Story: The Old Empire



Chapter 1, Marcus:

It was the first time Marcus smiled in eight days.
Veo, his seventeen year old daughter, kept shooting little twigs with a miniature bow at Helena. She slept through the assault like a rock. They were riding at leisurely pace on a hardly used road, surrounded by bountiful fields of wheat, to pick up their last fugitive. The day embraced the night, giving the sky a warm orange glow. It was the first time in eight days that Marcus forgot they were running for their lives. It was the first time he wasn’t thinking about how he betrayed his country and ruined the future of his family, two of his best friends and a innocent teacher. It was the first time he made a mistake.
“Marcus,” said Julia.
He immediately knew something was wrong. Julia wasn’t the small talk type. He looked around him and froze. There was a patrol in the distance heading their way and they were not prepared. They didn’t had their stories straight. Just the basics. They were a family of middle class traders escorted by two guards. That’s it. He hoped it was enough.
“They look like a patrol, but they move like highwayman,” said Julia.
“Shit. Shit. Shit.”
Marcus immediately slowed down, forcing the two wagons behind him to do the same. When he looked over his shoulder he saw Laurus, sitting on the first wagon holding the reins, grinning. He was wearing his ‘I told you so’-face. He sees the patrol as a personal triumph. Not a threat to their lives.
Marcus and Julia dismounted and waited till the patrol closed the distance. Four of the six guards dismounted when they got near. Marcus followed their eyes to see who the leader was. It wasn’t the biggest man. It rarely is. It was a tough looking man, probably a former soldier.
“Where are you going?” asked the leader.
“Minerve,” said Marcus.
“For what purpose?”
“Trading. Can we go? It’s getting dark and it’s still a hour ride.”
“No. You can go when I say you can go. And that’s not anytime soon. Let me tell you what I see: I see two wagons with two guards riding on a small farmers road. And that doesn’t make any sense. If you were travelers, there would be no need for guards. Highwayman don’t bother robbing light travellers. If you were rich or traders, you would have used to emperors road. It’s faster and safer. So, that leaves one option: smugglers. ”
“We are not smugglers,” said Marcus.
“So you don’t mind that we inspect your wagons?”
“I do mind.”
The leader sized Marcus up. His sword gained a extra look.
“That’s a captain sword.”
Marcus said nothing. The leader eyed the rest of the group. Julia got a quick glance. He saw a bored looking man on the first wagon, a bookish man, his wife and their daughter on the second wagon. The leader moved his hand slightly to the hilt of his sword.
“So, tell me. Why is a captain guarding a trader with just two wagons? That’s one hell of a downgrade. You know what I think? I think you’re a deserter. Fleeing the country when we’re at war for the first time in a decade. I think you took this smuggling job to get across border. That makes you not only a deserter and a criminal, but a coward as well.”
Marcus watched Julia move slowly to the side, eyeing the two men on the right, positioning herself to strike, one hand already on the dagger in her coat. Marcus stared at the leader, took a step back and repositioned his feet. The leader furrowed his eyebrows. You could see the conflict in his eyes. On one hand, this could be the catch of his life. Catching a deserter will get you two silvers, a promotion when it is a captain. And, they could take all the smuggled ware. On the other hand, they were preparing to fight and captains from Lorn are captains for a reason. They can fight. The leader didn’t doubt that they would win, it’s six against two, but it’s possible that he would lose a few men. Maybe even himself. And he didn’t get paid enough to die.
“I tell you what,” said the leader. “If you drop your weapon right now and walk away, you won’t be harmed by us. We will confiscate the smuggled wares and take our leave. What do you say?”
The silence was tense.
“By Bardic balls!” said Laurus while he jogged to the group. “What’s taking so long?”
“They say we’re smuggler and deserters. They want to confiscate our wares,” said Marcus.
“Deserters? Smugglers? Ha! What did you say to them?” said Laurus. He walked to the leader with both hands up and a great smile on his face.
“Good sir, I want to thank you for your services. Risking your lives to keep even this hardly used road safe. You and your fellow men are heroes. You heard me right, heroes. My name is Lorenzo. May I ask what your name is?”
“Basil, a good name. A strong name. You know what, Basil? Most people, like Marcus here, don’t appreciate what you guys do. They take you for granted. And that is a shame. You make our jobs easy. We haven’t come across a band of highwayman in months. All because of men like you. You deserve to get recognised for your services. Here, I want you to accept this gift,” said Laurus. He handed the leader a little bag of coins.
You could see Basil’s attitude change. He peeked into the little bag and his pupils dilated.
“Yes, five of them,” said Laurus.
“Five? So, you are smugglers?” asked Basil. His greedy eyes, slight smile and voice betrayed that he didn’t care about smuggling, deserters and doing the right thing.
“Ha! No, we are thieves,” said Laurus. He waiting a couple seconds for extra suspension. “Thieves of the wallets of noblemen! That man over there,” Laurus pointed to the anxious man holding the reins of the second wagon. “His name is Leo. And Leo buys custom made silk sashes, dresses and tunics in the now traitorous kingdom of Elos and sells them to rich noblemen and women in our great empire and whatever Floren is these days. For twenty times their true worth. The insane prices attract noblemen like honey attracts bees. I convinced Leo that he needs a guide and at least two experienced guards and pay them twenty silvers each. I offered my humble services and said I would hire the guards for a small, but reasonable, finder’s fee of ten procent. Leo made so much money on his first trip that he thought twenty silvers per person was a reasonable price. Ha! Twenty silvers for two months of easy work. People go blind when they just made a lot of money. Basil, you have a good eye by the way. That is indeed a captain’s sword. And Marcus was indeed a captain. But not a deserter. No. No. They,” Laurus said, pointing at Marcus and Julia,” fought in the same company in the Lighting War, fell in love and left the army seven years ago. Love and the army don’t mix well, you know. So Basil, if you want to inspect some of the silk dresses we sell, I can show them to you. There in the second wagon. It will take a while, but we got plenty of time.”
“No, no, no. That won’t be necessary. Basil tucked his little bag of money away. “You’re a smart man, Lorenzo. I like you. If you ever need more men for this guard business, let me know. It pays better than being a hero.” smirked Basil.
“I will do that. Come to think of it. I think I got some work for you on our way back from Floren. At least, if this war doesn’t escalate”.
“Aye,” said Basil. “If you’re still in Minerve tomorrow, look me up. I’ll buy everyone here a drink. Just ask for me at the Bearpaw Inn in Minerve, they know where to find me. If you make haste you can make Minerve before the sun is down. Safe travels.” said Basil.

They watched the patrol move out of sight.
“It still amazes me how easy you lie,” said Marcus.
“You want to know the secret?” asked Laurus.
“Oh great one. Share your wisdom,” said Julia.
“Coins and compliments. That’s it. Stroke their greed and ego. Blind them by self-interest and self-importance. Make the lie desirable. Make the lie believable.”
“Believable?  Me and Marcus?” Julia laughed and walked to a relieved looking Leo.
“She laughed a bit to hard there,” said Marcus.
“You’re not her type. She likes them smart.”
“I’m not a barbarian. I studied.”
“You went to a military school. You know strategy. You know tactics. You know how to fight. But you’re not book smart, like Leo, or street smart, like me,” said Laurus with a grin, “If it wasn’t for me you would have marched in full armor to the capital to challenge every guilty person to single combat, but would be caught before you even entered the capital. You see the world as it should be, not how it really is.”
“I’m trying to do the right thing.”
“I know. I know. And I love you for that. But it will get us killed one of these days. Come on. Let’s move. Your son is waiting for you. I just hope Max got the brain of Helena and didn’t get himself caught by the guards of the university. I can’t wait to meet him.
“Me neither. It’s been six years. I hope he’s not mad at me.”
“He probably is. This was his final year, right?”
“Yeah,” Marcus face turned somber.
“He will come around,” said Laurus, “He will understand if you explain it to him. You told me Max trained with him. That he was his friend. And now he is dead, betrayed by his younger sister, the new ruler. He will understands why we did what we did. He will understand that it’s not safe to stay in Lorne. We need to get across the border as soon as possible. Once we’re in Floren, we will be safe. What happened is just the beginning.“



Chapter 2: Helena

Minerve wasn’t a big town by any measure. It was barely on the map. A tiny dot, three days ride from the border between Lorne and Floren. But Helena loved it. She loved the chaotic nature of cities. She loved fixing their problems, creating order out of chaos. In barely a couple minutes she had a mental shortlist of a dozen problems she could have fixed in no time. The guards were slacking off, they just glanced at us and continued playing cards. There was filth scattered around the streets. And barely any light. No wonder people scattered their trash. There was nobody to judge them. Except her, of course. They walked past the Bearpaw Inn. After hearing the patrol mentioning the inn they knew it attracted the crowds they don’t want to get noticed by. The only problem, her son was staying there. She discussed the problem with Marcus, Julia and Laurus and fortunately Laurus immediately volunteered to go there alone and look for their son. Nobody questioned it. The rest would attract to much attention and Laurus can assimilate in every crowd and talk his way out off most problems. They continued down the street and arrived at the Smiling Tree Inn. They could hear muffled music spilling out of the door. Helena looked longingly to the inn. She was looking forward to sleep on a normal bed. Sure, she could sleep anywhere, but it always takes a toll on her back. That didn’t used to be a problem, but age changes everything.
Marcus talked to the boy outside, gave him a silver coin and pointed at the horses and wagons. The boy nodded eagerly holding the silver coin firmly in his hand. We should stop giving people so much money. Sure, it stops questions now, but it creates attention in the long term. What is his father going to think when his son comes home with a whole silver? I hope greed is gonna stop the boy telling his father about this exchange. Marcus beckoned Julia and Laurus after the boy took the reins of a horse and they whispered for a short minute. Julia nodded and left, probably to scout the area. Laurus was preparing to leave when Marcus grabbed Laurus shoulder firmly and spoke to him with his captain voice: “I’m serious. Don’t linger. Don’t get noticed.“ Laurus nodded and left. Marcus took a deep sigh, spilling out his worries. His eyes moved and landed on Helena. She showed him her most reassuring smile. He nodded and she entered the inn, wondering if she still got it.
She still got it. She still had the power to freeze a whole room. Time changes everything, except the nature of man. She knew the drill. Long stares, whispers, a glance at Marcus, followed by a disappointed face, a grunt and sometimes a calculating face – wondering if they can take Marcus. She used to hate the stares, but decades can change a lot. This time it was different. She got stares, but they weren’t long stares. She expected that, twenty years ago she could freeze a inn for minutes, now not even ten seconds. This time the long stares were for somebody else. Not Marcus, nor Leo, but at Veo. She looked at her with a new light. Before this moment she saw Veo as a young girl, running with a big smile and eager eyes to smiths, woodcutters and glassmakers questioning them about their methodes, hoping they would spill their trade secrets. Most did. Not many people could resist her enthusiasm. But she’s not that girl anymore. Her attitude is still the same, her body is not. A dangerous combo. She should talk to her one of these days. She needs to know how to handle and divert the attention of men. And what to do when that fails. She saw Veo looking up with a curious glaze, still holding her miniature bow, wondering why people stopped talking. When she saw the stares, her faced changed to shock. She took a small step back, trying to figure out what was happening. She’s not used to it. Most people at the military camps, where they stayed the last six years, knew her since she was a child. They didn’t stare. At least, most of them didn’t. Some young soldiers did, but when they heard Marcus was her father, they cast there eyes down everything they noticed her.
Leo coughed loudly and pulled attention away from Veo to him. That seemed to break the spell and slowly people started to pick up their old conversations, while some kept stealing short glances of Veo. Leo put his hand softly on the shoulder of Veo ushering her to a empty table in the corner.
“Thanks”, said Helena.
“Like mother, like daughter,” said Leo with a smile.
Marcus approached the innkeeper and asked for one family room, two small rooms and something to eat and drink for seven people – I hope Max is hungry . The innkeeper nodded and disappeared in the back.
“I don’t like this”, confessed Marcus.
“What?”, asked Helena.
“The not knowing. Consistently wondering what to do next.
“We will rise above it. Like we alway do. Like you promised me, twenty-eight years ago. We were in the same position then. We were on the run. We didn’t knew where we would go. And we didn’t have anything. And we rose above it.”
“But it’s not us alone anymore, Helena. We got Veo, Max, Julia, Leo and Laurus. Maybe even Andrina will suffer the consequences of my actions. Wherever she is.
“Don’t worry about Andrina. Our daughter can handle herself, you know that. You’ve trained her. And she’s not even in Lorne. The last time we heard from her she was in Floren, looking for some lost treasure.
We can’t even reach her, and why hired the best, why do you think the army can find her? If she’s ready, she will find us.”
“That doesn’t change the rest. I keep thinking: if I just followed orders, it would just effect me. I could have carried the shame. I could have lived a lie if that means my family is safe.”
“You did what was right. Never feel sorry for that. And you couldn’t have carried that shame. It would have broken you. And that would have broken me. We are a whole family now. Julia and Laurus chose to go with us. It is their decision, they could have stayed with the company. They didn’t even think about it. They would follow you anywhere. You need to stop worrying for all of us. In three days we will be at the border where we can start over. You can build that little farm you always talk about.” said Helena, while grapping Marcus his hand and giving a small squeeze. Marcus nodded, looking relieved and they walked to the table where Veo was interrogating Leo. Probably about how magnets work or some of the other stuff only Leo seems to know.
Helena positioned herself so she could watch the door. It has been three years since she saw Max. It would have been six years if he didn’t sneak out that one time. The university doesn’t allow you to leave while you’re a student. They want you all for themselves. She knows that. She studied there for one year, but those restrictions was one of the two reasons she left. Marcus was the other.
But three years ago Max sneaked away when he joined a professor on a trip to the capital. It was a surprise when he knocked on our door. It would have been the perfect night if Marcus was there. But he was on a assignment. She told Marcus everything what happend that night, but it’s never the same as meeting him in flesh and blood. That was the second them she saw tears on Marcus his cheek. Helena and Max talked till deep in the night. They talked about the classes he took, the training he got, the competitions and she talked about Marcus, about Veo and everything else she could come up with. They did write. In the first three years she received a letter, consisting of multiply pages, every month. The fourth year it changed. The letters got shorter, more irregular. She responded by asking more questions, to no avail. The last letter she got was six month ago and consistent of a couple of lines. Mostly saying he’s fine and that she shouldn’t worry about it.
She watched Julia enter the inn, take a quick glance and walked straight to us. She nodded to Marcus, indication everything seems to be safe. A young man, who had a couple beers to many, walked to Julia with a confident smile. Julia saw him and sneered, she moved one hand to the hilt of her dagger and she made sure he saw it. The man staggered and took a step back. He put his hands up and walked back to his friends. Julia can have that effect on people. And if her sneer didn’t stop the approach, her dagger wil. She once stabbed a man in the leg, who had put a hand on her leg, while she was ordering some drinks.Word got around quickly and that was the first and last time somebody of the army approached her. Maybe she needs to talk to Veo. Helena smiled at that thought and returned her gaze to the door. What is taking so long?


Chapter 3: Laurus

Language is strange.
It doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t sound so bad. Deserters eat dessert in the desert. Laurens smirked at the thought.
“I would kill for some ice cream”, mumbled Laurens when he headed to the Bearpaw Inn.
Literally. He has killed for less. He once killed a man who took a sip of his beer. Sure, that was a long time ago and he was payed to kill the man anyway, but if that man didn’t take a sip of his beer, he would have lived a couple hours longer. That man was a bad gambler and Laurus loved winning. Every summer his thoughts returned to that magical day, fifteen years ago. It was the first and only time Laurus tasted ice cream. He had a job escorting some rich noblemen’s son to the university and when he got there, some man was selling strawberry ice cream from a cart. It was unheard of. Ice with flavour? In the summer? How do they get ice in the summer? Do they toll it from the icecaps to the south? That doesn’t make sense. The scope of ice cream costed  a bronze coin and if they took it from the icecaps, a scope would have cost at least two silver. That would be no problem for Laurus, he was willing to spend his only gold on some more, but must people don’t think the same. He questioned the man selling the ice cream, but he just said that they make in the university, but doesn’t know how. He traveled the next year to the universe, but wasn’t allowed to enter the University grounds without permission. It’s one of the most heavily guarded places in the world. He tried getting a similar job, but most students had guards of their own. Others didn’t trust someone who’s bagging for a specific job and was willing to work for free. The last time he tried, he messed up. Five years ago he forged some acceptance papers and traveled cloaked, posing as a student, to the university. He even hired a carriage and two guards. He was caught at the gate and thrown into the university’s jail. He was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. Marcus needed to cast in his favour from Lorne’s emperor- earned by quelling a rebellion in the north. They university reluctantly complied. The university is strange place. Not by the looks of it, it looks quite boring.  It consist of ten large round buildings, all the same size. But the rest is strange. The university doesn’t belong to any country. It’s a small, but independent region. The top layer of the society from Lorne, Floren and Elos consists of students from the university. They accept just over a hundred student each year and the battle for a place is fierce. One noblemen once offered to donate ten ships, a large mansion and a massive plot of land for a spot for his son. They denied him. Not because of the donation, the university doesn’t have any problem accepting those, but because his son wasn’t bright enough. They only want the best of the best or the best of the mightiest. Like Helena, the smartest woman Laurus knows and daughter to a rich merchant. She’s a bit uptight, but incredible smart. And Max, of couse. Son of Helena and one of the most accomplished captains in Lorne’s army, the instructor of the old emperor and the hero of the Lighting War. Their first and only son. Their prodigy. While Laurus has never met Max, he has heard a lot of him.
Marcus is the must virtuous person he knows, but being humble about his son and daughters isn’t one of those virtues. He brags, sometimes daily, about how his son used to beat veteran soldiers twice his age in duals, how Veo outsmarted her teacher when she was 12 and could skip some boring subjectes and how Andrina single-handedly found the entrance to the mythical tombe of the first emporer when she was barely twenty years old. The University confiscated the scrolls she found – the first know writing from that era and got twenty gold coins for her service. Or twenty gold for her silence. Same thing. Marcus doesn’t talk a lot about Andrina. It’s a touchy subject. She left after a big fight and Marcus blames himself.
But flavored ice cream, the complete independence, the immersive wealth or the importance students don’t make the university a mysterious place. It’s the age of the members of the university’s counsel. The youngest member of the counsel is a hundred and twenty years old, the oldest hundred and seventy. They are the only people in the known world that make it over a hundred.
But nobody knows how do they do it. Students vowed to solve te secret, rich and sick merchants offered to pay insane amounts of gold, dying kings and emperor’s threatened to invade the university, the underworld tried to infiltrate the university. Nothing worked.
Laurens arrived at the Bearpaw Inn and entered. He donned a exhausted face and walked to the bar looking like every step could be has last. He sat down, sighed and eyed the innkeeper with a small smile. He wasn’t going to listen to Marcus. Get it, get out? He knew nothing.
“Hard day?” asked the innkeeper when he spotted Laurens.
“I thought it would be easier,” said Laurens “I used to work for a brewer in Domer, hauling big casks to innkeepers. I thought working on a farm would be easier. Working in the sun sounds relaxing. It’s not. There is no downtime, just a continues flow of menial labor.
“A farmhand? I could have guessed that by the looks of you. You work for the Backers? They always hire a lot of hands.
“I don’t know. I started this morning. I just know they don’t pay me enough for this type of work.”
“That would be the Backers. They are a greedy bunch. They always hire out of towners, so they can pay them less without upsetting their surroundings. So, let me guess. A large beer and something to eat?”
“Just a large beer, thanks”.
The innkeeper nodded, drew a beer out of the cask and put it in front of Laurens.
“Enjoy. Let me know when I can get you something else.”
“Thanks, will do”, mumbled Laurens before he downed the half of his beer.
The key to not getting noticed is by being some who isn’t interesting. Someone who doesn’t have a story to tell. Marcus doesn’t get that. His idea of stealth comes from stories. He probably imagines a man wearing a big black cloak, covering half of his face, sitting alone in the corner, staring at people. But everyone notices that guy. Especially in a small town like Minerve. Maybe they don’t stare at him, but they are watching every move he makes.
Laurens turned and watched the room with bored eyes. He was looking for Max, but a conversation got his attention. Four soldiers were talking about Elos. He started at a old painting on the wall to their right, but studied the soldiers from the corners of his eyes. And he listened. Laurens recognised places and names. Their names. We should leave at first light.
He focused on finding Max. He scanned the room earlier, but he didn’t noticed anyone who matched the description of him. He should stand out. He expected to find Max sitting in the middle of the inn, surrounded by laughing women and nodding men, hoping to get some of his scraps. But he was not there.
“Sir”, said Laurens to the innkeeper.
“Yes? Another beer?”
“No, maybe later. I was wondering, is someone called Max staying in this inn?”
“Why do you want to know that?”
“He’s the one who said I could find work here”.
“I don’t want no trouble in my inn”.
“Oh, no, no,” laughed Laurus “I worked with him back in Domer. He’s a good friend. I was just going to ask if he know some other job, something lighter. My back can’t take this kind of labor. I’m not that young anymore.”.
“I see” nodded the innkeeper empathetically “Yes, Max is staying here. But he barely leaves his room. Not for work anyway.”
“Is he allright?”
“I don’t know. He’s not a talker. And I don’t ask a lot of private questions to men who pay with silver.”
“Which room is he in?”
“He doesn’t want to be disturbed. He asked me that specifically.”
“I get that. He’s probably sick or something. I just wanna check on him. Maybe he does need my help. If he doesn’t answer, I’ll leave him. I promise.”
“Allright. He’s staying in room 5, the door on the far left”.
Laurus nodded, finished his beer, left two bronze coins on the counter and headed upstairs. He knocked on the fifth door.
“Who is there?” said a frail voice.
“I was wondering if you brought some strawberry ice cream from the University?”
“Haha, yeah. How did you know?” laughed Laurus.
“Well, the story about a thirty year old man posing as as student is well know in the University. Most people don’t believe it really happend, but my mother confirmed it was true and it was you. Is she here?”
“Not here, but close. We are staying in the Smiling Tree Inn. Can you open the door?”,
“Oh, yes. Sorry”, mumbled Max when the removed the bolt from the door and opened the door.
Max didn’t look like the images Marcus painted of him. His shoulders were slumbed, his eyes unfocused and he looked pale – almost as pale as a Maurus barbarian. He reacted so slowly, that it would be impossible to image him beating a veteran soldier. You couldn’t see these realisations in Laurens face. He looked friendly, even a little bit excited. He knew how to hide his thoughts. Useful for gambling and these kinds of situations. And he knew fathers lied about their sons. His father did. According to his father, Laurens was a wealthy hog trader in Floren. So rich and busy that he can’t find to time to visit his family and the curious friends of his father.
“Nice to finally meet you Max, you have your mothers eyes.”
“And nice to finally meet the living legend of the ice cream infiltrator.”
They both laughed. He did have the wits of his mother.
“Ready to meet your parents?”
“I guess. How are they?” said Max, looking uncertain.
“Good, good. Except this running for our lives business, of course”.
“So, it’s started?” said Max with a grave and knowing face.
“What do you mean? What do you know?”
“I just know the basics of the world outside the university. The murder of the emperor by the schemes of Lord Alaric. The retribution. The army invading the northern region, the siege and fall of Oswin. But there must be more. My father served the army loyally for more than twenty years. He quelled rebellions. Fought against Maurus. He killed hundreds of men to save tens of thousands. He was even chosen to train the emperor himself. And now, the most loyal person I know is fleeing the nation he served for so many years. It must be big.”
Laurens nodded.
“I knew something was coming. The University functions as a neutral zone, it never takes sides. But this time it is different. A lot of things are happening. The first murder of a counse..” whispered Max.
“Let’s talk about this later, okay?” interrupted Laurus. “It’s not safe to talk about us or affairs concerning the University. Let’s grab your stuff and head to Smiling Tree. We need to leave at first light”
“Is it that bad?”
“It’s not good”.
Max nodded and started gathering his things. He grabbed some cloths, scattered around the floor, and some frail looking books and tucked them away in his bag. He was ready in a minute.
When they descended the stairs Laurens asked if Max could wait for him outside. Max nodded and left the inn. Laurus went to the innkeeper, who was watching them with a curious face.
“I think I know the cure for what happend to him.” said Laurens.
“So, he’s sick?” said the innkeeper.
“His heart is sick. His girlfriend left him a week ago and he’s broken up about it. But I know the cure. Have you heard about the a establishment called the Golden Rose up north?
“Yeah, that would fix him up.” laughed the innkeeper.
The started to walk toward the Smiling Tree Inn. It took longer than Laurens hoped. It look like Max didn’t have the strength to put one feet in front of his other. Maybe he was sick. Or maybe just afraid to meet his parents. He kept his head down, looking at a old ring on his right hand. Was it a gift from his father? Or a girlfriend he left at the university? Maybe he did had a broken heart.
They entered the Smiling Tree inn and saw the group. They were drinking, eating and laughing. Laurens smiled. Time for bigger smiles. Time to introduce their lost son. Helena noticed them first, but it wasn’t a smile Laurens saw, it was shock. After a couple seconds she recovered, smiled and poked Marcus with her elbow. He looked up and again: shock. It took him longer to recover.
“Max!” shouted Veo when she saw him.
Veo ran to him with a big smile and hugged him.
“I missed you so much, Max. It’s been too long.”
“I missed you too, little sister.”
“Mother. Father. Good to see you.” said Max stoically.
Helena embraced him, holding him tight and whispered. You could see a small tear flowing down Helena’s check.
Max nodded while Helena whispered and granted her a smile when she released him.
Marcus followed
Son. Good to see you. I missed you. How was the journey? ” hoping

Max tried his best. He tried to eat something. He tried to answer some questions. But you could see how much effort it took him.

After a little while Max excused himself, saying that he still tired, and left to their room. Shortly after Veo followed.

I got some bad news” said Laurus with a grave voice
The talking stopped at everybody stared Laurus
“They know. Lord
didn’t flee. He rode to the western cities, gathered his forces and fortified . And word got out how he escaped. They know we smuggled him out of the burning city. They know we fled. They say we’re traitors. They don’t know where we’re heading. Some say the captial of Elos, some say Floren. Everyone is searching for us. There five gold on your head, Marcus. And one gold on Julia’s and mine. Onfair, I’m definitely worth two” joked Laurus with a unconvincing smile.
Nobody laught. They looked at each other.
“Can we make it?” asked Helena.
“Maybe” said Marcus “the border is close. If we ride hard… yes, probably.”
“So, first light tomorrow?” asked Julia. Laurus and Marcus nodded.
Julia stood up, grabbed Leo’s hand and they left to their room. She looked resolved to make to most of their last night together in relative privacy. Laurus looked at Marcus and Helena who were whispering comforting words to each other while holding hands beneath the table. This was the first time Laurus felt true loneliness.