“Get up, now!” Keran woke to find Torren from Tyroc’s castle guard standing over him. A dim glow of flickering torch light spilled in from the open door of his chamber. Despite the fact that Torren’s thick, curly beard masked much of his face, it couldn’t hide the intensity behind his eyes. Something was horribly wrong. His voice carried an urgency that dared not be disobeyed.
“What is going on?” Keran’s voice still croaked with sleep. Surely it was still the middle of the night.
“Treachery,” Torren responded gruffly as though there was nothing more to be said.
“Where are Mother and Father?”
“Just move, and quickly, if you value your life. I told your father I would get you away from here.” He stopped for a moment and took Keran by the shoulders. “I may have to threaten you with my blade if we’re caught, boy. Show your fear on the outside, but know that I would never really hurt you. Do you understand?” Keran nodded with confused alarm. There was nothing about this that he understood.
Torren drug him out of the room and down the corridor at a near run. It echoed with the barks of orders being given, angry shouts, and the clash of steel against steel. They were soon joined by other men being marched forward; some peacefully, others at sword or spear point. Torren gripped Keran roughly by the back of the neck and held his blade at the ready, as though he expected Keran to fight him. And now Keran was beginning to grasp what was happening. But it couldn’t be true—how could it be true? The men of the Circle were being rounded up like prisoners; dragged from their beds, their stations, separated from their families and forced out into the night—to where, and to what end?
For seven generations the Circle had been the pride of Tyroc. Highly trained, and loyal, they were the elite personal guard of the Sovereign and his family. But the Sovereign had died mysteriously, and Braeden, his steward, had taken control. Braeden was now the commander of the Castle Guard. Was this nightmare his doing?
Keran’s father was one of the Circle. What had become of him? Why hadn’t he come to get Keran himself? Questions flooded his mind, but as he looked up into Torren’s glaring face, he knew he dared not ask even one of them. His heart pounded in his throat, and his mouth had gone dry. They slowed their pace long enough for the corridor to momentarily clear, then Torren quickly pulled him through one of the doors, down a long stairwell, and through a maze of darkened hallways that led to the stables. The stable master was there, seemingly waiting for them.
“I can get him out tomorrow in a merchant’s cart bound for Port’s Keep. Until then he’ll have to hide here among the hay bales.”
“Thank you,” Torren replied. Turning to Keran he said, “When you get there, find a man named Raife at the courier’s office, and hand him this note.” He thrust a tightly rolled scroll into Keran’s hand. “And now I’d better go back before anyone suspects…”
“Go back? You’re leaving?” Keran asked with shock.
“I’m going to join up with your father, Keran. I’ll not take willing part in this betrayal, whatever Braeden’s orders are. But neither will I run—I am not a coward.”
“Neither am I,” Keran bristled. “I know I haven’t joined the Circle yet, but I’ve been training. I can fight.”
“You’re still a boy, and I made a promise. You’ll go,” Torren growled, his strong, stocky build towering over Keran, challenging him to defiance. Keran was wise enough to offer none. “Raife will care for you until your father can come for you.” Then Torren turned and left, and Keran huddled in the shadows against the hay bales, frightened for both his parents, and his future. He was supposed to follow in his father’s stead one day, to join the Circle and serve the future Sovereign. But that was unlikely now. What would become of him? Even unto old age, Keran remembered that night as the darkest and loneliest of his life, when he was certain his world—if not the whole world—had ended, and nothing would ever be the same.
“It’s time to finally be rid of them, Raife, and you know it.” Torren’s gruff voice seeped through the thin walls of the shabby courier’s office. Keran was listening attentively on the other side while he performed the tedious chore of maintaining the office ledger. Customers, deliveries, routes, expenses, payments; all painfully dreary. Raife had made him an apprentice courier, so he had to learn the inner workings of the trade—a trade he was never meant for. But while he was grateful to Raife, it stung that fate had decided his future without his consent. At least he was alive.
“I know you’re right, but I don’t have the stomach for it. I keep hoping—” Raife’s voice held a wistful tone that made Keran’s heart ache. He’d heard this argument several times before, and though he had his own feelings on the subject, no one had asked him.
“We’re watched,” Torren growled in frustration. “While you were on the road, Braeden’s thugs nearly broke down our door three times, rifling through our ledger books, scrutinizing our clients’ messages and valuables…if they only knew, we’d lose their trust, and probably be out of business.”
“Perhaps that’s all Braeden wants in the end. To destroy your new lives, away from Tyroc.”
Torren snorted, “Not likely. We weren’t important enough for that, and the Circle is still giving him plenty of fight from the shadows. No, I watched their faces, their eyes; the way they ran their hands over everything in the place. They’re desperately searching for something. And if not something our clients have entrusted us with, it’s those letters. You should have burned them the moment they came into our possession. We cannot deliver them without endangering what’s left of the Circle, nor can we keep them here. They’re going to be the death of us.”
There was a very long stretch of silence. Keran paused breathless, chest tightening, pen poised absently above the ledger book. He stared hard at the wall as if his gaze could somehow bore a hole right through it. He wasn’t the only one who had managed to escape Tyroc Castle. So had a young girl, ferrying a bundle of letters written by the Circle’s family members to their loved ones in exile. There was little chance of getting out more—these were final words between people who, in all likelihood, would never speak again. For months the letters had been sitting, undelivered. All except one.
His mother had written to him, and to his father. She was alive; forced to keep silent about what had happened to her family. Her life in the castle continued to play out, now nothing but a charade at the demand of the jailer of her gilded prison. She was trapped in her old life, just as he was trapped in this new one. Keran held her note in his hands each night before he went to sleep, clinging to the line and curve of every letter as the closest he would ever get to holding her hand again. His father’s note he kept close too, still sealed. One day, he would place it in his father’s hands. One day. But the fate of all the others was being decided at that moment, on the other side of the wall. Raife’s long silence worried him. Don’t give up, Raife. Don’t listen to him. Those letters are everything.
“I suppose there wasn’t much chance that they escaped Braeden’s attention when they were smuggled out of Tyroc Castle.” The resigned tone in Raife’s voice made Keran’s heart sink. After all this time, after all that had been risked by so many to get them beyond the castle walls…
“No, there wasn’t,” Torren said in a softer tone. “As you told the girl when she gave them to you, Braeden just wants to use us to ferret out the rest. Would you see what’s left of the Circle destroyed over some sentimental bits of parchment?”
Raife’s heavy sigh came through the wall like a low moan. “I’ll take care of it first thing tomorrow, when the office is closed. No one will know.”
No! No! No! Tears stung Keran’s eyes, but the sudden sound of the door handle being grasped and turned brought him back to attention. He gripped the pen tighter and bent his head down toward the pages of the ledger. Raife made a show of checking over Keran’s work, but his mind was clearly elsewhere.
“You’re doing well, Keran. Here is your pay for the week—you can go now. Torren is waiting to take you home. I know this has been difficult for you—” His voice broke like shattered pottery, and whatever else he intended to say was swallowed down. “The Winter Festival starts tomorrow. Try to find some joy in it. Promise?”
“Yes, sir,” Keran nearly choked as he spoke. He gave Raife a pleading stare in the hopes it would convey the words he wanted to say, but couldn’t. He turned away only when he felt Torren’s gentle but firm hand guiding his shoulder toward the door. So that was it. The letters would be burned in the morning. Unless, of course, he did something about it. Perhaps it was time that he took back the life Braeden had stolen from him—time that he made his own fate, rather than cursing the one forced upon him. His mother had always told him that circumstance didn’t make a man; faith and hard work did. As they walked out of the office and into the cold winter air, he glanced upward at Torren. His dark curly beard still disguised his features all too well. Keran thought he must like it that way. No one could ever really tell what he was thinking, but today Keran sensed that he felt sorrow rather than satisfaction over his long-fought-for victory. Despite his gravelly personality, Torren had been a kind guardian in his father’s place, and Keran owed him a great deal. He could only hope that Torren would eventually forgive him for what he was about to do.
…to be continued!
Merry Christmas everyone!
Keran tucked his head down deep inside his hood and tried to keep his mare walking at a leisurely pace. His heart thumped so loudly he was certain everyone he passed could hear it, including the Port’s Keep night watch. With the Winter Festival just beginning, they were more attentive than usual to the comings and goings of those out after nightfall.
Keran’s mare sensed his anxiety and kept trying to rush forward to outrun it. It took all his strength to keep her reined in. “You’re going to get us noticed,” he hissed, irritated more by his immediate risk than by her behavior. He knew she was only responding to his mood; if he could calm himself, she would settle. Keran took a few deep breaths and tried to focus on nothing but the road directly in front of him. The city gate loomed just ahead—if he was going to get caught, it would be there, by an overly inquisitive guard wondering why a boy would be leaving the protection of the city alone in the dark of night. He sat up straight in the saddle, trying to make the most of his height. He had grown rather tall in the past year. Perhaps they would think he was older, if he kept his head covered and face hidden. It was the only hope he had.
There were a handful guards at the gate, but they barely nodded in his direction as he approached. They were busy dealing with a bedraggled group of travelers with overloaded carts trying to gain entrance. More displaced people, no doubt, looking for the protection of a walled city…people like himself, and Torren. Like those who had fled from the Deep Lake settlement when it had been destroyed by trolls. There were rumors that other villages had been threatened by the emergence of dark beasts too, but as of yet they were only rumors. Rumor or not, people kept coming, and the guards at the gate were tasked with keeping a count of them and making sure they didn’t cause trouble.
For a moment Keran hesitated. Was this quest of his utter foolishness? Maybe Torren was right after all, and the letters were just bits of sentimental parchment. There was a reason so many were trying to get into Port’s Keep…and he was the only one trying to get out. It wasn’t safe out there, and he was a young, inexperienced fighter. He reached under his cloak, placing his hand over the bundle of letters safely tucked away against his body. His father’s was there too. More than anything he wanted to place it in his father’s hand. It had not taken him many weeks to realize that his father was not going to come for him—not for lack of love, but because of it. He was trying to give his son the chance to live a normal life, not one as a hunted renegade. But Keran had decided he would rather face the harsh life of exile with his father, than settle for the plodding life of a courier without him. He had lost his mother, at least for now, but he could get his father back, and some of his promised heritage, too. Part of his training to enter the Circle would have involved learning how to face mortal danger rather than flee from it. This journey would be his first lesson—and perhaps his last if he wasn’t careful.
“Let’s go make our own fate,” Keran said softly to the mare, her feet pawing at the cobblestones beneath her with nervous energy. “No looking back, eh?” She flung her head as though in response, and Keran moved forward with all the confidence he could muster, through the gate, and into the moonlit night beyond. Bright blue light spilled across the landscape, allowing him to see the path before him well enough to allow his mare a looser rein. Daybreak would alert Torren to his departure, and the missing letters would confirm his final destination. This was his chance to get some distance between them, and he needed to take it.
For days Keran pressed on, sleeping only when his mare needed rest, always watching and listening warily for the sounds of pursuit, not only from Torren or Raife, but from Braeden’s men as well. None came. The road toward Tyroc, usually fairly active with travelers and merchants, was eerily empty. True, it was colder now, but not so cold that sleeping outdoors was dangerous. There should have been more traffic. Those few he did pass seemed in an even greater hurry than he was, and kept their heads well down in the protection of their hoods.
As the road neared the border of the Shadow Wood, Keran quickened his pace as well, giving his mare less time to rest even when she needed it. He knew better than to get caught there after dark. Not even the Sovereign had been fool enough to challenge that tangled waste of forest, and he had the best army in the realm at his command. However, Keran could not help but pause and stare with fearful awe at what remained of the Deep Lake settlement–the only one at the Wood’s border. He had stayed there with the merchant who bore him to Port’s Keep after his escape from the castle. They had camped near the docks, and all that night he’d stared wide-eyed across the water of the lake into the inky blackness beyond. Nothing had separated him from the Shadow Wood’s depths save the lake, and it had seemed a pretty poor safeguard. Since then he’d heard many tales of the troll attack that had destroyed the settlement not so long after his departure. To finally see its remnants first hand sent chills through Keran’s body that had nothing to do with the winter wind tearing at his cloak.
A feeble attempt had been made at bolstering the gate and front wall, but it was still made of timber, not stone. Little more than a tall fence, it was sturdy enough to keep out bandits and trouble makers, but not to withstand any force of attack. No wonder most of the people there had fled to Port’s Keep and not returned. From behind the repaired wall, Keran caught glimpses of blackened structures—what was left of them, anyway. More telling were the gaping holes where the tops of buildings had once risen into the sky. They stood no more. Sounds of rebuilding on the other side of the wall were much less vigorous than he would have expected, and there were no cheerful sounds of the Winter Festival being celebrated either. So few had stayed to rebuild, the settlement was all but lost. Perhaps it really was lost, and those few who had stayed behind simply didn’t realize it yet. More trolls would surely come, and perhaps other beasts too.
Keran urged his mare into a gallop and pressed her onward until neither of them could bear it any longer. Only then, with the carcass of the settlement well behind him, did he find a quiet place off the road to sleep. Soon he would reach the trading post. There he could finally get some warm food and a real bed, at least for one night. But more than that, he wanted to sit quietly among its patrons for a while and listen for news. There had to be a reason as to why this main road was so empty. Sometimes rumors turned out to be true.