Summer 1272, Cyllian Imperial Count
Vox stood motionless at the edge of the treeline. His eyes shone like amethysts reflecting the firelight. He cleared his throat. “I said… do you need a hand?”
I looked down. “Huh? Hand with…”
Vox took a slow step forward. I noticed his rags were gone, replaced with a loose fitting shirt and pants. Stolen from some wayward farmstead no doubt.
“You are heating stones, yes?” he said. “Then you are… doing it wrong. Stones go around the fire, not in the fire.” He stopped a few feet away from me eyeing Nahdril warily. “Are you going to stab me with that?”
Vox smiled a toothy smile, showed me the palms of his hands then rubbed them together over the fire. “Brrr,” he said. “It’s… chilly this far north.”
I let my sword arm fall to the side. “Why are you following me?” I asked.
“I am not following you,” he said. “We are just… sharing the road.”
I kicked a stone into the fire. Sparks cascaded with the updraft. “There isn’t a road here, Vox.”
Vox let out a strange high-pitched laugh. “You are a funny man. I think I like you.” He sat down, crossed his legs, then sniffed. “What are you… cooking?”
I sheathed Nahdril and took a seat opposite him. The meagre fire cast shadows across his dark red skin, giving him a sinister look were it not for the ridiculous grin he seemed to continuously wear.
He pointed at the clay pot in the fire, but did not take his eyes off me.
“Beans,” I finally answered.
His smile vanished. “Disgusting.”
I nudged the pot with a stick.
He turned his head toward the packs on the ground. “Have you anything else to eat?”
I shrugged. “Maybe.” I watched his violet eyes as they watched me. I folded my arms across my chest. “Brrr,” I said. “It is chilly.”
Vox’s smile faded. With a sigh he stood with arms at either side. He bowed low at the waist, staying horizontal with the ground as he cleared his throat once more. “I regret my prior… behavior towards you and your friend,” he said, never lifting his head. “Please accept my… humblest of apologies.”
He remained in that position, obviously awaiting my approval. Any lower and he may as well have been prostrating before me. I let him stay there for a minute or more before I stood. “I’m going to get more firewood,” I said before stomping into the trees.
“So… where does your road take you?” Vox asked when I returned. He had helped himself to a thick piece of dried venison.
I placed the sticks and branches down and retook my seat.
Vox licked his fingers then turned his head to the packs as if seeking permission.
I waved him on, I wasn’t sure if I needed them anyway. Vox returned with a jar full of pickled eggs. Even his eyes seemed to smile as he popped them into his mouth one by one.
“Well,” he said, wiggling his fingers over the jar in search of the perfect egg.
He looked up. “You’re not much of a… conversationalist are you?”
I ignored him and removed the pot of beans from the fire to cool.
“Where does your road take you?” he repeated.
I didn’t really have an answer. My mind was consumed with hate and anger and despair. That old hate, the one that had been laying in wait since I left Cyllia all those years ago. It spoke to me now, but another voice had joined it, one that saw no point in any of it, in any of this. They battled, their chorus of discord pulling me to vengeance and resignation. I wondered which one would win out.
In truth I didn’t really care where I went. Every step was another step further away from home, further away from her. My direction no longer mattered. “West,” I managed to say, though I was as non committal to that course as I was to the beans.
Vox nodded slowly. “And to what end?”
I shrugged. I was hardly thinking about tomorrow I was just trying to make it through today.
He swallowed another egg then sealed the jar before placing a long finger to his chin. “My people have a saying. Sometimes you must go north before you can go south. You know this?”
I gave him a puzzled look. “What the fuck does that mean? I said I was heading west.”
He sighed. “Nevermind not-Cyllian. If you are to go west we must clear the, uh… West Marches you call them, yes?”
I stared blankly at him, as if the ominous nature of the mountain range looming to the west of us wasn’t obvious.
Vox smiled. “Then the… appropriate question is do you intend to cross north or south?”
I took a spoonful of beans as I considered. “Crylwin said to take the north pass. He said the south would be filled with Cyllians crossing the Red on their way to Sevel.”
“And you trust this son of Monroe?”
“I don’t care,” I said. “He saved me, I guess I don’t really have a reason not to trust him.”
“Then you are a trusting man,” Vox said. “That is… admirable. And foolish.”
“So you think the south pass is the better route?” I asked with annoyance.
“Care to explain how sneaking past a few thousand invading Imperials is the preferred way? If I decide I wanted to die I could think of three better ways than at their hands.”
“They will not be there by the time we arrive.” Vox’s eyes sparkled, his self-amusment as vexing as his stupid grin.
“Oh, I see,” I said sarcastically. “So you see the future now is it?” I took another bite. “And there is no we.”
He shrugged as if in mockery.
I sighed. “Look you are welcome to the fire, and as much food as you like, but come the dawn I go my way, you go yours. I’m not looking for a friend here. I just want to be left alone.”
Vox shook his head. “I am afraid I cannot.”
“And why is that?”
“I have a debt to repay,” he explained. “And we Sunemere take our debts quite seriously.”
Vox cocked his head. “The debt I owe to you for saving my life.”
A log cracked in the fire, punctuating the silence.
“Vox…I,” I stammered. “You are free from any debt… I just want to be left…”
He raised his finger. “And eating your food.”
“Yes, well, consider that a parting gift then.”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. Only I can determine when my debt is repaid… not you.”
“What kind of sense does that make?”
“It makes Meren sense,” he said. His smile went wide across his face as if he was about to burst into laughter. “I, Vox of the House of Vox, will escort you, Faerin not-Cyllian, through the harshness of” -he gestured to the forest with open palms- “this wilderness and deliver you safely upon the far shore of the river Red. Then shall our roads part.”
“Thanks for the offer, Vox. But I decline. I will stick with the north pass, it’s more a direct shot to Sevel anyway.”
“And what awaits you in Sevel?”
“Nothing I suppose, but there I can at least bide my time until…” I trailed off, losing the motivation to even finish the sentence.
I sighed. “Until it is safe to come home.”
“And when will this be?”
I looked back into the fire. “When the Cyllians are gone for good.”
Vox laughed. “So now it is you that sees the future?”
I looked away and pushed around the coals with a stick.
“Here is what I know, not-Cyllian,” Vox said after a few silent moments. “I know the secret ways through these lands. I know their histories and mysteries better than most. Worry not for any Cyllian forces. Should they trouble us, I will just have my people disperse them.”
“Your people… what do you mean your people?”
“My people,” Vox said. “You’ve met them before, yes?”
“Oh you mean the thousand or so Sunemere that I last saw heading west across the Heights? They are a hundred miles away. A lot of good they will do us here.”
I heard a branch break. Stephen turned his head, his Alea searching the darkness.
Vox let out a sharp whistle and three Sunemere emerged from the shadows at the edge of the camp. They lingered there, with their dark horn bows, content to be seen but venturing no further into the light.
Instinct told me to stand, to draw my blade and end it all in glorious fashion. My head told me to remain right where I was.
I turned to Vox. “So,” I said. “We are heading south then?”
He grinned from ear to ear. “Precisely.”