"They're closer." Echris looked down the long trail and tried not to curse. They dared not stray from this path into the woods. The magical creatures there had never forgiven the battles of the old war. No help, and no escape.
Far down the hillside -- but still closer than he liked -- the soldiers moved steadily upwards.
The two dared not rest, even though Pornan limped, the metal shackles poisoning him with each step.
Pornan couldn't walk much farther and even Echris began to slow. Damn the Digin Empire and their hatred for anything magical. And damn whomever had betrayed them as they passed through the lands. Spies and magic users . . . they couldn't hope for clemency. They'd barely escaped and the magic Echris had used drained him. He feared he'd never use magic again and he tried not to shiver as he probed the empty spot where the magic had been warm.
"I can't," Pornan whispered, his voice so soft Echris barely heard the words above the breeze. Pornan went down to his knees. "Go -- go my friend. Report to the king!"
Duty should have driven him on -- but the information he had now only confirmed what others had already known. For all their hatred of magic, the people of Busna were not above using the power for their own ends.
The worst kind of hypocrites. Echris knew they really hunted the two escaped prisoners out of fear of what their own people would learn.
Something moved in the trees; he saw only a shape, there and gone.
"Go," Pornan whispered.
Echris bowed his head daring to say nothing aloud and moved on, not looking back --
After a dozen steps he muttered a curse he wouldn't have dared say if he still had power, and turned around. Pornan looked up at him as if he'd gone mad.
"The king has the reports. You're more important than a few more words I could add to what's already been sent home. Come on. We are not going to fall to those damned soldiers."
He caught Parnon under the arm and forced him to his feet, ignoring (as best he could) he shudder of pain that passed through his companion's body with each small step. They weren't going to get far.
"Only one answer." Parnon brushed back his hair with his shackled hands, the fingers swollen. "Go off the trail."
That would be true madness. Echris gave a frantic shake of his head. Humans who had learned the art of magic did not trespass into the areas where magical creatures ruled.
He could hear the sound of the troops coming closer.
"Either -- woods or leave me," Parnon said. "I won't survive if you -- drag me on."
Echris spun and moved off the trail and thought he heard a startled cry from the soldiers. In a few steps he felt as though he'd entered an entirely different world of shadows and whispers he couldn't quite understand. He could feel magic here brushing against his skin and if, somehow, they avoided other problems he might have time --
Something moved in the bushes to the right. He slowly turned his head and saw a green face with inhumanly bright eyes staring back at him.
"We mean no harm," he said keeping his voice steady. Pornan made a slight sound of distress.
Echris wanted beyond the sight of the trail and hope the soldiers weren't desperate enough to follow. Maybe if they held at the edge of the magic land, they could survive one enemy and the other. He tried to believe it, but as the bushes and branches spread around them, he became more assured they were not leaving again.
Then why keep running? Time to stop. He helped Pornan sit with his back to a tree and Echris sprawled beside his friend. If the soldiers came this far, so be it. If the magic beings objected, let them. He had never felt so totally worn in his life.
They didn't have to wait long. A woman parted the bushes with a wave of magic and stepped through, her hair pale and her dress an elegant green and gold. Dangerous: he wasn't fooled by her pretty face and faint smile.
Echris didn't wait. "I apologize. We didn't want to be caught by the soldiers. Our only hope was that you would be --"
"Blind to your indiscretion?" she asked, a clear, steady voice that held only the slightest contempt.
"Faster in your response. We knew what we would suffer in their hands before we died."
She looked into his face, startled. "We are not bloodthirsty, but we have to maintain our rules. Our place wouldn't be safe from the likes of you."
"How -- how do you know?" Pornan asked softly. He was having trouble breathing.
"Back in the age of the war --"
"We all did cruel and evil things, your people and mine. But the world changes. . . ." Echris stopped and looked at her. "Only it doesn't for you, does it? You are the same people who fought the war. We're four generations later. We can change. You can't."
"We know generations pass." Anger tinged her voice. "We aren't blind."
Echris said nothing more giving up the discussion, but he saw the glint of the weapon as the soldier charged forward, the sword swinging --
The sword would have caught her first, then Pornan. Echris surged up and took the cut across his shoulder as he shoved the man back. He wasn't sure what the woman did then; magic surged and the soldier disappeared.
"Saved me," she was saying, though he barely heard the words. "Maybe changed after all."
Magic spread up around him, warm and healing. He saw the shackles disappear from Pornan's arms and legs.
Others were coming from the woods, startled words he didn't quite understand, though he tried to listen. They were going to survive. He had the feeling they'd have another report to make by the time they made it home.
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