Fillian estimated the journey would take twenty five to thirty days to cover the nine hundred kilometers to the southern part of The Teeth. Joziah had provided detail on the route and destination but still withheld the final pieces in relation to the location of the entrance itself. Fillian had no choice but to accept this. Once dug in, there was no prising anything further from the young man. He has the stubbornness of someone three times his age he thought to himself.
Winters chill was coming on strong now, making the journey more protracted. Fortunately, Fillian was well connected in these parts and they were able to hitch rides from traders for the first part of their journey through the smaller villages. They knew, however, they could not continue like that; at some point they would need to leave the roads and opt for the wilderness for safety.
As they entered the wilds the going became more difficult and their progress slowed. On most nights, Fillian would scout ahead to check for any signs of danger, whilst Joziah rested in camp. Joziah accepted this as he knew that if the Authorities or worse, the Red Hand, were indeed on their trail, they would most likely set up an ambush ahead of their quarry. Even with superior forces, the Red Hand preferred this tactic to stack the odds as much in their own favour as possible.
Fillian was proving to be very adept in the wilds. As well as scouting, he was adept at shooting the little game that popped its head out during this season. Occasionally, he would also loop back on their tracks to check that they were not being followed. He had discovered no evidence of this at all so far.
Joziah would look closely at his uncle as they ate, thinking how much it was like that journey twenty-three years ago when he bore him to safety. And all the time Fillian would have been thinking of the wife he left behind, much as Joziah was too. That sort of loyalty and love was rare.
On the morning of the thirteenth day of their journey Joziah was packing up the camp for the days trek when he noticed a figure crouching on a hillock; he estimated more than a kilometer away. It was a beautifully clear, if very cold, day and his keen eyes could make out a few details.
They appeared to be human and relatively small. It was too far away to pick out anything distinctive about their garb apart from the wind catching what he assumed was a large cloak.
"Uncle, come here but slowly, we're being watched".
As best as he could manage Fillian nonchalantly ambled over to Joziah who had turned to face his uncle.
"Over my shoulder at eleven. Smallish, possibly cloaked figure". Joziah waved his arm and hand at some imaginary object in the opposite direction to their observer.
Fillian swept his eyes over a large horizon, pausing only momentarily on the subject of interest. "I can't discern much more. Wait, I...". He stared at the figure for too long, and they disappeared below the rise.
"You said she. What made you say that?" Joziah looked quizzically at Fillian.
"It was just that they were quite small as you said". Fillian didn't sound convincing.
"Uncle, tell me, I can see there's more to it than that. Do you know this person?"
"Joziah, believe me when I say I am being completely objective here; it's truly based on what I think I just saw". Fillian hesitated.
"Please, just tell me".
"I think it was Shelendra". Fillian met Joziah's eyes, ready for the onslaught. But it didn't come.
Joziah just stared back at his uncle looking downcast. "It's alright uncle. I thought it was her to".
"You did?" Fillian was surprised but also relieved.
After a while of travelling further the uncomfortable subject was finally aired, and it was Joziah who broke the silence. "How long have you suspected?"
Sighing, Fillian tentatively responded. "For some time".
"How long?" Joziah was not about to let this go.
"By the time you married. I just never thought she loved you Jo. And the Red Hand will sacrifice anything to achieve their aims. They've infiltrated families before". Fillian knew he had to tread carefully. Even though Joziah suspected something now, he was still understandably wrestling with it. But Fillian could sense that somewhere in Joziah's mind a doubt was growing about his wife.
"Somehow I began to doubt her, and I think that's why I have found it easier to confide in you uncle as my visions became stronger. I noticed that she was increasingly absent over the last couple of years; perhaps I know now what she was doing. But I'm still sure she does love me at some level and having Aly, it's just so confusing. In any case it doesn't make sense!" Joziah struggled to see the logic of his situation.
"As I said, the Hand will do anything." Fillian pressed the point, ready to explain further.
"Yes, I get that uncle but you're missing the point. Why are they so interested in me, I'm not important. I'm Koushan Mai, so just kill me. Why this entire charade, what can they possibly get from it?" Joziah's expression was pure disbelief tinged with sarcasm.
Not quite what Fillian was expecting, but it led him to the crux of the matter. "You are important Jo. In fact, you are more important to the Red Hand than anyone or anything else".
"How, I don't hide my faith, I never will, but surely I've not been active enough to grab their attention in this way? I'm no different to any others".
Fillian knew this was going to be hard for Joziah to believe, but now was the time to try. "You are very different. To them you have knowledge of something the Red Hand covets beyond almost anything". After a short pause to gather himself, Fillian continued with his explanation to the now bewildered Joziah.
"There is rumoured to be an artefact of the Koushan Mai. No-one outside the faith knows what it is and only a handful of those inside do. The Hand believes it to be a powerful weapon that the Koushan Mai is holding back for some future day of judgement, when they will rise from their persecution. No-one knows for sure, of course, but you can imagine that even a remote chance of this being true holds great concern for the Red Hand and others in authority that have been complicit in the cruelty towards those of our faith. It is thought to be guarded by the most high priests and the Red Hand came to believe that your mother may have been one of them. They were watching your family for any signs to confirm this and lead them to the artefact itself". He paused, observing Joziah closely. With no reaction beyond silent confusion, he continued.
"The incident in Shanveu that led to them leaving home, forced the Red Hand to act more quickly. They couldn't afford to lose track of a guardian of the artefact. When she died", Fillian realised the impact of his words on Joziah by the sudden flash in his eyes. "..Yes Joziah I believe your mother died, and when she did, the trail to the artefact went as cold as the caves we now journey to".
"This is unbelievable and you are only telling me now? After all the sessions we had delving into my mind to interpret my visions. Why only now?" Joziah felt anger for the first time towards his uncle.
Fillian continued calmly. "I am sorry nephew but I couldn't tell anyone, least of all you, what I suspected. They thought someone from the faith may contact you given your possible heritage and with them watching it was too dangerous, especially as I thought they were as close to you as they could possibly be".
"I see. And I am grateful for your loyalty and sacrifices; I wish I had better words to express that". Joziah's anger fell away and he was seeing things more clearly now, with the exception of one thing. "And what did you suspect?" He knew it was something to do with his visions but he wanted his uncle to explain. "Tell me everything now".
"I think your visions are a memory from your mother directing you to the artefact, or a clue to where it can be found. I don't know how this is possible. Although your mother was very strong with magic, I had only seen that in her manipulation of the elements, and nothing like this".
"My mother was an elementalist?" Joziah felt shock but one instantly accented with pride. "I thought I knew her from what you told me, but this. Was my father magical too?"
"No, just Kailin. Jandar was as proud of her as you clearly are now. To be more precise, she was an ice elementalist. Being a gentle soul she used it to make the most beautiful creations but my guess is that at the end of their flight she would have turned that power against her attackers. I can only assume that their numbers were too great, and her power had limits."
"Thank you uncle, I understand enough. For now it makes no difference to our current course. We must continue. I want to think on what you've told me".
The intensity of their conversation had almost made them forget the person they had spotted. But the reverse was not true. As they continued their journey, the prone figure carefully lifted their head to observe the scene. Moments later it slid away, satisfied they were clear of the direction the two men were taking.
After travelling more than two-thirds of the distance to reach The Teeth, that which they most feared happened.
Fillian had been off on one of his looping back-tracks for close to an hour when Joziah heard him calling. Instantly he recognised the danger in his uncle's voice. Grabbing his self-customised blade Joziah thrust his left hand into the built-in gauntlet and wrapped the strap around his forearm. It had been made from an old sword that was thrown out by the town guard, he adding the fixed gauntlet for solidity of grip. This doubled nicely as a benefit for use in cold weather with freezing hands. His small wooden shield was strapped to his other arm momentarily afterwards - it would not protect from heavy blades but could make a difference in a more even match. And besides it was all the likes of his class could afford.
There. He saw Fillian appear over a small dip in the landscape. He was red faced and appeared already to be injured, a small trickle of blood persisted from a cut on his forehead. In his right hand the sword he held was smeared with fresh blood.
"Red. Hand." was all Fillian could splutter as his breath billowed out as ascending white clouds.
Joziah immediately ran to his uncle's aid.
As Fillian got close enough he stopped and turned, ready to face the foe that was in pursuit. Fearing the end, Joziah was at least a little relieved when only three grey cloaked attackers appeared from the same dip ahead. Guttural shouts immediately rang out when they saw their prey.
"Mai scum, by the blood lands your own filthy blood will stain the snow today".
"Is this all of them uncle?" Joziah asked hopefully.
Failing to summon the energy to speak, Fillian only managed an affirmative grunt.
Joziah was not wholly untrained in the arts of fighting. His uncle had taught him some skills with blade and hand-to-hand. So although blood pounded inside his head like a drumming band at a Kalithean spring festival, he had the discipline to utilise all he had learned, become centred, and be ready to meet his opponents.
Two of the three broke more towards Joziah. This is for the best. Uncle cannot manage two in his state.
Reluctantly turning his attention away from Fillian, he bluffed as if he was to flee. He could hear the laughs of the two men and thankfully they both pursued him. Judging the closing distance and angle, he suddenly spun to attack the man behind to his right, and to his relief the bluff had paid off with both agents overconfident and unprepared for his move.
The arc of his shield met his targets defensive sword block and pushed it across his body. The shield splintered but held up. Using his momentum, he continued the spin and his sword slash found no defence in its path; the sharp edge found exposed neck. The Red Hand agent fell, his head barely still attached the rest of him. His next opponent although more than surprised, immediately countered with a mace. Joziah blocked with his shield but this time it shattered. It prevented his arm from breaking but the pain was excruciating. His arm was left numb and almost useless for combat.
Now that Joziah was turned back to face his enemy, he could see Fillian over his shoulder being pressed by his assailant. Things were not going well with Fillian in full defensive mode, looking like his sword would soon be knocked from his weakened grasp. It was just a matter of time. Joziah would have to take a huge risk to have any chance of taking down his enemy and still have an opportunity to save him. By the stars my own chances are not good!
The man opposite him must have been around forty years and going by the lines on his face they had been hard ones. But at the same time he looked strong; an old man strength. Joziah knew he couldn't match him in that department and he muttered a silent prayer to the child gods of death that he didn't also possess the guile that usually accompanied experience. He was about to find out.
The Red Hand circled towards his own left attempting to exploit the weakness of Joziah's lowered arm. He aimed a blow at Joziah's right which Joziah parried away with his sword, leaving him slightly unbalanced. But his opponent did not follow up. He did it again with a lower aim towards Joziah's right knee. Again a parry deflected the slash and again the Red Hand did not follow up with another attack. This man is toying with me, what is he waiting for.
Joziah knew he had to make a move. Fillian was about to succumb.
He motioned a feint with his sword towards his enemy's shield holding arm, deliberately aiming across his body. The man instinctively closed his body, moving his sword to block. Joziah then rushed the sword arm. As the man reopened his body to attack he found his sword blow blocked by Joziah's own weapon. With momentum now on Joziah's side he continued his forward rush and crushed his own body into that of his opponent. They both fell to the grounded winded. A large, sharply splintered, piece of his smashed shield was still firmly attached to his gauntleted right arm and as they rolled backwards he found the strength to jab it at the man. To his own surprise the makeshift wooden dagger found its mark, piercing his opponent's light tunic, chest and lung. The air hissed from his body.
Wasting no time Joziah pulled himself away from the dying man and ran towards Fillian. He shouted a cry of distraction and the final Red Hand turned to meet this new challenge. As he did so Fillian, now virtually prone on the ground, used the time he was given to stab his sword into the man's side. His life blood pouring from him, the man crumpled to one knee and looked blankly at him. To finish the job Fillian withdrew a concealed dagger from his boot and lodged it into the man's throat. He gargled on his own blood and quickly perished.
For a few moments Joziah stood staring at his uncle, relief flowing through him. He came to his senses and ran back to the dying Red Hand ready to finish him. The man was now lying on his back, his breath crackling its way out of his body. As Joziah reached him he could see there was no remaining fight to win and he knelt in weariness next to him.
He stared down fiercely at the man, a final curse on his lips. But what he saw only filled him with pity.
This man full of prejudice and hatred must have been raised in cruelty, he thought. No child is born with such a disposition to loathe others. Yes, he felt sorry for this man; for missing out on the life he could have had. No soul deserves that. As Joziah's own eyes softened the man look up into them and the corners of his mouth extended ever so slightly into a smile as if in unspoken understanding. Joziah placed his hand on the man's chest and whispered.
"Do not be afraid my brother. In another place and time we will know each other as friends, where we will drink together and sing. I promise this to you. Now, go and rest".
As those final syllables were uttered the man placed his blood-stained hand over Joziah's and squeezed. With that he took a final but easy breath, the hardened lines on his face now smoothed.
Fillian hobbled over and lowered himself painfully to sit beside Joziah and the now dead Red Hand. They stayed silent for several minutes, soaking in the events of the last five.
Finally Joziah spoke. "What happened uncle?"
"I looped back as usual looking out for anyone that may be following. And there they were. There were four of them. One was much closer and before I could think of diving to hide he saw me. He attacked without waiting for the others and I ironed him with a few blows. Only got a few scratches from him".
Fillian paused, blinked and then continued. "I just ran. I'm sorry Jo, I should have gone in a different direction, lured them away from you. But I got scared". He lowered his gaze, shame leaving him unable to meet Joziah's eyes.
"Don't uncle. You did the right thing. If you had, they would have caught you and killed you. And then they would have turned their attentions back to me. I'd have had no chance against three at once".
"Perhaps, and anyway you did pretty good against two!" Fillian pulled a smile and managed a chuckle.
"Because of your training uncle, you saved my life today years ago because of what you taught me. If this happens again, you do the same again". Joziah returned the smile.
"OK, that's a deal".
"To be honest I thought I'd had it. This one should have killed me. I did the best I could but I just got lucky. He fell for a trick that he seemed too good for". Joziah frowned.
"Come on Joziah, there is no time to doubt yourself. Let's rest here for the night. We'll not set a guard, we both need to sleep and if we are attacked, well we are in no shape to defend ourselves anyway. Let's just leave our fate in the hands of higher powers tonight". Fillian tilted his head towards the camp and hoisted himself up and extended his hand.
"You're right". Joziah took Fillian's hand and stood. Joziah's expression turned to one of confusion.
"Uncle, when I asked what happened, I was thinking about what I said to him. Instead of finishing him I felt pity instead. It seemed I was somehow detached, like it wasn't me saying the words".
Fillian's eyes widened slightly. "I saw you over him but I didn't hear what you said. And what do you mean it wasn't you?"
"I said that we would meet again and be friends. I even called him brother". Joziah buried his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes. "I don't understand".
Fillian spoke calmly and deliberately. "Look, we are both exhausted and confused right now. Sleep is what we need and tomorrow when we continue our journey we can talk more rationally about all this. We only have four or five days to go before we reach the foothills of The Teeth. We'll figure it out Joziah".
"Thank you uncle".
Using their last reserves of energy they dragged the bodies some way off, covering them as best they could with rocks and debris to minimise the chance of attracting animals, or worse. Joziah tended the fire and once satisfied it had enough wood to last the night, laid down close to his uncle. Within a few minutes they were both asleep.