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Part Two: Chapter 20

Jedan Mûran pulled the leather reins up and to the left. His steed responded by coming to a stop—but not before making a quick circle that might’ve been a playful strut. Gavix soon came up beside with his captive grasping his waist from behind. She had a look of both fear and exhilaration on her face and—even after the lad’s mount slowed to a halt—clutched him as tightly as if they were at a full gallop. Mûran reckoned she’d never ridden a horse; and he was correct, for these beasts were alien to her people and the forest they inhabited.

Now the small party had returned to her home, having drawn up before the entrance to Braured Forest. A swarm of vultures could be seen far off above its dense canopy, circling over the rotting dead along the road from the battle that’d taken place here earlier. They might even have smelled the stench of corruption had they been closer and had the wind been blowing in the right direction; but it wasn’t blowing at all. The sky was cloudless. The sun was at high noon and had been glaring at them relentlessly since their departure from Ost. Their canteens and horses already needed water.

“The river to the north is less than a furlong from here,” Jedan said, pointing a slender finger in that direction. “We’ll water the horses there then make our way back south around the forest’s perimeter. The albino says we’ll eventually find a great lake and a river that feeds it from the east—and if we follow it till it bends southward again, we should be close to where the battle was had. And we’ll have the carrion birds to guide us. From there we’ll see what we will.”

“Son,” Jedan soon spoke again in a more serious tone (if that were possible), and Gavix met his father’s gaze—only to find it locked on the girl still gripping him tightly from behind. “I’m not the DoomBringer,” Mûran continued, his stern eyes returning to the boy. “Be proud your father has reaped his own share of glory and renown amongst our people—but I can’t defeat ten men at once, nor will arrows part from their course to my heart. We ride here in great peril, even though we take pains to circumvent the northern forest. We must be stealthy in all we do. Understand? The girl’s your responsibility. If she opens her mouth, even so much as a whimper—or if she tries to hinder us in any way—I won’t hesitate to cut her throat.” Jedan animated the last words with a finger running across his neck. “Bind her hands together and to the saddle.”

“Father!” the son protested. “Look at her. She’s terrified as it is. She won’t go anywhere.”

The rearguard captain let out a long sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose, shaking his head slightly with eyes momentarily closed. They flicked back open: “Are you stupid, boy? She’s the queen of this wretched forest. What would you risk to have the world again at your fingertips if it’d been wrenched away?” He paused, partly expecting an answer; but his son appeared nonplussed, so Jedan chided him again. “I’ve a mind to gag her…and you also, lest more foolishness fall from your tongue!”

The boy racked his brain then for some clever rebuke—or any kind, for that matter. Unexpectedly one came to him, and as soon as it entered his mind it left his lips. “Will you gag the horses? They may neigh…and they don’t understand what this means,” he said, running a finger along his throat, careful not to show too much impudence in his mockery.

The man stared at his son harshly for a time, thinking to beat Gavix right there—but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. The boy had made a valid point. He turned his eyes on the forest instead. “We’d not fair well without horses in this wood…on a mission of unknown duration with a child of little endurance.” Jedan took another long look at the girl as his thoughts turned inward. “Bind her,” he finally added in a voice indicating more backtalk wouldn’t be tolerated. Gavix reached into one side of the satchel astride his horse and removed a length of rope. With some difficulty, he wrested the girl’s arms from his waist and, twisting his torso around, began tying her hands together. Her eyes filled with tears as the rope bit into flesh. She began sniffling as her sorrows were loosed. Gavix placed a vertical finger to his lips, gave her a sympathetic shush, then tied the free end of the rope to a metal ring sewn into the saddle.

All the while Jedan watched impassively until satisfied with his son’s work; then he nodded and, turning his charger northwards, set off for the muddy river Asendath. Son and captive followed close behind.

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