It was still light in the forest, though the shadows had elongated. The denser parts of pine and ancient oak were nearly night black, as the rays of the sun lost the power to brighten the thick foliage. We traveled silently, efficiently, too near hostile lands to be anything but cautious. Zander was scouting ahead, making sure we weren’t walking into any patrols or ambushes. Lily, all of 6 years old and serious, was close to my side.
It was dangerous to move my daughter, and yet our last home had been raided. I was a practitioner of natural magics, and until my daughter was born, had been advisor and weapon to our Kingdom of Elenia. Then I had given up all those days for the soft life of raising my child. But the old war between Elenia and our neighbor, Nimion, seems to be returning. Raiding bands of soldiers have been seen, pressing into the borders and exploring the forests of the Northlands, where I retired to. It would seem time for my family to return to the King’s court, and what service and safety I could find.
I heard a crack from our left, and froze. A voice cursed, and suddenly there were many crashes all around us. An ambush! Where was Zander? My heart in my throat, I looked down at Lily’s frightened brown eyes, and nodded to her. “Remember what we spoke of. Remember the way?” And there was no more time. No time for kisses or I love you or hugs from small arms, only enough time to trigger the premade spell, chant a few words, and watch my heart lift newly feathered wings and take to the sky. I felt a steel blade press to my side as I watched my world fly southeast, towards the King’s court.
“Not a word. Hands on your head, slowly.” The steel didn’t waiver, and I sighed as I obliged the soldier. I could have fought back. But Lily was my weakness, and with her in the fight, I would have been at a disadvantage. Still, it stung to know I hadn’t thrown a single spell as someone tied my hands. The soldier kept his steel pressed, fearing my spell casting. Smart, or I might have tried to fight. Most of my spells required directed magic, nullified by tying my hands, but I had a defensive spell or two that only required a power word and a nod of the head. I wasn’t completely helpless unless they gagged me.
Hands firmly bound behind my back, I was instructed to stand, and faced my captors. Six soldiers, clad in leathers with steel plate bracers and chain mail shirts, ranging in age from young to still young surrounded me, and after a short whispered conversation, broke into two groups. Five of the soldiers continued on to the North, while one took me. Hope blossomed, as he led me down an embankment. Quickly, it seemed, we left his fellows behind.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked softly, hoping I didn’t remind him that I needed to be gagged. He grunted, but didn’t answer. No information for the prisoner, I guess. Last I had heard of the border skirmishes, the Nimion’s were piling near the border, still half a day walk from here. If they were pushing this far in, my news was out of date. “Are you bandits?”
He snorted. “Just be patient, lass. You aren’t harmed, and you can ask your questions to my commander.” He glanced at me, and his blue eyes swept my traveling clothes. I had chosen neutral forest tones, a brown skirt that reached mid-calf, my sturdy leather boots reaching to my knee, and a long sleeved tunic in speckled green, a trick of the hunters for blending in. “Are there more in your traveling party? What were you and the bird-lass doing in the forest?”
That silenced me. Information gathering went both ways, and I had no idea where Zander was or if he had also been captured. Lily, protected by my spells, would fly straight to the rendezvous point I had made with an old contact. She wouldn’t be completely safe until within the walls of the King’s city. When I didn’t answer the soldier’s questions, he grunted and went back to walking.
They had tied a loop around my waist, attached to my hands, and my captor now held the length of rope in his hand. We walked for a quarter hour with no words between us. I was carefully examining the countryside. If I was going to make a try for freedom, without my hands, I would need to choose the spot carefully. The soldier was surprisingly courteous, spending time to let me climb over downed trees or across creek beds. I suppose it allowed him to watch me closely, but I began to realize he wasn’t keeping a watch on the forest. He had no worries that we would be ambushed or that I might have an entire troop of hunters looking for me. Not a good sign for my future.
We scrambled up a steep incline, dense with brush and brambles. I would have fallen twice, but the soldier steadied my shoulder, staying at my side during the climb. As I caught my breath at the top, I saw we were on a rise, sloping steeply down to an open meadow with a large river running through it. And the meadow was full of tents, mostly small individual tents used by soldiers, though a few larger ones were set up in the center of the encampment. And people moved throughout the camp, hundreds of soldiers, most in armor. The Nimion army was in our Kingdom.
I had only a second to think before the soldier was starting for a winding path down the bank. I felt a moment of guilt, but once we were in that ring of soldiers, I wouldn’t be able to win my way free. At the moment, the strength I had was in anonymity. As soon as my name was recognized, my contact with the King of Elenia would come to mind. So I used a wind spell triggered with a word, between the soldier and me, and pushed us both. He was hit strongly in the back, and jerked 10 feet forward before falling down the embankment, rolling as he hit the ground. And I was jerked 10 feet backward, my rope going with me, before I landed on my feet and scrambled back the way we had come.
It was my only route. The army could be set up anywhere, but I knew the way we had come was relatively soldier-free. I listened intently for sounds of pursuit, but the poor soldier likely had to roll all the way to the bottom of the hill before scrambling back up. So instead, I ran. After a few minutes, I stopped to get my bearings and listen. I knew plenty of travel spells, but none I could do with my hands bound. If I could get my hands loose, I could travel through the trees, using their root system as a sympathetic road system. While I listened, I twisted my hands. The soldiers had done too good a job, and I stopped as my fingers began to tingle. I heard no pursuit, and so I rubbed my bound hands against the tree behind me.
Starting forward again, I hurried through the forest, heading southeast now. It felt like an eternity had passed since I had thrown the soldier down the bank, but I knew it wasn’t long. I hadn’t put much space between us yet. Any moment he would rouse the other soldiers, and an army would be pursuing me.
“Ilyana of Greenwich. My, what a surprise. I haven’t seen you in court for years.” A man’s voice, cultured and tenor, almost remembered as I froze. I turned to see a man in a long and delicate chainmail shirt, draped over his long tunic and reaching almost to his knees. Sturdy leather embossed with a lion rearing showed him to be more than a common soldier. He stood with arms crossed, grinning at me, and well he might. My hair had come loose from my braid, I was dressed in the mottled garb of the forest instead of court attire, and my hands were bound behind my back. With a sinking feeling, I recognized him.
“Lord Braxton.” My voice was breathy, and I paused to swallow in a sandpaper throat. “I apologize, you catch me at a disadvantage.” One of the Lords of Nimion, and a close neighbor to the border here. And a wizard, if my wits hadn’t failed me as my luck seemed to. Soldiers were moving to surround me, at least a dozen. I seem to have found another patrol. Braxton’s smile only widened, and he likely understood my situation. Why else would I be trussed up in the forest? “What brings you to the Northlands and the splendor of the wood?”
“Well, as you may know, war is brewing. Since these lands are so sparsely populated, my men and I have begun setting up a forward camp. The official declaration should reach King Eldwyn by the end of the fortnight. But please, let us return to my camp. We have much to catch up on. I am most interested to hear what you have been up to for the King these years.” Two soldiers took my arms, and I sighed.
“Nothing of any use to you, I am afraid. I retired from the courts, some 6 or 7 years now. I live here, or near here in any sense. I had not even heard of the war until this morning.” I dropped the pretense of two acquaintances at court. “Please, Lord Braxton. I want nothing to do with this. I am removed from these politics for my own reasons. I merely want to lead my own simple life. Please, release me.” Braxton narrowed his eyes at me.
“What game are you playing, Ilyana? You were one of Elenia’s strongest casters, be it of the wild magics and not the scholarly. Do you really believe I will buy such a feeble ploy? Simple life, bah! How could you expect me to believe that a sharp mind like yours would step away from the centers of knowledge and civilization to lead a simple country life? Do you think me an idiot, to release you if you bat your eyes at me?” He frowned now, and I knew it was pointless. “What happened to you this morning? How did you escape your captors, my soldiers I assume?” Silence greeted his answer. “Geoff, gag her.”
He must have seen something in my face. It was pointless to speak more anyway, but it was degrading as Geoff shoved a length of linen into my mouth, bound round with a bandage. As his soldiers turned us back towards the main encampment, I closed my eyes and prayed to the forest to guide my daughter to safety. My own fate was uncertain. Zander was my only hope of rescue, and what could he do against an army?