Alard sat with his back against the bale of hay behind him and his pointed cap tipped down onto his nose, shading his eyes from the sun as he played a languorous tune on his lute. The old man beside him lethargically directed the cart along the the road. They’d travelled together for the past day, between dense firs in the rugged foothills above the city of Litstad. The cart rumbled over a rough patch of road, interrupting the strumming of his lute.
Hissing under his breath, he eyed the old farmer in his peripheral vision. “You could drive more carefully, couldn’t you? The turbulence is ruining my ambiance.”
“You could ride your own damned horse and you’d only have yourself to blame every time you miss a beat,” the old man said. His sharp tongue made the man an amusing companion, which was a rare find for Alard.
Alard chuckled and said, “It’s harder to play while riding a horse—though I’m quite accomplished at it, of course. That reminds me, did I tell you of the time I flawlessly performed all four of the great Odes while galloping bareback to rescue the very maiden to whom I was performing?”
“I can’t say as you have, though I expect you’re about to tell me.”
“In song, no less?”
“No less, and certainly no more.”
Alard strummed his lute again, continuing his previous tune, casual and relaxing, but building it up to be lighter with a touch of anticipation.
Once met a lass with sun coppered skin,
whose promise I dared to pursue.
Her eyes, her smile, the way that she moved,
spoke volumes and held my heart true.
Her knees did sway, her ankles weak,
as four Odes I melodically played.
Yet as the crescendo built up, I dismayed,
for villains did seize that fair maid.
Upon my steed with zeal I did leap,
intent to complete my display.
My hands did play, my feet did steer,
Alard cut off the performance by slapping his hand down on the strings, stilling their sound, “Alas, this is where I must leave you, my good friend.”
“Wait. What happened next?” The old farmer, skeptical of Alard’s tales, was hooked as any of Alard’s admirers would have been. Alard untied his horse’s reins from the cart and leaped from seat to saddle.
He tipped his hat with a flourish and bowed low, “It has been a pleasure, my good man. Alas, a performer must always leave the crowd wanting more.” He turned his horse, heading towards a branching road, more overgrown than the other.
“You can’t go off down there, son. That path leads to trouble. Bandits are in the area,” the man said, slowing the cart almost to a stop. “Weren’t you heading to Tenstad? The main road through the pass is fastest, all things considered.”
“I’m aware of the dangers,” Alard said, waving behind him. “This path, my friend, will do me just fine. But thank you for trying to keep me in line. Perhaps, meet again, one day we shall. ’Til that day, or other, I bid you farewell.”
The shelter of trees came over Alard as he entered the narrow, forested path. He hooked his lute on his back. His eyes shifted from side to side, scanning the trees. It was time to get to work.
The shafts of light reaching through the canopy to rest on the path before him shifted as the sun passed overhead. Late morning turned to afternoon, as Alard’s path wound through rocky crag and over high ridge. Occasionally, he was even afforded views down into Litstad vale—the place Alard had called home for the past two years.
Despite the over grown path, Alard could spot signs of recent activity, and his contacts had assured him that this would lead him as near to the Soverkemp’s lair as he needed. The Soverkemp were and the Stormhill Raiders were two of the biggest gangs in Litstad. Soverkemp had captured the leader of the Raiders, Sefdin Berg, and held him somewhere in these hills.
As Alard’s path became more overgrown, he felt the itch of being watched. Of course, it was probably just nerves, but Singing now for confirmation would give him away too early. Finally, a scout slipped up, and shifted in a tree at just the wrong moment. If he hadn’t been expecting a scout, he might have missed it entirely.
False birdcall heralded his coming, and, within minutes, four rough looking woodsmen stepped out onto the path to block both his advance and his retreat. They wore plain leathers and green wool cloaks. Two of them levelled crossbows at Alard, and the other two wielded axes.
“Halt right there. Are you lost?” The man in the front said. His face was deeply crease with age, more than the others and was built like a farmer, not a warrior, but the long-handled axe he held was made for cutting men, not wood, if the wicked spike on its back was anything to go by.
“Ah!” Alard said, putting on his most congenial smile, “An audience.” He pulled out his lute and slung one foot over his horse’s head to cross it on his knee and then leaned towards the leader, “That’s all a man needs in life.” He strummed on the lute, looking at him, “Wherever you go, you aren’t truly lost if you’ve found what you’re looking for.”
The men glanced between each other while Alard plucked a quizzical tune, mirroring their confusion.
“Check his bags before we send him to the chasm,” the man with the axe said, nodding to the others behind Alard.
Alard leaped from the horse, and stepped away from the men before they could drag him down and lilted, “A shame, what they say about men turned to banditry- So witless and vapid they’d steal what was given for free.”
Their spokesman went red-faced, but the others ignored Alard. They were so focused on the saddlebags that they paid him no mind.
It wouldn’t do for Alard to be robbed of the reactions he deserved. How rude, what kind of audience is this? “SO stupid, in fact, all insults must be plain,” he continued, foregoing the lute and pointing at each one. “You’re an idiot, you’re an idiot, you’re an idiot twain.”
Finally, it seemed, Alard had struck a cord. The quick search revealed nothing within his saddle bags and pouches, so the men took out their bruised egos on Alard, shoving him against a tree.
“Talk again, and you’ll lose a tongue.” Their leader said as they frisked Alard for a purse, tossing his lute and hat to the side.
“I could lose e’en my tongue, and I’d still say far too much for the small minds of brutes,” Alard canted, stressing the metre obnoxiously.
This man would take no more, it seemed. Alard questioned, for a moment, whether he’d taken it too far. He’d always been told that he would one day find himself on the end of a sword. An axe will do just fine, I suppose, he thought.
The man lifted his weapon, but in that moment a scout dropped out of the trees next to him. She eyed Alard, but turned her back to him and whispered into the man’s ear, holding a paper up to show him something.
Alard craned his neck against his captors, trying to get a look at the paper, but could not glimpse it. While they were distracted, he clicked his tongue, and his horse tore away form their captors and returned along the path, winding away from them.
The leader of the Alard’s captives glared at the retreating horse, “Leave it.” He took the paper roughly and held it up to inspect it, comparing it to Alard.
“Oh! Is it a likeness? Please, let me see. I’d love to know how my reputation has gone before me,” Alard said.
That they had a sketch of Alard at all was worrisome—few people should consider him important enough to spread his face about. Certainly no-one in this part of the world. Although, evidence would suggest that he revise that evaluation.
Still, this should help with his plan, anyway.
Thrusting the paper back to the scout, the man waved her away and punched Alard in the gut, winding him. “It seems we’ve been waiting for you. I’ll not have the pleasure of killing you today, I guess,” he said. Then, to Alard’s captors, “Bag him.”
A burlap sack went over Alard’s head, and the men began dragging him down the road.
“Thank you for the mask, good fellow, it saves me from your stench. I—“ Alard would later reflect on the rudeness of being cut off mid-insult, but for now he was unconscious as a thug struck him on the side of the head.
What felt like a moment later, they shocked Alard back to consciousness with a bucket of cold water on his face. He coughed and spluttered, shying away from it and curling up into a ball on the cold, stoney floor.
Clearing his throat of water and mucus, Alard tried to push himself up off the floor. Not only did his head ring with the familiar ache of a serious blow, but his back and shoulders were sore, too.
He didn’t know what treatment he’d undergone while unconscious, but the ache in his ribs and neck felt familiar to past experiences being carried around and tossed in cells carelessly, I really should stop this sort of thing, he told himself.
On his knees, he scrubbed his face of water and looked around. The cell was wide enough for him to lie down in, with a pile of straw in one corner and bucket in another. “What a charming place,” he said. The words were muffled by the ringing in his ears.
As his mind cleared, he realised that there was someone pacing outside his cell. The woman was gesturing as if speaking to a crowd, but the only other people Alard could see were two of the men who’d taken Alard captive.
Alard picked at his ear, trying to clear it out and return his sense of hearing. They popped, and the woman’s voice came through muffled, but unintelligible.
The woman turned during her speech and looked at Alard, as if it was all directed at him. She was still talking with a satisfied smile on her face.
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU,” Alard said in a loud voice. He knew it would be louder than he intended, but he couldn’t help raising his voice, trying to hear himself. “ARE YOU TALKING TO ME?” The ringing intensified. It was annoying, but Alard took it as a sign things were returning to normal. “JUST WAIT, WE CAN TALK IN A MINUTE.” The woman still appeared to be speaking, so Alard gestured to his ears and shrugged.
The ringing faded just in time to catch some of what the woman was saying, “… will seem to tell me why you are worth so much.”
She stopped, waiting for a reply, but Alard couldn’t decipher what else she had said. The room held four cells, but he was the only occupant. Phase one of the plan wasn’t going well—not that plans ever went accordingly.
Alard always considered plans to be more like a rough guess of what would play out, rather that a script to follow. Well-laid plans were for tales and songs, after everything had already happened and you could sit down and figure out which were the important parts to tell, and in which order.
“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter,” she said after realising that he would not answer. “I’ll get my reward money and you’ll be out of our hair. Everybody wins, except you.”
“It sounds like you win twice,” Alard said. “I’m sorry, reward? How much am I worth?”
The woman clicked her tongue and turned to pace across the front of Alard’s cell again, “Haven’t you been listening to a word I said? Three thousand gold for your capture—alive. What makes you worth that much? No-one seems to have an answer for that question.”
Alard didn’t respond, his mouth was dry and his jaw felt jittery. Suddenly, his plan was unraveling and threatened to become a knot of chaos. “How far away is your payment, would you say?” He asked, trying to project a calm air.
She laughed, “Wouldn’t you like to know? Far enough that you’ll have the chance to talk—there’s a lot of pain between alive and dead.” She strode out of the room without another word and, for once, Alard found himself speechless as the guards followed her out, leaving him alone by the light of a single lamp.
It had been a long time since Radigar had been this close to recovering him. Alard needed a way out. The mission would have to wait for another day. What am I thinking? He thought, this mission is over for good, I have to leave everything behind. Again.
Alard tore off a button from the sleeve of his coat and ran his finger along the edge. The was a small groove that, when Alard pried it with his fingernail, rotated a thin blade out of the button. It was small, but sharp enough to facilitate Alard’s escape.
He rolled up the pant on his right leg, then braced himself for the sting of pain while feeling for the right spot in the soft flesh of his calf. Before he could cut, though, the door to the room slammed open.
A burly man wearing chain-mail had kicked it open, and backed into the room, pulling another prisoner with him. The prisoner was yelling down the hallway behind them, trying to resist the guard, “I’ve served my purpose—we had a deal!”
“Get in yer pen, fool,” the guard said between grunts of effort. “Deals with the Stormhill Raiders are less than dirt to us.”
Alard palmed the blade and winced, as the point easily cut his hand. He covered himself by rolling up the other pant leg. It was unnecessary, though. As the thug focused on subduing his new prisoner. It seems my luck as taken a pleasant turn, he thought.
“Ah!” Alard said and moved closer to the bars of his cell. “A bedfellow. Thank you, my good man. It was getting lonely in here.”
The guard shoved the man into the cell next to Alard and slammed the door, panting with the exertion. He didn't look at Alard at all.
Calling after the man, Alard said, “I couldn’t tempt you to let me out of here, could I?” The guard ignored him and shut the door behind him. “I suppose not,” Alard said under his breath.
“Curse you to the Chasm!” Alard’s new cell mate said at the top of his lungs as he kicked the bars.
Perhaps the mission isn’t lost after all, a little extra coin will go a way to help me disappear again; Alard thought.
He sat down on the floor and took the hidden blade to the soft skin on the side of his calf. “I’m not sure I plan on staying here long. How about you, my friend?”
Blood ran down Alard’s leg, the cut extended a few inches across: enough to split the flesh a pull out a small metal object.
“What under giant’s gaze are you doing?” Alard’s actions had drawn the man’s attention away from the closed door as Alard held up the bloodied object. A grin blossomed on the man’s face, “A tuning fork! Where does it lead?”
“Safety and security.” The man reached through the bars between their cells, beckoning for Alard to grasp his hands. Alard took his time, wiping the blood from the tuning fork and gently Singing a Song of healing to seal the wound on his calf.
“A Singer, I can’t believe my luck today,” the man said with glee. Where Alard was from, Singers were common enough that it had become a commodity. Out here, Radigar’s conquest had, quite deliberately, sucked up every Singer that raised its head. There was no-one to resist the Great Unification if Radigar held all the power.
“We’ve both been lucky today,” Alard wiped his leg and rolled his pant legs down again, straightening his clothing. He pointedly ignored the man’s urgency until he was ready. “Now,” he said, and they grasped forearms as if in friendly greeting. The other man’s arm was bent awkwardly because of the bars, but Alard didn’t put himself out to accommodate.
Alard Sung, a single clear note that, after so long, came naturally to him. The note was unique for the place they stood in. Some primal part of Alard’s mind could feel the world around him resonate with it, and he picked it up and sounded it out.
While Singing, he struck the tuning fork on his knee and held it up to an ear. The tuning fork resonated with a clear, beautiful note, but behind the sound was something more, a way to reach through, almost.
Using the fork as a guide, Alard moved between the two distinct sounds, until he could discern only one clear sound, matching that of the tuning fork. Then he poured his energy into that note.
Moving by tuning fork thousands of times had given Alard a natural feel for when it was ready. It took only moments really, but it was easy to get lost in the note’s depth. A note that seemed to tell the tale of the location to which it was attuned. It was more than a mere sound.
When Alard cut off the sound, both his own Singing and the tuning fork, he expected it to continue. The world around him should have Sung, resonating with the pure note of another place. Instead, the cell dropped into deafening silence.
Alard sighed in resignation. “What did you do wrong?” The man asked.
“Nothing,” Alard said. He knocked on the cell’s bars and rested a finger on one, feeling the vibrations that he’d caused. He nodded and sat on the cell floor. “It’s Sung metal, obviously designed prevent Movement.” Sung metals were not uncommon, they had many different purposes, but this was unexpected.
“What?” The man looked at the bars himself, and then shook his head, “Try again. Come on, they will kill me.”
“I’m no cheap tavern troupe. I’ve Sung, and Movement is blocked. We’ll have to think of another way out.” Alard placed a hand on the bars, and Sung a discordant tune. High and low pitches fought against each other. He Sung Life and Death, he Sung the Winds and the Earth, he Sung Light, and he Sung Darkness.
At the Crescendo, the bars should have shattered, but they simply vibrated softly, almost audibly, as they absorbed the power he poured into them. They’d designed the entire cell to prevent a Singer from escaping. They’ve been planning this for some time. With help from Worlaia, no doubt, Alard thought.
“What did that do?” That man asked with hope.
“Perhaps you can tell me: what breathes fire and flies? Or what, beyond that great chasm, lies? Easier still, let’s check right now, what can we find behind your two eyes?” The riddle, sung without accompaniment, would do in a pinch, but Alard wasn’t likely to repeat it in the retelling of this story.
Contrary to Alard’s usual victims among the ne’er-do-wells he encountered, this man did not lash out in anger—because of misunderstanding, not fury at being mocked—instead, he considered for a moment and then nodded with a smile, “Nothing.” The man’s grin faded and he repeated, “Nothing,” as he realised they were stuck.
“I’m impressed,” Alard nodded to the man with respect. “I’ve measured you unfairly, though I suppose Sefdin Berg, the leader of the Stormhill Raiders, would have to have a few wits about him, wouldn’t he?”
Sefdin’s eyes narrowed, “Who are you?”
“I was hoping to escape here first, then reveal my masterful plan, to your shock and amazement, at the most opportune time, but it looks like I must abandon you to your fate.”
“A bounty hunter, then?” He asked.
Alard bowed, “I like to think of myself as the bounty hunter, but you do as you like.”
Sefdin began inspecting his own bars and the lock to his cell, now that it was clear Alard would have no easy escape for them. “A bounty hunter with a bounty on his head. Ironic, isn’t it—a criminal hunting criminals?”
“Not as uncommon as you’d think. I’m no criminal, though. It’s just a misunderstanding.”
“Of course it is,” he shook the door in frustration, and sat back down on the rushes. “There’s nothing else you can try?”
“Perhaps one thing, though it will probably also attract unwanted attention.”
“Can it get worse right now?”
“It can always get worse.”
They both stood in silent agreement, the bars between them almost disappearing. Alard decided it was worth the risk. He made himself as comfortable as was possible on the rushes, and Sang.
This time it was quiet, and almost inaudibly low. He worked his way up through the scales until the pitch was beyond human hearing. Distant dogs barked—which, in Alard’s estimation, was the true downside of this Song.
He continued the Song, singing in a unique pattern, and power flowed from the world around him, roused by the Song. It flowed through him and back out into the world—a call for help. Alard was unaware of the surrounding room. The man in the other cell asked what he was doing, and demanded that he respond until the door to the cells opened violently.
The Song consumed Alard, so he did nothing as his cell door opened, and a boot kicked him in the face—cutting off the Song.
As Alard recovered from the blow, the woman who’d spoken to him earlier reached down and retrieved Alard’s tuning fork from the ground. “You won’t be needing this,” she said. She left the cell, locking it behind her, and tossed the key to a guard. “If he tries that again, beat him senseless.”
“Perhaps our previous deal meant nothing, but we can make a new deal. You have leverage. What do you want?” The man beside Alard asked, reaching through the bars.
The woman paused, looking over a shoulder at him, “You have nothing we want. Without you, your people will fold, and everything will be mine anyway.”
She ignored the man’s pleas and turned to the guard who’d entered with her. “Don’t bother me again,” she said, leaving them alone.
This time, the guard remained in the room, leaning against the inside of the door with folded arms. By the look on his face, he blamed Alard for getting on the boss’s bad side. The man in the cell beside Alard’s rested his forehead against the bars in frustration.
Alard sat down again, resuming his posture and trying to ignore the headache that hounded him now.
Maybe his signal for help reached the Constabulary, maybe it didn’t. But he could still use this to escape. He began Singing again, but this time made himself more aware of his surroundings. It would reduce the Song’s usefulness, but the guard couldn’t tell the difference at this range.
“Hey, that’s enough!” The guard demanded as he approached the cell door. Alard ignored him and continued to Sing, to little effect.
The guard fumbled with the key and unlocked the door. Alard readied himself, and right before the guard stuck him, Alard struck first. He stunned him with a fist to the temple before twisting around the man and choking him until he fell unconscious.
Alard dropped the guard, unconcerned with him now, and locked him in the cell using the man’s own key. “Well, the cat’s out of the bag, as they say, I won’t pretend its not. You can take your chances with the Constabulary, or stay here and rot.”
“Just open the cell and get me out of here.”
“As you wish,” Alard bowed deeply, with an obnoxious flourish, as Sefdin left his cell. “Follow close behind me, and do as I say.”
Alard wasn’t sure what he would find beyond the door to this room. Having been unconscious when they brought him in. He’d been expecting that—planned for it, in fact—but he decided that next time he would’t take the chance. His exit strategy wasn’t as fool-proof as he thought.
Peering out of the room, Alard took in his first look at the rest of the caves the Soverkemp called their home. They had carved the room with the cells out of solid rock with more care than the tunnel, because of the need to install the cells, Alard guessed. Instead of uniform walls, a pathway through a natural tunnel was worn by flowing water down its centre.
With little else to go on, Alard chose the downward slanting path. Surely the water would flow out somewhere. He waved Sefdin behind him, but didn’t look to see if the man followed. Alard hummed as he walked and matched his gait with the Song’s cadence. The low tones extended down through the stone floor and along the tunnel in both directions, lending him a heightened awareness of the world around him. It wasn’t nearly as effective as Worlaia’s would have been, but Alard had been doing this alone long enough to get by.
He slowed as they approached a bend, feeling the vibrations of three people moving from around the corner. Alard hugged the inside of the corner, and prepared for a fight, but the footsteps became fainter and subsided.
Still, they proceeded cautiously. Around the corner the tunnel opened into a wider cave with the small stream of water flowing through its centre, lit by sunshine peaking through rocks above. Wide planks of wood had been placed across the stream to allow for crossing over it, but it wasn’t currently wide enough to need it. Alard assumed when the summer brought melted snow down from the hills, the small stream would become big enough to warrant a bridge.
To Alard’s right as he entered was a flattened area with a cook fire, tables, and chairs. No one sat in that area, but the fire was glowing, and a pot was simmering above it.
The stream continued out the other end of the cave, but through a very low tunnel—not a viable way out. Instead, he inspected the few tunnels leading away from the main cave. One was lit by at least one torch secured to the wall, the other remained dark.
“Do you know the way out?” Alard whispered to Sefdin. The man pointed to the dark tunnel without speaking, but Alard considered for a moment before asking, “And where would we find that woman?”
Sefdin pointed to the other tunnel. Alard decided quickly, it would be worth the risk to get the tuning fork, making their escape much cleaner. He went down the torchlit tunnel. Sefdin was reluctant follow, now. He seemed to be considering leaving the other way. Alard spared him a glance, but no more.
The torches lit his way along the tunnel, and he still didn’t encounter anyone for most of the way. Soon enough, Sefdin caught up to him. Towards the end of the tunnel he felt the low rumble of his Song return to him through the stone, changed by is journey. Two people were standing somewhere ahead, and one paced back and forwards.
When they got within earshot, Alard heard muffled tones from ahead. He advanced cautiously until he reached a door set into the end of the tunnel. This area was carved out from the rock as well.
An argument was under way in the other room.
“—you’ve thought you can do whatever you want. Just remember who put you where you are,” the first voice said.
A woman laughed, “You like to hold on to your past glories, don’t you, Rikard? There will be plenty of time to kill Sefdin, you can even do it yourself when that time comes, but for now he is too valuable.” It was the woman from earlier, their leader. Alard sighed with relief, although not hard to come by, a tuning fork was tuned to a specific location to enable Movement, this one was already tuned to a safe house—Alard didn’t want to leave a key to his safe house in an enemy’s hand.
The woman continued, “You might have been doing me a favour all those years ago, and I have more than rewarded you for that, but if you think you have any control here, you are sorely mistaken. I will run this crew whichever way I want to, and you will follow. Or you can join that Stormhill dog in the chasm.”
There was a pause before the scuff of feet warned Alard to step out of the way, and gently press Sefdin against the wall. The door concealed them as it swung wide and the man, Rikard, left down the tunnel.
They waited a few long minutes while Alard focused on the Song that made him more aware of the world around him. It didn’t work as well without moving, because the Singer’s body wasn’t in sync with the Song and their surroundings, but it still afforded Alard a sense of what the woman on the other side of the door was doing, and would warn him if anyone approached from behind.
Once he was sure that the woman was staying in the room, and the man wasn’t returning, Alard grasped the door handle, took a deep breath between beats, and surged into the room.
His Song moved from the low tones of a deep, earthy awareness to the high, excited tones of wind. They flowed with his body, granting him heightened speed and agility. The woman was leaning over her desk, facing away from Alard. It had been a long time since Alard had battled with Song, but today would not bring a fresh challenge.
The speed of the Song carried Alard across the room, and before the woman could even turn around, Alard grappled her to the ground, and choked her to unconsciousness.
Alard ended the Song, sighing with regret as the agility left with it. He stood up, “Battling with Song is no quiet matter, we’d best be off,” he said to Sefdin.
In moments, Alard closed the door and blocked it with a chair. When he turned back, Sefdin held the woman’s crossbow to her chest. Alard cried out, “No!” but he shot her without a moment’s hesitation. “Why would you do that? She knew everything about Soverkemp’s operation. The Constabulary could have used that.”
“Better for the Stormhill Raiders that she never live to tell those secrets.” Alard eyed the crossbow in his hand. “Don’t worry,” Sefdin said, dropping it. “There’s only one bolt in it, but even if I could have shot you, I need you to escape. Where’s that tuning fork?”
Alard crouched beside the woman’s lifeless corpse. He closed his hands over the tuning fork within her pocket with relief.
All told, Alard’s day was looking bright, he’d recovered his bounty, and he also wouldn’t find his head on a pike above Radigar’s front gate. Alard had learned to take the small victories in life.
Of course, Alard would have to leave the area and start again somewhere else, running from Radigar again. One thousand miles was not far enough to run from Radigar. The edge of the world would not be far enough, Alard thought.
Once more, Alard and Sefdin clasped hands and he began Singing. He Sung loud and clear, this time, Moving was not a stealthy endeavour. He Sung the note of the cave, it was deep and full of meaning. Listening carefully enough, Alard was sure that anyone could hear, within that note, the Song of this cave’s long life, its natural formation over centuries, followed by the rapid and violent formations made by man. There was blood in these stones, and betrayal.
Alard could have spent a lifetime listening to that tone, hearing the story of the world around him, but he struck the tuning fork on the desk and let the new tone ring out, overpowering the other.
Vaguely, Alard was aware of the room door banging, before the chair which held it shut splintered. Men piled into the room as Alard stopped Singing, but this time instead of silence, the tuning fork’s tone filled the room and the world blurred away as Alard and Sefdin Moved from the small, dark cave to a brightly lit glade twenty miles away.
Alard covered his face with the wide palms of his hands and squatted down to the ground, letting out a sigh and waiting for the slight dizziness to pass. Even he didn’t know whether it was a sigh of relief, exhaustion, or dread.
He’d expected a rush of questions from the waiting Constabulary, so once he’d recovered he looked up, confused at their silence. The glade wasn’t filled with waiting soldiers, as he’d arranged. Instead, the glade, with its soft carpet of wildflowers, echoed with the chitter of birds, and the cottage on the north edge stood silent.
Alard reached down, taking Sefdin by the wrists and forcing him onto his feet as well. The man wasn’t accustomed to Movement, if his prostrate posture was anything to go by. Alard recalled his first experience with Movement, it had taken time to be able to recover as fast as he had.
Alard herded Sefdin a few steps toward the cottage before noticing the dead men at one end of the clearing. He was tempted to rush over, but held himself back with battle-honed focus. Now was not the time.
Only a few dead compared the number of soldiers that should be here. When they warily approached the cottage, Alard attempted to glean something from the inside with his Song of awareness.
He knew what to expect, and cut off his Song in resignation when he felt it. The cottage was empty. More empty than was natural. The inside of the cottage was being warded by Song.
Alard dropped all pretence of stealth and opened the front door. Soldiers crammed the inside, crouched against one another, and tied-up by rope. He shoved Sefdin in, against the other captives. The members of Alard’s old quartet—Lothar, Worlaia, and Solvara—and a new kid Alard didn’t recognise lounged at the small table in the centre of the building.
It was bittersweet seeing them. Memories of his time fighting for the Warlord, Radigar, as part of his most elite quartet were filled with regret, but these three were the closest thing to a family that Alard had, at least since his childhood.
“We thought you would never arrive, Alard,” Selvara said as she carved a pattern into the table with her dagger. “Did those bandits give you more trouble than you expected?”
Alard ignored the goad, “The soldiers I’ve been working with have nothing to do with this. How many of them did you kill?”
Lothar was always more outspoken than the others, he stroked his flamboyant, braided beard and said in a soft voice, “Come now, you know us better than that, Alard. Only a few died. We made efforts.”
“I would have killed none,” Alard replied.
“We made efforts,” he repeated.
“It doesn’t matter,” Worlaia said, standing from the table and ending the Song of silence. “You know it’s over now. Otherwise you would have come in fighting. Let’s return to Radigar.” Her Song was always deep, clear, and firm; which made it a surprise to hear her speak so gravelly.
Alard softened his gaze, “What happened?”
“A story for another day,” she said, dismissing his concerns. “You’ve been away for awhile.”
Alard didn’t want leave the conversation there, but took her hint and moved on with a nod,“Is this my replacement, then?” He gestured to the man he didn’t recognise. He was thin, and wore two daggers at his hips. Alard switched to his lilting tones. “The shoes don’t quite fit yet, he’s barely a kid. Of course, on me, they never really did.”
“Great giants of old! He’s still rhyming?” Lothar said, rolling his head back to face the heavens. “Can we just shut him up and be on our way?”
Sefdin had finally recovered and stood up, “I don’t know what’s going on here but—“
Worlaia’s heavy fist knocked the man back down, “He’s your bounty right?” She asked.
“Too bad if he wasn’t,” Alard raised an eyebrow and his mouth twisted into grin.
“Well, they can take care of him from here,” she stabbed a thumb behind her at the room full of subdued soldiers. “You’re coming with us.”
Alard sighed, “Come now. How long are you going to hunt me for that man? Surely enough is enough.”
“You don’t run away with a man’s daughter and live to tell of it,” Selvara said. “You knew what you were getting into when you fell in love with Amelda—ever the fool.”
“How is Amelda?”
Worlaia unhooked a hinged collar of Sung steel plates and approached Alard warily, “She misses you, of course.”
“Perhaps I’ll see her again?” Alard said as the collar closed around his neck, “I never was able to finish playing the Odes for her.”
“I doubt it,” Worlaia said, almost sadly.
Selvara untied the Commander of the Constabulary and lifted him from the floor, “Apologies for your involvement in all of this. Don’t free your men until we leave, and you’ll have no more trouble from us.”
“I’m sorry, friend, that you’re mixed up in this,” Alard said. “I thought I was free of this life.”
The Commander grimaced and took his own bonds to Sefdin’s wrists, “I don’t know what you’re mixed up in, but I recommend you not return to Litstad—I can’t promise no blame will fall on you for these deaths.”
Alard nodded and touched the collar around his neck. It felt like no more than cold steel, but Alard knew it deadened his voice.
“Come,” Worlaia yanked on the chain connected to Alard’s collar. She towed him out of the cottage and around the back to where four horses waited.
“We aren’t Moving? This will take much longer,” Alard asked.
Worlaia scoffed. “And trust you not to mess with the Movement? No thank you. You’ll keep that collar on.” The collar’s properties would prevent Movement while Alard wore it, unfortunately he’d have no chance to alter the Song of Movement and gain some advantage—escape would’ve to come by another route.
Alard sighed as they hauled him onto the back of a horse, then he sang:
Daring, bold, courageous—more,
to den of thieves he braved.
Sought to find the serpent’s head,
dwelt below those caves.
Such danger faced without a thought,
of life of limb of liberty.
Bonds he broke against all odds,
to chain that serpent finally.
With those chains, I made to fly,
Flew straight into my past.
Brother, sisters, back with me,
To pay for love at last.
“Can someone shut him up?” Lothar said from ahead.
“You can take the Song out of a man, Lothar, but you cannot make him stop singing. That’s one thing that, despite my best efforts, you never learned from me.”
Alard transitioned to a rowdy tune he knew they would be more familiar with, for old time’s sake.
“You sound little more than a tavern troupe, does a Singer of your renown have no dignity?” The new kid asked. He was riding in the rear, looking at Alard with disdain.
“No song is too small for these pipes,” Alard said. “Besides, a man walking to his execution deserves the right to choose his funeral march.”
The group went silent, he took up his song again, but now none complained.