Chapter III:6

Of the company of merchants,
much could right ‘n truly be said,
half contrary ‘n misleading,
the rests destitute or dead,

no better the company they keep,
sell swords oft of lowest caliber,
yet without it the wheels would stop,
and every fortune would be poorer.

– Councilman Ashander I, circa 450 E.R.

The East Road

“So, how was the old farm?” Samantha asked with reservation as a silver haired woman tried to storm past her.

“Oh, the usual,” Katrisha spun, and glared at her. “Ancient ghosts. Fulfillment of millennia old prophecy. Love conquers all. Except for me of course. I die alone at the end of the world,” She turned on her heal again, marched past, and slammed a wagon door behind her.

“Uh…was that sarcasm?” Samantha asked uneasily.

“Fraid not,” Kiannae said, only a few steps behind. She tried to open the door, but found it bound by a complex spell. “Guess she wants to be alone.” She stepped back, and considered the construction of it.

“Ghosts?” Samantha pressed.

“Queen Navi’s,” Kiannae said. She grew thin lipped. “We took a stone to the Ashton tree, a lone dryad that has stood in plain sight for over a thousand years.”

“I’m pretty sure I understood all of those words, but not a lick of what you just said.”

“We have a bit of an uncomfortable relationship with prophecy, Kat and I.” Kiannae rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I’m not quite sure why she has jumped to that one over today.”

The door suddenly flung open, and a large book slammed into Kiannae’s chest before she could say anything. Katrisha glared at her, then slammed the door again.

“What was that about?” Samantha demanded, rubbing her neck.

“Queen Navi’s journal,” Kiannae said. She turned the tome over awkwardly. “Or so I surmise, from a translated passage, a ghost’s parting words, and what just…” She covered her face, and sighed. “ Prophecy. More of it, right here. About us.”

“What kind of prophecy?” Samantha pressed.

“Is there a good kind?” Kiannae gave her a pointed look. “More about one of us than the other. Promises, ‘The second is born, but first to die,’ and to ‘beware the dragon that lies.’ I forgot, once. Foolishly. Never again. Not after everything. The dragon did lie. It didn’t kill her, but this isn’t done. We never knew for sure, not when we were young. Which of us was the first born, but my name, or at least aunna, means honored daughter. Likely first born…” She looked ill. “Oh fates,” she muttered, and hit the door.

“What?” Samantha pressed, and stepped up to put her hand on Kiannae’s shoulder.

“Navi, she…I don’t know, honored, or recognized me,” Kiannae said gritting her teeth. “We are descendants of the sitting King. Though bastards twice over. The prophecy, it promises one of us a crown, to the first born. Death to the other.”

“Royals, prophecy…” Samantha said incredulously. “My cursed brother never told me any of that. What else has he been keeping from me?”

“Never told you what?” Mercu asked walking up on the scene, though his expression did little to make his feigned ignorance convincing.

“Kia, Kat, I guess Wren, they are royals? Chased by dire prophecy. So many things. Where shall we begin?”

“Bastards,” Kiannae corrected tersely, “twice over. It doesn’t make sense. There’s no sound claim between us to any royal line. Just bastards.” She stepped closer, and set her hand on the door, and tried to pick apart the lock spell.

“They were married,” Wren answered her refrain, having caught up.  His expression pained. “Under the ash tree, with only our grandfather as witness. He took her name, for all it mattered to him. He found the tradition,” he hesitated, “quaint. His old life was lost to him, so it felt apt to become of the Ash. I can’t remember all the words. She didn’t know all of the meanings. So much is scattered, but they were married.”

“You aren’t helping,” Kiannae growled, and hit her head on the door.

Wren set his hand on his sister’s shoulder. He could remember them both being born, the agony and the joy. The love in their father’s eyes for each of his daughters. Arguing about names. So many fragments, and she was right. It didn’t help. Not in that moment, without seeing it all together. He held his tongue.

“There’s no point being blind at this point. Not after today,” Mercu said. “There are a lot of people between either of you, and the crown, but let’s be honest. More impossible things have already happened.” He took off his hat. “King John probably would have married Renae back then, if they had not been pulled apart. He, I think, intends to marry her soon. A bit late, but it does tie up some loose ends in your lineage. Particularly since he signed papers to recognized Adel formally.”

“Stop,” Kiannae growled. “Just stop, all of you. Stop making it easier for this stupid prophecy to be true.” She nudged the spell a few more times, hit the door, and stormed away in frustration.

Mercu followed, but Wren hesitated. He turned, as presence brushed the edge of his awareness. Golden eyes locked with his, staring at him from amidst the busy shops of the merchant caravan. She grimaced, turned, and slipped away in the crowd.

Coria 33rd, 655 E.R.

Four hours into the second day, and fifteen miles past East Rook. All was quiet on the eastern road. Kiannae had insisted on riding on the roof after Katrisha had refused to speak with her. She’d made excuses that she preferred to ride on top, now that they were out of frigid passes, and onto long forest roads. Katrisha had claimed the back, and kept the curtain pulled. She had spoken to no one in days. Barely relenting to eat if she was brought food.

Wren watched the trees move past the wagon window with lingering suspicion. Mercu sat opposite, sketching absently, catching poses of the young man staring off into the distance. He frowned, and fussed with his charcoal, though it was perfectly fine.

It had been nearly a decade since the last of the most brutal attacks. Though ordinary brigands, had attacked more recently. That stretch of road was miles behind, but the attackers had never been caught, never identified. Barely had left one broken man to speak of them. It gave no peace to have prophecy intrude so harshly before starting that journey.

“You seem troubled,” Mercu said, masking his own worry.

Wren gave him a dubious glance, and looked back out the window. “What was his name, again?” He asked after further silence. “The man you knew who died on this road. I don’t remember anymore.”

“Ah,” Mercu said. “Yes. This road has been a bloody one. Hamon was his name. Not a personable fellow, but loyal, brave, very strong, and good in a fight. He kept every scar. Nothing that would hinder his performance, but every mark, every blemish on his honor. For each ten foes lay dead, or so the stories go. Could never tell if people were mocking him, or praising him. Maybe a bit of both.”

“He doesn’t sound very nice.”

“He wasn’t,” Mercu admitted, “but in some ways he was a very good man. I doubt I’d live today if not for him.”

“I’m just worried,” Wren said. “I’ll never forget poor Randal, much as I would like to. So much blood. He should have been dead. He’s never lost that haunted expression. Gets grief for drinking too much, and spending every moment he can with red sisters. Course I know the truth. How much of that time is spent crying, and trying to feel safe.”

“We are well east of where that happened,” Mercu said without enough conviction. “None of the attacks have ever been this far.” He fussed with his charcoal again, and resumed sketching. He took a breath. Even if it was true, it didn’t mean anything. He knew that. There was more than one dangerous sets of bandits in the world. He had confirmed with Corien, that the attackers in the east had been driven off, a few killed or captured, but not the leader. He couldn’t confirm who. Just a mage of caliber, however rogue. Not the only one on the loose by many reports. All through the kingdoms, more bandits, more unrest. More rogue mages. Like every awful thing in the world was waking up. A few miles past any prior attack, did not give him much peace.

An hour later Wren laid staring up at the ceiling. Katrisha and Mercu had traded places, but she seemed intent to stare at her staff, and had barely acknowledged her brother. There was a thunk outside the cart, and a twang which startled Wren, to see an arrow next to the window. Another whizzed past and struck the wall next to Katrisha, who dove away from it instinctively.

She leapt back to her feet, out the door, and a massive shield went up around the wagon.

Screams of wounded, and cries of, “Bandits north!” echoed down the line.

Kiannae dropped beside her sister, searching the forest. “They are too far out, I can’t feel them,” she said under her breath.

More arrows struck uselessly again the shield, and Kiannae threw a blinding bolt of lighting back along its trajectory. There was a distant yell, and she spun as she felt someone approaching from the forest, striking a well armed brigand at thirty paces past the treeline with another bolt.

“What do we do?” Katrisha asked. “Just sit here, and fend them off?”

“I think the’ll back off here, hoping we do that,” Kiannae said looking up, and down the line. She leaned closer. “That staff of yours, it can keep up the shield without you, right?”

Katrisha nodded, and climbed back up. She set her staff inside, and let go of it. “I’ll keep this wagon safe,” she yelled. Kiannae closed her eyes, and Katrisha vanished under Kiannae’s spell, jumped down, and ran east along the line, her sister following. Kiannae threw a blinding lightning bolt as her sister crossed the boundary, and the invisibility failed.

Arrows fell uselessly around Kiannae as she dove behind the south side of the wagon after her sister. A new arrow came from the south, but Katrisha stopped it. Lighting flew from Kiannae’s hands along the course it had followed, catching a man perched high in a tree who fell with a distant thud.

“Bandits South!” she yelled, and a moment later it echoed both up and down the line.

She caught a man diving behind a tree, also with a bow. Another bolt struck the tree with a deafening crack, and the trunk splintered outward with as much deadly effect as if he had been hit directly. He was thrown from his shelter, and fell twitching to the forest floor.

Katrisha reached out to the familiar presence of her staff, and dared to expand its protections. A ring of frost formed along the edge of the wagon ahead, behind, and along the ground, while the inner shield still glowed brightly. “That’s as much as I can do with the staff. Continue up the line, find the mercenaries, come up with a plan?” she asked.

Kiannae nodded, and the two bolted up the line, a few arrows dropping off beside them

Katrisha stopped at a flash of blue caught her eye. She spun, and threw up renewed protections as she felt magic coming, lighting, ice, fire, a full gamut swirled into an unstable ball. Flames licked off the shield, and sparks crackled along the ground, the rest consumed instantly in the backlash.

A bandit with a sword charged from the woods. Kiannae threw lighting into him, but it grounded harmlessly off a delicate enchantment. He forced his way through the frigid barrier with obvious displeasure. Half way through, and before he could swing Kiannae blasted him back with wind and force. Katrisha switched the shield into a more complex array that defied further magical assault.

A dark skinned man in a long blue coat with gold buttons stepped fully into view. He stared at the two curiously, and Katrisha felt him plucking at the magic that maintained her protections. There was a moment of back and forth, each probing the other’s defenses, and repairing their own. Kiannae tried the same, but none made a move to attack more directly.

A series of cries rang out from the forest, but did not draw the eyes of the three engaged in more arcane battle. The man was as surprised as Katrisha when his shield deflected quick blows from swords wielded by a redheaded woman who seemed to come from nowhere. He threw her back effortlessly, and she was only just able to get back to her feet in time to engage a bandit that charged her. He barely lasted two seconds before her short sword got under his guard.

Kiannae tried a strike at the mage in blue, but found he was more than able to ground her attacks away from himself, even as his shield repaired from damage done by Etore’s sword. A distant horn marked the retreat of the bandits, and a powerful blast of force blew Etore’s back, and sent dust and debris into the air as the mage dashed away. Kiannae deflected the wind, and Katrisha’s spell caught stray debris.

The three ran after the mage, but the man was incredibly fast, agile, and quickly disappeared into the deep woods. “What in the Abyss,” Kiannae growled out of breath.

“Never seen anyone run like that,” Katrisha said trying to gauge how far the man had gotten, but she couldn’t sense him anymore.

“I’ve seen faster, down in Napir, but, yeah I don’t know,” Kiannae said, and tried to fix her eyes on the still slippery Etore, who stepped out of view.

“Back to the wagon,” Katrisha said, and started backing up. “Check if any of the bandits are alive. I want answers.”

They returned cautiously towards the caravan, and checked on each dead bandit they passed. More than a few had been cut down with a sword. One still lived, though barely, as he seemed to have lost his right hand to the woman that held him at the end of a rapier.

Kiannae moved to stop the man’s bleeding, as Katrisha watched for him to make one wrong move. He did, and tried to headbutt his would be healer when Etore gave him even an inch of space. He failed, Kiannae jumped back, and fell. In a blink his throat was slit clean through.

“We still needed to question him!” Katrisha growled.

“He was mute,” Etore said pointing to his gasping mouth with her blade. “If the act of attacking someone trying to stop him bleeding out was not evidence he would not talk, the fact his tongue was cut out should seal it. He had his chance,” she said and turned towards the caravan.

Katrisha considered the man before her. She doubted there was anything she could do for him, if anyone could. She summarily dismissed the thought of involving Wren, and helped her sister up. A groan nearby turned her head, and the longer of Etore’s two swords was again at the throat of a dazed bandit.

“Try not to kill that one,” Katrisha said as she marched up to the two. The man’s eyes flitted back and forth, but he seemed resolved to lay very still beneath the sword at his throat, and eyed a mage and druid with even more suspicion.

“So tell me,” Kiannae said as she crouched over the man, “can you talk?”

The man sneered, but did not speak, or move.

“It would be best if you were capable of speaking,” Kiannae pressed. “You see, my friend here, with the pointy bits of metal, she slit the throat of the last one who couldn’t talk.”

“I can talk,” the man said in a clearly northern accent. His skin was not so dark as Etore’s, or the blue mage, but on closer examination of warmer hue than most native to Avrale. Certainly more so than an easterner from Helm.

“Get up,” Katrisha ordered, and gestured for Etore to step back. As the man stood Katrisha grabbed his hands, pulled them forcefully behind his back, and bound them with a spell.

“Where did you learn that one?” Kiannae asked, glancing around the forest to be sure there were no new threats.

“Not important,” Katrisha said tersely. “That will hold him. In fact, that will also make it so he can’t move if I want. For the moment they are bound to his spine, but I could bind them to something he couldn’t move, like a tree.”

“Clever,” Kiannae said.

“Walk,” Kiannae commanded shoving the man, and Etore made the direction all the more clear with her sword.

Prisoner in tow the three made their way back to the caravan only to find Carter waiting. “Where’s the healer?” he demanded staring at the shield Katrisha had erected.

“In the wagon, with the big bubble over it,” Katrisha gestured. She grabbed their prisoner, pushed him forward. With a gesture, and a yelp the man spun, and hung kicking, and squirming off the wagon side.

Carter gave her a bewildered look. “Only seen that trick once,” he said with a grim nod, and a mismatched smirk. “Who taught you?”

“I read it somewhere,” Katrisha said growing thin lipped. “Hardly the time.”

“No, it’s not, but big bubble as you say,” Carter said. “Going to do anything about that? We’ve got a lot of wounded up front.“ Also the driver, one wagon ahead took an arrow. If we can get him out from under his box, it would be good to tend the bleeding before we move on.”

“Sure it’s safe to bring Wren out?” Katrisha asked.

“Not really, but people will probably die if we don’t,” Carter countered. “Odds are, after you two started showing off, the bandits will pick a safer target.”

“They’re Osyraen,” Etore said, catching everyone’s eye. “If that wasn’t obvious, the leader was wearing a royal army coat. This isn’t about opportunity or profit. It’s an act of war.”

“Great,” Carter said rubbing his neck. “I knew it was trouble when Sam traded routes in Niven. Should have refused then and there, taken a few months off. Had a nice vacation. Niven in the late spring, nice place.”

All turned as the shield suddenly shrank. Katrisha blinked, her face falling slack in bewilderment, with a touch of worry. “That, should not have happened.”

The shield stopped shrinking, and started to shift down the wagon. Wren appeared around the end, trembling, holding Katrisha’s staff. Mercu tucked tightly behind him, holding onto his hat, and glancing around at the shield itself.

“Where are the wounded?” Wren asked through gritted teeth.

“How did you…” Katrisha started nervously.

“I asked,” Wren said stony faced.

“Wounded are toward the front, you’ll be the best judge of who can wait,” Carter said.

Wren stepped closer. “Could you take this?” he asked, holding it out to Katrisha.

Katrisha nodded, and made the staff stop casting the shield. A thin set of wards took its place, permitting her to take it.

Wren looked relieved to let it go. “Lead on.”

“You just going to leave me hanging here?” the bandit growled next to them. Katrisha spun, and slapped her hand across his mouth. She left another spell there, binding his teeth to each other.

“Haven’t seen that use,” Carter said, and then started up the line.

“Just made it up,” Katrisha said following in his wake.

Etore stopped under that bandit, and gave him a hateful look. “Get used to hanging,” she said. “That’s how they deal with you lot, here in Helm. Be the last thing you do, if you don’t make some new friends soon. Think about that.”

The man sneered, and hissed a curse passed his bound jaw.

The group stopped next to the box of the next wagon. A man was tucked underneath, shaking, an arrow sticking from his shoulder.

“Gonna come out, Frank, or do you want to wait to have that tended to?” Carter asked.

Frank gave a hurt, and pained glance, but crawled out.

“I’ve never removed an arrow before,” Wren said examining the wound. “I can feel where it’s hooked into the muscle. How horrible.”

“Not a lot of time to dally,” Carter said, grabbed the arrow, and ripped it clean out.

Frank squealed, cursed obscenities, and swung at the man’s leg violently, but only managed to fall. He caught himself with his injured shoulder and screamed again.

“Get it patched,” Carter said. “Good enough he doesn’t bleed out, and move on. This is triage. Proximity, severity, knowing who you can’t save. Got me?”

Wren gave distasteful look, but nodded, and quickly sealed the wound.

“Get in the wagon, or under it,” Carter ordered. “Your pick.” He moved on up the line.

Frank glanced at the wagon, and slid back under the box.

“Where did Etore go?” Kiannae asked as they rounded a bend, and came on gathered wounded.

Wren hurried past, and moved over them quickly, not stopping to do anything first, before turning back, and settling on the worst, who had taken two arrows to the gut.

“Somewhere useful, probably.” Carter shrugged. “I trust her to be where we need her, when we need her. How bad is it?” he asked when he caught sight of Samantha nearby.

“Three dead,” she said and hit the wagon she was leaned against. “Mostly drivers. Killed instantly by arrows to the heart, or neck. A lot of wounded, as you can see. No disabled wagons in the front.”

“None to the back,” Mercu said, and walked up to his sister. She brushed off his hand when he tried to comfort her. The two started arguing animatedly, but far too quietly to be overheard.

“I’m gonna need help,” Wren said.

“Where’s that red-woman?” Carter asked.

“Tending to three more, including James at the front. Ones that couldn’t be moved. Working with that druid kid who’s been bunking with her,” Samantha said stepping away from her brother.

“Right, druids. Alright wood-priest, you any good at healing?”

Kiannae looked like she wanted to say something snide. She’d always been told to save her gift for a fight when there was still danger, but she grimaced, and matched towards her brother.

“You can tend to the worst wounds, of the ones I’ve already stopped the bleeding on,” he said almost dismissively, focused on his task, and moved on.

Katrisha moved to help as well.

“Not you kid, save your strength.” Carter caught her shoulder.

She shrugged him off. “I’m actually trained as a healer, and I’ve a lot more gift to work with than you realize.”

Katrisha moved to the far end of the wounded, and looked down at Mallory who smiled rather unsuccessfully up at her through his pain. A gash was cut across his chest. Bloodied, but obviously no longer bleeding. The swipe had cut through an outer, and inner shirt, not to mention the chain mail glinting around the edges in between. A few spots of white she realized were rib.

“I’m guessing those were no ordinary swords our friends were swinging about,” Katrisha said, and knelt down.

“Seems not,” Mallory grunted as Katrisha started her work.

“Thought they looked almost enchanted. Good work, low profile, but clearly gets the job done,” she said drawing out spell lines.

“Sure, compliment the enchanter,” Mallory muttered.

“What in the Abyss are you doing?” Carter demanded behind her. “Spell work? Trying to bind the wound or something? Save your gift in case there is another attack. He’ll be fine, I stopped the bleeding.”

She finished her spell and Mallory jerked with a start. “Fates,” he groaned. “Still burns like a damn viper bite, but that feels so good I almost don’t care.” He took several labored breaths.

Carter knelt down, and looked over the spell suspiciously. “What in the burning heavens is this?” He tried to make sense of it. “I’ve never seen spell construction like this.”

“It’s adapted,” Katrisha said. “Raw living energy, not very refined, but it should force the wound to heal itself over the next couple hours.”

“That’s not even possible!” Carter protested.

“The technique is centuries old,” Katrisha gave him a challenging look. “Just cause you’ve never heard of it, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”

Mallory sighed. “Feel stupid passing up on new fancy chain mail last month. Supposed to counter clever enchantments.”

“Yeah I could see how you would be all cut up over that,” Katrisha said dryly, and moved to another wounded member.

“Ha ha,” Mallory called after her, and winced for the effort of it.

“The staff is actually maintaining the spell,” Carter said examining the magic. “Channeling the backlash through…” he leaned closer. “No,” he said. “Those etchings, and spell lines. I thought they were just enchantments, but that’s all mage blood.”

“Like my hair,” Katrisha said as she started to work again.

“Hi,” a rather burly, short haired woman managed. “Be a driver, they say, see the world they say. No one mentions the arrows.” She winced. “Third time getting hit in seven years. Hate being a big target.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Katrisha said, and worked quickly. The woman relaxed once the spell kicked in.

“Oi, that’s not so bad,” she muttered, and put her hand over the wound. “That actually going to heal it?”

“Slowly,” Katrisha said, stood, and moved on.

She met Wren and Kiannae going coming the other way as she worked on the third. Kiannae glanced at the spell work. “Where have you been learning this stuff?” she asked.

“Spell books,” Katrisha said. “As long as they are well enough written, and with a little time I’ve been able to work backwards through principle.”

“Gonna teach me some of it?” Kiannae asked.

“Thought you were through with magic?” Katrisha said, and finished her spell. The man sighed, and relax against the ground. She turned, and looked around, then spread her wards over all the wounded, and made sure the staff was ready to snap up defense at the first sign of attack.

“Through with convention,” Kiannae said.

“Good, about time,” Katrisha cut back, and glanced at her sister with grim humor. “Later, when we have time. Though, feel free to try to learn from it while you guide the healing. It’ll save your gift, you provide the skill. I’m gonna go back to the other two, and see if I can speed it up myself.”

“What have we learned from this scum?” came an irate demand from behind Etore.

“Nothing,” Etore said almost disinterestedly. “Little miss silver bound his jaw, so I’ve been taking the opportunity to talk to him about the…wisdom of speaking when he’s able.”

Without warning Samantha swung hard, and struck the man square in the groin. He squeaked more than screamed, and she repeated the blow three more times until he hung limp, gasping, unable to even make a sound. “Now listen here, you worthless sack of horse shit,” Samantha said with sickening venom. “You are going to tell us everything you know, or I swear I will have those healed, and crush them again until you talk.”

“What in the abyss are you doing?” Mercu demanded as he marched up after her.

“They killed Harris,” Samantha said coldly.

“I know,” Mercu said. “But…”

“Fifteen years,” she snapped. “Fifteen years, and I haven’t lost one member, save a single mercenary who was an idiot. Now three men dead…and one of them Harris. I’m fully ready to skin this man alive, and have someone put him back together for answers. As many times as it takes.”

Katrisha caught up, having noticed the two leaving the safety of her protections. She looked between them, and to the man she had bound. She released the spell on his mouth, before Samantha could go farther.

“The master’s done worse,” the man groaned. “Seen him burn the tongue from a man’s mouth for talking back. Seen him roast men alive, and keep them just, alive, for days. Screaming. I don’t fear you little woman.”

“You are only giving me ideas,” Samantha hissed. “Now give me reasons not to use them. Try your luck with us, because we made him run. We made your master run.”

“The master does not run. He is The Wolf, he circles, he hunts. None escape,” the man laughed darkly, even with fear in his eyes. “What he does to his own men, pales to the delight he takes in prey worthy of toying with. What he does to women…” another quick blow to the stomach cut the man off in a cough, and a groan.

“This is not good,” Katrisha said walking up, and sparing the dangling man only a sickened glance.

“Who is this Wolf?” Samantha said narrowing her eyes.

“A Duke of Osyrae, and favored son to the Mad King,” Mercu said with a cringe. “He was responsible for most of the atrocities during the civil war. I’ve only heard stories of course. They say he was more monster than man, but unlike his father, he wasn’t insane, just evil. Pure, calm, purposeful evil.”

“His name is Cadith” Katrisha added. “They kept him imprisoned for years after the war, but after Heron’s death, and his brother taking the throne he’s been loose. Even run the capital at times since Vharen became king. This is way more terrifying than just how powerful the foe we are dealing with is. It is a clear sign of Osyrae’s open aggression.”

“Not the first sign,” Mercu said. “It’s been him, all along. Laurel and I suspected, but had no real proof.”

“He will be back,” the dangling man managed weakly, “and he will relish feeding all these pretty…” the man was cut short with a gurgled gasp as a blade sliced through his neck. Everyone turned to Etore with a start.

“I was through with his ramblings. We weren’t getting anything else useful out of him,” Etore said with a sneer, and walked away.

“Numbers!” Mercu growled.

“Have the only one we need. One rogue mage, not known for working well with others. The rest are rabble. Likely former prisoners. You’ve heard the rumors, I’ve seen the result. As well as the sort he surrounds himself with.”

Katrisha looked away, and released the bindings, letting the dead man fall to the ground. The sound was sickening, and for those who had not looked away, the sight more so.

“What now?” Carter demanded, giving Etore a wide berth.

“Which way is the closest town?” Katrisha asked.

“East Rook is twenty miles back, and maybe twenty-five onto Ashford,” Samantha answered

“The way back is uphill, and the wagons are faced the wrong way, we press on as soon as the wounded can be moved, and the dead stowed,” Katrisha declared. “Everyone not injured, or caring for them is to be on full alert until we reach Ashford. Short of letting people die, getting anyone who can fight fully healed is the top priority.”

There was hesitance, and most eyes turned to Samantha. “She’s not wrong. Get to it,” the woman said, and nodded to Katrisha.

“I’m going to try some quick warding enchantments against their blades,” Katrisha added growing thin lipped. “Someone find me one.”

Carter noded. “I’ll do that, and help.”

Katrisha looked to the dead man. He had been a twisted thing. His words had made her wish him dead, and her bindings had made his painful end all too easy. It wasn’t so very new, and yet she felt it more. Her sister had, on a long night after Oradin, and losing Horence, told Katrisha how it felt. The first time, killing someone. She hadn’t, not quite. Played a role in it, but never done it. Not unless she counted one dire lynx. She couldn’t hesitate. Not anymore. Kill, or let others die. Her people, or her enemies. Those were her choices. Playing defense, would not do. Yet it twisted inside of her. With a wave of her hand a spell wove around the remains, and tossed the corpse into the forest, and out of her sight.

She looked up, to find Mercu looking at her with a furrowed brow. “You know, moving on isn’t the only thing we should do. Someone should ride for help. This is…”

“Who?” Katrisha cut him off.

“Me,” Mercu said. “I’m better at avoiding trouble than most.”

“As if that were true,” Katrisha growled.

“When I want to,” Mercu said. “I’m light, and I know how to ride fast. Also, I know a back way to East Rook that is easily missed.”

“And they have prowled these roads how many times? They don’t want to be known,” Katrisha said flatly. “They will kill, anyone trying to ride for help.”

“All the more reason, we have to try. It can’t be you, or Carter, or anyone useful here. I’m gonna get there better than anyone else. Unless you are going to stop me, I’m going.”

Katrisha marched up, looking like she was ready to scold him. She closed her eyes. “Stay safe, you stupid man,” she said, and threw her arms around him. “Ride like the wind.” She pushed off, and turned her back, marching up the line in search of Carter and a sword to work from.

The forest edge slipped by in a blur. Mercu lay, his chest flat to the animal’s back. Snapping the reins if it slowed, turning it down blind jags in the overgrown trail till they burst out onto a narrow bridge in a clearing, across a deep stream. He pulled the harness, unsure how stable the rickety old thing was. He gently urged the horse on.

His eyes flitted to possible hiding places, ready for an ambush. It was possible the bandits weren’t guarding the path, but he did not trust it. He was halfway across the narrow span when he felt a twinge in his shoulder. A pain like he had rarely felt, but knew in an instant to roll away. An arrow nicked across his shirt, and he fell into water deep enough for him to tumble and struggle beneath. He forced his eyes open in the stinging cold, and fought the urge to swim upward. He pushed himself towards the bridge, rose in its shadow only long enough to gasp twice for breath, and slip back under, swimming as far upstream as he could.

Mercu found a large rock and surface behind it, listening, and looking around for any sign of an enemy. Doing all he could not to pant too loudly for breath.

“I don’t see him,” a man yelled. “Well find him! Up, down stream, or The Wolf will have your hides.”

Mercu slipped under the surface again, to the bank, and bolted for the closest tree. There were cries of “this way” before he could make cover, and cursed. He was glad he’d always been good at running, but they were better, and he could hear them getting closer past his own pounding heartbeat, and loud crunching footfalls.

He came to a switch back in the river, and ran along it, knowing it was possible they were circling around. A large precariously balanced stone on a short cliff was a tempting spot to duck, but he had another idea. Instead, he shoulder checked it, and spun. None were in sight. He bolted back up into the woods as the rock tipped, and fell with a bit too loud of splash. It was a stupid plan. He was sure of it, but it was the best plan he had. He threw his back to a tree.

“I don’t see him,” a man yelled.

“He can’t stay under forever, and he can’t slip out. Bow out, go back round to the north side you two.”

There was crunching moving towards Mercu. He shifted, trying to keep out of sight. He closed his eyes, and listened to footfalls as a man ran towards his hiding spot. The man sprang past the tree, and Mercu opened his eyes, and lunged forward. He grabbed the bandit’s right arm. The man was startled, and tried to swing. Mercu dropped, feeling the swing before it happened. That was twice, he’d never managed more than twice in a day without getting seriously hurt. He’d been lucky that one time.

His fingers were slipping off the man’s sleeve, and he tried something else stupid. He was no mage, but with years of practice he’d learned one little trick. To light a candle with his finger. As they slipped off the fabric, he imagined the friction of it, sparks, energy directed right at his finger trips. All he could muster, it staggered him a bit, but with a flash of orange the man’s tunic caught fire, and in a start he dropped his sword, and flailed slapping it with his other arm trying to put it out, cursing and screaming.

Mercu snatched up the sword, and swung wildly at the distracted opponent. It was a bad strike really, collided with cheep armor on his shoulder, but it cut clean through, down to the bone. The man’s eyes went wide, his wail louder, and others charged from the stream.

Mercu ran deeper into the woods, back towards the path. At least he was fairly sure towards the path. He had no chance in a real fight against even one of those men, he was certain of that. So he ran. His only hope was a patrol. There was one, once a day, up and down to the main road, right to the border. Had been for years. That’s how he knew the trials were there. The main thing that kept the path open.

He burst back into the open, and found another bridge, one across the south switch back in the river. He ran for the corner of it. Another bad plan. They were all bad plans, and they were catching up to him. He was in the open, and they had bows. He felt the sting before it happened, and dove forward, throwing the sword rather than risk falling on it. An arrow sliced through the air over him. Three, that, that was new, and he could feel it. Decades since his closest brush, since a mage had saved him after he had dodged likely death twice. Laurel. That was a distraction, and he pushed it back with tears.

Mercu rolled, scrambled, grabbed the sword, and tried to think of options. He’d put himself under cover, but in a position to be surrounded. He heard crunching on both sides of him as he slipped under the high end of the bridge. Nowhere to run, two sides to defend from. A man moved cautiously into view, giving the edge of the bridge a wide berth. The man grinned at him. There was a sound of slipping rocks behind him, and Mercu dove into the water, and across as an arrow missed, just off its mark. He scrambled up the far side as the closer man in armor too cumbersome to swim trudged across the stream after him, and another arrow nicked his side.

Mercu cursed, and scrambled up the hill on the shallow side of the bridge and barely deflected a swing from a third man who had crossed the bridge above. Mercu lost hold of the sword, grabbed the off balance bandit, and threw him into his pursuer. He dashed past, not looking back and ran as hard as he could up the road. It was at least two miles to East Rook tower. He couldn’t even see it peaking above the tree line. All up hill. He ran, because his life depended on it, and because others lives depended on his. He clutched his bleeding side, and ran, diverting off the road again as soon as there were trees for cover. He ran, because so many lives depended on it. His, most of all.

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