Over the next days, Cassandra settled into a comfortable routine, however temporary it was going to be. Wake up in the Brazen Brigand’s stable, make sure all of her belongings were accounted for, break fast at the tavern’s countertop, head to the clinic and spend the day helping in renovation work there, take Fidella out for a run in the afternoon, check back in before sundown. Whether it was carrying stacks of wooden planks or baskets of roof shingles, shifting the family’s belongings from one room to another, chiselling off crumbled plaster or placing fresh layers after scrubbing the mould, bringing some new—if simple—furniture from across town or chopping the rot-free sections of the old into firewood, there was always more to do, and at the end of each day she found herself exhausted yet accomplished. On the third morning, she realized that Sebastian, the Brigand’s owner, was charging her less for the stable and the food; she didn’t say anything, and he didn’t either, but a sense of understanding and respect fell into place between them. On the fifth evening, Teagan, the job board’s minder, took a seat next to her and asked after the scammer who’d pretended to be a Bayard—and upon hearing that she and the 'devil-may-care halberdier from Koto' had teamed up to murder him and split the profit, he burst into delighted laughter and hailed Sebastian to buy Cassandra a drink, as promised. The Ingvarrdian fletcher and the Neserdnian smith came to the tavern every few evenings, greeting Cassandra with a lazy two-fingered salute and a simple nod respectively if they caught her eye, and she would nod back at each of them without engaging any further.
She managed to fend off the clinic family’s concern, each time she’d grimaced in pain or had to rest her withered arm, with a claim that it was an old injury long since as healed as it would ever be, simply painful from time to time—all of which was true—and politely refused to have any of the three look at it. The Moonstone’s magic was a power older than kingdoms and nations, and more than that, a power now gone; with the herbalist family’s field of expertise being firmly the mundane kind of ailments and injuries, as she was able to glean over the time spent in their company, it would bring no solutions and only needless worry to ask their help in a matter they could not help her with. She did, however, ask for advice and assistance with restocking her first-aid kit for whenever she would return to the road, and among some other items she had little or none of, she was gifted two rolls of silken bandage—for burns, she was instructed, to keep them clean and protected from the elements without sticking to the burned tissue like linen wrappings would. She’d given her thanks, knowing how much of an expense the gift must have been in a region well away from any source of silk trade, and spent the same evening with one end of the bandage in her teeth, trying for hours upon hours to wrap her withered hand and forearm in the thin, smooth, cool-to-the-touch fabric, each finger separately, a few extra passes around the wrist, the ends eventually tied together in a flat knot at the outer side of her forearm, everything double-checked and triple-checked to make sure it was loose enough to not cut off circulation to those parts of her arm that still had circulation. When she donned her reinforced glove again, it fit the wrapped hand a little too snugly, constricting the already diminished range of movement and feeling too tight when she checked with two fingers of her left hand, so she visited the furrier’s store—or what remained of it, the beautiful shop sign askew on the single intact chain and scarred as if with blows of an axe, the display window boarded up in the absence of replacement glass, significantly less wares and materials remaining inside. The furrier himself, no less devastated than his livelihood, seemed to slowly regain a semblance of hope when Cassandra handed her reinforced glove over and asked after having a second one made, but measured for her hand with the wrappings included, and when his tentative request for most of the price upfront on the account of his workspace’s sorry state was met without a word. A few days later, he found her at the Brazen Brigand when she was having her evening meal, and informed her happily that he was having the smith replicate the reinforcements. A few days later still, the furrier proudly presented her with the completed glove, and with a bit of surprise Cassandra had to admit that it was better than the original one—not only slightly larger to accommodate for fabric wrapped around the withered area, but lined with soft fur that would help cushion any impact a little more, and with the reinforcements at the fingertips, back of the hand, and circling the forearm replicated perfectly but with having accounted for the overall difference in size.
More often than not, now, she was getting recognized, whether in the tavern, in the streets, or in the town’s vicinity when taking Fidella out for the afternoon—by the merchants she had given business to, by the Brigand’s regulars, by the craftsmen she had ran errands to with Eliza or Bruno. And by the guards, who kept a careful eye on her, and made sure that she wasn’t gallivanting across Silberstadt unsupervised when none of the family of herbalists was with her. Oh, it wasn’t that she was being followed, not exactly. But it sure was curious how everywhere she went, there was at least one guard, and how they never seemed to make eye contact.
She was building a reputation, Cassandra realized, and could only shake her head at herself for not realizing sooner. Coupled with how she purposefully kept speaking with a Coronian accent, and how she never took off the favour tied around her left arm, it was no wonder that Equisian guards would grow wary of a knight-errant of the Seven Kingdoms growing popular in an area they had been shakily contesting against one of those kingdoms for decades or more.
“That’d do it,” Eliza commented one afternoon, when the four of them settled down for the clinic family’s habitual teatime. “I don’t know how anyone in their right mind could expect this town to launch an uprising, but aside from that, you do look like someone who might lead one.”
“I suppose having the ruler change every few months might be a circumstance that culls the number of valiant patriots,” Cassandra said dryly.
Eliza laughed and shook her head. Emil stroked the back of the griffincat curled happily in his lap.
“Why, there is quite a number of patriots here. Most of them, especially the valiant ones, in the ground.” He stilled his hand when Gadwall yawned broadly, then started scratching under the griffincat’s chin. “I’ve lived here all my life. I have yet to see patriotism that can feed a family or save a life. All it has ever done was put more people in a sickbed or a shallow grave.”
“I realize it might be hard for you to see,” Bruno indicated the gold-trimmed kerchief on Cassandra’s arm. “But it doesn’t matter which colours the tax collector is wearing, he still takes our money. It doesn’t matter which banner the soldiers are carrying, they still injure people and trample fields. The more things change, with who is flying their flag off our walls, the more things stay the same—lords and generals take, no matter the side they fight for, and we have to make it through the winter with what we have left afterwards. Maybe it’s different for a knight, but for simple folk like us, there’s just nothing to inspire being loyal to.”
“No,” Cassandra said slowly. “I can think of a few times I did something for someone else, or gave something up for someone else’s benefit, out of a sense of loyalty. And in the long run, it helped neither of us that I had done that, even if there wasn’t really anything else I could have done.”
She took a bit longer on Fidella’s daily exercise run, later that evening, thinking and trying not to think simultaneously. Everything she used to want, she had been holding in her hands by the time Varian was arrested—not only a place on the royal guard, but a place leading the royal guard, an officer proven capable of stepping up during the castle’s defence and of commanding a counterattack afterwards—and as soon as she had finally gotten it, she was laying it down to follow Rapunzel out of Corona, somewhere her whole life of trying to prove herself worthy of being on the guard would no longer matter. That one moment of recognition, back home, that one instance of being entrusted with responsibility was only made into a mockery over the months of travel that came afterwards, any meaning it could have held bleached away with never being listened to again, never being trusted with anything again, not even something as simple as a request to keep the group together instead of letting members stray far enough to get separated and lost. And when she did return to Corona, the Moonstone’s power crackling at her fingertips and well-deserved fury enveloping her heart and Zhan Tiri’s machinations shrouding her better judgement, it was to find Eugene in the uniform of the Captain of the Guard—something she scarcely dared to dream of having one day, one beautiful day, and oh how easily it was tossed to someone else, someone who didn’t even want it, someone who wasn’t her and therefore could just as well have it.
Cassandra shook her head at herself. It hurt, and turned her bitter, to even revisit those thoughts again. It served no purpose to dwell on them again. But they were only as persistent as they were because they weren’t untrue. And more than that, it wasn’t untrue either that maybe if she had chafed more, maybe if she had pushed back more, maybe she wouldn’t have been walked over as thoroughly as she had been. Maybe if she had tried harder or more often to set a limit and insist on it being respected, then maybe not even an irrepressible free spirit would have been able to ignore it and breach it as thoroughly as all of her limits had been disregarded, pushed against until they shifted, and even after that simply violated without ever being acknowledged. But then again, as soon as she thought that with resignation, came the memory of the one time she tried to push back more firmly, and was put in her place twice over, hours before her dominant arm burned up in searing cold.
Talking could accomplish nothing without being listened to. Earning respect was impossible if none was there to be given. No friendship could subsist on only one side working and yielding and making allowances. And it had been good for Cassandra, now even more than the first time over, to leave.
She pulled on the reins to turn Fidella around and returned to the tavern, where an evening meal and a night’s rest awaited her. And after wrapping the blankets around herself for the night, she took a moment to wind the sounding cylinder that was all that remained of a music box, letting it lull her to sleep filled with dreams she could not remember, but left her feeling vulnerable and exhausted, by the time she woke up.
When she made it to the clinic in the morning, she was caught off guard by the sight of a horse hitched beside the door. A chestnut, his entire coat heavily dappled with age, with three white socks and a star on his forehead. Cassandra squinted at him slowly. She had seen that horse before, and not too long ago, she was sure of that.
“Is there someone new who needs help?” she asked Eliza as soon as she saw her.
“No, Tara has a visitor,” the herbalist’s daughter replied, taking the question of a greeting in stride. Practical and to the point; she had to be the one Cassandra liked the most, out of the family of three. “Which reminds me, she asked to see you. By name.”
Cassandra frowned slowly. “I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone called Tara.”
“Funny how that works out, because we haven’t told her your name, either.”
“Ah.” Cassandra made sure that her daggers were within easy reach, and shifted her sword from her back to her hip. “Well, if you hear screaming or a scuffle...”
Eliza nodded calmly, without a word, and watched her ascend the staircase to the only room with an occupied sickbed. When Cassandra heard a soft murmur of voices, she did them the courtesy of knocking, and pushed the door open.
“I’m told you asked after me?”
“Yes, I did.” A pale, haggard-looking Kotoan woman slowly sat up in bed, her face contorting into a grimace at the effort. Her legs were encased in a heavy splint each, as was her entire right arm and the left’s lower half. Both of her hands were wrapped up into thick bundles of bandage and herbal cataplasm, heavy bruises were partway through fading all across her face, one of her eyes was still wrapped over and her only visible ear carried the tell-tale signs of frostbite. Despite the evident pain she was in, she managed to crack half a grin. “Excuse me if I don’t get up.”
“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” Cassandra said calmly.
“No, we’ve not met, but I know who you are. Congratulations on your pardon.” Tara’s eye flicked to the kerchief wrapped around Cassandra’s left arm, and a look of surprise passed through her face. “...And more than, I see.”
Cassandra looked between her and the only other person in the room: an unshaven man in travel clothes, standing on the other side of Tara’s bed, light brown skin and bright blue eyes and soot-black hair shorn close to the skin at the sides of his head. Mixed Kotoan and Ingvarrdian heritage, Cassandra guessed.
“Ramon,” he said, voice scratchy with disuse, as he nodded at her in a greeting. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. Forgive the shady circumstances of this meeting, but I wasn’t aware we’d show up at the same time.”
“What do you want?” Cassandra asked, folding her arms across her chest, hands kept away from her weapons for now.
“I want to know whether there’s still any love for the Seven Kingdoms in your heart.” Tara’s voice dropped into a harsh, demanding tone, made no less sinister by the sorry state she was in.
“Yes,” Cassandra said firmly, without having to think about it.
The two Kotoans exchanged a look. Tara nodded at Ramon, who then leaned down to pull a wooden chest from under the bed and started digging through it.
“I’m sure you know by now that Equis and Koto have... conflicting interests in this area.” Tara was speaking a little more quietly now, but in a clipped tone that Cassandra knew well from hearing guards giving reports to her father. “My associate and I are here to advance those of the Kotoan Crown and thwart any other, which at present means a necessity to apprehend four condemned criminals. They escaped justice before they could be executed, and have continued to rampage across the land, most recently finding their way here.”
While she was speaking, Ramon had pulled a set of wanted posters from the chest and extended them to Cassandra, who took them with a frown. A square-jawed Ingvarrdian with a set of claw scars down one side of the face, the eye snow-blind and discoloured underneath. A bald, bulbous Pittsfordian baring jagged teeth at whoever had painted the portrait in a hateful grimace. An unassuming Bayangoran, wearing some sort of elaborate headband that looped around his head multiple times to secure a pair of bovine horns to his temples, an eerily vacant look on his face. When Cassandra looked at the fourth poster, of a man with salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a thin braid and a round goatee, lips curved into a sardonic smile, and a glint of avarice in his eyes, she felt her own expression freezing into one of murderous calm.
“I take it you recognize the shame of your own kingdom,” Tara commented.
“I know of him,” Cassandra allowed, keeping her tone steady.
Where normal people told ghost stories, the royal guard told stories of the worst people they’ve apprehended, the most stomach-churning crime scenes they’ve seen—and of the scariest people they’ve failed to bring to justice. Casimir the Sorcerer featured proudly in all three categories; sentenced to death for serial murder, multiple abductions, and aiding and abetting in numberless other crimes ranging from jailbreak through highway robbery to murder again, he had initially been tried after getting dragged out of a simple basement turned into a blood-soaked nightmare, the fragmented remains of no less than five different people strewn across magical contraptions and circles scribed with symbols of power. The guard who had been on jail duty when the sorcerer escaped from arrest would swear up and down, even years afterwards, that he saw the man slitting his own throat, and when the resulting explosion of arcane smoke and light had dissipated, the sorcerer was nowhere to be seen and another citizen who had been missing for weeks appeared out of nowhere in the cell instead, bleeding out from a slashed throat before the guard could get them help.
“He leads the other three, and appears to command some modicum of loyalty among them, not just fearful obedience,” Tara said in the same clipped, impersonal tone. “Their crimes are no less foul than his own. There is no one in the world who deserves to die more than these four degenerates, and I want you to carry out the sentence and bring back proof of what you’ve done.”
Cassandra gave the brutalized Kotoan agent a long look. “They’re the ones who did this to you, aren’t they?”
“You must understand that this is more than a simple vendetta. If these men aren’t apprehended, they will continue to violate and murder anyone they come across.” She paused, and inclined her head in an acquiescent gesture, lips pressed into a tight line. “And yes, they’re the ones who did this to me, because my attempt to execute them with less-than-forthright means went miserably wrong—I can poison, spy, and assassinate, but I am not a fighter, and I have no control over the guard here while the town is flying Equisian colours. You, however, are one of the finest warriors of Corona and the adopted daughter of the captain of its royal guard. You have the strength and the experience necessary for this task. Any supplies I have left that could come in handy are yours—whether to use or to keep, your choice, and some of them rather illegal—any intelligence myself and my associate have about these criminals is yours. Do this deed, return safely, and bring proof of each execution, and I will notify all of the kingdoms involved that each bounty is rightfully yours, and give you any information you ask for that I can give without earning a treason charge of my own, as well as a token that will open the gates of every Kotoan town and city to you for as long as you bear it, or could be exchanged for an audience with any local aristocrat, leading military officer, or knight of the Tribunal Order. And you will have done me a personal favour—one I hope to be well enough, in time, to be able to repay.”
Cassandra stayed silent for a long while. She should say no. Going after the sorcerer alone would be a suicide mission even if he didn’t have the other three around him, whoever they were. With four of them and one of herself, and Owl too far away to watch her back, she’d be lucky if she ended up in a neighbouring bed, hovering on death’s door for days on end. And if Koto could afford its spy network to extend to places that were technically beyond its borders, then it could afford sending one of its own great warriors after those four. All of these were perfectly good reasons, and Cassandra knew she could only come up with more if she thought about the situation any longer, for why she really should say no.
“I want you to brief me and show me those supplies of yours before I decide,” she said with a sigh instead.
“Reasonable,” Tara nodded as she settled back against the headboard, both of them aware that the decision has already been made. Sweat was beading along her forehead, above her upper lip—the conversation was tiring her out, and profoundly. “I doubt I could tell you more about the sorcerer’s crimes than you already know. He did something with each of his companions, I believe, something that turns them stronger or more capable. And he carries a walking stick that he never parts with—its head is curved, like with a shepherd’s crosier, with a small crystal hovering inside that spiral. I don’t know what it does, but it might be prudent to not find out.”
“Agreed.” Cassandra showed the Kotoan agent the Ingvarrdian’s poster. “Tell me about this one.”
“Hogni Galdrsbani, known out of Ingvarr as Hogni the Barbarian. It’s a wonder he keeps the sorcerer’s company, since he was originally sentenced for challenging any Ingvarrdian chanter he came across to single combat, fighting them to the death even after a yield, and outright murdering those who refused to fight him—which should tell you just how dangerous he is. Ingvarr treats practitioners of magic as mighty warriors or wise sages, as figures of authority, and blocks those who don’t practice that magic from performing some of the more important social functions. That of the Queen included.” Tara mimed dragging fingers down the side of her face, however she could with a partially bandaged face and with fingers bundled up along with the rest of her hand, imitating the claw marks on the criminal’s face. “Don’t let the scars fool you: he does not have a blind side. The sorcerer’s doing, I imagine. He tends to favour a very nasty two-handed sword whenever he can, but when that isn’t possible, he will use any weapon available or improvise one. I’ve seen reports of him bludgeoning a grown man to death with a chair, a stone, and the other man’s own belt buckle, in particular.”
“Charming.” Cassandra pulled out the Pittsfordian’s poster. “Him?”
“Detlev Dreisternen, better known as Detlev the Ogre—”
“Wait. How did a Pittsfordian get nicknamed 'ogre'?”
“I take it you’re familiar with how some Pittsfordians are... rather short, and rather stout?” Tara waited for Cassandra to nod. “Same proportions, but eight feet tall.”
“He is a dimwit, and a hedonistic one. It matters little what he’s doing or who he’s killing, as long as there’s a creature smaller than himself that he can squeeze and pull at until it makes yet another delightful little noise. I don’t think he even realizes his own cruelty—he strikes me as too childish for that—I think that in his mind, animals and people are just toys, and the world is an ever-rebuilding diorama that replaces those toys unto infinity. So he breaks them, because it makes him happy, and because he can.”
Cassandra pulled out the last remaining poster, that of the Bayangoran. “What about this guy?”
“Tassos the Minotaur. Champion pankratist for multiple years in the national Bayangoran games. When he lost the title, he challenged the new champion to an official rematch, and was disqualified for life in the process. I don’t know how familiar you are with pankration—it’s a martial art that combines boxing, wrestling, and more. It is usually performed naked in the games, and has very few rules, but it does prohibit gouging out eyes and biting. Tassos had broken the latter limit to result in the disqualification.”
“And it was a disqualification for life because...?” Cassandra asked slowly, even thought she felt like she’d regret it.
“Because he didn’t just bite his rival. He tore out a chunk and swallowed, and then just kept going, essentially eating his opponent alive,” the Kotoan agent said in a tone studiously devoid of emotion. “I’m told he still does that sometimes, and might regard it as a way of absorbing the strength of whoever he beats in such a way. He is an abhorrent creature, half-feral and half-philosopher, finding justifications for acts like that in a grand universal theory that revolves around himself only, entirely at peace with every next atrocity he convinces himself is his heavens-given right to commit.”
“What’s the thing that the sorcerer did with him?”
“I don’t know. And I don’t recommend getting close enough to check while he’s still breathing.”
“So, to sum up,” Cassandra said slowly, and gave a small shake of her head, incredulous at how this conversation was going. “You want me to go up against a sorcerer I’ve grown up hearing horror stories about, a specialized mage killer, an eight-foot-tall cheerful sadist, and a cannibalistic grandmaster of a very brutal martial art. Alone. And kill them.”
“And bring back proof of their deaths,” Tara reminded, and turned to her companion, who stood silently beside her throughout. “Ramon, give her the chest to look through.”
With assistance from him, Cassandra pulled the chest across the floor, and opened it on her side of Tara’s bed. A few layers of clean if rather worn clothes overtop, some personal effects, a dog-eared book—and beneath that, neatly arranged pouches and strongboxes and a lidless cassette stacked with well-padded flasks and vials. Experimentally, Cassandra took out one of the pouches, and found it full of caltrops.
“What do you recommend?”
“Poison your weapons,” Tara said calmly as she gestured to the vials, “score one good hit, and run like hell. Don’t fight them with honour—they have none, and will laugh at the courtesy rather than repay it. Don’t sleep within a day’s walk of their campsite. If you kill one and cannot kill another, run. If you kill two and the others stand against you together, run. If they split up and you don’t know where even one of them is at any given time, run.”
“Your advice on how to fight them involves a whole lot of avoiding the fight,” Cassandra said with a frown.
The brutalized Kotoan agent gave a weak laugh. “I can’t advise you how to fight—I’m asking your help, not anyone else’s, because you know how to fight well enough, yourself. Any advice I can give you is going to be that of a spy: lie, cheat, steal, and survive. The mission isn’t over until you come home. And while you’re my last hope for executing any of them before they cross deeper into Equis, where they will likely turn into hired swords against my kingdom’s soldiers and supply caravans, there’s a saying where I come from that translates to hope kills more people than war. I would rather like to avoid having to explain how I got a Coronian knight-errant killed and strung up like a smoked partridge.”
“Okay, enough with the metaphors. Looking at you is enough.” Cassandra tied the bag of caltrops to the side of her belt. “Which of those vials are poison that works the fastest?”
“Through an injury? Lower-mid row. Second from the left has a paralyzing effect, and a well-coated dagger will deliver enough to cause respiratory arrest within the day if it isn’t neutralized. Third from the right needs a much larger dose than a single hit with a blade could deliver, but if you have a few dipped and ready, and manage to drop about a teaspoon’s worth into an opponent, he’ll be dead in hours.”
Cassandra took both, and raised her eyebrows when she read the labels. “I thought that possession of crested rattlesnake and emerald-eyed cobra venom was a capital offense in the Seven Kingdoms. All of the Seven Kingdoms.”
“And you think anyone who confiscates outlawed substances lets them go to waste?” Tara asked with a tired smile. “The bottom row is anti-venoms. Take those as well.”
Cassandra did so, and picked a vial of fine whitish powder that had to be ingested to take effect from the cassette of poisons for good measure. Then she asked her way through the rest of the Kotoan agents’ kit, taking a few smoke bombs, a few crackers entirely loud enough to spook horses when lit, and a small jar of invisible ink that turned phosphorescent in the presence of magic—and began to glow, the entire supply of it, when Cassandra took the jar and when she was tucking it into one of the satchels threaded along her belt, causing both of the agents to stare in suspicion. By the time they were done going through the chest, a knock came against the door.
Ramon hastily signalled Cassandra to hide the chest. She threw the decoy layer of personal belongings back into it, snapped it shut, and shoved it under the bed before calling out, “Come in!”
The door opened, revealing Eliza. “You two’ve been in here long enough. Tara, you need to rest.”
“Heavens, do I,” the brutalized Kotoan sighed. “But this is important. We’re almost done.”
“You can be done later. Ramon, Cassandra: out.” Eliza lifted a hand when Tara drew a breath to protest. “No. Lay back down before you fall over. You two, out, now.”
“He can tell me where to go,” Cassandra tossed over her shoulder as she exited the room.
Tara gave her a searching one-eyed look. “You’ll go, then?”
“Thank you,” Tara said with feeling, and slowly lowered herself back onto the mattress, pain mixed with relief playing across her face. Eliza gave her bed a quick once-over and came into the room, closing the door behind herself, a muffled murmur of admonishment sounding as soon as she did. Cassandra looked at the other Kotoan agent, who was copying a section of a map onto a separate sheet of paper with speed and accuracy that spoke of extensive practice.
“They’ve been holed up in a farmhouse for about a week now, but it’s running out of livestock to slaughter and people to torment. This evening or the next one, they’ll be moving on, I think—and while they travel on foot, they make a lot of ground each day, so go immediately or not at all.”
“How did you stay alive through keeping tabs on them?”
“Telescope,” Ramon said dryly. “I kept a distance of at least six hundred yards at all times. Also, I have a horse. You’ll need one as well, to catch up and to get away.”
“I have one.”
“Good.” The agent of Kotoan crown handed the copied map to her. “One last thing. If you don’t come back, how long do you want us to wait before we send condolences to your kingdom’s court?”
“You don’t do that until you find me dead,” Cassandra told him sharply. “The last thing I need is to rush because I’m worried I’ll have to explain a too-hasty death notice.”
“That’s fair. Good luck, Coronian. Don’t die.”
“I’ll try not to.”
Ramon nodded at her, and walked down the stairs to leave the clinic. Minutes later, which Cassandra spent studying the map copy he gave her, Eliza exited the patient room, closing the door again as quietly as the newly-oiled hinges allowed.
“I didn’t think we’d take quite that long,” Cassandra indicated the room with a sideways nod. “How is she?”
“Worn out to the bone, but a little calmer, and asleep already.” Eliza slowly leaned away when she saw the look on Cassandra’s face. “...Are you okay?”
Cassandra cleared her throat, tucking the hand-drawn map away. “I need to leave for a couple of days. I hope it won’t be too much of a setback to the work here.”
“I mean, we’ll feel that you’re gone, you’ve been a very big help,” Eliza said cautiously. “But overall I think we’ll manage.”
“Good.” Cassandra nodded goodbye at her. “I’ll return when I can.”
She walked out of the clinic without waiting for an answer or for more questions, heading across the market square past the job board, straight to the Brazen Brigand, to get Fidella and get to the task at hand.
Cassandra cursed at herself silently. The job board.
Take jobs from anywhere other than the job board, get blacklisted from the job board.
She was going to have to move towns eventually, anyway.
But nevertheless, she walked into the small brick building, returning Teagan’s greeting of a raised hand wordlessly and pointing to a screened-off section of the wanted posters that made up one-third of the board. “Why are these behind a glass?”
Teagan looked up. “Oh, those? It’s because while there’s an outstanding bounty for those people, it hasn’t been put out by anyone who’s here to pay it. So there’s no taker’s fee, but if you were to bring one of those marks in, you’d have to bring proof of doing that to me, then I’d give you the poster, then you’d take the proof and the poster to an official a town over and argue about getting paid there. Why, are you thinking about going after blood money?”
Cassandra gestured at the familiar faces of the sorcerer, the barbarian, the ogre, and the minotaur, displayed in a neat row among the multitude of posters. “It’s a four-in-one.”
“Are you suicidal?” Teagan asked incredulously. “The fuck happened to starting small?!”
“Guess I’m not as smart as previously assumed,” Cassandra deadpanned, and walked out of the building.
Okay, so at least she wasn’t going to have to move towns immediately after.
When Cassandra entered the Brazen Brigand’s stable, Fidella greeted her with a surprised little nicker.
“I wasn’t planning on being back so soon, no.” Cassandra started saddling the mare. “Something came up, and we have a very dangerous job to do.”
Snort, Fidella said pointedly.
“We can’t wait for Owl. There’s not enough time.”
Fidella tossed her head at that.
“I don’t like it either. Listen, we’re outnumbered on this one. If I just charge in head-on, I won’t live to tell about it. We’ll have to be sneaky, use hit-and-run tactics, and stay very careful, and there’s still a very big possibility we’ll get really hurt. Are you still with me?”
Snort, Fidella said firmly, and put her nose to Cassandra’s shoulder.
“Good, because I need you for this.” Cassandra leaned her cheek against the mare’s for a moment. “Thanks. I knew I could count on you.”
And soon enough afterwards, the late morning found Cassandra on horseback, heading past the town walls and towards one of the nearby farms, map in hand and a satchel full of poison slung over her shoulder, chasing after certain death on the promise of seeing justice served—one way or another.
“You realize that for this to work, these defences of yours have to go,” Adira said patiently. “I’m sure they served you well in the past, but the threat you created them against is long gone. The time when you needed them is long over. And they’ve been hampering you, instead of aid or protect you, ever since.”
“I know.” Rapunzel sighed. “It’s just– it’s hard. I’ve built so much on this.”
“It’s a palace built on quicksand. Whatever struggle next comes your way, either it will collapse this palace and leave you with no shelter, or demand you put forth so much effort and time to keep it standing that you will neglect all matters to really need your attention.” Adira paused for a moment, taking in the resigned expression on Rapunzel’s face, and reached over to place a hand on her shoulder. “I know this must be very difficult for you, but it is not a difficulty you can’t handle. Don’t be afraid of it. Every bird must break through the egg’s shell before it can fly.”
Rapunzel felt a small smile curling her lips and finding its way into her eyes at the encouragement. She let it linger long enough to look at it, and past it, at the feeling that brought it forth—a glimmer of hope, a gratefulness for the expressed belief in her and her ability and her strength. And then she breathed, letting the reflex of falling on old habits pass, watching it fade like a raincloud against a bright clear sky, instead of follow it into grasping at that spark and blowing it up into a conflagration to shield her from the world of all she was ever afraid of, a wall of fire blazing too bright for anything bad, hard, or unsightly to still retain its shape, still show through.
It was a spark, and it was good enough as it was. It wasn’t much, and it didn’t have to be anything more. And beneath it, somewhere too deep to see without light, something she hadn’t dared examine for as long as she could remember churned into motion, no longer kept away with the fire.
Rapunzel took another deep breath, bracing herself to face whatever her heart and mind were conjuring up this time. “I think I’m ready.”
Adira inclined her head to her. “Then let’s begin.”
It was a simple ritual they’ve constructed. A bowl of sand, a stick of incense set upright within it, a quiet space that was outdoors if at all possible. The repetition of setting it all out every time, Adira had explained early on, was meant to associate a simple task with a certain mindset and a sense of calm, both of which would only continue to help with further sessions. And it was working, Rapunzel had found a few weeks in, without even really expecting it to.
Once the incense was burning, a thin wisp of smoke swirling through the air from it, they both shifted to sit more comfortably: Adira craned her neck to each side until the vertebrae cracked and rolled her shoulders backwards to loosen their harsh set, arms relaxed and hands laid flat over her thighs, while Rapunzel stretched her legs out in front of herself before crossing them as well, her feet under her knees, hands laced lightly with palms still open to the sky.
“Comfortable?” Adira asked, and waited for Rapunzel to nod. “Then close your eyes, and breathe deeply. Breathe in, and look at everything you’ve been needed for today and everything you’ll be needed for tomorrow. Breathe out, and close the door to it. Let all the colours pale, all the clamour quiet. Breathe in, and hold this growing stillness. Breathe out, and watch how it extends. Let it smooth out all else to nothing. You sit here with me, now, and this is what we’re doing. What can you hear?”
“Silence,” Rapunzel murmured, “and you.”
“What can you feel?”
“Motion. I think something is crawling to the surface, or trying to.”
“Are you afraid?”
“Yes, but I’m calm too. I know it’ll help to face this.”
“Then find the pool, and tell me what it’s like today.”
Rapunzel kept silent for a long while, trying, but each time she thought she could follow the stillness and silence into a place of calm that Adira had helped her build, a sick feeling loomed closer, dragging her focus away like a discordant note, a prick of a beetle’s leg, and she found herself having to relax a frown and unclench her teeth. “I– can you speak to me a little more? Lead me there again?”
“Okay.” Adira’s voice didn’t change, still the same grounding, steady tone it dropped into during every session. There was no surprise, no disappointment to be found in its sound, and Rapunzel leaned against that as if it were a load-bearing pillar in one of the castle’s halls. It was safety. It was soothing. And even that much unravelled some of the uncomfortable tightness in her belly, and made it possible to breathe deeply again. “Inhale, and exhale, and pause for a moment. Find the cadence of it. Focus on your body taking the air in—feel it cold against your nostrils, flowing down your throat, stretching through your chest and filling your lungs—then let it go, and let it take the tension away. Pause for a moment, and listen to the silence. Inhale, and let the air fill you to the brim. Exhale, and direct it to wherever you feel tension linger. Pause, and stay with how it left you. Inhale, and let the motion of it hold onto this peace. Exhale, and let the steam of it paint the pool before your eyes. Pause, and watch the reprieve of it pulling the image into focus. Inhale, and feel yourself standing before it. Are you there?”
“Yes,” Rapunzel murmured.
“Tell me what the banks are like.”
“They’re rough gray stone, the circle and the stairs, all a single piece of rock. Nothing grows around it, this time.”
“Tell me of the water.”
“It’s clear, but dark. I can’t see past the surface. Not warm and not cold either.”
“And where are you?”
“At the top of the stairs, next to you.”
“I am beside you, this entire time. You are not doing this alone,” Adira reaffirmed to her. “Now walk into the water with me, and tell me how deep we are heading.”
Rapunzel took a slow, deep breath, and imagined descending the carved stone stairs into the pool of dark water, with the knowledge of Adira’s presence at her side as real as the sun’s warmth and light even through closed eyes. “I’m underwater.”
“What can you see?”
“I can’t see anything. It’s too dark here.”
“What can you feel?”
“I feel motion again. It’s swimming next to us now.”
“Okay,” Adira said in the same steady, calming tone. “Why is it here?”
“Because I haven’t—” Rapunzel drew in another deep breath, if a little too quickly, if frayed around the edges this time. “I haven’t kept it away. We talked about how I have to stop doing some things that I keep doing without thinking about them, last time, and I haven’t– I haven’t forced myself to feel happy since then. I guess it was behind that.”
“I want you to remember that this is not a monster. It can’t hurt you. It doesn’t need to be fought. It’s an image you’re giving to a problem, so that you can see it and solve it.”
“Good. How do you force yourself to be happy?”
“I take whatever little thing I can find and I make it be more than it is. A beautiful morning, or a ray of sunlight letting me see the dust dancing, or a tasty meal I didn’t know I wanted to have—anything that’s nice but meaningless on its own—I take these things and I turn them into a reason for why there’s nothing bad about the world. I use them to be excited about everything, and not let anything get me down, not even when it’s a real problem.” Rapunzel sighed against the weight of the day’s unpleasant realization sinking onto her shoulders. “...I use them to fireblind myself so I don’t have to see the real problem, especially when it’s one I can’t fix. So I don’t have to feel sad or angry or hurt instead.”
“Tell me what it does with those more difficult feelings.”
“They– it pulls them out of focus, but they don’t go away. They just fester under the surface. Rot just out of sight. They lose strength eventually, but they still don’t have an outlet, and I think– I think they only ever get resolved if I lose my temper soon afterwards, and it’s an accident if they do. They just lie there forever if I don’t.”
“Tell me what kind of problems you’ve used this against.”
Rapunzel swallowed as her throat tightened at the memories. “When Eugene and Cass were arguing all the time, long before we met you. When Cass didn’t want to talk to me, after the Great Tree, and I was trying to force her to. When Cass left with the Moonstone, especially.”
“Was it a new thing for you to do, the first time it happened in a situation like that?”
“Then think of when you were doing it without a problem like the ones you’ve described to me. How did it protect you?”
Rapunzel stayed silent for a moment, surprised with the question, and dismayed with the truth of an answer as it began to unravel before her closed eyes, as ugly as a bandage ripped off an old unhealed wound and just as painful. “It helped make people like me. When I came out of the tower, I was excited and happy, but I was scared, too. If people liked me, then they wouldn’t want to hurt me, and I’d have nothing to be afraid of. And I think I’m going to cry again.”
“That’s okay, let it flow if you need to.” Adira’s voice gentled a little. “Was it a new thing for you to do then?”
“No,” Rapunzel admitted, and heard her voice break.
“How did it protect you before then?”
“It helped make me easier to ignore. If I made myself look stupid and naive, then it was easier to feel stronger and bigger against me, and harder to be angry with me and take it out on me. It helped to keep me safe because it made me look too weak, too small, to be treated seriously or to think I was strong enough to disobey. It kept me from being screamed as often as I could have been.”
“Do you still do that?”
Rapunzel nodded, hands unlaced now and wiping tears from her face. “I apologize a lot even when something isn’t my fault, so that people aren’t angry with me. And I do it in a way that keeps them from being harsh to me, even when I deserve it or when they have a reason to, because it would make them feel bad about themselves if they were.” She took a deeper breath, trying not to cry anymore. “I don’t think I like that very much about myself.”
“You don’t have to keep doing it if you decide you no longer want to. I understand that it’s a habit, and that they can be difficult to unlearn, but difficult does not mean impossible. Are you still afraid people will hurt you unless they like you?”
“No. Yes and no. I know there will always be people who’d be happy to see me hurt, and that thought is scary, but I know that it’s not my fault, too. I don’t have to make everyone like me. I’m strong enough to protect myself, and I’m not alone. I have friends and loved ones who’d never want to see me hurt.”
“Are you still afraid of people being angry with you?”
“No, not as much. I know it’s not a punishment, not anymore. And I know that sometimes—” Rapunzel’s voice faltered a little again. “Sometimes I hurt them, even if I don’t mean to. And if it gets me to stop doing that, then getting angry at me is a good thing.”
“Then you don’t need this anymore. It served you well enough when you didn’t have healthier ways to cope, but you do now, and it’s time to lay this one to rest. If you could tell your younger self one thing about this, what would you say?”
Rapunzel took a moment, letting the thought crystallize within the place of peace she had built for this with Adira’s assistance. “...It’s okay. You don’t have to be afraid.”
“Take a deep breath again.”
Rapunzel did, and felt relief flow through her along with the air.
“Tell me what the water is like now.”
“It’s a little clearer. It’s not as dark around anymore.”
“Do you still feel motion?”
“Yes, but from far deeper down, and I don’t think I’m ready to go there yet.”
“Okay. Then walk up the stairs again, and tell me when you reach the top.”
With every imagined step upwards, the still and examining honesty drained away, and exhaustion of the effort came into focus. It was a good effort, however, and the satisfying kind of fatigue—that of having seen a job well done. “I’m ashore again.”
“Fold your hands at your heart, and lift it upwards. Thank the world for seeing you to this point; thank yourself for doing this, for your persistence in doing something hard and painful to help yourself.”
Rapunzel bent her back in a bow, and murmured, “Thank you.” Then she let her eyes open and turned her head, waiting. Adira always took a moment longer than herself at the end—sitting perfectly still with hands folded at the centre of her chest, before lowering her head and tapping the edge of her hands to her forehead as she mouthed the words soundlessly. “And... thank you, Adira, for doing this with me.”
Adira acknowledged that with a simple nod. “You are doing very well. You’ve worked hard on your honesty before yourself, and I’m glad to see you’re treating this very seriously.” She thought for a moment. “There is nothing wrong with finding small joys in life—it is strength, I would say, but not when taken to such an extreme as you’ve made of it. Try to let them be as they are, and enjoy them as they are, without making them be more than they should be. Then see how that leaves you, what that feels like, and we’ll come back to it next week.”
“Every time I think I understand just how badly I needed to work on my problems like this, another magnitude or depth comes into focus,” Rapunzel said candidly. “I couldn’t do this without your help.”
“Oh, you could.” A bit of Adira’s usual veneer began to flow back into place, with her airy tone and her little smile. “After all, you are doing this all on your own. I’m just holding your hand throughout.”
Rapunzel laughed a little, while Adira stood up without uncrossing her legs first, and took her extended hand to be pulled to her feet as well. “Same time next week, then?”
“I’ll be there. By your leave, princess.”
“Good night, Adira.”
They went their separate ways then—the old warrior going on a stroll along the battlements, Rapunzel heading back inside. She closed the terrace door behind herself and turned to see Eugene leaning against the wall where he was waiting for her, Pascal on his shoulder, and both their faces dropping into a look of concern as soon as they saw her.
“Did she make you cry again?”
“It’s not like that at all,” Rapunzel defended with a sigh even as she gratefully sank into the offered hug, a welcome reprieve from the hard emotional labour of the evening. She felt Pascal crossing onto her shoulder and pressing himself up to her cheek, and she tilted her head to lean against him. “And, yes, I cried again today, but only a little.”
“Look, sunshine, I know I pressed you to talk about your feelings before, but if this is driving you to tears every time...”
Rapunzel shook her head. “It’s okay. Really. She’s helping, and it’s not like she’s making me sad every time. I’m not crying because I’m miserable or hurt, it’s just... release.”
“Okay, I trust you.” Eugene took her hand as they walked through the castle together. “I just want you to know, if you decide that it’s too much or not what you need anymore, you just call it all off and no one will have the right to think less of you.”
“I know. Thank you.” Rapunzel fell silent for a long while. “...Still no word from Cass?”
Squeak, Pascal said with a gentle sadness. That and the resigned silence from Eugene told her everything she needed to know.
“I’m sure she’s okay,” he said when Rapunzel’s shoulders sank. “She was doing just fine when she was alone with the Moonstone and, apparently, the ghost of Zhan Tiri, for months. I almost feel like the next time you throw a party, she’ll crash it with her hair dyed a different colour and another magic sword.”
Rapunzel’s lips pulled into a smile despite herself. “It’s not her I’m worried about. She has Fidella and Owl with her this time, and I know she can take care of herself.”
“What are you worried about, then?”
“I think she just doesn’t want to talk to me anymore,” Rapunzel said quietly.
Eugene gave her a quizzical look. “You told me that you two said goodbye on good terms.”
“And that she promised to write you.”
“Then there’s no need to worry! It’s Cassandra, remember? She wouldn’t talk about her feelings if her life depended on it, and barely knows how to start a conversation at all!”
“Eugene, it’s been two months.”
“Okay, so she’s taking a little time, but when hasn’t she stalled when you wanted to ask how she feels? It’s still on-brand for Cass to be silent for this long, I mean, I’ve yet to stop reeling from when she said she missed me two months ago. And if she said she’ll write you, then she’ll write you when she’s good and ready.”
“I drove her away twice over now. Even if I did make her promise to write, I can’t hold her to it. I can’t act like she owes me anything,” Rapunzel said calmly. “If she doesn’t want me in her life anymore, then I have to let her go, no matter how painful it’s going to be.”
“Sunshine, I think it’s generally considered too early to start mourning while the person’s still alive. If Cass didn’t love you, she wouldn’t have said that she does, and she wouldn’t have waited to tell you and hold you before leaving. You haven’t given up on her when she was actively trying to kill you—I didn’t think I’d see you give up on her while she’s just on a trip.”
Rapunzel paused on that, taken aback. Then shook her head and found it easier to smile. “You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“I do,” Eugene said gently. “You miss her, and horrid as it is to admit it, I do too! The castle’s so quiet without her grumbling and so empty without her marching around at a parade pace in that dress, and no one else tears their hood off in frustration quite the same.”
Rapunzel laughed softly at the memory. “Did you know she was always carrying at least one dagger under her dress?”
“She was what?”
If there was ever a time when she needed more daggers, Cassandra thought with frustration, it just had to be now.
The farmhouse had been empty when she arrived within line-of-sight of it. There was nothing left alive in any of the buildings or in their shared courtyard, she found after a brief sweep, no livestock and no people, only bones of the former and bodies of the latter. There was only an easy to follow trail of four sets of feet, dramatically differing in size and depth—a trail so easy to follow and so even-paced that Cassandra’s suspicious nature had her abandoning it soon enough.
The four did have a magic-user among them, after all.
And so she had found herself here, stabbing daggers into the trees, building a false trail that led to the headless blue-fletched arrow she had left among the dead leaves on the floor of the forest that the four outlaws had made camp in, not too far away.
Cassandra looked up at the sky. The night was still young enough. She could see four shapes huddled around the campfire, the barbarian having just returned from a firewood run, the sorcerer lounging idly with some sort of notebook or a tome, the minotaur tending some sort of evening meal bubbling in a large cast iron pot, the ogre chattering excitedly at his companions and drawing reactions that ranged from indulgent to irritated. They haven’t spotted her yet, she was pretty sure.
Rule one: turn your enemy’s strength into a weakness.
If she came into the minotaur’s reach, she would die. So Cassandra poured the emerald-eyed cobra venom into a leather mug that she was never going to use again, dipped two of the blue-fletched carrier arrows into the poison, and nocked one while putting the other’s shaft into her teeth. She kept patient, waiting for the minotaur to put his hands at the small of his back and stretch, the cooking pot hung far too low for a man of his height, and as soon as he did, she loosed. The poisoned arrow struck him two-thirds up the ribcage, not too far from the armpit, and he let out a sharp cry that was equal parts surprise and pain. By the time both him and his companions snapped to the direction the arrow had come from, Cassandra had the bow drawn again, and loosed the second arrow to hit the minotaur square in the belly.
He was dead, she thought in an endless split second of calmness, before she turned on her heel and started to run with the ogre’s roar and the barbarian’s bounding footsteps behind her.
“Go. Go!” she hissed at Fidella.
The mare burst from her hiding place and went straight into a gallop, heading away and to the right, while Cassandra split to the left and used her momentum to leap upwards and start climbing the tree she had picked out for this exact reason earlier. Lungs burning as she forced herself to control her breath and quiet it, hiding behind the trunk as much as she could and hoping that the outlaws stayed fireblinded from how close they had just been to their campfire, Cassandra watched the barbarian and the ogre chase after Fidella for a few seconds and then give up, realizing that they could not catch up with a galloping horse. She ducked her head as they walked back to the camp, where the minotaur was flat on his back and roaring in pain as the sorcerer was pulling out one of the arrows—and tilting his head in a puzzled expression when he found no head on its end. When he moved his fingers over the headless shaft with a murmur, Cassandra silently breathed a sigh of relief.
Coronian sorcery was either hedge witchery and simple herbal remedies, or the exploits of a bunch of Zhan Tiri wannabes—and she had spent enough time with the real deal to know just how malicious, arrogant, and self-centred their ideal was. If there was a possible magical explanation, no Coronian sorcerer was going to look for a mundane one instead, seeing how they held themselves and their craft in higher regard than the rest of everything in existence.
So she had used the magic-responsive paint to draw the symbols she remembered seeing on the Scroll of Demanitus along the shafts of her carrier arrows—the two she had shot the minotaur with, and the spent one she had tested against a bunch of scarf-wrapped sand a few days prior. Some of them were scribed wrong, she was sure, and they were not going to spell out anything but utter nonsense even if the sorcerer would be able to decipher it. But it would occupy his attention, maybe even serve to convince him that the arrows had been a magical device that released its power on impact, instead of simply a marvel of artisanal blacksmithing and a load of extremely potent venom.
She kept still, and waited, as the sorcerer seemed to argue with the barbarian and the ogre, and eventually sent them away on a perimeter sweep while he and the minotaur remained in camp, the sorcerer studying the arrow shafts and animatedly leafing through his tome. When she saw the two sent away pointing out the trail of daggers to each other, and both heading that way, Cassandra quietly slid down the tree and started sneaking towards the campfire, hoping to surprise the sorcerer from behind.
She didn’t quite manage to, given that the minotaur was still conscious, and called out an alert from where he was laying down.
“And what have we here? Another bounty hunter?” the sorcerer yelled gleefully as he parried Cassandra’s sword with that crystal-bearing crosier Tara had mentioned. He was entirely loud enough for the other two to hear, and come running, Cassandra knew.
She didn’t have much time.
“I thought what Tassos did to that Kotoan pest would’ve scared her off, but all right, then!” the sorcerer roared, humour rapidly draining from his voice and giving way to fury, as he struck out with the staff to punctuate each next threat. “I will divine your entrails—Detlev will eat your liver—Hogni will chop you up into tiny little pieces before you've finished twitching—and don’t even ask what my loyal Tassos likes doing!”
Fortunately, Cassandra didn’t need much time. Not with Coronian sorcerers being so arrogant and so convinced of their craft’s superiority, they depended on it to do everything for them. Including fights. And so, the best way to deal with a Coronian sorcerer was nothing other than to close the distance and hit him hard.
Each hit he launched was easy to see and easier yet to avoid. His weapon’s longer reach helped him none. Four parries was all it took, and on the fourth, she dragged her blade across his arm to drop the staff from his hand, then went straight for the throat, slashing it open so forcefully that she heard her sword creak against his spine.
“My regards to Zhan Tiri,” Cassandra snarled with her left hand at her temple in a gesture of mock respect, “useless and dead as you are.”
She swept up the staff and kicked the sorcerer’s body over just in time to see the ogre re-enter the clearing from the other side. And once again, Cassandra turned on her heel and ran instead of sticking around to find out just how loyal the other three were to the sorcerer, or what they would do to avenge his death. She heard the ogre roar as he started bounding after her, and she let out a piercing whistle, hoping to high heaven that Fidella has had the time to double-back already.
When a moment passed, spent on running like hell, and she didn’t hear hoofbeats sounding against the heavy footfalls behind her, Cassandra whistled again, growing desperate. There hadn’t been enough time. Anywhere she could hide that the ogre couldn’t fit inside, the barbarian was going to come in after her. Anywhere she could run to on foot, both of them were going to catch up to her. She had mistimed the entire thing, and it was going to kill her with their hands.
She should have never agreed to do this without Owl.
Cassandra risked a look over her shoulder. The ogre was about ten paces behind her, and with his own paces quite a bit longer than hers; significantly farther away, the barbarian was giving chase as well. Shifting the sorcerer’s staff under her left arm, she lit one of the Kotoan spy’s smoke bombs and spiked it into the ground before changing direction—the barbarian saw the entire manoeuvre, and gained on her as a result, but the ogre ran headlong into the smoke and smashed into a tree, still coughing and pawing at his face, instead of catch up and grab her. Breath growing ragged, Cassandra desperately considered her options: keep running and get caught later like a stag chased down by bloodhounds, or stand her ground and take her chances while there was still some air left in her lungs.
Then she heard a whinny, and felt her heart skip a beat, and let out a third sharp whistle as she ran towards the sound of hoofbeats.
Fidella barely slowed her pace for long enough to let Cassandra climb to the saddle in a leap, and broke into a gallop again before her rider could wheeze at her to. Two roars of frustrated rage tore up the night behind them, and Cassandra barked a cry of pain as one of her own daggers sank into her right shoulder. She looked behind herself again, and saw the barbarian straightening up from a throw.
“Take us to a road,” she panted at Fidella. “We need to stop leaving tracks.”
Two down, two to go, and her sword-arm out of commission. And anything else to be considered only after much-needed rest, if only a little of it, somewhere far enough away to be safe.