Kera stretched in bed, savoring the warmth of the old blanket. The black of the night slowly dissolved into reddish hues, forming outlines of the furniture. Was it time to get up? She sat up, holding the blanket tightly around her shoulders. The night air was chilly, even colder than the drafty old castle she had been staying at.
Outside something creaked, the sound of a rusty wheel joint turning. A whip snapped, followed by a “move it, you old nag.” The whip snapped again.
Was that a thud that woke her up a few moments before? Kera could not remember. She got up, with the blanket, and walked over to the window, to look out, but by the time she pushed the latched shutters open, the road past the stables was empty.
“Damn.” It was the middle of the night, the eastern sky showing no evidence of morning light. “Like I’ve got nothing better to do.” She returned to the bed and fell on it in a tangle of blankets, but for some reason sleep had already left her for the night.
“Innkeep?” Kera called, hurrying down the stairs. “Innkeep?”
The large man from the night before yawned in his chair at the front desk and looked up.
“The boy I was with last night. Have you seen him?”
“Not since last night,” he rocked in his chair, not paying attention.
“His door is unlocked and he’s missing. Where is he?”
“Probably went out …”
“I was up, I would have heard,” Kera said. “And he’d have to walk past you to come down the stairs.”
“Look, I don’t know,” the man tried righting the chair, but Kera reached over the counter and grabbed his tunic, momentarily holding him suspended in the air, barely balanced on the two worn legs of the chair.
“You better be telling the truth!”
She pushed him back against the wall, the chair groaning under his weight and rushed outside.
Where could Stefan had gone so early, without telling her? She rushed to the stables, to check on the horses. Hasina and Kelsey were peacefully pulling at grass just outside the stables, their pens open for no apparent reason. Stefan’s own horse remained in its stall, securely locked.
“What happened to you, girl?” Kera pulled Hasina’s head up. The horse solemnly chewed on the grass she managed to grab on the way up, showing no eagerness to answer the question.
“Kelsey,” Kera whistled and Rien’s horse slowly walked over to her. “You two stay here,” she threw a hitching rope around their necks and wrapped the other end around a post.
Something happened during the night. The stalls were opened and horses let out. Did someone try to steal them? If so, the horses would have refused to go far. But who would do that? Stefan? Why then try to take them, but not his own stallion? And why did he not tell her he was leaving?
She looked around again, up and down the road, then up at the window of her room. The squeaking wheels! Kera examined the ground. So many tracks. A nearby puddle of mud contained the tracks of at least a half dozen different wheels, but no useful clues.
Kera returned to the inn, suspiciously eyeing the proprietor. “If you know anything about the boy’s disappearance,” she warned.
He shrugged. “Told ya already. I don’t know.”
“If anything happens to him, I’ll hold you responsible, understand?” She did not wait for an answer and hurried up the stairs to look in Stefan’s room.
The room was empty, all personal belongings she saw Stefan bring in the night before now missing. The bed was still unmade and the pillow lay on the floor on the far side of the bed, but no evidence of trouble. What reason would he have to leave?
Kera looked out the window. Hasina and Kelsey stood below, slowly taking apart the bush next to them.
What if he did not leave? What if he was taken? That cart or wagon she heard at night. What if he was kidnapped and taken? Could someone have recognized him or followed them from Valdasly? What would they gain? The Baron was gone, quite likely for the entire summer.
But … but if there was a kidnapper who did not know any better.
Kera hurried back down, almost knocking over the serving wench from the night before.
“I beg your pardon,” the young woman said, holding tightly to the baluster to avoid falling. She was conservatively dressed and quieter than the night before. Kera did not answer, taking steps three or four at a time.
“Did any guests leave during the night?” she demanded of the owner.
“Your companion, it seems like.”
“Any one else?”
She entered the common room, trying to convince herself to relax. She was running herself ragged. It was no wonder she could not think. Taking a deep breath, Kera sat down at the table she and Stefan used the previous night.
Could it have been the two men they had a run-in with the night before? That seemed the most natural answer, but why did they take Stefan and not her? He hardly did anything. She humiliated one, beat him up, knocked him cold.
“You want something to eat?” a matronly woman appeared from nowhere.
“Eggs and … Just a normal breakfast.”
“Right away, miss.”
Kera leaned back in her chair, looking around the empty common room. It was still very early and no patrons had yet arrived. She folded her arms, wondering how Rien would handle this problem. He always seemed to have the answer to any problem. He always managed to see something that stood out that she never gave a second thought to. What was it? Kera started recalling the details of the night before. She saw those men earlier, right after she and Stefan came in, drinking at the bar. The plump woman was serving at the bar then. After that she became involved in the conversation with Stefan, telling him about Dargon. That was when the two men came over. And right afterwards, the innkeeper came over and told them to go to their rooms to avoid trouble.
Maybe he knew those men, maybe he just wanted to avoid a fight at his inn. Most inn and tavern owners yell that it is bad for business to have patrons fighting, but from her own experience that only drew larger crowds and more silver for the mead.
Noticing the proprietor watching her, she motioned him over.
“Those two men from yesterday. Do you know where I could find them?”
He looked flustered. “No, I don’t.”
“I’m warning you,” Kera repeated. “If you know something, tell me. If I find out you’re lying …”
The plump woman came back with the breakfast Kera ordered and a warm cup of milk. “Stop bothering the girl, Arty. Go fix those loose steps. Lord knows, if someone important falls, we’ll never hear the end of it.”
The man grumbled and left, looking suspiciously relieved at being given a task.
“Are you all right, child?” the woman went on.
“I’m fine,” Kera answered. “Thank you.” She did not want to involve the woman. There did not seem to be a reason to.
“Then you have a good meal and just call me if you want anything else.”
“Thank you,” Kera muttered.
She picked at her food, worried about Stefan, about what she would tell the Duke if she could not find him. Why did this have to happen now? The Baron trusted her with his son and she lost him the first night away from the keep. He probably would have been better off at home, with no protection.
She fumbled with the meal a little longer, forcing herself to eat a few more bites, then, leaving a few coins on the table, got up and left. She was too nervous to eat, too nervous to sit still and when she got outside, she felt an unsettling ache in her stomach. An acrid taste filled her mouth and she could feel the food refusing to stay down.
“Damn.” She leaned on Hasina’s side, feeling feverish, but relieved that she no longer had to vomit. Hasina shifted, as if in sympathy, offering Kera a shoulder of support.
“Horses don’t get this sick, do they?” Kera tried to joke.
“Actually horses can get pretty sick, miss, if you run them enough.”
She looked up at the young man sitting a top a horse not far away.
“Are you feeling well?”
“Fine. Just fine.” She pulled the rope holding her two horses off the post and turned to go.
“Wait up, miss,” the man jumped off his horse. “I understand you’re having a problem.”
She turned and looked at him, dressed in soiled clothes, with a deep bruise under his eye, unkempt hair.
“I don’t think you could help me. Thank you.”
“We haven’t been introduced,” the man stepped into her path, his horse obediently following behind him. “Bajuin Daret. I’m the constable in this village.”
Kera felt another contraction in her stomach and swallowed hard to avoid throwing up again, although she suspected there was nothing left in her.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yes, I am!” she snapped. “What do you want from me?”
“I understand the boy you arrived with is missing.”
“What’s it to you?”
“I told you, I’m the constable. Here,” he pulled the chain of office from his tunic and showed Kera a signet ring. “In this village I carry the authority of the Duke. Let me help.”
“All right, find him. He’s got brown hair, he’s fifteen, my height.”
“Why don’t you confirm a suspicion for me first?”
Bajuin leaned on the post where the horses had been hitched. “You picked a fight with a pair of scruffy looking fellows last night in the tavern.”
“Is that a question?”
“No, it’s a statement,” the man shook his head. “And I think you think they took him.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m the constable,” he said. “I have to know these things.”
“Look, you better go,” Kera said. “Anyone can get a chain and a ring like that.”
“They could, but that’s against the law. I assure you, I am the constable.”
“Then how do you know about this?”
“My cousin told me.”
“And who’s your cousin?”
“The daughter of the man who runs this establishment,” Bajuin said.
“The serving girl or the old woman?”
He shook his head. “Do you want help or not?”
“If you don’t know who those men are, you’re absolutely useless to me.”
“Are you sure the boy was taken?”
“I think so,” Kera sighed. “He did not take his horse, nor mine and his things are gone.”
“Is he a responsible type?”
“Very. His father is a very strict man. I doubt he ran away.”
“`His father’? I’m to take it the two of you aren’t related?”
“That is correct.”
“Who’s his father and where is he?”
“His father’s at war. I’m taking to boy to Hawksbridge.” Kera was not about to say more than that. She did not need to find any more trouble than what had already found her.
“All right, you go back to your room and wait. I’ll check on those men to see if it was them.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“You’re staying here.”
“That boy is my responsibility until I get him to Hawksbridge! I’m going with you!”
“Look,” Bajuin took Kera by her shoulders, “I’ve had a really rough night. I’m sore, I’m tired, I’m in pain. I don’t need some nanny who can’t keep her breakfast down and a kid under wraps following me around like a sick puppy. Go to your room and wait.”
Kera broke his hold on her with anger. “I’m not some child to be bossed around by you! If Stefan was kidnapped, there was nothing I could do to prevent it, including tying him down to his bed! I was given a job to do and I’m damn well going to do it with or without your help!”
“Okay, his name’s Stefan,” Bajuin said. “That’s a start.”
Kera set her jaw. She was not going to let the subject be changed.
“All right, you can come, but you’re going to stay out of my way or I’m going to forget about all this and go home.”
“Do I need my horse?”
“No, it’s in walking distance.”
Bajuin walked Kera back to the stables where she secured Hasina and Kelsey in stalls and they then proceeded to visit the houses of the two men.
“Those your horses?” Bajuin asked as they walked down the road towards a cluster of small wooden homes.
“One of them. The other’s a friend’s.”
“Where’s your friend?”
Kera eyed him. “At war.”
“Seems like a everyone you know’s at war.”
“Well, it’s a big war, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is. Who are you going to see in Hawksbridge?”
“Are all constables so nosy?” Kera asked.
“All the ones who do a good job.”
“You find him and I’ll believe it.”
They stopped before a dusty house with a damaged porch, damp and moldy from excessive moisture, sagging into the ground on one side, but obviously lived in. Bajuin knocked.
“Do me a favor and let me do the talking, would you?”
“Sure,” Kera nodded.
After a moment the door was opened by a thin young woman. “Good morrow to you, Constable.”
“Good morning, Sarse. Is your husband home?”
“What had he done? Gotten another wench pregnant?” Sarse eyed Kera suspiciously. “The lazy bastard should be out in the field, tending his crops!”
The door slammed noisily, catching Bajuin in the arm.
“Oh …” he groaned, backing away.
“Are you all right?” Kera asked.
“No.” He straightened out. “Come on. We can check on Skaly while we’re here.”
Kera followed the constable down the street. “What happened to you, anyway?”
He looked at her. “I found who was trampling the Mayor’s wheat field.”
“He must’ve been bigger than you,” Kera commented.
“Quite a bit bigger. This house.”
Kera again waited while Bajuin went up to the door and knocked. There was no answer. He waited and knocked again, then tried the door. It creaked open, revealing the dark interior of the house.
“Skaly? Urta? Hello?”
He pulled the door shut and walked back to the street. “No one there. Let’s go to the stables and get the horses. We’ll check the fields.”
“What if they’re not there?” Kera asked.
“Then I’ll ride around until I find them,” Bajuin said. “Is there any reason they’d want to kidnap the boy?”
“I don’t know,” Kera said. “He hit one of them with a pitcher, but I … Well, they have more of a reason to be mad at me.”
Bajuin nodded. “Maybe they entered the wrong room. Maybe they’re trying to get back at you …”
“You’re not surprised that they’re accused,” Kera noted.
“Those two? Not one bit. They’re about as low as low can get. I was beginning to worry they haven’t been in any fights recently.”
At the inn Kera quickly saddled Hasina and joined Bajuin outside.
“Do you know how to use that?” he indicated to the sword hanging off the saddle.
“I held it once or twice,” Kera answered.
“Then you best leave it peace bound,” he instructed and kicked his horse into a light trot.
“Pig-headed, chauvinistic ass,” Kera kicked Hasina.
“We’ll have to make one stop on the way,” Bajuin told Kera when she caught up. “I need to talk to the Mayor.”
“Constable,” Kera said, “I’m not sure how to phrase this best, but I have the feeling the innkeeper knows something of this and is hiding it.”
“Of the kidnapping? Probably.” They rode in silence for a while. “You see, my uncle isn’t as young as he used to be. There was a time he’d have been among the first to help you, but now he’s older and sicker and my cousin hasn’t married yet, so everything’s on his shoulders. So long as his inn isn’t threatened, he’ll lead a quiet meek existence as far away from bullies and troublemakers as he can. He’s afraid that if he does anything to help you, it will come back to haunt him and it’s a risk he doesn’t want to take. That’s why I offered my help. It’s not just my duty to you. It’s also what I owe him.”
“So what did your cousin tell you?”
“She said your companion was kidnapped and that Flary and Skaly were probably involved.”
“Flary and Skaly? Sounds like you know them pretty well.”
“It’s a small community and they’ve spent a good deal of time keeping me company in the last few years,” Bajuin laughed at a private joke. “I’m very, very close to them.”
They stopped at a large white stone house and Bajuin hopped off his horse, grunting as he hit the ground.
“Oh, gods,” a plump woman hurried down from the porch. “What ever happened to you, Constable?”
“Good morning, Madam.”
“Clauneil!” the woman yelled. “The Constable is here!”
“Are you all right, Constable? Your eye and your hair and … oh, those clothes are ruined. What did you do?”
A short plump man bounced his way down the stairs towards the street.
“Good morning, Lord Mayor,” Bajuin bowed.
“What happened to you, Constable?”
It appeared to Kera that Bajuin was searching for the right words.
“I found your despoiler, Lord Mayor. It was Ol’ South Paw …”
“Oh, goodness!” the woman exclaimed. “You didn’t fight Ol’ South Paw, did you?”
“Yes, ma’am. From the creek to the road and back.”
“You didn’t kill him, did you?” the Mayor asked.
“No, my Lord, but I highly suggest you put some men to guard the field tonight.”
“Yes, yes, of course …” he muttered.
“I best go, Mayor,” Bajuin said. “I need to help this woman find her companion and then I need some sleep.”
The Mayor and his wife bid their goodbyes and Bajuin again mounted his horse.
“Who’s Ol’ South Paw?” Kera asked as they rode away from the Mayor’s home.
“Ol’ South Paw is the biggest, toughest, meanest bear in these parts. He usually stops coming around early summer and we don’t see him until the following spring, but this year he’s been rather regular in his visits.”
“You fought with a bear?”
“He did most of the fighting,” Bajuin laughed. “I did all of the running.”
“I’m sorry,” Kera said. “I didn’t realize. You should be resting, not helping me.”
“No, no. I’m fine. Let’s check the fields since we’re out here, then we’ll decide what to do next.”
“All right,” Kera agreed.
“What’s your name?”
Kera looked at him, surprised. He had not asked before. “Kera. My name’s Kera.”
“Yeah, just Kera.”
“You’re hiding something from me, Kera,” the constable warned.
“Try not to forget that you’re the one to come to me and offer help.”
“What would you do without me?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Kera shrugged. “But I’d find a way. Your uncle obviously knows who I’m after.”
At the northern edge of the village Bajuin signalled Kera to stop and scanned the sloping field with his eyes. Not one person was in site anywhere in the field.
“This is where you farm?” Kera asked.
“What of it?”
“It’s … that’s just a dirt patch!”
“Well, we all can’t be as lucky as you! We live in the mountains and make the most of what we have, including farm land. It’s small and rocky, but it feeds the village and there’s enough to sell in the city to buy warm clothes for the winter.”
Bajuin grumbled something and rode on.
Kera waited for a moment, then followed. “So what now?”
“Now you go to the inn and I’ll go get some sleep and I’ll look again afterwards.”
Not answering, Kera yanked Hasina around and proceeded northeast on the twisting road.
“Hey, the village’s the other way!” Bajuin called after her.
“Then you go there! I’ve got a boy to find.”
The clatter of hooves on the dirt road sounded behind Kera as the Constable caught up to her. “I can’t let you do this alone.”
“Afraid for your reputation if I find him first?”
“Afraid something will happen to you.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Not against those two,” he sighed. “Look,” he got his horse to block Hasina’s path, “neither Flary, nor Skaly worked an honest day in their lives. They’ve been causing trouble since they were born and I have reason to believe they’ve killed people in the past. Dearly as I want to see them hang, I haven’t the proof. But I do know they’re dangerous and that you shouldn’t be looking for them alone. If they have the boy, and haven’t hurt him yet, I doubt they will now. Just trust me on this.”
“Constable,” Kera pulled Hasina to a halt, “the fact that Stefan is missing is enough to force me to look for him. The suspicion that a pair of brigands kidnapped him makes it that much more critical that I find him soon. Either help me, or get your horse out of my way.”
He sighed. “Look, I know it’s hard, but …”
“I refuse to argue with you!” Kera jerked Hasina around the make-shift road block.
“All right, all right. Let’s go find the kid.”
Kera stared at him silently, her jaw set, Hasina shifting impatiently below her, sensing her agitation.
“Did you hear anything last night?” Bajuin asked. “Any conversation Flary and Skaly were having before coming over to you?”
Kera shook her head. “No.” Rien would have. He always did. “I did wake up in the middle of the night,” she added. “I heard some noises and a squeaky cart or wagon going by the inn.”
“In the middle of the night?”
Kera nodded. “A man yelled for a horse to move on. Called it a `nag’ — something I haven’t heard in a long time.”
“Voice sound familiar?”
“I don’t know … I could’ve dreamed the whole thing.”
“But you wouldn’t have brought it up if you believed you did,” Bajuin said.
“No, I guess not. And this morning I found my horses out of their stables, but not Stefan’s horse. That’s why I think he was taken. If he had left on his own, he’d have taken his stallion, which remained in his stall all night.”
“Why not take your horses?” the Constable inquired. “They’re rather expensive, powerful creatures.”
“They’re well trained. They wouldn’t trust a stranger and you’d have a hell of a time staying on one if I weren’t around. I think someone may have tried taking them, but they put up a fight.”
Bajuin nodded thoughtfully. “Sounds like you’ve thought all this out already. One more thing, though. Why did you throw up this morning?”
“I don’t know. Nervous, I guess.”
“Nervous? You sure you weren’t poisoned? Or drugged?”
“I don’t know. Why drug me to get me sick?”
“Just a thought,” Bajuin shrugged. He looked up and down the road. “You don’t happen to remember seeing a wagon at Skaly’s, do you?”
Kera shook her head. “I don’t remember seeing a wagon all morning. And I’ve been watching for them.”
“Skaly has a small wagon. Just seems convenient it’s been moved after all this time …”
“There is one more place I’d like to look, Constable,” Kera said. “Stefan told me there’s a lake north of here, with a valley north of it that’s hard to get to, but has plenty of good hunting. He and his father went hunting there a lot. Maybe he just ran off to visit there …”
“That’ll take the whole morning,” Bajuin warned. “There are two ways to get there — on foot, with a good league of the worst terrain this side of Hawksbridge, or by riding around the cluster of hills over there. Takes the same amount of time.”
“Let’s do it, then.”
“That’s a lot of time for someone in as much a hurry as you.”
“That’s what I wanted to look at anyhow,” Kera said. “Help me?”
“Come on,” he agreed. “You rather ride or hike?”
“Ride,” Kera said. “I don’t think my stomach will let me do much climbing.”
It was nearing noon when Kera and Bajuin reached the north shore of the lake, having gone a good ten leagues north, then down a narrow canyon into a valley and back down the meadow to the lake.
“Nothing,” Kera muttered, looking at the muddy soil at the edge of the water. “As if no one had set foot here in months.”
“I doubt anyone has,” Bajuin jumped off his horse. “It’s hard to get to, as you’ve seen. The locals don’t come here too often, though we tend to get visitors — nobility, mostly, or hunters and trappers — but we’ve had a long winter and there’s a war on, so few people come here these days.”
He guided his horse to the water and backed away to the grassy patch where his boots did not sink into the mud.
Kera jumped off Hasina, letting her get some water as well.
“About Stefan? Yes.” She looked down the meadow from where they came. “First time I ever wanted someone to be irresponsible …”
“We’ll find him,” Bajuin assured her. “Don’t worry.”
“What if it’s not Flary and Skaly?” Kera asked. “What if something else happened to him?”
“We’ll find him and he’ll be fine,” Bajuin repeated. “Just to have a clear conscience, let’s ride around the lake to get back. It’s about the same distance, and we’ll come out on a good road five leagues outside the village. It’ll be time to eat soon, anyhow.”
“Constable! Constable!” a man in the road waved his arms wildly as Kera and Bajuin made the last turn in the road towards the village.
“What a crazy job to have,” Bajuin spurred his horse on and Kera followed, keeping Hasina to a trot behind the Constable’s galloping horse.
By the time she made it to where the man was, she missed the beginning of the conversation and Bajuin had already dismounted his horse and followed the man who called him to the edge of the road. She jumped off Hasina and followed the two men to look down into the dry water channel at the side of the road. Another man stood in the depression, bending over a body.
“Skaly?” Bajuin asked the other man and he nodded.
“Stabbed to death, Constable.”
Bajuin looked at Kera. “Maybe we are looking in the right place, after all.” He climbed down into the ditch and examined the wounds on the body, talking quietly to the man already there. They then both climbed out and started looking at the tracks in the dirt.
“What are you looking for?” the man who had first flagged them down asked.
“Horse or wagon tracks,” Bajuin answered. “Doesn’t look like he was killed here. I’d expect more blood from a death wound.”
“How about this?” Kera took a step back from where she was standing.
“That’s it,” the second man said. “No one would drive this this close to the edge of the road.”
“Uh-huh,” Bajuin knelt down. “And hooves clearly point west.” He checked the dryness of the soil with his finger and got up. “Gerik, go back to the village and get the doctor or the smith to come out and get the body. And tell Lord Mayor that we have a murder on our hands and may be dealing with a kidnapping.”
“Right away, Constable.”
“And ask Lord Mayor to deputize some men and send them this way.”
When the two men left, Bajuin walked back to Kera, waiting at the side of the road. “What do you think?” she asked.
“I think they had a falling out on the way and Flary killed Skaly. The question is, where were they going?”
Kera pointed west.
“Yes, but why? And why kill him? They’ve been friends for years …”
“No point wasting time,” Bajuin got on his horse. “Let’s go find him. He must have a good five bell start on us.”
Kera got back on her horse and they silently rode west at a trot.
The choice of road struck Kera as equally strange, it being the same road on which she and Stefan arrived. It was not a major road and one through rather difficult terrain. There was nothing on it for a good fifty leagues. Nothing before Valdasly Keep, that is.
Could Stefan had tricked them into taking this road? If so, why? He knew his father had left for the war. It made no sense.
Some time after the sun passed the mid-day mark, Kera and Bajuin decided to take a break. There was no reason to run the horses into the ground in the middle of nowhere. They found a small spring and drank from it, giving the horses a chance to quench their thirst as well. They ate nothing, having neither supplies, nor weapons to hunt with, other than their swords, and even if they had, they did not intend to stay long enough to prepare a meal.
“You know, Kera, I’ve been thinking,” Bajuin said, “and I keep coming up with the same answer every time. There’s nothing on this road for leagues and leagues, until the scattered villages down by Charnelwood. And there’s Valdasly Keep, Sir Dower’s Barony. And Baron Dower has a son, whose name, I believe, is Stefan. Am I right?”
Kera only looked away.
“You bitch. Had you told me this morning, the whole village would’ve been out looking for him now.”
Kera took a deep breath, but refused to answer.
“Well? Why this road? Why go back? Why a murder? What are you hiding?”
“I can only guess that he tricked them to take this road. I can’t imagine why. Baron Dower left for the war yesterday morning. The Keep is practically empty.”
“What if it’s a ransom kidnapping?” Bajuin asked. “It’s a sound motive: Flary and Skaly recognise the boy, kidnap him to hold for money, have a disagreement and Skaly is killed.”
“Could be,” Kera agreed.
“Which just leaves me with one question,” Bajuin went on. “Why is the boy travelling with you?”
“As opposed to whom?”
“A knight or a man-at-arms?”
“You’re making an assumption,” Kera answered.
“Am I right?”
“I refuse to discuss it.”
“That is between Baron Dower, Duke Glavenford and myself,” Kera got up and walked over to Hasina. “Are you coming or is this as far as you’re going?”
“I’m coming,” Bajuin got up.
Darkness in the mountains comes in a wink of an eye and by mid afternoon Bajuin voiced the question of continuing on at night. “These are dangerous roads in the dark,” he pointed out. “Anything can happen.”
“Afraid of the forest spirits?” Kera laughed. She knew she was, but this was not the forest to be afraid in.
“I prefer to call it common sense,” came the answer. “Start looking for a good place to make camp. I’m sure we’ll catch up to them tomorrow morning.”
“That’s what you said several bells ago about this evening.”
“I was wrong. I didn’t expect he made so much distance in a day.”
“How far do you figure?”
Bajuin shrugged. “I can’t imagine him being more than five leagues ahead of us now.”
“You’re saying he went thirty leagues in one day in a wagon hitched to one horse, up hill?” Kera asked.
“One or two horses, but yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. You said it took you a full day to travel the whole way?”
“Then let’s figure he made it about half as far in the same amount of time.”
“I just hope we’re following the right hunch on the right trail,” Kera said. “If not, we’ll have lost two days and gods only know what could’ve happened to Stefan in this time.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll find him,” Bajuin said, as he had been saying all day long.
“Do you really believe that or are you just saying that to prevent me from worrying? Because if you are …”
Bajuin started to say something, but Kera stopped him.
“… don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
He nodded. “We will find them.”
“Do you think the Mayor will send …” Kera fell silent, detecting a new smell on the wind.
“If he’ll organize help? Of course he will. He’s …”
Kera rose her hand to silence Bajuin. “Do you smell that?”
“What?” he smelled the air. “Pollen?”
He stopped his horse and looked around. “Smoke? That means we’ve either found people or a forest fire …”
The wind blew from the west and Kera strained her eyes to catch any indication of a fire in the quarter league to the next turn in the road ahead of them. “There must be something beyond that bend.”
“Are you sure? I don’t smell anything.”
“I’m positive,” Kera kicked Hasina into a gallop. The thundersteed, a stronger, faster animal, quickly outpaced the Constable’s saddle horse, in spite of his protests, and moments later she was at the bend in the road. Dismounting on the run, Kera pushed Hasina off to the side of the road where shrubbery was plenty and proceeded to stealthily advance forward.
“Wait for me!” Bajuin joined her. “What the hell are you going to do alone?”
“I’ll know when I see the fire.”
They made the turn and proceeded down the road, along the wild bushes growing along the side of the road like mushrooms after a rain.
“I can smell it,” Bajuin suddenly said.
Ahead of them was a clearing, set some twenty yards in from the road, with an open fire, but no trace of people. Not seeing anyone around, Bajuin got up and walked over to the fire. Judging from the burning logs, it was far from fresh, but at the same time, not old enough to have burned itself out.
“Whoever made it can’t be far ahead of us,” Kera said.
“No,” Bajuin agreed, kicking dirt over the fire. “Let’s go get him!”
They hurried back to their horses, but as they made the curve in the road, a large man on a brown and grey horse, wearing home-made armor, blocked their path.
“Flary?” Bajuin asked.
“Evenin’, Constable!” the man lowered a pike he was holding and kicked his horse hard enough to make it leap forward. Before Bajuin had a chance to react, the pike impacted his shoulder, carrying him a few yards back on the thrust, before he fell to the ground with a yell of pain.
The rider turned his horse, adjusting his grip on the pike.
“What’s the matter, Constable? Can’t stand up and fight?”
“Flary …” Bajuin gasped. “Don’t do it. There’s help on the way. If you kill me …”
“If I kill you, they’ll what? Hang me? Ha! Constable, you don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to do this!” And once again his kicked his horse into a charge, this time letting it simply trample the man on the ground.
At the sight of this, Kera made a break for her horse. Hasina still carried her sword and bow. And a powerful mount could be of much use.
“Oh no, you don’t!” Flary brought his horse around, seeing Kera’s destination. “You an’ I still have a score to settle!”
Kera leaped out of the way of his horse just in time to avoid getting hit.
“But I want you alive,” he turned his mount, “so you’ll have to wait until the Constable and I are done.”
“Flary!” Bajuin was now standing in the road. He held his sword in the off hand, his right shoulder torn and punctured and his weapon arm absolutely useless. “You leave her out it! It’s just you and me!”
“Gladly, Constable,” the brigand turned his horse again and headed for the new challenger.
Kera grabbed a thick fallen branch and swung it at ground level as the horse trotted by her, splintering the wood and forcing the horse to stumble, but not doing enough to cause it to fall or throw its rider.
“Oh, girl, that was stupid,” Flary broke off his charge. He turned and lowered his pike, preparing for a charge. The horse already had a limp, but impact from the sharp edge on the end of the pike was nothing less than a guarantee of crippling pain.
Kera quickly looked around and picked up a somewhat larger fallen branch. It was too heavy for her to swing and too dry and brittle to be used for a weapon, but it was all she had available and it was the only way she saw of getting her opponent off his horse. Rien was right, as was Sir Brand. Chivalry held little place in the world they lived in. The goal was to stay alive. The means mattered little. And this time, it was the opponent who held the advantage.
“Flary, don’t!” Bajuin yelled as the horse lunged forward. The tip of the pike extended a good six feet beyond the horse. Not as dangerous as facing a lance, but equally deadly.
“Sevelin, please …” Kera leveled the branch she held at the oncoming rider, letting its base rest against the ground and the far end remain in the air, level with Flary. As the horse and rider neared to striking distance, Kera took a step forward and dropped to one knee, letting the branch drop lower, changing the target from the rider to his horse. Her sudden advance was too unexpected for Flary to slow or turn his horse and his own weapon remained too high, passing clear over Kera’s head. A moment later the branch Kera held splintered, as it penetrated the horse’s flesh at the base of the left front leg and sank deep into the beast’s body as the charge continued past her. With an agonizing neighing sound, the horse fell to the ground, throwing its rider clear.
Completing her roll out of the way of her attacker, Kera whistled for Hasina and as her mount approached, yanked the sword from its saddle sheath. “Go,” she slapped the horse, not wanting it to become Flary’s target.
Flary stood up, bruised and shaken and mad enough to spit rock. “You’re dead, bitch!”
“Flary, don’t!” Bajuin yelled again, hurrying towards them, but he was too far and too hurt to make any difference.
Kera readied her sword as her armed and better armored opponent reached her. In her mind she remembered Sir Brand’s instructions from their last match.
“Don’t let a running opponent force you to back away. You lose any bracing you have when you do it. Instead lean in with your shield. Give me a target you want, not what I want.”
“But what if I have no shield?”
“Then use your sword. Make me want to back off.”
And she swung, causing Flary to come to a sudden stop as the tip of the blade shaved a spark from his chest plate.
He countered with a powerful swing, sending strong vibrations down Kera’s sword, making her take an involuntary step back. He was twice her size, probably three times the weight and better armored than she thought she could handle.
Flary swung in a cross pattern, making Kera dodge twice, bringing her to one knee, below him. He rose his sword above his head for one final blow.
Sir Brand’s voice sounded in Kera’s head again. “That was a feint. I swung left, you went right. I had a choice of your head, your shield or your sword.” The sword above her started its downward plunge. “Push forward as you get up,” the voice persisted. “I lose my swing when we’re this close. I have to step back.”
As the man’s arms came down, Kera advanced, getting up, his elbows impacting her shoulders, but because of his much greater height, the blow did little damage and he only lost his solid grip on his blade. Not wasting the precious moments she won, Kera drew the dagger from her belt and forced it through a crack in the armor overlays of her opponent’s side. As he grunted in pain, she backed away and adjusted her grip on her sword.
Another blow came across her blade, but noticeably weaker. A thin trail of blood ran down Flary’s leg, staining the dirt in the road. Kera took a swing, purposefully high, forcing Flary to raise his weapon for a block, then leveled her blade off, hitting the soft padding under the man’s left arm.
Flary staggered as the padding absorbed the blood from his wound, now holding the sword in his right arm.
“Yield,” Kera warned. She did not want him dead.
“Gods damn you!” his blade undercut hers, throwing her arm up. She almost lost the grip on her sword.
“You ignored me. You fought my shield,” Kera suddenly remembered Sir Brand’s words. He warned her that inexperienced fighters perceived their opponent’s weapons and armor as a greater threat to them. Flary was big and strong, but he knew little of fighting. Less than she.
She stepped closer, narrowing the gap between them. He had neither the skill, nor the agility to defend against the short quick thrusts she could make. The first blow was placed against his gut, where the dagger had previously made the cut, forcing him to gasp in pain. The second crashed across his arm, braking his grip on his sword. Blood splattered up as Kera realized there was only cloth protecting his lower arm. She planted a final blow to the man’s side, sending him stumbling to the ground.
Bajuin finally managed to stumble his way over to her as she stood over the beaten brigand. “Now it’s over,” she said, kneeling down. She picked up her dagger off the ground and leaned over Flary. “Where’s the boy?”