He wiped his forehead with a towel and sighed, leaning to the side using his Iklwa. Isla was heaving as well, her long hair held up with a tie, high up on her head letting its red-golden locks
swing as she smiled and shifted her weight to her left foot.
“You’re getting better Elder. Shall we continue?”
Jeik nodded lifting his weapon once again, enjoying his break from his responsibilities, for a time at least.
“Your highness!” A voice called making Jeik want to wince, but instead he turned his attention to his advisor. Pippen’s black hair was cut into short spikes that reminded Jeik of a banis’s backside. In an uncharacteristically nervous way, the Amanzi Raziel was darting towards them. Jeik motioned for Isla to continue and they began in a form duel.
“What is it Pippen?” He moved his Iklwa to the left to block Isla’s and then leaned back as his advisor stopped just far enough away to give them room.
“Sire, I have dire news. The king of Alura, has been killed.”
Jeik’s body stopped, missing the block as Isla’s blade came at him, forcing her to twist her hip to make it avoid his shoulder. She hissed through her teeth in a rebuke but Jeik wasn’t paying attention. He spun on his advisor, his eyes wide. “How?”
Pippen’s red eyes averted slightly, in a way that made Jeik tense. “We received a letter ordering the return of all Aluran citizens, in lieu of a so called break in the treaty.”
“Pippen,” Jeik snapped with the same authority his father used with Daemon, when he was angry.
Pippen swallowed and hurriedly continued. “King Gregor was put on trial for treason and executed.”
“Treason?” Isla questioned, but Jeik only shook his head numbly.
“What of his son, Connor?”
“Prince Connor, was sentenced to death as well,” Pippen said carefully and Jeik’s frown deepened. “But it seems he has gone missing.” When the Elder looked up to his advisor he saw a mischievous gleam. “Of course he is being painted as a traitor to Alura, but as our informants drew back to Ikhaya they heard rumors that the young Prince escaped the dungeons and managed to get out of the city.”
There was no way to help Connor, that he knew, but at least his friend had managed to survive, for the time being. “What is this so called break in the treaty? Has there been a formal complaint brought?”
“Yes sire. It arrived nearly at the same time as our spies’ reports did. The new sitting king is named Cipher Arras, he contends that we have been, and this is the exact wording on the formal letter, ‘deceptively and cowardly hording power, against agreed terms in the treaty set forth by our predecessors. Our people are to be returned and a meeting is demanded in neutral territory to discuss the proper reparation.’ ” It was obvious that the new king held no love loss for the Raziel people. This was an insult to their honor. Jeik could not allow it to go unanswered, his people will demand his action, and yet…war was not a pleasant thought.
“This is an outrage,” Isla growled and Jeik nodded his own fist digging into the wooden shaft of his Iklwa.
“Assemble the council, I want to review the treaty, get any Alurans in Ikhaya gathered and have them escorted across the border, politely.” Jeik ordered Pippen and Isla, they walked beside him, his other Impi noticing the shift in their Elder’s demeanor. “Also, tell the High Seer her council is requested.”
“Yes Elder,” Pippen rushed ahead, Jeik’s jaw clenched remembering her words a year ago.
“Relations with Alura are not going to stay as they are. You must prepare Elder.”
“Prepare for what?”
He had been preparing; preparing for the worst, while hoping that his mother had been wrong.
Thoughts of his dear friend Connor was pushed to the back of his mind, he had more pressing matters, and yet, his gaze did sweep over the horizon in the direction of Alura before he passed through the doors to the palace.
Amanda walked from the kitchen holding a tray heading across the common room towards a small table of men. They were the king’s men, though that was not as reassuring as it used to be. Three months ago the king was found guilty of treason and executed, the first time a king had been tried in all the history of Alura. The rumors varied of what he had done, from selling the people of Alura to the Raziel, to being a part of the death of the previous king.
“The reward for Prince Connor has gone up,” one of the soldiers said sounding as if the raise in incentive would make it easier to catch him. Amanda placed his drink down and walked past. At the corner table a young man was sitting with a cloak on and his hood pulled forward. Of course it was cold so he wasn’t the only one in the room to be dressed so. The winter had been bitter cold.
“Here you go. My best stew, it’ll help warm you up.” Amanda smiled setting the bowl down. The boy was shaking and his eyes looked up into hers. There was such strength mingled with a sorrow that made her think of the child growing in her belly.
“Thank you,” he said and wrapped his one hand around the bowl feeling the warmth of it. “May I ask you a question?” His tentative tone stopped her from turning away.
His blue eyes became distant and hard. “Do you have a map that shows the fastest way to Idolzi?”
“But that’s in Ikhaya. Why would a boy….” Her voice was cut off when his other hand came out from under his cloak. On his finger was the royal signet, her gaze slid up to the boy’s face. He was around the right age, fourteen or fifteen. Still not a man, and yet he held himself with a certain regal manner even though he was dirty, and obviously exhausted. She glanced over her shoulder at the laughing soldiers and then back to the boy. “It’s too dangerous,” she said keeping her voice low. “I’m not sure how you survived this long, but going into Ikhaya is suicide. There are rumors that they’re preparing for war.”
“That is why I must go.” The boy leaned forward around the bowl and hiding the ring once again, keeping his head low so that his face was hidden. “The Elder is a friend of mine, I hope that we can come to some sort of agreement.”
Amanda did another quick glance of the room to make sure that no one was listening. “My husband has some maps in the barn, he’s there now. If you ask him, I know he will help you.” Her eyes met his as she leaned down to set another mug of ale down. The boy was young but in this weather he needed some warmth. “We met your sister once, if you are anything like her, then I pray to the Great Spirit that you find what you’re seeking.”
The boy seemed surprised but then he nodded, hardening his features more. Amanda saw now that the maturity in his eyes was from pain. The boy had lost his sister, when she was rumored to have been killed, then after only a few months his father was tried for treason and sentenced to death. Amanda’s heart ached for the boy, but being with child and only a mere inn keeper’s wife, there was nothing she could do but aid him as much as she was able.
Connor walked into the barn, hearing the hard chinks of metal on metal and as he passed a few horses he grazed his fingertips over their soft muzzles. He came upon a man, his back to him, wearing a heavy leather apron that wrapped around and fell over thick brown boots. His arm kept moving in a rhythmic banging, as he brought the hammer he held down to the anvil. Connor paused a moment to think about what he was doing. That was when the man doused the white hot horseshoe in the bucket of water, sending steam shooting up with a strange hiss.
When the man turned Connor recognized the face, but knew it was impossible. “Is there something I can do to help you friend? If you’re looking for a room, my wife will see to you. Though there may not be many left.”
Connor pulled down his hood, knowing that there was no one else in the barn, since he checked already. “Actually I already spoke with your wife, I was wondering if you had any maps that would show me the quickest way to Idolzi.”
The face of the man who Connor had met two years ago pinched as he peered at him, though it wasn’t really that man, because that man was actually First Son of Ikhaya. So why did he resemble him so much? “What would a boy need with my maps?”
“This boy needs them, to stop the war that is coming,” Connor said brusquer than he intended.
Amanda’s husband gave a short laugh. “Nothing can stop that boy. Why end your life trying to do the impossible?”
With a fair bit of struggle Connor composed himself, just the way his father taught him.
“Father, how many times have you told me that a position of office must be respected? How will it look if you go out putting yourself in danger and leaving the city so soon after taking the throne? It seems reckless.”
His father smiled. “I know son. I realize the risk, but I need this. Besides, how will the people trust me, if I am not willing to put myself in danger for something I have asked others to do?”
“Do you know what this war is going to be about master smith?” Connor asked evenly with no smugness or arrogance.
“My name is Sarrak,” the man said. “All I know, is that I have a family here, that I need to protect.”
He replied automatically, “I’m trying to protect your family too Sarrak. You live on the border, how do you think you’ll fare right in the middle of where thousands upon thousands of lives will be lost? But if I can somehow get to Idolzi, I can at least speak with the Elder, try to get him to see reason. Give us a chance.”
Sarrak stood there in obvious disbelief. “Who are you?”
His question used to be an easy one to answer, but now, gazing steadily at Sarrak Connor said, “I am just like you, I’m just trying to protect what I love.” Seeing Sarrak’s hard expression he sighed. “I once met a man who looked just like you, two years ago in Olestra. He was just a groom in the king’s stables.” The smith’s expression took on a hardnosed curiosity as Connor continued. “But when my sister was in danger, he risked his life to save hers. And when he came back, I found out he was actually the First Son of Ikhaya.”
“I know about that, or at least I heard rumors.” Sarrak said carefully, curiosity covered in suspicion.
“Your wife said she met my sister once. I assume it was when she accompanied the king to Idolzi,” Connor grimaced losing a fraction of his composure, no matter how long it had been the loss of Anna still stung whenever he was forced to speak or think of her.
It only took a moment for Sarrak’s face to run through confusion, shock, awe, and finally he stalked across the way and open a drawer in a chest that was set against the wall near a few stacks of hay. He pulled out a map, rolled and tied with string. “I’ll show you the best way to go that would avoid most patrols, but you’ll have to go close to some villages in the Amanzi territory…” There was an unspoken, sire in there, but Connor didn’t care that he hadn’t said it. In fact, he had begun to despise his nobility. “I only have my horse to spare to take you to the Kio gorge, it’s not much…”
“It is more than I expected Sarrak. Thank you.” Connor followed the smith into a small alcove where the light was better. He had to get to Ikhaya. Right now, he couldn’t focus on anything else. Though witnessing Sarrak’s kindness, he hoped that his family, Amanda and their child, would survive.
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