His face brightened. “So there is a plan!”
“A goal more than a plan. Now, stay watchful. Fink is here. My brother’s crown is here. Our only means to negotiate is left in your care.”
He nodded at me and I turned to look at Fink, who only grinned. “I know, you want me to protect Tobias. Don’t worry, I’ll keep him safe.”
I gave him a quick embrace, trying to hide how deeply worried I was. “I know you will.”
Wilta left in one direction to find the herbs for my leg while Mott, Imogen, and I left in the other. But we hadn’t gone far before I realized they were far angrier with me than I had realized. My whispered questions went unanswered, my warnings of uneven paths or hazards as we entered the hills were heeded without a word of thanks, and when I joked that a warrior’s favorite fish could only be the swordfish, neither of them even smiled. Maybe it wasn’t the greatest joke, but it should have at least earned me a groan. That’s when I knew something was seriously wrong.
It didn’t take us long to gain some distance from the beach, and only then did I breathe more easily. Looking back to where they had been, I saw that Fink and Tobias had cleared all our possessions away, and even erased our footprints in the sand. We were also less exposed than before, each step higher greeting us with increasingly thick fir trees and white-barked alders. At our first safe clearing, I turned to the others.
“I don’t know what to expect from here. I don’t think Captain Strick has arrived yet, but other Prozarians will be here. Their reputation is hardly one of gentleness and mercy, so do not get in their way. I don’t know anything about the Bellanders, other than what Wilta has told us. Maybe they are peaceful and friendly, maybe not.”
In response, they only stared back at me, until finally Mott shrugged. “Nothing you just said is helpful in any way. What was the point of saying it?”
I grinned. “At least it got you speaking to me again.”
“We’ll stand by you, defend you, and fight with you,” Imogen said. “Don’t require us to speak to you also.”
I kissed her cheek, even though she turned away, then said, “For now, I have three out of four, and that’s not so bad.” Imogen said nothing, but I did catch a hint of a smile, so I figured things between us weren’t too troubled. Not yet.
Night was falling fast in our trek, and though we had good light from a bright moon and stars, we would be more visible than I wanted along the rocky trail. If anyone approached us from the opposite direction, we may not have the chance to hide.
With that caution in mind, I continued to lead the way, with Imogen directly behind me and Mott at the end. We followed an established path through the trees, so clearly this was a route that had been often traveled. It might have been wiser to forge our own trail, but the dense undergrowth discouraged that choice. The occasional sharp drop-off forbade it.
After nearly an hour, I held up a hand, hearing the voices of children ahead. I pointed for Mott to go one way and Imogen to go the other, each to keep watch, all of us to remain separate enough that if there was trouble, we wouldn’t be found together.
As silently as possible, I crept forward toward the voices.
Through a dense forest patch, I hid behind a wide fir tree to peek at a group of five children who were looking out over the sea. They were dressed in long tunics with cloth strips for belts, and most had hair as unkempt and uncut as mine had been during my orphan years. Compared to most other children I’d known, they looked far too serious.
One of the older girls finally said to the others, “I don’t see it.”
“I’m telling you, Lavita, a fishing boat landed here and some people got off,” said a boy in front of her. He instantly reminded me of Fink. He was younger and had much darker hair, but the shape of his face and tone of his voice were similar. “If we report it, the Prozarians might reward us. Return a few of our people.”
“Maybe they’ll send us away too,” a younger girl said with a shiver.
The boy groaned. “You all stay here and hide. I’m telling them.”
With no other choice, I darted out from the bushes with my hands low and visible. “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to help you.”
The older girl — Lavita — exchanged a look with a boy, then her eyes narrowed. “Now I believe you. We need that reward. Get him!”
Almost before I k
new it, they barreled into me, throwing me off balance. I stumbled backward, then with no chance to save myself, I fell over the cliff.
I fumbled against the sharp cliff rock without success, though my initial fear quickly turned to a hard lesson in embarrassment when I landed on my back on a narrow ledge, not far below. It wouldn’t have been visible unless I’d been looking down directly over it, but the children seemed to know it was there.
They looked over the cliff’s edge above me, studying me as if I were the enemy. The girl who had ordered my capture said to the others, “You wait here and watch him.”
“Listen to me,” I said. “I’ve come to help you and your families, but you must not say anything about me, or about the boat you saw.”
Lavita asked, “How can we believe you?”
On a gut instinct, I said words that had to be forced from my mouth. “I’m a friend of … Darius. Is he nearby?”
Immediately their faces brightened. One of the girls pointed off to her left. “Darius always does an evening walk around the whole area, making sure everyone is safe for the night.”