Chapter Eight

*This post is part of the Write 31 Days challenge. The LAST one.*

Benjamin woke to the sound of a sword sliding out of its metal sheath.

Just as Elder Conradin had taught him in the first days after his Confirmation Day, he immediately engaged his gift, seeking the intentions of anyone or anything that was near. Between his three comrades, he made out a sense of calm, some nervousness, and a hint of impatience. The strongest pull on his attention was a curious sense of anticipation.

He jerked his head to the right, only able to make out the moonlit form of a tree, burned but still with branches intact, as he heard Edward say into the dark, “It’s just an owl, Pitney.”

Immediately, the anticipation gave way to a flicker of fear, and then both leveled out to match calmness and relief. Pitney gave an audible sigh as he replaced his sword. The owl gave a hoot and then flew away in search of food.

“Want me to take over, Pit?” Ottelo asked.

So they were all awake, then. Benjamin released his gift. He didn’t like to intrude on someone’s emotions unless it was asked of him or necessary. He searched the earth surrounding his makeshift bed for his wide-brimmed hat. Though the need to hide his eyes would only come to him with mastery of his gift, he had worn it for long enough to feel rather undressed without it. Benjamin breathed his own sigh of relief when his left hand rested on the familiar wool.

“I’ll take over,” Edward offered and the sound of a blanket being tossed aside was accompanied by a small grunt and boots being adjusted.

“Or I can take a shift. Pretty sure it would have been mine, anyway,” he said. Benjamin was the youngest in their company and so they had all insisted that he sleep first. By sunset the previous day, they had begun searching for a place to camp. They looked for hours before they found a small clearing amidst a circle of still intact trees. Edward had insisted on such a place, finding the shadows comforting to his sight, regardless of the trepidation it gave the other three.

Falling asleep had proven difficult for Benjamin with the open sky and constant moonlight that managed to shine every which way he turned. He had not traveled on as many caravans as Edward and was unaccustomed to sleeping out of doors. Eventually, he was able to clear his mind of thoughts of ReAnne and the last time they had set eyes on her, small and frail in Lady Kaelah’s monster of a bed. Filled with bravado as they accepted their quest from the Great King in the main hall, Benjamin had lost all sense of it when his eyes rested on his helpless sister and the knowledge of what awaited her.

Though all three brothers had been present at the meeting, encircled by Elders and the Great King, it had been Benjamin’s idea to tell Dennis they needed him to stay and take care of her. He had read the fear from his brother as the greatest emotion in the room, but Benjamin had seen it on his face long before he ever felt it with his gift. Even more so than the obvious aggravation of the Elders and the sorrow of the king.

“We need you to keep her safe, Den,” he’d told him. “We will be back as soon as we can.”

Dennis had nodded and excused himself to his charge. Benjamin had allowed himself another uninvited moment for his gift and felt a faint sense of relief from Dennis as he walked away.

Now, he wondered if saddling young Dennis with the responsibility had been wise at all. What if something happened to ReAnne and Dennis blamed himself? Would he be able to separate himself from that guilt? Benjamin didn’t know and felt guilt himself, for putting Dennis in that position. Only time would tell if their journey would be well-spent.

“If we are all awake, perhaps we should ride at night? Unless you, Pitney, need some more time?” Edward was already at his horse, making clear his intention.

“I feel perfectly rested, thank you.”

Benjamin did not need to use his gift to know that there was no love-lost between the two of them. It was curious that Edward would take such a disliking to Pitney. He had not voiced his displeasure or concern of him when he recounted his trip with ReAnne to Staas. Though, he didn’t have much time to do so, circumstances being what they were.

“The sooner we get there, the sooner we find what we are looking for.” Turning to Edward, he asked, “What is it we are looking for? You have yet to tell us.” Ottelo was up and packing his bedding onto his horse, seemingly unaware of the tension between the two. Pitney followed Ottelo’s lead and began packing, stopping only a moment to take a long drink of water from a skin.

“We aren’t looking for something. We are looking for someone.”

Pitney stopped mid-sip to raise an eyebrow at Ottelo.

There was only so much you could keep from someone you hoped might save your life, if necessary. Traveling with no knowledge to what end it might bring only bred distrust among men. Though Benjamin was younger by almost two years and hadn’t seen as much of the world as Edward, even he knew this wisdom. But it meant speaking of the last meeting that occurred before they left Mirias. The one the Great King called them to in private, without the presence of the Elders. To not reveal enough would put them all in danger. Too much, and they risked betraying their king’s wishes.

Within minutes, all four were mounted and making their way along the path in what was left of the moonlight.

“Fifteen years ago, the council of the Elders took a unanimous vote and exiled one of their own to the consternation of the Great King.”

Edward was silent, so he went on. Benjamin knew the repeat of a possible ambush haunted him at every shadow. Edward would not be quick to forgive himself for what happened to ReAnne.

“This elder had voiced his concerns regarding the power that the Elders and the Order seemed to be taking without thought to the consequences. He wanted to put the power back into the hands of the people as he thought the Provider had originally intended it. But some of the Elders were not willing to listen to his warnings, believing that years upon years of structure and order were due to their great diligence.”

Here, Edward let out a small grunt.

“Anyway, this elder traveled often and claimed to have run across old scrolls, histories and a diary, depicting the life of the Provider and his thought processes towards the people. How he would have them ruled, if you will. He said that we were in grave error over quite a few things, and as rulers and leaders among a great people, we should be the first to admit our mistakes and-“

Another grunt from Edward. Benjamin rolled his eyes at another interruption, but went on.

“The Great King told us that this elder had hinted at great histories within these new found scrolls that could shed some light on the Vex and possibly, the destruction of-“

Edward’s grunt was so loud this time, Pitney and Ottelo looked to Benjamin, then back to Edward before mimicking the grunt themselves. This sent all four of them howling with laughter, Edward finally breaking some of his gifting to breathe and relax a little.

“Edward, if I may, I can assure you nothing you tell me will leave this present company of four.” Ottelo said, still laughing.

“I appreciate that, as I’m sure you can appreciate our need for discrepancy.”

Both nodded to each other, but Benjamin felt Ottelo’s frustration behind the amusement of the moment.

The sun started rising over the small mountain range far to their right, sending out rays of yellow and red in brilliant form. Quite a ways ahead of them, the road disappeared at the top of a small hill. When they reached the top, they would see the burnt forest finally giving way to the deadly, barren desert, Paschar.

None of them were looking forward to this. Their horses were packed mostly with water skins specifically for this leg of their journey, all of them knowing full well the rumors. Paschar was the long expanse that kept the lands of Hazar Maveth far from the lush kingdoms within Providence. Very few ever made the difficult journey, even those who greatly desired to rid themselves of the stain of being from Havarth. Under the sweltering heat and the seemingly constant strain to find water, most lost their lives in their traverse. Many tales from weary travelers whose caravans were lost told stories of being sole survivors and the grim reality of bodies they’d had to leave for rot. Often times, there were tales of mothers offering their rations of water for the sake of their children, only to lose their own life. One such harrowing story Benjamin heard while wandering the market place one morning stayed with him. It was of a father who sacrificed his own water for the sake of his child. What made the story so memorable was the father then insisted that his wife and his older children also give up their lives for the sake of this one child. Listeners to the tale speculated that the one child must have been the father’s favorite, or that the others were grossly malformed (as was a common belief of those within Providence of the people in Havarth), so that the only ‘normal’ son was given any and all that was needed to survive.

Benjamin had never met such a child, or a man that claimed such a distressing history, so he refused to believe the story as truth. Nor could he imagine a father forcing his wife and kids to their death for the sake of only one. No matter how special. And still, the story gave him pause whenever it was brought to mind. He reasoned that it was probably because of the sacrifice of the mother, not only herself, but all of her children, for the sake of one. To him, it was unimaginable.

Their own mother was a hazy figure in his mind, a ghost, so that he could hardly remember her. She had taken her last breath during childbirth to Dennis and it seemed all that was in him wanting to remember her, drew snippets of memories quickly blotted with white, like blank pages within some of Lady Kaelah’s books where the author had an idea, but left room for correction, just in case a fallacy had occurred.

Edward claimed to remember her most, a fact Benjamin sincerely doubted, but let him have without much opposition. Edward remembered long, flowing blond hair and a hint of a melody she used to hum. In Benjamin’s mind, she was a brunette, like ReAnne, and she wasn’t so much a singer, as she was able to make him feel comforted. The one time they had come to blows about it, the Great King had sat them down and told them they remembered her exactly as they should, in their own way. He refused to correct either one of them and mar the loving memory they had of her, no matter how small.

“Your memory of her is a precious gift meant for you. Think on ReAnne and Dennis who cannot remember her at all, and be of good cheer that your heart has something to hold on to,” he had said as he patted both their backs and sent them on their way. They never fought about the color of her hair or her affinity to singing again.

“So, this is the dreaded Paschar.” Ottelo and Edward, who had been keeping the pace, stalled the horses at the top of hill and all four of them removed their heavy cloaks as they looked out over the vastness of the desert before them. Straight ahead and to both sides, the sands met with the horizon, no end in sight.

“Do you have a name for this someone we are looking for?” Pitney asked.

“Mayavin. Elder Mayavin.” Edward answered.

“Wait. But I thought Elder Mayavin died? On the Staas trade route?”

“He did. According to the Elders. It was what they needed everyone to believe.”

“At the expense of the reputation of Staas? My father suffered much from his death. Trades were ceased when the roads were blocked and deemed unfit for travel. All was in vain? And the Great King knew of this?” Ottelo’s face burned red and his eyes narrowed with anger.

“If the Elders had exiled him, the people would have demanded answers no one was prepared to answer. Had the Great King announced or admitted to the deception, the Elders would have retaliated.”

“Retaliated against the Great King? It’s not like they can usurp him. What could they have possibly done to him that would stay his hand and make him an accomplice in this act of corruption? Does he know how this caused a small uprising among our people, insisting my father reopen the road, until my mother calmed them with her gift? Our people could have died.”

“Yet, they did not,” Edward offered callously.

Benjamin pulled on Tuens’ reigns, positioning himself in between them. “In due time, you may know all in regards to this. For now, we ask you to please trust us when we say that the Great King acts for the good of all the kingdoms within Providence. Even when it seems he is not…it is a hard truth to swallow when the right thing seems blatant. If there is one thing he has always shared about himself to us, it is that his heart is always for what is right and yet he is not without error. He believed Mayavin to be dangerous, but he thought he could rein him in to the eventual advantage of all the kingdoms. When it was clear he would not relent nor use wisdom to release this new information to the people, our father finally relented to the Elder vote with the condition that he not actually be put to death. Your mother’s gifting was a relief to the Great King and he is indebted to her because of it. She saved many people that day.”

“Yes, she did…” Ottelo’s anger was dissipated some by the accolades of his mother and the company continued on down the hill with notable trepidation.

When the ground began to level out and they were no longer pushing their feet into the stirrups to stay more upright, the sun was high in the sky. No more had been said of the Elders, or their alleged subjugation of the people they were supposed to be protecting. Ottelo and Pitney spoke in hushed whispers behind Benjamin and Edward, but the strongest emotion Benjamin had felt was confusion, not anger. In time, he knew the actions of the Great King would seem right in their eyes, as well, but it was hard to explain to those who had not had the privilege with growing up around him to see it time and time again. It was to Prince Ottelo’s credit that he was willing to admit not seeing the whole picture was the quickest way to be both defensive and in error at the same time. It left him feeling quite secure in Ottelo’s ability to be a fair and wise king, as well as a good match for ReAnne’s Binding.

When they reached the very edge of Paschar, they knew, for the ground with moss that was growing in its relentless pursuit to make the remains of a forest alive once more was abruptly cut off with the presence of hard clay that then gave way to sand. Miles upon miles of sand dunes. The party halted and each sought each other’s face for bravery. This is where the Spirit of Blessing would be with them no longer and each one could feel the pull of Paschar and the threatening release of the Blessing. There was a sense of sorrow that accompanied stepping into the desert. An oppression of all that was good. An increase into all darkness.

“Perhaps we should take this time to fill our skins with water before we trespass and rest a while,” Edward said and immediately everyone agreed, relieved to have more time amongst the Blessing. The dark circles under his eyes gave his exhaustion away. He had used his gift often during the final few hours of night they had traveled in. Whenever they came across a looming shadow, he had looked first at Benjamin to see if it was worth invoking his foresight, but being newer at using his gift, Benjamin had often been unsure of himself, forcing Edward to use his anyway.

Off to their left was a small stream that ran parallel to the edge of the forest until the rocks from the jagged path cut it off and sent it under ground.

They led the horses to drink and walked a bit further upstream to fill their skins. Pitney opened a sack of dried meats as well. “Might be a while before we can eat this and still wash it down properly,” he said.

They all took some and then leaned up against mossy rocks and tree stumps as they ripped the meat apart.

“I find myself not wanting to step over the line,” Ottelo said after they had finished. “It feels as though I might lose myself if I do. How far did the Great King take you beyond the borders?”

“We barely stepped both our feet over it, and then were prompted to use our gifts. It is harder to reach in and call upon it, the pull to just let it be is so compelling. But if you can fight the desire to leave well enough alone, once you use it, it stays just as easily as before with the Blessing. At least it does for me,” Edward answered.

Benjamin nodded his agreement and then turned to Pitney, “At least you will not lose your swordsmanship, right, Pit?”

They all gave small, nervous chuckles, knowing the trek across the desert would try them all.

“What is that by the horses?” Ottelo stared towards the horses.

Benjamin, Edward, and Pitney all stood and looked, the four mounts still dipping their heads into the stream for drink. “I don’t see anything, Ot,” Pitney said.

“No, I see it,” Edward said as he drew his sword, causing the other three to follow suit.

“That’s not an ‘it,’ it’s a ‘who’,” Benjamin said. Then, in the next moment, he sheathed his sword. “Alright Ottelo, you got us once…”

“That’s not me, Benjamin. I’m not throwing a mirage.” Ottelo kept his eyes on the dark figure walking amongst the horses, sword still drawn. Edward and Pitney both stopped and stared at each other, unsure of what to do.

“I said stop.” Rarely had Benjamin had to be angry with anyone other than his siblings, but he was growing more frustrated by the second.

“I’m telling you…” Ottelo’s voice was quiet, “It is not my mirage.”

Edward looked around their resting place, trying to search within the shadows, but there were none to be found with the sun so high up overhead. “Ben…”

“I can’t find anything, Ed. There’s nothing, no feeling. Other than our own, of course.” Benjamin felt equal fear from all of them, even Ottelo, and yet, nothing from their uninvited guest.

All four took small, quiet strides, keeping their eyes on the image of a man walking among the horses.

“What is he doing?” Ottelo asked.

“Is he…petting them?” Pitney walked two steps behind him.

“I can’t tell, but if he was hurting them, they wouldn’t just be standing there,” Benjamin assured them. They were only fifty feet from the intruder now, only able to make out the back of what looked like a curly haired trader wearing an animal skin vest and a large dagger attached at the waist.

Ottelo put a hand behind him to signal them to stop and even Edward agreed. They were getting too close without a plan. Ottelo turned and motioned for Pitney and Benjamin to go around to the right while he and Edward would take the left and try to trap him between the horses.

But when Ottelo turned back around, the horses were suddenly alone.

“Wait, where did he go?”  Edward replaced his sword and ran a hand through his blond hair in disbelief. “He’s not here.”

“Ottelo…” Benjamin warned.

“Benjamin, on the promise of my crown as the King of Staas, that was not my mind mirage.”

“Well, why couldn’t I feel anything from him, then?”

“I told you, it had to be someone else throwing it.”

“Well, who else could it possibly be?”

“I don’t know, but it wasn’t me.”

“You’re the only one with that gift, Ot.” Even Pitney was looking at him as if he didn’t believe him.

“Stop.” Edward stepped into the middle and held out his arms to keep them apart. “Don’t forget that the border does funny things to us. Remember, Ben? The release of the Blessing makes you suspicious, and less likely to trust your instincts and each other. Maybe we are affected, standing so close.”

Ottelo and Benjamin kept staring at each other, ignoring Edward’s wisdom.

“He had your build. And your hair, come to think of it. Maybe you threw a mirage of yourself to the horses.”

“It wasn’t me, Benjamin.” Ottelo took another step forward and Benjamin matched it.

“How do we know that?”

“Because no one can throw a mirage of themselves, you imbecile.”

“What did you call me?” Benjamin and Ottelo were now inches from each other with Edward still trying to come between them. Pitney watched, dumbfounded but amused, from the outskirts.

“Enough!” Edward pushed both of them hard enough that they stumbled backwards and both ended on their rear ends, looking up at Edward in shock, and a roaring Pitney, doubled over with laughter.

When they were over the shock of falling, they all reared up in laughter. Even the two with sore backsides.

“Let’s commit to staying self-aware.” Edward said when he was finally able to form words. “We are all new at the border and the loss of Blessing. At least we know, now, that Benjamin is a much less-gentler creature without it, so let us all be on our toes and be extra sweet to him. Like a lady when she is sweet on a man, shall we?” Edward batted his eyelashes and clasped his hands together to mimic ReAnne when she spoke of Ottelo. Even Benjamin couldn’t help but laugh though the laughter was at his expense.

When they were certain all the skins were filled to capacity, Benjamin walked to Ottelo and bowed, offering a truce.

“I don’t know who that was, nor how he got there, but I can promise you he was not my mirage, Prince Benjamin. I pray you would forgive my earlier insult to you. Never have I actually considered you an imbecile.” He bowed in return.

“Your apology is accepted. Let us work together to figure out what has gone on this day, and perhaps we will not be so easily fooled next time?”

“Agreed.”

And they shook on it, as men of their word.

Leading the horses back to the decrepit trail, all four of them missed the mischievous eyes watching them from across the stream, on the very edge of Paschar.

 

 

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