THE ROAD WEST
"Are you alright?"
Willbrand turned his head to see Merigan sit down beside him. He did not reply at first. They sat on a small hill overlooking the campsite just below. They had left the farmhouse quickly last night, heading down the south road, but they hadn't stayed on it long. After only a few minutes they had turned off and plunged into the woods once more, traveling quite a ways through pitch blackness. Much longer than seemed necessary to Willbrand, in fact. The farmhouse had been isolated, there had been no one near to hear the screams of that lunatic. They hadn't been discovered. Yet Ktan had pushed them on relentlessly, as if the Imperial Knights, led by Variman Vashay himself, were right behind them. By the time he told them they could stop, they were all so exhausted they didn't even bother to pitch tents, just dropped their bedrolls in the nearest place that looked even vaguely comfortable and collapsed onto them.
For a long time they sat there in silence. There was something bugging him, but he wasn't anxious to discuss it. He tried to ignore Merigan beside him, but every time he glanced at her he could see she was looking at him, and that just made him more and more uncomfortable. He had an unpleasant feeling that she could sense just what he was feeling. Why didn't she just leave him alone?
"Stop that," he said finally.
"Looking at me like that."
She paused for a moment.
He turned toward her, frowning.
"Like you can read my mind!"
Her face showed just the slightest trace of a frown.
"It's beyond my ability to do that," she said seriously. "But it doesn't take a mind reader to see that something is troubling you."
He glared at her for a moment. She was right, of course. It would probably be better to talk about it with her, but he still wasn't anxious to. He had a feeling he already knew the answer, and he didn't like it. He turned away, fidgeting. When he looked back at her again she hadn't moved. She was still looking at him. It was obvious she wasn't going to go away until he told her what was on his mind.
"Was the only one who was fooled?" he blurted out finally.
"By that apparition," he clarified. "Was I the only one who didn't see through it, who really thought it was there?"
She clasped her hands slowly in her lap, looking at him thoughtfully. Suddenly, she looked a little nervous herself.
"I don't know," she said finally. "Saramis might have...well...probably."
He turned away.
"It's all right," she said, placing her hand on his shoulder. "I've known the others for a long time. They've all had some experience with this sort of thing. They all knew what to expect. But you didn't. You're new at this. It's not your fault."
He did not reply, just sat there, staring at the trees. All his life he had been good at just about everything he tried. In sports, competition, training, he had always excelled, always been one of the best. And he was proud of that. Most of the people in Crotasia had looked up to him, had thought him a courageous and dependable person. There he had been in command, or at least, involved in command decisions. He had always thought he could handle anything that came along.
But now everything had changed. He had thought himself a better than average swordsman, but it was obvious that Ktan and even Jenya were better than him. Saramis had his magic. Merigan had her strange power, a power that had been used on him more than once now. A power he seemed to have no defense against. Had he merely been fooling himself all this time? Was it that all his accomplishments back in Crotasia had really been nothing at all? Was it even possible that he hadn't excelled because of effort, but merely because he was a noble. Had the odds been stacked in his favor right from the beginning? What could he contribute to this group? Looking at it from that light, was it no wonder Ktan was not very fond of him? Merigan had wanted him to come along, but was that because she thought he could help or just because she felt responsible for getting him into this mess in the first place?
"I don't want your sympathy," he said bitterly, brushing her hand away.
He stood up, looking out over the trees.
She got to her feet beside him.
"You have nothing to be ashamed of," she said. "I've lived with this all my life, and I still don't think I understand what's going on most of the time. How can you expect yourself, who was blindly thrown into this, to do any better than you have? If it had been me in your circumstances, I don't think I'd have fared half as well as you have. And I'm not saying that out of sympathy, I'm saying it because it's the truth."
Again he felt her staring at him, but resisted the urge to look at her. In spite of her protest to the contrary, he still suspected she was just saying that to make him feel better. But the words did sink in a little bit. Was he expecting too much of himself?
Merigan stood beside him in silence, waiting patiently.
Eventually he gave an impatient shake of his head.
"This is just so different from what I'm used to," he replied, no longer sounding angry. "I'm used to being in control. I'm used to making my own decisions. I'm used to being trusted."
"I trust you," Merigan reassured him.
He did glance at her now. She was looking right at him, and from the look on her face, he would have bet his life she was telling the truth.
Except he wouldn't do that. He'd seen that look before, and later found out she was lying. So how could he be sure she was telling the truth now? He had learned he couldn't trust her face.
"What was all that about you and Queen Irissa being maidens? What sort of maidens?" he asked. "Why was that madman talking about you standing against her? What is this book of redemption he was babbling about?"
Merigan looked down at her feet.
"I don't know," she said slowly.
"You told me you trusted me," he reminded her.
She looked up at him once again.
"I do," she replied. "I really don't know."
He didn't say anything at all. He didn't have to. The look on his face said it all. No matter how truthful she appeared, he didn't believe that.
"It's true!" she exclaimed. "Ktan has never told me what happened to me. I don't know what the Book of Redemption is. I'd never heard of it before last night."
Willbrand looked at her scornfully.
"And you never asked? You've been running from Imperial Knights with him all your life and you were never in the least bit curious as to why?"
Merigan looked at him unhappily.
"It's not like that," she stammered. "I told you, I have asked, but he's never opened up and told me. He's always changed the subject, or told me he'd tell me in good time. You know what he's like. When his mind is made up, talking to him is like banging your head against a wall."
Willbrand did not look convinced.
"I don't care how tight lipped he is," he replied. "Surely after all this time, you must have learned something."
Merigan opened her mouth, then closed it. For a long time they stood there looking at each other, Willbrand staring at Merigan, a stern look on his face.
"I...I only have guesses," she said hesitantly. "The Maidens were some kind of religious order. Long ago. I think...no, I know now that they had powers like mine. Much stronger, in fact. I think Irissa was their leader. But something happened. I think Irissa betrayed them. They're gone now, but whether dead or just disbanded, I don't know. Since Ktan said Irissa and I are the last, I would think they are all dead, but I don't know that for sure. Apparently, because I was one of them, Irissa thinks I'm a threat somehow. Ktan must have saved me from her. That's why we've both been branded as heretics."
She looked at him, the pleading look in her eyes causing an almost overwhelming urge in him to comfort her. But he didn't. With a great deal of difficulty, he kept his expression unchanged. For some reason, that story sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn't quite place it.
"I swear, that's all I know!" she exclaimed.
She stood there, waiting for him to say something. But he remained unmoving. She didn't know why she wanted so desperately for him to believe her. Did it really matter? He had to come with them. There was no place else for him to go. He had to come along no matter what terms they were on. But she didn't want it to be that way. She wanted him to come because he wanted to, not because he was forced to. But she didn't know what else she could say to convince him.
She hung her head, looking down at the ground in defeat.
He stared at her for a few moments longer. Everything she said seemed to be the truth, not only from her expression, but from what he had pieced together himself. Was he being too hard on her? Yes, she had lied to him in Crotasia, but even he had to admit she'd had good reason. And she hadn't lied about anything since, at least, not as far as he could determine. He had to admit he felt some pleasure in seeing someone else uncomfortable instead of himself. Apparently he did have some control after all. Could it be that he was dragging this out longer than necessary for that very reason? But that was just being petty. That wasn't the kind of control he wanted to have. As a noble, that sort of thing should be beneath him. If he continued on this course he was only going to alienate her, and right now she was his only friend.
"I believe you," he spoke.
She looked up at him.
"Yes," he replied, his face softening into a smile. "It makes sense. It's pretty much what I would have guessed, from what I heard last night. Do you think anything that guy said was true?"
If Willbrand had met that man a few weeks ago, he would have thought the man's words just the ravings of a lunatic. After what he had seen since meeting Merigan, however, he was prepared to believe just about anything. Still, it was obvious everything the man said couldn't be taken literally.
"I don't know," Merigan replied, not very helpfully. "Undoubtedly the book of Redemption actually exists, and it was, at least originally, in the hands of Dason Wolcroft, though whether it still remains there is open to question."
"And what about that darkness?" Willbrand asked. "He said the Queen would bring the darkness down upon us if she ever got her hands on the book or something like that. That was all just nonsense, right?"
Willbrand had seen a lot in the last couple of weeks. He had found out there was a lot in the world he did not understand. But even so this whole darkness thing seemed a bit much to swallow. Crotasia was far from Galias, the capital city. Neither the king nor the queen had ever visited Crotasia in Willbrand's lifetime, if ever. He didn't know much about them except that they pretty much ignored his home city. As far as he knew, they were fair and just rulers. He had never heard anyone in Crotasia say anything bad about them. Of course, since he was of noble blood and as such had pledged loyalty to the king, if anyone had anything to say, they'd probably have thought twice before saying it in front of him. Still, to think that Queen Irissa could be some kind of evil witch or something. Witch...Why did that word spark a memory in him? Something about witches. An old story he had heard once. He probed his memory, but he couldn't bring it to the surface.
"I don't know," Merigan said, yet again. "I think he believed that. But in the state he was in, that doesn't mean much. Karo root does strange things to a person. I'm sure most of that was just in his head."
Willbrand nodded slowly. That was pretty much how he saw it.
"So what does all this mean?" he asked. "What is it you plan on doing? If what you say is true, if the Queen really is after you, wouldn't it be best to find some nice far away place to hide in? Ktan said something about you standing against her. Was he serious?"
Merigan looked unhappy again. Why did he insist on asking her questions that she couldn't possibly answer?
"I'm not sure," she replied hesitantly. "I think he feels that no matter how we try to hide, eventually she will find us. And he just wants me to be prepared for that day."
It seemed like nonsense to Willbrand. They were talking the Queen here. The ruler of the entire kingdom. She had the king, the Imperial Knights, and the entire army behind her. Did Ktan think that he and Merigan, even with a few friends, could stand against that? There only chance was to remain undiscovered. If they were found, they were dead.
He had been hoping that somehow this whole thing was some kind of crazy mistake. He had been hoping that, like himself, Ktan and Merigan had been branded heretics because of some stupid misunderstanding, something that could eventually be straightened out. But it appeared that wasn't the case. If the Queen was really after Merigan for what she was, there would be no reconciliation, no redemption, no way out. They were heretics for life, and by extension, so was he. With a sinking heart, he realized he had gotten himself into something that was not going to be fixed by a Baron pulling some strings.
"So what happens now? You think Ktan is going to go after this Dason Walcroft? You think he's going to try to obtain this Book of Redemption, in spite of the warnings of doom from that guy?"
Merigan gave him a rueful smile.
"Finally a question I can answer," she said. "I may not know much more about what's going on than you do, but I do know Ktan. There is no doubt in my mind that's exactly what he plans to do."
"You think you can take your eyes off them for just a minute and have something to eat?" Jenya questioned. "They're only talking."
Ktan reluctantly turned away from the two young people up on the hill and took the bread Jenya was proffering. They were all sitting around the remains of the campfire from last night.
"Yes, but aren't you in the least bit curious as to what they're talking about?" Saramis questioned. He was sitting cross legged on his bedroll, with what seemed far more than his share of their food laid out in front of him. The bread in his hand was nearly finished.
"That's not hard to figure out," Jenya replied. "They're trying to determine if they're ever going to get a little privacy when they've got a thick headed over protective father figure watching them like a hawk."
She looked at Ktan and smiled, but his face remained annoyingly grim.
"And that's not going to change anytime soon," he replied. "It's because of my cautious nature that we've remained alive for this long."
"Paranoid nature, you mean," Saramis quickly corrected.
Ktan shrugged and took another bite from his bread.
"Call it what you will."
Jenya leaned back, propping herself up with her hands behind her. She could see that Ktan wasn't going to rise to Saramis' bait, and she felt a bit disappointed about it. He seemed in even more of a grim mood than usual. She wondered if the two young people he was watching so closely or their encounter last night had more to do with it.
"So I guess we're off to find this Wolcroft fellow?" Saramis commented. "And I don't suppose you have any idea where we might find him, or how much longer we're going to have to go traipsing about in the woods, with little food and less shelter. You know, I wouldn't mind being dragged along on these little escapades of yours so much if we could just stay at a decent Inn every once in a while."
"Oh stop your complaining," Jenya said, casting a glance his way. "You know you enjoy these little adventures of ours. What would you be doing if you weren't here with us now? Spending every last coin you have at some overpriced
Saramis looked thoughtful for a moment.
"Sounds like heaven," he shot back. He gobbled down the last piece of his bread.
"You know what your problem is?" he continued. "The both of you? You have no concept of luxury. It's not such a bad thing. Spending some coin on yourselves wouldn't kill you, you know. You've both worked hard all your lives, and what do you have to show for it? You don't have to go wandering around your whole life with nothing. What, was there some kind of oath about forsaking all worldly pleasures when you became Sacred Knights?"
"Shush!" Ktan commanded, his face immediately becoming serious at those words. He glanced back over his shoulder at Willbrand and Merigan.
"They can't hear us," Saramis responded. "Nobody can hear us. We're in the middle of nowhere, and it looks like that's where we're going to remain."
"No, there was no oath like that," Jenya replied. "It's just that to some people there are more important things to do than waste time trying to salve our ego by impressing strangers."
"Everything has its purpose, my dear," Saramis responded. "Some of those ego filled dandys, as you call them rather appropriately, I might add, are nevertheless also some of the most influential men in town. People are always more willing to accept someone who fits in. If I didn't do that, I wouldn't have the connections I do, and even you have to admit that those connections have come in rather handy at times."
Jenya just looked at him sourly. She had to admit he was right in that regard. More than once they had depended on Saramis finding someone to help get them out of a tight spot. But still, did he have to enjoy it so much?
"We each have our own ways of doing things," Ktan said simply. "But this isn't getting us anywhere."
"And what would?" Saramis questioned, turning toward him. "Do you have any idea where to go?"
Saramis looked at him in surprise.
"Pantaglia? How do you know that?"
"That's where Variman sent Dason after the Battle of Murgess Hill," Ktan replied. "He's in charge of the Imperial Fleet. Or at least he was last time I heard."
"And when was that?" Saramis questioned.
"Quite a while ago," Ktan admitted.
"So it's possible he might not be there at all," Saramis replied.
"Yes, it's possible," Ktan answered. "Anything's possible, but it's all we've got to go on. Unless you've got a better idea?"
Saramis did not reply. Ktan stood up and started to gather his equipment together.
"We could go east," Jenya spoke up slowly.
Ktan stopped and looked at her.
"East?" he said. For a moment none of them spoke. They all knew that the only thing that lay to the east was the border to the next kingdom. "And leave Mandaria?"
Jenya slowly stood up as well.
"It's a possibility," she said.
Ktan reached down and started shoving things in his backpack, his face clouded.
"We've discussed this before," he said. "You know how I feel about that idea."
"I know," she replied. "But you heard what he said about that book."
"What, about how if anyone but the High Priestess of the Maidens opens it they'll be sent straight to hell? Don't tell me you believed that?"
"Even if I didn't, that doesn't mean there aren't any safeguards. If Dason has had the book all this time, and Irissa hasn't found out about it, it's quite likely she never will. But what will happen if we draw attention to it?"
Ktan had finished picking up his equipment. Now he glared at Jenya.
"So what are you saying? That now, after all this time, after all we've gone through, now that we've finally got something to go on, that we turn around and run?"
Jenya looked at him unhappily. She glanced at Saramis, but he just turned away, obviously wanting no part of this one.
"It's not as simple as that," Jenya went on. "Hansen was right, in a way. Right now we don't mean anything to Irissa. I don't think that finding Merigan is at the top of her list of priorities. But if we find the book, then they'll be no turning back. We'll be a real threat then, and she'll do everything she can to find us. Is that what you want? Think about Merigan..."
"I am thinking about Merigan!" Ktan exclaimed. "It's her people that Irissa destroyed, her heritage that was taken away. Merigan is the one who had been wronged the most by this."
"Even if she has, she's not aware of it," Jenya replied, trying to keep her own voice calm. "You never told her what really happened. She'd probably be perfectly happy living on some farm somewhere far away, without knowing anything at all about Irissa, or about the Maidens. She's getting older Ktan. She needs to have people her own age around, needs to have a normal life. As long as this quest continues, you know that'll never happen."
Ktan scowled at her.
"So what are you suggesting? That we run and hide? That we just forget about all those men who were killed at Murgess Hill? That we forget about the Maidens who were slaughtered by Irissa and the King's Knights? That we just go our merry way and pretend it didn't happen?"
"Ktan..." Saramis said, almost apologetically.
"You stay out of this!" Ktan snapped. He pinned Jenya with his gaze. "You were there too. You saw the carnage. It's not something I'll ever forget. I see it still in my dreams. Every night."
Jenya rubbed her hands together nervously. She hadn't wanted it to get like this.
“I do too," she said softly. "But...it was a long time ago."
Ktan glared at her for a moment, then turned away in disgust.
"Seems like yesterday to me," he spate out. "But if that's the way you feel about it, no one says you have to come along."
Jenya looked genuinely stung.
"I'm not going to abandon you like the others," she said with no anger in her voice. "I thought if anything, you would have realized that by now. I just want you to be sure..."
Her hesitation made him turn and look at her again.
"Sure of what?" he demanded.
For a moment she just stared at him. Then she took a slow deep breath.
"I just want you to be sure you're doing this for her, and not just to satisfy your own need for revenge."
Saramis looked at Ktan, holding his breath in anticipation of another outburst. He wasn't sure how to interpret the expression on Ktan's face. For a long time the man was silent, as if not sure himself just how to reply. Eventually, however, he just turned away.
"I think we've spent enough time here."
He looked up the hill.
"Merigan, Willbrand! Time to get going!"
The two young people looked down at them. Merigan acknowledged with a wave, and they got up and started down the hill. Jenya just stood there looking at Ktan for a moment, then shook her head and stooped down to pick up her armor. She wanted to say more, but she knew arguing was pointless. Sometimes he could be so stubborn she wanted to kick him.
A short time later they started off, heading west, farther into the forest. Neither Willbrand nor Merigan asked where they were headed.
The land was broken and rough. It was difficult to make headway though the thick underbrush. They were starting to leave the area that Jenya knew well, and Saramis now took the lead. In the dense forest around them, Willbrand wasn't sure how anyone could find their way. But every once in a while Saramis held up a small device and look at it intently for a moment. It was at this time that he sometimes changed the direction they were headed. It was obvious he was consulting some kind of magical instrument. Willbrand, extremely curious, tried to ride closer on occasion to get a view of it, but every time he did Saramis would turn away, as if jealously guarding a close secret. Eventually Willbrand gave up trying. He wondered what Saramis was so concerned about and whether all magicians were paranoid.
The land was filled with steep hills, the ground rising and falling sharply. But Willbrand noticed that for all their ups and downs, they were headed steadily downhill. The slopes on the downhill side of almost all the hills they climbed were both longer and steeper. He could see the mountains rising up on both sides of them, higher and higher as they went. The flora around them changed as well. As they rode farther down into the slopes the tall conifers were replaced by a shorter more tangled group of coniferous and deciduous trees. The ground beneath their feet became softer, and the plants thinned out a bit, the harsh brambles and shrubs of the upper slopes giving way to large ferns and broad leaved plants that hugged the ground. For a while this made traveling easier, but soon the ground became softer still, and they began to notice open pools of water appearing here and there around them. It was obvious they were making their way into a swamp.
"This doesn't look promising," Jenya finally commented, after her horse pawed itself through a particularly muddy spot. "Is there another way?"
"Probably," Saramis replied.
Jenya waited for him to continued, but he said nothing more.
"Is there a way to go around?" she tried again.
"Yes, we could go back to the road and take that," Saramis said sarcastically. He stopped and pointed ahead. "This is the direction to Pantaglia. I can tell you that, but I can't see what lies along the way. This swamp could end a mile north of here. On the other hand, it could continue for ten miles. The same for the south. Either way could be better or worse off, but there's no way for me to tell. As long as we can keep going forward, we may as well continue. Changing direction might only make things worse."
"Couldn't you use your magic to make it easier to travel through this?" Willbrand suggested.
Saramis looked at him and frowned.
"What do you expect me to do?" he questioned. "Conjure up a magic carpet for us to ride? If I could do that, don't you think I'd have done it already? I'm a magician, not a miracle worker."
Willbrand gave him a look that he hoped conveyed the thought that Saramis couldn't be much a magician if he couldn't do something about this, but said nothing. Instead he tried a different tact.
"Doesn't anybody at least have a map?"
Willbrand's horse stumbled as one hoof sank unexpectedly into the mud, causing the young noble to hold on tight until it righted itself.
"Sure," Saramis replied. "I've got lots of maps. Some of them made by the finest cartographers in the kingdom. Do you know what they show for this area of the world? A big blank spot. Or a warning saying 'Here be dragons' or some other nonsense. This is just wilderness. No one lives here. Everyone with any sense at all who travels through this area does it on the road, and if we had any, we'd do the same."
They fell silent. Though the trees had thinned, they still couldn't see far ahead. Willbrand kept hoping that soon they'd come upon firmer ground, but the farther they went, the wetter and boggier the land became. Soon all their horses were struggling to make headway through the mud. Willbrand was just about to suggest it might be a good time to consider changing direction when the trees fell away in front of them.
A slow moving river blocked their path. It wasn't very wide, perhaps forty or fifty paces. It was hard to judge the distance exactly, for the water covered the roots of some of the trees on either shore, blurring the distinction between land and water. The water was brown with mud, the bottom impossible to see. They couldn't tell how deep it became.
"Great," Ktan muttered.
"Think it might be time to change direction now?" Jenya asked.
Saramis looked at them. Surely they didn't think this was his fault.
"We don't know how far this river goes," he replied a bit defensively. "It might take hours or days to get around it."
He looked at the shore on the other side.
"It's not that far across, and the land seems level here, otherwise there wouldn't be so much water where the river isn't. It's probably not very deep."
Willbrand looked at the water doubtfully. He had a feeling Saramis was engaging in wishful thinking.
"Ktan?" Jenya said, looking at the swordsman.
The silver haired man said nothing, just sat on his horse for a few moments. He looked up and down the river, but there was no clue that it might be easier to cross anywhere else.
"It doesn't look all that far," he said slowly. "And it's true, we don't know if we'll be able to find a better spot to cross. It seems we have little choice."
He looked at the others, but no one had any better ideas. Still, he didn't move. It was obvious even he wasn't anxious to enter the unpleasant looking water.
"I'll go," Willbrand spoke up suddenly, urging his horse forward. He reached the edge of the river before Ktan held up his hand.
"You stay here boy," he said rather harshly. "I'll go."
With that he spurred his own horse forward, into the river. Willbrand was left on the shore, not at all happy that his willingness to volunteer had been so casually dismissed. Merigan rode up beside him and gave him a reassuring smile, but he paid it no heed.
They all watched Ktan as he urged his horse slowly through the water. Willbrand half hoped it would be deeper than Ktan expected and he would founder. Serve him right. But the silver haired warrior made it across without incidence, the level of the water never reaching above his knees while mounted.
"All right, c'mon," he called once he was safely on the other side.
Jenya plunged her horse in immediately. Saramis followed more cautiously. Merigan followed him, and Willbrand brought up the rear, still grumbling to himself. The water was warm, not an at all unpleasant. But in spite of that fact, and the fact that Ktan had made it across so easily, he still felt uneasy. He didn't like the fact that the water was so muddy as to be completely opaque.
His horse lost its footing suddenly, stumbling on some invisible obstruction. Willbrand cried out and found his hand on his sword. But again the horse righted itself without incident. It must have been a root or something and not some creature rising up to attack. Willbrand looked quickly at the others but none of them seemed to have noticed. All it had done was drop him a bit behind. Already Jenya's horse was pulling itself out of the water on the far side.
He urged his horse onward, trying to catch up. Just then something caught his eye. The river was very slow moving, the surface completely calm. Not far away tall grass grew up out of the water. On the surface right in front of them he could see ripples running along the surface.
He lifted his head up, trying to get a better view. He could see them clearly now. A line of ripples in a long 'v', pointing like an arrow straight at the party. Straight at Merigan. Even as he watched the ripples faded, as if whatever had caused them had dropped down toward the bottom.
"There's something in the water!" he called out.
All heads turned toward him.
"What?" he heard Saramis say.
"Over there!" he exclaimed, pointing. At the same time he urged his horse forward more forcefully. "There were ripples on the water, coming toward us. Merigan, watch out!"
The others looked in the direction Willbrand was pointing, but the ripples had faded away to almost nothing. Ktan shook his head.
"Do you see anything?" he asked the others.
Saramis and Merigan, who were still in the water, shook their heads. Jenya, who was on higher ground, was less certain.
"I don't know," she said slowly.
"Just get out of the water!" Willbrand yelled. He didn't know what he had seen. It might have been nothing, but he had a bad feeling about it.
Saramis' horse splashed through the last of the shallows and made it to shore. He turned around and looked at the two still in the river.
"If our young noble’s imagination is getting the better of him again I'm..."
Suddenly Merigan's horse shuddered as if hit by a blow. It neighed wildly and collapsed, sending Merigan spilling into the water with a scream.
"Merigan!" Willbrand cried, hearing his shout echoed from the shore. Desperately he kicked his heels into his horse, sending it splashing through the last few meters between them, at the same time pulling out his sword. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ktan and Jenya racing back into the water as well, but he was much closer to the young girl.
She was splashing wildly in water, trying to reach her horse, but the animal had its own self preservation in mind, and was stumbling through the water towards the shore, leaving the girl behind.
Willbrand reached her and saw a long snakelike shadow darting toward her just under the surface. There was no way he could pull her out of danger in time. Not knowing what else to do, he threw himself off his horse, driving the sword into the water above the shadow. He felt it strike something solid and penetrate.
A spray or water erupted all around them. The sword was almost wrenched from his hands, but he managed to hold on to it as it pulled free. Something dark and slimy stuck his shoulder, and a moment later his found himself underwater. Though his eyes were open, all he could see around him was murky grey. He struggled to orient himself, but he wasn't even sure which way was up.
Suddenly his hand struck something. He pushed his sword forward, only to realize it was just mud at the bottom of the river. Even as he did that, he felt a hand grab hold of his shoulder.
He surfaced once again as Merigan pulled him up. He found his footing and stood, for the water was only up to his shoulders. Gasping for breath he looked around, sword ready. The water around them was stained with blood, but there was no sign of the creature.
"It's alright," she said. "It's gone."
His head jerked around, searching in all directions, but all he saw as Ktan and Jenya splashing over to them.
"What was that?" Willbrand sputtered.
"I don't know," Merigan replied. "Some kind of swamp snake, I would guess. I didn't get a very good look at it."
"Are you two all right?" Ktan questioned in a worried voice.
"Yes," Merigan said, sounding perfectly calm. "Just a little wet."
Jenya had grabbed hold of Merigan's horse and led it back. With a bit of difficulty the two remounted. A few minutes later they were all safely on shore once again.
"What the hell was that?" Saramis questioned.
"No idea," Ktan replied. "But I don't want to hang around here to find out. For all we know, that thing could be as comfortable on shore as it is in the water. The ground seems firmer on this side. Let's see if we can get to higher ground."
They were all as anxious as Ktan to leave this spot behind them. Without a word they followed as he led them into the forest once more. Thankfully, they didn't have far to go. Almost immediately the land began to rise again, and soon they had left the swamp behind them. It only took them a few minutes to find a dry place to stop and rest. It was a good thing too, for the left flank of Merigan's horse was bleeding from a jagged wound.
Jenya tended the horses wound as soon as they had dismounted. Willbrand threw himself down at the base of a tree, thoroughly exhausted. His shoulder ached where the beast had stuck him, but it didn't seem to be anything serious. Ktan eyed Merigan carefully, but she seemed completely unhurt.
"I think the horse will be fine," Jenya gave her assessment after a few minutes. "Just as long as we don't do any hard riding for a while."
"That was a close call," Saramis said, his voice lacking its usual lightness.
"Yes it was," Jenya said slowly.
Ktan turned to look at Willbrand.
"Are you all right?"
Willbrand just looked at him for a moment.
"Yes," he said. "I"m fine."
Ktan came over and crouched down beside him.
"That was an incredibly stupid thing you did," he stated.
Willbrand frowned, but then Ktan went on.
"But you may have just saved Merigan's life."
He slapped a hand on Willbrand's shoulder.