I am slowly becoming resigned to the fact that I will never get these up early. Especially during the summer. I have the kids home all day, now, and I have to get new writing done (I’m about to finish up another SF story), and I just forget until the afternoon.
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Over the next three nights, Mendleson could feel he was getting better. The minor cuts and scrapes had ceased to pain him. Only the major ones, the large tear on his side, and two others on his back, caused him any discomfort.
Henrietta had to apply the herbs to at least one of the three each morning after they’d come to a halt. Despite the pain it caused him, he found he didn’t mind her ministrations. He didn’t know if she was aware of what she was doing to him, but each day, he found it harder and harder to remain stoic while she attended to his wounds, especially during the moments when she was unwrapping the bandages.
One of the days, they’d found another inn to sleep at, but it had been full of rats and had an underlying musty smell, even in the heat of the summer. He hadn’t slept well at all. When he mentioned to Henrietta that he wished they’d slept outdoors, she had agreed.
The other two days, they’d had to find spots deep in the forest and away from the road to sleep the day away. He had worried about bandits, but she told him not to worry. His worry, it had turned out, had been for naught. No one came and stole their things or accosted them while they slept.
So when they reached the border city of Berelost a couple hours before sunrise, he had hope that they could find an inn that would allow him to get a good day’s sleep.
They emerged from the forest into a large clearing that surrounded the city. It was dotted with darkened homes. In the distance, lamplight lit the thirty foot tall city walls. They were a relic of the distant past when wars raged across the lands and each city had to look to its own protection.
Mendleson had never seen the city before. “I would have thought they would have abandoned the walls long ago,” he said to Henrietta.
“The memories in Berelost are long, and they do not look much to the future. The wars were hard on them.”
“You know this place well?” he asked.
“I spent a year here, before I moved to Porthead.”
“Why did you leave?”
“They asked me to,” she said.
Mendleson thought about asking her to elaborate, but decided against it. She didn’t sound like she wanted to talk about it.
As they approached the walls, they found the immense gate shut.
They sat atop their horses and waited at the gate for several minutes, but the guards were either asleep, or ignoring them in the hope they would go away.
“Do you want to see if they will let us in?”
Henrietta pulled at the reins of her horse. “No, there are only a couple hours at most before they open the gate. No need to bother them.”
Mendleson followed her, while wondering at her quick dismissal of his idea. He couldn’t imagine that asking would cause that much trouble.
Henrietta found a place away from the wall that was sheltered by a hedge. It had a nearby fence where they could tie up the horses.
Mendleson couldn’t contain his curiosity. “Why didn’t you want to ask them to let us in?” he asked while they tied their horses to separate fence posts.
“First, we’d have to tell them who we are, and then somehow convince them our mission was urgent.”
“It is urgent,” Mendleson said. “I need to find a bed.”
Henrietta finished tying her horse and went to sit up against the hedge. Moments later, Mendleson finished with his horse, and he walked over and sat next to her.
“Do you need a bed so much that you’re willing to risk getting tossed from that bed?” she asked.
“What are you talking about?” Mendleson ran his fingers through the grass.
“Remember how I told you that they asked me to leave? They warned me to never come back.”
Mendleson looked up. He could see the outline of her head against the glow created by the lamps along the walls. She was looking at those walls. “What did they say would happen?”
“They accused me of inciting lawlessness.”
Mendleson laughed. “You?”
“As I said, they prefer to look to the past. Their current status as just another city eats at their hearts.”
“Let me guess. You told someone important of their future, and they didn’t like it.”
Henrietta laughed for the first time since they’d left Gretta’s. Her laugh had a musical quality to it that warmed him and, for a moment, reminded him of better times. “Hardly,” she said. “I told an unscrupulous street vendor that I saw him in prison in the not too distant future. I had no idea what would land him there. I assumed it was his various tricks that would find him a free bed. Instead, he decided to try to kill the magistrate.”
“He didn’t succeed?”
“No,” she said without the laughter, “which is how he only ended up in prison, and I ended up leaving with the gate shut behind me.”
Mendleson looked out over the darkened landscape and contemplated what happened to her. After minutes of silence, he said, “You don’t think your vision for his future prompted him to fulfill that destiny, do you?”
“Are you asking if I think I should have withheld that particular future from him?”
“The Fates are fickle and hard to decipher, even in the most obvious situations. If I had withheld that future from him, would I have caused him to do something else that landed him in prison? By telling him, I gave him the opportunity to change his ways and perhaps avoid prison. He made a different choice.”
“But if you hadn’t told him,” Mendleson said, “you might not have had to leave Berelost. You might not have come to Porthead.”
“But the Fates might have found another way to drive me toward my destiny. The vision I’ve had of my death since I was six has not changed in all these years—not until I met you. Even then, all I managed to do in my effort to avoid my fate is put you in the middle of it with me. My fate hasn’t changed, no matter what I’ve done.
“Are my visions given to me in order that I may try to change them? Or are they given to me so that I may tell the person involved so that they can try to change things? I can’t make that decision Mendleson. It’s not my decision to make.”
Mendleson looked at her again and saw she was staring straight ahead. He could see the slight crook of her nose as a silhouette. He found himself watching it, hoping she would turn it in his direction, hoping she would look at him. You confound me, Henrietta. You do everything you can to push me away, yet I’m drawn to try to save you as if you were family.
He didn’t even want to think about what that meant for his memory of his wife and son. He’d hardly thought of them in days. Upon realizing it, he felt his spirits sink, but they did not sink as far as he thought they should. Some other spirit buoyed them against the weight of his wife and his son.
For a moment, he felt like reaching out and hugging Henrietta to him. He needed her contact, but he refrained. It won’t do to get involved with her in that way, Mendleson. If she’s right, you’ll be dead in a few weeks or less.
But what if she’s seeing it wrong? What if she’s misinterpreting it like she did with the street merchant?
Mendleson couldn’t come to any conclusions while they sat next to each other in silence. After an hour or so, the sky grew lighter, and in the distance, he saw the gates to the city open.
“This will be my first time in a city,” Mendleson said as he untied his horse.
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll only be here a day.”
* * *
Henrietta told herself, over and over as they entered the city, that she would make it through without any trouble. She felt confident they would make it through. In order for her vision to come to pass, they would have to. It was the “without any trouble” part that she worried about.
She’d lived within the stone walls, thicker than the length of a horse, for a year. She had to work to hold back those memories as she passed through the gate in the early morning light.
Berelost lived in its memories of previous glories. It had stood for centuries, dividing the kingdoms on either side, standing apart from them, until the day those two kingdoms became one. That new, unified kingdom spent all its might for three years on Berelost, and finally cracked it. Even now, a lifetime later, they remembered what they had been.
She led Mendleson through the still shadowed streets. She looked back over her shoulder and saw that his mouth hung open and his eyes constantly moved from one sight to another. She caught herself smiling and turned away, hoping he didn’t see it.
She did look around herself. The two and three story buildings loomed over the street, closer than she remembered. She knew people lived in them, above their shops, and that they weren’t really trying to crush her, but she couldn’t rid herself of the feeling that the city knew who she was and it didn’t want her there. Even after three years, her memories of this place clouded her perception of it.
She quit looking around and concentrated on her path through the maze of streets. The main road they had entered on did not drive straight through to the heart of the city. It meandered about, visiting many of the burroughs, until it finally reached the river that separated the eastern half of the city from its western half, and gave Berelost its reason for being.
Buildings could not be built out into the road at ground level. The law required that builders had to leave enough room for carriages to pass each other at any point. Above the ground floor, the builders were allowed to build as they pleased. As a result, the buildings hung out over the road, almost like their purpose was to block out the sky.
Henrietta looked up through a gap above her and saw that the morning was not dawning blue and bright, but cloudy and gray.
“Mendleson,” she said.
He stopped his gawking and pulled up next to her. “I don’t like this place,” he said. “It makes me feel like I’m in a barrel.”
“You might have to get used to it,” she said.
“The sky, it has clouded over. There’s a storm coming, I think.”
“A vision?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No vision, just experience. They sometimes get late summer storms here that last for days. The year I lived here, rain fell and the wind blew for nearly a week. I couldn’t go outside for fear of losing my footing.”
“What should we do then? We can’t stop moving, can we?”
“I don’t know. We might not have a choice.”
She watched Mendleson rock his head back and yawn. “Should we just push through?”
“You’ll fall asleep on your horse. No, we need to rest.” She patted her pack. It was almost empty. “We need to purchase more supplies, too.”
She kept them moving, passing denizens of the city as they stepped outside their doors to head off to work, or to open their shops. The streets grew more and more choked with people as they drew close to the river.
When they reached the mall along the riverfront, it was already crowded, making it difficult to maneuver their horses with any speed. Over the top of the crowd, she could see the three bridges that spanned the murky channel of water. North of them, the docks were already busy with people readying their boats for trading voyages up and down the river.
She looked back and caught Mendleson looking that way, an expression of longing on his face.
“Do you miss it?” she asked him. She had to raise her voice to be heard over the noise of the mall.
He turned to look at her. “What?”
“Do you miss your boat, miss going out on the water?”
He stared at her for a moment, then glanced back over his shoulder at the docks. “No,” he said, finally, shaking his head. “It was another life.”
To Henrietta, he sounded like he was trying to convince himself.
Then he changed the subject on her. “Where are we going?”
She wanted to ask what he meant about it being another life, but decided to let it lie until later. “An inn on the other side of the river. I have a friend there.” I think.
“Then lead on,” he said, a hint of anger in his voice.
She couldn’t figure out what she’d done to upset him, but decided the mall was not the place to ask. It probably didn’t help matters that they were both tired. She wasn’t meant for traveling at night and sleeping during the day. She almost hoped they’d have to stay in for a couple days due to the storm. But then, she didn’t want to risk having the wraith appear. She didn’t want to risk having Mendleson foolishly try to save her again.
As she rode through the crowd and brought them across the middle bridge, a solid stone monstrosity wide enough for an army to cross, her thoughts turned to ways she could prevent Mendleson from helping her. Not one of the ways she could imagine had a real possibility of working.
Trying to leave while he slept seemed possible, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. The only way it could succeed is if she left him without his horse and without the money to purchase another. The problem was that it would leave him stranded, far from his home, with possibly no way to return.
It didn’t help, either, that she liked having him around. Except for the times when his mood grew sour after she brushed up against his previous life, either intentionally or on accident, he was easy company. He didn’t talk too much, didn’t press her for visions about his future. Of course, she’d already told him of his future.
She looked back at him. He had his head down, letting his horse follow hers. He’d stopped looking around and appeared to have sunk inward. She wanted to reach back somehow and put her arm around him, help him deal with his past. If only I knew how.
A man shouted at her. “Watch where you’re going!”
She turned around to find that she’d almost ridden her horse into a portly man dressed in a black suit, the jacket of which strained against the man’s middle. Streaks of gray ran through his dark hair, and he wore a mustache, the ends of which hung down below his chin.
She recognized him and her heart skipped a beat. He hadn’t changed much in the three years she’d been absent. Fates! Why do I have to run into the Magistrate? “I’m sorry,” she said, turning her head away slightly, as if ashamed. She hoped it would be enough. She hoped three years was enough.
His eyes searched her. Please don’t recognize me. She hoped the dirt of the road, the unwashed nature of her clothes, the undone state of her hair, would be enough to make her unrecognizable. She felt Mendleson come up beside her.
“Do I know you?” the magistrate asked.
“No,” she said, trying to act meek.
Mendleson leaned out in front of her. “Excuse my wife, sir. We are just passing through, and she is new to riding.”
The Magistrate’s gaze drifted to Mendleson as Mendleson spoke, but as soon as Mendleson finished, it flicked back to Henrietta. “Well,” he said, his eyes not leaving her, “perhaps you should lead her through the city, then.”
“Yes, yes,” Mendleson said. “I shall do that.” He took the reins of her horse from her, and started to lead her on. “Let’s go, Mathilda.”
She kept one eye on the Magistrate for as long as she was able, while trying to hide her relief and surprise at Mendleson’s quick thinking. The Magistrate turned and watched them go. He clearly recognized her, but couldn’t place her face.
She waited until they were around a corner before she pulled her reins back from Mendleson’s grasp.
“So who was that?” Mendleson asked.
“The Magistrate.” She watched alarm grow in his face.
“Should we just leave the city?”
Henrietta thought it over, and realized this might be her chance. The wraith would come for her wherever she was. She could save Mendleson this way. If only I’d thought of it while the Magistrate stood right next to me. “We could leave, but by nightfall, we’d be exhausted. The horses need rest and feed. We still have to purchase supplies. I think we have to risk that he won’t remember me.”
“But he does remember you,” Mendleson said. “It was clear from the way he couldn’t stop looking at you.”
“He remembers my face. He didn’t connect it with who I am, or he wouldn’t have allowed us to ride away.”
“But what if he does figure it out? What if he has already and is looking for us? I think we should go, now.”
“Mendleson, Berelost is a large city. Even if he makes the connection, he will have difficulty finding us before we leave.”
Mendleson turned away from her for a moment. He had to go along with it.
When he turned back, he said, “Only for the morning. You’re right, of course, we do need sleep, but I don’t think we should stay any longer than we have to. This place feels dangerous to me.”
That’ll be long enough. “This way, then,” she said, pulling her horse back into the lead. “We’ll go to the inn, sleep until midday, then pick up supplies on our way out.”
A gust of cold wind blew through the street, whipping her hair about her head. She looked up and saw the clouds above them had grown thicker and darker. If only the storm will stay away.
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Read Chapter Ten of The Sacrifice of Mendleson Moony