23 Execution Day

The boys watched as the Molly Red prepared to leave Southport. Yeva and Munro stood on the quarter-deck, waving their farewell. The sun announced the start of the morning, brisk with scattered clouds. Gulls squawked above, fighting for any scraps of food they could find on the pier.

Yeva and Munro agreed that Caleb would be safer going with Conall and Josah. The Captain wasn’t sure where to take the Molly Red. He didn’t even know how the McKanzels would respond to their successful rescue. Yet, he knew that Caleb on land, and away from the sea, would be safe.

At the very least, Jeera would tell Lord Vilo that the Evermores raided one of his food warehouses. Knowing him to be a vengeful ruler, many avoided any form of confrontation with Lord Vilo Dey Nota. Liez had the largest fleet of ships in all the seas. They docked further south in Lila Bay, where the sea separated the East and West Mainlands.

Captain Munro didn’t like Lila Bay’s proximity to the main Mercil port. So the plan was to find a better place to call home. The Molly Red would head out to the smaller Mercil port on the west coast, where the Willowese waited for orders.

Josah and Conall jostled Caleb, reminding him he was to follow their instructions. The young Evermore pulled back, exclaiming, “I know! I know! Can we get out of here before someone recognizes us?”

The pier and King’s Road were empty except for a few merchants stirring about, getting ready for the day. The boys ran past the warehouses, following the cobblestone road to Cornor. They slowed their pace once they met people and carts making their way back to the Southport pier.

Hurrying past the Square and Pubs Row, they ran into the open field. The sound of bells in the distance announced Casselberry gates were opening.

“Hurry,” shouted Josah. “We have to get to Filgore Valley before anyone notices us.”

“Do you think Ena will be there?” asked Caleb, huffing as he ran.

“I don’t know,” Josah responded.

“Let’s hope we make it through and find Eva Marie waiting for us at Promise Gorge,” said Conall.

When they reached the edge of the Valley, Josah extended his arms to halt the brothers’ progress. “Let’s slow down. We may get attacked if we try to run through the Valley.”

Except for the conifers dotting the forest, the trees in the Valley had dropped all their leaves. Now it was easier for them to see longer distances. The boys walked down into the Valley with care, keeping Caleb between the older two.

It was impossible to hide their presence in the Valley, as the crisp leaves crunched under their feet. Josah stopped at the clearing where he last saw Ena. He whistled three short blasts, hoping to get her attention. Instead, the boys heard the rush of Dragoons heading toward them.

The mature cats stomped their feet, warning them not to proceed. One of them took extra steps closer to the boys. Fresh scratches on its face and shoulders concerned Josah. This Dragoon had been in a fight.

Not sure what to do next, the boys paused, hearing a slow, steady rustling of leaves behind them. Josah turned his head slightly, cutting his eyes toward the sounds. It was Ena, walking, and yowling, ignoring the boys as she went past them.

The two Dragoons stood face to face, challenging each other. Their yowl started slow, then worked their way to a loud, high pitch. They stopped for a few seconds before repeating the calls. With one swift move, Ena swatted the challenger, forcing her to retreat.

Stomping a few times before backing down, Ena turned to Josah and rubbed her head on his leg. “Look at you,” Josah said as he dropped to a knee. “You’ve had your battles, too, didn’t you now?”

The cat placed her face into Josah’s hands. He examined her as best he could, happy that he only found superficial wounds. These would heal over a short time. When Ena looked at Caleb and Conall, the two brothers reached out their hands, much to her delight.

“We have to go,” said Josah.

The other Dragoons backed off as Josah moved forward, clapping his hands. But it was Ena walking beside the boy that made them run farther into the forest. It was all Josah needed.

He ran down the familiar path leading to Promise Gorge, with Ena racing ahead of him. Conall and Caleb followed close behind. The sun remained low on the horizon, as the morning had merely started. There were places on the sides of the mountains that remained in darkness.

As they exited the forest, the boys slowed down. They would reach Promise Gorge about the time the sun peaked over the mountain range. With horses waiting for them, they should arrive in Bon Abbi by midday.

When they reached the waterfall, the boys paused long enough to catch their breath. Down below, they saw Dali waiting in a wagon, along with three horses, saddled and grazing on the grass.

Josah scrunched his face, expecting to find Eva waiting for him. But Dali was alone. “Something’s wrong,” Josah said as he ran down to the lower elevation.

“Welcome back,” said Dali as the boys and Ena made it to the wagon. At the sight of the big cat, the horses neighed, pulling at the reins tied to the cart.

Dali tugged on her reins, calming the horse harnessed to the wagon. “Where’s Eva?” asked Josah, gasping for air.

When an answer didn’t come right away, he looked up. Dali returned his gaze. “Josah, you need to hear what happened after you departed.”

“This can’t be good,” Conall commented to Caleb.

Dali took a deep breath. “Eva went to Casselberry, seeking peace with Luka.”

“What!” shouted Josah. “Why did you let her go?”

“Because I agreed she should try. Luka held an event in her honor.”

Josah knew something went wrong since Eva Marie wasn’t here. Dali looking away from his stare, taking short breaths said everything he needed to know.

Dali held her breath, then said, “Eva survived an attack. But a young girl from Tuva that traveled with her died.”

Walking away from the wagon, Josah jerked his head a few times, attempting to release his anger. “Evie would have been here if she didn’t have serious injuries,” he thought.

Turning to Dali, he asked, “How bad is she hurt?”

“She will be fine. Sola is caring for her,” Dali assured him. “But that’s not the problem we’re facing today. Graybard heard about the death in Neardore, and he thought it was Eva Marie.”

“And where is Gray?” asked Conall.

Dali held her breath. “He disappeared the day we received word someone from Bon Abbi died. A herald from Neardore came a few days later. He announced that they executed two people responsible for the attack. Then he said they captured a third person.”

Placing his hands on his hips, Josah leaned forward. “And this third person waiting for execution is Graybard.”

Wiping tears from her eyes, Dali nodded her head. “They plan to behead him today in Neardore, where the attack took place.”

“We have to rescue him!” shouted Caleb.

“You’re not doing anything,” Josah reminded him calmly, “except what we tell you.”

He laced his fingers and placed his hands behind his head. Leaning back, as if looking for inspiration, Josah shook his head. “Well, at least we know Luka isn’t marching to Bon Abbi any time soon. He’ll stay long enough to watch Graybard’s execution. Once he is dead, Luka can attack Bon Abbi any time he wants.”

“You must help him,” Dali pleaded.

“I agreed,” Conall said.

Josah walked over to the wagon, then pointed to it. “Caleb, get in. We need you to take a few wagons to Northport and retrieve those crates.”

Without hesitation, Caleb jumped in and flopped onto the bench. Josah turned to Dali, who leaned to her side so she could see him. “We need you to arrange two wagons and volunteers. Four body boxes filled with weapons are waiting for us in Northport.”

“I can do that,” Dali nodded.

Looking at Conall, Josah couldn’t help but grin. “I can’t believe someone else needs rescuing. Tie the horses to the tree so that Dali can be on her way.”

Conall untied two horses and walked around Ena, lying on the grass. Josah held the reins of the last horse, waving Dali forward. She navigated the wagon around, pausing long enough to thank Josah.

“Come back safe,” she shouted, urging her horse toward Bon Abbi.

Tying the reins of his horse, Josah looked at Ena, who was content for the moment. “Conall, I’ve got an idea,” Josah said. “But you may not like it.”

“If it’s reckless and unexpected, let’s do it. It worked so well last time!”

The morning sun disappeared behind some angry clouds. Winds increased, making the air feel colder. But the threatening weather wasn’t enough to keep the crowds away from Neardore.

The city built a platform, somewhat unstable, for today’s execution. It stood in the middle of King’s Road, about twenty meters from the gates leading into Casselberry. An executioner wearing a leather mask sat on the steps, waiting for the prisoner.

The crowd grew restless. Some chanted prayers as they waited for the prisoner to arrive. Others demanded the execution to happen now. When he saw the signal coming from the Casselberry gates, the masked man made his way up the platform. He grabbed an ornate ax attached to a simple wooden shaft that leaned against a post.

Spontaneous cheers broke out when the gates to Casselberry opened. The accused murderer wore heavy chains wrapped around his shoulder and midsection. Leather straps bound his hands and feet, then tethered together. Barefoot and ill-clad, the prisoner showed signs of a beating.

Four guards dress in armor hid their faces by wearing sallet helmets with a narrow slit for vision. Each carrying a long spear, the guards walked in step with their prisoner.

Those shouting for the execution now withdrew in silence. The accused man walked with dignity and confidence. His hair, unkempt and matted with blood, didn’t hide his determined stare. The chains clanked with every step the prisoner took.

One guard released his chains when they reached the platform. But he made sure the leather straps remained secure. As the prisoner attempted to walk up the steps, he stumbled. As a final calloused gesture, the guard and executioner dragged him onto the platform.

“Lord Luka will join us soon,” the guard told the executioner.

The masked man grabbed the prisoner and shoved him in front of the chopping block. “Stand there!” he demanded.

All eyes focused on the man ready for execution. Then without provocation, someone shouted, “Gray, what a great day to be alive!”

The prisoner looked to his right. It was Josah. The crowd gasped in unison when they saw a Dragoon walking by his side. “Ena, go stand by Graybard, ” Josah commanded, pointing to the prisoner.

She looked at Josah before jumping onto the platform. The executioner and guard shuffled away from the prisoner. “Good girl,” Graybard whispered.

Ena crouched, twitching, staring at the two men holding weapons. “I would drop those weapons if I were you. Dragoons don’t like it when you challenge them,” Josah instructed.

The guard started to move his spear forward. Ena yowled, stomping her feet at the same time. It was enough to cause the executioner to drop his ax and jump off the platform.

Undaunted by the display of aggression, the guard continued to move his spear forward. Ena didn’t hesitate. She leaped into the air, striking the guard’s chest and pushing him off the platform. He landed on the hard ground with a thud. The spear fell to his side, while the crowd moved back.

Josah hopped up to the platform, grinning as the other guards ran back to the Casselberry gates. He withdrew his shipping knife and cut the leather straps.

Graybard rubbed his wrist, happy to be free. Josah jumped to the ground and grabbed the spear. He tossed it on the platform while staring at the guard. Ena kept stomping on the man’s breastplate.

“Make it stop. I can’t breathe,” the guard gasped.

Josah whistled a short blast, motioning Ena back to his side. Graybard hurried down the steps and to the guard. “Before you get up, I’ll need your boots.”

Unsure what would happen if he didn’t follow the request, the guard pulled off his helmet. “Ah, if it isn’t Merek. Not your finest moment, is it?” Graybard asked.

The guard pulled off his boots and threw them toward the freed prisoner. “Get up!” Josah shouted, “Run to the gates before I change my mind.”

Graybard stood above the guard held down by the weight of his armor. Pulling him up, the warrior pushed him toward Casselberry. “Run!”

The guard never looked back. “Let’s get out of here before we get caught,” Josah said.

With the gates closed, Graybard raised his fist in defiance. “Tell Lord Luka, his days of ruling this city are almost over! If he wants to talk, he knows where to find me!”

Josah, Graybard, and Ena ran into the crowd, causing them to move out of the way. The crowd watched as the three ran along the tree line. Then they disappeared behind a grove of conifer trees.

Out of sight, Graybard stopped to catch his breath. “Where’s Conall and Caleb?”

Josah huffed while patting Ena’s back. “Conall waits for us with horses by Promise Gorge. He wanted to be here but trusted me to save you. Caleb is on his way to Northport.”

“What’s he doing there?” Graybard asked, gingerly touching his head.

Placing his hand on the warrior’s shoulder, he looked into his eyes. “We have weapons!”

Exuberant, he grabbed Josah’s arm, but then let go. Shaking his head, he said, “I have to tell you something.”

“Don’t waste your breath,” shouted Josah as he walked toward Filgore Valley. Eva Marie is alive.”

Eva kept herself busy by straightening the makeshift hospice in the parlor. She couldn’t think about Josah and Conall trying to rescue Graybard. Yet she worried about what to say when they arrived in Bon Abbi.

To her comfort, Dali came into the room. “Nevaeh and Malcolm chased me out of the Blue Door Pub. They could tell I had other worries on my mind.”

They both smiled but returned to their melancholy thoughts. Evenings came earlier with the rainy season almost upon them. “How are the villages doing with their harvest?”

Dali shook her head. “The last I heard was Tuva needed a few more days. The other villages were either done or close to finishing. But I haven’t received the latest news since moving here.”

“The delayed rains have benefited us,” Eva said, folding several blankets. “How does Milo enjoy living in the city?”

“Well, Milo enjoys playing with the other children. He likes exploring the granaries and getting into trouble. The room behind the Blue Door Pub is a bit cramped, but Nevaeh needs my help. “

Eva smiled, remembering those days when Michael John led her into adventures. But the memories only increased her concerns. “Shouldn’t they be here by now?” she asked.

Dali walked to her and touched her shoulder. “Remember, it’s half a day’s journey through the plains of Vandeer by horse. Then, there may have been complications to delay their return. But I am like you, worried that something may have gone wrong.”

Both women paused when they heard someone coming down the corridor. The runner from the gates entered the parlor. “My Lady, the wagons that left for Northport have arrived with four body boxes.”

“Take a deep breath,” Dali told the boy.

He paused before continuing. “Caleb said I was to tell you they were back and unloading the boxes in the barn by the Square.”

“Thank you, Nevel,” Eva Marie told the boy. “There’s some sweet bread in the kitchen. Ask someone for a slice. Tell them I sent you.”

The young boy grinned and bowed, then hurried out. “At least one group has arrived. If you’re feeling strong enough, let’s go to the barn,” Dali suggested.

Eva Marie closed her eyes. She was to rest and keep her wound clean. “Sola wouldn’t approve of me going to the barn, but he’s at the stables with the Ruelanders. He wants to make the benches inside the carriage more comfortable.”

Chuckling at the thought, Dali said, “Then let’s go to the barn.” She grabbed a blanket from the table and offered it as a wrap. “The winds make the evening feel colder.”

Together, they exited the Manor and made their way to the Square. It pleased Eva to see that the guards had closed the gates for the evening. A small fire burned to keep them warm during the evening watch.

As they got closer to the barn, Eva could see the light around the edges of the door. Dali held it open for Eva, then closed it behind her. The thick boards and stacked bundles of hay around the barn kept the cold wind out. Near the back door were the four body boxes that came from Northport.

To Eva’s surprise, Theo and a young woman said on a bundle of hay. “When did you get back to Bon Abbi?” she asked the Chronicler.

“We came with Caleb. It took a few days to convince people to leave Northport,” Theo told her. Turning to the girl beside him, he said, “Let me introduce you to Leena.”

The young girl stood and curtsied. “It’s my pleasure.”

“So you have changed the future,” said Eva, causing Leena to glance at Theotello.

“We’re here to change your future, my Lady,” Theo replied. “Caleb tells me Josah and Graybard will be joining us soon.”

Dali, worried that something went wrong during Graybard’s rescue, looked down. “They should have been here by now.”

Theotello stood up but waited for Leena. “We need a place to stay until we can make other arrangements.”

“Of course,” Eva said. “There are plenty of rooms in the Manor. The staff has ended their day, so I’ll help you with anything you need.”

Theo placed his arm around Leena’s shoulders, trying not to put his weight on his left foot. “Eva, walk with us if you please.”

Concerned he was in pain, Eva clutched her wrap and asked what happened. “Theo had another vision while we walked to Bon Abbi. He stumbled and fell into the ravine, beyond the first bend. We laid in the field, hiding, the first time the wagons passed us.”

“That’s not important,” Theo whispered. “Luka will be on his way to Bon Abbi soon. Someone will suggest we destroy Sui Saor. Without that bridge, no one can cross over.”

Eva saw a flash of fear in the young Chronicler’s eyes. “Josah cannot confront Luka on that bridge. ”

Theo whispered something to Leena, keeping her from moving forward. “I can’t tell you why, but you need to be the one on Sui Saor when Luka comes.”

“What are you saying?” Eva whispered, trying to keep her voice down. She glanced back at Caleb and Dali, looking their way but not revealing any concern. “Someone tried to kill me several days ago, and I believe Luka sent him. I can’t be the one on the bridge.”

“Eva, I’m hurt, dirty, and tired. Please trust me,” Theo said. As Leena led the way to the door, he repeated, “You must keep Josah from that bridge.”

“Why?” Eva asked, following closely.

As Theo grabbed the handle, Leena turned her head to Eva. She whispered, “Because, if you don’t, Josah will die.”

Eva covered her mouth to stifle her cry, while Theotello pushed the barn door open. Standing in front of him were Josah, Conall, and Graybard. Ena squeezed between them and ran into the barn.

Staring at each other for a moment, Theo introduced Leena. The two Chroniclers exchanged pleasantries before they headed out to the Manor. As Josah turned to the barn, he saw Eva through the opened door, standing motionless with a fixed stare. He walked up to her with no plans to offer a hug, but Eva had other ideas.

Careful not to reveal her wound, Eva dropped her wrap and embraced Josah with her right arm. She couldn’t comprehend whatever he whispered to her. All Eva could think about was how she had to be the one to confront Luka. Josah’s life depended on it.

Written by Mike Arroyo

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