A BARELY MISSED MEETING
"There's another one."
"What's that make it, four now?"
"That was their whole squad."
Even though the men talking were standing but a few paces from Brohan, the voices barely registered. He wasn't looking at the bodies of the guards, wasn't even interested in them. Instead he stood near the base of a large oak tree; his head was bowed, staring at the ground.
She had been here. He was sure of it. Even if he couldn't still feel her aura lingering, he could see the tracks. One the booted foot of a man, obviously the guard whose body was the current object of his companion’s attentions. A second set, also booted, but the shape and imprint different from the guard’s boots. A young male, not a guard. An unknown, but even so, the very fact that the print was from a male made it irrelevant to him. It was the third set of prints that held his interest.
A smaller foot. No boots on this one, but soft padded shoes. The tread so light it barely left an imprint at all. He had been doing this long enough that he could read the tracks as well as if the person was standing in front of him. A young girl.
It was her. He knew it. He felt a thrill of excitement, just like he had in the old days. He was on the hunt again, and he had found the trail.
He had been surprised when the messenger arrived from Irissa. Even more so when he heard what the Queen wanted. He had known all along there were more witches out there, had known all along they hadn't gotten them all, that there were still more to burn, but no one had listened to him. They told him he had done his job, that the threat was over, that the witches were all dead or that those few who might survive were cowed and would never cause trouble again. He'd known they were wrong but what could he do? The tide of public opinion had turned against the hunters. He had been eased into retirement, or rather had been sent into retirement kicking and screaming. Now, suddenly after all these years it seemed like someone had come to their senses. The Queen had called for him, and he was eager to answer. He would never forget those days. The hunt for clues, the chase, and finally the smell of burnt flesh in the air. It had been the only time in his life when he had truly felt alive.
"There are no dead here but the guards," the voices continued. "There's no sign of those who attacked them. Whoever they were, they disappeared in this infernal forest."
Brohan bent down beside the tree. From the number of tracks, it appeared his quarry had spent some time here. The ground right at the base of the tree was soft, and even the girls prints were clear. Unfortunately that was not the case farther away. The rain of the other day had long since dried up. The ground was hard. Just a few paces from the tree the tracks faded into the bushes. Even so he was a good tracker; he knew there would be some sign, even on hard earth. The scuff of a foot, a snapped twig, but there was nothing. There was no doubt that those she had met here had concealed their departure.
"There can be no doubt who did this."
A man came up beside Brohan, stomping unwittingly on the tracks beneath his feet. The captain of the Galias guards stationed nearby. He had insisted on leading them here, to show them the sight, even though Brohan would have been perfectly capable of finding the place by himself. It was bad enough Irissa had sent a squadron of Imperial Knights along with him. He didn't need all these people getting in the way, giving unneeded advice, or trampling over tracks. None of these people were trained in tracking, nor in the handling of a witch once she was found. They were merely muscle, but muscle wasn't what was needed for a job like this. Stealth, patience, a keen sense of observation was what it took, as well as intelligence, something all the men with him seemed to have a serious lack of.
"It was those devils from the wood," the Captain continued. "They've been causing us trouble for too long now. I don't know how many times I've asked for a brigade of men so I could go in there and wipe them out once and for all, but it's always this or that. There's always something else more important. Maybe they'll listen to me now."
"It would take more than a brigade of men to find them," Brohan finally spoke. "With the woodcraft your people have shown, they'd merely lead you around in circles until you all collapsed from exhaustion and gave up, or into a trap."
The Captain gave him a sour look.
"We have men trained in woodcraft too you know," he said. Brohan merely gave him a skeptical look, not bothering to reply. If they had men skilled in forest work, then why did they send an imbecile to accompany him?
"If it takes more men then so be it," the Captain went on. "Two brigades, three. Four of my men were killed here and we're after that girl of yours. I'm sure they'll send as many men as it takes now that we have the
Brohan stood up, looking around, seeming only half interested in what the Captain had to say, a fact that didn't go unnoticed by the man.
"We won't be needing any men," Brohan stated.
The Captain frowned.
"What do you mean? Surely you're not going to go hunting in this forest with just the few men you have. They'll end up just like these."
He waved his hand at the dead men in the bushes around them to emphasize his point.
"I'm not here to do your job for you. I'm not interested in hunting down a group of vagabond rebels that you're too lazy or ignorant to find for yourself. I'm only interested in the girl."
The Captain's face darkened. For a moment they just looked at each other. Brohan remained impassive. He was a representative of the Queen. He didn't have to be polite and there wasn't anything the Captain could do about it.
"Well, she's with them, isn't she?" the man eventually retorted. "What, you think you just waltz into their camp with a few Imperial Knights they'll just hand her over to you?"
Brohan gave the Captain a look that made it apparent the man was treading on thin ice.
"It won't be necessary to waltz into their camp," he said dryly. "It won't be necessary to find them at all. The girl isn't with them anymore."
"How could you possibly know that?" the man questioned.
Brohan did not look at him.
"It's not a concern of yours," he said. "Go back to your garrison. There's nothing more you can do here."
He turned and strode back toward the road and the waiting Imperial Knights. He heard the Captain say something behind him but he ignored it. The man was of no consequence. Brohan had the voice of the Queen and the Captain would do as he was told.
No, the girl wouldn't stay here. The forest was not that large, and a concerted effort would find anyone hiding there, and once found there would be no place for them to go. More than that, she was separated from her companions or most of them anyway. She would be trying to find a way to reunite with them. She couldn't do that hiding in the forest.
No, she wouldn't stay there. She'd look for someplace else. Someplace familiar. Some place where she already had friends.
The Imperial Knights were waiting for him by the road. They said nothing as he mounted his horse, his blood red cape swirling behind him.
"She was here," Brohan announced. "We're on the trail. We ride east, to Donelan. Kill all of her companions, but leave the witch to me.
"Do you really think this is wise?"
Jenya gave Saramis a glance.
"You mean trying to find Merigan?"
"Don't be foolish," Saramis replied. "I mean doing it in this manner. Why are we riding right through the middle of enemy territory when we could have taken a ship around?"
"You know why," Jenya replied. "The only ship heading east from Hadell wasn't going to leave for two days. We couldn't wait that long."
"Who knows what kind of detours we might have to take to avoid the Imperial Knights," Saramis replied. "We could end up leagues out of our way. For all we know it might end up taking longer this way than on a ship, where, might I add, we at least wouldn't have to be in the saddle all day."
Jenya gave him a look.
"Is that why you're complaining? Because you're uncomfortable?"
"Of course not," Saramis replied. "I'm as anxious to find Merigan as you are, but riding within a few leagues of Galias with Imperial soldiers searching for us high and low does doesn't exactly strike me as the height of logic, especially if there's a way to go around."
"Ktan decided this way was best," Jenya reminded him.
Saramis looked ahead at Ktan. They were galloping along a dirt road surrounded by fields and an occasional farmhouse. They had been riding for two days now, barely stopping to eat or sleep along the way. It was already past . Ktan had forged ahead and had shown no indication that they would be stopping anytime soon. Saramis suspected that the man would ride without pause all the way to Donelan if it were possible.
"We don't even know if she's gone to Donelan, for sure," Saramis continued. "The ship went down off the coast somewhere. That's all we know. It could have been up north farther, toward Winsor. This could just be a big waste of time."
"Do you have a better idea?" Jenya said, somewhat irritably. She was used to Saramis bemoaning their situation. It seemed to be one of the things he was best at, but now was hardly the time. "Donelan is the logical choice. We've got a lot of friends there. Merigan was born there, she knows the area. It seems reasonable to assume she'd head there if she came ashore anywhere along the coast here. And even if the ship sank farther north, we've still got to go through Donelan to get there."
"I know, I know," Saramis replied. "But I'm sure that fact isn't lost on our adversaries either. Just charging in there doesn't seem like it's going to do much good but get us all in trouble."
"We're not going to go charging in there," Jenya told him. "I'm sure when we get closer we'll be more cautious."
"Are you sure?" Saramis replied, nodding toward their leader. "He hasn't shown much caution since you came back with the news that Irissa might be aware that Merigan has the book. Nothing like this has ever happened to us before. I'm just worried he might not be thinking straight. And we need Ktan to think straight. It's the only thing that's saved our necks up to now."
"We got through Hadell, didn't we?" Jenya said.
"Yes, but he doesn't seem to be acting like his usual paranoid self. If he decides to do something foolish, I'm depending on you to talk him out of it."
"Me? Why me? Don't you have a mouth?" she protested.
"We all know you're the only one he ever listens to," Saramis responded.
"That is not true!"
"It is so," Saramis returned. "You've known him longer than I have and he trusts you. It's that whole knight thing."
"If he listened to me, we'd have left Mandaria years ago," Jenya said.
She glanced ahead, a worried look on her face. She had to admit she was as concerned as Ktan. He hadn't taken the news about the book well at all, and had demanded that they leave immediately. He had barely given them time to find steeds, and had seemed more than ready to run the entire distance between Hadell on Donelan if none could be found. Saramis was right in a way, she had never seen him act like that before but she had to admit the news changed everything. It was like that strange man they had met back in Porgia had said, without the book they were unimportant, a minor irritant to the Queen at best. With it, they would suddenly be very much on her mind. All these years they had laid low, done everything they could not to draw attention to themselves, and now it seemed they were doing just the opposite. With the
Ktan looked back and, realizing he was ahead, slowed down until the others came up abreast him, effectively ending that line of conversation.
"We're not going to get there any faster if we ride our horses to death along the way," Saramis said. "Are we going to stop anytime soon?"
For the longest time, Saramis thought Ktan was just going to ignore him. He was about to prod further when Ktan finally replied.
"Just a bit longer," he said gruffly.
Saramis gave Jenya a look, but said nothing. He knew there was no point in arguing with someone as pig headed as Ktan, especially in the mood he was in now. The magician was just as eager to find Merigan as the rest of them, but he was a practical man, and he knew that they weren't going to help the young girl by driving their horses and themselves to the brink of exhaustion. He wondered just how long a bit longer would be.
As it turned out, it wasn't that long at all. The ground was rising up here, their having reached the extreme northern end of the Marbury Hills, the mountain range in whose foothills the capital city of
Ktan turned off the road here. To the left was a deep ravine with a narrow stream running along the bottom. Ktan led them down slowly, for the ground was steep and the horses had to navigate it carefully, but once they reached the bottom, they could not be seen from the road.
"We can rest here for a bit," he said simply, sliding off his horse.
Saramis looked around, the look on his face making it plain what he thought of the accommodations, but he said nothing. He slid off his horse, then led it over to the stream to drink. Jenya opened up her pack and removed some cheese and bread. Sitting down beside the stream she offered some to the others. Saramis sat down beside her but Ktan just shook his head, and instead walked over nearer to the side of the hill. He stood there, arms folded, looking up. From here he could just make out the road through a narrow depression in the side of the hill. If anyone came by, he would see them.
He wasn't happy, he wasn't happy at all. In fact, he couldn't remember when he had been more worried. Well, that wasn't really true. He had been worried when Merigan was poisoned, but this was different. That had been quick, everything had happened so fast, there almost hadn't been time to think about what was going on. This wasn't like that. At least then they had known what was going on. Had known exactly what the problem was and what to do to fix it, or at least try to. Here, his biggest worry was the unknown.
Where was Merigan now? Had she been captured? Was she in fact making her way to Donelan? Was she in this area at all, or farther north? Was she even alive? And what of Irissa? How much did she know? How much attention had they drawn to themselves?
Too many damn questions and not enough answers. They'd faced danger before but they had always been together then. They had been separated before, but never like this. Always he had known where Merigan was and who she was with. She had never had to fend for herself before; there had always been someone there. She was just fifteen.
She wasn't alone. Ktan had to keep reminding himself of that. Willbrand was with her, or at least, he hoped he was. That was something anyway, but it didn't ease his concern that much. The boy wasn't much older than she was. He had led a sheltered life. In a lot of ways, Merigan was more mature than he was. She had seen more of the world. He hadn't known Willbrand long. The boy wasn't an idiot at least, but that didn't mean he didn't do stupid things. In spite of Ktan's natural distrust for anyone he hadn't known for years, the boy had seemed to do well enough. Still, there was a big difference between that and fending for oneself. He didn't think Willbrand would bolt or run, he didn't think the boy would leave Merigan unprotected, but that didn't mean either of them would be able to see a trap before they walked right into the middle of it. That only came with experience, one thing the boy was sorely lacking.
It didn't matter. It didn't matter what he thought of Willbrand now. He had no choice but to trust him. That alone was enough to drive Ktan crazy. He wasn't good at trusting anyone's judgment but his own.
He just wished they found them soon.
He kept looking back between the road and his companions. He saw no one else. They had seen the patrols on the roads. The entire region seemed to be crawling with Galian troops. He supposed that was a good sign. If they were still out here in force, it seemed likely that Merigan was still free, but it didn't make things any easier for them. They had already been stopped twice and questioned about their activities. So far their cover that they were messengers on an errand for Jocatta back in Hadell had held up, but he didn't know how long that would continue. He was just glad they hadn't run into any Imperial Knights.
He stood there for as long as his patience could tolerate.
"Are we ready to move on?" he finally asked.
Jenya had long since finished her meal, and stood up almost immediately with no more than a nod of her head in answer. Saramis, however, was still contently munching on a large chunk of bread. He wolfed down the last bit of it and got up as well, albeit much more reluctantly. Still he offered no protest and a short time later they were on the road again.
Ktan knew he was driving them hard. He had wondered himself if he was being reckless. They had been riding hard for two days now. He knew they were tired, and the horses even more so. Yet he was enough of a horseman to think he knew when he was pushing the horses too far, and he didn't think that was the case. He was cutting it close, but he thought the horses could stand it. The fact that they were so close now made it that much more difficult to even think about stopping. He knew they were just a short ride from the city; he was well acquainted with the area. They had had a lot of ground to catch up. Merigan had started out closer and the Imperial Knights had gotten a head start. It wouldn't do them any good to take their time and get there too late.
Too late for what, he wondered. There were a lot of possibilities, some of them quite benign. Merigan could have made it to Donelan without incident, could be waiting with their friends even now. Or she might not even be in Donelan at all. Either way they could be rushing for nothing. What did he think, that if they hurried he and his companions were going to get to Donelan just in time to save Merigan and Willbrand from the Imperial Knights? What were the odds of that?
And yet, that turned out to be pretty close to the truth.
Donelan stood on the northern shore of the neck of land that connected the Galian peninsula to the mainland. It, and Dramon, its sister city to the south, were two of the oldest cities in the kingdom, having been established by the second king of Mandaria, Valan (Broadblade) Zamberlett, as forts to protect the early kingdom from barbarian invasion from the north and east. Eventually the kingdom had expanded to include much of the land held by said barbarians, and though the threat was no longer, the forts had prospered and turned into large trading towns. Both Donelan and Dramon were now considered core cities in the kingdom.
They reached the city in late afternoon, the sun, low in the west, casting long shadows around them. They entered from the south, instead of the more obvious west, Ktan showing that he hadn't lost his cautious nature entirely. As they made their way up the main thoroughfare they looked around but saw nothing out of the ordinary.
"Well it seems quiet enough," Saramis commented. "Where do we go from here?"
"We've got plenty of friends in town who should be aware of anything unusual," Ktan said. He turned to look at Jenya. "What's say we look up Ferdinand?"
"That's as good a place to start as any," Jenya agreed. "If anyone knows if the Imperial Knights are around here and what they are up to, it'll be him."
Ktan turned them to the left, heading for another street, when he suddenly stopped and looked ahead once more.
"What is it?" Jenya said immediately.
He didn't need to reply, for at that moment she heard it too, the sound of someone shouting, and looking ahead, they saw a man run across the street.
"Seems to be some kind of disturbance..." Ktan muttered.
He looked to the north a moment more, then spurred his horse in that direction.
"Just because someone is shouting doesn't mean..." Saramis began.
At that moment two Imperial Knights on horseback appeared down the street galloping across the road in the direction the man had come from.
"C'mon!" Ktan said, his horse breaking into a gallop. Jenya followed immediately. Saramis hesitated a moment.
"I thought the idea was to avoid Imperial Knights," he muttered to no one in particular. The others were already too far away to hear, not that it would have done any good even if they had. With a shrug, he spurred his horse forward as well. Whatever trouble lay ahead, he knew there was no avoiding it now.
Ktan turned down the road the Imperial Knights were on. He could see them now, ahead of him. They weren't looking back, they hadn't noticed him. Instinct told him that this had something to do with Merigan. If it didn't, he hadn't gotten involved in anything yet; hopefully he could just turn around and slip away before they noticed him.
He didn't have to follow them very far. Ktan heard more shouts ahead, and saw a few more Imperial Knights, some of them dismounted. They seemed to be gathered around a small square that served as an open air marketplace. Ktan could see people fleeing and ducking for cover, and at least one of the stands had been overturned. He saw one Imperial Knight lying on the ground, apparently dead.
Focusing on the center of the disturbance, he saw a cart had been knocked on its side. A man stood behind it with a bow. Even as Ktan watched he fired, the arrow striking one of the Knights and sending him tumbling to the ground even as three others ran toward him.
Ktan had only moments to decide on a course of action. The Knights were almost upon the man already, and seeing that it would no longer be useful, he had dropped the bow and pulled out a long knife. Even so, the man had no armor, and Ktan knew he would not be a match for even one fully armed Knight in that condition.
He saw no sign of any others, no sign of Merigan. This wasn't really any of his business. In spite of that he spurred his horse forward, galloping across the square right at the Knights. Whoever he was, he was an enemy of the Imperial Knights, and any enemy of theirs was most likely a friend of his.
Even as he rode forward he wondered if he might not be too late, for as he did so, he saw the man go down. Ktan's horse leaped over the knocked over cart. His sword already out, it swung in a murderous arc and one of the Knights fell back with a cry as blood splattered the air around him.
There were four Knights altogether, still standing at least. Ktan did not count consciously, but he wasn't foolish enough to dive into a fight without carefully but swiftly calculating the odds. He drove forward, pushing the other two men in front of him back away from their prey. The man was not dead at least, Ktan noted as he passed by, for he caught a glimpse of the man scrambling out of the way. That made four against four. He’d dealt with a lot worse. He didn't worry about the two men behind him, concentrating solely on those in front. He knew Jenya would be right behind him, with Saramis backing them both up. With them there, he didn't have to worry about an attack from the rear.
Ktan's drove his horse to the left; trying to keep one opponent between himself and the second man so they could not both come at him at once. The sound of steel against steel rang out as his blade came into contact with his enemy. Ktan's sword sliced through the air, so quickly it could barely be followed.
The man he was facing soon gave ground, realizing with a shock that the man he faced was as least as skilled as he himself. Unfortunately for him, he had little room to maneuver. The market stands around them prevented almost all lateral movement, and the man behind him, pressing forward to try to get around his compatriot and into the battle, prevented his retreat. Ktan's blade suddenly came down upon the man's shoulder, somehow finding its way between the man's breastplate and shoulder guard; it drove into his shoulder, tearing through flesh and into bone.
The man fell backwards, off his horse, which staggered, almost falling over as well, before it broke free from the battle. This allowed the second man to come forward, but Ktan was ready. Without slowing he attacked. For a few moments their blades whistled through the air, before his second adversary too fell to the ground, this one mortally wounded from a savage blow to the neck.
Ktan turned and looked around. Jenya stood not far away, over the body of yet another Imperial Knight. There was only one other Knight standing now. Farther back behind Jenya, he slashed mightily at Saramis, who dodged out of the way while at the same time trying to pull something out of his bag. Ktan spurred his horse forward once more, but the beast hadn't taken more than a step when an arrow suddenly flew through the air and struck the man right in his face. He fell to the ground as if he had run into a brick wall.
Ktan looked back and saw the man the Knights had been after had pulled himself to a sitting postion. Blood ran from his right leg but he held his bow firmly in his hands. He lowered his bow as Ktan came over. The man looked at him keenly before speaking.
"You must be Ktan. I must say your timing is fortuitous."
"How do you know my name?" he questioned.
"Your friends told me quite a bit about you," he replied.
"My friends?" Ktan said, getting down from his horse and looking at the man, and it was not a friendly look.
"Yes, Willbrand and Merigan," the man said. "Well, Willbrand did most of the talking. He described you quite well..."
"Where are they?" Ktan demanded.
"They rode off that way," the man replied, pointing to the east. "We came here looking for you, but we ran into an ambush. We tried to escape, but my horse ran into one of the stands while trying to avoid someone. I'm afraid it might have broken its leg."
He nodded his head over toward another of the market stands. A horse lay on the ground there, its legs tucked underneath it.
"I told your friends to go on, to leave me," he continued. "They didn't want too, but there were too many Knights, and their horse couldn't hold three of us. I finally had to slap their horse on the rump to get them going. I was trying to slow down the Knights, trying to give them time to get away. I was just trying to sell my life for the highest price when you came along."
"How long ago?" Ktan asked.
"I'm not sure," he replied. "A few minutes, no more."
Ktan turned to see Jenya standing behind him. Just a few minutes...
"Can you stand?" Jenya asked the man.
He tried to get up, but grunted and sank back down.
"I'm afraid not," he replied.
Jenya stooped down beside him to examine his wound.
"This needs attention," she said after a moment. "It's deep and we have to stop the bleeding."
Ktan just looked at her.
"Go after them," Jenya said, divining his thoughts. "I'll stay here and tend to him."
Ktan looked back and forth, but he didn't move.
Saramis joined them.
"Why are we standing around?" he questioned. "There's bound to be more Imperial Knights on the way."
For a moment more Ktan didn't answer. Of course he wanted to go after Merigan. He couldn't believe they had just missed her, but it was pretty obvious this man had been with her, had helped her. Knowing that, they couldn't abandon him. Jenya had offered to stay but he didn't want to leave her here. If she ran into more Imperial Knights by herself she might be killed. They needed to stick together to have a chance, yet it was obvious the bowman wasn't in any condition to ride.
"Saramis is right," he said finally. "Willbrand and Merigan have made it this far, we have to hope they'll be able to get by on their own a little longer. C'mon, I'll give you a hand; let's get this man to a safe place."
"We have to go back."
Willbrand didn't reply at first. They were riding slowly along a narrow path that wound its way up a hill just east of the city. He had no idea where he was going. He didn't know the area and Merigan had offered no guidance. They hadn't really had time to discuss a course of action, being only concerned with escape, but they were out of the city now, and there was no sign of pursuit. Merigan sat on the horse behind him, her arms wrapped around his waist, leaning her head on his back.
"You know we can't do that."
He knew how she felt. He wanted to go back too. In fact, every fiber of his being had told him not to leave in the first place. It had all happened so damn fast. One moment they were riding peacefully through a market, the next they had been surrounded by Imperial Knights. Willbrand had no idea where they had come from, or how they had been spotted. They had managed to break out of the trap, finding an unguarded alley to escape down, but the Knights had pursued them. He had thought they might get away, but suddenly Alios had been unhorsed. Willbrand still wasn't sure how it had happened. It hadn't been caused by the Knights. An unlucky accident but his horse had been hurt, and their own horse couldn't bear three people. Alios had told them to go on, to leave him. He hadn't wanted to. They all knew Alios wouldn't stand a chance by himself. All his training had told him to stay, that leaving a friend behind was not the honorable thing to do. If he had been alone he surely would have, but it wasn't just himself he had to be concerned with. Merigan was with them too and she could not fall into enemy hands. The Knights had almost been upon them, he hadn't had time to think. Alios had slapped the horse, setting them off, and he hadn't turned back.
"We can't just leave him there," Merigan said softly.
Alios had saved them from the Galias guards in the forest, had fed them and given them shelter. He had given them a horse asking nothing in return except to accompany them, and how had they repaid him?
"It's too late now," Willbrand said, his words weighing down on him. "Even if we went back, what could we do? It's got to be over by now. How long do you think he could last against so many foes?"
"I should have done something," she said, her voice filled with distress.
"What could you have done?"
"I don't know," she said. "Some kind of illusion. There must have been something I could have done to help him!"
Willbrand shook his head helplessly. He felt as bad as she did about this, but he didn't think there was anything they could have done except die beside him.
"It wasn't your fault Merigan," he said. "It all happened so fast. None of us had time to think. You don't have the power to conceal us all, not with our horses as well. It couldn't be helped."
"Maybe...maybe he's been captured," she suggested.
Instead of dead, he thought but didn't say. He didn't want to believe Alios was dead either. They had only known him for a couple of days, yet Willbrand had taken a liking to the man. He was so cheerful and open, so much different from Ktan and his companions. He didn't want to believe he was gone either, but the reality of it was, that was the most likely outcome.
"Even if he is, what could we do?" Willbrand said. "We don't know where they'd take him. Even if we did, we can't fight all those Knights."
"No, but we might be able to sneak in. Or I might, anyway."
Willbrand was silent. It was tempting. They both knew what Merigan could do. If Alios was alive and they knew where he was being kept, it was well within Merigan's power to find him undetected.
The problem was, they didn't know if he was alive, and even if he was, they had no idea where he might be. Sure, Merigan could get past any guards, but she couldn't search the whole city. She had barely been able to keep them concealed for more than a few minutes before she had had to break the spell when they had been in the forest, and even that had left her exhausted. It was obvious that the Imperial Knights had been waiting for them. The city must be crawling with them.
"It's too risky," he said.
"But what else can we do?' she questioned. "We have to go back anyway. We have no place else to go!"
The land flattened out in front of them, and Willbrand realized they had nearly reached the top of the hill. On the crest above them he could see the path led to a ring of broken and cracked stones that must have formed the foundation of a structure that long ago had fallen into ruin.
He rode slowly forward and stopped at the foundation.
"What is this place?"
"It's the old Monastery," she replied. "The castle of the Maidens of Donelan, or what's left of it anyway," she told him. "I used to come here sometimes when I was a child to pick flowers. It's one of my earliest memories. I didn't know what it was then, of course, or what it meant to me."
He turned and looked back down the hill. They could see for miles from up here. No one could follow them without being seen.
"We can rest here for a bit and decide what to do," he said, dismounting.
He helped Merigan down. He saw that her eyes were red from crying.
"Are you all right?"
She hesitated a second, then nodded without replying. They led the horse into the ring of stone. There was nothing in the middle save a few stones scattered among the short bristly grass. So this was it, Willbrand thought, the home of the Witches of Donelan, or the Maidens. It was another thing he had been taught about but never seen. A great battle had taken place on the hill before them, a battle where the Witches had finally been vanquished and peace restored to the kingdom.
Or at least, that was what he had been taught. Now he knew it hadn't happened quite that way. Now he'd seen it from another point of view, a view that wasn't mentioned by any of his tutors. He had taken it for granted that everything his tutors had told him was the unvarnished truth, but now he realized it wasn't that simple. He wondered how much more of the history he had been taught could be called into question. He looked at Merigan, wondering how she felt being here, now that she knew the truth. She was still upset from what had happened to Alios and now this? It seemed like the entire idea of coming to Donelan had just been one huge mistake. He reached out and put his arm around her shoulders to offer some comfort. What a mess this had turned out to be.
"We'll have to come up with some other plan," he said. "They're obviously waiting for us in Donelan. It would be foolish to return."
"I told you, there's no place else to go," she replied. "We have no supplies. Dramon is probably being watched as well and the next town is days away to the north. We have friends in Donelan, and it's where Ktan will expect us to go."
“And it's obviously where the Imperial Knights expected us to go too," he responded. "We've been foolish. We've taken a course that was obvious to everyone. We can't make that mistake again. We have to be smart, Merigan. It's the only way we're going to get through this."
She rested her arms on the stone in front of them. In spite of the sun it was ice cold to the touch.
"So what do you suggest we do?" she asked.
"I don't know," he replied. "Strike off in an unexpected direction, I suppose."
"Like where?" she pressed. "As I already mentioned, we don't have any supplies."
"No, but we have a horse now," he said thoughtfully. "We can get a lot farther than we could on foot. We have enough supplies for a couple of days. We can get pretty far away in that time."
"But where would we go?" she questioned, turning to look at him.
"I don't know," he said, a bit defensively. "Where's the nearest town, besides Donelan, I mean."
She looked out over the landscape for a moment.
"Dramon," she answered. "But it will be watched as well. Winsor is about two days ride on the road to the north. But I don't know anyone in Winsor."
"So where else is there were you do know someone?"
"I don't know, Teklos I guess," she said reluctantly. "But Teklos is a good week away on horseback. We'll never make it there without supplies."
"So we'll get some supplies," he responded.
"How? We don't have any coin either."
"We could...sell the horse."
"Are you serious?"
"I don't know, I guess," he replied. "It would get us more than enough coin for supplies."
"But it’s not ours to sell!" she protested. "It's Alios'."
"I realize that but..."
She just looked at him.
"Alios gave his life to help us escape," Willbrand went on. Merigan's face fell, but they had to face reality. "Don't you think he'd want us to do whatever we could to make good on that escape?"
"If he's alive and we meet him again, we'll just have to pay him back somehow," he added, thinking neither of those events were very likely. Nevertheless, he meant what he said.
That seemed to make Merigan feel a little better, but she still wasn't satisfied.
"If we sell the horse, it will take us that much longer to get anywhere," she pointed out.
"That's true, but I don't see what else we can do. Having a horse won't help us if we starve to death, or die of thirst."
"We could go back to Donelan," she said.
"I told you it's too risky," he said.
"And what if I think it's not?" she questioned. "Ktan is never going to find us if we head off to some unknown destination."
"Once we get there we can send word," Willbrand replied.
She didn't look at all satisfied with that. Neither was he, really, but what could they do? He didn't think going back to Donelan was a good idea at all, yet Merigan seemed to disagree. How could he know what was best?
How could he know if any course of action was the right one? For all he knew, anything they did could end up badly. He was beginning to understand how Ktan must have felt with the responsibility of leadership.
He wasn't really the leader now anyway. She had made as many decisions as he, but before now they had never disagreed. What if she had her mind set on going back? Could he talk her out of it? Did he want to? What if she was right?
"I don't think going back to Donelan is a good idea," he said. "The Imperial Knights are hot on our trail. They knew we were headed for Donelan. We can't make that mistake again. We have to disappear for a while, go in a direction no one expects. Yes, that will make it harder to meet up with Ktan and the others, but we'll find them again eventually. We'll never find them, however, if the Knights find us first."
Merigan mulled this over for quite some time. He could tell she was just as unsure as he was.
"I guess that makes sense," she said finally. "In fact, it sounds like typical Ktan paranoia."
"But I still don't think we should just take off right away," she continued. "Not without at least leaving word. We could wait until nightfall. I could slip back into the city, contact one of our friends, at least give Ktan and the others a clue as to what we're up to, or where we're going, or just to let them know we're still alive. Maybe I can get some coin for us too, enough so we don't need to sell the horse. That makes sense too, doesn't it?"
This time it was his turn to ponder. He had to admit she had some good points, and he already knew she was capable of doing what she suggested. Still, he was reluctant to let her go back. He had a bad feeling about it, though he suspected he wouldn't be able to base any argument against it on that alone.
"I don't know," he said doubtfully. "The Imperial Knights will probably be waiting for you, expecting you to come back. I think it's too dangerous."
"I can avoid being seen," she said.
"For how long?' he asked. "You don't want to have to depend on your powers too much. You know you can't sustain an illusion for very long."
"It wouldn't have to be for long," she said. "They can't be watching everywhere. After I get into the city I'll probably be safe. I've done it before."
"I know, but still..."
He didn't continue, mainly because he really didn't have a counterargument, or at least, not a logical one. He looked out over the land below them once more. He stopped as his eyes fell on something down at the base of the hill. No, not something, someone.
"Get down!" he said, pulling her down behind the wall of stone.
"What? What is it?' she questioned.
"There's someone down there," he replied. He lifted his head slowly, peering through a small break in the stones. He didn't think anyone down there could see him.
There was a man there. He stood beside a horse, immobile. He seemed to be staring down at the ground at his feet. Willbrand couldn't make out many details from here. He could tell the man appeared bald and wore a long crimson cape.
Merigan lifted her head up besides his, spotting the man as well.
"Did he see us?" she asked.
Willbrand glanced back and saw that their horse had moved over toward the other side of the foundation, grazing on some grass in the far corner. He couldn't be seen from below.
"I don't think so," Willbrand replied.
"Is he following us?" she questioned.
"I don't know," Willbrand said slowly. "I think so."
"He was with the Knights," she said.
Willbrand nodded. The man had been with the Imperial Knights when they had been ambushed, or someone just like him. The cape had stood out. The man was not a Knight, was not dressed like one anyway, but Willbrand had seen him shouting orders during the battle.
The man was standing beside the path, looking at the ground. They had followed the trail straight up, not trying to conceal themselves. Willbrand suspected their tracks would be easy to spot.
As if to confirm that the man looked up at the hilltop. Willbrand and Merigan ducked back out of sight. When the young noble looked again the man was back on his horse making his way up the hill.
He led Merigan back across the grass, staying low until they reached the horse. It was only one man, and he wasn't even a knight, but where there was one there could be more. Willbrand was quite sure the Knights couldn't be far away.
He helped Merigan up on the horse, then mounted himself. They left the ruins, heading down the hill on the northern side. There was no trail here and the hillside was pocked with ravines and gullies, but they were manageable and Willbrand hoped they would conceal them from view from above. When they reached the bottom he set off in a northerly direction, and Merigan did not protest.