A blanket of stale smoke hung over the event like a foul-smelling fog. Revulsion and excitement danced back and forth on the faces of the crowd that had somehow congealed into a single blurred mass. Fear and sweat thickened the air and mingled with the odour of overcooked sausages and onions from the food vendors to form a truly disgusting concoction.
Jon took a deep breath and erupted in a spasm of coughs. He shook his head to clear it and noticed the blank sheets of parchment forgotten in his lap. He groaned. He was here to record what he saw and had not written a single word.
It seemed a lifetime ago that Jon had been given this assignment, thinking that the new event added to the monthly market was some sort of sports contest. His work so far as an Apprentice Historian had mostly consisted of rewriting some ancient, boring story into current language. He could deal with that. Or, sometimes, he would be asked to attend a Council meeting accompanied by other Apprentices. They would all diligently record what transpired, then return to a classroom to critique each other’s work. Theoretically. The critique was more like a free-for-all where his so-called colleagues would gleefully tear his work to small pieces. He could deal with that too. But this assignment was like something from a nightmare and for the first time he wasn’t certain that he could accomplish his task.
Jon would never have imagined—and he thought he had a pretty good imagination—the loathsome struggles he witnessed today. He gritted his teeth, summoning his determination to deliver an accurate account. His reputation as a budding Historian rested on how well he did. He knew that many in the School expected him to fail, students and teachers alike. He was, after all, a dock rat skulking among his betters. His dormitory mates had tried to torment him into quitting from the moment he walked through the door but they were no match for the abuse he had survived at the hands of the bully-boy gangs along the waterfront. Jon had learned when to hide, when to run, and when to fight. His slim frame hid a tough, wiry body and more than once, one of his much larger tormentors at the School had limped away from a fast and vicious lesson that Jon had administered, however reluctantly.
The blaring horns announced the final contest. He gave fervent thanks that this was the last one in a morning that seemed to never end.
The pair of monstrosities stood motionless, each a few paces beyond the sturdy gate through which it had been unceremoniously shoved. In a well-practised motion, the beast handlers used small crossbows to embed barbed darts into their hides. Agitated, the beasts began to move towards each other.
They were 450 pounds each, the weighing-in made certain of that, but any other resemblance ended there. The many-legged creature with the red paint smeared on its back stood no more than two feet high at the shoulder. Its scaled head rose to a crest that covered half its body. At the front and to either side of the head were its primary fighting tools: three cavernous mouths each equipped with razor sharp sets of teeth, extendable downwards to hold its prey and outwards to stab or slice. Its six stout legs ended in claws that glinted dully where the light caught them. It had no eyes, no ears, no tail, no visible genitalia.
Its opponent, with blue streaks of paint down its upper limbs, appeared emaciated by comparison. It stood over seven feet tall, the legs easily two-thirds of that, but most of its weight was in the massive arms that twitched and quivered with tension. It bounced more than walked on the two stick legs, and above a small but heavily muscled torso was a head from nightmares. A horny beak with a serpent’s tongue flicked black slime that sizzled where it fell. A single orb protruded from its skull just above the beak. Maggot-coloured tendrils hissed and waved where feathers or hair or scales should have been.
With blinding speed, Red plunged at Blue’s spindly legs to topple it closer to the thrashing mouths that slavered in anticipation. At the last instant, Blue sprang into the air with the help of tiny wings that opened on its back. The crowd roared in surprise and surged closer to the action.
Red’s headlong rush sent it crashing into the retaining wall and it lurched about, dazed from the impact. Blue raised a delicate leg over Red and matched its opponent’s movements so that they seemed to perform a macabre mating dance. An instant later, Blue dropped onto Red’s back and powerful arms locked around the crested head.
Red gouged and tore, ripping chunks of flesh from the thing that tormented it. Beak and tendrils whipped back and forth at the flashing mouths, and black threads of liquid spurted into the throng. The mindless frenzy in the ring was pierced by shrieks of agony as the spittle seared the exposed flesh of unlucky spectators. With one last surge of strength, Red lay broken in the dirt, its body convulsing in death. Blue swayed above its prey, spouting ichor from its wounds, then began pecking at the open, lolling mouths.
Occupied as it was, a beast handler had no difficulty releasing a much larger crossbow barb with precision into Blue’s eye. It slowly toppled to the gore-strewn ground. Workers rushed in, some struggling to remove the dead bodies and others attempting to clean the ring.
Jon stared at the blank parchment beneath his hand, stylus frozen in mid-air. Nausea roiled in his guts. His mind flashed to the dock bullies raining blows on him as he lay helpless in the dirt, their taunts of ‘cripple toy’ ringing in his ears. His uncle had never, ever touched him, and Uncle Kory had not been born a cripple. But the bully boys didn’t care much for explanations; all they saw was someone they could make suffer. Someone they could terrify until he heaved up his meagre breakfast, then laugh as they sauntered away. These creatures in the fight ring were as helpless as he had been; they, too, had been forced into something in which they wanted no part.
Compelled by a dark fascination, his eyes moved of their own accord back to the ring, back to the dark smudges off to one side. This can’t be right. Anger overcame the sick feeling in his stomach. The creatures had been ugly and vicious and he certainly would never want to encounter them in their own territory high on the northern plateau wastes, but they had their own lives to live and far more noble ways to die. To be forced to kill each other for entertainment’s sake was just wrong. To no longer have control over one’s fate, to be vulnerable before something more powerful, to feel the deep frustration and humiliation of helplessness…
He tore his gaze from the carnage to where the Members of Council sat along with their Advisors and a retinue of clerks and runners. They were here to witness the first of these events and some had actually watched the battles, but most were far more interested in the results at the betting windows. Their runners scurried back and forth with demands for information. The Council would receive a part of the proceeds. But what remained unclear to Jon and, he suspected, to the majority of the population of Alba was exactly how big that part was. ‘To cover costs and provide funds for essential projects’ Jon had been told as he was brusquely ushered from the choice vantage point where the Members sat. He wondered what that lot would consider essential—something to do with exotic foods and fine silks most likely.
In the crowd, Jon spotted Vern Hanking from the docks, and there was Delilah from the candle shop. People he knew, people he liked, people who had been transformed before his eyes into part of a shrieking mob intent on blood.
The sharp crack of the stylus snapping in two between his taut fingers jolted him back to his duty, and to the black ink that dripped down his fingers and soaked the parchment. Damn!
He found another stylus at the bottom of his ratty canvas supply bag and while the crowd wended its way out through the doors of the arena, he wrote a few sketchy notes finishing with ‘and they shoved the poor creatures into the ring and prodded them to attack each other.’ Sighing, he knew he would have to rewrite more than that last bit.
When the throng finally thinned, Jon gathered his writing tools and trudged back to the Apprentice Quarters and to his worktable, giving the dining hall a wide berth. The sour queasiness in his stomach confirmed that food was not an option.
“Oh, Jon. I heard.”
It took a moment for the voice to penetrate Jon’s concentration and another moment for his eyes to focus on his friend, like a sleeping man waking from a bad dream.
He waved at the sheaf of paper in front of him. “I’m almost finished and I sure could use a distraction.” Beneath the worktable, he unclenched the fist that his hand had formed of its own will.
Shondral nodded. “I’ll meet you by the willow.”
She turned away rather more quickly than usual but not before Jon saw the dismay in her eyes. He must look as bad as he felt.
Jon stood to stretch the kinks from his cramped muscles. He made his way to the front desk and handed his report to the Duty Clerk without slowing his stride. He refused to meet the man’s inquiring eyes; it would surely mean yet another barrage of questions about the already famous ‘event.’
A loud cough brought him up short. Jon sighed, slowly turned around, and paced back to the Clerk. He knew what the man wanted to hear. “It was a very successful event for the Council. The tally was not yet complete when I left but one of the runners was carrying a large satchel,” Jon spread his arms wide to demonstrate its size, “and had four large guards accompanying him.” The Clerk raised impressed eyebrows. “The crowd loved it.” That was the hardest part for Jon to admit and his voice betrayed his disgust.
“Mr. Montrai,” the Clerk shook an index finger at him, “is it not your duty to portray events accurately and without prejudice? Is it not your goal to become an Historian?”
Jon stood with his head bowed so that the Clerk could not see the anger smouldering in his eyes. “Yes, sir. I’ll try harder, sir.”
The Clerk studied him for a moment longer. “You know, we had three other Apprentices recording the event. And, of course, a senior Historian.” Jon had suspected as much. It would be unthinkable for the School to rely on just one Apprentice to cover such an important event. “So, as you see, I have other reports for comparison and will be able to determine just how much harder you’ll have to try.” He picked up Jon’s report and dismissed him with a wave of his hand.
Shondral was in the School’s garden when he arrived, standing with her back to him. Her fiery hair tumbled to her waist like tiny waves in a crimson sunset, contrasting yet somehow blending with the willow fronds that swayed around her. The unruly mane usually demanded its freedom, but today, Shondral had managed an uneasy truce with a leather thong binding it at the nape of her neck. She was tall and slender, and Jon’s throat constricted as she turned towards him.
Flashing a bright smile, Shondral took his hand. “Let’s hike to the meadow. I’ve a flask and some food.”
Jon nodded, unable to speak just yet. He didn’t want to vent the annoyance that the Duty Clerk had provoked at his one and only friend.
They turned and walked silently side by side. He loved that he didn’t feel pressured to engage in small talk, or in any kind of talk at all. Shondral was that kind of friend. They were soon beyond the town limits and Jon breathed the sweet forest air deep into his lungs, purging the foul stench of the arena from them.
Cool shadows reached half way across the meadow. They wandered to the far side where the sun’s gentle warmth had dried the ground. They sat on a patch of pale grass and shared the bread and cheese, washing it down with the golden wine so popular at this time of year. But even its mellow glow could not ease Jon’s troubled heart.
“I just don’t understand it.” Jon picked up a stone beside him and lobbed it at a dead branch a dozen feet away. “How can people do things like that? First, you have the trainers—more like henchmen if you ask me—forcing innocent animals to destroy each other. Then you have the so-called civilised people of Alba loving every minute of it. And to top it off, the Council makes piles of money. It makes me sick.”
Jon targeted the branch with increasing force, dislodging a piece of bark. As though that were the impetus to voice his suspicion, he continued.
“This is part of a pattern, I’m sure of it.” His black eyes were intense. The School had pounded the skills of logical thinking into his brain; it made for logical writing, they claimed. But, away from the School, Jon disdained the practical, step-by-step way of thinking (he thought of it as plodding) and preferred taking a larger view of things, as though from a great height. “First there was the time that entire farm commune disappeared. You remember. It was the big estate north of here. They figured over two hundred people vanished. Two years and not one of them has been found.” Jon picked up a long, narrow stone and scratched a line in the dirt beside him.
Shondral nodded and drew her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders. She had listened to many of Jon’s theories and she knew how his mind worked; he would worry the bits and pieces into a picture that made sense to him. It was his strength and his obsession. Frustrating as it was for him, Jon needed the world to make sense. Wordlessly, she passed him the flask.
“And then we started hearing stories, suppressed mind you, about peculiar ailments that attacked only children.” He scratched a second line parallel to the first. “And, I don’t know… at first, they seemed to be unrelated incidents but I can’t help but string them together with this latest insanity. Something is just not right.” He scratched a third line representing the event.
Any talk of the disappearances or the illnesses had been discouraged at the School—odd, considering that it was part of the School’s job to keep track of things like that. Jon had spent considerable time searching through the records, but had been unable to find other examples even remotely resembling these two. The town’s long history was a quiet, predictable stream of harmless activities. Now there were three, three among thousands. He sighed. It was a stretch, even for him, to think that three were significant. But he did. They were just so different from everything else. For him, they stood out like a bright beacon.
Jon didn’t think he was smarter than everyone else. On the contrary, some of his teachers and fellow students made it a point to remind him how much harder he had to work because he hadn’t had the advantage of formal schooling when he was young. He hadn’t had the discipline to be a proper scholar, they would say. But maybe that’s exactly what let him see things in a different way. He trusted his instincts far more than he trusted any kind of ‘proper scholar’ methods. They had saved him from beatings and worse by the ever-present bully boys. Being small and alone, his quick thinking was the only real weapon he had had to defend himself. And when his instincts prodded him to look at something, he looked at it.
While Jon went over these incidents in greater and greater detail, trying to find some thread that held them together, Shondral’s thoughts strayed to her beloved hamlet. An old memory, clear and sharp, came unbidden to her mind. The day had been so lovely that she and her father had only to look at each other before strolling to the edge of the clearing and onto the path through the sun-dappled forest. She could not have been more than five or six at the time and had to stretch her still-growing legs to keep up with her father’s longer stride. She had made a game of jumping into the exact place where his boot had formed its impression in the soft earth. So engrossed was she that when he stopped, she bumped into him. Laughing, he lifted her up in his great strong arms and hugged her. Looking over his shoulder, Shondral drew in a sharp breath. He placed her back on her feet and, hand in hand, they stood on a rocky outcropping that overlooked a mountain valley. A broad slope of forest swept away before them. Interspersed here and there like randomly scattered jewels were crystal lakes reflecting the azure of the sky. In the distance, the foothills of the Sgeir Range rose in lavender and indigo undulations to the brilliance of the icy peaks that pierced the firmament. Everything turned blurry and she blinked away the moisture that had gathered in her eyes. Something became very clear to her in that moment; she loved the world that she lived in. But it was more than that; she loved everything about it. She felt drawn to protect it like a mother cared for her child, even though she was still a child herself.
Shondral breathed deeply of the sweet forest scent surrounding her and Jon. It was that exact scent that had triggered her long-ago memory. How wonderful that our senses could bring back such pleasant thoughts. She knew herself well enough to realise that this reverie was a direct defence against what she had heard about the event.
A group of boys in the dining hall had recounted the gruesome details to each other in voices loud enough to carry throughout the room. She had left the remains of her lunch untouched and hid her revulsion of what she couldn’t help but overhear behind a sudden flurry of activity as she returned her tray and dishes to the cleaning racks. It wouldn’t do to have them notice her distress; they would make a point of repeating the worst parts over and over again whenever she was nearby. She had learned in the first few months at the School that some boys chose tormenting others as their greatest form of entertainment. If she pretended disinterest, they usually left her alone.
She shared Jon’s revulsion. It was murder, plain and simple. And, to her way of thinking, to enjoy the meaningless death of a fellow creature was more than cruel—it bordered on evil. It baffled her that evil existed at all and infuriated her that it could be disguised and sold as entertainment. She shuddered in the warm breeze. This was not the first time she had known evil.
Jon’s voice was a soft rumble in the background. It must have somehow been the memory of that day with her father coupled with Jon’s suspicions and her brother’s more recent trouble that sparked Shondral’s intuitive leap since without any warning or conscious thought she came to a grim realisation of her own.
Jon stood, startling Shondral from her trepidation. “Maybe this morning got the better of me,” Jon admitted. “Any pattern to this is probably in my own head.” He threw another rock at the battered branch. It would be just like me to dream this whole thing up. When he did his homework, he had a tendency to embellish the ordinary incidents of the day, sometimes to his detriment (his teacher’s sense of humour was sorely limited). He really had to learn to stifle himself.
Shondral had not yet spoken. She thinks I’ve finally outdone myself. Resigned, he turned to accept the gentle ribbing he expected. Her face was colourless. Alarmed, he knelt beside her. “What is it, Shonny?”
She looked into Jon’s worried eyes and tried to smile. Jon’s frown deepened. “I’m just a little tired, that’s all.” She tried another, more successful grin. “I mean, your theories are actually starting to make sense to me.” She turned away from his scrutiny.
Jon was certain that something was very wrong. Shondral never tried to hide her thoughts from him; good thing, too, because she was terrible at it. What could be so awful that she couldn’t speak of it? What had he said that had caused this reaction? “Are you sure you’re all right?” He put his hand on her shoulder. The tension there surprised him and he began kneading the tight muscles. “I hope you know that you can tell me anything.”
She did not reply for a few minutes and leaned into the gentle massage. “I know I can, Jon, but this is about my brother and I think I’ll save it for another day. You have enough of a puzzle to sort out as it is. Did you try to relate these three incidents? What were they? Oh, yes, the disappearing commune, the weird illnesses, and now the event to unusual weather conditions?”
Jon eyed her carefully. She would tell him what troubled her when she was ready and the transparent ploy to get him talking was perhaps to give herself some time. He immediately launched into detailed speculation concerning probabilities and possibilities while Shondral nodded and uh-hummed in all the right places. He would not forget her strange reaction and would definitely bring it up again.
It was getting late when they returned to the School, unaware of the dark figure that watched them from the shadows.
Jon was not surprised to see his report on the event strewn on his desk with the Duty Clerk’s rude demands for a rewrite. As he performed the task, the distress that had overwhelmed him that morning came back with a vengeance. How could people, his fellow townsmen, people he thought he understood, support such a thing? How could they howl with glee at such useless violence and death? He had seen his share of violence but that was usually nothing more than a drunken tavern brawl or a theft gone bad. The people at the event were neither drunk nor stealing anything. How could otherwise normal, sane, respectable citizens build themselves into a frenzy of bloodlust and gambling? It seemed his whole day was plagued with questions.
His revision done, he bound back his straight black hair in its usual tail, placed the report carefully on the Duty Clerk’s desk, and strode out without a backward glance though he could feel the Clerk’s eyes boring into his back. He needed to find Shondral.
Her friends had not seen her and that meant she was in the Library, her favourite haunt. She was partially hidden behind a stack of books in a far corner of the study lounge. She flashed a smile at his approach and continued to pore over the musty volume in front of her. Leaning over her shoulder, Jon read the title: Tales to Frighten Children. His guffaw brought sharp hisses from the other patrons.
Jon dragged a chair a little closer and sat, craning his neck to see what could possibly have inspired Shondral to read such a book. She was hastily scrawling a piece of verse on a well-used corner of parchment. It read:
Tis truly a wondrous thing
ye have wrought,
and with aught
but kindlin’ from the hearth!
Twas not near the wonders
told of by the elders.
“This is all I could find in this Ord-forsaken place,” Shondral muttered.
Jon did not think he had been meant to hear that. In fact, he wondered if she knew he was there at all, so intense was her concentration. But even more unnerving was that Shondral, who had praised the resources of the Library to the point of veneration, who had spent hour upon hour in this very place—for her to curse it struck Jon deeper than anything else she could have said. Whatever was wrong was very wrong indeed.
“Come on,” he whispered, “you need some rest.”
Shondral rose as if in a daze and followed him out of the building. She rubbed her strained eyes. “You’re right.” She put a hand up before Jon could ask her anything. “I promise I’ll tell you everything, but not right now. Anyway, this has turned out to be a dead end.” She stuffed the verse she had copied into a pocket of her tunic and turned towards the girls’ dormitory. “See you tomorrow, Jon.”
Jon watched her walk away, his concern a sharp ache in his chest.
The day was warm and clear. Perfect. Jon fairly burst with his idea.
He found her at breakfast with three fellow students and noted sourly that one was Raj. Jon did not trust his too smooth, too smart, too perfect ways.
“Grrrr,” Shondral teased. “You look like you ought to start the day over again.”
Jon realised he had let his opinion of Raj take over his face and put on an apologetic smile. “Just thinking. Good morning, everyone. Mind if I join you?”
Raj stood. “Not at all, we were just leaving. See you later, Shondral.” Jon tried not to see the way he squeezed her shoulder.
Abruptly, he remembered his plan. “What do you say to things arcane, to mystic visions, to sorcerous divinations?” He wove his hands in a complex pattern, gradually moving towards Shondral’s hot buttered scone. “Want to visit the gypsies?” The biscuit vanished up a loose sleeve.
Shondral put on a suitably amazed expression. “I can leave first thing after lunch.” She glanced at the butter stain spreading through his sleeve. “If it’s not spirited away, that is.”
It was a wonderful day for a stroll. Jon and Shondral chatted about the weather, about their studies, and about the flowers and shrubs that they passed along the way. They wondered about the goods and amusements the gypsies would have concocted for this season. They discussed their least favourite teachers and which students would likely be made full Historians this year. Shondral read a few paragraphs from a letter she had received from her family that morning and Jon said that they really should visit his dad and his Uncle Kory the next time they were free.
This visit to the gypsy camp was a perfect distraction. It would give his thoughts time to settle and to perhaps coalesce into something that made sense. It would give Shondral time to clarify what was on her mind and turn to him for help. He wanted that chance to help; he wanted to be the one she trusted.
They heard it long before they saw it: gypsy children shrieked at play, gypsy mothers screamed at gypsy children, and gypsy men bellowed and laughed over it all. With all the commotion, they did not hear the approach of the sullen, dark-haired boy who appeared on the path before them.
“Greetings, sir, ma’am.”
Jon inclined his head. “And greetings to you as well.” It never hurt to be polite. “Would you be so kind as to take us to your wise woman?” he asked.
Shondral clapped her hands together. Her eyes shone.
The boy studied them through unreadable eyes for several moments, then gestured for them to follow.
Jon and Shondral passed between two of the dozen or so garishly painted wagons, and in the middle of the protective ring they formed, children dashed about, dogs yapping at their heels. The women sat off to one side busy at a variety of tasks. Some wound coarse wool on rickety spindles and some pounded grain in wide shallow bowls, while others stirred what looked like thick mud. Regardless of what their hands were doing, their mouths all did the same thing: talk-talk-talk at great speed and at high volume. Jon marvelled at how they could possibly understand each other. He smirked. Or maybe they couldn’t.
On the other side of the clearing, a group of girls was intent on hurling knives at a circle of wood. One of them, no more than seven or eight years old, leaned casually against the target, knives whizzing by her head. She met Jon’s open-mouthed stare and winked saucily at him.
Shondral tugged at his arm; their guide had disappeared around a corner.
A short distance from the caravan stood a solitary wagon, dingy brown, with stars and crescent moons scratched into its surface. With a curt nod of his head, the boy left them.
Shondral shrugged, climbed the two steps at the back of the wagon, and knocked on the small door.
“Come in, come in. And, mind, wipe your feet.”
They looked at each other, grinned, and did as they were told.
The wagon seemed much larger on the inside. Its walls, except for two grimy windows, were covered with shelves that overflowed with coloured bottles and dusty books. Three over-stuffed armchairs squatted around a low table.
They searched the gloom at the far end. An ancient woman, short and portly, fussed over a small stove. A scarf of indeterminate fabric held her silver hair back from her face.
Jon cleared his throat.
The woman held up her hand as he opened his mouth. “Tell me nothing,” she wheezed as she shuffled towards them, “the leaves speak first.” She handed them two steaming cups and bustled about, dusting this and that while they sipped the pungent tea.
“Empty? Good. Turn the cup into the saucer. Quickly, now.” She thumped into the remaining chair and peered through clear grey eyes at the soggy leaves.
“You,” she looked at Jon, “believe your friend. And you, girl,” she poked a stubby finger at Shondral, “go to the Mountains.”
As the crone spoke, Shondral was astonished at the vivid picture of a mountain range that flashed in her mind. All she could tell for certain was that it was not the familiar Sgeir Range north of her village. In the foreground, her brother stood with his legs apart, hands on his hips. Milo had a broad smile on his face, something she had not seen for a very long time. “You can fix it, Shonny,” he said.
The old woman heaved herself to her feet. “Leave me now.”
Shondral could not move. She desperately needed to recapture that vision of a happy, sane Milo.
“What kind of reading is that?” Jon spluttered, unaware of Shondral’s anxiety. “You’ve told us nothing! We want to learn something new!”
“You will, you will.” She sounded annoyed. “Go, so that you may reach the town before dark.” Abruptly, she leaned down and took Shondral’s chin in her ancient hand; their eyes met. “And leave soon.” She clamped her toothless gums together and would say no more.
Frustrated, Jon asked, “Well, how much do we owe you?”
Her face broke into a broad grin, transforming it into a roadmap of delicate lines. “Owe me? Owe me? That’s rich!” Chuckling to herself, she picked up cups and saucers and left them staring at her empty chair.
Jon and Shondral left the wagon and plodded down the trail, more confused than ever. Jon had secretly hoped for some simple answer, something that would explain everything, some vile plan that he could expose through his writing and become a hero. He should know better than that by now: nothing was ever easy. And the odds of him ever becoming a hero were roughly zero.
He knew exactly what his father would say, as he had so many times when Jon was a child. He would shake his head over the fishing net he was mending and tell his over-imaginative son that if he did not keep his mind on what he was doing, he would end up like one of the villains he made up: quite dead. His mother never said things like that. She liked his stories, and would laugh when he told her tales about the curious customers that had come into their small fish shop that day. Her warm embrace and the smell of the sea in her hair washed over him. Even after five years, it was as vivid as yesterday and he missed her with a familiar sadness. And Uncle Kory—he was Jon’s greatest ally and had taught him practically everything he knew that was worth knowing. Jon really must remember to visit soon.
Shondral gripped his arm. Twilight was upon them.
“There’s something in the brush behind us. On the left.” Her whisper was much too loud in the stillness of the wood.
Jon turned and looked back. “Probably just some animal foraging for its dinner.”
A twig snapped simultaneously with a muttered curse. The brush exploded and a knife embedded itself in the turf at Jon’s feet.
“Run!” Jon shouted. He wheeled and grabbed Shondral’s arm. They sprinted along the path, fear propelling them forward. Jon’s shoulder blades were rigid with tension expecting the knife to thud into his back at every step. They raced over a low hill and reached the outskirts of town before he spared the energy to glance over his shoulder. No one was in sight. They slowed to a walk and took in great gulps of the early evening air. He led them up a narrow side street.
“This isn’t the way,” Shondral gasped, trying to catch her breath.
He pulled her into the cover of a doorway, thinking furiously. “I don’t get it. Why would anyone attack us? Even gypsies? Anyone can tell we don’t have any money.” He pulled at his patched tunic. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“No, it doesn’t make sense. And what also doesn’t make sense is what happened at the gypsy camp.” Shondral hesitated a moment, then forged on. “Did you by any chance see anything unusual while the wise woman spoke?”
Jon looked at her, puzzled, and shook his head.
“Well, it was probably nothing, but I thought I saw the clearest picture of mountains and…”
“We’ll talk about it later,” Jon interrupted, “when I’m sure we’re safe.” He stole a quick glance down the street.
They stayed out of sight. Jon knew all the back alleys and hiding places in Alba and guided them to a spot where, from their crouch, they could see the Apprentice Quarters as well as the buildings on either side. Their searching eyes detected nothing in the inky shadows and, feeling a little foolish, they rose to cross the street.
A shadow of movement beside the doors to the residence immobilised them. They heard a soft cough and saw the movement repeated. The dorm was being watched! It was only the watcher’s momentary distraction with coughing that had kept Jon and Shondral from being seen. Luck remained with them when a few minutes later a group of noisy students approached the residence and covered any sound of their rapid retreat from the area.
Several blocks away, they stopped to consider their situation. “Someone tried to kill us and we’re being watched. But why?” Jon chewed on a ragged thumbnail.
“I’m afraid to think this,” Shondral gazed back in the direction of the woods and the gypsy camp. “I don’t know if there was something in that tea, or if my imagination is getting as bad as yours.” She gently squeezed his hand. Jon knew that she liked his stories, but teased him about his effortless exaggerations. “I think I have to get my brother and go to the Mountains that I saw. And for some reason, someone might be trying to prevent it.”
Jon stared at her. She could be wrong, and, in fact, was most likely wrong. Or she could be right. He couldn’t think why anyone would want to prevent them from doing anything. Time to think about that later; time to be safe now. Nothing was more important to him than Shondral’s safety. The realisation stunned him.
“What is it, Jon?”
Jon gave his head a quick shake and focused his mind on what had to be done. With an urgency that surprised Shondral, he convinced her that they should return to the dormitory, gather a few supplies, and leave Alba. Tonight.
After a very slow and careful study of the backside of the building, they entered through a defunct service door overgrown with prickly bushes and not watched as far as they could tell. Inside at last, they went first to Shondral’s room. She stifled a yelp of surprise and turned to Jon, a heated rebuke on her lips. With a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, she felt the flint and steel being crushed into her palm. She would have lit the lamp by the door as she always did when she came into her room. Horrified that she had nearly given them away, Shondral buried herself in a frenzy of packing with the meagre help of the street lamp outside her window. They repeated the task in Jon’s room and slipped out the same way they had entered.
The night enfolded them as they began their journey to Shondral’s home in the Kobaska Hills.