When Nessa jogged back into the campsite, Miran, who had been sitting, shot into a stand.
The redhead slowed to a walk and wordlessly grabbed her bag. Miran must have packed it in her absence.
"What—?" Miran wanted to know as she collected the horses and fell in behind her.
The Coursers on horseback had already ridden past empty-handed. Miran knew the redhead had her wiles, but a girl outrunning two men on horseback was hard to swallow.
"I shouldn't have come this far," Nessa admitted. "For some reason, I thought Hunter would be the only Courser fool enough to go after me. I know now that he was the only one with enough skill to track me from my point of origin. The rest have just been waiting here. They must have been here the whole time." It was the only thing that explained why they hadn't seen any other Coursers on the way here. The girl heaved out a breath, "This was a mistake."
"You should leave," Miran said. The Byard border wasn't that far away. Nessa could get to it before others found them.
Nessa gave a weak laugh, "Now you tell me."
"We really need to work on our communication." The older girl was silent for a moment, "I think I can get to Cataire on my own from here. We're mostly there. I've learned a lot from you and I could never live with myself if you got caught because of me. You deserved to be running free through the mountains."
Nessa managed a weak smile, "I would leave. My problem is that too many people have seen you traveling with me."
"That's a problem?"
"Yes. They're going to think you know something about my whereabouts if I do leave. They won't make life easy for you." Nessa had already explained that there was no honor among Coursers. They were out for all they could get. Torture was their main form of getting information. Miran had no experience with that. Nor did she deserve such a future.
"You don't think I can handle it?" Miran bristled.
"It's not that," Nessa assured her. "I don't want you to have to deal with it. This is my problem."
"Maybe it was your problem a couple of months ago, but not anymore. I chose to stand by you even though I knew you were being hunted. This is our problem now. We're in this together. You think you should stay, but I'm telling you to leave. If you don't do it now, you won't be able to soon."
The silence that followed wasn't the stubborn one Miran had been expecting. It made her suspicious. She cast a sidelong glance at her redheaded companion and demanded, "What have you done?" There had to be a reason those Coursers had ridden away empty-handed.
Nessa sighed, "I didn't want to leave you out to dry. I gave you my word that I would train you. I think you are capable, but our training is still incomplete."
"What. Did. You. Do?"
Nessa rolled her eyes, but her response was timid, "I told Hunter I would let him collect the bounty on me."
Miran was speechless.
"Hear me out," Nessa said. She could see Miran was about to start spitting fire. "While I pride myself on being a person of my word, I have no intention of making good on my deal with Hunter. They are men without honor and so it matters little to them. The only reason I did it was because I want more time to train you. Getting into the Academy is important to you and I want you to present your best self. We will run into more Coursers. We will not be able to beat them all. With my assurance that I will allow Hunter to collect the bounty on me, he will fight to keep me and his payday. We're going to need another sword on our side."
Miran looked baffled. She could only gape. Had Nessa hit her head while she was running out there this morning? "You're insane!" The girl said at last. "Run now! While you still can!"
Nessa allowed a small smile that seemed to have a calming effect on the older girl, "That's also part of my plan. These woods are crawling with Coursers. Even if I did run, there's no guarantee I would make it out. Once words gets round that Hunter's got me, those Coursers will leave the woods and start chasing other quarries."
Miran nodded. She knew Nessa liked to plan things. Miran worried that the girl was doing something desperate in a last ditch attempt to save her skin. That was not the case. She wanted to stay true to her word and continue training. With Hunter in their party, the Coursers would back off. The forest would be less crowded and when Nessa decided to make her run, she wouldn't run into any obstacles. Her only one was going to be slipping Hunter's watch. "Do you think a week or two will do the trick?"
Nessa nodded, glad that Miran was on board. She had calmed down as she processed everything. It wasn't going to be easy by any means, but it was the best option. Nessa was determined to find a way to right things. She'd gotten into this mess because she'd agreed to escort Miran all this way. She hadn't expected all this traffic in the woods. The Courser she'd known was after her was Hunter. Now she was in over her head and surrounded by Coursers. A couple of weeks in close company with Hunter would provide the opportunity to find his weaknesses. Hopefully one of them would allow her to disappear into the night. She'd bested him three times already. She was capable of doing it a fourth time. A couple of weeks of looking like a captive would allow the other Coursers to return to life as usual and free up the woods.
As much as Nessa loathed the idea of putting her life in Hunter's hands, it seemed like her only option. She wasn't going to leave Miran until their deal had concluded. Her sense of honor and duty demanded as much.
Hunter strolled down the road. He found the place where the two girls had camped. He wasn't too far behind them. He had hoped that they would wait for him. If Lightfoot intended to evade capture from everyone else, it would certainly look more convincing if he was accompanying them.
He didn't let it bother him. He would catch them come nightfall. Lightfoot was going to tire of running to find him every time she happened upon more Coursers than she could handle.
The sun was setting as he ambled into tonight's campsite. Lightfoot and the Tolinese girl were eating a cold dinner in a thicket off of the forest road. They didn't want to attract attention by starting a fire.
Hunter wasn't bounded by such conditions. He collected some twigs and soon the wood was crackling and burning. He caught Lightfoot giving him the stink eye. "There a problem?" He asked.
"I was hoping you'd maintain your distance," Lightfoot replied.
"You want me around to scare off other Coursers. I think closer's better."
The Tolinese girl unfolded long limbs as she stood. Hunter was on his guard as she approached. "If we're to be traveling together, we ought to exchange names. You never got mine that first time," she said.
Hunter was amused by her.
After she introduced herself, she retreated. Her attempts to be friendly weren't unwelcome, he was just surprised she was making an effort. Lightfoot was clearly under protest. She didn't say a word to him, she just kept glancing over at him, like she was convinced if she ignored him enough, he would disappear. To Lightfoot he was the enemy, but a necessary ally.
Miran, the Tolinese girl with her long limbs, was not what he had expected. She spoke carefully and with clarity, as though she anticipated a person to pick apart her every word. Her long dark hair were tamed in a braid, and her equally dark eyes were full of intelligence. Her features, which had been soft and fine that first time he had encountered her, had toughened on their journey. She looked more in her element now, though there was something that suggested this wasn't the life she was meant to live. He still didn't know what she was capable of, but the way she carried herself suggested a confidence that made him not want to find out.
The girls didn't speak much and they bedded down early.
Hunter suspected his presence was the reason for their silence. It was equally likely that Lightfoot wasn't much of a conversationalist, which was why Miran was trying to engage Hunter in conversation. He never was any good at idle chatter. He was too used to keeping his own counsel. He imagined that was Nessa's reason as well. Something they had in common. Not that she would ever admit it.
After eating dinner and musing on this new development, Hunter crawled into his own sleep things. He considered himself a light sleeper, which is why he was surprised to wake up in the morning to find Lightfoot about to bolt. "Where are you going?" He asked, fumbling out of his things and jumping into a stand, still half asleep. He was getting lazy, he scolded himself. Was he in his fifth month of pursuing Lightfoot? He needed to be more on his guard.
Lightfoot was frozen in place. She turned her head just enough to roll her eyes at him.
He wasn't quite sure why—
A whistle sang through the air.
Hunter woke up in that instant. It was necessary for his survival.
The Courser hit the deck and looked around. Miran was still dead asleep and Lightfoot was unarmed.
The arrow that was the source of the song embedded in the tree above him.
He glanced up at the fletching, wondering if he would be able to identify its owner. Some Coursers only used the feathers of certain birds.
The feathers were black. That tugged at his memory.
"Hunter!" A voice growled. "This one's ours."
"Not a chance," Hunter shot back, getting to his feet. He was wearing stockings on his feet, but his sword was in arm's reach. There were pluses and there were minuses in this rude awakening.
He wanted to see who he was dealing with. He liked knowing just how much trouble he was going to be in by fighting half-dressed. Being shirtless wasn't a big deal. It was the lack of shoes that had him concerned.
Yesterday's Coursers had backed off once they found out who he was. They were smart. This one knew who he was and was going to attack in spite of it. It wasn't a smart move.
Two figures broke cover and Hunter realized why he'd been called out. He was staring at twins. They were both tall and shapely, with pitch black hair and sea-green eyes. One was armed with a bow, a sword at her hip. The other had her sword drawn.
These two were looking for a fight.
Their names were Cas and Tor Stone. They'd been out to get him ever since he made the mistake of sleeping with them and then disappearing into the night. Their paths didn't tend to cross since they hunted very different quarry. They had promised that if they did meet again, they wouldn't hesitate to kill them.
He was surprised to find them here. The sisters tended to hunt scoundrels. Lightfoot was not one and they couldn't be here for him.
Hunter grabbed his sword and the girls dropped their gear to fight. It would be interesting to see how this played out.
"No one's seen you for months," Tor informed him as their swords clashed. She was fast as she closed the distance. She always had been. That was how you could tell the difference between her and her sister. She ran headlong into battle. Cas let the fight come to her. Typically.
Cas charged shortly after her sister.
"Is that why you're here?" Hunter wanted to know between sword clashes. He hadn't really considered what his absence would look like. When he'd been sent after Lightfoot, he'd been the only one. He hadn't expected to find all these other Coursers roaming the land upon his return. It was why he was glad Lightfoot had come to him. She hadn't expected all these Coursers either.
"We're here for Lightfoot," Tor said.
"After Lightfoot disappeared, and then you, the High King issued a summons for the better known Coursers. The ones who knew Lightfoot and could keep their mouths shut," Cas added.
"Why'd you go after her?" Hunter asked.
"We have our reasons," Tor said evasively.
"We came for Lightfoot. It was a bonus that you might also be in pursuit," Cas said.
"She didn't get her name for any old reason. She's good. The only person to stand a chance tracking her would be you," Tor explained.
"That's what I get paid for," Hunter agreed.
Tor grinned, "We know that you like spending what you make, so we asked around at taverns and wayhouses for you and found you here."
"And now that you have?" He wondered.
"We plan to steal your bounty."
"Then why don't you just take her? Why are we dancing like this?" Hunter asked. He had guessed that Lightfoot had disappeared in this bombardment. He couldn't afford to look for her on the periphery. Not when he was busy blocking blows from two girls who were bent on destroying him.
"Because we can't steal a bounty from under your nose and just walk away. If we leave you alive, you'll come after us," Tor said.
"And here I was thinking it was because you had a score to settle," Hunter replied.
The trio bobbed and weaved, swords clashing, glancing, and flashing.
Cas and Tor Stone washed out in their final year at the Academy when they decided they didn't want their fate dictated to them by a king. They were good at what they did. Solid in build. Sturdy as a rock in battle, hence their name.
The three were so busy fighting that they didn't notice when a slight figure danced into the fray.
Nessa considered making a run for it. This was the perfect distraction. It was too soon though. There were still tons of Coursers out there she could run into.
Instead, she packed up, woke up Miran and told the girl to walk on. Nessa planned to walk on too. She figured Hunter could handle it, and then she realized who he was up against.
The Stone Twins were not a fight she wished on anyone and it sounded like they had it out for Hunter. She told herself that she wouldn't mind if they killed the Courser, but she didn't want that death on her hands. That was why she'd stolen Miran's sword.
Her timing was perfect. Cas's downswing was about to catch Hunter unawares.
"What are you doing, Lightfoot?" Her voice was a growl as their weapons met.
The fighting stopped in an instant. Both Cas and Tor pulled away.
Nessa regretted stepping in.
The looks the girls were giving her were on the dangerous side of deadly.
"Lightfoot," Tor addressed the redhead, "we have no quarrel you. Just the man you're defending."
"Afraid you'll lose?" Hunter taunted. A bold boast for a man who'd almost just been sliced in half.
The twins rolled their eyes. They weren't alone. If Nessa hadn't stepped in, he wouldn't be alive.
"We know why you left," Cas tried. "If you come back with us, we can fix things. Me and Tor would love to take you on. You'd make an excellent Courser. Work with us. We're much better employers than the king."
As far as classmates go, Cas and Tor certainly weren't the worst. They cared more about each other than anyone else, but that's the curse of twins. On occasion, they'd done an act of kindness to Nessa, no doubt because of her inescapable tie to the king and they pitied her. "Your offer is appreciated," Nessa said, "but I can't go back. Tyr would never let me be a Courser."
"What are you doing with this one then?"
"He tracked me from here to Tolin and back again. He's put in the work. He deserves the bounty."
The sisters nudged each other as if a suspicion had just been proven.
"I wish you'd found me first," Nessa told them honestly.
"So do we." Cas and Tor looked disappointed, and a little confused. They should have been. In essentially the same breath Nessa had admitted that she had no intention of going back and that she was only with Hunter because he'd been tracking her from the beginning. Those were two conflicting facts. Both were reasons for why she wouldn't go along with them. Which one was the truth?
The girls knew. They'd turned their back on the king as well. If Nessa had chosen to run, there was going to be no one to stop her. Not if she was determined.
"Be careful of Hunter," Cas warned in a low voice as the girls turned away to collect their things.
"He'll break your heart if you give him half a chance," Tor told Nessa.
"I wasn't aware there was a heart between the pair of you to break," Hunter retorted.
The twins turned back, prepared to renew their attacks.
"He's not worth it," Nessa said.
Cas grinned, "Remember you said that." She wasn't prepared to sheath her weapon. She didn't trust Hunter and rightly so.
"It's just business," Nessa assured them.
Tor seemed skeptical, "That's how it starts."
Nessa made a face. Were they trying to insinuate some partiality on her side? That was not the case. From their comments, Nessa gathered that the Stone twins and Hunter had a past. They had attacked him because he had wronged them. Taking Lightfoot from him was going to be the icing on the cake.
Again, Nessa regretted getting involved. Hunter's death wouldn't have been on her hands. He had brought this on himself. It was possible the twins would let her run free.
The sisters made eye contact and looked back at Nessa, "We can't persuade you?"
"Sorry," she sighed. She'd made her deal. Where were they some months ago?
The sisters watched Hunter for any signs of aggression before making the decision to sheath their swords.
"Good luck," Tor wished her as they pushed back out onto the road.
Nessa nodded her thanks.
She wasn't going back. She would find a way to shake Hunter. The only reason she was sticking around was to train Miran for the Entry Games. The reason she'd struck a deal Hunter was because it meant she wasn't the only one watching her back. With Hunter with them instead of behind them, he could help fend off Coursers. This was going to work out in her favor. It wasn't a mistake. Somehow, meeting the Stone sisters had her questioning her own logic.