Chapter 8 – At The Ridge
Dawn had broken by the time they reached the range of hills that marked where the desert wastes ended. The ride during the rest of the night had passed uneventfully. They had spotted no riders, and no other people until they neared the hills. Men, some on horseback and others on foot, moved around the hills, following trails that criss-crossed it, leading to openings cut into the side of them. The entrance to the mines saw steady traffic as miners began their working day, scraping away deep beneath the ground seeking out the sparkle of frozen fire that would mark a find of opal.
They climbed their way up the hill along a well worn trail, passing men with picks and shovels on their shoulders, clad in rough dirt stained clothes. The miners looked up as they rode by. Some of the men, mostly Digaran, called out greetings to Amaran, who responded in kind, while others simply stared. Their faces reflected a mix of views of opinions, from the concerned to the sullen to the indifferent. Kathri took the looks in, fixing in her mind those who would be trouble and those who might be helpful should the need arise.
“You seem well know here,” she said to Amaran.
“We visit from time to time,” he replied, nodding to another passing miner. “We come to trade. I also find it wise to make my presence known, to find out what is going on here. The settlement may have been founded by the Vigosans but it is far beyond the borders of any kingdom, and no one lays claim to it. If anything it is Digaran land, though there are those who dispute it. Whatever the case may be, my word still carries much weight here as the bhadtra and many seek my aid in mediating disputes.”
Cresting the rise of the ridge, they looked down over the township of Vas Madreso itself. Apart from a handful of buildings, there was little to see of the settlement. A shallow river ran alongside the base of the hills on the other side, beyond which the land spread out in plains, semi-arid to begin with but gradually becoming grasslands further west.
Hard up against the eastern shore of the river was a set of docks, little more than rubble excavated from the mines poured into a framework made of solid stakes. A flat bottomed barge was tied up at the docks, men labouring to unload cargo from it and carry it to a nearby storehouse, one of the few buildings that could be seen.
Other men led lumbering lizard beasts away from the dock towards a holding pen near the river, one that led into a dug out shelter in the side of the hills. The beasts were twice the size of oxen with wide set feet and long sweeping tails. They plodded on with a slow but steady pace, tongues flickering as they went. There were three other of the beasts that could be seen in the pen, drinking from out of a large watering trough. The beasts were used to haul the barges down the river, and back up again, carrying supplies to the settlement and any wealth discovered back to civilisation. While not fast, the lizards were hardy and could keep up their pace for many hours without wearying.
The first time that Kathri had arrived in Vas Madreso, she had been puzzled by the apparent lack of houses or any other buildings until she had found out that most of the inhabitants lived in the mines, both those still being worked and those that were abandoned, turning them into homes that stayed cool during despite the heat outside.
From the top of the ridge, they made their way down towards the docks and a solitary building that stood there near it, one with broad verandahs around it and wide open windows. It was little more than an open aired building without much in the way of furnishings, more a place of convenience and temporary storage than anything else.
Amaran dismounted when they reached it, joined by Kathri and the other two Digarans. Three men stood out the front of the building, one a tall Digaran, the other two Vigosans by the look. None of them were dressed like the miners were, with one of the Vigosans being finely dressed and with a broad rimmed straw hat on his head. He wore a coat of scarlet that had been emboidered with golden thread, button up tight despite the heat. The other two men were armed, the Digaran with a spear, wile the Vigosan carried a longarm, rare even in the lands of the Conclave Kingdoms. Powered by a flint striking a small cache of firepowder, it spat out a lead projectile in a blast of flame and smoke and noise, inaccurate at all but close range and very slow to reload.
They were status symbols more than practical, limited as much by the firepowder as anything. The secrets of that were closely guarded by the Mages, and offered up for sale rarely.
“Amaran,” the well dressed Vigosan called out. “I had not expected to see you here this day. What brings you around?”
Amaran looked over to Kathri and then back to the man. “There are a couple of matters, Sentaio Cosla, though one of them can wait for later. Have you had a man pass through this way in the last week or so who had two horses with him? He came from out Ajwan Deshara way and was possibly wounded as well.”
Sentaio nodded slowly, his face thoughtful. “We did see such a man,” he replied. “If we had know that you were after him we would have stopped him.”
“We weren’t after him, not in that way. He is the companion of this lady here. They became separated and she is concerned for his well being. You wouldn’t happen to know where he was headed?”
Sentaio nodded again. “He did seem a little feverish but would not stop here to recover, no matter how much we advised it. While he was here, he spent a lot of time talking to himself.”
“That doesn’t sound like him,” Kathri said.
“You are right to be concerned then, lady. He wanted to go down river, all the way to Ciosala from what I recall. He even paid for passage with a strip of gold, one that had Hajanri marking on it. He wouldn’t have been the first tomb raider that we have had come through this way wanting to get away in a hurry.” He shrugged apologetically. “My hands are tied in that regards, Amaran. Too many vested interest about.” He looked at Kathri closer, frowning as he did so. “I remember you. I seem to recall you arrived not too long ago, in the company of a man. The same one now that I think of it, though I would not have recognised him if it hadn’t been mentioned.”
“Was he in bad shape.”
“I’ve seen worse,” Sentaio told her, “But I think it was his mind that was more troubled than his body. He kept looking behind him nervously, asking if we had seen them as they were coming for him. Wouldn’t tell us who they were either. It got a little unnerving in the end and to be frank we were glad when he left. I’ve seen a thing or two out here, but this was something else. If you are concerned about your friend then you had best hope that he receives some help soon.”
“I will require passage down river as soon as is possible then,” Kathri told him.
“The barge isn’t leaving until tomorrow at the earliest, and more likely the day after. We had one leave last night which you just missed.”
Kathri frowned as she shook her head. “It may be too late by then.”
“The barges are not that fast moving,” Amaran pointed out. “Even travelling all through the night it would not be that far down river. You could ride after it and catch up to it.”
“I do not have a horse and I doubt the ring will be enough to purchase one here.”
Amaran laughed, flashing a smile. “It is lucky for you, then, that we acquired a few during the night. Rightfully one of them is yours as spoils of battle.”
“I can not do that, Amaran. You have done enough for me already.”
“Think nothing of it. Besides which, you will be coming this way some day and if you are so desired you can return the horse then.”
“You seem certain of that.”
Amaran nodded. “I am. My grandmother has seen it. Go now, Kathri. Find your friend.”
Mounted on her new horse, one Amaran had selected for her from among the claimed horses of the fallen, Kathri rode down alongside the river, following the well worn path made by the lizard beasts as they hauled the barges backwards and forwards. Patches of trees grew beside the river, and grass wavered in the breeze. They were still hardy plants, more grey than green, yet after days spent out in the desert wastes they were almost a verdant display of life.
Besides the water of the river, she had plenty of food and drink carried on the saddle of her horse, enough to keep her going fro some time. The small silver ring was hidden away in her pack, alongside the scroll and the raven figurine recovered from the tomb of Ajanathad. While she had left much treasure behind there, it had not been an entirely wasted trip.
She pushed her horse into a trot, ignoring the soreness from having spent a night in the saddle and the tiredness that came along with it, riding into the growing heat of the day, with distant Ciosala calling to her, and Astiara to find.
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Here ends part two of The Crown of Fire. Part three sees Kathri attempt to find Astiara and uncover what has happened to him.
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