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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Six

 

The Furazol sailed out of the Vahnatu lagoon, only the smallest of her sails up to catch the sparse wind morning had to offer. Dharva stood on the docks watching her and the only people on this shore that she truly trusted, drift away with the tides. The captain had bidden her farewell with worry in his faded eyes, given her the names of a few merchants of his acquaintance whom she might rely upon for help should she get into serious trouble and returned to her Anson's half of the passage, so that she would not be penniless in this strange city. She hadn't expected that, had quite honestly not given much thought to her expenses, having never much dwelled in towns or cities where gold paved the way to food, shelter or other amenities. Someone had always taken care for her, mother or master Pyphin or Anson those last days she had traveled with him. She had no notion the going price for supplies, much less equine transport and figured that she might have to engage the advice of Collin, whom upon short acquaintance she did like and felt deep down a safety in trusting.

She thought she might like the other men she'd met from the Luck as well, with the exception of her captain who seemed very much to have an adversity to her. Him, she tried not to think about at all, but it didn't always work. Her treasonous, frivolous mind kept dredging up memories of how lovely his eyes were. How very handsome his face.

Dharva had never held a crush on anyone, and she couldn't see how such an emotion might attach itself to someone as self centered and irksome as Theo, so she rationalized that it was merely the result of never having seen anyone who looked like him before.

She stuffed her hands in her pockets and walked back into town. With money to her name she stopped by a stand selling pastries and purchased a steaming delicacy filled with cheese and meat. Her first bite scalded her tongue, so she nibbled more carefully at it as she walked back towards the lagoon side inn district.

She found Collin in his room, as he'd promised he would be, and to her delight he had located a map of the coastline around Vahnatu. Forest surrounded the port city in all directions and only small trails lead inland and along the coast. There were several large patches of plain land past the forest marked and X's over small farming communities, but no indication of the lady Tiana's estates north of Vahnatu.

"It doesn't mean anything." Dharva said stubbornly after they had both scrutinized the map. "Since when do maps point out people's houses."

"She doesn't live in a house from what I've heard." Collin smoothed wrinkled from the paper thoughtfully. "The people that have been willing to talk, and there are not many, claim it's a fortress overlooking the sea, with a small town on the outskirts that house the servants and the guards who patrol her lands. If it's not on the map, it's because she has enough pull with the folk hereabouts to keep it off."

Dharva frowned, absently twisting a curl with her finger. "I can find it. The woods don't bother me, I'm as at home in them as you are at sea."

"I don't doubt it girl, with Pyphin as a teacher. He was a avid woodsman himself in his youth to hear my grandfather talk."

He grinned at her and she felt compelled to grin back. "What is your grandfather's name? Maybe I've heard of him."

"Terifen of Astaza. Tenth Terifen of his line, each and every one a historian and a keeper of the faith."

"Astaza is a wonderful place, I hear. So full of Kurisar lore. The keepers of the First Stone dwell there, do they not?"

His grin turned a little wistful, a little sad. "That they do, lass. My family has kept that stone and protected that stone for more than twenty generations. My brothers do, and their sons will and their sons after them."

She stared at him questioningly, feeling the underlying rancor in his voice when he spoke of his family and very obviously excluded himself from their generations long task. "Have you ever seen it?" she asked softly, to avoid making him talk of his family more since they seemed a sore subject.

"Once. When I was a lad. It's about twenty leagues outside of Astaza in a cave under a field of ice that never thaws. Father brought me and a handful of other children to behold it - - our first pilgrimage - - the one that was supposed to place us in awe of it and start the fervor of devoting our lives to maintaining it and the practice of Kurisar." He laughed ruefully. "It never made that much of an impression. You'd have thought it would have, being the rune that held the being from which all Kurisar magic originated. I didn't go home changed or enlightened, I just went home cold and tired and wondering what the big fuss was about. It wasn't long after that I elected to sign on with a merchanter who promised more exciting things that studying a thousand year old stone."

"Oh." she exclaimed softly, not certain she could understand not being overwhelmed by the First Stone. By the rune that held one of the two greatest spirits ever summoned into the realm of man.

Collin caught the look and shrugged. "Lass, I promise you the practice of magic is by far more interesting than the mere study of it's origins."

"I suppose." she had to admit that there had been many of boring week in Pyphin's cottage when the old man had done nothing but pour over text after text of history while she had moped and twiddled her thumbs. It had not been exciting stuff.

She took a breath and drew the topic of conversation back to it's original path. "I can find her fortress. We know it's on the coast, we know roughly how far it is. There seem to be a few trails leading that way, I can find it."

"I can't let you go by yourself." he said somberly.

"I don't expect you to risk your life for my cause."

"Call it a favor I owe my grandfather." he insisted. "Not to let an old friend of his rot in the clutches of a Kerisai witch."

There was no argument for that and she found that she really had no desire to find one.

 

Theo's mood had seen better days. Since he had landed in Vahnatu his life had become one great revolving drama of frustration. The ship, which had been the major source of his worry was now a time numbed second in favor of his most trusted crew's desertion. First Wing's accusations and then Collin's declaration that he was prepared to traipse off into the forests in search of the old man with Dharva.

Dharva had managed to become a thorn in his side in a matter of barely more than a day. Dharva just looked at a sane man with those little girl eyes and her sad face and she made him moonstruck. What good did Collin think he was going to do against a witch like Tiana? He'd damned sure argued hard enough to keep Theo from tracking her down and now all it took was a pretty face and a woeful tale and he was ready to follow that girl to the ends of the earth.

He made it a point to locate the girl. The little witch was in the market district, perusing the stands and shops for items that she carried about in a canvas back pack. She had acquired a new cloak, a black, fur lined piece that was almost too long for her. She was eating a golden skinned apple, of which Danar was a large exporter, and examining a table of knives when he found her.

He strolled up beside her, casually fingering the hilt of a slim dirk. She hardly noticed his presence, so intent in her study was she, so he leaned a palm on the table top and remarked.

"A dozen blades won't do the job if she sees you coming."

The girl started, taking a reflexive step away from him. She bumped into a fat browser who glared at her clumsiness, muttering a curse under his breath. She ducked her head, blushing in embarrassment, of which she had a tendency to do at almost any given excuse.

"She won't see me coming." the girl muttered, picking out a small boot knife along with a trio of throwing dirks. She laid down a gold piece and received a few copper pennies back in change. Dumping the weapons in her pack she determinedly set off into the market, leaving Theo to trail in her wake.

"You think you're that good?" he caught up with her in a few strides. "Rumor has it the lady has a fair sized militia at her command. Can you deal with that?"

"You were going to." she shot back angrily. "Collin said you were ready to go after her the moment your ship sank."

"I thought better of it." he informed her, neglecting to mention that wealth of better judgment had come after days of Wing and Collin badgering him with the bits and pieces of information they had managed to gather about just how formidable the lady's forces were. "She's not just a witch that can control a few fire spirits, you know. She's a great deal more powerful than that."

She swung around, stopping in the middle of the market street to glare up at him. "And just how would you know that? Have you spent a third of your life studying magics? Do you have a more intimate source of information about Tiana than you've let on?" Her eyes fairly spat ire, her fists were tightly clenched balls at her sides.

"I know that she's probably going to squash you like an ant, little girl and if you drag Collin along with you, she's going to do the same to him."

"Oh, so that's what this is about?" Dharva managed to work a good deal of sneering superiority into her voice. "All this talk about my chances of success and what you're really worried about is your man. Well, let me tell you Captain Theodonis, he's more of a gentleman than you are, and he has a great deal more responsibility. At least Collin sees a wrong and knows it needs fixing. He's not scared of a little magic."

That was it. It was the last time he was going to stand around an be called a coward. It was bad enough that Wing did it, but that this irritating little girl felt she could get away with the same was unbearable.

"Whose fault is this to begin with? If you'd been watching over the old man maybe he wouldn't have been taken. If you were a little better with this magic you're so proud of, then maybe you wouldn't need to drag an innocent man to his death."

Her lips trembled. She stared at him a long moment, her eyes wide and shocked. A little bit of liquid formed at the corner of her eyes and she brought up a hand to wipe furiously at it. In a tiny, uncertain voice she said. "He sent me away. He told me to go and make my first sacrifice. I wouldn't have left him otherwise."

The whole of her slim body shuddered. Abruptly she started walking again, purpose in her stride. "I don't want anybody to die because of me. I don't want Collin to come. Nobody that cares should have to sacrifice for me - - you tell him that."

"You tell him yourself." Theo called after her, figuring Collin would throw fits if he came to him with that pronouncement.

She shook her head. "I'm going now. I've got to go now." She slipped behind a merchant pulling a cart full of melons and melted into the slow moving crowd.

Theo stood in the middle of the street, making pedestrians walk around him, the thought that fine, the girl was out of his hair warring with the particular guilt that she was doing something that he should be eager to partake of too. But, she was a witch, and had that advantage over him. She was liken to what Tiana was and better equipped to understand the way another witch thought. She might have a fighting chance against those clawing little spirits that Tiana used with such malicious skill.

Of course Collin was going to kill him. He was never ever going to hear the end of this and from the serious, very un-Collin like way the man had been acting ever since hearing the girl's story, he just might loose a damned good cook and friend. And all because of a silly girl. Or, he amended with a painful stab of admission, because of what Tiana had driven that girl to do.

Uncertain, and no small bit confused over the debate his own inner thoughts were holding, he moved back down the market street, unmindful of the people he pushed past on his way. He saw the two youngest of his crew, Urchin and the fourteen year old Stol trotting away from him, hands full of sweet pastries. He called out to the youngsters, a sudden decision crystallizing in his head.

The boys turned, scanning the street for a familiar face, and upon spotting Theo hurried over, wide, sugar coated grins on their young faces.

"'ello, Cap'n." Urchin held forth a sticky, fruit filled tart. "Want a sweet? Two for a penny, they are and as good as anything Mr. Collin can make, though don't tell him I said it."

Stol nodded in agreement, mouth too full of said sweet to comment. Theo shook his head, putting a hand on Urchin's shoulder and peering down to fix the boy with a serious gaze.

"Go find Collin, or Wing if you can't. Tell him the girl's fled already. Tell him it's my fault, so I'm going to go after her and try to make it right. You got all that?"

The boy's eyes were huge with sudden worry. "You chased mistress Dharva away?" there was flat accusation in that tone that Theo wasn't used to hearing from junior crew. Only it was justified now, and he allowed Urchin to get away with it.

"Just go find Collin. I'll bring her back if I can. Tell him that."

With earnest nods the boys took off down the market street, leaving Theo standing, fingers nervously caressing the hilt of the scimitar he had taken to wearing on the streets of this city. All it took was one threat, even if it was from an apprentice witch to make one practice a little caution.

He had seen Collin's map. He knew the path out of the city that would lead to the trail heading north. He figured he could catch up with her easily, mollify her, apologize to her if necessary and talk her into coming back into the city with him.

Theo had lived more years on the streets of a city than he had at sea. He knew how to navigate the passages of man made streets as well as he could the currents of the sea. He'd been in Vahnatu long enough to pick up the lay of the city map. He knew which roads would lead him to the northern edge of town. The buildings along the edges of the city were mostly residences. They were smaller and not as closely packed as the structures within the heart of the port. The closer one got to the barricade that separated the forest from the city, the poorer the houses got, evolving eventually into slums. It was odd that even the slums here had a certain stark order to them, nothing like the putrid rows of decay that fouled the major port cities of Khell.

The north gate was nothing more than a single man high door barely wide enough for a horse to be lead through. Two men squatted in the dirt nearby playing dice. If they were city militia they were not dressed the part.

"Did a girl pass here?" he stood over their game, blocking out the eastern sun. Two lined, dirty faces squinted up at him, clearly annoyed that he interrupted their game.

"Do you want out?" one asked with blunt hostility.

Theo drew a slight calming breath and pasted on a reasonable smile.

"Well that depends on whether a girl just passed here. Young, short hair. Pretty."

"No body pays us to take note of who comes and goes." the other gamer informed him. "If you're lookin' for a pretty piece, why don't you go find a whore dockside of town?"

"Because I'm not looking for a whore." Theo explained slowly. He reached in his pocket and felt after a copper, brought it out and flipped it between his fingers. It wasn't much of a bribe, but any man guarding the gates in this section of town couldn't have had much to begin with. "I'm looking for a very nice girl, who might have passed this gate. Might this help you recall if you've seen her?"

"She passed here." the first said, eyeing the coin and the pocket it had come out of. "Not more than ten minutes past."

Theo nodded, flipping the coin into the dirt where their dice lay forgotten. They made a grab for it, and the larger of the two wrested it away from his partner, leaving the other man scowling.

"I want out." Theo answered their first question. The winner of the coin jerked his head towards the gate and the other grudgingly climbed to his feet, ambling over and opening it for Theo to pass.

"Once it's dark, the gate opens for no one." he was informed as he passed through. He didn't bother to reply or look back as the door was firmly shut behind him.

He found himself in a narrow treeless gulch perhaps fifty feet wide that separated the wooden barricade around the port city and the dense forest outside it. Small pines and low lying brush formed the outside layer of the wood, and Theo wasted a fair amount of time walking the boundaries looking for the path the map had promised. He was not, he had to admit well versed in woodland craft. The city and the sea were his areas of expertise.

When he did discover the narrow trail and followed it into the forest, he was surprised at how rapidly the sun was shielded by the wealth of bushy foliage above and how much the temperature dropped from the mere absence of direct light. It was eerie, the overwhelming silence of the forest. Only the occasional bird chirped or squirrel darted from limb to limb over head rustling branches in it's wake to break the buffer of quiet.

Conifers were mixed liberally with broad leafed deciduous trees, creating a forest of mixed colors and shapes. A low lying ground cover of ferns and miniature saplings made a lush, fragrant carpet on either side of the trail. He made haste down the path, careful of the roots and rocks that made it's surface treacherous, looking for some sign of the girl.

It occurred to him, after what he was certain must have been an hour's worth of walking through the forest, that the gatemen might have lied to him. That Dharva might never have passed this way. That she had come to her senses after all and returned to ferret out Collin's help despite Theo's words.

He was dwelling on that embarrassing possibility when the sound of hoof beats drifted through the forest coming from the direction of Vahnatu port. He scrutinized the path he'd already trod, looking for the riders connected to the tell tail hoof beats. Soon enough a good half dozen men on horseback appeared, traveling up the trail at a good pace.

Theo stepped off to the side, up to his knees in ferns, waiting for them to draw abreast of him. He lifted a hand in greeting, hoping they might take pity on the fact that he was looking for a girl bereft of her wits and help him out.

They were, as a lot, a darkly outfitted, grim looking bunch, all sporting short cropped beards, and all well armed and armored in leather. They looked rather, he thought with growing apprehension, like nothing more and certainly nothing less than mercenaries. He put on his smile anyway, hoping to look the part of a friendly traveler who offered no threat to a crew such as themselves.

"Fine day for a ride." he remarked as they reined their animals in rather too closely to his person. He did not care overmuch to compete with horses for available standing room. The notion of mentioning a girl alone in the forest to these men seemed of a sudden, not the best of ideas. He was not particularly happy to be alone with them himself.

"You're asking after the Lady." the rider in the fore said without preamble and Theo thought for one brief moment they had talked with the two gatesmen and been told he was on Dharva's trail.

"Well yes." he started, wondering what possible concern it might be of theirs. "It's merely a misunderstanding. I'll straighten it out when I find her."

"The Lady takes exception to folks inquiring too much of her business. The Lady discourages people traveling uninvited to her lands."

"The Lady?" Awareness of just what lady they spoke of begin to dawn. A chill traveled down his spine at the realization of just how much trouble he might be in, and nonchalantly he began to take into account the obstacles in the wood around him that might hinder the motion of a horse.

"I think perhaps you have me mixed up with someone else. I'm looking for my sister, whose run off in a huff over a misunderstanding. There was another man who passed me not long ago, seemed in a great hurry." he pointed helpfully up the trail. The lot of them sat there and stared at him. The leader's thin lips stretched into what must have been a painful smile, since that face looked as if it had never creased into lines of happiness.

"No, I don't so. I think you match the description of the man we're looking for."

Theo nodded as though that information had enlightened him greatly. "Well, I will take your warning into consideration then."

"You will." the man agreed and his men smirked eagerly.

Theo took a step backwards, pleasant expression still plastered on his face and when the leader spurred his horse forward, his gloved hand going for the sword at his side, Theo darted towards the thickest grouping of trees. He drew his blade as he ran, leaping over fallen branches and fern hidden gullies and hoping fervently the undergrowth would slow the riders long enough for him to reach temporary safety.

He sensed the onslaught of a heavy equine body before he heard the crash of hooves through bramble. A huge, overbearing presence filled the air behind him and he dove, knowing well how easily a mounted man with a sword could take out one on the ground. The blade passed over his head, and the horse made a frantic scramble to avoid stepping on him. Bless the animal's squeamishness. He rolled to his feet, sword in both hands and swiped at the second rider who was hot on the heels of the first.

The scimitar sliced the flesh at the man's leg, and the rider cursed, wheeling his horse around for a better shot at Theo. He was blocked. He couldn't reach the thicker growth and the riders were about to circle him. Something flared, sailing through the air trailing a tail of sizzling flame. It hit a man square in the side of the head, knocking him from his saddle. The smell of burning hair polluted the air. The screams of the man followed.

The riders looked about wildly, kicking their horses into motion as a second fireball sailed into their midst. This one hit nothing but the ground at Theo's feet and he jumped back as it floundered about sizzling for a moment before extinguishing itself.

Dharva stood at the edge of the path, her cloak thrown back over her shoulders her hands clenched into claws at her sides. One could almost perceive of faint, glowing forms dancing gleefully around her. She seemed almost to be muttering to them. Another fiery globe formed in the air before her. This one wavered a bit before she sent it towards the riders. It's path more erratic than it's predecessors, it splattered into the bole of a tree some three feet over the head of the closest man. It served it's purpose, though, for the man let out a yelp and reined his horse away. Theo had an avenue of escape. He took it, pounding towards the girl, catching her arm and spinning her about when she seemed inclined not to flee with him, and hauling her after him across the path and into the opposite side of the wood.

"That was just a warning." she cried over her shoulder at the mulling riders. "I'll burn you all to cinders if you come after us."

Theo didn't look to see if they took her at her word. He kept his fingers gripped around her arm to keep her going. She was panting and flushed, he wondered if it were from the magic or the running. His dash was a wild one, to put distance between them and the mercenaries behind them. Her display of magic had been startling but not daunting enough to keep them from their trail for long. She veered to the right of a sudden, heading towards a huge wall of bramble. Almost he balked, seeing no escape in that direction, but she broke loose from his grasp, diving into the mess, wriggling her body through tightly snarled bushes and vines. She was gone from sight within seconds. Theo followed her without hesitation, thorns tearing at his skin as he tunneled into the warren. Dharva's hand caught at him, stilling his forward momentum. She peered at him through a lattice work of thorns and thistle, her pale cheek streaked with one thin scratch welling blood. She pursed her lips, a faint sound to indicate silence whispering past them.

He lay still and listened. The breaking of limbs and the thunder of heavy bodies crashing through the underbrush grew nearer. The cry of one man to another, asking where they had gone. He clutched his scimitar, white knuckled, afraid to breathe that he might shift the bramble and draw attention. The sounds faded. Somewhere a bird chirped inquiry and another answered hesitantly.

"I think they're gone." Dharva whispered. She shifted, wriggling to a better position. "Do you always stand in the middle of the road waiting for people to attack you?"

He was not prepared for that censor and certainly not when he had been about to complement her on her timely show of magical prowess.

"What road?" he hissed back. "And I wouldn't have been there if not for you."

"I certainly didn't ask you to follow me. In fact, if I recall, I distinctly told you not to. Is it my fault you're a hard headed, egotistical male?"

"Egotistical?" he sputtered, greatly offended. She ignored it and began a backwards journey out of the brush.

He followed, not without incurring numerous scratches and welts to show for his efforts. He kept his blade in hand, staring about the woods suspiciously. Dharva started walking back towards the trail, then across it. She began wading through the thigh high ground cover.

"Where are you going?" he demanded, looking over his shoulder as he trotted to catch up with her.

"I thought I'd made that perfectly clear." she retorted.

"With them out here? Are you insane?"

"No, I'm merely adept at woodcraft. Which I might add, you are absolutely miserable at. I heard you following me for ages."

"Then why didn't you stop?"

She jumped down into a dry stream bed and walked along it's path, a full body length below Theo's level. "I suppose what Master Pyphin always said was right after all. Everything evens out in the end." she proclaimed sagely.

"What are you babbling about?"

She smiled grimly at the ditch at her feet. "That those the spirits don't bless with looks get the brains - - and vice versa, of course. If they do come back this way, they can probably see you up there."

Theo ground his teeth and skidded down the bank to the stream bed.

"Your master sounds like a grouchy old man. And you didn't answer my question. I do have enough retention to recall that."

She flipped her curls and sniffed disdainfully. "I didn't stop because I'd heard all I wanted to of what you might have to say. "

"Then why did you come back?"

The answer to that did not come immediately. Dharva hunched her shoulders, fiddling with the clasp of her cloak. "I've a care for other people's lives, even if most don't."

"Well if you care for yours as well as mine, you'll turn around and come back to the city with me now."

"Where those men of hers?"

He hesitated, then nodded.

"They came from Vahnatu. What makes you think there aren't more waiting? What makes you think they won't go back to see if we return? Are you that afraid of this Tiana?"

Theo caught her arm, forcing her to stop and look at him. "No, I'm not afraid of her. I've tasted her magic and I don't like it, I'll admit to that, but I'm not afraid of her. But I'm damned wary as you should be."

Dharva shook free and stomped on. "Then go back. I don't care."

Irritating little witch. He did not bother to remark on that suggestion. It was bad enough having her out here alone not knowing what was lurking in the woods with her. Now that he did know, there was no leaving her.

"All right, fine." he snapped.

"Fine." she lifted her chin and marched on.

 

"Collin. Collin! Mr. Wing!"

Urchin's warbling voice cut through the everyday sounds of a busy harbor, just as the hurrying forms of two adolescents stood out amongst the traffic of older sailors and merchants who traveled the docks. Wing turned from his surveillance of the Luck's poor battered form being hoisted out of the waters of Vahnatu's lagoon to watch the boys weaving through the early afternoon crowd.

Collin stood with a curious group of Luck crewmen, all drawn to the docks to observe their scuttled ship being hauled into dry-dock. The cook broke with the collection of land bound sailors, reaching Wing at the same time the boys did.

Urchin and Stol were both red faced and gasping, thin chests heaving with exertion. When Urchin finally gathered the air to fill his lungs he blurted out.

"She's gone, Mr. Collin."

"Cap'n sent us to tell you." Stol added, not to be outdone as the bearer of bad news. "Said it was his fault."

"Said he would bring her back."

The two youths looked from Wing to Collin expectantly, eager for reaction to this distressing news. Collin's face flushed red. A curse passed his lips before he demanded.

"When did this happen?"

Both boys hesitated, trading uncertain looks, before Stol blurted out. "Not long past. We ran all the way from the market. We stopped at the inn where senior crew is staying, but you weren't there, then we looked in a few of the taverns along the row thinking maybe Mr. Collin would be there. After that we came right here."

Wing frowned darkly, hardly hearing Collin's colorful expletives in response to Stol's answer. What foolish thing had Theo done? Wing knew for a fact that his friend, despite what Theo might claim, was still very much in an agitated fervor over what Tiana had done to the Luck. He was damned paranoid about her magic, which he also refused to admit, and that was the main reason he'd been reacting so violently towards the girl, Dharva. He might say he wanted nothing to do with Dharva's quest for her master, but deep down, Wing knew that Theo would probably be willing to grasp any avenue to revenge.

And along come Urchin and Stol brimming over with news that he had gone off after the girl to keep her from committing the suicidal act of going alone to Tiana's keep. Collin might think Theo was being unreasonably obstinate about the girl, but Wing knew better. Wing knew Theo was hiding his own uncertainties behind a rash veneer and Wing damn sure knew that Theo was probably about to do something foolish.

He also knew Collin had been plotting strategy with Dharva, and turned pale eyes on the cook, stopping Collin's tirade on their captain's actions with a pointed question.

"Where would she leave from? Is there a north gate?"

Collin snapped his mouth shut with an audible click, pursing his lips with a gauging expression in his eyes. "Aye. There is. The only path that leads along the coast is that way. She'd have gone that direction. Foolish girl to let Theo's sharp tongue sway her."

Foolish Theo to follow her, Wing thought. But, who was he to judge, since he had every intention of following Theo? He yelled at Adella to keep a watch on the work crews and with Collin on his heels headed off into the city towards the northern gate.

The two of them reached that modest gate, which sat in the midst of the poorest slums in Vahnatu and asked of the men whose duty it was to guard it if anyone matching Theo or Dharva's description had passed. The two men, residents of the slums by the look of their dress and the hungry wariness in their faces, showed a great deal of hostility towards such a simple question. The reluctance to admit either nay or yeah, had Wing's suspicions abounding.

He was on the verge of bashing a few heads in order to get more coherent information, when a slim figure loitering in the shadows of a nearby hovel hissed for his and Collin's attention. The seamen exchanged wary glances, before leaving the two belligerent gate keepers and walking towards the man who'd beckoned them.

He seemed a young man, perhaps twenty, perhaps younger. The life he had led in the slums of this harsh port at the edge of a harsher land had undoubtedly aged him beyond his years. The lines of his face were emphasized by dirt and grime and his body, under the layers of well-worn clothing, seemed raw boned and stringy. He had a pert, sharp face though, with small, regular features and short, oily hair that might, had it been clean, seen the lighter shades of blonde.

"Those two're useless." he remarked, when Collin and Wing stood before him, staring at him with grim curiosity.

"What do you want?" Wing demanded, in no mood for the games of beggars.

"I think it's more what you want." The young man said jauntily. "I been by the gates here all morning. I've seen who you're looking for. Only you're not the only ones those two rat turds by the gate have talked to. There's been other interest in the girl and the man who followed her."

A furrow formed between Wing's brows. Other interest? Who in this port would care what Theo or the young witch were up to? Who but someone alerted by all the inquiries they had been making about the lady Tiana? If she had people in Kava port watching her tracks, then she surely would have the same in her home port. Stupid. Stupid of them not to have assumed as much.

"Who?" he asked because he wanted to hear it confirmed from something other than his own paranoia.

The young man pursed his lips, scratching carelessly at an itch near his crotch. He seemed to be considering the question. "Well, it seems to me that information might be worth a bit to you, since you were ready to pound Dumb and Dumber over there into the ground for less than what I have to tell you."

"What makes you think I won't pound you into the ground for the same?"

"Cause, then I'd make up the biggest lie ever to burn your ears and you'd never know the truth."

"Spirits." Collin spat in exasperation, digging into his purse for a handful of small coins. "Here. Buy yourself a bath while you're at it."

The young man looked at the coins in his dirty palm and grinned. He was missing one of the front teeth on his lower jaw. "Six or so of the high and mighty bitch's hired bone breakers went out after your friends. Seems they'd had word out and soon as your folk passed, Dumb over there went to snitch."

"Damn." Wing breathed under his breath. "Figures word would get back to her people."

"Everybody who's anybody in town owes her something or another." the young man secreted the coins about his person.

"Not you?" Collin asked.

"Not me. I'd as soon she was rotting in the ground and her papa before her. Never did any good for anyone I know."

"Do you know how many men she has in port?"

A light shrug, a flicker of sharp eyes. "A lot more than those that went out after your friends. You go out that gate after them and sure as Mama Trose serves dog in her stew, they'll be after you."

"Advise well taken." Collin said, and tossed him another coin, this time a silver one. "What's your name, lad?"

The young man grinned, nimble fingers snatching the coin from mid-air. "Name's Lhoki."

Collin might have paused to ask the young man more, but Wing took his arm and guided him away to where he might speak privately.

"The two of us going out there after Theo would be as stupid as him going after the girl, if what the lad says is true. The thing to do is go back to the dock and collect what crew we can and find him with force to back us up."

"It may be too late, by then."

"Theo can take care of himself." Wing assure both Collin and himself. "He's as good at getting out of these messes as he is at getting into them."

There was a certain amount of uncertainty in Collin's voice when he said. "I hope you're right, Wing."

 

The sound of horses crashing through the wood could be heard as dusk lengthened the shadows. They dropped to their bellies, taking shelter under the thick cover of fledgling oak and birch. The distant thunder of riders passed, and Dharva pushed on. She seemed well at home in the forest, finding the easiest paths, having a way of avoiding briars or sticky spider webs crossing the way that Theo could not emulate. The bugs even stayed away from her, much preferring his company. When he complained, she merely glanced over her shoulder at him and smiled enigmatically, commenting that obviously she was a better witch than he'd thought. When he didn't say anything nasty in return to that, she finally took pity on him and admitted that it was no magic but simple woodcraft and pointed out a bush whose leaves when crushed drove away insects. He happily mashed the bitter smelling leaves and smeared the sticky fluid over all his exposed skin.

When darkness finally did settle like a cloak over the wood, he was as helplessly lost as ever he had been. The trail, Dharva had abandoned long ago, and how she could tell direction without the benefit of stars to guide her, he had no notion.

She found a secluded nook within a copse of young evergreens to stop for the night. Behind the hidden veil of thick pine boughs she summoned a small orb of light and settled down with the thing hovering in front of her to search in her pack. Theo squatted with his back against a young tree opposite her, eyeing the casual magic uneasily. It seemed a harmless enough trick, helpful even, but up until the last few weeks he had no more witnessed a magic than he'd made his life's fortune and his sailor's soul cringed at the display.

Dharva pulled out a leather wrapped bundle that contained a thick supply of dried meat strips. She offered a share to Theo without a word, without even looking up at him. With a sigh he took a strip, biting into the salty, tough flesh. A most unappealing meal. He never had acquired a taste for jerky.

The first droplets of rain managed to pierce their shelter. Dharva closed her pack and let the orb fade out. She pulled her cloak tightly around her, drawing the hood up over her head and settled back against the twin boles of a gnarled conifer. She was a small, dark figure that hid her discomfort, if she experienced any, well. Theo would have rather been anywhere than where he was now. Hunted, in the middle of a foreign wood, cold, hungry, with the unavoidable prospect of being soaked as well. He pulled his knees close and stared balefully at Dharva's silent form.

"Don't do that." she said quietly after a time where nothing but raindrops falling through the forest canopy had broken the silence.

"What?" He was feeling obstinate. He couldn't help it.

"Stare at me."

He looked away into the featureless dark, feeling rebuffed and ill used for his troubles. Had Urchin relayed his message, he wondered? How long would Collin and Wing wait to see if he brought the girl back, before they decided to take action of their own? Not that they'd find them, what with the path Dharva had chosen. This seemed to be a great deal of trouble to assuage the guilt of a few words.

"I'm sorry." Dharva's soft voice broke into the silence once more. "It makes me nervous - to be stared at - even in the darkness."

A large droplet of water hit Theo on the cheek. He sighed, dipping his head to rest his chin on his knees. "You're a strange girl."

"I know." She returned in a whisper so low he could barely hear her. "I think it's a prerequisite to becoming a witch. I think that's why master Pyphin picked me to begin with, because I fit so poorly with all the other children of my village. I think you have to be an outcast of a sort to ever have a hope using magic."

It was a heartfelt admission and a painful one. Theo felt it deserved some equally poignant response, some show of a return of the good will she was trying to extend him. Her self esteem was on fragile footing. She was quite proud of her powers and her learning but in no wise comfortable with herself.

"I am sorry I hit you, back in Vahnatu. I don't usually strike women, it's just that I've never had one come at me with a fire demon at her back before."

"I understand. I made a mistake."

"I don't envy your position. I realize you've got your back to the wall, and I wish I could come up with an easy solution to your problem."

"But, you can't." She said before he could. "Nobody can. I'm not stupid. I do realize what it is I'm attempting to do. I don't have a choice. Does that make sense to you?"

"Yes." he admitted softly. "It does. Believe it or not, I've been accused of setting an unreasonable course a time or two myself."

She didn't say anything, but he thought from the duck of her head she might have smiled. "We should take turns sleeping, in case they come back." She suggested. "Do you want first or second watch?"

"First." he said, so miserable that he doubted he could find sleep anytime soon. He heard her settle into the thick bed of pine needles, heard the quiet rhythm of her breathing as she quickly achieved sleep and envied her that ability.

The rain became a heavier presence, finding avenues to drip down through the leaves and harass those creatures seeking shelter on the forest floor. Theo sat listening to it, finding the uneven spatter of water a poor comparison to the constant patter of rain drops one could hear below decks on board ship.

When Dharva woke of her own accord to take her watch, he was of no more mind to sleep than he had been hours earlier. To lay down on the soggy ground was to invite more wetness, so he slouched deeper against his tree and bowed his head, shutting his eyes because it made no difference, the one darkness from the other. And surprisingly enough he did sleep.

 

Ten able bodied seamen trudged through the forest outside the port city. Not a one of them could claim more than a cursory familiarity with woodcraft, being men whose experience lay primarily in a place where no trees existed. They were not a quiet or graceful bunch in their march down the narrow path that Wing was certain their captain had traveled before them.

They were tense from the closeness of the trees, and the unfamiliar sounds that drifted out at them from the forest, and of short temper from the expectation of possible attack. Wing took the young man, Lhoki, at his word, when he said Tiana's men had gone with foul intent into this wood and that more would probably follow upon learning that even more strangers dared the trail leading to the Lady's fortress. He was also aware of the fact that the gate would be locked once darkness chased the light away and had no intention of stranding his flock of uneasy sailors in this wood for the night.

He kept track of the time and when several hours had passed and there was no sign of either Theo and the girl, or the men who had followed them into the forest, he had no choice but to turn back and hope for the best.

Theo was not generally a fool. Theo was more than likely in better control of his situation than Wing was of his own. Wing had to trust that his captain and friend was well aware of the dangers lurking in this forest and had prepared himself to deal with them. So, with no other option at his disposal, Wing turned his men around and marched the tired, frustrated lot of them back to Vahnatu.

Collin was not happy, but Collin was enough of a pragmatist to realize it was the only sane decision left them. He just looked gravely at Wing, knowing things that Wing knew about the lady and her dealings that the rest of the crew did not. Better that the men did not know.

The gate guards grudgingly let them back into the city, and Wing noted absently that Lhoki still loitered nearby and that the young man's eyes followed the unusual crew as they made their way down the narrow street. He nodded in passing and Lhoki shifted his gaze away, drawing deeper into the shadows. Not a young man that liked to be noticed.

At the docks the gin poles that housed the pulleys which were to haul the Luck out of the water were taught with the strain of the ship's bulk. The work crews had accomplished a fair bit since they'd left. The ship sat mostly out of the water, her stern slightly higher than the bow. Water rolled from her sides, draining from her hull in rapid, muddy trails. She hadn't been up long.

Wing walked down the pier where Adella and the foreman of the shipwrights who Theo had contracted to undertake the rehulling stood surveying the breach in the stern hull. The hole was some eight feet long and almost half that in width. The wood around it was dark with water rot, and it looked as if the lot of it would have to be replaced. Not a quick or an inexpensive labor.

Adella turned solemn, bloodshot eyes his way. There was nothing either one of them could think of to say at the moment. It was far too depressing a sight. Finally the old bosman asked.

"You didn't find him?"

Wing shook his head.

"Talked to a fisher captain this afternoon who knows where the lady's holding is. Says he passes it twice a week on his runs. Says by sea it's only a few hours north."

"If we had a seaworthy boat that might do us some good."

The old man spat a glob of the tobacco he'd been chewing into the water, glanced meaningfully at the foreman, and indicated Wing should follow him with a jerk of his head. Once down the pier, Adella leaned conspiratorially close and whispered.

"A lot of folk 'round here don't much care for the lady Tiana. Seems her and hers control a good deal of the commerce in Vahnatu. She takes a fair amount of revenue from this port, whether people can afford to pay it or not. Now captain Darius of the Black Goose, he says he knows of a landing not far from the lady's fortress where goods are dropped off when she wants to avoid paying city taxes."

"And just where," Wing asked carefully. "is this fishing boat?"

"Ah, interesting that you should ask. She's right here in dock. Captain Darius says he'll be taking a trip north and might be willin' to take on a few extra. Might even be willin' to make a stop if the price is right.

 

Dharva was beginning to feel guilty. It crept upon her when she wasn't looking and took firm hold in her subconscious. She really didn't like Theo, so there was no reason to feel bad over his discomfort much less his surly moods. Only sometime between yesterday morning when he'd been laying accusations at her feet and this afternoon, when he followed her grudgingly through the wood, wet through and through from a rain that had not let up since the night before, her attitude had changed.

Talking to him, when he wasn't outraged, or dubious or trying his hardest to be hurtfully sarcastic, was actually rather easy and Dharva had never been a girl much disposed to casual conversation. Not that she'd had a great deal of people to talk with, studying with master Pyphin for most of her teenaged years. She could even manage to look at him without feeling nauseous - if he didn't smile at her. Not that he was smiling a lot under the present circumstances.

She estimated twenty leagues had been traveled since Vahnatu had been left behind. The thing to do was start heading towards the coast, and follow the boarder of the sea to the Lady's lands. Her fortress, by all accounts, overlooked it.

She was intently following an eastern course when Theo paused, some distance behind her and cautioned.

"Listen."

She stopped, tilting her head and taking in the varied subtle sounds of the forest. She heard what he did.

"A horse." she whispered, then gestured to the south. "Coming towards us from that way."

"Doesn't sound like many." Theo observed.

"No." She agreed.

"We could use a horse."

She blinked at him. He gestured to a thick holly bush, spotted with clumps of red berries. "Distract him." was his suggestion as he gave her a gentle shove in that direction, while he himself made a leap for a low hanging black locust limb. She stood for a moment more, watching as he gracefully pulled himself up into the cover of foliage, then hurried for her ground based cover as the sound of hoof beats came closer.

A man in worn black leather armor of the same design as those that had tried to waylay Theo. His mount was lathered and wild eyed, and from the blood mixed with the froth at its mouth, ill used. Man and horse looked as if they might pass by without ever coming close to her hiding place.

Theo made an impatient hiss at her from his perch. She bit her lip and stepped out from the shield of the holly tree.

She waved her arms and cried out. "Wait. Wait. I'm over here."

The man jerked brutally on the reins of his mount, spinning the animal about as he lunged at Dharva's bait. She took a few steps forward, to better position herself under Theo's tree and stood with her hands clasped helplessly before her, a distraught look upon her face.

He thundered towards her and for a moment she thought he might plow right over her, but he yanked his mount to an abrupt stop that showered Dharva with bits of mulch and dirt.

"I seem to be lost." she started, just as Theo dropped out of the tree with a shower of leaves and water onto the man's back, toppling both of them off the horse. The animal shied, threatening to bolt before Dharva caught at it's reins. She pulled it out of the way of the struggling men, not wanting its sharp hooves to trample the wrong person.

Theo had an arm around the mercenary's neck in a hold that the man could not seem to break despite a fair amount of frantic struggling. Dharva was amazed at the violence of the conflict and the quick resolution. Theo was obviously well versed in the art of brawling, for with a final jerk of his arms the man went limp and was dumped unceremoniously into a heap at Theo's knees.

He looked up at her with a flushed grin of triumph, very much like a child who had just mastered a game that had baffled him for years.

"Well." she said, stunned and a little bit shocked at the outcome. "Is he dead?"

He wiped his hands on the fronts of his thighs before he leaned over to search their victim. "That's usually what happens when you break their necks."

"Oh."

He slanted a wary look at her. "Did you have a better idea? Maybe you thought we should have taken the time to explain our problem and hope he took pity?" He unbuckled the belt, and started working at the clasps of the armor.

"No. I didn't think that." she swallowed back a bit of bile that threatened to rise up and sting her tongue. "I just haven't ever seen anyone killed before."

Theo stopped his scavenging and sat there, in the ferns and saplings looking up at her with a gentle look of understanding. "I'm sorry, Dharva. It's not a thing anyone should be used to. I guess I've just been in a lot more street fights and bar brawls than you have."

Her stomach churned a little bit, before she got it under control, but it was more from the sympathetic look on Theo's face than the lifeless body at her feet. She sighed, fighting back the urge just to stare at him stupidly and distracted herself by stroking the sweaty coat of the horse by her side.

"What are you doing?"

"Collecting gear. From the look of the group that we first ran into, I'd say this is a standard armor. It might be enough to get past her guard." He retrieved a leather cap and pulled it over his own damp hair.

"One of us." she said dourly. Theo arched a brow at her.

"I don't think Tiana has many female guards. Not her style."

"No." she stomped one foot in frustration. "I'm not staying in the shadows while you march into my enemy's lair."

He sniffed, picking up the leather armor and buckling it over his shirt. "I'm not saying that, Dharva. All I'm suggesting is that now we have a way of maybe getting inside and finding out where the old man is first. Maybe get a lay of the land before we make a move. A little intelligence is not such a bad thing."

"She knows your face. She doesn't know me."

"Believe me, her men will recognize the fact that you're a woman. All I have to do is avoid her. I find your master and come back and get you, how does that sound?"

She didn't like the sound of it at all. She did not like the fact that he was suddenly taking over the decision making duties of this mission. He hadn't even been invited along in the first place. She watched him balefully as he stood up, adjusting the stolen armor, buckling on the thick weapon belt, but discarding the short sword and keeping his own scuffed and worn scimitar. He settled the cloak around his shoulders, looking supremely satisfied with himself. He reached for the horse but she held her hand up, halting him, taking one last bit of initiative for herself.

"She's had a hard day. We'll walk her for a while."

He was wise enough not to argue the point and the small concession mollified Dharva - at least for the time being.

 

 

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