Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 15: Rona
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The Key is a fan fiction piece by Tamrend, originally posted in the Diii.net Fan Fiction Forum. The fiction series has been going since February 2004, and still see the occasional update with more chapters or parts of chapters. You can find more information on The Key article.
Chapter 15: Rona
“And that’s the last of it.” Seith sighed, shaking a few droplets of red liquid loose from its bottle to drip onto a cloth. Marius took it and dabbed at his face and the top of his head. Kelsia watched him surreptitiously as she sipped from a bowl of soup. Marius’ skin had improved drastically, going from blistered and blackened to livid pink. He was still totally bald, even his eyebrows singed away by the flames.
“It will be enough,” Marius said, grimacing. “The pain is nearly gone. There should be only a little scarring.” Even so, he continued to dab the cloth around the back of his neck. His clothing had protected him from somewhat from the brief but intense blast, but without the aid of Seith’s healing potion, the burns would have certainly killed him within a day or so. Seith had told her that he would have died of thirst, which made a kind of dubious sense, or from disease, which made no sense at all.
It had been three days since that encounter. They spent the first day resting and recovering from their injuries. Seith had butchered his slain horse, supplying them with as much meat as they could carry, enough for several days if the weather stayed cold. Their course since then had led them south and east across a barren, trackless plain.
Seith turned to Kelsia. “How is the soup?”
“Good,” she lied, taking a gulp this time. They had found a patch of leafy plants shriveling in the snow and dug up several fleshy roots. The bulbs had a loamy, sharply bitter flavor, but Marius recognized them and proclaimed them edible. Boiling the plants got rid of some of the bitterness, but left them with little else to characterize their taste. Two days ago, the vegetables had seemed like a delightful find. Now she was starting to wish they had never come across them.
“I’m going to scout our trail.” Marius announced, hefting his saddle and heading for Cloud. Seith and Kelsia now doubled up on Copper, the stronger of the two remaining horses.
“I don’t think that’s wise,” Seith said, getting a glare from Marius. “You could use one more day for that healing potion to do its work,” he added. “You shouldn’t go exerting yourself just yet.” When Marius didn’t answer, he tried again, “Shouldn’t you eat first?” but got only a vague grunt in response as the swordsman threw the saddle over Cloud’s back.
Seith shook his head ruefully and stooped to ladle himself some of the murky liquid from the pot. He sipped loudly from the utensil’s edge before filling his bowl. Making the roots and meat into a soup had been his idea, hoping the latter would curb the taste of the former. “You’re right,” he said to Kelsia. “I have improved the taste. I believe it’s gone from abysmally foul to nearly tolerable.”
Kelsia shared a grin with him. Like Marius, it was a wonder he was alive. The bolt of lightning that had struck him had killed his horse, but he had survived the attack with only a few deep burns, plus some bruises, a twisted ankle and a bump on his head from the fall. His horse had lain sprawled next to him, eyes staring, legs smoldering, filling the air with the stench of burnt hair and flesh.
Seith limped over and sat next to Kelsia on the ground. She knew that he had taken none of the healing potion for himself, saving it all for Marius’ more severe injuries. He leaned in close, “How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine,” she said, giving what she hoped was a brave smile. Fear and fatigue had done much to numb her emotions, but she could still sense the weight of her grief, pushed down just below the surface and kept at bay by the daily struggle to survive.
“That is good to hear,” he said. Kelsia could hear the careful measuring in his tone. “In Rona, we’ll all be treated to a hot bath, a hot meal, and a warm bed. Just hang on for a few more days.” He continued to gaze at her searchingly for a moment and looked quickly away.
“Something is troubling you, isn’t it?” she said, with sudden insight.
Seith bowed his head over his bowl, sipped from it, and said quietly. “I didn’t want to concern you, since it might not mean anything, but ever since you fought that mage, the staff’s glow of power is much dimmer. I can barely sense it now, even sitting right here next to you.”
Kelsia reflected on that. “Could I have done something to damage it?” she asked. “Maybe that’s for the best. Maybe I can be rid of it.”
“We can’t know that,” he said firmly. “As I said, I didn’t want to concern you, or to give you false hope. Maybe I shouldn’t have told you.”
Kelsia looked at the staff, propped across her legs. She stood and let it fall to the ground. She turned resolutely and thought, I’m leaving it behind.
Her stomach clenched and her legs grew painfully rigid, but she began to take slow, careful steps away from it. She may have imagined it, but it seemed that the pain lessened the further she went. She stopped a dozen paces away. “Pick it up,” she said.
Seith bent and picked up the staff from the ground. Kelsia felt his hands closing around her. Her palms itched and tingled with the urge to run over to him and snatch it away, but she forced her body to remain still. “I could do it,” she breathed, wonderingly. “I really could leave it behind.”
Seith looked from her to the staff and back. Worry creased his brow. “I’m not so sure of that. I can still feel the link as strongly as before.”
“But don’t you see?” she said, nearly laughing aloud. “I’m free of it.”
“Maybe,” he conceded. “But we can’t know for certain. Here.” He closed the distance between them and held out the staff. “You’d better take it.”
She was irritated by the deep sense of relief she felt when it was back in her hands again. “Well, we’ve learned something, then,” she said, shrugging. She spotted Marius making speed to the east, just before he dropped out of sight down a slope. “I don’t think that Marius took your suggestion very seriously,” she remarked.
He smiled at that, following her gaze. “No, I suppose not. Sometimes it’s all I can do to convince him to follow my orders. I’d rather not lead at all, if truth be told, but it’s my duty. When Garron died…” He stumbled over the words. “When we realized he was gone, his post fell to me.”
He gave her hand a tug and they started back for the spot where they had left their breakfast, already rapidly cooling in the brisk morning air. Seith grimaced anew as he tipped up his bowl and sipped. It was Kelsia who broke the tepid silence. “I’d like to hear more about your master.”
“Garron." Seith smiled at a memory. "When I first saw him, I was too terrified to speak. As you probably realize, most people can’t perform even the most paltry magic. A few can be trained to recognize and use the ability they have within them. Fewer still seem born to it, learning to influence their world through magic almost from the time they learn to speak. I am of this last type.”
Kelsia chuckled. “It must have given your parents quite a shock.”
Seith smiled wanly. “I have almost no memory from that time, but I can recall once feeling hungry and wishing I had some of the soup that was boiling in a cauldron over the fire. The next moment, I was running away, screaming as the great black thing came flying after me, spilling scalding hot broth all over the floor.” Seith shared her laugh this time, but sobered quickly. “Strange how I can remember that one image of terror with near-perfect clarity, but I wouldn’t know the faces of my mother or father if I ever saw them again.”
“Were you very young when you left?”
He nodded. “I was four years old when my father brought me to Tristram. As Garron tells it, a man showed up there on the front steps of the monastery one day, hauling along a scared and bewildered little boy. The poor wizards within didn’t know what to make of us. The monastery at Tristram was built as a place to house and protect the magic that contains Diablo himself. Many Horadrim choose to serve out their early years of mastery standing watch over that most terrible of demons, guarding against a breach in the magic that holds him captive. It is hardly the sort of place where you would want to bring a child, magic or no.
“My father sat idly by as the mages debated among themselves what to do with me. A few of them were in favor of housing me there until a ship could be arranged to take me east, but most believed it best to keep me in my family's care at least until I was of age. Garron at last stepped up and asked to have a look at me. By this time, I was all but forgotten in the heated battle of wills taking place. I remember quite clearly the image of him squatting down next to me, though his words had to be recounted to me later. He said, ‘You have the potential to be the greatest Horadric Mage in a century. What do you think of that, boy?’”
“What did you answer?” Kelsia asked eagerly.
“Well, according to Garron, I began to wail and clutch at my father’s legs.” He laughed. “It was hardly an auspicious beginning. But Garron was determined to take me on, and my father was just as determined to see me off. Garron cut short his pilgrimage and returned to Horadrim Keep to train me as an apprentice. He was a strict but patient teacher, and he knew the ways of the westerners, having grown up there himself. In only a short time I grew to admire him, to care about him as a second father. In fact, he's the only father I know.”
Kelsia settled her chin atop her fists. “Did you turn out to be as great as Garron thought?”
Seith shrugged. “I was very young for an apprentice. The usual rule is that we do not begin to train youths before the age of six, but as I said, cases like mine are rare. By the time I turned ten, I could best any of my peers, including those awaiting their adept trials. Well, perhaps not Lorimer, but he is five years my senior.”
“Adept trials?” Kelsia prompted.
“All apprentices are required to undergo a test upon reaching eighteen years, to pass on to their next phase of training as a Horadrim. Those who fail are dismissed from the clan.”
Kelsia had guessed that Seith was young upon first meeting him, but had revised her thinking over time. Now she realized that her first impression had been the correct one. “When will you take the trial?”
“It is set to take place in a few months time. Tradition allows one month from the actual date of birth for additional study and preparation, but I shouldn’t need it. Garron has trained me for it for half my life. He often said that I would one day become an initiate, the first to appear among the Horadrim in over a generation.”
“That sounds like it would be quite an honor.”
“Oh, it would be,” he replied noncommittally. “The truth is that I’ve never quite lived up to the high expectations that were set for me. I progressed quickly, it’s true, but I always sensed my master’s disappointment at my failures. What he saw in me that day in Tristram has somehow never truly been realized, at least in his eyes. And in mine, too, I suppose.”
“And just how many apprentices,” Kelsia said indignantly, “could have led us safely this far, with a horde of demons and skeletons and wizards and who knows what else chasing after us?”
He shrugged. “Who can say? We’re alive for now, but I would credit fortune at least as much as any action on my part.” He gazed at her pointedly. “Not that I can take any of the credit for what happened at the edge of the forest." He paused. "Are you ready to talk about it yet?”
Somehow, Kelsia could never quite bring herself to tell him about the presence that whispered words into her mind. It seemed like utter madness even to her except when it was actually happening. In the days since that last time, it had been oddly silent. “I didn’t even know what I was doing,” she said quietly. “It just sort of happened.”
Seith waited, obviously wanting more from her. Kelsia wasn’t sure what he wanted from her, but she couldn’t see how the truth would help. Finally, he spoke. “Magic is difficult and dangerous without the proper focus. That’s the reason for the arcane words and the gestures that mages make. They give structure and reason to a power that is otherwise chaotic and unpredictable. I’m not certain what happened back there, but I must assume you were somehow able to draw magic through the Key, and that magnifies the danger a thousand fold.”
“Are you trying to get me to promise that I won’t do it again?” She asked him. A part of her was terrified of the power of destruction she had unleashed and wanted nothing more to do with it. Another part longed to taste that power again. That terrified her perhaps even more.
Seith breathed a beleaguered sigh. “It is difficult for me to counsel you in this. Yes, I think it would be best if you try to refrain from doing whatever it was you did, but I also cannot forget that if not for your magic, we would not be here now speaking. It seems to me a very fickle thing, to manifest only when we need it most.”
“It might even be gone,” she mused, “given how the staff’s power has faded.”
“Don’t be so quick to draw such conclusions,” he warned. “Magic requires a certain amount of belief to work. If you believe that the power is gone, it might become so.”
She nodded thoughtfully and then drank the last of her soup. Magic was a strange thing. If belief was required, how had she been able to use magic at Dalmers Ferry? She certainly hadn’t believed she could back then. Even now, acceptance was slow in coming.
Seith stood up and gathered their bowls to clean them. Kelsia caught his sleeve. “There is something I want to ask of you.”
He looked at her. “Go on.”
“I was wondering if you might teach me to read. Also to write, if there is time.”
Seith smiled warmly. “I think I’d like that. I should have thought of it sooner. Wait right there.” He rummaged through his saddlebags and came back with parchment, a quill and an ink bottle. “We’ll start with your letters,” he said, setting the implements down in front of her.
The sun had climbed halfway up the sky, melting away all traces of the snow, when Marius came trotting in from the west. “Nothing to report,” he said dourly. He gave Cloud an almost affectionate rub on the neck. “I got a good view from one of the taller hills. There is no sign of pursuit. I don’t like it.”
“I think that will be all for today, Kelsy,” Seith said, nodding approvingly at her work. She had learned the names for every letter of the alphabet and written them all out twice. Seeing the letters form beneath her fingers was a kind of magic in itself, and she was sorry not to have the chance for a third rendering.
Marius dropped the ladle into the cold soup and picked out a pieces of meat with his fingers, shoving them into his mouth and chewing at the same time. Kelsia grimaced at him. “Aren’t you going to eat any of the roots?”
“No,” he said around a mouthful, “those things taste terrible.” He looked at Seith. “Why aren’t they coming after us?”
“It does remind me too closely of our escape from Dalmers Ferry,” Seith admitted. “But what kind of trap could anyone set in such open terrain? We could see it and avoid it from miles off. It makes no sense.”
“That’s what I am saying,” Marius growled. “Have you felt anything from the staff?” he asked Kelsia.
“No. Not since the battle.”
Seith explained to him about the staff’s sudden changes, and ended by suggesting that they could no longer rely upon it to guide them.
“That does put us at a crucial disadvantage,” Marius observed. “We’ve seen our enemy’s face, but we’re no closer to understanding what he intends next.”
“Maybe he’s scared of us now,” Kelsia ventured, half-jokingly.
Seith regarded her intently. “There may be some truth to that. We may have given our enemy pause, at least, but I doubt he will be deterred for long. Perhaps it is time to re-think our course.”
Marius scowled in thought for a moment. “I still say that Rona is our best hope. The city is well-fortified and only a few days’ ride, if the weather holds. The king will be compelled to offer us aid and protection. We could stay there until help is summoned.”
Seith nodded. “I agree. Even if we’ve gone unobserved all this time, our enemy has likely already guessed at our destination, but it would be foolhardy to try a different path. Forage will only get worse the farther east we travel, and it’s at least another month going overland. We would be easy prey. What interests me most is that there is a portal stone in Rona. It is rarely used, but should be functional.”
“Well, it sounds like the best choice to me,” Kelsia put in, feeling wholly unnecessary.
“Right, then” Seith nodded, glancing at each of them in turn. “We should stay alert to trouble, though. Kelsia, I want to know the moment you feel anything from that staff.”
They broke camp and resumed the journey east. When they stopped for the evening, Seith continued his lessons with Kelsia, instructing her in the concepts that letters represented, how they could be used singly or combined to form other words. Kelsia’s head was soon spinning with the complexity of it, but Seith assured her that she was doing very well. “Think it through as you prepare for sleep,” he told her. “I’m sure you will have much of it sorted out by the morning.”
Kelsia woke from a dreamless sleep. Soundless twilight blanketed the land. She twisted beneath her blankets, but sleep would not come. Her mind was oddly clear and she mumbled quietly to herself, recounting her lessons from the previous day. She sat up upon seeing Seith at watch. “I have something to show you,” she said, barely keeping her excitement in check. “May I go get your ink and parchment?” He gave her a bemused nod.
She returned with the items and spread them out carefully on the ground, then sat across from him. Dipping the pen, she began to write slowly and carefully, etching tiny black strokes into the parchment in the wan light. She earnestly hoped that she had made the correct choice of letters. When it was done, she sat back to let him see four shaky figures.
“Hmm,” he said, frowning.
Kelsia’s shoulders sagged, the joy seeping out of her. “I just thought—“
“Oh,” he said, and turned the page over to face his direction, “that’s better. This says…hm, ‘Kelsia’.” He looked up. “Excellent work, Kelsia. You’ve made your first word.”
She took a moment to cork the ink bottle before she threw herself at him with a cry. “Jackass!” she screamed. “Lying weasel.” She broke into a fit of giggles as she beat his chest and shoulders ineffectually with her fists. Suddenly, she let out a screech as he darted in first one hand and then the other and began to expertly tickle her sides. Now, with the tables turned, she was desperate to get away. She finally managed to roll away from him and lay on her back, panting and giggling by turns.
“You could wake the dead with your racket,” Marius grumbled and rolled to face the other direction.
Seith stood up to brush the dirt off and offered her his hand. “I’m sorry about that,” he said, grinning in spite of his words. “It was a terrible joke to play on you. Can you ever forgive me?”
She was tempted to take it and pull him down and resume their mock battle, but that would mean further delaying the morning’s lesson. “I suppose we have a truce,” she said haughtily, accepting his hand, “for now.”
The resumed their places once more, Seith beginning now to teach her simple words, praising her near-perfect recall of letters. Presently, Marius brought them a pair of sticks with roasted horse meat speared along their length. Absorbed in the task of constructing her first sentence, Kelsia didn’t realize that he was off on another scouting run until after he was gone. She learned to write each of the men’s names and was soon using them in sentences, though it took a bit of coaching from Seith.
Cloud was blowing heavily when Marius rode back into camp, leaping from the saddle before the mare had come to a stop. “Hellspawn,” he gasped out, sending Kelsia’s heart racing at once. She dropped the quill and reached for the staff reflexively, but no warmth stirred in its depths.
“Just beyond that hill there,” Marius continued, pointing to a high crest a few leagues to the west. “Goatmen. Ten, maybe more. They saw me, too, I’m certain, though it doesn’t appear that they gave chase.”
“A scouting party, perhaps?” Seith ventured.
“They had a camp, at least what passes as one for those creatures. That hill would give a lookout climbing it an easy view of us down here, though they’d hardly need it with all the smoke going up from the fire. They must be following us. Perhaps they have been all along.” He smacked a fist into the palm of his other hand. “Had I gone a bit farther yesterday, I would have found them. I should have been more vigilant.”
“Peace, Marius,” Seith said, rising. “What matters is that you did find them today, that we know about them now.” He touched Kelsia’s shoulder. “Do you sense anything?”
She shook her head. “Nothing.”
“Perhaps they are beyond your range,” Marius suggested. “Or maybe they simply aren’t a threat to us. Burn it, we don’t really know if it’s working or not. Better not leave it to chance, though. I say we break camp at once.”
“Agreed,” Seith said. “I think we are nearing Rona. Perhaps we can reach it today if we ride hard.”
With the low-lying morning clouds burning away, Kelsia saw that there was a mountain range drawing down from the north. The mountains were squat and round, and spotted with skeletal trees, nothing like the towering heights where Loric made his home or the steep crags to the west of her home.
Before midday, they came upon a farmstead with a lonely mud-brick house standing in the distance. The crops were irrigated by a clever system of dams and canals that diverted water from a nearby stream. Though she could only see it from afar, Kelsia tried to commit to memory as much of the details as she could, thinking of how useful such a system could be back home. [i]If there is even a home to return to, that is,[i] she thought glumly.
“That’s odd,” remarked Marius, seemingly to himself.
“What is it?” Seith asked him.
Marius pointed. “They should have already finished their harvest, but you can see that most of the crops have been left in the fields to rot. This farm was abandoned, and quite recently.” The two men exchanged a glance and Marius nodded. “Perhaps I had better circle around for a look.”
“There is a path up ahead,” Seith told him. Kelsia peered onward to a narrow cart track that led away from the farm’s edge. “We’ll follow it in towards the city. Meet us there.”
That track meandered next to the stream that bordered the farm, but bore predominantly south. Soon after the farm had vanished in the distance behind them, Marius returned. “Our tail is still following us, all right, staying right on our tracks, but I saw no others. Shall we stand and fight?”
“They are not gaining ground?” Seith asked.
“No. They seem content to keep their distance.”
“Then we will let them be. We might be able to outmatch them, especially if we catch them by surprise, but goatmen can be crafty. We are at most a few hours’ ride from safety. I’d rather not take a needless risk.” Marius grumbled under his breath, but did not say more.
As the day wore on toward afternoon, the track grew into a road, weaving between long stretches of farmland dotted with low buildings. Most were obviously abandoned, but one was only a smoldering ruin. Marius paused to examine the ruins, but quickly rejoined them without comment.
To the southeast, a city slowly grew up from the plain, its glittering spires swelling like stems sprouting from the earth. Staring at the spectacle, Kelsia was startled by the sudden appearance of a cluster of riders coming up the road toward them. They drew slowly nearer, moving at a brisk walk, and Kelsia counted them under her breath. “Twenty-two,” she said, loud enough for Seith to hear.
“Twenty-five,” he corrected her. “They wear the colors of Rona. But best to be on your guard. Don’t speak if you can help it.”
Their armor was fashioned from overlapping plates polished to a dazzling gleam. The horses, too, were fitted with plating that covered them from head to chest, giving them an oddly reptilian appearance. Their helmets sported colorful plumes and broad nose guards that left little of their faces visible. As they drew closer, the horses fanned out into a tight formation and two dozen lances lowered to point at the three of them in a manner that was calmly menacing.
The lead horseman called out something that Kelsia could not understand. She thought she must have misheard, but then Marius responded with something equally unintelligible. In the next moment, she realized that it was a different language they were speaking. The one soldier came to a halt a few paces from them.
“Aye, I speak that tongue, traveler,” the horseman said, evidently in answer to a question Marius had asked. The tone and inflection of his words were garbled slightly, but she had only a little difficulty understanding them. He tipped his head forward and pulled off the helmet, revealing the face of a middle-aged man with flecks of grey in his beard and streaks in his long black hair. His hair, dark and close-cropped, glistened with a sheen of sweat. His gaze settled on her for a moment, his wide-set brown eyes flicking between her face and the staff she carried tightly in one hand.
He settled the helmet onto the pommel of his saddle and addressed Marius. “Name’s Moor, Captain Bransen Moor, to be precise. I’m sorry if my words offended you. I thought you were from one of the outlying farms. They’ve had demons raiding, if you can believe it. That’s why we’re out here. There were several deaths before the king ordered the country folk to take shelter in the city. There are still some folks missing, but I have little hope we’ll find anyone alive.”
“You say that hellspawn raided these lands?” Seith asked.
“Aye, I did, though only a very few have seen them. Can’t say where they might be coming from, and we don’t yet know how far the demons range, or if other cities in the kingdom are under attack. It was nigh a month gone that folks started disappearing and farms began to burn. They have been getting bolder ever since.” He looked at Marius once more with a frown. “Are you feeling alright, sir?”
Marius showed his teeth. “I had an unfortunate encounter involving a fire.”
“I see,” Bransen said, though it was obvious that he did not. “May I ask who you are and where you are bound?”
“I am Seith. This girl is named Kelsia and that is Marius. We must speak to your king. We come here on an important errand.”
Bransen arched his brows. “Begging your pardon, but that’s not likely. The king is very busy these days.”
Seith fixed him with a steady gaze. “I am a wizard, captain. I come on behalf of the Horadrim.”
Bransen returned the stare unflinchingly, his jaw clenching with doubt. His eyes lowered to the wand at Seith’s belt before flicking over to Marius. His gaze lingered longest on Kelsia, who obviously puzzled him most of all. Finally, he looked over his shoulder to the horseman on his left and nodded, and then gave an awkward bow from the saddle. “Then I am at your service, sir. We would do you the honor of escorting you to the gates.”
“We would appreciate the gesture. And you must announce my presence to the king and arrange for an audience.”
The captain bowed again. “As I said, sir, the king is very busy. It is not in my power to promise such a thing.” He settled his helmet carefully back over his head, and barked an order in his own language. The lances all tilted up in unison and the riders took places in formation on all sides of Kelsia and her companions. Bransen wheeled his horse and issued another order, at which they all moved, following his lead back toward the city.
The track they were on joined with a much wider road that angled northeast, following a gradual downward slope towards the city. To Kelsia, Rona was simply incomprehensible. The scale of the city standing alone on the plain confused her at first, making her wonder what purpose such a tiny wall could possibly serve. Drawing closer, though, she spotted the wreck of an overturned carriage near the gates. She realized that what appeared to be a stream cutting across the plain from the mountains to the north was actually a wide river. The towers that she had first seen stood on a hill that rose up more or less in the middle of the city, but from there they climbed higher still, casting long, black shadows to the north. She tried to imagine how something so tall could hold itself up, but finally had to conclude that there must be magic at work.
They came to stand within the shadow of the wall that encircled the city. The gates, which stood closed before them, were striped with thick iron plates and fully open could have passed six wagons abreast. Words were shouted down from the top of the wall to Bransen’s company. He called back in the same language and shot a look over his shoulder back the way they had come. “We’ve been followed,” he explained. “A small party of lesser demons. If they’re foolish enough to attack, the archers will fell them before they ever come in reach of us.”
Kelsia looked too, wondering if it were the same goatmen who had been trailing them, but could see nothing standing on the gently rolling landscape. A few tense moments passed and then a series of clanks and metal scrapings signaled the unbarring of the massive doors. They swung ponderously inward, creaking on their hinges as chains clattered away rhythmically. Bransen raised his hand and dropped it swiftly, prompting the company to move forward. They passed through a tunnel some twenty paces long before emerging into daylight and the utter bewilderment of the senses that described a city.
The smell assaulted her before they had even quite cleared the tunnel, a foul mingling of odors that made the scent of Dalmers Ferry seem a happy memory. The dank reek of human sweat and standing water and the stomach-turning stench of rotting vegetables and animal waste combined with the sweetly beckoning scent of food, making it all seem somehow even more repulsive. Blinking in the sunlight and the din of people shouting and running to and fro, Kelsia clutched at Seith’s waist with her free hand for support against a sudden bout of dizziness.
They stood at the intersection of two streets, one which ran along the bottom of the wall, curving out of sight to either side, and another which ran straight ahead, into the city’s heart. It was this path they took, forging into a yawning canyon bounded by walls of stone and brick. Nearer to the shops and houses at the edges, people walked by singly and in groups, weaving deftly past the occasional beggar. Carts and carriages took the center of the street, traveling swiftly past each other, almost close enough to touch. A few townsfolk scurried out of the way of the horses, and Bransen led them past to fall in step behind a coach.
Kelsia began to watch the for signs, to try to read them. Most had letters or symbols she had never seen before, but some were written in the familiar shapes Seith had taught her. She was pleased to be able to read “inn” and “shop”, though the pace at which they rode often made it frustrating when she worked to decipher a word but then failed to finish before the sign passed out of sight. She felt a shift as they began to ascend a gradual slope, and further along it became a noticeably steeper climb. She looked back and gasped in astonishment, as between the buildings she could see the far edge of the city, but everything shrunken until she could no longer make out individuals among the moving masses of people. It had never occurred to her that there might be so many people in the entire world, let alone gathered together in one place.
The street brought them to another set of gates and another wall as tall and imposing as the first. There was very little traffic here, and none of it led onward. The gates stood open, but a dozen soldiers stood in the path, blocking the way. “We’ve come to the old city,” Bransen explained. “You’ll need permission to go any further.” He raised his hand for the horsemen to halt and approached the men at the gates. Words were exchanged between them.
“He’s telling them who we are,” Marius translated. “And he passed on our request to see the king.”
Bransen waved farewell to the gate guard and returned. “I’ve done all I can for you, sir. You’ll need to wait here, I’m afraid. A runner will be dispatched to carry your message. If you are given an audience, you will be informed of the day and time and must return here.”
Seith stared at the gateway, his irritation evident in the stiffness of his body and the set of his jaw. He relaxed by degrees, as if forcing it upon himself. “Then I thank you, Captain Moor, for all that you have done. Farewell.”
“To you as well, wizard.” He moved off, back down the street, his men wheeling and falling in behind in precise formation.
“It sounds as though we might be waiting a while,” Marius said with a grimace.
“Well, then I suppose we should make ourselves comfortable,” Seith suggested. They dismounted, drew their horses to the edge of the street and tied them to a post. “Marius, would you fetch us some food? I saw a vegetable cart and a bakery on the way.”
Marius nodded. “With pleasure.”
Kelsia grimaced at the thought of eating in the midst of the city stench, but her stomach grumbled all the same. “Could I go too? I could help you carry it back.”
Seith thought about it for a moment. “You may, but please be careful. Stay close to Marius at all times.”
Kelsia gave her promise and they started back down the hill together on foot. They turned right at a corner and spotted a pair of carts sitting in the shadow of canvas stretched over poles. There were far fewer people roaming this street, giving Kelsia the realization of how uncomfortable the crowding had felt. Her mouth watered as they browsed and selected a generous head of cabbage and several ripe bulbs and fruits.
“Prices are running a bit high,” Marius observed as they moved on. “It’ll get worse if they can’t harvest the crops soon.”
“Will the people starve?” Kelsia asked, daunted by the thought of how much food it would take to feed the entire city.
“Probably some will,” Marius said. “Those too poor to afford the higher prices. The king will have grain stored away to get through the winter, but some will go hungry.”
“That’s sad,” she said. Her village had known lean years, but Graegor had always ensured that none went hungry, often trading money or grain in exchange for a few days of work at his estate, so that none would feel indebted to him. “Couldn’t the king just give the grain to those who can’t buy it? If he doled it out carefully, then no one would go hungry.”
Marius smiled wryly. “If only it were that simple. Still, it is good that you think about such things. Most people never ponder an injustice beyond how it affects them personally.”
The bakery was the most incredible place Kelsia had ever seen. The bread alone came in more shapes and colors than she thought could exist, but there was much more than that to see. Near the entrance was a row of tiny figures baked from dough and dotted with bits of color that gave them the semblance of faces, so that they looked like flat dolls.
Marius plucked one of them from their shelf. “It’s a cookie,” he explained. “Would you like one?”
Kelsia nodded her assent.
“Better make it two, then,” he said, grinning. “Go on, look around for something else if you like. I’m going to buy us a few loaves of bread.”
Kelsia moved toward the counter at the back, drawn by the sweet smell and the colors of pies and cakes and all manner of other foods she had no name for. Marius soon drew next to her and asked which she would like to try. She tried to refuse, so he chose one for her, a fluffy round pastry with white cream showing at the top.
“These are one of my favorites,” he told her. “You’ll want to eat it right away, before it goes stale.”
Marius paid for their food and handed her the pastry to eat. Once they were back on the street, she bit into it and got a mouthful of cream that was shockingly sweet. The outside was as light and fluffy as it looked, and broke into flakes as she chewed.
“It’s fantastic,” she said, looking up at Marius, but he seemed not to have heard. She followed his gaze to a small group of soldiers hurrying along the street in front of them, calling out to clear the way ahead. They were clad all in mail, and over that wore green tunics with the symbol of a hawk in flight. Kelsia gasped, remembering the last time she had seen it, worn by the men who had occupied Dalmers Ferry.
“They’re from Ganting,” Marius said grimly. He watched the soldiers reach the main street and turn in the direction of the city gates. Waving her to follow, he approached the cart of a textile merchant and began to converse in the local language, pointing after the soldiers.
“It’s a hunting party,” Marius said, translating the man’s response for Kelsia. “He says that they arrived several days ago to help with the demon attacks. Apparently the king of Rona has made some kind of arrangement with the king of Ganting. He says that there are rumors of demon outbreaks in other places as well.” He shook his head. “I can tell you that such a thing is decidedly odd. What king would allow foreign soldiers into his own city like this?”
He let the question hang in silence for a moment, gazing down the street with a frown. “Come,” he said. “We must tell Seith of what we have learned.”
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