Arguing was pointless. Especially since, for once, Sion agreed with Amaris’s judgment. Taking the obscure path through the forest, though it would add several days to their estimated arrival in , showed signs of intelligence instead of the irrational outbursts Amaris exhibited so often. Sion regretted only that he knew nothing of this unmarked road. He submitted at once, though. Amaris could have this one chance to redeem herself. She could have mentioned the path before they reached it though, it would have saved the altercation between her and Sion. She started veering off the road into the trees, and continued her strange path until Sion stopped her for questioning. Then the decision Amaris had clearly made miles, if not weeks before, gained Sion’s approval. He had what choice?
Amaris’s temperament normalized over the following days, and Sion would sit at camp during the evenings in quiet, relaxed that Amaris did not need a constant correction. Even gathering fire wood did not stress him as before. Amaris could handle herself without a nursemaid for awhile. Sion wandered into the thin trees where the forest gave way to tall grass in a clearing. He leaned against a tree and exhaled. Why any man would marry was beyond him. Women played on him like an instrument he wished they would set down. He stood still for moments, minutes, and time swept forward until he could have slept against the tree bark at his back. Pine needles rustled, and Sion opened his eyes to see which small woodland creature had shortened his small rest. Nothing. He leaned away from the tree and stretched. Time to head back anyway. He headed to where the sound had come from. Satisfy curiosity before returning to duty. Maybe something to eat.
Sion pulled his knife and turned the handle in his hands. He glanced between ground and tree, and walked passed the disturbance. He snapped a twig and grimaced, putting his knife back in his belt. He sighed and turned toward camp, when he heard wood break behind him. He looked back and saw a large swath of fabric flash through the trees. He narrowed his eyes, hesitated, and then pulled his knife again.
Sion pursued the unwelcome visitor, who ran much faster than he, dodging the sparse trees. Between branches and trunks, Sion could make out burgundy fabric in a dress-like attire, odd for this part of the country. The man pulled up a hood as he darted into the clearing where the golden grass outlined his thin and short form. When Sion stepped out of the woods the man ducked back into them. Sion followed, rolling his eyes. What coward was he chasing? He could catch him by a chunk of that heavy leather coat in a minute at most, it had to be slowing the man. The small form slowed and Sion stopped running, and walked toward the man, but he lost sight of him and quickened his pace again. The man had a horse.
Sion jumped back before the horse could trample him as it rushed toward the high grasses. Sion raised his knife, but hesitated to wound an unknown scoundrel, but he could not chase the chestnut horse on foot. He loathed to think what report of him and the two silly women could unfold if this man turned out a scout of any kind. Sion focused on the rear flank and raised his arm. Before the knife could fly, another nag entered the clearing, rushing at the first man.
This new rider did not seem to take notice of Sion as his horse spoiled the other’s course. Sion hid behind a tree and watched. No collision, but the chestnut reared and the rider yanked the reins, choking back his mount, and went flying off his seat. He slammed against the ground ank kicked himself away from the horse to avoid stumbling hooves. Sion winced. The man had more to deal with than bruises, because the second rider did not seem to have restraint in mind. Jumping from his mount and abandoning the tan horse, he grabbed the reigns from the other riderless horse. Sion put away his knife and waited, hand on his hilt.
When the thrown rider started scrambling to his feet, the second man released the reins and dove onto the struggling man. Then he watched the chestnut flee in the direction of the other horse. “Damn it! I swear you will be punished for this.” There was no verbal response, but an unequal scuffle where the weaker man never made any progress against the other. He slapped the face above him, and then the second man sneered but did not return the hit. After freeing an arm, the trapped man jambed his elbow into the opponents jaw. The larger man punched the other’s arm in punishment for the hit, and then secured the man, locking one leg on either side.
Sion drew his sword, slow to eliminate noise. He took a deep breath and moved quick to the quarreling men, holding his blade to the bigger man’s back. Sion heard the threat in the man’s voice as he looked to the smaller, and Sion assumed younger. “What did you do?”
“Nothing . . . Yet.” Even angry this man’s speech sounded smooth.
“Hands away from your weapons!” Sion shouted too loud for being nar atop the men.
The brawnier man looked over his shoulder at Sion. Young, too young for taking someone’s life. The square face, bordered with disheveled blond hair, bore dark brown eyes which kept fighting after the man moved his hand from his knife and did something Sion could not see to the smaller man’s face before pulling his arms away from his sides.
“Thank you.” Sion said. “Disarm yourself, and no tricks.”
The man nodded, and then undid his belt, laying it aside. Sion kicked it away. “Good. Now off of him.” Sion gestured to the side with his head and the man stood up accordingly. Sion slid his foot onto the pinned man’s stomach as the other stood up.
“That is not necessary!” The stronger man protested.
“I will decide that,” Sion returned. “Besides, you attacked him, see what I care of your opinion of each other.” Sion pressed his sword against the larger man’s torso so he could feel movement and then looked down. “Your weapons.” The younger man gasped. He should have been so worried the moment before. Sion heard the other man huff while the smaller of the two pulled a quiver off his back, bow inside.
“Your sword,” Sion said.
The man’s face froze.
“I don’t have one.”
“Show me you have no other blades.” Sion picked his foot up off the man and kicked the small pile of weapons further away. He heard a groan from the man his blade laid against. “What did you expect?” Sion said without looking away from the smaller man who stood while pulling his hood over his face.
“Look, we will leave.” Insisted the stronger man. “You have my word.”
“No you will not. Not yet.” Sion was dragging these two to Amaris the second he had them disarmed. He shouted at the smaller man. “Show me your weapons, now!”
The man hesitated, looking helpless. He must have a hidden blade he wanted to keep somewhere beneath that over-sized coat. Then the man began undoing the few fastened buttons. There was no blade. Nothing but a burgundy dress wrapped around the fully developed curves of a mature woman. Sion looked at her face. Younger, smaller, weaker, but not a man. The pressure left his sword tip, and Sion turned on the other man — the only man — who was leaning toward the pile of weapons. “Do not move.” Sion accentuated each word. The young man glared. “You cannot protect her after you fought her.” Then the woman scooted toward the weapons. Sion followed instinct and moved closer to the man, arm bent, and blade resting heavily on his torso now. “I will kill him.” Sion did not know why this tactic worked, but it did. The woman’s face drained of color and she obeyed. Sion looked between the two, but he did not see the horses anywhere. There did not appear to be any others. “I do not care what kind of demented lover’s quarrel this is –”
The young man huffed, recoiling from the insult.
“I said I do not care,” Sion continued. “You will both come with me, or I will end it myself.”
The woman nodded. Sion gestured to the forest. He waited untill both were in front of him and then followed behind them, guiding them towards Amaris with verbal commands. The man reached to the woman who crossed her arms. Sion rolled his eyes; perhaps Amaris would be able to conjure an answer for this dilemma.
Illuma’s attention was immediately caught, and Amaris turned her head uninterested, until she saw the small company. “Sion,” she stood up and walked towards him, “what is this?” She half whispered, as if the intruders could not hear. Now, what was the point in that? At least Sion had numbers on his side. He dropped his sword tip and sheathed the blade.
The two strangers stopped at the edge of camp, and Sion was through pushing this couple. “Ask them. The little brats were either spying on us or…” Sion stepped up to the young woman who had made herself look too much a man again. He could fix that. He went for her hood, but the man beside her tossed it back first, exposing the long blond braid. Where was the sense in that? Did the man think women would be less likely to harm his . . . Whatever she was to him. Sion looked at Amaris, her irritation unmasked as she pinched her nose and closed her eyes. Words Sion could not make out slid beneath her breath. Amaris looked at the young woman.
“I thought I we had been over this already, Adreaga.”
Sion stepped between the intruders and Amaris. “You know this girl?”
“I am no girl.” Adreaga defended. The voice did indeed belong to a woman.
“I really do not care how old you are.”Sion studied Adreaga whose arms remained crossed in defiance.
“Whoever you are, and whomever this is,” Sion looked with disgust at this woman’s lover, “you can both go back to wherever you —”
“You do not recognize her, Sion?”
Sion turned toward Illuma whose small voice silenced the conversation.
“No. Should I?”
Illuma nodded. “She stopped Amaris, in that town we passed through last week.” Illuma came close and whispered quiet to Sion. “Pay more attention, when you are mad you do not watch close enough.”
Sion nodded, but would go no further to acknowledge the criticism. At least Illuma had enough courtesy to keep such private. “Still,” Sion turned to Adreaga and the silent youth beside her, “I do believe Amaris made her intentions concerning you quite clear.”
“You will be leaving.” Amaris said with sternness Sion admired. She did know how to hold her ground. “After you tell me why in the world you would follow me like this. It is an insult, threat, and absolute defiance to anything I told you. What would make you think I would allow you to come after you hunted us —”
“Tracked you,” the girl corrected.
“For over a week,” Amaris continued without listening to Adreaga. “Only to intrude on our settlement. Whatever you did was enough to set off Sion, and that is enough for me to turn you away. But I have a plethora of reasons.” Sion crossed his arms and listened. “So, please, humor me with an explanation.”
“I want to help.”
Amaris guffawed. “When you pour milk into a bowl to help your mother in the kitchen, you are not actually helping. And I have no time to train innocent youths in warefare. So, you had better be on your way home.”
“What makes you think we cannot fight?” The man beside Adreaga asked. He did have a voice. “Do you think I carry a sword but lack skill to use it?”
Amaris looked them over.
“I took their weapons.” Sion filled in.
Amaris nodded. “Let us say you can fight. I still do not care.”
“Why?” Adreaga’s voice neared begging. “You do not want aid?”
Amaris opened her mouth wide, but clamped it shut, and then spoke quieter. Sion smiled. “I do not want either of you with me for one more second. Did I advertise for adolescent mercenaries?”
“We are not adolescent.” The boy said.
“And we are not mercenaries.”
“Well that is a relief,” Amaris laced her words in sarcasm. “I thought even vengeance had lowered itself with you two.”
The young man rolled his eyes.
“What is your name?” Sion asked.
“Briair.” The man answered, still watching Amaris. To Sion’s dismay, Briar seemed to know Amaris was in charge.
“Wonderful.” Amaris lied. “Briar, go home, and take Adreaga with you. I am finished.” Amaris turned away.
“I can help you if you will let me!” The girl followed after Amaris, who turned and stared into the girl’s eyes.
“I said go home.”
“Besides Adreaga,” Briair said. “Try helping without a horse, or a coat for that matter. I am taking my things when we leave. Now stop bothering these people, and” he emphasized his last words, “let us leave. Now.”
“I have a bow,” Adreaga glared at Briair, “and that is enough.”
Briair smiled and huffed. He either did not take her seriously, or wanted Adreaga to fall into her place.
Sion stepped in front of the man, cutting off his line of sight from the women. “That is enough from you. I have never seen a woman treated in such a volatile way before. You disgust me, and I never want to see you or hear from you again.”
Briair pushed against Sion’s chest, sending the latter back a step. Sion grabbed the man’s wrist and was ready to do anything against the youth to teach an adequate lesson. Except Adreaga piped up. Did these two love or hate each other?
“Please, Briair. I will make it up to you, later, just —”
“What, after your excursion with these strangers?” Briair asked. “You are lucky I came after you. I cannot believe what you are trying to do.”
“Do not get yourself in more trouble.” Adreaga said.
Briair sneered. “You are the one going to pay for this, not me.”
“Do not hurt her,” Sion commanded.
“Or what, you will come after me? I dare you.”
“Briair!” Adreaga cried.
“I will not have to.” Sion grabbed his sword hilt. He gaped at Amaris as she pushed into his side, knocking him off balance. He glared. “I am doing this woman a favor. If you had seen them, Amaris . . .” Sion shook his head and closed his eyes, trying to contain his wrath. His fingers wrapped tighter around his blade.
“Trust me, she is not hurt,” Briair sounded calm now. “Not bad enough for any lasting harm.” Then he looked at Adreaga. “Maybe it will teach her not to run from home.”
“Is that what your business is?” Amaris asked, looking at Briair, but holding her arm out against Sion’s reaction.
“She can leave. In a couple years, Adreaga. When you are older,” he pleaded. “Please, just wait.”
Sion could not read Adreaga or Briair’s faces. Somber, begging, pitiful, and angry.
“No.” Adreaga answered. “I am not staying at home one minute more. I go with them, or I will leave some other way.”
Amaris closed her eyes tight, and then looked between the boy and girl several times. “How are you related?”
“By blood,” Briair answered.
“Sadly only minutes apart,” Adreaga jerked up her eyebrows at Briair.
“Ugh,” Sion groaned. “Leave. Both of you, now.” Now he walked away, hand falling from his hilt. “All we need is two fiery, frustrating children to annoy us.” He heard a chuckle, a familiar one, and looked at Amaris rubbing her forehead with a broad grin.
“Go home,” she looked between the two siblings, and nodded. Then she left the two. “Illuma, Sion, we are leaving now.”
Sion watched as Adreaga panicked and Briair gloated with a threatening face. Sion could not help his concern. The man grabbed his sister’s wrist, and she kicked him in the shin. He let go to hold his leg for a moment. Adreaga did not move.
“Would one of you please help me?” Briair asked.
“No,” Sion and Amaris answered in unison.
Adreaga rushed to Amaris and pulled her around by the arm. Sion reacted, but steadied himself when he saw no harm would come. Amaris froze, but Sion could only see her back. Adreaga hushed her commanding voice, but Sion could still make out the words. “Is there any good reason for not letting me along?”
“Honey, you are no good to us. Trust me, I am doing you a favor.” Amaris pushed back a stray blond wisp. Adreaga pushed Amaris away, the latter leaned forward. Now Sion could see her face, however soft she had tried to make it a moment before, Amaris was livid now.
“I will prove you wrong.” Adreaga spit out.
“Adreaga, please do not.” Briair said.
Amaris raised her hand to Briair, but kept her gaze on Adreaga. “Do it.”
“I need a bow.”
“Archer?” Amaris teased. “Without a bow?”
“I have one, but it is . . .”
“Cracked?” Briair smiled meanly.
Adreaga turned her eyes aside. “And for that I will never forgive you.” Now Sion understood the gasp when he had asked Adreaga to turn over her weapons. She realized how hard she had fallen on her bow.
“If you use mine,” Sion said, “can we get rid of you?”
“Maybe.” Adreaga said.
“Just do it, Sion.” Illuma wined. “I am sick of this circus.”
“Me to.” Sion went to retrieve his quiver. Adreaga grabbed it, but Sion did not let go. “Shoot anything we do not tell you to, and I’ll make it so you cannot return home.”
Even with Adreaga’s promise, Sion drew his sword and stood beside her while everyone else watched from behind. This should be a good show, hopefully embarrassing enough to send these insolents away.
“The pull will be stronger,” Briair offered.
“Stupid.” She remarked. “I know that.” Adreaga tested the string a few times. Then she loaded an arrow, pulled the string to her cheek — she had that part down smooth enough — and then Sion blinked. He saw the arrow vibrating in a tree.
Amaris chided her. “Distance is nothing without —”
A second arrow stuck, half a foot away. “I was trying to not hit your arrow,” Adreaga sassed Sion.
“She can do that every time.” Briair said.
“Would you chose a side, and shut up?” Sion told the young man.
Sion grabbed his bow and walked passed Amaris, whispering to her before retrieving his arrows. “Now I like her less.”
“Agreed.” Amaris returned.
Now they had to take these two as a threat, at least the girl, and get rid of her and her brother.
“Alright,” Amaris looked from face to face, with calculated expressions. “I need both of you to stand over there,” Amaris pointed, “and keep quiet long enough for us to confer.”
“My pleasure,” Adreaga smiled and brushed by her brother before they occupied a space between some trees where Sion could barely see them.
“I do not like this. Either one of them would be bad news, and sadly there are two.” Sion wasted no time in saying.
Amaris watched Adreaga and Briair.
“You had to go through that town, right?” Sion said.
Amaris rolled her eyes at him. At least now he and Illuma had her attention. Illuma. Would she give so much as two cents of thought? She spoke, as if listening in on Sion’s mind.
“You have a talent for attracting trouble,” she looked at Amaris. “Could you stop using it, please? First that other woman, what was her name —”
“Shh!” Amaris raised her eyebrows, threatening Illuma. Now that Sion wanted to know about. . . Another time.
“Never mind that. But now these two.” Illuma shook her head. “What are we going to do with them?”
“Send them away,” Sion urged. Like he should have to fight for that case. But Illuma chuckled and Amaris huffed.
“That will not work.” Illuma said.
“Why not?” Sion asked.
Amaris rubbed the back of her neck, “they tracked us for six days without our noticing. And that girl . . .”
“What?” Sion demanded.
“I do not think she will stop following us.”
“Then tie them to a tree and hope they do not starve.”
“Sion!” Illuma scorned.
“Really? Could they not use the lesson. Never have I seen two such impolite brats.” Sion heard murmuring from Adreaga and Briair. He turned his head and the girl shushed her brother who then spat some furious word down her neck. “They cannot even get along with each other. I say we leave them.”
“Can we just make a decision and get out of here?” Illuma said.
“They are too determined to leave behind.” Amaris watched the siblings, again.
“You say that as if they are an asset.” Sion said.
Amaris locked eyes with Sion. She had made up her mind.
“This is ridiculous!” Sion whispered the best he could manage. “You will throw your life in with these vagabonds?” No answer. “You are the stupidest woman I have ever met. Could I take that broach off your neck and give it to someone who will take care of it, watch after herself?”
Amaris glared with annoyance. “I say they come.”
“You,” Sion looked at Illuma, “I am done with.”
“Sion.” Amaris stepped forward. “That is enough out of you.” She walked just past Sion and stood looking at nothing in particular. She seemed unable to watch Sion any longer. Reason must be tough to face when you are stark raving mad.
“Illuma, knock some sense into her, please.”
“I have traveled with worse,” Illuma looked at the two young people and sighed. “I am not in the mood to contradict Amaris. If there would be danger as a result, I would side with you, believe me. Stupid folly . . . ?” Amaris looked over her shoulder, but Sion could not see her expression to Illuma who continued. “Not worth my intruding on another of your disagreements.”
“That is it? You do not care about two armed youths too full of adrenaline to stop fighting one another?”
“I already have to live with you two. How much more bickering could there be?”
“This conversation is over.” Amaris started in the direction of the two siblings.
Sion grabbed her arm. “Think this through.”
“I have,” Amaris narrowed her eyes. “Although I am not sure how well I thought through your coming.”
“Why, because I do not take your orders?”
“Let me go.”
Sion threw Amaris her arm and watched her go over to Adreaga and Briair.
“I am finished.” Sion want to his horse. Illuma followed and began listing a string of convincing reasons why he should stay, meanwhile, he shoved his things into his pack. “No, Illuma. I am done with her. If she wants to get killed, she will. But not while I am watching.”
“She needs you, Sion. I see it in a thousand ways she does not. And her needing your help has nothing to do with your father. You are the first person in a decade to care about her enough to make her leave.”
“I did not make her do anything.”
“It would have been impossible for her to stay after you came. Please, stay with her. If I had to pick between you and me, I would have you go on with her. I would never see her again if I knew she would have your help.”
“Why?” As if Illuma’s leaving would be at all sacrificial.
“She wants to follow you. For as many decisions as she is trying to make, she needs you beside her, or else, she will fail.”
Sion smirked and lowered his voice. “You think she is a lost cause already. Remember?”
Illuma looked grim. “I know. All the more reason for you to not leave us alone.”Illuma’s gentle sorrow made Sion slow in his retreat. He fastened his sack and closed his eyes, facing down, away from Illuma. “You can outmatch either of them,” Illuma said. “If need be you could probably destroy them both at once. We are not in harm.”
Sion muttered under his breath how untrue her statement was. “They sleep without their weapons. I will not be slain at night by these two.”
“Agreed. I will back you on that.”
“Do I have your word you will not cower when Amaris decides otherwise?”
Sion had to slap back his sanity in order to speak. “I will stay.” At his words Illuma relaxed. “But not if she continues this way.” Sion finished saddling his horse and had all things prepared for himself so he could have both hands free when Adreaga and Briair returned with their horses.
“Did you tell them what we are doing?” Sion asked Amaris.
Amaris shook her head.
“That sounds fair, right? Who needs to know the gravity of the situation? Naw. I bet they are both fine risking their lives, or ours, without knowing why.”
Amaris closed her eyes and breathed deep, and then looked at Sion. “Their ignorance is a condition on their accompanying us. Apparently our business does not matter to them —”
“That should concern you. Wait,” Sion narrowed his gaze. “Conditions?”
Amaris looked annoyed. “How stupid do you think I am?”
Sion shrugged. “You surprise me, Amaris. I cannot yet fathom how stupid you can be.” Sion paused long enough for Amaris to role her eyes, then asked his question. “What did you tell them?”
“They breathe without my permission and I stop holding you back.”
Sion laughed. “You would.” Now they could hate Sion more, and always try to please Amaris. He had to play body guard.
Amaris and Illuma had their things together, and then all three waited for the return of their new allies. If they could be called that. Their new cohorts broke the tree line into camp, almost identical strides, solid and bitter expressions, each clutching reigns by which they pulled along their mounts. Sion realized they had traded horses, and only a single bow remained between them, pushed into the quiver on Adreaga’s back. Both halted and stared at their superiors to whom they had submitted themselves. Sion would not believe the contract until he saw more than rebellion stirring in this young man and woman. Amaris scrutinized them and then lofted herself onto Fleecle. “Illuma ride third, Sion fifth —” fifth? They did not need five people. Why had Amaris done this? “I do not care what order you two put yourselves in.” Adreaga and Briair mounted without a word, but then they whispered a few nasty words to each other before Briair fell in behind Illuma, leaving Adreaga directly in front of Sion. He glared at the scene before he dared mount. He waited until Amaris turned back in her seat, looking for the delay. He squeezed the reigns and shook his head slow. This was wrong. Sion shoved his foot into the stirrup and threw himself over the top of his horse. He was the only man among this ridiculous group, possibly, he had the most footing in reality.
“Get us moving, Amaris.” Before he changed his mind. Sion’s only comfort came in the their forced separation. Quiet. They wouldn’t dare chatter ruthless words over the solemn Alaquendi between them. Watching the backs of three horses and a unicorn for hours made him think he could leave without trouble. Just slip off the back and turn around, or watch them snickering, brooding over their impending failure without him. No one had tied his hands or burned his rope out of the situation. His father had not even charged him with any duty concerning the Alaquendi. Sion’s concernt kept him facing the same direction as the rest of the company. Although it did nothing to lessen his stern disapproval. Maybe Amaris would wake up tomorrow and realize her err, send the two vagabonds packing, and get on with her job. If not . . .
What if he did not play principal as Amaris expected? He could shrug off every annoyance and hope it all landed on Amaris. She could grow up the hard way, he assumed, since she had already passed up the wiser option.