RESPITE ON A HILL
"Is this infernal rain ever going to end?" Saramis grumbled.
The rain had started three days ago. Three days straight, with it varying only in intensity, sometimes dropping to a fine mist, so light you could barely tell it was still raining, other times, like now, a steady downpour. In spite of their cloaks and armor, the dampness seemed somehow to have made its way beneath all protection, leaving every one of them damp, cold and uncomfortable.
No one replied. Willbrand rode with water dripping from his hood, head bowed so low he could only see the hooves of Merigan's horse in front of him. Though Willbrand felt much the same as Saramis, he said nothing. He wasn't exactly used to such discomfort. Though he had trained in weather this bad as a cadet, he had never been out in it for this long, and had always had the comfort of a warm home to return to at the end of the day. Nevertheless, none of the others save Saramis was complaining. The truth was that as long as he was going to be journeying with this little group, he wanted to fit in, though he hadn't the faintest idea why that should be so important to him. After the incident at the river, he had finally gotten Ktan and the others to think of him as more than just a naive young noble who couldn't look after himself much less anyone else. It wasn't much, but at least it was a start, and made him feel a little better about himself. But he had a feeling it was still a fragile thing, and would take quite a bit more effort to feel he was really a member of this group. He wasn't about to ruin that by whining about the weather.
They had been traveling through low rolling hills since leaving the swamp behind. Elm, oak and birch trees surrounded them, and at first they had provided some shelter from the rain, but as the days progressed and the rain had continued, the trees had become saturated, the water running down the leaves in little rivulets that had the annoying tendency to fall anyplace that a cloak did not cover. About the only good thing Willbrand could say about the last three days was that they had made good time. There wasn't much ground vegetation, and the trees were not so thick as to hinder their progress. They were on higher ground now, the land firmer beneath their feet, with no inconvenient bodies of water to bar their passage. Saramis had estimated it would take them four days to reach Pantaglia through the forest. If his calculations were correct, a somewhat dubious possibility in itself, in Willbrand's opinion, then they had at worst just one more day to suffer through this. He could certainly last that long.
"My hands are soggy," Saramis continued. "Soggy! Do you hear me? This is insane. You know that, don't you? I think I could sit in front of a fire for a week and still be wet. If we keep going like this for much longer, we're going to all catch our death of mold rot. We can't go on like this."
Willbrand lifted his head enough to look ahead. Merigan and Ktan were in front of him, with Saramis leading the way. The magician had turned back to look at them, a pitiful look on his face. With his hair dripping wet, Willbrand had to admit he looked a lot like a drowned rat, not that anyone else was any better off. In spite of the fact that he was determined not to complain, that didn't mean he couldn't sympathize. He wasn't about to admit it, but he was of much the same opinion. He glanced down at his own hands to see that they were indeed wrinkled from being so wet for so long. He inspected them carefully for a moment. He couldn't help but wonder what this mold rot that Saramis was talking about looked like, and whether he would notice if he were inflicted with it.
"I'm not all that fond of this weather either," Jenya called out from the back of the line. "But there doesn't seem to be much we can do about it."
Saramis just shook his head, sending a spray of mist through the air.
"We could act like rational people and find shelter somewhere!" he exclaimed.
"And where do you suggest we find it?" Jenya shot back. "We're in the middle of the forest, in case you hadn't noticed. You said yourself you know which direction to go in but you don't know what we'll find. There's nothing around but trees. What do you want us to do, cut some down and build a cabin?"
"I'm beginning to think that wouldn't be such a bad idea," Saramis shot back. He turned around suddenly, looking about. The land dropped down to their left, and they could see a good distance in that direction. He pointed.
"I didn't say we wouldn't have any idea at all what lay ahead. There are some landmarks. See that hill over there? That's Greenbarrow hill. It's not far from Pantaglia and very close to the road. There's an observation tower near the top. It was used as a guard post when Pantaglia was a frontier town, but it was abandoned once the city walls were built. They still keep some supplies there, for travelers who are weary from the long journey on the road. At least they did the last time I was there. But almost no one goes there. It might be the perfect place to hole up while this rain keeps up."
He turned back toward them, looking at them pleadingly. The others looked at Ktan. The silver haired warrior just looked at the far off hill for some time without saying anything at all. Willbrand had a feeling he wasn't the only one who was hoping that Ktan would agree to Saramis' suggestion.
"I have heard of it," Ktan said slowly.
The others just sat there looking at him impatiently.
"I suppose it wouldn't do any harm," he said reluctantly.
Saramis grinned and turned away, immediately spurring his horse in the direction of the hill. Willbrand's horse lurched forward, breaking into a trot without any directive from the young noble, as if it somehow knew that the silly humans had finally come to their senses and where bound for some shelter.
The hill wasn't far away, and they reached the foot of it in less than an hour. The trees had thinned out even more, and they could all clearly see the wooden guardhouse near the top. Willbrand wasn't sure how long it had been since Saramis had last been here, but at least the place was still standing.
They wound their way quickly up the hill. It wasn't very high, but still higher than the ground around it. Willbrand looked to the south and saw the road clearly below them, stretching in an almost straight line until it faded into the forest to the west. It was the first time they had seen it in three days. It was strangely comforting, and yet posed a danger too. At least in the woods there had been little chance of discovery. Willbrand eyed the road critically, but he saw nothing moving on it. Once again they had to be on the lookout for watchful eyes.
They came upon a narrow trail leading up the hill, making things easier still. Saramis was starting to pull ahead of them, his horse almost at a gallop when Ktan called out for him to stop.
Saramis obeyed and looked back impatiently as the others caught up with him.
"Wait here," Ktan commanded.
Pulling out his sword, the warrior rode forward, leaving them behind, Saramis with a sour expression on his face.
"Even now he still has to be paranoid," the magician grumbled. "If anyone was up there they would have seen us long ago. I think he's just doing it for spite. He just has to drag this out as long as possible, doesn't he? Tell me Jenya, why do we stay with him when it's obvious he takes such delight in torturing us? I've a good mind to just ride off to Pantaglia and leave him here."
Jenya did not reply, nor seem even to be listening to Saramis. Not that it mattered. Even Willbrand, the newcomer to the group, could tell that Saramis would not carry through on that threat.
Now that they were closer Willbrand could see the building in front of them was made of thin planks of grey colored wood, and even though abandoned still seemed to be in decent shape. It was small, and looked to be no more than one room, but at this point Willbrand wouldn't complain even if it had little space inside, as long as it got them out of the rain. Next to the building stood a circular framework of wooden poles, rising to nearly twice the height of the structure beside it, with a covered platform at the top. A wooden ladder led up to the top of this lookout tower.
Ktan reached the building and dismounted. With a deliberate pace that set Saramis' teeth on edge, he approached the door.
Saramis' horse pawed at the ground, as if it were as impatient as the magician himself.
Ktan pulled open the door. A moment later he vanished inside the building.
The others stood there waiting, Saramis' fingers drumming against the side of his saddle. The rain started to come down harder than ever.
"Oh come on," he muttered after a few moments.
In spite of Ktan's warning to stay where they were, he seemed almost about to ride forward when Ktan suddenly appeared in the doorway again and waved them forward.
"About time!" Saramis grumbled, immediately spurring his horse up the hill.
The others followed, almost as eagerly. By the time they reached the building, Ktan had already tied up his horse underneath the lookout platform. The others quickly did the same and hastily followed Ktan into the building.
Willbrand's assessment had been right; the structure only consisted of one rather smallish room. But even so it seemed a welcome change to the weather outside. There was no furniture, and the wooden floor was bare. But shelves lined one wall, and some of them were stocked with a few meager supplies, left for any traveler who might need them. And best of all, against the far wall a fireplace stood. There was even a small pile of wood beside it. Saramis gasped in delight at what would normally have been a small comfort.
When they were all inside Ktan stepped toward the door once again.
"Where are you going?" Jenya questioned
"To keep watch," he replied.
They looked at him as he walked out the door and closed it with a thud. Saramis stared at the door for a moment, then shook his head.
"All these years I've know him, but I'll never understand him," he muttered.
Jenya nodded but said nothing.
They threw off their cloaks, piling them beside the door. Saramis immediately went over to the fireplace, and in just a few minutes a fire was blazing inside it. Jenya peeled off her armor, letting out an uncharacteristic sigh of relief as she did so. Willbrand sank down on the floor himself, not far from Saramis, letting his body relax for what was literally the first time in days. Merigan knelt down by the fire, opening her pack, rooting through it and pulling out all her cooking equipment, her hair hanging down limply, silhouetted against the fire behind her. Willbrand wondered where she found the energy. Of all of them, she seemed to have been the least disturbed by the unpleasant weather.
"I'm starved," Saramis remarked.
"As if you're ever not," Jenya commented.
"I don't think that expecting to have decent meals on a regular basis is too much to ask out of life," he replied. "Don't you think that wandering around without any shelter in the wet and cold being chased by almost every knight in the kingdom is punishment enough for whatever grievous sins I have committed without having to put up with your insufferable attitude as well?"
Willbrand raised an eyebrow and glanced over at Merigan, but he could tell by the grin on her face that Saramis was not serious.
Jenya gave him an imperious look.
"Gee, touchy, aren't we?"
"If you want something hot to eat, Saramis, you have to get out of the way," Merigan interrupted.
Saramis moved reluctantly but quickly a little farther back from the fire. Merigan took his place. A short time later the smell of the stew the young girl was cooking began to filter through the cabin. Willbrand took a deep breath, suddenly realizing just how hungry he was. With the rain, they had had no dry tinder, and it had been beyond even Saramis' ability to sustain a fire for more than a few fleeting seconds. They had eaten only cold food, mostly bread and cheese, for the last three days. The cheese, made in most southern cities in the Kingdom was especially designed for travelers. It was quite filling and lasted just about forever with no preservation. It was used throughout the entire kingdom, and was much in demand. The secret of its creation was jealously guarded, known only to a few master cheesemakers. Its only drawback was that it had a rather bland taste, which seemed to get worse the more you ate. It could prove indispensable in keeping you alive, but it wasn't something you wanted to eat if you had any other choices.
Ignoring his minor aches and pains, Willbrand got up and walked over to the window, pulling open the shutter just enough to take a look outside. Saramis looked at him and frowned as he felt the cold wind slip in, but said nothing to him.
The rain has lessened considerably, and was now barely a fine mist. To the west the sky was much lighter, and he could even see a few streaks of light piercing the clouds. It looked like they might have clear skies by nightfall.
"Figures," he muttered, now that they had finally found shelter.
"What?" Jenya questioned.
"Nothing," he replied, without turning. It seemed strange, almost too much of a coincidence that the rain would stop just as they found shelter. He wondered for a moment if there was more involved. If Irissa really was some kind of witch, could it be possible she had somehow been responsible for the weather they had been having? It seemed ridiculous, yet a few weeks ago he would have called Merigan's powers ridiculous too. It was true, Merigan's abilities paled in comparison to manipulating the weather, but hadn't they said that Irissa was much more powerful? If she really was a witch, who knew the extent of her powers?
He leaned his elbows against the window frame. The misty rain was cold in his face, but he did not retreat. He realized he was probably letting his imagination get the better of him. It was probably just coincidence. No one could control the weather. And besides, if she had that much power, then why didn't she send a tornado after them, or a hurricane, or just fry them all with lightning and be done with it. If she was that strong, she would have caught Merigan and Ktan long ago.
Or so he hoped.
He could see the guard tower from the window. Ktan sat stoically in the center of it, looking toward the road. There was a flimsy wooden roof over the top of the platform, but no walls, and Willbrand was sure the meager shelter was inadequate in keeping Ktan dry.
"How long's he going to stay out there?" he found himself saying.
"Undoubtedly until someone goes out there and drags him in," Saramis replied. "Just don't expect me to do it. I've never met someone more pig headed."
"He's not pig headed," Willbrand replied. "All right, maybe he is, but he's just looking out for us."
Saramis looked at the young noble in surprise. Willbrand also saw Merigan give him a look, a fleeting glance of...admiration?
"You're defending him too? I can understand these other two," Saramis said, jerking his hand toward the two women. "They're suckers for the tall dark stranger thing. But you, he's practically ignored you the whole time you've been with us. Looks like Merigan isn't the only one among us with strange abilities. If I didn't know better, I'd say he's the magician. Someone adept at charm spells, if the hold he seems to have over all of you is any indication."
Willbrand did not reply. He was kind of surprised himself at his words. What Saramis said was true; Ktan hadn't exactly welcomed him into their little group. Still, he had to admit a grudging admiration for the man. The truth was he reminded Willbrand a lot of Garrik. The Swordmaster had been tough but fair, and in spite of his rough exterior, had always put the good of his men before his own good. Willbrand felt a pang of grief as the remembered his old swordmaster. It was funny, Willbrand had thought of Garrik as his friend, and Ktan had killed him, yet he didn't hold it against the man. It had been a fair fight, and Garrik had given them little choice. The funny thing was, if they had met under different circumstances, Willbrand thought Garrik and Ktan could have been good friends. They both reminded Willbrand of each other.
He hadn't thought much lately about Crotasia, or the people he had left behind. He wondered what his parents were thinking. They ought to know by now that he hadn't met up with his cousin. To them, just like everyone else, it must seem he had just vanished, perhaps in hiding, perhaps in some dungeon somewhere, perhaps dead. He wished there were some way he could get in touch with them, at least to let them know he was still alive. Perhaps the opportunity would present itself one of these days, but he wasn't hopeful.
And Shellana. He was surprised, and felt a little bit guilty, about how long it had been since he had thought of her. What was she thinking now? Did she still look out her bedroom window, wondering where he was, if he would come back? Or had she given up hope. He couldn't blame her if she had. Willbrand turned to see Jenya come up beside him, looking out the window as well.
"Charm is the last word I would use when speaking of Ktan," she said softly. "But there's no magic involved, unless it's a natural kind of magic, a magic that anyone can possess. He's is a leader, it's as simple as that. And you know it. For all your protests, Saramis, its plain you're under his spell as well. Otherwise you would have left us long ago.”
Saramis' face pinched up into a look of protest, but before he could say anything he was interrupted by Merigan.
"The stew is ready," she announced.
The next half hour was spent in silence, as they all suddenly had more important things to do than talk. Whether it was because of Merigan's cooking, or because he was so hungry, the stew tasted better than any Willbrand had ever had.
When Merigan was finished she ladled some more stew into a bowl and started for the door.
"I'll go get him," Willbrand volunteered.
Merigan looked at him for a moment, then nodded and smiled. Saramis just shook his head as the young noble walked out the door.
"Kid's too damn eager to please," he muttered after Willbrand had exited.
Jenya opened the shutter that Willbrand had closed and looked out herself.
"After spending so much time with you, I find it surprisingly refreshing," she said.
The rain was so light by now Willbrand hadn't even bothered to take his cloak. He walked over to the tower and climbed nimbly up the steps. At the top he came face to face with Ktan's stony look.
"Merigan made some stew," Willbrand said. "Why don't you go have some while it's still hot? I'll keep watch."
For a drawn out moment, Ktan just looked at him. Willbrand stood there, wondering if Ktan was going to refuse his offer. But then, without a word, Ktan stood up. He walked over to the ladder and climbed down. Willbrand watched him until he disappeared into the guard house, then sat down slowly himself.
He looked around. Though the tower wasn't that much higher than the guardhouse itself, it was high enough to see over the crest of the hill, giving him a clear view in all directions for miles around. All around him was forest, as far as the eye could see to the east and north. To the south he could spy the narrow ribbon of the road. Turning west, at first all he noticed were the trees below in that direction too. But then, as he lifted his eyes up, at the very edge of the horizon, he could make out the towers and spires of a city.
He found himself staring off in that direction, trying to make out every detail he could. It must be Pantaglia. He had heard a lot about Pantaglia. It was the largest seaport in the kingdom. He had never been there. In fact, he had never been close to this far from Crotasia before in his life. His instructors had told him about the kingdom, about the capital city of Galia, and the twin gateway cities of Donelan and Dramon, the mountain city of Zalar, whose towers are supposed to reach higher than the clouds, and the great port of Pantaglia, home of the kingdoms flagships and greatest seafarers. All these great cities formed the core of Mandaria, and the outlying city of
He wasn't sure how long he was sitting there, daydreaming about the port city, but he was sure it was quite some time, before he noticed the movement in the forest below.
He had been glancing over at the road every few minutes, assuming, logically, that anyone who might approach would use that route. So it came as somewhat of a surprise when he noticed something in the forest to the west of the hill.
At first he wasn't even sure he had seen anyone, just a flash of red that had stood out momentarily in the trees below. But it had caught his attention, and as he watched it reappeared, and this time he could clearly see a person wearing a red shirt down at the base of the hill. Two people, in fact, now that he was looking. The other one wasn't wearing such a standout color, but now that Willbrand was looking in the right place, his movement gave him away.
He stared at them for some time. They were too far away to tell any details, or to see if they carried weapons. They obviously didn't have any armor on, and did not appear to be Imperial Knights. But that didn't make Willbrand any less wary. The Imperial Knights might not be far behind.
He hadn't seen them look up, and he didn't think they had spotted him. Quickly he slid down the ladder and hurried toward the guardhouse.
As he approached the door suddenly opened and Saramis stepped out. He saw Willbrand coming toward him and walked over to meet him.
"Ktan says I should watch for a while," Saramis started, obviously not pleased with the idea.
"There's someone coming," Willbrand interrupted.
Saramis looked surprised.
"Where?" he questioned.
"Over here, look," Willbrand replied. He walked over to the west side of the hill, being careful to remain concealed from view from below as much as possible. He looked down the hill, but at first saw nothing.
"Down there somewhere," he said. "There were two of them."
For a moment they both just stood there, staring down at the trees below. Then Willbrand spotted them
"There!" he said, pointing.
The two strangers were closer now, but even so harder to see, flitting through the trees below, but now they appeared to be headed back down the hill.
"Looks like they're leaving," Willbrand said slowly.
Saramis looked around for a moment.
"The horses," he said.
Willbrand looked over at the horses, tied up below the watchtower. From where the strangers were coming up the hill, they were in plain sight. Willbrand admonished himself silently for not having thought of that and moved them.
"We better go tell Ktan," he said, turning to head back to the guardhouse.
"Wait," Saramis said.
He reached into his bag and pulled out the tube that Willbrand had seen him use to look down at the road when they were on their way to Porgia. He put it to his eye and stared through it for some moments. Willbrand wondered exactly what it was he saw through it.
Finally Saramis' hand fell.
"It's only two kids," he announced.
Willbrand looked down, a frown on his face. He could barely make out the figures below.
"How do you know?" he asked. "I can barely see them."
Saramis grinned and patted the tube.
"My magic, of course," he replied. "Most likely two kids from Pantaglia, here to play up on the tower. Probably a great adventure for them. They must have turned around when they saw the horses and realized the place was occupied. I don't think they'll cause us any trouble. No need to mention it to Ktan."
Willbrand looked at Saramis hesitantly.
"You sure?" he questioned. He had a feeling this was something that Ktan would want to know, no matter how harmless it might seem.
"Yes, I'm sure," Saramis replied firmly. "Ktan's got enough things to worry about. They didn't see anything."
Willbrand wasn't so sure about that.
"They saw the horses," he countered. "They know someone is here. How do you know they're not going to go back to town and tell someone what they saw here?"
"They were kids," Saramis said, sounding impatient. "They probably didn't even have permission to come here in the first place. They're not going to tell anyone."
Willbrand just stood there looking at him.
"We've been riding in the accused weather for three days," he said wearily. "After all this time, we finally find someplace with a few meager comforts. You know what Ktan is going to do if we tell him about those kids. You know how paranoid he is. It's going to be back in the woods as quickly as we can pack out gear, running like scared rabbits. And for what? Because two harmless kids who would probably be cleaning out the stables for a week if they even admitted coming near this place happened to come by at an inopportune moment. C'mon, you must be as tired of this as I am. Do you really want to continue wandering around in this infernal weather?"
Willbrand hesitated. He was certain this was a very bad idea. But Saramis had known Ktan for a lot longer than he, and in spite of his devil may care attitude, seemed to take things seriously when they were important enough. He really didn't think the magician would jeopardize their safety any more than Ktan would. He could very well be right.
"I don't know," he said slowly.
"C'mon," Saramis cajoled. "We're going to be on watch anyway. If they do send someone we'll see them a long time before they get here. But that's not going to happen."
Willbrand hesitated a moment more, then finally nodded.
"Very well," he said. "I'll do it because I trust your judgment, but I still don't think it's a good idea."
"That's my boy," Saramis said with a grin, coming over and slapping him on the back. He pulled Willbrand over to the edge of the hill. He stopped and looked around for a moment.
"See that hilltop over there?" he questioned.
Willbrand nodded. The hill rose up just on the other side of the road, and was almost as tall as the hill they stood on.
Saramis lifted up the tube and put it to his eye once more. Then he turned toward Willbrand.
"Now look at it through this," he said.
Willbrand hesitated a moment, looking at Saramis in surprise. The magician usually jealously guarded his little devices. But he only hesitated a moment, then eagerly put his eye to the tube.
Almost immediately he pulled back. He frowned, staring at the hill. It seemed the same as it had before he looked in the tube. No bigger or smaller. But when he looked through the device, it had seemed to be just a few paces away.
"How..." he began.
"It's enchanted," Saramis said, smiling at Willbrands reaction. "A spell of far seeing."
Willbrand looked into to the tube once again, and this time, ready for what he would see, he did not pull away. It was incredible. He could see individual trees on the slopes, a clearing where the granite of the hillside poked through. He took hold of the tube and brought it downward, until the road came into view. It was no longer a mere ribbon, but wide enough to drive a cart on. He turned his head toward Saramis.
"That's amazing," he said in awe.
"Indeed it is," Saramis agreed. To Willbrand's disappointment he took the tube and placed it back in his bag. Seeing the boy’s look he laughed. "Don't worry; I'll let you use it again sometime."
"Thanks," Willbrand said.
"It's nothing," Saramis replied. "Now you better get back inside before mother hen comes hunting for you."
Willbrand nodded and walked back to the guardhouse as Saramis mounted the ladder to the watch tower. Ktan looked up as the young noble entered, and immediately Willbrand felt a pang of guilt.
"Everything all right?" Ktan asked.
In spite of what he had said to Saramis, he was tempted to tell Ktan what had happened. The look through the enchanted tube had obviously been meant as a bribe, a little added incentive to make sure he kept his mouth shut. And because of that he resented it. But he had given his word, and he decided he wasn't going to go back on it.
"Yes," he replied.
He sat down not far from the door, trying to avoid Ktan's gaze. But Ktan did not seem particularly interested in him.
"So what's the plan once we reach Pantaglia?" Jenya questioned. "Do we have any clue at all how we're going to get our hands on this book?"
Ktan pondered this for a moment.
"Not really," he replied. "We need more information. I haven't been to Pantaglia in years. I know Dason has a residence on the waterfront, or had, there's no saying he hasn't moved, although that's probably unlikely, since he already lived in the largest private residence in the city. Still, a lot could change in a few years. We'll have to do a little reconnaissance before we can formulate a plan of action."
"In other words we're just going blunder blindly in," Jenya said with a smile.
Ktan looked up at her.
"I suppose so," he said thoughtfully. "But then again, I don't see why this time should be any different from any other."
"How long are we going to stay here?" Merigan asked, echoing a question that was rather uppermost in Willbrand's mind at the moment.
"We can't just walk into the city. The gates will be guarded, and I'm sure they'll have a description of our little party. We'll have to slip in under cover of darkness. If we leave in a couple of hours, we should get there just about dusk."
Willbrand sat back, trying not to look impatient. After what had happened he was more than willing to leave as soon as possible, no matter how tired he was. How stupid it had been to agree to stay when the agreement only made him wish they would leave as quickly as they could.
"Well, we shouldn't be completely in the dark," Ktan continued. "It's a sure bet Saramis knows someone in Pantaglia who can give us shelter and fill us in on recent events, if not actively help us. His contacts do come in handy now and then."
"At least he's good for something," Jenya muttered.
The time passed slowly. Willbrand didn't stay sitting down long. After a few minutes he got up and went over to the window again. When he opened the shutters he saw that the rain had stopped entirely. In fact, the sun had broken through the clouds and the sky was rapidly clearing. The wind had changed direction, turning from the north to more easterly. It no longer felt cold. From this position, he didn't have the view that Saramis had from up in the tower, but he could still catch a glimpse of the road to the south. He kept a wary eye on it for the remainder of their stay. After a while Jenya got up, saying she'd go relieve Saramis. When the magician returned to the cabin, he looked at Willbrand, but said nothing.
Time passed slowly, but it did pass. Eventually Ktan stirred, got up and opened the door to look out. The sun was in the west now, beginning its inevitable fall into evening. Ktan turned around and looked at them.
"I guess we better get going," he said.
Ktan called out to Jenya, and they gathered their things together, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Merigan had laid out their cloaks next to the fire, and as a result they were not only dry but comfortably warm in the early evening chill. Jenya was the last one out, strapping on the last bit of her armor even as she tried to catch up with the others.
They had almost reached the horses when Ktan stopped suddenly. He looked around for a moment, his eyes narrowing.
"What is..." Willbrand began.
But even as he spoke Ktan was whipping out his sword. At the same time six horsemen broke out of the trees just to the west of them.
"Ambush!" Ktan cried out.
Willbrand heard Saramis curse behind him. He fumbled to pull out his own sword, stepping between Merigan and the newcomers. Ktan ran for the horses. He leapt on his in one fluid motion, cutting the tether with his sword. Then he turned and galloped straight at the charging men.
Ktan met the men with a clash of steel, his sword whistling so fast through the air that it could not be followed. One man fell from his horse almost immediately, blood pouring from the mortal wound on his chest. Ktan ducked under another man's blow. The other man spun his horse around, thinking that he was out of Ktan's reach.
He was wrong.
Ktan's sword flashed out again. The man stopped, looking around with a bewildered expression as blood gushed from the cut across his neck, then fell from the horse when he realized he was dead.
Jenya, who was still behind the others, ran toward the horseman, yelling to get their attention. Apparently it worked, for one of the horseman turned toward her. As he bore down on her she halted. Lifting up her sword as if to defend herself, she waited until the man was almost on top of her and then suddenly flung it at him. The man brought up his hands in self defense, the sword catching his shoulder, drawing blood, before falling away. But as soon she threw the sword, Jenya charged forward. Jumping up, she grabbed hold of the man before he could recover and pulled him off the horse. The two fell in a heap on the ground. In spite of her armor, Jenya was up quicker. Pulling a knife from her boot she drove it forward under the man's breastbone. He gagged and fell.
Two of the others charged straight at Willbrand and Merigan, swords raised. A million thoughts ran through the young noble's head in the seconds it took for them to reach him. He had been taught that a man on foot was at a severe disadvantage when faced with a mounted foe, especially if there was no cover. The odds were against him, but he had been taught a few tricks. He wasn't sure, however, that any of them would work against two horseman. At least they didn't have lances. Nor were the men dressed in armor. It appeared whoever they were; they weren't trained knights, which meant the horses they were riding probably weren't warhorses. That might even the odds a bit.
The odds improved even more a moment later, however, as one of the horses suddenly stumbled, throwing its rider violently off onto the ground. Willbrand waited until the other rider was nearly on top of him, then dodged suddenly to the side, ducking down and swinging low. He heard the man's sword whistle just above his head, but felt his own slash across the horses side and the man's leg. With a scream the horse rose up and shied away. The rider hadn't anticipated this, and groped madly to try to remain mounted. Willbrand, however, had. He sprang up, running over to the horse while the man was still trying to regain control, and plunged his sword into the man's back.
The man didn't cry out, didn't say a word at all, just slid off his horse onto the ground.
"Watch out!" he heard Merigan cry.
He turned to see the horseman who had fallen running toward him. He pulled his sword up defensively, but suddenly the man cried out as Ktan rode up behind him and impaled him with his blade. The man stumbled and his own blow went wildly awry. Then he fell to the ground
The last man was galloping straight as Saramis. Willbrand started to run over, but he knew he couldn't possibly make it in time. Saramis appeared to be fumbling for another of the magical devices he kept in his bag, pulling something out. There was a flash of light, and Willbrand saw him raise something and point it at the rider, the rider who was almost on top of him now.
Suddenly there was a crack of thunder, and Willbrand saw smoke and flame issue from the thing Saramis was holding. At the same time, the man charging at him was flung backwards as if hit by a battering ram. He flew off his horse, skidding to a halt on the ground in a lifeless heap.
Silence suddenly fell. Ktan looked them all over.
"Is everyone all right?"
They all replied in the affirmative. Willbrand turned around to look at Merigan. She had beads of sweat on her forehead and her face was pale.
Suddenly he realized she had been participating too.
"You made that horse stumble, didn't you?"
She nodded and gave him a weak smile.
Willbrand looked over at Saramis, who was putting his device back where it belonged. The noble's estimation of the man had just gone up.
"What was that?" he questioned.
Saramis just looked at him with a conspiratorial smile.
"Black magic," he replied.
"How did they find us," Ktan's words instantly banished the smile on Saramis' face.
Ktan slowly looked at each of them, his eyes finally stopping on Willbrand.
"You didn't see anything?" he questioned, although accused might have been more accurate.
"I..." Willbrand began, suddenly feeling his knees go weak.
Ktan got off his horse and strode deliberately over to him. He roughly grabbed the younger man's collar.
"Out with it!"
It was a demand Willbrand could not refuse.
"I saw some kids, while I was on watch," he stammered. "They were just kids. I thought they were harmless."
Ktan stared at him for a moment, the look on his face so black Willbrand thought it alone might kill him.
"You thought they were harmless!" he shouted. "Why you stupid addle brained..."
"Ktan, wait!" Saramis interrupted.
Ktan turned and glared at the magician.
"It was me," Saramis admitted hesitantly. "It was my fault. I saw them too, and I told him not to tell you. I was the one who said they were harmless."
Ktan stood there for a moment, looking back and forth between the two of them. Finally he let go of Willbrand's collar.
"It was stupid, I know," Saramis continued. "But I knew if we told you you'd send us off into the woods again, and we needed some rest."
"Saramis!" Jenya admonished.
Ktan said nothing at all, just stared at them, which obviously made Saramis even more uncomfortable. He stood there, shifting his weight from foot to foot, trying to look as contrite as he could.
Finally Ktan turned away, slamming his sword into its sheath.
"I'm surrounded by fools!" he exclaimed.
Without another word he got on his horse and started off into the woods, not waiting for anyone else.
The others hastily mounted as well. As Jenya got on her horse she whispered to Saramis.
Saramis just glared at her without replying.
They rode for hours in silence. Just as the sun was beginning to sink below the horizon they crested a hill and saw the city of
Willbrand just stared at it. From the stories he had been told he knew it was big, much bigger than Crotasia, but he hadn't expected it to be this big. It filled the entire plain below them, seeming to go on for miles. A tall stone wall surrounded it on this side, and beyond it all he could see was countless rooftops, some of them low and flat, barely to be seen above the wall, others rising as towers high into the air, higher than he had thought possible. And beyond them, so far away he could barely make it out, the crystal clear blue water of the ocean. He sat there overwhelmed by wonder. He had never in his life seen anything like it before.
They rode slowly down the hill, even as the sun sank below the horizon. By the time the reached the last line of trees before the city gates, the shadows had deepened into night around them. Here they halted again; close enough to the gates to see them plainly. They were guarded by half a dozen men.
"Is there any other way to enter?" Willbrand questioned.
"There are many gates into the city," Saramis replied, speaking for the first time since they had left the hill. "But they are all guarded."
"So what, we go over the wall?" Willbrand said.
"It's over thirty arm lengths in height. We have ropes but no kind of hook," Jenya pointed out.
"She's right," Ktan stated. "The only way in is through the gate."
Willbrand frowned. Hadn’t Ktan already known this?
"And just how do you propose we get by all those watchful eyes?" he questioned.
“We can't," Ktan replied. Slowly he turned until his gaze fell on Merigan.
"But she can."