Owen felt the track of the studded boot, his rough hand brushing the edge of the neatly imprinted mark in the dry mud. He swore to himself. It had been several days since rain, and the barbarians tracks would have taken time to dry. He stood, turning to the two horses, one of them ridden by an old man.
Owen turned and threw a leg over the small mare, Willow, and kicked her into a trot, following the heavily beaten trail of the barbarian raiders. He was tired, and sore. His wounds from the battle three days before ached painfully. He continued to scan the area ahead.
He was not sure where they were, exactly, except that they were farther north than he had ever been. He looked across the rugged terrain, covered in brush and rocks, and wondered if he would ever catch up to the raiders that had struck such a blow to both the rebellion and his heart. He turned, and began trotting up one of the tall, steep hills that filled this part of the empire.
It was rough and rocky going, but he finally made it to the top, and looked across the expansive foothills. Ahead, the foothills continued, but he could see something only a few miles ahead. A silver stream of water broke the rugged terrain, and sitting on top of it was a city. He brought out the map from his satchel.
The city was Lengbridge, the military stronghold protecting Drenna from the south. The best crossing of the Leng River was protected by stone walls and a massive garrison, combined probably larger than the army that had attacked the rebellion. Owen knew that going through it would be their best chance of keeping up with the barbarians, and people would know if the horde had passed through.
He glanced back. To the south lay miles of rough terrain. Somewhere, he knew, was the town of Moransford, and further south, the rebel camp. His friend, practically brother, Kallan, was there. Owen looked north again, then steeled himself and trotted down the steep slope.
The old man, Ewan, had not spoken since they broke camp early in the morning. Owen glanced back at him. The old man had followed him quietly for the past few days, not saying much, and not questioning Owen’s course. Now the old man trotted up next to him.
“What do you plan to do when you find her?”
Owen was silent for a moment, slowing his horse to a walk. “I will have to see the situation before I do anything.”
The old man nodded. “Of course.” He thought for a moment, his tanned, wrinkled face utterly serious. Owen thought silently for several minutes. The old man broke the silence.
“What happened to the other girl? Nai, was her name, correct?”
Owen nodded silently. “We weren’t… suited.” He said shortly. The old man seemed to be waiting. “It took me too long to realize that. I was always so shy… I always wished I could have gotten up the courage to talk to her… now I wish I had, just so I could have realized when things were simpler.” He sighed. The old man nodded slowly.
“Lessons are learned through mistakes. Remember it as a lesson, and don’t break yourself down over it.” The old man smiled. “The only way to learn is the hard way, through mistakes, or by listening to someone wise…” he smiled mischievously, “Like me, for example.” Owen smiled, and kicked his horse into a trot, signaling that the conversation was over for the time being.
His body ached from hard riding, but he knew he must continue on. He winced as his blisters scraped against the saddle through his trousers. He sat up, trying to relieve some of the pressure by placing all of the weight in the stirrups, but he was so tired that his legs soon grew sore. He finally resigned himself to the pain.
Ewan hummed quietly while they rode, and Owen was silent. He had much to think of and plenty of time. Finally he looked up.
“Why has this all happened?”
Ewan looked a bit surprised. “All of what?”
“Everything… why? Why must so many die? And why must fate lead me through such a winding path of terror?”
Ewan frowned. “I cannot answer that, as I do not have the power to sit on the banks of the river of time and see all that has and will happen. All that I know is that for all things there is a purpose. For every evil deed there is a happy ending. You may never have peace.” He sighed.
Owen sat, wondering, his thoughts went from place to place, travelling in a disjointed circle until they came to rest on one subject: his father. Martin, the soldier, the scout, a father for only a short time… suddenly, something clicked in his head. Cardowac… Martin… He experienced a mixed reaction of fear, hEwan, and anger as something seemed to fall into place. No… it can’t be…
A dream… two boys, raised together in a small village. One joined the army; another joined the rebels destined to form the empire. One was betrayed; another was the betrayer. One was a father; the other killed him. Owen tried to comprehend what he knew to be true, but he had no proof… Owen turned and looked at the old man, desperate for someone to confirm this terrible thought.
“Did you know my father?”
Ewan seemed caught off guard. “Martin?”
Owen looked up in surprise. “You did know him!”
Ewan shook his head. “No, only briefly.”
Owen pulled up, stopping his horse. “Yet you know he was my father?”
Ewan seemed to stiffen, as if he had said more than he wanted to already. He was silent. Owen’s eyebrows narrowed.
“You know him more than you care to tell… who are you? What do you want? Why are you following me? What are you not telling me?”
The old man sat silently for a moment, appearing trapped. “I am just an old man who has seen some potential in a certain lad, and thinks that his quest is just. I only want to be an aid to the boy.”
Owen frowned. “What of Cardowac? Do you know of him?”
The old man nodded slowly. “Yes, I knew him.”
Owen looked at him. “Did he kill my father?”
Ewan stiffened again. “If the note pinned with an arrow to your fathers back was truly his, yes.”
Owen looked at the old man carefully. “How do you know this?”
“I was told.”
Owen scowled at the old man’s evasiveness. “By whom?”
“Someone who was very close to your father.”
The old man remained quiet. “I will answer no more prying questions, Owen. My own life is my own business.”
Owen frowned, trying to decipher this riddle, but thought it best to end the conversation for now. He turned and rode through the rugged and beautiful terrain toward Lengbridge