The town of
In spite of how much the town had grown, it still retained some of that frontier atmosphere. There was no castle here. No war had ever reached Keesa. The last Great War that involved this land, the Falcon war, had ended long before Keesa came into existence, and the last war had been fought in the south. The stain of it had not stretched this far north.
Not only was there no castle here, but there was no stonework at all. All the structures in the city were made of wood, none of them more than two stories high, and only the general store and the mill being even that large. Most of the streets were still lined with trees, huge elms and maples that grew so thickly in the surrounding area that one could enter the forest and not see the sun until one reemerged days later. The town itself blended into that forest, still seeming very much to be part of it.
Willbrand had spent the last six days in that forest, and was glad to get out. Though there was a road snaking through the forest between Crotasia and Keesa, they had not dared to use it. It had been a difficult trip for him. As the son of a noble, he was not used to this kind of hardship. He had never been away from Crotasia before, had never been far from a warm bed at night, or their retinue of servants. After only a few days travel he had become rather cranky about the whole idea. He hadn't realized just what he was getting himself into. He hadn't had time to pick up any supplies of his own on the way out of Crotasia, and though his companions shared what they had, they didn't have another set of clothes for him, or a soft pillow, or even any warm water to spare for bathing. After spending six days in the same clothes, without a bath, he knew he stunk as badly as the peasants who worked the land on the outskirts of Crotasia, and wore the same clothes day after day not by choice, but because it was all they had.
Willbrand had been afraid that their tattered appearance would make them stand out once they reached the town. But now that they were walking down the streets of it he realized his fears were unwarranted. He could see dozens of people going about their business here, and nearly half of them looked in no better shape. Even though Keesa was a thriving town, it was still on the outskirts of the kingdom, a great deal of its commerce was still trappers or hunters who spent weeks or months in the wilderness before returning. It seemed likely those taking any interest in them at all would just see them as another group of travelers, no different from any of the other groups that appeared here day after day.
And indeed, no one seemed to pay any attention to them at all. Willbrand kept his eyes open for any sign of knights or royal troops, but he saw none. There was not much of a royal presence in this town. In fact, it was the most independent town in the kingdom. There wasn't even a barony here. The town was run by the local merchants, who donated a portion of their profits to Duke Galton in Porgia, who, by law, was the actual ruler of this hamlet. Porgia, however, was far to the east, and the Baron had never actually been known to make an appearance here.
Of course, neither had Willbrand. He had seen his cousin Tevio in Crotasia on occasion, mostly at family functions. Willbrand's father was the middle of three siblings. Tevio was the son of Baron Stromond's older sister, Yarla. He was six years older than Willbrand, and very much the black sheep of the family. Never very interested in politics or his royal heritage, in spite of his mother's attempts to make him so. At a very young age he had found himself much more interested in business, soon spending more time with the merchants of the town than any of the royalty. Eventually, seeing that it was not just a childish whim, his mother had given in and let him chose to do as he wished. Soon after he had moved to Keesa, the center of business in the region.
Even now, after the roads had been built, the river was still the key to transporting goods. The roads could still be treacherous. Bandits roamed the hills, preying on merchants passing through the forest. Though Keesa had a permanent force of mercenaries hired to protect them, it was still difficult. All roads out of Keesa led through wilderness areas, surrounded by leagues of woods for bandits to hide out in. It was almost impossible to rid the area completely of them. In addition to that, in the winter the heavy snows often made the roads impassable. And in the dead of winter Keesa could go for months without any resupply from that direction.
But the fast moving river hadn't frozen completely over in more than a hundred years. And pirate ships were much easier to track down. As a result, the river, if not always the fastest way to travel, was still the safest.
Tevio had immediately seen this and using his keen business sense had soon bought out most of the shipbuilders and owners in the area, until he had a virtual monopoly on the shipping business in Keesa. Though he held no official title here, he was now a very wealthy man.
As they walked down the broad avenue Willbrand suddenly noticed Ktan looking at him.
"Now that we are here, I must ask you, what are your intentions?"
Willbrand did not reply for a moment. This was the first time Ktan had shown any interest in his actions since they had first met. In fact, Ktan had hardly spoken a word to him the entire trip. He had been polite and answered when spoken to, but he had been curt and always supplied just the barest amount of information. He certainly hadn't been what Willbrand would call friendly. He seemed moody and suspicious, and often when they had made camp would just sit beside his tent watching Willbrand in a way that made the young noble very nervous.
Merigan had been a bit friendlier. She at least seemed to show some concern for him, always asking if he had enough to eat and if he was comfortable. But though she was not quite as tight lipped at Ktan, she still hadn't exactly been a wealth of information. She had been willing to talk, asking him a lot about his life in the castle, but about herself she said nothing, and whenever he tried to steer the conversation in that direction, he got nowhere.
He hadn't asked her about the incident with the soldiers. There was no doubt in his mind she had done something there. But what it might have been he had no idea. Somehow she had made the soldiers not see them. But how? Had it been some kind of magic? He had never heard of such a thing, at least, not these days. There were tales of the old times of certain people who had been able to do such things, but he had always thought of them as just fairytales. Whatever it was, it was plain she had done something special, someone few, or no others, could do. Willbrand couldn't help but wonder if that was the real reason his companions were being pursued. But it was obvious both of them didn't want to discuss it, and he didn't want to bring it up in front of Ktan. If he could have gotten Merigan alone, he would have questioned her about it, but that never happened. The entire trip Ktan was never far from Merigan’s side. It was almost as if he knew Willbrand's thoughts.
Willbrand cast a sidelong glance at the man walking beside him. If Merigan had strange powers, who was to say his other companion didn't as well? Perhaps the man really could read his thoughts.
The young noble shook his head slowly after a moment. That was nonsense. No one could read another person’s thoughts. And beside, hadn't Ktan just asked him what his intentions were? Why would he have done that if he already knew?
He realized that Ktan was looking at him expectantly, waiting for a reply.
"I'm going to find my cousin, Tevio," he said. "My father told me he might be able to help me."
Ktan did not reply for some time. Even as they spoke, Willbrand could see the older man's eyes scanning those around them, apparently looking for anyone who looked suspicious. Willbrand had never seen anyone quite like Ktan, who always seemed to be on guard, who never seemed to relax.
"If you wish," Ktan said finally. "But I must ask you to keep what you have seen and done with us to yourself. For your own sake, as well as ours, it might be better if you forgot you ever met us."
Willbrand glanced at Ktan, wondering just what the man was thinking. Of course, Willbrand had no intention of mentioning their exploits to anyone. He was an outlaw as well; he wasn't going to wander around town blabbing to strangers. Ktan's eyes were like steel, and though he couldn't read much into them, they did make him a little bit uneasy. They seemed to hold a vague look of menace.
"You have my word I won't mention this to anyone," he reassured, though he hardly thought it was necessary, and he felt vaguely insulted the man would insinuate that he would reveal what he had seen to others. He wasn't used to people questioning his integrity. Still, he supposed he could understand. They didn't know each other very well. Put in the other man's shoes, he might have reacted the same way.
Though they didn't say a word, as if by mutual consent they all abruptly came to a halt.
"Well, I guess I'll be on my way then," Willbrand said slowly. He didn't ask what his two companions were going to do now. He had a feeling he was better off not knowing.
"Yes, I suppose," Ktan replied curtly. "Good luck to you."
"You too," Willbrand muttered. Now that it came down to it, he felt a bit reluctant to leave them. He couldn't exactly call them friends, but right now they were the closest thing he had. He didn't know his cousin Tevio very well, since the man had not been in Crotasia much after his move to Keesa. His father, Shellana, he was cut off from all of them. These two people were the only two he knew he could trust.
And besides, there were still things he wanted to know. Not only what Merigan had done, but how Ktan had learned to fight. He had killed Swordmaster Garrik, the best swordsman Willbrand had ever known, the man who had taught Willbrand everything he knew. The young noble had always been proud of his swordsmanship, had considered himself lucky to be training under a man who was so good. He had trained hard, hoping to one day be able to match, or even surpass, Swordmaster Garrik's skills. He had one day hoped to be the finest swordsman in Crotasia. How couldn't help but wonder how much he could learn from Ktan, given the opportunity.
"Why don't you come with us?"
They both turned to look at Merigan in surprise. Ktan immediately frowned, and Merigan took a moment to cast him a slightly apologetic look, but when her eyes returned to Willbrand, they did not waver.
"Whether you like it or not, you're an outlaw just like us now," she continued. "Keesa might be a backwater town, but it's just as much a part of the kingdom as Crotasia. With the Imperial Knights themselves looking for you, do you really think you can hide here? How do you know you can trust your cousin?"
"Tevio would never betray me!" Willbrand said immediately, offended. The thought that a member of his own family would betray him had never even entered his mind. "A Stromond would never do something so dishonorable."
"Perhaps," Ktan cut in. "But each man had his own interpretation as to what is honorable. You have been declared a heretic, an outlaw in the eyes of the church. As such all men are duty bound to turn you in if the opportunity arises. All citizens owe their allegiance to the king. In spite of any blood ties, some might consider turning you in to be the honorable thing to do."
Willbrand said nothing, his lips a thin line. He still felt offended by Ktan's words. To even imply that his cousin might not be trustworthy would have demanded an immediate challenge had they been in court in Crotasia. He felt his hand going towards the hilt of his sword, a motion that Ktan did not fail to notice. Willbrand knew he was no match for his companion, but he couldn't let that fact stop him. He had been taught all his life that it was better to die bravely then live without honor.
But he did not draw his weapon. They were not in the court of Crotasia. He was not even a noble anymore, not really. Now he was an outlaw, a man without honor, stripped of it without being given a chance, without having the opportunity to die bravely. He no longer had any reason to take offense to Ktan's words.
Or was he just using that as an excuse? He might not be a cadet anymore, but was the title really important? Wasn't it more something you felt inside? Knowing that he could not beat Ktan, was he just trying to rationalize, trying to get himself to believe that he did not have to fight? Was he just being a coward?
"We'll be here for a few days," Merigan interrupted his thoughts. "You'll find us down by the docks."
She stopped when she saw both of them frowning at her.
"That's...if you change your mind, of course," she ended lamely.
For a moment they all stood there in awkward silence. Then, without another word, Willbrand turned and walked away.
Merigan took a step toward him, then stopped and turned to look at Ktan questioningly, but the older man just gave a quick shake of his head.
Willbrand didn't turn to look back. He was still a little annoyed with Ktan's attitude. Besides, he didn't need their help. Sure, he was alone now, cut off from his family and friends for the first time in his life. But he was a Stromond, he didn't need anyone else's charity. And besides, he wasn't a child anymore. He had been a Crotasia cadet. A Captain, in fact. He had been taught to take care of himself. He had all the skills necessary to find his way in this world, all he had to do was implement them.
Besides, all he had to do now was find Tevio. He was sure that wouldn't be a difficult feat. He would much rather receive help from his family than some strangers, no matter how interesting they might be.
He walked into the first business he saw, a small tannery. The door creaked as it swung open, making the middle aged merchant behind the counter look up. The room held a vaguely musty smell. Willbrand looked around for a moment and saw that except for him and the merchant, the shop was empty.
"Good day to you, good sir," the merchant greeted him with.
"To you too," he replied, stepping up to the counter. "I am new in town and in need of some assistance. Do you by any chance know where the home of the merchant Tevio lies?"
The man paused for just a moment before answering. He nodded his head to the left.
"Down the end of the street," he replied. "The last house on the left before the docks. You can't miss it; it's one of the largest houses in town."
"Thank you most kindly," Willbrand replied.
He returned to the street. It was late afternoon now, and the streets were quite crowded. They became even more so the closer he got to the river. The entire town was centered around the river and the trade it brought. He could see the masts of the riverboats peeking above the houses now in front of him. Carts and wagons filled the streets; some heading toward the river, to be loaded as cargo onto the ships headed for the cities to the south, others recently unloaded and headed in the opposite direction, on their way to the merchants shops in Keesa itself. Quite a few times Willbrand had to step to the side of the road and a huge wagon filled with goods pushed its way through the crowd.
Even so, it didn't take him long to reach the house in question. The merchant had been right, it was easy to spot. Even though only one story, it was splayed out on the western side of the road, taking up the space of three ordinary homes. Though made of wood, it was not the same wood as the others houses here, which seemed to have been cut from the local maple trees. The wood of this house was darker, more finely grained, the planks fitting together seamlessly. Willbrand had never seen anything quite like it. Though not an expert on carpentry, he could see that the workmanship of this house far surpassed any of the others in town, and indeed, almost any Willbrand had ever seen.
Willbrand walked up to the door and knocked. The door felt as solid as any in the castle in his hometown.
He stood waiting impatiently. He was eager to see a friendly face again after all this time.
He heard footsteps approaching from within, then the door swung open soundlessly. Willbrand found himself looking at a well dressed older man.
"Can I help you?"
"I wish to speak to Tevio Duncolt," Willbrand replied.
The man looked him up and down for a moment, his face expressionless.
"May I ask whose calling?" he said rather stiffly.
Willbrand opened his mouth but then stopped. He looked around for a moment. The street was only a few feet away, and was still crowded. And though none of the passerbys seemed to be paying him any attention, he couldn't be sure who might be listening. Considering that he was an outlaw, it probably wouldn't be a good idea to announce himself.
"I'm his cousin," was his reply.
The man seemed to consider this for a moment. Did Willbrand see a shadow of doubt on the man's face?
"May I ask your name?" the man asked.
Willbrand hesitated again. He glanced around one more time, then he frowned.
"I have important business I must discuss with Master Duncolt," he snapped. "I don't have time to banter with one of his servants. Now go tell him I am here immediately."
To his credit the man was almost able to hide the look of surprise in his eyes. Whatever doubts he might harbor, he couldn't openly challenge Willbrand's claim without any proof.
"I'm sorry, but Master Duncolt is away on business," he said very formally.
Now it was Willbrands turn to be surprised, and he did not try to hide it.
"Gone?" he said. "But how? When?"
"He left three days ago on the Tradewind," the man stated. "He had some sudden business to take care of in Pantaglia. He made no mention of any relatives dropping by."
The man was looking squarely at Willbrand when he said the last part of that sentence, the doubt back in his eyes.
But Willbrand no longer cared. Tevio was gone? Three days... Willbrand had left Crotasia six days ago. His father had promised to get word to Tevio. A fast horse could have made the trip between Crotasia and Keesa in one day of hard traveling. Two at the most. Word must surely have reached Tevio of Willbrand's predicament before he left.
Unless, for some reason, his father had not been able to get word through. Perhaps the Imperial Knights were watching the road, stopping any travel between the two cities. Perhaps any message his father had sent had been intercepted.
It seemed like the only explanation.
But if that were true, what was he to do now?
He looked back up at the stoned faced man in front of him. It was obvious the man doubted his word. With Tevio not being here, he had no proof of who he was, and even if he told this man his name, how did he know he could trust the man not to betray him. Tevio had never married; he had no other family here. There was no one else here who could identify him.
Pantaglia was a large city to the southwest of Keesa. It was located on the
"Do you have any idea when he'll be back?"
"He didn't say," the man replied. "Usually when he makes this trip, he's gone quite some time."
It almost sounded like a dismissal. The man obviously didn't believe what Willbrand was telling him. The young man felt a flush of anger. He wasn't used to his word being questioned by a mere servant. But he held himself in check. He certainly couldn't afford to make a scene. And considering he hadn't even told the man his name, Willbrand really couldn't blame him for being suspicious. But it still rankled. The young noble was not used to people questioning him. Things had changed a great deal for him in the last week. He was going to have to get used to it somehow.
"Thank you," Willbrand said curtly, then turned and walked away.
He wandered back out into the crowd, thinking furiously. For whatever reason, Tevio was not going to be able to help him. Nor could anyone in Crotasia. No matter what happened now, he was on his own.
In spite of his brave front, that frightened him. He had never been away from Crotasia, he had never been on his own before. He had no idea what he was going to do, or how he would survive.
Lost in thought as he was, he didn't notice the man who had been standing in the shadows of one of the houses next to the Duncolt residence. When Willbrand walked away, the man slipped into the crowd not far behind him.
For the next three hours, Willbrand just wandered the streets, watching the people go about their business. Eventually, almost as if of their own will, he found his feet had brought him to the docks. It was late afternoon now, and the sun was just sinking below the horizon. In Crotasia the peasants would be leaving the fields for home, the days work done. But the docks here were still bustling with activity. A line of torches illuminated the quay, and Willbrand could see dozens of ships lined up along the dock, cargo being loaded and unloaded. It seemed the work here was never done.
Willbrand had never worked in his life. As a member of the royal family of Crotasia and a cadet he had not lacked for duties, but he never had a job per se. He had never worked for a living, had never even thought about such a thing. But he had left Crotasia with precious little, only the clothes on his back and a few coins. Enough to last only a couple of days, he suspected. He needed food and a roof over his head. If he was going to survive, he was going to need a job.
He looked around slowly. There seemed to be plenty of opportunity here, but what could he do? Most of the business here seemed to revolve around the ships, something he was totally unfamiliar with. He was sure he could load cargo, but taking such a menial task seemed beneath him. A nobleman did not load cargo. And it didn't help to remind himself that he wasn't really a noble anymore.
The truth was, the life of a nobleman hadn't really taught him many skills that he could use in this world. About the only talent he had was his skill with a sword. True, he had never been in a real battle, but he didn't have to tell anyone that now did he?
As he walked he kept his eyes on the faces around him. Now that he could no longer depend on Tevio's help, Merigan's offer seemed much more appealing. They were now the only people in Keesa that he knew he could trust not to betray him. True, Ktan hadn't welcomed him with open arms, but they had tolerated each other. And Merigan had obviously wanted him to stay with them. Or at least, it had seemed that way. He already knew he couldn't trust his instincts with her. He had trusted her before, and look what had happened. That was how he had gotten into this mess in the first place.
No, they had already gotten him into enough trouble. He was probably better off staying as far away from those two as he could get.
And yet he couldn't help but notice that here he was, wandering around by the docks, the very place that Merigan had told him he could find them.
His thoughts were interrupted as he noticed a crowd gathered near the gangplank leading onto one ship. They blocked his view of what was going on, but he could see flashes of light thought them periodically. Each time that happened there was a cheer from the crowd.
He walked over, curious as to what was going on. Moving slowly through the crowd he made his way to the front. A man stood facing them at the edge of the dock, beside some barrels waiting to be loaded aboard the ship behind him. He was dressed in a garish bright red and gold robe. He had dark thick hair, almost black, dropping just short of his shoulders in the back. His thin aquiline features marked him as a westerner. Covering his head was an outrageous floppy hat with a brightly colored plume of feathers sticking out the top.
He had to be some sort of entertainer. For only an entertainer, or a fool, would dress in such a ridiculous outfit. It was soon evident the former was correct, for even as Willbrand watched a flame appeared in the man’s hand, as if conjured from nothing. Willbrand watched as the flame slowly changed colors, from orange to red to deep purple, and then surprisingly, turning green and flaring up so suddenly it made the people closest to the man jump back in suprise and delight, before going out a moment later.
Willbrand stood and watched for a few minutes. He had never had must interest in magicians tricks. These kinds of people had often come to the court in Crotasia to perform at royal functions. But the tricks had always been simple, most of which even a young man such as Willbrand had been able to see through. And it was obvious that even the one's he couldn't figure out were some kind of simple sleight of hand. None of it had been real magic. But he had to admit, the man in front of him now was better than most. It wasn't obvious how he was doing it, and Willbrand had never seen the feats he was performing before.
Now the man was kneeing down beside some sort of stick he had placed in the ground. Willbrand saw a spark of light. The man stood up, placing his arms out in front of himself, muttering in some strange language. Flame sparked near the bottom of the stick, hissing and sputtering. For a moment nothing happened, then suddenly there was a whooshing sound, and the stick shot up into the air, leaving a trail of flame in its wake. The people's heads turned upward with a cry of awe, but the cries were silenced by stunned surprise when there was a loud retort and a ball of sparkling multicolored lights filled the sky where the trail of flame had been a moment before.
The magician raised his hands above his head, not saying a word, letting the event speak for itself. A moment later the air was filled with applause and shouts of appreciation. Willbrand found himself clapping as well. He had never seen anything like that before. Even if it was a trick, it had been one of the most impressive tricks he had ever seen.
The magician made a great show of bowing to the crowd, sweeping off his hat. Holding it before him he thanked the crowd for any donations they might want to make to a poor hungry conjurer. Quite a few people stepped forward. Willbrand might have himself, but of course, he had a feeling he was going to need every coin he had.
The crowd began to thin, and Willbrand turned to continue on his way. As he did so he looked up and spotted Ktan and Merigan headed in his direction.
Behind him the man that had been discreetly following him turned and walked rapidly away.
Merigan spotted Willbrand at almost the same time he saw them. She turned to say something to Ktan, but he had already noticed Willbrand as well. They walked over to him, Merigan in the lead, her dark hair curling around her face.
"We didn't expect to see you here," she said. "Didn't everything go well with Tevio?"
"Not exactly," Willbrand replied and told the two of them what had happened to him.
Merigan bit her lower lip and looked at him hopefully.
"So have you decided to join us then?" she asked.
He hesitated a moment, looking discreetly at both of them. Ktan's face was expressionless. Merigan was not hiding the fact that she wanted him to join them. He wondered why that was.
"Umm, I don't know," he said finally. "I was thinking of just laying low until Tevio comes back."
"When will that be?" Merigan questioned.
"I don't know," he replied. "Maybe a couple of weeks. But certainly no more than a month or so."
"And how are you going to survive in the meantime?" Ktan asked. "You don't know anyone here. And you don't have any coin."
Willbrand looked at the older man darkly. Did he have to keep reminding him of that?
"I'll manage," he replied. "I'll get a job, perhaps as a mercenary, protecting one of the merchants on the road."
Willbrand stared at Ktan, just waiting for the man to make light of that, but when Ktan spoke, it had nothing to do with that.
"Did it ever occur to you that Tevio might have gotten your fathers message, and left to avoid getting himself caught up in this mess?"
Willbrand gave him a dark look.
"What do you mean?" he questioned. He saw Merigan give Ktan an exasperated look.
"Your cousin is an honest man," Ktan said. "He's obviously doing quite well for himself. From what you've told us about him he doesn't know you that well. The church has branded you a heretic and anyone who is found helping you will be an outlaw as well. How do you know he just didn't want to be involved in that kind of trouble? How do you know that he's not going to stay far away until this whole thing blows over?"
Willbrand just looked at Ktan for a moment, his face clouding with rage.
"Are you saying that he got the message my father sent, and ran off like a scared rabbit? That he was so worried about getting in trouble himself that he was just ran off and left me to my fate? That he wouldn't even have the courage to face me himself and tell me that? Are you saying my cousin is a coward?"
Without even thinking about it he found he had drawn his sword. He hadn't forgotten what Ktan had done to Garrik, he hadn't forgotten just how good a swordsman Ktan was, but this kind of affront could not be tolerated. He wasn't going to take that kind of talk from anyone.
"Willbrand no!" Merigan cried out.
Ktan just stood there. He made no attempt to draw his own sword.
"Put your sword away, you fool," the older man snapped. "You're drawing attention to us."
Willbrand looked around and saw that indeed, the people around them had all stopped what they were doing and were looking at the three of them. He could even see the magician standing not far away, looking at them curiously with a strange smile on his face.
Willbrand hesitated. Ktan stubbornly refused to draw his own weapon.
"Draw your sword, coward!" the young man snarled. He didn't care who heard them anymore. It didn't matter anyway, since it seemed unlikely he was going to live more than a few minutes longer.
Ktan folded his arms across his chest.
"We can settle this some other time," he said carefully. "Don't worry, if you are intent on getting a lesson in swordsmanship, I won't run away. Now put away that sword."
Ktan was standing just a foot or two away. No matter how good a swordsman he was, he wouldn't be able to get his sword out and defend himself in time if Willbrand attacked him now. But Willbrand was not about to attack a man who wasn't going to defend himself.
He looked around once more, unwilling to back down, but realizing how foolish he looked. Somehow he had backed himself into a corner, and now his only options appeared to be to put the sword away and seem a fool, or strike down an unarmed man.
He was saved from his quandary, however, by the sudden thudding of hooves.
They all looked up to see four knights on black horses gallop around the corner.
"Imperial knights!" Willbrand heard himself exclaim.
Willbrand glanced over to see that Ktan was right beside him now. Though the young man had only turned away for a second, he saw that Ktan now had his sword in his hand as well.
The knights rode toward them at full gallop, scattering the people lining the street. They pulled to a halt right in front of Willbrand and his companions. The young noble could see that they already had their swords drawn.
The man on the lead horse pointed his directly at Willbrand.
"Willbrand Stromond," the man called out. "You and your companions are under arrest for heresy against the church and crown. Surrender yourselves immediately or face the consequences."
Willbrand said nothing, but stood his ground. There was nowhere to go. They couldn't outrun horses. He looked at Ktan. The man's good eye smoldered, a look of grim determination on his face. No matter how good Ktan was, it didn't seem likely the both of them could defeat four Imperial knights, the best trained knights in all of Mandaria. Especially since the men in front of them were on horseback and in full armor, while he and his companions wore only their traveling clothes.
He glanced behind him, at Merigan, perhaps thinking that she could do something to get them out of this, but she was just standing there, her hands at her sides, a frightened look on her face.
For some reason, the look filled Willbrand with anger.
The turned back toward the knights, stepping forward.
"I am Willbrand Stromond of the royal house of Crotasia," he announced. "I am the one you are after. These others with me are chance companions and are guiltless. I will gladly go with you without a fight if you let them go!"
The knight in front leaned forward on his horse, perhaps in order to get a better look at them in the darkness.
"Very noble of you," he said. "But you are in no position to make demands. My orders are to take you and all of your companions into custody. Alive if possible, but if it's a fight you want, we will be more than willing to end your life here."
The other horseman rode up until they were right beside the speaker, obviously getting ready to charge forward. Willbrand set his jaw and held his sword ready, determined to sell his life as dearly as possible, but at that moment there was yet another interruption.
"Who disturbs the peace of Keesa?"
They all turned to see that the magician had strolled over until he was just a few feet away. He stood looking at the knights with what appeared to Willbrand to be a look of disdain.
The lead knight turned toward him. For a moment he sat there looking the magician over.
"We are Imperial knights on a mission from the king to apprehend these outlaws," the man replied. "Now stand aside and let us go about our business."
"We're a long way from Galias," the magician replied. "Why would they send Imperial knights all the way out here to this part of the country?"
"It's none of your business!" the knight snapped. "Now be on your way before we have you arrested too for interfering with the king’s imperial decree."
The man seemed unperturbed by the knight's threats.
"It hardly seems fair the four of you, armored and on horseback as well, against these three people, one of them a young woman and the other two with no armor and just their swords to defend themselves. Perhaps I can help even the odds a bit."
The knight gave him an infuriated look.
"Dare you oppose us?" he barked. "Dallon, take care of the fool."
One of the horsemen turned toward the magician. But before he could do anything else a light flared in the magician’s hand. Willbrand saw him toss something in the air, sparks fizzing around it. The lead knight flinched back, but it fell harmlessly at the man's feet. Willbrand saw it was a small round object, about the size of a fist. It made a strange hissing sound and sparks shot from it.
"What the hell is..." the knight began.
Suddenly something struck Willbrand, throwing him to the ground. There was a tremendous roar, so loud it made his ears ring. And a flash of light. He lay there stunned for a moment, but he quickly recovered when he felt hands trying to pull him up. He turned to see Merigan hauling on his arm.
"Hurry!" she shouted.
Willbrand pulled himself to his feet, his ears ringing, realizing that something, he wasn’t quite sure what, had knocked him off his feet. He looked around to see that the horses were galloping wildly away, their riders desperately trying to hang on. The horses, being sensible creatures, were fleeing for their lives, in spite of any and all protest from the foolish riders perched upon them. The blast that had just occurred at their feet was too much for even the grueling training the warhorses had been put through to overcome.
Willbrand saw Ktan pulling himself to his feet as well, but before he could say anything the magician appeared beside them.
"This way!" he called out. "That won't hold them long."
He ran past them, heading along the dock, one hand holding his hat on his head, the other grasping a large cloth bag. The others followed immediately. Willbrand didn't stop to argue, but fell in line behind them. He looked back and realized what the magician had said was true. Already one of the knights had managed to halt his steed. Now he turned around toward them.
Willbrand looked ahead. The river was on their left, a line of stores on the right. They were in the center of the city, far from the security of the forest. They couldn't possibly escape before they were overtaken again. It seemed like they had only gotten a temporary reprieve.
"They're coming back!" he called out.
No one acknowledged his warning. But suddenly the magician halted, right at the edge of the dock. He turned and started down a ladder that Willbrand hadn't noticed. As Willbrand ran up himself, he could see the water below. At the bottom of the ladder was a small rowboat.
The magician and Merigan were already aboard. Ktan, who was scrambling down the ladder, looked up at him.
"Come on!" he snapped.
Willbrand turned to look behind him one more time. Although the coast was only a half hours ride from Crotasia, it was not a seagoing town. He had never been on a boat before. Not that he minded at all. In fact, if it weren't for the circumstances, he would welcome the chance.
He scurried down the ladder as well, dropping the last few feet and hitting the floor of the boat with a thump. Immediately it started to tip at this added weight, and he would have fallen over had not Merigan reached out a hand to steady him.
"Sit down!" Ktan commanded.
Willbrand did as he was told, taking a seat in the stern of the boat. It wasn't very big, barely large enough to hold them all. The magician had taken his place in the bow. Ktan sat in the center, slipping the oars in the water, while Merigan untied the lines and pushed them away from the pier.
A moment later one of the horseman appeared on the dock above them.
"They have a boat!" he shouted.
Up front Willbrand saw the magician wave cheerfully. Ktan gave a strong pull on the oars, and they shot away from the pier and out into the river.
"Find me another boat!" the heard one of the knights shout. "Find me a bowman!"
"I suggest we move along with all speed," the magician said calmly. "It shouldn't be difficult for them to find a bowman. There are plenty of hunters in town."
"It wouldn't hurt if you lent a hand, Saramis," Ktan said, grunting with effort.
Willbrand raised an eyebrow. So these two knew each other. He had been wondering why the magician had interfered.
"You know how delicate my work is," Saramis replied with a grin. "I can't afford to damage my hands."
"I'll damage more than your hands if you keep it up," Ktan muttered.
Saramis leaned against the gunwale and looked back at the shore thoughtfully. He seemed as relaxed as if he were on an afternoon pleasure cruise.
"Is that any way to treat the man who just saved your neck?" he questioned.
Ktan muttered something under his breath.
"They've found another boat!" Willbrand said.
He pointed back toward shore. They could all see another vessel heading out from the docks behind them. It didn't look much bigger than the one they were in.
Ktan took a moment to glance over his shoulder at the opposite shore. The city did not extend across the river. On that side was only the native forest. If they could reach it they stood a very good chance of escaping. The river was deep, but not all that wide here. It was hard to judge how far away the opposite side was in the darkness, however.
Ktan pulled even more strongly on the oars. After a few moments he looked at Willbrand.
"Are they gaining?"
Willbrand stared at the boat behind them. He could see the boat held four men. Undoubtably the four Imperial knights. They were close enough that he could see that they had two men manning the oars, side by side in the boat.
"Yes," Willbrand replied.
No one spoke for some time. Ktan kept a smooth stroke, and it was obvious he had done this before. The oars slipped in and out of the water soundlessly. The only noise around them was the dripping of water off the oars when they lifted out of the river, and the occasional slap of a small wave against the hull. Willbrand sat unmoving, watching the boat behind them as is slowly caught up.
"Are we going to make it?" Merigan asked, her voice surprisingly calm.
In the bow Saramis stirred. He lifted himself up, looking at the shore in front of them and the boat following.
"It doesn't look that way," he observed.
Willbrand lifted up his sword.
"If only we could somehow sink their boat," Merigan mused. "In that armor, they'd never be able to swim."
"We can't sink them," Saramis stated. "But perhaps I can slow them down a bit."
He opened the bag he had with him and rummaged through it for a moment. He pulled something out and held it in his hands. Willbrand could see he was doing something, but he couldn't tell what.
A moment later there was a flash of light, and then a familiar fizzing sound. Saramis stood up, something Willbrand would never have attempted in the unstable boat, but the magician managed it quite easily. He pulled back his hand, and Willbrand saw that it was another of those small balls that the man had used to scare away the horses.
Saramis stood there for moment, apparently trying to judge the distance, then he suddenly heaved the ball into the air.
All eyes were on the sparking streak of light as it followed its ballistic motion through the night sky. It was but a few feet from the other craft when there was a flash of light and a loud retort.
"Sorcery!" Willbrand heard one of the men shout.
"Damn. A bit off," Saramis muttered. "Hard to judge."
In spite of the near miss, the projectile had thrown the men off their stroke so that for a few moments they were dead in the water. Ktan continued to pull strongly on the oars, and by the time the other boat was in full pursuit again, they had regained almost all the ground they had lost.
The far shore was rapidly approaching now. Willbrand could clearly make out the treeline. He could see nothing in the darkness beneath them. He supposed that was a good thing. It would be difficult for their pursuers to find them.
The shore was but a few feet away now. Suddenly Saramis leapt from the boat, landing in knee deep water with a splash. He hauled them the final few feet to shore, as Ktan dropped the oars.
"Let's go!" he commanded.
The all jumped onto shore. Ktan took the lead, and they plunged into the forest. There was a thin crescent moon above them, low in the eastern sky, but very little light from it filtered beneath the canopy above them. They walked in almost total darkness, Ktan in the lead, with Saramis right behind him. Merigan was in front of Willbrand. She reached out her hand for him to grasp, so as not to get lost in the darkness. It felt warm and comforting to his touch. He hoped someone knew where they were going.
They went on for a long time. Willbrand listened, but heard no sound of pursuit. In the darkness of the forest, it seemed unlikely that their followers could find them. They wouldn't need any of Merigans tricks to save them this time. It seemed likely to Willbrand that once they had made the forest the knights had probably turned around and gone back.
Still, it was a long time before Ktan called them to a halt. When he did, it was in a small open field, no larger than ten or twenty paces wide. Here the moonlight reached them enough to see their immediate surroundings.
"It looks like we've given them the slip," Ktan stated.
"Thanks to me," Saramis reminded everyone. He turned to cast a thoughtful eye on Willbrand. "So how did you end up with this young pup?"
"It's a long story," Ktan replied with a sigh. "His name is..."
"Yes I know," Saramis cut him off. "Willbrand Stromond of the royal house of Crotasia, as he so proudly told those Imperial knights. And I am Saramis Ash, adventurer, world traveler, inventor without peer, and the finest sorcerer in all of Mandaria. Pleased to meet you, you highness."
He finished his statement with a deep bow.
Willbrand said nothing at all, ignoring the mocking tone in Saramis' voice.
"So what are we going to do now?" Merigan asked.
It seemed to Willbrand that they weren't much better off than they had been when had started their adventure. Ktan looked around for a moment, then pointed to the north.
Above the trees, Willbrand could see the dark bulk of a hill lifting itself up into the sky. It didn't look that far away.
"We're going to the Bear's Claw," Ktan replied.
Without another word Ktan led them back into the woods. No one asked him to explain what he was talking about. Willbrand just assumed the hill he had pointed to was called the Bear's Claw. The rest of the journey was spent in silence. It was hard to tell which direction they were going in beneath the trees, but Ktan seemed to know exactly where he was headed. Soon the land started to rise up, and even though the trees still covered them, Willbrand could tell they had reached the foot of the hill. They slowly made their way up. As they did the trees began to thin out, and they could see the stars above their heads once again. Eventually they came to a narrow gorge. A babbling stream ran along the bottom of it. They followed this for a while until the climbed over a rocky ledge. A dark opening just above the brook here heralded the entrance to a cave.
"Saramis, we need some light," Ktan stated.
The magician reached into his bag again. Willbrand half expected him to conjure some strange light right of his hand, but when he withdrew his hand from the bag it held an ordinary torch.
Saramis lit the torch and handed it to Ktan, who walked quickly into the cave. When Willbrand entered he saw that the cavern was a hollowed out area perhaps twenty paces wide. The floor of the cavern was covered with soft dirt, the walls surprisingly smooth.
"Welcome to the Bear's Claw," Ktan stated. "We can rest here for as long as we want. Saramis, start a fire. Merigan and I will set up camp."
Ktan bent down and slipped off his pack, pulling out his equipment. Beside him Merigan did the same. Willbrand just stood there, feeling very useless.
A few minutes later Saramis had a comfortable fire blazing in the middle of the cavern. Willbrand took the bedroll Merigan offered him, the same one he had used on the way to Keesa, and laid it out not far from the fire. Merigan was already in hers, apparently more than willing to get some sleep. Saramis and Ktan sat by the fire, not saying anything at all.
Willbrand slipped into his bedroll. He wasn't really tired, but there was not much else to do but sleep at this point. He had tons of questions, but it didn't seem likely Saramis or Ktan would answer them. He would have to stick with his earlier plan, when he had been with them before, and try to pry some information from Merigan when he got the chance.
He looked up at the cavern ceiling above him, watching the shadows dance across it. It appeared that coming to Keesa had not turned out to be such a good idea. He didn't believe for a moment what Ktan had suggested, that Tevio might have run off leaving him to his fate. But that really didn't matter anymore now. His plans were in tatters. He couldn't go back to Keesa, and he had nowhere else to go. No matter what happened now, it appeared his fate lay with the companions he had now, whoever they were and whatever their purpose. Somehow it seemed he was destined to travel with them.
For a long time he lay there, sleep eluding him, the silence in the cave broken only by the soft crackling of the fire. He was lying with his back to it, the warmth of it seeping into his bedroll. He was beginning to drift off when the silence was broken.
"Are they asleep?" he heard Ktan ask, so softly he could barely make out the words.
There was a pause before any reply.
"It would seem that way."
"That was a close call today," Ktan continued. "Thank you, my friend."
"Think nothing of it," Saramis replied, his voice serious, no longer holding its former condescending tone. "You've rescued me often enough. But tell me, how did you manage to get yourself in a predicament like that?"
Ktan did not answer for a moment.
"I'm afraid it's our young friends fault," he finally said bluntly. "He's not very good at this outlaw thing yet, I'm afraid. It seemed the most obvious thing in the world that the crown would send agents to watch over his relatives, to see if he might show up, especially since Keesa was the most likely place for him to go. But that thought probably never even entered his head. They were probably waiting for him when he reached his cousins house, and followed him until he met us."
"So why didn't you try to stop him?"
"He seemed determined to find his own way," Ktan responded. "Merigan asked him to come along with us, but he refused. I figured as long as he wasn't with us, anyone who saw him was likely just to follow him on the hope that he'd lead them to us."
"Which is exactly what he did," Saramis stated.
"Yeah," Ktan said. "Unfortunately he seems to have a penchant for doing exactly what you don't want him to. I didn't expect him to come back to us that quickly."
"So why didn't you just dump him altogether?" Saramis questioned. "You don't even know him."
"I probably would have, but Merigan seems to see something in him. At first I thought it was just guilt on her part. After all, it was her fault he's in this mess to begin with. But there's more to it than that. She has some kind of feeling about him. And you know I'm not about to dismiss any feeling she might have."
They were silent for a few moments.
"Well and good," Saramis said finally. "But what are we to do now? We don't have any supplies, and we can't go back to Keesa. And Jenya doesn't even know where we are. We're supposed to meet her in town."
"I know," Ktan said. "But obviously that's not going to happen. I'm hoping that when she realizes we're not there, she'll make her way here."
"Why would she do that?"
"Keesa is the town Jenya was born in. She knows the entire area for miles around. She used to wander through these woods all the time when she was young. She was the one who found this place. It's a logical place for her to come looking for us. She's the only chance we have. No one else can get us supplies."
Willbrand heard one of the men stir uncomfortably.
"Well, let's hope so then," Saramis finished.
Willbrand lay there unmoving, controlling his anger. He thought Ktan had some nerve blaming this whole thing on him. He had been tempted to stand up immediately and challenge the man. But he had already tried that once and it hadn't worked out very well. He had a feeling the result would be similar if he tried it again now. He had to keep reminding himself that he was no longer a noble. He no longer had a name to protect. Not really. Instead he just continued to lay there. If he was going to survive, he was going to have to learn to live by a new set of rules. He was too tired now anyway, he could fight Ktan tomorrow if he wanted.
It wasn't much longer after that that he drifted off to sleep.
For three days they remained at the Bear's Claw, waiting for Jenya. Neither Saramis nor Ktan made any mention to Willbrand of their conversation by the fire, and Willbrand decided not to bring it up himself. No matter how he may feel about his personal honor, they all had to work together if they were going to survive. Willbrand helped as best he could, carrying water, helping with cleaning, trying to pull his own weight. The others kept mostly to themselves. He talked sometimes with Merigan, but Ktan was always nearby, and the girl never revealed any information about herself, or her past.
Each morning Willbrand brought water into the cave from the brook outside. On the fourth morning they were there the sun was shining brightly as he emerged from the cave. He shaded his eyes and looked up, feeling the heat beating down upon him. It was much hotter today than it had been recently. Summer’s last gasp, perhaps. He walked to the brook and filled the bucket he had been given, feeling the cool water flow across his hands. It felt so good he decided now might be a good time to take a little swim.
He brought the water back inside, telling the others of his intentions, then reemerged. The brook was too small outside the cave to go swimming in, but widened out into a wide pool farther downhill. He made his way down eagerly. He hadn't had a decent bath since he had left Crotasia more than a week ago. The water they carried in their packs was too precious to use for cleaning. He had been hoping to get an opportunity in Keesa to clean himself up, but that hadn't happened. As a noble he had had the opportunity to take frequent baths, something the peasants didn't get the chance to do. He wasn't used to being so dirty.
He made his way down the slope until he reached the pool. The brook ran rapidly down the hillside, but the terrain leveled out here for a moment, before continuing its steep incline. The water here was calm and clear.
Willbrand looked back up the slope. He couldn't see the cave above him. There was no chance of Merigan seeing him.
He stripped off his clothes and slipped into the pond. The water was just as he had expected, deliciously refreshing. As he had hoped, the pond was deep enough in the middle that he could swim. Though he had never been on a boat, his parents had taken him to the seashore on occasion, and it was there that he had learned how to swim. He paddled around for a while quite happily.
Through the trees he could see much of the slope below him. He was swimming lazily across the pond when he happened to glance down and saw some movement farther down the slope.
He stopped, staring at the figure he now saw there. It was a knight on horseback.
He quickly made his way back to his clothes. The knight was on the lower slope, not too close, but not very far away either. It didn't seem that the newcomer had seen him.
He quickly donned his clothes once more, thankful that he had brought his sword along. He crawled along a line of bushes, peeking out at the slope below.
The knight was closer now, near the glade of trees and the pond he had been swimming in. The man seemed to be headed up the slope, straight towards the Bear's Claw. He was in full armor, his head concealed within his helm. The armor was not that of an Imperial knight. He had never seen that type of armor before. But just because it wasn't an Imperial knight didn't mean that the stranger wasn't in league with them. The only person who Willbrand knew might be coming here was that girl named Jenya. If it wasn't her, he could only assume it was an enemy.
He looked up the slope, wondering if he should go warn the others. But the knight was close now; just on the other side of the trees, and Willbrand didn't think he could leave his position without being spotted. He quietly slipped his sword out of its sheath.
In a straight fight, it was unlikely, dressed as he was, he could beat a knight in full armor. Still, it might be that he would have no choice but to fight.
The knight rode through the trees, only a few feet from where Willbrand was. He flattened himself down in the brush as the knight rode by. When he lifted his head again, the horse stood at the edge of the pond.
The rider dismounted, leading the horse over to the water to drink. His back was now to Willbrand, who lay in the grass not more than a few feet away.
Willbrand slowly lifted himself to his feet, trying to be as quiet as possible. Now was his chance to slip away and warn the others. But he hesitated. The knight was just a few feet away, unaware that he was there. If he could come up behind the man, he might get in a killing blow before the other could react. Perhaps if he showed Ktan and the others that he could fight, they might be more willing to accept him.
He knew that any second the man could turn around and spot him. He hesitated just a moment, then balancing his sword lightly in his hands, slowly started forward.
It wasn't much ground to cover. The man still stood beside the horse, pulling burrs from the beasts coat while it drank. Willbrand lifted his sword.
Though Willbrand was sure he hadn't made a sound, the knight suddenly spun around, pulling his own sword out of its sheath. He brought it up just in time to block the murderous blow Willbrand aimed at his head.
Willbrand cursed and lunged forward again. Now that his surprise was gone he was at a severe disadvantage. He had to kill this man as quickly as possible.
The young noble slashed back and forth as quickly as he could, swinging high and low as Garrik had taught him. The knight blocked all his blows, but the speed of his attack left the man no room to counter. He was still obviously a bit surprised by the attack, and gave ground, stepping back until he was up to his knees in the pond. But Willbrand was quickly tiring. He knew he couldn't keep up this ferocious an attack much longer. He had to hope that he could get past the man's guard and finish him soon.
And then suddenly, the man lunged forward, faster than Willbrand had thought possible. With catlike reflexes he managed to dodge out of the way, but not completely. The blade tore through his shirt and drew blood.
He didn't have time to think about the minor wound, however, for suddenly the knight unleashed a blizzard of blows upon him. In moments he found himself stumbling back, amazed at the speed of the man's attack. He had never thought anyone could move that fast in full armor. He desperately defended himself, trying just to survive now. He was being forced backward, so rapidly that he suddenly lost his footing. He stumbled to the ground, and even as he did so the knight’s sword clanged against his own, knocking it from his hands.
The knight raised his sword to finish the fight.
Willbrand turned to see Ktan standing by the trees nearby.
The knight froze, his sword poised in midair.
Ktan walked slowly forward until he stood at the edge of the pond. He looked down at Willbrand.
"You're both on the same side," he stated.
Willbrand looked at Ktan with a frown. The knight lowered his sword, and Willbrand got to his feet.
"But you said the only one who knew about this place was Jenya," he exclamined.
"That I did," Ktan replied. "Willbrand Stromond. Meet Jenya Dulance."
The knight reached up and pulled off her helm, giving a shake of her head to straighten out her silky red hair. She looked at Willbrand with penetrating green eyes.
Willbrand just stood there with his mouth open.
"A woman!" he stuttered. "A female knight? Impossible! There's no such thing!"
"Then I must be a figment of your imagination," the woman replied calmly, speaking for the first time.
"You must forgive Willbrand," Ktan stated. "He's led somewhat of a sheltered life."
"It would seem so," Jenya replied. She reached down and picked up Willbrand's sword, handing it back to him. "You're pretty good. But it might be advisable in the future to find out just who you're fighting before you attack someone."
Willbrand did not reply, still too stunned to say anything.
"Merigan is with you?" Jenya said, turning to Ktan.
"Of course," he replied. "And Saramis too. I was hoping you would find us here."
"Keesa was in an uproar," Jenya replied. "Imperial knights all over the place. I knew I shouldn't have left you alone."
Ktan smiled and shrugged.
"C'mon," he said. "Let's get back to the cave. We've got a lot to discuss."
Jenya remounted and followed Ktan up the slope. Willbrand was left with no choice but to follow. They ignored him and he was glad. His pride had suffered a great deal since this adventure had started. But of all the things that had happened to him, nothing else compared to this. He had suffered the worst of indignities. He had been beaten in battle by a woman.