Six

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The five fugitives travelled through the night. Kazé was laid in the cart wrapped in several warm blankets. Princess Cariolta led the donkey while Prag scouted ahead and Kish trailed behind as a rearguard.

They moved as quickly and quietly over the darkened landscape as the donkey pulling the cart would allow. They were blessed by a heavily overcast sky which hid their passing from any eyes that might chance to cross the landscape. Unfortunately their efforts at stealth were wasted due to their witless companion. He was scampering here and there on all fours. He would stop to examine a pebble and then dash forward past the cart to explore some small divot in the dew covered fields. He was awkward and clumsy and his sword belt jangled like a jester's bells.

Shortly before dawn they came across a small village of which they decided to stay out of sight by taking a wide arc around it. The princess was much relieved by this decision. She couldn't bear facing the residents. She had naively believed Ashun lands to be filled only with monsters and cruel and evil men. Now she saw quaint farming villages, filled with wives, mothers and children all wondering when the next time would be that their man would be coming home on leave from the army. The town she was looking at now, so close to the prison, probably has more than a few new orphans and widows. She tried to wipe the guilt from her mind and focus on her own safety. But that was exactly the reason that these people would suffer—her own selfishness. Had she given herself up two weeks ago when they were first attacked, Kazé and Kish would probably be safe and some two hundred honourable soldiers would still be standing...and the world would have less one orphan rather than masses more. She wished that someone would talk. That someone would say something to bring her some hope or cheer or at least distraction from her remorse. Kish and Prag, however, were doing a fine job of scouting and guarding, leaving her alone to do the peasant's task of tending to a weary mule.

By evening of the first day, they had reached the edge of the great forest that separated the kingdoms of Ashun and Haelund. Somewhere deep within that forest was the river that marked the border between the two. The forest was light and made for easy travelling at first, but as the light of day failed it became more overgrown. The ferns tangled in the wheels of the cart and the donkey was so exhausted that it was barely able to carry its own weight, let alone pull a cart.

Prag reached a rocky outcropping and stopped. He surveyed his party. The two women looked like the walking dead. They stumbled and tripped over every root and vine they came across several that weren't there at all. Kish wasn't going to do any good as a rearguard in this condition and he guessed that the Princess would soon be unable to carry her own weight. Kazé hadn't shown any signs of regaining consciousness. His shallow breathing was the only indication that he was still alive. Dragging him in the cart over the increasingly uneven terrain would only serve to worsen his condition. He himself was barely able to stay clearheaded. Two days of torture followed by a life and death battle wasn't his favourite way to prepare for a full night and day of marching.

The only one with any life left in him was the strange boy. He was still scampering around, much less clumsily than before, and showing no signs of tiring at all. Finally Prag made his decision, though he didn't like it. "We have to stop."

The two women nodded with tired agreement but lacked the vigour to do anything about it.

"Follow these rocks here west until you find a decent place to hide for the night." Prag instructed. "I'm going to get rid of this poor animal and check if anyone has caught up with us yet"

"How do we know you won't sell us out?" snapped Kish with a sudden bout of alertness.

"To whom would I sell you?" replied the mercenary dryly as he prepared a stretcher for Kazé. "Perhaps to one of the families of the guards I murdered yesterday?"

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