Chapter three


When they reached the cave Jenya tied the horse to a nearby tree and they all entered. Saramis and Merigan were obviously pleased to see Jenya, greeting her warmly as she walked in in front of Willbrand. She stopped and looked at them all for a moment, shaking her head slowly.

"I leave you people for a few days and what happens?" she said. "You have an entire squadron of Imperial Knights chasing after you. What am I going to do with you three?"

"It was his fault," Saramis said imperiously, nodding toward Ktan.

"I'll bet," Jenya replied, the skepticism obvious in her voice.

"No, it was mine," Willbrand suddenly spoke up.

They all turned to look at him.

"It was me they were after," he continued, a little surprised at himself. He had not planned on saying anything at all. But the way he felt now, it didn't seem to matter. "It was me they recognized. If it hadn't been for me, this wouldn't have happened."

"It wasn't anyone's fault," Ktan said, the tone of his voice leaving no doubt this matter was no longer open to discussion. "They could just as easily have spotted us on their own. But that doesn't matter now anyway. We have to decide on our next step."

He turned and looked directly at Willbrand.

"I asked you once while we were in Keesa what your intentions were. You decided to get help from your cousin, but it looks like that's no longer an option for you. So I ask you again, what are your intentions?"

"He's coming with us," Merigan spoke up.

Willbrand turned toward the young girl, feeling his face flush with anger. He had said no such thing. Was she putting words in his mouth? But the look on her face somehow melted his anger away.

He saw Ktan was still staring at him.

"I...I don't know," he said slowly, and quite honestly.

Ktan said nothing, just continued to stare at him with his one good eye, as if by doing so he could read Willbrand's thoughts. Willbrand quickly turned away.

"We're going to be here at least another night. We need more wood for the fire," Ktan said, apparently completely out of the blue. "Willbrand, why don't you go collect us some more?"

Willbrand frowned. That sounded distinctly like a dismissal. He looked at the others, but none of them were looking at him except for Merigan. He was tempted to tell Ktan no, but then thought better of it. He had a feeling it wouldn't do him a bit of good. He bit his lip and turned to go, but then Ktan spoke again.

"And Merigan, why don't you give him a hand?"

Willbrand stopped. He hadn't been expecting that. The whole time they had been together it had seemed to Willbrand that Ktan had watched over Merigan like a hawk, never leaving them alone together, never giving them a chance to talk unless he was in earshot. But now here he was, sending them both off together.

Merigan looked at Ktan, and from the look on her face Willbrand theorized she was thinking pretty much the same thing he had been when Ktan told him to go get some wood. It seemed obvious he wanted to discuss some things with the others, some things he didn't want either Willbrand or Merigan to be a part of. For a moment he thought Merigan was going to object.

"Yes Ktan," was all she said.

She strode deliberately for the entrance. Willbrand paused for a moment, then followed. He wasn't too happy about being sent away, but it was tempered by the fact that perhaps now he could finally talk to Merigan in private. He walked out without a glance back.

The bright sunlight made him squint when they emerged onto the slope outside. Merigan just kept right on walking without looking back.

"He doesn't trust me, does he?" Willbrand questioned.

"He doesn't trust anyone," Merigan replied, surprisingly bitterly. "Except maybe those two people back there with him. I wish he would stop treating me like a child."

They walked slowly down the slope, side by side.

"So why do you listen to him then?" Willbrand asked.

Merigan looked at him, her blue eyes glinting in the sunlight.

"What else am I supposed to do?" she questioned.

"Stand up to him," he replied. "Tell him you're not a child."

Merigan made a face.

"It wouldn't do any good," she replied. "Ktan can be as stubborn as a mule. Besides, he means well. He's looked after me all these years, ever since my parents died. He's kept me safe, even though the whole kingdom seems to be after us. I don't know whether anyone else would have been able to manage it. I really should be grateful."

Willbrand looked back toward the cave entrance. They were far enough away now so that no one inside could possibly overhear them.

"Perhaps," he said. "But just why is the whole kingdom after you? What exactly was it that you did?"

"I don't know," she said.

Willbrand gave her a look.

"No really, I don't," she said defensively. "Something happened when I was a child. I don't remember it myself. I must have been too young. I've tried many times to pry it out of Ktan, but he won't tell me. Like I said, he's stubborn as a mule. All he'll say is that he'll tell me someday, when the time is right."

Merigan looked at the ground. Spotting a small stone she kicked it and sent it tumbling down the slope.

"When the time is right," she repeated. "When's that going to be, when I'm fifty?"

Actually Willbrand found this a little bit comforting. Apparently he wasn't the only one who was being kept in the dark.

"Does it have something to do with what you did back in Crotasia?" he asked. "How you made those men not see us?"

Merigan didn't even look at him, instead stared off into the distance. They had quite a view of the forest below from up on the hill. She took a long time to reply.

"I...I didn't do anything," she said slowly, but stopped when she saw the look on his face. She hesitated a moment more.

"You are going to come with us, aren't you?" she asked.

Willbrand just looked at her for a moment. It was such a strange look she was giving him. She seemed to want him to come with them so badly, but he hadn't the faintest idea why.

"I don't know," he repeated. "Why do you keep asking me that?"

Merigan hesitated.

"I'm not sure," she replied. "I know Ktan would be more likely to trust you if you said you were coming with us. He doesn't want to tell you anything if he's not sure you're going to just take off on us."

By now Willbrand was so used to Ktan doubting him that he didn't even take offense.

"I wouldn't betray you," he said resignedly.

"I know that," she said with surprising conviction. "I know you wouldn't willingly. But that doesn't mean they couldn't force the truth out of you, if it came down to that."

"I told you, I wouldn't betray you," Willbrand repeated, looking at her darkly. When were they going to stop questioning his every word?

Merigan shrugged.

"I believe it," she answered. "But Ktan is not so trusting. I know he won't want me to tell you anything unless he knows you are staying with us."

"So he can keep an eye on me?"

He looked at her pointedly.

"Yes," she replied. "But also because we're all in the same boat. We can help each other."

"It doesn't seem like he's much interested in my help," Willbrand said ruefully.

"That's because he doesn't know you very well," she replied. "You have to understand. We've been on the run a long time. For as long as I can remember. We've met people who we thought were trustworthy who didn't turn out that way. Being suspicious is the only reason we've survived for this long. Don't take it personally."

Willbrand was not much convinced by that argument.

"So if I just say, okay, I'm coming along with you, you'll tell me everything? What's to stop me from saying that and then taking off afterwards?"

"You wouldn't do that," Merigan said.

"Why not?" he replied. "Why should you take me at my word that I would stay? You don't seem to believe anything else I say."

Merigan frowned.

"Ktan doesn't," she replied.

He stopped and looked at her.

"But you do?"

She stopped as well, turning to look at him with an unreadable expression. A light gust of wind blew a lock of her hair across her eyes. She hastily brushed it aside.

"Yes," she replied. "I believe that, if nothing else, you are a man of honor, Willbrand Strumond. I believe that you would not deliberately lie to me."

For a moment they stood there looking at one another, and then Willbrand turned away. The look on her face was so open, so...trusting. It made him feel slightly embarrassed for some unknown reason. He had to remind himself that this was the same girl that had lied to him in Crotasia. Albeit she had had good reason, but still...

"I don't understand why you would not want to come with us," Merigan interrupted his thoughts. "Being outlaws as well, you know you can trust us. And who else can you say that about? What are you going to do now, if you go off on your own? It makes sense for us all to stay together."

Willbrand shook his head. He had been wondering that himself. He had to admit she had a point. Was he just doing this to be stubborn? Did he just not want to accept help from strangers? Was he just being foolish again?

He turned to face her again.

"Why do you want me to stay with you so badly?"

"I just told you..." she began.

"No," he cut her off. "There's more to it than that. Why do you want me to stay?"

She looked at him for a moment, and this time it was her turn to turn away.

"I'm not sure," she said slowly. "I've just got a feeling about you. That...that happens to me sometimes. I get a feeling about someone, and it's usually right. I just..." She turned back toward him again. "I just think that you were meant to come with us."

Willbrand just looked at her without responding. He had to admit he didn't know what to make of this strange girl or her companions. But realistically, what was he going to do now? His cousin was gone, for whatever reason, and it was obvious he wasn't going to get any help from that direction. His family couldn't help him. If he struck out on his own, he would have no one to turn to. In spite of his confidence in his abilities, he had doubts as well. He had never been alone, and he certainly didn't have any experience avoiding the king's troops. Looking at it logically, there really wasn't any good reason for him not to stay with Merigan and her companions.

"But I don't even know where you're going," he said finally. "I don't know what your intentions are. How can I say I'll come with you when I don't know that?"

Merigan nodded slowly.

"I know it seems kind of strange. Ktan doesn't trust you. But he expects you to trust us. I know he doesn't want to tell you anything until you've agreed to go with us. If you know where we are headed, he'll be afraid that if you go off on your own you might get captured, you might give us away."

"I told you I wouldn't do that," Willbrand said firmly.

"I know," she replied. "But I know that's what he thinks. It's not fair of us to ask you to trust us without trusting you at the same time. So I'll tell you what I know. Because I do trust you."

Willbrand did not reply, just waited for her to continue. She was looking right at him, but he avoided eye contact. He knew if he looked in her eyes he would believe her, and he wasn't sure if he could.

"We're going to Porgia," she continued. "We're trying to find someone named Hansen Barrik."

"Hansen Barrik? Who's he?"

"I don't know, exactly," Merigan replied, shaking her head. "I just know Ktan thinks he has useful information. Information"

Willbrand looked at her thoughtfully.

"About you...and...what you can do?"

Merigan nodded.

Willbrand tried to hold her eyes with his own.

"And what exactly is it...that you do? And don't tell me it was nothing."

"No, I told you I trust you. I won't lie. But I don't know myself exactly what it is, or even how I can do it. If I concentrate I can do things to people, make them not see things, or sometimes see things that aren't there, or believe something that may not be true. It doesn't always work. And the simpler and more plausible the illusion or the deceit, the more likely it is to succeed. And some people are more susceptible than others. I can't make someone believe when something is obviously impossible. I can't make a floating castle suddenly appear in front of you. It's more subtle than that. In this forest, I could make you hear a wolf howl, or perhaps even actually see one. It takes a lot of concentration and energy, and even with something as simple as a wolf howl, I'm usually exhausted afterwards."

She stopped. Looking at him, waiting for some reaction, but he didn't say a word. He didn't know what to say. He didn't know what to think. In all of Crotasia, he had only seen magicians do simple parlor tricks, not even as complicated as the things Saramis had done. But if what she was telling him was true, the only explanation was that this was real magic. In spite of himself, he couldn't help but doubt her tale; at least he would have, if he hadn't seen if for himself.

"I don't know how or why I can do it," she continued. "I've been able to for as long as I can remember. Of course, I've gotten a lot better at it as I've gotten older. Ktan obviously knows something, but he hasn't told me much, just that I've got a gift."

"And what exactly is this guy supposed to know?" he questioned.

"I'm not sure," she replied. "Ktan hasn't told me much, as I said. I think he can tell how I can better control my power, and perhaps other things I may be able to do. I don't really know. Ktan has always been searching for more information about my abilities, and we've followed up plenty of false leads. We just heard about this Barrik man recently and maybe this will lead to nothing too."

The wind blew through Merigan's hair again, stronger this time. Above them the sky was half full of billowy clouds, racing above their heads. Willbrand could see darker one's on the horizon.

For a moment they both stood there in silence.

"So...will you come with us?" she asked.

And still he did not respond. What was holding him back, he wondered? She was right, she was right about everything. There was no place for him to go, no one else he could turn to. He could see that the only reason he didn't say yes right away was because of his pride, because he didn't want them to think, no, he didn't want to think himself, that he couldn't get by without them, that he couldn't make it on his own.

And he had to admit, that was a pretty foolish reason.

"I...I guess so," he said finally.

Merigan's eyes lit up.


He sighed.

"Yes, really. You still don't believe me?"

"Of course I do," she replied quickly. I just seemed so stub..determined."

Willbrand gave her a look that made it obvious he hadn't missed her little slip.

"C'mon, let's go back to the others," she said, grabbing hold of his hand and tugging him along.

"But...we haven't gotten any wood yet," he protested.

"Don't be dense," she replied. "They didn't send us out here to get wood; they sent us to get us out of the way."

She turned to look back at him.

"And don't forget; don't tell Ktan I told you any of this. I'll get in a huge amount of trouble!"

He nodded, then let her drag him along, shaking his head. She was right again, but he had expected her to at least follow pretense and gather some wood together. But he should have known better. This girl didn't seem to play by any of the rules as he understood them.

They reached the cave and entered. The others were standing in just about the same place they had been when Willbrand and Merigan had left. They looked up as the two entered.

"Willbrand has agreed to come with us," Merigan announced.

No one seemed particularly surprised at their return, nor the news.

"Very well," was all Ktan said about it, though Willbrand could feel the man's eye upon him. "Jenya is going to go back to town and pick us up some supplies. We'll leave at dawn tomorrow."

"Leave for where?" Willbrand questioned with a glance at Merigan.

"Porgia," Ktan replied, still sounding almost reluctant. "We'll have to stay off the roads, of course. It's going to be slow going through the woods, even mounted. It'll probably take us three or four days. Get some rest while you can."




Ktan was true to his promise that they would be leaving at dawn. It was still dark when Merigan nudged Willbrand awake. The young noble got up immediately, without complaint. He was used to getting up early from his training in the cadets. Saramis, on the other hand, stubbornly refused to budge, groaning and turning away when Ktan tried to prod him. It took Jenya threatening to throw a pot of water over him to finally get him to his feet.

By the time they gathered their gear together and stepped out of the cave, the light of dawn was peeking over the treetops to the east. Jenya had left for Keesa soon after Merigan had told them Willbrand was coming with them, and had returned late last night, loaded down with supplies. Willbrand now had his own pack, sleeping and cooking gear, as well as a good supply of dried food and water. Standing on the slope of the hill, he could see that three horses now stood beside Jenya's next to the cave entrance.

Merigan rushed over to one, a chestnut colt with a white streak down its muzzle.

"What a beautiful horse!" she exclaimed excitedly, stroking the beast on its forehead. "I'll ride on this one."

Without further ado she scrambled up onto it. Willbrand looked at the horses and frowned.

"There are only four horses and there are five of us," he pointed out.

"I know," Jenya replied as she mounted her own horse. She was fully dressed once more in her gear, except for her helm which she held in her hand. "Unfortunately there weren't many to spare in Keesa. I couldn't get anymore."

Saramis folded his arms across his chest. He was obviously still in a foul mood from being forced to get up so early.

"You can get anything in Keesa for the right price," he muttered. "We should have sent someone a little less frugal."

"I wasn't going to pay a fortune for a horse," Jenya snapped. "I could buy a dozen horses in Porgia for what they were asking."

"But we're not in Porgia, now are we?" Saramis replied. "We're in the middle of nowhere being sought by Imperial Knights and we have to get as far from here as we can as quickly as we can. Sometimes you need to pay a little more if you want to get what you need."

"A little more is one thing..." Jenya began.

"Enough," Ktan said, shutting them both up. "This is fine. We'll just have someone double up." He looked at Saramis. "We don't have an unlimited amount of coin. Jenya's only trying to make it last as long as possible. Besides, you know we couldn't have sent anyone else into town."

"Willbrand can ride with me!" Merigan exclaimed, trotting her horse over to him so quickly the beast almost knocked him over.

"All right then," Jenya said. "Shall we get going?"

Willbrand looked up at Merigan, who was extending her hand to him. For a moment he just stood there. He was used to riding a horse by himself. He hadn't doubled up since he was a child, and he certainly had never ridden behind a girl. As a noble and a member of the cadets he had learned to ride at a very young age, and was quite accomplished at it. None of the girls in Crotasia would have dared to be so bold as to suggest that he ride behind them.

Nevertheless, he took her hand and pulled himself up behind her. Whether he liked it or not, things were different now.

Jenya snapped the reigns and her horse cantered forward. The others followed in single file, Ktan right behind her, then Merigan and Willbrand, and Saramis bringing up the rear. Soon they were lost deep in the forest, or at least, it seemed so to Willbrand. He remembered that Ktan had mentioned that Jenya had grown up here, and she led them forward unhesitantly. Often they would come upon trails carved through the underbrush, perhaps by some hunter, or maybe an animal and they would follow them for some time. But just as often she led them straight through the forest, with no trail to follow, and as far as Willbrand could tell, completely at random, with only the occasionally glimpse of the sun through the trees to tell them which direction they were headed.

Naturally, the going was slow. It was a single day’s ride to Porgia along the road, but they pushed on for three days, and Willbrand had no idea how much distance they covered, or how much farther they had to go. The forest seemed to go on forever. And indeed, except where humans had carved out a town, or where rivers snaked through, the entire region was one huge expanse of densely packed old growth forest. Even with their snaking course, they made slow progress steadily eastward. By the second day the hills around them had become more pronounced, and Willbrand could occasionally catch a glimpse of a mountain range off in the distance to the north, their tall peaks reaching above the treeline. The hills loomed large around them now, and they spent much time traveling on a roundabout path through the valleys between them.

Turning south, they eventually came to a long line of hills that ran right across their path, and they had no choice but to ascend them. They spent most of the third day doing this, and the sun was low on the horizen when they finally crested the peak. Willbrand looked ahead and saw that the hills had come to an end. He looked down in front of them and saw the land leveled off, an unbroken carpet of green for as far as they eye could see. But then, looking closely, he realized that was not true. Not far ahead, on the forest floor at the base of the hill they stood on, he could see a narrow light brown ribbon, the unmistakable sign of the road.

"There's a mountain range east of us here that is impassable," Jenya stated. "We're going to have to head south to go around it. And that means we're going to have to cross the road."

Ktan nodded, though he did not look particularly pleased. They had seen no sign of pursuit since they had left Keesa. Of course, it wasn't likely they would considering the path Jenya had led them. Obviously crossing the road was a bit more risky than wandering around in the forest, however.

"Well, surely they can't be guarding the entire road," Willbrand stated.

Ktan did not reply. He was staring down at the road below them. Jenya rode up beside him.

"Can you see anything?" he questioned.

Jenya looked at the road for some time, then shook her head.

Willbrand felt himself straining to see the road as well. It was a dark ribbon, easy enough to pick out, but too far away to see if anything was traveling upon it.

"Just a sec," they heard Saramis say.

He slid off his horse and walked over to a rocky outcropping that stood right at the edge of a steep slope. That position gave him the best view of the land below. He rummaged around in his satchel for a moment, then pulled out what looked like a long tube. He held it up to his eye and looked down at the road below, slowly moving the tube back and forth.

"What's that?" Willbrand questioned.

"Far seeing magic," Saramis replied nonchalantly.

They stood there in silence watching him for a few moments, then he replaced the tube in his satchel and turned toward them.

"There's nothing on the road below at the moment."

"Good," Ktan stated. "Then we best get across as quickly as possible."

Saramis remounted and they rode the horses down the slope. It was quite steep and they had to go slowly to make sure the horses wouldn't stumble. By the time they reached the base of the hill it was almost dark.

"Hurry up," Ktan commanded.

The others followed as Ktan led them forward. Willbrand didn't see what the rush was. It was true, it would be dangerous to cross the road, but wouldn't it be safer if they tried it after dark?

About a quarter of a mile farther they finally caught a glimpse of the dark dirt track of the road in front of them. The trees were thick around it, and they could not see far in either direction. They would have to walk out into the road in order to do that. Ktan signaled for them to halt.

"I'll go take a look," he said.

He rode forward, his horse pushing through the undergrowth. They could all see the road clearly from here. Ktan reached it and carefully rode his horse out onto the track. He looked around for a moment, then motioned for them to follow.

Merigan spurred her horse forward, and soon they had all joined Ktan on the road. Willbrand looked around. The road here was a mere cart track, rutted with wheel tracks on either side, with stubby grass growing in the middle. It traveled in a straight line to the south until it faded into the distance, but turned not far ahead to the north. In either direction he could see nothing.

"C'mon," Ktan stated. He led them toward the woods on the other side, but his horse hadn't taken more than a few steps when something whizzed by his head.

They all stopped as they saw the arrow embedded in the tree beside him.

Ktan's sword was already out when the man appeared out of the trees just ahead of them, but he made no move.

The man was dressed in ragged and dirty green and brown clothing of a commoner. He held a rusting scythe in his hand. Willbrand saw two other men step out of the woods behind him, one carrying a wooden rod and the other a hunting knife. These were obviously not Imperial soldiers.

"Common highwaymen," he heard Saramis mutter.

Ktan nodded but said nothing. Willbrand discreetly slid his sword out of its sheath as well. His eyes slowly surveyed the trees where the arrow had come from. Simple robbers, these men were no match for mounted men with swords, but the man who had fired the arrow could be a problem.

"Good day to you," the lead man stated, stopping not far away from them, but well out of swords reach. "We don't want any trouble. We just want your coin. Hand it over and you can go in peace."

"Where's the bowmen?" Ktan said softly, obviously concerned about the same problem as Willbrand.

Jenya looked around, then slowly shook her head.

"There," Willbrand said, as loudly as he dared. Ktan turned to look at him, then followed his gaze. The bowman was in a tree off the side of the road. Ktan nodded slowly.

"Jenya, he's yours," he said. "Saramis, can you create a little diversion?"

"Of course," Saramis replied. "But what if there's more than one?"

"We'll just have to hope there isn't," Ktan replied.

"There aren't," Merigan said with conviction.

"What are you all muttering about?" the man who was confronting them said, seeming a bit annoyed about being ignored. He raised his scythe menacingly. "Are you going to give us your coin or not?"

"Let's not do anything rash here," Saramis replied. "Just give us a moment to get it together."

Saramis calmly pulled out a pipe and lit it up as the others gathered around him, as if he didn't have a care in the world. Then he pulled out a small pouch, but instead of taking their coins, Willbrand saw him take out one of those things he had used against the horseman in Keesa. Using his pipe, he discretely lit it and slipped it into the pouch.

"Here you go," he called out, flipping the pouch to the man.

The robber reached out and caught the pouch, then frowned. The hissing sound coming from within obviously not something he had expected. He started to pull the pouch open, but then it exploded in his hand with a loud retort, making him cry out and fall to the ground.

Instantly Jenya charged forward, into the woods, straight at the archer. Not expecting her sudden move, he got off one hastily fired shot, which thudded harmlessly against the tough leather hide protecting the flank of her horse, before her sword swung through the air, and the fell from the tree with a scream.

Ktan charged the other men, who, knowing full well their meager weapons were no match for a mounted swordsman, turned and fled into the woods as fast as their feet could carry them. The man whom Saramis had stunned scrambled to his feet as well, turning and bolting toward the woods. Ktan spun his horse around and charged to cut him off. The man, now weaponless, didn't make the forest in time. He raised his hands in a useless gesture to defend himself as Ktan's blade slashed down on him.

Without pausing Ktan turned to look into the woods where the other men had disappeared, but they were gone. Ktan muttered a curse.

Willbrand sheathed his own sword, having taken no part in the battle. Though he had wanted to charge forward, Merigan had made no move, and he hadn't wanted to put her in any danger. Now he looked at Ktan critically.

"Was that really necessary?" he questioned, looking at the dead man at their feet. "He was no longer a threat. You didn't have to kill him."

"He wouldn't have hesitated to kill us," Ktan replied. "Besides, Imperial Knights are bound to come by here, if they run into these men, they'll be sure to question them. I'm sure these rogues would tell them all they knew about us for the promise of a little coin, or by more persuasive means. If the Knights find out we were here they're going to know we're headed for Porgia, it's the only nearby town. Just they're seeing us makes them a threat to us."

Willbrand did not reply, but still wasn't all that pleased. He didn't like to see defenseless men struck down, for whatever reason.

"Well, the fact of the matter is we have been seen," Saramis observed. "A few of them have eluded us, and it's not likely we're going to find them in these woods."

"That's true," Ktan growled. "Let's get a move on."

With that he spurred his horse forward once again, into the woods to the south of the road. The others followed him in. Jenya took the lead again, for she was still the one who knew the area best. But Ktan was right behind her, urging her onward whenever she slowed. Each night they had stopped to make camp soon after dark, but it soon became obvious that Ktan had no such thing in mind tonight, at least, not anytime soon. Even after night had fallen and they could barely see their hand in front of their face beneath the trees, Ktan continued to press them onward.

"This is madness," Saramis finally blurted out, brushing a branch aside that tried to slap him in the face. "We can't keep going on like this. I can't see a thing."

For a long time he thought Ktan was not going to reply.

"Jenya, how close are we?" he asked.

Jenya paused for a moment to consider.

"Very close," she replied. "I recognized where we crossed the road. It's no more than a short horse ride from there to Porgia."

"It could take us three weeks to travel that distance in this," Saramis groused. "If we pass it, we'll be lost in this god forsaken woods for who knows how long."

"We're not going to pass it," Ktan said irritably. "If we go too far north we'll hit the road again, and if we're too far south we'll run into the road heading to Teklos. Either way we'll know which way to go."

"That's assuming we haven't accidently turned south already," Saramis refused to be appeased. "If we have we can ride a hundred leagues before we hit another town."

"I don't think we're going to cover a hundred leagues by daybreak," Ktan returned tartly.

"Would you two keep it down?" Jenya said irritably. "I'm trying to concentrate. Besides, we may not be far from the road. You don't want to be overheard, now do you?"

Both men fell into an unhappy silence.

They forged ahead. Willbrand kept silent, perfectly happy that they were snapping at one another and not him. He didn't really care one way or the other what they did. He wasn't tired, and was perfectly happy to keep on riding through the night. In fact, he had become quite comfortable behind Merigan, his arms wrapped around her waist, the scent of her hair in his nostrils. It was somehow comforting. It reminded him of Shellana, though it seemed the two could not be more different.

The thought of Shellana made him think of home. Not the happiest direction for his mind to wander. He wondered how she was, whether she thought about him, and whether he would ever see her again. And his parents, and his friends, and even Crotasia itself. He didn't know how or when, but he was hoping to return. He was hoping that somehow this would all eventually turn out to be just some huge mistake. No matter how irrational it was at this point, he still harbored a hope that his name would be miraculously vindicated and his life could revert back to the way it was before this whole nightmare began.

His musings were interrupted as Jenya spoke.

"Is that a light up ahead?"

They stopped. Willbrand, along with the others, stared into the darkness ahead. He thought he could make out a light through the trees in front of them.

"Yes," Merigan confirmed. "I see it too."

"See," Ktan said. "I told you we'd find it."

"You mean Jenya found it," Saramis pointed out. "And besides, we don't know that's the town. For all we know, we could be walking into the camp of another group of thieves."

"It doesn't look like a fire," Jenya said hesitantly as they started forward once again.

No one replied. The knight led them slowly forward. As they got closer they could see more lights appear. It soon became apparent that they had found the town. A moment later the trees fell away and they saw the shadowed buildings of Porgia laid out in the darkness in front of them.