The horses seemed to be in good shape, well-rested and well-fed, and were willing enough to be loaded up and mounted. Nikol did a final sweep of the building – someone might be able to tell the place had been occupied, if they looked closely, but they’d shoveled dirt over the coals and put most everything else back where they’d found it.
“You’re really worried, aren’t you?” Aran was eyeing her sidelong. “I thought it was just, let’s get out of here, that sort of thing, but you’re really worried someone is going to come after you.”
“Us.” She rubbed her arms and looked off over the destroyed neighborhood. “Yeah. Yeah. I was fine fighting for money until, well. Until I saw what the Mountain did. Then I tried to turn in my banner and leave. Merc, you know. You fight when you want to. But they wouldn’t let me. So running, well. It’s the best option, but I still don’t really believe it will work.”
“Wouldn’t let you leave? What, they tie you down?”
“Threats. Threats and, uh, a geas, to fight as long as the war went on. I have never been so happy to see the end of a battle.”
“Maybe they’re done with you?”
“They feed their prisoners to their -” She bit her lip and twitched. “Their thing. They feed their prisoners to it. I stole one of their prisoners. You. You see why I’m worried.”
“You could’ve just killed me, you know.” He rolled his shoulders and looked away from her. “It might have been kinder, if you think we’re going to get caught.”
“I gave you the choice,” she countered. “You chose not to die.”
“So we’re just going to, what, keep running?”
“No.” She shook her head. “No. We’re going to keep running until I stop feeling a prickle at the back of my neck and we’ve found a good place to settle. And then we’ll stop running.”
“And, what, farm? You’re a mercenary. I’m a soldier. We’re not really swords-into-plowshares sorts of people. We’re warriors.”
She let that hang in the air for a few moments as they rode. Finally, as they rounded a corner into an area that was all farmland, fields plowed by hand or by horse or by wood-burning-tractor, she shook her head. “You know that about me, when you hardly know my name?”
“Your name is Nikol. I don’t know what Name your Mentor gave you, but I know what you fight like. And you fight like someone who is a warrior by choice.”
“You don’t know much about me,” she repeated. “Hsst, hoofbeats.”
He reached for a weapon he didn’t have and shifted in his saddle. She set her hand on her smaller knife but didn’t pull it yet. Their horses plodded slowly ahead, content to walk when they weren’t being prodded.
A cart came into sight. She did her best to look relaxed, although she knew she was failing. She should have changed into something that looked less military. She should have found something that looked less military.
The farmer and his son – she assumed – nodded politely, tipped their straw hats at Nikol and Aran, and seemed to contain their suspicion to a couple glances at the clearly-fighter sorts riding through their placid farmland.
It’s only placid because people like him and I fight somewhere else, she wanted to tell him. But she didn’t have a moral leg to stand on in that argument, and she wasn’t sure Aran did, either.
So they kept riding. The sun rose to its zenith – they were riding through farmland and little walled communities, the sort of places that wouldn’t want them nearby. It sank lower towards the horizon.
Nobody was coming after them.
They were coming on the ruins of a city. That wasn’t the sort of place she really wanted to camp out. But they weren’t going to get around it by the time the sun set. She glanced over at Aran.
“We could head back to that little stand of houses,” he offered doubtfully. “The one with the flower boxes? They seemed – all right, they seemed scared of us,” he allowed. “But they’d probably let us sleep there.”
“If we can find a place we can barricade…” She closed her eyes and let her power reach out around her. There were buildings everywhere, spaces everywhere. She strained her senses, looking for what she wanted.
Something was placed in her hand. The jar of peanut butter, she realized, and a knife. She ate peanut butter from the jar while she searched. “Down three roads that way,” she told Aran, feeling as if she was swaying in the saddle, “and then one road to the left. We’ll have to move around an obstruction, but the people in this city are somewhere else, far that way, and there are no large creatures in that directions, either. We should be safe.”
“Should be,” he muttered. “There’s a reason people don’t go into these cities anymore, you know.”
“People do,” she countered. She nudged her horse in the right direction, half of her attention still on the map of spaces and lines in her mind. “Not a lot of people, no. But people live here still.” She could feel the way the world moved under the road. There was something living down there. “If you want to hunt, here, you might try the storm sewers. There’s … there are animals down there. I can tell you that much.”
“Oh, goodie,” he muttered. “Just what I wanted. Significant-pause animals in underground tunnels.” He bowed from his saddle. “As you wish, mistress.”
“I did say if,” she pointed out in a mutter.