The next morning, I groomed Kyrie and fed him. I was getting quite fond of this old boy, especially after seeing him bat his long, thick eyelashes at me. Definitely can make a girl- oops, boy, swoon.
Maximell came around the house, with a black horse in tow. He looked at me sullenly and threw his belongings on his horse. He also had a sword hanging from his belt. I guessed swords are a common accessory in this world.
“If you don’t want to go, you could just stay.” I offered.
“I don’t want to leave Silas.” His voice was hoarse as if he spent the entire night crying.
“But you’re still going because you know he’s right. You want to see the world.” I affirmed.
“Of course I do. I always wondered what it was like to be out there. All my life, I’ve been dreaming of travelling. See the world, go on adventures. But Silas is a father to me. It pains me to leave him.”
I stopped myself from patting his back. I patted Kyrie instead. “He knows what’s best for you. As a father, he would want to let you live. Leave or stay, it makes no difference to me. I’m still heading out to Sirandil. I’ve no qualms in leaving you behind,” I said bluntly. I grimaced at myself. I have no charismatic skills when it comes to interpersonal relations.
I held onto the saddle, placed my foot onto the stirrup and mounted the horse.
“Leaving so soon?” Silas said from the doorway.
“It’s a long journey on horseback. It’s better if I leave as early as possible. Thank you for the hospitality,” I nodded at Silas.
“Thank you for taking Maximell with you,” he said gratefully.
I shook my head. “Don’t thank me. Like you said, my road is full of thorns. He can follow me if he may, but I will not be responsible for his death. If he lags behind, I’ll leave. I’m an utterly selfish person, Silas. Do not think of me otherwise.”
“Hey, I’m right here,” Maximell said in outrage. “And I can take care of myself.”
Silas nodded. “My boy can take care of himself. Do what you have to do, Alice. I hope we will see each other again.”
He turned to Maximell and his eyes softened. It wasn’t just Maximell about to lose his father, Silas was also about to lose his son.
“Maximell, know this. I’m so proud of you. And I know you will shine out there. I love you, my son. Now fulfill your destiny.”
Maximell’s eyes watered before he rushed and hugged Silas tightly. I let the father and son have their moment. I wanted to roll my eyes. You would think that I was the bad guy for pulling these two apart.
Kyrie huffed impatiently, agreeing with my sentiment. We’re wasting daylight hours. They finally let go. Thank god, few more minutes and I would probably be bawling my eyes out. Not. I was never comfortable to see displays of affections.
Silas watched as Maximell mounted on his horse.
“Silas, do you know any witches in Sirandil?” I asked.
Silas turned to me. “I did know some in my younger days.”
Maximell snorted. “He knows all the witches.”
“Really?” I quirked my eyebrow at him. “Then who’s the most powerful witch right now?”
“How powerful? What do you wish to seek?”
“The ability to send someone to another world,” I replied.
Silas’s eyes widened. In bewilderment? Shock? I didn’t know.
“I don’t think there is such a witch-”
“There is. There has to be.” I cut in. There had to be a way back. Failure was not an option.
Silas sighed, contemplating. “If there is a witch that has the ability to travel to different worlds, then the only way for you to find that witch is by finding the scroll. The queen keeps track of all witches and their abilities in the Scroll of Divination. The scroll is kept in the queen’s castle. You must seek an audience with the queen but I doubt she will readily allow you to see the scroll. Nevertheless, you can try.”
“The current queen of Rentera: Queen Marisa, daughter of Erisa, and bloodline of Elyssar. She’s the most powerful monarch. She is the current ruler in all kingdoms. She holds the greatest precedence.”
“So through the queen, I can find this witch?”
“I believe so.”
“Thank you.” I pulled the reins of my horse and steered Kyrie towards the road. There was a definite goal now: To seek an audience with the queen.
“Good luck, Alice. And may the gods be with you,” Silas called out. I nodded my head and gave a parting wave. Maximell gave his goodbyes before he too joined me on the road.
We spent four hours on the road, our horses galloping across the lands. We didn’t come across any living soul and I wondered whether there was a small human population, or this world was simply vast. Sometimes the roads disappeared and we crossed through the green, lush hills before reaching another gravel path. Now that I paid more attention, I noticed the small demons that looked like the ones I first encountered back in the forest. They watched us from afar behind trees and huge boulders but they didn’t attempt to chase us down. I held on to the comforting weight of my sword hanging in its scabbard. It felt a bit silly that I couldn’t defend myself against a small demon like that.
The sun was high up in the sky and the heat scorched on our backs. My tunic plastered against my sweat-soaked skin. I had taken off my cloak and folded it neatly in front of me. Finally, we decided to stop and seek shade under a tree and eat our lunch. Maximell opened his burlap sack and pulled out dry bread with slice cheese melted on the bread. He placed on the cheese some fresh herbs that looked like parsley and watercress before handing some to me. I nodded my thanks and chewed on the bread. We sat in silence for a while, our backs rested against the tree trunk, waiting for the heat to die down a little. Our horses grazed the land and nuzzled each other. Please don’t let Maximell’s horse be a female. It would suck if that one became pregnant.
“Tell me about demons.” I broke into the silence.
“What do you want to know?” Maximell asked, between mouthfuls.
“Everything. I noticed there were demons lurking when we were on the roads. Are they dangerous? Where do they come from? How many are there? What do they eat?”
“Easy, Alice. One question at a time,” he grumbled. He swallowed his last bread.
“All demons are dangerous. They are only after one thing: Us.” He gave me a pointed look.
“So we’re their food?” I cringed, my face morphed into distaste.
“Yes. Apparently we’re delicious. We’re the first in their food chain. It’s not just human flesh in particular. They seek our innards. The guts. The intestines.” He patted his stomach.
Bile rose in my throat as a sudden image of my mother with her intestines spewing out of her stomach flashed into my head.
“Alice, are you okay? You look green,” Maximell asked in concern.
I closed my eyes and chained up that horror inside a cage and locked it with a key. I mentally laid out layers of bricks and created a wall around that particular memory. I wanted to remember my mother as a beautiful, ethereal person; a daughter of the sun rather than as a cold bloody corpse.
“Yeah.” My voice became thick. “But they’re small. How could they be strong enough to devour humans?”
“The one you met Alice, was a lesser demon. That was a weakling. Any demon on sight, you kill it. They’re all monsters, hungry for our flesh, even the weak ones believe me. It was pretty harmless by itself but imagine if they travel in a pack, they can overpower you. It’s a good thing demons are solitary creatures. They prefer to hunt alone. But demons vary in all sizes, in different degrees of strengths.
They can be small like the one you saw or they can be as tall as ten feet. They can be big and strong for their hides are thick and it’ll be difficult to kill them. Small villages need to rely on the royal army to help and wipe out the stronger demons. Although most of the time, blood would have already been spilt before the army arrives. But, if the villages did not pay their taxes when it is due, then the royal army will refuse to aid them. So one by one, the villagers get eaten. In the end, there will be nothing but silence and the blood singing on the walls, and all that is left will be the dry husks of human bones.”
His eyes went distant and dead, his face was devoid of any emotion. His eyes glazed as if he was sucked back into his memories.
“What happened to your village, Maximell?” I asked softly.
“My village is no more. It no longer exists. We were so poor we couldn’t even feed ourselves, so how could we pay the army? They got to us. I still can hear the gut wrenching screams of my family as they were being eaten. You know how I survived? I was small I hid myself under the pile of my parents’ corpses. Even in death, they saved my life.”
Dear god. I closed my eyes. What kind of world had I stumbled into? I shivered despite the heat, goose bumps rising on my skin. This world felt like a wonderland of nightmare: A carnival of death. Death loomed at every corner. I saw bloodshed on every road and I killed for the first time. I looked at my hands, and I knew my hands were stained with blood and I would forever be sinned. I remembered reading an article of an interview from an assassin. She claimed that the first kill was the hardest. The most painful. But it got easier and soon, she could kill without even blinking her eyes.
I made my first kill without even a feeling of remorse. I felt nothing. Not a twinge of guilt or regret. It was kill or be killed. Now who was the colder monster here? Perhaps I was always a cold blooded murderer. The world didn’t change me into something evil. I was simply unleashed of the darkness that was already buried inside me.
I put my hand on Maximell’s shoulder. I wasn’t the sentimental type. I didn’t like hugging or other touchy emotional crap. But when Maximell lifted his face towards me, I realised I made a mistake. His eyes weren’t the eyes of a dead person. The dead eyes belonged to me. I saw them reflected in his eyes. But his eyes held his soul. They were deepened with sorrow and pain. They were racked full of torment. His eyes were the furor of affliction.
“I’m sorry,” I said. It was the only thing I could say. He nodded and he stood up and stretched his arms.
“All this awful talk makes the sun even look bleak. Let’s not trifle the matters of the past, Alice. We need to get going.”
We gathered our belongings and called our horses. We mounted and set off towards our journey for Sirandil. I tried to come up with a lighter topic. I needed to get my head around this world and what was expected. I didn’t want to charge on the chessboard as a blind pawn.
“Why are all the witches in Sirandil? I heard that all witches were sent off to Sirandil and remained there.”
Maximell looked at me in surprise. He matched my horse’s speed so his voice could be heard in the wind.
“You sound like you don’t know anything, Alice. Did you live under a rock? Even a noble should know that much.”
“Assume I know nothing. Assume I fell on my head and have amnesia.” I waved my hand.
“You have amnesia?”
“I wish, but no, that was just a figure of speech. Are you going to tell me or not?”
“It happened many years ago, I think when Silas was still young. Witches were prosecuted because magic was seen to be associated with devil worship. They were hated next to demons and they blamed the witches for the demons’ arrival into our world.
But now, they realise that witches can use their powers to help combat against the demons. So the queen ordered a roundup of all the witches in this world to be brought to Sirandil and be trained into the royal army, or become the queen’s guards or live in the castles to entertain the queen. If a witch is born, the parents are ordered to give the child up to Sirandil immediately. Hiding a witch would result to an immediate death penalty.”
“So is that why if I want to find a witch, I would need to get to Sirandil?”
“How could you tell if that person is a witch?”
“They show signs. They normally can’t hide their magical powers. It depends on the child when their power starts to manifest. It can be as young as six months old. But once the parents know their child is a witch, they must alert the royal army. The army comes to collect the child and the parents are given a bag of gold coins in return. It’s a profitable business actually, to bear a witch. Many witch babies were also snatched from their cradles by thieves so they could get the rewards from the Queen.”
“If all witches are required to be in Sirandil, then how come Silas is not? Is he not a witch too?” I asked.
“He is. He has the ability to foresee the future. But before Queen Marisa came to power and ordered all witches to be brought to her, Silas destroyed every documentation that mentioned his witchcraft and escaped. It’s why it’s important for you not to mention Silas’ ability to anyone. Nobody knows of his existence. He is only known for being a herb practitioner.”
It was twilight by the time we reached Tarroway village. As we crossed the wooden bridge, my eyes were busy having their fill. The houses were tiny with thatched roofs and slabs of grey stones for the walls. The road was more paved out with gravels and there were horses pulling carts filled with vegetables and fruits. The villagers pretty much ignored us. I assumed they were used to having travellers. I saw children for the first time since arriving to this world. They were huddled against each other, their clothes were torn and dirty. Their cheekbones were sunken and I knew starvation was not an unfamiliar term for them. Looking around, the villagers looked half-starved themselves with their gaunt, sunken faces and skeletal frames. So many people living in poverty. How could these people afford to even pay taxes and seek aid against the demons?
We stopped at an inn. “Horseshoe” was painted on the board above the door. We jumped off our horses and the stable boys came to fetch the horses. I gave a few coins to the boys and with a tip of their caps they pulled our horses into the nearby stables.
Maximell and I walked into the bustling inn where we were greeted by the innkeeper. He was fat and his face was rosy with a curved moustache above his lips.
“Welcome, travellers! Welcome to my humble inn. We have rooms available for you and freshly baked goods straight from the kitchen!”
“Thanks,” Maximell said. “We’re looking for two rooms-”
“One would do,” I interjected. “We could share the room and save money.”
“We’re both men here. What’s wrong with sharing?” I narrowed my eyes at him. Don’t mess this up. Realisation dawned into him and he nodded.
“One room it is then!” The innkeeper said. “Here’s the key to your room. You can come down to eat whenever you want. We’ll be here. I’m Kylan and this is my wife, Maisie.” He pointed at a plump woman bustling out from the kitchen door.
She saw us and her face broke into a welcoming grin. “Welcome, gentlemen. It’s so nice to see beautiful men in this part of the village. Our usual customers are a rowdy lot.” She laughed heartily and nodded towards the hall, the tables filled with drunken men singing ballads.
I took the key from the innkeeper and made my way upstairs to find our room. The room was small and barely furnished but at least there were two single beds. I threw the key on the nearby table and put my belongings on the bed nearest to the window. The beds were made of wooden frames strung with rope. There was a pitcher of water on the table and a brass basin for washing hands. Maximell lit up the candlestick and the room glowed with low luminosity.
“So what shall we do now?” Maximell asked.
“Take a bath, you reek. I’ll go after you. I’m going down to eat.”
“I don’t smell.” He brought his sleeves to his nose to take a sniff. “And you stink too, Alice. I can smell your sweat from here.”
“I’ll clean myself later. I’m going out.” I headed towards the door.
“Take care of yourself, Alice. Be careful. You don’t know what kind of people are out there.”
I rolled my eyes and left the room. Since when had Maximell turned into a clucking mother hen? Let the guy become my cook and he started to lay his nest. I left the room and went downstairs. I pulled the hood over my head, concealing most of my face in the shadows. Better not to attract any attention. The innkeeper’s wife served me a bowl of pottage, which consisted of thick stew filled with boiled vegetables. I took my bowl to an empty table outside and spooned the pottage into my mouth. The double doorways were wide so I could stay outside away from the noise, but at the same time observe the hall.
There was nothing unusual, apart from loud men smacking their glasses of beer on the wooden tables and wiping the beer from their beards with the back of their hands. There were hardly any women around. I supposed most travellers were men and having women in a flock of drunken men might be too dangerous.
There was one man in the crowd that piqued my curiosity. He was different from others. He laughed with the old beards and pretended to look drunk. His hair was dark. I thought his hair was cropped short but when he turned his back at me, I could see he had a long ponytail. No wonder Romena told me not to worry about having long hair. A lot of men adopted that style. He didn’t seem to belong in this village, his clothing in particular. He wore some sort of a desert cloak. His cloak was brown, the hem reaching to his knees but it had a turtleneck, concealing his neck. I could tell how muscular he was underneath his cloak from the size of his bulk. I made myself wary of him. There was that cheeky glint in his eyes that I didn’t like.
And sure enough, I soon saw his motive. He befriended the old men and simultaneously pocketed other people’s purses of coins into his cloak. He walked around patting their backs, laughing at some silly stories, at the same time, his hands did all the work. Quick fingers. What an appropriate term for a thief. The others didn’t seem to notice for his hands were as fast as lightning. Even I would probably have missed it if I haven’t watched him so intently.
He bid his goodbyes and walked through the double doors. I helped myself to a few more spoonful’s of the pottage which was now turning into thick, curdling stew that glued inside my mouth.
“Hey there, my fellow traveller. Fine night today ain’t it?” The thief held his hand out and grinned at me. His tone was friendly but there was a hint of mockery laced in his words. He joined me on the bench. He had that handsome rugged look that I knew women in my world would drool over. His personality seemed pretty easy-going and chatty, but there was something about him that raised my hackles. Despite his easy demeanour, his eyes held a certain coldness. And after seeing what he did, I didn’t put him in my highest regards.
“Where are you headed? I saw you with your companion earlier. What are two young men doing travelling by yourselves in the lonesome roads? Be careful. Plenty of dangerous people out there.”
Quick as flash, I unsheathed my sword and held it under his throat. He blinked and his mouth dropped open.
“What are you doing-”
“Drop my coin bag.”
“I don’t have-”
“Shut it thief, before I cut your throat cleanly with my blade. What’s the punishment for a thief? Will they cut off your hands? Let’s find out shall we?” My voice was granite and cold.
“Okay okay. H-here. Here it is.”
He dropped my purse on to the table. I grabbed it with my other hand and hung it under my belt.
“Now uh, do you want to ease down that sword?” His eyes watched the sword carefully, his body rigid in a nervous posture.
I glared at him one more time before I sheathed the sword back to its hilt. I carried on finishing my pottage as if the whole thing hadn’t happened.
“How did you know? You couldn’t have seen me.”
“I know what you are. I saw the whole thing back at the hall.”
“Oh. Well...awkward. You have very fine sword skills. That was pretty fast.”
I gave him a death glare.
“First you tried to rob me and now you want to talk. Scram, thief. Before I alert the inn that you stole from their customers. I’ve no desire to talk to you nor do I want you to be in my presence. Leave. My companion is coming.”
We watched Maximell coming down the narrow stairs and into the hall.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you! I’m Xeron and thank you for not alerting them. I am indebted to you.”
He gave me a mock salute and disappeared into the shadows.
Maximell joined me at the table with his own bowl of pottage.
“So anything exciting that I missed?” he said.
“No. Just an almost skewered rat,” I replied.