I was amazed by Valek’s ability to steal them in the daylight from a moving wagon. “How did you get these?”
“Trade secret,” Valek said with a grin. “Getting the pods was easy, but I had to wait for the men to water their mules to look in the burlap sacks.”
When I slid the pod back in with the others, I saw that in the bottom of the sack was a pile of dark brown pebbles. Reaching deeper, I pulled a handful into the waning light. They looked like beans.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“They’re from the sacks,” he explained. “I want you to take these back to Commander Ambrose. Tell him I don’t know what they are or where they came from and I’m following the caravan to see where they’re going.”
“Are they doing something illegal?”
“I’m not sure. If these pods and beans are from Sitia, then yes. It’s illegal to trade with the south. One thing I do know, those men aren’t traders.”
I was about to ask him how he knew this, when the answer clicked in my mind. “Their uniforms don’t fit. Borrowed maybe? Or stolen?”
“Most likely stolen. If you’re going to borrow a uniform, I would think you’d find one that fits.” Valek was quiet for a moment, listening to the sounds of the forest. I could hear the droning of the insects grow louder as the sun set.
“Yelena, I want you to find those two men you saw this afternoon, and have them escort you back to the castle. I don’t want you alone. If the magician plans on attacking you again, she’ll have to deal with two more, and I doubt she’d have the energy. Don’t tell anyone about your tree climbing, the magician or the caravan. But give a complete report about everything to the Commander.”
“What about my antidote?”
“The Commander keeps a supply handy. He’ll give it to you. And don’t worry about your incentive. You’ve earned every penny. When I get back, I’ll make sure you get it. Now, I need to keep moving or I’ll spend the rest of the night catching up to the caravan.”
“Valek, wait,” I demanded. For the second time today someone wanted to disappear before explaining everything to my satisfaction, and I was growing weary of it.
“How do I find the others?” Without the sun, my sense of direction failed. I wasn’t sure if I could find my way back to the clearing, much less to the castle on my own.
“Just follow this path.” He pointed in the direction the wagons had come from. “I managed to shake them off my tail before I caught up with you. The soldiers were heading southwest; they’re probably staking out this trail. Technically, that’s the best strategy.”
Valek jogged away along the path. I watched him go. He moved with the light grace and speed of a deer, his muscles rippling under his formfitting camouflage.
When he was out of sight, I crunched my feet on the loose stones of the trail, making noise. Twilight robbed the trees of color as darkness descended. Uneasiness settled over me. Every rustle caused my heart to jump, and I found myself peering over my shoulder, wishing Valek was here.
A shout pierced the air. Before I could react, a large shape rushed me, tackling me to the ground.
“Got you!” said the man sitting on top of me.
Even with my face pressed into the stones, and my mouth full of dirt, I recognized his rough voice from earlier in the day. He yanked my arms behind me. I felt cold metal bite into my wrists as I heard the snap and clink of manacles.
“Isn’t that a bit much, Janco?” asked Janco’s partner.
Janco moved off me, and I was hauled to my feet. In the semidarkness, I saw the man that held me was thin, with a goatee. He wore his dark hair buzzed in the typical military style. A thick scar ran from his right temple to his ear. The lower half of his right ear was missing.
“She was too damn hard to find. I don’t want her getting away,” Janco grumbled.
His companion was about the same height but twice as wide. Thick, sculpted muscles bulged through his camouflage uniform. Small, damp curls clung to his head, and from this distance his eyes held no color except the black of his pupils.
I wanted to flee. It was almost dark; I was manacled and alone with two strange men. Logically, I knew that these were the Commander’s soldiers, and they were professionals, but that didn’t stop my pulse from racing.
“You made us look bad,” Janco said. “Every soldier out here is probably going to be reassigned. We’ll all be cleaning out latrines ’cause of you.”
“That’s enough, Janco,” Colorless Eyes said. “We won’t be scrubbing floors. We found her. And take a look at that getup. No one expected her to go camo, that’s why she was so hard to find. But, still, the Captain’s gonna shit when he sees this!”
“And the Captain’s back at the castle?” I asked, trying to prompt them in that direction.
“No. He’s leading a line farther southwest. We’ll have to report to him.”
I sighed at the delay. I had hoped for a quick trip back. “How about you send Janco here to find the Captain, while we head to the castle?”
“Sorry, but we’re not permitted to split up. We’re required to travel in pairs, no exceptions.”
“Um…” Janco started.
“Yelena,” I supplied.
“Why are you so anxious to get back?” he asked.
“I’m afraid of the dark.”