Leaving Caan: Part 2
I came awake suddenly, as a hand clamped down over my mouth.
“Shh!” A voice whispered in my ear. “I’m getting you out of here.”
I refused to respond to what was surely some ploy of Estrith’s.
“Did you hear me? I said I’m getting you out of here!”
I felt the binding over my eyes shift and then it was slipped off. After being covered for so long, even the dim light thrown off by a single lamp was enough to make my eyes water. I blinked furiously to clear them and caught sight of a guard, working on my restraints. I reached out and grabbed him with my power and threw him across the room. The guard reacted fast, faster than I thought possible, and got his legs under himself before he hit the ground.
“Gods damn it!” The guard swore. “Are you trying to get me caught? What in the Void has that depraved bitch done to you?”
“Hunter?” I asked, uncertain.
“Yes! You blithering idiot. Who else would be stupid enough to wander in here and try to get you out?”
“You look, different.”
“Surely you’d worked out by now that I’m a Mage. Come on, let’s get you out of here, before someone else wanders in.”
“I’m – I’m sorry. I thought it was something Estrith was up to.”
“I gathered that.” Hunter replied, softly, as he began to work on my restraints again. “I’ve met other people she’s worked on. Believe me, you’ve been lucky.”
The last restraint snapped open and I rolled off the table. My legs collapsed beneath me and I fell to the ground.
“I don’t feel very lucky.” I whispered, as Hunter helped me to stand.
“I know, but she hasn’t turned you. That’s something.”
I nodded. “I guess, but…”
“I know.” Hunter interrupted. “I know. Hold yourself together for the next few hours. We can talk, later, if you want to, when we’re safely away. Here, I brought you some clothes. They’re suitable for a prisoner. I’m afraid you’ll need to put on the blindfold again.”
He held out some restraints. “And these. Going to make it look like you’re being transferred to somewhere. Maybe cause some trouble for Estrith as we’re at it.”
“But I won’t be able to see.” I protested. I really didn’t want to put that cursed blindfold back on.
“It’s okay, it won’t be for too long. I’ll guide you.”
I sighed. “If you think it’s necessary.”
Hunter smiled reassuringly. “I do.”
I once more lived in a lightless world. Reliant on Hunter, behind me, to guide my steps.
He turned me left and I walked as steadily as I could.
“There’s some stairs ahead. We’ll be climbing up a bit. There’s a very good chance that we’ll meet some real guards, so stay quiet, I’ll do the talking.”
The stairs were spiral, I think. We just went around and around, and without being able to see, I was getting very disorientated. Several times I was forced to stop and rest.
“We’re nearly there.” Hunter urged, as I stopped again.
I sighed and forced myself to continue climbing. I was starving, and thirsty and I wasn’t sure how much strength I had left to me. We climbed up, and up, until finally we reached the top.
“A short walk along this passage and we’re at the wall.” Hunter informed.
“Good.” I whispered. “I want this damn blindfold off me.”
“Soon.” Hunter reassured me. “Soon. Come on, straight ahead and … damn!”
I heard footsteps somewhere ahead, just as Hunter pushed me roughly forward.
“Move.” He barked.
“What’s this?” A voice demanded.
“Prisoner transfer. Special case, going to the hole.” Hunter replied, as his hand grabbed my shoulder.
“I heard no mention of this.”
“One of her special cases.” Hunter emphasised.
“Ah.” The other voice replied. “Carry on then.”
Hunter pushed me forward again, as the other person passed us by.
“Thank the Gods that she inspires fear in the guards and servants.” Hunter muttered.
I remained silent.
We passed several more people, who stopped Hunter, demanding to know where he was talking me. As soon as they understood that I was one of Estrith’s, they stopped asking questions and hurried away. Fear of Estrith was certainly working in our favour.
“Here.” Hunter said, as he opened a door. “One more set of stairs and then we’re going over the wall.”
Hunter closed the door behind us and pulled off my blindfold.
“Follow me, and don’t stop. There’s a room just above us that lets out onto the wall. I’ll hold a rope and you can climb down.”
I shook my head. “I won’t need a rope.”
He looked at me, then nodded as he opened my restraints. “Okay then.”
Hunter led, and I followed. Up the stairs as fast as I could, and into a small room. It looked to be a guard post. Maybe it was to be used in times of strife, but it was cold and empty now. Hunter paused at the door and cracked it, peering out.
“Clear.” He said and pulled it open.
We made it out on to the wall, and I could taste the fresh air again. It was invigorating. Hunter gestured and I looked over the wall. I could see one of the city streets below, a deep, boggy ditch separated the street from the wall. I gauged the distance and threw myself off the wall. I heard Hunter bite off a curse as I leapt.
I managed to cushion my landing, and while it wasn’t as smooth as my exit from Proteshi, I was alive and able to move. A moment later, Hunter landed beside me.
“A little warning next time.” He suggested, through gritted teeth. “I thought you’d cracked.”
“Where now?” I asked, ignoring the comment.
Hunter pointed to a small stable across the street. “There.”
He pulled me across the street and pushed me into the shadows. “Stay low, and for Equola’s sake, keep quiet.”
He led me around the side of the building and opened a small side door, ushering me inside.
It was dark inside, and part of me quaked a little, but hearing several horses whicker softly and smelling them, brought me some comfort. Hunter guided me towards the back of the stable, where there were several stalls, two of which were occupied. He pulled out a basin, filled it with water from a barrel and handed it to me along with some clean rags and some soap.
“Clean yourself up as best you can. It’ll hurt, I know, but you’ll be the better for it. Use the stall over there. When you’re done toss some straw over the clothes. I’ve a fresh tunic here for you.”
I nodded and carried the basin, rags and soap to where he’d pointed.
I stripped out of my prison clothes and started scrubbing. My chest was the worst part, I’d been branded, and the soap stung the healing skin something fierce.
“Here.” Hunter said, softly, from outside the stall.
In his hand was a small glass jar.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s for the brands. It’ll help keep them clean, and stop infection taking hold. Don’t ask me how, I got it from someone I know.”
I took the offered jar and smeared some of the contents over the brands. It smelled awful. Handing the jar back, Hunter shook his head.
“I’ve no need for it. Keep it. You’ll need to put it on every evening for a while.”
“Here. Clothes.” Hunter handed over a cloth wrapped package.
I opened it and found a guard’s tunic.
“It’ll get us out of the city.” Hunter explained.
“And the bridge?”
“No. The bridge has its own guards. One step at a time.”
I pulled on the tunic and threw a pile of straw over the old clothes and basin.
“Pick a horse.” Hunter ordered.
There were only two to pick from, but I examined them both as closely as I could in the dim light. They were both in good condition, with little to differentiate them, so I shrugged and made my choice. We saddled the two and Hunter handed me a sabre.
“Sorry, I know it’s not your preference.”
I drew it, swung it around a few times and sheathed it again.
Hunter began leading his horse towards the stable door. “Come on.”
“Wait.” I protested. “What’s the plan?”
Hunter looked back and smiled darkly. “We’re going to ride out of here, to the southern gate, and replace the guards there. When they’re gone, we’ll just ride away.”
“Just like that?”
“It’s a simple enough plan, I guess, but what if they don’t want to be replaced?”
I rolled my eyes and followed.
The streets of Caan were cold and the snow lay thick upon them. We rode slowly and carefully, passing through a side street, before we found ourselves on the southern thoroughfare. Ahead of us, I could see the gate, still shut as the dawn was still some hours away.
“Follow my lead.” Hunter muttered, as he dismounted outside the gatehouse.
I swung down from my horse, stiffly, and tied my horse to the post, beside Hunter’s. The gatehouse’s door swung open and a large man in a tunic like ours stepped out, straightening the sword on his hip.
“What’s this then?” He asked.
“Orders.” Hunter replied. “There’s been a breakout. You lot are to head towards the north gate and hold it if necessary.”
The guard looked confused. “Why are you not there?”
Hunter pointed back over his shoulder at me. “We already had a dust up with some of them. Does he look like he’s in any shape to get into another scrap?”
The guard squinted at me and grunted. “Looks like he should be resting.”
Hunter pointed at the gatehouse. “What do you think he’ll be doing here? It’s not like we’ll be busy. We’re just to keep the gate closed until the day shift turn up.”
“What if some of the prisoners turn this way? You’ll be alone.”
Hunter laughed, nastily. “The fools all headed for the north gate. There’s a line of some of the other lads strung from east to west, working their way towards the north gate. They’ve nowhere to go but to the gate. You lot will be part of the second line, just in case a few manage to slip behind the first. You’re to take East Wall street and work your way north. With a little luck, you’ll get to kick a few heads.”
“Alright. You want the keys?”
Hunter shook his head. “I’m not opening this gate. Day shift can do it. They have their own key, right?”
“Yeah, Rudolf and his lot have their own.”
“Well then. I’ll keep an eye on the gate, and my friend here can get a bit of shut eye.”
“Lucky him. Alright, come in, there’s a pot of coffee on the boil. I’ll get the lads moving and head out.”
We followed the guard into the gatehouse and found ourselves in a blocky room. A table and a few chairs were in the far corner, close to a fireplace. Three men were dozing at the table. Our guard kicked their chairs, rousing them.
“Come on.” He said. “We’ve a bit of work to do.”
“What?” One of the sleepy guards asked, confused.
“Get your gear Henry. There’s a few prisoners to round up.”
That perked Henry up and he hurried out into an adjoining room.
A few minutes later the four men trooped out, and we were alone.
“That was shamefully easy.” Hunter muttered.
“You wanted it to be more difficult?”
“It’s just unprofessional.”
I poured myself a cup of coffee.
“So, what now?”
“We wait for a bit, give them a chance to head towards the North gate, then head out.”
“Two things.” I pointed out. “We don’t have a key, and they’ll get to the North Gate pretty quickly, and then realise that there hasn’t been an escape.”
Hunter nodded. “We’ll be gone by the time they return, and we don’t need a key.”
I nodded and sipped the coffee. It was strong and hot. Perfect.
Hunter gave me the time to finish the cup then gestured towards the door.
We untied the horses and Hunter handed me his reins.
“Lead them through. I’ll close the gate behind you and drop down from the wall.”
Hunter pulled a few tools from a pouch at his waist and inserted them into the lock on the gate. It was the work of a few minutes and then we were away. We stayed on the Mine Road for a few hundred feet, then headed cross country, around the city back towards the village.
“We can’t do much about the tracks.” Hunter sighed, looking behind us. “This would have been easier a few months ago.”
“Have you figured out how we’ll get over the bridge?” I asked, shivering a little in the cold.
“Alram will get us over. That was always going to be the plan, but it’ll be easier now you’re on your own.” Hunter paused. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”
“It’s going to be strange not having him around. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
“Life’s like that.” Hunter said, softly. “People come, people go.”
I shrugged. “I guess. We were talking about starting a mercenary band, back in the cave. I can’t go back home, to what I was, or so my father said.”
Hunter grunted. “You still could do that, at least you’ll have that choice.”
“Yeah, it’s just I can’t see it, not without him beside me.”
We lapsed into silence, riding slowly through the snow. I got the impression that Hunter was a loner, never having anyone around him for very long, or staying still for any length of time. I didn’t think I’d like that sort of life.
“Why were you not captured as well?” I asked, breaking the silence. The question had been on my mind for a while now.
“I’m not sure.” Hunter replied, sounding puzzled. “I expected it. At the very least I would have expected Alram to be taken, Hugo too, probably. Why were you not in the attic?”
I shifted awkwardly in my saddle. “I panicked. I was feeling trapped in the darkness. It was almost like when I was buried by the rockfall in the mines. Uksem got me out.”
“We probably should have thought of that.” Hunter said, thoughtfully. “Well it’s a good thing he did. Those guards made a search of the house, but it was like they were making a show of it. They weren’t expecting to find anything. Then they went for the attic. The guard in charge seemed almost put out that there was nothing to find. Took it out on Hugo because he was closest.”
“If I hadn’t panicked, they’d have found us. Uksem might still be alive.”
Hunter sighed. “Maybe, maybe not. From what I can see, Estrith wants you alive. I don’t know why, but in the mine, Uksem was her hold on you. I’m not sure it would have worked this time.”
“You talk like you know her well.”
“Maybe not well, but we’ve crossed swords, more than once.”
“And she’s still alive?”
“Not for any lack of effort on my part.” Hunter growled. “That woman is like rat, she just refuses to die, but when I first met her, she had two hands.”
“You took one?”
“Damn right I did. I also learned a lesson, never cross blades with a Blademaster if you can help it.”
“I have done, a few times.” I admitted.
“How’d that work out for you?”
I thought back to my lessons under one of the Great Khan’s personal bodyguards and grimaced.
We rode on until we came within sight of the village. Hunter led me around the outskirts and back towards Alram’s house. We reined in our horses short of the house and Hunter indicated I should dismount.
“It would look strange, if the guards come looking again, if Alram suddenly had two extra horses. I’ll lead them off a bit and let them wander.” Hunter said, as I tossed him my reins. “I’m sure someone will pick them up in the morning. Go hide in Alram’s stable.”
“Is he not expecting us?”
Hunter hesitated. “No. Not exactly.”
I frowned. “He won’t be happy to see us again then.”
“No, I expect not. He’ll get over it. Just get to the stable and try not to make too much noise. I’ll find you there.”
I nodded and started trudging through the snow. I really wanted somewhere warm to close my eyes.
It was a short walk, and a few minutes later, I was climbing up into the stable’s loft. It was warm up there, and while it wasn’t the most comfortable, it was better than a dungeon. I dozed for a little while, until I heard Hunter calling me softly. I rolled out of the loft and dropped to the floor.
“Come on.” He said and lead me towards the door of the house. “I hope Hugo is awake.”
He knocked on the door and waited.
Some minutes later, the door opened, slowly, and Hugo peered out.
“What?” He asked, surprised.
“Go rouse Alram.” Hunter ordered, pushing past the servant.
Hugo blinked, annoyed, and then saw me. He recoiled visibly.
“But you were…“ He started.
“Yes, yes.” Hunter replied, pulling me into the house after him. “Get Alram.”
Hugo closed the door behind us, grumbling and pointed towards the kitchen.
“There.” He said. “Wait.”
We went to the kitchen and I pulled out a chair from the table and sat down. I could feel the warmth from the banked fire sinking into my bones. Sleep tugged at me.
“Not yet.” Hunter said sharply. “I know you’re tired, but there will be time for rest later.”
I stretched and stood up. Sitting down wouldn’t keep me awake.
A few minutes later, Alram stormed into the kitchen, wearing a warm robe.
“Hunter, what the blazes do you think you’re doing?”
“Calm down.” Hunter replied. “We’re not staying.”
“Damn right you’re not staying. You almost got me killed.”
“I need to take your wagon.”
Alram blinked. “My wagon? What do you know about my wagon?”
“I know that it’ll get us across the bridge.”
“What will I get in return?”
“Peace and quiet?” Hunter smiled. “We’ll be gone, and things here will return to normal.”
“Wouldn’t that be a mercy.” Alram grumbled. “Alright. I’ll have Hugo ready the horse. You’ll have time for a coffee before you go. There won’t be any getting across the bridge until morning anyway.”
“Will any of the guards know your wagon?”
Alram shook his head. “It’s not been over the bridge in years, they won’t know it.”
“Good. Get Hugo to work, and I’ll get some coffee for Taril and myself.”
“Hugo’s never seen it in use either.”
Hunter looked surprised. “Oh?”
Alram looked a little awkward. “Hugo isn’t one of the hill people, he’s city born and bred. I never involved him in any of my less than legal endeavours. He knows my past, of course, but he’s never been involved.”
“I’ll get the wagon ready, but you’ll have to show me how to open and close the compartment.”
“Good enough. There’s a pot of coffee ready to put on the fire. If you want anything else, ask Hugo. We won’t be too long.”