Baen and I left the Altar Brook Trading Post shortly after dawn. With the clouds hanging low and threatening in the sky, we wanted to steal as much time as we could before the rain begun again. A brief downpour in the night had turned the road to mud, and by the end of our first day’s travel I was coated to the knees in the muck. My boots and travelling skirt had taken the worst of it, as to be expected, but there had been enough puddles and a single passing cart to ensure that I’d been splattered liberally from head to toe.
It was unpleasant, but as the days pressed on and the weather only got worse I kept my complaints to myself. Grapple appeared to be genuinely enjoying romping through the filth and Baen seemed, as always, entirely unbothered by the elements. Complaining would only give her an excuse to make sport of my displeasure, bringing up matters of class and upbringing she knew nothing about.
By the fourth day the clouds parted somewhat, and the sun had dared to show itself. The wind dried, somewhat, and instead of water insisted only on sweeping wet leaves up along the hardening road. Travel became easier, and we reached the great monastery of Eldvin well before I had expected. The monks were known for their hospitality, and we’d barely entered the courtyard before we were ushered into a private room, given basins of nearly scalding water and left to wipe away the gifts the road had been so generous with. Baen gave a few of my coins one to one of the brothers while I was changing for fresh bread, dried fruit and a skin of their renown ale and briefly discussed the state of the roads ahead.
Raiding centaurs were a constant problem in these parts, and at times taking particular roads had been akin to suicide. Groups ranging from five to several dozen centaurs could descend on unwary travellers and caravans. Those the beasts didn’t kill they’d capture and drag back to their encampments, where they would spend the rest of their brutally short lives as slaves for their new masters. The Seraph did what they could to fight back, but as I’d found to be typical of them, it was rarely enough.
Our original route, fortunately, had been deemed safe by the latest reports and so, rested, mostly clean and resupplied, we were on the verge of heading out again in the late morning when a brother reappeared with another man in tow. The new face, a tanned Krytan named Halleston with dark brown hair and an easy smile, offered us a ride on the back of his cart all the way to Applenook Hamlet, practically on the doorstep of Lion’s Arch.
Baen and I discussed this privately, weighing the convenience, comfort and added safety of making the journey like this against the secrecy we were trying to maintain. I had already been using an alias – Zashi, after one of my distant ancestors – since the Varr name was not unknown in these parts and had exchanged my potentially identifying blindfold for a pair of fine silver spectacles with darkened lenses. But being in someone’s constant company for an extended period of time made a lie as encompassing as ours more difficult to maintain and make us infinitely more memorable. Ideally, everyone we interacted with should help us on our way and then immediately forget they had ever met us.
Eventually, Baen and I agreed that the benefits outweighed the risks. We reasoned that those we passed would be far less likely to remember a cart carrying three people than two women and a fern hound trudging down the muddy road. Adding to that the increased security and comfort, we took Halleston up on his offer, even offering to pay the man a few coins for his trouble which he accepted only reluctantly.
Our new travelling companion, we discovered, was not difficult company. He was curious, that was obvious, and wondered who and what we were, but accepted the story that we were looking for work in Lion’s Arch easily enough. “Times are hard, no doubts there, and getting harder.” He said, nodding and stroking his chin as if he had a beard. “Folk ought to take work wherever they can find it.” Keeping mostly to myself in the back of the cart while Baen sat up front and chatted casually with him, I found myself relieved that he spent most of the time talking about the situation in Kryta.
He wasn’t a trader as we had first surmised, but a travelling scholar affiliated with the Durmand Priory, focused specifically on recording and reporting on the current affairs in region. “I talk to people, I ask them what they think, and I write it all down. Knowledge is power, no doubts there.” I had resisted the urge to scoff at mention of the Priory, that other Order that seemed entirely too obsessed with collecting knowledge and not nearly interested enough in applying it.
Elsif, my old instructor, had often said that “Information is a weapon in the right hands, respect it, understand it, but do not hesitate to wield it where fit”. The old Lightbringer had been right about that much, though her opinion of the Priory had been gentler than mine. Still, as Halleston was proving now, the scholars had their uses. How fitting, I mused, that the Priory unwittingly ferries the Order of Whispers to where we would do the real work of keeping Tyria safe.
“Afternoon!” Halleston greeted the dour looking guard cheerfully as we rolled to a stop at the grey stone gate of Guardian’s Pass.
“Afternoon’ to yerself.” The man grunted in reply.
“How’s the road ahead? Any trouble?”
“We’re at war, merchant.” The man sneered, and Halleston didn’t bother correcting him. “There’s always trouble on the road.”
“Any recent raids?”
“Two days ago centaurs hit a caravan, killed eight people.” The guard shrugged. “Unarmed folk though. Might leave you alone with yer empty cart and armed passengers. Might see it as too much of challenge.”
“How large was the last raid?” I asked, and the guard turned to look at me, studying my dark spectacles with disdainful, then leering, eyes.
“Don’t know. No survivors.” He said. “But nothing the likes of you want to tangle with, little lady.” I felt anger start to grow in me like a rising heat and had it not been for Baen casting a casual glance at all the other Seraph arrayed around us, reminding me that they were there, my hand would have certainly gone to my weapon.
“Thanks for the warning.” Halleston said cheerfully, oblivious to how close to violence we had come. “We’ll be careful.” The guard arched an eyebrow, then shrugged again, and we rolled on.
Had I not been in disguise, I’d have called the cur to heel. This might well be the border of Queensdale, but I was a noble of Kryta and I’d have been well within my rights to report him to his commanding officer for insolence at the very least. It didn’t help that my personal feelings towards the Seraph had never been particularly warm. Ineffectual failures, fighting all the wrong battles in all the wrong ways while touting themselves as a noble and proud organisation, something every child should aspire to join. I’d experienced just how useless they could be first hand, and how proud they could remain in their uselessness. To me, they would always be the organisation that my father had loved so much, and their lie had cost me my brother.
I remembered the last time I’d seen him. It had been through Maei’s eyes, and as it had often been her vision had been blurred by tears. Still, the image was clear in my mind, likely clearer than it had been in reality. Lucan Varr, standing resplendent in his magnificent plate mail of gleaming white and burnished silver. Already a lieutenant of the Seraph and showing more than enough promise to climb the ranks even further. The beginning of a shining career of honour and service.
He’d stood on the bridge connecting the Shaemoor garrison to the Scaver Plateau where we’d come to see him off. Blond hair flowing in the wind, strong features catching the morning light and that charming yet infinitely genuine smile on his face. He’d waved, once, and I remember my father raising his hand solemnly in farewell as the column of Seraph had marched away. Cymea had been there too, and she’d waved frantically as befitted a wife wishing her new husband well.
I’d not waved. Lucan and I had exchanged words earlier of a less than amicable nature. That was to say he’d simply been his usual calm and understanding self while I’d explained in no uncertain terms exactly what a manner of blind fool he was. He had not so much as raised his voice, simply assuring me that we’d discuss it further when he returned.
“Take care of yourself, Kae.” He’d said, as if I’d been the one going to war. “I’m going to need my big sister around to tell me what’s what when I get back.”
Lucan had been a fool. Charming, friendly, genuine to a fault, but a fool. Overconfident, too proud and too eager to impress. But a fool.
I’d called him as much before he’d left.