CHAPTER VII – GHOST TOWNS AND BARGAINS
Vera and Perrin arrived at the Euphor Bridge, to find their comrades in a heated argument. Perrin looked past them and saw Denya standing on the left rail, her dark red hair plastered to her face by the rain. She seemed to be waiting for an opportunity to interrupt the argument. When Saavedro's gesticulating calmed down, Denya put her thumb and index finger to her lips and let out a wolf whistle. The noise startled the quarrelers into silence.
"Now that I've gotten your attention," she said, "I think we should all listen to Vera and get a report from her."
Vera walked forward until she stood near Denya, "The soldiers The Black General sent after us are still searching High Den. However, once they realize we aren't at Maester Ale'Star's they'll take about an hour to reach this bridge."
Through the rain a whinny reached their ears along with shouts of Black Cloak soldiers. Anya looked at Denya's rigged patch with disgust, while Nessa and Rogue gave her approving smiles.
"I've already moved Dezna and our packs across to the far bank," Denya said. "After everyone has crossed I'll swing down under the bridge and meet you at the road."
The group looked warily at her rope patch. Anya voiced her opinion with a groan, "I'm not crossing that. It looks unstable."
"Your other options are swimming or fording the river downstream," Perrin said. "If you're that uncomfortable, ask Saav. He'll tell you it is perfectly safe."
Saavedro surveyed the rope. "Perrin's correct. Denya's secured the rope end beneath our feet, with a double square knot. On the far bank, the grappling hook is secured vertically between two boards on top and three support beams below."
Nessa waited a few minutes before speaking. "It looks like we either cross by balancing the rails or grappling our way across the rope upside down."
In question to the dubious looks, Nessa unsynched her knife belt and handed it to Rogue. She turned her back to the group, wedging her boot into the support beam. Nessa extended to her full height and wrapped her leg around the rope before she unwedged her other foot. She crossed her right foot over her left at the ankles and used her arms to pull herself across. On the far side she turned around and wedged her boot between the beams until she was at a standing position.
"No way am I doing that," Anya said.
"Fine. Then mimic my way," Rogue said. She climbed up onto the left rail, standing her full height. With her arms outstretched for balance she skipped across to the far bank.
"That's your other choice," Vera said. "Unless you want to swim." Being distrustful of heights, Vera balanced across with Perrin behind her. Erie and, to Denya's surprise, Xavix monkeyed across the rope as Nessa had. It took Denya a few hundred oaths, while staring into his stormy-green eyes, and a kiss on the cheek to get Tobias to cross the rail. When a whinny broke the silence, Anya jumped onto the rail and waddled across.
"Well Saavedro," Denya said. "I'll need you to go across and unlogde the grappling hook." She didn't wait for a response but took the rope in hand and with a flying leap disappeared underneath the bridge. Above her, Saavedro climbed onto the rail and wobbled across flapping his arms exaggeratedly. When he reached the others he jumped down and gave the grappling hook a hard kick. He donned his pack leading the group toward Forest Road. Tobias walked silently, wondering how he felt towards Saavedro. To his delight Denya rejoined them with the rope wrapped around her shoulder. She took her pack from Tobias and the group continued in silence.
General Kalbur held the prince's silk favor ribbon. He clenched his hand, an angry growl escaping him.
"General," said Soldier Koris, "we'll have to ford at Dead Man's Crossing." The General didn't answer. Instead he spurred his war horse and cantered downriver.
The sludge of Euphor's mud road squelched under their boots. Denya signaled Tobias, Vera, and Saavedro toward the towering ruin of Euphor's Church. Before sinking through the window slit, Denya noted Perrin, Eire, Anya, Nessa, and Rogue's choice of hideout was the old Hall of Records. She slid into the darkness of the passage, following a flicker of light to an open alcove off the main ruin. She found Vera perched on a broken ledge surveying the road. Tobias and Saavedro sat on rubble next to a stone slab. Both men glanced up when she entered.
"So," Vera said, "What's our next move?"
Denya joined the men, whipping out her map. The parchment crackled, a bit of its yellowing edges flaking off. After it was smoothed out, she took a small stone and laid it on the map. "General Kalbur and his men are here, at Dead Man's Ford," she said. "They will be in Euphor approximately forty minutes. If we're lucky we can leave at dusk and get to this river."
"How do we cross it?" Saavedro asked.
"We don't. We build a raft and wash up on-shore downriver. After that Saavedro goes to the Oracle, I go on my way, and the rest of you will travel to Sacarta."
Denya had barely finished her sentence, when hoof-beats thundered into Euphor. "They're here," Vera said sliding silently to the ground.
Outside the ruins rain and wind raged distorting sound. Denya moved quickly straining her ears. Suddenly the voices ceased, and General Klabur's voice boomed, "Check the ruins. Begin with the Euphor Hall of Records. Then send someone into the Church."
The proclamation resulted in an intense silence. Vera glared at Saavedro. "Why did you have to sneeze?" She didn't wait for an answer but ducked out what used to be an alley exit. The shadow on the wall outside gave a clue to which direction she'd gone. However, Vera disappeared after a few seconds.
Inside the church, Saavedro gave Denya and Tobias an apologetic look. He lifted his pack, glancing around the room. A rusted sword poked from the stone. Before he followed Vera the sword was sheathed in the empty scabbard on his belt. Outside an enemy soldier drew his blade and metal clashed on metal. Inside Denya waved at Tobias to go.
"I'm not losing you to my father," he said.
"Don't worry Toby," Denya answered. "If you go out to the alley I can use you as a cover to sneak out the way we came in."
A stubborn glint shone in his stormy green eyes. Denya turned to leave but to her surprise felt Tobias catch her arm. She opened her mouth to reassure him nothing would happen only to find his lips on hers. As suddenly as it happened, Tobias released her. He turned away, pulling himself into the alley.
Denya stood kiss-shocked, forgetting where she was. Then all at once the sounds and thoughts of others swept her back to reality. She shook her head, forcing her feelings aside. Her pack felt heavier as she sneaked through the Church. She reached the front of the ruin and closed her eyes. Using her control, she walled off her own thoughts so she could clear the static from her mind. Instantly, she could hear the thoughts of every fighter on the field. Before she charged out into the driving rain, she caught Rogue's panicked thought, 'I'm unarmed. My sais, where did they go?'
Elsewhere on the field Vera had slid underneath a shelf of stone. In her peripheral vision she located Erie. She had discarded her jacket. On her hands the bronze claws gleamed with rain. A solider stumbled backwards, attempting to block the claws decent. A flash of lightening lit Eire's face, and Vera saw bloodlust in her eyes. After the pair vanished in the rain, Vera jumped out drawing Sereg, her long sword.
Not far from Vera, Rogue fought with spare daggers. 'Look up,' Rouge heard in her head.
'Yeah, take your sais,' Denya said.
Rogue spun catching her weapons by the hilts. Denya smiled at her grimly before jumping down from her platform. The side of Euphor she'd landed in was filled with soldiers. Near the Hall of Records, a teen soldier shook with fear. She passed him drawing Saorise and Roisin, her uneven blades. To her surprise, she found Anya protecting herself. The Mage seemed to be fading in strength; so Denya slashed out with Saorise, her slightly shorter blade. The soldier whirled around at the sound of her boots splashing in the puddles. The pair began a complicated dance.
Twenty feet away, Saavedro and Perrin double-teamed the Tracker. In a split second the tracker vanished through the rain. Perrin looked confused when Saavedro blocked his second attack.
"He teleported behind you," Vera said. She looked at the pair of them. In that brief moment, a Black Cloak slid his dagger into her hip, slicing downward. It caught her attention; but she took it as a minor irritation.
Saavedro ducked under the attack swiveling to face the Tracker. Perrin materialized behind their enemy. Both men used their weapons to disarm their opponent. Saavedro cut down with his rapier blood squirting from the Tracker's knee. Perrin sidestepped the Tracker, moving to stand near his friend. They shared a glance, which conveyed the thought that Vera had saved their lives. But their breather was interrupted by two more soldiers.
Near Forest Road, a caravan of cage carts stood still. Several guards stood near them as if they contained important cargo. On silent feet, Nessa floated close to the first cart. She struggled with the weight of Xavix's ball and chain. The metal links slipped in her hands slick with rain water and mud. She managed to climb on the left front wheel. The guard floundered for air as Nessa pulled the chain hard around his neck.
Not far from her, near a grove of trees, Xavix fought General Kalbur.
"You and your friends are causing me more trouble than you're worth."
Xavix declined to say he didn't need to chase them. She'd prefer if he remained in Caracan and died by the King's hand. A quick step back allowed her to parry his strike. Xavix sidestepped and a second later a fork of lightening hit where she had been standing. Saving up her strength gave Xavix the extra power she needed. Using her electro-interference abilities, she channeled the lightening through her blade cutting a sizzling gash in the General's arms. The energy drained Xavix, leaving her dazed by the after- shock. A smarmy grin crossed the General's face and he disarmed Xavix forcing her backwards.
The General's victory over her seemed to end the storm. The rain came to a stop. Looking around her Xavix realized their group of ten had been forced into Euphor's previous town square. Behind her the men and women who had become her comrades stood in various amounts of disarray their legs obscured by the fog that had set in.
"You are pathetic." Kalbur spat. Xavix realized that the General didn't recognize Tobias. Who would think the disheveled blond, wearing cotton tunic, blue pants, and mud-caked boots, could be royalty?
To the group's surprise four soldiers came forward. Two held Perrin by the arms. The swords master seemed resigned to his fate. His only reaction to his position was a groan as the two Black Cloaks forced him to his knees. The General came up behind him, pushing Perrin off balance. He laughed when his prisoner fell face-forward into the mud.
"Let go of me you pheasant plucker," Denya snarled. She was dragged forward, twisting and biting. The guard behind her kicked her behind the knees. The other guard drove his knee into her back. She fell to the ground, mud splashing her clothes and face. Denya shot a burning glare at General Kalbur. "How is his Highness?" she asked. "Drinking mead and feasting while his bitches go out and murder innocent people."
The General's face heated. He drew his arm back and when he stepped away a red print decorated Denya's face. "Now that we have your…friends…you have the choice but to make barter."
"Don't bother," Denya said. "I'm not worth it. I'm a traitor. The King would love to buy me as punishment."
"You are a miscreant chit," the General snapped.
"What, I'm not your type?"
The soldiers had gone completely silent. Among the rebels, Perrin and Vera were attempting not to chuckle. The General drew his dagger, pressing it against Denya's throat, "He said to bring you back. He didn't command you brought back unscathed."
Tobias cleared his throat. General Kalbur looked up. Tobias signaled to Nessa asking for a dagger. She obliged giving him a confused look. The prince stumbled forward holding his side with one arm. Using his free hand he raised the blade to his jugular vein. The General looked at him warily.
"State your terms," Tobias said.
"Fine," Kalbur said. "Perrin Al'Thor comes with us. The King has decided to grant Perrin his position with full pay. Of course he'll be under tight watch. Or," he sneered, "he can choose to rejoin you and be put to death if he's captured again."
"What about Denya?" Saavedro asked.
"The chit? We take her back to Caracan and she watches her shop burn. And for being a traitor she'll be put to death. Or become the newest Black Army whore."
"You'd love to see me suffer," Denya said. "Or will you be fucking another thirteen-year-old on your off-time?"
General Kalbur whirled around. He yanked Denya off her knees pulling her in front of her comrades. He pressed the knife to her throat.
"Release her," Tobias said.
"In what name?" Kalbur spat.
"In the name of Tobias Gabriel North."
"If I don't.."
"If you don't, you can bear my body back to my father."
General Kalbur's eyes widened. He floundered for words but dropped his arm in defeat. Denya found herself pushed forward. Tobias shook, refusing to let the fatigue make him seem weak. While the soldiers were focusing on Kalbur, Denya crawled forward staggering when her foot sank into a mud pit.
In an orate mood General Kalbur signaled his men to begin loading the bodies of the injured, dead, and dying Black Cloak Soldiers into the carts. "You get two week start," he growled at Xavix. Xavix watched in pained silence as Perrin was dragged away his hands bound with rope.