The village center was as busy as it usually was, but I found I was keenly aware that it wasn’t the same. The memories of Cassinda fresh in my mind brought attention to the darker and more reserved air that filled the markets than from before she had been taken. People regarded each other cautiously, and with suspicion, or fear. The once friendly graces between customer and seller were now undertoned with haste, and little emotion.
Even the greetings I received which remained respectful and polite were lacking the same energy they once had. They were the same words, “Morning Master Walker.” Yet spoken with less certainty. Trust was absent.
I gathered what provisions I would need for my journey to the Haven as quickly as I could, happy to leave the intent eyes of the markets, and fully aware that I would need to advise the Prefect of my journey. Well, I felt obliged to at the very least. There was no actual need.
Once the wagon had been packed and my little home secured, I called upon the Long House to pay my respects to the Prefect. He was in consultation with representatives from the Farmer’s Guild, and what snatches of discussion I heard told of concerns of poaching and theft on bordered lands. My appearance however brought discussion to a halt.
“Master Walker.” The Prefect rose and walked toward me, a broad smile across his face, and the most welcoming greeting I had experienced all morning. “You honour us with your presence.” He was a large built man with a body that defined his strength. His face was more hair than skin with a grand beard matching the curl and colour of his hair.
“The honour is mine surely Prefect.” I bowed as was to be expected. “I have come to inform you that I intend to journey to the Haven today.”
He stopped, the smile turning to concern, and then turned to regard the others in the room. “Gentlemen, please excuse me a moment. We shall reconvene shortly.” He turned back to me and motioned me towards a side room.
Once we were both out of view, he regarding me sternly.
“You mean to depart today?”
I nodded. “I am packed and shall depart once we are concluded.”
“Why the haste?”
Considerations to promises I had made previously to Cassinda, I hesitated slightly. “I have had visions of late that I have found disturbing. I need to consult with my masters as to their significance.”
“I am certain the services of our messengers would suffice. Why not send a runner?”
“This is something I cannot risk and requires deep consultation.”
The Prefect regarded me with a troubled look. He leaned in close and whispered “Is it regarding the lost?”
Again, I hesitated. “In all likelihood.”
The world breathed two breaths before he moved. His two large arms rose up and his thick calloused hands rested lightly, yet firmly on my shoulders.
“My friend, the roads are not safe. We have reports of roving bands. There has been news abroad of abductions and robberies. I fear for your safety.”
This was something I was not aware of. The outer borders had never been a signficant threat and the local defenders had always been enough to keep the peace. The Prefect was genuinely concerned. I took a moment to consider my position.
“I understand. Regardless, I must make my way to the Haven. The matter is not without importance and urgency.”
The Prefect looked into my eyes and seemed satisfied with what he saw. His arms fell away from me and he smiled, a touch of sadness still glistening in his eyes.
“Then I will insist you take an aid. Dangerous enough going alone, it would be safer with a companion.”
I wanted to deny the request as I did not wish to put two lives in danger, yet I could appreciate the logic. I swallowed my instinctual objection. “I understand.”
The Prefect turned back to the door as he spoke. “Good. I shall arrange an aid for you and have him meet you out the front.”
We returned to the main chamber where the Farmer’s Guild remained patiently. The prefect then turned back to me.
“I wish you a safe journey. May you return soon and well.”
“Thank you Prefect.” And with that, I bowed in respect and left.
I prepare myself on the wagon and reviewed my provisions wondering if I should purchase more for my new companion. Only moments later, a young man dressed in simple soft armour and carrying a loose sack approached me.
“Master Walker. I am Graciul. The Prefect has asked me to accompany you.”
“Of course. What’s in the sack?”
“Equipment and provisions for two days.”
I chuckled in spite of myself. “The Prefect remembers well. Climb up then. Let’s be on our way.”
We rode on mostly in silence which was both awkward and a relief. At my right hand side, Graciul maintained a keen eye on the road ahead gripping his bow tight, especially as we ventured through rocky or forest terrain. It wasn’t more than half a day into the trip that I saw the first signs of trouble. The burnt husk of a carriage lay on its side on the left edge of the road ahead, against a rocky outcrop. I went to slow the horses when Graciul muttered softly.
“Keep going.” His eyes were looking everywhere but the carriage, and he had readied an arrow which he kept pointed low.
Trap. The word fell too easily into my mind and instinctually I coaxed a little more speed from the horses. In response the outcrop came alive as four figures emerged rushing forward towards us. Graciul quickly snapped off two arrows in quick succession maiming two of the figures. A third made it to the side of the wagon as we passed and began climbing up to me. I looked down to see a familiar face. He was one of the lost and whom had once come to me with troubling nightmares as a child. Our eyes met and a slow dawning fell upon his face.
Graciul leaned across me to loose another arrow and I pushed him back. “NO! WAIT!”
I turned back to our would be attacker to see him recoil suddenly, letting go of the wagon, and then fall heavily to the ground. The fourth figure had remained on the outcrop motionless. A large man who bellowed in rage as we rode past. Graciul grabbed the reigns from my hands and speed the horses on.
The last I saw of the young man was of him on his knees holding his head as if in pain just as the larger man walked up to kick him.
Tobus. That’s right. His name was Tobus. Then he was gone.