Beyond The Two Kingdoms

It was after she participated in the operation to assassinate Dowager Queen Lellian ‘the Pure’ Rowan, the defacto ruler of the Timber Crag Kingdom, that Kalena Valade's memory of subsequent events began to fail her. All she knew for certain was in the chaos that followed their escape from the Praitine Vale she and her very good companion, Lafayette Le Renard, somehow became separated from each other. She had since expended considerable effort attempting to locate him and was beginning to become resigned to the likelihood of never seeing Lafayette again, nor any of her other friends in the Two Kingdoms whose population had been largely decimated or scattered as refugees by the Timber Crag.

There was still a chance, however slight, that she might possibly catch up with Lafayette on his way home, or failing that, track him to his house in distant Merovignia. To that end—and to avoid the swarms of bandits that plagued the roads—she had decided to retrace her original clandestine route to Dalen, through the Dalen Alps via the Nargozond Pass and onto southwestern Sarnia's elevated steppes. The terrain was rugged and bleak, but the scenery just as breathtaking as she remembered.

Enyalius seemed exuberant. The large black colt, the scion of her previous beloved horse Enyo, was possessed of an astounding vitality and spirit nearly to match his late mother's. For a great many days, rider and horse peacefully threaded their way through the snow-capped mountains, encountering no predators that posed a serious threat to them. The altitude could be quite frigid at times, but with there being plenty of game and grazing land it was no struggle to keep up their strength, and the pure alpine air, a refreshing change from the stomach-churning stench of war, had a salutary effect on the both of them.

It was only when they came down from the mountains into Sarnia that the trek turned a less pleasant one. The land grew flatter, becoming an unending vista of barren, dun-coloured steppe harried by gusting winds that carried a gritty dust that stung the eyes and throat. With the hood of her much-abused black cloak pulled down over her head and a scarf swathed around her face, the former assassin doggedly pressed on, intent on reaching the kingdom of Karavoss and its thriving sea port. It was there she could arrange passage on a ship bound for Merovignia and leave this damn continent of Aeran behind her forever.

She had had it all in Dalen, all she could have ever wanted—friends, money, power—and cruel fate had seen fit to take it all away, just like that. She was bitter at the time wasted, bitter at losing an amazing life she had worked so hard to build.

Kalena felt a choke in her throat; it wasn't from the dust but the very painful memory of losing Enyo. Her faithful midnight-black mare who had been part of her life for over a decade had been killed when the Timber Crag fell upon Opra Dale, levelling the city to the ground. Enyo, a veteran of countless battles by her side, was a harder and more personal loss than anyone who didn't know her well could have imagined.

And it was all for what? She was presently homeless, near broke, and with absolutely nothing to show for her years in service to Dalen.

Enyalius whinnied beneath her and tossed his head as if somehow able to read her self-pitying thoughts. Kalena smiled and rubbed the colt's solidly muscled neck. No, she supposed, she hadn't come away completely empty-handed. She felt a swelling of gratitude toward Horo Inu, who by no small miracle had found Enyo's son alive and well and brought him to her before she left as a kind of going-away present. She could not fathom how Enyalius had survived the capital's destruction, or how...

Her sharp, grey green eyes suddenly caught a glint in the distance. Kalena lifted a hand against the bright glare of the late afternoon sun and espied what looked like a village sitting right in the middle of the open plains. She was fairly certain it was the same one she had briefly passed through years earlier. It was called Usk as she recalled, a name derived from the Orcish language. Usk seemed to exist for no other reason than to serve as a waypoint for merchants and travellers. She reckoned it was a good place to let Enyalias rest up and where she could enjoy a night or two in a real bed before continuing on the last leg of their journey.

Kalena rode into the village along the main street, making for the Iron Ram, one of the two taverns in Usk, where a small inn was located on the floor above. As she drew back on the reins and stopped in front of the establishment, she grew more aware of the heat of the sun beating down on her. She dismounted and took a long draught from her waterskin before pouring the remainder of its contents onto Enyalius's head and neck to help cool him down. His tongue lapped thirstily at the rolling drops and she led him over to a watering trough to have a proper drink. When he had had his fill, she tethered the colt to a hitching post alongside several other horses belonging to patrons of the tavern. She loosened the saddle's cinch to make Enyalius more comfortable and tied a bundle of wild oats about his snout that he could consume at his leisure; only then did she throw back her hood and enter the Iron Ram.

Once inside, she scanned the common room but saw no sign of Lafayette or anyone else she knew. She finger-combed her unruly dark brown curls and pulled open her dusty cloak, revealing an ornate sword belt that held an exotic-looking sabre and small dagger. Many seated around the tables turned to stare at her and she knew she did not look very inconspicuous in her get up. She wore high-heeled Kobroran leather riding boots, purple leggings, and a black embroidered tunic vest over a long-sleeved purple silk blouse. The garments were all of the finest quality despite their worn appearance, making everyone likely assume she was wealthy and important when in truth she was neither. At least not any more.

“What can I get you, good lady?” the barmaster asked as she approached. “Do you need a room for the night?”

“Yes, I do,” Kalena said, giving the grizzled middle-aged man a friendly smile. “Are there any available?”

“I've a vacant one upstairs that is clean and comfortable.”

“I'll take it.”

He turned and plucked a key down from a pegboard behind the bar. “From whence do you hail?”

“Dalen of late,” she answered truthfully.

“Dalen?” he said, his grey eyebrows rising at this. “Is there anything left of it?”

“Not a whole lot,” Kalena said tersely. Her memories of the destructive war, of whole cities laid to waste and their inhabitants put to the sword, was not something she cared to dwell upon. She untied her leathern money purse. “How much for the room?”

“It'll be five coppers. Any more will cost extra.”

“That sounds reasonable.” She pushed several shiny coins across to him. The barmaster turned them over in his hand with a frown, seeing they had the face of Queen Thalia proudly displayed upon them. “One copper piece is as good as any other,” she said, afraid for a moment he wasn't going to accept the currency.

“Not long ago, anybody flashing around coins like these was asking for trouble,” the man muttered. He dropped them in a drawer with a speculative glance at her and slapped a key onto the bar. “That's a nice looking sword you got there.”

“Yes, it is, isn't it?”

“What are you, a noblewoman?”

“My father was a horse-breeder. Where's my room?”

“Up the stairs, third door on your right,” he said, gesturing toward a narrow staircase that ran along the back wall of the tavern.

Kalena picked up the key. “By any chance, you didn't happen to see a red-haired man pass through Usk recently?”

“There is a Varlandic merchant called Einar who has red hair,” the barmaster told her.

“No, this gentlemen would have sounded more foreign, and had a massive head of red hair, rather distinct amber eyes, and been carrying a great trunk on his back. He might have claimed to be in the employ of the Dubois Trading Company.”

“I can't say I've seen anyone like that, but I'll be sure and keep an eye out for you.”

Kalena inclined her head in a gracious nod of thanks and headed up the stairs. She knew Lafayette travelling through this way was a long-shot, but had to ask.

< Prev : OOC - Hey