The two girls stared dumbly at the body of the man lying in the middle of their camp. He wasn't very tall, Nessa noted, but he had the build of someone who is secretly strong. His face had been weathered by the elements. It gave the impression that he was older than he actually was. His hair was so blonde it was white. That was from spending too much time chasing her under the sun.
Nessa dropped the hunk of wood she'd used to knock him out and hurried to drag him to the nearest tree before he came to.
The shock of his announcement, of who he was, was taking some time to sink in. She hadn't expected this.
The redhead rummaged through the man's belongings, looking for something to tie him up with. She came up with a thin strand of braided leather that would do the trick. Never once did she look up at Miran. She dreaded having to explain this.
Her plan had been to draw him off so that Miran would never have to know. She hadn't anticipated that he wouldn't know what she looked like. Maybe it was because she was finally letting her hair grow out and Miran never put down the hood on her shirt. People always thought she was taller than she actually was because of her reputation. That was something to keep in mind.
Once the man was securely tied to the tree, Nessa turned back towards the dark-haired girl. Her intention was to settle Miran's nerves. The girl was jumpy about intruders and she had a decent reason.
Miran was going to have questions. This guy had ruined everything by knowing Nessa's name. The redhead couldn't pretend that he was you run-of-the-mill bandit.
Miran was no longer a girl in fear of her life. She stood up when she saw Nessa was ready to talk. She brushed off her clothes as the fire glowed behind her. She had her game face on.
Miran's present expression was one Nessa had learned to be wary of. It betrayed no emotion and was impossible to read. Normally, it meant she was in a foul mood, after a long day of hiking over trying terrain, for example. Her upbringing forced the emotion out of her face so it was unreadable, that way she could still try for a diplomatic discussion.
"Please explain what just happened," Miran said. Nessa expected her voice to be hard. Instead, it was just as emotionless as her expression.
"I don't know what to tell you," Nessa admitted.
"The truth?" Miran suggested.
"You can't expect that of me," Nessa shot back. They had talked to pass the time, but both girls were keenly aware that they avoided any details that might reveal anything about their lives before. Both girls had something they were hiding. It was unlucky that Nessa's past was the reason they were in this standoff. She wasn't going to give anything up. Miran was looking over her shoulder just as much.
Maybe Nessa only noticed because she was on the run herself. The fact of the matter was that she'd noticed. Until the man had revealed himself, Nessa was certain Miran thought he was after her.
Miran didn't look like she was going to yield, which was why Nessa was surprised when the girl blew out a breath, "Fine."
Miran knew Nessa was right. She shouldn't expect the full truth when she wasn't willing to reciprocate herself. Just find out enough to get by, Miran promised herself. Start with the simple, "Who is that guy?"
"A Courser," Nessa replied evenly. "A bounty hunter, a mercenary, call him whatever you want."
"Why was he after you?"
"Because I've been classified as Rogue, apparently," the shock was still sinking in for Nessa.
"What does that mean?"
Nessa nodded as she remembered that Miran wasn't from Cataire. She couldn't be expected to know. "It's what they call Peacekeepers who desert their post. It doesn't happen often. It shouldn't have happened to me," she added.
"Why not?" Miran was genuinely interested.
"I'm not a Peacekeeper," Nessa said. "I'm just a Trainee."
"What?" Miran exploded. It caused Nessa to take a step back. "I'm going to Cataire to try out for the Academy," Miran's voice reduced to its normal level as she explained her reaction.
"That's nice," Nessa said distantly.
She couldn't believe the nerve of that man, classifying her as Rogue and sending a Courser out after her. She was still trying to wrap her head around the notion. She'd known he wasn't going to let her go without a fight. She'd expected dogs or Hokan, at the very least, to attempt to negotiate her return. She'd underestimated the High King. She wouldn't make that mistake again. She couldn't afford to. If this one Courser had managed to find her, there would others. She needed to prepare for that.
She'd expected Tyr to be too proud to admit that his prize possession had run off. She was wrong.
He'd probably found some way to blame it on Hokan. He was kind of an easy target this time.
Nessa blew out a breath, hoping the prince didn't believe his father's lies. This wasn't Hokan's fault at all. This was just her, wanting to be free from Tyr.
When Nessa dared to make eye contact with Miran, she saw a baffled expression.
"I don't understand," Miran was positively flabbergasted. "Why would you leave the Academy? You're really good. You should have your shield."
Nessa knew she was going to struggle with her words on this one. She didn't want to give away too much. It wasn't anyone's business but her own why she left. And it had nothing to do with her shield.
Or did it?
It was an answer. "They weren't going to let me have my shield," Nessa said, surprising herself with the truth.
Nessa tried to wave the unasked question away. They needed to get out of here before the Courser woke up. He was good. He'd managed to track her all this way. He'd find a way to free himself, if he hadn't already.
Miran remained frozen on the spot, so Nessa searched for an excuse. She wanted something succinct and vague. "I got into a tough situation. The only way out, to do what was right, was to run, and keep running."
"But you stopped," Miran noted. "To help me."
Nessa nodded, because that is exactly what had happened. "I knew they'd send somebody," she admitted. "I just didn't expect it to be a Courser." Peacekeepers and Coursers had a long and dirty history. Tyr sending Coursers after her was something she hadn't expected. You don't send Coursers after a Trainee—unless that Trainee is very good. Nessa made a face as she realized this was the closest she was ever going to get to being a Peacekeeper. Getting classified as Rogue and pursued by Coursers was something straight out of the history books.
"Seems to me we should keep running," Miran said. eyeing the Courser dubiously. "How do you feel about a moonlit hike?" She grabbed her things.
Nessa looked to the sky, feeling a smile come on, "The weather looks good for it."
Miran handed the redhead her pack as she shouldered her own and moved to snuff out the fire.
That could have gone worse, Nessa noted. There were some sizable gaps and more than a few lies in the story Nessa had told her travel companion.
Miran had accepted them and suggested they keep moving.
Miran was going to stick around.
Nessa resolved to teach the girl defense for real this time. If there were Coursers in their future, she was going to need to know how to fend them off, in case they made the mistake the first one had. Now Miran knew some of the reason why Nessa couldn't go back to Cataire. Once they put some distance between themselves and this Courser, they should discuss parting ways, for Miran's own safety.
As they marched under dappled moonlight, Nessa could see that there were more questions Miran was brimming to ask. She was only holding off because the timing wasn't appropriate. It was too soon.
She could see that Nessa was struggling to process the events. That was the only reason Miran wasn't asking everything that was on her mind.
Out of deference to her situation, Miran waited until dawn to ask her questions.
They stopped to eat breakfast and watch the sun break the horizon line.
Nessa was estimating the number of miles they'd put between themselves and the Courser when Miran asked, "Do you think he'll get out?"
"If he's any good," Nessa answered.
"Will he come after you again?"
"Probably," Nessa admitted. "It's his job. And he'll probably be sore that I stole his bow."
Before leaving, Nessa had double-checked the Courser's bonds and plundered his pack to see if it had anything worth taking. There wasn't much. Just a belt knife that she'd given to Miran, in addition to the bow and the handful of arrows she'd taken for herself.
Miran smiled, amused at how cavalier Nessa was being. Hours ago, she'd been shaken to her core. Perhaps the encounter had made her stronger.
There's so much uncertainty involved in running away. It requires a brave soul. When you leave and accept there can be no going back, you wonder what would happen if you'd stayed. You don't know what decisions they've made in your absence. If they'll accept your choice to flee and leave you alone, or decided to pursue. You don't know anything and you never will, unless they send someone after you.
They had sent someone after Nessa.
Now the girl knew where she stood. That knowledge had given her some measure of relief. She seemed a hair less guarded, relishing this small victory.
"Are you ready for me to ask you more prying questions?" Miran felt that preparing Nessa for invasive questions resulted in less of a struggle for responses.
"You've been hanging out with me for too long," Nessa responded. "Blunt questions are my territory." She lacked the tact to put a softer edge on things. She blamed it the lack of delicacy in her upbringing.
"It's my charm that let's me get away with it," Miran admitted. "Blunt questions have always been my style."
"Ask," Nessa prompted, putting away the bread she was munching in. She surveyed her surroundings, trying to formulate a plan.
"You're a Trainee. Were," Miran corrected herself. "You know how to get accepted into the Academy." She paused, "Will you help me get in?"
Nessa made a face as she stood. She wished that place on no person and yet, every year, young people flocked there willingly to attend the Entry Games, to try and obtain the prestige the life of a Peacekeeper offers.
Nessa knew she wouldn't be able to change Miran's mind about going. Her stubbornness was one of her better qualities. It made her a formidable hiker. It would be in asset in the Entry Games and whatever she decided to do in life.
The redhead could, however, offer a warning, "Many people go to the Academy because they have visions of it bringing them fame and fortune. That is not a true reality. It requires grueling amounts of work, both physically and mentally. Many do not last. If want to go, make sure it is your own choice.
"I left because I was never given a choice. I was taken from my home and forced into that place. I labored as hard as anyone, hoping that I would be rewarded with choosing my own future. That turned out to be a fallacy. That's why I ran. I wanted to control my life. The man who deems himself my guardian didn't take kindly to me wanting my own freedom. That's why he sent the Courser. There will be more of them."
Miran's response was solemn: "I made a promise to my father."
Nessa swallowed. She was in no place to make a reply. She didn't have any family to make promises to.
She had to find something to say. "Now you know why I don't want to go to Cataire."
Miran nodded and stood as well, "I get it. It means we'll be running into more Coursers. That means you should teach me to fight better if you expect me to have your back."
Nessa had to withhold a laugh, this girl knew a small measure of what was in store, and she was still determined to march forward, toward the heart of the problem. "I can't say that I understand the devotion to honor your father's wishes. But I think you are underestimating what's coming. I don't know what you're running from, but you're asking me to run back the way I came. I'm not ready to do that. You don't know what we'll be walking into. I do."
Miran accepted this information but she was busy making a plan attack of her own, "It's what, two months or so to get to the Academy?"
Nessa nodded that this was an accurate estimate.
"I was thinking that we could get in a month of training, and then you could go your own way, and I'll continue onto Cataire by myself. Hopefully, by that time, I will prove to be a competent fighter. I'll have had practice fighting off your Coursers, and in doing so, will be confident to finish the journey on my own. That gives you time to flee before you get too close to the place you don't want to return to. I think it is an acceptable proposal, once you get over the fact that it means you will be doing me many favors and I have nothing to offer in return"
Nessa shook her head. She didn't hate the idea. She liked the thought of leaving Miran confident enough to compete in the Entry Games. She would get real life practice if she stuck around Nessa.
There would be more Coursers in their future, without a doubt.
Nothing about the terms were absurd. Nessa had signed on back in Tolin to see the girl to safety. It was the length of that assignment that kept extending.
Nessa supposed that she could argue that the girl would be safer on her own, but she knew that wasn't true. Miran would draw too much trouble on her own with her curious eyes this far east. They'd do better together, against the Coursers.
The redhead let out a breath as she thought this through. She would train Miran, like she'd originally planned. It meant getting closer to Cataire than she wanted, but the end result was that Miran would have the knowledge, and the practical ability to take care of herself. That was something Nessa could feel good about, and on her own, she'd have an easier time slipping detection.
That Courser had only caught up because she'd slowed down for Miran.
That was going to add a new dynamic to their travels. They were going to move more slowly if they were going to be training. That would allow more Coursers to catch up with them.
On the bright side, it meant that Miran would get in more practice before reaching Cataire.
Nessa cast a look behind her, and Miran followed her gaze. "He's not—?" The older girl started to ask.
"Not yet," Nessa replied. She looked at her surroundings once more. She knew what she had to do, she just didn't want to do it. "I can't, in conscience, leave you without a means of defending yourself."
Miran flashed a winning smile, but Nessa wasn't done yet.
"If we are going to remedy that, it means we are going to move slower and more Coursers will catch up to us."
"More practice," Miran assured the redhead eagerly.
Nessa nodded, "That being said, I think we should leave the mountains."
Miran looked puzzled, so Nessa explained.
"The people who are coming for me, apparently, don't know what I look like. That we can deal with. Things they do know about me is that I prefer the solace of the mountains to the company of humans. They won't expect to find me down there—" Nessa gestured to the south where the land flattened and people flourished.
Miran looked like she was ready to object.
"They also won't be expecting me to be traveling with someone, so we have that to our advantage too."
"Won't—?" Miran started to ask, her attention behind Nessa. Where they'd left the Courser some miles back.
"No," Nessa answered. "Coursers typically work alone. They'll slit each other's throats just to get a payday. He's the only one who knows I'm not alone, so he's the one who'll have the advantage. Thanks to him, we also know they're onto us. He's the one we'll have to be the most cautious of." Nessa didn't say why. Miran wouldn't understand the insult of someone successfully tracking the infamous Nessa Lightfoot. Not just anyone could do that. He was going to be their biggest problem when he got free.
"There'll be a lot of traffic down there," Nessa continued. "We can use that to our advantage to lose people on our tail, on the road and in a crowd. We also have the fact that you're pretty," Nessa allowed a small smile. "There'll be folks who won't take nicely to a pretty girl getting hassled on the street.." She paused and turned serious, "I'll be out of my element down there, so I'm going to need you to be on your game."
Miran still didn't look convinced.
"In order to get you ready for the Entry Games you're going to need resources that we aren't going to find in the mountains. We'll need to get you outfitted and we're going to have to do that in a town."
Miran seemed to realize this.
"Town is the better option," Nessa said. "I know it's prettier here, and the company's better than anything you'll find down there, but down there will offer an anonymity we won't get up here. I have a feeling these mountains are going to get crowded soon, and down there we might find some people in our corner who are willing to stand up for a couple of girls in their teen years who just happen to find trouble.
"Trust me on this," Nessa pleaded.
Miran shrugged, "You're the almost-Peacekeeper of the group. I trust your decisions. Let's return to the public and be seen as respectable young girls. We'll move slower because you're training me, but we'll cover the flatter ground faster than up here. As long as you teach me things and, if we're lucky, I'll get to try out my moves out on the Coursers who happen to find us." Miran was getting what she wanted, an escort and a trainer, so why was she upset? Because even though Nessa promised to train her, she wouldn't be able to stick around to see the final product: whether or not Miran got accepted into the Academy.
Another reason was because she'd grown fond of the mountains that surrounded her. She'd associated the region as a place of safety. Now, Nessa was telling her that wasn't the case. They'd be safer out of the mountains. In the towns. They weren't in Tolin anymore, but Miran couldn't shake the unease. Was it because of the handbill with her name on it? What if there were Coursers coming for her next time?
"By the way," Nessa said as she hitched up her pack on her shoulders, "I never said I was any good as a teacher."
"I have a feeling you will be," Miran commented. A good teacher could voice the things that were difficult to say. Nessa wouldn't have a problem with that. She also would only give praise if she genuinely meant it. That was a good sign too.
"Lesson number one," Nessa looked south, where you could see the lower elevation between the peaks, "endurance." She looked back at Miran, her amber eyes alight with mischief, "Race you to the bottom.
Miran almost thought about complaining that they'd hiked ten miles already and had missed an entire night of sleep, but Nessa was gone before Miran could voice a single thought. There was something about the childish glee in Nessa's angular face. The girl had to be part pixie, with energy that never quit.
The tall girl looked back one last time at where they'd come from and broke into a jog, following Nessa, slow and steady, weaving her way between the taller peaks until she finally found her final descent.
The redhead was running so fast down the slope she was either flying or falling, or some magical in-between. A giggle drifted up on a zephyr, and Miran couldn't help but descend with equal zeal.
They were two girls on the run, with only half their stories told. They didn't trust enough to tell the other half, they couldn't afford to. It would bring too much pain. It's dangerous to trust too much. They were toeing the line between reckless and courageous, but it didn't matter. For once, they were able to do what they wanted.
From this point on, they were more than mere travel companions. They were friends. They were bonded in the woods when they had nothing in the common but the dark. Now, they were bonded with their half-truths and the fact that the other was all they had.
Miran didn't question if they would be successful in their respective goals of escaping expectations. She did know that they were going to have fun on the journey.