In the morning, the girls packed up camp and began the long descent out of the mountains.
Nessa tried to keep her mind on her footing. They were picking their way down a talus slope which was ordinarily something the girl enjoyed immensely. It was a dangerous game, never knowing if the rocks you chose to jump on were stable. You could roll an ankle, or worse—start a rock slide.
She kept looking back, not to assess Miran's progress, not to take in the beauty of the mountains as they left them, but to see if she could spot whoever was following them.
Miran was tentative, but sure-footed. She'd widened the gap between herself and Nessa just in case she loosed a rock. It would give Nessa time to dive out of the way.
The distance was nice. Nessa was curious to see how far their tail would go to expose himself. She hadn't seen anything yet.
Underneath the rock scree, Nessa could hear the trickling of water, which is why she wasn't surprised to see a river down in the valley.
As they got closer, Nessa identified a mill built around the headwaters.
As they drew closer still, Nessa saw that the mill was abandoned. It looked like someone had tried to established a permanent settlement, but it hadn't lasted.
The bulk of the people who lived on the steppes of northern Byard were nomadic. They managed herds of all manner of livestock on the grassy highland plains. The residents of the southern Byard lived similarly. There were some who tried to set up permanent villages around a water source, but some sources were not reliable.
Like this trickle of water, Nessa mused as she reached the mill. It flowed well now, but it the spring it probably turned into a flood-meadow, and by late summer, was all dried up.
People still used it, seasonally, Nessa noted as she took a look around. The mill wheel was in good condition, as was the millstone inside. It was the holes in the roof and missing siding that had the place looking a little worse for wear.
There was a solid wagon track leaving from the front of the mill. It probably led to the camp Nessa had seen by night.
After checking out the place, Nessa waited for Miran to join her.
No sign of their tail as of yet.
He knew she was looking for him. He was hanging back. Good. That would allow her time to get back her lead.
When Miran ambled over to where Nessa was standing, she hitched up her pack and made a face that was a cross between a smile and a grimace, "This is the end of the line for us?" She nodded towards the rutted wagon path nearby.
"Looks like," Nessa replied. She explained to the dark-haired girl her suppositions about the encampment nearby. She'd smelled cookfires while she waited.
"Thanks for the escort," Miran clasped her hands together and bowed her head in thanks.
Nessa nodded, keeping her eyes on the mountains. Her tail still hadn't shown his face. She knew he was up there though. She could feel him watching from behind a rock or some such. The girl blew out a breath, not relishing the idea of climbing back up just to meet him.
On the plus side, she would finally get to put a face to the creepy feeling that raised the hairs up on the back of her neck and had her looking over her shoulder.
Nessa found herself liking the idea of climbing back up what she'd just come down less and less. She could still run. She could bounce through a couple encampments and lose him on the roads down here and jump back into the mountains later.
The girl was turning her head to call out to Miran and ask her to wait, when she saw that Miran was frozen in place.
Was it possible the older girl was having doubts of her own? She was a friendly sort, even if she was hiding something. She'd be able to make her way wherever she wanted to go by flashing her kind smile and chatting up anyone foolish enough to be standing too close. There was something about her personality that was hard to say no to. She was so eager, so interested in everything and how it worked.
She could be silent and reflective, but she asked a question as soon as it struck her, like how Nessa knew she was heading in the right direction, how many miles she could travel in a day unburdened, how many days in a row she had been in the mountains...the questions could go on, but they were good ones, inquisitive ones. The girl wanted to learn about things she was unfamiliar with. Nessa applauded that knack.
Nessa was confident that Miran would have no trouble getting to Cataire on her own.
So why was she hesitating?
Was she remembering her almost-fate at the hands of the men in the woods?
Miran turned and let out a huff of breath, "I was thinking…"
Nessa's response was a raised brow.
The dark-haired girl backtracked a few paces. "I was wondering—hoping—" Miran seemed to be struggling with words for once. "I know you have no interest in going to Cataire," the girl managed at last, "but I would greatly appreciate the company and the guidance to that realm."
Nessa was surprised when she didn't laugh. She didn't want to seem too eager. She didn't want to tackle the rock scramble in the uphill direction. She felt strongly about that. She didn't want to meet whoever was waiting for her in the mountains. Staying on the steppes, being part of the traffic down here would shake things up a little. It would buy her some time. The trouble was that Miran wasn't moving terribly fast. It would take another couple weeks for her to get her legs under her. Whoever was tailing them would catch up. Nessa didn't want to have to explain it. At the same time, Miran might throw him off the scent.
The real trouble was that Nessa couldn't go back to Cataire. But, she felt bad saying no to Miran. It wouldn't be right. They had traveled this far together. They could hike together some more. Nessa was being useful when she was with Miran. Helping another for the sake of it was good for the soul. Running away and hiding was selfish. Miran claimed to need the protection.
Maybe, Nessa thought to herself, she could teach Miran a thing or two about self-defense on the way. If she did, perhaps Miran would feel more confident about traveling on her own and the pair could part ways before they got to Cataire.
Miran sensed Nessa's struggle within, "I'm uncomfortable with the notion of traveling across a country I've never been to before by myself. I think I have better odds of making it to my destination if I stay with you, since you know your way across the country."
"I know my way across the mountains," Nessa hurried to correct her.
"And, you're handy in a fight."
Nessa shrugged. Miran wasn't wrong about that. Years of training was the reason. "There's not much cause for fighting in the mountains," Nessa said, casting a look back up the rock slide, wishing it were true.
Was that a yes, Miran wondered. She knew Nessa wasn't good at vocalizing her thoughts. Miran was working on trying to read her mind. She wasn't successful yet, but she was confident that if they interacted long enough, she would pick some things up. "Will you take me to Cataire? If we stick to the mountains?" She added in a rush.
Nessa sighed, she wanted to say yes. She didn't want to go to Cataire though. "Why Cataire?" She asked. It was the question Miran had deflected before the start of their journey.
"My father sent me," Miran cast a long look west. Toward Tolin. "He also sent an escort too, but we were attacked on the highway. I was the only one who managed to get away. The men you beat up some days ago were what remained of the bandits."
If that was the case, Nessa could understand the girl's apprehension when it came to traveling across two countries alone. "The mountains it is, then," Nessa decided.
Miran beamed and seemed to challenge the sun as the world's source of light. "Thank you," she held herself back and Nessa watched her carefully. She'd seen that look before from people-watching. A hug was threatening.
Miran overcame the urge, which was good. Nessa didn't do hugs.
After awhile, Miran's smile faded, "We're going to have to climb back up that, aren't we?"
Nessa sent another searching look over the talus slope and shook her head, "No. There's a low mountain pass we can tackle a few days from here. We'll cover more ground down here."
As they started off, side-by-side on the wagon track, Nessa considered telling the girl that she had no intention to return to Cataire. She'd left that place three months ago for a reason. She'd made it all the way to Tolin before someone caught up to her. And now, the gods (if she decided to accept they existed), or some other all-powerful force with a sense of humor or knack for irony, had thrown Miran in her path, making her turn around and go back.
Nessa didn't think much of authority figures, be they kings or gods. She would find a way to avoid returning to Cataire that didn't leave Miran in the lurch. The girl had enough trouble as it was.
Nessa didn't say anything. Miran had explained her fear of solo travel, but not why she was running. They were travel companions, but they weren't friends. Since Miran hadn't spoken up, Nessa didn't feel comfortable explaining her reasons for not wanting to go to Cataire.
She decided to put the matter off until later. When whoever was following them finally caught up, or they crossed the boundary from informal travel companions to confidants.
Every now and again as they ambled, Nessa turned back to the mountains, trying to catch a glimpse of whoever was following them. She thought she saw him descending the mountain, but she couldn't be sure. They'd covered a lot of ground on the flat land of the steppes. He looked like a dot from this distance. It might not even be him, Nessa thought, but a bird or deer. It was impossible to tell from so far away. Thinking of the dot in the distance as a harmless animal eased her mind a little, even if she didn't believe it.
If he'd been smart, he would have maintained his altitude and followed her that way.
Nessa snorted as she thought to herself, that was proof that he wasn't smart. She'd find a way to slip his watch. She'd gotten lazy about hiding her trail in Tolin. That was how he'd caught up to her. She could still shake him if she put her mind to it. She had nothing else to put her mind on.
The girls didn't linger on the steppes of Byard. Nessa wanted to press on and get back into the mountains. She worried about losing her lead.
"Miss the mountains already?" Miran asked after watching Nessa crane her neck around to look behind them for what had to be the hundredth time since teaming up to march across the flatlands.
She'd supposed it to be because Nessa was uncomfortable leaving the mountains at first. Now, she wasn't so sure.
Why would she keep looking back? Were they being followed? If so, why hadn't Nessa said anything? Did she think she'd spook Miran with the news? Miran was on the run, a pursuer was to be expected.
The dark-haired girl considered broaching the subject. Perhaps they could discuss a way to dispatch of whoever was after them.
She decided not to say anything, Nessa was already going out of her way to act as an escort. The redhead would surely abandon her if Miran mentioned that the person following them was after her.
Miran allowed her long legs to take full advantage of this flatter terrain, opening up her stride, trying to do her part to put as much distance between herself and whoever was behind her.
Nessa didn't remark on the change of pace, though she approved of the taller girl's loping gait. She tried to think of a clever response to Miran's seemingly genial question. She must have noticed me looking back, Nessa scolded herself. She had to work on that. It was her own curiosity getting the better of her. It wasn't necessity. She'd deal with him when the time came. "I like looking back to see the distance we've covered so far," Nessa lied.
Miran nodded. She didn't believe her, but she let it slide.
The girls pushed past encampments, seeing herd of horses, goats, sheep, and cattle. They saw, but they did not engage in pleasantries. They kept their heads down and marched onward like the determined travelers they were.
After a few days of marching directly east, the mountains that formed a natural barrier to the north, jumped into their path.
Miran recognized that this was the mountain pass Nessa had spoke of.
The two girls climbed back into the mountains.
When they looked back, this time, it wasn't to look for their pursuer. It was to mark their progress as they ascended higher and higher. Looking back, the steppes seemed to run for an eternity alongside the mountains, turning to a sandy brown as it fanned out to the south.
They slowed down as they weaved their way through the mountains.
It allowed their pursuer to catch back up to them. Not by choice. Miran just wasn't as adept at navigating the mountains as Nessa, and apparently their pursuer, was.
He still maintained his distance, but he was getting sloppy. More than once since leaving Tolin, Nessa caught sight of him.
What was he waiting for?
Perhaps he was confused because now she was headed back Cataire.
After two weeks of feeling him just beyond her range of vision, Nessa was over it.
Her senses were going haywire from constantly being on her guard.
She decided to bait him into a confrontation. She would risk the exposure to Miran. At this point, she didn't care, she just needed him gone. For the sake of her sanity.
There were other things in these woods that she needed to be on her guard about, and she couldn't focus on them because all her energy was on him instead.
Nessa was ready to make her move. She'd been playing the part of the prey for too long. It was time for her to reclaim her natural role as the predator. She could flush this guy out and get rid of him, easy. He might know who she was, but he didn't know how good she was.
No more waiting.
If she felt like talking, she might address her direction change and see if that would get him to back off. But that was only if she felt like playing nice, and currently, she wasn't.
Miran and Nessa made camp later than usual. Nessa seemed to be looking for just the right spot. She was being very picky. Miran thought they'd passed about ten spots that would do, but she didn't complain. She trusted the redhead to know what she was doing.
Nessa left Miran in charge of starting the fire and went into the woods, for firewood, or food, it didn't matter. It was lie anyway. She was going to root out their stalker.
A man with sun-bleached hair watched from a distance as two silhouettes prepared their camp site. They were later than usual today.
He knew why.
They thought they were being clever. They'd try to shake him this afternoon.
They weren't foolish. They knew he was tailing them. They'd known since he'd gotten close enough to get a visual back in Tolin. The reason he hadn't made a move was because his target was one of the two. She would be a handful enough, they said.
He didn't want to engage two opponents and risk the loss. That, and they seemed to be heading east now, after a three month long jaunt westward. Why the change direction?
It didn't matter.
What did matter was this moment. He'd been waiting for these two to split up so he could make his move, but they never strayed far—because they knew he was in the woods, watching them.
Today was different.
Since their elaborate plan, neither one had looked back once. Did they think they'd succeeded in getting rid of him?
They were wrong.
The taller figure stayed to build up the fire. The smaller one dissolved into the woods.
The easy silence the redhead employed to move through the woods unnerved him. He didn't know how long his window of opportunity would last.
He crept forward, nocking an arrow into his bow as he moved. His target was wearing a hood. Her back was to him and appeared none the wiser.
Just before he stepped into the clearing, he surveyed his surroundings. There was no sign of the redhead and the sword was stowed among the gear, out of reach. This was his chance to catch her unarmed.
He stepped forward, his arrow aimed at the lean figure kneeling on the ground, coaxing a fire to life. "Nessa Lightfoot," he announced, "You've been classified as Rogue. I'm here to bring you in."
The girl on the ground turned to face him. He was caught offguard. Her almond eyes were filled with fear. He would find no fight from her. He'd been told that she was extremely dangerous.
He was looking at a native Tolinese girl. This couldn't possibly be Trainee Lightfoot. How had he lost her trail?
He was lowering his bow when he heard a voice come from behind, "I guess they didn't tell you enough about me."
Before he had time to spin and face his attacker, something clubbed him upside the head and he crumbled to the ground, releasing his hold on the bow and the arrow. Both dropped to the ground as harmlessly as he did.