When Boruin and Pile stepped into the apartment above Simonez’s shop, Boruin found Simonez handling the longest needle he had ever seen. Toaaho sat silently as the merchant stitched the deep gash along his shoulder. The curved needle caught the light of the single candle as it worked its way in and out of the skin like a silver fish diving in and out of the waves.
“All right?” Boruin asked. The Mana’Olai nodded.
“Belok?” Wraethe asked. She slumped low in Simonez’s reading chair with her eyes half closed. Ledgers and Nefazo books on merchant law rose around the chair as if attempting to slowly swallow the reader.
Boruin rearranged one of the stacks, looking for a stool to sit on. “And the rich merchant from the café.”
“Torture,” Boruin replied.
“Definitely,” Boruin said.
“Steal any of that broken shit? Come on, really?” Pile muttered. “There was nothing good in that whole shop. I thought Belok valued my business, knew my eye for artifacts.”
Boruin smiled at the young man. “Pile caught it quick: not a thing of real worth in that whole broken office, and you know that worm’s tastes,” Boruin added.
“So what are you going to do?” Simonez asked. He cut the thread from the last stitch and wiped a greasy swab across Toaaho’s wound.
“Show them, Pile,” Boruin said. The thief drew out his newest hot-fingered treasure with a large smile hallmarked for such trickery.
Simonez unrolled the parchment, and dark valleys of wrinkles creased his stern face. “How did you find this?”
“It was hidden in the one chest not broken. Lazy son of a habback.”
The master contract between Belok and the Undurland Trading Company was very specific. It required Boruin as subcontractor for the task of retrieving the young boy. The boy was to be escorted north, by Boruin and his crew, to Underland’s door in Priyati, the capital of Easlinder. Boruin had no doubt that Belok charged double for that condition, even though they were neither the most expensive nor the largest outfit currently working out of Terre Haute. While the job was unequivocally meant for him, Belok had kept quiet while subcontracting it to them, certainly at a fraction of his quoted price. The master contract bore Undurlund’s stamp, and Belok had counter-signed. That was enough proof for the shopkeeper.
“You can take him to court on this,” Simonez said. “There’s no way he could disprove Fraud by Hostile Renegotiation.”
“Yep, but Belok will get any trial deferred until spring, two years next,” Pile pointed out. “So what do we do?” he asked with a look to their boss.
Boruin scratched out his decision with a quick scrawl on paper. “I claim Belok’s prior agreement default through fraud.” Simonez signed as witness with a tight grin and promised to deliver it, and copies of both contracts, to the merchant court personally.
Now, we go north to Priyati,” Boruin said. “We go north and see who knows my name.” One by one, each looked toward Toaaho. “Are you prepared for that?” Boruin asked.
The Mana’Olai’s lip slipped into a rarely glimpsed smile. “I have not been a fleeing child for many years, Boruin. I am no longer scared of what may await me at home.”
They left Terre Haute before dawn, long after Diun had set and true night covered the jungle. Each took a different path out of the city, slipping though back streets past shops, then houses, then shacks, and finally trees. They met again where Simonez instructed, tucked in a hollow just out of sight of the jungle highway.
“These horses are from my son’s ranch. You won’t find any stronger,” Simonez said as Pile arrived last, creeping quietly down from the road.
Boruin rubbed the nose of his gray charger. The animal’s hot breath warmed his hands as she took in his scent. “Thank you. This is more than I wanted to ask of you,” he said to his friend.
The old merchant lowered his voice. “Nonsense. You know I owe you much.” Boruin swung up onto the horse and felt her strong muscles dance for a second under his thighs.
“You’ve long paid any debt you think you owe, Sim,” Boruin said, his hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Regardless, it is my pleasure,” Simonez said. He lifted the boy up and placed him before the aging fighter. “Here, little man,” he continued, stuffing a small bag of sweets into the boy’s shirt. “Eat slow, or you’ll be sick.” The boy reached out and tousled the old man’s hair, an act of affection somehow backwards.
Toaaho twisted his dappled mare toward the road. “Riders! Their hooves are padded.” Boruin felt the trembling of the air before he could hear the hooves, and suddenly horsemen were funneling off the road. Boruin wrenched his horse around and into the dense brush at the edge of the small bowl. The others formed up behind and beside him as the riders filled the opposite side of the hollow, closing off any escape.
“Pile, find me a way out,” Boruin whispered as the riders rode in, five, ten, now fifteen.
Pile glanced about, but he had circled the hollow earlier. The swamp behind them was choked with thick mud and razor ferns. The horses would fall quickly if they retreated, with their riders soon following. Ahead, the ground rose to the road, and the horsemen were spreading out on that higher ground. “Rule 47 of Pile’s Guide to Survival: don’t trap yourself in a Fae-cursed hollow with no way out,” Pile retorted.
The riders halted a stone’s throw away. Their horses’ panting was the only noise in the hollow, save for the last horse making his way down slowly into the bowl. It arrived well after Boruin recognized its rider.
“South of the city, remember? We’re going to Ouilainne, to Nefazo’s great capital. Isn’t that what you said, Boruin?” Belok called out into the lessening darkness. The sun was making its presence known, now painting the edge of the horizon pale blue. It would not be long before Wraethe would be asleep and useless for fighting. Boruin wondered if Belok knew that–knew to stall until they were one man short.
“At dawn, Belok. I had to rustle up some horses and then I was headed south. But it looks like you had enough for all of us,” Boruin said.
Belok laughed. There was no trace of the beaten and humbled man hurting earlier in the night. “Right, right, my mistake. I should have waited for you longer, let you get farther away, isn’t that so?”
“‘I swear I had nothing to do with you getting attacked,’” mocked Boruin, “I guess we both had a couple of memory lapses tonight.” His horse picked up on the tension and nervously stamped her front hoof. The hard iron shoe snapped a dry limb under the decaying leaves, and the sound brought the entire band before them to an attack position. “Friends no more, eh?” he asked.
“Not necessarily, Boruin. Just fulfill the contract. Hand over the boy.”
Simonez pushed his horse forward, though Boruin could see his old hands shaking. “Coercion by force and attempts to undermine render a contract null and void,” said Simonez. “It was invalid the moment you had your men attack the signed parties of the contract. Edict 4, sub—”
“—Subrule 12, line 38 of the L’Traie nu Duoit,” Belok interrupted. “No need to quote scripture. I know Avidade’s founding rules as well as you, Simonez. It is you, isn’t it, that half-wit dry-goods shopkeeper? I don’t know why they ask you people to swear to the nu Duoit. You’re little better than the roadside farmer. What do you know about the sacred treaties of contract law?”
“Enough to know the Guild congressman will be overjoyed to hear of these breaches. You’re not Terre Haute’s finest as you’ve allowed yourself to believe.”
Belok’s horse stamped under him, feeling the man’s temper rise. “The boy, Boruin. The boy and this beggar merchant,” he answered gruffly. “Hand them over and the contract is completed. Hand them over and we’ll be done. Let’s make this an amicable finish to a fairly profitable history.”
“You have my money?” Boruin asked.
“Of course. Let’s go up to the road,” Belok answered. The light was now bright enough that no one could mistake the false smile painted across the merchant’s face.
“All right, all right,” Boruin said. “Move your men up the hill. We’re coming.” The horsemen shifted, but not up the hill. Instead Belok motioned them aside and opened a hole for Boruin’s crew. They had clear passage to the road, but it was the riders at the sides moving further around the edges of the hollow that worried Boruin.
“Start slow, and rush them when I call,” Boruin whispered. “They’ll try to surround us. We have to break through—” A jangling chill ran up his spine as the boy’s fingers slid the black ribbon of runes across his skin. He looked down at the boy guiding a single sigil into his palm. The spell reacted immediately, a single push of force. Boruin felt a buzzing in his body, like some great cathedral bell had just been rung unheard next to his head. The boy rocked his body forward, motioning behind a great fire oak towering over them. Boruin flicked the reins in compliance.
“The road is this way. Up here, old man!” Belok laughed as he watched the two cross behind the tree.
They rounded the immense trunk. Boruin tucked his arms in as they squeezed between the tree and another oak growing under the shadow of its elder. His breath caught in his throat as he felt a rush of unexpected cold, like dunking one’s face into an icy stream.
“Oh shit,” Pile whispered as he watched Boruin disappear in the dim morning light. The space between the two trunks shimmered darkly. As if he went underwater, Pile thought. But it was a way out, and so he drove his horse forward with Simonez on his heels. Toaaho grabbed Wraethe’s reins, now slack in her hands as the first true light of the sun broke over the jungle. Then they too rode through the wavering curtain between the two trees.
“Oh, rut…” Belok whispered as one, then two, and then the last of his quarry moved behind the oak and did not come out on the other side. Their hooves sounded distant, too far away. They were gone when he reached the back of the tree.
Boruin’s horse leapt to the side as Pile and Simonez came at a full gallop through the strange curtain between the trees. As Toaaho and Wraethe followed, that massive unheard ringing rattling Boruin’s body faded away. It carried with it the cold curtain. Where there had been two oaks and too many horsemen, only an empty trail remained. Toaaho reined in on a wide and obvious path. Packed dirt threaded through a jungle quiet with the morning. There was no sound of Belok and his riders.
“I’d have those back,” Wraethe said. She tugged lightly at the reins stretching to Toaaho’s hand. The Mana’Olai turned to see the woman’s cowl off her head and her eyes a blue more brilliant than seemed possible.
He handed the reins over while he and Boruin watched in wonder at the sunlight dancing across her pale face. “Up late?” he asked.
“Seems so,” she replied, spurring her horse forward to catch Pile.
They found Pile and Simonez dismounted beside their horses and staring open-mouthed through a break in the dense jungle. Boruin cantered up beside to see what held their attention.
“That was a trick,” Simonez said as he pointed south toward the swamp plains below the city.
They looked down a long, slow hill and the brown gash of highway splitting the jungle. It climbed from the hollow they’d just abandoned to pass before their feet. Black riders spilled out of the jungle not a minute’s hard gallop behind them, but they had walked no more than a hundred yards.
“There’s that son of a whore,” Pile said as Belok rode out and beat the nearest rider with his crop. The horseman turned north, and dust began to rise into the trees as they galloped up the hill and highway.
“Ride hard!” Pile shouted, but Boruin had turned his horse to block the opening where their trail and the highway touched boundaries.
Boruin looked again at the sun touching Wraethe’s face. “Let’s keep to the path for a while.” This was one of those odd moments; things were about to go really well or really poorly for them. With Wraethe so awake and aware, in the daylight no less, he’d take the chance and follow this lead the strange boy had provided.
They trotted back down the trail and crossed a small stream gurgling and dancing down through its gravel bed. Downstream the water spread into a small pond. Insects dropped from the air, skimming across the surface for a taste of the sweet water. That’s not a dragonfly, Boruin thought as he peered closer. The small, winged creatures looked curiously like tiny lij except for their long fingers and toes. One flitted across the water and its cupped hands down for a drink just as a fish breached the calm surface behind it. The trout’s mouth opened wide as it leapt. The tail slapped the water up into a brilliant burst of rainbow mist as the fish dropped back into the water with a mouthful of breakfast.
Fae be damned, Boruin thought, it wasn’t a bug. He looked down to find the boy looking in the same direction, chewing slowly on a piece of salt taffy. Boruin wondered if he had seen the same thing.
Simonez reached the next opening in the trail first.
“The Three Hands,” he said, running his hands though his hair. The mountain was south, and not by a small measure. The great peak was hazy in the distance, a full day’s ride behind them. Again the highway and their trail brushed shoulders like two drunks stumbling along together. “I think I’d better leave your company here,” he said.
“They’ll be coming up this road,” Toaaho said.
“Yes, but they’ll be galloping hard for Easlinder. I’ll have plenty of time to duck into the trees,” he answered.
Boruin nodded his agreement. “I’m sorry you got involved in this, Sim,” he said.
“Nonsense. Business is war, and war makes enemies. Don’t think I am unprepared. I have more leverage against Belok than he knows.”
“Alright,” Boruin said. Simonez rode his horse off the trail and through the brush. He turned as he reached the highway. Boruin watched him scan the jungle as if they weren’t a mere twenty feet away. The old merchant reached up and waved regardless, and the boy returned the gesture.
“Hell of a short cut, Boruin!” he shouted as he turned south.
“Hell of a short cut, indeed,” Boruin replied. He wondered if they too shouldn’t abandon the strange path. It wasn’t natural, and it smelled of the troublesome Fae. Wraethe took the decision away as she popped her heels and drove her horse further along the path. Boruin felt the boy relax and lean back against him. He reached into his shirt and drew out a salt-taffy, placing it in Boruin’s hand.
“On we go, then,” he said, edging his horse after Wraethe and down the odd trail.
End of chapter 04 part 02.