7

Indri.

She had cleared away any signs of the barn's recent occupation, scuffing the ground where they had slept, kicking the ashes of the fire around and covering the scorch marks with debris and plants that she found around the barn. She wasn't satisfied, but short of finding a spade somewhere and digging over the the area where the fire had been, it was the best she could do.

When she had cleared it as best as she could, she hid her pack and Haavo's pack and, the bag with the things he had left with them, in the undergrowth and clambered her way into the rafters of the barn, found a spot where the roof beams met and settled in for what could be a long wait for Haavo's return. She didn't relish going back to Henving Bay. The citizens hated Fae almost as much as they hated Kannai and going in alone as a young female was asking for trouble.

She could fight almost as well as Haavo, but she had neither his skill as an infiltrator, nor his patience. Haavo could keep up his cover regardless of what happened. Indri, however, was likely to retaliate at the first provocation and that would help nobody. Least of all herself.

Mid-morning came far too slow. Her legs were beginning to cramp up from sitting still in an awkward position for so long, even though she had been making regular stretches as much as the lookout position would allow. She was about to jump down from her vantage point when she sensed movement outside.

Slowing her breathing, changing position to one that would allow a swift attack, she tried to follow the movement as they, whoever it was, circled the barn. They were good. Several times she lost track of them, only to pick them back up further along than she had expected. When the movement returned to the door of the barn, she got ready to spring into action.

"Hunters." Came the call from outside. It was Haavo's voice.

"Moons." She ended the phrase and jumped down. Haavo entered the barn soon after.

They embraced each other, relieved that each was alright, but Haavo's face carried a worried expression.

"Where's Chisi? Breena?" He looked around, hoping that they had been hiding as well.

"They went ahead." The furrow in Haavo's brow was beginning to worry her, too. "Breena thought it best to keep moving, stay away from the roads as much as possible. I stayed behind to wait for you."

"Yeah, yeah. Keeping moving is good." Haavo rubbed his forehead. He seemed more than worried, now that Indri had a good look. He seemed afraid. "But staying off the roads won't make any difference. It's speed they need, not stealth."

"Speed? Why? What do they know?" Indri sensed the urgency in Haavo's voice, moving to the undergrowth where she had hidden her pack and strapping it on to her back. She grabbed Haavo's pack and the bag and tossed them to him.

"The Hath Marat have been contracted, that's why." Before putting on his pack, Haavo took out his water skin and took a long drink, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Patrons damned Blood Hunters! It doesn't matter how far off the roads Chisi and Breena are, they will be found."

"You must be joking! The Kings would never ..."

"They have, Indri!" He snapped at her and Indri could tell he immediately regretted it.

Rummaging through the bag, Haavo pulled out his armour, jack, boots and sword and changed into them, tossing aside the boots he had managed to procure from somewhere, but folding the new jacket and putting it and the simple sword he had been carrying into his pack. While doing all this, he told her everything he had learned from masquerading as a soldier-turned-beggar.

"I can't believe it." Indri ran both her hands through her hair and paced the barn, trying to make sense of what Haavo had told her. "Before the end of the war, the Kings would have been outraged if someone even suggested using those Hath Kha cultists."

"I told you before. Fear." Haavo finished fastening his sword belt and grabbed Indri's arm to set off after her sister and their friend. "Even the very idea of another Rürazar terrifies them and then our Chisi helps Morsin and defended herself the way she did ... well, it just realised all their fears."

Without even telling each other, they both set off out of the barn, back to the road and started to speed-march northwards. It was a speed both could keep up for hours, if need be, and they definitely needed to. Breena and Chisi had no idea what, who, were after them. They were being more careful than being fast, if Indri knew them as well as she thought, and, right now, fast is what they needed to be.

"Any idea when the Hath Marat contract started? When they set out?" They needed to control their breathing to run, but she needed to know.

"I got the impression that they'd only just received the report. The barracks didn't seem to be in any rush to go on the search." They passed a signpost stating 'Norwatch Fort' 30 miles to the north. "But the Blood Hunters might have already set out. They might be in front of us, or just behind, but they'll likely be on horses."

"Then we'd better get a move on." Haavo nodded at Indri's suggestion and they quickened their pace.

Indri didn't care if they met any patrols or not. All she cared about was reaching her sister before the damned Hath Marat. She didn't doubt that Breena would die before she let anything happen to Chisi, but they had no idea how many Blood Hunters were on their way and even Breena had her limits. She had more than held her own against groups in the past, but what if the Hath Marat sent ten Blood Hunters? Twenty?

No, she and Haavo needed to find Breena and Chisi and face the Hath Marat together, live or die.

ii. Chisi.

With her and Breena on one horse and Peveill and his friend, Ephaesus, on the other, they made good time towards the nearest village where the alchemist could receive proper treatment for his wounds and find friendly faces who could hide him should the need arise.

The alchemist had remained, for the most part, silent since they had set off that morning, leaving the bounty hunters tied up in the pen with all the sheep. Breena hadn't wanted to kill them, but neither did she want them free, at least not immediately, for them to run to the nearest patrol of Kings's Companions, either.

Chisi had suggested that she could ask some of her animal friends to go back to the ruined cabin and chew through the ropes when they had ridden far enough away.

"If you like, flower. I don't care either way." Her friend had said, giving the bounty hunters a cold look as she checked over their new horses. "But we'll not be looked upon any more kindly regardless of what we do, or don't do, to them."

Breena could be as cold as ice when she wanted to be. Always straying further to the side of being kind, but never far from being able to commit terrible things, especially in defence of her friends. It was one aspect of her friend that worried Chisi. Worried that Breena could fall to the darker side of her personality should anything happen to Chisi, Indri or Haavo. Her friends were everything to the Eass woman.

Peveill had remained silent too as they had ridden from his friend's burned down cabin, worried for his friend and having many questions running through his mind, Chisi surmised. It seemed to Chisi that he hadn't heard about the arrest orders for mages and, like them, couldn't understand why it was happening.

"Are you alright, Peveill?" Chisi rode behind Breena, her hands gripped around her friend's waist and her head resting against Breena's back. Peveill rode behind Ephaesus, holding on to his friend as the alchemist mumbled to himself, flitting in and out of consciousness.

"I'll feel better as soon as Ephaesus is safe." They had only known each other for a little over a day, yet it seemed strange to see Peveill look so sad. "He saved my life. I told you, didn't I."

"You said he had, but not how." Chisi hoped a smile and getting him to talk might make him feel better. "Tell us about it."

"Two years ago, we had the Great Snowstorm. Do you remember?" Even Breena seemed interested in the storyteller's tale, for once. It could be she was listening to see if his story was inconsistent, or that she was really interested, but she listened, either way. "Like a fool, I thought I could make Norwatch before it became too bad. I got so far, but the cold and the snow were worse than I could have imagined. Ephaesus, somehow, found me, dying, in the middle of nowhere. In my fever, I'd wandered far away from the road."

"You must have been very scared." Chisi couldn't imagine being that cold. Thinking about it made her skin hurt.

"I was in a delirium. I had no idea what scared was." Peveill shook his head at the memory. "So, Ephaesus dragged me back to his cabin, gave me potions, elixirs, draughts. You name it. He watched over me, and cared for me for two weeks before I could even sit up without help. He was, frankly, magnificent. I lost two toes on my left foot, but he saved my hands, so I could still play my lute."

"He sounds like a good man." Chisi snuggled tighter into Breena's back. She knew people that kind, herself."

"The best of men and, since then, one of my very best friends." Peveill ducked to the side a slight to look at Ephaesus' face and try to get a smile. Then Chisi saw Peveill's expression change and turn to sadness. "Oh, Ephaesus. Oh no."

Without any prompting, Breena stopped her horse and jumped down from the saddle. Gentle, as gentle as she would treat Chisi, Breena helped Peveill lower his friend from the horse. With care, she laid the alchemist on the ground, cradling his head and looked to Chisi. Ephaesus wasn't moving. Not even mumbling anymore.

"Is there anything you can do, Chisi?" Breena may not have trusted Peveill, but she wouldn't want to see anyone suffer.

Chisi slid from the horse and knelt beside the old alchemist, resting her hands light upon his stomach and forehead. She closed her eyes and channelled essence through her hands, searching and probing. What she found made her so sad she immediately wanted to hug Peveill. He wasn't going to like what she was going to tell him.

"I'm sorry, Peveill. I'm so sorry." With tears in her eyes, she saw Peveill's expression change from concern to being distraught.

"How ... how do you know? Perhaps we can still get him to the village?" He looked at Chisi, almost begging her with his eyes.

"People have these things inside them, little, tiny creatures that help us to live." Chisi smoothed her hand over Ephaesus' forehead. "When we die, they don't live for long without us. The ones inside Ephaesus know he's dying and that they will be dying soon, too. Even with my wand, I can't help him."

Breena let Peveill take over cradling Ephaesus' head and stood up to give the man some time alone with his friend. Chisi stayed for a few seconds before putting a hand on Peveill's and giving it a squeeze and then stood up herself, leaving him to grieve for his friend.

When the time came, she would call upon the plants and bushes around them to construct an impregnable shroud around the old alchemist. She would charge the animals of the moors and the little creatures in the ground to care for the man's body. To keep it safe. And she would grow flowers around his grave so that he would forever reside in beauty.

But, for now, she and Breena let the storyteller say goodbye to his friend, another victim of the madness that had infected the Three Kingdoms because of the actions of one twisted, insane man. There were many reasons to hate the man that Rürazar had become, but, this time, it hurt that little bit more.

iii. Haavo.

They had speed-marched for almost three hours with rare rests for either of them in most of that time, but it came to a point where both Haavo and Indri had to stop, if even for a short while. Neither wanted to. They both would have kept going until they caught up with Breena and Chisi, but their bodies could not keep up the pace.

"This is ridiculous." Haavo tried to stop himself leaning over to catch his breath, which would be the worst thing he could do. "They've got almost a day's head start. Even if they did go overland on the moor, we're still only going half as fast again as them."

"I know. But we have to keep going." Indri paced around to keep moving, even a slight. "If the Hath Marat catch them, they'll need all the help they can get."

"At this pace, we'll be next to useless if we do catch up!" Haavo lifted the water skin, hanging from his neck, and took a drink. "We need horses and I'm not bothered if we have to nick some."

They hadn't seen another soul on the road since they had set out, though, let alone anyone on horse-back that they could steal the horse from under. It was possible the storm from the day before had made everyone stay at home. It also seemed possible the purge of the mages had had the same effect. Haavo didn't know.

"If I remember rightly, there's a fishing village about a mile or so away, on the coast." Indri followed Haavo's example and had a small drink. "I don't know if they'll have any horses, but maybe we can get a boat up the coast? Double-back and try to catch them that way?"

"Maybe. If it's not too far out of the way." Haavo jumped a couple of times and took two deep breaths to prepare himself to continue speed-marching. "For now, let's just keep moving."

They had, without thinking, quickened the pace and were closer to running than speed-marching, now. They were lucky that the roads of Hathbad were well maintained, for the most part with few ruts or potholes, but neither the roads or their bodies were at all made for this kind of running.

The village, that Indri had mentioned, came and went. A quick detour showed that there were no stables and all the boats all seemed to be at sea. But that detour had cost them precious minutes. Minutes that they could not afford, so they pushed themselves even harder.

By early-evening they had almost worn themselves out, both collapsing by the side of the road, sweat making their clothes cling to their skin, chests almost feeling as if they were about to burst, legs more wobbly than when they tried to keep up to Breena's drinking pace.

"We should stop. Have something to eat." Haavo fell onto his back, his arm over his eyes, trying to catch his breath. "Give it an hour. Run through the night."

"I don't think I can." Indri was rubbing the backs of her thighs and her calves. "I don't think I have anything left in me."

Haavo wanted to give her the pep talk. Wanted to tell her that Breena wouldn't give up, or that Chisi would keep going til her little heart gave out, but he couldn't argue with her. He felt the same. In their urgency to catch up to their friends, they had pushed too hard. Ran too fast and too far. He felt like he was letting Chisi and Breena down.

They stayed like that for far longer than Haavo was happy with, painful to move, not talking, trying to regain some strength. Even when they heard the sound of horses hooves, they could only manage to raise their heads and, when they did, they realised too late what was coming their way.

There were three of them. Recognisable in an instant by their blue hooded robes. Hath Marat.

Haavo didn't want to make any suspicious movements. He signalled to Indri to stay where she was and he himself tried to calm his own features. He wasn't certain exactly how the Blood Hunters worked. Whether they could smell the blood, feel it or even if they could see something that normal people couldn't. What he did know was that they never stopped until they found who they were looking for.

The Hath Marat slowed as they came near to the two friends, from a trot to a walk, and all three heads turned towards Haavo and Indri. Their faces hidden beneath the hoods, but Haavo could feel the eyes burning into them, taking in everything about them.

The Hath Marat had almost passed them when the one that appeared to be the leader reined in his horse, pulling its head around. The other two also stopped, staring straight ahead as their horses stood as still as death, waiting for the nudge onward.

From his high vantage point atop his horse, the leader focussed his gaze on Indri. Haavo imagined that, if he could see beneath that hood, those eyes would not be blinking. He hoped that Indri was remaining as calm as she appeared. She did have a tendency to fight first, worry about consequences later, but this was not the time for that. The way the Hath Marat was staring, it was almost as if he could tell that Indri was blood related to the one they were chasing. Chisi.

For an interminable amount of time, the Hath Marat leader continued to stare at Indri and even Haavo felt his hand twitch towards his sword. If they had to, they would fight and, even if they didn't kill all three of the Blood Hunters, they could reduce them down to one and give Chisi and Breena a better chance.

It caught Haavo and Indri off guard when the Hath Marat leader pulled his horse's head around and kicked its haunches, launching the horse into an immediate trot northwards, up the road. The other two Blood Hunters followed suit and soon only the sound of the horses hooves upon the packed dirt of the road could still reach their ears.

"Well, that settles that." Haavo pushed himself up from the ground, groaning in pain.

Indri joined him standing up. They were both exhausted, but both knew they didn't have any other option. The looked at each other, reaching out and clasped hands, squeezing. Haavo made one last deep breath and began jogging, following where the Hath Marat had gone, Indri jogging beside him.

No matter what happened to them, they were not going to let Breena and Chisi face the Blood Hunters alone, even if it killed them.

iv. Breena.

She didn't know what to say. The storyteller had lapsed into complete silence and this disturbed her more than she thought it would. She hadn't trusted him from the minute they met, but seeing his distraught reaction to the death of the alchemist had pulled at the strings of a heart that she thought was a rock when things didn't involve the only three people she called friends.

Chisi had channeled the essence and created a grave for Ephaesus, surrounding it with colourful flowers that the little Fae promised Peveill would never wilt or die, but continue to flower year round, regardless of the weather. That seemed to comfort him, but he had been, it seemed obvious, affected a great deal by the death of his friend.

Of course, Chisi had chosen to ride with the storyteller afterwards. Giving him the kind of comfort that only Chisi could give. That innocence, the lack of ulterior motive and a kindness that never needed repaying. She always managed to do the right thing, even if she never understood why she was doing the right thing. It was what she did.

"We should reach Norwatch before nightfall, you should be alright there without us." Breena knew the man didn't want to talk, but it was something that he needed to know before they reached the fort. "We'll be carrying on northwards. We need to keep moving."

"This bounty on mages?" He spoke without any of the underlying amusement that he had displayed up to the incident of the night before. His voice dull and almost monotone. "They'll arrest Chisi, if they know she's a mage, won't they?"

"Yes." Breena didn't give any comfort with her answer, just the truth. "She's a mage of two disciplines. It won't just be an arrest, she'll be imprisoned, or worse. They don't seem to be bothered if the mages live or die."

Peveill nodded. With the hand not holding the reins of his horse, he clasped the hands of Chisi, locked around his waist as she rode behind him. Breena saw the look of concern on the Fae's face for her newest friend. The Eass woman could tell that one of the many thoughts running around her friend's head was that this was all her fault.

"If it's all the same to you, I'd like continue on." For the first time since his friend's death, the storyteller locked eyes with Breena. "I may not be much use in a fight, but I want to help. Both of you."

"That's the fool in you talking." She didn't laugh, the man appeared to be serious. He had no idea, though, what riding with them would entail. "We aim to go beyond the border, to the White Wall and the Untaken Lands. I mean no offence, but it's no place for a storyteller."

"Is here?" Peveill tugged at the reins and stopped his horse, turning to Breena. "Those men were acting under orders from the Kings! The three people who are supposed to be the bravest, most honourable of us all! And they don't care if people live or die?"

"The Kings are just people. People do good things or they do bad things or they do nothing at all." Breena adjusted herself in the saddle and tried to think how to describe it to this man who surrounded himself with tales of bravery and honour. "Sometimes people do bad things for good reasons. Maybe the Kings will see sense, maybe they'll get worse, I don't know, but for you, for the ordinary people, I doubt life will be any worse either way."

"So, sit back and do nothing is what I should do?" He wasn't angry at Breena, she knew this, but still he spat out the words. "Be a good little citizen? Turn away when another alchemist is mistaken for a mage? Or even ignore that mages are being arrested for nothing? And when all the mages have been arrested, or killed, what then? Hedge witches? Soothsayers? Apothecaries?"

"I don't have any answers for you. I know only one thing." She pointed to Chisi, silent, watching the discussion between her two friends. "I care about one mage. One. And I'll protect her to my last breath. The rest of it? It's too big. Fixing the bigger picture is for heroes and I'm just a soldier protecting her friend."

"Then let me come with you." Peveill craned his neck to look at Chisi who looked back at him and smiled her sweet smile. "Let me be a friend helping you protect her."

"He could keep us entertained when it's cold or when the day has been hard." Chisi spoke up, finally. "That's kind of helping, isn't it? I don't think we'll be having much fun in the Untaken Lands."

Breena looked up to the darkening sky. The last thing she needed was a loose weight around their necks. The storyteller was a fool. He could stay in Hathbad, continue his round robin of villages, towns and cities, telling his tales and singing his songs and he would suffer nothing worse than a mild heckling. He couldn't understand the dangers ahead, or of finding himself caught alongside her and Chisi.

"Patrons take you! I can't stop you if want to come along." She tapped the haunches of her horse and continued up the road, calling over her shoulder. "Know this, though, bard. Once we cross the border, there'll be no turning back for you. I won't be escorting you back home and you'd never make it alone. That's your cut off point."

Peveill gave his horse a kick with his heels and trotted to catch up to Breena. As he and Chisi pulled alongside, the Fae gave Breena one of those smiles. The kind that thanked her for not being as stubborn as she could be and Breena had to turn away so that her own smile remained hidden. She couldn't very well act angry if they caught her smiling.

Within the hour, they caught sight of the great walls of Norwatch Fort, torches alight along the crenelations and within the towers. The road diverged into three as they neared the massive outpost and they could see the overspill of civilian houses and shanties that had sprawled outwards from the walls. If the population got any bigger it would soon become Hathbad's newest city.

They took the left hand road that circled around the fort to the east and, after another hour's ride and with the night having closed in, they found themselves an outcropping of rock that would serve as a fine place to spend the night, protected, somewhat, from elements.

Breena, poking the fire they had managed to start with only a little difficulty, stared back the way they had come. Past the fort and further southwards. Hoping that two figures would appear racing towards them.

There wasn't, of course. Now, with the bounty hunters' horses, they were making good time and they could not afford to wait for Haavo and Indri, no matter how much she worried or how much she wanted to wait for them. They knew what was at stake and they knew protecting Chisi would always be the priority for any of them.

She could only hope that they would find the direction markers that she had placed, and would continue to place for as long as it took, and that they would soon catch up. They all needed to be together, should the worst happen.