The children approached Farrier’s Dell, both relishing and fearing their changing surroundings. Where rolling hills and high winds had left the plains at the mercy of the wolves the land levelled out flat into alluvial plains the nearer one approached the Lower Ring Road. The Great Denai and its many tributaries had left these lands fertile and farmers and mills dotted the surroundings. The fell beasts of the wilderness were a distant threat here, but perhaps equally as dangerous were the patrols.
Saddled, these warriors held a presence about the whole kingdom, riding from village to village upholding the law and keeping peace. They were laconic, brusque, spartan sort of men, products of the Middle Mountains where the Denarien warriors lived a barren harsh existence to prepare them for the bleakness of a military life. Life in the Denarien army was notoriously frugal and severe, only the bravest most austere of men signed their lives away to protect the country from her enemies. If they were lucky the warriors might find themselves drafted into the King’s Guard, an elite garrison of three thousand men, who fought alongside the king in battle and protected the house of Apollo during times of war and peace alike.
For many this was a dream unlikely to become a reality. Those posted this far north were either young or had failed to show their calibre leaving them some of the most ambitious and determined men in the Green Army. This made them dangerous to Thais and her friends. Finding the royal escapee would certainly bring a young man of little standing in his garrison to the attention of the warrior king, which might in turn lead to a new role in defending the kingdom.
Kaio had run ahead of the girls into the village to scout out whether they enjoyed the services of a healer. He returned barely an hour later to reveal that a healer of quite some worth was posted just outside the village.
“There’s more though Thais,” Kaio warned when he saw his injured friend ready to storm across the fields to the healer’s mill.
“What do you mean more?”
“There is a garrison of the guard posted in the village.”
“Damn,” Thais exclaimed. “Well we’ll have to find another healer then.”
Rachel looked to the bandage she had wrapped around Thais’ arm. Blood was seeping through making the girl’s cloak wet. They didn’t have time to find another healer.
“No Thais, we’ll go to this one,” Rachel insisted and she placed her arm carefully around her shorter friend to start guiding her towards the healer’s mill.
“No Rachel! You’re mad. We haven’t come all this way to make a stupid mistake.”
“A mistake?” Rachel countered passionately. She took hold of Thais’ arm and lifted it up to the girl’s eye line. The princess winced in agony. “Leaving this untreated would be a mistake Thais! A mistake that could cost you your life. The way I see it, you have two choices. You can come along with us peaceably or we will drag you kicking and screaming. Now which of these options do you think will attract more attention from the patrols?”
For a moment Thais and Kaio stared with wide eyes at their flame-haired companion, before they looked to each other in shock.
“I’d do as she says Thais,” Kaio suggested quickly. “I’ve never seen this side to my cousin before and I’m not sure I want to see any more of it.”
“The healer’s place,” Thais spoke softly, her eyes seeking out Kaio and avoiding Rachel’s furious gaze. “It lies far from the village?”
“We could get in and out without the patrols knowing if that’s what you’re wondering,” the boy replied truthfully. After a moment’s silence in which Thais fidgeted under Rachel’s probing eyes, the blonde girl nodded.
“Fine,” she grumbled. “But if this all goes wrong, I know exactly who to blame!”
The children drew their hoods while they scampered across the fields towards the large Mill Kaio had been directed toward. The mill had long ago stopped serving its namesake and had since been turned into a small homestead. Chickens flapped about a dusty yard where children lay playing on the ground, their rapt attention caught by a flurry of small piglets, barely a few weeks old. Thais and her companions ignored the small children, though soon found themselves under scrutiny while they approached the open door to the mill.
Kaio knocked boldly, giving one of the little girls a glare from the darkness of his hood. Uneasily the small children returned to their game while a woman called from the kitchen that she was coming. Moments later a youthful red-faced woman answered the door. She might have been pretty once, before the labours of being a wife and mother stole the spark from her face.
The healer’s wife cast the three hooded youngsters a raised eyebrow of an expression.
“Oh aye, what have be here then?”
“We have come to see the healer,” Kaio spoke on behalf of the group.
“So I can see, I’ve never had three hooded children come to this door in search of me I‘ll tell you that much,” the woman spoke amusedly, looking into the gloom where each face lay. “Come in and sit down, I’ll go fetch him now.”
Thais, Rachel and Kaio followed the mother into her kitchen and sat down awkwardly at table where a beheaded chicken was being plucked. Thais stared at the corpse with a sombre mind.
“I feel no good can come of this,” she whispered while the healer’s wife clattered up a set of stairs toward the back of the mill.
“Shhh! You’re not to speak. Remember?” Rachel ordered sternly. Thais’ hood nodded slowly, before the head within hung down. “Everything will be fine, I promise.”
“Caithus! Caithus you old fool! Visitors for you down in my kitchen. Stop your playing and come and see to them. One of them is bleeding on my table and there’s only room for my chicken to bleed on that table. Caithus man, can you hear me?”
“I hear you woman,” a lilting voice responded, wafting down from the floor above the kitchen. Steps preceded the arrival of the healer, who stared with curious eyes at the hooded trio of children. Despite the way his wife had addressed him, Caithus Lee was a young man, barely a little younger than his wife, though he seemed far younger still by the fact that age had altered his appearance very little. He still maintained his glorious red locks and his beard was full and fine. His skin was bronze from many an afternoon sat in the warm sun and there was a smile in his very eyes that could not be taken by hours or years.
The moment Thais saw him she knew he was a sensitive of unusual power. She had been right, this was a mistake. As his eyes roved over their hooded faces she knew he would easily sense who she was.
“There now, which of you is injured?”
After glancing in one another’s direction, though finding little but shadowed chins instead of eyes, Thais stood to her feet, her injured arm clasped to her chest. The healer’s wife had not been mistaken, it was bleeding again. The healer’s face seemed to wrinkle with a powerful thought before he smiled and led the way through a door in the back of the kitchen.
“Allow me to lead the way to my surgery young one. Forgive me, but your secrecy prevents me from addressing you as I should. I know not what you are beneath that cloak and I daresay if I ask, you will not lower it.”
Thais looked around the surgery noticing instruments cluttering for space beside jars filled with parts of animals pickled in brine. Curiosity burned and were secrecy not the most important rule to abide by at this moment then the princess would have bombarded the healer with questions about his practice.
“Your arm, may I see it?”
The healer had sat down at Thais’ side. Uneasily, the girl complied, pulling her ragged shirt away from her loosely dressed arm. Caithus pulled the dressing back and turned Thais’ arm this way and that, his expression unchanging.
“A wolf gave you this injury?” the healer finally spoke, lifting his blue eyes to the gloom of Thais’ hood. The girl nodded simply, refusing to let him hear her voice.
Pointless, she grumbled to herself. He knows who I am anyway.
“I am happy you came to me,” Caithus continued despite the girl’s silence. “The wounds are not too deep, but wolves’ teeth can leave an evil in the flesh that will eventually see the limb lost. I need you to remain very still and to concentrate on keeping the ether that has settled on you out of my way. Do you think you can do that?”
Thais nodded once more, unsurprised that this healer knew of her limited abilities as a sensitive. Long fingers snaked over her wounded arm and Thais’ skin started to prickle. She could feel the healer’s mind sinking into the sharp wounds in her arm. The ether on Thais’ skin was trying to resist the intrusion, but Thais did as she was told and forced her mind to focus, to let the healer’s mind in. Pain was spiralling up the girl’s arm while the healer sought out the disease in the wounds and forced it out.
“Agh,” Thais cried out when bubbles started spitting from the cuts, but she held her concentration and helped Caithus purge her injured arm. Without warning the healer opened is eyes and caught Thais’ dark gaze. He was finished, all that was left was to dress the wound.
“If you will excuse me, I must go and fetch a lotion to dress he skin.” Thais sensed the lie before it left the healer’s mouth, but she nodded nonetheless and watched him leave the surgery. The door he pulled closed behind himself, though Thais followed and pulled it open to see the man stalk into the yard and draw his wife out of the line of sight. They spoke in low quick voices. Kaio and Rachel saw Thais’ face in the gloom and nodded to her.
“He knows. We must escape,” the princess whispered urgently. “His wife will go and alert the patrols in the village. I’m sure of it.”
“Your arm is not yet dressed,” Rachel keenly noticed.
“Yes, but even we cannot outrun the patrols cousin,” Kaio now cut in.
“We’re not going anywhere yet,” the flame-haired girl insisted firmly. “We didn’t come all this way for a job half done, you could still lose that arm Thais.”
“Yes, but the patrols…”
“Calm,” the flame-haired girl soothed, a sad smile on her wise face. “I have a plan. He’s coming back, go back inside before he sees you Thais. Pretend you don’t know he has spoken with his wife.”
“I hope you know what you are doing,” the fair girl whispered petulantly, before she pulled back into the surgery and took her seat, her eyes moody beneath her hood. Moments later the healer wandered in, a small bottle in his hand.
“There we are, sorry it took me so long.” Thais tried her hardest to shield her thoughts from the healer as he swabbed and dressed her wound with a sweet smelling lotion that stung bitterly at the open wounds on Thais’ arm.
“If we had longer,” the healer started saying, his eyes meeting Thais’ in the gloom for a moment. He seemed sad. “I would seal these cuts for you, but until I am sure they are clear of infection I would not dare. If I close your skin and leave illness in your arm, it will be gone before the month is through.”
Thais clasped her bound arm to her chest and tried to flex her hand. Pains still shot up her arm, but somehow it seemed less agonising than before. The healer had done a good service for the daughter of the king.
“I thank you,” the girl whispered.
“Tell me, why do you hide your face so?” the healer asked softly while he tidied his instruments away.
“You know why.”
Caithus Lee lifted his eyes quickly to meet Thais’ and his mouth opened for something to say, but he was lost for words.
A scream, curdled and tortured wafted from the yard into the house. It was one of Caithus’ young daughters. Within seconds the man had run from the surgery leaving the door wide open revealing the kitchen. Rachel and Kaio were gone. Thais sat up as tall as she could manage and peered into the yard to see the small children running about and Caithus Lee crouched on the floor.
The princess didn’t have long to wonder what had happened, as a tapping at the window revealed Rachel’s flushed face. Thais quickly rushed to open it allowing Rachel to climb inside.
“You and Kaio must fly Thais, I’ll stay behind in your place,” the older girl insisted, sitting down in the seat Thais had vacated in order to open the window.
“You must be joking,” the smaller girl exclaimed hollowly. “Rachel we can’t just leave you here!”
“There’s no time for you to fight with me on this one Thais and if you did then I would certainly win,” Rachel ordered, empowered by her own sacrifice. The princess rushed toward her but was swatted out of the healer’s view by Rachel, still sitting hooded in the doorway. “I’ll try and catch up with you before you reach the White Sea.”
“You won’t,” Thais countered. “They’ll take you back to the Green Palace where the hounds of the guard will question you on where I’m going.”
“Then I’ll lie to them and wait for you to come home. Look, it was my idea to come here. You thought it was a mistake and now it turns out you were right. Thais please, let me do this for you, just go!”
Staring into the kind, yet urgent eyes of her friend Thais realised she had little choice. She could make this more painful than it had to be, or she could gratefully accept the sacrifice Rachel was willing to make for her.
“Thank you,” the small girl uttered, her eyes glassy with tears. Rachel, despite her common sense and the healer’s plain view of her position, reached out a hand to Thais and squeezed the princess’ uninjured arm.
“My heart goes with you. Now go.”
Turning from her closest ally Thais vaulted out the window, diving low behind the buildings and following Kaio at a sprint. They ran without looking back until they reached the tree line on the hill beyond the mill where finally, panting, they stopped. They turned to see the healer crouched on the floor, his young children falling about him still in a state of distress while in the distance dust was rising on the lane; the guard was approaching.
“Good luck my friend,” Thais whispered tremulously, before she and Kaio disappeared into the gloom of the woods.