Friday, June 24, 2022

Flash Fiction #516 -- The Long Way Home/16


 The Euriday troops should have seen them on the ridge, but three things worked in their favor. First, Andora made quick work of destroying their prints. Second, a dense stand of ancient oak trees stood between the Euriday troops and them.

The third was the half dozen deer that Rory conjured -- not real deer, but they ran off as the troops first appeared and no doubt convinced them that any movement they had seen had been the animals.

Meanwhile, Rory and his companions remained close together in a slight depression. He even pulled enough dirt and debris over them to hide them better since some troops had spread out in their direction.

There were a lot of soldiers. Far more than just a patrol along the border. There were at least five hundred men tramping up the hill and down the other side, and Rory was sure he could see more dust rising a couple miles away.

They had a long, hot wait while the four groups moved past. A few people came close enough that Rory used magic to distract them to a slightly different path. It took far too much of the day, but eventually, in the late afternoon, the last sounds faded away. Andora sat up first, shook the dirt from her hair and arms, and the others did the same.

"They mean trouble for someone," Jamison said, his voice still soft. "I fear it might be Sciwhen, but I suppose that's only a secondary goal."

"Stir up trouble in Sciwhen to keep them from letting mercenaries hire out to Euriday or Sundry," Andora said. She seemed to have a good sense of how this could work. "I should go and warn the border guards. They aren't enough to hold back this tide."

Rory nodded. "Point us in the right direction. We --"

"Come with me," Andora said, but she did not make it a command. "We're less than two days from the border at a quick march. Can you keep that up?"

Even Keltrina nodded in agreement; to be fair, she had never slowed them down.

"Why?" Zorian asked.

"I would expect more trouble along this path, and I don't want you to run into it. I also want to write up reports for the Sciwhen government. I know there might be things you don't want to say, but since this trouble is heading for us, I think we deserve as much information as you can give."

Rory wasn't going to argue, but only because it took him closer to Sundry. Jamison and Zorian didn't look quite as confident.

"Can we get ahead of that group?" Zorian asked with a wave toward the area where the army had marched.

"They are trying to stay hidden. We can take the main trails. If we get moving --"

"I say go with you," Zorian replied. Jamison and Keltrina nodded. Rory did so last so that he didn't influence them.

Adora nodded her thanks. She started back along the deer track they'd been following. They had crossed a well-used trail a couple miles before. They would have to be careful, not so much of the typical traveler, but of any scouts that the Euriday put along the way.

Rory discussed it with the others.

"I hope they're scouting ahead and not so much behind now that they've passed," Andora admitted. They were already a mile down the main path, a much easier walk even though they were taking it quickly. "They must know that nothing will come at them from Euriday."

They walked long into the night, mostly in silence, which Rory appreciated. He hadn't had much time to think since word had been passed to him that the king had died.

He had been too busy to think about it until now.

Andora led them off the trail to a small secluded opening in the woods, and it was plain she knew this area well. When they sat down for a quick, cold meal and to sleep until dawn, Rory brought up one of the many linked things that were starting to bother him since this wild journey began.

"The man who passed me the news said the king is dead. He did not say Kellic killed the king. It might have been that he just didn't realize it yet. But that brings us up to finding Kellic outside the apartment. Outside, not inside."

"You think he didn't kill them?" Keltrina asked.

"I'm not certain he even knew they were dead. I'm not certain of anything. I think I need sleep."

Since Rory was not going to take the first watch, he all but threw himself down on the ground and got as comfortable as possible with his single blanket. He really wished he was back in the Eket Temple. Sleeping on the stone floor was not much more comfortable, but it was safer than being here.

They were up and moving again before sunrise, although not by much.    They barely avoided being seen by a group of men heading back the way they had traveled. Not Sciwhen, obviously. If they had spoken, he would have known their origin. Instead, he guessed they were Euriday scouts, and the army would not be far away.

Andora did not move out of the bushes even after they could no longer hear the soldiers. Rory could tell she was considering which way to go and didn't like any of the options.

"I assume those were Euriday troops," she said. "They weren't farmers, hunters, or traders. And if they feel safe enough to be on this road --"

"Trouble for us," Jamison replied. "What do we do?"

"Go on," Rory said. Andora shook her head. "I can get us through without being seen. And if there are Euriday ahead, maybe we need to know some facts."

Friday, June 17, 2022

Flash Fiction #515 -- The Long Way Home/15


 Rory stopped and signaled the others to be still. That wasn't to keep them from being spotted since they had already been seen. He just didn't want them to get in the way.

The figure stood. Human. That didn't make him any less dangerous.

Her.

That gave Rory an idea of what he saw, and this could go any way at this point. He hadn't thought they were that far south and inland, but this must be at least close to the Sciwhen borderland. He couldn't be sure how the Matriarchy of Sciwhen might react to them.

The woman was tall and had the stare of someone who had faced enough trouble to not be impressed by a group of muddy, bad-tempered humans of unknown origin.

"We are just passing through," Rory offered with a smile that he hoped looked more genuine than he felt. "We do not want any trouble here."

'No doubt," she said and looked at each of them in turn. "Not our usual bandits coming out of the swamps."

"We're trying to get inland," Jamison offered. "You know Kellic is now king of Euriday, right?"

"We hoped it wasn't true," she admitted.

"No one is apparently happy about it," Rory added. "We are trying to get inland to somewhere safe, or perhaps all the way to Sunry."

She looked at him with a frown. "That's a long way."

"We are hoping for somewhere closer," Jamison said, but without mentioning his father's estate.

"And you, Admiral Zorian?" she added.

"I plan to return to my place, although perhaps not for a while," he admitted.   "There are many things I want to learn. This is a crisis."

The woman still frowned. There had been no change in her attitude. Rory was aware of another person in the tree. He did not want to do anything drastic before the woman decided. She had turned from disdainful to pensive, which seemed a better reaction.

"Come with me," she said at last. "There are Euriday patrols in the area, although I don't think they are looking for anything specific. Best, I think, that they don't spot any of us. It will be a difficult hike, but you made it through the swamp."

"We've been walking a long time already," Zorian warned. "If you can lead us to somewhere we can rest --"

She gave a curt nod and signaled them to follow her. Rory sighed but said nothing more. He had no reason not to trust someone from Schiwhen, and at least she wasn't rushing off. She gave one nod to her confederate and took them through a line of brush that she carefully held apart so that they didn't leave a trail.

And she led them toward some rolling hammocks. They went up one, down it, and up another, and then she stopped and sat. It looked like a small camp where they must have stayed when not in the tree.

Everyone sat down. Rory tried to brush the mud from his boots and pants and gave up. He did pull a few thorns from his clothing, though.

"Dare I sleep for a little while?" Keltrina asked, looking at their guide. "Just for a few minutes."

"Sleep," the woman agreed and even seemed kinder for it. Maybe they needed Keltrina to talk to her and not any of the men. Rory wasn't certain. He'd never done more than bow to one or two who came to the temple.

Keltrina laid her head in her husband's lap and fell almost instantly into a deep sleep. Rory assumed that he would be awake for much longer, either. In fact, he fell asleep in the middle of Zorian explaining the situation. Under normal circumstances, he would've stayed awake and ensured everything was correctly stated. You just have to trust that they were not in trouble with yet another group of people.

He slept through the night and came awake to the smell of food the following day. Both Sciwhen women were at the camp this time, and Rory thought others might have come in during the night.

"I am Andora," the woman who had brought them to the camp said. "Since it's my turn to go scout, I'm going to take you along to help you out of the area. This will also give you an idea of how many forces are in this sector.

Everyone nodded. No one looked inclined to move yet. They had a quick breakfast, and Andora found some suitable clothing for Keltrina. They were still on their way before the sun had fully cleared the distant hills.

"I am a priest of Eket," Rory said as he moved to walk by Andora sometime late in the morning. They were in the foothills and following a deer path. "I suspect no one mentioned it."

"That was your story to tell," Jami replied.

"Eket.  And you know magic," Andora replied as she looked him over. "That better explains how you got clear of trouble."

"I was able to help, and I didn't want to surprise you with it at the wrong time.

"Wise. That might be a situation we wouldn't want to tempt," Andora replied with a brighter smile than he had expected.

"I've heard that there is little magic in Sciwhen," Rory replied.

"Very little and not often trusted. Lucky for you that I'm from Avanti."

Then she stopped, but he had as well. They both dropped to their heels, and the others went silent.

"Three people," Andora said with a wave of her hand at the ground. "Scouts from the looks of it. There is likely a larger group not far away. Back up, and I'll erase our prints."

No one argued. They'd passed a stand of brush no more than a quarter-mile back.

Rory could already hear the tramping of boots.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Flash Fiction #514 -- The Long Way Home/14


 They had covered the table, and some of the benches, with papers, all of which had official seals. Rory found nothing remotely important enough to have gone to the trouble of hiding them.

Rory leaned back and glared at the papers, a look not lost on his two companions. Then he stopped and picked up a piece --

"This is Alis's writing. Not Ambassador Tranthin's hand. There was no reason for Alis to do this. He had people to take dictation."  Rory ran his fingers over a word or two -- and then stopped with a nod. "A code laid down beneath them. Subtle. I can read it, barely. "  He stopped and closed his eyes, running his fingers over a line. "Treaties with Atria? I'm not sure who or what country made the treaty. This will take a while, and I'm not going to write it down. Keep the papers in order. I'll start with the first, and the three of you listen. We'll see if we can make some sense of it."

No one argued, even about not writing it down. Of course, they were all in the same line of work and understood the dangers of having such information where another might see it. Zorian even sent the others out of the building, which Rory appreciated, though they didn't, given the weather.

They worked as fast as they could. Rory knew the code, but it was not easy. They went over most pieces twice and finally stopped halfway through the papers when his voice started to give out, and the sound of thunder rumbled too close. Rory packed away the papers, carefully separating the ones they'd read from those they hadn't deciphered yet. Zorian let the others back in, and most went straight to work on food again.

Rory sat in self-imposed silence, the kind he had learned to call upon in the Eket temple. It worked better here because of his genuine need. Rory mentally sorted through the words he had read, but none of it had made much sense. There was, he realized, a code within the code. Maybe several layers of codes. That was going to be challenging to work out while on the run.

They ate mostly in silence. Rory's voice still sounded rough afterward, but he felt better -- right until someone rushed in and muttered words to Zorian. Their host looked grim and gave Rory a nod that showed nothing good.

"We have three government ships coming our way. We could fight it out with them, but better that they just don't find us. Grab your things. Linton will lead you back to the dry ground --"

"No," Linton said. "You take them, Admiral. You dare not stay here. And you are more important to us than they are."

"Linton --"

"Don't argue now. We've discussed this before. Take your friends and head out. We've got this part covered."

Rory noted that everyone was moving. Anything that even hinted at riches was removed. Torn, dirty blankets covered beds. The food disappeared, replaced by gruel with an overpowering scent.

Zorian was cursing, but he'd taken things others handed to him. Rory and Jamison took a few things as well. Rory had no idea what he carried, but he didn't try to look as they were all four ushered out a secret door that led almost straight into the marsh. They crossed a series of fallen trees and large rocks, leaving no sign behind. These people were ready for trouble.

Rory followed Zorian, Keltrina behind him, and Jamison last. They were soon well away from the building, which he could no longer see. He could hear distant shouts, though.

Zorian stopped, balanced precariously on a log, and looked back with worry. Then he nodded to the others. "They'll do fine. We've had this kind of visit before. I didn't want to say in case it worried you, but we are associated with Kerric in theory. He likes to believe we're giving him important information on other pirates. And we do. It's good to clear out the dangerous people. But mostly, we help people escape the city if they are in trouble. Often with Kerric. You aren't the first."

With that, he turned and led them farther away from the building. Rory soon couldn't hear anything above the usual sounds of the land around them.   It was no easy hike, and they spoke little. The day drifted toward sunset, and he supposed they would have to spend the night walking because there was no place to rest here.

Dangerous creatures were starting to move around in the water. A colossal snake moved between Rory and Zorian and almost didn't survive, startling Rory. However, just as he was about to suggest they rest anyway, he saw a break in the growth and what appeared to be higher -- and dryer -- land ahead.

They came out of the murky darkness and into far brighter light than Rory had expected. He wanted to sit down and let his eyes adjust, but the ground here was still muddy and too close to the snake and anything else in there that had spotted them.

Out in the open, though -- that wasn't much better. Rory looked around with worry. If anyone suspected them of having gone that way, it would not have been hard to send a pigeon to the outpost in this area.

"We need to get out of the open and away from this path," Rory said. He drew frowns from the others. "It would be a shame to take chances now. All we have to do is get to that stand of trees. We can make it that far."

Zorian looked inclined to argue, but Rory headed off in that direction, hoping the other three would simply come along. It wasn't more than half a mile. The others did follow, although with a few muttered complaints.

As they neared, something huge dropped from the branches of the largest tree.

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Flash Fiction # 513 -- The Long Way Home/13


 "Zorian," Rory said with a touch of frustration. There was no doubt about the voice.

"Admiral Zorian, if you don't mind."

"Well, that's a step up from gutter snipe," Rory replied and shifted slightly. The room went silent, and Jamison looked as though he thought Rory had gone mad. "Do you mind letting go? I did get stabbed in the shoulder."

"Damn. Sorry."

Zorian released Rory's arm and turned him around into a suffocating bear hug. People made sounds again, mostly relief. Zorian let go of him and took a step back. The huge, dark-skinned man had not changed much in the last ten years.

"I was never a gutter snipe," Zorian protested.

"Do you want me to come up with something better?" Rory asked with as much innocence as he could manage.

"Well, no," Zorian decided and led Rory to a table and benches. He sat on one side. Rory took the spot across from him, and then Jamison and Keltrina accepted Zorian's invitation to sit as well and settled by Rory. Cider arrived and four mugs. Zorian's people stood back and waited. Rory poured the drinks and sat back down, waiting. Zorian sipped, and they did, all quite polite.

"You look like you've fought your way through hell, Rory. I almost didn't recognize you. My friend, I heard an odd rumor that you had taken vows with the Eket temple, and I'm glad to see it's not true."

"But it is true," Rory said with a bright smile.

"Ah, but then they wised up and kicked you out."

"They wised up and taught me everything they could."

Zorian sipped again. Despite his rough look, he had not forgotten his court manners.

"As if you were not dangerous enough already," Zorian finally said with an exaggerated sigh. "I didn't know they let you people out of the temple once you went in."

"I had been under the same impression right until the Queen asked me to do some work for her. And that, my old friend, is why you shouldn't gut me. I suspect you don't want her hunting you down."

"That would be awkward," he agreed. "So you and your friends are my guests for at least a day. Maybe more if the weather doesn't improve."

"And we are most grateful," Keltrina offered.

Zorian gave her a polite nod, then turned to her husband. "Jamison, son of Lord Jamison. We already knew you were in the same sort of work as Rory here, so you need not try to look uninterested in what we discuss. I think, in fact, that we should take some time to trade tidbits -- but after the three of you have had some sleep. We can talk in the morning."

Rory felt a welling of gratitude. He'd used too much magic and too much energy, and Rory doubted it had gone unnoticed when his hands trembled as he'd poured the cider. He wasn't sure what he could -- or should -- tell Zorian, though he trusted the man. The entire country looked riddled with spies, though that didn't surprise him. No one had trusted Kellic.

Had he killed his father?

That was his last thought before he went to sleep.

Sometime around sunrise, Rory awoke to thunder and a deluge. The wind blew through a chink in the woo, so he rolled over and went back to sleep.

Rory sat bolt upright at the realization someone was in the room. Time had passed. He lifted a hand and blinked, but realizing it was Jamison, dropped it again.

"You need to get up," Jamison said. He sounded apologetic. "Zorian wants a meeting over lunch."

"Lunch. Damn. Sorry."

"Get cleaned up and join us," Jamison said. He shook his head. "You still look like hell."

"Food will help."

Jamison accepted that answer and left Rory to pull himself together. Rory thought about everything that had happened in the last two days while he cleaned up. Not much of it made sense. Other than the deaths themselves, what bothered him most was that Kellic had been there. The man knew the risk of being spotted. He wasn't a stupid man, and Rory couldn't believe that he was already secure in his position.

Had he been drawn to the Sunry Embassy? Far better to publicly shame them for their Queen having turned down his bid for the princess.  Kellic loved to put on a show.

Things didn't add up.

"You look pensive," Keltrina said when he came to sit on the bench beside Zorian.

"I have had time to think and realize how much of what happened yesterday does not add up."

"Like Kellic killing the King?" Zorian asked as he passed around platters of food.

"That I can believe," Jamison answered. "They argued. The king's guards had to force Kellic out of the area more than once. But that raises a question. How did he get close enough to kill him?"

"And why now?" Keltrina added.

"And why leave the palace before he claimed the throne? Why kill all the Ambassador --" Rory said and stopped. He frowned. "I have thought the killings were focused on my people. Was it?"

"We never checked the others," Jami agreed.

Rory pushed aside his plate despite Keltrina's protest. He still carried the bag he'd picked up from the Ambassador's office, and now seemed a good time to have a look.

Even Keltrina looked interested as he began to lay papers out. Zorian helped his people clear the table, though he did say they would want the food back.

"My apologies," Rory said with a bow of his head. "I should have waited --"

"The food isn't going to run away," Zorian said. "If there are any answers here, we need to know them."

Rory knew these were official papers with the Ambassador's seal. The Queen would disapprove of sharing them, but she had put him on this job, and she'd have to live with his choices.

Rory hoped he lived as well.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Flash Fiction # 512 -- The Long Way Home/12


 Andros took the papers and scanned the two sheets, showing an apparent ability to read. Rory suspected he had fallen in with a nest of spies. This had not been his plan, but Rory kept his face bland while he judged the idea of a running leap off the ship. How fast could he move away from the others who must be watching for some sign of trouble?

Andros's hand moved away from his blade. He handed the papers to Jamison, who passed them back to Rory. He carefully folded the papers, put them back in the spot in his boot, and pulled the thread as tight as possible. No one had said anything.

"Manti says you are also an Eket Priest," Andros said with a tilt of his head. "Isn't it unusual for a priest to do this work?"

"Yes," he replied and stood straighter. "But the need was obvious, and the Queen asked. Besides, I grew up clerking for my uncle, well-known for his ability to collect information. I was not known in the trade, but I knew it. And I knew names."

"And that is how you made contact with my people," Andros said with a nod. He frowned. "I would like to know who -- no, never mind.   You are a professional. Go now with Lintin. He'll see you to the drylands."

"Manti?"

"Go," he said. "Take what news you can to your father, and he'll pass it on to mine. I'm staying with the ship until I can get her free and head home again."

Rory thought they might have exchanged some special code. Jamison nodded, and Keltrina recovered their packs. They were going down the gangplank all too soon, and Rory realized it would be a long time before they had even that much comfort.

The ground was soggy, the plants caught at him, and he was less than enthralled with the insects and the snakes. The bird was too noisy, and the smaller animals were apt to leap from branch to branch and look as though they might fall on the humans. And it rained. And rained.

Lintin said nothing as he led the way. Neither did they. Keltrina was starting to wear down, though, by mid-afternoon. In truth, so was Rory.

An hour later, they reached an island that not only rose a few feet above the muck but even had a reasonably well-made building atop it. People had gathered on benches by a fire, sometimes laughing, though otherwise, they were quiet.

"We'll stay here for the night," Lintin said, almost the first words he'd spoken since he had led the three away from the boat. He glanced at the sky. "If it still rains tomorrow, we'll stay longer."

"I don't know if I should pray for rain or not," Jamison admitted. "But I am beyond thankful to see a roof for a while."

Lintin gave a nod of agreement. They were already up on dry land. Rory wanted to hurry, but the others must have felt weighed down by the mud they'd gathered. He did admit it was challenging to trudge up the last of the trail toward that inviting fire. Rory hadn't realized how chilled he felt until they began to slow down.

They didn't stop at the fire, although Lintin gave a few greetings to others. The three strangers with him drew stares that were not as accepting as Rory would have liked. Then he recalled that these people were pirates and hunted by two or three governments. The papers in his boot suddenly felt like a warrant for his death.

Lintin led them into the building and seemed to relax for the first time. He nodded toward several large chests against the wall.

"Find something you can wear and clean up. Someone will bring you warm water to the dressing rooms." He waved a hand toward two cloth-covered doors. "I need to check in with the Admiral and find out if there's any news from the inland."

Lintin turned and hurried away. Rory watched with trepidation, but that was just his way. Keltrina was already looking for clothing, and Jamison joined her. Rory wandered over and made a show of looking for clothing, but mostly he watched the furtive movements of people and listened to their whispers. There were no signs of trouble.

He waved to Jamison and Keltrina to clean up and change first. He searched diligently for something to wear and found a dark tunic, woolen breeches, and good socks. Of course, he wouldn't part with his boots, and the vest wouldn't be hard to clean up.

Jamison came out first and looked much better. Rory left him to guard and went into the tiny cubicle. Someone handed him warm, clean water, and he dumped the other down the drain. The small mirror showed a face he might not have recognized under the layer of mud. A couple leaves had taken up residence in his hair, and he might have been a walking tree.
Rory worked as fast as he could to clean up. He'd made nothing of the wound Kellic had given him during this mess. It hadn't bled much and didn't look infected. Rory found as much bruising as mud on his face and arms. The clothes were a complete loss. The boots had taken a beating, too, but they were intact.

Rory could hear Keltrina and Jamison talking, so he hurried. They'd provided a shaving blade, which he fully appreciated. His temple prized cleanliness and clean, shaved faces.

He hadn't felt so far from Eket until now. Why hadn't he gone off on his own? Maybe now was the time.

He pushed aside the curtain, and someone grabbed his arms and pinned them to his back.

"Rory Callen, as I live and breathe. Give me a reason not to gut you right now."