We rode back during the night. Guards, living shadows… they mattered not. My people needed us, and Aena had to get out. We acquired horses from the same place Mercy had left them when we arrived; this time, however, they probably won’t be returned.
On our way, Cedric rode close to me. “Lad,” he said, slowly, “did you truly have that box? And that parchment?” I’d not wasted his attention by talking to Aena. Good. “Aye,” I replied. “I thought it was only a rumor,” Cedric said; “the late king’s nephew was sending soldiers and people everywhere to try and find that box, but I never heard anything come of it. So, it was writ in the king’s own hand. That makes you, as you said, the king.” He wasn’t asking. “Well, lad, I’m glad you’re no tyrant and no fraud. It would’ve been hard putting the true king on the throne after telling everyone you were king, and I might’ve had to make some hard choices; now it’ll be as natural as salting pork.” I smiled in the dark. “But know this, lad – papers alone can claim no throne. If you go all soft because you think I’ll support you anyways…” I laughed. He chuckled. “Not too soft,” I reassured him.
We reached the valley at dawn. Fires were burning around the outskirts of the camp, and some tents were missing. People were running back and forth. Some carried torches. I reined in ahead of a girl who was running with a smoldering brand. “Where are you going?” I asked. “To the western side, to the men there – they’re holding off the shadow-creatures! The creatures don’t like fire.” “Nor do they like the sun,” I said. It was peeking over the hills behind me. Cedric rode up beside the girl and hoisted her into his saddle in front of him. “We’re heading there as well,” he said. I led the way on my armor-laden steed. Mercy and Aena peeled away to go to the Ridire de Gaelac tent.
The western edge of the camp was alive with flames and frantic feet. Although some of the tents had been dismantled, many of them seemed to have been shredded first. A wall of firewood separated the tent-line from the land to the west. Someone cried “More fire over here! Quick, before they come back!” I stood in my saddle and raised my arms and voice. “Stop! Do not waste all your fuel! They will not bear the sunlight.” A sudden silence. Stares. A piece of wood clattered as it landed in the pile it’d been taken from. Someone, nearby, spat. “It’s that coward who fled the thief’s judgment!” Cedric, who had let the girl down by then, nudged his horse forward and pulled a sword from one of the bundles tied to his saddle. “This is your king, come with weapons and armor for those who will fight for him!” Another man spoke, from away on my right. “Our king? Our king” – he cursed, hard – “sent us here to die.” I held steady. “That was a tyrant, a fraud. He is not your king. He does not want you, so do not give yourselves to him. Follow me, and I will return you to your homes! What say you?”
The opinion of me changed further in my favor when they saw that I had been right – the lurkers had left at daybreak. I told them to prepare themselves and their families to leave within the hour; a huge task, but I told them to leave what they couldn’t carry. Not that anyone had much.
Cedric, Caleb, Beren and I returned to the Ridire de Gaelac tent, to Mercy, Aena, Amadain and Ianthae. Ryndall and Tyndale were out, as they often were. We pulled the tent down and started handing swords and armor to able-bodied men. A few women took up arms as well.
Realistically, it probably took five hours to get everyone moving. It almost felt like two, because there was so much happening at once. I set Beren, Ryndall and Tyndale at the front of the column with the majority of the armed men. Aena, with Mercy still acting as a maid and tending to her, I sent behind the front troops. The others roamed the column. Cedric and I brought up the rear. Behind us, shadows gather and glare.
I hope we make it to a city before nightfall.