When I woke up it was dark and I felt a bit better, though my limbs were sore in places from all the swimming. I found Quill and made him change places with me—it was his turn to look weary and not argue. Over the next few days we stopped only for short rests, eating handfuls of road food and passing around water skins while we walked. We had to outdistance any hunt from Gillenwater, and we still hoped to rescue my family. Quill assured us we would find refuge and help in Dalyn, so we set as blistering a pace as we could manage. I wondered, too, if perhaps our family had been sent to Dalyn to take the river to Hirhel instead of going overland.
Though Dalyn had been conquered five years ago, her puppet king was of the rightful line and clearly the city’s spirit was not broken. What with her royal guard marauding around area cities to harass the Nether Queen and all. As with the Nether Queen’s other conquests, the toppling of Dalyn was shrouded in rumor and wild stories. I quickly learned that one contributing factor to the rumors was that none of Quill’s men—who had all lived through the conquest as children—were willing to talk about it. The first day or two, if one of the men wandered close I would ask him what happened and generally their reply was, “Dalyn fell,” spoken with finality as if there were no other variables.
Not that there was much talking of any sort on this march.
Night and day traded places again and again, and still we walked or jogged south and west. Five to ten of Quill’s men were always scouting ahead or to the sides—steering us around hamlets, homes, and other travelers. Quill mostly rode Hook, but still walked for ever lengthening periods to stretch his legs. Having no other duties, I usually walked between the horses.
Our scouts did see hunting parties from Gillenwater’s garrison a few times, and worked hard to lay down misleading trails to confuse the trackers. It appeared to work, because none found us.
The women, even the girls from Gillenwater who were not accustomed to life on the road, were all in good spirits. A few were suffering from colds, but on the whole they were doing very well and keeping up with the soldiers. Sinker was indispensable—providing a mobile resting place for them. Gabe and Balleck, too, were quite busy helping any way they could. I wanted to talk with my circus people—particularly Olena, but there wasn’t really time. What talk was had was between her and Ayglos, for he stayed close to her.
On the fifth day we came to the orderly lanes of an orange orchard. One of the scouts came trotting back to find Quill. The scout fell in step beside Hook and I sidled close to hear what he said. “Iron Sides says it is safe to come ahead.”
“Excellent. We shall have a warm supper tonight.”
The scout grinned and moved off again.
Quill looked down at me, “Iron Sides was once in the royal guard, now he lives here.” Quill gestured to the orange grove. “This estate belonged to his father, but when Dalyn fell it passed to him.”
“Was his father in the army?” I asked quietly.
Quill looked grim. “Not exactly. He was a priest and a seer, and the Nether Queen had him executed.”
“What?” I had not known that she executed priests—and no one executed seers. “Did she kill all the priests in Dalyn?”
“No,” Quill shook his head. “Just the one who was a seer.”
“Perhaps he foresaw her doom,” I said, bitterness creeping into my voice.
“Undoubtedly,” came Quill’s dark reply.
We fell silent and continued along the lanes of the orchard. Soon we started to catch glimpses of laborers and whiffs of cooking fires. Namal joined us and Quill explained about our plans to spend the night with Iron Sides. The peaks of a manor house appeared over the orchard trees, and then the lanes came to an end at a packed dirt yard before the house itself. A well-built man with chin length honey colored hair stood in the doorway to the house with his feet spread and his arms crossed. I guessed he was from Remko’s generation, and I liked him immediately because of the association. He watched the company spill out of the orchard and pool in his yard like an overflown spring, and then he smiled. The look so transformed his face I felt like I was looking at a different man. He stepped forward.
“Quilleran! How you’ve grown!”
“Iron Sides! Yet only one foot in the grave?” asked Quill, dismounting and moving forward to greet Iron Sides with manly back slapping.
“Just a toe,” replied Iron Sides with a grin before turning to Vaudrin. “Vaudrin Lakeside? The guard suits you, too.” Iron Sides was the same height as Vaudrin, but his build was tighter knit and it gave the odd impression that he was a small man. Small and dangerous, like a crossbow quarrel, I thought. “Your men and women we can feed in day laborer’s hall,” Iron Sides was saying, “we’ve been preparing for them since your scouts told us of your approach.”
“Thank you,” said Quill, “And we have three for your hearth, also.” Quill gestured to my brothers and I. “They are allies.”
Iron Sides turned to us. “Come in, and welcome to my home,” he bowed and gestured for us to follow him inside.