We were almost there. I knew this stretch as well as any. My blood raced, and my mind sprinted from one thought to the next. Getting home. Getting there in time. It was so close now. We just might make it. I wouldn’t let guilt get in the way of what needed to be done. There was too much at stake. Lives. History. People who depended on me.
I tried to keep her focused, pointing out features on the northern range, a cluster of trees, a rock formation, a pass, anything to divert her gaze from the southern range. I was buying minutes now, and there wasn’t a single one to spare. I had already seen our post hidden high in a rocky outcrop overlooking the valley. It was hard to see if you didn’t know it was there, but she had a keen eye and it wouldn’t stay camouflaged much longer.
As the valley turned, grazing horses came into view, and beyond that our small farmstead where the caretaker lived.
“One small farmhouse?” she said. “This can’t be the settlement.” “Maybe there’s more at the end of the valley,” I answered, still trying to
delay the inevitable.
And then she spotted the three riders galloping down a trail from the outpost, heading toward us. She stopped, her walking stick jutting out in a protective stance to stop me too. “Those don’t look like settlers.”
“I think we’ll be all right.”
“No,” she said, still not convinced, “settlers don’t wear weapons like that at their sides. They’re armed for trouble.”
As they drew close, smiles evident on their faces, her shoulders pulled back and her attention turned slowly to me, her lips parting slightly, a dull realization forming. Her eyes shot back to them again, the truth settling in, my lack of concern, the recognition in their eyes when they looked at me. They pulled up short in front of us, and one of them said, “Patrei, we’ve been watching for you, hoping you’d come this way.”
She turned back to me and for a few seconds her eyes were cold, deadly, but then they exploded with rage. “You filthy—” She swung her stick, but I was expecting it and grabbed hold, jerking her toward me. “What did you expect me to do?” I said. “Just dance into a Vendan settlement so you could arrest me or worse? Going separate ways was never in your plan. Your lies are easy to spot, Kazi.”
Her chest heaved and she glared at me, unable to deny it. “Get away from me!” she growled, letting go of the stick. She stepped back as far as the chain would allow, still seething. I didn’t have time to explain or to try and assuage her. I’d have to try later.
I looked up at Boone, our foreman. “Go back to the post for tools to get this chain off us,” I ordered. “Foley, you bring back food. And an extra horse.”
“No. She’ll ride with me.” I couldn’t trust her to stay with us, and there was no spare time to go off on a chase.
“You have a messenger up there?” I asked. “Aleski,” he answered.
“Bring him down too.”
While we waited for Boone and Foley to return, Tiago told me they had sent scouts out everywhere looking for me. “We finally tracked down the hunters, but the wagon was empty and tracks went off in all directions.”
“There were four other prisoners,” I explained. “When we escaped, everyone scattered. Did you take care of the hunters?”
He nodded. “Dead. But one did a lot of pleading for his life before we killed him. He said they’d been paid for a full load up front, and then were free to take and sell their haul to a mine for more profit that they could keep.”
Paid up front? That was impossible. Labor hunters were nothing more than scavengers. No one paid them for merchandise they hadn’t yet
produced. Illegal mines were the only ones who dealt with them. “Maybe he was lying,” I said.
Tiago shook his head. “Don’t think so. Not with a knife pressed to his temple. He said they knew better than to come near Hell’s Mouth, but it was too good an offer for them to resist.”
“Who paid them?”
“He didn’t know. Said it was a nameless fellow who approached them.
He told them he’d know if they cheated him and didn’t follow through.”
No one would pay for merchandise they didn’t want. It wasn’t merchandise they were after. They were buying panic—and anger at the Ballengers for not keeping the city safe. Someone was trying to edge us out.
“Did you find any of the other prisoners?”
“Three. The smithy was dead, and the other two were in bad shape. Not sure they’ll make it, but we brought them back to Tor’s Watch. Healer is taking care of them.”
“Good. Before you release them back to the city, make sure they know to tell no one what happened to them or that I was there.”
“Already done. They know to keep quiet.”
“Track down the other prisoner. He has to be out there somewhere. We don’t want him stumbling back into town and talking.” I gestured toward Kazi. “What about the other Rahtan who were with her? Did you find them?”
Tiago hesitated, glancing at Kazi. “We have them in custody, but they aren’t talking.”
Her eyes were steel. This was another development she didn’t like. I wasn’t going to get anything more out of her. At least not yet.
“There’s been some other trouble,” Tiago added.
He said that since the first night I disappeared there had been six fires in six different districts. Two homes had burned to the ground. No one died, but all the fires were suspicious and unexplained. The town was uneasy. There was also a thwarted raid on a Gitos caravan. Two drivers were injured.
I cursed. Someone was trying to create unrest in Hell’s Mouth from all angles. Or maybe it was many someones.
Boone brought back awls and hammers from the post, pounding and fiddling with the rusted lock on my ankle until he broke it off. “Hers too?”
She was surprisingly silent, but her gaze was condemning, certainly calculating how she would pay me back. “Yes,” I answered. “Hers too.”
I rubbed my ankle where the shackle had scraped and cut into my skin.
Kazi did the same as she eyed me suspiciously. We were finally separated.
Foley arrived with the fresh horse for Kazi and me, and Aleski, our post messenger, arrived just behind him. Aleski rode lean, and his Phesian colt could get there faster. As I adjusted the stirrups on my own horse, I gave him instructions. “Ride ahead. Greyson Tunnel. It’s important they see us coming from Tor’s Watch, not from town. Yell for clothes. Anything. Bring them down to us. We’ll change on the run. We can’t show up in these. Clothes for her too. Check Jalaine’s room. Then get there and stall. And shoes!” I called as he rode off.
I had no choice but to bring her along. I’d talk to her as we rode. Convince her that she needed to go along with whatever I said. Try to make her understand what was at stake. The wolves were already moving in on Hell’s Mouth. Tor’s Watch would be next.