Soul Keeper and The Guardian, Chapter 8

A NEW COMPANION

Click here for Chapter 1

 

‘You trying to punk me?’ said the scary red-haired warrior lady. ‘Right after I saved your sorry asses?’

Mum was speechless and so was I. We just barged into this town without even knowing its name. How unlucky were we to have our cover broken at the first stop. To make matters worse, she was just shivering with fear and doubt instead of coming up with a response which seemed to be escalating the situation.

‘Miss, we didn’t know where Kirkpod was. We were asked to use that as our cover. We don’t know anything about the world outside of our town. We’re out on an aimless mission to Braumchester and make our way back home. I’m sorry we can’t tell you where we’re from but I promise that we’ll keep our word when we get back.’ I said that to her with maximum conviction hoping that she’d agree to those terms. It was clear that we were no good at lying so blurting out the truth seemed to be the best play at hand even though I didn’t entirely know the truth about this journey. Maybe I had even compromised whatever mission we were on by telling about it to some random stranger but there weren’t many things that we could do. I felt that inaction would only bring uncertainty. It was better to choose a path and just walk it, facing whatever consequences that follow. She stared at me for an uncomfortably long time which made me itch inside. Did I piss her off or was she contemplating the stupidity of my demands?

 

‘Jeez. What a pain.’ She shook her head. ‘How do you guys plan on getting to Braumchester? Do you even know where it is?’ My mind stopped going haywire after her calm response. We had averted a huge disaster.

‘We were asked to just keep following the sun’ said my mother.

‘That’s almost correct but you’ll end up among the mountains if you keep following the sun strictly. Alright then. For some reason, I’m willing to gamble that you people have stacks of money lying back at home so I’ll go with the flow. I’ll take you Braumchester and keep you company till you reach home. You’ll be paying me two crowns and all the expenses I’ll bear for you till we get there given that you don’t have anything on yourselves as of now.’

‘It’s a deal!’ said my mother with a wide, genuine smile. She was probably comforted by the fact that we now had some guidance and security for the rest of our journey. Even if she didn’t have two crowns back at home, uncle Mikhail would cover it for us.

‘If you try to con me again, I’ll crack both your skulls open without thinking twice’ said the lady but my mom was still smiling like an idiot.

‘All right, let’s get a horse for you both. Make do with one for the rest of the journey. I’m not going to risk shelling too much money on you. There’s a stable at the edge of the town. Let’s head there right away’. With that, we started following her.

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Me and my mother were walking behind her through the streets while holding hands. We still weren’t feeling quite safe already as we cruised through these dirty streets on foot. Not much time had passed since our encounter with that gang and so the town was still unruffled given how early in the morning it was. The houses were a fourth in size compared to the ones back in Vereen, just like I observed in Hirridunn. The streets were unkempt and smelled foul even though the day hadn’t begun yet. The market was disgusting to look at which made me wonder why anyone would shop at a place like that.

‘So, what’s your name?’ asked my mother while excitedly speeding up to the red-haired lady.

‘I’m Ravenna Summers. What about you two?’

‘I’m Mirriam and this is my Ed. Edward.’ My mom was overly excited about this conversation.

‘You’re not making up your names too right?’

‘Oh, no no. Why would we do that?’ she said to her while nervously laughing and still smiling like an idiot which made her look even more suspicious in an embarrassing way. ‘I’ve never seen a woman fight before. That was so amazing what you did back there. Are you a mercenary?’ My mother’s enthusiasm and awe was making me cringe inside.

‘Wow, you people must have never left home and no, I’m not a mercenary. Not full time anyway. I’m just a casual traveller. I love to be on the move all the time and pick up odd jobs along the way to fund my ventures.’

‘So you don’t live here?’ I asked her.

‘No, I just came here to fulfil a delivery for the thieves guild. I don’t usually do business with them but they are easy money.’

‘What’s the thieves guild?’ The excitement sapped out of my mother’s face right after I asked the question. I wondered if I had asked something really offensive.

 

‘I’m not surprised you don’t know. The thieves guild was an organisation formed by independent thieves across the country. They realised that banding together was more beneficial than just being small time thieves. This meant more power, more influence, a wider network and scope to pull off larger quests. The guild had been around for a couple of centuries till they were hunted and destroyed by the Knight of Wisdom about twenty five years ago. I was only a little child back then. But the guild was too big to die so easily. Thievery never stops and from the ashes of the old, a new guild was resurrected by Clovis Favere, a top guild thief who managed to stay out of the reach of the Knight of Wisdom.’ I didn’t understand a few things like who the Knight of Wisdom was and how this resurrection happened but it was still fascinating nonetheless.

‘So you’re a part of the guild now’? I asked her.

‘What? No! Didn’t I tell you that I don’t “usually do business with them”. I’m no thief. I’m a proud adventurer’ she said sparkling with pride.

‘The guild came back into the picture about 10 years ago. The whole country started crumbling after the massacre and Clovis saw this as the perfect time to bring the guild back given how busy everyone was while dealing with the repercussions. They’ve been careful enough to keep their primary operations in our kingdom and staying out of the reach of the High King and the Knight of Wisdom’ Now, I was falling in a hole of total darkness. Everything seemed to be flying over my head. We had a king? How come I was never told about it and what massacre was she talking about? What’s the High King and who is this Knight of Wisdom whose name keeps popping up again and again.

‘Um excuse me, but what do you mean by “our kingdom”?’ I asked both of them. My mother was still feeling down from the ongoing conversation but Ravenna quickly answered.

‘Which cave have you been living in boy? Jeez, I don’t even want to know. Alright.’ She stopped in her tracks and kneeled down on the ground. She started carving an unnecessarily detailed outline of a continent on the ground with her dagger. ‘This is Pangenna, the country we live in. The one of three countries in the world. There’s one on the east and another one on the south, all separated by huge oceans. The eastern country is called Cambria and the southern country is Rodrion. They’re both quite prosperous unlike us.’ I’ve always thought that we were well off but judging by the state of these places that I’ve been to in the last two days, I could see where she was coming from.

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(The unnecessarily detailed outline drawn by Ravenna of their country)

‘Our country is broken into five states. The west is where we are. This is the kingdom of Bradstone. Then there’s the Rilancian Empire, the largest kingdom in the country, also known as the mainland which ruled by the High King. It spans across the centre and the north and is about five times larger than ours. The south defected from Rilance 10 years ago and has since been ruled by Lord Garius and his council of merchants. They call the place the State of Europa. Then there’s Valencia, the kingdom of the east. Separating Rilance and Valencia is the sacred forest of Jottivick, which is governed by the Elders.’ She drew out the entire country and showed me where was what while I kneeled beside her and observed carefully. How come I was never taught about this stuff and why did I never bother to even ask. I’ve read about kings in my books but I’ve never known we had one.

‘Who’s our king, the king of Bradstone?’ I asked her.

‘That’d be Horticus Bradstone. Horticus, the cowering wimp. He’s a little coward who has locked himself up inside his fort in the clouds and has forgotten about his subjects.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked her.

‘I mean that we’ve been at a cold war with the Rilancian empire for the last twenty years and we’re on the losing side. The king has basically given up on the smaller towns and settlements across the kingdom and has focused his efforts on fortifying his cities. He doesn’t even bother taxing these small places. They’re on their own and that’s why others have come picking on what remains. The thieves guild and the bandits have practically taken over these places and the Rilancian empire is always eyeing on taking over these places indirectly because they don’t want a full fledged war either. A few more years in the luxurious towers for Horticus and we’ll soon have a new king.’ She clearly seemed to hate him.

 

We then got back on our way while I was revising all the new information that was fed into my brain. There was a lot to process. My mother still looked pale and downcast and I was wondering which part of the conversation had disturbed her so much. The most plausible explanation seemed like the mention of thieves guild had resulted in this, but why?

Judging by the increasing gaps between structures, we were at the edge of the town already. We saw a huge ranch, far from the edge of the town which Ravenna said was the stable we were going to purchase a new horse from. We picked up our pace and I noticed something as we got closer. A short man wearing a hat was talking to two people holding two struggling mustangs.

 

‘Those are our horses!’ I exclaimed while I pointed to the stable.

‘Looks like it’s your lucky day’ said Ravenna. She drew her mace out and broke into a run. Me and mom were sprinted to keep up with her. Without a warning, she attacked one of the thugs from behind by pummelling the mace on his back. He screamed and fell immediately. The other thug wasted no time and broke into a run as soon as he saw his friend get wrecked, leaving both our horses behind. We went up to them to comfort them and they calmed down once they realised that they were in safe hands.

‘Stolen goods little man. They’re not for sale’ she said to the man who looked like the owner of the stable. Those thugs probably got the horses here to sell them.

‘Oh thank goodness. Randall left a purse in Dixit’s saddle.’ He did mention it when he asked us to flee. Apparently uncle Mikhail gave it to him for the journey. My mother looked inside and gave a big sigh of relief. ‘It’s a full bag of gold like mine was. Looks like there’s about 60 pieces here. I hope it’s enough.’

’60 gold!!? For real!?’ Screamed Ravenna. ‘You’re telling me you lost almost that much back there? And what’s with you carrying so much money around.’ All this seemed outrageous to her. I didn’t get what the fuss was about.

 

We continued or journey back into the town. I was riding with my mother on Dixit while Ravenna had borrowed Diddy for the while being. ‘Well, that saves me two gold pieces now that I don’t have to buy you a horse. I don’t have to worry about feeding and lodging you either. With that much money, our journey has gotten much more lavish.’

‘Why are you so obsessed with a crown. Is it so precious to you?’ I asked her. This time my mother looked at me as if I’d asked the wrong question. It seemed like I had switched places with her as the idiot of the trio. She also looked a little embarrassed.

‘You kidding me brat? I don’t reckon you’ve had a decent education. I’m going to have to charge you for all these classes too. They ain’t for free.’ She looked at my mother who was giggling in shame. ‘There are only a limited amount of crowns in the world. It’s made of a rare ore called Cassium. All this ore came from one single mountain in the mainland and the High King a few generations ago minted several pieces of currency out of it. Since then, no more cassium has been mined and the number of crowns remain the same. They don’t switch hands often. Even when they do, they remain in the same circles, the high class often. I’ve never seen a crown in my life. I never expected to either given how expensive it was.’

‘How much?’ I asked her, again.

‘A hundred gold. A hundred frickin gold pieces.’ She said in the most wondrous tone.

‘That’s it?’ It didn’t seem much after all that build-up. However, it seemed like my statement had offended her as if  I had just slapped her on the face.

‘Do you understand gold’s worth?’ she asked me in a very serious tone. The only comforting thing about it was that my mother had the same confused reaction as me. A hundred gold actually didn’t seem like much.

‘I know. One gold is 75 silvers and one silver is 20 wittles.’ Only after answering did I feel like I had misunderstood her question.

‘Tell me Edward, how much was I going to buy a horse for?’ she asked me

‘No idea’ I told her immediately

‘One gold. A fully grown, healthy horse for one single piece of gold. You can buy a decent house for about 15 gold. A hundred gold would keep you well-fed for decades. That’s how much a crown is worth.’ I was a bit surprised. Back in Vereen, we used to buy and sell regular stuff in the market for gold. Everybody had sacks of gold. How come it’s worth so much here. ‘Don’t tell me you people are royalty. That would explain a lot though.’ She then looked to my mother. ‘Nah, you don’t look like royalty. Your hands. You’re a working woman. What do you do?’

‘I’m a farmer. A carrot farmer.’ She said with as much pride as Ravenna did when she explained her profession.

‘Yeah right.’ Said Ravenna in response to my mother’s answer. ‘It’s fine if you don’t want to tell me about your personal lives but you don’t have to make up stupid lies.’ My mother looked like she was about to retort to clarify that she indeed was a carrot farmer but she ended up not saying anything. We finally reached the inn where Ravenna was staying. She tied the horses up near hers and we went inside.

‘Hey Ed, that was a smart move back there. Calling out to me for help. Not many people put faith in others, especially around these parts. It’s also because there’s not much to depend on. Although it didn’t help you get your pouches back, at least you have your horses and a companion for your journey.’ It was strange seeing her be so nice and gentle.

‘Uhmm, Thank you’ I said with a smile. We then walked to the counter where she asked for another room for us. It only costed us 5 silvers for a day. The room wasn’t the best I could hope for but after what we’ve been through in the last two days, this was more than I could ask for. Me and my mother slept like babies till the night. We had some apple pie sent to our room for dinner after which we slept again through the night.

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The Soulkeeper and the Guardian, Chapter 7

Glimpse of the New World

Click here for Chapter 1

 

By this point, I was consciously aware that I was irrefutably asleep on the desert floor. The dune was comfortable to sleep on but the rough sand blowing on my face was quite bothersome and yet I lay stuck to the ground. One hard day of riding had taken it’s toll aside from another long day before that. Neither me, nor my mother had gotten an opportunity to sleep yet so we were tired to the bone and crashing in the middle of the desert turned out to be the result. My eyes were shut tight but my consciousness was alert enough to tell me that this was not the right place or time to sleep. The fatigue had paralysed my body and mind enough to keep me stuck to the ground. But then a strange feeling disturbed my delightful nap.

 

I could feel something creeping up on my leg. Being around animals all the time had gotten me used to crawling and creeping of all sorts but this feeling was something entirely new. The feet were hard and sharp like bird claws but there were far more limbs with fewer claws. The movement was extremely slow and cautious and whatever it was, it wasn’t making any noise at all. It’s march all the way up to my knee finally woke me up. I made sure that I woke up as quietly and steadily as possible because a sudden reaction can scare any animal and cause it to retaliate. In fact, no animal harms humans until they’re scared for their safety.

 

What I saw was some kind of a small arachnid. It was jet black and had a shiny exoskeleton with six tiny feet, two giant pincers up front and one scary looking stinger tail. It stopped moving right when I faced it and heightened it’s tail in reaction. My mother was originally from an island down south and she used to tell me about this species called “crabs” who, judging by the description had similar features. This was no sea around so it was obviously not a crab. My mother was still asleep, slightly drooling from her mouth too. I calmly tried to wake her up and luckily enough she woke up with the same tempo. With a sense of awe, I silently pointed at my knee to which she had a surprisingly appalling reaction. She put a finger on her lips, instructing me to be quiet. She slowly bent down with her knees on the ground and her face almost touching the sandy floor, now parallel to my knee. With one hand she drew her cleaver out and held it steady.

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I was just about to react but she signalled me again to remain still and silent. Realising that this was not the time to argue, I obeyed her command and held back my retort. The blade of the cleaver was directly pointing at the creature on my knee. My mother had one eye closed and was oscillating her weapon back and forth to get some momentum for the big swing. She was making sure that the strike was precise as there won’t be a second chance. Either the swing will miss and the creature will strike me or the cleaver would slice my kneecap off. But years of experience in crop harvesting and gardening had honed her precision swinging skills. With one sharp slash, she attacked the thing on my knee and sent it flying. It started bleeding from the side and had also broken two of it’s limbs. It was struggling to scuttle away from us while bleeding profusely.

‘MOMMM!!!!!’ I shouted. She locked my arms from behind and pulled me back.

‘It’s okay Edward, it’s gone now’ she said with a sigh of relief.

‘WHY DID YOU HURT IT??’ I asked her with all my fury.

‘It was a scorpion Ed. They’re dangerous. Did you see it’s tail? One strike and you would be poisoned. Do you see where we are? We are in the middle of nowhere. I don’t even know where to take you if something happened to you.’ She was justifying her position. I could understand where she was coming from. But….

‘But why would you think that it was going to hurt me? It was just sitting there.’ Only a few creatures have hurt me throughout my life and they’ve only done so by accident. This sturdy fella was carefully resting on my knee.

‘Things are not the same out here Ed. The creatures back home were very different. They have a good home and homely surroundings. Vereen was home to a very balanced environment. There’s no balance in these parts. You have to understand. The animals here might not be as friendly as the ones back home. You need to be careful and you need to know what you are dealing with. Scorpions are venomous and very defensive. Keep your distance from them whenever you can. The desert is full of them.’ She wiped the sand off her face which had stuck on her as a result of sleeping. Maybe they had a point. Mr.Smith and my mother were saying the same thing. It’s not the same out here. But why? Regardless, I decided to go with the flow for the time being.

‘We’ve slept for too long. Luckily, it’s a full moon so there’s enough light for us to travel safely. We should get back on our way.’ With that, we both got up, dusted ourselves up well and walked up to our horses who were resting a few metres ahead. After getting on them, I looked at her to see if she knew where to go now.

‘Oh my. There’s no sun to guide us now.’ She looked up at the night sky and examined the whole picture. ‘It’s been a while since I’ve read the stars but from what I remember, that star indicates north’ pointing to the brightest star on the sky ‘So that means we need to go left to ride west. Let’s hope I’m not wrong about this or we’ll be stranded in a place we know nothing about.’ With fingers crossed, we slowly began riding into the direction she assumed was west.

 

We were slowly making our way to the next town and were watching our speed because we still weren’t sure if  we were heading in the right direction. Dawn was already approaching and flooding the black starry night sky with bright scarlet. The light was slowly bleeding into the sky while the stars slowly disappeared. ‘We covered over half the distance before we slept after we fled Hirridunn. I’m pretty sure we’re heading the right way as the sun is rising behind us which indicates that we’re on track. We should reach there by sunrise. Cheer up Ed, we can finally rest properly.’

That was the first time I had seen her be enthusiastic about something since we had left town almost two days ago. But my mind was still plagued by what had happened to our travel companion. ‘Mom, is Mr.Smith going to be all right?’ I didn’t get to know him much but I knew that he was a good man and was trying to help us out with something.

‘I don’t know what to tell you Ed. He stayed back to protect us. He knew it was something he had to do and he chose to stay behind so that we could move forward. The least we can do now is to follow his instructions. I too hope he’s alright. I don’t know how far ahead we can get without him.’ That was true. Neither me nor my mother had any exposure to this world. Even though she was an outsider to Vereen, she had spent all her youth in a remote island before directly moving in there with my father. She knew as little about these places as I did.

‘It’s different. I don’t remember it being like this when I first came here with Kenny. I remember cruising through beautiful grasslands before we made it to Vereen. Yes, it was always isolated from the rest of the towns which was exactly why we went there but the surroundings weren’t like this 15 years ago. There was no desert back then. Maybe he was right about you.’ I didn’t know if she was talking to me or to herself.

‘Who was right about me?’ I asked her.

‘Huh, What? Oh, Nothing. I’m just muttering to myself like a crazy old lady. He-he. Oh look! We’ve arrived.’ She pointed ahead of us and I saw a town almost four times the size of the Hirridunn, the last town we made a stop at. We slowly made our way into town. It was still early in the day so hardly anyone was awake. We made our way through empty streets to the middle of the town where we were more likely to find a decent place to stay at. I was still new to the concept of inns because we didn’t have one back at Vereen. The local bar used to house people who were too drunk to go home and that was it. Nobody ever came to Vereen so inns were never a fancy business option.

We were casually moving around hoping to run into someone who could point us in the right direction. Somehow, we walked into a closed alley and when we turned around to get back on the wide lane, a group of five men had already approached us from behind, startling us to the core.

‘Hey, you guys seem new around here. What are you looking for?’ Said the guy up front who looked like the leader of the pack. He had a sword on his belt which looked like a rapier. I’d read about it’s description in The adventures of Hilgett and Traut, a tale of two princes who set out on a journey across the country to find the mythical golden helmet. The sword was quite thin and looked flimsy like a long needle, concurring the description I was used to. But the man had his arms crossed instead of placing his hand on the hilt so we didn’t perceive him as a threat. He also had a very charming and polite voice.

‘We’ve been on a long journey and we were looking for a place to make bed’ said my mother. She was not comfortable being backed into a dead end with five strange men in front of her. Only the leader seemed to have a sword. The rest of them had long staffs in their hands which were almost as tall as them.

‘Be careful to not step into dark corridors which may not be appropriate enough for you. There’s only one place in town that can house a fine lady like you. You can stay there as long as you have the coin.’ Suggested the man.

‘I don’t think that should be a problem. We have plenty.’ Hearing my mother say that suddenly made me remember what Mr.Smith told me on the first night of our journey. The fact that these people didn’t have enough money and that we did would make us targets. I don’t know if mom was thinking about that or not but she had just given away the fact that we had enough money on us.

‘Well, lucky you. You just straight walked up to the right place. This place right here is the best inn in town. You should get down from your horses and tie them up front.’ The guy said that while pointing to the building on the right. It looked like a decent structure but the group in front of us were just standing in front of us, expecting us to get down. Me and mom both looked at each other and reluctantly got down from our horses. The guy on the front even went as far to help my mother dismount from Dixit. The both of us had our hands on the reins and were about to move forward but the group wasn’t moving still.

‘If, you would excuse us’ said my mother with a forceful smile and chuckle but they didn’t pay any heed.

‘It’s quite bold you know? Carrying such a hefty pouch so openly. Women here just stack them under their dress but you haven’t even bothered. It looks quite heavy, let me help you with that’ the group started sneering with their leader’s statement. He approached my mother and she had already started stepping back. When the wall started closing in on her from behind, she reached for both her weapons on her belt but she was too slow. That man had already pulled out his sword out and it’s sharp end was now pointing at my mother’s neck. Her eyes were closed tight from the shock and she was already shivering.

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I didn’t notice this but I had already lost my grip from Diddy’s reins. The rest of the men were trying to pull on both the horses and they were putting up small resistance. I was frozen from shock and just stood there in my place not knowing what to do. The man with the sword reached for my mother’s belt. He put the cleaver on his belt and threw the axe on the ground before snatching the large coin purse. He opened it with one hand and looked inside to see the contents of the pouch. ‘Cheers boys! We have ourselves a full bag of gold here. That’s about 10 pieces for a man.’ The whole squad cheered. Suddenly both Diddy and Dixit went haywire and struggled their way out of their group. Two of them chased behind them while the other two spotted the pouch on my belt. It only had a bunch of silvers and wittles but there was also the one crown that Uncle Mikhail gave me on my birthday.

“Ey lookit. The lad’s got a pouch of ‘is own” They both sneered and walked towards me. “Come on. Hand o’er your pockit money”. I immediately clasped the pouch with both hands. They both tried to shake me off but I put all my might into the struggle. I heard my mom shout from behind and the leader asked her to shut up. My heart was pounding like a festive drum while I was putting all my strength in to hold on to the pouch. I didn’t know how long this could go on for but I still didn’t want to let it go without a struggle.

 

Just then I saw a red haired woman wearing some kind of leather armour with a long two-handed spiked mace on her back walk past the alley. She noticed what was happening but just stood there as a spectator, witnessing the events unfold. For some reason, I thought that calling her out would be a good idea.

‘YOU THERE. PLEASE HELP US.’ I wailed out a desperate cry for help. She just gave me a reactionary expression implying that she was sorry but I was on my own here. She was our only ticket out of this pinch so I made the only bargain I could.

‘HELP US AND I’LL GIVE YOU A CROWN’. Both the men trying to pull me open were shocked for a second. Even the woman was taken aback. ‘Like hell you have a crown’ she shouted from across the street. ‘I DO. PLEASE BELIEVE ME. I HAVE IT RIGHT NOW!!! SAVE US FROM THESE PEOPLE AND YOU CAN HAVE IT!’ She just stood there with shock. These two men got back into the struggle to pull my pouch out. I didn’t think that I could hold much longer. The tussle had now blocked my view from the street. As a last resort, I cried out. ‘LADY, NOW!! PLEASE!!!’

‘Alright, what the hell’ I heard her from just behind these two men indicating that she was willing to gamble.

*BOP* The crown of the mace had struck the head of the first victim which made him faint immediately while making him bleed from his scalp. Judging from the sound, his skull had definitely cracked from the impact but he wasn’t dead yet. The other guy pushed me away with great force and grabbed his staff. It was pointed sharp on both ends and he was holding it perpendicular to his new opponent, waiting to strike. They were carefully circling each other. Just then I heard the man with the sword call out to me.

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‘Hey boy!’ He was clear enough but also maintained enough silence so that it didn’t reach the new aggressor. He had grabbed my mother by the back and had the sword on her neck. ‘Throw me the pouch or I’ll cut her throat open for you to see’ I looked to my mother and she instructed me by nodding to follow his command. Without a second’s thought, I threw him my coin purse which he caught mid air. He then pushed my mother in my direction and ran for the street. We both immediately hugged each other but our attention turned to the fight. They had been circling each other long enough had sent enough thrusts and swings in each other’s direction to measure each other up. The woman looked tired enough of this back-and-forth by this point. She took a long step forward with her left foot while loading up for a swing by pulling her right shoulder back. Her opponent had thrust his staff at her face but her pivot which she performed to load for the swing had already pulled her out of the path of the strike. With a clean dodge in her pocket, it was her turn to strike. She swung the mace on to the side of his his left knee and completely broke it open. With a sharp squeal he dropped his staff and fell on the ground on his other knee. Without wasting any more time, she took another swing and hit him on the side of his face, knocking him unconscious and leaving him with a pulverised face.

 

I saw the leader running off from the scene without even trying to put on a fight for his friends. The red-haired woman wiped some sweat off her forehead without noticing the fleeing opponent and clipped her mace on her back, now noticing that the fight had cleared. ‘You guys alright?’ she asked as as she slowly approached us. We both nodded in response. ‘Thank you. Thank you for saving us by risking your own life’ said my mother while bowing down with gratitude.

‘These stupid boys were never a risk for me. But it’s not like I did it out of the goodness of my heart.’ She stepped forward to me and extended her palm outward. ‘I’ll take that crown, boy. Judging by your looks, I reckon you actually have it. Never thought I’d ever see a crown in my life’ she said with a haughty smile. Me and my mother exchanged looks when she asked for the crown.

‘What’s wrong? Hand it over…. Wait! Don’t tell me you don’t have it!’ She was starting to look furious.

‘I did. I promise. But the man with the sword took it from me at the last moment when you were busy fighting.’ I said, trying to calm her down.

‘WHAT!! YOU’RE TELLING ME THIS NOW’ she shouted and ran out of the alley and on to the street while looking around in both directions. She failed to spot the robber and then marched back to us furiously. ‘I don’t care, BOY! I NEED MY CROWN AND YOU’RE GIVING IT TO ME ONE WAY OR ANOTHER!’ She came at me with her finger pointing at me. My mother put her arm in front of me to shield me from the overbearing lady.

‘We have money. A lot of money back home. We promise to pay you once we get back to our town.’ My mother laid out the offer.

‘Okay, I’m listening.’ said the scary lady.

‘We’re on our way to Braumchester. It’s a small town on….’

‘Yeah, I know where Braumchester is’ she interrupted my mother.

‘Well, we’ve been travelling to that place to meet a friend of ours. Once we meet him, we’ll head back to our hometown and recompense you’ said my mother.

‘And what’s your hometown, if I might ask?’ she asked us. I remembered Mr.Smith telling us to keep our names but if someone were to ask, we had to tell them that we were from Kirkpod. He had mentioned this to my mother earlier too so I kept hoping that she remembered the instructions.

‘We’re from Kirkpod’ she said. I sighed with relief. ‘We’ve been travelling for two days straight so we stopped here to rest up but were attacked right when we got here. We lost both our horses too.’

 

‘Hey!’ said the woman angrily. ‘What kind of a fool do you take me for?’ She was even scarier than those thugs right now.

‘What!’ exclaimed my mother, not understanding what the issue was.

‘This is Kirkpod you wench!’ she struck her foot down angrily.

 

Me and my mother looked at each other trying to fathom the horror of the situation we were in.

 

Click here for the next Chapter

The Soulkeeper and the Guardian, Chapter 6

Fatal beginnings

Click here for Chapter 1

 

How could it go so wrong? Why did this have to happen to us? Right on the first day! Why us of all people?’ I stood there trembling and stuck to the ground beside my mom who was frozen stiff as I was while two men were pointing their knives at Mr. Smith. However, she was not shocked like I was. It seemed as if her fears were taking shape. As if she had expected this all along. What is it that these people know that I don’t? Right now, I couldn’t care less about that. To be honest, I didn’t know what to think. Like I said, I was dazed with shock as I stood behind Mr. Smith’s cover like a mannequin.

 

‘So, it looks like we are doing this’ he said to the two aggressors as he drew his own large dagger out. I wanted to look to my mother for comfort but I just couldn’t move. My gaze was affixed on the sharp blades hanging steady in those motionless hands. I’ve seen foxes hunt before. They stay stationary for a while before they pounce on the prey. There’s no room for error. One small miscalculation and you stay hungry for a day. While these men wore the same stature of a fox ready to pounce, they knew that this was no simple prey. They were facing another predator who was cornered. Miscalculation won’t cost them hunger. It’s going to cost them their lives.

 

‘Edward! Mirriam!’ he called out to us. I was still shook with fear but at least my mind had started working when I heard his voice call out to us as it gave me a sense of direction. ‘Take the horses. Run as fast as you can. You know where to go.’ Me and my mother finally looked at each other. We finally had something to do but we were still scared stiff. Our feet just wouldn’t move.

 

‘Randall’, my mother called out to him softly. She had the same concern that I did. What about him? Were we just going to leave him here with these people? How can he fight two people half his age? Deep inside I wanted to flee from the place as soon as I could but I just couldn’t let him stay behind for us. I didn’t even know why this was happening.

 

‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll catch up to you soon…. I think. Just take your horses and go. All the supplies are in your saddles. There’s also a bag of gold. Hire someone to accompany you if you want. Now GO! Go find him’ he was clear about what he wanted us to do. It gave us some comfort, even the fact that we couldn’t sense much fear or hesitation in his voice was helping. My mother grabbed my hand and pulled me back while my gaze was still fixed on Mr. Smith. With all her strength, she put me on my horse as I was petrified to the core. She got on hers and pulled the reins on both Diddy and Dixit, our strong mustang twins.

 

We galloped forth to a place I didn’t know as I watched Mr. Smith crouching in front of two armed men. The battle hadn’t begun yet. As my eyes blurred with tears and dust, I faced forward and saw my mother leading both our horses away. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked her in a faint tone. She didn’t respond. Maybe she didn’t hear it or maybe she was just ignoring me. Either way, I didn’t want to repeat the question. When I started regaining control on my body, I took the reins myself and followed my mother. We had left the town we were in and were on a desert track now. I looked back at the town. He could have been dead or injured by this time. Or he could have escaped. Maybe he talked his way out. recalling their startling reactions, it wasn’t likely that there was any negotiation from that point on. Even though the feeling was faint, maybe he could have won. It didn’t seem likely. An old man like him fighting what looked like two fighters in their prime didn’t seem very fathomable. Again, I asked myself ‘How did it come to this?’

 

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I was surprised to see all that commotion when I came home that day. The man I met in the forest was in my house talking to my mother. For some reason she looked terrified and was trying really hard to suppress it when she saw me. As soon as I showed up, she sent me off to my room and asked me not to come out till she herself called me out. But did she expect that I would just sit back and ignore everything that was going on? I leaned on the door trying to listen in on the conversation outside. Suddenly my mother started shrieking angrily but the man she was dealing with remained calm. A few moments later, I heard him: Lord Fawk.

 

The kids back home used to make fun of him because of his perpetual drinking habit I always felt bad for him. To me he seemed like a lonely soul who had nothing much to offer and the guilt seemed to be eating him up all the time. He had casually spoken to me and my mother a few times but it was the first time he had come to our house as far as I could remember. Soon after his appearance, it seemed like my mother had calmed down. A few moments passed but I could hardly hear anything. I knew they were talking and it was something important. Not knowing what they were talking about was eating me up.

 

As cautiously as I could and without making a sound, I slightly pushed the door open leaving a tiny opening for me to peep through. I peered through the narrow gap and saw my mother sobbing on Lord Fawk’s shoulder while sitting on the couch while he comforted her. Mr Smith stood in front of them with his head bowed down. I felt cold inside as I saw her cry not because this was something new to me. I’ve seen her cry before, on many occasions. She tries her best to not do it in front of me but it has happened so often that I’ve happened to catch her at it. Maybe it’s because she misses dad. It has to be. She talks about him so lovingly all the time. I don’t remember him much as I was quite young when he died. It has been so long that I hardly remember what he looks like. All I remember was that he was nice. Nice to me and mom. Maybe him not being around anymore is the reason she cries but I’ve never known for sure. I was never brave enough to ask her or even comfort her.

Right now I felt cold, because this was the first time she was breaking down in front of someone else. It just felt wrong. I wanted to know what this was about but I also knew that I shouldn’t be peeping in on them. Just then Mr.Smith caught me looking. He critically shook his head to tell me that I should stop spying at the conversation. Without a moment’s thought, I slipped back inside and as furtively as I could, I shut the door close. Right now it was highly unlikely that she was crying about father. This was something else. Either of those two men were bearers of some kind of awful news.

 

An hour later my mother called for me. With slumped shoulders and a hanging head, I slowly walked out. Lord Fawk was not here anymore. It was just mom and Mr.Smith staring at me. She had wiped off her tears but I could notice her faint trembling. She walked up to me and crouched down to meet my eyes as she put her warm hands on my shoulders. “Hey big boy. The both of us have to leave on a long journey. I know this is sudden but we need to leave now.” She smiled but her voice squeaked as she spoke. She was still shook from whatever had peeved her. “We need to pack. I’ll get all the supplies ready. We won’t need much as we’ll get them on the way. Right now we need to take everything that’s irreplaceable to us. Things that we shouldn’t be away from far too long like the first wooden sword I made for you or the crown that Uncle Mikhail gave you on your last birthday. Leave behind everything that we won’t need because there’s only so much that we can carry.” I kept shifting my gaze around on both her and the man standing behind. They looked really serious about this. I had so many questions. Where were we going? For how long were we leaving? Why now of all times, why so suddenly? All these questions kept stacking up in my mind but I couldn’t dare ask something now. It seemed clear that it was important. Knowing that I’d get my answers eventually, I turned around without saying a word and went back into my room. For a second I turned to look at mom and she was stunned that I had agreed so willingly.

 

I took three sacks. I filled two of them out with my best collection of clothes, belts, hoods and boots while I filled the other one with my favourite books: The adventures of Hilgett and Traut, The cursed angel and The tales of Bremmingway along with a pouch of marbles. I was never much into toys but marbles could always keep my interest. It was then that my eye caught a glimpse of that. The emerald medal that lay on my desk. I’ve had it forever and I still don’t know how it came in my possession and neither did my mother. I felt the need to carry it along only because it was probably was as old as me. It had been untouched for a long time so I wiped the dust off of it. It glimmered so bright that as it seemed as if it was just crafted. I put it in the bag with the rest of the books. I laced all the sacks up tight and dressed up myself. I wore a fresh cotton shirt on the same pants I had been wearing all day. I put on my wooden riding boots and the only overcoat I owned. Finally, I wore my belt on which I hooked my wooden sword, my coin pouch in which I carefully placed the crown I received from Uncle Mikhail and my dad’s dagger which my mother didn’t know about. I then took the most important possession of mine; a bone whistle that a friend gave me a long time ago. My mom had conveniently tied it up on a thread so that I could wear it around my neck.

 

With the sacks, I walked outside and noticed that my mother had already finished packing. She was frantically walking around the house while Mr.Smith stood waiting outside the main door. ‘We’re taking Diddy and Dixit. Lord Fawk has arranged it so that the rest of the horses and the farm animals would be taken care of when we’re gone. Don’t worry about them’ she was still running around as she said that. It was time to leave and I had a strange feeling churning inside me. On their own, my eyes started tearing up for some reason. Like a baby, I asked her, ‘What about my friends mom? What about Shugu, Shawna and Randall? What about the rest of them?’ She stopped for a second and looked at me. ‘They’ll be alright Ed’ she paused again and said ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be back soon’. She looked away from my eyes as she said that and broke into a jog and went inside her room. I rubbed my watery eyes on my sleeve and hauled all the sacks outside. Mr. Smith was staring at the farmlands in the windy moonlit night. Without bothering him, I went to the stables and saddled up both our horses Diddy and Dixit. With all the luggage hooked on, I brought them out and stationed them near the door. Just then Mr.Smith came up to me and said his first words since he last met me in the forest. ‘Those are two beautiful mustangs. Larger than any I’ve ever seen.’ They seemed quite normal to me but I was thankful of the compliment. ‘Yes, they’re quite nice. You’ve got a nice horse too. What breed is that?’

‘She’s a gimper. They’re slow but can travel long distances. She’s quite old now so she’ll be even slower compared to your young mustangs.’ He seemed quite proud of her.

‘Oh, she looks quite lively’. I walked up to her.

‘Hey, easy. She doesn’t like strangers. She’s quite defensive’ he warned me but was too slow. I was already caressing my hand across her neck as she was nuzzling up against me. He seemed quite shocked at how soon it all went down but he didn’t say anything after. As soon as I was done petting his horse, he spoke again. ‘Her name’s Sheena and I’m Randall Smith. Randall, like your squirrel back in the forest. I’ll be tagging along with you on this journey.’ I kept thinking about how it would be best to respond. Seeking answers from him about where we were headed seemed easier than asking my mother but I didn’t expect him to answer straight.

‘Well, you know my name.’ I said, without any idea of what I could say back to him. He then pulled a corked glass vial out of one of his pockets and popped it open. It was full of a milky white liquid. ‘Here, chug this vitadite in one go. We need to ride all night so I don’t want you to feel sleepy on the way. Slowing down isn’t an option. Me and your mother can manage but I can’t risk things with you. It’ll keep you awake and alert for the next 12 hours but it will tire you out and make you feel hungry very quickly. You need to keep eating along the way. Your supplies should suffice.’ I reluctantly took the vial and chugged it in one gulp like he said. It tasted like sour milk and smelled like eggs and vomit. I felt like throwing up but luckily the feeling died down instantly.

From the window, I saw the candles go off . My mom was wearing a full length black cloak over a nice grey tunic. A lot of things plagued my mind when I saw her hook up an axe and a cleaver to her belt aside from the large money pouch. She brought the last two sacks with her and saddled them up on Dixit. After putting the hood on, she was the first to climb up on her horse. Me and Mr.Smith followed up by mounting ours. ‘Lead the way’ she said to him. With a nod, he started out for the forest path, the place where we first met.

 

‘Mom, weren’t we forbidden from ever crossing the forest’s border?’ I wanted to know how great the degree of importance was.

‘Yes. But we haven’t had the need to leave this place Ed. Only the merchants go out because they have good reason to. The world outside isn’t very kind. You remember what happened to father when he last went out, don’t you? But now, we too have good reason to leave.’ We both looked at each other for a few seconds. ‘I know you have a lot of questions Ed. I promise I’ll tell you everything. In time, of course.’ I compliantly nodded to indicate my obedience. I had to respect her wishes and give her the time she needed.

 

I frantically looked around at the thick jungle around me as we passed through the forest path. This was my second home. The place where I spent most f my time. The place where all my friends lived. Wondering if I would ever see them again, I looked back at the times we had. Once the path cleared, we were out of the forest and rode into a dry land. For miles ahead I could see nothing but sand. There was no road either. I had never been so far out. I hadn’t even been to the edge of the forest which was why I never knew that there was an expansive desert right outside. This was something entirely new for me. Mr.Smith kept riding hard in front of us while the two of us followed after him. After two hours of riding, we slowed down to let our horses relax. I could now hear my tummy growling the sound of which were louder than Diddy’s grunts.

 

‘It’s the vitadite. You need to eat up. Keep eating throughout the whole ride. You’re going to need it.’ Mr.Smith said to me with a smile. I could see that my mother was tired but he was as energetic as ever. I wondered how he could stay that way after such a long day.

‘Where are we headed right now?’ I asked him. I felt like there was no end to this desert.

‘We’re going to the town of Hirridunn. It’s about 8 hours from here and happens to be the closest settlement from your town. Yes, your town is that isolated. But this place that we’re going to is quite small. Not even a tenth of Vereen.’

‘I’ve never been outside. I never thought I’d leave.’

‘It’s not pretty out here boy. You’ll soon realise that there’s nothing like home. Nothing you’ll ever see will be as amusing as the place you live in.’ He then turned to me. ‘Listen, I’ve told your mother this and you need to keep this in mind too. You both can use your names but never mention the name of your town. You both are from the town of Kirkpod and are travelling to the capital with me. Got it? Never ever mention your town.’ He turned back to face the desert again. ‘You both are too well dressed which adds to our troubles. I should have told you beforehand because it makes you a target.’

‘A target for what?’ I asked him

‘An attack! It’s easy money. One man with a wealthy looking woman and kid. Anybody would pounce on such easy targets.’

‘Why would someone do that’. Suddenly, he started laughing at my question. ‘Why, you ask. Haha. People don’t have enough out here boy. They’re not as well off as the people in your town. Making money is no easy feat here so they survive by taking it from others.’

‘We have a lot of money. If someone needs it we’ll give it to them.’ Again he started laughing as if I had cracked a naive joke. ‘You don’t have enough. You’ll never have enough. These people don’t understand the concept of sufficiency. Their hunger is endless and they’re beyond saving. Keep your money to yourself boy. Hide it well if you can and forget about handing it all around.’ I stopped saying anything further to avoid being laughed at or mocked again.

‘By the way that’s a nice dagger you have there.’ I concealed it well. How could he have seen it. Quickly my hand clasped the dagger so that my mother couldn’t see it. She was quite ahead of us. Dixit was trotting faster than Diddy and Sheena and my mother’s mind seemed to be partially lost because of the fatigue.

‘Do you even know how to wield it?’ I nodded. I clasped the hilt and pulled it out of the leather sheath whilst waving it around mid air.

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‘Hmm, that’s a reverse grip. I don’t think it’ll come in handy for someone like you. Try holding it out. Right now, the blade is under your fist while the hilt is in your grip. The blade needs to over your fist.’ I switched the positions and now the blade was pointing outwards. This was how mom used to cut meat in the kitchen. ‘Now put your thumb on the outer edge.’ I looked at him to confirm if it’s safe. ‘Don’t worry, the outer edge won’t cut you. Instead, it’ll give you a better hold on your dagger.’ I held the blade like he instructed. ‘This, is a sabre grip. It’s excellent for stabbing or even slicing something, or someone. Also don’t swing it around like an idiot. Thrust it forward the fastest you can and only when it’s required. It’s best if you never have to use it.’ I put it back in my sheath after thrusting it a few times.

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The journey went on and I kept eating all the way. Mom seemed to get more and more tired with every passing hour. Slowly, dawn approached and the bright sun started gleaming on our faces while blinding us. ‘It should be less than an hour away. We’re almost there’ said Mr.Smith as he led us forward.

Finally, I started feeling tired. The effects of that disgusting potion were wearing off but luckily, I could see something popping up on the edge of the horizon. The sun was brighter than ever and was hammering down on us. ‘Only a few more minutes. Then we can sleep’ my mother said to me smilingly. In full speed, we darted forward and broke into the town. Like Mr.Smith said, this place was ugly. The houses were tiny and shabby. People wore clothes that looked a century old – dusty and torn. Everybody here looked weak and underfed. They seemed tired. But they were looking at us the way we were. Just as astonished. Maybe it really was the way we dressed. He warned us about this.

Mr.Smith stopped in front of a big wooden structure. It was the largest structure in the town but was still smaller than our barn. We got down after him and he handed a piece of parchment to mom and whispered something into her ear. She nodded in agreement and then he went inside while we waited out for him. A few minutes went by while we stood there waiting for him and all the people passing by us kept staring at us. Some jobless folk had even gathered around us as if were something of an item. Right then he came out. He noticed the crowd’s attention around us but ignored it and came straight to us.

 

‘Good, they’re not here yet. If they had to come to Vereen, they’d have to make a stop at this town and I don’t think they’d stay anywhere but this inn. I’ve booked two quarters for us. Take your stuff inside. I’ll station the horses in the stable behind the inn. Can’t risk losing them to some delinquents’ He seemed glad about finally reaching here but who was he talking about? Just when I was about to ask, three hooded men wearing black robes on dark horses came and stopped in front of the same building as us. They looked at Mr.Smith for a couple of seconds and he looked back. ‘Oh no’ he muttered under his breath. ‘Not now.’

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Suddenly my heart started thumping hard. What was he so scared of? Who were those three men? They got down from their horses and walked forward with them. Mr.Smith went and met them halfway. They were close enough to be audible.

‘You guys got here on time’ Mr.Smith was the one who initiated the conversation. It seemed like he knew them well. Were these the guys he was talking about?

‘The ride was tough. We spent two whole days on the road. You should have given us an easier path here. It would have taken us longer but at least it wouldn’t have been so treacherous’ said the tallest one in the group. ‘So, how’s the place?’

‘Dusty old shithole! It was a total waste of time coming all the way here for that piece of disappointment. Not only is it so far away but there’s not one redeeming factor in the place. It’s best we move on to better things. Next in line was this new settlement down south called Shundung. We should head on to that place.’ Why was he lying about our town. I knew best to keep quiet

‘Yeah. You go on. Like always, we’ll be two days behind you. We’ll just rest here for a couple of hours and head over to Vereen for our report. We might find something that you missed you know.’ He then looked over to us. ‘Hey, who’s that? Don’t tell us you’ve had a secret family all this while.’ The three of them were chuckling as they took their heavy hoods of. They were all quite young and looked tough.

‘Nobody of interest. Don’t mind them’ said Mr. Smith as he was looking at us. He then turned back to those people. ‘Hey come on now, don’t tell me you’re doubting my scouting skills. My word’s enough isn’t it? Now then, save your energy, take a day off and we can go over to the next place on the list. Let’s not waste any more time and effort.’

‘Hey, the boss expects us to go there too, you know? We have to report stuff too’ said the guy on the right and the tall guy in the centre agreed. ‘Bah! Don’t worry about it. Say the same things I do or if you want, I can talk to him about this myself’ Mr.Smith was trying his best to hold them off.

‘Don’t joke around Randall. You know how meticulous he is about protocol these days. Not following a system was the reason we fell apart first place. We need our necks in their rightful place when we go see the boss’ the tall guy was stepping forward as he spoke. Mr.Smith was trying to stop these guys from going to Vereen and it seemed to be failing. The guy on the left was staring at us all this while.

 

‘What do you want Randall?’ asked the same guy who had been staring at till now. Mr.Smith stood ajar for a few seconds.

‘I want you guys to forget about Vereen, Oliver. Forget you were ever supposed to go there and just move on.’

‘Hey, I’m not going to betray the boss’ shouted the guy on the right.

‘Do me a favour just this once Bumper. Believe me when I say it’s important that you never go there and just drop it’ said Mr. Smith, clearly pleading.

‘Why is this so important Randall? What are you hiding? You need to tell us. You can trust us right?’ asked the tall guy.

‘I’m sorry Bishop, I can’t tell you. I just expect you to not go there. No matter what. I would also like you to not talk about this with anyone. Anyone in the world.’

‘Do you hear yourself Randall? Do you hear how unreasonable you sound?’ said the Bishop guy.

 

Mr. Smith just stood there. He stood there looking right at them and giving them a look that clarified how unreasonable his demand was and yet he expected them to oblige. ‘Well, if you don’t want us to go there, then consider me out. I’m sure you have a very good reason.’ said Oliver, the one who was still looking at us. ‘I’m going in to get some sleep. I’m not gonna decide for you guys so your choice is up to you. I don’t intend to get mixed up in this stuff.’

‘Thanks Oliver’ said Mr. Smith while giving him a wave. He casually turned around with his horse and headed off to the back of the building.

‘Hey, where do you think you’re going Ollie!! We need to stick together’ shouted Bishop.

‘All I am today is because of Randall. His word is the final word for me. If he wants me to stay out of this, then count me out.’ He was quite clear on his position as he didn’t even turn back to say it.

‘Fine! He’s chosen to be a traitor but I’m not going to cheat the boss. He was the one who rebuilt the guild. It’s because of him that we have a  home. You know that better than anyone. I’m going to follow his orders till my last breath. I don’t want to do this Randall but if you try to get in our way, we’re gonna have to use force. Please, I beg you, don’t get in our way.’ It was clear what stance everyone was taking. Bumper, the guy standing beside Bishop didn’t like the way things had turned out. He clearly didn’t seem to want to oppose Randall in such a manner but his stance had already been called out. Reluctantly, he took his friend’s side.

 

‘I never wanted it to come to this boys but I had already anticipated this. I knew that you would carry out your responsibilities till the end even if I got in your way. It’s me who’s the traitor here. I’m the one cheating the big guy. I’m the one breaking the rules and I’m the one getting in the way of my brothers. My betrayal is inexcusable but believe me when I say it, it’s necessary.’ Mr. Smith had hammered down his apology but what betrayal was he talking about and who was this boss they kept referencing all the time?

‘I’m sorry too’ said Bishop. He drew two daggers out from his belt. He was holding them in a reverse grip, the one which Mr. Smith asked me not to use. Seeing how his friend had chosen the way of combat, Bumper too drew his dagger out. He was holding it with a sabre grip, the one I was asked to use. My mind was really confused right now. They both crouched down and assumed the stance to attack.

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‘So, it looks like we are doing this.’ Mr. Smith’s comment kept looping in my mind for a while. I felt dizzy and my throat was dry.

 

‘Edward!! Are you alright?’ shouted my mom. We both were riding hard on the desert. I had totally phased out during this time. Reliving the events of the last day, I had totally forgotten about the present. My mom had to live it for the both of us and I felt so sorry for doing that to her. I wondered what was going on in her mind throughout this time. Even though it had been over an hour since we left that town, I could see tear streaks on her face, running up through the temple because of the fast winds. They were slowly drying up in the hot sun. What was she crying for now? Was she worried about Mr. Smith or was she scared for us. Or was it something else entirely?

‘I don’t know Ma. Where are we going now?’

‘We’re going further west. It’s a place called Braumchester. A small brick making town at the edge of the country. We’re going to meet a friend of Randall’s.’ She then looked to the front. ‘Follow the sun he said. It’s 3 towns away. Be careful he said.’ It’s going to be a tough journey Ed. I need you to stay sharp for some time okay?’ I gave her a nod and we sped even further. Whatever it was that we were doing, it seemed important and I didn’t want to be a burden on her shoulders.

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We kept going on for a few more hours. Our horses were much slower now. They were practically walking. I couldn’t see what was ahead. Everything was a blur and my eyes were starting to feel heavy. I sincerely wanted to close my eyes shut and that felt like the most important thing that I had to do. Suddenly, I heard a thud and was kicked back into reality for a second. My mother was on the ground and Dixit was checking up on her. I got down from Diddy and walked up to her the way Lord Fawk walks when he’s had too much to drink.

While on my knees, I shook her shoulders vigorously. ‘MOM!!’ I shouted with all the energy I had left. It wasn’t enough. ‘MOmm’, I tried to call her out again but I was at my limit. The sand was soft and I fell onto the desert floor and curled up beside my mother. Everything was so peaceful now. I could feel Diddy’s wet tongue on my cheek. Ignoring it, I went into my most desperate sleep of all time.

 

Click here for the next chapter

The Soul Keeper and the Guardian, Chapter 5

The deadline

Click here for Chapter 1 of the series

 

Things weren’t working out in my favour but I never expected them to. I was about to set something in motion that would change life as we know it and I just didn’t have enough time to do it right. It had to be rushed and thus resistance was inevitable. Just like this defensive mother in front of me. From her point of view, I’m just a sinister thief who’s trying to deceive them and trying to take their peaceful lives away from them. She’s pointing a sickle at my face which is a totally fair reaction on her part. I’ve tried my best to talk myself through this situation but I only seem to keep making it worse with every next word I utter. Now, a new element has walked into this scenario. As it turns out, the old man I spoke to in the bar happens to be the Lord of Vereen. I am not sure if his appearance here is going to turn the odds in my favour but I’m willing to roll the dice on this one.

 

‘Oh yes lad. I’ve been the lord of this prison for about three decades now. People often do tell me that I never dress the part, or even act it. When was the last time you saw a noble getting drunk at the local inn in the middle of the day?’ he said smiling as he walked inside. He walked past me to Mirriam and made her lower the sickle. Her face tried to contain her ever-growing rage and it was clear that she didn’t want to explode in front of the lord.

 

‘I’m sorry to admit it but I did overhear your conversation while I was at your doorstep. I never could resist some drama.’ he said to Mirriam. He then turned to me and began. ‘You’re Mikhail’s friend aren’t you?’

 

I nodded. It wasn’t entirely true as I barely knew him. But we were comrades of a great cause and just stating that he actually is a friend of mine would win me the Lord’s trust.

 

‘Mikhail. He’s the one who deserves the title of the lord. He handles the business, he talks to the people, he provides for the people and keeps this place and it’s people warded from the malignant claws of the world outside. He’s worked by my side for the last decade and made this place what it is. He’s like a son to me’ his eyes were losing focus. Suddenly, he looked up at me. ‘I’ve been locked up in this place for a while but I’ve also lived a rich life before everything collapsed around us. I’ve been places and I’ve met people. All kinds of people. That’s one of the perks of being a noble.’

 

His attention now diverted to a very confused Mirriam. He slowly walked up to her and asked her to take a seat. She sat down on the couch and he sat right next to her. ‘Mirriam, how much do you know about the soul?’ he asked her.

 

A question like that seemed pointless to her. The brow-raise on her face was trying to imply that she was disappointed in the lord for even considering to think about the situation. Unable to protest, she did give it a thought. ‘I don’t know much but I do know that it is the force that connects all life.’ She clearly knew more but she didn’t want to discuss the science of the soulkeepers. Not right now.

 

‘Mirriam, you wouldn’t know this but just around the time you moved to Vereen, all but one of the soulkeepers were murdered in their sleep. The soulkeeper of the light fled out of the country and was never seen again, leaving the entire place soulless. The murderers made sure to break the cycle and destroyed all delivered eggs so that the soul wouldn’t pass down to new prospects. They even went as far as to pillaging the soul temples.’ Mirriam was baffled to hear this as Wilson went along with the tale of the soul keepers.

 

‘This move backfired. The fabric of the soul started to crumble in the entire country. Greenery died, animals limited procreation and the climate kept getting worse and worse. The entire country has been dying ever since. The entire country except places like ours.’ He continued. ‘Like our friend Randall here, I too have spent a considerable amount of time with soulkeepers. By spending time with them I gained a decent understanding of the soul. Before Mikhail ever came here, I was at the liberty to leave town at my will. Out there in the early years after the massacre, I felt a strong emptiness in every town and city. I always had the suspicion that the soul was slowly dying in places outside Vereen but I was never sure about it. Then Mikhail arrived and with his own understanding of the soul he hypothesized a similar explanation and confirmed my suspicions. He had a fair understanding of the soul and our consensus was that Vereen had managed to latch on to the soul unlike the rest of the country.’

 

The grievous tone in which he told this tragic tale was really hitting the nails on Mirriam. Even I, who has known the tale for such a long time felt the weight of his words. Whatever it was that he was trying to do, it was working and I let him go on knowing that he would do a much better job than I.

 

‘The two of us took upon the responsibility to seal this place and protect the last surviving fragment of soul. Mikhail did everything from managing operations to planning the expeditions and all I could do was become the town mascot. While Mikhail was busy handling all the important tasks, I had time to sit back and think. Being a mascot isn’t too much fun so I did a lot of drinking and thinking in the time I had. My theory was that our town was the host to a prospect. Three kids were born around the time of the massacre. Clyde, Vivica and your son Edward.’ It was coming. Both me and Mirriam could see it and she did not want to hear what was about to come.

 

‘Soul keepers stand out Mirriam, even when they are prospects. Randall saw it and so did I. For the last three years, I’ve observed these three kids. While they are all odd in their own way, Edward is a particular kind of peculiar. Soul keepers have a natural affinity towards all soul bearers. Their compassion is enormous and overwhelming to an astounding degree. They are immune to all diseases and the most notable trait is how the environment reacts to them. A prospect is loved and protected by every creature that’s not human. Most creatures are extremely protective of a prospect and are even willing to go as far as give up their life to protect them from any harm.’ The old man kept going at just the right pace. This is what I should have done but I was not a familiar face either.

 

‘I’ve known it for some time now Mirriam. Your son Edward is the soul keeper. The last soul keeper in the country. I’ve known and I’ve done nothing. I didn’t know what to do. But someone has come along. Someone who knows what to do.’ He looked at me trustingly.

 

‘But…but he’s a thief. He’s just a thief’ said Mirriam. Of course, what would a thief do.

 

Wilson came to my rescue again. ‘I was not supposed to tell this to anyone. Mirriam, our Mikhail was a thief too. A notorious one. He was a member of the thieves guild just like our Randall here. Mikhail left that life behind to only conserve this little town and Randall is doing just the same.’

 

She was lost in thought and it was the perfect time to offer my piece. ‘Mirriam, I originally came here to scout this town. The thieves guild is expanding its influence across the west by establishing control in one place after the other and the next settlement in line was Vereen. On my way here, I saw Ed in the woods and soon came to the discovery that he was a soul keeper.’ I paused. It was time to make a proposal and I had to make the stakes clear. ‘After seeing him and this beautiful town, I was reborn with a new mission. I loved the way the world was and I want things to go back the way they were. The only thing that matters to me is now to protect you and your son and fulfil his destiny as a soul keeper.’

 

It was assuring, but not enough. I moved closer to her and stared right into her eyes. ‘There are people coming Mirriam. A group of men from the guild follows me as a means of backup. They serve as a safety net for the operation. Once they come here, it exposes the town and the secret behind it to the entire nation. People will come and eat away at everything and you and your son will end up as spoils of war as a best case scenario. They are about a day or two behind me so we are running short on time. We need to leave this place right now.’

 

She clamped her hands on her face and tried to wrestle through the terror in her heart. ‘Why? Why did it have to be him?’ she was close to a break down.

‘I’m sorry’ that wasn’t going to comfort her but it was necessary.

 

‘Where are we going? And when are we coming back?’ she asked in a trembling voice. The question confused me. Did she not understand what was going on? Was she unable to think properly? I looked at Wilson and he looked back at me with the same concerned expression. He went on to enquire.

 

‘Mirriam, do you not know?’ She looked at him, expecting more bad news. ‘Know what?’ she asked him.

 

Wilson took a long pause before answering. ‘A prospect has to blossom into a full-blown soul keeper by the time he or she is 16 years of age. The prospect can only live if they have hatched the egg in their 16th year. Mirriam, your son has less than two years to live!’

 

 

 

Click here for the next chapter

The Soul Keeper and the Guardian, Chapter 4

A Confounded Mother

Click here for Chapter 1 of the series

‘Randall. Does she know you? Have you ever met her or Kenny before? Because, if not, it won’t be easy to convince her to leave. Do you want me to accompany you?’ I was glad to see Mikhail get back to his calm self. My multiple assurances had given him ample comfort to move on with the situation at hand.

‘I’m sorry Mikhail, but this is something that I have to do alone. I bear the burden of a secret just as you do. I hope you understand.’ Surely, it seemed that he could work with that. Understanding the position I was in, he gave me an affirmative nod.

 

‘Here, this should be more than enough to take care of them.’ He handed me a large pouch, full of coins. ‘They’re not used to a harsh lifestyle and suiting their needs out there will cost you an arm’.

‘That’s kind of you Mikhail but I can take care of them. There’s no need for this.’ I offered the pouch back to him. ‘We have more than we need Randall. Even spending 10 bags of gold like this wouldn’t faze us. Listen, they are like my family and their well-being is my responsibility. Let me do my part.’ He smiled coyly.

 

‘All right, I won’t turn down free money if you’re being so insistent’. I weighed the bag in my palm. ‘And that’s a lot of money. I could buy a dozen horses with all this dough. Well, thanks for that. But I implore you to not let your guard down once I leave. I’m going to try my best to avoid anyone else from coming here but just in case something goes wrong, be prepared. Do not station your men at the town borders. The follow-up squads are a team of three. One or two of them march into the town for inspection while one of them stays outside waiting for their return. In case the mission is busted, the one waiting outside rushes back to base to bring reinforcements.’

 

Mikhail watched in shock as I described the protocol to him. ‘When did the guild become so meticulous?’ He asked me in awe.

‘We’ve had to change tactics since we banded together again. Before the Knight of Wisdom first nabbed and disbanded our guild, we were quite disorganised and sloppy. That was a good lesson for us to and it drove us to being more careful with our future endeavours. Anyway, in case the follow-up group somehow does show up, furtively send guards in through the forest. You managed to spot me so easily so I don’t expect you to have trouble spotting them either. They won’t be trying too hard to hide as long as they have nothing to hide. The ones waiting for the return for the rest of the party will probably loom around in the forest path. Eliminate them first before ambushing the others inside.’

 

Mikhail seriously absorbed everything I was offering to him. ‘Are you really okay with this Randall? I know how much you care about them. Your brothers in the guild.’

 

‘Trust me Mikhail. This is really difficult for me. Never have I wished such a fate upon my brothers but our mission here is larger than their lives. It’s bigger than you and me and we understand that. This is why we are willing to make such sacrifices.’ I hooked the pouch he gave me on my belt. ‘Remember. These men are as skilled as they are sly. Do not underestimate them for regular troopers. Their job is to slip out of the tightest knots. You have a lot of men here but they are all inexperienced. Strategize carefully or it will be the end of this town.’ That made him nervous but he needed to understand the stakes before walking into something like this. He has plenty of men like I stated earlier but the follow-up squad is the best at what they do and a bunch of inept soldiers won’t be much of a problem for them. The odds of them capturing or slaying the squad are quite low so I’ll have to try my best to make sure that it doesn’t go so far.

 

‘All right Mikhail, I’ll take my leave. I wish you luck for the many uncertainties in the near future. What you are doing here is quite noble and your work has been extraordinary. You’ve played a great role in preserving the last remains of the soul. History will remember you for that deed. I hope for the sake of us that we never have to see each other again. You’re a good man and I’ll ever be grateful to you for trusting me.’

 

He was quite tired and confused. He didn’t say anything in response but gave me a respectful nod. He walked with me all the way to the inn where Sheena was still tied. I untied her loose and climbed on top of her. Just as I was about to start I saw Wilson Fawk blast out of the entrance of the inn. ‘Hey lad! I see that you’ve met our chief merchant.’ He shouted to me as Sheena slowly walked away.

‘Oh yes Wilson. I was glad to see that my old friend was the maker of this town. See ya later old man’ I waved to him as I left.

 

 

‘Oh, he knows you too huh Mikhail! What do you reckon he wants from the Forrests?’

 

‘Ah, the classic squeeze information out of a drunk man in a bar. You know, you should be the last person to give away free information to a total stranger’

 

‘He’s seems like a good man Mikky. I’ve met too many people in this lifetime. Judging people is one of the very few things I’m good at. Moreover, I knew that you were next in line to meet him so I didn’t have much to worry about. You know, you seem like you have a lot on your mind. Why don’t you get to work? I’ll go walk this booze off’

 

 

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The riveting smell of the harvest ready crop filled my lungs with ecstasy. The farmlands were the most beautiful part in this town even though they didn’t look as opulent as the town-centre. The plush scenery was a gift to these eyes of mine that haven’t seen much apart from gloom and despair. After a few minutes of riding it was hard imagining that I spent the last decade in the wastelands. I imagined setting up a cottage on the edge of the town. Tilling and sowing in the morning and relaxing in this paradise in the night. What a peaceful and beautiful life would that be? Why would I ever leave this place again?

 

The first sight of a carrot farm blew that innocuous dream out of my mind. I came back to the reality which I accepted years ago. A life without sin is not a life of mine. Blood and treachery are my closest friends and a bunch of thieves are what I have for a family. People like me do not deserve a plenteous life like that. It’s for the regular folk who’ve suffered as a result of poor choices made by a puerile king. I don’t deserve that life until I redeem my sins by giving that life to the people first. This is the only way I know that can wash my countless sins away.

 

“Mirriam and Edward” said the signpost on the fence of the carrot farm. I promised myself that I wouldn’t leave this place without them but I had no clue about what to tell them. How do you explain something like this to anyone? How do you expect someone to leave everything behind at the command of a total stranger? I had no answers to these questions. I didn’t have time to prepare for this so I decided to act on instinct from this point onward.

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I knocked the door twice and awaited response. When there was no answer for a while. I knocked again.

‘Wait up Ed! You’re unusually sooner than usual today’ I heard a soft feminine voice come from the inside. It grew louder with every consecutive footstep I heard. ‘Done playing alre….?’ she paused when she saw me.

 

‘Hello….. Mirriam?’ I asked in a slightly confused tone. Apart from the greying roots of her long and wavy black hair, she looked really young to be a mother of a fourteen year old. The boy certainly got his looks from his mother. A pointy chin, a small but sharp nose and a long neck. The only thing he didn’t inherit were those brown eyes as he had crystal bluish-green eyes. She was in a farmer’s attire and was sweating hard when she opened the door. She quickly wiped her forehead with her sleeve as I greeted her and gave me a smile behind two very confused eyes.

‘I’m Randall, a friend of Mikhail’s. I wanted to talk to you about something and he told me that I could find you here.’ I looked around both ways and asked her ‘Do you mind if I come in?’

 

She paused for a moment to take it all in but finally caved in. ‘Oh please, do come in.’ She opened the door completely to let me in. I stepped in and followed her to the lounge. The insides of the farmhouse were more elegant than the rough exterior. ‘We’ve never had anyone visit from the outside. I was a bit surprised but then a friend of Mikhail’s is always welcome here. Please, have a seat.’ She offered me a seat on a jute couch in the lounge.

 

‘Oh no, it’s fine.’ I reluctantly refused. This was not a friendly social visit and I wanted to get to the point really quick. ‘I presume your son isn’t home’

 

‘Edward? No.’ She responded in a way that defined the impossibility of that scenario. ‘He stays out all day long. He doesn’t get along with the rest of the kids for some reason but he still manages to find something to kill his time.’

 

I kept looking at her wondering how to break the news. When the silence began taking its toll, she began. ‘So! You wanted to talk to me about something?’

 

‘Yes!!’ I responded abruptly. ‘Yes’ I said again in a much gentler tone. ‘It’s about your son.’ I could feel her discomfort as soon as she heard that.

 

‘What is it?’ The spunk had died out of her voice.

 

‘I met him on my way to the town. I saw him in the forest. I even spoke to him.’ I kept strategizing on how to go on. This was no easy task. Her attention got heavier with every moment of silence. ‘Ma’am, I….. I have good reason to believe that your son might be a soul keeper.’

 

Her eyes told me how peeved she was at me. A reaction so full of rage and disgust as if I had told the most offensive joke of the century. It probably was. ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about. You’re saying that my son….. my Edward is a soul keeper?’ She asked me to make sure that that’s exactly what I was implying.

‘Yes.’ I had nothing more to say to her. Nothing safer, nothing more comforting. ‘Yes, I do’

 

‘Do you understand what you are talking about? Who are you anyway and what makes you think you can just barge into my house and say such a putrid statement?’ Rage quickly seeped into her voice. It was completely understandable.

 

‘Listen Mirriam. I am Mikhail’s friend. I come from the capital. Not the west. From the mainlands.’ I didn’t have too many words so I had to make every word count. ‘Look. I know it sounds crazy. I can hardly grasp the magnitude of things as I say them. It’s just as shocking to me. I used to know a couple of soulkeepers back when they weren’t an extinct breed. I’ve worked with them long enough to identify a prospect. Believe me. Your son is a prospect’

 

She rushed to the door. Pointing her hand outwards, she yelled at me. ‘LEAVE!! NOW!!! I won’t listen to another word of this.’

I squeezed my face with my hand thinking of a way to make her listen. I wasn’t going to leave without them.

 

‘Please. Hear me out Mirriam. This is not a joke. Your son, he’s fourteen right? Just look at the facts. Tell me, when was the last time he was sick?’ Her angry red eyes started to flutter with hints of shock. ‘You must have also noticed his affinity with animals. You must have noticed how they flock around him. He looks like a natural, doesn’t he?’

 

Just when I was starting to make progress, the kid showed up at the door. Mirriam grabbed by his arm and pulled him into her protective grasp. The scared and confused kid spotted me and a hearty smile cleared up his psyche. ‘Hey mister!’ He exclaimed happily. He then turned to his mother. ‘Hey Ma! Shugu hurt her wing today and was bleeding out. This man saved her life.’

‘Shugu, that pigeon?’ She tried talking normally to not spook the kid out yet.

‘No!! The sparrow’ The way he responded highlighted his disappointment in his mother’s bird-name-remembering skills.

‘Oh, that’s very nice Ed. Listen why don’t you go inside. Just stay there for a while hon. Do not come out till I tell you to. This man will be leaving now.’ The kid didn’t want to go in but she had made it very clear what he had to do. She walked him inside and came to face me again. ‘Listen Mister. I don’t care what you say. You need to leave. Please, just leave and never show yourself to us ever again.’

 

I bowed my head down. ‘I’m sorry Mirriam. I can’t. I can’t leave here without him.’

Without hesitation she drew her sickle out of her belt. Pointing it towards me, she made her threat. ‘You’re not taking my son anywhere. Leave now and don’t make me use this.’

 

I raised my hands and faced my palms in her direction signifying that I had no intention to fight, resist or even defend myself, making clear my stance on total surrender. ‘We don’t have much time Mirriam. If we don’t settle this now, things will take a very ugly turn.’

 

‘What do you mean we don’t have time’ she asked me. She was notably scared. I could make things up so that things tip in my favour but I knew that lying now would only cement bad things for us in the future. I had to be honest and clear about this.

 

‘I’m a scout for the thieves guild. Some people are going to show up after me so we need to leave before they arrive. Mirriam, you need to get your son to safety before more people find out what he is.’

 

‘THIEVES GUILD? A THIEF!?’ She walked to me with the sickle on her stretched out arm.  She stopped when it was an inch away from my neck. I didn’t shudder and my wide open arms still screamed surrender.

 

‘You should put that down Mirriam. Even with a sickle in that position, there’s no way you can hurt him. He’s quick and you’re not a person who could ever hurt someone else.’ She and I quickly turned our gaze to the source of the voice which came from the door. It was old man Wilson.

 

‘Lord Fawk!!’ She uttered in absolute shock. The sickle was still on my throat.

‘Lord? You’re the lord?’ I said, muffled in shock.

 

 

Here’s the next chapter : Chapter 5 – The Deadline

The Soul Keeper and the Guardian, Chapter 3

A Convincing Bargain

Click here for Chapter 1 of the series

Being held hostage isn’t fun. This wasn’t my first playing captive and it sure as hell wasn’t my last go at it. In my line of work, something like this isn’t considered out of ordinary. I knew that this was ultimately going to lead to a very constructive conversation so I didn’t bother wasting my time and energy looking for escape routes and weak links in the squad holding me hostage. Instead, I just basked in the peace and glory of this peculiarly beautiful place.

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The town centre was much busier than the inner parts of the town. Anomalous things weren’t an anomaly around here. Every person I could see was clearly well off. Everyone had all the food they needed, they wore the best clothes you could buy in a place like this and it applied to even the smallest vendors. The structures in these parts were extravagant for a small town and were very well maintained. I saw several specimen at the butcher’s porch that people would sell their kids for in the mainland. I saw a few stalls sell apples. Apples!! A single apple would sell for 2 golds in the mainland. These weren’t even imported from the outside. The apples were clearly grown here. Only one thing could explain how these people were able to grow apples in the desert lands of the west.

 

I saw a lot of things that I never hoped to see again. Things of the past that I thought would never resurface. The sight of all this made me well up. Now, we were at the gates of the lord’s keep. For the first time since I entered the town, did I see guards. The thugs around me were just hired muscle. The guards opened the gate and we walked in.

 

The lord’s keep wasn’t too extravagant. It was no better than the rest of the buildings in the town centre except for the size. The keep was huge. It was large enough to cram every person in the town if they needed shelter in special circumstances. The grounds spread wide and were well-tended. Multiple teams of guards circuited around the grounds which felt quite unnecessary. The place looked like it had too much security. Much more than it could possibly need.

 

We made our way inside the building through the main door into a giant hall. Two parallel stairs ran up to the first floor like most manors and on the sides were offices, quite heavily occupied and busy. I was taken around the stairs and into a very shady room. They asked me to sit inside while most of the party left except two who stood guard in front of the room. I still had all my weapons and equipment on me which made me wonder why they went to such lengths to abduct me but never bothered to disarm me. That’s the most reckless and irresponsible work I’ve seen from an abductor yet.

 

My feet twitched while I sat there thinking about how I was losing precious time. I kept thinking about my encounter with the boy over and over again. I was convinced that I was right about him but I still kept looking for any explanation to prove myself wrong. How convenient would that be? Time flew and after what seemed like half an hour, the guards called me out. I walked out and they escorted me to a room beside the office near the stairs. The door was closed. One of my escorts walked up to the door and knocked thrice.

 

‘Come in’, came a voice from inside.

The escort opened the door and I saw the back of a man, sitting on one end of a long table. He had long straight greying hair and wore a lavish robe. I walked in with my escorts who directed me towards a seat on the opposite end of the table. One escort stopped by the door and closed it from inside while the other one stayed by my side.

 

‘Please…. Have a seat’ said the man. He only looked a few years younger than me and was sporting a very calm and confident demeanour. I sat down facing him, waiting for him to speak. He peered at me as soon as he saw me but shook his head and began.

 

‘I’m terribly sorry for putting you through such a tiresome ordeal. You see, we don’t get too many visitors here. As you may have noticed on your way here, we have more than a few good reasons for being so cautious. It’s been years since I’ve had to do something like this. That’s how uncommon a visitor is for us. So, tell me. What brings you to the town of Vereen?’

 

‘I’m very sorry about abruptly troubling you my lord. I just came here looking for an old friend of mine and I recently learned about his demise which leaves me with nothing more to do here in your town. I assure you that I will leave here at once without giving you any more trouble.’ The man looked reasonable so I had to walk the same road as him if I were to get out of this fix without causing any problems. But the man suspiciously peered at me again as soon as he heard my voice.

 

‘Haha, please. Do not mistake me for the lord. I’m just the head of the merchant’s guild in this place and I provide counsel to the lord. He is too busy to worry about such trivial matters so I decided to deal with it. I used to be an outsider just like back in the day and I have a strange feeling that I’ve seen you before.’ He leaned forward in his chair as he peered at me. This would be the worst place for my cover to break.

 

‘I don’t suppose you have. I’m sure you must be mistaking me for someone else. I’ve never been to this place before and I come from a place much farther than the capital. I have no memory of seeing you either.’ I tried to be as composed as possible.

‘It’s not just your appearance. This voice, I remember it.’ Suddenly his eyes opened wide.

‘Do you mind pulling your left sleeve back?’ he asked me with excitement.

I looked at him for a few seconds and put my hands on the table. ‘Actually, I do. I would like to leave. My business here may be unfinished but my employer expects me to show up soon.’

 

‘Oh but we’re not done yet. Please, I insist.’ He sneered at me as he said that. Both the guards in the room squeezed their hands on the hilts of their swords to show me that they meant business. I leaned back on my chair and sighed. Slowly, I pulled my left sleeve back, revealing the long scar on my forearm. I knew I was busted.

 

‘If it isn’t Randall Smith!!’ he said in total astonishment. ‘What in the world brings the Randall Smith to Vereen!? Definitely not an old friend.’

‘How do you know me?’ I asked him. Not too many people knew about the scar. He sighed in response to the question and commanded his guards to leave the room for the two of us. As they left, he began again.

 

‘You may not remember me but I was in the guild back in the day. A few years before it was disbanded by the High King. I wasn’t a big name like you. I was just a fence who dealt with the small rat thieves. Back then almost everyone in the guild knew about that scar and how it came to be.’ He smiled. ‘I still find that story hard to believe.’

The small clues were enough for me to pick on. I closely examined his sharp, pale face for a while. ‘Sheepus… is that you?’ I knew my guess was right when I saw the shock in his eyes.

 

‘Wow Randall. I consider it an honour that you remember me even though it has been so long. But I don’t go by that name these days. My days as a small time fence are behind me so as a merchant in the nobility, I use my real name. Mikhail Holloway. I insist that you keep my past between us. I’ve left that life behind for a long time and I don’t want it to affect my standing in this place. You see, I’ve got a good thing going on here and I don’t want anyone to mess it up.’

‘You don’t have to worry about that Mikhail. I’m just here to meet someone. It’s a one-time thing. I assure you that I will forever be out of your lives once I’m done with my errand.’ I told him reassuringly.

 

‘Who is it that you want to meet?’ He asked me inquisitively.

‘Mirriam Forrest. I was hoping to meet her husband Kenny before I came here but I recently learned of his demise so I’ll have to make do with her. I have something that belongs to them. All I want to do is deliver it and see how she’s doing before I leave.’

 

‘No! How do you know Kenny? I did a thorough background check on him after his death. He lived in a remote island before he came here. He hardly knew anyone and lived a reclusive life. There’s no way you know him. Who sent you?’ I grew uncomfortable as his stance got more and more offensive. Kenny’s murder was probably one of the very few blotches on his perfect record with this perfect town and the mention of his name had seemingly hit a nerve.

 

‘Wait a second. I know that the thieves guild was re-established since the cold war. They’ve established strongholds throughout the Western Kingdom. Don’t tell me you got back into the guild.’ He paused and stared at me for a moment while my resolute silence gave him the answer to his questions. ‘You’re a scout for the guild, aren’t you?’ I remained unshaken throughout. Neither did I respond nor did I react. I could talk my way out of a situation like this with most people but fooling someone as smart and well-connected like Mikhail wasn’t something I could manage. This was the time for negotiation, not deception. An alpha merchant like him wants to cut the best deal possible and I had to come up with the best bargain if I wanted a way out of this.

 

‘You!! You’ve doomed this place.’ Astounded, he stood up from his seat. ‘All these years I’ve cloaked and protected this town. The era of despair hit immediately after the Waynecastle massacre and trade was just tumbling in every corner of the nation. I couldn’t bear the ugly sight of it so I fled back here, to my hometown. I didn’t have any family back here, but this was my childhood home. I was surprised how different this place was from the rest of the world. I worked with the merchants here for a year. We ventured to different towns and cities and saw how the world around us was crumbling. We merchants understood what we had while the rest of the townsfolk to this date remain obnoxiously ignorant of the outside world. They don’t know the plight of the people living outside and that was only because we merchants protected them from this information.’

 

‘After the one year I spent travelling and trading, I realized why Vereen was still alive and prospering. I felt the presence of the soul in this place. That realization gave me a sense of mission. After learning about the darkness and desperation glooming around, I took a pledge to protect this place from the evil outside. Taking charge and leadership was the first step. I quickly climbed the ranks in the trade business using my skill and experience as a fence. I vowed to the lord to hide this town from the world outside.’

 

‘A lot of steps had to be taken. Firstly, we made it so that going out of the town was frowned upon if you weren’t a merchant. Then the merchants were asked to hide the truth about the suffering of the world outside, even from their own families. We understood what was at stake here. We had to keep the circle small so we kept other people from trading outside. We always had enough money so we created all kinds of jobs here so that every single person had something to do without having to leave town. We hired guards and maids that we didn’t need. Hired accountants, bankers and bureaucrats that we could do without. We made this town completely self-sufficient. Everyone has a job and everyone is wealthy.’

 

‘We also have very planned and careful trade expeditions when we venture outside. It’s a smoke and mirrors expedition where we make plenty of diversions and keep circling around to hide the location of our place. Our caravans are heavily armed so we have never faced an ambush either.’

 

‘For over a decade we’ve remained hidden, we’ve remained safe. But now it’s over. You’ve come here and you’ve marked this place for death. We’re strong but we’re not strong enough to face the thieves guild. Once the word reaches out we’re doomed. Everyone would rush in here and ravage this place till there’s nothing left. The desperate folks outside will eradicate the last piece of soul from the country just to live on for a few more days.’ It broke my heart to see the man’s psyche get torn apart. He knew that everything he built and protected all these years was going to crumble. The one thing he swore to safeguard was about to be taken away from him. He was vulnerable and this was the time to strike the iron.

 

‘Listen Mikhail. None of us in the guild ever suspected that this town would still have the greens. Judging from the placement of a small town in a position so awkward in the maps, we expected it to be a wasteland. I was shocked to the core when I walked in here. It didn’t take me long to understand what was going on here and as you might know, I have good reason to feel the presence of the soul compared to most people. I knew what was at stake here. What you have here is beautiful and important and it needs to be protected. I understand that. Now, if you kill me or keep me locked up, it won’t be long before a follow-up party shows up. Trust me, they won’t be too easy to capture and squeeze. Their duty is to observe and report back to the guild and that will attract a lot of attention. Not the kind of attention you need.’

 

I had laid down the stakes for him and it was time to make the offer. ‘I don’t want the guild to ever set foot here. I know it’s absurd to ask this as a thief, but give me a chance. Let me try and take their attention elsewhere. I can’t guarantee you total success but even today I am a top member in the guild and my voice is taken seriously.’ There was no collateral that I could offer but I couldn’t give him anything more than basic assurance. ‘This place is much more than a chest to be looted. This place is the future of the world. I’ve seen too much despair in this world and I don’t want to see the innocuous people here to have to face the same fate.’

 

I stood up and walked up to him. I placed my hand on his shoulder and assured him. ‘Consider me a part of your mission Mikhail. The guild is my family but I’ll even face them if I have to protect this place. Only a few people know about my venture here and I’ll do whatever it takes to ensure their silence. Let me go and deal with the situation. I just have one request. Grant the Forrests’ permission to leave this place.’ A million thoughts ran through his head as soon as he heard my offer.

 

‘Why?…. Why them? What do they have to do with anything?’ The offer was solid but he needed to understand the this strange variable.

‘I’m sorry Mikhail but I can’t tell you anything about that and I don’t want you to think any more about that. The safety of this town is of the utmost importance and their exit won’t hinder it. I’ll ensure their security outside and make sure that they are under the best care. They have an important role out in the world that they can’t fulfill by living here. I know you have a lot of questions but I am not at the liberty of answering them.’ He sat back down in his seat and rubbed both his hands on his face while considering his options.

‘I know it’s a lot to ask. Entrusting something so valuable to a thief like me is an enormous gamble but you know my history and you know I have enough reasons to protect the soul.’

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After taking a moment to think, he looked up to face me. ‘I used to look up to you Randall. You were an adept thief but more importantly you were a great man. You always put the interests of your fellow-men before you and that’s why everyone respected you. Please Randall, don’t betray me. You can leave and so can Mirriam and her kid. They are family to me, like every single person in this town. I am entrusting everyone’s fate on to you. Please….. do not forsake us.’ He stood up and shook my hand. I gave him a promising nod and we left the room.

 

 

Here’s the next chapter : Chapter 4 : A Confounded Mother

The Soulkeeper and the Guardian, Chapter 2

A spirited inquiry

Click here for Chapter 1 of the series

This was not good. My mind got cloudier by the second like a raging typhoon. I needed to figure things out before someone else found out about this. My arrival here had already marked this town. Something was still off about this place. A place so serene wouldn’t have survived all these years without someone protecting it and the secrets within.
Slowly, me and Sheena made our way through the forest while reminiscing about the latest discovery. The best option at hand was to assassinate the child before he ventured out into the world. A world so cruel and decaying which will devour him before he even gets to flap his wings. Sadly, that kind little bird won’t survive in its own nest for any longer. He had the misfortune of my sudden appearance. It won’t be long before the eagles come hunting and the vultures feed on what’s left of it.
I don’t have long but I have enough time to fix this. The forest started clearing up as I reached the end of the path and I was in the farmlands now. This town was pretty much structured like the last prosperous settlements on the continent. Farmlands on the outer circle, the housing ring inside it with the markets spread across them. The Lord and the prime merchants in the inner circle. Of course the difference is that the towns didn’t fortify each ring with huge walls. Every ring seamlessly merged with each other, eliminating most class differences. That was the difference between the grand cities and the timid towns. While the city folk distanced each other, the town communities were a single unit, living together as equals to sustain themselves and their own town. That’s what most towns were like back in the day. But since the Waynecastle massacre, the little prosperous towns have turned into putefying slums.

 

This beautiful exception was a breath of fresh air. I felt like I was reliving a pleasant, lost memory. It felt as if I was transported two decades back in time, back to the good times. The plush farms told me that these people had more than they needed. I didn’t want too much attention and luckily the sunny summer noon was keeping most folks inside. It took me no more than 20 minutes to get through the farmlands which made up most of the town. I still hadn’t seen as single soul outside. As the residential hub got closer, I could hear a dull afternoon market bustling. I got down from Sheena to keep my cover and avoid any unnecessary attention and made way through the shabby roadside markets.

 

There was enough noise and chatter to drift through these streets unnoticed but the townsfolk had clearly taken notice of me. Noises dulled and glances shot at me as I walked through. It was clear that these people weren’t used to visitors from the outside. One of the vendors made a run for the central market as soon as he spotted me. Word was about to spread of my arrival. I didn’t waste any time and walked into the nearest alley with Sheena. We walked through them and made our way towards the centre. A few turns and twists later, I found myself in the busy town centre. I pulled my hood up and kept walking at the edge of the giant circle till I found an inn. I tied Sheena by a pole outside and walked into the place.

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It wasn’t too lively. This being the middle of the day, only a couple of drunks sat around chugging mead down their throats. The innkeeper was at the bar wiping away mugs at the counter. He slowed down when he noticed me and got back to what he was doing as our eyes met. I slowly pulled my hood down and walked up to him. He was a heavy-set man with a large hanging belly held together by his apron. His small semi-bald, egg shaped head looked odd on such a huge body but his thick bushy mustache made up for it. I took a seat at the counter beside a frail old man.

 

‘What’s the best mead you have?’ I asked the innkeeper.

‘We have some Jilliperbrew mead but if you want something on the stronger side, we have some Lancaster too’, he said.

‘Jilliperbrew will do’ I put three silvers on the counter which he swiped away. ‘One Jilliper coming up’. He had to walk into his stores as his barrel was dry.

 

‘That kiddy mead never gives me the kick’, the old man beside me muttered. He was simultaneously drinking two meads from two different mugs but it looked like he had just started his session for the day. This was the perfect opportunity for me to scoop some information out. ‘It just helps me warm up for the real stuff. What’s that you got there?’ I asked him.

‘I got bored with sipping the same shit all these years that I now have to drink two different things at the same time to keep me from getting bored. A thousand times I’ve asked this fat-ass to get me some new mead from a new place but all he’s ever done is disappoint me.’ He emptied one of his mugs and slammed it on the counter.

 

‘How do you like your spirits?’ I asked him to grab his attention. He looked at me with his eyes wide open. ‘Spirits? I’ll take any spirit that I can get my hands on. It’s been years since I’ve seen a spirit in this rotten place.’ An energetic retort slowly turned sad at the end.

‘You know, you’re in luck today old man’. I slipped my hand inside my cloak and pulled a small bottle out of my pocket. ‘This here is a small serving of Volosil. They are usually used to light up a fire in the most adverse conditions but they do make for a good drink. It’s a single shot but it’s enough to send you flying’ I put on a smirk as I knew I had already won him over. He zoomed in on the tiny bottle and looked up at me with big wide eyes. I gave him an affirmative nod and he took it out of my hands.

 

‘Bless you lad’ he said with enormous gratitude. ‘Never thought that I’d ever see a spirit again before I died here in the middle of nowhere. I’m gonna save this for a rainy day.’ He put it in his fanny pack and shuffled through his coins. ‘So, how much do I owe you?’

‘Ah, don’t be ridiculous. It’s on me. Just glad to fulfill another man’s age-old wish’ I told him in a very ludicrous tone to which he chuckled.

 

‘You don’t look from around here. Where are you from?’ he asked me to make conversation as a form of gratitude.

‘I come from the capital. Actually I’m here on business. I was looking for an old acquaintance of a friend of mine. Goes by the name of Forrest. I wanted to have a word with him.’

‘Forrest? That poor lad died 10 years ago. Murdered’ he sighed. ‘Such a shame. He was a newlywed. Left behind a pretty young widow and a 4-year-old son on their own.’

‘Murdered?’ I asked him while I put up my best “shocked” expression.

 

‘Yes. He was out on one of our caravan expeditions. He got separated from the rest of the crew while he was in the capital. They looked for two days and finally found his body lying by a drain with his throat slit across. He was buried in the capital as they couldn’t haul a rotting body for the 10 day ride back from the capital.’ He paused for a while. ‘We should have let him stay. He never wanted to leave the place, never wanted to go with the caravan. Always asked around for someone else to sell his produce but nobody ever bothered to help. He was a good man. A good young man who died too soon.’ He took a large gulp from his second mug till it ran dry.

 

‘I didn’t expect that things would go so bad’ I told him. ‘But I have something in my possession that belongs to him. I was planning to hand it to him but I guess it belongs to his family now. Where exactly do they live? I’ve never met the man himself before and I have no idea who his wife is either.’

‘You’re looking for Mirriam. She lives by the farms with her weird kid. She’s the only one who grows carrots around these parts so her house shouldn’t be too hard to find. It’s about time someone from their past showed up. As you know, Kenny was an outsider unlike us. Nobody has ever visited him or his family since he moved in here fifteen years ago with his newlywed wife. We don’t get much outsiders here in this place anyway. It’s locked up too deep inside the drylands.’

 

‘Thank you’ I told him as I got up ready to leave. He looked up at me curiously. ‘Hey, what about your Jilliper?’ he asked me with a look implying that I was committing a great sin by wasting good mead.

‘I’m running short on time. You can have it, that is if you don’t mind some kiddy mead’. We both laughed.

‘All right, I’ll take care of it. By the way, if you need anything else, come looking for me. I’m Wilson Fawk.’

 

‘Alright Wilson, I’ll be seeing you’, I said as I walked out of the place. I hastily walked up to Sheena. As I began untying her hitch from the pole, I felt shadows creep up on me from every direction. I looked up and men with clubs and axes had surrounded me. ‘Leave your horse here and come with us. Don’t try and stir up trouble, we don’t want any either.’ said the only one of the men wearing armour and wielding a battle hammer.

 

I knew that I couldn’t fight my way out of this. ‘All right, let’s get on with this’. I left Sheena tied to the pole and walked with the group of ten armed men towards the lord’s keep.

 

 

For the next chapter : Chapter 3 : A Convincing Bargain