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"Fine," you say a little bitterly to Martel. "Then I will accompany you."
Martel raises his brows at you. "Do not trust me, Stranger? Even now?"
"I trust your motives, but I do not trust your temper. Besides, Bassadia has been nothing but true to me to date. I will not abandom her now."
You glance across at Bassadia, who stares at you with large, tear-filled eyes. She smiles slightly at you and you smile back.
Martel grunts. "As you like."
Sylpha nods once as if in approval and Oisin says, "Defying advancement in favour of friendship is admiral, Sky Road Walker."
"Just 'ware the friends you choose," Martel growls.
"Indeed," Bassadia says, glaring at Martel.
Despite himself, Martel grunts a short laugh. "So, Black Blade," he asks. "Can you ride?"
"Well enough," Bassadia answers.
"Good, then. We leave today. The rest will follow in the coming days. By the end of the week, this place will be empty. I suggest you and the Sky Road walker take some time to prepare."
You nod and, smiling at Bassadia, leave the study. Once the door closes behind you, Bassadia turns suddenly and wraps you in a tight hug.
"Thank-you," she whispers.
You awkwardly pat Bassadia on her back. "You're welcome," you say. "Now come on, let's spend the rest of today at rest. We'll be out in the woods for a few months."
Rest you do. You gather your armour and weapons and find yourself an empty bench to lie on. You alternately snoozing and staring up at the ceiling. Bassadia settles on the floor beside you, apparently keen to be at your side.
After a few hours, Martel arrives. "It's getting on twilight," he says. "Time to move."
You sigh and sit up, stretching out cramped muscles. "Have you given thought as to what you will do when this is all over?" you ask Martel as you rise to your feet and help Bassadia up. "I mean, if everything turns out as you want it to - you find the heir and restore the throne, and the Rangers are reformed."
Martel shrugs. "Return here, I suppose."
"Really? You wouldn't take a position in the Imperial Court?"
Martel snorts and turns, leading you to the stables where Fas patiently awaits you. "No," he says at length. "Not that I expect such an honour to be bestowed on me, but even if it were, I would lose my mind locked inside all day. The wilds have been my home for so long now that I can't imagine myself anywhere else."
"What if you were offered a ridiculously large salary?"
"Not even then. What good is money if it's acquisition denies you fresh air and the peace of the wilderness?"
You shrug. "You could buy things, I guess."
Again, Martel snorts. "Things. I have my weapons, my horse and my wits. I don't need 'things.'"
"I should like a house," you say as you groom and dress Fas. "A great big one, and a yard with a couple of fruit trees."
Martel laughs. "I dare say you will be entitled to one, Sky Road walker, if all goes well."
"Well, then," Sylpha says from the stable entrance as you turn to lead Fas outside. "You are off, then?"
"We are," Martel says. "It is time."
"Travel safe and swift, Ranger," she says. "We shall be along soon."
Martel nods and he moves on. As you lead Fas on, Sylpha reaches out and grasps your forearm. "Follow your heart, Sky Road walker," she says. "But bring your mind with you."
You nod at her and she smiles, turns and leaves. You leas Fas outside and mount up.
At a silent signal from Martel, the group moves off. You do not miss the long look behind Martel gives his home. There is longing in his expression.
Martel's group is not the first to have left today, nor is it the last. You see six other groups leave the headquarters, each taking a different path. You know that groups of Rangers and northmen will be leaving all through the night and into the week ahead.
"And we're off," Martels says, mostly to himself.
The first few days of travel are uneventuful. Even so, the Rangers and northmen in your group remain alert. They ride tall in their saddles, envigorated by a common purpose. They are close, now. So close to restoring the throne, reinstating the Rangers and becoming once again citizens of the empire; able to travel wheresoever they wish without fear of authority.
It strikes you suddenly how crushing it must be to be evicted from the society one has loved and served one's entire life. You look at Martel, who sits in silent thought, eyes always chacking his surrounds even as his mind travells elsewhere.
Twice your group has to skirt around certain blocks; one trollcave - a new habitation, you're told, made possible only because there are too few Rangers protecting the empire; and one knon bandit camp. The bandits are less of a threat than the trolls, but Martel prudently refuses to engage them at this time.
Scouts ride out and return periodically, speaking in low tones to their leader before falling back into the group, and Martel sits on his horse and ponders.
"What are you thinking about?" you ask him at the first camp of the second week of travel.
"My mother, if you must know," Martel says with a smile. "Since becoming an outlaw, I have not dared return home to visit, or even to write and enquire after my family, lest it lead the Steward back to me and my men. I am looking forward to seeing her again. If she lives."
"Is there any reason she wouldn't?"
Martel shrugs. "She is a delicate woman, with a delicate constitution. I do not know how she handled the news that her son has gone rogue. I do not know what sicknesses have infested the southern ranges of the Empire. There is too little news that reaches my ears."
"I'm sure she is proud," you say.
"Perhaps. Father will not be."
You smile. "A stickler for the rules?"
Martel grunts in affirmation. "And fond of the Steward. The man has never known a hard day in his life and has little compassion for those who have. I might have been the same, had I not felt the call of the wilds."
"I somehow doubt that," you say. "I recall you saying you were nobleborn, but not so noble to be of any import to anyone. That affords you a better vantage point than most. You probably would still be trying to restore the throne."
"You give me a little too much credit, Stranger."
"I believe a sense of justice is innate in people, and that injustice and entitlement are learned. You, I think, would have been to headstrong to unlearn that which you were born with."
Martel laughs a little. "That I might have been. Headstrong is a good description."
For much of the journey you remain with Bassadia. Martel is seldom in the mood for conversation. The impending confrontation is, you have no doubt, occupying a considerable amount of his thoughts. Strategies considered and discarded or stored for future reference trace lightning flashes across his eyes.
They are interrupted by the arrival of a grim-faced scout. "The bridge is destroyed," he announces sourly.
Martel scowls. "Flood?"
"No, sir," the scout says. "Dismantled. I can see the axe marks in the struts clear as day. I'd say the work of bandits, or perhaps the sorceror who long ago anticipated assault."
Growling, Martel halts the group and dismounts. Everyone does the same. Martel beckons you over and pulls out a map. He spreads it out over his knee. "This would never have happened if the Rangers were still on patrol." He sighs.
"You see this canyon?" he says, indicating a large fissure drawn on the vellum resting on his knee. "This is the bridge we have used to cross since before I was born. The canyon is deep and narrow, with a swift river at its base. The walls of the canyon are sheer. There is no way down for a man without a rope, let alone a horse."
"Not to mention that even we should find a way down, the water is too swift to cross without drowning," the scout notes.
"Now," Martel says. "We can travel a week or so out of our way north and cross at the falls. It is dangerous. The current is very strong, the falls are very high, and the rocks are sharp and slick. Five days to the south, there is the township of Sech. It has a ferry. Going that way, however, exposes us to prying eyes and is, therefore dangerous not only to us, but the entire mission."
"How wide is the canyon? Could we not rebuild the bridge?" Bassadia asks.
Martel blinks at her. "It is possible, I suppose," he admits. "But it will take time and make noise." The leader of the Rangers turns to you. "What do you think?"
You scowl down at the map. What do you say?
a) Go north. The mission is too important to risk being discovered and, even Martel admits, there is a natural crossing there. You will be able to cross and won't be discovered thay way.
b) Go south. The ferry can carry horses across and there is little risk of falling to your death. It'll take time for the Steward and the Black Blades to mobilise even if you are discovered.
c) Rebuild the bridge. The canyon isn't that wide, and there will be more Rangers needing to cross this way. It will at least speed their journey.
So? Which is it, Sky Road walker? Vote! Share! Good luck!