Bonded to the Rakian Berserker: Chapter Four

 Esme

Life was made of rhythm and routine. The long ambling stride she used to keep up with the caravans. The slow, steady search for the plants and herbs needed for medicines, candles and dyes.

The gentle, easy routine of setting up camp, caring for the horses, breaking it all down again.

This should have been no different.

But it was. Terribly so.

Each family in her clan had their own caravan. 

Each had been destroyed, burned and hacked at.

“It’s like someone hated the very existence of this camp,” Rhela said shuddering in the dusk.

Adena frowned, eyes calculating. “It seems clear it was meant to look like a haleru attack.”

Surprise pulled Esme’s attention away from the flame-scorched green and yellow panel embedded in the ground before her.

The door to Beatrice and Yanni’s home. 

They’d been madly in love for as long as she could remember. Beatrice had just finished repainting their caravan while they were at the market in Malterresy.

They’d found Beatrice’s body already. Yanni’s was sure to be somewhere near.

“The beast men?” Esme answered. “I don’t think anyone has seen them on these plains for years.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Adena said. “Those darts Gavin brought back weren’t poisoned, weren’t even the right shape. And if Nic and the others haven’t picked up the scent of the haleru, they weren’t here.”

“But who would want to frame them for this?” Rhela asked.

Gavin returned, another body cradled gently in his arms.

“Looks like he fought back,” he said grimly as he lay Yanni down next to Beatrice’s still form. “Not that it did much good.”

Esme took another length of the fabric that she and the women had scavenged from the wreckage, began the job of winding it around the body.

“No one in the clan was much for fighting. Hunting, building things, telling stories.” She paused, trapped in memories. “Yanni carved toys, beautiful intricate things that always made the children laugh.”

Her throat tightened and the words caught.

Nothing really left to say, anyway.

Gavin rested one large hand against her shoulder, then went back to bring another body.

The three women worked in near silence, straightening the clothes’s best as they could, washing faces, still and gray, a last, useless gesture to try to give the dead a little of the dignity that had been stolen from them.

Dusk turned to night, and Gavin brought some type of lanterns from the air sleds, set them around where they worked.

He didn’t seem to need extra light for his task, as he brought back another body, and another.

Finally he returned, arms empty. “I can’t find anyone else.”

“Are you sure?” Esme asked, startled. 

He nodded. “And Jormoi just reported in. He found the trail easily enough.” His face twisted. “Children tend to leave a particularly pungent scent, especially when afraid. They were herded together from the camp by men on horses, forced to walk south for a good ways down the river. The raiders took whatever horses they could round up, tried to use them to cover the trail, but it didn’t work.”

Gavin squatted down next to her, put his hand on the ground near hers.

Nothing more.

Still, it was a comfort.

“Nic spotted where wagons had been hidden around the next curve of the river, but we’ve got an extra mystery. How many children did you say should be here?”

“Twelve,” she answered. She closed her eyes, the children’s faces clear in her mind. 

From Roddy, the oldest and born troublemaker to little Pia, only six months old.

“The wagons,” Gavin said. “From the marks, there were at least four. Far too many to carry so few children.” A short growl escaped his throat. “And Jormoi thinks there were already children in the other wagons.”

Of course. She moved her hand towards his. Just a bit.

“Not just children,” Esme said slowly. “I don’t think so at least.”

“What do you mean?” Adena asked quickly.

“You haven’t found anyone else?” 

“I’ve gone round the camp three times,” Gavin said “I’m sure I haven’t missed anyone.”

“But I have,” she said pointing down the row of shrouded forms. “Auntie Layla. Not really my aunt, but she cared for the children, kept them all happy and busy, and taught them whatever lessons they would stay still for.”

She met his gaze.

“She’s missing as well.”

 ***

 By the time Nic brought Jormoi back in the air sled, Adena and Rhela had cleared one section of camp, one small island of calm in the chaos.

Esme sat with the dead, watching the others in the circle of artificial light. The strangers, so willing to help.

And with secrets of their own, apparently.

Gavin came back from where the others congregated, stretched his hand down towards her.

And this man. She studied his hand for a moment, the deadly power it held.

The barely contained violence.

And still, something within him called to her. 

This time she let him raise her to her feet.

“Thank you,” she said, legs stiff from so much kneeling.

He nodded, eyes grave. “You’ll want to hear the news, what little of it there is, straight from them.”

Hand still in his, she followed him back towards the living.

The others stood around a metal table she’d never seen before.

“Where did this come from?” she asked, the completely irrelevant question easier to ask than the important ones.

Had they found the children? 

It didn’t need to be asked aloud. It was clear from their stern faces that there’d been a setback.

Adena tilted her head back towards the air sleds.

“Basic supplies in the storage compartments,” she explained. “And field rations.” She handed a silver wrapped parcel to Esme, showed her how to tear it open to reveal a brick-like cake within. “Not particularly tasty, but you’ll need something in your stomach to keep going.”

Esme chewed at the cake. 

Adena was right. It was solid, heavy in her throat, with almost no flavor at all. But it didn’t really matter. She wasn’t sure she could taste much of anything right now.

“We followed the wagons’ trail for as long as we could,” Jormoli started. “I stayed on the ground and Nic from the air, just to make sure we didn’t miss anything, a sudden turn off, or a cluster of buildings over a hill, out of sight.

He took a brick but didn’t open it. “The trail was clear, after that first attempt at deception with the horses they weren’t bothering to hide. Speed seemed more important.”

Nic picked up the story. “I was beginning to think we might have an easy challenge for a change. And then the track merged into another road. The main road to Kinallen and Raccelton.”

Esme’s chest clenched.

Jormoi dropped down to the ground, Rhela curling up next to him.

“I went back-and-forth as far as I could, but there’s just too much traffic. I’d get tiny hits of the scent, but just in the last day who knows how many other wagons have passed that way.”

“But that helps a little bit, doesn’t it?” Adena said. “We know the children are probably somewhere in one of those towns. If I had to bet, I’d say Raccelton.”

Nic let loose a short bark of laughter. “For all the help we had the last time we went to the capital.”

Esme frowned. “Are you sure they wouldn’t stop anywhere before the towns?” 

Vague, half-forgotten memories tugged at her thoughts. Nothing useful, just distractions.

Nic shook his head slowly. “Maybe something on the outskirts, that might be a possibility. But still…”  he paused 

Gavin spoke up. “If they were taken to Raccelton, it means dealing with the Council again, doesn’t it? They might not like it, but we can’t give them any choice.”

“Nic’s right,” Rhela said, handing Jormoi another cake absently. “You said that the Council members denied asking for help from the Alliance. How can we be sure they’ll even listen?”

“They’re not likely to help us anyway,” Esme said. “The traveling clans are so far outside of their perfect little world that they prefer to pretend we don’t exist.”

“Maybe we don’t need the Council,” Adena said slowly. “Maybe we just need someone who knows the towns, the people who live there. Someone who listens to rumors.”

Esme nodded slowly. “Four wagons full of children would need someplace to go. People to take care of them. That sort of secret would be hard to keep, even in one of the larger towns.”

“Which would be great if we knew anyone friendly to us in that place,” Nic answered. “Last I checked, we didn’t.”

“That’s because you didn’t stay to talk with Matilde at her last visit,” Adena said. “Her oldest brother Declan has taken over their father’s trading business. She says he is doing well, making lots of contacts in the capital.”

“Is he less of an asshole than his father was?” Gavin asked.

Esme listened to the talk flow around her.

She needed to participate. She knew that. These people were trying to help her, trying to help the children. 

It wasn’t their problem. Wasn’t their clan.

But still, all she felt was numb. 

Her energy drained, as if every stitch in every shroud had taken another little piece of her soul until there was nothing left.

Every nightmare she’d ever dreamt had found her now, and there was no escape.

“Then it’s settled,” Nic said, snapping her attention back to the present. “We go back to Ship, find Matilde’s brother, see if he can find any information for us.”

“I can’t,” Esme said quickly. “I mean,” the words felt thick in her mouth, tangled. “I need to stay here, with them,” she waved her arm towards the still forms at the side of the camp. “It should have been last night.”

And she couldn’t go to Raccelton. Just couldn’t.

Adena scowled. “Last night we were busy trying to make sure that you weren’t going to join them.”

“I know that,” Esme said. “And I’m grateful. But tonight, I need to sing them home.”

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