After a few lengths, Nessa put away the bow and faced forward in the saddle as she urged the horse out of the thick of the forest and onto a nearby track.
She was thinking about the Courser's parting words. He was enjoying this because she was putting up a fight.
Though he'd caught up to her three times now, she'd proven she was more predator than prey. She'd outsmarted him and walked away on her own terms, leaving him inconvenienced as a result.
Was that what kept him in pursuit? She doubted that if she were to give up that he would get bored and walk away. He was in this for the bounty. The bonus was that she was his first real quarry and an actually a challenge to wrangle. Nessa took some small amount of pride in that knowledge.
A little later, Nessa found Miran waiting along the forested track with their new mount. The redhead couldn't help grinning at another victory. They weren't moving fast across the country, but they were still capable of shedding a Courser when they had to. That was the important thing. They were being resourceful. Thanks to Hunter, they now had two horses and a resupply.
Nessa hoped that if they ran into other Coursers, they would be equally useful.
The girls let their mounts lead the way down the track. The forest began to thin and cabins began popping up among the trees.
Dwellings became denser and trees disappeared altogether. This had to be the town center.
Nessa could see the local inn as they approached and people milling about in front of the establishment.
As they drew closer, the redhead dismounted and walked between the horses. The only views of her were from in front and behind. The horses stood taller than Nessa at the withers, which effectively blocked her from view to anyone she passed.
Miran dropped out of her saddle and fell in step with Nessa, "What's wrong?"
Nessa didn't respond. She was too busy keeping her eyes glued to the ground.
Miran was tall enough to see over the tops of the animals. She casually surveyed her surroundings. There were a group of people in front of the inn who all looked road-weary. They were dirty, but so were the locals. Something about them—
When they left the town behind them, Miran realized what was familiar to her. It was their hairstyles. There were a handful of them who were closely shaved on the sides of their heads, but things were a little longer on top. They reminded her of Hunter's haircut, and a less shaggy version of Nessa's own hairstyle. "Coursers?" Miran guessed.
Nessa nodded, "Five." Everyone said she was a gifted Trainee. Some of it was hype, some of it was truth. On her best day, taking on five Coursers would be a challenge. That wasn't the part that troubled her. It was the fact that five Coursers had put aside their differences in order to bring her down.
"Why haven't we seen any other before now?" Miran wondered.
It was a question Nessa didn't have an answer for. Hunter had been the only one to find her trail. Perhaps the others (if she was going to be bold and assume there were multiple Coursers looking for her) were just stumbling around the Norchii Mountains hoping they'd run into her.
She'd been discovered at age ten in the mountains on the border of Cataire and Magen. Had they started their search there and expanded it this far?
Nessa scoffed at herself. If she hadn't been possessed by a mad desire to run until there were no more mountains, they probably would have found her long before now, trying to eke out a living in the mountains she knew.
"How do you want to proceed?" Miran asked when her first question didn't yield an answer.
Nessa started to respond but ended up turning to the older girl and smiling, "What would you do?"
Miran didn't say anything for a space, worried it was a trick.
"The skills they test you on in the Entry Games aren't always combat related. Some years they throw everyone out into the woods and expect you to make a shelter and a fire. In the morning, they expect you to leave no trace—in case you're being tracked. This is an excellent opportunity to discuss battle tactics.
"Before now, our only enemy numbered one, and we knew he was behind us and gaining. We expected him. We trapped him. He'll be wiser now, but he is no longer our only adversary. How would you proceed knowing these things?"
Miran blew out a breath, "We should expect them from all directions as we draw closer to Cataire and terrain they are familiar with. We should leave the main roads." She turned to Nessa with a question, "How well do you know this land?"
"This land?" Nessa made a face, "Not terribly well. In another week, my answer will be different."
Miran nodded, "But you know the mountains of this region. You could infer—or perhaps you've seen them from a distance—"
Nessa was smiling, "I'm familiar with the terrain to keep us fed and heading in the right direction. Those are two very important factors in our favor. If we were not up to the task, we would be forced to stay on the road." It was why they had stayed on the road in the plains. Nessa could catch meat, but you need more than that to survive. You need greens and she didn't know what was safe to eat there. She did in the mountains.
Miran's brow furrowed and she voiced a concern, "Before, you had us stick to the road to avoid detection. Why the change now? They aren't expecting to see you there…"
Nessa nodded that this was a valid argument, "My decision to go back into the woods is because I know this territory better. We'll have the upper hand—unless we run into a whole bunch of Coursers from Magen."
"Is that common?"
Nessa nodded that it was. Many Magenites crossed the border looking for a better life in Cataire. Their superior skills in the mountains and woods made them well-suited for life as a Peacekeeper or Courser. "Hunter is one."
Miran didn't make a response.
"We'll run into more Coursers in towns because that's where they'll go to shake off the dust from the road. And to resupply."
Miran made a face, curious as to why they weren't running around in the woods like Hunter had been doing. Like they had been doing.
"They choose not to because they don't have to," Nessa explained. "Coursers will always choose the easy option. They'll also go to town, banking on the fact that a woodsman or hunter has stumbled across us or our tracks. That way they don't actually have to do the grunt work that the job requires."
Miran took this in, thinking of Hunter. He liked his wine and women, but he had tracked Nessa all the way from Cataire to this point. That showed dedication. Not laziness. Miran also remembered that Nessa did not like Coursers at all.
She could understand what the Coursers were thinking. If you have your quarry on the run, they can't go to town and risk getting spotted. They have to stick to the woods. The Coursers were only out there because they were in pursuit. If they were dedicated in their cause, they would stay out in the woods to try and close the gap. Coursers had the option to choose. They were allowed their creature comforts because they were the ones doing the chasing.
The girls carried on in silence.
When no one searched them out after their town encounter, Nessa had been ready to heave a sigh of relief.
And then, they stumbled into a logging camp.
It was a section of a forest clearcut. Men were sawing up logs to manageable lengths. The wind was in their favor, and after fighting through the tree cover, Nessa didn't hear them. She should have been expecting to find them because they'd passed through a village yesterday. It's impossible to plan for everything, she told herself. She'd been more worried about Coursers than common folk. She was going to regret this oversight.
The girls led their mounts around the edge of the clearing, but there was no way they hadn't been seen. Nessa didn't stand out much since she wore clothes similar to the woodsmen, but Miran was a little more distinct.
When they moved out of sight of the camp, Nessa explained, "Tonight those loggers are going back to that town we passed and they're going to tell the Coursers."
Miran made a face, "You don't know that for sure."
"They love to tell stories. Seeing us out here will make for a good one."
Miran seemed to consider it, "How can you know—?"
"Just trust me," Nessa replied. She knew about the propensity of men to talk when their jaws are loosened from a long day of work with a mug of wine or ale. If she hadn't happened upon a logging camp all those years ago, the king never would have known she existed. He never would have hunted her down. "Woodsmen like to entertain. They will share a story with the Coursers simply for its wow factor. To pull them in. Seeing a Tolinese girl walking in the woods of Magen will be remarkable."
"Do you think they can tell from this distance?"
Nessa made a face, "You're kind of distinct in these parts." People from Magen were fair-skinned, since their world was protected from the sun by the forest above. They tended to have light hair and eyes. All of these features were the exact opposite of Miran.
"What's your game plan now?" Miran wondered.
Nessa blew out a breath but didn't answer immediately, "We'll take it as it comes."
Miran looked like she had an objection to this lack of plan but she didn't say anything. She left Nessa with her thoughts.
It was awhile before either spoke again.
"...part of me hopes Hunter finds us first." Words Nessa never expected to think, let alone say aloud, spilled out.
Miran was horrified by this admission, "Why would you say that?"
Nessa managed a smile that was little more than bared teeth. There was no mirth in it. She'd been ruminating on it all day.
The growing number of Coursers after having one on her tail for so long was unnerving but they could use this to their advantage, "Coursers choose their prey. It's possible that I am appealing because I'm such a hard catch—"
"You mean because there's such a large bounty on you?" Miran translated.
"Likely," Nessa conceded with a shrug. "Coursers are selfish. If they start working together, it's not a good sign. It means they're smartening up. It also means they're acknowledging that they can't catch me on their own. They'll have to split the bounty if they do catch me. Luckily, not many will be willing to do that." She paused, thinking about that crew of five, She knew she could fend off two. She didn't know what to do with Miran. She'd prepared the Tolinese girl to fight, but this wasn't her mess. Nessa didn't expect the girl to join in if those Coursers caught up to them.
"How many do you think you could take?" Miran wondered.
Nessa didn't say anything. It was best not to voice your weaknesses. It was better to plan to win and do your best.
"I don't know how much I can help," Miran admitted.
Nessa managed a grin, "For all I know, you might turn on me at the last second and collect the bounty instead."
Miran made a face. The redhead had never seen her so offended, "I think people should be free to choose their own path. Others shouldn't choose it for you. I could never stand in the way of your freedom."
"I'll remember you said that," Nessa remarked. "The plus side," she added "is that we can count on the Coursers to squabble with each other. They'll fight each other just to be the one who brings me in."
This was something she could work with. Based on the turnout she was seeing in their short time in Magen, things were going to get chaotic, and quickly. She'd rather run and fade into the night, but they weren't making that an option. If she kept heading in this direction there could be only one recourse.
Miran eyed Nessa carefully. She'd underestimated the redhead from the get-go. Nessa seemed to be in her element now. She could run and hide all she wanted, but it was going to come down to this eventually. This was where she excelled. She was dangerous and she was about to prove it.
By running around the woods, they would ensure that Coursers ran into each other and put themselves out of the running. The girls were traveling faster than they'd anticipated. Walking across the steppes and acquiring horses had them making very good time. In a few weeks they'd be in Cataire if they maintained their current pace.
Their deal was that Nessa would leave Miran with a month left to her journey. With their improved time table and more Coursers swarming, Nessa had to be itching to go solo again and change directions. She probably wanted to find her way into mountains that were a little less crowded. They were going to need to renegotiate.
Both girls had something on their mind but weren't quite sure how to bring it up. Nessa knew what she wanted to say. She talked a good talk, but she wasn't prepared to drag Miran into this mess. She wanted to turn and run, but she'd promised Miran she'd escort the girl close to Cataire. She didn't want to back out on it. She knew too many people who weren't as good as their word and she didn't want to be one of them. She also didn't want to get caught.
Miran was the bolder of the two. She straightened as they were breaking camp in the morning, mouth open, words at the ready.
Before she could speak, Nessa's head whipped to the side. The redhead could hear the thunder of hoofbeats racing toward them.
They'd camped just off of a forest track. Nessa didn't wait to find out their business. She was already certain she knew what they were after. Who else would be at full gallop this early in the morning?
She sprinted into the woods hoping to lose them in the trees.
The redhead hurtled over downed logs and ducked low-hanging branches. She only looked back at her pursuers once. They were both blonde. One was distinctly older than the other.
That was all she needed to know. She would be dealing with a pair—a father-son pair.
Against the forest, the rides were forced to slow, but Nessa knew she couldn't run forever.
The girl cut back toward the track, prepared to follow the trail she made yesterday.
Around a bend in the road, Nessa very nearly bowled over and average-sized blonde guy ambling up the road. Amber eyes met grey.
"What brings you to my doorstep at this hour, Lightfoot?" Hunter asked as he brushed himself off, a grin tugging across his features.
"I've decided that maybe I was too harsh about us never being traveling companions," Nessa panted, looking over her shoulder.
"And you backtracked all this way just to apologize? I'm honored." Hunter was amused.
"I'm not apologizing," the girl assured him. "I'm saying I'm willing to make a deal." She glanced behind her again.
"You in a rush?"
"You are aware that you're running away from Cataire, right?"
"It appears that way," Nessa remarked. "Are you in or what?" She could feel the ground rumbling beneath her.
Hunter seemed to consider it. "If you'll let me collect the bounty on you when we get to Cataire," he said at last.
"Fine," she huffed.
The Coursers broke free of the woods in front of Hunter as the girl dashed into the woods behind him.
Hunter blew out a breath, just when he thought he'd gotten the upper hand—this happened.
Lightfoot had willingly agreed to be his bounty. The prospect of dragging her kicking and screaming to the border was less than ideal. He jumped at the chance to avoid such a debacle. He should have known there was going to be a catch. She was too harried and too amiable.
Now he knew why.
Any Coursers who thought they could take on Nessa Lightfoot were going to be all over the Norchii Mountains. These were her old stomping grounds and the Coursers were just hanging around, waiting for her to show her face.
Now she had.
If he wanted to collect that bounty he was going to have to fight every Courser they met on the way.
The Coursers pulled up short when they saw Hunter standing in the middle of the grassy road.
"You talked to a girl?" The older of the two men growled. Both were blonde, but this one was donning a much longer beard.
"And if I did?" Hunter wondered.
"No need to get all snippity," the younger man on horseback remarked. "We're just curious as to why a girl on the run would take the time to stop and chat with a person they encountered on a woods road."
Hunter gave an easy grin and said, "You don't know who I am, do you?"
The younger man scowled, "Should we?"
"My name's Cavan Hunter. I'd suggest you leave this bounty to me."
The older man nodded, "That's fair. To be honest, we were visiting family when we heard that someone had sighted Lightfoot in the area. Thought we'd try our luck. They made no mention of you. If we'd'a known…"
Hunter shook his head, "No harm done. You've probably heard the stories about Lightfoot, same as me. I was trying to keep my distance and my sanity."
"Is that wise?" The younger man questioned.
"We're in Magen," Hunter responded. "This country has the best trackers on the continent. If she decided to make a run for it, she wouldn't get very far."
The older man nodded that Hunter spoke the truth and turned his horse, "Good luck, Hunter."
Hunter watched the Coursers ride out of sight, baffled at how that had turned out. He'd expected a clashing of swords. It was like Lightfoot to try and throw him under the wagon train. He could easily seeing her make that deal with him so that he would feel obligated to fight to keep her. If things went the way she wanted, she probably hoped he would die in the scuffle that ensued so she wouldn't have to keep her deal.
She wouldn't do that, Hunter told himself, because she was going to need the backup if she kept heading toward Cataire. The Tolinese girl was untested in battle. Nessa was good, but she couldn't stand alone. He was the best around.