The two girls rode for awhile in silence. They were determined to put as much as distance as they could between themselves and the Courser. He'd proven resourceful, acquiring a horse. He would catch up to them again. It was all a matter of when.
When the animal slowed, the girls dismounted, allowing the horse to walk unburdened. They followed along beside it.
"You know," Miran mused as they trudged along the rutted wagon path, "tonight was supposed to be the night you explained to me about the Entry Games."
Nessa nodded that this was true. "It's different every year. What is constant is that you'll be broken up in groups based on your age." Miran would be in the eldest bracket. She was one of the oldest to attempt to obtain a position as a Trainee. Typically, the only older youths who attended the Academy did it the behest of their clan. They were normally nobility who had nothing better to do with their time. They didn't compete in the Entry Games and paid to attend. They might stick around from anywhere from five days to five years. Some stayed on to achieve Peacekeeper status. Most just did a year or two and went back home. The older teens who attended the Entry Games had something to prove.
"What's different?" Miran wondered.
"The younger you are, the less hoops you have to jump through. Younger people are more malleable. Older ones are more set in their ways and resistant to change. If you're young, there's a lot they can teach you and know you'll pick up, the older you are, the harder it goes."
"So how do they test that?"
Nessa blew out a breath, "I don't really stick around for the Entry Games. Once was enough for me. We have the week off from classes so I take to the woods."
"But you know some things," Miran pushed.
She guessed she did. You can't hang around a place for four years and not pick things up. "I know the younger kids have it easy. They get to prove their worth with a wrestling match, a run, and maybe a written test—to make sure they aren't letting in idiots. That one doesn't always weed them out though," Nessa added. "As you get older, they add more events. At your age, they expect a lot. A good Peacekeeper has a wide array of talents. They want you to know your way around many things, but not so much that don't have anything to teach you."
"What should we work on?"
"Sleep," Nessa responded.
"I'm serious," Miran said.
"So am I."
They'd happened upon a Zevers caravan all bedded down for the night. Coals glowed from various dying fires lit by families some hours earlier to cook dinner.
Zevers were different from the nomads of Byard. The nomads roamed the steppes, living in tents and keeping watch over livestock, moving to fresh grasslands periodically. The Zevers lived in wagons but were equally mobile. Each wagon was a tiny wooden house on wheels. They didn't keep many animals, but they traveled in clans like the nomads. They differed most particularly how they made their living. Where the nomads kept animals, the Zevers were versed in a variety of trades. They earned their keep by rolling up to a tent city or regular settlement by cobbling shoes, repairing animal tack, and everything in between. Some claimed they were thieves, but Nessa knew that whenever you assemble a large group of people, things go missing that no one can account for.
She'd always liked them because they weren't limited in their travel by the borders of nations. They moved wherever they thought they were needed.
The girls crept past dark wagons and dozing animals and set up camp on the far side of the Zevers.
"We need sleep," Nessa whispered as she climbed into her bedroll. They'd fallen silent as they picked their way across the encampment. "We can't run forever. We know that Hunter is cocky like every Courser. He'll catch us in his own time. He's in no hurry, so we don't have to be either. It doesn't matter our speed."
"But we took his horse—" Miran said.
"Doesn't matter, he'll probably just steal another one. He's going to keep coming. Doesn't matter how much trouble I cause. They must have made my bounty a good one."
Miran didn't say anything as she laid herself down. It wasn't until she closed her eyes that she spoke, "You'll still train me though, won't you?"
"If you're not scared off by the Courser," Nessa replied.
The girls fell silent as they stared up at the stars. Eventually, Nessa flopped over and sprawled out. She wanted to sleep but she couldn't stop thinking. Hunter would keep coming. That didn't matter. She was expecting it. He'd tracked her this far, he was going to keep coming.
She was apprehensive about drawing closer to Cataire's border. Why hadn't she seen any other Coursers yet? She'd never been so bold as to think herself untrackable. Magen had some of the best huntsmen. That was Hunter's place of origin. His accent was very distinct. It may have been that or his grey eyes that told her he wasn't going to give up. Nessa had heard rumors since her first days at the Academy about the special abilities attributed to those with grey eyes: that they could see in the dark.
A person who could travel by night would make an excellent hunter, to be able to track in both night and day. It would explain how he was able to catch up, and keep catching up.
The girls fell back into their routine of walking by day and sparring by night. The horse walked alongside them, carrying their packs. Unburdened, the girls were able to traverse twenty-five to thirty miles in the span of a single day.
As they bedded down each night, Nessa described the different events she remembered from the Entry Games over the years. There were traditional skill tests, to assess speed and endurance there were long distance races and sprints.
Miran laughed, with her long legs and their months of walking, she would be in the perfect condition to excel.
Other tests included archery proficiency, swordplay, hand-to-hand combat.
"Last year, the lance competition was all the rage," Nessa remarked one night as they hid from the rain under a hastily constructed shelter from a cloak.
"How does that demonstrate—?" Miran wondered.
"Exactly," Nessa cut in. "It's dangerous and hardly relevant, but it's popular, and in times of peace what else is there to do but invent ways to destroy oneself since there is no army to fight against and do it for you."
A few days later, a thunderstorm raced across the plains. The girls mounted the horse in an attempt to beat it to a stand of pines.
They were nearing Magen if forests were beginning to pop onto the landscape, Nessa noted as they dove into the thicket, trying to find some place that would keep them dry. The trees grew so thick that it was impossible for the rain to find them, but Nessa lived by the policy of better safe than sorry and strung up the heavy cloak again, just in case.
As they waited for the storm to pass, the girls laid down to nap, but it was impossible with the thunder and the raging winds.
Miran tried to pass the time with words, "What about the Entry Games your year?"
"I was twelve," Nessa replied, "so there wasn't much." To this day she was convinced that they'd tailored the Games so her prowess would shine through. "They marched us into the woods blindfolded and expected us to find our way out. There were a series of flags you had to collect on the way to prove you hadn't simply gotten lucky and stumbled out."
"Was that hard?"
"For some," Nessa allowed. All you had to do was use your tracking skills and follow the footsteps that had brought you there. "There were also people you had to fight to get your flag, by wrestling or archery or something."
"That is an added challenge."
"Yes," Nessa admitted. That was back when she didn't like people. She'd waited until they were distracted before stealing the flag she was supposed to earn.
"When that didn't work out like expected, they had the entrants engage in a paintball contest. The goal was to shoot as many people as possible and escape getting tagged yourself."
"That sounds like something you'd be good at," Miran remarked. She was familiar with the silent manner in which the redhead moved. It had been unnerving to start. Knowing that Coursers were after them made Miran glad the petite girl was on her side.
Nessa nodded, "That is how I got my Given Name."
"Your Given Name?"
"Every Trainee is Given a name when they are accepted into the Academy. It's a way of closing the door on the life you knew before and starting anew. Typically, your name reflects how you do in the Entry Games. It's a suggestion of where your strengths lie."
"And they gave you the name Lightfoot."
"Because I am light on my feet," Nessa grinned. She had glossed over part of the naming ceremony. Not every trainee was given a new name. Some, who had lines and legacies before them, kept the Given Names of their parents. Only those who stood out were given new names. A rare few were renamed the day they got their shield. It wasn't an exact science.
When the storm passed, they pushed on.
Trees began to be a more prominent feature of the landscape and the terrain began to ripple. They were closing in on the border of Magen.
"You know what I'm going to miss about the plains of Byard?" Nessa mused as they packed up camp one morning.
"What?" Miran wondered, still half-asleep as she shoved her belongings into her pack.
"The ability to see for miles," Nessa nodded into the distance.
Miran glanced behind her and froze.
They were encamped on the edge of a stand of pine. The sun hadn't been up all that long (Nessa tended to rise with the sun), so it wasn't terribly warm yet. That meant the heat hadn't reduced the steppes to a shimmering fantasy land.
On a good day, before the sun scorched the earth at midday, or after the heat had ebbed, and when the resulting haze wasn't obstructing your view, you could see as far away as a hundred miles. Not that you would know it, because everything out here looked the same.
Every morning when the weather allowed, Nessa looked back the way they had come. It was the only time she let herself do it. Her focus was on training Miran now. The steppes let her anticipate when they would have their next visitor—or, rather, the same visitor over and over again. She let herself worry about the Courser when she knew he was going to catch them.
It was impossible to gauge distance on the steppes because there were no landmarks, but judging from what they knew about the Courser and where they had last seen him, he couldn't be more than ten miles away.
And he was on horseback.
And, the day was just starting. He could catch up to them again today.
If they could see him, then it was very likely that he could see them. He was not going to stop to rest, he was going to close the distance.
"He got a horse," was all Miran could muster up.
Nessa just nodded. She wasn't surprised.
"What do you want to do?" Miran wondered.
"At a time like this?"
"He's a ways off yet, and the terrain of Magen is nasty. It's full of steep hills and rocky ravines…"
"Are you planning to push him into one?"
Nessa laughed and hefted her pack, "I might, if the opportunity presents itself." She fell silent as she gazed into the distance, looking back on all the land they had covered. "No, we're going to slow down scrambling up over all these hills. We haven't tackled anything like it in a couple weeks. We're going to need to find our climbing legs again. If he's been riding all this way, he's going to struggle too."
Miran caught her meaning. Nessa was going to make a path that would force him to dismount.
"Even so, I'm certain he'll catch us by the end of the day."
Nessa grinned, "And then, we'll have two horses."
The Courser crept into the woods, cautious.
Despite the distance, and staring into the sun, he'd seen two figures in the shade of this forest. He knew one was his quarry. He could feel her amber eyes boring into him from across the plains. She looked for him every morning before she started her day. She knew he was coming. She'd known since she'd left him tied up in that stable that he'd keep coming. She'd known, like he did, that today was the day he would catch them.
He was expecting a trap. They both knew that even if she kept running, inevitably, she would get caught. She had a few tricks up her sleeve. No girl who gets into the Academy at age twelve and is ready for her shield by age sixteen is without her wiles. She was used to getting ahead and staying ahead. Already, he'd had a taste of what that felt like.
There was minimal sign of their camp. They knew he was in pursuit and that he would find them. There was no reason to waste time hiding the evidence. The half-burned firewood and the dead coals were cast hastily about. Needles fallen from the pine boughs above him provided a cozy cushion for the night.
He was going to enjoy hunting and sleeping back on his home turf after being stuck in that treeless wasteland for a month.
Hunter cast around looking for a trail.
There was no trickery here. Just one path, heading northeast out of the campsite.
Further into the forest, that changed.
Two paths diverged from the one. They cut into the thickest of brush. He was forced to dismount. Partly because he could no longer follow their trail on horseback, but also because he wanted to see who he was tracking.
The Tolinese girl had baffled him from the start. Lightfoot had been solo on her westward journey, but ever since she'd returned east, the Tolinese girl had been by her side. How had they met? Why were they traveling together? Was the Tolinese girl aware of the identity of her travel companion?
He remembered that first night he'd shown himself and mistaken the Tolinese girl for his quarry. She'd been fearful. He had surprise on his side then. Now they both knew he was coming. He knew a little of the Tolinese fighting style. Enough to know they were good. He was going to have his hands full with Lightfoot. He didn't know what the girl from Tolin was capable of. She was going to be the wild card and he didn't relish the showdown.
They could never have that moment if he didn't catch them, Hunter scolded himself. He shook all the questions that remained unanswered from his head. The one that was the hardest to get rid of was: Why run at all?
She knew now that he never intended to give up the chase. Had she not anticipated that the king would hunt her to the ends of the earth?
It didn't matter, he told himself, pursuing the horse trail. His job was to find and retrieve, not to reason and philosophize.
The fact that the girls had the same boot size didn't cease to amaze him. What were the chances of such a stately figure having tiny feet? Or was it Lightfoot who had above average clompers for her size?
As Hunter followed the trail, he couldn't help but wonder: why did Lightfoot keep the Tolinese girl around? Her sole purpose couldn't be to exist as a blocker—leading a less careful man astray.
Was this all just an elaborate game? To the casual observer, it seemed as though Lightfoot was on her way back to Cataire, on her own volition. It was strange that she'd turned around just as soon as he'd caught up to her in Tolin. He didn't trust it. He was waiting for her to bolt. She'd done everything right so far, made it look rather convincing she was heading back. That's what made him suspicious.
And what was with the Tolinese girl? How did she play into all of this?
Everyone knew Lightfoot had no family. It was why she was supposed to be impossible to track. She had no place to run to.
Focus, Hunter told himself. The Tolinese girl doesn't matter. Lightfoot is the payday. The closer he caught her to Cataire, the less trouble she'd be. She seemed to be the type who would get dragged, kicking and screaming, that whole way back. It was not going to be an enjoyable time.
There was something else about her too, something that whispered that even if he got her all trussed up, she'd find a way to escape, and keep on escaping, just because. She was going to be trouble, which is why he was content to follow at a leisurely pace and let her close the distance to the Cataran border on her own terms.
Lightfoot's trail weaved over the hill, crossing with the Tolinese girl's. The difference was subtle on this terrain. It was a nuance in the distribution of weight. If Hunter hadn't tracked her through the mountains from Cataire to Tolin and back again, he might make the mistake of tracking the wrong pair of feet. Lightfoot knew what she was doing by keeping the Tolinese girl around.
What was the foreigner getting in exchange? He wondered.
Though the paths twisted and twined, they were still heading northeast. It was a game, and a poorly laid out one. They tried to switch things up by changing who was leading the horse, but Hunter knew better.
They weren't going to be able to pull one over on him. They thought they were being clever, but he could see through their ruse.
After noon, he caught them. He saw the flank of a horse in a stand of trees ahead. The tracks led straight toward it.
This was where they'd decided to set their trap?
Hunter couldn't see the benefits. The pine forest made treading a silent business. Lightfoot would be able to sneak up on him easy, but he could also return the favor.
He couldn't make out her tiny form among the trees. He didn't expect to. It wouldn't be a very good trap if that was the case.
Hunter tied his mount a safe distance away and crept toward the horse the girls had stolen from him. The footing was sure and silent, but the dead branches, clustered and crowded low making the challenge sidling past them without breaking any and giving away his position.
As the man circled up and around, he considered his options.
There was no discernible trail to follow.
He wanted to take the high road and ignore the trap they'd laid out for him, but there was no trail to follow anywhere, except the trail that led him this far. He'd have to take the bait, find where the trail ended and see what he could infer from there.
As he crept toward the horse in the clearing, he knew it was a bad idea, but there was no other option. He'd tried to go around. That hadn't worked. There was where he had to go to get the next clue.
The trail petered out at the horse, who was tearing out the lush grasses in the clearing with vigor.
"You're not too smart, are you Hunter?" The voice was airborne.
He found Lightfoot perched on a branch, aiming his bow at him.
He could see now why the trail had died. She must have vaulted off the horse and into the tree. Of course she was nimble. She was small and light and quick on her feet. Hunter stored this information away for later, for the interaction that would allow him to have the upper hand.
The Courser stopped and ran a hand through his hair, looking as casual as could be, trying to pretend he hadn't been caught unawares.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the taller girl drop out of a nearby tree and make a run for his horse.
He let her.
They deserved it.
They had gotten the drop on him.
Hunter considered making a run for the mount in front of him. The only thing that stopped him was the small redhead in the tree. She was handling that bow like a pro. She would not hesitate to put a bolt in his chest if he made any move toward her—or the horse, which stood between them.
She was the first Rogue he'd ever hunted, but he knew the stories of the desperate ones. He didn't want that mess on his hands. This one was still cocky. She had every reason to be. She'd bested him three times now. He knew the stories of the other ones, ones who got the upperhand and killed the Coursers who tried to capture them. She hadn't killed him yet, so that was a plus.
"I don't know, Lightfoot," he responded easily. "You're the one who thinks they can run away from the High King."
"I'm not running," Lightfoot was quick to assure him, though she didn't lower the weapon. "Have you not noticed my current direction?"
Hunter didn't answer. He didn't know what to say, "If you're going back home, then you won't mind an escort."
The redhead's eyes narrowed, "That place is not my home. And you know full well the politics surrounding Peacekeepers and Coursers. There is no way. Even if we were heading in the same direction at the same speed. No. Our kind do not go together. Not by choice."
Hunter waved off her declarations. They both knew she didn't have a choice. "Are we not heading in same direction at the same speed?" He asked genially. "I keep catching up to you."
The girl made a face, "Now I know why you couldn't hack it at the Academy. You couldn't comprehend basic math. We're traveling slower than you. That's why you keep catching up to us. You keep stopping to chat. If you didn't, you'd be in Cataire by now."
"My favorite part about traveling is the friends I make on the way. I find it exciting that we're both heading in the same direction. I just want to make sure you girls don't lose your way. That would be a shame."
Without warning, Nessa loosed an arrow, "It's you who should be concerned about losing your way." She had another arrow ready in an instant. She'd reloaded fast. Good to know.
Hunter spun out of the way of the arrow in the nick of time. It whistled harmlessly past his shoulder.
She had his bow, but at least he had—
It was only a moment when he lost visual on his target. While dodging the arrow, he heard a sound much like a horse on the move.
The horse was galloping away, the redhead in the saddle, still with an arrow aimed and ready to fire. "This has got to be getting old for you!" She called to him as the distance between them grew.
"On the contrary!" He shouted back with a grin. "I like the challenge!"