Colorless Eyes laughed. “Somehow I doubt that. Janco, take the cuffs off her. She’s not going to run away. That’s not the point of this exercise.”
I said, “You have my word, Janco. I won’t run if you take off the manacles.”
He grumbled some more but unlocked the cuffs. I wiped the dirt from my face. “Thanks.”
He nodded, and then pointed to his partner. “He’s Ardenus.”
“Ari, for short.” Ari extended his hand, giving me an honor. If a soldier offered his hand, he was acknowledging me as an equal.
I shook it gravely, and then the three of us headed southwest to find their Captain.
The trip to the castle was almost comical. Almost. If my stiff and sore muscles hadn’t protested my every step, and if the bone-deep ache of pure exhaustion hadn’t pulled at my body like a stone cloak, I would have been amused.
Janco and Ari’s Captain fumed and blustered when we caught up with him. “Well, well, well. Look at what our two sweethearts finally found,” Captain Parffet said. His bald head was beaded with sweat that rolled down the sides of his face, soaking his collar. He was old for a Captain, and I wondered if his surly disposition was the reason for his lack of promotion.
“I’m supposed to have the best scouts in Commander Ambrose’s guard,” Parffet shouted at Ari and Janco. “Maybe you can enlighten us as to which procedure you followed that took you over seventeen hours to find the bitch!” Parffet continued his verbal bashing. Even in the darkness I could see his face turning purple.
I tuned him out and studied his unit. A couple of faces smirked, agreeing with their Captain, some were resigned, as if used to his tantrums, and others wore bored and tired expressions. One man, who had shaved his entire head except for his bangs, stared with an uncomfortable intensity at me. When I made eye contact, he jerked his glance to the Captain.
“Nix, put the bitch in manacles,” Parffet ordered, and the man with the bangs pulled metal cuffs off his belt. “I see our two prima donnas can’t be bothered to follow this unit’s standard procedures.”
As Nix approached, I searched for a chance to slip away. My promise to Janco had only extended to a “hands free” trip back to the castle. Ari, sensing my frame of mind, placed a large hand on my shoulder, anchoring me to his side.
“We have her word, sir, that she won’t run off,” he said in my defense.
“Like that means anything.” Parffet spat on the ground.
“She has given her word,” Ari repeated. A low rumble in his voice reminded me of a huge dog growling a warning.
Parffet grudgingly allowed procedure to be modified, but savored his bad temper by harassing the rest of his soldiers into formation, initiating a fast march back to the castle.
I walked wedged between Ari and Janco like some prized trophy. Ari explained that the Captain didn’t handle surprises well, and had been frustrated by my daylong romp in the forest.
“It doesn’t help that we found you. He didn’t promote us to his unit like the others. We were assigned by Valek,” Janco said.
Parffet’s mood turned blacker when the dog team overtook our procession. Chaos erupted as barking dogs and more guards tangled together. I experienced a moment of panic when the canines rushed me. As it turned out, they greeted me with wagging tails and licking tongues. Their pure joy was infectious. I smiled, and scratched their ears, stopping only when Parffet scowled and shouted for order.
The dogs wore no collars. The kennel master was part of the tracking team. The dogs reassembled on Porter’s command, following his orders without fail. The commander of the dog team seemed disappointed that Porter’s dogs hadn’t found me first, but she took it with better grace than Ari’s Captain had. She introduced herself as Captain Etta and walked beside me to ask questions about my “run.” I liked her easy, respectful manner. Her mop of dark blond hair pushed the limits of military regulation.
I stuck to the truth as much as I could during our conversation. When it came to questions regarding where my scent had disappeared, I lied. I explained that I had walked northward in the water for a while before heading east.
Etta shook her head. “We were so focused on you heading south. Parffet was right to look east.”
“My eventual destination was south, but I wanted to try and confuse the dogs before I turned.”
“You succeeded. The Commander won’t be pleased. Good thing Ari and Janco found you. Had you stayed out till morning, both teams would have been demoted.”
The last two miles to the castle were a blur. Using every ounce of my dwindling energy to keep my feet moving forward, I concentrated all my strength on keeping up with the soldiers. When we stopped, it took me a moment to realize that we had entered the castle complex.
It was well past midnight. The noise of our arrival bounced and amplified off the silent stone walls. The dogs followed Porter to the kennels while the weary parade of soldiers trod up the steps toward the Commander’s office. We finished our march among the empty desks of the throne room.
Lantern light blazed from the open door of the Commander’s office. The two soldiers standing guard wore amused expressions, but remained quiet and still. Parffet and Etta shared a look of resignation before going in to report to the Commander. I found a chair and collapsed into it, accepting the risk that I might have difficulties regaining my feet.
Soon the Captains returned. Parffet’s face was creased in a dark frown, but Etta’s showed no emotion. They dismissed their units. I was summoning the energy to stand, when Etta came over and helped me to my feet.