Carly barely slept, unable to keep Lia and the slavers out of her mind. She had only glimpsed fleeting images, but what she did see disturbed her greatly. Not for the first time since leaving Crossmoor she craved the wisdom of Thereza or one of the other more approachable Priestesses. Had Lia been the source of that power, or was the vision distorted? Lia was not telling them everything, she knew that much. It was only a brief conversation the evening before, but it was enough to make Carly extremely nervous. She was kneeling by her surprisingly comfortable bed and praying silently to Revan for guidance when the sun finally rose, an event she had been awaiting for hours. She looked to the other bed in the small room where Lia was sleeping soundly. On one hand she wanted to speak to Lia again, hug her and pray for thanks that she was safe. Unfortunately Carly was also filled with dread, and was unsure how she would react when she had the opportunity to ask her childhood friend further questions. The acolyte forced herself to calm, breathed deeply, and drifted into The Peace without meaning to. It was after a short while she saw a building: it was a relatively flat structure that was round in shape with very ornate ancient runes on the doorway, which she could not decipher. There were some people in the immediate area, apparently going about their daily business, which must have started very early.
Carly was jolted back to her room when she heard a knock at the door, followed by Michael’s voice. “Carly, Lia? Are you coming down? Olga is not serving breakfast for much longer.”
She looked around, wondered how much time had passed, and noticed Lia was still sleeping. “I’ll be down in five minutes, Michael. I was just preparing for the day.”
“I’ll let her know.” Michael’s heavy footsteps moved away from the door and back towards the tavern. Carly considered the new vision, and knew she had never seen the building before.
Hurriedly changing into her robe, Carly moved down the stairs and saw Michael sitting with Olbane, the two of them eating quietly. When he saw her arrive, Olbane rose from his seat. “Good morning, Carly. Did you sleep well?”
Carly felt remarkably refreshed, despite having almost no sleep, but did not feel the need to be too honest. “I have had better nights, Olbane, but I feel fine.”
He looked concerned, but said nothing more, then waited until she took a seat before returning to his.
Michael nodded a brief greeting. “Is Lia still asleep?”
Carly nodded. “I considered waking her, but if it is sleep she needs, then that is what she should have.”
Michael nodded just as Olga came into the tavern and smiled at Carly. “Good morning, my dear. Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you. It is a very comfortable bed.” It was not Olga’s fault Carly had had a terrible night.
The older woman smiled and poured Carly a drink of tea from a large pot in the centre of the table. “A nice cup of tea is what you need; my grandmother always said you cannot start the day without one.”
Carly chuckled and accepted the cup. “That’s exactly what my mother says. I suspect she would live on tea if she could. The Priestesses in the temple also tend to like their tea; when I first arrived there I wondered how they got anything done.”
Olga laughed, took a seat next to her and pouring herself a cup. “Now you have found young Lia, safe and sound, will you be starting the journey back to Crossmoor today?”
There was a silence around the table, which surprised Carly. She wasn’t sure where she wanted to go, particularly considering the image of the circular building. She had assumed Michael would speak up, but the burly young man was looking across at Olbane, with an expectant look on his face. Olbane shifted in his seat uncomfortably, and hurriedly finished a mouthful of cheese. “I have some unfinished business that leads me south to Surian. I do not ask you to come with me, though. This business is my own.”
Michael objected. “But it could be dangerous! Are you sure you want to go alone?”
Olga rose from her seat, with a slightly uncomfortable expression on her face. “I have chores that need attending to; please excuse me.”
Olbane rose too. “Of course; please forgive us, we should not have burdened you with our troubles.”
The older woman smiled as she left them. “I did ask, my young friend!”
Olbane sat down again, and answered Michael’s question. “Yes it will be dangerous, but you all have responsibilities. Michael, your father needs you; I of all people understand that.” He turned to Carly. “I know what you gave up to come with us. You should return to Crossmoor to be at the temple. With what you have experienced over the last few days, I am sure they would like to talk to you.”
Carly shook her head. “I am not sure the temple will have me back, Olbane. I left without warning on the day of my Test; that is a very serious misdemeanour.”
Olbane looked amazed. “But Revan clearly has not forsaken you! Through you, He saved our lives!”
Carly was slightly at a loss for words. “You are right, as usual. Whether the church would accept me back is another matter, however.”
“Well, what about Lia? Someone needs to take her back home and support her. She has just lost her parents.” Olbane was not going to take no for an answer.
“Thanks for caring, Olbane, but my parents, especially my father, would not want me mulling around Crossmoor in a gloomy state of mind.” Lia stepped into the tavern, and was looking surprisingly refreshed.
Olbane appeared to stop and admire her, which if she noticed she did not comment on. “I do not want to return to Crossmoor, my friends, at least not now. There is very little for me there, although I would like to tell Spicer of my experiences.” She then returned Olbane’s stare and he looked slightly uncomfortable. Carly admitted to herself once more she wasn’t the only one who had changed in the last week; Lia seemed even more confident than before, and there also appeared to be a harder edge to her beautiful face. “Olbane, are you returning to Susanon?”
Olbane shook his head and Carly wondered how much Lia knew about his situation. Carly and Michael knew, but he had only told them recently. He glanced around the tavern, but there was no-one else within earshot. “An associate of my father is involved in the slave trade.” Olbane paused to take in Lia’s reaction, but her face remained impassive, despite the reference to slavers the previous evening. “I have evidence that incriminates him, and I believe the best place to present that evidence is Surian.”
Lia grinned. “So that’s what you were checking was in your pocket every five minutes back in Crossmoor!”
Olbane looked slightly taken aback. “I see nothing gets past you, Lia.”
Michael interjected. “What he is not telling you, Lia, is that some very dangerous men nearly caught up with him in Crossmoor, and they are most likely to be looking for him when he gets to Surian. He also wants to go to Surian alone.”
Carly looked across at the two men. Michael was a fiercely loyal and good man, and despite the fact they had only known each other for a few days, he respected Olbane’s opinion. The fact that they were both merchant’s sons must have helped, and despite their very different demeanours they fundamentally shared the same values.
Lia responded. “I will go with you, Olbane, if you will have me as a companion. I have never been to Surian, and a change of scene is exactly what I am looking for at the moment. Crossmoor can wait.” Carly raised an eyebrow and looked at her friend closely, but said nothing.
Olbane nodded. “I would be delighted for you to accompany me, assuming you understand the risks involved.”
She smiled briefly and nodded. “Do you want to leave immediately?”
“There is no reason to dally.” He patted his breast pocket. “The sooner these papers get to the proper authorities the better.”
Carly felt helpless. It was unlikely that Priestess Thereza would have returned from her mission, and Carly was not sure who to approach for assistance explaining her situation. To return to Crossmoor only to be expelled from the church filled her with dread. She was also concerned by whatever had happened to Lia: she needed to speak to her friend urgently, but was frightened to do so. “I too will go with you.” Carly was surprised how easily the words came out; when Olbane raised an eyebrow and opened his mouth to object, she raised a hand. “Now is not the right time for me to return either. I too have never been to Surian, and I can stop by the temple there while you take care of your business.”
Lia smiled briefly. “It will be good to have you with us, Carly. We still have a lot to catch-up on.” That was an interesting comment. Was Lia going to tell Carly everything, or did she refer to Carly’s own experiences?
Michael had heard enough. “Well, I’m not going back on my own, I can promise you that much.”
Olbane threw up his hands in mock defeat. “Well, I tried. I am honoured you wish to help me.”
Lia grinned slyly. “I believe Francisca is smiling on you this day, Olbane Jonson. What better companions could you expect to have?”
Michael grunted his approval, grinned, and then winced slightly, which caught Carly’s attention. “Your shoulder is still painful? Why have you not said anything?”
“We have had more important things to discuss.” Michael’s response was typical of the man.
Carly shook her head. “We’ll need to get it looked at before we leave here. I’ll speak to Olga and see if there is someone in the town who can help.”
Lia moved to Michael’s side. “What happened? Is it serious?”
Michael shook his head. “I was slashed across the shoulder when those bandits ambushed us.” He smiled warmly at Carly. “Carly tended the wound, once she had tended the bandits of course. It is getting better, but is still giving me some difficulty.”
Carly interjected before Lia could. “Well, we still need to get it looked at by a professional.” She quickly left her friends and went to find Olga.
Some time later Lia, Carly and Olbane waited patiently outside of a small dwelling a short walk from The Old Tankard while Michael was tended to by an old man that Olga had insisted could help. Michael soon appeared in the doorway and grinned. “Well, he didn’t exactly do a great deal, but he said the shoulder had been well tended to by whoever saw it before him, and that it was healing nicely. It will probably be a week or two before I can use it fully without pain, assuming we don’t get into any more trouble.” He grinned once more and looked at Carly. “It seems you have yet another hidden talent, my friend.”
Carly flushed and attempted to make light of her contribution. “Well, all acolytes are given basic training in tending wounds. Priestesses of Revan get involved in conflicts and help the needy from time to time.”
Michael noted her discomfort and nodded. “Bless Revan for that.”
Olbane clapped Michael on the back. “It is good to hear there is no lasting damage. Now we know you are not going to collapse on us, we can get back on the road and travel on to Surian.”
Michael nodded. “We could do with picking up some fresh supplies first.”
Lia frowned. “How many horses do you three have?”
“Two.” Olbane and Michael said in unison, before Michael continued. “Carly and Olbane shared one on the way here.”
Lia grinned. “Then I suppose I’ll have to share yours, Michael.”
Michael grinned back. “I’ll go and pick up some supplies; the old man gave me a contact locally. I’ll see you back at The Old Tankard in half an hour or so.”
While they waited for Michael, Olbane began to prepare the horses for what would be another gruelling day’s travel. Content to watch him at work, Carly sat down on a nearby step while Lia was inside the inn, talking to Olga. Olbane was very efficient, Carly noted, probably from years helping his father. While she didn’t know a great deal about them, the successful merchants had a reputation for being studious and well-ordered. A few moments later Lia appeared and was looking happy. Carly started to stand, but Lia gracefully sat down next to her. “I’ve just thanked Olga for her hospitality last night; without her kindness I would have been wandering aimlessly, and you may not have found me.”
Carly almost whispered in response. “We would have found you.”
“How did you find me, Carly? Did you have help?”
Carly knew what Lia was referring to. Her friend knew all about her problems connecting. “I have been having visions, Lia. I am starting to believe I was meant to leave Crossmoor to find you. I heard you scream in terror last night, and that led us to you.” Lia’s expression was shocked, but Carly wasn’t finished; she lowered her voice so that Olbane did not hear. “I also heard you scream the morning your parents were murdered. That’s how we knew you had been abducted.”
Lia had tears running down her cheeks. “I… I don’t understand. Why would you experience this?”
Carly bowed her head. “One of the Priestesses in the temple at Crossmoor said that it is very rare for a Priestess of Revan to have visions, and even more so for an acolyte. It has been many years since the last reported occurrence, but that one was of great significance: it averted the destruction of Suria.”
Lia looked speechless, and it was at least a minute before she responded. “I do not understand how one girl being kidnapped can be important.” Her tears had stopped.
Carly was not convinced she was telling her everything. “Lia, when I had the vision of you with the slavers, I experienced something more than your scream. It may have been a side-effect of the vision, but it felt like something of incredible power.” Carly’s eyes sought Lia’s, but her friend did not meet the gaze.
Lia opened her mouth to speak but stopped suddenly when she saw Michael walking towards them. He was carrying a bag over each shoulder. She rose quickly from the step and hurried over to assist him, and did not look back. Carly’s face betrayed her frustration: it was not something she wished to discuss in front of the others.
They rode all day with only a brief stop for lunch, and even though he was a seasoned rider Olbane Jonson was tired. He had thanked Revan for helping them to find Lia many times that day, and also thanked Him for giving them access to The Old Tankard. At least they had had one night of proper rest before setting off to Surian. As he rode along with Carly holding onto his waist, Olbane considered his situation: their situation. For reasons he was just coming to terms with, his problem had become the problem of three others: a merchant’s son, a girl he had only just met and had been subsequently abducted after her parents’ murder, and most bizarrely, an acolyte of Revan who should have been a Priestess by then and was showing flashes of incredible power. Despite the situation, Olbane chuckled to himself; no bard could tell a more unlikely tale. Once again, he absent-mindedly patted his breast pocket, which was something he had started doing again once he realised Lia was safe. Olbane looked to his right, where Michael and Lia were riding together, forty or fifty yards away. He admitted to himself that he had felt a pang of excitement when Lia said she would come with him to Surian. She was a beautiful woman, and although after her recent ordeal she was more distant and less warm, he couldn’t help but feel the attraction that was there when they first met. For some reason the thought of doing something dangerous with her at his side was very exciting. Although part of him wished it was just the two of them, he was also very pleased that Michael was alongside him. While they were quite different personalities, there was no doubt there was a mutual respect between the two merchants’ sons. Michael was impulsive and slightly uncultured for Olbane’s usual taste in friends, but there was no doubt of his strength of character, as well as his sword arm. Michael would readily die to save a friend, which was an attribute that Olbane approved of greatly.
Then there was Carly. Olbane viewed her in exactly the opposite way to Lia, in that he did not want to place her in a dangerous situation at all. Earlier that day he had encouraged her to return home, to return to the temple and attempt to be reinstated, but she had refused. Olbane knew that Carly was also a very strong person, and she had proved that by saving their lives twice in the matter of moments, and she had found Lia when all appeared lost. Despite the fact she was mentally strong, Olbane felt that Carly was destined for more than just a normal life and should not be caught up in his rather sordid business. Saying that, their mission was something that he might have expected a Priestess of Revan to be involved in: the church certainly did not approve of slavery. Olbane considered why Carly was with them once more, and tried to change his perspective. Perhaps she had been chosen to be with them? Had Revan decided she was the one to resolve his issue? Had Carly sacrificed her Test to chase after Lia, or was she living it? Olbane turned around in the saddle as best he could and smiled at Carly, who smiled back with a slightly confused expression on her face. “Is everything alright, Olbane?”
He continued smiling. “I believe it will be, yes.”
They camped that evening on a flat piece of ground a few hundred yards off the trading road. The trading road ended in another half-day’s travel, when it met the town of Frodsby. Although approximately two-thirds the size of Crossmoor, the town acted as a trading post between the two nations of Suria and Areza. The citizens of Frodsby arguably had one of the most picturesque towns to live in, as it had natural beauty surrounding it. To the east was Lake Moor, a huge body of water with Areza on the eastern shore. To the north-west was the Great Forest and in the distance to the north were the peaks of the Moorside Mountains. One day’s ride to the south was Surian, with its bustling commerce and fast way of life, which was every merchant’s dream. Surian was also the location of the central government for the country, which was why Olbane needed to go there. The further away from the main government a town, the more corrupt it was, at least in Olbane’s experience, and he couldn’t trust the authorities in Susanon or Crossmoor to ignore bribes or other incentives.
As they ate the semi-fresh food that Michael had bought earlier that day and sat around a small fire, Lia recounted some of the events she had experienced in more detail; she didn’t, however, mention a great deal about the mysterious Rastlin, or her encounter with the slavers. Michael then did the same and recalled how Carly had warned them of the ambush, and then single-handedly dealt with the bandits, much to the young woman’s embarrassment. Olbane was content to sit quietly and let the others talk, and did his best to think of how he was going to approach his task when they arrived in Surian. It was late when they finished talking, and Carly had excused herself for her late-evening prayers but had not returned. Olbane found her a short distance from the camp, lying on a blanket she had taken to kneel on. She was fast asleep and had a troubled expression on her face. He kneeled and gently carried her back to the camp, and set her down next to Lia. “May Revan bless you, my dear friend.” Olbane gently touched Carly’s shoulder and covered her with two blankets, then bid the others good night.
Franklin cursed as he tripped over an exposed tree root. “For Revan’s sake, Rastlin! Must we move around in the forest so late?” It was late-evening, but the moonlight was almost completely obscured by the dense growth of forest above them. Franklin forced himself not to curse once more. “And why can’t we use a torch or lantern?”
“Because, my dear companion, there are things in this part of the forest that are drawn to light, and I do not wish to attract unwelcome attention to ourselves.” His voice became more chiding. “Not that your cursing isn’t doing that already.”
Franklin snorted. “Can we at least rest for a while and start again when it gets lighter?” It was almost a plea.
“I am afraid not. We have no time to lose if we are to find Lia again.” The reply was no more than a whisper.
“So you think she is going to be wandering around here too?”
“I would have expected that kind of response from that dead fool Goadsby.” Franklin imagined Rastlin shaking his head in disgust.
There was a very long pause, and Franklin exhaled in frustration. “And?”
The response was typically enigmatic. “You will see, my dear companion.”
They had walked for several hours at a tortuously slow pace when Franklin noticed that Rastlin’s soft footsteps had ceased. “Why are we waiting?”
Rastlin’s voice was very quiet. “I believe we are close to our destination. I think we can risk a little light.”
Franklin breathed a sigh of relief and lit his lantern, which illuminated the immediate area. The forest was extremely dense, and as the light spread they heard the sounds of various small creatures fleeing. Franklin turned around saw Rastlin was twenty yards behind him. “We have come a little far. I believe our destination is a short walk to the west.” He started in that direction immediately.
Franklin did not ask how Rastlin knew where they were. The forest was extremely dense, claustrophobic and the feeling was exaggerated by the lantern’s illumination. Franklin wanted to leave as soon as possible.
The two men walked for no more than five minutes when Rastlin stopped suddenly. “We are here.”
Franklin looked around the area. “So where is here? All I see are trees, trees and more trees!”
Rastlin chuckled briefly. “Things are not always what they appear, my companion.” He pointed to a dense looking clump of trees and undergrowth. “That is our destination.”
The expression on Franklin’s face was incredulous. “How on Eureza is that going to find the girl?”
Rastlin laughed again. “She will find Lia.”