Chapter 18: Detour
The days seemed to smear together for Everen. The only way he could really distinguish the passing of the days was by the steady change in weather. Spring was blooming into summer, and the air grew warmer and warmer with each day. Trees donned fresh green raiment, and the world seemed to have burst into color and fragrance.
It was a little past the beginning of summer when they crossed the Richelic border into Dulamba. They were closer than ever to their destination, but Everen's mood did not relax any at all; in fact, he seemed to grow tenser with each day.
"What's wrong?" Ket asked as they sat around their fire one night. She finished eating her dinner and sat the plate down on the ground, lacing her fingers together and resting them on her lap.
Everen glanced at her. "Why do you ask?"
She rolled her eyes. "You're in a snit again, dear," she told him with exaggerated patience. "Any particular reason, or were you just aiming for a fight?"
He raised an eyebrow. "I was aiming for a fight, of course, Ketrine," he replied, a hint of venom in his voice. Bark turned his gaze heavenward and shook his head sadly. There was something about the little spats between the two elder members of their merry band that grated on his nerves, for some reason.
Ket's lips pressed together in a thin line, but she didn't rise to his comment. "So why are you snitting?"
A slight smile touched his mouth. "You have the strangest words," he said to her.
"You're avoiding the question."
"I was doing so well, too," he murmured.
"Fine, fine," he answered, holding his hands up in mock-surrender. "I'm just a little worried, that's all. This has been almost too easy. We've got an Elfsbane after our collective hides, one of the sneakiest dukes in all the country out for our heads, and a very lecherous duke-heir after Ket."
"Don't remind me," she muttered. Bark patted her hand in sympathy.
"Yet in spite of all that," the Dulamban continued, pretending not to hear her, "we have nobody after us. There are no spies, nothing. We have been left alone. That's strange."
Bark tilted his head to one side. "It could just be that we disappeared, you know," he offered. "Remember how we got to Melié and Glen's?"
"True enough," Everen agreed. "It just seems strange to me still."
"Well, no sense in worrying; it'll only make things worse," Ket said to him.
Bark raised a brow. "Actually," he interjected, "it may mean that we are less likely to be killed, if we're cautious and prepared."
Both Everen and Ket turned to look at him in mild shock. "How would you know that?" Everen demanded.
The boy grinned and held up a hand, wiggling his fingers. "Thief, remember?"
Ket sighed and shook her head. "I can never tell with you, Bark."
"That was kind of the point."
"At any rate," Everen interjected, "we may want to move along a little faster. I don't want to be here when danger catches up to us."
Ket shifted in her seat. "Don't you mean if?"
Everen sighed and turned to her, and the light from the fire cast strange shadows on his face. "No, Ket," he answered softly. "I do mean when."
They traveled for a few more weeks before taking a day to rest, near the Dulambic town of Fer'aida. Everen steadfastly refused to even enter the town, and instead they camped outside in the thick grove of trees that flanked one side of the town. The slight change that had come over him as they traveled had progressed. He had grown increasingly silent, his words increasingly laconic. Ket made little effort to hide her irritation with him, and even Bark, who could put up with Ket and thus had little problem with Everen, was becoming more and more annoyed.
"All right," Ket said as they broke camp in the morning, preparing to begin the day's travel. "What's the problem now?"
Everen looked up at her from his position by the horse, his hands still tightening the saddle girth even as he caught her eyes. "Nothing," he answered shortly.
She rolled her eyes. "Everen, don't lie to—"
"I said it's nothing!" he roared.
She blinked, her eyes wide. Bark, who had gone to fill up their water skins, came back then. He took one look at the two and sighed. "You're acting like children," he told them peremptorily, handing the water skins to a rather startled Everen. "Stop squabbling and let's go."
This was an effective silencer. They went quiet, finishing breaking camp and readying the two horses. "Let's go," Everen said softly after they had finished. Mutely, he held his hand out to Ket to help her mount, a gesture of apology as well as he knew. She took it after a moment of hesitation, unsure now because of his mercurial mood swings. Gently, carefully, he helped her up onto the mare, and Bark watched with a strange look in his eyes.
They set out on the road with little conversation, their words little more than half-mumbled grunts. Everen, trying to hide his discomfort, only succeeded in making things even more awkward, and Ket, sitting in front of him on Rina, obviously had difficulty with that. Bark, meanwhile, was fast approaching "well-fed-up with the whole business" and refused to say much of anything.
Traveling dragged by, the sun seeming to barely inch higher into the sky as they rode. "Great Four, this is boring," Bark moaned after they began riding again after their lunch.
"Would you really want it to be exciting?" asked Everen dryly, not averting his eyes from the road.
Bark pretended to consider this. "Not really, but I'm still bored."
Everen sighed and rolled his eyes, deciding silence was the best course of action.
The road seemed to stretch on forever, a winding brown ribbon leading to some unknown destination. The three actually dozed as they rode, and as such were not entirely aware of their surroundings.
Ket felt the danger first. She sat bolt upright on Rina, jarring Everen out of a half-daze. "Something's wrong," she said, her voice shaking. Her face had gone pale as milk, and she trembled.
"What is?" Everen asked. His entire demeanor changed. Before, he had slouched in the saddle, his eyes half-lidded and his jaw slack. Now, though, he sat up ramrod straight, and his dark eyes were like a bird of prey's, sharp and alert.
"I don't know." Ket glanced around. Bark caught the tail end of her worry and looked about as well. Everything seemed innocuous enough; the breeze was warm and ruffled the green leaves of the trees. The wildflowers that dotted the grass bowed to the occasional zephyr, and birdsong floated on the wind. There was no one else around, nothing to cause the concern that jarred down their spines and squirmed in their stomachs.
"Let's get moving," Everen began, but as he spoke, the sky darkened. The wind picked up and began howling, strangling them with its cold fingers. A thick stench rolled over them, and Ket nearly vomited at the reek of stale, rotting flesh. Rina reared up, and Everen fought to control his mare while Bark almost tumbled to the ground as his horse bucked and tried to bolt.
Out of nowhere, strange, skeletal horses with pale bones protruding through their tattered dark coats appeared. On their backs were men, if such pale mockeries of figures could be called such. They wore bone-white cloaks, but there seemed to be no substance within them. The cloaks themselves billowed as if within an internal wind, and the emptiness within in them held swords of sharp and deadly beauty.
Everen didn't bother with words; he kicked Rina into a gallop, Bark following close behind.
"What are they?" Ket shouted as they pounded away. The cloaked figures were so close behind that she could smell the charnel house reek that threatened to suffocate them.
"I don't know!"
Distance blurred, time blurred. The only thing that mattered was getting away.
Bark spotted the glitter of magic. "They're using spells, Everen!" he cried above the whipping wind. As he shouted, an arrow made of blazing fire rocketed past his ear, singing his hair and skin.
"Shield!" Everen screamed, his voice almost lost in the roar of air and the pounding of skeletal hooves.
A shield shimmered into place around them, and for a while, it held. Then one of the cloaked figures cancelled it with a sharp word that shot into their brains without bothering to use their ears. Everen almost toppled out of the saddle as the full force of the word struck him.
The next moments swirled together for him. He was dimly aware of Ket shouting out a Runic word, but the cloaked figures seemed to pull the magic from her, and she gasped, slouching against him. Her eyes were wide open and staring at nothing, and blood trickled from her nose. Wounds on her body, ones that had been long healed, broke open again and began to bleed. Bark caught the sword of one of the insubstantial riders on his arm. The blood was so red…
His head pounded. Something inside him took over, something stronger and older than he was. Somehow, he pulled them all together and began to ride. Ride. Ride. RIDE.
The cloaked riders were left behind him, but he paid them little heed. The only thing that mattered was getting away.
Green and brown and blue and white clouds and people, swarms of people like insects how did they not see him pounding down the roads Ket stirring crying whimpering in pain make it stop I'm so sorry Bark bleeding so much blood should he be this pale no get away sanctuary I claim sanctuary! Pounding past everything going to where it's safe at least safer than the road don't want to go there don't want to be home but they need it can't be selfish anymore dear Four it hurts should my ribs feel like they're breaking no when did my vision fade and die and—
He jolted out of the blur of consciousness and focused vaguely on the speaker. The voice was Dulambic; no one else pronounced his name with the accent. No one else knew his name could have an accent, except Ket had…
He stumbled forward. Somehow he had gotten off of Rina and managed to get Ket and Bark inside this place…where was he? Pale stone walls with fine stone inlays, beautifully tiled floors reflected the shards of light that made it in through the stained glass windows. There were people there, scurrying about, but they had stopped when he had come in. He looked down and saw blood dripping and pooling on the fine floor beneath his feet.
Someone approached him. "Evéren?" the same voice queried.
He looked up and beheld a vaguely familiar face. "Almadani," he murmured. It was his old nursemaid.
The woman looked at him, various emotions fighting for control of her face. "Master Evéren—"
"No time," he interrupted. "They need help—healing." Servants scurried over to help him, and he felt gentle hands take Ket and Bark away.
"Someone get Lady S'raia," a servant ordered, but the command had already been passed along.
He heard sharp footsteps approach. "Your Majesty," a voice murmured. He looked up to behold the face of the Dulambic queen, one whose features nearly mirrored his own.
"Mother," he managed to say before losing consciousness completely and collapsing in a heap on the floor.
A/N: Sorry, I'm a bad person for not updating sooner. Silly me. I'm sorry it sucks; I just wanted to get this bit over with. I'm working on Chapter 19, which is already better, so that should be up soon. Thanks to everyone who's still sticking with this! Sarah, thanks for finding this again after all this time.
Coming up next...revelations, an unpleasant dinner, and most likely Bark in formal wear. What larks!