The gap between Waterwell and Garn’s camp was at least five days walk, although all Arlandra knew was that he was heading for the Eldar Forest, which wasn’t exactly the nicest of places. The entire edge of the forest was lined with Surian lumber workers and great machines of industrial destruction. Day after day they had at the forest, expecting it to never end and just go on forever. But the machines weren’t at all the real monsters, because beyond the tree line there dwelled much more revolting beasts.
The orcs of the Eldar Forest were massive, powerful creatures that were made of muscle and had a taste for blood. Much like the Djann, really – they could never stop fighting. They loved it. Perhaps the Surians got what they deserved when the orcs raided their lumber camps, destroyed their machines and killed their workmen. One should never dwell too far into the Forest, Arlandra’s masters had told him, or else who knows what you might find.
As they left Waterwell and the Sandra River behind them, they first passed through the shining red poppy fields. Arlandra thought of his dagger, and remembered that only two nights before he had taken the poppy from here that was meant for Juliet. He looked over the fields and saw how they sun shined off every red petal. He found peace here. This was his sanctuary, the only place in Noveria where he felt he could belong to something. Then he remembered that Juliet was with him. She was in his sanctuary.
He looked at her – not knowing a thing about her – standing there with the poppies stretching over the horizon behind her. It was like he was seeing her for the first time. He had been so focused on tracking her down, and then finding Garn, that he realised he was beginning to miss details.
The most dazzling thing about Juliet’s appearance was her hair. Arlandra had never seen anything like it before, not even in Taelliwey. Her soft dark hair flowed over her shoulders like a river where waves curled up at the end. A single streak of light rested over her left eye, past her cheek, and over her chest. She had narrow cheeks and a small nose but her eyes were bright and full. They gleamed like the poppy petals around them as she stared over the fields, admiring the sun.
Arlandra realised that it hurt for him to look at her. He found a pain deep inside, like a dagger of guilt driven deep into his heart. He would have killed, no, murdered this woman who was so full of life. He felt lost. Images of the masters flashed before his eyes and he suddenly remembered what it meant to belong to The Order. His purpose was to protect. Had he really strayed so far? I don’t belong anymore.
Juliet was kind, he saw that, and whatever her reasons her hating Garn, her cause was just. It was a long time ago when Arlandra had a purpose, a cause to fight for. The assassins took him in, gave him life, and asked only that he would take lives in return. By learning how to kill the right people, Arlandra was able to protect what was good in humanity. Since The Order fell Arlandra had been without purpose. Was this what he was meant to do?
They came to a hill among the sea of poppies. From here the wind picked up and carried through the flowers, making them dance and sway this way and that. Arlandra came up behind Juliet as she took it all in. “It’s beautiful,” she said, almost a whisper.
Each flower represented a life, and there was a vast amount of life here. “We should keep moving.”
By sundown they had reached the end of the poppy fields. Arlandra’s legs were moist up to the knee and scented with the blood of the poppies. He knew that the scent would carry with him for days. They would be in Riftsire by noon the next day. He looked back one last time over the glowing fields. “Until next time,” he said – if only to himself.
He awoke the next day to the unnerving prickle of a scorpion – the size of his hand – creeping curiously across his right shoulder. At the sight of the creature so close to his face, Arlandra cried out anxiously and swiped it away. As the creature landed and rolled on the pale-green grass, the assassin reached for his dagger and drove the blade hard into the black crustacean’s back. Half driven into the grass, the scorpion’s hairy legs quivered and its massive front claws clamped open and shut until eventually it died.
He hated scorpions. They reminded him too much of assassins. Both were – to the untrained eye – seemingly cruel and hateful creatures. Juliet awoke rather suddenly at the sound of Arlandra’s cry. She looked around sharply. “What?” she shouted. “What is it?” She saw Arlandra’s dagger and the dead scorpion, and then noticed Arlandra’s chest rise and fall dramatically as he breathed.
He looked away from the dagger. “I hate scorpions,” he breathed.
It didn’t take long for them to gather their things. Before they continued from their camp, upon awakening, Juliet noticed a thin piece of rope that had been tied to her ankle. Using her knife – a fine tool with a clean single edged blade and a handle of bronze and jastbury wood – she cut the leash from her ankle and lifted the string into the air, shooting a challenging look at Arlandra.
He was defensive to say the least. “I needed to know you wouldn’t run off,” he scowled.
They walked easily for the rest of the morning through a flat meadow of grass that was fresh and green in some parts and the colour of old lemons in others. The smell of water was thick in the air. By noon that day Arlandra and Juliet had reached Riftsire, but their stay would only be short.
Arlandra walked past the general store and glanced up at the mill, standing idly with the river by its side. He closed his eyes and in a flash, saw himself standing at the top window, with a body hanging by the neck beneath him. Arlen the farmer-man was his name, and Arlandra had never even thought of him since. He blinked the thought away and made for the general store.
It was stocky inside. A stout bearded man with a pipe stood behind the counter. Arlandra was quick to buy the supplies that he and Juliet needed for the next few days – food, water, weapons, and so on.
Next, Arlandra led Juliet to the stables so that he could retrieve his horse. Some time ago he had paid a stable boy to keep a horse ready for him, just in case he needed it. The shy stable boy led the horse out by the reigns and handed the horse to Arlandra. After patting the horse on the snout, and feeding him an apple, Arlandra mounted. “This is Fox,” he told Juliet, who was still standing on the ground.
“Where’s my horse?”
“Do you think I keep a spare?” he said rhetorically. “Either buy yourself a horse or ride with me, or you could always run there.”
Juliet shook her head in defeat and climbed up behind Arlandra. Later, the assassin made arrangements for a special saddle so that Juliet could ride more comfortably. They made their way out of the town and soon Juliet directed Arlandra to a dull old shack on the edge of the flat Taegan Valley. She needed to fetch something and she insisted that she go in alone, but Arlandra was too cautious to let that happen. Juliet merely frowned and, rolling her eyes, she let it be.
The inside of the small shack was surprisingly tidy. There were deer, wolf, and bear pelts covering the floor and tables, most likely from the Eldar Forest. A great majestic elk’s head was mounted above the only door. There were other things, too. Strange things. A table was loaded with vials, beakers and flasks. There were viewing glasses and burners, and mixes of herbs and other ingredients.
Arlandra became concerned. “Where exactly are we?”
“Don’t ask,” Juliet replied, but in response to Arlandra’s expression she said, “someone’s place – a friend of mine. She has something that we need.”
Juliet was looking around the place. She was opening containers and lifting pieces of cloth, hoping to find something. Eventually she came out with a cotton bag filled with something heavy, and from it she pulled out a device. It was something that Arlandra had never seen before. In Juliet’s hand was a cylinder shaped object – it looked heavy and was deep bronze in colour. The entire thing was encased with a shell carved of great and intricate design.
He stared at the object. “What is it?”
“It’s supposed to stop Garn’s machines from working,” she explained. “I’m not entirely sure how.”
“Couldn’t we just use dynamite?”
“This is supposed to be better.”
Arlandra had kept a few sticks of dynamite anyway, just in case. He and Juliet returned to Fox and they rode fast along the flat green valley until the sun fell and the stars and moon shined bright above them. The valley was empty tonight, and silent, save for an uproar of crickets and the sound of Fox grazing behind them.
They stopped for the night, dismounted from their horse, and set about making a fire – which was reasonably difficult when there were no trees in the Taegan Valley. Arlandra had come prepared, however, and he poured a liquid from a flask in a circle over the grass before striking a match. The fire circle went up like a ghost – burning hot and blue and then transforming to a pale orange colour. It was remarkable. The fire needed no tinder, nor fuel, and yet it continued to burn.
“What is that?” Juliet asked, looking at the bottle in Arlandra’s hand.
Arlandra smiled and took a gulp from the remainder of the bottle. “Liquid fire,” he said, “it’s good for drinking, too – interesting stuff. I brought it during my last visit in Taelliwey, from a merchant who came over the great sea.”
They ate stewed meat and herbs, and then berries afterwards. With partially full bellies and sore backs from riding they slept easy around the false fire.ns 18.104.22.168da2