As the sun drew closer to the horizon we saddled Hook and Sinker with old tack from Ironsides’ storage shed then, Namal and Ayglos mounted and set out at a swift pace. I traveled behind, on foot with Quill and his men, cutting through the orchards at a quick jog. I was pleased that all the foot travel over the past week had made this pace quite reasonable. Our packs were freshly loaded with food but I had traded Quill the heavy crossbow from Gillenwater for his bow, and we were both happier for it. We were heading cross country to hit the main road where it crossed the Cymerie, an angry little tributary of the Bandui River. Quill had sent two men to track the progress of the prisoner transport and to slow them down if necessary so we could reach the Cymerie and prepare for them. I had never met the Cymerie, but knew it was smaller river, swift and scored with rapids and gorges. The Cymerie wasn’t the wide and deep trade conduit that the Bandui River was. In fact, it was mostly in the way. Which was perfect for us. Ayglos and Namal would reach her before we did, and were tasked with securing the river’s help.
As we jogged, my mind turned back to the morning’s counsels. There were thirty men escorting the barred carriage, which made any attempt at open battle on the road foolish. Neither could we wait for help inside Dalyn.
“The city is not ours yet,” Quill had explained, “The Nether Queen has many agents in the king’s court, and her ambassador is formidable. I cannot speak for my King to promise you a rescue within its walls. Such an event might destroy the rebellion before it has really commenced.”
So we had to be clever.
I grimaced and focused on keeping my footing in the less cultivated terrain. I hoped we were clever enough. Those of us on foot made good time cutting over the gentle land and I caught scent of the turbulent Cymerie long before we heard its roar. It was dark when the trees stopped and the silhouette of an arching stone bridge stood against the sky. Quill’s men scouted the area quickly and returned with Ayglos and Namal to announce that the road was clear in both directions and the Cymerie was, if not delighted to help, willing enough. We set to work with the yards and yards of thin cloth. At every moment I expected to hear the prisoner caravan on the road, but we finished our preparations without so much as a bat swooping overhead.
I took my place in the center of the road on Dalyn’s side, just far enough that you had to be quite across the bridge before your lantern would show my presence. Wide strips of the thin white cloth crisscrossed the road like the masterpiece of an ambitious spider. Perhaps several ambitious spiders. I stood in the midst of the cloth web, a swath wrapped around my shoulders and head like a hooded cape. My mind was oddly quiet as I waited, listening to the river and the sounds of the night.
I could not be sure how long it was before I heard horses and the jangling of harnesses. Then the lanterns carried by the caravan swung into view, moving at a good pace. As reported, there were mounted men riding ahead, and behind the barred carriage. The first of the horsemen reached the bridge and the clatter of hooves on stone sounded deafening to me after the stillness of waiting. The din only got louder as the carriage hit the rocks. The lead horsemen reached my side of the bridge and pulled up sharply when the light of their lanterns glanced off the gauzy web across the road. Their cries of “Halt!” traveled back over the vanguard and the whole company came to an abrupt stop.
The horses skittered about unhappily as the leaders dismounted and approached the web with their swords drawn and their lanterns held aloft. Before they got too close, I took a step. They startled, seeing me for the first time, “Who goes there?” they demanded.
I took another drifting step, “Have you seen him?” I asked mournfully.
“What?” asked the man on the right.
“Have you seen him?” I asked again, “He rode to the underworld, and I seek him.”
I felt the shudder of uncertainty rush through them, and then be replaced by impatient anger. “What are you talking about, woman? Clear the road, we are on the Queen’s business.”
I turned to face them and raise my arms. “The Queen of the Underworld?” I demand. “You took him! You slaves of darkness!” On cue, two crossbow quarrels flew through the air and the men dropped to the ground, their lanterns spun to the ground, casting bizarre shadows as they went. The other men in the column had been watching and they cried out, spurring their horses forward. I dashed forward for the lanterns. They were the same orbs dangling from polls that the patrols in Gillenwater used. I leapt back into the web as the first line of horsemen bore down. I needed to lure more away from the carriage.
“Can you tell me where to find Maten?” I bark at the soldiers, hoping they knew their legends like Quill did. “Speak now and I may spare your lives!”
They couldn’t reach me in the web, not mounted. Swords drawn, three men jumped down as others rode up. I raised the lanterns, illuminating our little circle of road for my bowmen. “I gave you a chance.”
The quarrels flew, but the third man ducked into the web and charged at me. I swung the lanterns, deflecting his sword. He came again and I dodged backwards, bouncing off a swath of cloth right before he sliced through it. How long did it take to reload a crossbow? “Know the wrath of Nelia!” I cried and he dropped to the ground with a gasp of surprise. Not long.
More horsemen were gathering and dismounting. I couldn’t stay here. Even if I could dodge them, sooner or later one of them would produce a crossbow of his own. I lifted the lanterns again, they were sputtering now after being swung about—I guessed there were eight men coming for me, with five down, that meant only a little over half still close to the carriage. Those were better odds than we started with. Dropping the lanterns, I tossed aside my white trappings and ran.
Risking a glance over my shoulder, I saw chaos on the road. A couple of the soldiers had stopped to see to their comrades, and others were hacking madly at the cloth to clear the way for the carriage. Two of them jumped their horses over the tumbling web and thundered after me. Behind that, on the bridge, men were climbing over the sides of the bridge from where they’d hidden—dangling off the side like fish at a fish market. The bulk of Quill’s men, and my brothers, gathered at the carriage. They cut the horses free and while some held back the rearguard—taking advantage of the very narrow space—the rest heaved the carriage over the side of the bridge and into the turbulent Cymerie.