Petra entered the shelter, a cup of hot tea in her hand, and sat down cross-legged at her side.
Kintra shuffled upright and took the tea gratefully. ‘There’s something else in here.’ She sniffed suspiciously and looked at Petra.
‘You won’t taste it.’
‘What is it though?’
‘To stop me shoving swords in people?’
Petra gave her a ‘you’re not that stupid’ look. Kintra sipped the tea. It tasted of tea.
‘Fill me in will you. I feel like I’ve had snippets of information and nothing that makes sense.’
Petra pursed her lips. ‘Some of it doesn’t. Like, Janen is a Princess called Kintra.’
‘Kintra is NOT a princess. Anymore.’
‘Then there’s this Earth Magic that has never shown up before.’
‘I know.’ She put the cup down and sighed.
‘Apart from that it’s simple. The elves were working for the sorceress, who is working with a whole bunch of sorcerers and esses from Morigrad. They were hired to track down you and Helian. Obviously they found you, but not him. The Horse rustling was a ruse. Hiring the best mercenaries meant you were likely to turn up, especially as the elves knew you were in the area. If you hadn’t they would have just cancelled the job I suppose. Instead of grabbing you then and there, which would have been pretty hard with all of us present, especially as the sorceress was controlling the Prince, and so rather weakened, they hoped we would split up. That’s when she attacked.’
‘Helian was hoping the sorceress would find you. So he followed her.’
She nodded, thinking. ‘Do we know why they wanted Vlarimar?’
‘Not got that far. He has been ill, magic effects. And he is very weak. Lack of food I think.’
‘How has everyone taken the news about me?’ This had been playing on her mind all night. Petra was the only one she would get an honest answer from.
The Amorian shrugged. ‘After the initial, ‘What the fuck?’ they took it fine. Although Farron seems a bit overwhelmed he’s been bedding royalty!’
‘He doesn’t…he doesn’t love me, does he?’
Petra gave her an odd stare. ‘How would I know? Ask him!’
‘No way I’m doing that. And don’t tell him I asked!’
Petra shook her head slowly. ‘Do you love him?’
‘What’s between you and Helian?’
Kintra looked down at her tea. ‘It’s been five years. I thought he was dead. And really there was never anything physical, apart from one kiss.’
‘Were you going to marry him?’
Kintra sighed again and lay back on the rolled up blanket that acted as her pillow. ‘Probably. I mean, it was never written down, but another year, and I expect it would have been.’
‘Hmm.’ Petra pulled the leather cord from her hair and retied it capturing a few very curly straggles.
‘I think he DOES love you.’
‘Anyway. Finish your tea. We have a meeting planned. First thing on the agenda, what to do with the elves.’
Kintra left the shelter, for the first time realising how smelly she was. The river was a mile away. Maybe later.
Everyone was sitting around the fire, drinking tea, and toasting bread. Normality was very welcome. Except to one side were two elves, tied together, back to back, watching her. And to the other a shelter like hers probably housing Vlarimar. And then of course there was Helian sitting right where he could see the entrance of her shelter, watching her too.
Farron turned. He grinned. A normal grin. She relaxed. She sat down next to him, grabbing a piece of bread and a stick. Petra refilled her tea without adding any extras this time. Whatever she had been given, she certainly felt much better for it.
Zorbel was the first to speak. ‘We have a few things to decide, but I suggest we begin with those two.’ He gestured over his shoulder at the elves.
‘They’re mercenaries like us,’ Petra said. ‘They were doing a job. I say we let them go.’
Zorbel nodded in agreement. Gad spoke next. ‘I agree. Let them go.’
‘Me too,’ Nial added.
‘I’m not comfortable with that,’ Helian said. Kintra felt a measure of relief. ‘If they are being paid by the Sorcerers Guild, they still have a job to do. Namely, tell them where we are.’ He nodded at Kintra.
Farron was considering his feet forcing her to speak. ‘I feel the same as Helian. Also, I wounded Florian. He might not be as forgiving as you.’
Zorbel nodded slowly. Kintra could see the gears in his mind clicking onto new thought pathways. Zorbel wasn’t stupid, he just considered every option that was presented to him.
‘Farron?’ he said at last.
Farron looked at her with his puppy dog eyes and then over at Helian, before answering. ‘I say we leave them here, tied up.’
‘So, you’re going to sit on the fence.’ Petra said.
Farron glanced at them all in turn and then beckoned them closer. Intrigued everyone crowded nearer the fire. ‘They will escape,’ he said softly. ‘We then track them and see who they lead us to. Because whatever happens here, nothing has changed for Kintra and Helian. They are still under threat. Let’s find out who the closest threat is.’
There was silence as they all considered Farron’s plan. Gad spoke first. ‘You are jumping the gun a bit Farron. We haven’t decided to help Kintra and Helian. We just lost out on a week’s wage, and two royals without a kingdom equates to no money.’
Kintra’s stomach sank.
‘Nothing against you Kintra. But I have to eat, and so does my horse. And a bed would be nice every now and then.’
She nodded giving a thin smile. ‘Perhaps we just kill them,’ she said. ‘One problem solved.’
‘It goes against the code to not give them a fair chance,’ Farron said.
‘They didn’t give us a fair chance when they led a sorceress to us, who left us completely defenceless!’
‘Not completely,’ Farron smirked, raising his eyebrows at her. Before she could speak, he carried on, ‘And we were a job. It’s never personal. You know that.’
‘It’s personal to me,’ Helian said quietly. ‘As for payment, I have a little money hidden away.’ I could keep all of us for a month or so.’ Kintra kept her surprise to herself. ‘And we also need to consider Vlarimar. If we don’t take him with us, they will catch him again, and wring whatever they can out of him, about all of you.’
‘Where exactly are you planning on us all going?’ Gad said.
‘To rescue our parents.’
‘You think seven of us can do that?’ Gad was looking annoyed now.
‘I do. But there won’t be seven of us. I have two others who will help. Kintra can vouch for them.’ He glanced at her. ‘They were both personal guards. And they both escaped.’ He stared at her now.
‘Boran is alive?’
He nodded. ‘Karok too.’
‘I left him…. I was sure he was dead.’
‘You did the right thing. When they came looking for you, they thought he was dead too, and left him to rot. If you had stayed, they would have taken you both.’
She felt a sudden chill and wrapped her arms around her chest.
‘Do you have a way in?’ Petra asked. ‘To perform this rescue.’
‘What state are your family members in?’ Zorbel pushed. Helian stared at Kintra. He wanted her to speak up, but she didn’t know what to say.
Helian rubbed his thighs and stood up. ‘They are weak. I have no idea of their mental state. But one way or another, I am getting them out.’ This last he said staring at her again, his eyes that icy blue. He walked away. No one spoke. She knew what they were thinking. It wasn’t a good risk, the odds were terrible. Normally she would agree.
‘I’ll leave you all to decide,’ she said at last, ‘Without me. I have to go with Hel.’ She gave them the space they needed.
Helian stood next to Sorrel, who annoyingly was nuzzling his shoulder while he scratched her neck. She stuck her ears straight back at strangers, often baring her teeth to boot. Perhaps they had met before.
‘Hey.’ She went to Sorrel’s opposite side and was completely ignored. ‘She likes you. Which is weird.’
He smiled and stopped scratching, rubbing his fingers together to remove the black grease now coating them. ‘I wore her down while you were recovering. I think she missed you.’
Kintra leaned her forehead on the mare’s neck, breathing deeply her horse scent. The horse nickered softly, and then blew down her nose and walked away to graze leaving the two of them looking at each other.
‘What did you decide?’ he asked.
‘I don’t have a choice.’
He nodded and turned to look back at the others. ‘Mercenary friends are not quite the same as real ones I see.’
She shrugged, pretending not to care. ‘They need to make a living. You offered money, but not enough for them to take something away from all this.’
‘What if we could add more to the mission? Like stealing some treasure?’
He shrugged this time, kicking a stone. ‘I have no idea yet.’
‘Where are they keeping our families?’
‘Do you remember the old keep on Bossi Hill, overlooking the sea?’
‘Yes,’ she said quietly.
‘They renovated it, with magic, and built dungeons below.’
‘What have they done with my home?’
‘I didn’t go there. But mine is still a burnt out ruin. I expect Swallowmere is no different.’ There was no anger in his voice, only resignation. Her own anger flickered like a small flame in her belly. The metaphor stopped her in her tracks and fear replaced anger. The thought of fire coursing through her body was not a pleasant one.
‘How did you find Boran and Korak?’ she asked trying to distract her mind.
‘They found me. I wasn’t in the Palace when the attack happened, but out at the hunting lodge in the forest, fifty leagues away. Baron Fortiscue and Duke Nord were with me, along with our three guards. We were ambushed as we made our way home. The guards and Fortiscue gave their lives… I rode hell for leather. I’m ashamed to say, I kept riding until my horse collapsed. After that I walked through forests, heading West. All I could think was that Portuta lay in that direction and I may find help there.’
She couldn’t look at his face as he relived the fear she knew only too well.
‘Boran and Korak found me in the mountains. They were looking for you. That’s how I learned of your fate. I was suffering from starvation. They taught me how to survive, how to fight, brought me back to life.’
She glanced up at him. He was staring at the sky, but his hand clutched the hilt of his sword.
‘I left them back in Erania. Korak is working as a guard in the keep. Boran is attempting to find out if any other personal guards survived. He’ll recruit them if they have. I think they’ll be happy to help us. Neither family was bad to work for. Zorbel is coming over.’
The big man’s expression revealed nothing. He stopped in front of them both, as if weighing them up.
‘We have all made our decisions. I, Farron and Petra will come with you. We ask only one thing. That you allow us to pick up job’s on the way to Erania. It will take a little longer, but it sounds as if your families are safe as long as you two are free.’
Kintra looked at Helian. He held out a hand to Zorbel. ‘Thank you. I agree to your terms and will do all in my power to find money to pay you. I just cannot promise what I don’t have.’
Zorbel looked at Kintra. She smiled at him and gave him a hug. ‘Thank you.’
‘As for the elves, Gad and Nial will stay at the camp for another two days and keep them here. That gives us time to get away. If they catch up with us on the road…’ he ran his flat hand across his throat. ‘Vlarimar is our biggest problem. If he stays, he risks capture. Gad and Nial are not babysitters. If he comes, he slows our journey even more.’
‘He comes,’ Helian said firmly. ‘If nothing else he may be useful to negotiate with his father to turn against the Sorcerers.’
Zorbel nodded his approval. Kintra kept quiet. Both looked at her. She held up her hands and set off back to the campfire. ‘I promise to try not to kill him,’ she said over her shoulder. She suddenly felt hopeful that things would turn out alright.
They rode slowly. Vlarimar perched precariously behind Petra, trying to keep his head upright. Kintra watched him, a tiny morsel of pity emerging. She rode between Farron and Helian, uncomfortable with the continuing silence between them. If she spoke, each of them answered, Farron in his usual playful way, with a hint of something other beneath, and Helian as if he was trying to prove something. She had no idea what.
The river came into view and she pushed Sorrel into a canter. ‘I’m going to bathe,’ she shouted back. Farron spurred on Po, his roman nosed grey gelding. ‘Glad to!’
‘I didn’t invite you,’ she said as he caught her up.
‘I needed to get away from Prince Not So Charming.’ She glanced back at Helian, who looked completely taken aback at Farron’s decision.
‘The Kintra he knew was prim and proper.’
‘I don’t know her.’ He flashed her one of his grin’s that could floor her, literally, every time.
‘You wouldn’t have liked her at all. I didn’t much.’
They dismounted at the water’s edge, leaving both horses to graze fully tacked.
‘I stink,’ she said, wading into the cold river. ‘Don’t come near me.’
‘Perhaps a shower will help?’ He scooped up water in both hands and threw it over her head.
‘Farron!’ she gasped, pushing her sodden hair from her eyes.
‘No good? What about this?’ He was suddenly under the water dragging her down. She just had time to take a large breath before she was staring at his underwater face. She bobbed back up to the surface, thoroughly wet now.
‘Swine!’ He laughed and swam away from her. She glanced back to the shore. Helian sat on his horse, his face set. She turned her back on him, before he could ruin her fun.
‘There’s some soapwort here,’ Farron called. She swam to the other bank where he collected the weed. ‘I don’t want to go back for the soap in my bag,’ he murmured. ‘He doesn’t look as if he will let me back in the river!’
Kintra giggled picking some too.
‘I’m not sure how he will cope with our raucous love making!’
The mirth washed away as the quandry took hold. Farron didn’t notice her change of mood. He was bashing up the weed on a rock, adding water to it to create a foamy liquid. She didn’t want to sleep separately from Farron. What they had was good. But she didn’t want Helian hearing or seeing any of that. Even the prospect of him KNOWING made her wince. It was because he was judging her by who she had been. It was obvious. She knew he still watched her; she could feel that tingle on her neck. Suddenly she was angry. Angry at herself and angry at him.
She waded to Farron and stripped off her shirt, hiding her breasts from Helian with his body. ‘Don’t get any ideas,’ she warned. ‘I just want to get washed.’
He pursed his lips, pointedly looking at her breasts. ‘I can lend a hand?’
He suddenly ducked under the water again, leaving her exposed. She cursed and sank down too. His face bobbed back up right in front of her own, the innocent smile, that fooled many a woman fixed in place. She punched him in the chest. ‘Don’t do that again!’
He smirked knowingly, grabbed her firmly, and kissed her.