They hadn’t waited for us. We came around a bend and saw our four companions walking toward us. Namal was in the lead, Gabe hovered near the limping Quill, and Balleck brought up the rear. Ayglos and I urged our horses faster to quickly close the awkward gap between being sighted and giving explanations.
Everyone stopped when we pulled up. Namal put his hands on his hips. “What have you done?” he asked, gesturing to the horses.
“I didn’t steal anything, if that’s what you’re worried about,” I jumped off Hook. “I won a wager at a horse farm.”
Ayglos weighed in, “It’s true, and I don’t think he’s the type to be sore about it.”
“Does that mean your prizes are dysfunctional?” said Namal, eyeing them suspiciously.
“Not anymore,” I said.
“Quite possibly,” said Ayglos.
I glared at him—albeit halfheartedly. He shrugged. Turning back to Namal, I explained, “We needed horses. Quill can’t walk like we have been. I brought Ayglos.” I lifted my chin defiantly. Ayglos: The ultimate seal of legitimacy.
Namal eyed me, and then sighed. “What’s done is done, I guess. I’ll spare you the reminders about everything that could have—and still could—go wrong.” He gestured to the others, “Load them up, then.”
I caught Balleck’s eye and he winked, a proud smile twisting the corners of his mouth. I smiled, too. Leading Hook forward, I might have brushed closer to him than necessary on my way over to Quill. My brothers and Balleck set to loading our packs onto Line and Sinker.
“I assume you can ride?” I stopped next to Quill and Gabe.
Even pale and weary, Quill managed to give me a withering look. “Of course.”
“No one has ridden Hook but me,” I added, “So be gentle.”
Quill arched a brow, “You brought a wild horse to carry your cripple? I feel so cared for.”
“You should, it wasn’t easy.”
I patted his neck. “Come say hello, you can’t just get on without formalities.”
Quill grunted, but hobbled a step closer, offering the back of his hand to the black horse. Hook sniffed it and looked away. Quill patted Hook’s neck and the black allowed it. Gabe came next and performed the same ritual, then turned to the task of getting Quill onto the black.
I held Hook and explained what was happening to him while the strongman and the archer tried to find a way to get the archer astride without just heaving him on like a sack of oranges. Though, that is, essentially, what ended up happening. Once everything was situated we set off again down the road. I walked by Hook’s head, just in case he decided to have a nervous breakdown about carrying a rider, and Balleck fell in step beside me.
We were now some of the wealthiest pilgrims in the region, no doubt, thanks to my success. However, we were sufficiently bedraggled that the other travelers we encountered largely ignored us. Nothing of interest happened this part of the journey as there was nothing to do but walk. Every now and then Namal would lead us in a hymn—a nice touch to our cover and oddly encouraging at the same time.
We passed the road which would have led us to Gillenwater and kept on. We took a brief rest for lunch of bread and cheese then continued on our way. In the late afternoon Quill announced, “Let’s stop and rest for a while.”
Only by ‘stop and rest’ he meant dive off the side of the road into the forest and wend our way deeper over rough terrain—where Line the donkey was by far the steadiest on his feet—until we came to a cozy little gully. Quill slid off Hook and hobbled forward, his head thrown back like he was looking for something in the trees.
Then a burly man stepped out of the shadows. “Captain! You’re alive!”