Midnight Quest (7 page)

“Sounds logical enough to me.” Sarvell stood, absently brushing dirt and blades of grass from his pants. “Rialt, I’m going shopping for her first before we start really traveling. That dress of hers is a dead giveaway to her identity.”

Rialt nodded in agreement at the sensible plan. “We will shadow you to the next town and bide outside. Jewel, you ride with me.”

 

Chapter Four

They put Jewel in front of Rialt on his horse.

She wondered why they were constantly putting her in front of them like a child. Granted, in comparison to their size she probably did look like a child. They were both very tall, broad men. Still, she had a notion that they were going to act very protective of her and it would only get worse unless she put her foot down. People tended to treat her as if she were incapable because of her blindness and small size.

They were back on the road but not at the quick lope they’d traveled at before. The sharp clop of hooves against hardened soil was loud, but not to the point where it would drown out her words. “Rialt?”

“Eh?” he responded, tone inviting.

“Why do you and Sarvell keep putting me in front like this? I can hang on in back.”

“No sure of his reasons,” he rumbled, “but as for me, I would rather no have your face near my axe.”

Oh. His axe hung at his back? Well, she didn’t want to be near something potentially dangerous like that either. Relieved, she tried teasing him a little. “Afraid I’ll poke an eye out?”

To her delight, he chuckled openly. “Eh, that be an option. I would rather no have herself drop in a fury and skelp me.”

“How did she call you in to help me, anyway?” Jewel hadn’t yet heard his side of the story. “I mean, technically she’s not your clan’s god.”

“When a glowing god with a mad-on appears at a man’s footboard in the dead o’ night, he tends to forget little things like that,” Rialt drawled with enough dry humor that she cracked up laughing. “Mind, it was no until herself left that I thought about it, and by then I was firmly caught. I had said I would go, so away I went.”

“I’m glad,” she responded sincerely. “We’d have been lost without you.”

“My people would be hard-up without you,” he responded so quietly that the words were almost drowned out by hoof beats. “The past three months were a mite…difficult.”

This from a man that thought toying with a castle full of guards was nothing more than a lark.

“Jewel…” hesitation was clear in his voice, weighing at his words. “Why did you leave Ramath to fend for itself six months ago?”

“Huh?” Confused, she shook her head. “Rialt, I’ve only been high priestess three months. Did my predecessor leave you out of the barrier?”

“Three months…” he murmured in something akin to relief. “I see. Eh, for a week or so we were a bit bare.”

“I’d wondered what my predecessor had done to get yanked out of office so quickly.” The reason was obvious now. “Um, does all of Ramath think it’s my fault you were exposed like that?”

“We had no notion a new high priestess had been called in this past year.”

“Great,” she groaned, shoulders slumping. “That means everyone will be mad at me.”

“It will be fine,” he assured her comfortingly. “I will straighten ‘em out quick-like.”

Rialt struck her as a man with a direct approach in matters such as this. She couldn’t help but ask, “With axe in hand?”

“If need be.”

That’s what she was afraid of.

~*~*~*~

They were a stone’s throw from the main road leading into town, largely hidden by the foliage of trees. She and Rialt waited as Sarvell went into town, keeping well away from the road so that no one could notice them.

The merchant’s son was very quick when it came to shopping, for he came back within a half hour with a complete outfit for her. Sarvell had bought a wide riding skirt, billowy blouse and a stylish gypsy vest for her that fit tolerably well. He’d borrowed one of her shoes before going shopping so that he could buy her new boots as well without completely guessing at her size. The boots were a mite large, but two layers of socks fixed that well enough. The real blessing came in the form of the thick, fur-lined cloak he’d brought back for her. Their northern route brought them closer and closer to the heart of winter, and the air became progressively colder.

Rialt surprised her by sitting her down and braiding her hair in a winding knot that went around her head. He’d laughed at her and Sarvell’s surprise and said, “When a man grows up with four sisters, he picks up a few tricks.”

It was hard to disguise her because she was so memorable. Changing her appearance had been easy enough, but her blindness was impossible to disguise, and it would be something that everyone would take note of. Sarvell suggested that when in sight of other people, they would act as if she were the victim of a recent fever that had robbed her temporarily of sight and strength. It wasn’t the best disguise, but they’d planned to avoid civilization as much as possible anyway.

The real problem was the news Sarvell brought back with him. The only two highways leading from Thornock into Ramath were heavily guarded and everyone was being examined closely. Crossing the border would be nearly impossible without being caught.

After dressing in her new clothes and burning the old ones, they sat and planned what to do next.

Sarvell blew out an irritable breath, saddle creaking as he leaned forward. “I know there’re a few back roads we could take as well, but I’m not very familiar with them.”

“Do no even think it, man,” Rialt denied almost before he could finish. “Those roads are near overrun with bandits. Folks think to cheat the road guards from their toll by taking other ways and they make rich pickings for bandits. It would be asking for trouble.”

“Then we have to use the main roads,” Sarvell concluded with a bone weary sigh. “Alright. I thought you might say that, so I took a look around when I was in town. My father has friends that run a caravan through here, and two of them are putting together a caravan train right now. It will be slower to travel with them, but it will get us through the checks.”

Nowhere in that had he said he’d already talked to them. Jewel was taken aback at his surety that these associates would help three wanted people. “You’re so sure they’ll help to smuggle me across?”

“Oh certainly,” he assured her as if he didn’t doubt it for a moment. “And spend the next twenty years bragging about it. My father likes them because they can get merchandise into…unattainable markets.”

“Smugglers, he means,” Rialt translated for her helpfully.

Despite herself, her interest piqued. “I’ve never been smuggled before. This should be interesting.”

Sarvell laughed outright, the sound warm and rich on her ears. “I don’t know what response I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t that! Well, Jewel, they’ve never smuggled a person before either so I’m not sure how this will work. I just hope we can get you into the city without arousing suspicion.”

“Her hair be as dark as mine,” Rialt observed thoughtfully, “but her skin be more fair, like yours. Despite your fair hair, Sarvell, I think she would pass better as your sister than mine.”

“Which would make you, what?” Sarvell responded, tone intrigued. “Family bodyguard? Sent along to help me with her?”

“Eh, it be a workable enough story.”

“I certainly can’t think of a better one,” Sarvell acknowledged. “Alright. Jewel, you are now unofficially a Sorpan. I actually have a younger sister, so anyone that’s heard of my family won’t think it strange. Rialt, you’d better hand her to me.”

“Are you well known for being protective of this sister?” Rialt asked the question as if he already knew the answer.

“Well…yes.”

Jewel sat close enough to hear Rialt’s soft snort of amusement.

Rialt put a hand at the small of her back and led her closer to where Sarvell sat on his stallion, mounted. With no apparent effort, he put both hands at her waist and lifted her up. Sarvell accepted her with the same amount of ease, shifting her so that she sat sideways. She put an arm around his waist for balance, cuddling in like a sickly sister would with her head on his chest.

“Just keep your eyes closed,” Sarvell murmured into the top of her head. “Act like you’re asleep.”

“Alright.” Actually, taking a nap sounded tempting. She’d only had a few hours of sleep before Sarvell and Rialt had broken her out of the cell. It was close to midday now and she sorely felt the aftereffects of her nighttime adventures.

Her ears picked up the sounds of the creak and shift of the saddle leather as Rialt mounted his stallion.

They left their forest hideaway and made a beeline for the main road. The horses made soft slapping and rustling sounds as they moved through tall grass, low brush and the usual forest undergrowth. Upon gaining the road, these sounds were exchanged by creaking wagons, plodding feet, and the distinct smell of cold stone. This close to the city, the road was paved with smooth stone that gave each hoof beat a slightly metallic ring. On the air, other sounds came: people speaking, dozens of different animals as they called out, the thumps and rings of work being done. All of these sounds weaved together with scents of baking bread, metalworking, streaming water, and the less aromatic scents of waste and refuse. They were closing in on the city.

Wexels was the last main city before leaving Thornock territory. It was the main center of trade for Thornock and Ramath, so the amount of noise and bustling emanating from the city was understandable.

To her surprise, despite the constant stream of traffic in and out of the main gates, at least one guard remembered Sarvell and stopped him. “Didn’t you already come in and leave?” the voice was heavy with suspicion and old from too much ale.

“Miscommunication.” Sarvell’s tone conveyed exasperation and a little irritation. “I was told to meet these two inside the city, they thought they were supposed to wait
outside.

“So who are they?”

“Ah, this is my little sister. He’s a guard that works for my family.”

“I see. Come through, then.”

Sarvell’s thighs flexed as he tapped his heels against the horse’s flanks, urging him back into motion. Jewel counted to ten before she dared to ask, “Did he buy that story?”

“Maybe. It sounded plausible enough to him that he let us through at least. Now we need to quickly get under cover before anyone else stops and asks us questions.”

Jewel had never been to Wexel before, so the turns that Sarvell made had no real meaning to her. He had to twist and maneuver around other people and their wagons so often that she soon lost her bearings entirely.

She breathed a sigh of relief when they stopped. Jewel waited patiently, alert for some cue as to what Sarvell had planned next. He bent slightly to put his mouth near her forehead. “I’m going to hand you down to Rialt. He’ll carry you inside and to a back room. Keep your eyes closed and keep pretending you’re asleep.”

She nodded understanding.

Rialt came and lifted her off as easily as he had put her on, tucking one arm under her knees and the other around her back in a supportive brace. She tucked her head under his chin, hands folded in her lap. The beard against her bare forehead tickled and she had to bite her lip to keep from giggling.

She felt very secure in his iron-hard grip. Rialt ascended two steps and crossed a wooden porch, his boots giving off hollow thuds with every stride he took. The quiet slide of a door being opened, and then new sounds and smells invaded her senses. The solid thumps of large bundles being moved against the floor, the dusty smell of paper, the sharper and earthier smell of new leather, male voices calling out questions and orders to each other. A mercantile business? That was her impression.

One person at least noticed and recognized them. “Sarvell Sorpan! What brings you out here?”

“Well, I need a bit of a favor, Liam. Is there some place private we can talk?”

“Sure, sure. This way.”

Rialt took five ground-eating strides before turning and entering a room, ducking a bit as he did. Was the doorway too low for him to properly clear? He bent even further, sinking into a chair that groaned as it took both his weight and hers. Jewel sat up as the door clicked shut. She would have sought her own seat, if not for Rialt’s restraining grip on her.

“Interesting company you have with you, Sarvell.” Another chair groaned as a person sat.

“It’s a long story, Liam, and best for you that we not tell you who either of these people are. The favor I need is to sneak these two into Ramath.”

“Smuggling people?” The inflection was meant to be ruminative, but there was a layer of unmistakable excitement. “This will be a first. I think Brant and I can concoct a way to get you out tomorrow. We’re loading up a train now. I’ll charge you the usual fee plus bragging rights, when you can tell me the full tale later.”

“You’re a smuggler amongst smugglers, Liam.”

“Cork those honeyed words, boy!” Liam laughed in delight at what Sarvell had obviously meant as praise. “Now, can you two mysterious guests stay here quietly for the rest of the day?”

“Eh, and gladly,” Rialt rumbled. “A bit of food and rest would be a welcome thing.”

“All three of you look like you need a good night’s sleep,” Liam observed. “Sarvell, I don’t suppose I can have that story
soon
?”

“That depends. Can you keep your mouth shut for at least a fortnight?”

“Absolutely!” Liam assured him, as if there wasn’t a trace of doubt in his ability to keep a secret.

“Good. Then I’ll tell you in two months.”

Jewel choked back a laugh, both men’s dry humor getting the better of her restraint.

“Fifteen years!” Liam exclaimed in mock sorrow. “Fifteen years I’ve been working with your father, and this is how little you trust me.”

“Liam, it’s
because
of those fifteen years that I don’t trust you. Now, I’m going to go out and get some decent food for us. You make sure that no one comes in here or I’ll have your head.”

“Such a mistrusting, cynical man you grew up to be,” Liam mourned. “And such a sweet child you were.”

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