It felt like the hunt would never end.
For over a month Edwin, Pudas and Winson followed the thieves. Every time they were close to catching them something happened that made them lose time again. Edwin had tracked many complicated pray before, but this had turned into the hardest tasks he had ever been given.
They were still in the south of Ireus. The thieves had travelled mostly east ever since they left the bayardian ship in July, but now they were suddenly travelling back and forth in an obvious attempt to confuse Edwin and make him lose the trail.
They had also learned from their earlier mistakes and stayed in the wilderness, far from any kind of landmarks that Edwin could have recognized and given him a chance to travel quicker. Thanks to the sharp mind of Pudas and the sharp eyes of Winson they hadn’t gotten stuck in any more traps, and the thieves had not tried to set up any more ambushes.
Now Edwin, Pudas and Winson were sitting around yet another camp fire. The dinner was eaten and darkness was falling.
“Where are they now?” said Winson.
“Still in the same forest”, said Edwin. “It’s the third day in a row that they have travelled north, I’m wondring if they have finally given up on this latest tactic.”
“I hope so”, said Wilson. “I’m getting very tired of riding in circles.”
“Me too”, he said. “And soon we’ll have to stock up on food again.”
The quiet spread when all three disappeared into their own minds.
“Well, well”, said Winson after a while. “Time for me to sleep.”
After the first attempted ambush the three had taken turns to guard the camp in shifts every night. Tonight Winson had the middle shift. Edwin was first and Pudas would take the morning shift.
“Goodnight, Winson”, said Edwin.
Winson put a hand on his shoulder and then left the fire to relieve his bladder. A short while later he was asleep – they were all tired all the time and fell asleep early in the evenings.
“Have I missed something?” said Edwin to Pudas. “Something that I could have helped us catch our quarry? Could I have done something different?”
“Only the Most High can see all paths”, said Pudas.
“I’m worried I was too sure of myself”, he said. “That I forgot I’m just a tool in the hand of the Most High.”
Pudas didn’t reply. Edwin hadn’t expected her too. He knew that Pudas would never give him any false assurances just to make him feel better. But just airing his worry made it lose it’s grip on him.
“You should sleep as well”, he told Pudas. “We have another long day ahead of us.”
Pudas nodded, but stayed for another few minutes before she went to sleep.
Now it was just Edwin, the dark and the fire. It was sputtering and hissing as the not very dry pine wood burned. He would soon let it die, there were no reason to keep it running all night.
Edwin was tired, tired in body, mind and soul. The long days in the saddle were draining his physical strength, the constant vigilance drained his mental. And keeping the connection to the thieves alive made his spirit tired. He yawned.
The fire was just embers now. It was still two hours until it was time to wake Wilson.
Only years of mental discipline stopped him from sliding into sleep as the fire died and he was left in the dark, apart from the stars and the weak light of the new moon.
The next day the travelled briefly on a small road, and Edwin started to catch some rumors from the people they met. Something serious had happened in Harir, the capital of Ireus. During the following days he piece by piece managed to build a coherent picture of what had happened: king Borelius were no longer on the throne. Some kind of coup had happened. Whoever had performed it was controlling all information coming from the capital in a very skillful way.
The thieves had continued their travels north for almost a week now, and it seemed more and more likely that Harir was their goal. The more Edwin heard, the more convinced he became that what had happened there were connected to the theft in Cebea.
“Does it matter?” said Winson when Edwin told the others his theories. “Does it change our task?”
“Not today”, said Edwin. “But it might in the coming days. If we don’t make it in time.”
He didn’t want to tell the others since it was just suspicions so far, but Edwin was sure that it was Eraim Chartsin, the first minister of the king of Ireus, that were behind both the coup and the theft.
Eraim Chartsin called himself magus, and was the first true magician in any of the countries of Jenis for several hundred years. The object that had been stolen, that they were searching for, had been created the last time a king or emperor had used magicians as advisors. It was likely that Eraim knew what it did, and he did have the power to use it. If he got hold of the item, especially if he already controlled Harir, then the most likely outcome was war in Jenis, war for the first time in almost two centuries. And that was not even the worst of it.
“We’ll catch them”, said Pudas. “You know their destination. You know there is a faster route.”
Edwin nodded. He knew there was a big risk that once they reached the high road that led from southern Ireus through Vent and Eras to Harir, the thieves would throw caution to the wind and travel to the capital as quickly as possible. He and the others were just a day behind now, but if the thieves rode all out towards their goal then he would never catch up by just following their path.
But, as Pudas had said, there were a faster route.
“You’re right”, Edwin said. “I had hoped to avoid it, but we have to take the Shortcut.”
The storm had caught them.
They had seen the bad weather coming for days, but still it came as a total surprise. Nobog was at the helm. Henko was sleeping next to him.
Nobog had time to scream “Lower the main sail”, then all Kvern broke lose.
The ocean passing – up until then – had been beautiful but eventless. In the famous calm before the storm Nobog and Henko were bathing, lying in the sun and generally relaxed while their sails were mostly empty from the masts of the longship. If they hadn’t been in so much hurry then they would have enjoyed fully enjoyed these the nicest days of high summer.
It had been almost two weeks since they left Vinland. They had had some light rain, a bit of cloud once or twice, but most of the time the sun had been shining and the winds been weak. The water was warm and the air warmer. It was, in short, as nice as it ever was out on the Sea of Winds.
The second week the fog had come and caught them, and that was the first time they were a bit worried. If they got to far out of course then it would be hard to correct. Both Nobog and Henko knew how to navigate by the stars, of course, and they had access to the best tools of their trade – sextant, compass, binoculars. But charts were almost pointless here in the middle of the featureless sea, and the ones available for the coast of Jenis were hopelessly out of date.
Nobog was trying to fall asleep during the third night with fog. Henko was at the helm. The fog made the air cold, and she was under several layers of heavy blankets. She could here the soft wind make the masts sing, and the water lapping against the sides of the ship. The sea birds had fallen asleep a long time ago, and the only other noise where the creaking of the hull and Henko humming softly to himself. Nobog fell asleep being rocked by the waves.
The next morning the fog lifted. It had never been so thick that the sun and stars gone away completely, and when full visibility returned they didn’t think they lost the course at all.
The first day of the third week the wind returned, and the same day they noticed how dark winds were building on the horizon. Nobog thought the storm was at least forty nautical miles away. From that day they kept a close eye behind them, to the west.
“Will we make it?” Henko asked in the end of the third week, when the bad weather had not gotten any closer.
“If we do we do, otherwise we won’t” said Nobog.
“Before the storm reaches us, I mean”, said Henko.
“Doubtful”, said Nobog.
“Not good”, said Henko.
“We’ve survived worse”, said Nobog.
“Are you sure?”
“Well, then”, said Henko.
“Yep”, said Nobog.
“I’ll hold you to that”, said Henko.
“You do that”, said Nobog “It won’t be a ptoblem.
They were gliding through the water, still with all sails. The wind was mostly from behind, same as it had been all through, even when it was weak. Their longship was not very suitable for going against the wind. Now they were going way to fast for bathing, they had logged almost six knots earlier. On the other hand the increased wind made it less hot, so the need for jumping in the water to cool of had lessened.
Nobog and Henko were dressed in short sailor pants. Henko didn’t have anything on top, Nobog just a thin, short sleeved shirt. The constant sun had made both of them a lot darker than normal. They were of course not wearing any shoes, they seldom wore any even on land except sometimes when fighting, when the weather was very bad or the terrain very rough.
Nobog was a the helm at the moment, Henko was lying down next to her. The sun was shining, the sky was mostly blue, and the sailing was the best it could be.
“Cool clouds”, said Henko.
“Where?” asked Nobog.
“There”, said Henko and waived in a western direction, more or less.
Nobog nodded. Light clouds were sailing through the lower parts of the sky. Large cloud banks were behind them, shifting in light grey and white.
She wasn’t sure that “cool” was the word she would have used.
“This is nice”, said Henko after a while.
“What is?” said Nobog.
“This. All this in general”, said Henko.
“Sure”, said Nobog. Jees, she thought.
“Are you sure we’ll be fine?” said Henko.
“Yes”, said Nobog.
“Good”, said Henko. “Wake me if you change your mind.”
Then he rolled over on his stomach and went to sleep.
Back where we started. The heavy clouds that had followed Nobog and Henko for almost a week had suddenly, without warning, come towards them with terrible speed. The wind they had had for some days died, and visibility behind them became less and less. It was so quick that Nobog didn’t even have time to wake up Henko before it was on them.
First came the rain. All visibility was gone. The raindrops were falling so hard, so fast, that Nobog could not look straight ahead but had to bend his face towards the deck. Seconds later the wind came, and made the rain from before feel like a summer shower. Now the raindrops came sideways, and Nobog was almost knocked over.
With the wind came the waves. The previously calm see became a roaring beast. The waves climbed to higher than their mast in a few sjort moments, and Nobog had just enough time to tie the rope around himself before the first wave crashed over the ship. She had no idea ware Henko was, she didn’t have time to care. They still had all sails up, and she released the ropes holding them in one by one and let them flap. Only the small storm jib in the front of the ship she left tight, to keep some control of the ship.
Nobog registered the first thunderclap when there was finally time for anything other than acting on pure reflex. The flash and thunder came within moments of each other. She saw the next lightning, it struck the water just a few hundred meters from the ship. Still she had no idea where Henko was, if he was even still on board. The waves washed over here and togged at the rope she had around her. Her adrenaline filled body had just enough time to register that her chest burned as it was pulled back and forth.
The ship was surfing on top of a huge wave, and the sea was sizzling around her. The rain was making it impossible to see anything, and the heavy clouds covered the sun so it was dark as night.
The wave crashed, and for a moment the ship was in the air before it hit the water, only to be hit by a second wave the same size as the one it had just crested. When Nobog could see again the main mast was broken, and in the illumination of a lightning she could see it and it’s flappling sails disappeared behind the mountainous waves. Still no sight of Henko, and now Nobog had enough time to get scared. If Henko had been swept overboard then there were no chance of saving him. Nobog had to fight with all her might and skill just to keep herself alive and the ship on the right keel. The only thing she could do to keep the boat from smashing apart was desperately keeping it sailing with the wind, so it surfed the waves rather than got them in the side, which would surely flip it over and sink it and her as well.
Nobog cut the remaining ropes for all sails except the jib, and they flew away like large terrified ghosts and were gone in the rain and the waves. After that the ship was a bit easier to control, and the big risk of losing the front mast as well lessened somewhat, but if they survived the storm she could only hope that they had been blown far enough east to see the coast of Jenis. Otherwise they would die of thirst before they reached the continent. If they even found it, she had no idea where they were now. They hadn’t yet seen the light of Ribbonstar, the huge light house that guided sailors to the harbour of Rackolov.
Lightning struck again, even closer, in front of the ship on the port side. Nobog felt the pressure of the strike as thunder rolled over here. She was afraid, afraid for her own life, and even more afraid for Henko’s.
“I hope you haven’t changed your mind.”
Henko’s shout could only just be heard over the storm.
Nobog didn’t see him at first, but then spotted her friends close cut head sticking out under the starboard bench.
“Of us making it, I mean”, he continued.
“I never said that”, Nobog shouted, so relieved she didn’t know if she should laugh or cry. “I just said we’d made it through worse.”
“You said you were shure we’d make it”, Henko insisted. “Otherwise you would wake me.”
“And I haven’t done that”, Nobog shouted back. “But it would be good if you could help out a little.”
The storm had not let up at all. The ship was still flying on the waves as a walnut fought over by wild cats. Nobog was whipped by the strong rain and the winds tore at the remaning sail, while the sky kept lighting up again and again by flashes and deafening thunder rolled over them.
Henko crawled out from his somewhat more protected space. Nobog was aching all over. It was just adrenaline and force of will that kept her up. She tore at the rudder with iron determination, while the ship was thrown here and there by the giant waves.
For a second the rain and wind seemed to stop. The ship was balanced on the crest of a high wave for an eternal moment in the same instance as a flash lit the sky. Nobog and Henko, who had just gotten to his feet, both saw the same thing. There, within reach, just a short distance away, was land. And the ship was closing in on the sharp rocks guarding this particular patch of coast with way too much speed.
Then the wave broke, and the ship flew through the air, smashed in and through another wave and were carried by the next. Nobog and Henko saw with amazement that they were now inside the rocks, the wave must have carried them over – but just as it had saved them from the rocks it was now going to smash them agains the cliffs of the coast with a far from friendly hand.
None of them had time to think anything else before the wave broke and the ship was flown through the air, landing with a mighty crash on the cliffs and were broken to pieces.
A moment later and the storm was over.
Edwin, Pudas and Winson continued their journey north, but it was no longer the direction of the thieves that were controlling where they were going. That had made some things easier – they no longer needed to be on the lookout for traps and ambushes with the same fervor. But it didn’t make the road any better, they kept riding through forests and fields.
“Is this really faster?” said Winson after they had to take another detour to get around a flooded stream. “We had almost caught them.”
“Almost is not good enough”, said Edwin. “We have to be in Harir when they reach it. This is the only way that is possible.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?” said Winson. “If there’s been a coup?”
“We don’t know that for sure”, said Edwin. “And if we’re ment to abandon our task we will be given a sign. Until then we need to try finish it with all means that are available and are in accordance with the Law.”
Winson nodded. Pudas said nothing.
Edwin had been revitalized by having a fixed goal in sight. Even though he couldn’t know for sure that Harir was the goal of the thieves, couldn’t know for sure what waited for him and the others when they arrived in the capital of Ireus, he still felt at peace with his decision. A peace he had learned to recognize, a peace that ment that he was acting in accordance with the plan of the Most High. No matter what was to come, this was what he was ment to do right now.
They made camp next to a big boulder that evening, close to a stream for fresh water. They still had plenty of supplies, which was lucky. The likelihood that they would be able to restock before they reached Harir was small, and it was still at least three days until then.
The night was uneventful, and after a filling but simple breakfast the journey continued. Edwin was in the lead now, followed by Pudas and then Winson. He had not traveled this road before, but that did not matter. His goal was clear and he found the paths he needed without having to look for them.
In the afternoon they past trough a thick fog that forced them to slow down, but they soon cleared it again. A few hours later they had reached the ruin city of Vicariat, which were the place where the next step of their journey would start. Here was the shortcut they needed – if they could just get in and use it.
“I didn’t know the city was so big”, said Winson.
Around them were rows and rows of ruins, most of them overgrown by bushes and trees with only the foundations giving away the fact that there had once been buildings here.
“Vicariat was almost as big as Harir before the fire”, said Edwin.
“This is more buildings than all of Cebea”, said Winson.
“Cebea is a small city compared to the ones in Ireus”, said Edwin. “Wait until you see the present day Harir. It is a lot bigger than this.”
Vicariat had burned to the ground several hundred years ago, and the king at the time had opened the gates of Harir for all who had lost their home. Vicariat was never rebuilt, but the number of inhabitants of Harir had swelled substantially. Many of the villages and towns in the area were founded by the people that did not want to move to the capital but couldn’t return to their home.
“So, this is where we catch up with the thieves and reclaim what have been stolen”, said Winson. “I must confess I still don’t fully understand how.”
“You’ll understand tomorrow”, said Edwin. “Or you will at least see tomorrow. I’m not sure that I myself fully understand”.
“There is still time before darkness falls”, said Pudas. “We can press on.”
“I don’t want to spend more nights than absolutely necessary in the Shortcut”, said Edwin. “It’s enough that we find the entrence today.”
They rode on towards what had been the center of the city. Soon they found a paved road. The tiles of the road were cracked and high grass and bush wood grew in many places, but it was still surprisingly whole.
The road brought them to a square in the western part of the city. Just a few hundred meters further ahead the forrest spread out again, with just single ruins in amongst the trees. On one site of the square was the thing they were looking for – the entrence to the Shortcut.
They made camp between to outer walls that were still mostly intact, even though the buildings that they had belonged to were just black burned cinders.
“I’ll take the first watch”, said Pudas.
“Wake me after”, said Winson. “I’ll sit till morning.”
Edwin did not protest. He knew he would need all his strength the following day, if they would have any chance of entering and clearing the Shortcut unscathed.
Winson woke Edwin and Pudas early the following morning.
“A group of travellers on the western main road in that direction”, he said and pointed. “Maybe a couple of varangian women, but they might also have been all human. They seem to be arguing.”
“How many?” said Edwin.
“Six. Three men, three women. None of them armed as far as I could see.”
“Six is not a problem even if they are”, said Pudas.
“But if the women are varangians …”, said Edwin.
“They are young varangians in that case”, said Winson. “Probably from Vent.”
“Not likely to possess any powers, in other word”, said Edwin.
“One more thing”, said Winson. “The men are committed that have escaped from their manor.”
“Committed that have escaped”, he said. “Then we will definitely need to learn what they are doing here. This might be the sign that shows that our task have turned from a hunt into something completely different.”