Authors: KateMarie Collins
The packing was swift. He made sure his tunic and breeches were closer to the top this time, along with a razor. He changed into his sturdy leather boots, then moved aside the small chest of drawers. In the wall behind it, he worked the tip of his dagger into a barely noticeable gap in the boards. Reaching into the space, he pulled out two pouches full of coin. The benefit of never buying more than one needed. He had money for the journey ahead.
He secured one pouch deep within the pack, under several layers of clothing. His repair kit slid into a pocket next to the strap meant for his quiver. Carefully, he secured the wrapping around his bow. He wasn’t sure if Kaerdan would recognize the carving, but now was not a time to take chances.
One last look around the room that had been home for three years to make sure everything necessary was packed. Shouldering his burden, he walked out the door without looking back.
The tavern was full, even in this part of Antioch. Revelers mixed with thieves and pickpockets, each offering toasts to the happy couple. And the alliance in general. War was coming, and with it the chance for more profit.
Alaric kept to himself in a corner. He’d been here for two days now. No one was hiring, not yet. Wait a few days, they said. We want to celebrate first. The longer he waited, the more nervous he became.
One way or another, he was leaving by dawn. Even if it meant buying a camel. The next big city was still a good three days to the south. A horse was faster, but that meant extra feed, water. The camel could do the distance.
The wedding procession had wound through the streets that evening. Alaric stayed in his corner, avoiding the spectacle. Ale was his friend tonight. Though the three pints he’d downed so far had done little to dull the pain he felt.
He wasn’t so far gone he couldn’t keep an eye on his things, though. Or not pick up on small changes in the tavern. He saw the urchin who stole coin out of one pocket while pretending to wipe up crumbs, and the barkeep adding water to the keg when he thought no one was looking. Most of the guests, though, were too busy celebrating.
Not all, though. A group of four sat at a table in the opposite corner. Two women, two men. Warriors, a probable thief, and someone he couldn’t figure out. Important, though, the way the other three watched around her. The red braid hanging straight down her back stood out like a beacon. More than one man approached the table, hoping to find out who she was. Each time, they were rebuffed by the other three.
town reeks right
now, I’m telling you. Wish that Islander would take his Amari and leave already. It’s bad enough with the ones that live here. This stinkin’ lot can’t even teach them to bathe.” Alaric heard the bitter words of the man the next table over. He sipped at his ale, listening.
“What’cha talkin’ about, Charlie? The foreigners are cleaner than you’ve ever been.” Laughter overtook the group.
“Those Amari, they’ve got a smell about them. Not everyone can tell, but I can. It has to do with the magic they do. Especially the ones that are unchained. People need to leash their pets, you know. Otherwise they might get ‘lost’.”
More laughter erupted from the group. “Doubt there’s any free for the takin’ in this place, Charlie. Ajanor’s stricter than most on his pets. Don’t you remember? When we crossed into his lands last year, the checkpoints we had to go through. The man’s paranoid that some unchained Amari’s going to murder him in his sleep.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Alaric watched the man they called Charlie shrug. “No skin off my nose if he’s paranoid. I’m just tired of the stench. Can even smell it in here, and there’s not a single one to be seen.”
Trumpets blared outside. Alaric stayed seated while most of the room filed outside to see why. He knew why. The ceremony was finally over. Erien and her new husband
were being paraded through
the streets. He knew himself well enough to stay seated. Otherwise, he might do something he knew he’d regret.
He absently stared at the inside of his mug, watching the ale swirl around the bottom. He hated living in the shadows, watching life happen around him. All because others thought he was worth saving. Right now, he felt like he was the last person who should be saved. But he had no way of saving anyone else.
Another person slid into the seat opposite of him. “I hear you’re looking for a job.”
Raising his head, Alaric studied the older man. He’d been with the others, across the room. His dark hair blended with the collar of the tunic he wore. It was the thief.
“I might be. What’s the job?”
“Just get myself and my companions to the border of Dunegan. Only a week or two at most, depending on how fast we travel. We’re not familiar with travel in the desert and need a guide.” The man’s dark gaze was piercing. Whoever he was, he would know when Alaric was lying.
“When do we leave?”
The other man placed a hand on the table, pushing himself up. “Now. We’re not big on celebrations, and we’d like to be on our way.”
Alaric stood as well, though swaying slightly. “Fair enough.” Grabbing his pack and wrapped bow, he followed the other man through the doorway.
The rest of the group were mounted on three horses. A fourth animal was saddled and waiting. A pack mule, laden with supplies, was led by the other man. The man who hired him vaulted up behind the red-haired woman. Her covering hid most of her features, and she kept her head down. Alaric moved toward the waiting horse. “You hired the drunk?” The other woman snorted.
“Something tells me he’s going to be fine when he’s sober, Gwen. And that he needs to leave here more than we do. You can ask him questions over dinner if you want. But the decision’s mine.” The man looked over at Alaric. “I’m Emile. That’s Gwen.”
nodded to the woman on the other horse. “Trystian’s going to bring up the back with the supplies. We’ll follow you.” Emile nodded, expecting Alaric to take point.
He maneuvered his horse closer to Emile’s. “What’s your name, miss?” he asked the woman riding in front.
Her head swiveled. A pair of green eyes set in a pale face met his gaze. There was no fear, only a tired resignation in them. “It’s Fin,” she replied softly.
“Questions can wait. You were hired to lead us to the border. Let’s go.” Emile’s voice was direct, commanding.
Alaric nodded. Whoever this Fin was, the rest were determined to protect her. He got the sinking feeling he’d just signed on for something far more dangerous than he originally thought.
Alaric held up his hand, signaling the group to stop. “We rest here. It’s going to be too dark to keep going within an hour. And too cold.” He turned in his saddle. “There’s no oasis we can reach for at least a day’s ride. The rocks over there—” he pointed to his left “—we put the tent against them. They’ll shield us from any storms in the night.” He guided his horse toward the formation, hearing the others follow behind.
Four hours of silence had marked the journey so far. He was sober now, not that it mattered. He wasn’t that far into his cups to begin with. He knew the way to Dunegan, and how to get there safely. This part of the desert was tricky. Even the raiders stayed away most of the time.
Alaric busied himself with making a way for them to tether the horses for the night while the others erected the tent on the sheltered side of the rocks. “Is it safe for a fire?” Emile asked.
He nodded his head. “Should be, if you keep it small. Raiders, if they come, will wait for us to be farther from the city.”
“We still keep watch.” Trystian’s deep voice was barely over a whisper.
“I don’t think that’s what he was suggesting, Trystian.” Alaric raised his head at the sound of the woman’s voice. Calm, soothing. And tired. Whoever this Fin was, she wasn’t immune to that.
Emile led the woman over to a chair, making her sit.
Gwen handed her a water skin. A whispered command of “Rest now, we’ve got things covered” as she did so.
Alaric tore his gaze from her. “I recommend we keep the horses saddled, though. Just in case.” He kept his focus on the animals, but watched as the others put the tent up quickly. One side was left open, the canvas stretched out to give some shelter to the horses.
The large, bearded man called Trystian
had a fire started by the time Alaric finished tending to the horses. A small pot, suspended over the flames, showed promise of a good meal. It wouldn’t be much, but it’d be hot and filling.
Alaric set up his bedroll for the night. Not so close to the others that there’d be cause for alarm, but still within the shelter of the tent. He already knew they didn’t trust him yet. No reason to push it.
“How long do you think we’ll be on the road, Islander?” Gwen didn’t look at him as she spoke.
He shrugged. “Depends. If we don’t encounter any trouble, no more than a week. If we get caught up in a storm, could be two.”
“Do raiders come through often?”
“They’re usually more active closer to whatever oasis they operate from. If we stay on the main road, take no shortcuts, they probably won’t bother us. I don’t care much for Ajanor’s policies, but he did right by having the army patrol the main route. If we put a coin or two into the right hands as we move along, no one will bother us.”
Emile spoke up. “No worries there. I’ve got coin for that. I’d rather bribe a few officials than be set on in the night.”
“Raiders are the least of our worries at night,”
Trystian’s deep voice carried in the still night air. Glancing
at the man, Alaric saw him raise his dagger. A large scorpion writhed on the tip. The black and red striped body made him swallow hard.
“Those are the worst out here. Can kill a man with a single jab, but rarely come near humans. If we keep the fire going, they’ll stay away.” Alaric stated with conviction.
“Hope so. If they get to one of the horses, you’re the one walking the next day.” Trystian pointed with his dagger, emphasizing his words. “Food’s ready.” He flicked the blade in his hand, sending the dead scorpion off into the night.
Conversation was sparse over the meal. Emile set up a rotation, but didn’t mention Alaric in it. Not surprising, really. He was the guide, that’s it. That he needed to get out of Antioch as badly as they seemed to want to wasn’t mentioned.
He settled into his bedroll, staring at the sky for a time. Thousands of stars shone down on him. His mind drifted to Erien. It was her wedding night. Was Kaerdan being gentle with her? By the gods, he hoped so.
“You trust him.” Fin’s whispered voice reached his ears.
“Yes.” Emile replied. “So will you, in time. It won’t be any different than when Gwen or Trystian came across our path.”
“I’m not so sure. There’s something different about him.” Alaric heard the hesitation in her voice.
“You still trust me, don’t you?”
“Of course. Just as I have since you found me.”
“Well, then. You trust me. I trust him. He’s got almost as much to fear as you do, Fin. He’s no slaver.”
She muttered something else he couldn’t understand. Whatever it was, the conversation was over.
Shrugging it off, he closed his eyes. They provided him a way out of Antioch. Away from any chance of Kaerdan finding him. Whatever secrets they had would either come out in the journey ahead, or not at all. One final prayer in hopes that Erien’s life would not be what he feared it would be, and he let sleep overtake his body.
“Wake up, slowly. We have company.” The whispered command drove sleep from his mind. Blinking, he stared up at the stars. Still an hour or two before sunrise. The horses pranced nervously. A dark figure, his back against the rocks near him, nodded once. “They’re coming, slowly, from the road. Don’t know they’ve been seen. Only five of them. Trystian, Gwen, and I will deal with them. Stay here, watch over Fin.” Emile turned to him, his face a
deadly mask. “If any of them get through us, put her on a horse and go. We’ll catch up. If she’s taken while there’s still breath in your body, Islander, you’ll wish you’d never heard of us.”
Alaric eased out of his blankets, reaching for his bow as he rose. He kept his back to the road as he unwrapped it from the casing and slid the string into place. He took a moment to watch as Emile slid into the tent to wake the others. The two warriors rose with a practiced stealthiness, strapping on a few bits of armor too cumbersome to sleep in. Emile blocked his view of Fin.