Hosus glanced around the group as they circled around Pral, listening to his instructions before beginning the day’s march. Everyone looked alert and calm. The twins were quietly rough housing while giving the impression their full attention was on Pral. Nar, to everyone’s surprise, had been the first one up after Pral, and was still nagging Bertran for being the late sleeper. For his own part, Bertran had a small contented smile on his face and his arm amicably draped over his brother’s shoulders. Johnsa looked radiant and confident. The accumulated doubts of the past few days had been wiped away, and though her red hair was flattened to the side of her head where she had slept on it, Hosus thought she looked beautiful. The only member who did not look quite happy to be awake was Phanza.
No questions there, Hosus thought to herself with a smile¸ up all night yammering on about the stars. It’s no small miracle Johnsa put up with him as late as she did.
Though somewhat sleep deprived, Phanza did look more content than he had since they had found Johnsa, and for that, Hosus privately thanked the strange woman. Her appearance and presence in the group had made Phanza’s gifts counterproductive, indeed even dangerous, and Hosus had noticed the toll it had taken on the mage’s confidence.
Giving one ear to Pral’s explanation of the day’s journey, Hosus considered Johnsa once more. The woman was a complete mystery, the extent of her abilities entirely unknown. Without a doubt, she was an extremely dangerous woman. Yet looking as she did now, full of confidence that seemed to fit her like a well-worn coat, Hosus knew that Johnsa understood that danger, at least instinctually, and would do everything in her power to prevent it. Hosus could see it in the way Johnsa carried herself, the way she weighed Pral’s words, interrupting now and then to clarify small but important points about meals and possible food gathering, which Pral forbade without further explanation. Johnsa was a woman who understood the burden of responsibility, and she carried it with poise.
Pral was finishing up with his description and Hosus heard him say they would be leaving the forest by the end of the next day. Hosus was glad to know that. Although she loved the forest and the myriad of life that abounded within it, this forest they traveled through now was dark and full of secrets.
“Good. Pack up. We leave immediately.”
A few moments later, bedrolls were stored, packs were shouldered, and the group was lined up to begin the day’s march. Pral took the lead, holding back the thick branches that concealed the clearing entrance. Once everyone had filed through, Pral tapped Hosus and pulled her aside.
“I want you and Phanza to stay back and secure our back trail. Your eyes and his magic. That clearing has been kept a closely guarded secret for centuries and I do not want to reveal it to anyone who might be following us. Make sure there are no tracks or traces to reveal it.” His command carried a quiet urgency and Hosus nodded.
Hosus did not understand exactly what was so special about the Stone Table, but when she had stood near it, she had felt something. A sense of purpose had emanated from the table itself, barely perceptible but nevertheless real. While her logical mind whirled with curiosity, some deeper part of her understood that it needed to be kept a secret. Her lack of understanding frustrated Hosus, but she had learned long ago to trust her instincts. They had kept her alive and she wasn’t about to start doubting them now.
“Phanza, with Hosus. Everyone else, with me,” Pral called out.
Phanza waited until Pral passed him before stepping out of line. He nodded to Johnsa as she passed, the barest of smiles touching his lips, and watched as the group trotted off in Pral’s footsteps. He waited until they had disappeared from sight through the thick trees before turning back and giving Hosus a questioning look.
“We’re to secure our back trail and the area. Cover it with skill and magic, obscuring any footprints, removing gouges from branches and roots. We are to remove any evidence of our passage. Pral wants this clearing as undetectable as ever.”
“Understandable. That table is quite powerful.”
Hosus felt her eyebrows rise slowly.
“Hard to say how, exactly,” Phanza responded, “but I could definitely feel it. I think Johnsa did too. She touched the table before we left and it affected her.”
Hosus nodded. She hadn’t seen any telltale signs that Johnsa had absorbed any kind of magical energy, so she wasn’t too nervous. The slight doubt nagged at her though, since no one still had any idea what kind of powers would manifest.
“Come on. We need to cover our tracks and I don’t like standing still too long,” Hosus said.
Phanza looked confused. “We’re not covering anything right here? But this is the entrance.”
“Exactly. Anyone following us will be looking for mundane and magical methods of concealment. If we do it here, it will be fairly obvious where we were. Hence, we move.”
Enlightenment graced Phanza’s features and his mouth opened in a silent “Ah.”
Hosus ducked her head back the way they had come and started off. She planned to backtrack half a mile or so, set a false trail, and then catch up to Pral. Phanza would necessarily slow her progress in both regards, but his power was necessary, even if just to make the false trail more legitimate. She sighed quietly to herself as she heard Phanza take up behind her. As much as his added ability was necessary, she regretted the lost time it would take to rejoin the group. While Hosus trusted Pral’s leadership, she still had no idea of his motives for leading this expedition. Johnsa’s appearance added a new tension to the group, though Hosus thought only she had noticed the subtle conflict growing between the two.
“How far are we going?”
Phanza’s question intruded on Hosus’ worries. Probably for the best, she considered.
“Not far. Half mile. Then we’ll catch up to the others.”
Phanza nodded. He followed Hosus in silence, for which she was grateful. She focused on her path, stepping carefully and checking back once in a while to make sure Phanza was too. To her eyes, their trail was clear through the dark forest, and she would have to cover it once more as they returned. It wasn’t difficult work, merely tedious, but she estimated that it would be sometime in the early afternoon before she and Phanza would catch up to their friends.
Hosus led them at a brisk jog and they ate up ground rapidly. Within a few minutes, they reached an adequate distance and Hosus slowed to a walk. She kicked out her legs for a few moments, keeping them warm, and took a few deep breaths. Glancing at Phanza, she saw he was doing the same, though he was breathing heavily and sweat glistened upon his brow.
Mages and physical activity, she thought with a snort. Annoyance flared through her, but after a moment, Hosus tamped down on it. Why does that irritate me? It hasn’t before. Phanza had never been the fastest of the group but he had never complained or slowed them down. With a shrug, Hosus set it aside, determined to examine the emotion later, and turned to her work.
“Phanza, I want you to cover this area and about two hundred feet in that direction,” Hosus said, pointing off to their left. “That much energy should at least make someone curious enough to follow it to its conclusion.” If anyone actually is following us, Hosus thought.
“Once that’s done, I want you to start back the way we came. Follow our tracks and wait at the table grove. I’ll catch up to you.”
Phanza nodded, his eyes already closed as he focused weaving his magic into the forest around them to conceal their path. Hosus understood it was an easier form for his magic to take, as it relied on things that were already alive. He had once explained that natural energies were much easier to harness and direct than creation energies. She spent a moment and watched as scuffed roots and bent branches were restored around them.
“Better idea. Leave some small traces of passage in that direction as well. Make them tiny but not too far apart, as if we were moving in a hurry.”
He nodded once more, not bothering to open his eyes. Phanza’s hands moved in small motions in front of him, imitating pushing, pulling, and snapping actions.
Hosus spent another moment watching before setting off on her own in the same direction Phanza was focused. She moved at the pace of his magic, adjusting branches and leaves just so, adding the human impression and presence along the false trail. A decent tracker, looking for normal methods of concealment, would likely not be able to follow either of her trails. A good tracker, focused on more than mundane methods, would feel the magic in the area as well. An excellent tracker would focus on both a human presence and magical one. Hosus only hoped they weren’t be followed by anyone who would see through both.
The process took slightly longer than the half-mile run had. Hosus felt Phanza’s magic absorb into the forest around her and dissipate, and she was barely able to see him start off again on the trail as she looked back. She took another moment to herself, listening to the forest around her, the unusual stillness only occasionally broken by the silent glide of an owl or the quiet scurrying of rodents. Unlike the forests in her home territory, full of light and verdant growth and wild life, this unnaturally dark forest filled her with a terrible loneliness. Few things lived beneath the ancient trees, and the trees themselves, covered in smooth iron hard bark dark as night, seemed to menace those few things that did live there. It was a wood old beyond reckoning, and Hosus was looking forward to leaving its gloom.
Turning back, she moved like a ghost down the false path, leaving as much of a trail as a bird on the wing. Only feet before she reached the end of the trail, she heard a soft sound: the soft tread of a boot scraping against an outstretched root. Without a whisper of movement, Hosus pushed herself against the trunk, concealing her body from view of the trail. Quiet breathing betrayed the presence of a human body moving with deliberate care only feet from where Hosus was hidden.
Who in the name of the twelve gods could have followed us through this place?
The presence seemed to pause, and Hosus heard the soft pop of old joints as the person knelt. Phanza had been gone for a few minutes, but if someone had followed them this far then his path would look like a blazing beacon through the forest. The breathing remained calm, and after a few moments, another soft pop followed by a soft grunt indicated the person had stood. Hosus waited for the breathing to move on, but it remained stationary for a few moments longer. She was worried that she had somehow been detected and maybe the man was waiting for her to show herself.
Focusing on her voice and drawing upon the little magical talent she possessed, Hosus spoke.
“Who are you?”
Her voice rang out from all around, sounding from each tree around them, and the follower inhaled sharply.
“Show yourself.” The voice once may have been a resonant bass but was now rough and gravely.
“Show yourself. I do not speak to ghosts,” the voice commanded once more.
Hosus slowly moved around the outside of the tree, trying to get a look at the speaker. Soft rustles betrayed quick movements and as Hosus leaned out from around the smooth trunk, she saw the speaker was searching for her. She retreated back behind the tree lest he get lucky and glimpse her, and after a few more moments, all sound ceased. Hosus heard no more breathing, no more rustle of cloth or movement. Worry spiked in her and she had to force herself from looking around the tree again.
A sudden wind breezed through the trees, creating a soft moan. Within a second, the wind died down and disappeared altogether. Unable to help herself, Hosus edged around the tree and glanced out once more. The head of the path was empty. Hosus cast her glance upward at the tree trunks, suspecting a trick, but still saw nothing. She disappeared behind the tree again, her thoughts racing. Where did he go? No one can just disappear like that. Not unless… Fear gripped her. Not unless he has magic, she finished the thought. Someone who could track them with magic would be able to find them almost regardless of whatever precautions they took to cover their tracks. It would be difficult work to maintain that level of energy to follow them but it was not impossible.
I have to warn the others. Hosus ducked out from behind the tree and took off after Phanza at a sprint. She had to catch Phanza and hope they could reach the others quickly. She didn’t know if the man was after them in particular or if it was only a frightening coincidence, but Hosus had long outgrown coincidences.
Behind her, hidden among the branches standing fifty feet overhead, a vicious smile blossomed on darkened features.
Hosus sprinted until her breath came ragged and her sides burned. She could easily pick out Phanza’s trail and he must have moved quickly to their rendezvous because he was waiting calmly when she came barreling through the woods toward him. Hosus didn’t even slow down. She just grabbed his collar and yanked him along.
“What’s…going…on?” he asked between breaths, trying desperately to match Hosus’ rapid pace.
“Someone’s following us,” Hosus said, slowing to a fast jog to catch her breath and answer his questions. “A large man with a rough voice came to the head of our false trail only minutes before I came to meet you. I didn’t get a chance to cover our backtracks so he’s probably on our trail right now.”
“And you came sprinting after me? You fool. You led him right to us,” Phanza accused.
“Wouldn’t have mattered. He wasn’t following our trail. He was following us.” At Phanza’s confused look, Hosus said, “With magic.”
Phanza nodded with grim understanding, giving her shoulder a squeeze in mute apology.
“We have to reach the others. Pral needs to know and we need to figure out a new plan.”
Without another word, Hosus pushed their pace up again, leaving them no breath to speak. Keeping her eyes to the forest floor, Hosus led them along the faint path left by their comrades. Their speed was hampered by the thick roots but they ran on as well as they could. Slowly they gained ground and an hour passed.
“Stop. I need to stop,” Phanza said, gasping for air.
Hosus nodded and they halted their headlong rush between the dark trunks. She needed a rest too. She had twisted her ankle leaping over a waist high root and landed on a fallen branch that rolled out from under her. It throbbed and hurt enough that she winced with every step, but she had managed to avoid any other injuries.
“Phanza, can you heal my ankle?” she asked.
Phanza was bent over at the waist, gulping air with his hands on his knees. He held up one hand, asking for a moment. It took him another minute before he slowed his breathing and walked over to Hosus.
“Let me see it.”
Hosus dutifully removed the boot from her left foot, which immediately began to swell without the constricting pressure of the shoe. Her ankle was a mass of bruises. Phanza took one last deep breath, placed his hands on either side of the ankle, and pushed. Hosus had to grit her teeth as pain shot up her leg at the pressure but it began to subside almost immediately. A few more moments of Phanza’s magical attentions and the bruising and pain disappeared completely. With a soft exhalation, Phanza patted her ankle before standing.
“Thanks. Needed that. Ready to keep going?” Hosus said.
Phanza nodded, and they set off after their friends again. Hosus jogged for a few minutes to test her ankle, but as always, Phanza’s magic had impressive results and she felt no pain. With a look back, Hosus saw that Phanza was having difficulty maintaining the slow pace she was setting. She slowed to a walk, as if to examine the trail closer, and she heard Phanza release a quiet sigh of relief.
“How far behind are we?” he asked.
Hosus thought for a minute before answering. “Pral’s leading them at a fairly quick pace, so we’re not making up much time, unfortunately. If we don’t stop for a meal, we should be able to catch them soon after they break at noon.”
“How under the twelve gods can you tell if it’s noon or not? We can barely see the sun.”
“When the twins get hungry enough, Pral will know,” Hosus said with a rueful grin. “Come on, let’s keep moving. I doubt they’ll wait for us.”
Several hours passed as Hosus and Phanza made their way through the forest, Phanza carefully following Hosus’ lead through the dark tangle of the forest floor. They ran where they could, but flat open spaces were few and far between, forcing the two to walk for the majority of the morning. Hosus saw that they were catching up to their friends slowly, and she told Phanza they would rejoin them just after noon.
They ate as they walked, chewing on trail rations and washing it down with the little water left in their waterskins. It was the first meal they had that morning and though the trail bar was tough, Hosus thought it tasted wonderful. Funny how fear makes even the small things brighter, she mused. Hosus mulled over this thought with a small smile until she bit her tongue trying to gnaw through a particularly rough bite. The thought evaporated under the withering curse that erupted from Hosus’ mouth along with bits of trail bar. Phanza reached out to her, eyes wide with worry.
“What’s wrong? Did you see him?”
Hosus shook her head. “No. Just bit my tongue,” she slurred.
Phanza slumped in relief. With a chuckle, he asked, “You okay?”
Hosus nodded, her face scrunched in pain.
“Swear any louder and I won’t need magic to follow you.” The voice came as a whisper that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.
Hosus dropped into a crouch, her knives leaping into her hands. Phanza remained standing, his eyes closed as he muttered a spell furiously. Hosus looked everywhere, turning slowly in place. She let her eyes slip out of focus, allowing her peripheral vision to pick up on any kind of movement, but the forest was still.
“I can’t find him. Either he’s somehow blocking me or he’s not here.”
“Could he know a spell that lets him listen to us? Communicate to us?”
“Of course. It’s an advanced one, but…”
“But what, Phanza?” Hosus asked in a growl.
“If someone who’s following us can whip up wind and disappear, a spell like that wouldn’t be difficult.”
Hosus swore again, but quietly. “We need to get out of here.”
Both Hosus and Phanza jumped at the voice. Hosus whirled around, knives ready to throw, and came to face a smiling Glyc who dropped to the ground with a yelp.
“Hey, what’s with the hostility?”
“Glyc, what are you doing here? Where are the others?”
“Up ahead. Pral heard you and sent me back to fetch you. We were just finishing up supper.”
“I didn’t think we were that close…” Hosus looked down at the trail again, noting the depth of the footprints and how they had yet to begin to crumble and she realized that in her haste to reach the group she had not been paying close attention to the prints themselves. Hosus berated herself for her carelessness, realizing that her headlong rush to find the others could very well have been what their pursuer wanted.
“Take me to him, Glyc. I have news.”
She could tell that Glyc wanted to ask, but she fixed him with a no-nonsense stare and he kept his questions to himself.
Glyc turned and with a wave of his arm headed off through the trees ahead of them. Phanza followed him quickly, but Hosus was slow to follow. She kept glancing at the trail in front of her, trying to figure out how she could have misread it so badly. She stared at it for another moment before shaking her head. Hosus couldn’t believe she had been so unnerved by the appearance of their shadowy pursuer. Something about him reminded her of the Council’s messenger, the bastard that had threatened her sister. The reminder frightened her.
With another shake of her head, she slipped through the trees and caught up to Glyc and Phanza after a quick jog. She followed the two, carefully wiping out their tracks and setting false trails behind them because she was not going to give that man any satisfaction in scaring her. A few minutes of walking later and the three emerged into a small clearing formed by a fallen tree to see the rest of the group.
“Trail hidden?” Pral asked.
Hosus shook her head. “We have another problem. We’re being followed.”
Pral’s eyes hardened. “We’re being followed…and you didn’t secure our trail? You caught up to us much faster than we expected, which leads me to assume you didn’t cover your trail here.”
Hosus felt her face flush. Pral was absolutely right. “Wouldn’t have mattered. He was following us with magic.” The excuse sounded lame to her ears.
A growl rumbled out of Pral’s throat. “Covering the trail would have slowed him down at least. Force him to use his magic, weaken him. You’ve left us vulnerable to an unknown assailant. You foolish woman.” His voice never grew louder, but Hosus still had to force herself from flinching.
Bertran started to speak but Hosus waved him off. “He’s right, Bertran. I endangered all of us. If that man is really after us, which I believe he is, then I led him right to us.”
“What’s one man going to do to us?” Nar asked, interrupting. “If he’s trying to attack us, we have numbers. If he tries to use magic, we have Johnsa.” He gave Johnsa an apologetic shrug. “I don’t understand the risk.”
“No,” Pral said, contempt in his voice, “you don’t.”
Bertran surged to his feet, his features furious. “Then why don’t you fill us bloody in Pral?” he almost shouted.
Pral growled again. “You want to know what we’re doing? What we face? We’re going into the Dead Lands to fetch a lost artifact. The Staff of Archelum. And we have to find it before anyone else does.”
Wenley chuckled, drawing confused looks all around. “Well, that doesn’t seem so bad. Going on a treasure hunt? At least we know the trail will be cold for everyone,” he finished with a smile. Glyc laughed but he grew quickly silent when no one joined him.
“Why are we finding the Staff? That was an object of immense magical powers. It was the source of the original Council of Seven’s powerbase,” Phanza said.
“Yes, and it seems to have gone missing,” Pral added.
“Oh gods.” It came out as a whisper but drew everyone’s attention.
“What is it, Phanza? What do you know?” Nar asked.
“I don’t know how much our fearless leaders know,” Phanza mocked, “so I’ll start from the beginning. The Staff of Archelum was an artifact crafted from ancient and powerful blood magic, magic forbidden long ago, as it required live sacrifices for its power. The Staff required one hundred unwilling sacrifices to give it the power to fulfill its purpose: to control the land and the weather. For unknown reasons, the creation of the Staff resulted in the deaths of those who had overseen its construction. It remained in its cradle for a few hundred years before it was found again by tomb raiders. Those tomb raiders became the first Council of Seven.
“No one knows how they learned of the Staff, or how they learned to control its powers, but they did. They used it to singlehandedly take control of several cities of the North and create an army. They used their power to conquer the known world and the nation of Terada was born. After their rise to supremacy, they had actually created a functional and good society, so they decided to hide the Staff so no one would do what they did and destroy what they had built. And now, apparently it’s gone?” Phanza looked to Pral for corroboration, which he gave with a curt nod. “How do we know this?”
“We were given the mission by the current Council of Seven. Hosus and I were summoned before them and they explained that the Staff had gone missing. They charged us to find, retrieve and return it. They also said we weren’t the only ones looking for it, which is why,” Pral looked meaningfully to Nar, “anyone following us poses a threat to our mission.”
“Exactly. Now all of you stop bickering and placing blame. If your mission is at risk, start moving and be more careful.”
The forceful command shocked everyone into silence, and every eye turned to Johnsa, who was standing with her hands behind her back and her legs planted wide. Hosus felt herself smiling at the sudden presence Johnsa exuded, one of confidence and command. I see why she was a Ramadan now, she thought. She caught Johnsa’s eye and gave her a nod of respect. Hosus then turned to Pral who was studying Johnsa carefully. His emotions were guarded by his stony visage but she had learned to read him in the past weeks. What she saw there was a mixture of respect and wariness, and once more Hosus felt the tension grow between them. She wondered if there was something more than just the butting of heads between two dominant personalities.
“She’s right, gentlemen,” Hosus spoke into the silence. “It’s time to move. From now on, we double check our trails and we start scouting. Now let’s go.”
Hosus motioned to Pral to take the lead as usual, and she saw anger quickly controlled flash in his eyes. She realized Johnsa had just created a power vacuum and Hosus had stepped into it. Hosus suppressed a gulp. Pral was the one who had all the hidden knowledge and contacts. She was proud, but Hosus understood that Pral was the leader of their expedition for a reason. She would have to find a way to let him regain that position and save face.
“It’s never easy,” she muttered. Johnsa must have heard her because she flashed Hosus a small, understanding smile.
Pral was still for another moment as he surveyed the surrounding faces. Hosus could see that he knew he’d lost control, at least temporarily, and was calculating a way to regain it in his cold and detached way. She frowned, thinking that his scheming could make her job that much easier or infinitely more difficult in handing over control again. She suppressed a sigh and continued waiting patiently for Pral to lead. Several uncomfortable moments passed before he turned and, without a word, started off through the forest.
Everyone filed into their usual spots in line and hustled after him. Hosus took up the rear, carefully erasing their trail. She focused all of her attention on this task, conscious of her earlier failure and determined not to let it happen again. The group passed silently through the forest for the remainder of the afternoon, stopping infrequently and then only to let members attend to nature’s call. They ate a cold dinner on the move and when Pral finally called the halt beneath the drooping branches of an enormous willow tree, everyone gratefully collapsed.
No one asked for a fire. There was an unspoken agreement to evade their pursuer, and every member of the group was tense. Hosus felt the merry babbling of the small stream that flowed past their camp was mocking them, oblivious in its bed and happy to be so. She envied it.
“Two people awake at all times.” Pral’s voice broke through her wistful contemplation. “If you see anything, do not make a sound. Just wake the others. Everyone, have your things packed and prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. I want no more surprises while we’re in this forest, understood?”
The darkness covered any nods, but there were one or two mumbled assurances. The group played an old children’s game to decide who would take watch, and Hosus ended up with the middle hours of the night. She had been looking forward to an uninterrupted sleep, but she lay herself down next to the brook, closed her eyes, and fell asleep to the sound of the brook that reminded her so much of home.
Hosus woke to a nudge from Bertran. Opening her eyes, she could sense Bertran’s presence standing above her, but couldn’t see him.
“How are we supposed to spot anyone creeping up on us if we can’t see anything?” she whispered.
She heard Bertran quietly chuckle. “You get used to it. After a time, you can differentiate the darkness. You see the trees and the ground. It’s quite pretty.”
Hosus gave him a skeptical look, realized he couldn’t see it, and stuck her tongue out at him for good measure. “I can’t tell if you’re being serious or sarcastic, but I’ll take it as the latter regardless.”
Bertran chuckled again as he moved off to his own bedroll. Hosus sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Three hours had not been nearly enough to recover from the harsh pace she’d sustained that day, but it was better than nothing, and she’d have another hour or two after her sentinel. Rising to her feet, she looked around, waiting for her eyes to accustom themselves to the darkness. After a few moments, she realized Bertran had been right. She could vaguely make out differences in shadows and she was quickly able to pick out the prone forms of her companions. Though as she made her way to the perimeter of their small campsite, just beyond the falling branches of the willow, Hosus knew she would be relying on her other senses to detect any would-be trespassers.
Just outside the screen of branches, Hosus felt around for a root to sit on. She found one after a few minutes, covered in moss, and sat down. Sitting back against the trunk the root protruded from, Hosus kept her eyes open but unfocused, and taking deep, even breaths, she set herself to listening to the forest around her.
Her watch passed without event, and three hours later she parted the way back under the willow. Pral was already awake and passed through the part Hosus held open for him.
“The night is quiet.”
Pral squeezed her arm in acknowledgement and continued out. Hosus looked out after him for a moment, considering her dilemma, and then returned to her bedroll. Possible solutions rattled through her mind for a few minutes before she tucked them away and dropped off to sleep.
Morning greeted her with a slightly less dark day. Hosus opened her eyes, yawned, and wondered when dawn would come, but then she realized she could see the features of her comrades and realized it already had. With a sigh, she stood and quickly packed her gear, tying the bedroll onto her pack and tightening the laces on her boots.
Just as she was straightening, Pral entered the sanctuary of the willow. Ignoring Hosus’ nodded greeting, he began nudging the others awake with his boot tip. Johnsa sat up just as he stood next to her, but Pral had to roll Nar over before the small man finally woke up.
“No need for that,” Nar said, sleep causing him to slur his words. He sat up, covered a yawn with the back of his hand, and rubbed his ribs where Pral’s boot had dug into him.
“Up. We’re leaving.” Pral’s voice was cold.
He continued his work until everyone was conscious and on their feet. Only then did he look to Hosus, as if stepping aside to let her take the lead. He shouldered his gear and moved to stand next to the drooping branches, out of direct contact with the group. There was a hushed and awkward moment as eyes swept from Pral to Hosus and back, everyone trying to decipher the new power dynamics. Finally, by unspoken but unanimous decision, everyone turned to Hosus with expectant eyes.
Hosus was surprised by the confidence the group displayed in her abilities. Fun, she thought, realizing that shifting power back to Pral was going to be impossible now that the group had recognized her. She wanted to shake her head at her bad luck, but figured it would be a poor token of gratitude for those who now supported her. Taking a breath, she laid out the day’s plan.
“Pral will take point. We rest every few hours and eat at noon. Otherwise, we move as quickly as we can. Pral said we can make it out of the forest by the end of today. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to see the sun again.” Everyone nodded in agreement, and Wenley made little peek-a-boo faces at his brother. “Everyone ready to go then? Let’s head out.”
With a raised arm, Hosus gestured for Pral to lead the way. The dark man immediately ducked through the willow branches and disappeared from view. Phanza, with a glare and muttered comment about “courtesy of a toad”, held the branches open to allow everyone else to walk through. When Hosus passed, a wide smile broke out on Phanza’s face.
“Always thought you should lead,” he said with a conspiratorial wink.
Hosus rolled her eyes at him. She paused outside the tree, allowed Phanza to retake his place in line, before ducking back under. With practiced efficiency, Hosus brushed away their presence beneath the sheltering limbs, and then proceeded to follow the group, always a few paces behind to make sure she didn’t miss any signs.
As she had ordered, Pral set a rapid pace through the forest. His gliding walk allowed him to move easily over the rough terrain but forced everyone to scramble over roots to keep up with him. Even when the group began to falter, Pral forged on until he was almost out of eyesight. Johnsa let out a whoop, calling for him to stop, and then he only slowed long enough for the group to rush to catch him. Hosus, from her position at the back of the line, noted Pral’s behavior, and scowled at his childish antics. She was rather surprised he was acting that way. Hosus had never seen him be petty or envious, and she kept a closer eye on him. The tension she had seen two days before seemed to have reappeared, keeping his back rigid and making his motion almost jerky. His attitude would create more problems if Hosus didn’t see to it, and she decided that she would find out what was wrong with their silent guide when they stopped to sup.
The morning passed quickly and the group made good time through the forest. The dark trunks still stretched up to blot out the sky, but there were more gaps to let in the sun than before. Hosus saw these as good signs that they were nearing the border of the forest where it would suffer greater damage from storms. The group stopped in one of these gaps for lunch, and before anyone broke their fast they all closed their eyes and enjoyed the feel of the sun on their skin. Even Pral seemed to lose some of his tension as he looked up at clear blue sky.
Hosus waited until the rest of the group had pulled trail rations from their packs before approaching Pral. He grimaced when he saw her, but then his face locked into the same emotionless mask that he had worn in front of the Council of Seven. Hosus knew that she would have a difficult time getting answers from him unless she could unbalance him.
“How much further until we exit the forest?” she asked.
If he was surprised by her question, he didn’t show it. “We could slow down and still be out by sundown.”
“And past that?”
“Past the forest’s edge the terrain flattens out again. Sparsely wooded, one or two decently maintained roads, a few villages. We’ll need to stop at one to resupply and drop Johnsa off.”
Hosus nodded, her thoughts turning to Johnsa’s future, and she was silent for a few moments. She noticed that Pral didn’t relax at all, and she decided that she wasn’t going to be able to fool him into answering her questions.
“What’s out there Pral?”
“What’s out there that’s got you worried? What are you trying to protect?” Hosus kept her voice even. She was annoyed, but it wouldn’t help to show it.
Pral kept her gaze, but he remained quiet.
Hosus held back an exasperated sigh and she detected a hint of amusement in Pral’s green eyes. So that’s how he wants to play it, hmm? she thought, pursing her lips. At her change of expression, Pral’s amusement vanished and was replaced by wariness.
“I could look for myself, you know. I know something’s out there and I can follow anything, even in this forest.” She said it matter-of-factly, pulling her eyes from Pral’s and looking off into the darkness of the wood.
She was surprised when she heard a soft chuckle. She looked back to Pral, feeling her left eyebrow rise at his response.
“Do you think me so easily manipulated, Hosus? I’ve played this game with king’s advisors and wizards. I’m insulted you think so little of me.” His voice was warm with mirth.
“Fine,” Hosus conceded, “then answer my question and let us stop these games. I give you my word that whatever is out there, whatever you are worried we’ll find, I will take the secret to my grave. But I need to know because it’s affecting your judgment and we can’t afford a power struggle here.”
Something must have struck him as ironic because he laughed again, louder this time, drawing some looks from the others before they hastily turned back to their meals. Their voices grew a little louder before Pral continued.
“Power struggle.” He chuckled again. “Is that what this is, Hosus? A power struggle? We’re partners, why should we wrestle for authority?”
Hosus saw that he was changing the conversation, but it was too late now. This was a conversation that had to be followed through to its conclusion. “Pral, you know more than I do. I won’t argue that. You know where we’re supposed to go and I won’t be surprised if we find you have contacts along our route. You should be the leader of this group, and I would hand that back to you, if I could. I only have one question. Why am I here if that’s the case? Do you even need me?”
Pral shrugged. “I don’t. Not really.” Hosus was openly shocked by his statement, and it was a moment before she realized her jaw was hanging open. Pral continued. “But the others respect and like you, whereas they fear me. You are a useful tool for keeping them in line.”
He watched her face, gauging her reaction before he finished. With a nod, he said, “Good. Now we’re clear. You got to play leader. Just remember what I’ve said.” Without another word, Pral stood and called for the others to pack up and prepare to leave.
Hosus remained seated; shock prevented her from moving. Pral’s words reverberated in her head. She had more than once thought her presence in the group was redundant but she figured maybe she was missing some crucial element that made her necessary. A useful tool, he said. Her presence was to make Pral’s command easier to bear for the others. The thought that followed was what he was after.
Lian. Her sister, seemingly protected by Pral’s friends. Hosus realized she was a hostage, meant to ensure Hosus’ cooperation. She thought over the past weeks, wondering if Pral was really in league with the Council and whether the whole scene in the Council chambers had been a charade for her benefit. If it was, then at least Hosus knew who he was working for, but if he had been fooling both the Council and her, then only Pral knew his ultimate goal.
She looked up at the man who had resumed his former authority, had ripped it from her, her eyes wide. Had she really misread him so completely? Had he fooled them all? Pral must have felt her gaze because he turned to look back and continued giving his orders. His features held no satisfaction. Even his eyes were blank as he held her gaze for a moment before turning back to the group and called to leave.