“We are not going to have that conversation today, are we?” Iver whispered to Nadia.
“We better,” she replied. “I need something good to look forward to.”
He smiled and kissed her on the shoulder. The going was slow and this time not because of Daisy. When Haymich wasn’t stopping to projectile vomit all over the road, he would aimlessly meander from side to side, dragging whoever held the leash with him. It looked like even the slow horse took issues with the pace.
“Where are your brothers?” Nadia asked Ivan. She was used to seeing the whole brood running around the farm, playing games or singing songs.
Nadia waited for Ivan to elaborate. He didn’t. Uncomfortable silence dragged until Iver chimed in.
“My brother and sister went to fight in Katalia.”
“You have siblings?” Nadia asked.
“Yeah. Two.” Nadia did not press the topic, but Iver felt like he owed her an explanation. “They joined a mercenary group. I haven’t heard from them in a year or so…”
Nadia put her hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
“Maybe they will come back soon,” Ivan said, unable to keep hope out of his voice.
“No. Katalia is where mercenaries go to die.”
The words hit Ivan like a punch to the stomach. “Th-then why did they go?” he whimpered.
“They joined when the rebellion was just getting started. About a year and a half ago. No one knew anything and both sides paid incredibly well. All the big mercenary groups went. Even the peasants were lining up to fight. Then the battle of Carnage Hill happened.”
“What’s that?” Ivan asked, barely lifting his eyes off the ground.
“That was the battle that was meant to decide the outcome. Both sides wanted to end each other quickly and came in force. I mean, they pulled everyone onto the field, hundreds of thousands of people. Almost no one survived. That didn’t stop the warring factions from recruiting though. Dead mercenaries meant that accounts didn’t have to be settled and the coffers were still full.”
“You think your brother and sister died at Carnage Hill?”
“That was about the time the letters stopped coming. Anyway, the moral of the story is that money is only good if you are around to spend it. Ivan, if your brothers went to Katalia, they need to come back.”
The sun was beginning to set and the group was still far from home. Ivan dutifully cared for his sick father while Iver and Nadia kept a closer eye on the surrounding forest. Under normal circumstances, the trees were a welcome retreat from chores, annoying neighbors or just average bustle of a medium sized village. Now, it felt like they were hiding evil behind every trunk.
“When are you going to go to Kivo?” Ivan broke the silence.
“Probably tomorrow. Really depends when we get back and what Vor says,” Nadia answered.
“Can you send a…”
Suddenly and silently a silhouette stepped onto the road. Iver knocked an arrow, but felt Nadia’s hand on his shoulder. He lowered his weapon and moments later a small pack of wolves crossed the path. The way was clear.
“They didn’t attack,” Ivan whispered, his voice barely audible.
“They smell sickness,” Nadia explained, nodding towards Haymich.
“Let’s keep moving,” Iver added with a hint of agitation. They still had hours of walking to do and he didn’t want to do it in the blackness of the night.
“When you go to Kivo, can you please send a letter to my brothers for me?” Ivan asked while he waited for his father to stop vomiting all over a perfectly innocent mushroom patch.
“You’re probably coming with us,” Iver said. “You’re as close to a grain expert as we have.”
“Your father will be well taken care of,” Nadia promised. In truth, she didn’t expect the old farmer to last the night. His episodes were getting closer and closer together and he took on a shade of white that’s paler than a virgin’s dress on her wedding day.
“Thanks,” Ivan forced a smile. “I hope it will reach them on time.”
“There are some fast riders in Kivo, if you can pay,” Iver assured the boy.
“I’ll cover you.”
“You will?” Nadia blurted out at the same time as Ivan.
Iver smiled. “If you don’t spend money on a worthy cause, then what good is it?”
“Th-thanks!” Ivan looked like he was about to cry again.
“Didn’t know I married a bleeding heart,” Nadia scoffed.
Iver opened his mouth to say something when Haymich fell to his knees. “No…” the old farmer whispered just before his eyes rolled into his head and violent spasms convulsed his body.
“Papa!” Ivan shouted, rushing to his father’s side. Nadia followed.
Iver made a move to help the old man but his thoughts were drowned in a mind numbing screech. His limbs felt like boulders, cold sweat trickled down his back as his eyes tried to pierce the red haze that fell over everything. Needles pricked his fingers and his heart felt like it was being raked by serrated claws. He gasped for air but none came. The world around him spun until darkness overpowered the light. He heard a terrifying roar and horrific monsters came into view. Their blood-red eyes focused on him and him alone. “This is a dream,” he whispered but was afraid it wasn’t. The first of the beasts slashed its claws. Iver dodged back and reached for his sword. Instead of the weapon he felt pain. Another monstrosity snuck up on him and caught His arm in its jaws. Iver screamed. He tried to pull free but it was no use. In the corner of his eye he saw movement. He turned and helplessly watched two more monsters leap out of the darkness to devour him.
“Where…” Iver groaned. His body ached as if he fell off a cliff and then the same cliff fell on top of him.
“He’s awake!” Ivan whispered excitedly. Iver couldn’t see him.
“About time! What happened to you?!” Nadia demanded.
“You stood there… just stood there as Haymich died!” Her voice was harsh but there was a treble of concern too. “And if that wasn’t bad enough, you stood there some more. The sun has set. If you are pulling the whole mysterious past garbage on me, I will kill you.”
Iver had no idea what was happening. A heartbeat ago it was evening and now it was night. He touched his shirt. It was drenched. A strong smell of feces and blood overpowered his nostrils. “The horn…”
“Horn?” Nadia asked.
“Someone sounded a horn. The ground shook and…”
“Iver, should I be worried?”
“Didn’t you hear it?”
“Mm? Oh. No, sorry,” the boy sniffed.
“Nadia, I swear to you, I…”
“We will talk at home. We’ve lost a lot of time and the horse.”
“I’m sorry” Iver groaned. He remembered the monsters from his vision and instinctively reached for his sword.
“Yes, well. We need to keep moving before something confuses us for food.”
“There they are!” an excited voice shouted from further ahead. Amber light of the torches bloomed in the darkness. Vor and several members of his hunting group suddenly appeared on the road.
“You youngsters lost your way?” the big man mused. His smile faded when the light touched Haymich’s body. “What happened?”