Xavier rose and stretched, rolling his head from side to side, trying to get his neck to crack. He looked down at the rock he had been sitting on and grimaced before walking across camp to his gear pile, extracting a saddle blanket, and laying it on top of the rock. Xavier smiled and sat back down.
Dawn had broken over the deserts of Drehana, and the scene was rather spectacular. Stunningly spectacular, in fact. The climbing sun bled brilliant oranges and purples onto the craggy bluffs and cliffs of the wild landscape.
Xavier glanced at the map spread before him on the ground, staked in place by a throwing knife through each corner. Yawning, he picked up his coffee from where it had been sitting on the map. Steam rose from the top of the mug, smooth as a dancer, floating upward to meet the crisp autumn air with graceful defiance. All in all, it wasn’t a bad start to the day.
Gustave had just returned from exercising the horses and was tending to them on the other side of their little clearing. Christian and Uraeus were snorting and neighing contentedly to themselves as Gustave readied their breakfast.
After finishing with the horses, Gustave poured himself a mug of coffee and ambled over to sit next to Xavier. Brushing blond hair out of his eyes, he squinted down at the map Xavier had been studying.
The hand-drawn, coffee ring-stained map depicted a box canyon several miles from them. A team of art thieves had made the canyon into their home. They had a painting that didn’t belong to them, and Xavier’s crew had ridden all the way to Drehana to relieve them of it.
The thieves had made their permanent camp at the canyon’s head, alongside a cave in the canyon wall where they were hoarding their pilfered treasures. There was one guard on duty at all times, but he was guarding neither the treasure nor the camp. Instead, he was posted half a mile away at the canyon’s mouth. Sheer cliffs surrounded the canyon on all sides, and travelling through the mouth was the only way to get in. At least that’s what the thieves apparently thought. It was a grossly arrogant oversight.
Camel, the final member of Xavier’s party, was currently at the canyon, keeping an eye on things. Eventually, the thieves would go on a plundering run and would leave only a skeleton crew behind. That was the moment that Xavier, Gustave, and Camel were waiting for.
“What are you thinking?” Gustave asked as he sipped his coffee. “Nervous about the mission?”
“No,” Xavier chuckled, turning from the map. “Do you really want to know?”
“I asked, didn’t I?” Gustave picked up their food bag, selected a biscuit, and took a bite.
“Alright,” Xavier said. “What do you think makes a life worth living? Is it making a difference? Is it leaving a legacy? Or is it maybe just … being happy?”
“Wow.” Gustave looked sideways at Xavier as he passed him the food bag. “What’s got you all philosophical this morning, Xav?”
Xavier shrugged and grabbed a biscuit of his own. “At the end of the day, when the draw pile is empty and all the cards are on the table, I want to know that I’ve played a good game.”
Gustave chewed slowly. High above them, the desert sky was maturing into a fathomless expanse of sapphire. A few wispy clouds drifted past, delicate as dreams.
Finally, Gustave said, “After the last hand is done, you’ve got to be satisfied with the way you played your cards. That’s it. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s about winning and losing, because it’s not. It’s about looking back and not regretting anything.”
Gustave’s words made sense, as usual. Xavier nodded. Thank you he said by tapping a finger to his brow.
Gustave clapped Xavier on the shoulder. “That’s what I’m here for Xav! Large weapons and life lessons are my specialty!”
The two men laughed for a while and talked of simpler things. After a time, Gustave began rummaging in his bag for his pipe, but suddenly froze and cocked his head. Xavier had heard it too: a strange sound that didn’t quite fit in with the other noises of the desert. Too late, Xavier noticed the horses standing still as statues, ears aquiver.
Xavier’s hand was flashing toward one of the throwing knives when the brush parted and Camel rode into the clearing on Dama. For a moment, the three men just stared at each other. Gustave’s sword was halfway out of its scabbard; Xavier was still holding his coffee in one hand while gripping the knife in his other.
Camel hopped lightly to the ground. “Are you guys, ah, getting ready to save the Two Kingdoms or something?”
“Camel, we almost killed you!” Gustave exclaimed as he jammed his sword back into its sheath. “Why didn’t you signal? And that horse of yours is too quiet—it’s not natural!”
As if in reply, Dama snorted and shook out her sandy-colored mane. Camel just smirked and said, “My unnatural horse and I thought you might be interested in knowing that the canyon is now empty, save for two thieves: one on guard duty, and the other sleeping.”
Xavier was on his feet in an instant, discarding his coffee in the brush as he jumped from his seat. “This is it!”
“I’m heading back to the canyon to start preparations. Meet me when you’ve broken camp,” Camel said as he loaded several bundles onto Dama. “Hey—what are you guys eating over there?”
Xavier tossed a biscuit to Camel, who caught it neatly, tapped his brow, and swung himself back into the saddle.
By the time Xavier and Gustave arrived at the rim of the canyon overlooking the thieves’ camp, Camel had already set up two rappel lines. One rope was looped around a large boulder and the second, to be used only if needed, was anchored to a stout tree.
The plan was simple. Wearing gambeson armor to allow him to move quietly, Xavier would rappel into the thieves’ camp alone, sneak into the cave, and find the painting. He would then return to his rappel line, Gustave would haul him up, and that would be that.
As Xavier snuck through the camp, Gustave would be covering him from high up on the rim. If there was a problem, Gustave was a pretty good shot with a longbow. If there was a big problem, Gustave would come shooting down the rappel line in riveted chainmail armor, oversized bastard sword slung over his shoulder, ready to cause havoc.
Camel’s job was to watch the guard at the canyon’s mouth. If the guard did anything unexpected, Camel would signal. If worse came to worst, Camel was also a deft shot with a longbow.
The stolen painting belonged to Gustave’s neighbor. It was valuable enough that the man was willing to pay to get it back. Gustave had proposed to Xavier that they track and retrieve the painting, as a field test of their abilities. After all, if they were going to start a mercenary group, it was probably better to grease the cogs a little before they started turning gears.
They had sent word to their old friend, Camden “Camel” Black, asking if he was up for an adventure. Camel, who lived in the crook of the Painted Mountains far to the north of Xavier and Gustave, had been eager to help retrieve the painting in exchange for a share of the reward.
The three of them stood atop the sheer cliff, gazing down at the thieves’ camp 150 feet below them.
“Are you guys ready?” Camel asked.
Xavier and Gustave nodded.
“Okay. I’ll make my way back to the mouth and signal when I get into position. Be safe.”
“You too, Camel,” Gustave said as he tugged on his chainmail shirt. “See you on the other side.”
Xavier stood at the canyon rim, his heels hanging over the cliff behind him. He had the thick rappel line wrapped around one thigh, across his chest to the opposite shoulder, and down his back. Glancing backward, Xavier let his eyes travel down, down, so far down, to the canyon floor. Xavier was no stranger to rappelling, but he had never quite gotten used to the feeling of walking backward off a cliff. The desert wind washed through his cropped hair and ruffled his gambeson as if playfully trying to topple him off the edge. Sweating despite the cool air, Xavier flexed his thickly-gloved fingers. He looked up at the boulder that was anchoring him, and then at Gustave, who nodded encouragingly. Xavier took a deep breath and backed over the edge.
Immediately, a sickening, soul-crushing, rock-on-rock crunch split the air.
Xavier looked up in alarm to see Gustave staring at him in wide-eyed shock.
The boulder was shifting—and Xavier watched his rope slide up, up, and off the big rock’s tapered tip.
For a moment—it felt like a moment, but it was probably only a heartbeat—Xavier hung suspended 150 feet above the floor of the canyon. He was dimly aware of Gustave making a leaping dive for the slithering loose end of the rope, but somehow Xavier knew that he was already too far gone.
And then he was falling.
Ten feet. Fifteen feet. Twenty feet—gone in the blink of an eye.
Xavier flailed around desperately, his gloved hands scrabbling at the impassive rock. Brown and black hues flashed past and blurred together as he plummeted. There was no purchase to be had.
Suddenly, a thought broke through the shock in Xavier’s mind. He turned his head and there was the second rappel line, still hanging intact. Xavier grabbed the rope with both hands, clenching it in his fists as tightly as he could and putting his feet against the wall in a frantic attempt to slow his momentum.
The rope spooled through Xavier’s gloves, foot after foot after foot. He could feel it burning his hands even through the thick fabric. Gritting his teeth, Xavier clenched his fists tighter; he wasn’t slowing down!
Xavier bent his knees and pushed off hard from the canyon wall, launching himself outward like a pendulum to get a few precious seconds of slack in the line. As he swung away from the cliff, Xavier used his left hand to twist the rope around and around his right wrist, hoping against hope that he could create enough friction. As he began swinging back toward the rock face, Xavier clamped down again with wrists crossed.
This was going to hurt.
Xavier smashed into the canyon wall, taking the brunt of the impact on his crossed arms. Something jagged punched through his glove and tore across the bottom of his right palm. He rebounded slightly off the rock and twisted chaotically in midair, clinging to the rope for dear life. The second impact came on his right side, and Xavier’s thigh, shoulder, and face became abruptly acquainted with all the cordial indifference of hard-hearted stone.
Xavier threw his head back, baring his teeth in a silent scream and screwing his eyes closed as he tried not to black out. The dusty, earthy scent of sunbaked rock filled his nostrils. Sweat ran down his face in rivulets—sweat mixed with blood, Xavier realized as the taste of iron and salt made its way into his open mouth.
But Xavier had stopped moving.
Ever so cautiously, he opened his eyes and looked down, just to be sure. He had stopped! He was dangling like a spider on a thread not 20 feet above the canyon floor.
Breathing deeply, Xavier lowered himself the rest of the way to the ground and slumped against the base of the cliff. He slowly let his eyes wander the thieves’ camp. Smoke curled lazily from a neglected fire and tents swayed in the gentle wind. The whole scene was picturesque as a painting. Xavier closed his eyes and leaned his head wearily back against the rock for a moment before finally turning his attention to his injuries.
There was a fair amount of blood on the side of his face, but the wound itself seemed to be small. That was good. More concerning was his hand. His thick rappelling glove was soaked completely through with blood and the cut on his palm was deep. Leaving his glove on, Xavier cut a strip of gambeson from his armor and wound it tightly around his hand, hoping the thick padding would slow the flow of blood until he could get out of the canyon. Then he mentally gathered his strength and stood up.
Craning his head back, Xavier looked up at the top of the cliff. He could see Gustave peering down at him in alarm. Gustave tapped his cheek—you ok?
In reply, Xavier nodded and thumbed his earlobe—all good. Sort of, anyway.
There was still work to be done, and Xavier looked over at the cave on the other side of the camp. Stumbling slightly, following the canyon wall and leaning against it for support, Xavier made his way to the crevasse. He heard deep snores coming from one of the tents as he passed. How had the thief slept through all that?
The cave was only about fifteen feet deep, no more than a shallow fissure in the wall. Covered paintings, padded sculptures, and even some scrolls were arranged carefully around the small space. The painting that Xavier was looking for wasn’t hard to find. Once he had it, Xavier removed the canvas from the frame, rolled it, and placed it in a tube hanging on his waist next to his arming sword—simple tasks made difficult by the limited use of his right hand.
As Xavier made to leave the cave, a small parcel caught his eye. Through a gap in the parcel’s wrapping, the carved metallic likeness of a rodent peered out at him. Something about the sculpture was tickling the edge of Xavier’s memory, just out of his reach. As Xavier picked up the tiny golden animal and held it in his hand, he knew he had seen the same carving somewhere else. He shook his head, tucked the figure into his pocket, and stepped out of the cave.
The three friends rode away from Drehana, bound by the type of camaraderie that only comes from long years of friendship. Gustave and Camel were riding side by side, chatting animatedly. A few paces behind them, Xavier rode in comfortable silence.
Gustave was asking Camel, “The Old Kingdom must be like this, right? Not the land itself obviously, but the untamed, wild feeling of it. It’s got to be something like this.”
Camel shrugged. “There aren’t many who know what it’s really like across the mountains. The throne at Ahaniana fell nearly 600 years ago. The Old Kingdom has been cut off from us for that entire time.”
“But those who have been there,” Gustave pressed, “describe it as having a feeling like this.”
Camel smiled. “I guess we’ll just have to make the trip ourselves someday.”
Gustave twisted in his saddle so he could point at Xavier, grinning as he said, “This mongrel’s son needs several pints of mead and a good night’s sleep before he goes anywhere!”
Xavier laughed along with his two friends. He didn’t tell them that he had actually slept better on the ground while in Drehana than he had in a long time back at the estate in his four-poster bed.
It had been two months since Walden’s fateful visit, and the estate was rumbling back to life, like an old war horse rousing herself from slumber. While in Drehana, Xavier had left his estate in the capable hands of Tempe, his trusted second. Xavier knew that she was driving growth even as he was away, and he was looking forward to returning so that he could inspect her progress.
Even so, Xavier had felt happier in Drehana than he had in a long time back at his estate—despite the fact that he had nearly lost his life.
Xavier flexed his right hand. The deep gash on the bottom of his palm had been cleaned and freshly dressed. In a month’s time, he would have nothing but a scar to remember Drehana.
As Xavier inspected his bandages, his eyes were drawn to another long-healed wound, an old scar on his finger. When Christian had been a foal, he had snatched a morsel off the ground while Xavier wasn’t looking. Xavier had tried to grab it from his mouth, and Christian had bitten him. The bite was instinct more than anything, but Xavier had been furious at the horse. However, over the years, Xavier had become fond of the scar. When he saw it, he thought of Christian. He thought of the growing pains they had gone through together. He thought of the unshakeable bond they had eventually developed. That little scar reminded Xavier that nothing worth having ever comes without a struggle.
There was an expression that Xavier had heard people use throughout the Two Kingdoms: wounds from a friend are faithful. Xavier had learned the truth of that saying. And as he rode, he decided that if the wounds of a friend could be faithful, the scars of Drehana probably would be too.
Read the precursor to this story here!