Jaris had been walking since before sunrise, and he was just getting into his stride. The countryside rolled by beside him, keeping him silent, pleasant company when he paused and encouraging him in his walking. Used to the long days on the road, he loved the solitude and the silence, broken only by birds and the wind, and he was accustomed to the days of travelling that spanned the distance from one small hamlet to another, in the hinterlands of the kingdom. He was a day out of the unnamed little village that marked the halfway point between Corindale and Estermark, and he was anticipating another week and a half before he had to meet and speak to anyone again. Nobody travelled these roads save a few like himself, but that was fine by him. He was in no hurry.
The early summer morning rose about him, bringing a soft breeze which lessened the warmth of the sun. It was already getting hot during the day, but in the highlands the heat was bearable. Jaris stopped for a brief lunch, eaten in silence, and carried on walking by the stream that ran beside the road, appreciating its chattering gurgle even as he treasured his own quiet. He'd been walking these roads for nearly thirty years now, and he was used to the weather, and the feel of the seasons, and the sounds of the deserted road, so the break in his routine that came with the sound of voices was a shock.
He stopped by the stream and listened. A girl's voice, raised in laughter, but still indistinct, so he couldn't hear what she was laughing about. She must be accompanied. Jaris frowned; he'd secretly expected the roads to become more travelled eventually, as the population of the small towns grew, but he had never looked forward to it. Perhaps they would pass by without noticing him by the stream.
Or perhaps not. Jaris looked over to the pair of travellers who had paused on the path. His gaze met a pair of bright brown eyes under tousled blonde hair accompanied by a smile.
"Do you know how far it is to the next village?" the girl asked. She looked like a traveller, heavy black cloak pushed back to reveal a long red tunic, carrying a staff and with several small bags hung on a strap slung diagonally across her body. Her stance was open, unthreatening, and the question was an innocent one. Jaris hesitated, unwilling to break the magic of his silence. The girl also waited, cooperative in his stillness. For the generosity of her collaboration, Jaris answered.
"'S' a hamlet two days that way," he waved his arm behind him in the direction he'd come from.
"Two days?" The question came from the girl's slender companion, who had stood in her shadow until now. His cloak was white, to match his hair, but he appeared too young for him to have hair so white. He could have been an albino, except his skin looked like it was tanning, albeit reluctantly. Jaris couldn't see if his eyes were pink, because his long hair fell forward over his face, hiding it.
"One if you walk fast," Jaris said, and turned to carry on. He didn't want to talk any more. He heard the girl say "Thank you," as he walked away, but he did not acknowledge it.
It took the rest of the afternoon to mend his shattered silence, but by the time the golden light of the sunset washed over his face, he felt at peace again, and the two travellers had faded to a distant memory, diluted by hours of the road's silence.
The old man must have walked slowly, because it took only the rest of the day to reach what Kite could only assume was the hamlet he mentioned.
"Is there an inn there?" Saryth's tone was hopeful as he peered down the hill at the small cluster of houses set against the gentle slope. There were only a few houses, none of which looked like anything more than a small dwelling.
Kite shrugged. "We can hope. Maybe someone will let us stay in their barn or something."
"I don't see any barns," Saryth grumbled, following her down the hill. It had been five days since they had last slept in a bed, and his back was sore from a persistent tree root that he was convinced had followed them for three nights running, finding the same tender spot to poke wherever he lay down.
The path wound down the side of the hill, with long grass marking either side of it. It was narrow, too narrow for anything bigger than a small cart, implying that the village was seldom visited. Still.. one of the buildings looked bigger than the others, and the windows were lit up. As the pair reached the level of the hamlet, a man walked to the building and opened the door. Laughter echoed out into the evening twilight, stilled again by the shutting of the door. Saryth grinned expectantly at Kite, who shrugged.
"Looks like we're in luck," she said, but her offhand manner was belied by the tone in her voice. Saryth wasn't the only one to be haunted by persistent roots.
The inn - if that's what it was - was one of the few houses in the hamlet that had more than one storey. Its front door opened straight onto the path, like the other houses, and its windows were made of small panes of cheap, thick, distorted glass, making it hard to tell what was going on inside. Kite shrugged mentally, and opened the door. At worst, they'd just have to apologise.
Inside, it was clear their hopes were fulfilled, and no apology would be necessary. The taproom was small but well lit by numerous lamps and even a fire, despite the warmth of the early summer evening. There were perhaps twelve men within, all drinking but none drunk, at least as far as Kite could tell. The talking which had filled the room moments ago stilled as the men became aware that strangers had entered, and all eyes turned to the door.
The innkeeper stood up from behind the little bar, alerted by the sudden hush, and smiled.
"Welcome," he said. "What can I get you?"
Kite glanced at Saryth. It was unlikely a place this small would have much choice, and neither of them were terribly fond of beer.
"Cider?" she asked. The innkeeper beamed.
"Of course," he said, hauling out a small barrel from under the counter. The liquid that poured from the little tap smelled potent and foamed. Kite winced.
"That's two ponies," the man said, and Kite paid over the small copper coins.
"Do you have any food?" she asked. The man looked a little downcast.
"We only have bread and cheese and cold soup," he said. "We could heat it up, but it might take some time.."
"That's fine!" Kite's enthusiasm must have cheered the innkeeper up a bit. He smiled back at her, and went across the bar and through a door there. Kite picked up the ciders and turned round.
The eyes of every man in the room were on her and Saryth. She looked sidelong at him; he was looking down, a little pale, still nervous of too much attention. She nudged him as gently as she could, but he still started noticeably. He glared at her through the white curtain of his hair.
Kite nodded towards a table on the other side of the room. "Sit down," she said. "There'll be food."
"Good," Saryth said, and, making a noticeable effort to seem unperturbed, crossed the room to the table. Kite followed.
As they sat down, the talking gradually resumed, and Saryth relaxed a little. Kite smiled at him.
"It's just that we're new," she said. "They probably don't get many strangers here."
"I know." He picked up the cider and tried sipping. "Oh - this isn't bad." His tone implied he had expected it to be undrinkable. Kite tried hers, and had to agree - it was a bit strong, but surprisingly smooth and definitely drinkable.
I don't think we should have too much, she thought, sitting back against the wall. The table was near the fire, and the room was small; the talking receded to a buzz of noise and she felt herself relaxing.
"Don't go to sleep yet," Saryth said, sounding much more at ease than he had been earlier. "The food's not here yet."
"I'm not asleep," Kite said, rousing herself enough to make sure she wasn't lying. "Just.. relaxing."
From the table across the room, the men eyed the strangers hopefully. They weren't just strangers, they were interesting strangers. The blonde girl wore odd clothing, deep red and patterned round the hem. Her nervous companion was dressed more normally, in tunic and shirt, but his appearance was odd enough to beat the girl's clothing; young but silver-haired, his left eye was covered by a patch. Normally, the only travellers to visit the little hamlet were the tinkers who came by on an irregular schedule and the occasional hopeful carter trying to sell on some goods. Old Jaris had passed through just two days ago, but he had had little news of note, although any was welcome. These two, though - they looked like they might have a good story or two to tell, and perhaps they even had news from the cities.
It was Adam who started the conversation, leaning over to address the man because the girl looked half asleep.
"Do you have any news for us?" he asked, typically blunt. His target started out of a daze and blinked at the other table through his hair, which had fallen over his face. Adam thought he looked a bit pathetic.
"I.. don't think so.." he said. "Sorry. We haven't been near any cities for a while.." He glanced over to the girl. "Kite?"
That appeared to be her name, because she opened her eyes and sat up straight. "Mm?"
"We don't have any news, do we?" Why he found it necessary to ask her was beyond Adam.
"No." The girl looked at the other table. "I'm sorry. Like Saryth said, we've been travelling for some time."
"Stories, then?" Adam persisted. One of the other men leaned over and thumped him lightly on the shoulder.
"Give them some breathing space, Adam." He raised his gaze to their guests. "Sorry - it's just that we don't get much news much out here, so..."
"No, it's all right. I'm just sorry we don't have any news for you." Kite smiled apologetically. They'd actually only been in that world for a week, and all that time had been spent walking through countryside. Wherever they were, it wasn't very populated - no wonder the villagers wanted news. Well, there were always other things.
"How about a story, then? I'll get you a drink." Adam had returned to his pleading, ignoring the mingled humour and embarrassment of the rest of his table.
"I can manage that," Kite said. She took another drink of the strong cider as Adam waved the innkeeper over and requested something. The room hushed. Saryth sat back against the wall, appreciating the lack of attention and anticipating every word Kite said.
She'd told this story so many times before.
By the time she wound up the story, the innkeeper was bringing over their food. The soup was presented in two huge bowls that looked better suited to washing up in, with half a loaf of bread each and a hefty chunk of cheese on the side. The men had the grace to let them eat in peace, and in a surprisingly short length of time, they had finished the lot. Kite pushed her bowl aside and lay back, feeling even more drowsy after the food. Saryth copied her gesture, stretching back against the wall, enjoying the warmth from the fire and the chance to relax after food. The rest of the room was filled with quiet chatter, punctuated with laughter or the occasional raised voice.
Surprisingly, it wasn't Adam who restarted the conversation. An older man, his face hidden by a beard, leaned over from a different table and asked Saryth where the story came from. Unable to hide from his scrutiny, and realising that Kite was more than half asleep, Saryth answered.
"It's.. an old story of our people," he said, knowing there was more than one inaccuracy in the statement. His features were different enough from Kite's for his interrogator to doubt they were of the same racial stock, but the man let that slide, his mind on more interesting questions.
"I've heard something like it before, is all," he said. "Where is it you come from, if I can ask?"
Kite was not as asleep as she had seemed. She opened her eyes at the man's statement, and sat forward to answer him.
"A long way away," she said, her manner intent. Saryth watched her closely. This was the first time anyone had said something like this about that particular story, and it mattered.
"A place long sought after.." She watched the man, but he only scratched his beard thoughtfully.
"Where did you hear it before?" she asked finally.
"I don't remember. I'm sorry." He smiled apologetically. "Do you have any others?"
They did. That is, Kite did. Stories were always appreciated, and just as she made sure to carry a variety of coinage and gems to pay their way, she knew a number of stories and songs to ease it. Sitting in the shadows, Saryth enjoyed the stories almost as much as the audience, although he'd heard them before. Kite was a good storyteller.
There wasn't a bed at the inn, the innkeeper sadly informed them, but the widow of Doruin Farmer kept a spare room she rented out. Kite and Saryth left the inn to a chorus of well wishes from the satisfied customers.
Outside, the air was cool and the night clear. A thousand stars decorated the sky, blazing in cold splendour like a necklace around the throat of the world. Kite grinned in satisfaction, feeling herself wake up a little. At times like these, surrounded by the vastness of the night, she felt both small and huge, insignificant yet able to touch the sky. Beside her, Saryth echoed her smile, pushing his hair back from his face so he too could gaze at the stars without hindrance.
The widow's house was set back a bit from the road and, like almost all the others, had only one storey. Built out of rough grey stone, it hunkered peacefully against the bulk of the hill that loomed over it. To one side lay a well-tended garden, the leaves of herbs and vegetables picked out in silver by the starlight. It was late, but the windows were still lit, and when Kite knocked on the door, it was opened swiftly by a woman younger than Kite had expected, tall and neatly dressed.
"Welcome," she smiled, "I've been expecting you."
"Thank you," Kite said, a bit nonplussed.
"Harmon from the tavern dropped in to say there was visitors. You are wanting a room, right?"
The woman led the way in through a narrow corridor to a big room that comprised most of the house. At one end was the cooking area, clean and tidy at this time of night. The centre of the room was dominated by the fireplace and chimney, placed so that one could cook on it from one side, and from the other, one could sit by the fire and make use of its light and warmth. Cloth and needles had been left on the chair that stood by the fire.
On the far side of the room were two doors, and Doruin's widow went to one of them. The room was tiny, but she had managed to squash in two narrow beds, and it looked clean. Kite stifled a yawn; it had been a long day walking, and when the widow asked if it would be acceptable, she thanked her enthusiastically, eager to get to sleep.
The widow left them a candle and retired to her sewing, shutting the door behind her. Saryth strung their cord across the room, fastening it to the narrow window on one side and the door on the other, then draped their cloaks over it to form a makeshift screen. Kite felt like going to sleep fully clothed, but started to undress anyway.
"Do you think that meant anything?" Saryth asked from the other side of the screen.
"It could do. Or it could be just that someone else from my people has passed through and told the same story." Hope was too painful even now, after so many generations. Raised on the tales of their lost home world, Kite followed in the tradition of her people; the longing to return was by now a part of their culture.
Saryth was silent, and she heard him splash his face briefly in the bowl of water the widow had left on the window sill. She followed suit, sliding into the little bed with acute thankfulness. No roots would transgress here. She felt herself relaxing into the embrace of the soft mattress, and barely noticed Saryth's quiet "Goodnight," or his blowing out of the candle. Her sleep, like his, was deep and dreamless.
The window of their little room looked out onto the hill at the back of the house. Not only did it face west, it was also kept near-permanently in shadow by the hill, which was possibly why neither Kite nor Saryth woke at daybreak. Their host woke them instead, with a diffident tap on the door.
Kite stirred, rolling over and almost tipping herself off the narrow bed. One outflung arm snagged the screen and pulled Saryth's cloak free; she lost her balance and rolled over, recovering enough to land on her feet in a crouch. On the other bed, revealed by his fallen cloak, Saryth shifted and mumbled something, still caught in sleep. His hair was swept back, trapped under the arm he'd thrown over his head to cradle the pillow. His face, uncovered by his hair, was relaxed in sleep, still innocent; with both eyes closed, the loss of his left was not obvious. Kite looked away, a lump in her throat, and bent to restore the screen.
Saryth woke at the widow's second knock, jumping alert with a speed that belied the depth of his sleep just minutes earlier. From behind the screen, he heard Kite dressing, and bent himself to do the same, using the water from the bowl to quickly splash his face.
Kite pulled down the cloaks as Saryth tied his hair back, and waited while he adjusted his patch. She smirked at him as he fussed over his tunic - he took longer than she did to dress, but they had been together long enough that the joke no longer needed to be made for them to smile over it.
Both dressed at last, they left the room and found the main room brightly lit by the morning light pouring through the big front windows. The widow was by the cooking fire, tending a small pot which smelled distinctly oaty.
"Good morning," she greeted them. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, thank you!" Kite said. "We're very grateful for your hospitality."
"Would either of you like porridge?" The woman's smile encompassed Saryth, who was hanging behind Kite as he usually did.
"Yes please," Kite answered for the both of them - as she usually did. Porridge was ladled into bowls, and the bowls set on the table that stood on the other side of the fireplace from the door, between the cooking side of the room and the sitting side, as Kite thought of it. The table also bore three mugs of water, a crock of butter, a clay pot holding honey, some bread - not freshly baked, but distinctly home made - and a small jug of what proved to be goat's milk. Saryth, who'd never tasted goat's milk before, managed to hide his surprise manfully after applying it liberally to the porridge.
"How late did we sleep?" Kite asked after a while. Their hostess had sat down to eat with them, so it couldn't be too late.
"It's an hour after dawn," that lady said. "You must have walked a long way yesterday." Which was a polite way of saying that they had indeed slept late, at least by the standards of the folk in the hamlet.
"I'm sorry," Kite said. "I didn't intend to sleep that long."
"No matter - if the need was there, then it shouldn't be ignored. My name is Hallie, by the way. I don't think we were properly introduced last night."
Kite flushed. Indeed, she had more or less walked straight through the door and fallen into bed. "I'm sorry," she said again. "We've been very rude. I'm Kite, and this is Saryth."
"It's good to meet you," Hallie said, and rose, carrying her bowl to the sink. "Will you be staying another night?"
"No." Kite took a drink of her water, and went on. "We should keep moving. Thank you very much for your hospitality."
Things always got a little fraught at this point. Kite had no intention of not paying, but normally in cultures like this one, mentioning money was itself rude. Hallie proved herself a discerning hostess by meeting Kite's need herself.
"The room is normally let for a silver eagle," she said, and Kite, relieved, put the money on the table. Hallie gathered the other crockery and commenced a full clean up as her guests made their way to their room, to don cloaks and boots. She waved them goodbye as they set out from the door, heading north along the path that had brought them to the hamlet.
The morning was cool and clear, the sunlight possessing a crystal clarity that cast every shadow into intense relief. It was late enough that the dew was gone from the grass, but the air retained its freshness, effervescent in its cleanness. Each breath refreshed and encouraged the walkers, and they made good time. Birds sang across the hills, exalting in the blue, blue sky, and insects chirred and chirruped cheekily, accompanying their passage. Each stone on the path, each leaf and blade of grass, seemed to rejoice in the morning and in its own belonging there.
For an hour or so, the path took them along the side of the same hill that sheltered the hamlet, but then bent its course down and into the vale between that hill and the next. The vale was densely wooded, the speckle of light through the leaves casting dappled shadows on the path, and easing the heat of the sun as the day wore on. Midday found them still in the forest, as would the days to come. It was a long way to Corindale.
Three days after the travellers had left the unnamed hamlet, some more visitors arrived. Four horsemen dressed in the colours of the army's scouts came riding horses, and as if their haste had upset the weather, they rode on the heels of a barrage of grey clouds. They did not stay long, but reined up along the path. All four dismounted and left their reins trailing; the battle-trained horses stood obediently. The men went to each house in turn, one man per house, until they got an answer, which took a little while, since almost the entire population of the hamlet was out tending their respective crops and herds. It was in fact the widow Hallie who answered her door first. Upon questioning, she answered truthfully, that yes, she had seen a blonde girl and a one-eyed man. It had been three days ago, and they left in the morning travelling north. The men took the time to corroborate her story with Adam's old grandmother, who hadn't seen the visitors but had been subjected to endless tales of them from her excited grandson, and then left, riding fast.
Four days' travel from the hamlet, the path emerged from the forest once again, climbing up above the treetops at a steep angle. The sun shone warmly down on the top of the hill, bare of everything but grass and seeded with bright flowers. Butterflies filled the air with dancing colour and bees droned through the warm summer afternoon, intent on their mission hunting honey for their hives. The grass swished dryly past her feet as Kite walked to the top and paused, looking over the other side of the hill.
The valley beyond was filled with houses. The settlement of Corindale was not terribly large, but in comparison to the tiny village they had last been in, it was huge. There was a square at the centre of the town, surrounded by imposing buildings and centred by a statue and what was probably a fountain. The houses and shops spread out from the square in a tangle of streets and alleyways and occasionally bridges, some from what looked like the top floor of one house to the second floor of another. People were everywhere, running, walking, in groups and alone, housewives out shopping and gossipping, children running errands and men at work. Women leaned out of windows to call cheerfully across to a friend in the opposite house, and children shrieked at play, scampering across the narrow bridges and through the crowd. The hum of people at business and pleasure rose even to the height of the surrounding hills, where Kite and Saryth stood, taking it all in. The sunlight lent a warm glow to the red tiled roofs and glinted off the play of the central fountain and the gold worn by the men standing near it. Kite paused, watching the scene closely, caught by the incongruity. Several men, stood to attention by the fountain, wearing metal. Men at arms, on business. As she watched, two more emerged from the benign chaos surrounding the exits to the square and ran up to a man standing slightly separate. He gestured them back into position, and two more men fanned out from the column in different directions. They were searching. Kite turned to Saryth with an accusing look.
"What have you done this time?"
Saryth recoiled, wearing a hurt expression. "What? I haven't done anything!"
Kite pointed at the square. "What are they doing, then?"
Blinking through his hair, Saryth watched the activity of the little troop as more searchers were sent out.
"I have no idea," he confessed after a few minutes. "Looking for something?"
"Or someone." Kite folded her arms. "Are you sure you haven't done anything?"
"The only people we've spoken to since we got to this world are the people in the village and that old traveller. I've hardly said anything."
Kite eyed him suspiciously, but his confusion seemed genuine, and it was probably unfair to assume that falling foul of the authorities was always his fault. Perhaps it was just a coincidence? But she had grown wary of relying on coincidence to explain things ever since they'd met Aeryn. That had been Saryth's fault too.
"Well, if they're looking for us, we're not there, and if they're not, it doesn't matter," she said finally. "I think we'd better have a break for an hour or two and then head down - we could do with an inn and maybe we can find out what's going on. Not that it matters that much, if it's nothing to do with us - the Gateway is only about half a day's travel away."
Saryth said nothing, but moved over to the right of the path where a sandy hollow was screened from view by low-lying gorse bushes. Kite joined him as he sat down and lay back, heedless of the sand his long hair was about to acquire. More careful, Kite pillowed her head on her cloak, and stared at the sky, which was a clear, deep, cloudless blue.
"This is a really pretty world," she remarked lazily.
"Mmmm." Saryth had already dozed off.
By the end of the afternoon, the colour of the sky had deepened and some clouds had drifted across its expanse, moved by a wind that was beginning to pick up. The air was cooler, and Kite, waking up, became aware that the top of the hill was not such a warm and restful place to be any more. She stood up, stepped over Saryth who still slept curled in the sand with his head pillowed on his hands, and walked over to take a look at the town. The activity had died down a little but not much; the square still bustled and the glints of light were still visible, but only off the water this time. She watched the town for long enough that Saryth woke up and came to stand beside her shaking sand out of his long hair, but she saw no red coats, no soldiers.
"Are they gone?"
"I think so." She looked sideways at him, retying his ponytail which had fallen apart in loose white snarls. Belatedly, she pushed a hand through her own hair and realised that while she may have escaped the sand, her plaits were also a mess. They could wait. "Shall we go down?"
The town was as lively close to as it had appeared from a distance, and no-one paid any attention to them, which was how they both preferred it. The street they came in on was narrow, leading to the main square and itself full of shops, some accessed through others, some on the first floor with small staircases bolted onto the facades of their neighbouring shops. Each front was small, and each shop kept wares outside to advertise, making the narrow street even narrower. The crowd jostled and surged around the more popular shops, probably near closing time now. Pushed this way and that by the enthusiastic crowd, Kite spotted a shop that looked like it sold travel goods and shoved back hard enough to open a way to it.
Inside, the shop stretched back a way, offering plenty of things to pick from. After travel food, Kite found two aisles displaying crackers, dried fruit, what looked like waybread and even travel cheese, which she'd never come across before, plus several things she couldn't at first identify. She hovered over them, assessing cost and weight and how much she could fit into the little bags she stored food in. She ought to get some for Saryth, really. Next time I go home.
Across the way, Saryth was musing over a small row of books, each one battered and travel-stained. He probably couldn't read the script, but that wouldn't stop him trying; ever since the geneticist from Uamut had given him that ill-fated CD, he'd been eager to learn more. It was unlikely he'd find any interesting lore in that lot, though, Kite thought. The one title she could read said, "Legends of the Black Moor."
She paused, her hands full of travel food and her staff tucked in her elbow. Was there anything else? The aisles of food had been thoroughly picked over, and there wasn't much else in the shop she could see that they needed. Although it's always what you don't expect that you need. She picked her way through crowded racks to the little counter at the back of the shop, where a wrinkled old man grinned at her and several shelves piled high with ropes and what appeared to be varieties of climbing tackle threatened to overbalance and deluge her in more merchandise. She dumped the items she wanted on the counter, and the shopkeeper grinned and nodded and started to add up on an old abacus sitting on the surface. Kite loved the way abacuses worked, although she'd never mastered the swift use of one herself; she looked closer, watching the proprietor's fingers flicker over the beads and approximating the mental arithmetic in her head. I suppose they don't haggle here, then.
"Um, no. I, er.." At the sound of Saryth's voice, quiet but shot through with alarm, Kite turned round, making a mental note of where the sum had got to. Her companion was standing with his back to the shelf of books he'd been examining, wearing an alarmed expression. In front of him, with her back to the counter, a blonde girl stood. Kite couldn't see her face, but from behind she looked pretty; slender, with long hair intricately braided down her back. She wore an attractive deep red jerkin, in a colour not too far from that of Kite's tunic.
"Oh, but men who appreciate learning are so much more fun to be with," the girl said teasingly. Her tone was lost on Saryth, who went paler than ever and would have backed up more if he had been able to. Kite almost swallowed her tongue trying not to laugh out loud. "Don't you think so, Rishan?" She directed the question to a red-haired man standing by the shop front, and he turned round. He wore an angry expression and he did not look like a man to annoy; he was tall and muscular and there was a well-used sword hanging discreetly at his side. He narrowed one eye at the girl; the other remained closed.
"Are you done, lady?"
She pouted. "Don't call me that." Then she turned back to Saryth. "I'm so sorry, I have to go. So nice talking to you," and she patted his arm - Saryth flinched - and flounced away, unrepentant. She caught the red-haired swordsman by the arm and pulled him out of the shop, chattering inanely but managing to avoid every precariously piled heap of goods. Saryth stared after her, his expression confused and slightly spooked.
"That's an eagle and four ponies," the shopkeeper announced from behind Kite. Saryth swung round and met her gaze, and Kite could not hide her amusement. A second later, he also grinned somewhat sheepishly. Kite turned round to pay, and realised she'd completely lost count of where she had been in her mental arithmetic.
She stuffed her purchases into the appropriate bags as she made their way down the still-crowded street. Overhead, the light had begun to fade from the sky as the evening came on, and a few shops had put lanterns outside. Obviously they did not all close at dusk.
"Are we going to get an inn tonight?" Saryth asked, looking round in hope of finding one.
"I'd like to. It would be good to get clean again." Kite pushed the last chunk of travel cheese into the top pocket and laced it shut, pulling the waterproofing flap down and toggling it tight over the opening. "There might be some inns round the main square." She picked up her pace, and he matched it, and they walked into the main square at the same time as the group of horsemen clattered into it from the northern avenue. Kite stopped and Saryth faltered, but the captain of the militia did not.
"Over there!" He gestured towards them, spurring his mount. Behind him, his ten men complied, urging their horses after their commander's.
Where did they come from? Kite hesitated, still unsure if they were truly the targets. After all, they hadn't done anything.
"The blonde girl in red!" The captain added as the horses clattered across the square. Well, yes, that would be us. Me.
"Kite?" Saryth's voice was quiet but not nervous. "I can't use an illusion, they're looking at us.." And they couldn't run, not with horses after them and the crowd so thick at their backs. Kite swung round and gave him a shove.
"Get out of here! They've only identified me so far, and there's no point us both being caught." Saryth obeyed, habits from his past life, or perhaps he just saw her point clearly. He shifted into the eager crowd and even as he went she saw his hands flicker, redirecting the crowd's attention to her. No-one else was here. She swallowed.
"You. Come with us." The captain was curt but not harsh, a tall man, travel stained and tired looking, as though he'd ridden hard.
"What am I accused of?" Kite asked reasonably.
"Stop playing games, lady." He bent down and caught her staff, tossed it to another soldier. Kite caught her breath, reluctant to lose it again but unable to find another choice. Another soldier cantered up behind her.
"I've searched, captain, but no sign of him."
"Where's your companion?" The captain asked, his manner again not quite rude, but tinged with impatience and irritation.
"I'm on my own," Kite said, which was the strict truth at the present time. She didn't look into the crowd, avoiding paying any attention to Saryth even if the captain could have spotted him.
"Your companion, lady. A one-eyed man. We know he helped you." Kite stared at the captain, and remembered the encounter in the shop. Suddenly, the whole thing fell a little more into place, and she struggled to hold back incongruous laughter. They had the wrong blonde girl and one-eyed companion.
"I'm sorry," she said, "but you have the wrong person. I'm not who you're looking for."
"Of course not." The captain's tone had gone all the way to anger now. He stretched down and grabbed her wrist, hauling her up in front of him and putting his arm around her to hold the reins. Kite gaped at the sudden manhandling as he pulled his horse's head around and urged the beast on. "Well, we can find him later. I'd prefer it if you didn't cause any more trouble, but if you do, I will deal with you."
Kite sat still, believing him.
Back in the square, the crowd milled around in the wake of the armed troop's departure, jostling each other and talking in subdued tones. Saryth slowly let the subtle whispers of his spell fade, no longer necessary once the militia had gone, and backed into a corner. He'd heard what the captain said, and he'd made the same connections as Kite, but there was obviously more to the story than all that. He frowned to himself, considering options, then turned to push through the crowd back towards the alley they'd come from. If he could find that girl and her red-haired guard, he might be able to get some answers before he went after Kite, and the more information he had, the better.
He didn't have much of an idea of where to search for them, because he hadn't seen them after they'd left the shop and vanished into the swirling mass of people. However, if they were fugitives they probably wouldn't have hung around, and the alley the shop was in was one which led to the outside, so he hopefully retraced his own steps back up the hill, looking for a blonde girl and a one-eyed man.
He found them seated in the same sandy niche in which he and Kite had dozed just earlier this afternoon. He didn't try to hide his presence, but time spent with Kite had taught him quiet movement, the better to appreciate the surroundings, and his quarry didn't notice him approach until he was close. The red-haired man whirled round, his expression angry, and before Saryth could even say anything, the edge of that sword was held before him, if not quite at his throat. The man regarded him flatly, while the girl, slower to respond, jumped up behind him, eyes wide with surprise. Then she giggled.
"Put it down, Rishan. He's a friend."
Rishan ignored her completely, eyes on the odd-looking stranger who had not responded to the bared sword in front of him.
"What do you want, boy?"
"About what?" The girl's tone was coy, teasing again, but this time her quarry did not respond like last time. He didn't blush, or stammer, or flinch back, which itself was intriguing, and his answer pleased - and flattered - her.
"Why?" Rishan kept his sword up, wary, neither pleased nor flattered.
The stranger sighed, looking suddenly tired. "Because I think my friend has been captured in your place," he said. "Armed men on horses came looking for a blonde girl in red, accompanied by a one-eyed man. They caught my friend, but I don't think we are the people they're looking for. You also fit the description, so I was wondering if there's anything you can tell me that would help."
In the silence that followed, Rishan did not drop the blade entirely but he did remove it from its close proximity to the stranger's neck. The girl came closer, eyes wide. She touched her protector's arm.
"Lady." He wasn't going to respond. She turned away, irritated, and looked back at their visitor, still standing at bay if somewhat less menaced. He didn't look like a threat; slight in comparison to Rishan and unarmed, not a fighter. He didn't even have the advantage most men did over her guardian.
"Why don't you eat with us?" She invited, ignoring Rishan's irritated sigh. She would trust her gut instinct if she wanted, so there. The stranger hesitated, then shrugged and smiled. It was a nice smile, a warming one.
"Thank you," he said.
Rishan still had not sheathed his blade; it lay on the sand between him and their visitor as a silent protest at her foolishness. She ignored it, chattering on at high speed, a cheerful and inane babble, a practised skill. The food she offered was dry biscuit, cheese and cold meat, with wine to wash it down, and she knew it was good, but she was the only one talking. The two men sat in silence, and this would never do.
"Tell us about yourself, then," she invited their visitor. Then, teasingly, "and your friend. Is she pretty?"
"I'm Saryth. I'm travelling with my friend, looking for the sun." She raised her eyebrows. That sounded interesting, but he hadn't finished. "You haven't given me your names, yet."
"Ah - I'm Terithia Anstrom, and this is Rishan Torvilson." She edged forward and fixed him with a determined stare. "You haven't answered my other questions. Your friend - is she pretty?" She put her head on one side and smiled winsomely, not really interested in Saryth himself, but, as she had been before, bored enough to play. "Prettier than me?"
Up until now, he hadn't shown any of the shyness he had evinced in the shop, but Terithia was delighted when at this last question he blushed a rosy pink and averted his gaze. It took him several minutes to pick through what he was going to say, and when he did reply, she found it disappointingly factual.
"She's slightly shorter than I am, and slim. She has short blonde hair and braids by the side of her face, and wears a red tunic and a black cloak. I've known her for over a year now. Her name's Kite."
That was it? Terithia scowled at him, but at that point Rishan butted in, and she knew better than to interrupt her guardian.
"So, what do you want to know?" he asked.
Saryth gathered his thoughts. "I want to be able to rescue her," he said. "I'd prefer to do that with as little fuss or fighting as possible, and the easiest thing to do would be to explain that there's been a mistake. For that, I need to know the situation. However -" he broke off as Rishan shifted forwards, an ugly look on his face in the evening light. "I appreciate you don't want to be caught either so whatever you can tell me would be useful," he finished hurriedly. Rishan sat back, scowling still.
"Can you even fight at all?" Terithia asked curiously. She clearly didn't think it likely.
"I'd rather not."
There was a pause, as all three parties weighed up what was needed and what might be possible. The stars had begun to prick the sky above the town, small spots of brightness in deep blue-purple velvet, and the town itself had lit up, mirroring the stars, as citizens lit lanterns in order to continue their business - and pleasure. Terithia shifted, breaking the silence, and Rishan abruptly stood up.
"We'd better be going," he said. He didn't even look at his mistress as he bent over the remains of their picnic, tidying away any sign they'd been there with a swift and practiced hand. "We can't afford to stay here. I'm sorry about your friend, but we really must be going."
While the last was aimed at Saryth, Rishan didn't look in his direction. Saryth shrugged, and stood up easily.
"Thank you for the food and hospitality," he said, "and for the information." He would have moved away then, but Terithia stepped forward, halting him mid-turn.
"Will you - will Kite be all right?" she asked, her voice subdued. Saryth blinked at her with the slightly surprised look he so often wore.
"I'll explain there's been a problem," he said. "I'm sure the commander will understand." And he walked away, white cloak showing up against the darkening sky, on his way down to the town again to negotiate for his friend's freedom. Terithia watched him go as Rishan finished clearing up.
"He will be all right, won't he?" she asked after a while. Wordless, her companion started walking away from the town. She hurried after, catching his sleeve in an unspoken request to slow down, to answer the question. Rishan didn't stop or look at her as he replied with a question of his own.
"If he is not all right, is that a problem?"
Terithia, interpreting that as a rebuke, looked away, slowing down.
"Don't stop. We should keep moving." Then, as she lingered still, Rithan relented. "I doubt he or his friend will come to harm - only, perhaps, a delay." More sternly: "If you are worried about what will happen to strangers, my lady, you should never have run away in the first place." He left unspoken the question of his own situation, but Terithia heard it anyway. She moved forward, matching his fast, long-legged pace, accepting the need to keep moving and leaving - for now - the question of the white-haired, gentle stranger who had shared their meal.
Saryth found the soldiers with no difficulty; they were ensconced in one of the inns off the main square. Inside, through the windows, the taproom was full of men off-duty, while at the door, two guards stood watch, steadfastly ignoring the merriment of their comrades. The innkeeper and two barmaids ran around inside the frenzy, just about keeping up with the demands.
He spent a while watching, but the men at the door seemed neither particularly alert nor lazy; well-trained soldiers not expecting an attack. Then, he wasn't intending to attack. Simply walking up to them and asking to see their commander was probably the best thing to do, but he found it hard to start moving. Past experience with soldiers knotted his stomach and quickened his breathing, and nervousness would only make them suspicious. He leaned his head back against the wall he stood by, staring at the narrow band of sky directly above him, and breathed slowly, but in the end, he moved simply because to stay staring at the sky would be to let Kite down, and that became more important than his fear.
The soldiers could see him coming from a distance, and there was no need to hide. Trying to conceal his nervousness in clenched fists and behind the curtain of white hair that partly masked his face, he walked straight up to the soldiers, without hesitation.
"Yes?" the taller soldier standing to the right asked, studying the stranger curiously.
"I'd like to speak to your commander, please," Saryth said, native politeness coming to his aid in framing the request. The soldier glanced at his companion, and shrugged minutely.
"I'll see if he's available," he said, and knocked on the door behind. It opened, and a younger recruit stuck his head through, red hair ruffled as though he'd shoved his cap on hastily.
"Sir?" he said, then his eyes fell on Saryth. "Oh, sir! Isn't that him?"
Saryth felt his stomach turn, and inadvertently he backed away a little. The two guards, at ease until his movement, instinctively stiffened and moved forward to flank him, awakening panic he knew was irrational.
"What do you mean, Edgar?" the first soldier said, not taking his eyes from his quarry. Saryth forced himself to stand still, quelled the trembling where he could and hiding his hands when he couldn't.
"Weren't we looking for a one-eyed man too?" the recruit said, innocent in his eagerness to prove himself, to make up for his stint on the door away from his drinking companions.
"We were, but.." The second guard hesitated. The first did not, stepping further round Saryth, stopping him from retreating any further, and accelerating his rising panic.
The recruit, summoned, came forward, completing the triangle. He may have been new at his trade, but he knew how to use the short sword he carried, and the threat in his face only made the bland, unworried faces of the other guards more disturbing. They circled him, and the first guard made as if to say something, but Saryth felt fear rising in his throat, clamped on his back, tightening its hold on him until, with an effort, he threw it away from him and towards his tormentors, behind and before him. Magic swarmed through the night, shaped only by his panic, leaving white fire and sparks in its wake, a mark of uncontrolled force. Saryth hunched halfway over, trying to pull it inside again, but it was too late; it splashed across the cobbles and accelerated between the two older men, knocking both off their feet. It arced across the square and dissipated into the night, leaving him with a hole in their circle, a way out to flee, a path away from Kite and away from any chance he might have had to fix the situation peacefully.
Rain misted over the town square, frosting the guards with tiny droplets which sparkled in the lamplight in mockery of their disgruntled expressions. There were three now, in case the mage came back; they peered into the night and at carefully selected random intervals one of them went on patrol around the building, but most of the time they huddled beneath the inadequate porch and waited out their shift with the stoic patience of long-term veterans.
The same rain blew over the hills to the south of Corindale, spattering two fugitives and slowing their pace. Terithia was tiring, and although she didn't complain, it was clear to her protector that she was going to have trouble going much further. When the rain thickened, he swung off the road and found a mostly dry patch beneath a clump of trees. Wordless, the pair settled down, wrapping themselves in their cloaks to wait out the rain and snatch what sleep they could.
In the forests to the north of the town, the rain roused Saryth from his light, uneasy dozing. He wasn't familiar with the stars of this world, but he guessed he'd been asleep for two, maybe three hours. It probably wasn't time to move yet, but he didn't want to stay where he was. Impatient, he started pacing, and the rain caught and glinted in long white hair, and dampened the white cloak he wore, while forest creatures scuttered away from his clearing, stirred and alerted by his unease.
Kite, on the other hand, was dry and warm, although not very sleepy. She had been drifting in and out of sleep after finishing the simple but adequate food the innkeeper had brought her. There didn't seem to be much else to do, and she wanted to be rested, but actually sleeping was difficult. The room she was in was a standard inn room, furnished with a small bed, a rug on the floor and a somewhat rickety table which kept her company with creaks and groans. She wondered, idly, if she'd become too used to sleeping with another person in the room. The table was a poor substitute for Saryth, its shifting creaking unlike his quiet, sleepy breathing.
By the time the door opened, she had concocted four reasonably sensible plans for escape, six silly ones and three that would have been a lot of fun but probably wouldn't have got her very far. She was partway through her fourth when the door swung inwards; looking up quickly, she saw two guards and the troop commander, who ducked into the small room and shut the door behind him. He eyed her warily, although she hadn't moved a muscle, and said nothing.
"Do come in," Kite said, feeling mischievous. "I'd offer you a seat, but alas.." She waved her hand at the small room and its conspicuous lack of seating. The man stiffened, his face carefully blank.
"I apologise for the lack of comfort, my lady," he said, his tone carefully, tightly subservient. "It is far from what would befit you, but it is all that is available in such a small, frontier town as this."
Kite gaped at him internally, careful to keep her surprise from her face. Where had that come from? Had that girl in red been truly high-born? She hadn't acted it.
The commander didn't say anything for a space, and she guessed that perhaps she had been meant to say something. Still - she didn't know what, and she didn't want to play along. This was, after all, just a case of mistaken identity. She hoped Saryth wouldn't - hadn't - done anything stupid.
After an uncomfortably long pause, the man spoke again. "My lady, I wouldn't trouble you normally, but I must ask you some questions." He stopped, waiting for her compliance. Kite didn't like it; didn't like being treated like a noble, but she knew the quickest way to convince him of the noble blood she didn't possess was to protest that he had the wrong person.
"Please," she said instead, wondering if her accent was anything like that of the person she was supposed to be.
"My men were attacked by a one-eyed man - a mage - two hours ago," the commander said, and she felt her stomach clench. She did not manage to keep the shock - and worry - from her face, for he hastened to reassure her. "He is gone, my lady! However, he is not the man we thought had kidnapped you. He has white hair -" oh, Saryth, what have you done this time? "- and your kidnapper has red hair, isn't that so?"
Kite didn't respond, unsure of what to answer and now preoccupied with worrying about her impetuous companion. Had he been hurt? Had he hurt anyone?
"Do you know this mage?" the commander persisted. "My lady -"
"I'm not your lady," Kite said finally, no other way out in sight. "You've got the wrong person. I'm sorry. I don't know any red-haired, one-eyed kidnappers, and I'm not a noble."
The man stiffened, looking abruptly outraged. He began to speak, then paused, breathed, and started again, obviously biting back anger.
"Don't insult my intelligence, my lady. We know who you are." It's a pity I don't, then. "If you will not tell me the truth, then you can stay in this little inn until your father comes. Will you deny him, to his face?"
"Yes," Kite said, tired and irritated and knowing all too well that this was not going to help. "As he will me. I'm not who you think I am!"
"Whatever you say, my lady, my men will protect you. From the kidnapper - or accomplice - to this mage. Have no fear. None can get in - and none out!" He turned and yanked open the door, strode out and slammed it behind him. On the bed, Kite slumped against the wall that was the only bedstead. What had this girl done? The man had been offended to his very core. And where was Saryth?
Tired and worried, she squirmed round to lie on the bed, and tried to think over her more sensible escape plans, but instead they meandered to the back of her mind as she drifted into restless, uneasy sleep.
Rishan awoke from his own sleep to find Terithia gone. He didn't stop to curse, or wonder how she'd done it; right from the start she had shown an uncanny ability to avoid his - and any other soldier's - attention. Instead, he rolled over and stood up, straightening his spine and stretching the kinks out of long legs. He shook twigs from his cloak and rewrapped it around his upper body, retied his hair and his bootlaces, and checked his sword wrappings. Overhead, the moon was out and lighting the path; Terithia's light footprints were clearly visible. How long had she been gone?
Rishan shrugged to himself, and started out after his charge, running in long, easy strides.
The rain passed and was gone, replaced by swift-moving clouds that alternately hid and revealed the moon. Opposite the inn, Saryth lurked in darkness, masking his presence with magic that was almost but not quite an illusion, shifting uneasily and not sure of what to do next. He had no idea which room Kite was in, and the soldiers on the door remained alert despite the late hour. Worse, the lights in the inn were extinguished so he couldn't even rely on their night blindness. Maybe the inn had a back door?
He left the shadows of the alleyway, choosing to walk quietly and quickly across the rain-slippery cobbles of the main square, his appearance hidden by an illusion. He hid his shadow as well, having learnt about that the hard way. As conspicuous as he felt, the soldiers' idle gazes never caught him no matter how often they looked in his direction, and he reached the other side of the building without incident.
He found there a kitchen door, locked but not bolted. Picking locks was something he'd learned from Kite, in between the lessons in magic, self-defence and the structure of the universe, but it was a lot harder doing it in real life in the dark, holding the illusion steady and detailed and trying to breathe quietly, aware that any minute now one of the guards would come round on his patrols. The little pick slipped and skidded inside the clumsy lock, and his fingers froze and trembled, making it near impossible to control. His breath shook and his hair fell across his eyes, but he didn't take the time to push it back. Just as he thought he had it, the guard walked by, moving quietly, catching him unawares, and Saryth had no choice but to freeze in the shadows and hope that the illusion held. The guard walked by the overhung door without stopping, but Saryth waited for a ten minute eternity before bending back to the lock. Eventually it sprang, and he eased the door open and slipped through, closing it behind him with a sigh of relief.
Inside was what looked like a storeroom, full of dry sacks with lumpy items in. Whatever they were - and he was betting on potatoes - they were hard enough to hurt in a collision. But the sacks were piled high around a narrow path that led from the back door to another inside door, and he passed through without any more hassle from the potatoes. The kitchen on the other side was small and full of crockery and cutlery, piled high in dirty heaps where the harrassed staff had not had time to wash up yet. Two big barrels of water stood by one sink, with pans soaking in them, and overhead, spoons hung like a trap, ready to jangle if an intruder walked into them. Saryth, shorter than average, avoided them easily but almost fell prey to the cat curled up by the stove, twitching its tail into his path. He stopped, frozen, as it turned to look at him with malice in its big, golden eyes, but clearly he was not interesting enough, because it just turned back over and went to sleep.
Outside the kitchen was a small corridor with a rug over the stone flags, and stairs leading up. There were no guards here, nor any sign of them, but Saryth rewove his almost-illusion again, to misdirect the eye and fool it into seeing only shadow where he stood. He walked quietly up the narrow stairs, stepping to the side in an attempt to avoid any creaking. At the top of the stairs was a small landing, surrounded by doors, all looking the same, and he felt his heart sink before realising that Kite's room must have guards and therefore couldn't be any of these. He stepped back against one of the walls and tried to reconstruct the exterior of the inn in his mind, to judge where a corridor might be. The building had been elongated in roughly the north-south direction, and the kitchen was at the northern end; he stepped over to a door that led south and tried it gingerly, but it was locked. Letting out a tight breath, he tried the next one, opening it a crack to peer through, and that opened onto a corridor that led to another landing, and that landing had guards on it.
Saryth shut the door quickly and leaned back against the wall again, catching his breath. What now? The guards were alert and awake, and unlikely to be fooled by any normal illusion. He absolutely didn't want to cause a fuss, he just wanted to get Kite and himself away from there as soon as possible, to get back on their journey again. Not for the first time, he muttered imprecations against his own lack of self control - had he not lost it in the square earlier, they might be on their way by now. He tipped his head back and it landed on glass; the window opened onto the square. Could he climb out and back into Kite's room? Was that even her room?
He turned to look out of the window again, and frowned. He couldn't make himself disappear, but maybe making himself appear would be just as good? And much easier. Down below, the square lay quiet, wet cobbles glistening in the moonlight. The fountain splashed spray over its sides, and every now and then, a guard walked out from the wall and turned to go round the inn. Saryth smiled to himself.
It was a very easy thing to do to project the image of himself into the square, even from the different perspective of the upper landing. He heard the shouts as the guards ran forward after the elusive, white-cloaked figure pausing in the shadow of the nearby alleyway, and he saw them run forward. The figure turned and started running, around the square, away from the inn, and at least one guard gave chase. More importantly, through the door he heard low-voiced talk; the two watching Kite's room knew he was down there, running across the square.
He broke off the illusion when the figure reached 'safety', and leaned back against the wall to take a breath. It had been harder than expected, but as long as he moved quickly, the guards by Kite's door would not be expecting to see him, and the illusion should hold against their sight. Saryth eased down the corridor, moving as silently as he could, inching forward until he stood only two feet from the two guards. They sat either side of Kite's door, on small stools, an indulgence he hadn't seen before in any military situation. Both appeared awake but bored, lit by a single lamp on the wall opposite, whose shadows were highly inconvenient for his illusion. Kite's door was shut but bore no lock, which was a relief. He didn't feel his luck was up to picking another one.
He moved forward, redirecting the shadows with some effort, until he stood between the guards, in front of the door. For a moment, he hesitated. Kite had shown him this move before, but it was different in a real situation, against two men either of whom looked more than capable of causing him real physical harm if he gave them a chance. Then the strain of the illusion bore on him, and he brought his hands down simultaneously, one to either side, on the backs of the guards' heads. At the last minute, panicking, he dropped the illusion to add arcane force, and the impacts flared bright white, drowning out the lamp. The guards fell over into each other and onto his feet; he jumped backwards, losing his balance and crashing into the door, which creaked under the impact. Stumbling, he knelt down to examine his victims, placing his fingers below their chins to feel the pulse there. They were both out cold but breathing safely, and, relieved, he relaxed a little.
He jumped, turning round and losing his precarious balance as he did so, so that he fell backwards across the body of the left hand guard. In the doorway, Kite blinked at him and rubbed sleep from her eyes.
"What were you doing?"
"Um.." He gestured sheepishly to the guards, and she looked, briefly, surprised.
"They're all right?"
"Only unconscious. Are you coming?"
"Yes!" She swung back into the room, to grab her cloak and the bags that had been returned to her. The staff, sadly, had not. "Saryth, what happened earlier?"
He hung his head, hiding behind his hair, and looked away, not wanting to explain his lack of control and what it had led to. Kite finished buckling the bags on, and moved past him.
"Never mind," she said, making it not an issue, giving him the chance to put it aside for now. "Where do we go?"
Saryth took a deep breath, and pointed in the direction of the door, relinquishing control as he followed her out.
The stairs were unoccupied, but at least one of the guards who had held station by the front door would still be there. Kite obeyed Saryth's directions to the back door, running through the small kitchen and the potato sack obstacle course in the store room. The back door swung open, and she made for it even as Saryth slowed, worried by its status when he knew he'd left it closed, must have done, or risk discovery. She turned even as he hesitated, and so she saw the soldier behind him stand up from behind the treacherous potato sacks; a young recruit who had the fortunate good sense to use his unfamiliar, unpractised sword as a cudgel rather than risk the sharp end, but still -
He ducked, and the swing went over his head. The recruit overbalanced, dropping the sword and tripping over another potato sack - just whose side were they on, anyway? - and fell headlong at Saryth's feet, which he promptly grabbed. Saryth in turn fell over, staying silent even as he landed on the potato-cobbled floor, and grabbed back at the recruit who held him. The recruit held on like grim death, and Saryth scrabbled at the clutching hands as soldiers pounded up and down the stairs and the innkeeper came out of his ground floor bedroom to enquire what was going on. Kite yanked the outside door shut as a patrol came past, looking for intruders, looking for her, and turned to see if she could help, but too late. The brief pulse of magic washed across her senses, with no external white flare, which meant he had kept it under control this time. The recruit lay on the floor, relaxed into sleep, and Saryth pulled himself free and followed her as she ran out the door.
They raced across the alleyway and lost themselves in the maze behind the inn, ducking into doorways when patrols came past, masked in the shadows cast by houses and doorways and Saryth's illusions. Thanks to his earlier efforts, most of the attention was on the square, but even so, it occasionally felt like the entire platoon was after them, and by the time they felt safe enough to take a break, they were thoroughly lost. Kite leaned back against the doorway in which she knelt, and exhaled slowly, calming her racing heart. Above her, Saryth tensed at a noise, but relaxed again as an urban fox skittered out of sight round a corner.
"You lost your staff." Trust him to notice that.
"Yes. It's a shame, but.. well, we should get moving." She pushed herself upright, looking up to see if she could work out which direction to head in.
"It's not your fault."
"No, it's mine," said a voice from the shadows, and Kite turned even as Saryth brought light to bear on the new threat. It splashed across the face of a blonde girl wearing deep red, the same girl who had accosted Saryth in the shop, the same girl the soldiers had mistaken Kite for.
She blinked in the sudden flare, and looked to Saryth. "I'm glad you're all right."
"I am. Several of your soldiers are not."
She looked surprised. "That's not your fault, though.. because they had Kite."
"That doesn't make it any less my responsibility. I chose to use force." His tone was harsh, and she flinched back, face suddenly, openly upset, not able to hide her emotion. For an instant, they stood facing each other, his face full of anger and shame at his own lack of control and hers gaining comprehension even though she didn't want it, and then his light flickered out. In the darkness, she spoke again.
"Then it's mine as well."
Kite hardly breathed, waiting for his response, but he remained silent as a patrol clattered past two blocks away. The moon emerged from the cloud it had hidden itself in, lending his hair a silver sheen and gilding Terithia's blonde curls so that they almost appeared the same colour.
"I'm sorry." Terithia stepped forward, hesitated at something, and turned away as the moon went back behind its cloud. Shrouded in the shadows, Kite saw her retreating down the alley towards the inn.
She looked up at her companion, but it was just a bit too dark to see his face. Unable to tell what he was thinking, instead she stepped out of the doorway, and turned towards what she devoutly hoped was the edge of town.
She paused and looked back at the doorway, where he still stood. "Coming?"
Wordless, he followed.
In the morning light, the town looked tired and a bit washed-out. The tiled roofs that had been so red in the afternoon were now pale, and the people of the town moved sedately about their business. There was little sign of the ruckus caused last night other than a preponderance of soldiers round the inn, and the fountain splashed in its bowl just as it had the previous day. Two children threw water at each other and ran around, boundless energy contrasting with the tired soldiers who now prepared a carriage and escorted their lady to her seat.
Rishan found them sitting in the same sandy hollow he had been in yesterday, when he'd shared a meal with the white-haired mage. They also looked tired, but neither slept. The blonde girl looked up as he approached, sharp-eared and more alert than her sleepy friend.
"Yes?" She stood up quickly, shadowed by Saryth, and then she saw what he carried and her eyes widened.
"I'm Rishan Torvilson. I am - I was - the bodyguard of Lady Terithia."
"Was?" Saryth interposed softly, from where he stood behind his lady. Rishan looked away.
"She has dismissed me from her service." At the intake of breath, Rishan added, "at my request. I would not be permitted to serve her now." In fact, he was probably wanted for kidnapping, at least in his home duchy, but that didn't need to be said. "She gave me this, to return to you." And he handed the smooth wooden staff to Kite, whose hand closed over it like it was a lifeline.
"Thank you! But - how did she give it to you?"
"My lady is most persuasive, when she chooses to be." Rishan bowed to the pair of them, and then looked to Saryth. "I wanted to thank you," he said, speaking to him alone now. "My lady.. well, she said she understood better now. Her responsibility, her duty."
Saryth was silent in the face of Rishan's words, not really understanding how they applied to him.
"It's what you said, not what you did," Rishan offered, seeing the incomprehension, and then turned away. "I'd better be going. Good luck to you both."
"Thank you," Kite said, hardly able to believe her own luck at having the precious staff returned. It had been bad enough losing it the first time. Rishan waved without turning round, walking swiftly away in the direction they had come from, towards the little hamlet they'd stayed in a week ago.
"Well," Kite said finally. "We should get moving. The Gateway is to the north of here. I think we can make it before the end of today."
"That would be good," Saryth said, some colour returning to his voice, and he followed her as she started walking north around Corindale. They went slowly, neither having had much sleep the night before.
After a while: "I hope there's an inn there," he said, and she laughed.
toothycat.net is copyright Sergei and Morag Lewis
toothycat.net is copyright Sergei and Morag Lewis