Merith sat by her side once again, and a Crelan man stood in the hut's open doorway. Thick of waist and shoulder, his skin was an even darker shade of green—more like tree bark than grass. His hair was cut short, and a short beard framed his face.
"They're close," the man said to Merith. "Just passed our southern scouts."
Nahlia propped herself on one elbow, using her other hand to hold the blanket over her chest. "The Templars?"
"Aye." He fixed her with a stone-withering gaze. "They here for you?"
Nahlia slumped her head and gave the slightest nod. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—"
"It's alright lass," Merith told her. "We already knew."
The man nodded. "The Templars don't put bullets in their own kind."
Not entirely true, Nahlia thought, and another image of her dead uncle flashed in her mind's eye.
"Don't ye worry," he said. "It's only half-a-dozen."
"What?" Her eyes flicked up to regard the Crelan man, but he'd already left. Nahlia turned to Merith instead.
"That's Lyrin," she said. "My husband."
Sure, as if that explained it. "What's he doing?"
Merith's own face grew firm with resolve. "I told ye before, lass. We're no friends of the Templars here."
Nahlia spent the next few minutes struggling into her clothes and gathering her remaining belongings. Whatever happened next, she wanted her options open.
The Templars announced their presence with the drumming of hooves on the soft earth. Merith stood to look outside, and Nahlia scooted forward to peek out the window. She counted nine in total, all on horseback with dark cloaks billowing in the evening wind.
The surrounding village was built amongst a clearing of massive rocks and ancient trees. Other houses loomed above them in the canopies, accessed by ropes and ladders. More ropes connected those structures, adorned with hanging laundry and tapestries.
Most of the Crelans kept a safe distance from the intruders, preferring to watch from their windows or the catwalks. Meanwhile, Lyrin approached with a dozen other men in tow. They all had the look of warriors about them—spears in hand, bare arms roped with muscle.
"Do you speak Reveran?" The Templar's question came out as more of a demand. He was younger than Saul Mason's other officers, clean-shaven with a head that looked too small for his helmet.
"Aye." Lyrin gave a curt nod. "Probably not as well as you, though."
Nahlia winced at his sarcastic tone. For Aegon's sake, was he trying to provoke them?
"We're hunting an Aeon fugitive," the officer said, seeming to address the village in general. "She was last seen in the river, six miles upstream." He turned back to Lyrin. "Have you seen anything?"
"Nope." His hoarse voice sounded as careless as a cat. "Don't get many visitors out here."
Lyrin's men nodded behind him, murmuring words of agreement.
"Is that so?" The Templar's voice became almost too quiet to hear.
The man pivoted his head, taking in every possible haven around the village. Nahlia scooted away from the window, her heart thumping faster every moment.
"We'd better take a look around," he said, "for your own safety."
"No need," Lyrin replied. "We can defend ourselves just fine." He fingered the axe at his belt as if to make his point. More Crelan men gathered around until they had the Templars surrounded. No one raised a weapon, but the tension was thick enough to taste.
Nahlia glimpsed a flash of fear in the Templar's eyes as he sized up the crowd.
Turn around. Just turn around. The Crelans had them outnumbered ten-to-one. Even if the Templars wanted a fight, it would be smarter for them to leave and get reinforcements first.
The officer looked like he was about to speak again. Before he could, a pair of hounds began barking in the distance.
A short silence passed between the Templars, then the officer pulled out a pistol from inside his cloak. "I'm afraid I'll have to insist."
"So will I" Lyrin drew his axe, and a forest of spears rose all at once throughout the village. Even the older children took positions on the catwalks with slings and javelins.
The barking hounds grew louder with every heartbeat. The Templar cocked his pistol, pointing it at Lyrin's face. "You really want to die for an Aeon, crelly?"
"Your Republic has no authority here," Lyrin shot back. "So why don't you take your pretty horse and frolic back home?"
Nahlia held her breath as a thousand scenarios flicked through her mind. Could she run? Sneak out while they fought? No ... she had done that before. Uncle Locke had died defending her, and her father had been captured. She wouldn't let that happen again.
Nahlia grabbed a wooden support beam and yanked herself to her feet.
"What are ye doing?" Merith whispered.
A sickening wave swept over her. The world spun, and the ground swayed. She would have fallen on her face if Merith hadn't caught her.
"I have to stop this," Nahlia said with as much conviction as she could manage.
"Nahlia, don't. Lyrin's handling it."
"It won't make a difference. I've seen the lengths they'll go to."
"My husband knows what he's doing."
"Does he?" Nahlia asked. "Have you seen what firearms can do?"
Merith snapped her mouth shut, and the quick crease of her forehead told the truth. These people had no idea what they were up against. Raidenwood was the Templars' closest territory, and that was hundreds of miles from south from here.
But they had been chasing Nahlia for seventeen years now. No matter how far she ran, it never mattered. Even if the Crelans won this fight, the Templars would send more soldiers. They would keep sending them until nothing remained but ash and bones.
"Your husband will die if he fights." Nahlia closed her eyes and grabbed her mother's necklace for strength. "But I can help him. If I give myself up, then no one needs to fight."
Merith still didn't look convinced, but something about Nahlia's tone must have convinced her. "Alright," she finally said. "I'll go with you."
No one even noticed when Nahlia stumbled outside the hut. Both sides were too occupied with one another.
"Last chance." The officer told Lyrin. "Hand over the Aeon, and we'll spare your village."
"Stop!" Nahlia called out before either man could strike.
A silence fell over the crowd as everyone turned to face her. Autumn leaves cracked beneath her boots as she shuffled down the rough wooden staircase. The Crelan men parted to let her through, and her enemies stood before her, dark silhouettes against the setting sun.
She took a deep breath and spoke again, "I'm the Aeon you're hunting."