The Second Coming

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Chapter 6

The two men ride through the countryside: there is a great lake on one side and a large mountain range on the other.

“Remember, William, The Blood works most effectively when the person uses instinct instead of reason. Other methods of using power are weak in comparison; by the time a Priestess of Revan has considered her actions, you have already completed yours.”

William pauses. “But what of the risks of acting first and thinking later?”

The older man grunts dismissively. “There are dangers in everything we do, and that is one of the risks one with The Blood must take. If you follow your instincts you will find the right path.”

They continue to ride until they climb a hill, which looks down on what appears to be a camp. The older man pulls his mount to a much slower pace and William follows suit. “Kiran, why are we slowing? This is just a caravan.”

“This is no ordinary caravan. Unless I am mistaken they are slavers, coming into your country looking for human goods.”

William raises an eyebrow. “Slavers? I didn’t think slavery was permitted in Suria.”

Kiran grunts again. “It isn’t. These are from Areza, which is a place that tolerates a lot more than your native land. I would wager that their mobile cages are empty.”

William urges his mount forward. “Then we must stop them! They cannot be permitted to enslave innocent folk.”

Kiran waits for William to move ahead of him before nudging his own horse forward, which leaves a gap between them.

William’s horse soon makes up the ground towards the camp and he is met by five men, all lightly armoured and holding swords. William raises his voice. “You are to leave these lands and never return. We will not let you go any further.”

The men laugh, mockingly. One of them responds. “And how do you plan on stopping us, boy. You are but two, with no weapons, and your friend doesn’t appear to share your convictions.” The accent is foreign, similar to but much harsher than Kiran’s.

William looks around and notices that Kiran is not alongside him. He sets his jaw and turns back to the slavers. “This is your last warning. Sheath your weapons and turn around.”

The foreign man ignores William and addresses his companions. “We shall enjoy ourselves here, my countrymen. If this is the best defence Suria has against us, we will take all their people back with us! I have heard their women are even more submissive, so we should have no problems having some sport first! Who knows, this fool probably has a wife at home begging for one of us to show her a good…” The man suddenly freezes on the spot, as if held by an invisible force. The other guards are all thrown backwards and crash into the ground, their necks broken. Others around the camp shout in consternation, but they too are thrown from their feet, and hit the ground like ragdolls. Within seconds it is over, and there is not a living soul remaining in the camp. All that remains of the man William used as a channel is a blackened corpse, which collapses to the ground, smouldering.

After a few moments, William’s senses return, and he turns around at the sound of laughter. Kiran nudges his mount towards his companion, and claps him on the back. “You, my friend, have done both The Blood and your country proud.”

William surveys the carnage with a look of horror on his face.

*

Carly stirred, rolled over and winced as something dug into her side. She reached under her blanket and pulled out the culprit: a large twig, which felt at least five times its actual size the moment before. It was then she realised she was not in her bed in the temple: she was in the wilderness, a short distance from the trading road. Olbane and Michael had driven a relentless pace, but they had found no sign of their quarry and had been forced to stop for the night.

Carly felt a pang of anguish as she realised what she had sacrificed the day before: years of devotion to Revan and His church were lost. She would remain an acolyte, confined to menial duties until she met Him at the end of her life. Carly looked around, and wondered where Olbane, Michael and the two horses were. Had they gone on without her?

Carly heard Olbane’s voice first. She turned in its direction and saw that the two young men were sat a short distance away, talking quietly and eating breakfast. It was Michael who noticed she was awake. “Good morning, Carly. Would you like some breakfast? We plan to leave soon.”

Carly gingerly got to her feet and found that her muscles ached after such a long ride the previous day. She winced and made her way over to where the others were sitting. “You should have woken me earlier. I have my morning prayers to recite.”

Olbane raised an eyebrow. “How long do they take?”

“Usually at least an hour.”

Michael responded sharply. “We can’t wait an hour.”

Carly felt helpless, like a girl in a woman’s world. Olbane interjected and kept his voice soft. “Can you recite your prayers on horseback, Carly?”

Carly considered that. It was highly unorthodox, but she could not recall anything she had read or been told that said she could not. “I… I suppose so.”

Olbane moved closer and put one hand on her slender shoulder, then offered her some bread. “Here, take what time we have here to eat. We will be riding hard today, and you’ll need your strength.”

Michael rose. “I’ll go and make sure the horses are ready to leave.”

“Thank you.” Olbane nodded in Michael’s direction before turning his attention back to Carly. “How are you feeling this morning?”

Carly was a little thrown by the question, and she had to quickly swallow a mouthful of bread. She then gulped down the cup of water that Olbane hastily offered her. When she had composed herself, she responded. “I’ve felt better, Olbane. Everything I have worked for during the last four years is for nothing, and my dreams of making a difference as a Priestess are shattered.” She looked up at him and her large brown eyes were filled with tears.

Olbane held her closer and put his other arm around her; Carly stiffened, but did not draw away. “I do not know as much about Revan as you, Carly, but I do know He does not always make his subjects’ lives easy. If you can help to save Lia and bring the murderers to justice, that makes your life worthwhile, even if that is just to me. Perhaps this is your Test.”

Carly hadn’t thought of it that way. She was not convinced by what Olbane said, but it did make her feel more positive. She gently drew away from him. “Thank you, Olbane; you are a very wise man.”

Olbane rose to his feet. “I must help Michael. We shall leave when you have finished your breakfast.”

They left shortly afterwards and Michael rode a short distance ahead. Carly said her prayers on horseback, which was a strange but enlightening experience, and she extended her usual hour to nearly two. Happy to remain with her eyes closed, she focused on asking Revan to watch over Lia and bring her home safe. She considered praying for herself, but was not comfortable doing so after leaving the temple: guilt was still prominent in her consciousness.

Carly was disturbed from her prayers when she felt her and Olbane’s horse slow to a trot, and she opened her eyes. Michael had already dismounted, and was examining one of three still forms on the ground. “They are dead!” The young man’s voice was filled with anxiety. Olbane swung himself down from their mount and jogged over to join Michael. He then hung his head in a sign of respect.

“Carly! These men need you!” the tone of Michael’s voice was at least two octaves higher than normal.

Carly knew what Michael meant and she clumsily slid down from the horse. She paused to compose herself and then walked briskly towards the still figures.

Three male forms were lying within yards of each other and all had grievous stab wounds. Two of the men also had piercing wounds that indicated arrows had been used. With a sharp intake of breath Carly realised they had also had their throats cut. The three were all wearing fine clothing.

Olbane broke the silence. “Bandits. These men were set upon for their riches, without doubt. Bandits are the scourge of travellers everywhere; I suspect their horses have been taken as well, probably for sale in some market.” Olbane was clearly more travelled than Michael, and he looked and sounded calmer.

Carly knelt down at the first corpse and recited a prayer of penitence. It was the same verse she used only a day before in Lia’s home. She repeated the process for the other two corpses, and then rose to her feet. “We should cremate the bodies to hasten their souls’ departure to His domain.” Olbane and Michael started to object, but Carly held up a hand. “I understand that time is critical to us, but it would be inappropriate to leave these poor men in their current state.”

They reluctantly agreed, and used dried leaves and dead branches to make a funeral pyre. Once the pyre was built, they lifted the three corpses onto it and started a fire. Finally, Carly said a prayer and asked Revan to protect and nourish their souls.

A few minutes later, with the fire burning well, the three turned back towards their horses, and left. As their horses broke into a trot, Olbane wondered out loud. “What were those unfortunate fellows doing travelling on their own? It is usual for men with wealth to have protection with them, particularly in remote areas such as this.”

Michael responded. “Perhaps they were separated from their protection, or their protection fled?” Carly did her best not to flinch; she hadn’t considered that there would be unscrupulous types on the road.

Olbane nodded. “Well, we had best be on our guard. Whoever killed them might still be around here. Michael, I suggest we ride side by side until we are well clear of this area.”

Michael grunted his agreement and his hand moved to his sword-hilt. “Sounds sensible to me; I will watch left, you watch right.” Carly gripped Olbane’s waist involuntarily, which caused him to turn around and look at her. “Michael and I both have experience with a blade, Carly, and the men who were killed did not. We will be fine.”

Carly was afraid that her voice would reveal how she felt, so she merely nodded. Her heart was pounding and she felt completely out of her depth; better she was an acolyte scrubbing floors than a hero attempting to rescue a friend in need. Olbane was about to say something else, but Carly stopped him. “I will be fine, Olbane. I am going to relax for a few moments.”

The young man nodded and kicked his heels into their mount’s side, which urged it to move faster. Michael followed suit.

After settling herself in for what she expected would be another tiring and bumpy ride, Carly loosened her grip around Olbane’s waist and forced herself to relax. At first she was concerned that using Revan’s Peace would not be safe while on horseback, but she found she was able to maintain an acceptable level of balance. Eventually, she slowed her breathing down and felt the familiar feeling of light-headedness, and she attempted to empty her mind of concerns. Maintaining The Peace over a long period was something every acolyte could do, and for a short while time became irrelevant.

Even though her eyes were shut, Carly saw the bandit take aim with his bow: immediately her eyes snapped open and she screamed. “Look out!”

Suddenly, Olbane and Michael pulled hard on the reins and both horses cried out in shock. Within a moment an arrow shot past, directly in front of Michael, followed by a second that flew over Carly’s and Olbane’s heads.

Michael appeared to gather his wits about him first, and he pointed to a cluster of trees a short ride away. “Over there! Quickly!” He and Olbane ordered their mounts to lurch forward, which prevented Carly being seriously injured: an arrow sank into the rear of their horse, narrowly missing her leg. The horse cried out in pain, but Olbane continued to drive it forward, and Carly knew it was their only chance of reaching cover. She heard curses from behind them as their attackers regrouped, and within moments Carly recognised the sound of horses drawing closer. Michael’s mount, which was carrying a single rider, streaked ahead and reached the trees comfortably. Immediately he dismounted, dived behind some undergrowth and drew his blade. “Six of them!” he shouted. “Hurry!”

Olbane kicked their injured mount harder and forced it to run as fast as it could. He then risked a look behind and Carly followed suit, a decision she immediately regretted. There were indeed six bandits, all mounted and lightly armed, and they were moving closer by the second. Fear completely gripped Carly, and she realised the inevitable: they were going to die, and Lia would be consigned to whatever fate her kidnappers had planned for her.

As they headed towards the trees she caught a glimpse of Michael’s face, which was white. Hiding in undergrowth might have made it difficult for arrows, but the six bandits would easily overwhelm them with their swords.

Olbane spoke, and his voice was surprisingly calm. “I am going to jump off the horse when we reach the trees. Take the reins and keep going, no matter what you hear.” He moved forward on the horse, and allowed her to take the left hand part of the reins while he maintained a hold on the other side. In what Carly perceived to be a remarkable feat of horsemanship, he manoeuvred his left leg up the horse so he was riding side saddle. “Promise me you will not look back.” He paused, as if he was expected her to complain. “No objections. Ride and get help!” Olbane leapt from the horse, and Carly grabbed the other side of the reins. She watched in awe as he landed on his feet, a few yards from where Michael was hiding in the undergrowth. Within a moment, he had drawn his blade and positioned himself directly in front of the trees, and was almost challenging the bandits to advance. Olbane’s act of idiocy drew a similar response from Michael, and both merchants’ sons stood shoulder to shoulder.

“Go, Carly!” That time it was Michael who shouted.

For a few moments, Carly did as she was told and let the horse gallop away. She then heard a clash of steel and turned to see both Olbane and Michael defending themselves against two of the bandits, who were still on horseback. With the height advantage, however, it was not a fair contest, and the first grunt of pain she heard was Michael’s as he took a slashing blow to the shoulder. She cried out with anguish, but Michael fought on, and caught his opponent in the leg. Olbane fared better and managed to fend off his opponent’s attacks, but moments later the remaining four bandits appeared, swords drawn.

Instinctively, Carly screamed. “No!” The acolyte felt a tingling sensation go through her body and the four horses were thrown back as if they had hit a wall, which caused their riders to topple to the ground. The two remaining men cried out in shock, and for a moment Olbane and Michael also stopped, open mouthed. Fortunately, Michael came to his senses and pulled his opponent from his saddle, an action that Olbane repeated. Within moments both bandits were on the ground and had a sword point next to their throats.

Carly did her best to control her horse, which was struggling badly due to its injury, and turned it around. When she re-joined the others, Olbane was negotiating with one of the bandits. “… no, we will not kill you in cold blood, that would make us no better than you… you murderers!” Olbane was shaking with what was probably a mixture of fear and rage. Michael had hold of the two bandits’ blades, as well as his own, which was pointing in their direction.

Carly dismounted and looked at the mare sadly. “She is wounded. Can you do anything?”

Olbane risked a look in her direction before he shook his head. “I am no physician. We will take horses from our friends here instead.”

One of the bandits spoke up. “Are you going to leave us here?”

Olbane raised his voice. “You are fortunate we are not as you are, or you would be dead!” He looked at the four riders who were incapacitated. “I believe your friends will live, and while I wish we could take all of your mounts, we cannot.” He turned to Michael. “We should leave, now.”

Michael nodded. “My horse is fine.” He looked across at Carly. “Do you want a mount of your own?”

Carly shook her head; she did not feel confident riding alone. “No, I will continue to ride with Olbane.”

Olbane looked towards the two nearest horses that were still standing, took the largest by the reins and stroked it on the head. “This one will suffice.”

Michael sheathed his blade and climbed onto the back of his mount. He then turned her, ready to continue their journey.

Before he mounted, Olbane moved his blade point closer to one of the bandits. “If you consider chasing after us, be warned. Even a good man has his breaking point.”

*

They rode in silence and Michael set a hard pace. After a short period, it was Carly who remembered he was wounded. “Michael, we need to stop so I can take a look at that injury.” They were riding adjacently, and she could see that his shirt was bloodstained.

Michael turned around briefly. “We cannot afford to stop so soon. I will be fine.”

Carly was about to object when Olbane interjected. “He is right, Carly. If we stop now and the bandits decide to give chase, they may catch us. We must press on.”

Carly grudgingly agreed. “We will need to tend to the wound when we do stop for a rest, which should not be too long. I expect the horses will need water soon.”

Michael grunted. “Fine. We ride until we find water.”

While they rode, Carly considered what had happened. There was no doubt she had connected with Revan during the brief fracas with the bandits; she could find no other explanation. She felt a pang of anxiety at what she had done; she had acted to save the lives of her friends, but it had been raw and instinctive, not the actions of a Priestess. Carly also felt a pang of joy; Revan had not deserted her, as she had feared. She wished that Priestess Thereza were with her; she would know what to say and do. Carly closed her eyes, concentrated on her feelings and was intrigued to note that she still felt a slight tingling; it was not on the scale she felt when she erected an invisible barrier in front of the bandits, but it was there nonetheless. Carly gently focused on that feeling inside her and searched for Revan’s Grace once more, but she did not feel anything special. Carly forced herself to relax and forced down a cry of frustration.

They found water within two hours, when Olbane spotted a small stream a short distance north of the trading road. They drew their horses to a trot and dismounted, and Carly noticed that Michael winced at least once as he did so. Carly also dismounted, left the two horses to take a well-earned drink, and allowed herself to think of Lia. “I wonder how far ahead of us they are?”

Olbane shrugged. “It is a five day ride to Surian from Crossmoor, but we do not even know if that is where they are going.” He looked at Carly. “We must hope that Revan keeps her safe until Francisca smiles on us enough to find her.”

Michael nodded sadly. “I still do not understand why anyone would want to abduct Lia and murder her parents.”

Olbane turned his eyes away from the others. “I have a theory, but it is not a pleasant one.”

Michael stepped forward a little. “Well? You might as well tell us.”

Olbane looked Michael in the eye. “I have heard that slavers sometimes go to extremes to capture one they believe will fetch a high price. That could well be Lia’s fate, if we do not find her first.”

Michael looked sceptical. “But Lia is not much more than a girl! How could she be worth so much?”

“Sometimes wealthy men like personal slaves, and are willing to pay a lot for an attractive one, particularly if she is from another culture.”

Michael looked at Olbane and his fists clenched angrily. “Are you saying they are taking Lia so she can be sold to some middle-aged man who wants her for sport?” Carly’s chest tightened; slavery was banned in Suria, but the neighbouring lands of Areza were less civilised.

Olbane opened his hands in a gesture of submission. “It is the only theory I have arrived at, Michael.” Olbane turned to Carly. “Do you know of anything in Lia’s family history that can explain this?”

Carly shook her head. “Nothing; Francis has been a scribe for a long time. I have no real memory of Lia having much family; it was not something we discussed a great deal as children.”

Olbane moved back to the horses. “We must hurry if we are going to catch them before they reach the end of the trading road. If they reach Frodsby before us, it will be very difficult to find them, as they could enter Areza from a number of different routes.”

Michael raised an eyebrow. “Frodsby?”

Olbane nodded. “Frodsby is the next town of note, before the road takes two paths: south to Surian, or north around Lake Moor.”

Michael moved towards his own mount and winced. Carly held out an arm to stop him. “Michael, please let me take a look at that shoulder. It needs attention.”

Michael opened his mouth to object, but closed it when he saw the look on Carly’s face.

“Take your shirt off.” He did as he was told and grimaced as he pulled the shirt off the injured area. The wound itself was long: the sword had caught Michael on the arm below his left shoulder and the cut ran almost to his collar-bone. Carly had seen worse during her times helping in the temple surgery, and wasn’t fazed. “It’s not that deep, fortunately, but needs binding to keep it from gaining an infection.” She tore a section from the bottom of her robe, dipped it into the stream and gently cleaned the wound; Michael winced but did not cry out. Carly then tore another two pieces off and used them to make a crude bandage. “Hopefully that will be enough until we can find someone more skilled to help.” She looked at Olbane. “Do you know where the next town is?” Carly felt guilty that she couldn’t draw on Revan’s Grace to heal the wound, but hoped that it didn’t show on her face.

Olbane thought for a moment. “I believe there is a village on the south side of The Great Forest.” He pointed to the north-east, where a large group of trees was beginning to take shape in the distance. “Whether there is a skilled physician there, I do not know. If not we will have to wait until we reach Frodsby.”

Michael tentatively moved his shoulder around, winced, but smiled. “Thank you, Carly.” He pulled himself up onto the horse and gritted his teeth. “We have a friend who needs us. Let us make haste.”

*

They rode almost constantly and only stopped for a few hours overnight when the night was so dark it was treacherous to continue. Lia slept poorly, despite being exhausted, and woke accompanied by a strange feeling of death. Rastlin completely ignored her while they ate their simple meal of trail rations, and apart from the leering glances of the other two she had no company to speak of. Since the early part of the morning they had ridden with The Great Forest on their left side and its old and large trees dwarfed everything around them. The Great Forest was an ancient place that had always been part of Surian folklore, and tales of savage creatures within had always kept it protected from those who wished to harvest it. They had not encountered any more travellers, for which Lia thanked Francisca. While she had not accepted whatever fate Rastlin had for her, she did not want any further bloodshed, and had decided that if any risks needed to be taken she would take them alone. What fate did Rastlin have in mind for her? How could she be the key to anything? While she and Goadsby rode, she alternated between marvelling at the size of the forest and attempting to fathom why she was important enough for five people to be murdered, including her parents.

It was a short while later when Lia noticed a small settlement ahead, which was on the top of a hill. Perhaps she could slip away there? Surely Rastlin and the others wouldn’t try to murder a whole village. As they approached the settlement Lia’s excitement grew. When they were but a few hundred yards away, however, Rastlin turned his mount slightly south and moved into a small wood on the other side of the trading road. It was at that moment Lia realised he was going to avoid contact with strangers unless it was not possible to do so. Within the wood there were no obvious tracks to move their mounts along, and the journey was slow and treacherous. Lia was relieved when they re-joined the road and left the village behind them.

An hour or two later they stopped for a brief rest, and allowed the horses to drink and graze. The trading road was still deserted, and Lia wondered why they had encountered so few travellers. Even though she had not been along the trading road before, Lia knew it was the main route across central Suria. She wondered if the road was less busy due to the recent festival in Crossmoor; perhaps merchants had already visited the town with their latest wares and were travelling home to re-stock. Lia once again thought of her parents and uttered a silent prayer to Revan: she hoped their souls were at peace. When she opened her eyes, Lia involuntarily jumped; Rastlin was standing in front of her, with an inquisitive look on his face. Lia recoiled, angry. “Am I not even allowed to say a prayer in private?”

Rastlin took a step back. “I am sorry, my dear. I did not mean to intrude. Please, continue.”

Lia shook her head. “Somehow my heart isn’t in it any more.”

Rastlin looked a little alarmed at that statement. “Do you really mean that?” He put a hand on his chest, over his heart. “Your heart is what drives you, is it not? Without that, there is no point in anything.”

Lia was not sure what to say. A philosophical discussion with her parents’ murderer was not something she was expecting. “I... I am not sure I understand.”

He smiled briefly, and his dark eyes softened. “Even in the direst circumstances, even when you think everyone and everything is against you, never stop listening to your heart.”

“At the moment my heart is full of grief.” Lia wasn’t sure why she said that; she certainly didn’t want him to know.

His dark eyes continued to focus on her. “Of course it is, and that is understandable. You have suffered a great loss.”

Anger rose in Lia and she lashed out. “Why are you asking me these questions? You and your thugs are the reason for my grief!”

His voice remained calm. “True, but as I said before, everything is done for a reason. What you do with your grief and anger, however, is up to you.”

Tears ran down Lia’s cheeks. “What do you care how I feel?”

Rastlin paused. “You are the key to everything that it important to me, Lia. That is why I care.”

Lia looked at him incredulously. “How can I be the key to anything? I’ve never left Crossmoor! My father was a scribe!”

“Your father wasn’t aware of his ancestry any more than you are, Lia.” He said it quietly, almost nonchalantly.

“My ancestry? What do you know of my ancestry?” Lia’s head was spinning.

He once again paused. “We can talk more later; perhaps when we stop for the night. For now, we need to continue on.”

Lia was about to protest, but he held up a hand. “I know I am the last person in the world you should trust, but I give you my word all will become clear.”

Lia tried to gather her thoughts. Rastlin appeared to be a man of many contradictions: how could a murderer and kidnapper ask to be trusted? She admitted to herself she was intrigued by his words, however, and if nothing else wanted to hear what he had to say about her heritage.

They were a short ride from the town on the hill when Franklin told them that a caravan was approaching. “There are five large trailers, all covered with tarpaulins. There are at least twenty guards, but they are not the usual hired helps.”

Rastlin raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean they are not usual?”

“They are all dressed in different clothes, a rabble really. They don’t look professional like hired escorts usually do.”

Rastlin paused, then continued his questioning. “How far away are they?”

“No more than thirty minutes away, coming in this direction.”

Rastlin nodded. “We will go around them.” He looked around him for a suitable path, before they all heard a crack that sounded like a boot on a rotten branch. Both Franklin and Goadsby drew their blades and the latter almost caused Lia to topple off the back of their mount.

Rastlin hissed. “Off the road! Quickly!”

Rastlin led the way, and drew them a short distance south. Lia felt more confident, and queried their response. “Do we really need to go so far to hide from them? Isn’t it just a caravan?”

His response was calm, as usual. “There is something about Franklin’s description of the guards that concerns me. I fear there may be more to this caravan than meets the eye.” They arrived at a group of trees. “We will wait here until the caravan has passed.”

Lia did not know how to respond to that, but for the first time was glad she was with Franklin and Goadsby.

They waited, and as Franklin had predicted they were able to make out the outline of six trailers, a type Lia had not seen before. They were roughly six feet tall and probably twenty feet long, each pulled by two horses, and had very defined corners that were visible through the tarpaulins that covered them. Franklin’s estimate of the number of guards did not seem accurate, however, as Lia could only make out ten forms.

The caravan moved past the spot on the road they had left, and Lia began to relax. It was Goadsby who broke the silence. “Shall we move on?”

Franklin frowned. “I definitely saw more escorts than that.”

Goadsby snorted. “So where are they?”

Franklin turned to Rastlin and didn’t acknowledge Goadsby’s question. “I would advise we keep travelling south for a few miles. They have not just disappeared.”

Lia interjected. “What was that caravan? Why are you so concerned?”

Rastlin ignored Lia and nodded in Franklin’s direction. “Agreed.” The two urged their mounts forward, and they continued moving south. Somewhat reluctantly, Goadsby followed suit.

They had travelled for only a short while when Franklin again raised the alarm. “They are out here, I can feel it.”

Goadsby opened his mouth to speak, but the look Rastlin gave him made him shut it again. Rastlin’s voice was a whisper. “Where?”

Franklin drew his mount closer to Rastlin’s. “I would say that there are some just east of here, some south.”

Rastlin nodded. “Then they must have seen us and sent some of their force to catch us.” He looked around at Lia briefly, before he turned back to Franklin. “We must get her to safety.”

The other man nodded and turned to Goadsby. “Ride back west, then cut north, back to the trading road. With any luck the caravan will have passed, and you can continue east. We will join you later.”

Lia opened her mouth to complain, but Rastlin spoke first. “Goadsby is an excellent sword, as you have seen. He will protect you.” His eyes searched out her soul once more. “Remember, follow your heart.”

She nodded as best she could and fear once again gripped her. Franklin slapped the rear of Goadsby and Lia’s mount and barked a command. “Go!”

Goadsby turned his horse towards the west and forced her to gallop as fast as she could. As they sped away, Lia turned to see Rastlin riding to the south and Franklin to the east.

Goadsby drove the mount across dangerous terrain, and Lia was about to thank Francisca for their luck when the horse’s hoof caught an exposed tree root and they were both catapulted from the saddle. Lia cried out as she fell, but that time Francisca did smile on her and she landed on a patch of soft grass. After a few moments Lia realised she had escaped significant injury: she felt pain down her left side, which had taken the brunt of the impact, but she managed to walk over to where Goadsby lay. He was on his front, and not moving.

“Goadsby?” There was no response; Lia bent down and with considerable effort, turned the man over. Goadsby had blood all over his face and appeared to be dead. She noticed a large, blood-covered rock, which was where his face had just been. Lia felt mixed emotions: he had been at least partly responsible for the murder of her parents, and she was not about to pray for his soul, but she became acutely aware she was alone. Lia decided she needed to arm herself, and fumbled around in Goadsby’s clothing and gear until she found a dagger, which she felt she could use if necessary. Lia then looked for the horse, which was nowhere to be seen; it appeared she had survived the fall and taken off, for which Lia could not blame her.

Lia wasted little time and decided to move on. She could have headed east and hoped that Rastlin and Franklin would find her, or she could attempt to find the village they had bypassed earlier. Lia looked up at the sky, noted the position of the sun relative to what she believed was the time of day, and ran where she thought was north-west.


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