My eyes were on the last of the men moving of into the distance, willing my gaze to penetrate into their midst while at the same time searching through the memories of their faces as they had passed me. Had he been there? Could he have passed me without noticing me, or without me seeing him? I don't know, I thought, my stomach sinking and a bitter taste entering my mouth. I don't know.
I looked to my left, and saw Rodan watching me intently. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah," I said, "I'm fine." I need to go, I thought. I need to follow them.
I shook my head. What was wrong with me? When I last saw him my son was with the King, which meant that he was probably still within the city walls. What was I thinking?
"Are you sure?"
"Are you sure you're alright?" I looked at him. He seemed worried.
"Yes." I tried to smile. "Thanks."
What was I waiting for? My son was among those men, he had to be. Why hadn't I seen him? Suddenly all the men that I had seen - young, old, sick and healthy - had his face, looking at me, imploring me to come and find him. I will, I silently promised. Don't be afraid, I'll take you home. Well, maybe not our old home, but some place where we can be happy together. Or, maybe we can go home and we'll rebuild our old farm. You'd like that, wouldn't you? You're so big and strong now, you could help me, and we could have an ale together after we're done.
I took a deep breath. This is madness, I told myself. Your son is dead. The beast has killed him, it's tricked you into thinking you've seen him, and now it's trying to lure you away from your friends. Don't fall for it. It's a trap. Suddenly I was scared.
I wondered what to tell him. "I think he's still here. He was in my dream, talking to me, trying to make me go with him. And I think he's still doing something to me, making me think that I have to get away from you to find my family."
For a moment he was quiet. He doesn't believe me, I thought.
"Someone's coming," he said then. "Just hang in there."
I felt his hand on my shoulder and looked up. An old, short and slender man dressed in black was facing us, with two men in Royal Guard's uniforms on either side of him eyeing us with a mixture of distrust and curiosity.
"Is this the man?" the old man asked Jared.
He took a moment to study me, and in the silence I could feel my mind beginning to drift towards the past again. Stay here, I told myself. Take a deep breath. I reminded myself of the exercises that Jared and Rodan had taught me. Feel where you are, and where you are not. Find your centre. Connect to the earth.
Even before I heard his voice I could feel his presence wrapping itself around me, a feather-light touch that soothed without restraining. "They have taught you well," he said, his voice deep and resonant.
"Yes." Not well enough, I wanted to add, but the thought passed. It didn't matter now. With him I was safe.
"You're right," he said. "For the time being I can protect you, but I won't be able to keep you safe forever. You do understand that, don't you?"
"Yes," I said. "Thank you."
I could feel his presence slowly withdrawing, leaving me feeling calm and refreshed.
"I was told you have a message for the King."
It took me a moment to focus and remember what he was talking about. The gatekeeper. I had told him I had a message from Merran that I needed to deliver in person to the King, just to persuade him to allow us into the city. I almost laughed out loud. All of our efforts seemed so futile now, and I wondered whether the King was even still alive.
"Yes," I said, "I do."
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