A Meeting Along the Road Carvesh
By the time Carvesh left his house, Jadoc and Madik were already mounted and waiting for him. As he climbed into the saddle of his own horse, he could feel his companions’ eyes lingering on the sword he now carried at his hip. Even in its scabbard, it was an impressive sight, and not the sort of the thing that was typically found in possession of a simple farmer. Neither man was forward enough to ask about it, of course, but Carvesh could see the question in their eyes. He did not know them well, but his father had always said that there was a special bond that grew between men who fought together. He thought he could feel something of that now. They deserved an answer.
“The sword was a gift,” he said. “From my brother, many years ago.”
“A remarkable gift,” said Madik.
“He’s always been a remarkable sort of person,” Carvesh responded. “I’ve had little use for it, so I’ve kept it locked away. Now, I fear I may have too much use for it. I also fear for what we might find in Kervale.”
Jadoc and Madik both nodded. Without another word, the three men urged their mounts forward. Soon, they were galloping down the laneway and onto the road that led to the village. It was more of wide, dirt path than an actual road, meandering through the rolling hills that slowly grew into the mountains of the Stonewall in the east. As they rode, Carvesh could not help feeling that the beauty of the morning stood as a cruel contrast to the horrors of the previous night. The sky was clear and blue and the deep greens of grassy fields and thick woods appeared lustrous beneath the light of the still-rising sun. Sheep, cattle and other livestock grazed in pastures, while the occasional field of golden wheat swayed beneath the cool morning breeze. Barns and houses lay scattered across the countryside, while in the distance Carvesh could see the slow-turning blades of the local windmill.
Everything seemed just as it should have been in this land that Carvesh had come to love, and to think of as his home. Still, he kept his eyes open for any signs of destruction that might hint at the presence of shadowbeasts. At one point, he noticed an old barn that appeared more broken and weathered than he remembered. He could not say for certain. The road was also unusually empty, even for so early in the morning. Normally, he would have expected to meet dozens of people, all coming and going from different farms and the village itself. Today, they saw only a single shepherd leading his small flock from pasture to pasture.
At one point, they found a fragment of a large pawprint. When they slowed to take a closer look, however, Madik found it impossible to identify with any accuracy. The print could easily have been a made by rogue rockcat wandering through the night. Still, Carvesh could feel an uneasy tension creeping over him, slowly amplifying the fear that already drove him on.
The sensation only intensified when they came across five heavily armed horsemen trudging slowly down the road.
Each was clad in light armour worn, over the maroon tunics that marked them as the men of Lord Carwell. As Carvesh and his companions approached and the horsemen turned to meet them, it was clear that they had been fighting recently. Their armour was crusted with dirt and mud, and several of them had been bandaged for minor wounds.
“Hail!” one of them called. He was a middle aged man, with jowly cheeks hidden behind a thick, brownish beard.
“Hail,” responded Carvesh. “What news, my friend?”
“We ride for the village, some few miles from this point. Do you know it?”
“We’re heading that way ourselves. We’d be happy to show you the way.”
“Many thanks, stranger.”
“You look like you’ve seen better days,” said Carvesh as he, Madik and Jadoc fell in with the other riders. “What happened to you?”
“Demons!” one of the other men spurted. “Horrible black demons. Came out of the night they did!”
“Shut up, Ren,” growled the first man. “Pay no mind to him. He’s a foolish and superstitious sort. We were attacked though. Some kind of beasts came on us in the dead of night. In all my days, I’ve never seen the likes of them. We lost three men before we even knew what was happening. Might’ve lost more too, if Lord Carwell hadn’t been insisted on coming with us.”
“Aurin is here?” asked Carvesh.
“That’s Lord Carwell to you,” snapped the horseman with a hard, admonishing glare. “But aye, he’s here. Should already be in the village with the more seriously wounded. We’re just catching up now. Someone had to stay behind and bury the dead.”
Carvesh could only nod, and exchange a quick, knowing look with his companions. He was sure the same thoughts must have been running through their own minds. These horsemen must have encountered a different pack of shadowbeasts from those that had appeared at the Great Oak, and that suggested there were different groups running through the hills.
“But what of you, stranger?” asked the horseman. “You have the look of a southerner about you, and that’s a mighty fine sword you carry. You from these parts?”
“I came here eight years ago,” replied Carvesh. “And I also believe that we’ve met the same creatures that attacked you. I carry the sword so that the next time I see one of their onyx hides, I can send them back to the Neyther.”
“May the Nine make it so,” grunted the horseman.
As they covered the remaining few miles that led to Kervale, Carvesh set the briskest pace that the wounded men could manage, all the while listening to the tale of what had brought them here, so many miles from the walls of Sharenden. It seemed that word had reached Lord Carwell of strange and wild attacks along the Stonewall. Such encounters were not uncommon. The great, impassable mountains were a feral and untammed place. Rockcats and mountain wolves were often known to venture down into the foothills to hunt. These new attacks, however, had been occurring with greater frequency and violence, and something about them had been enough to convince Lord Carwell to ride out to investigate with an entire company of men.
That had been five days ago, and although they had encountered evidence of the rumoured death and destruction, they had seen no sign of the elusive creatures themselves—at least not until the previous night, when the shadowbeasts had appeared suddenly and fallen on the unsuspecting men. To hear the bearded horseman speak, there had been hundreds of them, and that only Lord Carwell’s flashing blade and sharp mind had allowed them to survive at all.
Carvesh suspected that there was more than a little exaggeration in the tale, but by the time they were approaching the outskirts of Kervale, it was clear to him that Aurin Carwell—the man who had been among his father’s oldest friends and strongest supporters—was not only deeply respected by his men. He was beloved.
Moreover, if the horseman was to be believed, Lord Carwell was also currently in the very village that they were now entering. With the events of the past several days, with everything Carvesh had seen and survived, it seemed inevitable that he would come face to face with the man. What will happen then? Even with his moustache and common eyes, nobody who had known Merek Rayderon well could miss the resemblance reflected in Carvesh’s own features. Nor had it been so many years that Carwell would not recognize the young boy that he had often taken fishing on the waters of the River Kharnine.
But what will he see when he looks at me? Will he see that boy and son of his friend? Or will he merely see the exiled, Flameless Prince and be compelled to do his duty? Carvesh wished ferverently for the former, but as they entered the village, he found his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.