At sunrise, the gates of Dunnval, barred overnight, creaked open.
“Are they here?” someone inside whispered audibly.
“We’re right here,” Tyrel said, standing up and stretching. He was feeling somewhat the better for the nap Madoc had insisted he take between sunset and moonrise, when it was too dark to navigate, and for the plentiful berries and water, but he was very much looking forward to this being over.
“The Chief is waiting in the Hall,” someone else said.
The warriors of Dunnval fell into a kind of informal living corridor from the gates to the Hall; Tyrel reflected that they would never have done that had they known he wasn’t their next Chief after all. He could feel Madoc, in his eternal place, beside and behind, and didn’t need to look to know he’d be absolutely expressionless as well as watching for any danger—not least from younger brothers who might have ideas.
Taber was seated at the sole table that was currently set up in the Hall, the rest of them dismantled and stacked out of the way. He waited for them to approach. Behind them, Tyrel heard as many people as possible pushing their way in to watch this. So, having reached his position directly across from his father, he spread his feet and linked his hands together behind him, waiting for the commotion to settle. Taber said nothing, until there was silence in the Hall.
“You have been to Banvard?” Taber asked.
“We have,” Tyrel said.
“You spent a full night within its palisades?”
“And what news do you bring back with you?” Taber, by this point, obviously expected only one reply.
Tyrel, his gaze fixed on the table just in front of Taber, said steadily, “The Chief of Banvard has declined to approve my fitness for the title.”
Stunned silence, then a rising wave of whispers.
“Be still!” Taber thundered. “What reason did he give?”
Tyrel hadn’t bothered to think up a reason. He’d assumed, in his fatigue, that simply stating he’d failed would be enough. He couldn’t tell the truth, or even if they let him go, Madoc would be killed, he was sure of it. Sunrise would be no rescue here. An out-and-out lie wouldn’t be believed.
So he spoke the truth that no one in the forts ever said in more than whispers. “It was because I see no honour in the slaughter and enslavement of civilians who cannot fight back, and because I feel this makes us nothing but bullies and thieves. Banvard’s Chief did not feel this was acceptable in a Chief’s heir.”
Taber’s neutral expression hardened into stone. “This is what you believe?”
“Collect what is yours from your rooms and begone from Dunnval. I do not suggest that you remain until tomorrow morning. Get out, and don’t you ever come back here.”
Tyrel bowed his head, and turned away, doing his best to ignore the tide of incredulous whispers all over the Hall. Madoc spun in place and stayed perfectly in step beside him.
“Madoc,” Taber said.
Madoc paused, but didn’t turn back. “Sir?”
“This is what happened?”
Madoc didn’t hesitate an instant, for which Tyrel was grateful. “Yessir.”
“You feel the same?”
No one said a single word to them on the way to the warriors’ quarters. Madoc thumped his hand off their door and opened it himself, cautiously. Tyrel figured it was unlikely there had been time for anyone to set up an ambush, but he let Madoc confirm that before joining him and closing the door. “Pack fast,” Tyrel said. “I really don’t like the mood out there.”
“Did you have to give them a reason that was a personal insult and challenge to most of the fort?”
“What was I supposed to do, tell them the truth? Let’s just pack and get out of here as fast as possible.”
Tyrel found his larger pack, the one for longer trips, under his bed, and began to fold and stuff everything he could from his chest into it. Behind him, he could hear Madoc doing the same, heedless of where anything discarded might fall. Tyrel tucked jewellery carefully tucked down into the middle, and added a few keepsakes from Madoc’s mother who had raised them, little Forester things, luck-charms, toys. Clothes, assorted knives and the like, toiletries…
The door opened behind him, and he whipped around, a push-knife in one hand. He relaxed when he saw striped hair and thrall chains. Madoc let the knife in his hand slip back into his pack.
“You failed,” she said quietly, and Tyrel saw terror in her eyes, though her voice stayed steady.
“You saved our lives, with the spirit herbs and oil. The ghosts in Banvard tried to kill us.” Tyrel shoved his personal first aid kit into the pack, then stopped to look at her again, one hand still on the pack. “You’re coming with us.”
Madoc paused long enough to look sideways at him, but said nothing.
“They’ll never let me past the gates.”
“I was told to collect what’s mine from my room. You’re my thrall. You’re in my room. I’m bringing you.”
She smiled then, shakily. “Do you think that will work?”
“After what Madoc and I have been through the last couple of days, I can believe anything can work. Can you scrounge up some food we can take? I don’t think they’re going to bother searching our bags, and frankly, I’m starving. We won’t leave without you.”
She nodded, and darted away.
“Seriously?” Madoc muttered.
Basic gear for cooking on the road. Hatchet slipped into a loop on the outside.
“We have to try to get her out of here. She saved our lives, we’d be dead in Banvard without her, and she took a risk to do it. You know what’ll happen to her if she stays here without us to protect her.”
A pause, and Madoc heaved a sigh. “Yeah, you’re right. But I hope she gets back here fast. The quicker we get through the gates, the better the chance we have of getting away before someone goes for your blood.”
“She’ll be fast. And we can use the food.” Tyrel rolled his cloak up with a couple of blankets from the bed, which made a bulky but manageable mass, and strapped it in place.
She returned before they had a chance to get excessively nervous, with two rough-woven sacks, and her striped hair dulled with something dark. She looked over her shoulder as she slipped into Tyrel’s room.
“Thralls are looking for places to hide,” she said. “They’re all picking up on the mood, and hoping no one takes it out on them.”
“Then let’s get moving and get out of sight. The sooner we’re gone, the sooner things can get back to normal.” He knotted one sack to the outside of his pack, while she gave the other to Madoc.
Tyrel shouldered his pack, and groaned to himself—he wanted sleep and a decent meal, and he had only a hike carrying a considerable amount of weight to look forward to.
“They’ll be expecting us to walk out the front gate,” Tyrel said. “Go out the postern instead, we’ll draw less attention.”
They tried to attract as little notice as possible on the way to the small back gate. Kaveri went ahead when necessary to make sure no one was around.
Inevitably, they were challenged at the postern gate—a much smaller gate, with a solid wall just inside that could prevent an enemy from firing or charging straight in.
“We’re leaving,” Tyrel said. “We have only what we’re entitled to.”
“A thrall?” one said scornfully. “Hardly personal gear.”
“She belongs to me. I caught her. She’s mine.”
The two sentries looked her over measuringly. Kaveri kept her eyes down, her shoulders hunched forward just a little—all in all, she managed not only to look utterly cowed and submissive, but less attractive as well. With her hair dulled, less of a reminder that she was a Forester and therefore a rare prize, they probably did have better odds that the sentries would let them by.
Madoc held up four gold bracelets, interlinked like a chain, and dangled it in the air. “You can take these, let us leave, and lock the gate behind us, or we can all have a big fight right here, and you know Tyrel and I are guaranteed to kill at least one of you before anyone else shows up to help, possibly both. All over whether Tyrel takes his pet with him. Worth it?”
The sentries visibly weighed the two choices, exchanged glances, then one reached for the bracelets while the other unbarred the gate.
“Between us,” the latter murmured as Tyrel passed, “I agree, we have turned into thieves and bullies. Get as far from here as you can as fast as you can, a lot of people are making really ugly sounds.”
The only reply was the gate slamming shut, and the dead thump of the bar being dropped into place.
“Shortest way out of sight,” Tyrel said. “Direction doesn’t really matter right now.”
“The hills will put us out of sight soonest to the north-west,” Madoc said. “We need to go to ground somewhere as soon as we can for some sleep and food. We can swing west from there and get into the fringes of the Forest, that’ll give us some cover while we move.”
Along the fringes of hundreds of miles of ancient, unmapped, roadless woods. Tyrel sighed to himself. He’d been in the fringes before, and even being that close to the true Forest made him distinctly uneasy. All that wilderness, and the only people in it were the Foresters who simply made themselves a part of it—and it didn’t feel to him like it would be very welcoming to anyone else.
Madoc was right, though. It was unarguably their best chance to vanish quickly.
They took the road, at first. The fort having been built to guard against ambush, it was going to be some time before they could get out of sight. The brothers felt no particular need to talk, and Kaveri stayed in stride without a word and without any apparent effort.
They left the road and climbed a hill dotted with a few large spreading trees.
In the thickly-grassed valley on the far side, Kaveri finally broke the silence.
“Please,” she said softly. “I don’t know what happened or why Madoc looks well and you don’t, and I won’t ask, but I can help. Let me take your pack, Tyrel.”
“We could at least do some redistribution,” Madoc said, before Tyrel could object. He halted and shrugged off his pack. “We’re out of direct line of sight, we can take a short break. C’mere and drop it. I’ll repack. You eat.”
“Damn it, Madoc, I am not an invalid!”
“Never said you were. But you got a lot of energy drained by a fort’s worth of ghosts. You haven’t had a chance yet to recover.” Madoc untied the bag of food from the outside of his pack and pulled out one of the small rounds of rye bread. “Here.”
Tyrel heaved a sigh, deposited his pack on the ground, and accepted the bread, settling himself on the grass. He watched Madoc and Kaveri use one of the smaller packs from the trip to Banvard to dismantle his and split the contents in two, while he tore at the bread.
“I think we can reach the edge of the Forest by dark,” Madoc said. “We can slow down then.” Tyrel was grateful that he didn’t add insult on top of it, by asking if he’d be all right that long. “Maybe find a spot to camp for a couple of days and decide what to do next. Kaveri, you know enough Forest-lore to create protections. Do you know anything about effects from being attacked by ghosts?”
After a moment, Kaveri shook her head. “Only a little. In the Forest I could maybe create something to help recover more quickly, but the tales imply that as long as they don’t kill you outright, it isn’t any more dangerous than being tired from anything else.”
“Good.” Madoc strapped both packs closed and stood up, approaching Tyrel with the now-lighter pack in one hand. He offered Tyrel the other to help him up. “I think we’d best get moving. Of all stories to give them, you couldn’t come up with one that wouldn’t get us hunted on the way out of Dunnval?”
Tyrel shouldered his pack in resignation. “Truth would’ve let me walk out but gotten you killed, would that be better? I doubt he would have believed me if I’d said we spent the night there and saw absolutely nothing. I couldn’t say that it was a success, because I’m very sure there’s something in place to keep people from claiming that when it isn’t true. What should I have said?”
“Never mind, I’m just griping. Thank you for not telling the truth. I hate to think how long you’d last without me watching your back.”
Tyrel saw Kaveri’s curious look, but she simply arranged her pack and waited for them to set the direction and the pace.
All Tyrel’s ambivalence about the Forest had vanished by the time the brush and thin trees had intensified to the point where they felt safe enough to stop. After a full day’s hike, he would happily have camped in the depths of the Forest itself, let alone the fringes.
Tyrel lowered his pack to the ground, unstrapping his cloak and blankets. He curled up under a spreading tree, his cloak wrapped around himself, and closed his eyes.
“You can rest too,” he heard Madoc say.
“Should we keep watch?” she asked.
“No need. I was watching behind us. We have a decent head start, and no one is going to follow us off open land in the dark. Eat and get some rest.”
Then Tyrel fell asleep.