Leaving the mountains behind them, the girls made good time across the flatlands, despite Nessa's worries that training would slow them down. Every day they managed eighteen to twenty miles and had enough time after hiking and before sundown for Nessa to beat up her travel companion.
Technically they were training.
Nessa's methods weren't really standard at the Academy.
You can tell a person how to fight as much as you want, but they're only going to listen to you if they want to. Nessa liked to teach a little more organically.
Their first day down, Nessa attacked Miran for about three minutes so the girl could comprehend how fast people move when they're determined.
Nessa landed a lot of hits. She kept the majority of them below the neck and used her body in the assault so that the girl had some comprehension of the diversity of attacks that are available to a person who knows what their body is capable of.
Nessa avoided headshots because you can't expect your student to remember their lesson if you give them a brain injury.
On their second day, Nessa attacked at half speed so Miran had extra time to figure out how to block certain hits.
She wasn't half-bad, Nessa was pleased to discover. She had prior training. That was good.
Her form wasn't what they taught at the Academy, which was perfect, because Nessa hated it. The way they taught self-defense and hand-to-hand combat were based on the assumption that you lost your weapon in battle.
What if you had no weapon to start?
What if you weren't dressed in full armor?
You'll fight differently.
Nessa was used to not relying on metal or leather to protect her from hits. Without it, she was more mobile, more in control of her body. She could use it to deal out damage, or to roll away from a blow because she knew how much pain it could inflict.
Once Nessa knew what Miran was capable of, the redhead expanded Miran's horizons, by teaching her simple tricks to add more power to her hits and getting her to practice more.
After a week in the Lowlands, the pair sparred every night. The idea was to improve Miran's reaction time. She knew many moves. Tolin fighters, unlike Cataran brawlers, use their whole body, not just their fists.
Miran's problem was that because she knew so many moves, she took time to consider what one was appropriate for the situation. She wasn't going to have that luxury in a fight. She needed to learn to react in the heat of the moment.
Practice was the only way Nessa knew to solve the issue.
Tonight was supposed to be a rest night. Nessa was going to sit and talk with Miran about what she knew about the Entry Games instead of throwing each other around. Miran was sore from getting beat up so much, and for the first time since descending into the Lowlands, they'd happened upon a settlement about the time they normally made camp.
The grasslands were lush in this part of Byard, and there was a well in the center of town, which meant this was a permanent town. It wasn't uncommon. The road they were traveling was a major artery that joined the east to the west, where the water flow from the mountains was steady enough that people could make a living year round.
The pair had passed a few of the wayhouses, places to stay while making the long journey in either direction. The girls preferred to keep their company with that of the stars, so they'd persisted in camping along the way.
It was another reason why they weren't sparring. On the road, when it was just the two of them, they could practice fighting and not worry about people giving them trouble. In town, people wouldn't approve of such things. They might think Miran was actually in danger and come to her rescue, or they could get jailed for creating a disturbance.
Neither girl wanted either of those things to come to pass, so they planned to spend the night in a stable behind the local tavern, take it easy, and head out in the morning.
As Nessa dug through her pack, she made a face. They could also do with a resupply. She'd snagged a roll of bread when they came out of the mountains, but it was gone now. So was Dame Calem's hard cheese. Nessa had been trying to save both and hunt instead, but ever since she'd felt the Courser after them in the mountains of Tolin, she'd preferred the Dame's food to giving away their position by making a fire to make a meal.
Nessa wouldn't go so far as to call herself a thief. When she stole bread from that first settlement by the mill, she'd exchanged the rest of her dried meat for it. She knew that on the road, people and cook fires would be more plentiful, so they wouldn't have to worry about eating cold meals anymore. They could make fires and not draw attention to themselves.
The redhead was making a mental note of the supplies she'd need to walk out of town with in the morning when she heard the creak of the stable door slide open and shut.
Miran dove into the loose straw next to Nessa and tugged at the younger girl's elbow.
Nessa tried to shake her off. She was trying to concentrate and she was in no mood for games.
When Miran didn't release her hold, Nessa looked over to see Miran's dark brown eyes wide. "What?" The redhead demanded.
Miran put a finger to her lips to shush the girl and then pointed to the door, "He's here."
Nessa didn't have to ask who. It was only a matter of time before the Courser caught up to them.
She was surprised it had taken him this long.
It didn't matter. He was here now and needed dealing with.
"Where is he?" Nessa wanted to know.
"I was negotiating our stay with the owner. I'd just finished my business and was about to push out the back door when I saw him stride through the front. What do you want to do?"
Nessa made a face, "Did he see you?"
"I don't think so," Miran shrugged.
Nessa didn't like uncertainty, but she wasn't going to ask Miran to go back in. It was possible he would stay in the tavern and never know they were in the stable.
As dangerous as it would be for him to get ahead of them and lay a trap, the idea of him unknowingly passing them by was amusing to entertain.
"It'd be best to get out of sight," Nessa said. She'd already eyed the loft as her sleep space for the night.
When you're expecting trouble, it's best not to give them an opportunity to get the drop on you.
Nessa preferred the high ground.
Miran read her mind, scrambling up the sidewall to get to the loft and offering out her hands so the packs could be thrown up to her.
Nessa obliged by tossing up both packs. She was fluffing up the straw to hide the evidence of their being there when she heard the back door of the tavern slam shut and footsteps approach.
There was a sound from the loft and Miran's head appeared a second later, her voice barely audible, "He's got saddlebags. And a horse."
Nessa nodded, looking toward the stable door. Her luck was never that good. There was no way a Peacekeeper and a Courser could be in the same place and not come to blows.
For someone who was supposed to be teaching Miran to move faster, Nessa's reaction time could have been better. She stood transfixed in the middle of the stable, not ready for a second encounter with the man who was supposed to bring her in.
When the redhead heard a horse trample through a puddle out front, she sprang into action. She was too far from the wall to get into the loft by conventional means before that door opened. The girl leaped onto a barrel standing next to a support beam and vaulted up onto the loft via the low rafter just as the stable door slid open.
"Have you seen two girls passing through on foot?"
Nessa was crouching low in the shadows of the loft. That was the Courser. It had to be. He had a distinctly Magen lilt in his voice.
"Are you looking for any two or two in particular?" That was the voice of the spry stablehand. He sounded amused at the Courser's expense.
He described her height accurately to the inch, her frame as lean and lithe, the unusual shape of her eyes and the darkness of their color. "Her skin is tan and she likes to wear her hood up."
Nessa cast a look to Miran behind her. The girl had her hand clasped over her own mouth in an attempt to quiet herself. The Courser had described Miran impeccably but for one detail.
Since leaving Tolin and the mountains behind, Miran had abandoned her hood. It was too hot in the Lowlands for such a charade. They were far enough away from Tolin that it didn't matter anymore. Her dark hair was lightening under the sun and was tied high and back on her head to keep it off her neck and out of her eyes. It was long and wavy but still manageable. Nessa enjoyed watching the girl struggle to tame it every morning to put it up.
The stablehand seemed to sense the odd request of a man asking after a young lady and being able to describe her likeness so well. "And her companion?" He asked uncertainly, clearly trying to divert the conversation in a different direction.
"Yes?" There was an eagerness in the Courser's voice now.
"I don't think she was traveling with another lady. I saw her talking with a slight lad shortly before she went inside but I haven't seen either since."
The Courser didn't make a reply. The sounds that followed suggested a horse being stabled and then two sets of human feet departed.
Once the door slid shut, both girls scurried to the side window and watched the Courser step back inside the tavern.
Neither girl spoke. Both were analyzing their options. Should they sneak out? Could they pass the night unnoticed? Would the innkeeper reveal their location?
Miran was the first to speak up. Her voice cracked as she asked, "He really intends to pass the night out here with us?"
Nessa popped her head down to the first level. His belongings weren't terribly far away. "Looks like," she remarked.
The girl gave thought to rifling through them. He would know. She had to wait.
When she pulled back up to face Miran, they discussed their options.
The girl from Tolin knew what was in store. They wouldn't be getting any sleep tonight.
Nessa convinced the older girl to get what sleep she could. They didn't know how long the Courser would be in the tavern. She expected the innkeeper to direct the Courser back out to the stable. She hadn't thought to have the innkeeper to handle their presence with discretion.
It was a few hours before the man staggered back in.
He wasn't alone.
Nessa rolled her eyes when they pushed open the door and ripped each other's clothes off before they got to the pile of straw just below her position.
She wrinkled her nose at the sounds they made after they collapsed into the hay. The Courser's companion was very vocal. Miran was jolted awake as a result. Miran was a very sound sleeper.
The Tolinese girl quirked a brow at Nessa, who just shrugged.
Gradually, the sounds abated.
Eventually, Nessa could hear their breathing change to that of restfulness.
The girl peered over the edge.
The Courser was laying face up in the straw pile, naked. His companion had pulled on his discarded tunic and was sleeping off to the side.
Nessa dropped off the edge of the loft, landing in a crouch over the Courser. Her feet buried into the straw as she slid her knife under his neck.
His grey eyes snapped open, but he didn't move. He took in every detail of the being who had him at his mercy.
She was shorter than average, but he'd known that already. Not something he'd expected knowing her reputation. She didn't look like much, but again, he knew her reputation. Her amber eyes pierced him to his very core. He could feel her judgment in them. Her hair, which no one had ever seen except for a chosen few, was getting longer. It was crimson in hue, damaged by the sun and turning blonde.
"Nessa Lightfoot," he cooed as though he was the one holding the knife and not the other way around.
"You know my name, I think it's high time I learned yours," Nessa remarked as Miran crept out of the loft with their packs.
"You can call me Hunter."
"How terribly clever. Is that supposed to scare me?"
"Given who you ran out, I reckon you don't spook easy," the Courser replied.
"As long as we're no longer underestimating one another…"
The Courser's pale eyes narrowed, "I didn't expect you to be so bold."
He was making an insinuation about his nakedness and her proximity. Nessa couldn't help but roll her eyes.
Boys were always the same. Nothing could be more off-topic, but he had to do it. They always forgot that Lowlander wasn't her first language and that innuendoes were lost in translation. She was wiser now, but her response was the same as it ever was: nothing. She'd learned that boys say things to get a rise out of girls. The way she got the upperhand was by doing nothing. They didn't know how to respond.
When it didn't work, the Courser spoke again, "I didn't expect you to still be here. I figured you saw me and ran."
"You thought wrong."
"And I am pleasantly surprised," he admitted.
"I waited because I wanted to try and talk some sense into you. You don't want to tangle with me, Hunter. This is one payday you're never going to get. There's got to be easier catches out there."
The Courser quirked a brow, "You don't know who I am.
"You're a Courser. That's all I need to know," Nessa replied.
The look he gave her could only be described as smug, "I was Given the name of Hunter because once I have been given a quarry, I don't give up until I have it in my possession."
"I'm telling you right now, there will be no possessing of me," Nessa promised.
"I've caught you twice," he smirked.
"Funny," Nessa remarked, "that's not how I remember it."
For the second time, in as many meetings, Nessa knocked the Courser unconscious.
"He's just going to keep coming?" Miran asked, creeping forward.
"It's his job," Nessa answered.
She dragged the Courser's body out of the straw and tied him to a post. She rifled through his belongings and grinned.
He'd already made his resupply. That was going to save her some trouble.
She upended his things to make it look like a robbery, and then saddled his horse.
Never once did his companion stir.
The girls rode away on his mount.
They didn't expect to get far riding double, but that wasn't the point. The point was to put some distance between themselves and the Courser. It was faster than walking and now they had a horse and he didn't.
"He strikes me as a reprehensible sort of creature," Miran noted as they galloped into the night.
"That's what makes him a Courser," Nessa replied evenly.
Miran wasn't going to say anything because of the event, but she was tired so she couldn't trap it in, "What's your problem with them?"
"When you talk about them you get this—" Miran searched for the right word, "disgust in your voice."
Nessa laughed, "You are forging your way across kingdoms and countries to join the Peacekeeper Academy, and yet you know nothing about Coursers?"
"I admit I do not."
The redhead let out a breath, "Peacekeepers attend the Academy. They are bound by the values of duty and honor. They serve the High King. He places them in towns and clans all over Cataire where they preserve law and order in His name. Coursers..." Nessa resisted the urge to spit, "their ranks are composed of those who did not mesh well with the Academy's values. They're drop-outs mostly." It was rare for a Trainee to get kicked out. "They value their pride and a paycheck over duty and honor."
"They exist," Nessa continued, anticipating the question, "because Peacekeepers are tied to the people they serve. It's one of the original by-laws. Peacekeepers were assigned to specific clans. As the clans grew larger and we began building permanent settlements, the Peacekeepers became tied to the land. Coursers aren't bound by such limiting rules. They are a more recent invention. They patrol the roads between towns."
"They are mobile enforcers," Miran nodded.
"They don't enforce anything except their own selfish nature. They aren't bound to the king. They're freelance. They choose the jobs they want. The ones that will get them their payday so they can turn around and spend it on wine and women."
"You really don't like them," Miran noted.
"I don't like what they stand for. I like the idea of the Peacekeepers. I hate that Coursers turned their back on a life of doing good to further their own interests and that when I decided to do the same, they couldn't let me be. They had to come after me."