Chapter Three: AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE

It was Vahala who noticed they had company. The clink of metal tack had jolted her awake just before dawn. Lying still for several minutes, listening hard to their conversations, she identified that the newcomers were not caravaners, traders or merchants.

Not knowing if they were at all friendly, she rolled as quietly as she could over to where Aspen was sleeping, trying to discern weather the travelers knew they were here or not. Raising herself to her knees, she placed one hand over her companion's mouth and shook his shoulder gently.

He started awake and for a moment seemed to panic before realizing who was bending over him. Vahala put a finger to her lips and removed her hand. She then tapped her ear and pointed in the general direction of the voices. Aspen nodded and she moved silently over to where their packs sat, propped against a tree. The ground was still wet and it helped muffle her movements through the grass and branches.

As she was quickly checking to make sure that all of their belongings was stored away, she listening hard to the people no more than fifty feet away. "... told you we should have started earlier yesterday. It is almost light and... cover for miles besides the..."

All right, thought Vahala, they are trying to be secretive in whatever they are doing. She listened harder.

It was a different voice speaking now. Definitely male. "It'll be much harder to keep our destination from them." That was a strange comment. "... since we are starting so late, we won't get there 'till the cover of dark."

They have a destination and they're trying to get there in secret. Most likely up to no good. Do they know if we're here? If they wanted to remain concealed one would think that making this much noise would be a bad idea.

"I agree. Besides, they're already in place. It should be- What was that?"

Vahala whirled around to find a grimace on Aspen's face; he had stepped on one of the many dry branches scattered on the ground and it had cracked. A typical error that seemed to happen in situations very similar to the one that they were in.

There was barely any time for a furious look to cross her face before strong hands reached from behind her and encircled her waist, dragging her backward. She quickly gauged the size of her captor before jamming her elbow low into what she guessed was his stomach. She realized, however, that she would soon be overpowered.

She heard more movement in the bushes and a yell from Aspen. "Aspen, run!" she screamed desperately. "Find cover, get out of here!"

Struggling futilely, Vahala made sure that the man behind her was holding her torso tightly enough before lifting her feet off the ground and kicking his knees squarely. As his legs buckled, she tried to lean into him so he would fall underneath her. The act itself worked, but she was barely able to scramble two feet away before he had reached and caught hold of her ankle, yanking her back.

Aspen, meanwhile, was having the same amount of success. The brute holding him was smaller than Vahala's captor, but seemed a little stronger and more intelligent, careful to evade any tricks, struggling silently.

She, on the other hand, was swearing and shrieking at he top of her voice. "Get your bloody, festering hands off me you sadistic, half-witted troll!"

Her captor laughed softly and said in a silky voice, "Now, now. Play nicely my dear. You should not be harmed in any way if you cooperate. I advise you stop struggling, because you know you're going to lose."

The two companions did the exact opposite at the same time, with the same result. Vahala stopped her fight immediately trying, and failing, to dodge quickly out of the man's grip. Aspen struggled harder, but to no avail.

A tall, cloaked man, unnoticed by his two captives, standing by one of the trees, watching the seen, signaled the two men, also hooded and cloaked, holding the young man and woman. The last thing Vahala remembered was seeing Aspen crumple to the ground before something hard came into contact with her head. The world around her flickered and went black.

***

Aspen thought he was coming to. There definitely seemed to be flickers of light and voices, though it was hard to tell what or who they belonged to. There was also a peculiar movement. His hands seemed to be tied behind his back; his feet were also bound. After a moment, he realized what the movement was due to; he was sitting sidesaddle on a swaying horse. He could feel the presence of somebody behind him, supposedly guiding the beast.

His entire head was throbbing painfully, and it was quite hard to think straight. Finally remembering what had happened, what with the bound hands and a hurting head, his heart skipped a beat and he snapped his eyes open.

This was a motion he deeply regretted. At once, he experienced severe vertigo. He gasped as the ground tilted skyward and he seemed in danger of slipping off the horse. This horrible sensation lessoned just a bit when the rider behind him called to, presumably, other riders close by, and came to a halt.

I've been knocked out before, Aspen thought woozily, as two people lowered him none-too gently to the ground, and this is not what you're is supposed to feel like when you wake up. What did they do to me? Suddenly remembering the young woman, What did they do to Vahala? Gods! I hope they didn't do anything to her.

"Open your eyes, young sir. You will not be in danger of fainting again," said a soft, sneering voice from above him. It sounded like Vahala's captor.

With a certain amount of tentativeness, Aspen opened his eyes. The stranger had told the truth, about that at least, thank any god or goddess listening. It was completely dark. It was impossible to tell what the hour was since the moon seemed to be obscured by thick clouds. He had been unconscious all day?

With more than a little bit of difficulty, the prisoner opened his mouth to speak. "What time?" His mind was not organized enough right now to talk in complete sentences, let alone ask why in the name of Baarda he and Vahala had been captured.

The man that was able to stand chuckled at the other's infirmity. "An hour 'till midnight of the second day." By the sound of his voice (Aspen could not see his face; it was in shadow due to the night and a hood) he was amused by his captive's shock.

"How could I have been unconscious for that long?"

"Well, we had a little help, to be sure," replied the man. He tossed a nearly empty velvet pouch onto the ground next to Aspen, who picked it up.

Sniffing it gingerly, he immediately recognized the scent. A well-known herb named Vemp, that, when mixed with water and hollyflan juice, created a potent mixture used to induce sleep. If taken too excessively, the side effects were quite nasty.

Reminding himself that he did not yet know what had become of his guide, Aspen looked as directly as he could up into the face of one of the cloaked men. "What did you do with her," he asked, thinking it would not be a good idea to let them know Vahala's name.

The man laughed again. "Don't worry, sir, she is safe enough; still in a state of unconscious bliss, I assure you. We gave her a little more of that lovely concoction than we did you."

Aspen considered this. "So, why do you want Va- her?"

The tall, hooded man cocked his head to the right. "I am afraid I can't tell you that. Your companion will probably have to explain this situation to you when and if she's coherent enough.

Aspen did not like the sound of that.

"Until then," continued the man, "farewell."

Sharp pain, then blackness.

***

Panic. Terrifying panic was engulfing her. She could not think. She couldn't even get out of this horrible unconsciousness. The controlling calm that always descended on her in situations like this was gone.

It made sense, she guessed wryly. She'd never really been in this kind of a situation before. The prospects before her had never been so horrible. If they found out...

Unfortunately, there was really nothing she could do until the effects of the potion wore off. Usually, Vahala had been able to force herself out of any induced sleeps. Right now, however, she could not. Not because of the Vemp, but because she was allowing herself to be stuck inside her own mind. This was a basic element that had come up again and again during her training:

You are only as good or as capable as you believe yourself to be.

Mentally of course. You can not change your physical genetic make-up. The voice of her training master spoke. Hearing his voice reassured Vahala.

Forcing herself into a semi-calm state, her mind examined her surroundings. They were fuzzy and it was hard for her to discern them.

Probably because of the Vemp, thought Vahala, partially disgusted with herself and with her captors. No, actually, she was disgusted with herself and furious with her captors.

FOCUS VAHALA! You will get nowhere by complaining and venting your emotions uselessly. It may make you feel better, but it is not productive beyond that! Again, the voice of her mentor.

But no matter how hard she tried, there was no way to break the barriers around her mind. She was not fully focused. She was, however, marginally aware of her surroundings.

She felt her body shift slightly. For a moment, she could not understand what had happened. A split-second later, she recognized sudden, stabbing agony. The pain thundering through her was intense. Her body rolled back over onto her side.

The darkness in her mind thickened. So, my own body is keeping my mind under wraps because of the pain.

She focused steadily on her breathing, trying to ignore the burns and cuts she knew covered her body. She had discovered early in her training that any infliction caused by fire or hot objects affected Vahala mentally more than physically. Probably due to your childhood trauma, her master had explained. How can I get out of this? she thought, the panic rising again.

Then a more worrying thought came to the young woman. The harp! Surely their belongings had beens searched. She knew it was routine to destroy anything that wasn't of value. No, please. Her harp could not be destroyed. Somehow, it would have survived, she knew it. It was a miracle. It created miracles. It always had and it could not be taken from her now.

There was no doubt in her mind now. The harp would've survived. Somehow, she was able to draw strength from that fact. She wrenched herself out into consciousness.

Gruesome pain wrapped around her like a straight jacket, constricting her body. But as her eyes slid upwards, she realized that it was not pain that was paralyzing her. It was an all consuming fear she had felt only once before in the presence of abject evil, when she had looked into Death itself.