North of Alcázar
Once they could no longer be seen from the city walls, the fleeing pair turned away from the main road. Instead, they rode at a slower pace through the farmlands surrounding Alcázar; most of it was occupied by fruit trees able to survive the long summers with little rain. When they had not seen another living being for a while, Brand halted the horse.
“We should walk a while. We have already exhausted our steed, galloping while carrying two.”
“As you say.” Jana dismounted and extended one hand to help Brand do the same. He did his best to spare his wounded leg, but still he winced as his foot touched the ground. “Are you sure you can walk? Maybe you should continue riding, and I will walk alongside.”
“No, the beast is in worse shape than me at this point.” He supported one hand against the saddle. “Can you lead the horse? I think it best I walk in this manner, using it as a crutch.”
“Yes, of course.” She moved to the other side of the creature, grabbing the reins. “Ready?”
“As if all the Kabir’s men were chasing me.”
“Funny. Why do you even need a sword when you have such sharp wit?” She set into motion, and both her four-legged and two-legged companion followed suit.
“It would be too cruel to use my wit as a weapon. The sword is a more merciful death.” He reached out and plucked a solitary plum from the branch above his head; the rest had been harvested, either by human hands or birds.
They walked in silence for a while until Jana spoke again. “I realise this is a late question, but as all my thought was spent thinking about fleeing the city, I never gave much consideration to afterwards. What is our destination?”
“Do you know Maleth?”
“I know of it. It lies up the coast, correct?”
“It does. That is our destination. From there, we can find passage into Adalmearc.”
“Really? I did not think any ships sailed from Maleth to the Seven Realms.”
Brand gave a vague smile. “They do not officially. Fortunately, gold can change many a tune.”
“How long will it take us to reach Maleth?”
“When I came the other way, to Alcázar, it took us two weeks. But I travelled on the roads with a caravan. I think we will need at least three weeks,” he speculated.
“We do not have food for half that,” Jana pointed out, biting her lip. “And we cannot buy more because I was foolish enough to let someone steal our remaining coin!”
“We still have what remains of your jewels. Even without the gems, they are valuable,” Brand mentioned, looking at her. “Jana,” he called out until she glanced over her shoulder to meet his eyes. “You got me out of the dungeons. You got my sword back. Your jewellery has paid for everything we bought. I am walking amidst the shade of trees rather than up the scaffold on the maswar. All because of you.”
She looked away. “I know. I am just a little overwhelmed,” she admitted with an unsteady voice. “If we escape my father’s men, survive hunger and thirst, reach Maleth and bribe our passage to Adalmearc, what then? If my father truly intends to invade, I will be an enemy to all in your lands.”
“I realise that I do not cut an imposing figure right now, but I do have friends in the Realms. Some are influential. Your good deed towards me will not be forgotten, I promise.” He stopped walking. “Jana.” She stopped as well; her eyes peered over the back of the horse to meet his. “I promise.”
It took a while before she responded. “Very well. You have never given me reason to doubt you.” She turned to move onwards and almost tripped in the dark.
“It is too dark to continue,” he considered. It had been near twilight when they fled the city; now, the sun had set in full, and they had fumbled their way forward for a while. “We must sleep.”
“You think we are safe out here in the open?”
“I cannot say, but we have nowhere else to go. We need to avoid other people.”
She nodded. “Of course.”
Brand caressed the horse, making it lie down. “It will be cold,” he told Jana. “We should stay close to the beast for warmth.” Being careful of his injury, Brand sat down, leaning against the side of the horse. He gestured for Jana to do likewise, and she followed his example. Their backs against their animal companion, they each pulled their cloaks tighter around themselves and closed their eyes, letting exhaustion take over.
The next day, they continued their journey, using the sun to set their course northwards. They walked, letting the horse recover after yesterday’s hard ride. Around them, the land slowly grew more barren. Trees were replaced by thorny bushes, serving no purpose but to feed goats. On occasion, a boy tending to a herd would watch them with curious eyes; each time, they kept their distance.
The lack of trees also meant they could not walk in shade, but had to suffer the sun. Their lips grew dry, and the horse made occasional complaints.
“Brand, our water will only last a few more days,” Jana finally remarked. As before, they walked on opposite sides of the horse, both of them keeping their eyes on the road ahead.
“Sooner or later, we will find a stream.”
“I think our only hope is to find a well. We have seen people, so there must be villages nearby.”
Brand shook his head. “Only caravans and peasants travel in these parts. We are far too easy to remember. Should the Kabir’s men come this way asking questions, they will guess the truth.”
“If our only other option is death by thirst, we have to risk it,” Jana pointed out.
“If we keep going north, we are bound to cross a brook or similar, feeding into the sea,” Brand claimed.
“Maybe. If that happens in a week’s time, what will we do without water in the meanwhile?”
“This many people cannot live in this place without freshwater. More than what wells provide. There must be a stream,” Brand maintained with a weary voice.
“Brand, look around.” Jana gestured with her arm at their surroundings. “The land is only getting more barren. There are no fields ahead of us, nothing to suggest an abundance of water.”
“Just give it a few days.”
“You said you came this way, travelling from Maleth to Alcázar. Do you remember crossing any streams of water?”
“Yes, at least once,” Brand responded.
He cleared his throat. “Further north.”
“A few days south of Maleth,” he admitted. He was forced to a sudden halt; Jana had moved around the horse to stand in front of him.
“I knew it! Brand, we need to get more water soon.”
“We have for at least another day or two. Why are you pressing this issue?” he asked.
“Because if our skins were full, you might actually drink some! You need water to heal.” She glanced at his leg. “Right now, the horse has had more water than you!”
“The horse needs more than me. I am only making sure it lasts.”
“Exactly! If we used the wells, there would be no need. You could drink your fill.”
He shook his head weakly. “I have been through worse.”
“Well, I did not have to watch you on those occasions, and I will not do so now. The next chance we get, we are getting more water.” She turned her back to him, resuming her position, and they continued onwards, walking for hours until past sunset.
Despite both of them keeping an eye out, they did not come across any sources of water until the next day. Around noon, they spotted a small collection of huts. Just beyond the edge of what could be called the village, there stood a well. Besides from the occasional villager, a few soldiers could be seen, milling around a tent raised in the middle of the cluster of huts. Beyond that, one of the warriors guarded the well itself, and they wore the falcon of Alcázar upon their uniform.
“Too dangerous,” Brand declared. They were hidden behind a rock formation, letting them spy on the village.
“If this well is guarded, so are the others. We might as well attempt this as any other,” Jana argued.
“If they suspect the least… we must assume they know we are travelling together and are watching for a pair like us,” Brand considered. “I count at least three or four soldiers with spears. With no armour, my injury, and only a sword, I cannot expect to win that fight.”
“Then let us not make that an option. I will go alone. They have no reason to suspect me,” Jana claimed.
“It should be me taking the risk.”
“Why? You cannot fight them, and you cannot run away. Besides, fetching water is a woman’s work. They will grow suspicious the moment they see you.”
Brand sent her a look before gazing back at the well. “Maybe. But if you appear with water skins, they will also know something is odd. Wait here. I will fetch something more suitable.”
“Let me go. I am not wounded.”
Brand smiled weakly. “Jana, I accept your other arguments. But between the two of us, I think I am more accustomed to sneaking around quietly.”
She stared at him for a moment. “Fine,” she conceded. “But be careful.”
He nodded in response and moved away, following the rocks and cracks in the ground to hide his approach towards the village. Soon, he was gone from Jana’s vision, and she resumed watching the village. The small buildings lay scattered with little discernible pattern to their placement. Some had their doors towards the well, others in the opposite direction. Most had openings in the walls serving as windows to let in air and light. Glass was too expensive for these people, and the windows had shutters instead, allowing for the sun to be shut out when desirable. With the noon heat growing stronger, most windows were closed in this manner, and few of the villagers seemed willing to move about. As for the Kabir’s soldiers, they kept inside their tent except for the unfortunate soul chosen to stand guard over the well.
A start went through her; she turned around to find that Brand was already back. “You really are good at sneaking.”
He gave a little bow with a mock smile and extended his hand that held a large gourd. “For the lady.”
“I feel guilty. This belongs to someone else.” She accepted it hesitantly.
“Well, we should hurry before they miss it,” Brand suggested. Jana turned around to leave. “Wait! I forgot.”
“Hold out your hands,” he bade her as he crouched low.
“What for?” she asked, complying.
He picked up dirt from the ground and began smearing it on her hands. “Your hands give you away. Too clean for someone working.”
“Right,” she assented. He began repeating the process with her face, making it dirty. “What is that for?”
“You are far too beautiful to approach a band of soldiers, bored from guard duty.”
“We do not want to give them any reason to look at you twice.”
He studied her new appearance with a critical eye. “Not the best disguise, but it will have to do.”
Jana gave him a half-hearted smile and walked towards the well, gourd in hand.
She disappeared from Brand’s line of sight, just as he had done earlier from hers. After a while, she appeared again between the huts, moving towards the well. He watched intensely, barely blinking. As Jana reached the well, the soldier moved towards her. He towered over her.
Turning on his heel, Brand leapt the few steps back to his horse. He ripped the saddle bag open and drew his sword from its sheath. Facing the well again, Brand limped forward. He took a few paces before he stopped. The soldier was pulling up the bucket from the well to fill Jana’s gourd for her.
Visibly relaxing, Brand returned to his post behind the rocks, hiding himself. Keeping the sword ready, he saw Jana bid the soldier farewell and walk away.
A few moments later, she appeared by his side. “Is everything fine?” she asked, glancing at his drawn weapon.
“Yes,” he mumbled. He crossed the short distance to the horse, returning the blade to its home. Picking up the full gourd from Jana, he placed it in the other bag.
“Brand,” Jana called out; her voice was quiet but urgent. He turned around and saw as she did; several of the guards were moving in their direction.
“We made them suspicious,” Brand guessed.
“It does not matter. Time to flee.” He mounted their steed and helped Jana do the same. Once her arms held onto his waist, he pulled on the reins while kicking the flanks of the horse, and they sped away.
When no pursuers were in sight, Brand let the horse fall into a slow trot. “What happened, do you think?” asked Jana. The same rough landscape lay ahead of them as behind, with sparse vegetation and few if any creatures in sight.
“Could be any number of things,” Brand considered, speaking over his shoulder. “Maybe the guard realised he had never seen you before in the village. Maybe he thought it odd you fetched water at noon. Someone could have noticed I stole the gourd. It does not matter. We got away.”
“With the water, most importantly. We should stop and drink,” Jana suggested.
“Not yet. Our tracks are easily seen. We need to put more distance between us and them.”
“You are sure they are following us?”
“If they only had suspicions before, seeing us ride away would certainly have confirmed them,” Brand pointed out. “We must assume the Kabir’s men are on our trail now.”
“Can we lose them in the dark? Like we did after the city gate.”
Brand nodded. “We have to. Even if it is troublesome.”
“It was not so bad last time,” Jana considered. “I only fell twice.”
“We will not do it for long. We just need to make sure they cannot catch up to us.”
“I will walk all night if need be,” Jana declared. The tail end of her words was caught up in a yawn.
“It will not come to that, which, by the sound of it, is for the best.” Brand wore a wry smile she could not see.
“What about you? Are you not tired? You sleep as little as me.”
“I have been through worse.”
“I am starting to suspect that is merely what you say to keep me quiet.”
“My lady, I would never dare.”
As agreed, they walked for a while after sunset. Far from roads, the terrain was rough, and their speed was slow. Something resembling grass grew in these parts, allowing for herds to graze; besides that, the only feature was how the land twisted itself with rocks and cliffs.
Brand was the first to stumble, gritting as tremors went through his injured leg. Considering that a sign to stop, they made the same kind of primitive bed as before, resting with their backs against the horse. Both fell asleep at once.
Brand’s repose lasted only briefly before voices awakened him. He reached out a hand to cover Jana’s mouth. The touch jostled her awake, and she struggled for a moment until she recognised Brand. He placed his finger on his lips.
“What in Haktar’s bloody name is the point of this? We can’t see a damn thing!”
“Look, you know that, I know that, and I suspect the lieutenant does too. But we’re not out here because they think we’ll find them.”
“We’re out here,” said the second voice patiently, “so the lieutenant can tell his chief that he’s done all he can to find the prisoner. And his chief can tell his chief, who tells his, all the way up to the Kabir himself.” Both of the voices were growing louder.
“You’re telling me, I almost sprained my ankle back there, just so we can put on a show?”
“That’s soldiering for you, friend.”
The first voice made a sneer. “To Haktar’s bowels with this! Do we even know that fellow is out here? What if he’s gone to Gadir, drinking tears till his head comes off?”
“What I want to know is, how did he manage to abduct the girl?”
“Not the first time a man’s taken off with a woman, is it.”
“But see, escaping from the dungeons, that must be hard, right?” reasoned the second voice. “And stealing the Kabir’s daughter from the palace, that must be damn difficult too, right? So how does this guy manage both at the same time?”
“Huh. Maybe we got ourselves a new Prince on our hands.”
The voices grew more distant. “Doubtful. Rather, something else entirely is going on, and this is just the story they served us.”
“All those mercenaries the Kabir’s got, why can’t they do all this night searching?” complained the first voice. “If I sprain my ankle, you know the lieutenant is going to leave us behind.”
“Us? Why would he leave me behind as well?”
“What, you’re going to make me hobble on my own all the way back to camp?”
If the second voice had a reply, it did not reach Brand and Jana. The pair waited, neither making the least movement or sound, until it seemed certain they were alone.
“How did they find us?” Jana whispered.
“Our tracks brought them this far. They must be a whole company, combing the area,” Brand considered, also keeping his voice quiet.
“So we can expect them to be in any direction we go.”
Brand looked up, finding the Wayfarer that pointed north. He turned his head right. “Not if we go east.”
“They cannot track us there.”
“How long can we last?”
“We will go a few days,” Brand suggested. “Move back to the coast when we need.”
Jana nodded, barely visible in the dark. “Very well. We might as well move. I doubt either of us wants to sleep knowing my – my father’s men are near.”
With careful movements, they rose and woke the horse as well. Once it was saddled, they began a slow march east.