The group of young spies found their horses, remounted, and travelled through the maze of trees. Even with his eyes open, the charred bodies branded themselves in Viggo’s memory. A sharp call from Otto signalled for them to stop. They brought their horses to the river and allowed them to drink.
Otto brought his horse next to Viggo’s and stared at him intently.
“Keep looking at me. The enemy is close.”
Viggo froze, not allowing his gaze to veer away from his commander.
“In the trees they watch us,” he said quietly.
Suddenly Viggo couldn’t breathe.
“Listen, I want you to ride across the river and then make a run for it. I will wait until all of you are on your way before following.”
“You have no right to argue with me, soldier. You have survived the death of your parents, starvation, and a battle already. And I want you to live long enough to know how good life can be.”
Viggo swallowed past a painful lump in his throat. His lieutenant was going crazy. “I am nothing to you, Otto. Just a lowly soldier.”
“I think otherwise.”
He closed his eyes as a dull ache inflicted his chest. He had told a lie. A part of him believed it, too, mostly because the truth was so painful.
“Otto, the thing is … about my parents. They didn’t actually die. They’re still alive. They kicked me out of the house because they couldn’t afford to feed me. I have many brothers and sisters who are younger and better behaved. They didn’t want me.”
That was the reality. His parents were alive and still lived at the same old house he was born in. They didn’t want him. His own parents cast him out into the streets without a care to check and see if he lived or died. It was easier to let himself believe that they were dead. In many ways, they were dead to him.
“Viggo …” began Otto, resting a hand on his shoulder.
He knew it was foolish to keep talking. Who blabbed on about their bad childhood to his lieutenant with the enemy staring at them through the trees?
Otto looked away, choking back a sob. “Abandonment can be more painful than death,” he said quietly. “All the more reason for you to live long enough to understand what a real family can be. I had that with my sister and then they murdered her. Nothing can bring her back. My time with her is over, but you have already felt such loss with little happiness before it.”
“You and the other men are like family to me now. You are worth dying for. I will stay behind, Sir,” protested Viggo.
Otto’s eyes went cold. “No you will not, soldier.”
“They need you,” Viggo pressed.
Otto shook his head sternly and raised his voice a level. “Men, listen to me now! I want you to follow Viggo across the river.”
Otto held up a hand to silence Viggo as he opened his mouth to protest again. “I give the orders, soldier. A good commander lays down his life for his men. Voniz himself trusted you to my care. I do not take that lightly. Go. Now.”
The air around them grew cold and thickened with unspoken grief and morose thoughts. There was nothing else to be said.
Viggo guided his horse across the shallow river. The other boys followed him. He had to stop himself from peering over his shoulder back at his young commander, reminding himself that he had to follow orders, it was what Otto wanted.
“You appear to be at ill ease,” called Iric, who rode up close to Viggo.
Viggo ignored him.
“Are you keeping secrets from the rest of us?” pressed Iric.
“Not now Iric.”
The other boy leaned closer. “I saw the two of you talking. I am disappointed that he would confide in only you, considering you are so new.”
“Stop it,” hissed Viggo.
“Well, well. What have you said to Otto for him to favour you? Or what have you done?”
They broke out of the tree maze and urged their horses to run.
“Faster!” yelled Otto from the river, compromising himself.
Viggo’s throat felt as though it would close and suffocate him as he urged his horse to go faster. He could hardly breathe as he rode on.
Otto’s agonized shout tore at the air around them. Viggo slowed his mount, unable to stop himself from looking back. An arrow had been shot through his lieutenant’s shoulder after. He managed to ride out of the river, brought his horse to a stop, and waited for the enemy to reach him.
“Sir!” cried Viggo. “You must try to ride away from them!”
He turned his mount around and rode back for his commander.
“No! Ride away or we will both die!” shouted Otto.
“I cannot leave you, Sir!”
“Get lost, you idiot!”
The agonized command nearly made his heart stop. He pulled on his horse’s reins, watching in horror as enemy soldiers rode up to Otto. They were too close. If he didn’t make a run for it, Otto’s sacrifice would be for nothing.
Viggo hesitantly turned his horse around and rode away while his conscience screamed. An arrow whistled over him and barely missed Iric’s shoulder ahead. The chance of one of them being impaled was high. He collapsed against his horse’s strong back as more arrows whistled by.
Death hovered over him like an old enemy. Clinging to the reins of his horse, he wept for his parents, for the burned prisoners, and for Otto.
Helena climbed onto the fence lining the road so she could watch the soldiers marching out of the town. She heard the sound of their unified footsteps while wandering by the creek and quickly made her way up to the street to watch the boys leave. The time had come for them to leave their training camp and go off to fight. She sat up on her perch and studied their faces, but most of them were unrecognizable. With their stone-faced expressions caked in mud, they were oblivious to their audience of one. Many were not much older than she, yet they were in such a hurry to take part in the fighting. Even though new names of the fallen were added to the bulletin in town every day, the boys and young men in the area never lost their desire to fight. They possessed a bravery that she would never understand. Or was it stupidity?
She knew all too well that no one was safe from mortality’s kiss of betrayal. The best people were taken too soon, like her father. If she were a boy, she might have become a soldier rather than a miner. She shuddered at the idea of running through a volley of arrows or trying to fight off an armed enemy. Perhaps the mines were not so terrible in comparison.
The line came to an end. She stepped onto the empty road and watched the last row of boy soldiers disappear around the bend, perhaps never to be seen in their own country again. They were like the passing of time. As they disappeared around the bend, an era ended. Everything that they held familiar and dear might never be within reach ever again. Even after they were well out of sight, she could hear their steady footsteps pounding the dirt.
The world was full of sad youths and broken families. She herself was little more than a fatherless country girl struggling to survive. Despite her dream to explore and learn about the world beyond her humble town, she wondered if she would always be a part of the working poor, always struggling to get by.
If she worked into adulthood, she might manage to save a little bit of money to buy her own home and make a life for herself. She couldn’t imagine having any suitors with the way she looked walking to and from the mine every day. Even if she did marry, her husband could die from illness or war, and she would be impoverished all over again, only with children to take care of. Or she could die in childbirth, her life but a meagre drop in time. She shuddered at the thought of facing death again. In many ways, she felt it might be easier to die than to be left behind to mourn a loved one for years and years. The dead had nothing to worry about.
Martin crossed her mind, chasing away a portion of her melancholy. She thought about the type of lady he might choose as a wife. She would surely be someone tall, pale, cultured, and well-dressed like the merchants’ daughters who lived in town. They never had to lift a finger to do anything hard or strenuous and likely never would. He likely saw Helen as nothing more than a little girl, a commoner. The thought of that crushed her aching heart.
She would never forget the looks on those soldier boys’ faces as they marched away from home to war. The childish glint in their eyes was drilled out of them after months of rigorous military training. The group before them hadn’t received such intensive preparations for war and most of them fell in battle. She prayed that the longer training would help them survive and come home one day.
The cloud of dust that had been stirred up by the marching soldiers began to settle. Soon their footsteps in the dirt would be filled in. In time, their sacrifice would be forgotten by everyone as their lives moved forward, but she swore that she never would. Never.
Martin and Engulf worked together to gather wood for a fire. They stopped to set up camp outside of town to avoid further run-ins with people, but they were still close enough to ride over to the general store if they needed something. The wagon had seen better days, but Father was able to repair the wheels well enough for it to continue. Staring up at a tall tree, an idea formed in Martin’s mind and a rather profitable one at that. Engulf took the fire steel and tinder box from the wagon and started a fire for Mother to make stew over. After a few days of regular meals, he already looked healthier. Black and blue bruises still covered most of his face, but he was doing much better than before.
“Engulf, do you enjoy building things?” asked Martin, wiping sweat off his brow with his shirt sleeve.
Engulf nodded. “My uncle and I would spend hours making tables and chairs in his workshop when I was younger. He taught me a lot about quality designs that are built to last for decades, even centuries. I never had much interest in reading books, but that sort of learning is my passion.”
“I am glad, because I need your help with a project I’ve been thinking about. Be honest with me. Do you think people would be interested in buying refurbished wagons at a fair price?”
Engulf grinned. His blue eyes sparkled. “Refurbished. I like that. It sounds so much better than discarded.”
“I’m more of a book reader than a builder myself, but I’m all for hard work to get the job done. Do you think there will be a demand?”
Engulf nodded. “People’s wagons break, they have more children, or they gather more possessions. It makes sense that they may need a larger wagon, or a sturdier one, as they pass through. We could do wheel repairs, too!”
“I thought the same thing and did you notice all the people headed toward that town? A lot of their carriages and wagons are far worse off than ours.”
Engulf nodded thoughtfully. “I think you have a golden idea, my friend.”
His foreign identity was hidden better with the wool cap covering his icy blonde hair. Most people wouldn’t notice as long as he didn’t talk much.
“Boys, lunch is ready!” called Mother.
They walked over to the fire and filled their bowls with stew, which was a hearty mixture of potatoes, herbs, salted beef, carrots, and onions. It tasted just as good out in the wilderness as it did back in their old home. Martin hoped that the wild animals living around them wouldn’t venture over to see what smelled so amazing.
“I overheard you discussing a business idea,” she said, smiling at her son.
“Refurbished wagons,” said Martin.
“Hm. I always enjoy the energy put into a new business venture,” said Mother. “Let’s speak with your father about this and see what he thinks.”
He knew that she also had an idea of her own brewing in her head, but, as always, his parents never spoke of their business plans until they were very certain that they could work.
“Look at us, a family of merchants,” chuckled Father as he stepped over to serve himself a hearty portion of stew.
“Well, are we going to eat or what?” chided Mother.
Everyone quieted down and feasted on the hot stew and buttered bread. Though it was a little too elaborate for their income, Mother insisted that it was well-deserved after days of travelling and sleeping out in less than favourable weather.
Once everyone was nearly finished, Father spoke up. “I heard today in town that they found a Ustrunian spy close to our border.”
Mother cleared her throat. “Well, this is an uncomfortable conversation.”
Engulf swallowed his mouthful of potatoes and looked at everyone intently. “Please, do not restrict conversation about the war on my account.
There was a brief pause before Father continued.
“This spy is said to have joined under Commander Fjen and he trained alongside our boys.”
“Who told you this information, Father?” asked Martin.
“A reliable source.”
Martin’s mother rolled her eyes. “You mean that blacksmith you mentioned earlier?”
“Er, yes. His son is fighting under Commander Fjen, so this is essentially firsthand information.”
“What happened to this spy?” asked Martin.
“He is in one of our prisons being treated like gold.”
Martin almost choked on his stew.
“I heard about one of the camps,” began Engulf. “I am ashamed of what my country’s army has done to their prisoners … to your people.”
“I wonder if they will hang him after the trial,” said Martin. “Don’t they always hang spies?”
“This is very poor meal conversation,” said Mother.
“Only time will tell. Though it makes you wonder how many other Ustrunian spies we have crawling around our country right now disguising themselves as one of us.”
“A terrible, but necessary thought,” said Martin with a nod, ignoring Mother’s glare. “We no doubt have our spies infiltrating their military camps. I hope that their efforts will not be in vain.”
“The only way to end the war is to destroy Ustrunia. To be even more ruthless than they are,” blurted Engulf.
Martin’s mother cleared her throat and stared down at her lap.
“Indeed,” said Father, startled by the blunt comment.
“I hate to say it. I really do. But it’s true. The king is mad. Those who serve directly under him are equally insane. They will burn the whole world down if the world continues to defy them.”
Father shook his head. “This war has lasted as long as it has because that king of theirs gives inspiring speeches to heighten their passion for war and loyalty to him. Our army’s resolve needs to be better than theirs.”
Martin cast an empathetic look to Engulf, who sat studying his bread. With a shrug, he put it in his mouth.
“The war won’t last forever,” said Martin.
“Everyone says that,” sighed Mother, shaking her head. “Yet here we are.”
The sound of hoofbeats drew Agnita away from her fitful slumber. The bridge proved to be a decent shelter from the rain, but her coat and pants were still damp. A small fire still burned a few feet away; her mare stood close by. Whoever was coming, they were riding toward the bridge – toward her. She rose and quickly kicked dirt and mud onto the flames until they died. She covered her ears as they reached the bridge. Then they stopped.
The men’s foreign conversation loomed above her. Ustrunians. Spies, likely. She held her breath. If only she could understand what they were saying.
It sounded like there were around ten of them. She touched the sharp end of one of her arrows. It was useless against so many. She did not want to imagine what would happen if Maiden made a noise and they discovered her standing beneath them.
Several pairs of boots and horse hooves clopped the stonework of the bridge that separated them from her. The conversation ceased and they rode away. Agnita covered her ears with her hands to drown out the thunderous sound. She stepped out from under the bridge and watched them ride in the direction that she desperately did not want them to go. They rode in the direction of Frenz’s camp. Their red capes screamed in contrast with the lethargic grey sky. They flaunted their nationality like peacocks on enemy territory, which spoke of their immense pride. How she wanted to fire arrows at their backs.
She blinked back more tears as fear gripped her in a tight embrace. A lone rider could travel faster than a group if she rode without stopping. The spies would likely stop at least one more time before reaching the camp for they seemed like higher ranking soldiers who preferred not to overly exert themselves if they could help it. She went to her horse and stroked the mare’s damp coat.
She climbed onto Maiden’s back.
“Maiden, my dear friend, we will have to beat them to the camp. You must run. Just one more time and then I swear on my life that I will take you home and care for you like a royal’s horse. Please forgive me for this!”
They raced for the cause of life itself. She rode around the woods, imagining the enemy as they travelled within the camouflage of the trees.
Maiden slowed down without warning.
“Maiden, come on!” she cried.
A terrible, pained whinny escaped from the pit of the mare’s stomach. She stopped abruptly, panting heavily. Agnita jumped down to rub Maiden’s heaving chest.
“What is wrong with you?”
Maiden pawed the ground, pursing her lips, groaning. Her confused, unfocused eyes hinted that she was in great pain.
The horse lowered herself down into the dirt, still panting heavily. The hope that surged so violently in Agnita’s veins began to drain out of an invisible deep wound. There was no way she would make it back to camp before the Ustrunians.
“Maiden!” she cried. “Oh, God, please protect Frenz. Please!”
Maiden’s loud whinnies filled the air as she fell to the wet grass, shaking Agnita to the core. She had seen another horse suffer from such pain in the past. There was only one solution to end it. Agnita took an arrow from the quiver and dropped to her knees. She did not want to do what needed to be done, but the thought of Maiden suffering for hours, maybe days, made her realize that there was no other option.
“I did this to you. I am so sorry.”
The terrible truth hit her like a great wave. She wept as her horse rolled and writhed in pain. Her faithful friend was suffering because of her. She crawled over and stroked her mare’s forehead. She kissed it.
“You didn’t deserve this,” she said, longing to wake up from the nightmare. It couldn’t be happening. Not to Maiden. “I never deserved you. I never did.”
Agnita stood, took a deep breath, and focused on the unbearable reality. Maiden was really dying.
Drawing the bowstring past her shoulder, Agnita aimed the arrow’s blade at her horse’s head like her father showed her once when they had a sick cow that needed to be put down. That seemed like ages ago. She never imagined how she’d have to do such a thing to her horse. How she wished Pa could be with her in that moment. He’d slap her across the face for certain, but she still wanted him there.
She steadied her aim and locked eyes with Maiden for a moment, grieving for her lost life while she still breathed. The pain of loss filled her core, but she forced herself to focus.
“My beautiful mare,” she whispered. “How I love you. You are such a good horse. I’m so sorry … I hope you can forgive me for I will never forgive myself for this.”
Agnita released the bowstring and the arrowhead hit her target. Maiden’s head dropped to the ground like a dragon shot dead out of the sky. She lay still, dead, lost to the world, but free of her suffering.
At the sight of her faithful animal’s lifeless body on the wet earth, Agnita screamed, first at the corpse and then at the sky until her vocal chords burned. She knelt there and wept until the waning light slowly disappeared below the horizon. When the night’s darkness shrouded her, she stood up and picked up her bow.
Fuelled by grief and rage, she became one with the darkness and ran in the direction of the camp.
Viggo stood just outside of a tent back at camp with Commander Voniz. He tried to stay composed as the rage welling up inside of him threatened to spew out. He respected the man who saved his life, he would die for him, but leaving Otto to rot in a prison cell was wrong.
Voniz cleared his throat and threw Viggo a menacing glare. “Tell me again what it is you are suggesting.”
Viggo took a deep breath as the Norforthian flag atop the tent flapped in the wind.
“I want your permission to go with a small group to rescue Commander Otto, Sir.”
Voniz looked up at the sky as he shook his head. “No.”
“Please, Sir,” begged Viggo.
“I understand your loyalty to Otto and I admire your boldness, but we have other missions that take precedence. More prisoners will burn if we don’t move quickly.”
“And we will rescue them, but why can’t we send two rescue parties? One for Otto and another for the other prisoners?”
Voniz’s green eyes blazed with unmasked rage. Viggo flinched inwardly. He took it too far, pushed his commander too hard.
“You should have ensured that Otto was not captured in the first place,” snarled Voniz before lowering his voice an octave. “Now listen closely, you miserable little beggar. Over three hundred people have been captured at Mount Capar. Innocent women and children who are involved in this war through no fault of their own. We need to ride there first thing tomorrow. Is that understood, soldier?”
Viggo trembled as he stared up at his superior. “Yes, Sir.”
Voniz left him to stand there seething. It wasn’t right, but he had no choice but to obey orders. Otto was little more than a disposable solider despite an elevated rank. His fearless service to the cause was rewarded with little more than indifference.
Iric poked his head through the meal tent’s opening. He was the last person that Viggo wanted to see. There was something strange, almost animalistic about him.
“Come on,” he said, staring at Viggo. “Your dinner is going to get eaten by someone else if you don’t get in here.”
Viggo eyed the snoop as he walked toward him. “Why are you staring at me?”
“What were you doing speaking with the commander?” asked Iric.
“I wanted to help prepare a rescue mission for Otto, but he denied it.”
“You have a lot of nerve asking him that.”
Viggo cast him a scalding glare. “Do you not care what happens to him? He was your lieutenant.”
“Our hands are tied right now.”
“You seem a bit cavalier about all of this.”
Iric’s smirk sent Viggo’s blood to a boiling temperature.
“You really are a simple village boy, aren’t you? You have no idea how this whole system works.”
Viggo stared at the idiot. “And you do?”
Iric grinned as they sat down side by side at the table. “I do. I also think you must have done something to make Otto favour you. He asked you to ride ahead of all of us, sparing you first from the threat. What was it, Viggo? What did he ask you to do for him, hm?”
Viggo stood and lunged at Iric, throwing a swing at his stupid smirking face. Iric dodged the blow, but Viggo came at him again, this time kicking him in the shin and slamming his fist into the side of his head. Iric stumbled to the dirty floor, groaning. How he wanted to hit him again, but rendering the idiot unconscious could get him into a lot of trouble. Kneeling next to his fallen opponent, Viggo glared at him.
“Don’t you dare disrespect our commander ever again!”
Iric’s hazel eyes blazed in defeat, but he nodded in compliance.
It took everything inside of Viggo to not kick the fool in the face while he was down. The only thing stopping him was that he knew both Otto and Voniz would be sorely disappointed in him for becoming a bully after their good faith in him.
“Good. Now get the hell away from me before I bash you in the head again.”
He left Iric lying there, hands trembling. Back at the table, Viggo nibbled away at his bread while the others devoured their whole meals. The boys sitting around him eyed the stew that rested untouched in front of him.
He shrugged. “Take it. I’m not hungry.”
“Really?” one of them asked.
“Go for it.”
Three boys reached for it simultaneously. Iric was one of them. He sat on the other side of the table, still not far enough away. He slapped the smaller boys’ hands away and shoved a heaping spoonful into his mouth before they could do anything about it. Viggo was too tired for another confrontation. The day had been long enough as it was. The only things worth talking about were the many important tasks that needed to be done, like preparing for the journey in the morning.
“You’ve got a lot of fight in ya for a little one, eh, Viggo?” taunted Iric.
Viggo didn’t take the bait. “You just don’t give up, do you?”
He finished the last of his bread and washed it down with the rest of his water. He rested his chin in the palm of his hand as the other boys left.
“Viggo,” said Commander Voniz from behind him.
Viggo quickly stood and saluted him. The commander’s green eyes softened as he looked him over, his anger from earlier vanished.
“You should rest. You’ll be riding all day tomorrow.”
“Sir, is there no one who could be sent out for Otto’s rescue?”
Voniz shook his head, closing his eyes. “Not one. As soon as we are able, I will use every effort necessary to get our young leader back. You need to trust me. I know what you’re thinking. You want to get moving, but that would be unwise. You need sleep. Tomorrow morning we will plan out the next mission.”
Viggo nodded, screaming on the inside. Every inch of him wanted to act, not rest. At the very least, Iric was out of his way for the time being. He left the dining hall and went to his bunker. He crawled under the wool blanket of his cot. Though his body ached, he stayed awake for the rest of the night. It was next to impossible for him to stop thinking about Otto and what he was going through under the captivity of the savages.
Martin and Engulf’s first customer hitched the new cart to his mule and drove it away from their shop. They shook hands and walked into their new storage building. There were three other refurbished wagons inside. Their hard work over the last several weeks paid off, it seemed.
“We did it,” said Engulf, grinning.
“We did it for today. Now we need to keep making regular sales.”
“Of course, but one step at a time.”
Despite the success, he had to remind himself to be realistic about the nature of business. Nothing was guaranteed. A good first day was no prediction of how the rest of the year would go.
“That’s true,” said Engulf, eyeing him. “I’ll put up a sign in town tomorrow to direct more people to our store.”
Martin smiled. “I really couldn’t have done this without you. With Mother brainstorming for ideas of her own and working to keep our bellies full and Father out hunting rabbits half the day, it’s been really good to have you here. You work much faster than I do.”
The squire of the town granted Martin an affordable price for the shed. The location close to the main street was a good one. With some extra work on the store, he envisioned more people stopping by to have their wagons repaired or to scrap them and buy a new one.
“You should be proud of yourself, Martin. Really. There aren’t many people who have such an enterprising mind, especially in these times. Look at how the others sit around staring off into the distance as they go hungry.”
Martin couldn’t help but cringe when he thought of the hopelessness in other people’s eyes back at camp.
“I get it from my parents, especially Mother.”
The sun lowered toward the distant hills. It was time to pack up for the day and bring home their coins. His parents were going to be relieved that the business was off to a good start. The wagon covered a month’s rent for the shed.
“The squire seemed pretty nervous when he stopped in earlier,” said Engulf with a laugh. “I think he underestimated you.”
“I will go see if he is home so I can tell him about our success and pay him half of our month’s rent. Are you fine to take the money back to camp?”
Engulf nodded. “Of course. I will see you soon.”
“You too, my friend.”
Martin made his way out of town, casting a glance into one of the house windows every so often to see families dining together by candlelight. With summer being so close, it was the perfect time to start a wagon repair business. Snow would make things more difficult for business when it came, but he was not going to allow that to hinder his high spirits.
The line at the bakery was not so long that time when he stopped by to pick up a loaf to go with the stew Mother would be making for dinner. She preferred not to make bread without her beloved oven back home, so the town’s baker came in handy. He walked onto the main street to purchase a warm loaf of bread and a block of goat cheese from the market. With the fresh food products in his arm, he walked back in the direction of camp in hopes of speaking with the squire on the way. He was a busy man during the day, so before supper hour was the best opportunity to speak with him.
He came to the beginning of the trail that led to the wealthy landowner’s home. A wild horse’s neigh echoed over the distant hills. It was a comforting sound in comparison to the unicorns from a few weeks ago. He imagined a herd of horses galloping freely over the lush terrain and the unicorns watching them from the high, rocky hills.
A path of flat stones took Martin through a row of tall weeping willows and up a small hill that provided an impressive view of the squire’s stately house which was built at the top of it. He wondered what it would be like to live in such an estate.
He stared at the squire’s front door and put away his drifting thoughts to knock on it. It opened and the squire himself stood in its wake. He smiled warmly at Martin.
“Young Martin. Please, come in.”
“Thank you, Sir. I wanted to bring you good tidings of our business. We sold our first cart before the last hour ended and I am here to give you payment for half of our month’s rent now.”
The man’s eyes widened in surprise. “Well, well. I don’t often speak with people of your calibre these days.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Please, call me Edden. No need to pay me until the month is over as agreed. I still stand by my word that your first thirty days are complimentary.”
“If you insist.”
“I do. Congratulations on your earlier success,” he said, and then looked past Martin at the darkening sky. “You should start home before thieves and other unruly characters emerge out of their alleys and caves.”
Martin left and basked in the dim silence of the countryside at dusk. The remains of the sunset beamed in contrast to the inky sky above. One by one, the stars came back to life and lit up the dark firmament.
A wild horse’s whinny echoed off the hills. He searched for a glimpse of the animal and caught sight of a shadowy form standing at the top of a rise. The lone horse reared on his hind legs and whinnied again, louder than before. The stallion moved down the rise followed by several other horses – mares and foals. Martin counted twelve in total with a racing heart. What a stunning sight. The small herd moved in the darkness, disappearing at last behind another hill.
When he arrived back home at their camp on the other side of the woods, his parents sat next to a fire wrapped in blankets while the stew boiled. His happiness faded at the sight of his mother shivering.
“Did Engulf give you the money from our first wagon sale?” asked Martin.
His parents exchanged looks with one another.
“Sale?” asked Mother.
“We sold one of the wagons today.”
Her eyes widened. “That’s wonderful! I am so proud of you.”
“Congratulations,” said Father, beaming.
“But where’s Engulf?” asked Martin, becoming uneasy.
“We have not seen Engulf since he left with you this morning,” said Father.
“Take the horse to town,” said Mother quickly. “He was probably buying some spices from one of the shops, but it’s a good idea to check up on him.”
Martin mounted the horse and rode swiftly through the small forest back toward the town. Some people looked at him strangely as he searched the streets and down alleyways for his friend.
“Engulf!” he called repeatedly.
The dark main street was nearly empty. He turned down another popular street, Market Road. One horse and buggy traveling down the road stopped abruptly. The driver got out of the carriage to inspect something on the street. Martin’s heart raced as he broke into a run toward the scene. He reached the carriage, finding Engulf lying in a heap in the middle of the road. Blood dripped from a head wound down the side of his face, pooling on the ground.
“Oh my God,” cried Martin.
“Do you know him?” asked the driver.
“Yes! He’s my friend. Did you hit him?” cried Martin. “How could you not see him on the road?”
“Hold on, boy. I didn’t hit him. He was already lying like that!”
“Th-they took the money,” panted Engulf, trying to sit up.
Martin dropped next to him on the street and held him.
“Ow!” cried Engulf, trembling in Martin’s embrace. “I don’t think they spared an inch when they attacked me this time.”
“We need to get you back to camp,” he said, helping his friend stand.
“Ouch! Not too fast,” groaned Engulf.
Martin looked up at the driver, who backed away from them. “Please, can you help me take him back to camp? They hurt him badly.”
“He’s a filthy Ustrunian! You are friends with the enemy? I can’t be party to this. Run while you can, boys. Before they come for you.”
Martin gritted his teeth. The driver jumped back in the carriage and guided his horses around Martin and Engulf. He left them there on the street to fend for themselves.
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