With a shrill nagging voice ringing in his ears Val signaled his three companions forward. He closed his mind to the muttered complaints of the youngest member of the quartet. Why me? Was it because he was more than a year older than any of the halflings that he had to ride herd on the most impetuous of the Fire affinities? He groaned when Ky’s courser sprinted into the lead.
“At last,” she shouted. “Come on. Hurry We’ve a long way to go.”
Val shook his head. “We won’t reach our destination any faster if your courser falls and you smack your head.”
“Hah! I’m a better rider than that.”
Val felt a strong desire to scream and return to the keep. Would he ever see the elderly pair who had become almost parents again? He closed off those thoughts before his emotions tangled with regret. With Water as his affinity his emotions and those of others sometimes swamped him.
The quartet rode past fields that wouldn’t be planted this spring. As they entered the forest Val noticed how the road they’d widened when they first came to the keep had narrowed. The Rover wagons would never pass the tangle of weeds, briars and saplings now.
He paused and waited for Kirlon. “Can you read the winds of the forest and ride? We need to be sure there are no homeless men lurking nearby.
Kirlon nodded. “I’ve been checking. Other than animals I can hear none but our group. How far will we travel today?”
“I hope to reach the plains.” Val urged his courser into a trot.
At moonrise they emerged from the gloom beneath the trees. Val stared at the grassy plain. A memory slammed into his thoughts. Here, his party had been confronted by a group of homeless men led by a dom. Zand and the dom had dueled with Fire. The flames had spread along the grass. Only by using his affinity to pull rain from the clouds had Val been able to prevent a disaster.
Ky jumped from her steed and cleared some turf away. She piled some wood in the center and called fire to ignite the kindling. “Will we visit the Rovers?”
Val shook his head. “I would enjoy seeing the children but that would add too many days to our journey.” Regret filled his voice. The four children rescued from the streets of Cedris had been like younger siblings to him. “We must reach our focus as soon as possible.”
“I know.” Ky erected the metal stand over the fire and hung several pots of water on the hooks. “Do you think we can cleanse Easren?”
He patted her head. “Doma Jandia believes we can.” He rose and lifted several sacks from the panniers. He added dried meat and vegetables to one and grain and fruit to a second. Kirlon and Geni joined them.
“How long before we reach the
?” Geni asked. Ruran
“Three or four days of long travel,” Val said.
“We’ll pass near the site of the buried Soutren henge,” Kirlon said. “Do you think that’s where our group will go next?”
“Maybe,” Ky said.
Val stirred each pot. “We won’t be that close. We’ll be on the other side of the river and a seven day of travel from that henge. When we reach the first bridge we’ll cross into Easren.”
Geni filled mugs with tea. “We should leave at dawn.”
“And travel until moonrise.” Val watched the pair of forstcats bound into the high grass. “Will they be back before we leave?”
Ky reached for a bowl. “One whistle and they’ll come running even if they’re unsuccessful in their hunt.” A squeal sounded. “They have their dinner. Tomorrow I’ll have them scare some grass hens. We’ll have a feast.” She tasted the stew. “When we reach Easren because of the rain we’ll have little chance to hunt.”
Val dished some of the stew for himself. After eating he went to his sleep saque. Tomorrow and the next few days would be long. How bad were conditions in Easren? Soon he would learn. He yawned. He must remind Kirlon to read the winds frequently. Not only did they need to avoid doms and domas but all the people of the princedom. Until the web of evil over the land was cleansed little could be done for the inhabitants.
At midmorning of the fourth day of travel Val rose in the stirrups to peer ahead. Mist blurred the view but he could hear the rushing water of the river. Before long the hazy outline of a bridge emerged from the gloom. Wind driven droplets of water bathed his face.
Ky trotted ahead and then returned. “I hope the bridge remains solid until we’re across.”
Val urged his steed forward. “If a crossing here is impossible we’ll find another way.”
“We can use our affinities,” Ky said.
“We’ll think of a way.”
When they reached the bridge Val groaned. The span had to hold until they crossed. The banks were too steep and to far apart for the coursers to swim. Even if they could climb down the riverbank he couldn’t imagine using his affinity to form a clear path between walls of water. The strong current would thwart their passage even if all four with an affinity for Water were present.
Ky halted at the entrance to the wooden bridge. She waved to Kirlon and Geni. “Hurry, we must cross before the bridge collapses. If we don’t cross here we’ll have to ride almost to the highlands before finding a ford.”
Kirlon reached then. “That would take us days out of the way.”
“And we’d encounter swamps,” Geni said.
Val helped Geni dismount. “Use your affinity for Earth and see if the bridge will support us.”
She nodded and strode forward to press her hands against the wood. “For now but we must hurry. There are some missing planks and pieces of the railing are gone. If we remain in the center we should be fine.”
Val stepped to her side. Water washed over the boards. He gulped deep breaths of air and reached for a calm center. “We’ll cross now and in this order. Ky, Geni and Kirlon. I’ll go last. Ky, when you reach the far end be prepared to control the steeds. Kirlon, see if you can use Air in some way.”
Ky grabbed the reins of her courser. As she stepped onto the bridge the forstcats yowled. The felines she’d raised since she found them in the forest soon after their birth had no fear of water but they hated remaining in the panniers.
The mist became a steady drizzle. Geni pulled her courser onto the planks. Val used his affinity to drive the water from the wooden surface.
Kirlon paused at Val’s side. “Let me keep the water from the boards. See if you can slow that mass of debris and trees from slamming into the supports.”
Val drew a deep breath and stared at the churning water. He focused on the raging current. While slowing the flow he noticed Ky and Geni’s slow progress. Ky reached a section where the railing had been swept away. How easily she could tumble into the river and be swept away. He wanted to shout for them to hurry and feared to startle them. Kirlon led his courser onto the bridge.
Val began the crossing. The boards creaked and groaned. A small tree slammed into a support. Val gasped. His courser squealed in fear.
“Steady,” Val urged, not only the steed but himself. He wished for Ky’s ability to control animals. He glanced upstream. The roaring of the water deafened him. His heart stuttered when he saw a massive oka tree tumble toward the central support. “Ky, Geni, Kirlon, hurry.”
Val tugged on the courser’s reins. He jumped across a gap in the boards where a plank had washed away. The animal balked. Val jerked on the reins. The effort he expended to restrain the tree’s progress sapped his strength. Fear rose and added to the panic churning inside.
A gust of wind-driven rain slapped his face. Kirlon had lost control of his element. The slap pushed Val toward a gap in the railing. For a brief moment he tottered there and caught his balance. His heart pounded in heavy thuds against his chest. He moved past the broken rail. The courser refused to move.
“Come,” he called. The steed tossed its head and snorted. The reins slipped from Val’s hands. He continued forward and hoped the animal would follow. Thoughts of the supplies they would lose and the time lost if he had to walk brought a rush of anger and a tinge of fear. They could fail to reach their destination and leave their part in the cleansing undone.
He looked up. The massive tree sped toward the bridge. “Ky,” he shouted. “Control my steed.” Had she heard him? His eyes widened. The oka would hit the middle support. He ran.
From behind he heard dull thuds of the courser’s hooves. He felt hot breath on his back. With a leap he cleared the end of the bridge, staggered several steps and fell. His breath whooshed out. The hooves of the steed nearly clipped his head. He hugged the ground. When he tried to raise his legs shook.
“Val.” Geni grabbed his arm. “Get up.”
Kirlon pulled on his other arm. The three half-ran and half–staggered to where Ky stood with the coursers. A loud boom sounded. Val turned his head. Born by a jet of water, pieces of wood shot upward.
When the three reached the steeds, Geni released his arm. “We need to ride now. The ground isn’t stable here.”
Val climbed into the saddle. With Ky in the lead the four coursers galloped through the rain pouring from the sullen sky. Val turned and stared at the shattered bridge. His eyes widened in alarm. The riverbank slid into the gorge. Great cracks appeared on the road’s surface.
For a time they maintained the headlong pack. Val felt his steed falter. Ky held up her hand. The four slowed to a walk.
Pools of water collected on either side of the road. The saturated soil could absorb no more. Though the spring equinox had occurred several days before, the farmers couldn’t plow or plant for the seeds would rot.
What would happen if he and his friends couldn’t undo the harm the doms and domas had wrought? Uncertainty stained his thoughts. Ahead he saw a cluster of houses. When Ky turned into a side lane Val released his held breath. He had no desire to ride through a village and be bombarded by the emotions of the people. His affinity for Water gave him the ability to experience the emotions of others.