll need horses, though. Do you know where we can get some?”
“Follow me.” The girl walked off into the tree line, and he followed. He was glad his bluff had paid off. He had no idea if he could get her an audience with the king, but saying he could was the only way he was going to get to see Olivier again.
Rile and the girl hid behind a half-burnt bush and peeked through it. With what was left, one could barely tell that a village used to belong here. There were more wisps of ash than blades of grass, and the scent of smoke was almost strong enough to block out the now-familiar stench of bodies and blood. Miraculously, there was only one living thing left in the village: a horse. Brown coat and even browner eyes, it was tied to a fencepost at the entrance; the saddle on top of it bore the crest of Almsong on each of the saddlebags.
The girl gave one last look around before leaving their hiding spot and approaching the horse. Rile, however, waited until she had reached the horse before feeling it was safe enough to leave.
“How’d you know this horse was here?”
The girl reached inside and pulled out a rolled-up piece of parchment. “My tribesmen and I stole it during that battle yesterday.” She unfurled the parchment, revealing a map of the whole region. “You know, it was surprisingly easy.” Rile watched her as she began tracing a path from a point on the map to the west where the border to Sol lay. Eventually, her finger stopped. “How about here?”
Rile looked closely at where her finger was. According to the map, which was surprisingly detailed for how small the parchment was, the spot she was referring to was a valley covered in fog.
His eyes went wide.
“No, that is not a good entry point at all. Only an insane person would ever cross that valley.”
“And why’s that?”
Rile stared up at the sky. The sun was now closer to the ground, casting ever-increasing shadows. “They say Korin Valley is haunted.”
The girl looked at him in annoyed disbelief. “Haunted? Really?”
Rile nodded. “A long time ago, before Sol or Almsong even existed, there was a man, a warrior, named Korin, who defended the weak, provided for the needy. He was what one would call a hero. While most people loved him, there was one man who didn’t: his brother Doplo. He was angry that his brother was getting all the attention and affection of everyone around him. He wanted Korin out of his life forever, so he came up with a plan. Doplo asked his brother to help escort him through the valley. He made up a story about him hearing about bandits in the area, and Korin bought it, no questions asked. So off they went to the valley. When they arrived -”
“Let me guess, there were no bandits and Doplo stabbed Korin in the back, and Korin’s spirit now haunts the valley waiting for revenge on his brother, the end.”
Rile shook his head. “Not quite. When they arrived, the valley was covered in a thick fog, and Korin and Doplo got separated. Yes, Doplo had intended to stab his brother in the back, but because he wasn’t able to see him, he simply brandished his knife that was hidden in his boot, prepared to strike, and began running around to find his brother. Meanwhile, Korin unsheathed his sword and continued to move in the direction he thought was forward. Suddenly he saw a figure rushing towards him, and, in one swift movement, he cut clean through the man he thought was a bandit. But as this man fell, he could see that it was not a bandit, but his brother. Doplo hit the ground, lifeless. Korin, not knowing of his brother’s plot, grieved over him, and decided to repent for his crime by running himself through with the same sword he used to kill his brother. The next day, when the fog had lifted, a family rode through the valley and saw their bodies. They took Korin’s body with them, and, not recognizing Doplo’s body, left him there. They gave Korin a hero’s burial, while Doplo rotted in the valley. And because he wasn’t buried, Doplo’s spirit remained in that valley, and swore that he would continue to kill anyone who enters the valley until he finally kills his brother Korin.”
The girl sighed. “You actually believe that the valley is haunted?”
“Well, do you have any other suggestions for how we get in?” She handed him the map. Rile took it and traced several paths from their current location to the border. There were a few options that looked promising, but the trouble was always the same: guards at the border. And even though he might be able to talk his own way in, how would he explain the girl or the horse from Almsong? Sure, he could say that she was a representative from Lüthor who wanted an audience with the king and they had stolen the horse, but he had learned from Markus that border guards, especially during wartime, were nothing if not paranoid. Rile couldn’t afford to be detained or, even worse, attacked. It looked like there was no other option.
“Fine. We’ll go your route.” He rolled up the map and handed it back to the girl. “Then once we get inside the borders, I’ll escort you to the castle.” She nodded, took the map, and put it back in one of the saddlebags. Rile mounted the horse and grabbed the reins; the girl leapt onto the back of the horse and took a sip from her canteen. She tapped Rile on his shoulder and shook the vessel. He reached back, grabbed it, and took a hefty swig. The liquid burned in his throat, but this time he was half-expecting it and managed to swallow it down. He handed it back to her, signaled the horse to move, and off they went to Korin Valley.
The horse, even with two riders, was surprisingly fast. It seemed to be racing against the sun, weaving in and out of the trees, blazing through the open plains, leaping over the occasional body. By the time they reached the entrance to Korin Valley, the sun had just disappeared beyond the horizon.
Rile stopped the horse right before it could enter into the thick fog that covered the valley, and they both dismounted. She took out a torch from one of the saddlebags lit it, then gave it to Rile. “What happens if we lose each other?”
The girl then pulled a rope out from the saddlebag and tied it to the horse. “That won’t be a problem.”
“And how’s that?”
She walked around and handed Rile the rope, then she climbed back onto the horse. “Because as long as you hold onto the rope, we should be fine.” Rile looked at the rope in his hand and then at the girl, baffled at how fast he had been swindled into effectively becoming a squire for this girl, whose name he didn’t even know. “Well, what are you waiting for. We’ve got to move quickly. Let’s go.”
Rile turned and faced the fog-covered entrance to Korin Valley and stared at it. He dropped the rope and reached his hand out towards the girl. She looked at him, and, after realizing what he wanted, dug around in the saddlebag for the canteen, pulled it out, and handed it to him. He grasped it firmly and finished off the remaining liquid, then tossed the empty container aside and grabbed onto the rope once again. He began to move and disappeared into the fog, the horse and the girl disappearing soon after.
Luckily for Rile, the main path was smoother than the rest of the valley. He figured it was from frequent travel when the fog had lifted, usually sometime in mid-summer, but he also considered it might be a trap, a road meant to lure travelers in only to get ambushed without even catching a glimpse of their attackers. Regardless of the consequences, following this path was what he was doing, hoping that it would lead them successfully through the valley.
A few hours in, he heard something hit the ground with a thump. He stopped and hastily looked around, not seeing anything. “Did you hear that?” No response from the girl. “Hey, girl.” Rile followed the rope back to the horse, but when he was finally able to see it, the girl was not on top of it. He began frantically looking around the horse, waving his torch around. Finally, he found her, lying face-first on the ground. He flipped her over and was relieved to see that her chest was still moving. He figured she must be exhausted since they’d been traveling at a breakneck pace non-stop. He picked her up and seated her in the saddle the best he could and then gently moved her torso and arms so they were hugging the horse’s neck.
Rile decided to take this moment to rest as well and reflect. He was convinced now that the girl was a hero. Her goal, or at least what he assumed her goal was, was certainly heroic enough: talk to the king and work out a deal, probably one that would allow Lüthor to be recognized as a free nation and maybe even be accepted as an ally. She was also quite knowledgeable, well beyond her years, and extremely brave, willing to do whatever it took, even if it meant trusting strangers one had just met on a random battlefield.
His heart sank and feeling fatigued he slumped onto the ground. Now that he had a moment of silence and calm, he had an epiphany. If she was the hero of this story, then what was his role? Was he spared by the gods to be a guide for her? If that were true, when would he get to see Olivier and his unborn child? The gods couldn’t be this cruel, could they?
No, even if it was pre-ordained, he would not play out his role. Rile had his own goal, and he couldn’t afford to waste time on a heroic journey, especially someone else’s, despite the allure of an interesting tale to tell. However, he had to do something to change his fate.
Suddenly his mind grew foggy. He began to hear a voice in his head.
Heroes do not deserve to live.
Rile looked up to see a figure made of fog standing over him.
Heroes are vain creatures, leeching themselves onto society and sucking out all the glory for themselves.
The figure gestured towards the girl.
They are a plague that must be destroyed.
He stood up, shaking, and turned to look at the girl, sleeping peacefully. He reached for her knife, which was in a sheath on her back, and pulled it out quickly. She didn’t even acknowledge it; she was sound asleep. The figure formed a faint smile as Rile raised the knife, slowly, his hand shaking more intensely the higher he raised it. His mouth grew parched, his knuckles whitened. He had to do this. He had to. He dropped the torch and brought his other hand up to steady himself, but it only seemed to worsen the problem. He tried to calm himself further by slowing his breathing. In. Out. In. Out. InOut. InOut. InOutInOutInOutInOut…
Rile dropped the knife and collapsed onto the ground. He clenched his fists and slammed them down, cursing the gods under his breath. He couldn’t tell if it was them intervening or not, but he just wasn’t able to kill the girl. He had slain so many Almsong soldiers while fighting for the same thing he was fighting for now: his family, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to take one more life. Was he cursed to be the guide, the companion, forced to never see his family again?
Rile looked up at the figure, who had picked up the knife, the foggy form of its hand swirling around the handle.
I had thought we were akin, stuck in the same hopeless shadow, eager to break free from our shackles of subordination. I can see now that I misjudged you.
The figure took the knife and lunged at Rile. He had just enough time to stick his hand up to catch the blade. Rile could feel his skin tear and blood trickling down his arm. The knife inched closer and closer. He took his other hand and grabbed the handle. The fog around it displaced itself to where it was now gripping both the knife and Rile’s hand. The two were at a stalemate.
Then, as the blood began to drip from his elbow onto the ground, his mind began to clear. The figure was beginning to dissipate, the force behind the attack began to wane. Using this opportunity Rile tightened his grip on both the blade and the handle and pulled the knife out of the figure’s hands, causing them to dissipate into the surrounding fog, along with the rest of its body.
He looked at the knife, still clutched in his hands. He then stood up and looked at the girl, peacefully asleep. He sheathed the knife and rummaged around the saddlebags for something to bandage himself with. He found a cloth shirt, which he tore off a piece of and wrapped it around his hand. He pulled out another torch from the bag and lit it. He once again began to lead the horse through the valley.
As they traveled, Rile reflected on his encounter with the figure, and what would have happened if he had killed the girl. Would he be doing the right thing if he had gone through with it, fulfilling the role the gods had handed him to hopefully be rewarded finally returning home? No, this girl had too much to fight for to be killed in this dreary place, and he was confident he wouldn’t be able to look his newborn in the eyes if he had gone through with it.
But the appearance of the foggy figure confirmed something for Rile. The gods were determined for him to play a role in this story, and it would not be as the guide nor as the villain.
It would be as something else.
Yda’s eyes fluttered open as the sun began to shine over the horizon. She didn’t remember falling asleep but was glad for the much-needed rest. She pushed herself off of the horse’s neck, sat upright in the saddle, and admired the sunrise. She couldn’t remember the last time she had stopped to take in how beautiful her namesake was, and how unlike it she had become. She wondered if her father would have been proud of the lengths she has gone to protect their homeland, although she was pretty sure he would not be proud of how many people she had failed to protect.
She let out a heavy sigh and looked around. It had appeared that they had made it out of the valley safely until she spotted Rile on the ground, a piece of blood-stained cloth wrapped around one of his hands. She quickly got off the horse, rushed over to him and investigated the bandage. The blood appeared to have nearly soaked the entire cloth; he would have to get a new one. She went back to the horse and pulled out a cloth shirt, which she could tell had been used by Rile for the bandage due to the odd angle of the tear, and another canteen of her mother’s brew. She rushed back to his side.
She carefully removed the blood-soaked cloth and was finally able to see the wound. It was a large cut across his palm, not too deep but it was also not cleaned very well. Yda hoped to the All-Father that it wasn’t infected. She took his wrist and lifted it, tossing aside the old bandage. With the other hand, she grabbed the canteen and opened it with her mouth. She tightened her grip on Rile’s wrist, figuring he might wake up from the sting, and slowly poured some of the contents over the wound. Sure enough, he sat up nearly instantaneously and let out a short but painful shout while she attempted to keep the arm steady. She set the canteen down quickly, causing it to wobble, and bit down on the cloth shirt, tearing another piece off. As he was calming down, she wrapped up the wound tightly and tied off the two ends of the cloth. She sat back, grabbed the canteen, and took a large swig. Damn good stuff. It was a shame she had only brought two bottles. She could’ve used some extra help to sway the king’s favor.
Rile looked at his redressed wound. “Thank you.”
She handed him the canteen and he took an equally large swig. “What happened?”
He handed her back the canteen and began to explain: They had been ambushed by a group of thieves, and Rile had attempted to defend against the group with Yda’s dagger, but his grip was too loose and he ended up flinging the dagger out into the fog. To make matters worse, he also got grazed by an arrow at the exact moment he lost the dagger, at which point Rile decided the best course of action would be to mount the horse and ride away through the fog and hope they could make it out of the valley, which they eventually did.
Yda stood up and reached her arm down to Rile. He reached back with his good hand, and she pulled him up, trying to hide a chuckle. She couldn’t believe that a knight would have such a loose grip. “Well, at least we’re alive, thanks to you. I take it you know the way from here?”
“More or less.” Rile made his way over to and mounted the horse. “But we better move fast. We don’t know how close Almsong is to our borders, if they haven’t penetrated them already.”
“How long do you think it’ll be?”
“If we keep up our previous pace? Should be four or five days at the most.”
She walked up to the horse, pulled a small leather pouch out of the saddlebag, and removed two thin crackers. She put the pouch back, climbed onto the horse, and handed one to Rile. He took it and they both started eating as he signaled the horse to move. She wolfed down the cracker quickly. “Yda. My name is Yda.”
He didn’t say anything. He simply looked back, took another bite of his cracker, and nodded. He kicked into the horse’s side and off they headed deeper into Sol.
Despite him not being a noble, Yda was impressed with Rile’s navigational skills. He kept them off the main roads, yet they still seemed to be flying through the forests. Of course, having such a good horse was also why they were moving so fast. She was planning on keeping the horse, but she hadn’t thought of a good name. Perhaps she would think of one by the time they reached the castle. Of course, figuring out what to say to the king was her main focus.
She had studied up on the history of Sol for this very task, and yet she felt even more unprepared than when she had known nothing at all. Yda had learned that every king who had reigned so far was wildly different. Some kings had preferred peace with other nations to varying degrees and consequently varying success. There were a few that grew paranoid and closed the borders, sometimes executing a dozen of their own court members. One king wasn’t even a king at all, but an assassin who decided she wasn’t getting paid enough to kill the king, so she decided to simply take his place. How the nobles of the court were fooled for nearly thirty years, the books didn’t say. They only found out when she was forced to wed and couldn’t produce an heir for obvious reasons, and both the queen and the man she tried to get to impregnate the queen reported her to the court. She was executed the next day before the sun even had a chance to rise. All-Father rest her soul. How Yda would’ve loved to talk with this false king. She absolutely hated nobles, and all the research she did on them made her sick. She had felt even sicker when she had realized she would need one to get an audience with the king.
Hopefully, Rile had a plan to get them that audience. He seemed like the kind of person that always had a plan, no matter how dire the circumstances. She just hoped this plan didn’t wind up getting both of them killed.
They had ridden for nearly two days straight, only stopping for a couple of hours each night to sleep, and eating once they got up. Yda figured they must’ve beaten Almsong into the kingdom; there were no dead bodies in sight. Rile had been careful to avoid the roads, which she assumed was to not draw attention to them, considering she was a foreigner and they were riding the enemy’s horse. Eventually, at around midday, he stopped the horse several yards from the tree line, right before they would encounter a road. Yda noticed a medium-sized town.
Rile dismounted the horse and tied it to a tree. “Do you mind waiting here?”
“Why? Are you going into that town over there?”
“Yeah.” He looked back at the town and took a big gulp. “My friend, Markus, he was with me at the battle.” He began sniffling, and despite there not being any tears, he wiped his eyes. “His wife and parents are in this village. I know we’ve got to get to the king, but I need to bring them closure, for their and Markus’ sake.”
“I understand. Take your time.”
“Are you sure?”
Yda nodded. “I know what it’s like to lose someone close like that. Take this time to grieve. Who knows when you’ll get another chance.” She pulled out the canteen and tossed it to Rile. “You might want this, just in case.”
He caught the bottle and immediately threw it back at her. “Thanks, but I think I’ll be fine.” He waved and she waved back. She watched as he carefully looked both ways out of the tree line, then stepped forward onto the road and towards the town.
Despite what she said, Yda hoped he would be brief, but she had a feeling he would take a long time no matter what she told him. She understood grief all too well. She opened the canteen and took a swig, almost finishing it off, but making sure to leave enough for one last sip: the sip of victory, when the damn war would finally be over, when their homeland would finally be free.
“Father, please don’t go.” A younger Yda was tugging on the deerskin tunic of her father. The storm winds caused the flaps of the tent to ripple violently. The thunderclaps echoed in their ears. Her father bent down and rested a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s okay, my little Yda.” He removed her hand from his tunic and laid her down on the ground. “Get some sleep.”
“But father, I can’t go to sleep. Not without you being here.”
Her father sat down next to her. Lightning flashed through a small opening. He unhooked a sheathed dagger from his belt and handed it to her. She placed it onto her lap and stared at it.
“You may be too young to hear this, but someday, when I’m gone, you’ll have to lead our people.”
She looked back up at her father.
“Why me? Why not Olm? He’s strong and brave and kind and¬ -”
“Your brother’s dead.”
The raindrops pounded against the tent.
“Oh… Did he die the same way mother did?”
Her father nodded. She looked down at the dagger and clutched it tight.
“Father, is dying scary?”
He held her hand. “Yes, it can be.”
She gulped. “Are you scared to die?”
She stood up, eye-level with her father. “Then why do you have to leave? You’ll just die like Mother and Olm! If you’re scared of dying then why do you need to fight? Why!”
Her father looked her in the eyes, then embraced her. He held onto her as tight as he could for as long as he could. He laid her back down and began to leave the tent.
“Father, promise me you’ll come back.”
He hesitated, then continued walking out of the tent. Lightning flashed, casting his shadow back inside the tent, completely covering the young chieftain.
Yda woke up. She realized she must have taken a short rest because she noticed that the lowering sun had begun casting long shadows. Rile had been gone for a while, and Yda got worried. Perhaps Almsong had beaten them here, but there was no sign of that anywhere. She was hesitant to go to the town to check on him, but they had to get going. She climbed off the horse and gave him a pat on the neck. “We’ll be back soon, Verthünd.” He let out a whinny and shook his head as she walked out to the tree line, looked both ways, stepped onto the road, and made her way to the town.
She was relieved to see it bustling with people. Almsong wasn’t here yet, but they could break through at any moment. She had to find Rile, now.
Yda walked through the town, trying to spot Rile. She did her best to subtly look into windows, and some people gave her very disapproving looks. Eventually, she spotted him inside a very worn-looking hovel talking with a woman holding a baby. She assumed that must be Markus’ wife, but where were the parents, and why would he not mention a child? These questions didn’t matter now. She just had to walk in, apologize for intruding, tell Rile they needed to leave, and hopefully cover some lost ground before they had to stop and rest.
She walked over to the front door and was about to open it herself when she remembered that the people of Sol were much more bothered by random people entering their home than she was, so she decided to knock instead. The door swung open and there Rile stood.
“Finally, I found you. I’ve been looking all over town. Finish up what you need to say to your friend’s wife and let’s go. We need to make up for lost time.”
Rile looked back at the woman and then sighed. “We need to talk.” He exited the house and closed the door behind him. He began walking off towards a larger building, and Yda followed. The building had no signage, but it was clear to her that from the increasingly potent odor that they were approaching the local tavern.
They entered and went over to a table in the corner of the building and sat down. Rile held two fingers up, and a barmaid quickly grabbed two steins full of ale and set them down on the table. Rile nodded and pulled out a couple of coins from a small pouch on his belt, then gave them to the barmaid.
They both took a sip of the ale. It wasn’t nearly as good as her mother’s brew, but it was free. Yda took another sip, longer this time, and set down her stein. “So what did you want to talk to me about?”
Rile looked at her and took an equally long sip before he answered. “I’m not going with you to see the king.”
She stared back at him. “What?”
“My journey ends here. That woman I was talking to, that’s my wife, Olivier, and our newborn daughter.”
“But what about meeting with Markus’ wife and parents? Did you do that?”
Rile shook his head. “They’ve been dead for a while. That was the whole reason he joined the war; he had no more family left so he might as well go out in a blaze of glory.” Rile took another long sip of the ale. “Likewise, my reason for fighting was my family, to protect them. However, after being the sole survivor of that battle, I realized how stupid I was for leaving my family, especially with a newborn on the way. So I made it my mission to get home to them as fast as possible, no matter what.”
Yda couldn’t believe it. “You never had any intention of taking me to the king?” He shook his head again. She just couldn’t believe it for a second. This man, who she had begun to think of as a trusted companion, had been lying this whole damn time? Lying about meeting with Markus’ family, lying about taking her to the king, lying about… no. He couldn’t have also lied about… “So the bandit attacking you in the valley?”
“I didn’t know how you’d react, so I made up that whole story and even stabbed my hand to make it convincing, all so I could get your dagger away from you.”
She reached back and felt her empty sheath. She had completely forgotten about the dagger being gone. She had been too focused on the wound to care. Now she wished that the wound had been infected. It would be one thing if he just wanted to make a quick stop here to check in with his family, but the fact that he lied about the reason for coming into town and that he had no intention of continuing their journey to the king was unacceptable.
Yda wanted to pummel him, but she didn’t have the time. She had already wasted half a day waiting for him. She simply stood up, chugged down the rest of the ale, and began walking out of the building. She opened the door and paused in the doorway. “What’s her name, the child?”
She clenched her fists so hard her knuckles turned white. “I pray to the All-Father that someday she does all the terrible things I wish to do to you right now.” She slammed the door behind her and hurried out of town.
She reached the spot in the tree line where she had exited and was relieved to see Verthünd was still there. She went up to him and gave him a big hug. “Looks like it’s just you and me now.” She untied him, mounted the saddle, and grabbed hold of the reins.
Yda looked to the sun, now resting just above the horizon. It was clear to her that, to make up for the time she had wasted, she was going to have to learn to ride a horse. As she mimicked the signal Rile had used to get the horse going, she prayed to the All-Father that he would guide her to the castle and protect both of them on their journey.