The ground trembled with the hammering of the horses’ hooves as they galloped along the low plains of Azarowa. There were thirteen in all and they moved as one across the country side under the harsh sun as it reflected off the trodden grass. They’d been going at it hard, three days riding with only short breaks every six hours and finally they were in sight of their destination.
A kilometer into the distance, they could see the two leading scouts, stationed by the side of the path they had been following since early morning, the two men were shielded by a dense collection of oak trees, Aaren called to a halt just short of their approach and gratefully dropped from the saddle, taking the offered water skin from one of the scouts.
Aaren took a deep draught of the restoring liquid, sighing audibly as the cool water satiated his dried throat. He mopped his brow using the cuff of his shirt. Already he could feel the effects of his time in the saddle fading. The scout waited patiently, he and his comrade had been resting for nearly an hour waiting for the main group to arrive, but he wouldn’t begrudge his company’s leader for taking just a little longer than usual, they were at the end of their journey after all.
When it seemed Aaren had settled enough, he called the other scout forward to discuss matters with Aaren. “Our best bet, sir, is that we’ll arrive at the king’s fortress in an hour’s time. I took the liberty to scout the nearby areas.”
Aaren nodded at the words, these men were diligent in their work, they, like the Commissioners, always made sure of their surroundings, “There are one or two hamlets just to the north-east, typical little places, a wheat field or two, sewn crops and an outhouse for the inhabitants.” he was stating the obvious, but it never hurt to report them, Aaren would need to know what resources were nearby in case they needed to stop by, or simply navigate their way around the country. “However, on further inspection, I noticed that they’re vacant.”
Aaren screwed his face up at that, a deep thought furrowed his features, “As in ‘gone’, ‘empty’? There’s no one around?” he wondered, the scout nodded gravely at that, “Not a soul in sight. I was hesitant to go in closer, there was something that just didn’t feel right, I left Gordon behind to watch my back” the scout said gesturing to the man beside him, “And?” Aaren prompted, the scout leant a little closer to Aaren, ensuring that only he could hear him, “Score marks” he answered.
The other man’s eyes rose to that, “what are you thinking happened?” Aaren asked. Gordon shrugged his shoulders at that, “They were reasonably deep for the most part, the kind that arrow heads would create. Your guess as to who it was is as good as mine I’m afraid,” he said, “all it shows is that something isn’t quite right here. This close to Deepdene Gorge too, spells nothing but trouble as far as I’m concerned.” Deepdene Gorge was the sight of the Azarowan capital. Aaren turned as he heard someone approach from behind, he sighed as he realised it was Eamonn. “Aaren, the men were wondering if they should set up some sort of camp for the time being.”
Judging by the boy’s tone, it was more of hope than out of any real reason. “No.” Aaren said flatly. He brought the boy closer so that none of the others could hear. “Something’s happened. Tell them they have twenty minutes before we move on, I think its best we get to Deepdene as soon as possible.”
Eamonn understood the underlying message, privy to all information as he was, he knew there was more to this than they could see. “What about the scouts behind us?”
Aaren looked after his troops, despite his recent spell of emotional quandaries, he was someone that felt his men came first and the mission second. “We’ll leave a man here to tell them we’ll be at the palace. Get someone to put on a pot of coffee too.”
He gave the boy a tired smile, Eamonn’s heart leapt, it was the first real sign of warmth the boy had seen for some weeks.
“I will, thank you.” The boy returned to inform the others while Aaren put his focus back on the scouts in front of him, “I need the two of you to move on ahead again, if there’s trouble further on I need to know about it, I’m not in the mood for any surprises, take these:” he said, handing Gordon and then Daniel a sheet of parchment, “these are an official notice to the Azarowan King to tell him we’re to be granted access to the castle. Jarvis’ chamberlain wrote them out for us in case we needed them. While you’re there, take a look around, we should have seen some sign of Marlow and the second group by now, he should have taken a more direct route than we did and I’m beginning to worry.”
Marlow’s team was instructed to head directly for the capital in case it was a false alarm while Aaren’s team were responsible with scouring the countryside for any clues that gave evidence of their presence. If it were a false alarm, they should have come by a messenger notifying them of the fact. “Keep a low profile otherwise. Something might be going on in Deepdene and, however unlikely, the last we want is for someone to come looking for you. Keep your eyes open for any sign of Dunstan and the rest.” He told them.
By the time the two scouts were on their way, the coffee had been brewed, the men present were talking quietly amongst themselves, relaxing during their longest break in the day by the shade of the trees. Eamonn handed Aaren a cup and add a spoonful of the sugar they brought with them. “We’ll find them, Aaren.” the youth said, hoping to provide some comfort for his mentor. Aaren was thankful that his apprentice was here to take some of the load off his shoulders, but now the boy noticed a look on his leader’s face he hadn’t seen before, “What’s wrong?”
Aare came to his feet in an instant, “I don’t think finding Dunstan is our problem anymore.” he said. Confused by the statement, Aaren then pointed his finger into the distance for the boy to follow. There was an ominous red glow and black cloud of smoke sweeping through the blue sky towards them, “It looks like there’s more here than we first thought.”