Lia walked in what she believed was the direction of the small town. During the journey her thoughts were dark: she first remembered what she had lost and then considered why it had happened to her. Francis and Natalya were good, loving people, and they didn’t deserve to die. Lia’s wondered if it was her fault: was Francisca giving her what she wanted? All she had thought about for months was leaving Crossmoor, and now she had her wish.
It took her less time that she anticipated to catch sight of the trading road, and she looked nervously around for a sign of the caravan. When she reached the road, she glanced east and immediately cursed Francisca for her misfortune. There, in the distance, was the hill where the small town was located: she had walked too far. Lia surmised it would probably take her until nightfall to get close to the small town, and days of walking to reach Crossmoor, if she reached her home at all. Despair washed over her, and Lia slumped down to the ground and wept. At that point she didn’t care who found her.
The sun was setting when Rastlin stood over Goadsby’s body and waited patiently for Franklin to search the area.
Franklin finally returned and was shaking his head. “The girl was thrown over there. The grass is flatter than everywhere else.” He pointed to a spot of soft grass.
Rastlin responded. “Where did she go? Were they here?”
Franklin shook his head again. “There are not a great deal of horse-prints in the area, so I would guess that the girl left under her own power, either on Goadsby’s horse or on foot.”
Rastlin muttered something under his breath. “Which means she is most likely out of our reach, for the time being at least.”
Franklin studied the other man’s face intently. “She is bound to go back to Crossmoor. If we move now, we can be on the trading road in less than an hour. She is no master of horses, and we will soon catch her.”
Rastlin’s face was a mystery. “I am not so sure of that.”
Franklin looked puzzled. “Where else would she go?”
“There is more to that girl than meets the eye. I do not wish to risk going to Crossmoor if she will not be there when we arrive.”
The expression on Franklin’s face was incredulous. “So what on Eureza are we going to do? Close our eyes and hope Revan gives us a vision?” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
Rastlin laughed. “My dear Franklin, sometimes you surprise me. A vision is exactly what we need.”
Lia could just make out some of the buildings ahead when she saw four mounted riders on the horizon, just visible in the dim light. She wasn’t sure if the riders saw her too, but they would have soon enough unless she concealed herself. Lia paused for a few moments and wondered what it was about the description of the guards that forced Rastlin to take drastic measures. Should she hide? Lia considered that perhaps the reason Rastlin was so nervous was because he was an evil man, and the caravan was something to do with the church of Revan. She was deciding what to do when a man appeared, less than three horse lengths in front of her. Instinctively, Lia reached for the dagger she had hidden in her bodice, but the man lowered his hands. “I mean you no harm.” His accent was foreign and sounded much like Rastlin’s.
“Wh… who are you?” Lia’s voice was an octave higher than normal.
“I am a scout, travelling ahead of our caravan, checking for danger.” He paused, and attempted a smile. “Do not worry; you are not dangerous to us.”
Lia lowered her hand.
“What are you doing out here on your own?” The man asked.
Lia lied. “I live in the town up ahead. I was out for a walk.”
The man nodded and grinned slightly. “I will walk you back, then, my pretty. You never know who you will run into out here.”
Lia inclined her head. “As you wish.” She moved briskly in the direction of the town, and hoped to get past the man and his caravan as soon as possible.
They walked for a short time and Lia did her best to ignore the man’s attempt at conversation. They soon reached a path that led to one side of the town and Lia saw an opportunity. “My home is down here. My thanks for your accompaniment; it was much appreciated.”
The man smiled. “Why don’t you come and have a drink at the caravan? We are due to stop for refreshment shortly.”
Lia shook her head and tried to smile. “You are very kind, but no thank you. I must return to my home or my parents will worry for me.”
The man took a step towards Lia. “I have asked you nicely. My invitations are not scorned lightly, you know!”
Lia drew her dagger. “I told you I am not going with you. Now, please leave.”
The man was quick, and within a moment he grabbed her wrist and disarmed her. His grip was very strong, and Lia cried out in pain. “Leave me alone!”
The man grabbed her by the other hand and held her wrists together. Lia kicked him in the ankle, which drew a yelp. “If it wasn’t for your pretty face, wench, I would make you pay for that!” He turned and dragged Lia the few hundred yards to the caravan, where there were at least fifteen others like him. He did not release his grip on her.
“Let me go!” Lia screamed at the top of her voice.
A man dressed in fine clothing emerged from a caravan that was slightly different in shape than the others, in that it looked more conventional. He moved gracefully over to where she and the guard were standing, ignored the other man and looked Lia up and down. “Well, well, well, it seems we have had a little fortune this day. She will fetch a significant amount of coin.”
Lia did not understand. “Who are you? Why are you holding me?”
The man addressed the guard instead. “You will be rewarded for this find, Remick.” The guard named Remick looked very pleased with himself. “Put her in one of the cages.”
Lia looked around in panic. Cages? One of the other guards, near one of the other caravans, opened a flap at the front, and revealed bars and a person-sized door with a large lock on. The well-dressed man shouted across at the guards. “No one touches her! The price will drop considerably if the buyer suspects one of you has had her.”
Lia was marched quickly to the caged caravan and she began to hyperventilate. For some reason, it was Rastlin she thought of, and one thing he said in particular. “Remember, follow your heart…” Lia turned around, half expecting to see the strange man standing behind her, but instead she saw the hill the town was situated on. She became acutely aware of an old tree carcass on the top of it, one that appeared to have been destroyed in a fire. There was something about that hill and that tree that was familiar, although Lia could not link it to anything in her memory. They reached the caravan and Lia noticed that the cage was empty: perhaps the slavers had a particular area in mind to pick up people. Remick gently nudged her in the ribs. “Move it!”
Lia turned and glared at the man and her expression was full of hatred. “You are scum! May Revan smite your soul!”
Remick leaned in close. “That was your second mistake today, my beauty. The boss may say that we are not allowed to touch you, but what we do when he is asleep, he does not have to know about, does he? And for you, I might consider inviting one or two of my friends to help out…”
“No!” Terror gripped Lia and she instinctively pushed Remick backwards and he fell to the floor in a heap. Two of the other guards moved to push Lia into the cage, but they stopped when they noticed two plumes of smoke rising from Remick’s chest. One of the guards went pale and both took an involuntary step back. “She is a witch!”
Remick struggled to his feet, and his leather jerkin was still smoking. The leader of the group stepped forward. “A witch she may be, but from the look of her I suspect she was not aware of it until now.” He paused. “While she will not fetch a price now as a slave, there are people that believe the heart of a witch can be used for a number of reasons.” He looked back to Remick and then to the other two guards. “Bind, gag and blindfold her; that should subdue any power she has.”
Lia heard Rastlin’s voice in her head once more. “Remember, follow your heart…” Her chest felt as if it was full of ice and she felt outrage and frustration for her complete lack of luck. Remick drew near, slightly more reluctantly than before, but he had a nasty looking knife in his right hand. Instinctively and with reactions much faster than she thought he had, Lia grasped Remick’s arm, which began smoking like his chest. When she did not release her grip he screamed in pain, dropped the knife and fell down to his knees. The two other guards screamed and leapt towards her. While maintaining her grip on Remick’s arm, Lia cried out with exertion and both guards were thrown backwards. They slumped to the ground.
“Stop!” the caravan leader’s voice brought Lia to her senses, and she released Remick. He fell to the floor and whimpered like a wounded animal. There was a smell of burning flesh in the air, and Lia noticed that Remick’s entire right-hand side was scorched and smoking.
Lia did her best to maintain eye contact with the leader and forced down the bile in her throat. It felt like she was watching another person. “You will leave our country now. If you do not, I will kill you all.”
The leader nodded slowly. “As you wish, witch.” Lia realised that Remick’s whimpering had ceased.
Olbane, Michael and Carly sat around a small campfire on the edge of the Great Forest as the night drew in. They had found a small stream and their horses had just enjoyed a well-earned drink, while Olbane made the best meal he could from their meagre travel rations. He had hoped to guide them to the town on the trading road south of the forest, but it must have been further east than he remembered, and they had been forced to stop. Their collective mood was low and Carly in particular had almost completely retreated into herself, and Olbane started to wonder if the piece of map he found outside Lia’s home was nothing to do with her abduction. He was considering how to break the silence when Michael looked across at him. “How far to the village, Olbane?”
Olbane thought for a moment and sighed. “I thought we would have reached it by now. I suspect it is one or two hours’ ride away. From memory it is called Prost; it is not much more than a hamlet, but hopefully someone there will have seen Lia.” He looked at the bandage around Michael’s shoulder. “And I hope there will be a physician.”
Michael tentatively moved his shoulder. “Actually, it feels a lot better. Carly has done an excellent job as usual.” He smiled at her, but she only nodded.
Olbane moved closer to the diminutive young woman and put an arm on hers. “Carly, do you wish to talk about what happened? I am not sure keeping whatever is troubling you to yourself is a good idea.”
She sighed. “You are right. I am confused by what is happening to me; I do not know whether He is testing me, or whether I am going mad.”
Olbane offered her some food, which she accepted. “I would say He is helping you, and us, more than anything else. Without your warning of the bandit attack, and then your intervention when the odds were against us, I do not believe we would be sat here talking now.”
Carly didn’t look convinced. “Then why can’t I connect with him when I want to!” Her voice was shrill. “A Priestess of Revan does not feel as helpless as I do! A Priestess of Revan defines control and calm. I am a nervous wreck!”
He put an arm around her shoulder. “You are a remarkable young woman, and someone who has clearly been chosen for great things. You saved our lives twice in the space of a few moments today.” He smiled softly. “A nervous wreck you may be, but we will both be eternally grateful.”
Carly considered Olbane’s words; had she been chosen for great things? Priestess Elspeth had said that very few Priestesses had ever had any kind of vision, and it appeared Carly had experienced two. If she could just connect with Revan when she wanted to, she was sure she would calm down and stop worrying. She became aware she was nestled into Olbane, and as he didn’t remove his arm she did not move away. Carly had never been close to a man: she was usually standoffish and was not exactly the type that boys had chased after when she was growing into a young woman. Furthermore, the role of a Priestess when it came to the opposite sex was unclear to her. Usually the church of Revan had strict rules for everything, and while it was extremely unusual for a Priestess to marry it was not unheard of for them to have liaisons, although these were only discussed in whispered conversations. Not that Carly wanted a liaison, with Olbane or anyone else, but it was comforting to be held, and she soon relaxed and let herself drift into The Peace.
Olbane continued to hold Carly and was glad that she had relaxed and was resting. He finished his meal as best he could with his one available arm before Michael stored away their gear, which would allow them to leave as early as possible in the morning. After Michael finished his chore he sat down opposite his friend. “Olbane, I must ask you something.”
“Of course, what is on your mind?”
Michael shifted uncomfortably. “What are your motives for being with us? When we reach Frodsby, will you head south to Surian to deal with your other problem, or will you continue after Lia?”
“It is a fair question, Michael. I admit I do wish to travel to Surian to expose Black and shut down his links to slavery, but that is not my priority. I give you my word I will remain with you and Carly until Lia is safe, but you must understand that I need to go to Surian at some point.”
Michael nodded, and was apparently satisfied with the response. “Are you in love with Lia?”
The question took Olbane by surprise, and he shook his head. “She is a beautiful and remarkable woman, but I am not in love with her.” He paused and smiled. “Although that doesn’t mean I won’t fall in love with her when I see her again!”
Michael smiled. “She has that effect on people, I have found.”
It was Olbane’s turn to ask a question. “Are you in love with her?”
“Up until the night she finally put me out of my misery, I was, which I believe was the night she met you.”
Olbane looked sad. “Did you ask her to marry you?”
The other man shook his head. “Not that night; I had been hinting at it for months and was growing more and more frustrated that she would not commit to anything. She came out and said that night that I should give up on her and look for someone else, that she was not ready to settle down.”
Olbane nodded. “Not everyone wants to settle down and live the same life as their parents did. You looked completely at home with your father, but somehow I cannot see Lia doing that for the rest of her life.”
Michael smiled, although his voice was sad. “I now understand that, but it doesn’t stop me wondering what might have been.”
Olbane wasn’t sure what to say. “Well, I am sure Lia would feel a whole lot better if she knew you were coming to help her, Michael. Hold onto that thought, at least until we find her.”
At that Michael looked close to despair. “Do you think we’ll find her?”
Olbane opened his mouth to respond, but was interrupted by Carly shifting violently next to him. She sat up and her eyes were wide. “Lia!” Carly was hyperventilating, and her face even whiter than usual.
Olbane again attempted to respond, but she interrupted him again. “Something terrible has happened; I heard Lia screaming and saw her in peril! We need to leave now.”
Olbane immediately rose to his feet, but Michael interjected. “But we don’t even know where she is!”
Carly also rose. “I do. She was near the trading road at the base of a hill. I saw enough to realise that we had not passed the area ourselves, so she must be in front of us.”
Michael nodded, although he did not look convinced. “It will be very dangerous travelling at night, even on the road. We will have to be cautious.”
Carly was already at the horses and was un-tethering hers and Olbane’s. “I have a feeling she isn’t that far from here. I also saw a settlement, and I hope it is the one Olbane believes is ahead of us.”
Olbane and Michael packed their saddlebags, mounted up, and the former offered his hand to Carly to help her do the same. The three set off and rode as quickly as they dared and were filled with a hope that didn’t exist moments ago.
Lia watched the caravan turn around and leave before she continued north towards the small town. She had not wanted to risk turning her back on the foreigners in case they tried to capture her, although in her heart she knew they were terrified after what she had done to Remick and the other guards. She walked silently and shivered from time to time from the exhilaration of what had happened. How had that power come from within her? Her terror had triggered some kind of reaction that had unleashed something horrifying yet strangely compelling. She had killed three men, two from broken bones and one through a method that made her stomach churn. No matter how many times she considered it and tried to find other reasons for their deaths, Lia knew it was a power within her that had killed them. She also felt a great guilt: if she could stop the slavers, why not her parents’ murderers? For the first time since they were separated Lia felt a compelling need to speak to Rastlin; she wondered if the strange man knew something about this.
Lia approached the small town and was very glad to see something resembling civilisation after two long days on the road. As she moved closer, she looked up the hill for another sight of the burned out old tree she thought was familiar earlier that evening, but it was too dark. Moving on, Lia walked as briskly as she could towards the nearest group of buildings, which were made of stone. The style of the buildings was typical of Suria, and that made her feel at home instantly. Lia looked up and noticed a traditional-looking inn sign: The Old Tankard looked like many of the establishments in Crossmoor and appeared to have lodging upstairs, which she hoped was available. It was at that point Lia cursed herself, rather than Francisca: she hadn’t searched Goadsby thoroughly enough before she left him. How was she going to stay the night at an inn without coin? Lia didn’t even have any personal effects she could trade with but decided to enter the inn anyway; she hoped someone would take pity on her.
The inn was no more than a quarter full, which Lia suspected was linked to the lack of travellers on the road. Whatever muffled conversation that was going on prior to her entrance stopped as the twenty or so people all turned to look at her; in the late evening it was not usual in Suria for young women to be frequenting inns. Lia saw a rotund middle-aged woman with greying hair behind the counter, who had an eyebrow raised when she saw her approach. “It is not customary for a young woman to be in a place like this at this late hour, miss.”
Lia lowered her eyes. “Please forgive me. I had nowhere else to go.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “I do not recognise you, miss. Are you not from Prost?”
Lia did not answer immediately, and wondered where Prost was, until it occurred to her she was standing in it. “No, I am from Crossmoor.”
“Then what are you doing here at this late hour?”
Lia shook her head. “I… I am not sure. Some men were holding me against my will but I managed to escape.” She repeated herself. “I have nowhere else to go.”
The woman looked shocked. “You were being held against your will? That is monstrous!” She lowered her voice slightly. “Come child, take a seat.” She led Lia to a quiet corner of the tavern. “I will bring you some broth and a drink.”
Lia was taken aback by the woman’s kindness. “May Revan bless you.”
A few minutes later the woman returned with a cup. “Drink this. It will help.”
Lia took the cup, sniffed it and took in the unmistakable odour of the whiskey, a drink she usually couldn’t stomach. That time, however, she downed the drink in one mouthful. The woman looked more concerned than before and quickly refilled the glass. She then placed a bowl of broth and a plate of bread on the table in front of Lia. “My name is Olga. I will leave you to eat in peace, then we can talk.”
Lia looked up and smiled briefly, but had to force back tears.
While she ate, Lia looked around the tavern and noticed that most of the patrons were still looking at her; they were most likely wondering what she had said to Olga to solicit such a reaction. No-one approached her, however, which she was glad of; she did not wish to answer any questions. Lia realised it was later than she thought when a man she assumed was Olga’s husband began ushering people out of the inn: “Come on you lot! Haven’t you got homes to go to?”
Lia finished the last mouthful of broth, mopped it up with the remainder of the bread, and rose to leave.
“Sit down, my child.” It was Olga’s voice. “If you wish, you may stay here.”
Lia looked at the older woman in desperation. “But I have no coin!”
Olga smiled. “I think for once Tod and I can make an exception. We can’t have a young woman such as yourself sleeping on the streets, not after what you have been through.”
Lia was left speechless, but Olga didn’t appear to mind.
The last of the evening drinkers were leaving the inn when a figure appeared at the door, which caught Tod by surprise. “Sir! My friends and I have just arrived in your town; would it be possible for us to rent two rooms for the night?”
Lia looked up suddenly: the voice was familiar.
Tod’s voice broke her train of thought. “Of course, young man. We are not exactly bursting at the seams. Please, come in.”
The young man stepped back from the doorway, to allow a young woman of about Lia’s age to walk through: she was small, wearing a white robe, and Tod bowed in reverence when he realised what that symbolised. A slightly older man followed the woman; he was well-built and carrying a sword. Finally, the courteous man, who was also carrying a blade, entered the inn. Lia had to blink away tears of relief and joy to be certain she was not hallucinating. “Carly?” her voice was no more than a whisper, and the three did not hear her. Lia tried again. “Carly?”
The young woman was the first to turn in her direction; Lia noticed that her friend’s face looked slightly different, almost more mature than she remembered from a few days ago. Carly opened her mouth to respond but words did not come forth. Suddenly, Michael ran towards her, gathered her up in his arms and hugged her tightly. Lia wept into his shoulder for what felt like an eternity. Michael was content to hold her.
Eventually Lia composed herself and gently moved from Michael’s arms, which allowed Carly hug her. “I am so sorry about Francis and Natalya, Lia; your parents were like family to me, and I will miss them greatly.” Lia gripped her friend tightly in response, but did not trust her voice. A few moments later, Lia drew back and looked at Carly. “How did you know where I was?”
Carly flushed slightly. “It’s rather complicated, and I promise I will explain later. We have been trying to catch up with you for two days, but didn’t expect to find you alone.”
Lia wondered why her friend was embarrassed, but let it pass. “I got separated from two of my abductors, and the other is dead.” She said it in a very matter-of-fact tone.
“Good riddance.” Michael’s voice cut through the silence that followed.
Lia nodded briefly, then realised that Olbane was standing nearby. She turned to him, with a slight grin on her face. “I should have guessed that wherever there was trouble you’d be around, Olbane Jonson.”
He chuckled briefly. “It is good to see you too, Lia.”
Olga brought food for Olbane, Michael and Carly. Fighting fatigue, Lia stayed up and talked with them while they ate. She heard how Carly had overheard the young boy talking about Lia’s abductors and the bandit attack. Carly skimmed over the part when she connected with Revan and defeated the bandits on her own, but Lia sensed she was uncomfortable and did not press her for more. Lia again noticed that her friend looked different: it was as if her recent experiences had changed her. Carly had always been nervous, and while Lia noted that attribute had not completely disappeared from her demeanour, it was less visible. What was more worrying for Lia was the looks that Carly kept giving her when she thought she would not notice. When Carly looked at Lia her face had a very apprehensive expression on it.
The subject inevitably moved onto Lia’s recent experiences, and it was Michael that asked the first question. “Lia, did you know the people that abducted you?”
She shook her head. “I had never seen them before, or heard of them. Two are Surians, I believe, whereas their leader is foreign, definitely not from our country.”
Michael looked confused. “Did they give you any reason why they did what they did?”
Lia shrugged. “Nothing that really makes sense. Rastlin said on a number of occasions that I am special, almost like the key to something. He even tried to justify the murder of my parents on that basis.”
There was an uncomfortable silence after Lia mentioned her parents, which was eventually broken by Olbane. “Rastlin is an Arezan name, if I am not mistaken. I presume he is the foreigner?”
Lia nodded. “They were taking me east, as you know, so I would guess they were taking me to Areza.”
Olbane looked a little helpless. “The only reason we could think of for your abduction was because of the slave trade, but from what you are saying that seems increasingly unlikely.”
At the mention of the word ‘slave’, Lia snorted. Olbane raised an eyebrow and his voice grew louder. “Are slavers tied into this as well?” he asked.
Lia shook her head. “I do not believe so, Olbane. One of my captors spotted what was a slaver caravan up ahead of us, and it unsettled Rastlin so much that he split us up to avoid them. That’s how I came to be free of them.”
Carly interjected. “They let you go without guard?”
“I was accompanied by Goadsby, but he died when our horse tripped over a tree root.” Lia said it in a very matter-of-fact tone, and Michael once again grunted his approval.
Olbane seemed very interested in the slavers. “What happened to the caravan?”
“They headed back east; it appears Suria did not have what they were looking for.” She said it bluntly. Carly’s eyes searched out Lia’s face, but when the blonde met the gaze she averted them.
Once more there was an uncomfortable silence, which Lia broke by rising from her chair. “I am very tired, and need to sleep. Can we plan our trip home in the morning?”
Michael followed suit. “Of course we can; we are just glad to have you back with us in one piece.”