Rens pulled his dagger out of the fire and hurriedly blew on the meat.
He didn’t want to burn it, not right now. They weren’t exactly running low on supplies but he was running low on supplies he trusted.
More and more of the soldiers were beginning to follow Natasi’s orders as easily as his own. Many were expressing their confidence in her almost daily.
And there would be nothing wrong with that normally. She had been assigned as being in charge of this mission, and he would hope that his soldiers could learn to trust unfamiliar commanders.
But everything that Natasi was doing was wrong. She was not a good commander and she was making one bad call after another.
First she had sent them into a dell during a fog. Three horses had broken their legs, meaning they needed to cut into their spares before they should have. The smart decision would have been to examine the dell on foot first, and waited until the fog burned off.
There had been talk after that, but not as much as he had expected.
Then they had somehow ‘run afoul’ of a group of bandits. Bandits never operated in such close proximity to Castle Destria, or were never operating when it was so close. They would hole up and wait for a day when they were less likely to die.
And it was not like they had even walked in on their hiding place either.
The bandits had jumped them in the middle of the road.
Finishing the meat, Rens got up and began an inspection of the camp. He wanted to try and see if he could figure out why his soldiers all loved Natasi. Was she secretly giving them favours while he was not paying attention? Or was she somehow managing to bribe them?
He knew that no soldier was incorruptible, but he had thought his men made of sterner stuff.
He managed a few steps before he began to feel a little lightheaded. He paused and surreptitiously leaned against a tent post while pretending to examine the campsite.
These dizzy spells had also grown far more frequent, but only if he stayed still for too long.
Oddly enough riding didn’t make him dizzy. And it also didn’t happen to him everytime he stayed still.
But it was limited to when he was stationary for some time, and it was worrying him.
Was he getting sick? Or was it a curse of some kind?
Rens himself did not believe in curses, but enough of his men did that their superstition occasionally rubbed off on him. He had lucky charms in his tent and had taken to wearing a few under his shirt. Some were to make him feel better, but some he knew worked.
Or, at least he knew that one worked.
He knew that it worked for the same reason that he didn’t believe in curses or magic.
Magic didn’t exist. Everything had an explanation, and if something couldn’t be explained by the normal rules of the world then that wasn’t magic.
It was Sketching.
Curses were the excuse of those who did not know. They were the reason ascribed to bad and unexplained things, especially chains of bad events without an apparent cause. They could just be bad luck, but in a way curses did exist. They just weren’t curses.
They were the work of Sketchers.
Rens had seen one such ‘curse’ once. He had seen a man unable to die, shadows leaking from his wounds.
The man had sobbed as his tendons were sliced and his arms even lopped off. But he had still kept coming, the shadows still binding him together, holding his form as he charged the soldiers.
That man had killed so many before he had finally been stopped.
And the worst part was that the man had been the commander of the group, a good friend of Rens’. He had felt every blow, even to the parts that had been cut off. He had seen every sweep of his blade that killed his own men. He had known all of his pain and worse, all of the pain of killing them.
And he had been unable to do anything at all.
That was a curse. That was a true curse, and it had not been magic but Sketching.
Once the commander had finally been destroyed, his body set on fire, and the ashes scattered, there had been three left.
Rens had taken charge and had not allowed the others to stop until they found the Sketcher. That man had died. The others had wanted to give him a painful death, but there was no honour in that. They had misunderstood why Rens had wanted to find him.
Rens hadn’t wanted revenge; he had wanted to remove the threat to all the other soldiers out there.
So the Sketcher had had a quick execution.
And once Rens had been done with that tour of duty he had taken all his savings and spent them on one item, or amulet with a Sigil Sketched on to it then made Permanent.
It had taken quite a long time to find a Sketcher able to do what he wanted, and about half the savings had gone into allowing him to travel in search of the Sketcher.
He had finally found one, a hermit living a week’s trek into the Northlands.
The man had not wanted any coin, merely telling Rens to go buy him as much food as it would, after buying the reagents, chemicals and amulet itself.
Two weeks later Rens had left with his amulet. Sketched onto it was The AntiSigil. Not an AntiSigil, but one that could counter, deflect, or delay any Sigil that it came into contact with.
It only worked while he wore it, and only on things that directly affected him.
Since he had put it on that morning he had only gotten two dizzy spells, but they had been much worse than the previous ones.
However, they had only come twice, as opposed to the ten or eleven he had had the other two days of this trip.
So, he was certain that it was something Sketched, but he did not know what. It could have been Sketched onto the food, hence his worries there, or it could be that someone kept Sketching and giving him these spells.
Either way, it needed to stop. He needed to figure out who it was before it was too late, before whoever it was completed their goal and stopped the mission.
He needed to find Robert!
Natasi frowned as Rens got up and moved off.
He kept moving! He never stayed still, and now he seemed to be getting paranoid. He was trying to move around more and more, rarely staying still at all in his drive to escape the dizzy spells that resulted from an incomplete Sketching.
This morning she had decided to just Sketch a dozen smaller compulsions until he was too inept and confused to do anything but rely on her command.
Instead her every attempt had been frustrated. Sometimes she had Sketched only for the Sigil to unravel as fast as she Sketched it. Other times she had managed to finish it only for it to fade and stop. Or, she had simply been unable to Finish the Sketch, something stopping her.
She didn’t know what it was, but he had obviously gotten some kind of protection. She hadn’t even know that such a thing existed, but it must. Either that or another Sketcher was interfering with her work.
Whatever the reason it that meant that she had only managed to place one compulsion on him, an idea that she could not be guilty and was above suspicion. While it seemed to be working it was indeed a finicky one. If he had already been suspicious those suspicions would remain, and if he eliminated other options he’d realize what had been done.
But, it would stop him from developing any new suspicions about her.
It should have sufficed to delay him long enough for her to finish laying the rest of the compulsions, but he had proven too difficult.
And now he was somehow protected.
It was frustrating, destroying her plans.
At least the others had fallen prey quickly enough. There were very few now left in the group who were not under a compulsion to trust her and believe her.
That thought in mind she turned back to her fire and examined the dagger sitting on her lap. Perhaps then it was time to arrange a little ‘accident’ for Captain Rens.
Robert slowed his horse to a canter as he approached the small village. He had avoided the closest village to Branwen’s farm, not wanting to cast suspicion on her.
But the next village over should be fine. And he was running out of food, so even if he had wanted to stay away longer he could not have.
The village below looked calm and peaceful. It was refreshing to see that the land that he had been told hated him and was suffering could look so nice, could appear so without suffering.
Smiling a bit stupidly he kicked his horse back into a canter as he rode down towards it. He was going to need to buy food, buy a bedroll, and then find out where he actually was in relation to the Castle’s landing sight, frequent haunts, and other pre-arranged meeting places. And maybe it’d be faster to head for the nearest border tower or some other military camp.
And then that’d allow him to get an escort and return much faster, without the need for secrecy.
Putting those thoughts behind him he rode into the town. It was quiet, sleepy almost, but there were people about. They gave him some odd looks; a single soldier out here all alone on a horse? It didn’t make much sense, but as he tied his horse to a hitching post they looked away.
He was grateful for that because it meant that they didn’t see him take three tries to do it right. Branwen had taught him a lot, but he had not been able to master knots in so short a time.
He just hoped that nobody tried to steal his horse.
Stepping into what appeared to be some kind of general store he was struck by the abundance of things. So many types of things, from arrows to food, barding to bait and tackle, furs to simple cloth.
After a moment he became aware of the small man trying to get his attention.
“Ah, yes, welcome! How may I help you?”
Robert wove through the stacks of merchandise to stand at the counter.
“I’m looking to get a few things”
“Ah, then you’ve come to the right place! This is Rackam’s, best place in town to get anything at all! I’m Rackam”
“Marlan, but I often go by Soldier”
“Pleasure to meet you Soldier! Now then, now then, what do you need?”
Robert was having trouble getting any kind of read on the man. He seemed like a pleasant enough fellow, but he was also a merchant.
And in Robert’s rather limited experience all merchants were liars, at least a little.
“I’m looking to get some food supplies. I’ve been travelling and I need enough to get me some ways. I’d also like a bedroll if you have one, and a map. I seemed to lose mine and may have lost my way as well. Where am I?”
The man had already begun to pull things off the shelves into a sack as he answered.
“Ah, well, you’re in Relland! Beautiful little place eh? We’re not very big, but we’re happy here. Soil is good enough that we can farm and have a little extra to sell to travelers like you and we’ve got animals in the area, enough that we can trap them for their furs. Nothing dangerous mind, no bears or lynx, just a few larger plant-eaters, moose, deer, things like that. No, nothing that can hurt people”
“It certainly is a pretty place”
Robert was still wary of the man, especially now that the topic of potential danger had come up. Was he going to try and tricky him? Convince him to buy protection, weapons, hire guards and then lure him into an ambush, rob him while he slept?
“Ok, so just the map, bedroll and rations? I packed you twenty days worth. It’ll be fifteen silver crowns, ten for the food, two for the bedroll, three for the map”
“Fifteen silver crowns?”
“Is it too much? I do try and charge fair prices, but if you can’t afford it then maybe we could trade, or you could, if you’ve time, stay and do some work or something?”
“Oh, no, its fine. I just-”
He stopped, realizing that he couldn’t tell Rackam that he had expected to be cheated.
“Did you expect me to overcharge you? You must not have spent much time out here. You on the way from one city to another? They’ll overcharge you there, but out here we’re honest. Its ok, I’m not insulted. But now its twenty silver crowns”
Rackam only managed a moment before bursting out laughing. It looked odd to see the small mousey man laughing so hard that he began to cry.
“Oh, oh, your face! It was so good, priceless! Priceless”
Finally getting control of himself Rackam smiled at the prince.
“No, its still fifteen. I just like to have my jokes. Will twenty days worth of rations be enough?”
“Likely, but I’ll have to see the map to be sure”
Rackam spread the map across the counter and pointed to a small valley.
“That is Relland here. And you’re going…?”
Scanning the map Robert soon found where Castle Destria had been.
But he was much closer to something that might be better. Robert had managed to glide halfway to the Desser River, the river used to ferry much of the trade around the island.
And there was usually a border tower or two that would follow the course of the river.
So, if he got to the nearest port he would be able to either wait for the border tower to arrive or he could take a boat to the other locations where the Castle might be. Either way it would likely save him time, food, and worry, since once he was on the boat he would not need to worry about supplies or being as inconspicuous.
And, if he got to a border tower then he could have the added benefit of sending them with the message but not returning himself. He could continue with this trip as he had always dreamed and really learn something about the people of the Destria.
He made up his mind. It really wasn’t a hard decision at all.
“How many days would it take to reach there?”
He pointed to the nearest village on the river.
“And does it have a port?”
“It has a dock if I remember right, and boats do stop there sometimes. You should be able to get there in five days, and thats if you take it at an easy trot. If you’re trying to make ground you could probably make it in three, but then your horse would be in bad shape”
“Five it is. Anywhere you suggest I stop along the way? I would prefer to be able to sleep in an inn at night, although I’m not too particular about that, hence the bedroll”
Rackam pointed out a few places which Robert marked, as well as giving him some advice on the best trails and paths.
“Thank you Rackam. You’ve been very helpful. How do you know so much about the area? I don’t imagine that running the shop leaves very much time for traveling”
“No, no it doesn’t, but I get word from others. And besides, I know how it is to go adventuring when you’re young, put aside as much money as you can and then take a trip to try and see the world, or at least your corner of it. It was that that led me to settling down here and opening the shop.
“So, I’m always glad to help out those who are doing the same”
He smiled as he rolled the map and slid it into a case.
But then his face grew serious as he looked up again.
“Watch out for bandits though. They’re dangerous, and there are a lot of them around, more than in previous years. They’re also getting more aggressive, so keep to yourself and keep safe!”
Rackam passed the bundle over as Robert counted out the coins. He was glad that it had come to fifteen silver crowns since that meant one-and-a-half gold marks, the smallest coin he was carrying. He really needed to find a way to trade them in, find some less conspicuous way to pay for things.
But for now, it was all he had, so he would deal with it.
“Thank you Rackam. You’ve been helpful, really helpful. Without your help I am confident that things would not have gone as well as they now will!”
Robert waved to the small shopkeeper as he stepped outside and began to try and undo the knot.
After a long while he mounted his horse and rode out the other end of the small village of Relland, leaving Rackam behind.