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It was mid morning when Zeba finally reached the end of the forest
road leading from the Movitian city of Eldimar. The dew had dried
from the grassy forest floor and the crispness of the night air had
begun to give way to a musky dampness. New blossoms unfolded
everywhere in sprinklings of violet, yellow, white, and pink on the
lush green of the forest. Brightly colored birds chirped and
chattered to each other as small furry creatures scurried forth from
their hiding places after a long night’s rest.
Hyace walked into the clearing of the crossroads and stopped near
what appeared to be an ancient guardhouse, decayed and
crumbling under the weight of the plants and vines which had taken
root long ago. Thin shafts of sunlight penetrated the forest canopy,
catching in sparkles in Zeba’s flowing red hair as she dismounted
and gave her mount a loving pat on the neck.
“Hyace, my friend,” Zeba whispered, “It is surprisingly beautiful here.
Not at all the eerie place I had expected.”
Hyace snorted softly and nodded her head.
Zeba sat on a small section of crumbling wall and brushed the hair
from her face as she inspected her surroundings.
The crossroads at Rathbine had once teamed with traffic; vender’s
carts, caravans of merchants with their wagons of goods bound for
the markets at Eldimar and Parimand, troupes of actors and
performers, jugglers and musicians on their way to Candalyre and
Strems and Bellshore. Roadside stalls held a myriad of palatable
delights. Casks of wine and ales, dried fish, meat pies, breads and
pastries, and an occasional basket of exotic fruits from some distant
land. Any item known to the peoples of this land, and a few that
were not, was sure to pass through Rathbine and could be
purchased there if one but had its price in gold or goods.
Zeba tried to imagine what it must have been like to be a traveler at
Rathbine in its zenith, to mingle with the patchwork of people and
listen to the bartering, bickering and gossip. What a marvelous
thought, to have been a part of all that concentrated diversity. Her
father’s own noblemen had patrolled the crossroads and the forest
road to Eldimar, though there was little need. Their very presence
was a constant reminder of the freedom and prosperity enjoyed by
all the people of Movitia and the neighboring lands. It was common
knowledge that anyone possessed of ill-doing would be brought to
counsel, forthwith, and if found to be guilty, would be dealt with
severely. Truly, the fruits of crime in these lands at that time were
small and bitter. And so, everyone who ventured through the
crossroads did so without fear of being waylaid and robbed of their
wares or their lives. Noblemen and commoners alike shared the
veins that flowed with life between the great cities of Movitia in peace.
But all of those things had faded long ago, eleven years to be exact.
Conflict had broken out far to the south in the Dromadin Kingdoms
and all efforts and resources of the land had been diverted to the
wars. People had begun to fear traveling alone and tagged along
with the caravans. Trade between Movitia and the
ceased. All roads to the south were closed by order of the Royal
Court in the attempt to block the spread of war into Movitia. The
crossroads that had been in heavy use since ancient times and its
tributaries lay abandoned and silent. Through lack of use, Rathbine
had been almost totally reclaimed by the forest.
Zeba sat taking in all the sights, sounds and smells of the looming
“How long?” She wondered. How long would it be before her escort
arrived? How much would they know of her mission? How would she
know if they were, in fact, her escort and not imposters who would try
to kill her...or worse, yet, deliver her into the hands of an enemy to
be held for ransom? How would she know? How?
The sun rose to mid sky and began to fall again. Still, there was no
sign of her escort, nor anyone else. Soon it would be dark, soon the
blackness of the forest would close in around her...soon. Though it
was unlike her, Zeba grew anxious, worried. Thoughts of flight began
filling her head.
“No, I must wait,” she thought aloud. “Too much depends on this
journey and I am no coward!” But how she wished she and Hyace
could race back to Eldimar, to the castle...and safety.
Sensing her nervousness, Hyace nudged Zeba’s arm with her
muzzle. Zeba managed a half smile and rubbed her companion’s soft
nose appreciatively. It was comforting to know that she was not
totally alone in the growing darkness. She pulled her cape from
Hyace’s saddle and draped it over her shoulders. Together, they
stood listening, staring into the shadows in anticipation.
It was odd, she thought as she stood in the half-light. The air was
still warm, yet she felt a definite chill. There were none of the usual
forest sounds...no frogs..no crickets...no sound at all, except for
Hyace’s soft breathing and the thumping of Zeba’s own heart.
Where were the crickets?
Suddenly, Hyace jerked her head up and her eyes went wild, her
nostrils flared with a snort.
“Hyace, what is it? What do you h...” The words caught in Zeba’s
“Riders!” She could feel the ground vibrate beneath her feet as she
pulled Hyace behind the cover of the trees. Louder and louder came
the pounding hooves of the approaching horses. Zeba watched wide-
eyed and silent as the first mount passed so closely she could have
reached out and touched it. A second followed almost immediately
behind the first. But instead of going straight past, the horse took a
sharp turn, throwing its rider at Zeba’s feet.
Zeba was seized with horror at what her eyes beheld. There on the
ground before her lay one of a Royal Guard of Kabiir, dead! His face
and hands were badly burned, much of his blue and gold uniform
“My escort...” Zeba gasped. “MY ESCORT!”
. . .