With every step towards Baris, the city came further into focus. The low-hanging stars became flickering torches, and the flat tops of the walls became more and more jagged. As Deterikh’s capital became more clear, though, my heart became more clouded. A skein of relief ran through me as I caught sight of the wooden guardhouse standing beside the road just before the outer wall, but dread quickly knotted with it as I espied the brace of soldiers standing in the road in a circle of firelight. They stood at ease, the butts of their spears at rest against the ground, ready to block our path at a moment’s notice.
My left paw began to itch, and I rubbed it as subtly as I could against my side. A paw fell upon my shoulder, and I turned to see Miss Aura give a shake of her head. “Leave it, pet,” she murmured in my ear.
“Something wrong with Taneh?” my master whispered as he looked back, one weary paw resting on the pommel of his mace at his hip.
“Ey’s just anxious,” the sage covered smoothly, giving my ears a gentle stroke that sent a shiver down my spine. “It’s been a long few weeks.”
Mister Valentin chuckled mirthlessly at that. “For all of us,” he muttered. Then he swung one arm towards the shack and its attendants. “Aura, if you would?”
Miss Aura nodded, then strode towards the gate, into the light, one arm raised in greeting. “Ho there!”
At the sudden voice in the darkness, both guards snapped to attention, spears half-lowered towards the darkness beyond the city walls. “Who goes?”
“I’ve an urgent message for Iladin!” the sage replied. As she spoke, she reached into her blouse and pulled out a familiar folded sheaf of parchment, which she shook in front of her to punctuate her words. “We’ll need an audience with the sage, and as quickly as possible.”
The guards slowly lowered the points of their spears in her direction. “Who are you?” the one on the left asked, flicking the tip of his spear in our direction. “What’s your message?”
“It’s about Jazinsk’s harvests and a risk to Deterikh’s stores.” Despite my best efforts to stay silent, I couldn’t quite repress a chuckle. For all that Miss Aura had accused Mister Dion of having a quicksilver tongue, the sage herself was no slouch at fast talk. “I’ve made some notes that he’ll want to see, given the war and all.” She held out the folded paper. “You’re welcome to review them yourselves, but Iladin’ll need to to see them.”
The guards exchanged glances, but as one of them began to return his spear to the ready, a fresh voice called out from the shack. “Who’s there? What’s she want?” Moments later, a familiar wolf in Deterikh’s green and white stepped out into the road, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Someone asking for an audience with Iladin, sir,” the guard on the right answered, still facing in our direction. “She says it’s about our—”
“Chelin! Koshki’s luck!” Mister Valentin strode into the light, right past the suddenly-slackjawed sage and towards the cluster of guards. “Listen. We need your—” Both spears suddenly focused on the newcomer, and the sergeant raised his paws in surprise. “Chelin? We need your help.”
“Valentin?” The runner’s voice rose in shock, his arms outstretched. “What are you doing here? Datsia… she said you’d gone purple on us!”
Mister Valentin clasped arms with his lieutenant, a smile on his muzzle and a laugh in his voice. “Never, Chelin. Never. I went to save the rightful baron. Erik!” He turned and beckoned towards my master. “Step into the light!”
As my master stepped forward, one of his paws still on my shoulder, one of the guards suddenly stumbled, his spear clattering loudly against the ground. I saw a blur of motion behind the sergeant, and then the other spearpoint suddenly dropped out of view. I thrust one arm out in front of me, trying to point past him. “Sir!”
Mister Valentin’s ears flattened at the commotion beside him as his training visibly took control. He sprung forward, slamming into Mister Chelin and sending the two sprawling to the ground as a spear thrust into the space that his chest had been not seconds before. His killing blow denied, the guard attacking them raised his spear to drive it downward, but it clattered off of my master’s sudden rising swing, skittered down the pole, and then bounced off of the baron’s knuckles.
My master yelped in surprise and jerked back his paw, snapping his spear upright. The sudden tug sent Mister Valentin’s attacker into a lurch before dropping his weapon, which clattered against the well-trod path. Rather than grope for his fallen spear, the guard simply turned and dashed inside the walls, his voice rising in a strangled cry. “At the gate! At the gate!”
“Dust!” Mister Valentin hissed as he scrambled back to his hinds. “Everyone, now!” He jerked Mister Chelin upright, then marched us through the gates, shoving us ahead of him as fast as he could. “Move! Move!” As guards began to move along the walls towards the circle of light, Mister Valentin drove us inside, back into the darkness, across the empty market square and into the outer edges of the city itself. Behind me, I heard two bowstrings twang, the hiss of arrows, and then a choked-off grunt from the sergeant as we ducked behind a closed tavern.
In the sudden dark and still, five breaths were a tornado. As I panted and swallowed, trying to get my heart under control, I caught a whiff of blood and a grimace as Mister Valentin fought off the urge to faint. The arrow that protruded from the back of his arm hadn’t come through to the front, but the head was fully under the skin and the sleeve below was slick and shiny.
“And that’s your way of letting me handle it, then.” Miss Aura’s tongue was quick as ever, though her tone was all patience. “It’s not deep; best to pull it.” She snatched a stick from the ground, then held it to the Mister Valentin’s muzzle. “Bite,” she murmured, and the sergeant nodded, taking the wood in his teeth. She put one paw on his shoulder, then wrapped the other around the shaft. “On three. Ready?” Mister Valentin nodded again, and the sage braced her legs.
“One.” Miss Aura’s arm jerked and the sergeant gagged, the wood cracking in his teeth as he bit down against the pain. The sleeve of the jacket let out a wet rip as the arrowhead pulled free from his arm, shredding the fabric as she tugged it free. “That’ll leave a scar. Best give me a minute with it.”
“No time,” Mister Valentin groaned around the last of the splinters. “Listen. Got to get to the keep. Got to split up; they’ll find us if we stay here.”
“You’ll be no good to us or to Baris if you bleed out,” Miss Aura hissed in response. “At least let me stanch the flow.”
“Just tie it,” the sergeant insisted. “Go, wake Iladin, start him crafting all the potions he can manage. Chelin.” He put his good paw on his lieutenant’s shoulder. “Find that runner.” Mister Chelin nodded and saluted, then sprinted down the alley, vanishing as he hit the street. “Guard.” Without turning his head, he addressed the warden who’d been dragged along with us in the commotion. “Your name?”
The young guard that had followed us clutched his spear to his chest. “A-Andor?” he stuttered. “Sir?”
The sergeant nodded, staggering slightly as he bobbed his head. “Andor. Go find Inika, daughter of Eskaya. Tell her the baron has returned; she’ll know what to do.” Andor gave the same nod and salute, then disappeared towards the keep. Mister Valentin watched him run, then looked at Miss Aura. “You’re still here.”
“You’re still bleeding,” Miss Aura retorted. “Where’s that draught I gave you?” Mister Valentin fumbled at his waist, then held up the battered flask. “Drink it.” The sergeant unscrewed the cap, then scowled as he tipped the bottle. His fur bristled and his ears went flat, but he held the flask to his lips until it ran dry. “That’ll keep your strength. Taneh, tend his wound.”
“Taneh?” At that, my master’s ears flattened. “Ey’s got no fingers! How’s ey going to—”
“Ey has other means,” The sage interrupted. “Between that flask and eir work, he should be fine. Just try not to favor the arm too much, Valentin.” She clapped the sergeant on his good shoulder, but the blow still made him wince. “I’ll go find Iladin. Great Family willing, you’ll still be alive by the time we get to the keep.”