Chapter 20
Into the Darkness

Uthcaster, Pendragon

Rafael was worried about Cassandra tramping through the wilds so soon after her brush with death, but apparently the light of the sun boosted her powers and after a day or two you would have never known she had been right on Death's door.
The Barnlings for their part did not seem to grieve over their banishment too much. They had no family besides each other and favored adventure in the wide world over life in a hole in the ground anyway. They did not seem to appreciate the gravity of the danger they were facing and perhaps Rafael did not fully appreciate it either, but there were times when he could see it written on Cassandra's face and it gave him pause.
It was hard to say why he continued to stick around. There was no treasure to be had where they were going and he would probably die horribly for it. Yes, he fancied Cassandra, but he knew there would never be anything between them. Though she treated him much more warmly than when they first met. he could tell there was somebody else, the King who saved her life all those years ago, the father of her daughter "after a fashion" as she put it. How could he compete with that? Even if they had keep their distance to his dying day, she would continue to carry a torch for him as a martyr to their tragic unfulfilled love all the days of her life, even if it were another thousand years.
Cassandra glanced back at him. Damn it all. He had almost forgotten that she could read his thoughts. How did she stand it? Just dealing with your own voice in your head could get annoying, but the voice of every mind around you? How did it not drive her mad?
"It is little different from how you attune your fleshly ears," she replied. "When you are in a crowded room or a busy street, you do not focus on every voice around you. You listen to one or two and the rest becomes a sort of indistinct noise."
"What're ya talkin' 'bout, Cassy?" Sammy asked.
"Rafael was wondering how I do not go mad from all the voices around me," Cassandra explained. "I apologize, Rafael. I should not intrude, but I can be careless at times."
She had a lot weighing on her mind to be sure, but if things were as serious as she said, could she afford to let herself get distracted?
"I will be fine, Rafael," she said. "Oh, I did it again. My apologies. I will only answer the questions you ask aloud from now on."
"Don't worry 'bout it," Rafael said, though it would be a lie if he said it did not bother him.
True to her word, Cassandra did not say anything further on what was left unspoken. Lest an awkward silence fall on them, Sammy kept the conversation going.
"What'm I thinkin' 'bout, Cassy?" he asked.
"You are thinking abut food as always," Cassy replied. "Speaking of which, I was hoping to avoid Uthcaster, but we will need provisions for crossing the Naitalion. There is nothing to be had in game or forage from the time we cross the River to when we reach the Blue Haven. It is going to be a very trying journey."
"How'd ya do it the firs' time?" Rafael asked.
"I went around," she said, "but we do not have the time for that now."
"Do ya think your people're gonna help us?"
"It would be wrong of me to give you false hope. Unless they can sense the threat to their forest, they are not likely to come. And I do not think they will incline their ear to me, given who I am and what I have done."
"What'd ya do that was so bad?" Sammy asked.
"Sammy," his sister admonished him.
Cassandra answered nevertheless.
"I left without their bidding," she said. "Just as you had done and with the same consequences, I fear."
"I'm sorry, Cassy," Tammy said.
"There is nothing to be sorry for," Cassandra said, "either of you. I made a choice and I must live with it, as must we all."
They did not talk much more after that and the next day they arrived in Uthcaster. Rafael's travels had never brought him this far south, but he had been to Uwncaster and Emryscaster before and it was not so different. He had heard soldiers call Uthcaster the Ettin, a two-headed giant, because the original fortifications were built atop one hill, then the neighboring hill was fortified as well, and the current outer wall encompassed both.
"Let me do the talking," Cassandra said.
"Whate'er ya say, Cassy," Sammy replied.
There were not many travelers who came this way and because they had not fallen in with a convoy, they would appear all the more suspicious. Following Cassandra's lead certainly seemed to be the best course.
Because it was during the day, the gates were open, but guards were posted and did not hesitate to challenge their group as they approached.
"Hold," one of the guards said. "State your business."
"I am a pilgrim to the Sanctuary," Cassandra replied. She rested her hands on the heads of the two Barnlings and said, "I wish to place these foundlings into their care."
The guard eyed Tammy's bow and Sammy's sword, though the latter was mostly hidden by his cloak.
"Dangerous toys these kids got," he said.
"The perils of the road will not spare a child," Cassandra said. "As it is written, 'And he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.'"
The guard then nodded to Rafael.
"And him? Don't look like no pilgrim."
"A hireling," Cassandra explained. "A woman and two children cannot be expected to make such a journey without some sort of escort."
"Not too many folks come this way," the guard said. "If you came from out west, why not take the main road through the High City?"
"I heard the forest passage was dangerous."
"An' this ain't?"
"C'mon, Iddo, that's enough, ain't it?" another guard said. He then asked Cassandra, "You jus' passin' through?"
"We were hoping to purchase provisions before moving on," Cassandra replied.
"There ain't much for buyin' an' sellin', but if you've got the money for it, go down to the main stores an' speak to Malgo. Tell 'im Cynfarch sent you."
"Thank you," Cassandra replied. "I will. Peace be with you."
With that, they were allowed to pass and enter the town. As a garrison town, there was little to be found that did not have a use for the army. Barracks for the soldiers, stables for the horses, storehouses for provisions, and the like.
"It has grown so much," Cassandra said, mainly to herself.
"Ya been here before?" Rafael asked.
"I was taken here after Seth saved me from the Goblins," she replied. "The old fort was just this hilltop. Now I believe it is Lord Teudor the garrison commander who resides in the old King's Hall. We should not need to venture into the inner ring, though."
They continued on to the stores as they were bidden. An older soldier who was there took one look at them and said, "Travelers, eh? Don't see many a' your kind 'round here."
"Hello," Cassandra said. "You must be Malgo. We were sent here by Cynfarch. We would like to purchase provisions for two weeks, a three-man ration of food and water, or as close to it as you can spare."
"A two-week portion?" Malgo asked. "You got a mule or somethin' to carry all that?"
"We are our own beasts of burden, I am afraid," Cassandra replied.
"A day's ration a' food an' water is a silver piece per 'ead," Malgo said. "That comes to two an' forty. For three silvers more, I'll toss in a sledge to carry it all. Easier'n havin' it all on your backs."
"Yes, I believe that would be helpful," Cassandra said. She handed him a couple gold coins and asked, "Will this suffice?"
Malgo looked at the coins, then lowered his voice and said, "I wont say nothin 'gainst you, lady, but you oughta be careful wavin' 'round gold like that. Find yourself a money-changer an' trade your gold for silver an' copper. Someone might still get an eye for you if they see you payin' too easy, but nothin' draws villains like the glint a' gold, right?"
"I appreciate the warning," Cassandra said.
"Well, I'll go get what you paid for."
While Malgo went into one of the storerooms and started barking orders at the men inside, Rafael was looking around, noting the suspicious looks from the soldiers and servants milling about.
"You do not need to be so wary, Rafael," Cassandra said in a low voice. "There is no ill intent directed at us, only caution as we are an unusual sight. But then, perhaps it is best that you are keeping your wits about you."
Before long, Malgo returned with one of the junior soldiers pulling a sledge laden with the provisions Cassandra had purchased, bundles of food and several large waterskins covered in an oiled hide to ward off the elements.
"I tossed in a skin of wine extra," Malgo said. "Good for the belly, you know."
"I appreciate your kindness," Cassandra said. "Thank you for your help."
"Lady Cassandra?" a voice asked.
Either because she unwittingly answered to the call of her name or because she knew there was nothing to be gained by feigning obliviousness, Cassandra turned to a knight who was passing by before he took notice of her.
"Sir Meurig," Cassandra replied.
"It is you," the knight said. "What are you doing here, my lady? The King has been looking for you. The order was sent all across the kingdom."
This made Cassandra pause. For a moment, Rafael thought she might forget her mission and go running back to the castle then and there.
"Forgive my bluntness, my lady," the knight continued, "but I do not know why the King values one such as you so highly. All I know is that you are an important support for him and for the sake of my king, I ask you, will you not go back to Caer Pendragon?"
"Deliver this message to the King, if you would, good sir," Cassandra said. "Tell him there is something I must do and that when it is accomplished, if I can return to him, I will. Until then, my prayers are with him, his kingdom and his people."
The knight looked somewhat reluctant, but said, "The King's word was not to detain you if you were not willing to return, so I cannot stop you from whatever it is you mean to do. Instead I offer myself and my men at your service. With a word to Lord Teudor, half the garrison would be at your bidding. Surely this would please the King."
"You are a true knight of Pendragon, sir," Cassandra said, "but where I go, the gallantry of you and your men would not avail you. Your place is here, your mission is here. Serve your king in the lot apportioned to you. This is best."
"As you say, my lady," the knight replied. "Then God be with you and may He speed your journey. I only pray you do not mean to go south of the River."
"That's exactly what we--"
Cassandra held out her hand to hush Sammy, but it was too late to hide their purpose. The look on the knight's face was as if you told him his house was on fire.
Keeping her voice level, Cassandra asked him, "And why would you not wish us to go south of the River, Sir Meurig?"
Rafael figured she had already gleaned that information from the knight's thoughts, but it was certainly wiser of her to act as if she had not.
"Marshal Dale crossed the River almost two weeks ago," the knight said. "Only a handful of his men returned. They said the dead rose up from the accursed earth. Impossible, I would say, but the world is full of great and terrible wonders. We have sought the King's word on burning the bridge lest the curse spread here."
"Then the hour is already later than I thought..."
"My lady?"
"I will do what I can, Sir Meurig," Cassandra said. "You do what you must."
"You do mean to go south," the knight said. "A lone woman with two children and no more protection than this skinny sellsword? What can you possibly hope to accomplish? The South Patrol, the very best rangers in all the kingdom, were wiped out. It is madness. Come back now. I will personally deliver you to the King's side. You will have every consideration, I swear it."
"Thank you, Sir Meurig," Cassandra said. "Your intentions are good, but it is not what is needed at this time."
"I will not let you go," the knight said. "Knowing what you mean to do, I could never face the King if I stood by and did nothing."
"The King's order was not to detain me if I was not willing to return. You would disobey this order?"
"For the greater service to my king, yes."
Cassandra sighed.
"This land needs more men like you, good sir, but you do not know what you say."
Cassandra reached out with her hand and touched the knight's cheek, saying, "You will let us pass. You will deliver us past the guards on the bridge, you will return here and you will forget that you saw me."
The knight's eyes become vacant as he repeated the words, "I will let you pass..."
"Come along," Cassandra said to Rafael and the others.
It would seem that Rafael was stuck playing the part of the mule. Fortunately, the load was not too heavy, but a cart would have probably moved easier. It was still better than carrying all that weight on his back, though.
Led by the knight, they made their way out of town and traveled down to the bridge. Eight men were posted as guards, but only two of them were standing at the ready. When they saw the knight approach, they saluted him.
Returning the salute, the knight asked them, "All is well?"
"Yes, sir," one of the guards said. "What brin's you here, sir?"
"You will permit these people through," the knight said.
"Beggin' your pardon, sir, but no one's s'pposed to pass 'cept by special order."
"I am giving you the special order," the knight said.
"Oh... uh, yes, sir."
Cassandra turned and nodded to the knight, who gave her a short bow, then turned and left. The guards said nothing as they went by and proceeded across the bridge.
After they had gone some distance, Rafael asked her, "It alright ta leave it like that? If he forgets meetin' ya, won't that mean he forgets 'bout your message ta the King?"
"It was a necessary sacrifice," Cassandra replied. "I was hoping I would not be recognized."
"Well, no more worries 'bout that till we reach your fores', right?"
"Yes, I suppose so..."
You did not have to read mind to tell that she was dissatisfied with how things turned out, but it might prove to be a blessing in disguise. If she still had some sort of regret or attachment to hold on to, it might make the difference between her throwing it all away in a desperate attack on the Lord of Shadow and holding back to walk away with her life intact. Rafael could tell that she meant to go that far if she had to, but he wanted to believe there was another way, even if it was nothing more than an idle wish.