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Part Two: Chapter 23

The younger boy barely skipped a beat when he saw the girl, merely voicing a curt, overloud greeting before returning to his sport. He had a long, thin vine wrapped at one end around his little finger and a tiny, hopping frog bound to the other, and the amusement he was deriving from this left him all but oblivious to the rest of the world. This tot’s sole companion, however, was on the border of leaving childhood innocence behind; and thus, although he’d been laughing just a moment before also—with his own amphibian tied to his hand—the elder boy stopped in his tracks at the stranger’s sudden appearance. His jaw slackened as he stared quite unknowingly at his own abducted monarch. He let his vine fall at his side.

“Don’t be frightened…” said the girl. Her voice was sweet but at odds with her troubled face. Her eyes flicked to the smaller of the pair who’d just loosed another cackle of glee as he continued to play nearby. “Your brother?”

“Where’d you come from?” the older lad finally spoke, ignoring the question posed for one of his own. Someone had trained him well enough. “Who’s with you?” Nervously he swept his gaze over the immediate vicinity. He’d rightly assumed a girl no older than himself—and not of his own village—wouldn’t be wandering out here alone; yet his scan turned up no sign of others, nor did the Queen of Braured make any sign to give her captors away.

“No one. My name’s Cat—and I go where I please.” She took a step closer, forcing a smile. “What’s your name?”

“Come, Righa!” the lad yelled suddenly in the direction of his charge before turning back on Cataya of Braured. “I’m Orum. You’re from Adach?”

“Adach…yes.” The girl frowned as she said this—but then her face took on a curious, eager expression. “Have you heard the tale, Orum?”

“What tale?”

Brushing a stray lock of black hair from her face, Cataya put her back against the nearest tree and slid down into a cross-legged sitting position at its base; and, after one more glance aside to ensure Righa was obeying his command, the elder boy warily followed her lead. As soon as his eyes were on her again, she lost no time in beginning…

“What’s she telling him?” whispered Jedan, his face less than a hand’s length from Gavix’ right ear.

“She says what was planned.”

“And nothing more?” Jedan pressed, ignoring the quick, agitated glance that had accompanied Gavix’ response. The pair were on their knees, peering over a fallen trunk within earshot of Cataya’s meeting but well hidden by foliage from view. “I can’t see her hands…or her eyes. She could be…”

The woodland boy had just spoken again—rather excitedly—causing Mûran to cut short his voiced concern. The Haxûdī noted a smile on his son’s face then: one which instantly conjured over him a shower of relief. Clearly Allethion had been seen, and this child was telling the girl all he knew about it.

And for the captain, success came not a moment too soon.

Despite his promise to Dragan, for the past few days Jedan had been on the verge of abandoning his quest. Already in this wood he’d resorted to stealing provisions from the locals; yet what he’d taken was proving barely adequate to support himself and the children, much less their poor, starving horses. And already he’d drawn his blade and ended one life…though the second man had gotten away. But the worst part of the ordeal had been, until its ending just now, that not a clue of Dragan’s steed had been discovered. First they’d sought and eventually come upon the spot where Gavix had last seen Allethion, only to find nothing new. Then they’d scoured the forest around that area, still with no luck at all. Even after eventually being detected, however—and although he could hardly take a step forward now without looking behind, expecting any moment to see the brush part and spears come flying at him—Mûran had been reluctant to attempt Gavix’ plan involving the girl. Yet he was too encouraged to curse his overcautiousness at present. Too proud of his increasingly resourceful son.

“She’ll return to the horses now,” Gavix whispered again after awhile to his father. Cataya was in the process of standing and wiping her hands clean of debris, apparently at discussion’s end with her unknowing subject.

Jedan’s expression fell sour again. No doubt he was concerned about letting the girl out of his sight, even for a brief period; but having held to the plan so far without deviation, he held his tongue and waited for her to wave goodbye and walk off—and for the native children to depart in the opposite direction—before stirring. “Quickly, boy!” he snapped then, seeming to have forgotten the high regard he’d held for his son but a few moments earlier. “It’s your hide if we lose her!”

And at that, Gavix set off at once after the Queen of Braured at breakneck speed; yet no chastisement from his father could wipe the silly grin from his face.

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