Where Hope Ends
Magic does not always need to be directly cast on someone to work. Sometimes, it can be set at a particular location to be activated at a desired time or should a specific set of events happen. The magic lays dormant until preset circumstances trigger it. Such is how some magical wards, defenses, barriers, and even traps are made.
— Primer in Static Magic by Battlemage Kaithas
Angvardi Province of Sei
It had been a long journey for the five of them. What should have been a journey of just a week and a half on horseback turned into a three week trek as they tried to avoid Angvardi patrols and scrape enough food together to survive. The longest delays were due to having to stop frequently so Syler could tend to Bronwyn.
Syler was growing extremely worried about Bronwyn's condition. She had been fading in and out of consciousness throughout the journey and was clearly suffering. When she was conscious for those few precious minutes, she was not completely coherent. Worse, her wounds had grown infected despite Syler's every attempt to treat them. She had a fever that seemed to only be growing worse. He used all of his knowledge as a herbalist to find various leaves and roots and stems to make simple poultices that he could apply, but it was not easy since he wasn't familiar with the plains of Kutii territory or eastern Sei. It didn't take long to run out of fresh cloth for bandages and wrapping the poultices. The constant traveling was not good for her at all, and at one point, he insisted that they stop for half the day to rest just for her sake.
Syler kept them going in the hopes that they could arrive in Sandrin and find help for her. If Fitno the Blacksmith was still alive, he would help them and give them a place to hide. Once they could rest, Bronwyn's weak body could recover. Riding as they were and sleeping a scant few hours each night on the cold, hard ground were clearly not helping. Once they were nearer to home, Syler would be back among the familiar hills he had grown up roaming and could find them food. More importantly, he would know what grew in those parts and could make potions and poultices to help her recover and have the time to allow them to take effect.
Despite that slim hope, doubt constantly plagued his thoughts. Even if he did get her, to Sandrin, it would be weeks or months before she could recover, assuming she could at all. To his great alarm, she didn't seem to be healing at all. Even minor cuts and bruises didn't heal like they should have. She was clearly suffering and that suffering seemed to only get worse as her body grew weaker from lack of proper food and exercise. More than once, he found himself interrogating Lamastus on everything he knew about magic because he had the suspicion that whatever curse had been placed on her prevented her body from healing naturally. The Angvardi was always willing to answer any question, even if he had answered it multiple times before, but he wasn't able to be very helpful. He was a common soldier, not a mage, so his knowledge of magic was limited.
As the days passed, Syler feared that even if they did arrive safely to Sandrin, she would never recover fully. He feared that he would never see her lively smile or have her working beside him at the forge eager to learn. His heart ached for those simple days of shared hard work and being able to simply talk to her and show her what he knew. Despite being a woman, she took well to smithing and never complained at the hardships, even when the pain forced her to tears each night. Each time he looked at her pale and broken face, a little bit of that dream died.
He had failed her yet again. He couldn't prevent her from being taken, he couldn't rescue her quick enough, he couldn't heal her, and he couldn't relieve her pain. All of it wore on him and put him more on edge than he should have been. Almost every moment of every day was spent clutching her close to him to keep the curse at bay. He wasn't sure if he would wake up one morning and find that she was dead in his arms. The constant worry over her gave him a short temper and an almost constant headache from the lack of decent sleep. The others knew it and gave him a lot of leeway and understanding even when he snapped at them over something trivial. He didn't know how long he could endure things like this before he lost his mind.
Food was scarce as well. The meager supplies that Growald's men had prepared were hardly enough to last them three days. It didn't help that they had an extra mouth to feed with Lamastus having joined them. Water was in short supply because people tended to be around the few streams that ran through Kutiim and they needed to be careful not to be spotted. They weren't starving, but they barely were able to eat enough to keep them going.
Lamastus, for his part, proved to be more of a help than a hindrance in this area. He was surprisingly knowledgeable at building snares to trap rabbits and other small prey overnight. More than once, they were able to have fresh meat for breakfast because of his snares. He also knew more about Angvardi patrol routes than any of them and helped them avoid attention. Once, he was able to go into a Kutii village and in his guard uniform, bought them some food and bandages with the money Syler had brought with him. There wasn't much there to begin with and Lamastus didn't want to arouse suspicions by buying too much, so that food only lasted them a few days.
The nights seemed to grow colder and colder, but Syler wasn't sure if that was because of the temperature or their exhaustion. It had been getting colder earlier this year than normal, but that didn't always explain it. Even curled up with Bronwyn to share some body heat, he was never able to get warm or comfortable. He was hardly able to get sleep and frequently took watch duty so the others could. They protested at first, but as the journey wore on, their complaints grew fewer and less fervent.
Despite going farther and farther west away from Kubei, Syler still had the feeling that they were being followed. There was a nervousness that enveloped the entire party to the point that they were constantly looking behind them expecting a patrol to be there chasing them down. That edginess took its toll making all of their tempers short and easily provoked.
While Havert and Alltis seemed to get along well enough and spent most of their time riding next to each other and talking in quiet conversation, there was a definite rift between Havert and the others. He had Lamastus had never been particularly close, so there wasn't any real friendship there. Havert didn't trust an Angvardi and avoided him wherever possible. Lamastus was cordial enough with both of them, but didn't really attempt to start conversations with either of them. While Havert didn't verbally question Syler's decision to accept the Angvardi into their party, Syler sensed that he didn't quite welcome him.
Not only was Havert at odds with Lamastus, but he was distant with Syler as well. He hadn't yet forgiven him for killing the unarmed priest back in the Temple. Syler didn't mind much because he still hadn't forgotten how Havert's ineptitude had nearly gotten him killed on that first night. Alltis didn't want to be caught in the middle, but had no choice. She wouldn't betray her husband, but neither did she want to abandon Bronwyn. On their frequent stops, she was always there to help tend to Bronwyn in ways that Syler didn't feel comfortable doing. She tried to remain friendly, but was clearly not happy with the dissension in their party.
Syler and Lamastus got along well enough. With Havert and Alltis spending most of their time together and Bronwyn unable to speak, that meant that he had plenty of time to talk with the Angvardi. He often helped Syler get Bronwyn up and down from his horse and was fascinated by his feeble attempts to heal her. He explained that healing and potion making had never been a strong point of his, but that he was eager to learn. Syler was glad to show him a few things such as how to properly clean and dress a wound and some of the basic herbal remedies he could find. The days of travel offered their tense moments, but most of the time, everyone managed to keep cordial enough to prevent fights from breaking out.
Knowing that there was no way for them to make the scheduled rendezvous Growald had set up at the Eastern Watchtower, they didn't even bother. Syler wasn't too sure he wanted to get entangled with the soldier, anyway. The man had his own motives and he didn't share them with any of their party. In this, Lamastus agreed with Syler wholeheartedly. Even if he was willing to abandon his people to help a friend, he wasn't about to join an active rebellion against them. Havert continued to voice his desire to join up with the Seinari and spent an entire afternoon arguing with Syler and Lamastus. The argument was going nowhere until Alltis stepped up and voiced her concern over getting entangled in further fighting. Her opposition clearly deflated Havert because he quickly dropped the issue and never brought it up again.
Since they didn't know their way back to Sandrin, they decided to simply head west until they hit the Mastar River. The river cut down the middle of Sei and was a point of reference for Syler and Havert. From there, they worked south until they came across a familiar site, one that Syler really didn't want to see again.
"It sure does look different, don't it?" mumbled Havert as they looked out over the fields of Fazei Crossing.
Instead of sprawling camps, fireballs being hurled into the sky, and tens of thousands of men fighting and dying, there were only fields and grasses. Instead of the clash of steel, the stamping of hooves, and the cries of the wounded, only the wind rustled over the hills. The place where their lives had been changed forever looked peaceful and serene, just as though nothing had happened here. The roads had been repaired and the bridge rebuilt just like they were before the battle.
The only thing that seemed truly changed were the watchtowers and fortifications guarding the bridge from the other side of the river. As they crested a hill, they caught sight of multiple tendrils of smoke curling up from across the river. A small stone tower stood on either side of the bridge and a series of small wooden outposts ran across the area of the river that was fordable. With the amount of smoke they were seeing, there must have been scores of bonfires to provide light even in the darkest of nights. The Angvardi knew the importance of this crossing and had decided to leave a guard over the only bridge and only safe crossing point for scores of miles. To try to cross in daylight would be suicidal, and they weren't sure of finding a safe crossing for possibly three or four more days in the wrong direction. The only way to have a chance would be to try to swim across one of the deeper parts of the river, and that would be impossible with Bronwyn being unconscious. By the sudden silence that overtook the party, Syler knew the others realized this. None of them had expected this.
With bitterness souring the back of his tongue, Syler turned back and started off for the battlefield once more. After a few dozen yards, he slid off his horse and took the reins to walk the distance of the battlefield. Seeming to sense what type of mood Syler was in, Lamastus maneuvered his horse up next to them so he could keep watch on Bronwyn. Havert, adopting a rarely somber attitude, quickly joined Syler on the ground. They were far enough from the watchtower not to be seen, so for the moment, it was moderately safe.
With nothing but utter defeat and hopelessness weighing him down, Syler's shoulders sagged and his head drooped to the ground. Now that he was looking more closely at the ground, he noticed the scars where fire and magic had ripped into the soil and had not yet fully healed. Occasionally, they came across a broken arrow or a small piece of broken, twisted armor. They didn't see any bones, but they did eventually come across the graves, thousands of them. They weren't marked and grass had began to cover them, but they were obvious enough. Row upon row of little mounds gave testament to the bodies beneath the ground.
In absolute silence, the two on foot led the others to the hillside where they made their stand for their country. The grass and shrubs had grown back up and the blood had soaked into the ground. The bodies that had once dotted the hillside were gone, as were the broken spears and the writing wounded. All the was left of the battle were a few patches of bare ground that nature had not yet managed to reclaim. War had come here and done its worse, but now it was over and there was nothing to show for it. It was peaceful once again, the horror seemed gone.
There was nothing remarkable about this place, yet Syler couldn't stop the tears from dripping down his cheek nor force his hand to stop shaking. This was where he had seen so many give their all for king and country, only to die or suffer humiliating defeat.
Standing here with the cool wind blowing in his face, Syler felt that his world had ended at this very place. Everything he had once had was lost here. What he had gained since then had been threatened and all but destroyed. For a time, he had thought that he had found something in Kubei worth living for and had a plan to get his sister, but that had been shattered when Shalktra boots destroyed his front door. Now, even that preciously tenuous new life had been destroyed and the woman he loved was dying despite all of his efforts. They were on a desperate race to get back to Sandrin, but all of them knew it was nothing but a fool's errand. They couldn't hide from the mighty army from the East, nobody could.
Syler took his eyes off the ground so that he could look up at his unconscious wife slumped in the saddle. He couldn't deceive himself any longer, not in this place. There was nothing he could do for her, even if they got back to Sandrin and could rest. The curse was too powerful and she was suffering even with his touch. Every moment she was semi-conscious, it was clear she was in great agony. Even when she wasn't, she moaned from the mere effort of living.
He was worn out, exhausted, and at his last straw. They had fought their way across the countryside, but it simply wasn't enough. Syler wished that he could have seen it earlier, but he was too stubborn. Just as he had been too stubborn to see his love for Bronwyn, he was too stubborn now to admit that it was all over. It took coming back to these wretched fields for him to see that.
He could go no farther like this.
He couldn't let Bronwyn suffer any more when there was no hope. It was cruel to force her to stay alive when she had no way to recover, no way to escape the pain she was in. Back in the Temple at Kubei, she had forced him to swear that he wouldn't let her be recaptured. It was the horror and the pain she was wanting to avoid, yet he was holding her just as captive by keeping her alive in her unending agony. It was his selfishness that kept him from letting her go into the peace of death.
What better place to end it than here, where so many others had died? She would have company, at least, in the afterlife. He wasn't entirely sure what the Kutii believed regarding where their spirits went after death, but he would hope that it was somewhere warm, peaceful, and happy. Bronwyn deserved as much, after what she had endured.
Something was there, whispering in his heart. Something was telling him that it was time, that he had to do what needed to be done. He knew this, and it nearly killed him. He could no longer let the woman he loved suffer like this, but to end that suffering would mean forever cutting a piece of his heart out and leaving it behind. Could he do it? Did he love her enough to save her from the agony even if that meant taking that agony upon himself? Did he love her enough to let her go into peace?
Standing there in the middle of the battlefield where his life fell apart, he answered those questions. His vision was blurry as he pulled his wife carefully off their horse. He laid her down and cradled her head in his lap, looking at her one last time. Nobody spoke a word as they watched his grief, not knowing how to respond. He remained there for several minutes whispering to her and wishing that things had been different. When he was ready, he smoothed the remnants of her tattered hair out and slowly pulled out his knife.
Before he could plunge it into her heart and end her suffering, a strong hand grabbed his wrist. With a single move, Syler felt pain in his hand and realized he no longer had the knife. "Ya don't want ta do that, Syler," said Havert. Syler hadn't heard him get off his horse, but there he was, standing behind him with tears of his own streaking down his cheeks. "There's gotta be another way. It can't end, not like this."
"It has to," replied Syler through clenched teeth. "This isn't any way for her to live, and I am not going to leave her to the curse."
"Leave him be," commanded Lamastus from atop his horse. "There are times when it is a mercy to put the injured out of their misery when there is no hope for saving them."
"No," the redhead said firmly. "I ain't gonna let ya do this. There's always hope while she breathes."
Lamastus shook his head sadly as he gestured with his free hand to the battlefield around them. "Look around you! There is nowhere else to go. She won't make it across that river and we all know it. Drowning is not a pleasant way to go. Better it be a quick and sure jab of a sharp knife. That is how I would want to go."
Alltis was livid when she interjected, "I can't believe we are discussing this! We haven't come all this way to simply give up here! Take her to some other place where there are mages and wizards who can lift the curse."
With a sigh, Syler responded numbly, "We can't take the risk of being spotted."
"We're willin' ta take that risk, Syler," shot Havert. "That's our choice, not yers."
"Is there any place we can go that might have wizards?" asked Alltis.
Syler thought for a few moments before saying, "Kasas Sei had most of our wizards, but that was before the Angvardi invaded. Besides, it is over a hundred miles south of here and will likely be closely watched."
Lamastus nodded in agreement, "There is an entire legion garrisoned there. That is twelve thousand men, plus a few battalions of cavalry to serve as patrols. It is not a place we want to go."
"Surely there is some other place we can go," Alltis urged.
"Naw, love," mumbled Havert. "There ain't likely to be no other places with actual wizards in them other than maybe See Sei or Asperi Sei, and both o' them are far outs our reach.
Alltis balled her fist and pounded helplessly against the side of her horse, "We can't just kill Brownyn."
"You think I want to do this!" exclaimed Syler. "I love her, more than anything. I want to save her, I truly do, but I can't bear to see her suffer like this anymore. Let her go to her Spirits and be at peace." He made a grab at the knife in Havert's hand, but wasn't able to get to it before his spry friend jumped back.
"No, I ain't gonna give it ta ya."
"What if this were Alltis suffering here like this?" pleaded Syler.
Havert's entire face hardened. "Then I would fight ta the end 'till there warn't nothin' I could do ta save her. Ya haven't done everything yet, and ya know it."
"Damn you, Havert!" Syler said as he lunged at his friend. They tussled for control of the knife, much to Alltis' dismay. She got off her horse and tried to break them up, but only ended up getting pushed aside by the two men.
A new voice, one full of bemusement, made everyone freeze in shock. "Do you fight with all of your friends?"
Even Lamastus seemed surprised at the sudden arrival of another person because he cried out in alarm and frantically grabbed for his sword. "Don't bother, Angvardi," the newcomer said. "I ain't here to hurt ya—yet."
"Growald!" exclaimed Syler from the ground where Havert had him pinned. "What are you doing here?"
Clearly not believing what the Seinari had said, Lamastus finally got his sword out and was in a ready position. Only then did he realize that Growald was hardly alone, but that the five of them were surrounded by a couple dozen armed men in dirty but functional looking armor. "What is this?" he demanded.
Growald ignored Lamastus as he focused his attention onto Syler. "I am trying to find you, of course."
"How did you find us? You should have been off fighting your own little war by now."
By way of an answer, Growald dug out a piece of paper from under his left sleeve and tossed it in front of Syler's face. "Havert, let Syler there up so he can take a look."
"Er, yes sir," stumbled Havert as he quickly obeyed.
When Syler opened the paper, he saw a map of the region. The first thing he noticed was several small glowing dots. He squinted in the dim evening light and frowned in confusion when he saw that, while there were dots scattered around the map, the ones in Kubei and Fazei Crossing were brighter and more intense. "I don't get it," he said.
"Go over and touch your wife," Growald suggested.
Realizing belatedly that her pain would return at any moment, Syler didn't resist and did as he was told while keeping an eye on the map. As soon as he touched Bronwyn, the glowing mark near Fazei Crossing dimmed. His brow furrowed and he blinked several times. Realization dawned and his eyes widened in fear. Just to be sure, he let go of Bronwyn and the light returned to its original brightness. Touching her again caused the light to fade once more. "This is us!" he exclaimed while pointing to the mark that was theirs.
"Of course it is," said Growald smugly. He jerked his thumb at Lamastus and continued, "Found it on one of this one's friends and decided to get to you before someone else did. He and a squad of Angvardi tried to jump us near Bomhada. Unfortunately for them, we had managed to meet up with some of my compatriots, so instead of a dozen or so tired travelers, they came upon half a company of righteously infuriated Seinari soldiers." He grinned mercilessly, "They didn't like the reception we gave 'em."
"You mean you slaughtered them," said Lamastus in a low, menacing voice.
At this, Growald laughed heartily. "Of course I did. They were all invaders in me land, so I killed him just as he would have done to meself or Bronwyn or Syler here." He clucked his tongue at Lamastus who was still standing with his sword at the ready. "Speaking of which, you are an Angvardi, so why shouldn't I kill you and be done with your ilk?"
"Because I say you can't," said Syler forcefully. "Lamastus has been a friend of mine and has saved my life on more than one occasion."
"A man can save you one day, only to kill you the next," Growald pointed out.
"He wouldn't do that," insisted Syler. "I trust him."
Growald snorted and turned his head briefly to spit on the ground. "You are a fool to trust an Angvardi, they are nothing but vile snakes."
"Not all of us are the same," Lamastus said in his defense. "I value my friends and despise the brutality that went on in that Temple. I left behind those murderers and have thrown my lot in with Syler."
"Did ya now? That is most amusing, truly, but I don't buy it."
"You aren't going to kill him, Growald," Syler said defiantly. "I don't know why you keep following me, but if you ever want me to work with you again, you will not harm Lamastus."
Growald's fist tightened around the hilt of his own sword, but he only worked his jaw a bit and left it in its scabbard. "You are constantly trying my patience, boy, that can be a dangerous thing."
"No more dangerous than trying my patience," retorted Syler, though he didn't quite know where the impulse to stand up so brazenly against an armed man with dozens of followers came from.
At this, Growald's eyes narrowed, though not in anger. Syler couldn't quite put his finger on it, but he could have sworn that there was a trace of fear in his look. He passed it off as exhaustion and the dim light. At last, Growald responded, "Very well then. He is your mistake to make, but if he ever crosses me, I will kill him without second thought."
"You can try," Lamastus said. "I am not so easy to kill."
This time, it was definitely anger that flashed across Growald's eyes. "Pray to your pagan gods that you never have to find out, Angvardi." His use of the word "Angvardi" was even more bile filled and dismissive than when he called Syler "boy." Clearly, Syler realized, the two of them would never be friends.
"What is it that brought you here after me?" asked Syler. "Don't say it is because you miss my company."
"Hardly, but you might still have a purpose yet."
Syler's brow arched, "And what might that be? I told you, I am not going to fight in your war."
"No," Growald sighed, "I suppose you won't. But, I thought you would like to discover exactly why it was that your touch not only prevents your woman from writhing in pain, but also conceals your presence on that map."
With a shrug, Syler said, "I don't know, but I don't think I am willing to pay your price to find out."
At this, the soldier chuckled. "You haven't even heard my offer, boy."
"Don't play with me, what is it you want?"
Growald leaned forward and whispered, "What I want is just as much a benefit for me as it is for you."
"What does that mean?" Alltis asked.
Growald smiled grimly. "It means, sweet Alltis, that there was a trap set for whomever would come to get Bronwyn here. At least, I am pretty sure it was Bronwyn. I can't think of anyone else whom they would want to keep tabs on. One of my more magically gifted friends did some verification spells on me and found that it is a tracer, one spread by contact with the target. While she was a captive, someone must have put the spell upon her alongside the curse just in case the curse didn't work.
"It was likely activated as soon as we left the Temple. Anyone who has touched Bronwyn since she was freed has been marked and the Angvardi have a map that leads straight to us. Fortunately, it is not a chain tracer spell. That means that only those who have had direct physical contact with the girl will show up on the map, but not everyone they might touch. If that was the case, it might have spread too quickly and made it more difficult to find her because of the number of dots."
Lamastus swore under his breath. "You sure it was Governor Uthas who did this and not the Shalktra?" he asked.
Growald grunted and shrugged his shoulders, "It was definitely Angvardi that came for us, not Shalktra."
"The other guards were furious at what the Terulans were doing," Lamastus pointed out. "Why would they take part in something like this?"
"Just because you claim to have a change of heart don't mean that Uthas is all soft and peace lovin'. That man is even more slippery than the normal Angvardi, and he has his fingers a little too deeply into things that they don't need to be in."
"Maybe, but I think that is beside the point," Syler said. "I don't care what games Uthas is playing. We need to find a way to counter this spell before they track us down." He looked over at Growald and grimaced, "I suppose you contracted the tracer when you were inspecting Bronwyn."
Growald nodded and said, "That I did. The other dots there must have been some of the women who touched her at some point. Their mistake, cause I wager that most, if not all, will be rounded up shortly."
"Then you are doing this for yourself," Syler said accusingly.
He didn't deny it, but waved the attack away. "Not entirely for meself, but I will admit, I don't like the thought of that magic being on me."
"How do we counter this spell?"
"There is only one way I know of to do that," said Growald with a fiendish looking smile. "That is why I had to find you."
Syler rolled his eyes, "Why? Because you enjoy me beating you to a pulp?"
"No, boy, because you are the only one who can counter the spell with our current resources. An experienced wizard could do it, and perhaps maybe an extraordinarily strong mage, but we don't have either at our disposal."
"I don't have any magical ability, so why do you think I could do it?" Syler was getting a bad feeling about this. His doubts and distrust of Growald were resurfacing.
"Syler Penion, if only everyone could be as naively foolish as you. Do you think it is a coincidence that your touch banishes the curse or that, when people touch you, their tracer light vanishes? If we were all to touch you right now, our dot would completely disappear and would remain so as long as we are in contact."
Syler had wondered why it was him, but he didn't have any idea how to figure out why. Even if he did, there were other, more important things to consider. He wanted to know, but he knew better than to let Growald know that he had leverage. His eyes narrowed and his voice lowered. "So what? I am special, what does that do for me?"
"If you want to know, then come with me," Growald snapped. "I can take you to those who will answer your questions and just might even keep you and your wife safe from the Easterners. If you don't care about that, then by all means, stay here and wait for the Angvardi to hunt you down."
"Why should we go anywhere with you?"
"Because," he responded with a shrug, "quite simply, if you don't, then you will die. That map isn't a fake and I have already bet my life that it isn't the only copy. Until you can get that spell off of your friends, you won't be safe. There could be hundreds of men already on your trail. Unless you were willing to abandon your wife and friends, they will find you and they will kill you."
"And what about my sister?" said Syler defiantly. "I am not going to leave her behind."
"You are from Sandrin, right?" asked Growald. When Syler nodded, he continued, "All of the single women from Sandrin were taken into the Sua territories just like we were taken to Kutiim. I don't know where exactly, but I do know she isn't in Sandrin. You would never be able to find her with the Shalktra hunting you down."
For a moment, Syler wondered if the other man was lying just to get him to do what he wanted. While he was thinking, Lamastus spoke up, "How do you know that? I have been trying to find out where they took Karusa for months now."
"I know because I went to Sandrin and talked to those left behind."
"What would make you do that?" asked Lamastus.
"'Cause I needed Syler's help and figured that the best way to get that help was to do something to get him to trust me. What better way to do that than to get his long lost sister? I knew that he and Havert were from Sandrin, so I wanted to go and get his sister so he wouldn't have any reason not to come with me."
Syler had to admit, it was a plausible story. Still, Growald didn't do anything without an ulterior motive, and he was too tired to continue this dance for much longer. "What is your game here?"
Growald spread his hands out in front of him palm up and said, "No game. If you want to live, you need to get that tracer off of you. If you want to do that, you need to come with me."
With a snarl of frustration, Syler pounded his hand into his fist. "We need to talk this over in private," he said. "Give us some privacy so we can discuss this amongst ourselves."
Growald nodded and motioned for his men to withdraw.
With clear hesitation, the others followed him a few dozen yards away from the others. "What do you think, should we go with him or not?" Syler said. "I am not your leader and won't make the decision for you."
"I don't like him one bit," Lamastus said quickly. Now that Growald was nowhere near, he felt comfortable enough to sheathe his sword. "Beside the fact that he would love nothing more than to kill me, you told me what he did to you last month at Havert's party. From what I heard tonight, he sounds like a man who cares only about himself and is pretty good at manipulating people to do his bidding."
"He ain't a bad man," interjected Havert. "He may be rough and a bit crude, but he knows what he is doin'. Admit it, Syler, if it warn't for him, ya wouldn't ha' gotten Bronwyn out of that dungeon."
"True, I did need him," Syler admitted. "Don't think that was for me, though, he did it because he wanted to kill the Easterners."
"He helped ya get out of Kubei," Havert pointed out. "He didn't need ta do that."
"Yes, that much is true, but there is something about him I really don't like. I can't put my finger on it, but he has an agenda and I am not sure it is in our best interest."
Lamastus said, "He is a thug, a brute just like the Shalktra just with a different uniform."
Syler arched his eyebrow and gave the Angvardi a sideways glance, "I wouldn't go that far. I have yet to see him torture or rape anyone."
"From what I heard, that is exactly what he was going to do to Bronwyn after that fight if you hadn't laid him flat," Lamastus shot back.
"He wasn't going to do that, " Havert said. "Nobody there would have let him do anything to her."
"I wouldn't have put it past him to try, though," Syler said, agreeing with Lamastus. "Right now, though, we need to figure out what we are going to do now. I am against going with him, it would be foolish to trust him. He could easily be trying to lead us into a trap hoping to bargain for his own freedom by trading us to the Shalktra."
"That wouldn't surprise me," Lamastus said bitterly.
"What about you, Alltis?" asked Syler.
She didn't look comfortable in speaking up, but once Syler put her on the spot, she had no choice. "Growald has done nothing against us so far, I would trust him. He has men and resources we don't have and he clearly has a plan. That is more than we have right now."
"Yea, if that plan doesn't involve us ending up face down in the dirt," muttered Lamastus.
"Hey, I have worked with the guy plenty o' times and he hadn't put a knife in ma back," said Havert.
Syler didn't like it one bit and had been hoping that Alltis would side with him. Now, the group was split evenly. Lamastus clearly hated the idea of going with Growald even more than he himself did. If he refused Growald's offer and left, he wasn't sure if Havert and Alltis would join him. Havert had always been enthralled by the Seinari sergeant, and right now, traveling with those men was bound to be easier and safer than traveling with a disabled Bronwyn. It wouldn't even be that he liked Growald more or didn't like Syler. After all, he had his own future and family to look after, what with his unborn child to consider.
As they were pondering what to do at this impasse, Bronwyn began to stir a little beside him. He turned his focus to her to see what was happening. To his shock, she started trying to say something. He bent down to put his ear next to her mouth.
When he heard what she whispered, his face turned pale. "What is it?" asked Alltis.
Syler didn't respond for a few seconds. When he did, he said meekly, "Bronwyn wants to go with Growald."
"What!" Lamastus exclaimed. "You are joking with us, aren't you?"
The ashen look on Syler's face said he wasn't. "No, I am not. She must have been somewhat conscious, because she just said that we need to go with Growald. She mentioned him by name. I can hardly believe it myself."
"Of all the…" Lamastus said in frustration. "All this time she hasn't said a single word, then out of nowhere, she decides to wake up and support Growald?"
"Did she say anything else?" asked Alltis.
Syler shook his head. "Just that we need to go with him, then she fell back into unconsciousness."
"What are you going to do?" Lamastus demanded to know.
Syler truly didn't know. He had not wanted to go with Growald, but hearing Bronwyn speak for the first time in three weeks had shaken him, especially after what he had planned to do to her just a short time ago. If she had thought it was worth it to spend the energy to speak at this point after all else they had been through, who was he to dismiss her? "Well," he thought aloud, "if Bronwyn somehow mustered the strength to say something, it had to be pretty important. She is a seer, remember? Perhaps this is the result of one of her visions."
"So I guess we are goin' with him?" said Havert with timid hope.
Syler nodded his head, much to Lamastus' dismay. Still, the Angvardi said nothing else and didn't argue when Syler called out for Growald to return. For a moment, Syler was worried that he might leave on his own, but he was still right behind them when he looked back.
"So, did you decide to join us?" Growald asked with a knowing smile.
Syler's previously pale face flushed with anger. His eyes shot daggers at the man. "First, I have a question."
Growald spread his hands apart at his sides in an inviting gesture. "Ask away, boy."
"You said you went to Sandrin, and you were at Bomhada. You have been quite traveled in the three weeks since we fled Kubei. How is it that you could get to Sandrin and back so rapidly?"
"We were on good horses, and we weren't burdened by an unconscious woman who needed constant care," Growald replied. "Truthfully, you travel slower than a caravan of pregnant women."
"That doesn't explain it all," pressed Syler.
With a roll of his eyes, Growald continued, "We used a ferry to get across Lake Mastal. The Seinari have friends in many places. Once we got to Sandrin, I realized that she was beyond our grasp and headed straight to you. I figured you were headin' for Fazei so we came straight here."
With suspicion clear on his face, Lamastus asked hesitantly, "But the army controls the ford, how did you cross?"
Growald's predatory smile returned to his face as he looked square into Lamstus' eyes. "We killed the Angvardi at the tower and went across the bridge."
"What!" exclaimed Lamastus.
"You didn't think that all them fires were just to keep a good eye on things, did ya?" bragged Growald. He was clearly relishing the anger that was clear on Lamastus' face.
"Okay, so you killed everyone there, we didn't hear any battles," said Syler.
"We killed them this afternoon, before you got here. Lost a bunch of men, but not as many as we could have. The Angvardi here are lax in comparison to the front lines. So," he said with a clap of his hands, "did that answer your question all good and proper like?"
"I suppose so," muttered Syler.
"Excellent, so again, are you going to be joining us?"
Though he hated himself for saying it, Syler replied, "Yes, it seems that we are. Now, where are we going?"
"You will know when we get there," Growald said. He motioned for his men to mount up.
"No, that isn't how this is going to work," Syler said with a set jaw. "I want to know where we are going or we don't move another inch."
Growald and Syler stared each other down for a few moments before the bearded man shrugged and said, "Okay, the only place I know that neither the Angvardi nor the Shalktra would dare to go is the Subeleth Woods."
"Are you insane!" exclaimed Syler. "That is Krue territory. It is suicide to go there, they would kill us all."
"Not entirely," Growald said with another one of his odd smiles. "They are a reasonable people; you just have to have something they want."
"And what is that?"
"Why you of course."
Syler's sword was in his hand and he heard Lamastus draw his. "I knew it, you double crossing lying bastard! You just want me so you can hand me over to them in exchange for their lifting the tracer on you!"
"Calm down, boy. I am not using you as bait. Think before you open your mouth, for once in your life. Why did the Shalktra nab your pretty little wife?" Before Syler could speak, Growald interrupted him, "No, don't speak, listen and understand. There is only so much of your ignorance I can stomach. They took her because she was a seer, and not just any seer. She was a Kutii seer.
"I know that might not mean much to you, but it clearly does to those Shalktra bookworm butchers, enough so that they sent hundreds of men a very long way just to find her. Did the pretty lady not say how they interrogated her asking questions about you, boy? Now, think for just a moment here, why would they want to do that? What is it about you that would make them so curious about you?"
When he didn't continue, Syler took that as an opening to answer. "I don't know, I am just a blacksmith."
Growald slapped his head theatrically in frustration. "We are doomed, truly. We are all doomed. Boy, I am so extremely grateful to the almighty Elements that I am not the one who has to explain everything to you because if I was, I would probably run myself through with me own sword. All I will say is that there is something about you that makes you very special to a lot of people. The Easterners aren't the only ones who know about magic and special things. The Krue do as well, and I am willing to bet my life that they will not kill us and will in truth, be your best friends."
"You are mad," Syler said after it was clear Growald was done ranting. "You are absolutely, totally mad."
With another exaggerated sigh, Growald asked, "If I am so mad, tell me why it is that your wife is afflicted with an incurable spell that leaves her in agony beyond comprehension, yet is inexplicably cured the exact moment you touch her?"
Syler blinked a few times and sat back in his saddle. He had been wondering the same thing ever since they were in Kubei, but he had come to no conclusions. "You know why, don't you?"
"I have my suspicions, but that isn't for me to decide. If anyone is to know for sure, it is the Krue. Besides, if there is anywhere that the Shalktra or the Angvardi won't be likely to travel, it is Subeleth. They fear the Krue just as much as we do."
With a glance at Bronwyn, Syler asked, "Do you think they can help her?"
Growald shrugged, "They have powerful wielders of magic and wise healers. It is possible they may know something that can help her, but I don't know."
Syler wasn't buying it, but right now, they didn't have much of a choice. From the news the priests so proudly proclaimed in Kubei, the Angvardi had completely subjugated the Sua and were on the verge of conquering the Koshi. There just wasn't anywhere they could go that wouldn't be full of people looking for them. If it wasn't the Angvardi using the map, it would be the Shalktra still hunting for Bronwyn and probably himself. With a long sigh, Syler sheathed his sword and said through gritted teeth, "It looks like we are going to the Krue."