The trader is thrilled. His trip has been enlivened by actually seeing the Wielder on a quest. Tarver reassures him we are merely on a routine visit to several cities. The trader, Mylo, nods his understanding while putting a finger over his lips in silent promise that he won’t tell anyone. I’m sure he won’t, until he stops at the next inn. At least he is going to Misthold; they are already overly excited about our trip. He won’t be able to make things worse.
I distract him by asking about merchandise.
“Silk, Princess. The finest silk.” He glows with pride.
“Of course, in many varied colors. I would be glad to show you.”
I hear Taver’s whispered curse, and hope Mylo doesn’t. I’m certainly not going to let him unpack his fine silks in all of this mud and all of our urgency, despite the amusement it would afford me watching everyone else fidget.
“I was thinking of mother,” I stop him as he is turning to his packs. “I will give you a note to the steward.” I reach toward one of my saddlebags, but stop when one of the priests hands me a small notebook and a writing lead.
So I write a note for the trader while he stands watching and bouncing on his feet. And give mother someone to question. He is still grinning, waiting at the side of the road, while we pass.
“Everyone is going to be disappointed when you don’t come home with a dragon’s head.”
Hearing Alan call Misthold ‘home’ again puts me in a good enough mood that I almost forgive Taver. Almost.
“If I kill a dragon, we are going to skin the whole thing—by which I mean everyone except me is going to skin the whole thing.”
We amuse ourselves for a while debating how to kill a dragon since they can fly and I can’t, until Taver asks us to stop.
“If the men overhear you, they might really think…” I look at him in surprise, and Alan even more so. “You have never left Misthold, and we haven’t told them why.”
“But dragons don’t exist.” Perhaps I have absorbed some of Mynar’s belief in logic.
“You have never left Misthold, Princess.”
I take a deep breath, roll my eyes at Alan, and silently plod, plod, plod… Thank goodness I am only going to Blythe, and am not off on some unending questy type trip. The road is practically empty, too early in the season for much travel, unless you are a motivated trader like Mylo, trying to be the first to bring in new goods after a long winter. Planting season is still weeks off, so even the local farmers are mostly staying home. Traveling is boring.
One hour is so like the next that I lose track of the number of days, so I am surprised when Taver sends one of the scouts to look for a camping place even though it is only mid-afternoon.
“It is better for us to arrive in Blythe in mid-morning than in the evening,” he explains. “We will have to break camp very early in the morning, but I don’t want to stay close enough to the city to be noticed.”
We move slowly down the road. I’m mentally debating if I made a mistake in deciding to arrive as warrior instead of Princess. Since I packed no princess clothes, I have no choice, but that doesn’t keep me from second guessing myself. The only concession to pomp that I have made is my red vest and fine red leather gloves. I need no emblems to identify me; I have the Sword on my back.
One of the scouts walks his horse down the side of the hill, angling so he will meet Taver. He has found a place off the road, and leads us back the way he came. Taver is pleased to be out of sight of the road.
“Anyone coming down the road will see our tracks leading into the woods.”
“The scouts will work on that, Princess.” Taver sounds confident, but I can’t see any way they can hide a track ridden by so many horses. I turn my horse over to one of my guards and start walking back up our trail, I want to see what the scouts are going to do. Three steps later and my usual parade joins me. We stand around and watch nothing happen.
“The scouts went on up behind us, into the deep woods.” My sergeant guesses what I’m doing, probably because I am looking at the mess our many horses made at the side of the road. I am looking the wrong way so I don’t notice the scouts coming out of the woods behind us, their horses loaded with small bushes, until they pass. They start ‘planting’ the broken bushes in the mud at the side of the road. Clever. Of course, the bushes will wilt, but not before we leave in the morning. Anyone passing on the road will merely see a stretch where road repair has done a poor job cutting back growth, not a mass of hoof prints leading into the woods. Although the tracks are masked, they go back for another load of bushes to be artistically scattered in places we didn’t mark with hoofprints; a single mass of bushes would be as obvious as horse tracks.
Before they finish, one of the last two scouts returns at a pace suggesting problems. I look back the way he came, but don’t see the last scout. I turn and head for Taver. The scout, being mounted, beats me and is well into his report.
“They were stupid or lazy, and lit a smoky fire to heat their meal. We saw the smoke before it dissipated, and were able to observe them unseen. Nase is keeping watch.”
“Ambush?” I feel stupid immediately after I ask. There is no way Orsin could have known we were coming in time to set up an ambush.
“Likely just scouts,” Taver answers. “Set to report anything they see on the road.”
I just watch the ensuing activity. For the first time Taver explains to his Captain and Lieutenants what our mission really is. As they spread the word, I feel the mounting concern. Whispers of ‘traitor’ both unbelieving and angry. I surprise Taver by not insisting on being included in the foray he is planning. He wants to quietly capture the watchers so Orsin isn’t warned. I am only too aware my sword is neither quiet nor subtle. The rest of the scouts are scattered to make sure there are no other camps, no one else watching. While they are gone, Taver selects the squadron to launch the attack.
Alan is torn, he wants to stay and protect me, but he also wants to go just in case the watchers include a sorcerer. I stare at him and pat the hilt of my sword. He makes the right choice, and goes to find Taver, volunteers to go with them.
The scouts filter back, having found nothing else except a small herd of sheep and a young sheepherder. They are camped well to the other side of the road, so Taver ignores them. After all of the planning, the attack itself is anticlimactic. Our soldiers return with their prisoners, only a few bruises to show for their trouble. Surprisingly, the six prisoners are more resigned than sullen, and freely admit being set there to warn Orsin of any large parties. I stay to the side, and they completely ignore me. Alan draws more of their attention, the only ‘unarmed’ person in a troop of warriors, except the four priests, but the priests are obviously priests, unusual perhaps, but still known.. My guards wear my emblem, but at Taver’s orders have covered them with their cloaks . Alan’s ribbon is also removed. Taver is hoping for some sign indicating they know who they are watching for.
“Did a warning somehow reach Orsin?” Taver speaks softly enough only Alan and I can hear him. And my ever-present guards. “A messenger would have to move much fast than we have to give him enough time to deploy his men.”
“Or maybe he’s just paranoid and watches all of the roads. There is a lot of that going around.” I don’t think Taver recognizes my sarcasm.
“Princess.” Taver nods toward Orsin’s men. Now it’s my turn. I take a breath and try to think what questions my logical little brother would ask. Of course.
I walk up to the prisoners and draw the sword. Surprise, recognition, and at least two ‘what the hell is going on’ looks cross their faces. No matter Taver’s conclusions, I know with certainty these men were not expecting the Wielder.
“How long has Orsin been sending men to watch the road.” They all try to answer at once, but they give answers in months, not weeks. So, no messenger with warning; Orsin has been watching since the Outlanders attack, before we had even begun to suspect him. I vaguely wonder how they kept from freezing to death during the blizzards, but realize we have no time for side issues. Trying to think like my oh-so-logical brother, I realize something else. We know why we are treating them like opponents, if not actual enemies, but they don’t. Why are they resigned instead of indignant. And were that way before they realized I was with Taver.
“Why aren’t you surprised at being treated as enemies by the King’s forces.” I’ve ask the right question. They fall silent and look at each other out of the corner of their eyes. I move back to Taver.
“Separate them,” I advise, “See what they will say when the others aren’t listening.”
Taver nods his agreement. “I will have the sergeants question them, they are used to voicing their complaints to a sergeant. And these men are not acting like content soldiers, no matter that they wear Orsin’s livery, they have complaints.”
Taver goes to give orders, and I tie my ribbon back around Alan’s arm, watched by everyone not busy with sentry duty or prisoners. So let them watch us smile at each other.
“It get’s really tiresome, doesn’t it?”
I don’t have to ask what he is talking about. “You have no idea.”