Portheas trod warily, making his way back to the dead man, Marti just behind him. The tension between them had eased slightly. They were now just two men intent on doing the same job, rather than being intent on the same woman. Finding Mica had been as much of a shock to him as to Karayana. The three of them had become much too nonchalant, and he knew Marti, as a trained soldier, would be berating himself as much as Portheas.
“This is where I found her.” Portheas said puzzled as they came upon a blood soaked area of pine needles.
“Then where is he?” Marti asked scanning the area. He walked over to the place where the man had lain, the imprint still fresh. Portheas scratched his head.
“He was definitely dead, I checked. I don’t understand this.”
“Add it to the list,” Marti said sarcastically. “Come on. We’d better get back. I’ve a feeling that we’d be safer grouped together.”
He broke into a soldiers jog and Portheas dropped in beside him.
“Sorry about yesterday. Karayana is right. We’re being pretty ridiculous.” Marti found that running at the side of Portheas made talking to him less confrontational, than face to face.
“Yeah. I’m sorry too. I’ve been a bit of an idiot.”
“We both have. And I don’t think it would be wise to upset her again. My ribs really ache.”
Portheas chuckled. “ I’ll second that,” he said ruefully.
Marti stopped and held out a hand.
Portheas clasped it firmly in his own.
“Friends,” he confirmed.
Karayana was exhausted. The healing had utterly drained her. The last time she had used it she’d felt energised but this had been different, someone else had been present, someone a hell of a lot more powerful than she. Shuddering, she recalled the feeling of being watched, similar to the feeling in that cell when someone had put suggestions in her head. Was it the same person? Or was it actually Mica’s subconscious. No, that didn’t make any sense. Mica hardly seemed to be in evidence, and Karayana feared the worst for her. She had done all she could with the little knowledge she had, withdrawing after an hour as the other presence became stronger. Now she needed to sleep and she settled into Brack’s soft bed and allowed herself to drift.
A light knock on the door brought her instantly awake and she sat up with a start. She was shocked to see Marti and Portheas standing side by side, in the doorway. Marti looked concerned as he sat on the edge of the bed.
“You look very pale,” he said softly, “How did it go?”
“It wore me out,” she said lying back down.
“Sleep then, and we’ll discuss things later.”
He left the room first, Portheas paused in the doorway his hand on the handle. She waited for him to speak, but he obviously decided that it could wait. With a smile, he closed the door and left her with yet another puzzle.
Brack put his children to bed in the one bedroom that was left and rejoined the men at the table.
“Looks like we’re sleeping where we sit tonight lads.” he said with a grin, “Want another ale to make it comfier?”
He held up his empty tankard as he spoke.
“I don’t think we will thanks,” Portheas answered, stretching, “We’ve decided it might be best to keep watch tonight. I’ll go first and then Marti will take over.”
“You don’t want me to do a share,” Brack asked glancing from one to the other. He wondered what had changed in the last few hours to make them work together.
“We figured you’d be best getting a good sleep, and if you don’t mind, keeping an eye on the patient.” Marti said leaning on the table.
“That sounds fair,” Brack nodded, “I’ll be sleeping on the landing then, if you need me.”
Marti watched him walk quietly up the creaky staircase out of the kitchen.
“Should we check on Karayana do you think?” he asked carefully. The new friendship they had forged was still slightly tentative, and both parties were working hard not to upset the other, or take offence at anything said.
Portheas stood and pulled on his cloak.
“I think she’ll let us know when she’s awake,” he said. “I’ll have a look round and then sit on the doorstep. Will you be sleeping in here?”
“Yep. Holler if you need me,” Marti grinned.
“Oh, I will,” Portheas assured him.
Although he could not see the moon through the trees, Portheas knew the night to be clear from the ghostly green glow that filled the wood. He did a circuit of the little clearing, holding Brack’s old sword firmly. The dead man played on his mind. After discussing things with Brack earlier, they had come to the conclusion that there was more than one soldier out there. But how many was a mystery, and why did they not attack him as he struggled to bring Mica back. He would have been an easy target with his hands full. Marti said that most scouting parties were made up of four men, if so where were they. Portheas’s other fear was made more real by the strange moonlight. He had heard tell of men turning into zombies when they died, and there were enough strange things going on for this answer to be true, but he had not dared voice his idea in case of ridicule. He made his way back to the front porch of the house and sat on the doorstep. He had never taken a watch before, only ordered others to do it. He strained all his senses and jumped far too many times at nothing. How many times had Marti had to do this, he wondered. It was a comfort to know that he was there, as backup at the other side of the door. He jumped again as an owl swooped silently down to the little barn off to his left. This was going to be the longest five hours he had ever spent!
It took some minutes before Karayana’s sleep-muddled brain informed her that the constant little tunes running around her head were actually the dawn chorus. Shocked she scrambled off the bed and peered through the curtains, letting morning sunlight fall into the room. Her stomach rumbled loudly and she realized that she’d slept for at least fourteen hours. She quickly tidied her hair and opened the bedroom door to find Marti snoring softly on his bedroll. She bent and shook him lightly.
“Marti,” she whispered. He woke with a jump, grabbing his sword as he sat up, and sending her sprawling back into the room.
“What is it?” he asked, half asleep.
“I was just going to ask if you wanted the bed?” she said looking at the crazy man standing above her.
“Oh, right.” He stretched out his hand and pulled her to her feet.
“Is everything alright?”
“Yeah.” He ran his fingers through his hair and yawned widely.
“I’ve just finished my watch. Tired.”
She watched him collapse onto the bed and lay his sword carefully at his side.
“Portheas will fill you in,” he said as she was leaving the room. His eyes were closed, and so he didn’t see her small frown.
She made her way down the stairs into a silent kitchen. After a quick drink of fresh water from a pitcher on the table, she grabbed an apple and made her way outside. Portheas and Brack were sitting on the step of the small cooking area; Mora and Jack a little further a way. Portheas spotted her and stood politely.
“Did you sleep well?” he asked. There was no playfulness in his voice, but then Portheas was always more serious than Marti.
“Like a log,” she said lightly, “What’s been going on?”
Brack got up slightly stiffly.
“We’ll explain over breakfast. I’m sure your starving.”
Karayana nodded an agreement, while chewing on her apple.
“Mora, Jack, in the house now,” Brack called.
She gave Portheas an enquiring gaze.
“We couldn’t find the soldier I killed,” he said by way of an answer. “There could be more out there.”
“They won’t hurt us. Our soldiers are not monsters.” She frowned up at him, puzzled by the obvious anxiety he felt.“I would prefer not to be found by them, I admit, but they are not going to do to me what they did to Mica,” she explained.
“These weren’t just ordinary soldiers. They were Kranz trackers.”
“My father has no Kranz trackers. He calls them barbarians.”
“So Marti said. Barbarians or no, they are the best trackers in the world, and frighteningly good in battle.”
Portheas set off towards the house. Karayana followed still puzzled.
“Wait a minute,” she called after him. “You never mentioned he was Kranz before, and I thought there was only one.”
“I didn’t know. Mica told us. She woke just as I was changing shifts with Marti. He managed to ask her a few questions before she fell asleep. Apparently she had stunned one, and the other had followed her.”
Karayana was irritated to find that she had an absurdly jealous sensation in her stomach. The thought of Marti tenderly questioning Mica was not one that she knew how to cope with.
“Our worry,” Portheas continued, as they entered the kitchen and eyed the plates of venison and warm bread, “Is that one of them is still out there. And if your father didn’t send them, who did?”
The question hung in the air as she ate. Brack came down the stairs carrying a cup.
“The patient is awake again. I said I’d take her some water up. Do you want to see her?” He looked at Karayana as he spoke.
“How does she look?” she asked carefully.
“Her colours much improved,” Brack said, filling the cup, “But she is very weak. The wound is showing no infection as yet, and the artery seems to be holding.”
Karayana winced as she remembered the grotesque knife wound.
“Are you going to give her another healing today?”
He paused, his foot on the bottom step, waiting for an answer.
“No.” Karayana reddened as she realized how venomously the word had come out. She tried to explain.
“Some one else is helping her. I am neither needed, nor keen to feel that person again.”
“I think you did much good. Probably saved her life.”
“Then I have done plenty. More than she would have done for me.” Karayana looked back down at her food, leaving Brack to give Portheas a questioning look.
Portheas shook his head. “She’s most probably right,” he said.
“Who else is helping her?” he asked quietly when Brack was out of earshot.
“I have no idea. But it isn’t anyone I would like to come into contact with again.” She gave a small shudder and pushed half a plate of uneaten food away. “I felt like I was being assessed and almost laughed at, as if my power was so small as to be funny.”
She sat back in her chair, waiting for some sly comment from Portheas, concerning his lack of beliefs in the subject.
He surprised her.
“Did you feel you were in danger?”
“Yes,” she said after a minute, “But it would be hard to explain how. You would have to have felt it.”
“What do we do now?” she asked.
“Wait for Marti to get up. Then we need to put our heads together I think.”
Karayana watched him toying with the same knot of wood as yesterday. She wanted to ask him what had happened between him and Marti while she slept, but didn’t dare. She would ask Marti. He was less likely to take offence. He stood up suddenly.
“I’m going to take a quick look around.”
“I’ll come,” she said impulsively. He stared at her for a minute, and she was sure he would tell her to stay. But he didn’t. Instead he smiled.
“That would be nice.”
Immediately Karayana was on her guard. Had she just managed to favour him over Marti? She needed some fresh air though, and Marti was asleep. He looked back from the open door, and decision made, she followed him out.
She stood for a minute in the clearing and breathed deeply.
“You going to do that strange dance again?” he asked casually.
“What strange dance?”
“The one you do to replenish your energy.” He scanned the forest as he spoke, not looking at her. She smiled. It was something he always did when he was uncomfortable, and suddenly all their conversations fell into place and she felt at last that she was beginning to know this man.
“It isn’t a dance,” she laughed. “It is an ancient art that came from the Tors. Mat- Su. It means ‘breathing in the God.”
Portheas raised his eyebrows, but instead of being annoyed with him, she laughed again.
“Why are you laughing?” He was checking the trees.
“Because laughing is good for you, and being angry isn’t.”
“Very deep,” he commented, a half smile playing on his lips, “Are you coming with me?”
“Actually I will stay here. I really should get some energy back. I was exhausted after healing her.”
“Right. I’ll leave you to it.” He smiled, and Karayana noted that this time, his eyes joined in.
Mica drifted in a state of semi-consciousness. The pains seared up her whole leg, pulsing hot and then cold but she was too weak to panic. She knew Karayana had been there. She had felt her presence as a warm glow in her other wise cold body. Deverous had been there too, on the fringes, but right now she couldn’t figure out the meaning of anything. A man kept coming and checking on her and had made her drink some watery soup. Portheas and the soldier had been in once. She had answered their questions readily, too weak to think of resistance or the consequences of her actions. At times someone had checked on her wound and in her more wakeful moments, she worried about her semi-nakedness. Mica had known plenty of men, but always on her own terms, under her control. Some one had removed her trousers and she half hoped it had been Karayana.
Gradually she was awake more than asleep. The next time the man came she managed to ask for some water, which he obliged her with, helping her to sit and drink it. He had redressed the wound, telling her all the time what he was doing, and how it was looking. He daubed an ointment on it that he said would help with the pain. It did, but only barely. She lay for a time listening to the quiet creaks of the house, and the noisy birds going through their mating rituals outside her window. For the first time ever in her life Mica knew a strange kind of peace and she didn’t have the strength to dismiss it.
Sleep eventually took her again, and this time the dreams and worries stayed away.
“Wake up, wake up, wake up.”
Marti started off the bed, catching the falling child just before his head struck a small chest of drawers. He placed him on his feet on the floor and sat down quickly, trying to bring his brain into focus.
“Hello Jack,” he managed after a minute.
The boy jumped back up on the bed and started bouncing.
“You’ve been asleep for ages.”
“Have I?” Marti managed between bounces.
“Yes, a-n-d you were snoring.”
Marti reached round and wrestled the now giggling child onto his knee.
“Where is everyone?”
“Where are you supposed to be?”
Jack went still, and then turned his big brown eyes up to look into Marti’s.
“In my room reading my book,” he whispered.
“Right well back in there before your father catches you. Go on.”
Jack scurried out, and Marti lay back on the bed and stretched. He gave himself five minutes to come round properly before forcing himself off the feather mattress.
As he passed Mona’s room he peered in. She was looking straight at him.
“How you doing?” He spoke quietly and walked over to her window, glancing out around the curtain.
“Who are you to ask?” she croaked.
Mica felt refreshed after the last sleep, and although physically still weak, her mind was very much back in control. Marti raised his eyebrows.
“Marti, but I’m surprised you don’t know that.”
“One of my deliberate mistakes.” She tried to sound sarcastic.
“You want a drink?” he asked making for the door. She scowled. Being dependant on someone else was a weakness she detested, but she could hardly sit up on her own yet.
Marti smirked and shook his head. Mica was a dab hand at turning any word into an insult.
She listened as he went down the stairs. She was practising placing people by noise around the house. It may be useful.
“Here.” Two minutes and he was back holding the cup out for her to take.
Cursing him silently she pulled herself carefully into a sitting position, trying not to show the nauseating sensation that hit her. She swallowed down the rising bile, before taking the cup. Marti sat on a chair, folding his arms and watching her.
“What are you staring at?”
He shook his head, but then spoke.
“I’m trying to place you. There’s something familiar about you.”
“I worked at the palace for a while, or didn’t you hear,” she said cockily.
“Oh I heard.” He paused. “But no, I don’t recall seeing you there. Oh well.” He got up. “Do you need anything else?” he asked graciously.
“Not unless you can whisk me away to some far off shore where those trackers will never find me.”
Marti sat back down.
“You think they were looking for you?”
She held out the empty cup for him to take, and lay back down with a small groan.
“Not just me, but I was definitely on the list.”
“So you know who sent them.”
She gave a low laugh.
“My Master sent them. He uses Kranz trackers for all his dirty work. Or me,” she added as an after thought.
“Why does your Master want to kill you?”
Mica could have kicked herself. Obviously her brain wasn’t fully functioning yet.
“None of your business,” she snarled.
Marti rose to his feet.
“Fine. We’ll talk about it later. It doesn’t look like your going anywhere soon, and I’m starving.”
He looked back at her from the door.
Mica just scowled.
The first thing Marti saw when he walked outside was Karayana. She was sitting cross-legged in a patch of sunlight, which made her hair shine as if she’d spent the night polishing it. He had an urge to go over and stroke that hair, but she was obviously meditating, and he would not be forgiven for disturbing her. He looked around the clearing and eventually spotted Portheas sitting in the shadow of a tree watching him. He waved and grinned, and was pleased to receive a wave and a knowing grin back. Obviously Portheas was on the same wavelength. Marti joined him after first finding a hunk of bread and a large piece of meat to chew on.
“She been like that long?” he asked between mouthfuls.
“An hour.” Portheas answered riley.
“Any sign of trouble.”
“None. Which is slightly worrying.”
“I just spoke to Mica,” Marti said, wiping his hands on his trousers, “And she gave something rather important away.”
“What?” Portheas pulled his gaze away from Karayana.
“She says her Master sent those Kranz, apparently they’re his favourite choice of tracker, and she reckons she’s on the hit list.”
“Who is this Master?”
“No idea, she clammed up as soon as she realised she’d given something away.”
“What are we going to do with her?”
Marti shook his head, shrugging.
“As soon as Karayana has finished I suggest we sit down and talk. The longer we stay here, the more danger we lump on Brack and his family.”
“Exactly my thoughts.”
Karayana spotted them both the instant she had finished her meditation, and gave them a puzzled look, her hands on her hips, head cocked sideways. They rose to meet her, neither one offering any sort of explanation for their sudden camaraderie. Mora came running up from behind her with a pinecone necklace she had spent the morning making. Karayana knelt to receive it with a smile.
“Now you are Queen Karayana,” Mora cried.
She cringed inwardly, not daring to look at the two rivals for her affections. That innocent little comment would be quite a blow for Marti. She stood up and watched Mora run back to the house and follow Brack indoors. Marti cleared his throat.
“Well,” he said casually, making light of the tense silence surrounding them, “would your Highness grant us an audience.”
She smiled at him, wanting to hug the hurt away, instead she took hold of his arm, and Portheas’s on her other side and said,
“Shall we retire to my dining shed and take a seat?”
They walked together across the clearing, Marti feeling familiar and easy on one side, Portheas feeling tense and uncertain on the other. These two were so totally different.
Marti quickly filled her in on his conversation with Mica.
“She really is a joy isn’t she?” he commented sarcastically.
“Absolutely.” Karayana would have loved to go and slap the truth out of her, but she squashed those feelings as best she could.
“We need to move on as soon as possible,” Portheas said, “But what do we do with her?”
“We can’t leave her here.” Karayana said instantly. “I couldn’t stand the thought of what she might do to Brack and his family once she is well.”
“I agree, but I can’t see how she can come with us.”
“Perhaps Brack will sell his old mare to us. We could build a litter and drag Mica along on it.”
The other two looked quizzically at Marti.
“Have you got any money?” Portheas asked.
“And how would we drag a litter and stay incognito?” Karayana said smiling.
Marti raised his hands in the air. Suddenly his faced changed from clown to soldier. Before she knew it Karayana was flat on the floor with Marti on top of her. There was a loud thud as a long knife hit the wooden upright where she had been sitting.
“Roll off, down to the floor,” Marti commanded urgently. She obeyed numbly as two arrows whined above their heads. She hit the ground first and watched Portheas and then Marti launch themselves to end up either side of her.
“There’s more than one out there,” Portheas whispered.
“Did you see how many?”
“I saw two, but I think there’s at least three.”
Karayana listened to them and wondered at their calmness. She lay as flat as she could, trembling with fear.
“I wish I had my bow,” Marti was saying.
Just at that moment another volley of arrows flew over the top of their temporary cover.
“We’ll have to make a run for it. Hopefully once we’re round the corner of the house we’ll be safe for a minute,” Marti continued.
“Are you crazy?” she asked squeakily.
“We can do nothing to protect ourselves here. Our swords are useless, and I would think you need to see them before you can blast them with energy.”
Karayana nodded silently.
“Right. I’ll go first. I’ll run to the right and draw their fire, Portheas take Karayana to the left.”
“Marti…” but he was gone, and Portheas pulled her to her feet and she was running before she knew it. She heard the thin whine of more arrows, one shooting past them as they reached the corner of the house. She tugged open the door and fell into the kitchen, Portheas on her heels. As he reached to push it to, Marti barged in and closed the door with a slam. Without speaking he ran to the corner and grabbed his bow. Brack instantly gauged the situation.
“You two upstairs landing,” he said quietly to the startled children.
Marti and Portheas already had a window each. Karayana clicked the lock into place on the door, and then sat on the floor, not knowing what to do. Brack grabbed a quiver full of arrows and took them and his bow to Portheas, who quickly notched one.
“See anything?” Marti asked quietly.
“Nothing.” Portheas answered.
“Karayana, come over here, but keep your head down,” Marti ordered. Suddenly both men loosed an arrow, and quickly notched up another.
“One down,” Portheas stated coldly.
Karayana had made her way to Marti and sat with her back to the wall trying to breath normally. Without taking his eyes off the wood, Marti asked,
“Can you help if we need you?”
“I-I can try,” she said shakily.
“Good. Go upstairs and see if you can see a target. If you do blast them with all you’ve got, but don’t let them see you.”
Before she had time to talk herself out of it she crawled to the stairs and ran swiftly up them. Mora and Jack sat in the dark huddled together. She stepped past them making for Brack’s room.
“Just stay there. Everything’s going to be fine,” she whispered.
She crept to the window and peered out. The woods seemed still. Nothing moved, the birds were silent, even the branches were unnaturally motionless. Then she caught a glint of sunlight off something metal just at the corner of her vision. If she leant out of the window she’d get a better view, as well as losing her head instantly. She knew what she had to do, but the thought turned her stomach. She forced herself back onto the landing and pushed open Mica’s half closed door. Her instincts took over next. A tall bearded man stood over Mica with one of those long knives raised above his head. Mica lay helpless. She had squirmed as far away from him as she could, but that wasn’t far enough. The man was sneering down at the girl, and before he had time to register that Karayana stood in the doorway, the energy had reached her hands and she pointed both index fingers at his heart. He had time for one shocked look before she leased his death. The man dropped the knife, which thudded heavily into the mattress, and crumpled into a small heap on the floor. Mora screamed somewhere, but Karayana couldn’t move. Portheas rushed past her into the room, pushing her down onto the floor, his sword was raised ready to swing, but there was no need. She knew she’d killed the Kranz.