The village of Blue settled in to an uneasy pattern over the next fortnight. When the sun rose, they went outside of the gates to gather their things and tend to their crops. When the sun fell, they were back inside the gates of the keep, huddling together and trying their best to get some rest despite the howls outside the main gates to the town. The griffin riders were their only means of communication to the King and the outside world. There was still no sign of the soldiers the letters from King Steele had claimed were coming. Hope dwindled and the villagers were looking to Harrison and Lord Baxter for some kind of hope. The only thing that Harrison could offer was the promise that they’d make it through another night. For some that was enough. For others, they began looking for ways to leave the marsh forever.
“I don’t recommend it, Jared.” Harrison said to his friend, Jared Julnickle. Jared continued checking the horse team attached to his wagon.
“I don’t care what you recommend anymore, Harrison. I’m taking my family out of here. Millwood is a three day trip from here. If I can make it there, with my family in the wagon, I can make it to the Stone Temple. There has to someone there more trustworthy than Lord Baxter the Useless.” Jared said as he finished checking the harnesses.
“Watch that language, Jared. He’s not the only one who’s hands are just as tied with all of this. I’ve got sick people with no way to cure them. With the Blue Gruin blooming, I’ve got people coming down with Marsh Sickness every day.” Harrison said as he ran a hand through his hair. “I’m saying I wouldn’t recommend it because you never know how many of those things are still out there.”
“We haven’t heard from them in three nights. I’m taking my chances today. My wife and I have decided that staying is a death sentence.” Jared said as he looked his friend in the eyes.
“So it going.” Harrison said softly. Jared ran a hand through his hair in frustration.
“We’re taking the risk;” He said. “We are going, Harrison. There’s no changing our minds like you did with August and Maisy.” Harrison shook his head and clapped his friend on the shoulder. My the Goddess be with you, Jared. May she watch over your family and may you always have safety.”
“And you, my friend.” Jared said and clapped his hand on Harrison’s shoulder. They let each other go and Harrison stepped back, signaled for the gates to be opened. As the gates came up, Jared clicked his tongue and the horses started moving. Waving from the window of the wagon, Jane gave Harrison a small smile as she pulled the wagon windows shut. Harrison waved back and as soon as the wagon was through the gates, he gave the order to close and lock it for the night. Harrison turned and walked to the griffin paddock to talk to Rider Twig when he was hailed by Lord Baxter who was striding through the square. Harrison stopped and waited for the Lord, studying him carefully. He was a tall man, with brown hair; but the look in his eyes said he was angry.
“What’s the meaning of letting villagers outside of the gate so close to sundown?” He demanded. Harrison sighed and rolled his shoulders.
“My lord I could not and would not stop them now that they’ve decided the leave the village. The best that I could do was wish them a safe trip and see that the gates were closed behind them.” Harrison stated as he changed direction and strode toward the Keep. Rider Twig could wait. He didn’t want Lord Baxter to know what he was doing. They strode together, the Lord’s shoulders tense and Harrison’s bent down like a man who’d been bearing too much weight for too long.
“You should have thrown them in the dungeons, Mayor Smith. It isn’t good for the people to get it in to their heads to go outside of the walls at all.” Lord Baxter finally said.
“I will not deny a man his right to see his family to safety, since safety is not to be found here. There is only fear here to go with the lack of hope that now goes through your people.” Harrison said with such ferocity that the Lord stopped in his tracks.
“These are not my people, they are simply in my care.” Baxter said, looking down his nose at Harrison.
“Then you should not be here if you do not see these people as your own.” With that, the blacksmith turned Mayor of Blue strode off to make sure that his people were inside the gates and well protected for the night. Lord Baxter was left seething in the growing darkness of the village square when the first howls went up. Lord Baxter and his guards hurried up to the keep and they closed the gates for the night. The howls stayed far away from the gates that night as Harrison lay in bed with his wife. He feared the worst for Jared and his family as the guilt settled like lead in his stomach. Harrison got no sleep that night as he feared the worst for his friend. Sleep, which never came easy, was even harder to come by that night.
The dawn brought news that the wagon had not been found. The village breathed a sigh of relief with the hope that they had made it and would send back news soon. The next two nights were more of the same: far off howls and no word from the wagon. The dawn of the third day finally brought news from Rider Winch that the wagon had been found, just outside the gates of Millwood. It had been destroyed and there was no sign of the Julnickle family. The village mourned the loss of the family as they worked to keep themselves alive a little while longer.
More days passed by and there was still no word from the King about the soldiers he’d sent. Harrison was starting to worry more visibly now and this time when he had a spare moment, he made straight for Rider Winch at the griffin paddock. The man dunked his head in to a bucket of water to guard against the heat of the day and when he pulled his head out, a curl of water came off his brown hair as he flung his head back.
“Rider, a word if I may?” Harrison said as he approached the man.
“For you Mayor, always. It will be a pleasure as well.” The Rider said as he bowed, head dripping from the quick rinse.
“Not that, anything but that. Stand, Rider. I’ll not have you bow to an old Captain.” Harrison said and that got a smile from the Rider. “Are you busy over the next few days? I have a favor to ask.”
“No, his Lordship doesn’t need me and I was thinking about taking out Blueridge for a flight. He gets restless when penned up for days. What did you have in mind?” The Rider asked.
“I need you to take a letter to a friend of mine in the Capital. He promised more medicine and I’m worried there won’t be enough to last us until the next shipment.” Harrison said as he handed over a sealed letter. “Will you take this to him?”
“With pleasure. We don’t belong on the ground, Blueridge and I.” Rider Winch said with a smile.
“Excellent. I’ll have provisions sent to you and you can be off as soon as they arrive, yes?” Harrison asked. The Rider nodded.
“Yes, sir. That sounds about right.”
“Good, I’ll see that it is done then. Good talking with you, Rider.”
“And you, Mayor.” Rider Winch said and saluted Harrison. Harrison saluted back and turned to go make good on the promise of provisions from the Keep’s kitchens. As Harrison left the paddock, Lord Baxter came around the side of the stable and stopped next to Winch.
“Well, that didn’t take long. I had hoped he was smarter than that.” Baxter said. Winch handed over the letter and the Lord opened it. The writing on the page revealed nothing more than a letter for medicine. “Well, that’s surprising. He was actually honest.”
“You misunderstand him. That man really does care about these people. I’m taking that letter and getting the medicine. This is too dangerous of a game you’re playing, My Lord.” Rider Winch said as he took the letter back and refolded it. As he was putting the opened letter away, he palmed the other letter the Mayor had handed him and stuck both in to the messenger pouch, whispering the incantation to magically lock the pouch. Lord Baxter missed the Rider’s movements and frowned at his back.
“You believe this pitiful village is worth saving?”
“I believe these people are, just like he does.” Rider Winch answered as he picked up his saddle, harnesses and pouch. “You’re playing with the lives of these people for your own gain and while I’m sworn by covenant to keep your secrets, but that doesn’t mean I have to obey you.” The Lord’s frown deepened.
“I do not like that.” He stated.
“I don’t like being attached to you. You’re vile, smell of death and you wear too much perfume.” Winch waited a beat, then added, “but we all have our weight to carry; as light or as heavy as it may be.” Winch said as he strode toward Blueridge and started to saddle him.
“You’re mouth is going to get you in to trouble, Winch.” Baxter said.
“So is yours. You can’t kill me.” Rider Winch said as he stood and looked at Lord Baxter. “Those were the rules when you forced me into the arrangement.”
“You grew fat and very happy off of me in the mean time.” Baxter said.
“I’ll be happy when you’re dead.” Winch said and bowed to Lord Baxter. “Now if I have permission to leave, I’d like to get my supplies and get out of here.”
“Go, get out of my sight. When you get back, there will be no village.” With that, Lord Baxter turned on his heel and left the paddock. Harrison came around the corner with a smile.
“Vengeful little shit, isn’t he?” Harrison said.
“Yes, and he hates you. It’s lucky you wrote two letters.” Winch said as he took the saddlebags from Harrison and tossed them up on to Blueridge’s back. The griffin who until now had mostly slept through his harnessing, started to stir and he shook his golden feathered covered body. Winch mounted Blueridge and settled in to the saddle. “You have the boy?”
“I do. Ethan, come here.” Harrison said and Ethan came around the side of the stable, dressed in riding leathers and eyes filled with wonder at the sight of the griffin.
“Dad, he’s amazing.” Ethan whispered with awe filling his voice. “Am I really going to get to ride him?”
“Yes, you are. So will your sister when the Rider comes back. Now up you get.” Harrison said and he helped Ethan climb aboard with his pack on his back. Harrison nodded to Winch when Ethan was securely aboard behind Winch.
“Good luck to you, My Father’s best friend. May you still be here upon my return.” Winch said and clucked to Blueridge, the griffin ran off down the main street in town, wings pumping till they had enough lift to bear them skyward. In less than three minutes, Ethan left behind the world he knew and was gone.