Chapter Six

Fleeing From the Past

Beotus snorted and stomped the straw covered ground as Asa saddled her, wondering why they were going riding somewhere in the middle of the night. The woman whispered words of comfort as she shortened the stirrups slightly, hoping the willful mare would not choose tonight to be contrary.

In the light from the stable, Asa could see Ferret and his brown and white splotched mare standing outside, waiting somewhat impatiently to be off. Asa glowered at Ferret for insisting that they get up at this time of night. But, it was better than being drugged and taken north, which was really the only alternative.

Vul walked in, passing by Ferret without taking apparent notice of him. Asa smiled at the man, whose hair had obviously not been combed and whose shirt was full of wrinkles, like the skin of an old man. He nodded to her, and plunked down the three saddlebags he was carrying next to Mirrikh.

Asa straightened Beotus's saddle blanket, peering over the mare's back at Vul. She shifted around, uncomfortable in the silence. Finally she decided she had to say something, anything.

"Will you tie Nathu up with Mirrikh for now?" she asked as she made sure everything was ready, and that she had not left some discarded belonging on the ground to mark their passing. "I'm afraid Beotus's going to be in one of her moods, and I don't want her snapping at Nathu."

Vul still didn't reply, as he bent to tighten the girths on Mirrikh's saddle. He only nodded again. Asa shrugged and made a strange sort of half grin half frown. She glanced around, hoping to find some clue that Ferret's story of Naelthas Ytan and the two black haired people was false, though she knew it was hopeless.

There was nothing out of place in the scrupulously tidy stable. A copper and an odd crimson brown stallion occupied two stalls on the far end, and three mares were stabled a few stalls down from Asa and across the row. One golden, one black with white socks and tail, and one brown and black spotted. Beotus's stall was three down from the doorway on the left; Nathu's was to her right, and Mirrikh's was just across the way. Satisfied, Asa led Beotus out into the clear night air.

The storm had ceased, though clouds still swept past above, blocking the stars from view. Asa was sorry for that. The light of the stars and of the moon, of the Goddess, Antarikha, would have been comforting. But alas, she would have to find comfort within her own heart. If comfort was to be found at all.

She stood a few feet away from Ferret and his horse, shivering. Even with her wool sweaters, shirts, leggings, socks, and cloak, she was still cold. Asa wanted to ask Ferret again how he meant to keep them from freezing, but he was pointedly ignoring her, staring through the starless night as if he were a cat, and could see in the dark.

Perhaps he can, Asa thought with a small smile. We still know nothing about him.

Finally, tired of waiting for Vul to be ready so they could leave, Asa poked her head back in the stable. "Hurry up," she called to Vul, who was tying a small cloth drawstring bag to the rest of the packs that Nathu the donkey already carried. The man grunted, and pulled the knot firmly secure. He pushed open the gate of the donkey's stall, and led the pack animal into the main row of the stables. Vul unhitched Mirrikh from the post he had been hitched to, and led them both out into the night. Standing in the doorway, he looped Nathu's lead around Mirrikh's saddle horn.

The man turned questioningly to Ferret. "So, are we going to leave?" he asked, not too kindly.

Ferret regarded Vul coldly. "That is the plan of action," he replied. "And the reason we are standing here in the cold at this time of night."

Asa jumped at the unintentional cue to ask her question. "How do you plan to keep us warm?"

Ferret smiled, no light entering his hazel eyes, and pulled something from inside his cloak. Still smiling, he opened his hand, palm up, to show Asa and Vul what he held.

Asa peered at his palm curiously. She hadn't thought he was a mage, but then, it wasn't always easy to tell. Her curiosity was not quenched. The only thing Ferret held was three nondescript, ugly dirty yellow rocks.

"Part of a spell?" Asa asked. "I did not know you were a mage."

Ferret shook his head, laughing hollowly. "Oh know, I am no mage." One of the rocks he placed in an inside pocket of his clothes. Of the other two, one he handed to Vul and the other he tossed to Asa. She caught hers reflexively, and lifted it up, peering at its jagged edges in the dim and barely sufficient light. Ferret mounted his horse thoughtfully.

"Those are magestones. Given to me by the King. Place it somewhere inside your clothes, next to you skin. Quite useful, actually," he reflected, somewhat obscurely, Asa thought. She shrugged, and stuck the stone in a hidden pocket of her shirt in which she sometimes kept things she wanted to keep very safe. Vul did the same.

Ferret peered down at them from the back of his horse, looking all too superior. He drew his hood further over his face. Does he ever take it off? Asa wondered. It would appear not.

The man cleared his throat impatiently. "You do know that Naelthas is probably on his way to your rooms now? He will realize all to quickly he has been tricked, however thick his skull may be."

Asa blushed, stirred out of her thoughts. She hoisted herself into Beotus's saddle. The horse snorted and shifted around to get her mistress situated. "However intelligent you may be, you do not know all the gods hold in their minds," Asa retorted tartly, her temper taking hold of her. She nudged Beotus into a trot, and urged the horse toward the gate to the road.

Ferret only smiled. "We're going the back way," He called imperiously. "You're going the wrong way, my lady." He spat the last words out, knowing he had won, for the moment.

Asa halted Beotus, and turned slowly, stormy eyes furious. "A mere battle is not an entire war, my dear sir," she said, tight lipped. "Remember that."

Vul, who now sat astride Mirrikh, grinned in admiration. She was one spirited girl, Asandhael. Still grinning widely, he led the way to the back gate.

They rode for hours, though they made no apparent progress. After a while, Asa began to feel sick with boredom .If only there were trees, or something to look at. But no, she thought heavily, she was destined to sit in a hard leather saddle, bouncing up and down as Beotus's muscles bunched and rippled beneath her, watching endless hills go by.

They stopped only twice, briefly, to rest and stretch their legs, but that was little better. The ground was hard and cold to sit upon, though Asa knew it would have been considerably harder and colder if not for that magestone, sitting in her pocket. Still, it was too hard and cold to be at all comfortable, as it was.

The sky was still dark and starless, covered in cloud. No comfort rested there. At least, Asa though bitterly, the storm is past. But a memory of storm still lingered in the sky, as in Asa's eyes.

On one of these stops, Ferret paced back and forth, occasionally staring to the east apprehensively. It was obvious he wanted to be moving again.

"You think they will follow us?" Vul asked him hoarsely, running his hands through his hair. He glanced in the direction of the other man's eyes, trying to somehow see what their enemy was doing.

Ferret stopped his pacing, and looked not at Vul, but at the sky, as if looking the gods for an answer. "I have no doubt of it. They need you, you are the key to their plan; there is something you have that they must find. I do not know what. If you are lost, then so is their plan." He paused, and cleared his throat. Asa tried to look as if she didn't hear Ferret speak, but she was listening intently, all the same.

What is the key? she wondered. What is it that I could possibly have that is key to the plans of the Northern warlord? Her mind landed briefly on the sun pendant that hung beneath her shirt, but she dismissed that though as impossible. It made no sense. How could anyone but her know of that? But then, nothing seemed to make much sense any more. So many questions were left unanswered.

First there was this whole mess in general. Her mother being ill, her father being gone too long, the King she was supposed to find, and everything else that had happened lately. More specifically, there was that pendant. Why had it been given to her, in a dream no less? Things like that only happened in the legends, told by bards. But then, all legends did have some truth in them, didn't they?

Dimly, Asa wondered if she would ever be part of a legend. It was doubtful, her tongue would likely get her into trouble and not be able to wave its way out again before that ever happened. If she was key to the Northerners' plans, then she must be important to this whole stupid war, a small mosquito in the back of her brain buzzed logically. She squashed the mosquito into a pancake. The idea was too unnerving to be contemplated for long.

Asa was back in the saddle now, still traveling into the west with Vul and Ferret. At their backs, behind the old inn, she knew, though it was long gone from sight, the morning sun climbed into the sky. There were still a few clouds left, floating dreamily by, but they were passing. Okhithron's anger was receding with the clouds. This morning, He shone His face upon the three riders, fleeing into the west.

Though Asa was glad that the magestones had somehow kept them from freezing in the chill of the night, and that Okhithron had decided to show His face, she was still not particularly happy. They had been blown of course, so to speak, by the storm. Quite literally, actually, Asa thought. If not for the storm, they would never had stayed in the inn, but found someplace to camp. She still opted to stay away from crowds, even after days of seeing no human life but herself and Vul.

The woman looked over he shoulder, into the golden morning sun. It seemed as if in leaving that inn, they had left an old way of life, to find their own bumbling way into the new. Perhaps they had. In truth, this felt more like the beginning of their adventures than it had when they first left Sanorn, to come south.

Asa's thoughts turned to Ferret, as she watched his hooded back, jolted up and down in the saddle, looking off into the distance. Who was he? He was mysterious, unpredictable, and perhaps… untrustworthy. But then, he could have just allowed she and Vul to be drugged and taken to the North. Though perhaps he didn't want her to be taken by the Northerners. Perhaps he wanted them for his own purposes. He had mention that Asa and Vul were his key to the King. Was that what he wanted them for?

Or perhaps there was a different reason altogether, Asa didn't know. And right now, she was too tired to care. They'd been riding steadily for at least six hours now. He behind felt numb from sitting for so long, and her back was stiff. But she knew that if she complained, she would show Ferret a weakness. That she could not do.

Vul, bent over in the saddle, looked just as weary as Asa felt. Feeling her eyes on his back, he glanced up and smiled briefly. But it was a sad smile, as if lovingly remembering the old life that sat back in the warm common room of Naelthas's inn. The woman smiled back, but the light in her eyes was dim, and rapidly fading. Her body and mind were tired, very tired. She needed food; she needed rest.

Vul saw that need, for it was also his own need, and a need that could not be readily ignored. He turned towards Ferret, and said, "Ferret, this is foolish. Asa needs rest, I need rest. The horses need rest. We can go no further without it." His voice was gravelly; he cleared his throat.

Ferret slowed his horse, called Dalila, to a walk. He turned around to stare through haunted eyes at Vul, peering from beneath his hood. "We can't afford to loose any more time. We must keep moving."

Vul shook his head, as if Ferret were a small child who did not properly understand. "We will loose still more time if we do not stop to rest. Only for a short time. Look at the horses. They are sweating; their steps are labored. They will be of no use to us if they collapse."

Ferret listened calmly to the argument, staring straight ahead. "What does the lady think of this idea?" He smirked. "You are after all, my dear Vulkhash, only her servant."

Vul glared, his pride wounded. He opened his mouth to speak, but Asa raised her hand to hush him. "I say he is right—about the horses. Let us stop for an hour or two, then we will go on." She glanced meaningfully at Vul, warning him not to argue. His glare deepened, but he shut his mouth and kept it so.

Ferret sighed loudly, and brought Dalila to a stop at the base of another hill. Asa watched with interest as the man dismounted at turned to face him. She was surprised he had given up so easily. "I do not want to stop, but I see the two of you are too weak to go on, so we will rest."

Lightning blazed in Asa's eyes at his impertinence, her weariness forgotten. Beotus pawed the ground, sensing tension in the air. Mirrikh snorted, eyeing Dalila. Blood pounding in her ears, Asa jumped off Beotus and flung the reins at Vul, who caught them and tugged Beotus closer to him, wondering what had happened to Asa trying to restrain him.

The woman stalked towards Ferret, the storm in her eyes again gathering strength. She peered menacingly up into his face. "You think I am a weakling, or Vul? Let me ask you this: Who hides always in his cloak, face hidden beneath his hood? You! Who will not speak his true name? You! Call me a weakling again, if you will, and I will run you through with my sword." Her hand grasped the hilt, threatening to do as she said, daring Ferret to speak.

He watched her coolly, eyes flickering across her hot, angry face. "You think I have not a sword of my own? You think I am not capable of wielding a blade? Think again, merchant girl. Who am I?"

Asa answered coolly. "A liar."

Ferret shook his head. "No, merchant girl, I am not, for the moment, a liar. I am a swordsman. It is my art. My life. It is what I have done since I was big enough to lift a sword and swing it. You are a woman. No, not even that; a girl. You are a girl."

"I do not need a sword, if so I should choose. I need only my magic," Asa said, softly and dangerously. Her body quivered slightly, tensed for movement, waiting for something to happen. "And perhaps women are not so strong as men, but we are more agile, more flexible, and, often, more intelligent."

Ferret smiled icily, and shrugged. "It does not matter what you think, for women's minds cannot rightly comprehend men's troubles, such as swordplay and war."

Asa bristled, even more furious than before, if possible. But she kept her voice calm, choosing her words carefully. "Does you king know what you speak? If you have already forgotten, in your idiotic haze, remember that in the time of the Seven Speakers, all women were warriors. Those without swords are nothing more than target practice. You gain no skill by killing innocents."

"My king can do nothing." His voice softened, until it sounded almost soothing. But this did not fool Asa. Her expression remained the same. Ferret ran two scarred and callused fingers down Asa's cheek, caressing it lightly. She twitched at his touch, but didn't pull away, standing rigidly "You should be at home, with a husband, producing sons. That is your purpose in life. That is what the gods placed you here for."

For Asa, that was the signal that this man was a lunatic. She slapped his hand away, and stepped back, drawing her plain steel short sword. She held it limply by her side, warning Ferret to make no further comment. The man made no move to draw his own sword from its sheath. He stood comfortably, watching as Asa's face twisted in rage.

Vul, unnoticed, slipped quietly and quickly off Mirrikh's back. He left the horses and donkey where they were, trusting that they were too tired to run off. Loosening his own sword, he walked silently up behind Ferret.

He was angry, but unlike Asa's anger, his anger was contained; controlled. He knew now that "less than friends" was something of an understatement. Vul could not believe that Ferret would dare to touch Asa. I should run him through myself, he thought.

"Leave her alone," Vul said. It almost surprised him how calm he sounded. Ferret turned slowly, too slowly for Vul's strained patience. He saluted mockingly, and walked away.

Asa sighed, and sheathed her sword. "Why did you do that? I can fight for myself."

"You certainly can, " Vul replied dryly. "What you can't do, is restrain your temper."

Asa smiled ruefully. "You're right I can't. That was probably a good idea."

Vul grinned, and ran a hand through his hair. "Trust me, it was. "He sat down on the ground and leaned back on his elbows, looking up at the sky. "By the gods, but I'm tired."

Asa sat down next to him, and plucked a piece of grass, shredding it between her fingers. "Me too. But we can't rest now. We only have an hour or so before we have to be moving again."

Vul nodded wanly. He sat for a moment, staring off into the sunlit distance. "You know," he said, "the whole thing is rather funny."

Turning around to look at the man, Asa cocked her head to one side. "What is?"

Vul shrugged. "This whole crazy mess."

And Asa began to laugh.