Chapter Forty Five

"You're not seriously considering leaving, are you? Just take a few minutes to think this through Lathin. Please."

For a moment, Lathin thought his resolve might waver. The silent plea he could see in Kulori's eyes was almost enough to shatter it into a million pieces. A small part of him wanted to stay – ensconced in the illusion of safety as they rode for the capital. Ylsven might be lost but there was still hope that Winchesa could weather the invasion. It was simply a matter of shoring up their defences and calling in the favours the crown had made with several notable mercenary companies.

But he knew better than to hang the kingdom's survival on childish dreams of optimism.

Steeling his heart, Lathin took a step back. "The pups will be safe with you. Keep an eye on them for me, will you 'Lori?"

"No. No. No!" denied Kulor, shaking her head furiously. "I will not have you riding back into danger."

"It's my choice," he said, "or have you forgot that I'm a mercenary by trade. My contract's finished and well, if you haven't noticed, the Black Steels have already left for greener pastures."

"We can talk this out Lathin. I can speak to Dervash—"

"That door is closed," interrupted Lathin. It hurt to see her flinch back as if she had been slapped. Almost immediately, he regretted how harsh his tone had sounded. Yet instead of indulging his first impulse to apologise and smooth things over, Lathin pressed on. "You saw the reports. The Empire has already made several inroads and their forces are relentless. We have entire families to look out for and if we're not careful, those first Lysenfih scouts could cut us down. And then where will we be? To those sitting safe in the capital, it's not a threat until the enemy is already climbing over the walls."

"Then let me go with you."

He allowed a grin to spread across his face. "You know that's impossible 'Lori," said Lathin. "You've family here and the Protectors is where you belong. What kind of man would I be if I encouraged you to abandon your post? No Kulori. You're needed here. Besides, you're still not fully recovered."

It gave him no joy to see her shoulders slump downwards, defeated. And as she raised her head, tears prickling at the corner of her eyes, Lathin felt his chest clench. But there was no sense in falling back into old patterns. There was no turning back now that the decision had been made. He needed to stay strong. If not for himself, then for her.

Knowing that any further discussion would only prolong the inevitable, Lathin picked up his rucksack and slung it over one shoulder.

"Will I see you again?"

The question, so earnest and afraid, halted Lathin in his tracks. It should not be so hard to say goodbye, he thought, weighing up the consequences of soothing Kulori's fears.

Finally, he reluctantly looked back over his shoulder. "I don't know when or if I'll find the answer I'm searching for, 'Lori. It could be years and I wouldn't want you to continue waiting. But with the Lawgiver as my witness, know this: I will come back. It might not be as soon as you hope and, by then, you might have found someone else, but the heart of this 'Rogue' belongs to you."

Sitting in the back of the wagon, Elisander watched as Lathin mounted his black kaendar stallion. Without even a backwards glance, he gave the horse a sharp nudge in the ribs and set of into a gallop back down the dusty road. It was not long before he joined up with a small number of Protectors led by the blond giant that had oozed an aura of command during the battle of Ylsven. Where they were headed, Elisander knew not, but she suspected that it was important.

It had been a week since they had left the Jewel behind.

There had been many who had not been happy with the decision. Some families had opted to remain behind and rebuild. Despite his best efforts, not even the lieutenant colonel could eloquently convince them to leave. Why anyone would be so foolish remained a mystery to Elisander. But at the end of the day, it was their choice.

If only it had been just as easy to volunteer her own skills to the cause. They had seen how powerful her Gift was. Many had stated that it would be a boon to their mission. Yet, for some reason, she had been refused. Twice. It felt as if any autonomy she might have been able to exert had been stripped by rules and obligations and responsibilities. Worst of all, with every passing moment, the chance to make a difference was slipping further away. And the blame lay squarely on the shoulders of Feryden.

He had been like a mother hen, hovering over her if she had so much as sneezed. Even now, he was looking concernedly in her direction. It didn't matter that he had her best interests at heart, or that he had brought up valid arguments. Elisander was decidedly not going to speak to him. Nor was she going to acknowledge those sad puppy-dog eyes…

But as she glanced over her shoulder towards him, she felt her exasperation and frustrations melt away. Begrudgingly, she admitted that her desire to ride off with Lathin might be a little misguided. For one, she had no idea how to hold a sword or had any formal combat training. Second of all, she was still trying to grasp the extent of her Gift. Though she now had some rudimentary control of the flames, Elisander found it exhausting to maintain such intense concentration.

Most importantly, though, she missed having a friend to confide in. The last few days had been absolute torture. She had never thought that being on the road could be so mind-numbingly boring.

"I thought you said you didn't want to have anything to do to me," said Feryden when she awkwardly stepped over the barrier of crates and heavy sacks of grain she had painstakingly constructed just yesterday. "Whoa. Slow down there, you might… Look what you've done now. Here. Let me have a look."

Elisander waved him away, irritated that she had tripped. Granted, she had not expected the wagon to lurch forward. "I'm fine, Feryden. Really. Just a little clumsy. You need to stop treating me like a fragile piece of glass. I can look after myself," she said.

"Fine," answered Feryden a little grumpily. "I'm just worried that you'll overexert yourself again, you know. And just a little scared about what could happen since we're on the road. Our luck has never been the best and what we've been told hasn't been able to inspire the old confidence that we're heading to safety."

"The physician said I was fine," said Elisander as she sat down beside him. "Besides, we've plenty of guards looking out for all of us. In any case, the capital sounds exciting."

Yet Feryden's response was more subdued than she had expected. "I suppose. It's been a while since I last visited."

That caught her attention and Elisander immediately honed in on it. "You've been there?"

"Just the once," admitted Feryden. "When I was really young. My mother took me there to visit her family. I don't really remember much, though."

"Well, I, for one, am looking to see what adventures we might find."

"Elis…you do know that this is no mere trip, right? After the battle, the lieutenant colonel and the others could have tried to save what was left of Ylsven but they chose not to. Something is stirring, Elis. And this could just be the calm before the storm."

"I'm not stupid, Feryden," said Elisander, turning to face her friend. "I see things. And I hear the others talking. But after everything we've been through, it's not worth it to dwell on the 'what-ifs.' We'll face them when we get there. The two of us. Together. And anyways, after giving it some thought, I might be able to sign-up for the Protectors in the capital."

Feryden snorted. "Ha! Not if I put my name down first. You'll be lucky if you even make the cut."

The wagon trundled further down the road, accompanied by peals of laughter. Though the levity brought a smile to the faces of many a family, the Protectors were grimly reminded that the fight was not yet over. Kulori, in particular, felt it keenly as she ushered two children along.

Winter was already nipping at their heels and the capital was still several weeks away.

Once more her thoughts turned to Lathin. There had been so many things that had been left unsaid. So many secrets she had kept hidden. Kulori was afraid that when next they met, too much time would have passed. Absentmindedly, she pressed a paw against the flat of her stomach.

Yet as she looked back, spying the smudge that was Ylsven in the distance, she could not help fearing the worst. They had won the battle, perhaps, but had yet to win the war. And the mere thought that the entirety of Winchesa might be subsumed back into the Empire sent a shiver down her spine.

She had heard the stories, growing up, of the cruelty that many had endured under the rule of the old imperial masters. Gods willing that they reached the capital with all speed, she prayed, even as she scanned the surroundings for figures lurking in the shadows.

Feeling the sun on his face and the wind rippling through his auburn hair, Lathin felt his heart lift. He glanced over to his companions and waved a jaunty 'hello.' Mithra scowled, the Shifter preoccupied with much darker thoughts. Who could blame him? They were riding into danger and there were many things that could easily go wrong.

But even that was not enough to quash the optimism that infused him after what had been a difficult conversation. Kulori, he knew, would be safe. He had also kept his promise to Kir, refusing to bring Elis along with him. The pup had not liked it. Not one bit. She had been ready to argue until Feryden had pointed to all the fallacies inherent in her childlike plan.

Disaster might just be around the corner but there was no sense in trying to find the solution to every possibility. At least, that's how Kir had often seen it during their mercenary days. Lathin took strength in that thought, one hand reaching for the silver pocket watch that he had stashed inside a hidden flap of his leather surcoat. Over the last few days, he had come to see that the best way to keep Kir's memory alive was to remember the ones that had been filled with mischief and joy.

As his fingers brushed against the engraving, Lathin felt a giddy surge of confidence. There was still hope to be had, even with his home gone and his future uncertain. With a grin stretching his lips, Lathin spurred Varhn into a full gallop, taking the lead in the mad chase towards the unknown.

The future was yet unwritten. Orthrox had seen to that.