Chapter 29

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They spent the next week on the road, cutting through the Woodmaple Forest instead of traveling through town; Sander was likely a popular man in these parts and avoiding people seemed the best way to prevent unnecessary conflict.

The forest was on flat land, and the weather was warmer here than in the mountains, but the air was still crisp and cool with the changing of the seasons. Leaves of every shade of red and yellow hung from the trees and carpeted the ground, crackling under their horses’ hooves during the day and cushioning their sleep at night.

The question of whether Sander would hold his tongue hung over Sam like a hangman’s noose. But if Tristan stole more glances in her direction, the glances held no malice, so Sander must have kept quiet, at least for the time being.

In fact, Sander was a model prisoner: he never threatened escape and was unerringly cheerful. The only complaint he voiced was that Tristan wouldn’t let him fight off demon attacks, which grew more and more frequent the further west they traveled.

“I can help,” Sander insisted. “I feel so damned useless.”

“If you think I’ll allow you a weapon, you’ve lost your damned mind,” Tristan said.

It was an oft repeated exchange over the course of the week, and the outcome always remained the same. Sam could tell Sander was not used to sitting out a fight and did not enjoy being idle, but he (mostly) kept up his cheery façade. Sam, for one, was disappointed she didn’t get to see him in action. The High Commander’s skill in battle was legendary, and she wanted to know if Sander was of the same caliber. She doubted it.

It was on the eighth day after they had left Luca that a man on horseback came to meet them in the middle of the forest. His dark cloak and wide-brimmed hat were nearly identical to the High Commander’s man in Luca, his features as nondescript.  The man raised his hand, deliberately curling his first two fingers to his thumb, and then reined his horse near theirs.

“Checking up on me?” asked Tristan with a frown.

“Just making sure you do your part.” The man’s gaze slid past Tristan and settled on Sander. “I’ll inform the High Commander of your success.”

“You do that,” said Tristan, his tone unfriendly. “Is that the only reason you came, or do you have another message to relay?”

“Nay,” said the man. “The High Commander is a few weeks behind you. He’ll find you at the Diamond Coast and will take Sander from your custody.”

“Did he say what his plans are for Sander?” Tristan asked.

The man fixed him with a level gaze. “He did not, and that is not for you or me to ask.”

Tristan’s eyebrows rose at that. “I shall ask the High Commander whatever I please. Are we done here?”

“Aye,” said the man. “Good day, Paladin Lyons.” He tipped his hat in farewell and then galloped past them in a whirlwind of leaves.

As soon as the leaves had settled, Tristan spat on the ground. “Those men are slime,” he said. “They should be held to the same code of honor as the rest of us.”

“They’re not?” asked Sam.

Tristan shook his head. “They serve the High Commander but are given free rein to execute his orders however they see fit. Their only guiding principle is that the end justifies the means.”

“You sound like you disapprove,” Sander spoke up.

“I do,” said Tristan. “That surprises you?”

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