It was eight hours since the last eclipse, and it would be eighteen hours until the next one. It was early midday, and Conan Renaud was fast asleep. He was leaning back against a wall with chair legs in the air and his ownlegs propped up on a nearby table, one arm dangling loosely and the other resting on the spine of a book on his chest. His morning chores had long since been completed, and it was two weeks until the merchant caravan would return to Norin with his best customers, so the man slept in his stable with no expectation of impending interruptions.
Conan's actual house was a stone's throw away from the stable, but this building was his second home. He lived and worked in it enough that somepart of him had rubbed off in it. That's what wrought daemons were, according to some of the books he had read. Everything people touched, interacted with, lived with, grew a daemon eventually, and those daemons were an extension of—and loyal to—the people who fostered them. So perhaps this stable had grown a small daemon from Conan's lifehere, and it was that daemon which itched furiously at his subconsciousness and stirred him awake.
The stablemaster opened his bleary eyes to a smirking face hovering overhim far too close for comfort. He jolted, dropping any remaining vestiges of sleep along with his book.
The face, marked by narrow yellow-green eyes, withdrew. It belonged to a man—a Galelander, judging by his tawny skin. "You are Conan Renaud," the man said. No question, only a declaration of facts.
Conan glared and leaned down to retrieve his book from the floor. "Yeah,who's askin'?" he sniffed.
"A customer," the man replied, motioning towards the stalls behind him. "I understand this is the place to come for a horse."
The stablemaster rubbed his eyes and looked the newcomer over. His clothes spoke of wealth, but that meant nothing without actual coin in hand. "It'll cost you," Conan grumbled. "I ain't runnin' a charity service."
The man smiled and held his hand over the table. His fist opened and out dropped a large coin purse, which landed with a loud, clinking thud. Several coins burst out of the bag and rolled in small circles on the table.
"I believe this will be enough for your best horse," the man said.
Conan lowered his chair from its leaning position, his eyes locked on the bag. It was enough—and then some. "If you're lookin' to buy the stable, I ain't sellin'," he said cautiously, reaching for the coinpurse.
"No, just one good horse, and only temporarily."
"How long?" Conan stacked a few coins apart from the rest of the gold.
"Perhaps a week."
Conan nodded absently. He had withdrawn from the bag enough to cover his fees generously, but it was still only a small fraction of the amount now sitting on his table. The rest went back into the bag, which he held out to the man. "I took out my fee. It'll cover a week with any of my horses, includin' tack and enough feed to get you to Evenheim. Pick out a horse an' I'll have you ready to go within the hour."
"Thank you," the man said, his face still locked in a smile. "But I insist you keep the money. All of it."
Before Conan could protest further, the man turned on his heel and strode through the stable. Conan left the bag on the table and rushed to follow, nearly running into the man's back as he stopped to inspect the closest horse. The horses, happy to have a visitor and interested in the new man, stuck their noses out of the stalls and the man patted their velvet-soft noses in turn.
Conan wasn't sure what the man was looking for in a horse, but the man seemed to know. He spent only a few moments with each horse, rubbing their noses as he looked into their eyes, almost as if he were reading their thoughts. When he didn't find what he was looking for, he moved on, almost without warning.
He stopped longer at one stall, that of Conan's own Artemis, and tilted his head in thought. Conan tensed immediately. Artemis, a bay with a black face fading into red, was his favorite horse, and a worthy hire for any job, ifshe was available for hire. She wasn't. Conan glanced at the bag of gold resting on the table behind him, and then at the man beckoning Artemis to come closer.
"Hey, wait, she—"
—bites, Conan intended to say, but failed to get the words out before the man rested his hand on her black nose. It would have been a lie; Artemis wouldn't bite, not even a stranger, but he didn't want the man getting attached to the idea of hiring her.
"She is well-loved," the man commented, brushing her cheek. "She must be your favorite horse."
Conan shrugged. "Well, there's no denyin' that, no offense to the rest of'em," he said, "but she's not for hire. She's mine."
"Ah." The man removed his hand from the horse's cheek and made an effort to ignore her as she attempted to nibble at his cravat. "I must say, I am impressed. If she is not for hire, I would accept any horse you recommend."
Conan glared again, which might have been mistaken for a scrutinizing look since he was also sizing the man up. He was tall—taller than Conan by half a head—but slender. A city boy, judging by the quality and fashion of his clothes and his careful movements in the stable. What was he doing out here in Norin, Conan wondered. Norin was no place for city folk, and the caravan was still weeks out. If he had come with the caravan, he could have gotten a ride with them, especially with the amount of gold he was offering. Saints, they'd treat him like a king all the way to Duskbridge for that sort of money.
"Depends on what yer plannin'," Conan said. "Ridin'? Drivin'? I'm thinkin' farm work's off the table."
"I have a long journey to make and would like a horse to carry supplies," the man replied, his words careful, as if practiced.
"A pack horse, then?"
The man hesitated briefly, but not so brief Conan couldn't pick up on it. "Yes. A pack horse."
Conan turned and nodded his head towards the other end of the stable, motioning for the man to follow. The gold was enough for him to stifle his suspicion towards the man. Whatever the man was up to, it wasn't any of his business. His business was in horses and the hiring or sale thereof, and as long as his horse got back safely and healthy he was satisfied. He led the man into another smaller room with walls lined with leather straps and belts and metal fixings, and pulled a harness off a hook labeled "Checkers".
The man followed as Conan led him back into the main room of the stable with a pile of belts and thick cloths looped around his arms. Conan stopped at the stall of a brown gelding, opened the gate, and led the horse into the main room. As he saddled up the horse, he kept one eye on the man, who opted for leaning against the wall while the horseman worked. While Conan had previously assumed the man's skill—or lack thereof—by his appearance alone, he confirmed it now. It wasn't the relaxed ease of someone comfortable in a stable, it was the hungry gaze of someone attempting to learn without actually knowing what to look for. And yet the man was silent, allowing Conan to work without questions.
"You travellin' alone...?" Conan asked.
"Din. My name is Din. And no, I will be accompanied by an experienced horseman."
"Good," Conan said as he placed the wooden pack saddle on Checkers's back." No offence, but I take it yer not the one in charge of horses where you're from."
"You are correct. My travels have predominantly been by foot or caravan," Din answered.
"Well, you're about two weeks early for the caravan. If you care to stick around Evenheim that long, you can meet 'em there. Might be easier if y'ain't used to carin' for a horse."
"I'm afraid my business is more urgent than that. You can rest assured my friend will take care of your horse."
Conan shrugged. "Where is your friend? I'd like to meet the person I'm trusting with Checkers here."
"He'll be joining me shortly," Din said. "I should mention, I do expect this to be a one-way journey. When we arrive in Cymaria, I will need a way to send your horse back."
"Cymaria? Yer crossin' the sea?" That complicated matters slightly. Conan had rented his horses to people intending to make a one-way trip before; in previous instances, he had taken an extra fee to pay the caravan for the horse's return. The caravaneers were some of his best and most regular customers and they were happy to do him a favor as part of their business relationship. In those cases, the destination was usually Evenheim, or Iridesa, maybe West Orden, never too far.
Cymaria, however, was separated from Conan's home province of Evenheim by a sea reaching almost five hundred kilometers inland from the greate rAltirian Ocean. While the man, his traveling companion, and Checkers could take the ferry across, the caravan returned to Evenheim and Norin by way of Duskbridge—a journey around the full perimeter of the sea and a full cycle of slow travel.
Din smiled lightly, perhaps amused by the sight of the stablemaster's eyes peering at him over the horse's back. "I hope the additional coin will cover any complications."
It would. Conan made a mental note to take the extra fee from the bag on the table, or ask the man's friend if he'd be coming back this way. The fee alone would be more than the rental cost, but the man didn't seem to mind." As long as your friend knows how to handle a horse on a ferry, it'll be fine. If you can't send 'im back with your friend, make sure you send Checkers back with the caravan when they stop in Cymaria. They'll likely be there in..." Conan squeezed his eyes in thought, "...about two cycles? I'm sure someone there knows better'n me."
Conan cinched up the last belt holding the pack saddle on and held the lead rope out to the man. "I still wanna meet your friend before you head on out, but Checkers is ready to go. Good luck an' Galespeed."
"Thank you," Din said and took the rope. "There is one last thing I must ask of you, and please understand that money is not an issue in this request." Disregarding Conan's increasingly apprehensive expression, he continued. "On this journey, it would be helpful to have a...guide, if you will. I would like you to accompany me."
"I understand if this is a lot to ask, but there is some benefit in it for you. You will not need to wait for the caravan to return your horse if you can take the ferry yourself, and you may still keep the gold. The full amount."
Conan turned back towards his table, chair, and book. "I appreciate the offer, Mr. Din, but I've got a stable to run. You can trust the carava nwith Checkers. I've done work with 'em plenty and they know me."
"Whether you come or not, you may keep the gold," the man said, "but there is far more in it for you if you join me. One week."
How much more? Conan couldn't stop that thought. He had been facetious earlier—it wasn't enough to buy the stable from him outright, but what amount would? The amount Din was offering? More money than he had ever seen in one place sat unguarded on the table before him, and there would be more if he spent just one week away from home. Lucie and her brothers could take care of the stable while he was away—her family had run the stable before he took over anyway. One more week wouldn't hurt, and then he'd be back in time to catch the caravan, and the caravan's jeweler whoc arried the rings he had been eyeing—
But it wasn't just leaving for a week; it was a week of travel with this stranger. All throughout their meeting, something about the stranger had rubbed him the wrong way. Maybe it was the strange glint in his eyes, or the way he moved like a predator. It certainly had something to do with the man's suspiciously increasing offers of gold.
"I...can't," Conan said.
Din's shoulders fell. "I see," he said with a sigh, his dark eyebrows furrowed.
At the sight of the man's slump, Conan felt some pity scratching at his nerves. He turned away in a hurry to keep his own face hidden, to not show the man any weakness in his resolve. If he needed a local as a guide, there was always...Well, it'd get them both out of Conan's hair for at least a week.
"Y'know, you could try Parker down the street. Buy him a whiskey and he'd be happy to guide you anywhere." Conan reached to rub the back of his neck where a sudden itch had formed just above the collar of his shirt. "I hear he's been around, whereas I don't really travel much and—"
Conan blinked. Something was wrong with his vision. The browns of the stable blurred together before him.
"...An' I'm no' really—"
His words trailed off into a slur as his fingertips found a thin barb stuck into the back of his neck. His knees hit the dirt floor. The rest of his body fell limp to the ground, his arms failing to catch him, his vision spinning and darkening.
"I apologize," came Din's voice in the darkness, "but I'm afraid you don't have a choice."
The world went black, but one last muttered phrase reached Conan before his consciousness lapsed entirely: "Neither of us do."
It was a movement Conan recognized and the first thing to register in his mind: a gentle rocking motion, followed by the sensation of wind on his back and soreness in his ribs. His first deep breath took in the smell of warm fur and he realized his face was pressed against the side of a horse. The familiar smell kicked the rest of his deadened senses awake and he opened his eyes to see the ground moving beneath him.
He stayed still for some time to process the situation, ignoring the feeling of blood pooling in his head and fingertips. He was certain he had fallen asleep in the stable. Was this a dream? No, a man came to hire a horse—that he was fairly certain of—but it was a different horse. This horse was missing Checkers' white midsection. Artemis?
The ache in his own midsection told him he was draped over a pack saddle, an angular wooden contraption not meant for this sort of luggage.
"You are awake."
Conan shifted to look to his left, to the source of the voice.
There, leading Conan's favorite horse and wearing a slight smile, was the Galelander.
After a moment spent gathering his scattered thoughts, Conan muttered, "Didja have to kidnap me?"
The man laughed. "You make me out to be a villain."
"That sure is what it's seemin' like."
"I apologize," Din said, without a hint of actual sympathy. "I would not have done so if I did not truly require your assistance."
"Assistance with what?!" Conan exclaimed. "Can't be horses; you've got yer..." He lifted himself onto his elbows to look around. "Yer friend? Where's your frie—"
His voice cut off as the truth sunk in. He should have known. As soon as the man asked him to join, he should have known. "It's me. It's me, isn't it. I'm your 'experienced horseman friend'."
"Just so," Din replied. "As I said, I have business in Cymaria. After we are done there, you and Artemis may return home, unimpeded and well-paid. More than you could ever earn in that stable of yours."
Indignation swelled in Conan's chest. "And if I want to go home now?"
The man's eyes caught his own. There was no humor in them. The yellow in his eyes overpowered the green, rendering them cat-like—no, monster-like. Conan realized now what he had originally thought was yellow-green was a sort of heterochromia: bright green eyes with a golden ring around the man's pupils. The yellow seemed to glow, brighter now in Din's threatening gaze.
The glare lasted for only a moment, but Din had made his point: Conan would not be going home on his own terms.
Conan lifted himself from the pack saddle and pushed off Artemis's back onto the soft ground below. Before Din could stop him, he growled, "I'm not gonna run, so don't knock me out again."
Aware of the man watching his every move but nonetheless given some amount of freedom, Conan inspected Artemis's trappings. She had been saddled correctly and with her own tack; as suspected, the man had learned much from watching Conan, or he knew more about horses than he let on. He lifted the flaps of the saddlebags and confirmed the contents to be the same as what he had provided in Checkers' bags, with the addition of a wrapped parcel of food for the men—more than enough to get them to the port beyond Evenheim. Where were the man's own supplies, Conan wondered. Surely he hadn't come to Norin with only a bag of gold. The bag of gold was notably absent from the saddlebags as well, and Conan just hoped it hadn't been left on the table where Parker would likely find it.
Assured their supplies would get them to at least Evenheim, Conan tooks tock of the rest of his predicament. He dug under his chaps to withdraw a brass watch and a quick glance confirmed it to be well past midday. Although he had been asleep for most of it, they had been traveling for at least six hours. If they had been traveling northeast for the duration—as they were now, judging by the position of the sun—they were likely halfway to Evenheim, the principal city-state of the steppe. Beyond that, to the east, was the Altirian Ocean separating them from Cymaria, Din's proclaimed destination.
Despite his objection, here Conan was, "guiding" Din to his destination.
"Like I told you back home, I'm not gonna be much use as a guide," Conan commented. He kept his eyes down as he spoke, his voice level. He had a hunch and didn't want to lose the initiative. "I figure you're desperate for help if you'd go as far as kidnappin' a man. I don't have any wealth to ransom either—other'n what you paid me."
"You are not a hostage, Conan," Din said. "This is a job. I needed someone to care for horses, and you are the most skilled horseman on the steppe, if your reputation holds."
"That's what's got me wonderin'. You kidnapped me to care for a horse, but there's plenty of stablehands who woulda taken a lot less trouble even if they're not as good. So why'd you kidnap me?"
Din's response was slow and careful: "Perhaps I am a villain, and in my haste to reach Cymaria determined that kidnapping you was the best course of action."
"No." Conan snapped his pocket watch shut. "If you were in a hurry you wouldn't've taken the time to saddle up a different horse—my horse. You brought Artemis to guarantee I'd stick around. You needed my help. So tell me why."
The man tensed, his hand tightening on the lead. His mouth moved as if struggling for words, and he finally stammered out, "I need your help to overthrow the monarchy."
Conan stared at the man, searching for some semblance of humor or deceit in his expression.
Overthrow the monarchy. There was no way he had misheard, and no way it could be the truth.
"I, uhh," Conan stuttered, "I think you've got the wrong guy."
"I'm certain I haven't," Din replied under his breath. "I've told you my goal, and I need your help to pursue it. I would appreciate your cooperation."
"To overthrow the monarchy."
Din didn't answer. He only pulled at Artemis's lead and quickened his pace.
Conan hung back, cursing. His questioning had only made his situation more confusing.
Although his kidnapper had given him the freedom to move on his own, they both knew Conan wasn't going to run, not as long as Artemis was involved. Din held firmly onto her lead and might as well have had Conan bound by that same rope. Conan could maybe grab it and run, but did the man have—whatever he had used to knock Conan out? Conan rubbed the spot on the back of his neck where he presumed Din had hit him with a tranquilizing dart. He wasn't interested in finding out if Din had more of them hiding in his jacket.
After several minutes of walking, Din spoke again—louder, indicating his awareness in Conan's increasing distance. "You're very young to be running a stable on your own. I assume your family helps run it."
"It's just me," Conan responded. "My mom passed a little over fourteen years ago, and I took over the stable in '13. I've been runnin' it ever since."
That wasn't entirely accurate though, Conan thought. In name it was his alone and had been for seven years, but he couldn't discount the help he had received since then. "Well, not just me," he corrected. "I get some help from Lucie 'n her brothers. The Fullers."
Din nodded idly. "I did notice a pyreflower on your ranch. I assume that was..."
"My mom, yeah," Conan answered. His mother's ashes were intermingled with the roots of a flower planted in front of his cabin. Almost every family in Norin had a small pyregarden near their homes dedicated to deceased family members, although most were expansive and multigenerational—Noriners stayed in Norin with their families; with their pyreflowers. But the Renaud's pyregarden had only the one flower, planted for Celia Renaud. Conan's parents were first-generation Noriners, and hers was the first flower to be planted in their garden.
"I take it your father is..."
"Not in the picture."
"Ah. Forgive me for prying, but I heard your ranch was named for your fath—"
Conan cut him off. "That's not your business," he said.
The short answer seemed to halt any further curiosity Din had, leaving the horsemaster to ponder his eventual escape in silence. But after several hours, Conan was wishing for conversation. The silence made their journey feel all the longer.
Conan's home of Norin was located at the edge of the province of Evenheim on a trade route quickly becoming defunct as steam engines proliferated along the coast. The town had only a few exports—wool and livestock,mostly—and no points of interest to draw travelers other than the merchant caravan. People born in Norin tended to stay in Norin, and the tiny hamlet remained perpetually a secret oasis on the steppe.
To Conan, it was an isolated heaven.
In his current situation, however, the distance from civilization posed another problem. In lieu of conversation, Conan made rough calculations in his head.
From Norin, traveling directly east, a trip to the oceanfront took a little over ten hours, assuming an easy pace and several breaks scattered throughout. Given their estimated speed and direction of travel—which was easy enough to ascertain despite the lack of landmarks given the sun ahead of them and the mountains behind—it would be another several hours before they reached the port. And then what, immediately onto a boat without rest? Between them and the port was the city-state of Evenheim. Perhaps the plan was to rest there first. If so, Conan could help his traveling companion find another, more willing horseman and horse for the journey.
"We must be coming near Evenheim," Conan said aloud.
"Yes, perhaps an hour away should we turn north. I assume you have not been to Evenheim in a long while."
"No..." Conan said. That someone from Norin would travel to Evenheim at all was unusual, and yet Din was correct in his implied assumption that Conan had ever been there. What else does this man know about me, he wondered. "Not since I was real little. I was born there...I think."
"It is a beautiful city...parts of it." Anger flickered behind Din's eyes. "It is a place of stark contrast—of black and white—to those who know it well enough to see into its shadows. As your birthplace, I imagine you would like to visit it someday."
Conan did, but he caught the meaning behind Din's words: it was not on their itinerary.
"How far to the ocean from here?" Conan asked.
"Perhaps another five hours at this pace."
Conan placed a hand on Artemis's neck. This level, grassy plain was the ideal terrain for her and, given his rough awakening, he would tire long before she did, but he could feel her tensing up under his hand.
"We'll need to rest Artemis at the port then. She's never been this far from home, and the sea's gonna be rough for her."
"She will be fine. We need to keep moving. There is a peninsula south of Evenheim's port that we must reach before the dark hour."
No stopping at the port then, either. "What, will we miss the boat?"
The man chuckled shortly at that, which only served to irritate Conan further. "There will be transportation when we arrive. I do not take this journey lightly, Conan."
"We need to stop somewhere," Conan said. "If you brought me along to care for my horse, I'm going to care for my horse, but I can't do that if you don't listen to me. Take us to Evenheim. We'll get lodg—"
Din stopped so suddenly Conan almost ran into his back again. His broad shoulders heaved in a deep breath and his next words came slow and careful, floating on an undercurrent of raw frustration.
"Very well," he seethed. "We will stay in Evenheim until the dark hour passes. In the morning, we will continue on to Cymaria without interruption. I trust you find that acceptable."
Conan deflated, his bravado suddenly unnecessary.
"Yeah," he said. "But I'm in charge of caring for Artemis. If I say she needs a break, we're stopping. We can catch your boat in the morning."
Din turned to the north. "As you say."
The man walked ahead with the young horse, unaware of the tension growing between her two human companions, following his lead. Conan followed shortly behind, waiting for the man to change his mind and veer easttowards the coast, but he never did.
Conan breathed a sigh of relief as they passed under the city gate, a heavy metal portcullis held up more by rust than chains. He hadn't been certain his kidnapper would follow through on his concession to stay in Evenheim, but with the gates behind them and guards posted at each exit the horseman felt more assured. While Din could get away with a kidnapping on the outskirts of sleepy Norin, it would be far more difficult to remove Conan from a bustling city against his will.
The travelers waded through a sluggish river of people in canyon-like roads, between tall walls and plastered buildings, through narrow streets cast in shadows. Most Evenheim natives ignored the newcomers and those who paid them any attention did so with mild curiosity, nothing more. Unlike his home, this was a city full of strangers, and far more faces than Conan had ever seen in one place.
As Conan grew accustomed to the disparity in population between his home and the city, he began to recognize that even here his traveling partner stood out. The man's well-tailored clothing, manner of speech, and apparent wealth suggested an urban upbringing, but his movements within this environment were too tense, too nervous. His hand gripped the lead so tightly it appeared to be shaking and his eyes darted between the dark corners of the street, the alleyways and backstreets, searching.
"I take it you've been here before," Conan said.
"More often than I would like..." Din replied absently, his fingers adjusting his cravat. "I apologize; this is your birthplace. Despite your long absence I imagine you feel a sense of homecoming here."
To Conan's surprise, Din had accurately pinpointed the feeling he was struggling to identify. Although he recognized nothing about the city, it felt like a home to him, cozy and inviting. Its earthy smells and perpetual noise wrapped around him like a warm cloak.
"I do..." he said. "It's strange...I've been in Norin my whole life, but this place feels...safe."
"I imagine it does. I assume your parents told you something of daemons."
"Not really, no. Are daemons why this place feels like..." Conan waved his hands vaguely at the city. "Like this?"
"Perhaps. They say your spirit is bound to the daemon of your birthplace. If you were born here, your parents must have wanted you to have the blessing of Evenheim's daemon. I wonder why that was," Din mused, but Conan felt the man knew exactly why Conan was born here, and he was meant to fill in the blanks himself. Conan had never thought much of it before. Maybe his parents simply wanted their son to be raised in the country. But now, with Din's questioning, coupled with the feeling of welcome the city brought to his heart, he wondered if there was something more to it.
Conan did know something of daemons, albeit not from his parents. He had a few books that mentioned them, and he knew some people back home were religious. There were daemons of manmade things, like the one he assumed inhabited his stable, and daemons of nature. Occasionally a cleric would join the caravan in its rounds, and assist the Norin townsfolk in making appropriate offerings to wild daemons so they might bless home and field. The one thing Conan's parents had impressed upon him was to avoid the traveling clerics, and as an adult he didn't feel much compulsion to socialize with them although he didn't mind their presence in town. But he did hear some things through gossip, like how some of the clerics could speak and listen to daemons.
He wondered if Lucie felt the same warmth and safety he felt here in Norin. She and her family had all been born there. Perhaps it was something one got used to over the years, and the strength of the feeling was only due to this being his first time experiencing it.
Din interrupted his thoughts. "We will quarter here for the dark hour. Once we reach the inn, I will leave Artemis's preparations for the journey to you."
"Yeah, yeah..." Conan muttered, his mood immediately darkening again. He intended to prepare Artemis, but only for the journey back to Norin. He could ask the innkeep in the morning about hiring a different horseman. With his soon-to-be former traveling companion's wealth, Conan imagined the inn would be fashionable and bustling, and likely a good place to seek out his replacement.
Fashionable, the inn was not.
The sign hanging over the door may have once said "The Breadmaker's Inn", but the worn paint now read "Dreadmaker's". The sign belonged to an old wooden structure wedged between two larger brick buildings that seemed to be trying to conceal the inn out of a sense of embarrassment. Its dark, umber wood was saved from much-needed fire by virtue of being too damp to catch.
"We're staying here," Conan said.
"Yes," Din replied.
"If we had continued on to Cymaria, we would not have to. We will have to make do."
"I'd rather not 'make do' in a place that's passed its due a hundred times over," Conan grumbled.
Din shrugged and strode into the building, leaving Conan to glower at his back. The horseman sighed as the door shut behind Din, grabbed Artemis's lead rope, and led her through the narrow alleyway towards what he assumed were the stables of the inn.
All of the stalls were empty and mercifully cleaner than Conan expected, although he suspected the cleanliness was due more to disuse than actual maintenance. He wondered if the interior of the inn would be similar. Even if the room was surprisingly extravagant, he still would consider sleeping in the stable instead of sharing a room with Din. There was something about the man that was so off-putting to Conan. Considered objectively, there was little actually wrong with the man—kidnapping aside. He was clearly a man with a goal and no desire to compromise, but he did begrudgingly concede to Conan's demand to spend the evening in Evenheim; he wasn't entirely unreasonable. Nevertheless, the day's journey and homesickness had worn Conan's patience thin.
"I may join you out here," Conan said to Artemis as he pulled her into a stall. He dropped her lead and reached for the bales of hay when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. Conan turned, but there was no one there, only his horse staring at him with her ears flicking in concern. He shook his head and finished divvying out food and water, although the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end the entire time. He knew he was alone in the stable; he knew he was safe here, but some phantom had an icy grip on his heart. Much like with his home stable warning him of Din's presence, he could sense something was wrong here. In the corners of his mind, heal most heard—
Conan jumped, pitchfork in hand. He swung its pointed end towards the door and the source of the voice. Din stood at the entrance, an expression of strange solemnity on his long face. Conan sucked in a breath and lowered the pitchfork.
"It's just you. What?"
The man tossed him a big iron key, probably as old as the inn itself. "We have a room on the second floor. I came to give you the key."
"Why don't you keep it? I'll be finished here soon."
"I will not be retiring yet," said Din. "I have some matters to attend to in this city first."
"I thought you were avoiding Evenheim."
"Now that we're here, I plan to take advantage of it."
Conan flipped the heavy key in his hand. He contemplated giving it back and telling Din he would be sleeping in the stables, but an actual bed sounded good. He nodded and dropped the key into a pocket. "Hitting the taverns, are we?"
"Yes, something like that," Din said with a small smirk as he disappeared back into the stableyard.
Artemis watched the spot where the man once stood and Conan patted her nose. He didn't understand how she had gotten attached to Din so quickly. She didn't often take to strangers, but there was something about the man she liked. Regardless of her feelings for the strange man, they would be leaving him in the morning. Best to not get attached.
The walls inside the inn were almost black, although they may have been brown once long ago. The smell of mildew was a barrier Conan pushed through with his breath held. He fumbled with the unwieldy key, rushed into the room, threw open the window, and sucked in a deep breath of fresher air. Their room was above the stableyard, which he was grateful for. He could keep an eye on the stable, or jump out the window if the need arose.
Unlike the rest of the inn, the pair of beds in the room looked clean. He imagined they hadn't been used in a long time. He shook dust out of the sheets and wondered why Din had chosen to stay in such a shack despite his wealth. Probably to annoy him further.
Conan unbuttoned and pulled off his shirt and chaps—the stable-work clothes he had been kidnapped in, since he had no opportunity to change into anything better for travel on foot—and lay back on the bed with his legs hanging off the side. He stared up at the ceiling and regretted it; it looked like any sort of weight would cause the roof to collapse. How ridiculous that would be, to be killed in a ramshackle inn by a collapsing roof half a day's travel from home.
And Evenheim, of all places to die. His birthplace, and hopefully not his death place. Supposedly his parents were both from Evenheim, before his birth and before their move to Norin. His mother had said little about her life in the city and...well, Conan assumed he had relatives here, likely on both sides. If he did, his parents never said anything, nor did any family make an appearance when his mother passed years ago. If the roof did fall, his extended family would never know about the short life and unfortunate death of their long-lost relative.
Still lying on the bed, he tugged at the chain hanging from his pants' pocket and withdrew his pocket watch. Its face was embossed with a set of stylized scales flanked by two triskelions, a symbol Conan had seen multiple times today throughout the city. It was the sigil of Evenheim, the gilded scales, and his father's pocket watch that bore the emblem. The Renauds had some connection to this place, but his parents never mentioned what, and he never asked when he had the chance. Knowing so little about his ties to this city made it all the more mysterious Din knew about it being his birthplace, and further confirmed Conan's fears that Din hadn't kidnapped any horseman.
"Why me?" Conan muttered aloud.
Given no answer, he drifted off into a sleep plagued by dreams of falling roofs, figures hiding in shadows, and glowing eyes.
It wasn't those dreams that woke him up, but a strange creaking noise and the feeling of dread settling into his stomach. Conan opened his eyes to darkness.
He was in the inn, he remembered after his eyes adjusted to the dark and he was able to process the strange room he found himself in. As the delirium of exhaustion faded he recalled—somewhat miserably—the events of the previous day and, given the darkness, realized he had woken up in the dark hour. The room was cast in the dark red light of the daily eclipse. He usually slept through the dark hour and waking up in the middle of it was disorienting enough without the unfamiliar surroundings and the persistent creaking noise.
Creaking was to be expected with a building this rickety in the perpetual breeze, but this amount of noise was unwarranted.
Conan rolled onto his side to face Din's bed, where he could just make out the blanketed form. The sound of groaning wood persisted, but the mound of blankets on the other bed was still.
"What's with the noise?" Conan muttered into his pillow.
Although Conan hadn't expected an answer, Din was apparently awake and his reply was a command to shush. A hand emerged from the blankets and motioned upwards. Conan glanced up in confusion, and then realized what the man was pointing towards.
The ceiling made another creak.
After a moment, Conan whispered, "It must be a rat."
"It would be a very large rat."
Some warning signal went off in Conan's heart. Something was amiss. He thought of the shadow in the stables...No, it was nothing. It was the ominous mood of the dark hour clouding his thoughts. It had to be a rat.
Din's gaze was fixed on Conan, his expression as dark as the room.
"Whatever you do, no matter what happens...stay down and keep quiet. Do not say anything. Please."
"What are you—"
"Please. I will explain later when it is safe."
The ceiling boards creaked again.
A shiver crept into the room and crawled up Conan's spine. Run, his heart whispered with a voice that seemed to come from without. It's not safe. He glanced between the ceiling and Din, waiting for either to make a sound. Din's blankets shifted in the gloom but his eyes, glowing softly yellow, never left the window.
The world outside was dark save for the pale half-light of the eclipse. Filtered crimson framed a crouching silhouette on the window sill.
A leg stretched down from the window and set foot on the floor, noiseless, as if trying to make up for the stealth lost on the roof. In the darkness, Conan wasn't able to tell the gender of the person as they moved into the room, only that they were lithe and careful.
The figure studied both of the beds before turning to Conan's. An arm moved, followed by a soft noise, purposely muffled. A glint of red light on metal revealed a blade.
Breath caught in Conan's throat.
The invader had a knife.
They drew nearer, blade gripped in their left hand.
Conan gripped the coarse blankets tighter. He expected his life to flash before his eyes in this moment, but all he saw was a shrouded figure coming towards him with a knife. He wanted to shout, but he couldn't breathe. He couldn't move.
Blankets rustled. Feet hit the ground.
The assassin turned towards Din's bed.
Golden light filled the room.
"Sh—" the assassin managed.
The light exploded.
Conan clung to his bed, but the assassin had no such thing to hold on to. His back slammed into the wall near the now-shattered window and he slid to the floor with a low groan. In the brief instance of illumination, he was revealed to be a reedy young man, dressed all in black save for a red cravat, now thoroughly disheveled and stunned by the blast. Din rushed towards the man, but before he could come close the assassin sprung towards the window in a panic and threw himself out into the yard below.
"Dammit!" Din yelled and beat a fist on the sill.
As Din craned out of the window over the stableyard, broken glass falling around him in tiny shards, Conan felt his paralyzing fear loosen its grip. He sat up slowly, his hands shaking with adrenaline and his heart pounding against his ribs.
"Wh...what was that?" he stammered.
Din looked to Conan as if he had forgotten about his traveling partner, his brow furrowed and his jaw tense. His fingers scraped against the wood and folded into a shaking fist. His breathing was rushed, panicked.
"Din, tell me what's going on. That man was here to kill me. Please."
Din winced, and his shoulders sunk with a deep sigh. He stepped away from the window, a hand pulling through his dark hair, and dropped onto his bed across from Conan.
"Very well," he said solemnly, "but you must understand: the more you know, the less I can protect you. If I tell you, we leave now. You are in grave danger."
"Yes." Din raised his head and interlaced his fingers in a bridge in front of his mouth. "You have never met a Magician, and perhaps only heard of us in stories. That is understandable- while many know of our works, few know of us by that name, and fewer know what it truly means."
The man—the Magician—raised a hand enveloped in a soft golden glow. "We are those who can use magic, who can alter the flow of nature, and bind its daemons to our will. This light is my magic, energy and intent encoded upon the Gale. An instant explosive, if necessary. That man—the assassin—is also a Magician. Pascal Boisselont. He is...a member of the Cymarian Court."
"Why is he trying to kill me?" Conan asked. Everything else Din had said he filed away for later questioning, but he had his priorities. In truth, he was overwhelmed by what Din had just divulged, and focusing on the assassination attempt was—ironically—the only way he could process it all. Magic? Magic was real?
"That I must explain later, unless you wish him to succeed." Din rose. He scooped a package out of the trunk next to his bed and tossed it to Conan." Put these on. They will be more suitable for travel."
Conan caught the package and pried it open. The top layer within was some sort of red fabric. He brushed a finger over it; was this silk? Underneath was a cloak softer than the finest wool Norin had ever exported. He stopped exploring the package when his fingers pulled at a thin tie. That's where he drew the line. "I'll wear what I've got, thanks."
"I insist," Din said as he put on his white shirt. "I picked these up for you today for the rest of the journey. You cannot walk through Cymaria looking so...rura—" The package, thrown, wrapped around the back of his head.
"In case you haven't noticed, I am rural," Conan growled.
Din picked the package off the ground. "In case you haven't noticed, I just saved your life. I believe you owe me some cooperation."
"No, because before you kidnapped me, I didn't have to worry about bein' assassinated!"
"I kidnapped you to stop Pascal from finding you first!"
Silence fell in the room as the weight of those words settled on Conan's shoulders.
He had already been a target, before he and Din ever met.
Din took a deep breath. "Once we are out of the city and out of Pascal's reach, I will explain as much as I am able. Until then, I need you to trust me. Please, Conan. Give me your trust."
Conan sunk deeper into the lumpy inn bed. This man—thisMagician—couldn't fully realize what he had asked of him, strangers as they were. Din stood before him, white shirt unbuttoned, his hands constantly adjusting their grip on the package of clothing, a complicated expression in his eyes. Conan knew nothing about this man, regardless of how much he appeared to know about Conan, but there was an earnestness in his voice laced with fear. In that moment, Conan realized what they shared in common: neither man wanted to be in this room right now, but here they were.
"...Alright." Conan stood and stuck out his right hand. "Until I feel it's just plain stupid to do so, I give you my trust."
Din blinked, taken aback at first, but his unease faded into a grateful—and perhaps even sincere—smile. He took Conan's hand and shook. "Thank you. I will not fail you."
"Good." Conan snatched the package from Din's arms. "Now turn around so I can get dressed."
Din had all their belongings packed, the key to the room in hand, and two bags of supplies and provisions strapped across his back by the time Conan finished getting into his new clothes. Before Conan could begrudgingly admit the clothes weren't as bad as he thought, he was dragged out the door, his fingers still fumbling with the clasp of the cloak.
"Why did we stay here, anyway?" he asked as they reached the lower floor of the inn.
"Since we had to stay in Evenheim..." Din gave a look which clearly said that staying in Evenheim hadn't been on his agenda. "...I wanted to remain inconspicuous. Not many people know of this inn's existence—"
"—No, you're joking—"
"—and it was the perfect hiding place since we had to quarter here."
"It wasn't much of a hiding place if Pascal found us."
"No, it was a good hiding place. Had we stayed in any more outstanding inn, we might have been found by..." Din's voice trailed off. He dropped the bulky key on the bar counter along with several coins—some to cover the room, the rest to cover the broken window. "...There's worse in Evenheim than just assassins, Conan. The sooner we leave, the better."
And so they did, out of the inn and across the yard into the stables.
Din stopped just inside the door and peered out into the darkness for any sign of Pascal while Conan retrieved Artemis. Apologizing quietly to his horse for disturbing her sleep, Conan saddled Artemis and grabbed two heavy packs of feed and water—enough to get them across the sea this time.
As Conan finished buckling Artemis's tack, Din moved away from the door and added his own bag onto Artemis's pack saddle. "When we get out of the city, I will need you to listen to me. As I said, the more you know, the more danger you are in. Once we leave the city, you'll no longer have the city daemon's protection," Din said.
"The safety you felt here yesterday, and the foreboding you must feel now—both come from the city daemon. It's your defense here," Din explained. "I imagine with the immediate threat to your life, you may have even heard its voice."
Is that what that feeling had been, the sense of dread that precursed Pascal's attack in the inn? Conan hadn't heard a voice aloud...but there was something like a quiet thought he hadn't thought himself. Like the last puzzle piece snapping into place, naming the feeling made it clear that this sense wasn't within himself—it was like a voice whispering directly into his heart from the streets themselves. It was the same feeling he had struggled to identify since arriving in the city: the feeling of never being alone, of being hyper-aware of his surroundings, of being home. It was the city daemon speaking to him, like daemons spoke to the traveling clergy.
Why had he never heard a daemon before now?
Din took Conan's bemused expression as confirmation. "So you have heard it...If the city warns you of danger again, tell me immediately. I will protect you."
He moved back into the stableyard, scanned the surrounding rooftops, and motioned for Conan to follow him out of the stable and back into the dark Evenheim city streets.
Despite the darkness, Evenheim's main streets remained sparsely populated as those who stayed awake during the eclipse went about their business, carrying small lanterns with them to guide their paths. Din avoided the main roads and kept to the side streets and alleys as much as they could manage with a horse. In those darkest pathways they were alone, which would be good for reducing casualties if the assassin caught up with them, Conan reasoned darkly. The town which felt so inviting and safe in the light suddenly felt like the maw of a beast about to close on them.
Conan tried to steady himself. He hadn't "heard" anything yet—surely that meant Pascal hadn't found them again, right? But would he recognize the voice of the city daemon? What was a city daemon? He had too many questions begging for answers and they all fought for supremacy in his mind while he tried to focus on following Din through the winding alleyways. Stay alive; don't get killed; lose Pascal. Surely they had lost Pascal in this labyrinth. Conan judged his assumption to be wrong by Din's stony expression.
"Can he use magic to attack us?" Conan asked.
"Yes," Din responded. "He excels with fire. When he catches up, watch for lanterns; he may use them against us."
When, not if.
A hand of ice gripped Conan's heart. He gasped and faltered in his step.
He found you! Run!
Din swore and looked back over his shoulder.
Pascal stood in the middle of the road far behind them. He took a step, and then another, and then broke into a run.
"Come on!" Din yelled and ran. Artemis followed with Conan close behind, his recently-awakened body protesting at the pace and his heart threatening to scream out of his chest. They tore out of the narrow alley and into an open street where they could more easily run at full speed. The city gate was ahead of them, but Pascal was closer.
"Do you have a plan?!" Conan shouted.
"Yes, but I'm hoping to think of another one!"
Pascal's fingertips lit with a bright, crackling red aura that could only be magic. He raised a hand and Conan tensed in preparation for the attack which never came. Instead, there was a flash of fire and a groan of wood and iron far ahead of them. The city portcullis, for the first time in decades, shook free of its rust and descended, the ropes binding it severed by magic. A few startled guards posted near the door jumped to their feet and grabbed for the ropes, but found themselves lifted from the ground by the gate's sudden descent.
"I think we're gonna have to go with plan A!" Conan yelled.
The Magician cursed. Golden light gathered around his hands. "I'll raise the gate! Stop Pascal from following us!"
Din gave him an uneasy grimace. "Command him to let us escape!"
"That's your plan?!"
"You said you would trust me, Conan!" Din yelled back. "Prove it!"
Conan looked back to their pursuer, the black and red blur coming up behind them and gaining quickly. His magic burned a violent dark red around his hands. If anyone could stop him, surely another Magician could.
There was no way this could work.
Pascal raised an arm. Conan sucked in a breath.
"Pascal!" Conan screamed. "Let us escape!"
Pascal didn't just stop; it was as if someone had dropped an invisible barrier and he hit it full speed. He stumbled over his feet, somersaulted and twisted before coming to rest on his hands and knees in a cloud of kicked-up dust. The aura around his hands faded away.
Stone spires jutted out of the ground underneath the gate ahead of them, wrapped in the same golden light surrounding Din's hands, and lifted the portcullis enough to allow them passage. The guards, unaccustomed to this much activity, were scrambling to grab and repair the burnt ropes within the lifting mechanism and paid no attention to the two men and horse racing through.
As they passed through the gate, Conan pulled himself out of shock and stole one last glimpse into Evenheim from the outside. Pascal sat on the ground, far behind them, his breathing heavy and his fine clothes covered in dirt. His green eyes caught Conan's, and the assassin gave a small, hapless smile.
The gate to Evenheim slammed shut.Back to story index | Home