The horses plodded down the road, their hoofbeats echoing back from the forest’s edge. The ancient hardwoods shaded the edge of the road where the renegades stumbled upon a collection of motley huts. Though not quite a town, the men saw the beginnings of the organization needed to create one. Ramshackle huts on either side of the road reeked of rot and decay, with litter strewn everywhere. A couple of people digging amongst the refuse stopped to watch the men as they rode by.
The lead horse, a graceful charger, skittered nervously as a pack of rats crossed the road at his feet. “Look at them,” the first rider, Caleb OneEye said, “they have the run of the place.”
The rats feared no one. They swarmed over the road, nipping at the legs of the horses, causing the people of the camp to clear a path. The renegades turned their gaze to the people milling in the street. There were no predators in that crowd, just people holding on to their humanity as best as they could.
“By the gods,” Caleb OneEye spoke, “this place is damned.”
The thin man behind him chimed in, “Perhaps your gods have forsaken this place!”
“Speak not of the gods like that Facon,” warned Caleb, “they have an unusual sense of humor. The legends say they allowed men to control their destinies once, until man scorned them. Now we play a grand game of King’s Key, mere pieces on the board of the gods. This may not be the best of places …”
“But it feels sort of like home,” the third rider replied sarcastically. Dalton, the scout, had seen places like this before, on different fronts, but never within the empire itself. It was more proof that the war with the Baranurians had been a big mistake.
Caleb frowned, “… but everything has its place in the world. This however, was not here the last time I came through. It seems that war has made the pieces more expendable.” He tugged at the ends of his drooping mustache as if to emphasize his distress. Dalton watched the knight examining the situation and wondered, just what had he seen?
Trent Illinsta chimed in, “Oh, and when was that?”
When Caleb let the question go unanswered, Trent turned to the scout, “Dalton do you know where we are?”
The scout ignored the ex-cavalry captain’s question and looked at the people watching them. He shivered at the dead eyes staring back at them. The disease had left its mark, leaving blackened and puckered wounds on their skin. The waxy look of the remaining flesh made the warrior leery. It was hard to consider them human.
“What have we done?” Dalton asked, “Have we doomed ourselves?”
A veteran of the war, he did not fear the honest death that came from battling one’s enemies, but this was no foe he could defeat with his sword. Still he kept the pommel firmly in his hand. He feared little however from the living members of the camp — it was their disease that held his gaze.
The rest of the renegades held their weapons just as tightly. Even after getting used to the grisly battle scenes of the war the dead strewn through the streets shocked them. Corpses lay where they fell, often with hands outstretched in pleading gestures. Dogs fought over a corpse’s arm that even after the plague was still fat and juicy.
Dalton stopped, watching the dogs tugging on the arm of the dead man. One lost its grip and suddenly the glint of gold caught Dalton’s eye. He shifted in his saddle as if to get off, then reconsidered and rode on. Getting caught stealing now would only land them back in a Beinison prison, even this close to the border.
Of the five renegades, Dalton had the most to lose by being caught within Beinison territory. All of the men received sentences of death before their escape, but Dalton was a deserter from the army and the army wanted him bad. He fingered the scar on his forearm, marking him as a military criminal. The army was clear on that. In the prison, military criminals got the harshest beatings and little to no food. In the rat infested cells the prisoners fought to keep their food, only to find that it was inedible.
When Facon first brought Trent and Caleb to plan their escape, he feared them knowing of his brand. Even after hearing the plan that Facon had devised, he kept his background to himself. Military prisoners were often separated from the rest of the prisoners, for even convicts still felt allegiance to the empire and would tear a traitor to pieces. Once they escaped, he found that for one reason or another all except Selvinus had been prisoners of the military.
At first he had hesitated to let his arm show, but Trent displayed his brazenly, and Caleb rarely got cold enough to cover it. The brand gave them something in common, but still he trusted no one.
Dalton knew that at least one of his comrades would lose no sleep by turning him over to a certain death. The war had gone badly for the empire and everyone was hoping to make some kind of profit from it. The territories of the empire were slowly breaking apart, realigning to their former borders. Still they rambled about, rarely leaving the roads and staying in whatever inns they came across. Dalton had urged the de-facto leader to speed up their exit, but Caleb was relentless.
Caleb spoke rousing Dalton from his musings. “I know you are questioning my course,” he said.
“It’s not that I don’t follow where you are headed. But aren’t you worried about pursuit?” Dalton asked.
Caleb glared back at Selvinus. The fat merchant obviously found the scrutiny discomforting, slowly letting his horse fall to the back of the group. Dalton grimaced when the fat man pointed in their direction, informing Trent of their private conversation.
After letting Selvinus and Trent get far enough away to prevent them from overhearing his conversation with the scout Caleb leaned over to confide in Dalton. “The people looking for me will not give up.” Dalton nodded in understanding.
“We have been running from them since my escape,” Caleb continued, “and each day my instinct tells me they are getting closer.”
Dalton glanced over his shoulder at Selvinus. The fat man held the attention of the former cavalry captain by waving his flabby arms in the air to stress his point. Smiling, Dalton faced the knight, letting his thoughts become words.
“So rather than elude them,” Dalton said, “we’re going to become the hunter instead of the hunted.”
“Exactly my thoughts,” Caleb nodded. “Our escape was an insult and a black mark on the eye of the new factions. With power on their side, the Order of the Star will certainly try to eliminate me. No matter who we turn to, they will hold us. Whoever brings us back, dead or alive, will win. From the moment we escaped, we could trust no one outside this group.”
“We may not even have that luxury,” Dalton snorted, looking back at Selvinus and Trent .
“They know we are being hunted,” Caleb replied, “so they will help as long as it is to their advantage.”
“If we’re going to hunt our pursuit, we’ll need a better army than this,” Dalton added. Caleb said nothing. Dalton watched as Selvinus was using his hands to describe some imaginary deed he had done.
“It does not matter. Our strength is not in numbers, it is in desperation. Eventually we will have to cross paths,” replied Caleb, “and then I will settle my debts. The knights have honor. They will fight us as equally as possible, but with the odds stacked in their favor. I know the way the Knight Commander thinks.”
He shook his reins and shouted, “But let them beware! I, and only I, choose my actions.” He furiously spat at a dog taking a sudden interest in his steed.
In Dalton’s estimation, Caleb OneEye was much more than a simple man sparring with his destiny. Once a Knight of the Star, he had chosen his course of action knowing it would carry the brand of a renegade. “What made you decide to speak out?” Dalton asked.
“I do not know for sure,” Caleb answered, “but I knew that I could no longer serve the mad designs of the emperor Untar . My fellow knights, unyielding in their loyalty, passed judgment blindly. Rather than face a coward’s punishment, I arranged for my escape with the last of my family’s money.”
Dalton absently rubbed the scar on his right forearm in response. “I too, felt the sting of the Emperor’s insanity,” he agreed.
“I recognized that in you, and in Facon,” Caleb said, “but we needed Selvinus’ contacts and the steel that Trent provided.”
“Selvinus is still not happy that you have assumed command,” Dalton jested. “He would draw a blade on you, except that you would finish him easily.”
Caleb’s smile hinted that he too had thought of that possible outcome.
Facon listened to the two ex-soldiers laughing at the image of Selvinus skewered on their swords. He shivered at the cold cruelty that war had made so commonplace. Then again had it not been there all along? Whether or not Untar had brought chaos upon them was not as important as surviving. Even if the brutal savagery had been hidden by a thin veneer of civility, when it came down to it, to survive they would all become killers.
As for Selvinus, Facon felt sure leadership was not a concern, nor even escape from the murder charges facing him. Only escape from the heat that made his obese body sweat endlessly drove the man onward. He yearned for the next inn down the trail.
The man had definitely been privy to the creature comforts of the royal duchy. He complained whenever he could about the places they slept and more than once refused to leave before finishing a meal. However, the casual mention of the troops on their trail was enough to spoil the fat merchant’s appetite.
Carefully, Facon let his horse drop back so he could listen to Trent and Selvinus as they talked. The group often divided into these two groups and secretly Facon feared the two men plotted against the others.
He overheard Selvinus saying, “… why even last night, Caleb flew into a rage because I refused to share a room with Facon.” Facon could almost picture the fat man’s pout as he whined. “I let my reputation with the sword do its work,” he continued, “and even after the cutter lulled me to sleep with his dull talk, my money was left untouched.” Trent merely agreed, not wanting to have the fat man elaborate.
“Look at this place,” Trent interrupted the fat man, “these people deserve to die.” Facon’s thin fingers clutched the reins, making his knuckles white. They did not deserve any of the things that happened to them, yet the thin walls of the crudely erected huts could not hide the filth and desperation that clung to these people. In his estimation, theirs was a treatable affliction if treated in the towns and cities. Here where the water ran deep, the tormented and deranged souls of this camp were ensuring the spread of the ravenous disease by bathing, urinating, and defecating in the slow moving water. The host of rats only served to multiply the problem.
As Facon watched them scrubbing the open and festering wounds, he wondered how long before the river carried the infection back to the people who shunned these poor souls. Would they flock to the temples when the dead started piling up in the streets of the royal duchy? What price would the people of Beinison pay before they looked elsewhere for salvation?
That was his crime. He believed the gods of Beinison to be figments of the people’s imagination. Fueled by a powerful priesthood, the Beinison gods governed every aspect of everyday life.
He had held his tongue in public, but in the council chambers, he vented his anger on the priests and lords present. Measured and careful was their response. Mindful of his standing in the eyes of Untar, they waited until after the emperor was dead, then imprisoned him for slandering the gods.
Even without Untar, Facon had friends sympathetic to him. Indeed there were many in the empire who sympathized with the same beliefs that the cutter had expressed. Their warnings served him well, allowing for him to secure most of his wealth with people who leaving Beinison. Once in the prison however, his skills in comforting people worked to his advantage. The guards soon learned to trust him, allowing him to roam the prison freely to minister to the wounded or dying.
Once before, he had been important to the empire. From humble beginnings, his skills as a cutter had thrust him from simple healing to the politic shrouded halls of the Emperor’s palace. Eventually his straightforward views landed him a position of decision-making. Untar often revealed his fears to the cutter, knowing Facon’s loyalty to him was unquestionable. In return, the Emperor had showered many favors upon Facon during the years he held the post of Emperor’s cutter.
As the Emperor’s cutter, Facon was present when the news came of the massacre of Dalton’s company. After hearing his side of the story in prison, Facon believed Dalton a victim of circumstances, yet a rope was in his immediate future. As for the true cause of their destruction, only Sir Aurtoc could answer that, but he was dead, his skull already bleaching in the sun. None of these men had secrets from the cutter.
Facon personally viewed the bodies of the women Selvinus had brutalized and murdered, though he never would let the man know that. As he watched the husbands, fathers, and brothers claiming the women for burial, Facon had shaken with anger at the cruelty of the killer. When they brought Selvinus before the Emperor, Facon had been there. The look the condemned merchant had given Untar burned into Facon ‘s mind. The man was scum.
Only Caleb OneEye puzzled the cutter. It was rare for the knighthood to have a rebel and even rarer that the Emperor intervened in the justice of the order. Untar himself attended Caleb’s trial, sitting regally off to the side. He watched the proceedings with interest and finally requested to hear Caleb’s testimony.
Head held high Caleb faced his emperor. The knight silently dared anyone in the room to question his courage or fighting ability. After hearing the knight’s testimony, Untar praised the knight for his valiance and his family honor, then watched as the Knights of the Star condemned him to death for his treason. Privately the emperor cursed the decision, but felt it necessary to not interfere, to maintain morale.
During the last days before the final conflict, Untar often visited the knight in his cell, questioning Caleb on strategy. Soon thereafter he made the decision to lead his troops on the battlefield. In those last days before his death, the Emperor surprised many people. Even as he rode through the dreary camp, the changes in the Emperor still baffled the cutter.
Facon watched as the people of the camp trudged towards the lone stone building bearing the mystic symbols of the gods. Their existence was at an end, yet they toiled for their gods. Held in the grip of their disease, they could not shrug off their beliefs. Only death would free them.
Everyone except Facon mumbled a prayer as they passed by the camp chapel. As for Facon, he could only imagine the precious treasures left to try to regain the favor of the gods. Wealth laid down as tokens to non-existent gods, for miracles and favors that would not materialize.
No one would be stopping to rob the hastily built chapel however, for the breeze blowing by filled the air with the smells of the camp. The men spurred their horses into a trot to get away from the horrid town.
Caleb this place stinks,” Trent sniffed, “whatever reason we came through here for, it ain’t worth it.”
For once Facon had to agree with the unruly cavalry captain. The stench had an overwhelming effect, making him jittery and nervous. He pictured the tormented people of the camp, reaching out for his help, and it made him sick to think of not being able to do anything.
Caleb turned in his saddle, “Shut up! If you find our company displeases you, then maybe you should seek your own trail.”
I’m not going anywhere,” Trent replied, “you promised me …”
“I promised you safe passage out of the city,” Caleb broke in. “We are weeks from the royal duchy, so I think I have fulfilled my end of the bargain.”
“Hey,” Trent snarled, “I got you out of there.”
“We all did our share,” Facon interjected.
“Caleb! Trent,” Selvinus whined, “do you want to argue or get us away from here.”
The two warriors turned to regard the fat man. Conscious of being the center of attention, Selvinus moved his mount closer to Caleb’s. “I don’t want to camp the forest tonight,” he whined, “so let’s get moving.”
Caleb nodded his head in agreement and steered his horse clear of some broken crockery in the road. The charger pranced for a moment, longing to break into a run.
In response Caleb spurred him, making the horse leap toward the end of the row of houses. Then, once beyond the narrow confines of the hut walls Caleb’s mount shook his mane and snorted.
“It seems,” Caleb announced, “that a fresh wind is in the air. Let us ride for someplace new and put this cursed empire behind us.”
“I’ll agree to that,” Dalton agreed, spurring his horse forward until he rode alongside Caleb’s. As their horses put distance between them and the diseased camp, Facon looked back, cursing again the men who believed in the humor of the gods to save them. “Why do I care,” he said to no one in particular, “they are no one to me.”
In his heart though, he knew he lied.