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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Dharva walked openly, with long cloak covering her boys pants and her face available for viewing by any who wished to do so on the docks, up the gang plank of the Furazol and onto the familiar decks of that ship. The captain was there to meet her, as he might any paying passenger, taking her hands in his and bowing gentlemanly over her knuckles. He hadn't the occasion to greet her so on her first boarding and she blushed slightly at the gallantry. A group of sailors hurried down the plank, grinning at her conspiratorially as they passed and went to get her luggage, which sat on the pier, off loaded from the open backed wagon which had carried her here. Her baggage consisted of one large trunk, hastily bought in a pawn shop very early that morning and padded enough to make a brief ride within it more comfortable on old bones.

She counted at least six pairs of black armored men patrolling the docks in the time she'd been there. Slight attention was paid to a lone female passenger boarding a mid-sized merchanter of no outstanding reputation. No one wanted her. No one knew she was connected in any way to Master Pyphin or Captain Theodonis of the Luck. She looked down the bristling row of masts, but the Furazol's berth was too far away for her to get a glimpse of Theo's ship. She'd had all too brief a glimpse of him, as they'd bustled her and master Pyphin off towards the Furazol and he and Collin had headed towards the sailmaker's shop where the rest of the Luck's men took refuge. Oh, how she had wanted to say something meaningful, something that he would remember her by, but nothing could get past the lump in her throat and the fear that she would only embarrass herself when he paid it no heed. So, she had politely held out her hand to him, at the porch of the ramshackle inn they had shared, and primly wished him well. He'd almost disregarded her then, staring at the hand as if it were some foreign and malignant thing at the end of her arm, as though he were loathe to touch her at all, before he took her clasped her hand quickly and shortly and let it go. Her ego withered and cried inside. She had so badly wished for something more.

Then Collin and another seamen brought down the trunk with Pyphin securely inside and she was carried away in the hired wagon. She didn't look back in fear that they weren't there, that they had just gone back inside without waiting to see her safely down the street.

"Lass?" Captain Skawag laid a hand on her arm as she stood at the rail, staring blindly at the dockside activity. "He's entrenched in a cabin below decks. We'll set sail in an hour or two when the last of the supplies are loaded."

She nodded, forcing a smile for the man who was doing so much for them. Four weeks and they'd be home. Four weeks and they could start to remedy this situation at the source.

 

* * * *

"I know where that is, that's out at Kathari Point. Least it sounds like it."

Claimed Lhoki, who had been loitering not far from where Theo held conference with his senior crewmen in the warehouse of Kaval the sailmaker. The comment had come after Collin had explained to Wing the serious of cryptic clues Pyphin had come up with to lead them to the Second Stone. The four of them, Collin, Adella, Wing and Theo looked at the young man with varying degrees of expectancy. Lhoki swelled up a bit at the attention, especially since some of the younger crewmen had also diverted their attention his way.

"That part about the sea surrounding it on all sides and no ships being able to reach it. Kathari point sticks out further than any other piece of land, with cliffs so high and sheer that nothing can climb them. The whole point is like that, which is why no town ever sprang up. No reason too when there weren't no place for a ship to dock. It's way, way down south though. Least four, five hundred leagues."

"I didn't realize topography was a requirement on the streets of Vahnatu." Theo remarked dryly, receiving a narrow look from Lhoki. He was not certain he liked the young man, and it seemed equally obvious that Lhoki did not hold him in the greatest of esteem. It was Wing's fault. The cutpurse had formed an attachment to the big man and exhibited a certain resentfulness over the closeness Wing and Theo shared.

"Well - - well maybe it is." Lhoki retorted with the uncertain air of a man out of his conversational depths.

"How do you know that?" Wing asked with a sidelong look at Theo.

"Used to travel all over before - - well - - just before I came here. If you follow the slave route almost to the end at Toslith on the very southernmost coast, it passes the point of Kathari."

"You used to travel the slave routes a lot?" Wing asked and since it was Wing who asked it and not Theo, the young man chewed on his lip and considered seriously before answering.

"Used to travel with my Da. We went everywhere. My Da he was a rich man."

"Your Da was a slaver?"

One nod of the head, a quick nervous nod as if he weren't quite pleased with the answer he gave.

"So how'd you end up in the slums of this miserable port if you father was such a wealthy slaver?" That from Theo.

Lhoki glared and refused to say more. Theo rolled his eyes and turned back to the map Pyphin had drawn, figuring if the cutpurse wanted to be that way it was fine with him. He found the arm of land that was most likely the point of Kathari and estimated that Lhoki was right in how many leagues away it was. It was not a journey to look forward to with no ship to speed them down the coast and no money to buy horses that would make a land trip more expedient.

He looked around the warehouse at the scattered collection of his crew. Eighteen men in all whose welfare he held himself personally responsible for. Eighteen sailors who were not in any fashion safe in this city, yet at the same time he would not feel quite comfortable dragging them through the Danarian wilds on a fool's quest. It was a corner he did not appreciate being backed into. His choices were so limited he was even forced to listen seriously to the advice of a cutpurse.

"Do you know how to reach this Point of Kathari?"

Lhoki looked up from his scuffling feet, surprised that Theo had asked. He narrowed his eyes as though about to ask what were in it for him, then changed his mind and said.

"Never been there exactly, but I remember where the road splits off that leads to it. Nothing much there to draw slavers or anyone for that matter."

"Show me on the map."

Lhoki shook his head. "Can't do that. Never much paid heed to maps and the likes, but I know the landmarks. I can show you when I see the place."

Theo stared at him. Wing did, gaugingly. "So you're saying," the big man asked carefully. "That you would travel with us and guide us to the spot?"

Another shrug. The young man looked a little nervous now. "Ain't got nothin' better to do."

"Why?" Theo asked bluntly. "It's a dangerous undertaking at best and a fool's quest in any other light you'd care to look at."

"Wing there, he's been good to me." Lhoki thrust out his chin stubbornly. "Played fair with me and not many folks on my side of town do that much. Besides, you're out to do something that will vex the high and mighty bitch and I'm all for that. Anything to ruin her day."

Theo wondered what Tiana could have done that had effected this young man to the point of such a need for vengeance. It seemed the lady acquired enemies where ever she went.

 

Kaval the sailmaker ambled down the rutted dockside street towards his shop a bit of good news lightening the load of market produce he carried over his shoulder. It had been good to have a shop full of boys to help his labor of late. He'd finished three orders in the time it would have taken for him alone to barely finish one. His favor to Skawag had paid off and like most honest merchants in Vahnatu he was more than willing to help anyone on the bad side of the lady Tiana who sat in her fortress down the coast like a queen, soaking up their profits in the form of strict taxes and levies. Not to mention taking their sons to man her ships or work her mines and fields, for that alone he damned her, having lost two sons to that fate.

He was happy to go out of his way to help the crew of the crippled Luck and the news he had was sure to please that ship's harried captain. He unlocked the front door to his shop and one of the younger boys ran up front to help him with his burden, carrying the sack of vegetables and the side of beef towards the back, where the Luck's cook had offered to whip up a tasty stew. Kaval's cooking was abominable and he was only too glad to have another offer his services. He saw with satisfaction that yet a fourth commission had been started and skirted the edge of the flattened canvas in search of Theo.

There was a game of stones in progress between several of the crew and Lhoki, which the Luck's senior crew watched from the outskirts.

"Heard a bit of news." the sailmaker said, drawing Theo and Wing's attention. "Heard that your ship is being confiscated at property of the Port Official, meaning the lady Tiana."

Theo's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Are they really?" His voice was deceptively sweet.

"They've given the shipwrights permission to continue work on her."

This time Theo's stare was more thoughtful. He glanced to Wing and the big man shared his contemplative look. Kaval grinned as they considered what he had already though about on the walk home. Let Tiana's officials finish the repairs on the ship and then it was merely a matter of slipping in and regaining what was rightfully theirs. And if the guard was too heavy at port, then let them take her to sea. Between Theo's pirate contacts and those favorable to causing Tiana grief here at Vahnatu, they could more than likely take her back at sea.

"Well that is very interesting news." Theo inclined his head at him. "And word of any interest in the Furazol?"

"Not a bit. She's clear and free with no one the wiser."

"Good." Theo turned back to watch the game, chewing on a thumbnail, eyes distant. Kaval turned to go oversee the work being done cutting the current sail and Theo stopped him with a question.

"Would it be a burden to you, master Kaval, to house a few of my crew while the rest of us are away? I'll need someone here to keep an eye to what they're doing to my ship. They would certainly work for their board."

Kaval's eye went to the young men working so adeptly with his tools, then back to their captain. "No trouble at all, Captain. None at all."

 

Adella was not happy in the least being left behind. Neither were Stol, Urchin nor the other three young members of his crew that were chosen to keep vigil on the Luck. With Adella it was a mere matter of Theo trusting no one else's judgment in relation to the ship and any snap decisions made regarding her well being. With the boys, and Urchin pointed this out vehemently, it was the simple fact that Theo did not trust in their judgment enough or their skills to fend for themselves on dry and hostile land that kept them slaving away for the sailmaker. It was true enough and Theo didn't bother to deny it. He had more pressing matters to attend such as figuring out the best way to utilize what gold they had left.

Horses would have been nice. Would have been wonderful since he relished very little walking the length of a continent, even if it was a small one. But fourteen horses were beyond his means. They were lucky to buy two to carry the supplies and those were old and bad tempered. Wing and Lhoki went out to buy supplies, the cutpurse claiming to know what they would likely need for a prolonged hike across Danar. Again, Theo had no alternative but to trust him, his expertise lying in other areas.

What they came back with was a great deal more than Theo had expected them to buy with the limited funds they'd had. Lhoki, it seemed, had several connections with sellers of less than legal merchandise. Theo could not find fault with him for that bit of industriousness. He surveyed the loot after they'd spread it out on the warehouse floor and was amazed at the variety. All manner of dried foods, fruits, trail bread that was hard enough to kill a man with, jerky (which Theo hated) small tins of spices, coffee, tea, herbs for flavoring, flour, sugar and other raw ingredients. There were fishing hooks, line, rope, canteens for everyone, two sturdy iron skillets, and a pot for boiling water or making stew. Several pouches with flint were scattered amongst the jumble, as well as medicinal kits, salves, bandages, needles for stitching cloth or skin. There were blankets and bedrolls, canvas ponchos with hoods to fight off the wetness that the rainy season was likely to plague them with, three small tents that all of them might be able to fit into during particularly bad down pours. There was more, what wasn't carried by the two pack animals divided equally among the men and rolled into back packs.

To avoid suspicion, they went out in ones and twos, with plans to meet a league down the slave route from where it branched off leading to the port city. Theo and Wing were the last to go. They clasped hands with a dour faced Adella, and bid the boys behave. There was a good deal of foot scuffling and sullen glares from his younger crew, especially from Urchin, who refused to take Theo's hand, holding his own clasped behind his back in a sulk. Wing leaned down to stare the boy in the eye.

"Behave yourself, boy. Listen to Adella."

The lower lip thrust out, but there was a reluctant nod of assent. Wing nodded, satisfied and joined Theo outside. His friend was not recognizable at a casual glance. A leather cap hid most of Theo's hair and the captain's ring was absent from his ear. He'd smudged his face worse than Lhoki's and over a week's worth of stubble shadowed his normally clean shaven jaw. Unless one knew him intimately he would not be mistaken for the sea captain Tiana's men hunted for.

"Ready?"

Theo nodded, gazing across the lagoon at the line of ships at dock, very much wishing he could make one last trip past the Luck to bid her farewell.

"We haven't the time." Wing said.

"I know."

They went to the north gate and passed in the company of a group of farmers leading an empty cart back to their fields. There were guards but no one of them looked their way. When the trail branched, one path leading inland the other north towards the slave route, they split from their humble traveling companions, walking in comparative silence through the forest. Theo remembered walking with Dharva in the woods. She had been a much more abusive companion than Wing. But she smelled better and was nicer to observe from the rear.

By mid-afternoon they'd reached the broader avenue of the slave route and a quarter hour's brisk walk brought them to the gathering of Theo's men off the side of the road. Some of them, Theo thought as they were greeted, even looked eager to be about this strange mission. The wiser ones seemed uncertain, but all of them were glad to be out of Vahnatu with it's guards and it's constant threat.

The weather was pleasantly cool, the leaves on the trees a mixed bag of colors, from the constant green of the conifers to reds and yellows on the broader leafed forest inhabitants. There were a few harvesters in the fields the route passed, who briefly followed the passage of travelers, but no other sign of human life. For two days they saw no one and had passed the point where they might have turned off and made their way to the secret pirate cove before the trip turned anything but pleasant. The third day it started to mist, the temperature dropping with the onslaught of rain. Half the afternoon they walked in perpetual dampness, the leafy canopy overhead protecting them from some of the rain, but letting enough get through to inevitably cover everything below in a fine sheen of wetness.

It wasn't until that night that the storm started in earnest. It swept in from the east, a sea born tempest that left the water to wreak it's havoc upon the land. The trees began to sway at the violent caress of winds that stripped their leaves and made the air an impenetrable wall of swirling leaves and debris. The distant boom of thunder forewarned of an electrical storm soon on it's way. With the darkness and the flying leaves to contend with they had no choice but to set up shelter for the night. The tents were erected between trees and anchored as securely as possible, the skittish horses picketed and sailors who'd rather have faced a storm at sea than in the unfamiliar surroundings of a forest crowded into the relative dryness of their shelters.

"Sounds like a bad one." Collin was in the tent with Theo, Wing, Lhoki and a handful of others.

"It's the season for it." Wing commented. "Must have been fifteen, twenty squalls within the space of a month this time last year."

"Probably." Collin agreed. "Not to mention the two typhoons that hit Chaze and Alatar."

"More than that hit the east coast here." Lhoki interjected. "We always get it bad and it's only starting."

It was a big storm and one thanked the spirits that the harbor of Vahnatu was landlocked and protected somewhat against it's fury, but Theo couldn't help wondering at the Furazol's state, attempting a sea crossing through this mess. He seemed to recall Dharva mentioning that she had no particular love of sailing and figured she would find riding out a storm less than appealing. She'd put on a good show of courage though, stubborn girl that she was. He smiled at a mental image of her refusing to cower at each toss of the ship, at each crack of lightening that was drawn like a lover to the cresting waves; to the towering spires of masts. She would flinch nonetheless and try to pretend she hadn't.

A distant scream pierced the whistle of rain and wind. For a second Theo thought it was a trick of the weather, but Collin and Wing had stirred in the darkness, and then it sounded again. Theo swore and grabbed for his sword, buckling the belt about his waist even as he struggled past other moving bodies to get out of the tent. From the other tent men emerged, having heard the cry as well. Theo waved them back, yelling at them to stay and protect the camp, while he with Wing and three others on his heels plunged into the storm, straining to hear if the cry was uttered again.

It would have been smart, he thought in retrospect to have grabbed his canvas poncho to protect him from the downpour. They were all drenched to the bone within moments of stepping outside. In the wet leaves and mulch, footing was treacherous and he heard the sounds of his men blundering and slipping behind him as they ran. Again the terrified, high pitched scream and the faint crashing of a body through bramble. Theo changed course of a sudden, zeroing in on the sounds. A small figure burst through the cover of a set of young maples, barreled past Theo without ever noting his presence. He lunged, caught at a thin, wet shoulder and spun the body around so forcefully that feet slipped out from under the terrified traveler and he windmilled desperately for balance. Theo caught him, yanking him towards him, taking hold of the other shoulder and peering down into the wide, hysterical eyes of Urchin. He was in the midst of gaping incredulously at the youngest member of his crew when another boy ran gasping out of the bramble in the footsteps of the first. This one had the presence of mind to note the fact that two people occupied the space not three feet from his path and stumbled to a halt. Stol stared through the bleak, wet darkness at them, mouth gaping, chest heaving with exertion.

Wing and the others pelted up behind Theo, just as out of breath. Theo's surprise was fast turning into anger. He shook Urchin so thoroughly the boy's teeth began chattering uncontrollably.

"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded. "I gave the both of you orders."

"There's something out there." Stol cried, stumbling over and trying to pull Theo and Urchin both away from the path the boy's had been taking.

"More 'n likely wind whistling through the trees." Wing pronounced direly, looming over Theo's shoulder and glaring down at both youngsters. "You both know the penalty for disobeying your captain's orders."

They both shivered, from cold or fear or both and stared up at Wing with terror in their eyes. Urchin looked pleadingly to Theo and wailed. "But there is something out there. It came out of the woods at us and it was big as a ship, I swear. It's back there, captain. Really it is!"

Theo was about to comment how much stock in put in the word of boys who couldn't follow a simple order when lightening struck not fifty feet from where they stood. The deafening boom of thunder that followed on it's heels set his ears to reeling. The pounding in his head masked the roaring crash of a huge body as it lumbered out of the bramble, but the second strike of lightening, closer even than the first did well enough to illuminate a mammoth, shaggy mountain of flesh as it reared up on hind legs and opened teeth filled maw to bellow in wraith.

The boys, and one of the men behind him screamed, Urchin hysterically fighting his way out of Theo's grip and struggling to put distance between himself and the creature that towered over them. Theo for a breathtakingly clear instant, could only gape up at the thing, noting clinically that it was disturbingly similar to the hide that Tiana had covering her study floor, with it's head as big as a man's torso and gleaming claws as long as his forearm. It was not, as far as he knew, an animal that roamed the continent of Khell; other than treading upon a similar thing in the company of Tiana, he had never seen it's like before, nor ever wanted to again.

It lunged forward, landing on one sturdy front leg and swiping out at them with the other. Theo barely dodged claws that would have cut him in half, rolling to the slick earth and scrambling away without even bothering to grab for his sword. It lumbered forward, fast for it's size, breaking into the small group of humans and scattering them. Someone cried out, a scream for help that was cut short. All Theo could see was a great shadow form, tossing it's head, shifting this way and that, growling deep in it's throat as it hunted. Another flash of lightening and he beheld the grotesque sight of a man of his in the jaws of the beast, head hanging limply, tore gaping flesh visible from ear to lower rips.

He would have gone at it then, in a rage, had not the thing turned to leave, satisfied with it's catch and Wing grabbed him forcibly about the waist and borne him backwards into the forest and away from the killer.

"No! It's got Thestel." he cried, visions of that sailor's face flashing in his mind, of the man's wife in Alatar and his children. He fought against Wing's hold, slamming an elbow back and into his first mate's side at which the grip did loosen only to transfer to his shoulders. Wing shook him as hard as he'd shaken Urchin, until his teeth rattled and some semblance of the fatality of the situation seeped into his head.

"He's dead. All right?" Wing spat.

Theo blinked water from his eyes, rational numbly working it's way past madness. He nodded once, suddenly having an interest in where the rest of his men were. He heard the passage of bodies in front of them and started that way without further urging. On the way back they met Collin and two men with swords in hand, drawn into the wood by the sounds of the beast's attack. Theo brushed past them silently, leaving Wing to explain. He reached camp, scanning the darkness for sign of Urchin or Stol and found them huddling together outside one of the tents, ashamed and miserable in the midst of this tragedy. He pushed past the wet men that had survived the beast and grabbed the closed young arm, yanking Stol to his feet with the overwhelming urge to hit the teenager hammering inside his skull.

"Do you have a death wish?" he yelled. "Did you think I told you to stay with Adella for some sort of punishment? You fools."

Stol held up his head, older than Urchin and with more of a burgeoning ego to protect. He was almost of a height with his captain, but gangly and long limbed. "We're not at sea." Stol blurted out and Theo did hit him; a backhanded slap across the cheek that made the boy stagger. Urchin whimpered, leapt up and tried to insert his smaller body between his captain and his friend.

"We didn't mean no harm. You'd need our help sooner or later. You would. We're not kids no more. We can help." This last came out in a desperate wail. Theo drew a shaky breath and let go of Stol. A step backwards to distance himself from them, from doing them harm that they were both too terrified to learn from, that he was too disconcerted to hand out with any sort of justice. He felt Wing's solid presence behind him and said without turning.

"Set out guards."

He went into the tent, which was devoid of occupants save for Lhoki, who'd watched the whole thing from the crack between the flaps. The cutpurse eyed him skeptically as he pulled off wet shirt and pulled a blanket about his shoulders.

"Sort of a temper there, huh?" Lhoki said slyly, sounding almost happy to have discovered a flaw in Theo's personality.

Theo didn't have even the energy left to glare. He pulled the blanket tighter and said dully. "We lost a man out there. He had a wife and two daughters."

There was no reply to that. Theo didn't demand one. Collin came in, shedding his cloak at the door. After a bit, a few more trickled in. Wing didn't and Theo figured he'd taken it upon himself to stand watch. He figured he'd situated the boys in the other tent away from Theo.

"You should have taken your cloak." Collin said, settling next to Theo, nice and dry, having had the sense to don his own before plunging out into the rain. "Everyone's okay - - -" he paused for a moment, thinking of Thestel, then went on. "Stupid kids, to trudge through this storm without even a cloak or food."

Theo shivered, pulling his knees up under the blanket. He didn't want to talk about the kids just yet.

"Are you okay?" Collin leaned over to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. Theo jerked away, not wanting to be touched.

"Just leave me alone."

 

In the light of day, somber, rain filled light though it be, they retraced their path to place the beast had attacked. There was no sign of any conflict at all. The storm had washed everything away. Even if any of them had been trackers, there would be no trail to follow in this weather. Theo walked back to camp in silence, hood over his head and dripping water past the tip of his nose. Wing followed in as much silence, neither speaking of the events of the previous night.

Camp was neatly broken by the time they returned and the men waiting to begin the day's journey. Theo was not much in the mood for company and walked by himself, broodingly watching the woods for the marks of animals. Urchin and Stol moved in the company of Collin at the fore of the group, the both of them walking with heads down and shoulders slumped. Between the two of them, they had inherited Thestel's gear. They were part of the group now, whether Theo liked it or not, for there was no sending them back alone and he couldn't really spare the men to take them back.

When they broke for camp that evening, and Collin whipped up the best supper he could considering the rain and the miserable circumstances, Theo was still mired in his sulk. The crew was not unused to the moods of it's captain, but the boys who bore the brunt of it, being part of the cause stayed well away from him. On the third afternoon after the appearance of the boys, Wing decided enough was enough and approached Theo where he was walking at the rear of the group.

For a while the big man walked in companionable silence, but Theo knew from the flexing fingers and the furrow between Wing's brow that there was something on his mind. He didn't ask, not in the mood to encourage conversation. Wing frowned even more at that pointed disregard.

"It's a damn shame about Thestel, but we've lost men before." Wing had to work to get the words right, he felt tongue tied and useless against the barrier of Theo's disdain. Theo wasn't helping, not even looking at his friend in response to that statement.

"When we were kids, you'd have done the same. Worse even."

Theo lifted a brow at that. "Worse? You make me out to have been the worst of delinquents."

There was an icy tone to Theo's voice that Wing didn't like. "Worse because you were smarter than they are. Smarter than me; and you'd have dragged me along with you, whether I wanted to go or not. How many times did that happen, before your father took us aboard?"

Theo glanced his way, stung. "Really? I don't ever seem to recall you kicking and screaming to avoid my company."

"That's not what I said."

"Suspiciously similar."

Wing shook his head, sorry he'd ever initiated this conversation. "If you're going to be this moody, then I can't talk to you. Forget I said it."

"Sure." Theo agreed, with a tone that implied that he had no intention of forgetting any of it. Wing had the strongest desire to shake him again. He didn't give into it, instead lengthening his stride and stalking ahead.

Theo chewed on his lip as Wing increased the distance between them. How come he always ended up feeling guilty whenever he argued with Wing? It was unfair, considering that Wing had instigated the talk to begin with. The whole strung out line of his men walked ahead of him and now that he thought about it, not a one of them had been particularly at ease in his presence of late. Okay, so Wing was right. He was being moody and hard to get along with, but a man he was responsible for had died and he had been a man full grown and responsible for his own actions, while those two insubordinate boys were not and did not fully understand what they were up against. Theo didn't fully understand it.

He turned around so he didn't have to look at the mass of his obligation and walked backwards, tilting his head back so the rain could hit his face. He saw a flash of movement on the trail a good ways behind them. He stopped, blinking water from his lashes and took a few steps down the trail, peering into the shadows. Almost it had looked like a man on a horse, but it had passed to quickly, a gray form in a gray rain, for him to be sure. For all he knew it might have been a stag bounding across the path, or some other oddly shaped animal that lived on these shores.

Loathe to take anything for granted, he walked back down the trail, drawing his sword casually as he did, scanning the wood to either side for more movement. The path was deep with mud churned by the passage of fifteen men and two horses and any track of a third iron shoed horse would be indistinguishable. When he'd reached the spot he thought he'd seen the rider, he stopped, looking for any thing that might have seemed unusual, but to his untrained eye the wood was as serene as it had been for days. He sheathed his sword and went back up the trail.

 

 

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