Nothing happened for a solid week of travel. Athia played the part of a traveling rube and it got to be a pain on the third day. Still, she sucked it up and kept up the act. No one cared to look too closely at her, all the Einarr’s people were too busy worrying about the Iylians for that.
She tried not to make friends, keeping everyone at arm’s length. Without an idea of what she was really getting in to, she didn’t want to get distracted. Their lives might depend on her, maybe. Would be better if she acted clear headed and decisive.
They stopped early that day. The mornings journey took heavy toll, thanks to ruined roads. When the Master announced the late afternoon stop, the followers cheered. They put up camp fast and hunkered down around fires before the night dropped the temperature.
Both little armies made their own camps, away from each other. Iylian professionals stood guard over it all but several soldiers of Clarient joined them. Clarient bronze dulled next to Iylian’s refined metals. Rumors said Kol’s armors could deflect a trebuchet’s stones. At least one Clarient soldier bent his armor when he tripped.
Athia wound up sitting next to an elderly couple that stayed close and whispered with smiles. She found it quite cute and didn’t mind the company. They were especially grateful for the rest, old bones creaked and ached.
The woman, down to three teeth and wispy white hair asked, “missy, how long have you traveled? You look like you need a good rest.”
Athia smiled. “All my life! I bathe before each season and change boots once a month.”
The woman laughed, leaned up against her husband. “Where are you headed?’
“To the furthest place I can find.”
The man asked, “you aren’t from Clarient are you?”
“Nope, but you are?”
“That’s right,” the man said. “We’re visiting our son. He left Clarient for Iylia years ago. He’s not welcome back, and there’s no other way we could go.”
“It in the Stars favors travelers like you,” she said with a smile. “Walk, ride, crawl, hobble, as long as you go It will bless you.”
The woman said, “the trip back will be the hardest part! Thank you, may It bless you as well.”
Athia felt a bit fuzzy at that as she turned her attention back to the fire. She let out a long breath, feeling like she’d gotten a reprieve from the anxiety she’d been feeling, and ignoring, since she settled on her plan. All her positive thoughts and planning kept her moving and kept out the nagging concerns.
But she had a little time to rest and push it all back.
Her attention snapped to the tree line. Two Iylians escorted a haggard looking fellow toward their camp, arms twisted to keep him under control. They’d caught a few brigands on the trip, nothing that uncommon, and a sign they were keeping a good watch.
The man didn’t resist as they forced him forward. And a heavy bag hung from his belt.
Athia squinted, then her thoughts burst into motion. She shot to her feet.
. . . . . .
The Master reclined in his carriage. Coins hung from the walls, each one holding a small portal that linked back to Clarient. A small, rolled scroll came through the largest one. The others radiated heat from a furnace in the castle.
“The wonders of modern symbolists,” the Master said as he took the scroll. “No more do we need someone to keep them open.”
He unrolled the scroll and read an update from Urse.
Veil sat across from him, mask impassive and arms folded. The Master’s champion tapped one foot with slow patience. They kept a double hidden among the Iylians, eyes never closed. The company gave them both a sense of ease. They found progress here, something to hold on to when the work grew dark once more.
“Nothing to worry about,” the Master said. He rolled the scroll and sat it aside. “Veil, should I have him killed?”
“I don’t trust him anymore. And that pin he’s taken to wearing, with the boar. He’s falling sway to other beliefs.”
“You’re not contesting his points then? Or answering my question.”
Veil leaned forward, just a hair. “If he’s lost faith in you, what remains?”
“He believes in the revolution, perhaps more than anyone else. If he is losing faith in me, then maybe he’s right.”
Veil put their hands on their knees. “If you’re wrong, then what has there ever been for me? Why have I done so much for you, if you have failed?”
A silence settled between them. Neither wanted the answer.
Someone shouted, a muffled sound from the outside.
Veil slammed into the Master, bringing him down to the better protected carriage floor.
. . . . . .
Captain Carius waited too long for this chance. His mix of knights and rangers grew restless and each day they worried of what could go wrong. They hid deep in enemy lands and risked terrible fate if the Einarr captured them. And the promise of reward felt so distant now.
Olgur and his people stayed jovial, for they were far closer to home. When the time came, he introduced Carius to a condemned man they brought along for the occasion.
Carius watched as Olgur loomed over the convict. Olgur towered over the man and spoke with rumbling authority. “Do this thing, survive, and go free,” he said. “If you die in the process, your family will be compensated. Fail and they will suffer.”
The man nodded, sunken eyes glistening and bony arms shaking. “I’ll do it sir,” he said, voice dry and crackling. “Shepherd preserve me.”
They handed over a bag of tin coins, buzzing softly like several bees contesting a flower. Each one connected back to one of Olgur’s soldiers, twenty in total. Each soldier kept their portals open and crossbows ready.
Their bolts glowed with power.
Carius signaled everyone to move forward. Eighty-three versus a rough one hundred and twenty of the enemy. But he liked these odds with this plan. They stayed out of eyesight of the camp’s guards, hunkered down with hands on their swords. Carius stayed just behind, waiting for the moment to give his command.
When they made it into position the prisoner took off on his own mission. He stumbled through the brush, stomach growling as his body shivered. Each step came heavy, and his feet fell hard. It turned his walk to a jittering shamble.
One of the Iylians caught him as he neared the camp. He surrendered at the soldier’s command.
“I-I’m hungry sir. Been lost!”
Another came and they grabbed his arms. He didn’t protest as they lead him to camp, but his heart beat harder and harder.
“Just feed me, please,” he said as they forced him forward. “Where am I?”
They passed the main perimeter of guards and into the shared camps. His mouth dried as they neared the Iylian camp. People eyed him but he posed little risk. Another pair of Iylians moved to meet him at the camp’s edge.
He took a long breath, ready to act.
Someone shouted on the far end of camp, but they couldn’t make out the words.
The man practiced wind control, a former sailor who knew his craft well. That power opened the bottom of his pouch and the coins fell, then shot out over the camp. They held in the air for a split-second, glittering and pulling attention.
In an instant, bolts flew from each. Their empowered heads exploded over the camp, showering it in shrapnel wherever the force and heat didn’t reach.
Carius ordered the attack.