It couldn’t be.
“So sorry to have kept Rex,” Dana continued. “I sort of bumped into his patrol.”
I stared, I admit, if only to convince myself this was really him. “But… we thought you… after the battle, when… not that we blamed you, we couldn’t…”
He raised an eyebrow, his hand resting easy on the hilt of the sword hanging at his side. “I gave the order to run for it, didn’t? I certainly hoped the others paid attention, that was a nasty blow over the head I got before I was captured. The other fellow got worse, though, so it’s not so bad.”
“We thought they’d imprisoned you.”
At this he smiled, that curious mixture of soberness and humor quirking his mouth. “There is always a path, even when one cannot see it.”
“Dana, that entire valley was overrun, how could you possibly have gotten out?”
He merely shrugged. “As I said, there is always a way. Let’s just say… we ought not to overestimate their patrol patterns. Besides, I’m one of The Order, aren’t I?”
“Yes…” I couldn’t help but smile, and a short laugh escaped me. He had no idea what a relief it was that he had turned up. “I’m very glad to see you, after all these weeks. Rex, would you--? Rex?”
He’d gone. I turned a circle, searching amongst the soldiers that wove in and out of our little campsite for the brawny commander.
I sighed. “One step ahead of me, as usual.” This had become a frequent event as of late. Possessing a more organized mindset than myself, he helped keep things running more smoothly than when they were left to me alone, often completing tasks before I remembered to remind him of them.
I returned my attention to Dana, taking in his appearance in a brief glance. Instead of the livery of our army, he wore a nearly all black outfit that he’d undoubtedly taken from an enemy soldier during his escape. Over this he sported a hauberk of chain mail, a leather jerkin, vambraces, and shin guards. His dark brown cloak hung back over his shoulders, along with a loaded satchel under his arm. His hair, which he preferred to keep at a shorter length, had grown some. I could tell he’d tried to comb it into submission at some point before arriving here, but it stuck out at rogue-ish angles, which seemed to me somewhat fitting considering his latest escapade.
“Come,” I said. “Are you hungry?”
“I could eat, I suppose.” He replied.
“Then you can do so while I fill you in. There have been some….developments. Some not so good.”
In spite of my relief at his return, I did not relish telling Dana about what had transpired in his absence. I gestured for him to follow me, and led the way towards one of the caves.
“Before you do, tell me,” He fell in step beside me. “When we were separated those weeks ago, what happened to my cohort? Did they retreat as ordered?”
I glanced down, taking a breath. “Most of them did.” I said. “When you did not return, McKenzie took a dozen men with him to search for you. They’ve not been heard from since. I’m sorry…”
He nodded slowly, his shoulders sagging. “Aye…. Stubborn soldier. Would that he had died in a way less futile.”
I tightened my jaw. Would that so many had died in ways less futile…
“I’m glad the others escaped.” He said. “What has happened of late, as you so ominously hinted?”
I came to a place just to the side of the cave entrance. Remains from last night’s fire lay scattered in the small fire pit I’d dug into the hard earth. I sat down against the rock wall and pulled over my saddlebag, reaching in and retrieving some dried meat. Dana sat down near me, taking off the pack he’d had on his back and setting it with a thump on the ground.
“After our defeat at Ross, we moved on to Campbell’s realm.” I handed him the meat. “Lord Campbell gave us shelter and supplies, and his castle for defense. Ross’s armies eventually pursued us there, and laid siege.”
“Since you are here and not there, I take it things did not turn out so well.”
I laughed, devoid of mirth. My skin tingled with a wave of heat that washed over me. “That is one way to put it. Some men got out to call in reinforcements to attack the besiegers from behind. We received word back that our men were in position, ready to launch a simultaneous attack on Ross’s army from the outside, while we attacked them from where we were. The combined forces would have been enough to win a victory.”
I drew a breath, avoiding Dana’s gaze. “That night, when we attacked, we discovered the betrayal; our messenger had been murdered before he could reach our forces with our plea for help, and Campbell had bribed the messenger’s companions to give us the false message. Completely outnumbered… we lost almost immediately. Percy and Seph managed to make an opening enough for me to lead some of us out to escape into the woods with a map we’d stolen from Campbell. Now, they’re probably rotting in Campbell’s dungeons as prisoners, as well as half of our forces we had there.”
I leaned back. Dana chewed in silence, a contemplative expression on his face. He finished the last bite of meat, and rose, dusting his hands off.
“Well then, it’s high time we broke them out, isn’t it?”
I shook my head. Always a man of action, was Dana. Never an idle moment. But this time he was out of his league. “It’s not that easy.”
“Oh? What of their gifts, are they useless in their position?”
I rose, a flash of anger surging through me. Not at Dana, but at those….low lives who’d betrayed us.
At this whole hopeless mess!
“Do you know how Campbell treats his prisoners? Even before he betrayed us I did not approve.” I snapped. “If my brothers can still lift a sword by the time we rescue them, it will be a blessed MIRACLE.”
I paced away a few steps in an attempt to calm my racing pulse. Such a wrath churned inside me that could surely not be right. For this reason I had tried not to think about the past weeks and keep my focus on the insignificant, pathetic little raids I’d been having Rex do. I already knew I was given to emotion, and if I did not control myself, I would assuredly do something rash.
“Campbell is allied with Ross now.” I explained, my tone dropping. “His troops are swarming all over the area looking for us. We’ve tried, but we haven’t been able to even get close to the castle. Ross’s men attacked our secondary force as well, the location they apparently tortured out of our messenger before killing him. They’ve been forced to retreat and hang back or else risk engagement again.”
My gaze drifted over the infirmary just inside the cave. “Rescuing Percy and Seph is not just a matter of standing up and doing it now, Dana.” I watched one of the doctors slowly bind a white bandage over a young soldier’s shoulder.
“I’m just as mournful as you are they’re gone, Pen.” Dana said behind me. “And I’m sorry. But I didn’t come here to offer useless suggestions, even if you may think I did due to how I act. And in this case, I think my own gift will come in handy.”
His pack rustled as he rummaged through it. I glanced back. He pulled a scroll from the depths, and straightened, stepping closer.
He put a hand on my shoulder. “We’ll get them back. I’m here once more, and I’ll do what I can, even without my followers.” He withdrew his hand, and began untying the leather strap holding the scroll closed. “Now, for a rescue of our brothers in chains…”
I narrowed my eyes, but gave him my attention. He glanced around and located the small table I’d had the men make standing a short distance away. I watched him for a moment, frowning, while he walked over and laid out the scroll out flat on the wooden surface. Finally I joined him, curious if not quite convinced. The scroll proved to be a map that included Ross’s realm and much of the campaign territory we’d covered in the past several months.
“This is Ross’s castle, where I was kept for a short period.” Dana pointed. “As I traveled, I made note of the search patterns his forces used as I made my way to Campbell’s castle, thinking he may have let you hide there. Obviously, that didn’t turn out well for you all, but I did manage to find my way around his place quite easily.”
I still suspended hope, but my interest was aroused. Any information on Campbell’s castle was good, whether it led to the rescue of my brothers or not.
He continued. “His moat is water based, but the back of his castle is built into a sheer rock wall joining another mountain side, usually inaccessible due to its sheer rock face, a natural advantage. However,” He held up a finger. “There are caves and tunnels that have been worn out by the waters of his moat, some connected to unused portions of his castle that may have been overlooked for some time now. I hid there for a day or so before I memorized their guard rotations.”
On the map, he pointed out several locations on the perimeter of Campbell’s castle. “There, and there, are two caves that connect to his cellars and dungeons via an old sewage system, now unused and ignored.”
“Campbell inherited the castle from his father,” I said, leaning my hands against the table and studying the territory drawing. “His father conquered it from Lord Wexford decades ago; it’s possible Wexford concealed the knowledge of these holes in his defenses on purpose with the idea of retaking the castle again someday.”
Dana arched an eyebrow like he did when something intrigued him.
I shrugged. “Just theorizing; go on.”
“No, you’re probably right. I actually stole some supplies from Campbell’s kitchens; not really worth the time, though, but I used the same system. Either they knew I was there and let me pass, which I doubt, or your theory has some merit.”
I nodded, not interrupting as he went on.
“Now, as for actually getting there, his moat is fed via the Tranet River; the same one which runs through this mountain. And, I might add, through a forest that would conveniently hide the movements of a small party of stealthy individuals.
“After I escaped, I sent word to my cohort, in hope they had escaped the battle; now that I know they did, they should be marching to support your secondary command. I sent orders with them to reengage the enemy as soon as we send word, as their numbers may be enough to do so. However, we need to assemble the rest of our order for this to be successful. And, while we’re at it, we might as well assassinate any leaders in the castle we find.”
He paused. “There is, however, one problem as far as I’m concerned.”
I tilted my gaze towards him. A moment passed before he met it.
“Set is with Ross.”
The hair on the back of my neck stood on end at the very sound of that name. My brow smoothed and I straightened.
“It’s the reason my attempt to lead us behind enemy lines didn’t work.” His expression was serious. “If he’s there, my pathfinding could potentially be misdirected or thwarted; he’s the only one who knows how to deviate my courses.”
I looked at the map again, not to examine it but to think. I traced my finger back and forth over my mouth, a nervous habit.
He straightened and folded his arms with a shrug. “It’s a long shot, I know, but without the others here we can’t amass a force large enough to take on Campbell and Ross’s forces man for man.”
“No, not with the remnant force we have, for sure….” I replied.
I gave up despairing over the complicated mess of this whole situation, managed to calm my thoughts after hearing about Set, and went over the information Dana had just given me.
Could his plan really work? I couldn’t tell if it tempted me because of its plausibility, or if it was because I was desperate for anything remotely feasible to rescue my brothers.
“You and your ‘gifts’, Dana….” I murmured absently. “They didn’t help you at Ross. Are you trying to say that was Set’s fault.”
“Set can’t block it, but he can confuse my path. That’s why we were ambushed.”
I shook my head. Lately he’d been talking more about the stories told by older Order members about these gifts. Hereditary abilities of some sort, usually vague and subversive. I’d heard them, too, as a child, and for a time believed them. But that had faded over the years in the wake of hardship and war, and now seemed so unimportant.
“You know you’re the only one among us who still… believes in these gifts you keep talking about.”
He gave a small smile. “I got back here alone, didn’t I? I’m the path seeker. To me, there is always a way. That’s my gift.”
I remained dubious. “Your gift… how exactly does it work?”
“It’s… a feeling. Like I know for certain I’m going the right way. Opposite wise, I can also tell when I’m going the wrong way; At least, most of the time. It’s not infallible, just depends on how focused I am.”
“You seem to think all of us have some sort of ‘gift’.”
He nodded firmly. “I certainly do. At least, those of us in The Order have one.”
“Well, it has yet to show. You’re right about one thing; we should check those tunnels leading into Campbell’s castle.”
“As you say, then, my lady.” He said, dropping the subject. “Seeing as I’m currently without my soldiers, I’m at your service, as well as may be.”
I shook my head. “No, let’s not bring soldiers. We’ll go alone.”
He narrowed his eyes slightly. “Are you sure?”
“It’s a long shot, like you said.” I rolled up the map for him. “I’ve seen enough men die already, I’ll risk no more.”
“Very well.” He took the map, and tied the leather strap around it again. “When do you want to depart?”
I gave the sun a glance to ascertain the time. “We’ll go tonight, after Rex returns from his raid. But we can’t let anyone know we’re leaving. I can tell the patrolman when we actually go, but no one else, and not beforehand.”
“Do you suspect a spy?”
“No,” I said. “I suspect another McKenzie.”
With a resolute tone and a determined glint in his eyes, he answered, “So be it.”