Dokaius woke up rested, many hours later than normal. The sun was already high in the sky, and the fire long since dead. He blinked a couple of times in the strong light and then sat up and yawned.
Junia’s sleeping mat were empty. For once she must have woken up before him.
I wish she would have made breakfast.
Dokaius washed up, refilled his water bag from the stream and made a fire. When it burned properly he made porrige in the little pot that was the only one they had remaining after reducing their load. He missed his kitchen in Dohr’s manor.
Where were Junia? Even if she had left to do her morning prep she should still be back by now.
Dokaius searched through the camp for any clues and then realized that her bow was gone. Had she left to go hunting in the early morning?
He ate his boring porrige and felt a growing sense of worry. She should have woken him before leaving. This was not like her. When he had finished eating and she still hadn’t turned up he started searching for her. He found no tracks, and moved in bigger and bigger circles around the camp site. Hours passed and he was starting to despair.
Where is she?
Something glinted in the strong sun and caught his eye. He bent down and picked up Junias knife, lying by itself with no cover in the high grass.
She would never leave it like this.
Someone have taken her.
She is gone.
The insight hit him like something shot from a catapult, and he stumbled. Who could have taken her? And why?
Scenarios started to play in his mind, each one worse than the other. But then slowly his brain started to work again.
What should he do now? Turn back, wait here or continue to Harir? It was an impossible decision, but finally duty made him continue. Duty to the committed and to Antonius that couldn’t be left on his own forever, who was soon running out of money.
Dokaius started to walk, and his destination was till the capital and the crown. Maybe it was some kind of subconscious defence mechanism, but he was getting more and more convinced that he would find Junia if he just continued on the journey they had started together. He now thought, but again this might just be him deluding himself, that it didn’t feel like Junia was dead. And that he, if he continued, would find her again.
He asked everyone he met if they had seen her. Many did not even stop to listen to is question, and none of them knew anything. After a few hours walk he stopped for lunch, even though he didn’t feel like eating. He needed to keep his strength up, keep his speed up.
He tried to think back to the night before, if something could explain what had happened. Junia would never have gone anywhere voluntarily without her knife, that was sure. And then he suddenly remembered, or at least thought he did, that he had woken up during the night. That he had had a strange dream – had the wolf been in it? – and woken to see Junia standing away from the fire with her bow in her hand.
If he only had woken up fully then! If he had been awake he could have followed Junia and done whatever it was that she did. Then he wouldn’t have to feel this fear, because even if what had happened Junia had happened to him to, then at least they would have been together. And he would have known.
It had been seven days since he and Junia left from home. They had expected to be in Harir after ten. Instead Dokaius were alone, without a horse and not even half way there. He really hoped that they would get money from the crown, so all of this was for nothing.
Then it hit him. What they should have done all along. How could I have been so stupid?
When his father Vennis had been a young keeper in a big family Dohr’s manor had been the home of twenty-seven committed, and Dokaius grandfather had decided to found another manor. It was one of the few manors founded in the last fifty hears, and it was given the name Pehr’s manor. Around twenty committed where looked after there now, and it was run by Dokaius’ cousins, children of one of Vennis’ sisters. It was situated just a few hours travel east of Dohr’s manor.
The thought of it made Dokaius want to cry. At Pehr’s manor they were not as crowded as Dohr’s manor, and it was run by four keepers and three apprentices. Lottine, the oldest of Dokaius’ cousins, ruled the manor with a firm hand together with her husband Thomonius and her younger siblings Stefonius and Annelie.
Annelie was not there much, but even without her they were fully crewed with Lottines son and two daughters helping. If Dokaius had sent word to them he would both have been told if they had gotten their money and then maybe could have borrowed from them, and also help with looking after the committed. If Annelie were home she could even have helped them with the journey, since she had been to the capital many times.
Dokaius stepped up the pace. Now he needed to minimize the damage that had been done. Even though his trust in the postal system hadn’t exactly risen with them not being able to see where the money had gone, he still needed to send a message to Antonius and one to Lottine. If the keepers at Pehr’s manor had money to lend then the situation would not be as desperate, and he was sure that Antonius would gladly accept any help he could get.
Dokaius reached a town the next day, the first one since Vent large enough to have a post office. Most of his remaning money were spent sending the letters, but it was worth it. He sighed. If he had figured this out before Junia had disappeared, then maybe he could have convinced his sister to turn back and …
No, of course he wouldn’t have been able to do that, and he shouldn’t try to trick himself into thinking it. Junia would never have agreed, any more than she had agreed to stay at home and let Dokaius go alone.
He also reported Junia’s disappearance to a bored law-man, that didn’t seem to take what he said very seriously. He was decent at drawing and made a sketch of his sister that the law-man put on the notice-board in his office, but it didn’t seem like he was going to do much more than that to find her.
Dokaius wanted to stay and force him to do something, to go out and investigate. But again duty towards the committed pushed him to move on, and he continued on his journey to Harir.
The world was darkness.
Somewhere in the darkness was a conscience. The conscience were very small, very insecure in the big black.
Time passed. How long the conscience had no way of knowing. But it knew that time passed, since it could feel itself changing, getting firmer, finding a shape.
Finally, after an eternity or a moment, the conscience opened it’s eyes and knew it had a body. Knew it had a name. But that it – or rather she, since she was more than a conscience now – still remained in darkness.
Junia didn’t know how long time had passed since she first woke up in the cell. There were nothing that she could use to measure the passing of time, except possibly her own heartbeat. But she didn’t even dare to trust her heart, it seemed to beat without any rhythm.
The cell was so dark that she couldn’t see her own hand even when she held it up close to her face. Once she got bored of lying down she stood up and measured the room she was in. That’s when she became convinced that it was a cell. The room was bare, with the only exception being the wooden bunk where she’d woken up. It was just two by three steps large, and she didn’t find a door or any other way of getting out. The ceiling was so high she couldn’t reach it, even standing on the bunk, and the floor was polished stone. It was dry in the cell, something she was grateful for now, but that she suspected she might not like later, once thirst started to affect her.
Junia tried to remember what had happened before she woke up here, but it was hard to maintain focus. She remembered going to the post office and not getting any money, how she had argued with Dokaius about what they should do. It felt like they had left Dohr’s manor, her and Dokaius, but she wasn’t sure.
When it became to hard to keep hold of the image she instead drifted back in time. She relived the summers of her childhood, the rebelion of her youth and her final surrender as their father had forced his will hon her and she had become a keeper. She felt the sorrow after her parents deaths, anger after fighting with her brothers, frustration about again and again trying to teach the committed how to take care of themselves so she wouldn’t have to. She saw the stillness in the forests around the manor an early morning, out hunting with Mikeloto, Linuto and Joelito. She remembered interesting discussions with her brothers too, not just arguments. Fun conversations. Jokes. They had joked a lot, her and Dokaius. Sometimes a bit to sarcastic, but never mean, not really.
When she was suddenly standing outside of Dohr’s manor, amongst the trees, she was not surprised. She had fallen asleep, which was not strange at all. She had been tired, it had been dark, and she had been lying down. The only strange thing was that she knew that she was in a dream.
But no matter if it was a dream or not, the sight of the exterior of the manor were a nice change after all the darkness. She stood there and watched the building for a while, before deciding to go and see what Antonius was doing. Her steps did not produce any sound, and when she tried clapping her hands together she was greeted with silence. The last doubts that this was a dream went away.
The porch door opened and Antonius came out. If the sun could be trusted in this dream it was early morning. Antonius had probably just woken up, and not let the committed out of their rooms yet. Junia ran up to her brother and shouted. Of course no sound could be heard, and when she reached she understood that her brother couldn’t see her other. That she probably wasn’t even there, not even in her dream, since Antonius stepped straight through here and walked towards the vegetable patch.
Junia laughed and kept step with him. This was not like any dream she’d had before.
That’s when she heard the growl – and it made all the memories come back with an ice cold clarity. The journey, the wolf (not a wolf), the wagon crashing, the bull and the growl, the growl, the growl.
The growl that had come back in the night after they met the bull. The growl that made her angry. That had made her leave the fire, leave her brother, to go look for it.
She had found what caused the growl. And when she found it, the fear she had felt before came back stronger than ever. She had tried to turn and run, but she had just stood there, frozen to the ground while the green eyes came closer and …
No! She couldn’t think about that! Couldn’t let it paralyze her again.
She looked around. Antonius had almost reached the vegetables, and Junia ran to catch up. All thoughts that this was just a dream were gone from her head. She tried to make contact with Antonius in any way possible, screamed at him to get back in the house, tried to grab him, trip him, anything.
But Antonius didn’t notice, but just kept going. Junias heart was beating harder, while she tried more and more desperately to think of a way to get Antonius back into the house. And then she saw the eyes, and all thoughts stopped as panic flooded over her.
Darkness. Junia sat up and screamed, and the scream bounced against the walls of the cell. She stopped. It had just been a dream after all. Her heart was still beating like that of a frightened kitten’s, and she had problems catching her breath. The paralyzing fear that had struck her in the dream didn’t let go, but receded somewhat. She turned so her back was against the wall, and lowered her feet. The cold floor heplet to bring her back further, convince her that she was actually awake now, that the dream had been nothing more than a nightmare. Her breathing turned back to normal, reluctantly followed by her heartbeat. Du-dunk, du-dunk. It felt as if the heartbeats echoed in the empty cell.
Junia leaned her head on her chest, closed her eyes and sighed. Sat like that for a while.
Stretched out and and leaned back against the stone wall.
Looked out into the darkness.
Saw two green eyes.
Dokaius twitched. Something had woken him. He considered himself hard to wake, otherwise he would never get any sleep in Dohr’s manor. But now something, or something, woken him. He looked around. The fire had almost died down, and he threw on more firewood.
The flames caressed the wood, and after a few seconds it caught fire. In the light of the fire Dokaius looked around again. He neither saw nor heard anything that could have woken him up. He rose and stretched his stiff legs. He wasn’t feeling very tired, and for no particular reason he decided it was time for another night time walk. He packed up his things, put out the fire and left.
As dawn came he was closing in on a farm. He walked up to the gate. There were no mark there. At some point in his past he had learned about the hobo marks and what they meant, but apparently no hobo had visited here.
It was his grandfather Boas that had told him about the hobo symbols. Boas was his maternal grandfather and had not been a keeper, he had been a traveling salesman who had put down roots when he met Dokaius’ grandmother. They had lived in Rylander and grandpa had told Dokaius and his siblings many stories his time travelling the roads.
But then grandpa had died. Dokaius felt sad thinking about it. He had been very old, but Dokaius still missed him. He kept thinking about him and his stories while the sun rose in the sky. It looked like he was going to have another beautiful day.
At least I’ve had good luck with the weather, he thought. But rotten luck with most everything else.
In the early afternoon Dokaius started to feel the fact that he had started several hours earlier than normal, and decided to call it a day. He would not have minded having a horse, but horses were expensive and he had next to no money. He would have to get food by working on some of the farms he passed, when the small stock supplies and coins he still had ran out – if he didn’t against all odds reached his goal before then.
A cat came running towards him on the road, and Dokaius stopped. The cat stopped as well and looked at him.
The cat measured him calmly. When Dokaius looked more carefully he could tell that it wasn’t much more than a kitten. He bent down and reached out for it. The cat first shied back, but then walked forward gingerly. It’s careful eyes registered his every move. Then it went from total calm to full speed for the last few steps and attacked Dokaius open hand. Dokaius picked it up in his arms, while the little beast bit his hand and scratched his wrist.
“You’re quite the little rascal, aren’t you. Do you live somewhere around here?”
Dokaius released the cat and kept walking. It immediately ran off. A little while later he found an old barn that was standing a little bit off the road. He entered through a door that was more broken than whole. He didn’t have enough energy to start a fire, so he just had some bread and dried meat.
There were hay on the floor of the barn, so Dokaius gathered a big pile and lay down in it. He could almost understand that his grandpa sometimes longed to return to this life.
Dokaius was woken up the following by someone sucking on his earlobe. He sat up, very surprised. Next to him was the little cat, which looked very upset with him for sitting up so suddenly.
“But kitty. I’m not a cat mother, am I?”
Light was falling in through the big cracks in the roof. Dokaius stood up and walked out through the broken door. He looked at the sun. It couldn’t be more than six, it would be another long day. He entered the barn again and packed up his things. The cat was lying on his sleeping mat, purring, and he had to move it aside.
“Go on, little cat, go back to where you belong. I’m sure there is someone that is missing you.”
The cat left straight away out through a broken plank in the wall, as if the cat had understood him. Dokaius looked at it leaving. That had been a strange way of being woken up, that’s for sure.
He wished there was a way for him to know if Lottine and Antonius had gotten his messages, and if there where help coming from Pehr’s manor. He had written in the letters that they should send responses to the palace, addressed to him. In that way he would at least know once he reached Harir, but by then he would have worried himself silly. There were no chance of him reaching the capitol before Antonius ran out of money, much less make it back home again.
This thought made him walk even faster, and when he for once passed a man that was going the same direction as him he didn’t at first react, and didn’t even hear when the man said something.
“Hello! Can he not hear me?”
Dokaius turned. A dark haired man his own age caught up with him. The man was somewhat shorter than Dokaius, dressed in brown pants and a beige tunik, had a backpack on his back, a walking stick in his hand and a dagger at his belt.
“I though he was deaf or something, almost. Is he going to Eras?”
Eras was a big town, and the next stop on the way to Harir.
“That’s the route I’m travelling, yes. I’m going to the capital.”
“That’s excellent news, son! I’m going to Eras, as he might have figured out, so we could maybe travel together, if he doesn’t mind. Strength in numbers, and all that.”
The man smiled a mischievous smile.
“Sure”, said Dokaius. “Why not?”
The man offered his hand.
“Peter Mile. Call me Ludde.”
Dokaius shook it.
“Dokaius af Dohr’s manor. Keeper of those inflicted by the sickness.”
“Oh, a nobleman. Nice to meet you. Keeper, he says, then I’m sure we’ll enjoy each others company, I’m in that line of work myself, if you say so.”
“Really? In what way?”
Dokaius and the man that wanted to be called Ludde resumed walking as they talked. Ludde walked with the natural spring in his step of someone used to a life of travel.
“The man that is standing in front of him, or rather walking next to him, is none other than the greatest manufacturer, seller and distributor of all kinds of healing elixirs, love potions, herbal remedies and other powerful and magical mixtures in southern Ireus.”
“And that’s the same thing as looking after the committed? Mixing together some spices and food coloring and selling it to gullible peasants for way to much money?”
“He insults an honest businessman. I’ll let him know that everything I sell has exactly the intended effect.”
Dokaius kept laughing, because he could see that Peter had not been offended but seemed to take everything lightly.
“If that is the case then I will gladly try one of your potions at a more opportune time. But I still don’t see how that is the same line of work as being a keeper.”
“Oh, he’s not giving himself justice. I am, if I say so myself, in the business of helping people that have a problem they can’t solve themselves. One potion to remove the itch, heal the wound, make the fever go down or the thing down there stand up, if he get’s my drift. Simply put, I’m looking out for peoples health.”
“I’m starting to see where you’re going with this.”
“I’m going to Eras, as I told him already, but I don’t think he can see quite that far already. But if I’m allowed to continue my reasoning …”
But he was not allowed to do so, as Dokaius started laughing again and drowned out the words of his new companion. Ludde started laughing as well, but when Dokaius recovered he continued his monologue.
Dokaius never managed to tell wether Peter was serious or joking, but almost everything he said was very funny, so Dokaius kept laughing as long as the self-proclaimed health worker didn’t seem to be offended.
They reached Eras at nightfall, and Ludde insisted inviting Dokaius to his favourite inn. After much doubt Dokaius agreed, but he stayed sober while Ludde just became more and more funny as the beer kept running down his throat in amounts that were hard to believe, and soon the whole guest room was laughing along with his jokes, if jokes where what they were.
When Dokaius even later tried to tell his new found friend that he needed to sleep to be able to continue his travels the next morning, Ludde payed for a bed in the inn common room for him. Dokaius promised to pay him back as soon as his finances allowed, and for the first time in almost two weeks he slept in a real bed and not even the nagging worry about his sister and brother could keep him awake.
Junia was a wreck.
When she had seen the green eyes the first time she had screamed and screamed, but nothing had happened. So she had blinked, and the eyes where gone.
After an eternity in darkness she started to calm down again. And then another dream had started, which was odd, because Junia was quite sure she hadn’t fallen asleep. This time she had seen Dokaius walking along the road. He could not see her or hear her any more than Antonius had been able to in her earlier dream. Junia had followed her brother until the sun set, when he had made camp. And the growl had woken Dokaius and made him leave the fire to look for it, just as Junia had done. And the green eyes were in the forest, and Junia tried to stop Dokaius from searching for them, but when she saw them she became frozen in fear again.
And were back in the darkness.
The next vision were worse. This time she thought she were still in her cell, but suddenly there were a light coming from the ceiling, a hatch opened and a rope ladder was lowered. She climbed up and had almost reached the top when she saw the green eyes waiting for her at the top of the ladder, and she lost her grip and fell … and woke up on the floor next to her bunk.
And so it had continued. Now Junia was curled up on the edge of the bunk, knees pulled up to her chin, hands on her head and eyes tightly closed. Tears were running down her cheeks and she mumbled again and again:
“I’m not here, I’m not here. I’m gone, gone, gone, never to come back. Gone, gone, gone.”