The path

As I turned the corner, I saw it and halted. The swaying rope ladder indicating our route was about to become even more difficult. The suspended path twined with vines that we had tread so carefully for more than a week had turned abruptly in the wrong direction, while the one far below on the ground continued straight ahead.

I checked my map and compass again. It was clear now that the lines I had traced had misled me. I turned to the captain and indicated the map and the necessary adjustments to our course. If he was angry, his face made no indication. He called to the crew and rattled out orders. To travel crew and gear down a 25-foot rope ladder, the only connection between the two paths, would be no small feat.

I could hear grumbling, but this was our only choice. How was I to know that that the intersection would be so unaccommodating to the exchange of traffic from one artery to another? After all, I’d never come this way before. None of us had.

I felt frustration and fear ripple through the crew. The aerial causeways were uncomfortable, but at least the crew felt relatively safe. The ground was another matter altogether.

Gwyneth, alarmed at the sudden halt of the caravan, called out to the captain who informed her of the change of direction. She pursed her lips and looked in my direction darkly. Michael, anxious to find out what was happening, rushed to her side, hand to his weapon. He relaxed his grip on his saber to gesture angrily in my direction, but Gwyneth shook her head and patted his shoulder in a conciliating manner.

That night, when we made camp, Gwyneth and Michael would sneak into each other’s arms, as they did every night, even though it was her husband we were trying to rescue. I sometimes wondered why we even bothered. Surely, they would be happier if we just left things as they were. But Gwyneth’s guilt made her a hard mistress, and she whipped the party on day after day, with the threat of lawsuits for breach of contract and the promise of reward for each hour traveled before dawn and after dusk. She was shrewd, willing to take chances if she thought the gain worth the risk. It was easy to see why Eversley and Eversley had proved such a force to be reckoned with.

While he did share Gywneth’s intense interest in daily progress and the rate at which we traveled, Michael’s guilt manifested itself in other ways. It was almost as though someone had turned his volume up too loud. So far he had been genial and boisterous. He joked with the crew, poked the captain’s ribs with his elbow, and teased all the girls, despite their quivers filled with arrows and the deadly glint in their eyes. He was a whirlwind of bravado and he almost made us forget the haunted look you could catch in his eye that told of fear for his best friend, captured and possibly dying, and his unrelenting, tortuous guilt at easing that fear by making love to his best friend’s wife every night.

Despite some grumbling, we now we turned to the task at hand with alacrity. Ropes and pulleys lowered our gear to the path below and each crewmember climbed down the swaying fibrous ladder. While some slats in the path had been replaced more recently, this ladder had been around for a long time, which did nothing to ease any concerns inevitably excited by stepping onto the first rung.

As the crewmembers hoisted the cannons down with rope, Gwyneth tapped her foot impatiently. I plucked a fuzzy green caterpillar from a nearby leaf, studying his patient wriggling intently, trying to pretend not to observe her anxiety. The captain browsed his manifest looking up to bark an order.

Upon reaching the lower wooden causeway, I examined the map again, checking this new path for clues to the hazards that lay ahead, thinking how luxurious a complete scout team would have been. The map was fairly detailed, but it lacked notes and descriptions that some of my previous jobs had benefited from. Even better were the maps I had been able to annotate personally, accompanying the advance scout team before the crew embarked.

This job hadn’t lacked for money, the company had poured every penny it could into this, but rather time. With every day passing, diminishing Christophe’s chance of survival, there was hardly any time at all to prepare. Many say our captain was the only man who could have undertaken it.

I glanced over, his tall figure imposing, as he stood watching his crew. He was sandy haired, shot through with gray. His cap shaded his freckled face, which had seen many years of work in the sun. His steel blue eyes were calm and his mouth in a constant firm neutral. A master logistician and politician, he ran his crews smoothly and had never lost a man underneath him nor had he failed to accomplish his mission. He didn’t tolerate foolishness and he deplored prima donnas. Rumor has it he once carried a recalcitrant client thrown over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes for five hours, just to stay on schedule. Some say it was the Princess of Saxburg, others the eldest son of the uranium magnate – Lucius Blodell. (I happen to know for a fact it was the Senator Hawley.)

Returning to my examination of the map, I spotted an unfinished bridge spanning a long ribbon of blue, some two miles from our current position, signaling yet another painstaking crossing of the river. Surely we would make camp before attempting another such arduous maneuver, but the grim determination on Gwyneth’s face made my heart quail. To cross in darkness would be unwise, but I knew she would be anxious to press on as long as possible, making up time lost to this misadventure.

Discreetly, I indicated to the captain the existence of the bridge, who’s only response was to slow the lowering of a rolling cannon and order the reinforcement of the ropes holding a wheelbarrow of cannonballs.

I sighed with relief inwardly. Clearly, the transfer from one level to another would take all afternoon. We would not move on until dusk at the earliest. I looked ahead down the path for a good clearing to make camp. Finding a small spot some 10 yards down the way, I reported my findings. The captain dispatched the girls to find some fresh game for supper and I began to gather wood with some of the young boys. Too small to be part of the crew, but handy enough to tie small knots, gather wood, start fires, clean pots, and generally do all the little things a good crew needs doing, the boys were quick about their work. Calling to each other and laughing, they were blissfully unaware of the fact that the campfire they built warmed a small group who held a man’s life in their hands. They understood there was a mission, but they cared little for its intricacies. Some day they would be members of a crew themselves, pushing cannons, loading them, cleaning them, or perhaps building the structures on which they were mounted before they belched destruction and fire tearing castles to bits. Now all they hoped for was food, coin, and a jolly time.

As the girls begin skinning rabbits and we began to make camp in earnest, pitching tents and setting up a perimeter, Gwyneth beckoned me imperiously.

“Before we departed the metropolis, the captain lauded your navigational abilities. I do hope we weren’t deceived.” Gwyneth sniffed.

“I always endeavor to give satisfaction, Madam.” I replied stiffly.

“The snafu this afternoon, it was a singular affair I suppose.”

“I can only hope so, Madam.”

“The Children of the Liberation may have abducted my husband, but make no mistake I will hold you all accountable for his death if we fail to recover him in time.”

“The urgency and importance of our mission is foremost in all our minds at all times, Madam.”

“I should hope so.” She half-growled as she stalked off, perhaps incorrectly interpreting my extreme politeness as impertinence.

The forest was oppressive and at night we missed the stars. We could only catch tiny glimpses of them through voids in the interlaced canopy above us. The trees and the darkness pressed around us at night and the crew on watch could see rustling and movement in the nearby bushes, but nothing disturbed us. Nonetheless, the forest had a presence. It was an old forest and the road was very old as well. It had been a long time since it was traveled and even longer still since it was laid down. Some of the wooden slats were rotten, but others seemed to have become nearly petrified. Some of the bridges also seemed to be unfinished, or perhaps decayed, sometimes if was difficult to tell which. Knowing as little as we did about the original builders, our maps were not always accurate and sometimes they were deceiving, in a way that somehow seemed deliberate. As though the road we now traveled was a secret no one was supposed to find. Christophe’s captors had not come this way. They had traveled by sea or by dirigible. We weren’t sure, but the rebel skirmishes to the south made any other route impossible. This road was supposed to take us to him, but how could we be certain when no one had ever been this far?

In some ways, we were fortunate that our route now brought us in contact with the ground. The elevated paths were always more difficult to traverse and making camp for the night an unpleasant affair. If you left the safety of the path for the ground, that presented certain dangers, but making camp in the air didn’t always sit well with the crew, and fairly eliminated the possibility of a campfire and a hot supper.

Our crew thoroughly enjoyed the first evening on the ground after ten days of swaying in the treetops. They laughed and joked around the fire, teasing the young boys and ordering them about. Only the girls sharpened their daggers moodily, not trusting our good luck; but that was typical, they none of them trusted anything much. Gwyneth and Michael sat conversing with the captain in their designated seats by the fire, sipping honey rum and eating rabbit stew. I did not join in the revelry. If I had a dagger, I would have been moodily sharpening it. As it was I sat somewhat behind the circle, surveying the group as I spread my map on a rock underneath one of the lanterns that the boys had hung from a tree. I checked and re-checked our path. It was my job to make sure we reached the target. That was all. How we got there, what happened in the meantime and what happened when we got there was not my concern. But I supervised the navigation and so I never felt relaxed, not ever.

As the hour advanced, the crewmembers began to make their way to their tents. The watch was divided up between the crewmembers and the girls. The crewmembers had rifles and the girls had their bows and their newly sharpened daggers. Despite the cheerful mood at supper, the first night on the ground in this new part of the forest was going to be a tense watch.

I crawled to my tent and curled myself in my bedroll. At first adrenaline coursed through my veins as what-ifs and imaginary creatures prowled through my brain, but slowly sleep began to seep through my mind and my consciousness began to slide away. Suddenly, I woke up with a start as a terse whispered conversation cut through my tent walls.

“I just don’t know if it’s wise for you to continue. Let me go on with a skeleton crew, we’ll move faster and it’ll be much safer for you.” Michael spoke so quietly, I could just make out his words.

“Don’t be ridiculous, I’m not giving up on this,” Gywneth snapped.

“Nor am I, I just think, well it’s wise to be prepared for what we could find.” His whisper more desperate

“I am prepared to bring Christophe home, and I will be there to free him. Don’t even breathe another word of this skeleton crew nonsense. I can’t believe we are having this conversation a second time.”

“He could be dead at this point—”

“Don’t you dare.” Gwyneth hissed. “You’d like that wouldn’t you. Then we could just continue with this, this, whatever it is. You always wanted this. You were just waiting for your moment. You simply never had the courage to bring it about yourself.”

“Gwyn. Come now.”

“I saw your looks. Always lingering a little too long.”

“This is not the time, Gwyn, please—”

“Do not address me as Gwyn. Mrs. Eversley, or Gywneth if you must be so informal.”

“Really, what on earth has gotten--.”

“Goodnight, Mr. Uhlenberg.” Gwyneth rustled away.

The next morning, the anger between Gwyneth and Michael was palpable. Gwyneth was icily civil to everyone, while Michael simply scowled. We edged around them; they were both of them so prickly we were afraid to even speak to them. We spent an hour shuttling the crew across the unfinished bridge I had spotted on the map the day before. It looked as though certain parts had decayed and others had simply never been built. When you looked down, wide stretches of lazy blue water from the river below glinted up at you. In a wild moment, it was almost tempting to jump in, but then a creeping thought of what might lurk there slid through your consciousness and jerked you back to your senses. In some parts, so many of the slats were missing, we had to cling to the side railings and inch our way along. I couldn’t understand why it had been allowed to fall into such disrepair but it indicated how little used the route really was. A fact everyone seemed to divine as we struggled across, adding to the tension that Gwyneth and Michael’s spat had created.

With everyone on high alert, the girls were even more jumpy than usual. Some had reached for their quivers half a dozen times already by the time the sun was getting high in the sky. About an hour before we were to stop for lunch, we heard a terrible crashing sound as bushes and trees were trampled and it seemed that some giant beast was about to erupt from the forest. The girls had notched their arrows and some of the crewmembers grabbed their rifles and stood ready, as a group of men on horseback came tearing out of the forest. They reined up immediately on seeing the firepower ranged in front of them.

“Whoa!” They shouted, both at the horses and at us. The horses skidded to a stop a few feet from our path. Our captain held up his hand to our crew to stay their weapons.

“Who’s captain here?” A stout, tall young man called out, jumping off his horse. He had a black hat and black boots.

“That’s me.” Our captain replied quietly.

“Jack Sturgess, Captain of The Band.” The young man declared, sticking out his hand.

“You nearly got your crew killed just now.” Was our captain’s only reply.

“Ahh, the great Eli Frelingham, if I’m not mistaken. An honor to finally meet you in person, sir. I’ve read much about you. I can see you do stick to the time-honored traditions of our profession. Always by the book, eh?”

“There’s a good reason the book exists. And it’s why I’m still alive. You should have had an advance party, that way you wouldn’t have nearly run us over and gotten yourselves shot in the process.”

Jack smiled knowingly, “Mr. Frelingham, I have admired your work for years. I will say though, I do find your methods a bit old fashioned. The motto of The Band is ‘The rules were made to be broken.’ And that’s what we do. Isn’t that right boys?” A chorus of “here here”’s and “damn straight”’s could be heard from Jack’s crew behind him. They were a curious bunch The Band. They all dressed nattily in hats and boots. They had three girls with silver bows and arrows and long beautiful silvery braids down one shoulder, one even had a silver pistol at her hip. All told they couldn’t have been more than 20, while we were 80 and a small crew at that.

“Where are you headed?” Jack queried impertinently.

This time Gwyneth spoke up, “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure Mr. Sturgess, Gwyneth Eversley, of Eversley and Eversley.”

“Ah yes, I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” Jack swept off his hat and took Gwyneth’s hand in his, his playful blue eyes looking up into her hard, black ones.

“Ah, I understand now. I bid on the job myself. I see now I didn’t stand a chance.”

“I’m sure yours is a very good crew Mr. Sturgess,” Gwyneth said soothingly, “but for this matter the firm required a certain level of expertise.”

“Of course, of course.” He smiled, but I fancied I saw a flicker of anger in his eyes.

“Don’t let me keep you from your job, Mr. Sturgess. You did seem in a terrible rush,” Gwyneth’s politeness was cloying.

Taking the hint, Jack Sturgess donned his cap and mounted his horse. “A pleasure to meet you all. Good bye and good luck!” And with that, his crew thundered off into the forest, deferentially taking the long way round the end of our crew to cross the path and continue on their way.

“They ride horses,” muttered Michael under his breath. “We’d have been there and home again by now on horseback.”

The captain turned to him and replied simply. “Horses can’t ride the paths.”

“They don’t use the paths. Even better, they take direct routes from place to place. No climbing around tree houses and rope ladders. They don’t need the paths. No one needs the paths.” Michael’s temperature was starting to rise.

The captain glanced in his direction only to shrug and continue walking. In the face of such blasphemy, he was equanimous. What could he say? Michael was clearly beginning to go insane. It was a shame, but something the captain had foreseen.

“I’m talking to you Frelingham!” Michael snarled. “Answer me. Why do we continue with this nonsense? Surely we can reach Christophe sooner if we traveled due West, instead of following the twisting, curving, ridiculous path. Don’t we have a compass!” He was screaming now, his face red and his eyes wild. He turned to me, “What good are you? Why do we even pay you? Can’t we just follow the paths ourselves? Aren’t you just one more mouth to feed?” Michael was leaning over me, spit flying out of his mouth.

The captain strode over, and unceremoniously grabbed him by the collar. “Mr. Uhlenberg, while you are traveling with my crew, you will refrain from harassing my crewmembers. Whatever your opinion may be of their work, you do not employ them. Do you understand?”

Michael stared at him dully, his temper beginning to subside.

“I employ them, and furthermore, you do not employ me. Eversley and Eversley is my employer of record and as far as I’m concerned, Mrs. Eversley, here is their representative. Now, I have suffered your presence on this voyage at her express request, but I am not obliged to continue to do so if you are interfering with our progress. Is that perfectly clear?”

Michael nodded his head sullenly.

“I want a verbal affirmative.”

“Crystal.” Michael spat.

“Thank you. Now stop shouting at my crewmembers and get yourself moving. Lunch is delayed one half hour. Please note it, he turned to one of his assistants.”

Over the course of the day, the morale of the crew had worsened. The grumbling was like a rumbling undercurrent throughout the camp. Something was in the air, and everyone could feel it. Blood. The captain put together extra scout teams to ring the camp. I could feel goose bumps all over my arms and legs, even though it was a warm night. I crawled into my tent and tried to sleep but my heart was pounding. After an hour or so of useless attempts at counting to 100, I eased out of my tent quietly and edged over to one of the watches. A young woman with two braids bound around her head and a bow of yew sat silently scanning the forest. A loader sat next to her, rifle in his hand. On other nights they might have chatted softly, flirted, or at least kept each other better company than this. They were simply too tense to take their eyes from the trees for a moment. Suddenly, we heard the chirruping call of an advance crew coming in, we see a glimmer of a rifle as a small boy and another crewmember returned from their post deep in the forest. The boy ran waving a small blue torch at the watch before running on to the next grouping. The crewmember called to us quietly.

“Spotted some carnivorous yaks not 300 yards from here. And you know what that means. Laradors, not far behind. Time to get everyone on the move.”

We hustled to the campsite, rousing crewmembers, breaking down tents and pulling gear together. Frelingham was up in a moment calling to everyone to calmly pack up the gear and get onto the path.

We had just begun to assemble the crew on the path, when we heard the high-pitched yowl of the larador. I thought I was going to be sick. I saw the color drain from the face of the two men standing on either side of me and I knew I was not alone in my paralyzing fear.

“Quickly!” Shouted the captain. “Everyone on the path.”

His assistants ran up and down the line making sure we were all properly within the bounds of the wooden slats.

One of the boys had become frightened and climbed into a tree. A crewmember was yelling at him to come down this instant. Laradors can leap into trees with ease, he was explaining loudly, but fear had rooted the boy to the tree. He clung to it with all he was worth. Hearing the commotion and realizing what was going on, Eli’s right hand man, George, sprinted to the tree, scaled it within moments and ripped the boy from his perch and tossed him bodily down to the crewmember below, who dragged him kicking and screaming onto the path. George hustled to the path and had just gained the safety of the wood as we heard another ear-piercing scream from a larador, even closer. As we all huddled on the path, afraid to move, afraid to breathe, we heard laradors shrieking through the night all around us. We never saw one that night, but we heard the scuffles as they hunted the forest and the cries of agony of their prey.

Peering up the path towards the small knot of crewmembers dedicated to Gwyneth’s service, I could see Michael holding Gwyneth tightly in his arms. She seemed to be stroking his hand calmly, but he held her in a bear grip, as though daring any creature — or perhaps any man — to try to tear her away from him.

The captain stood with his ears cocked sharply, taking in the sounds of the forest and interpreting their meaning. Finally, many hours after the last echoes of the larador calls had died away, he ordered us to make camp as best we could on the path. We spread our bedrolls on the uneven wooden surface and tried to sleep. Only by sheer exhaustion did I even manage to close my eyes, and my sleep was fitful at best. Most of the time, I simply lay there straining to hear the forest and mentally account for every noise. We snatched a couple of hours of rest until dawn when we arose stiffly from our poor night’s sleep to congregate around the breakfast fire. Coffee, biscuits, and bacon eased everyone’s tension, and the sun filled us full of relief. We began our day quietly, grateful to be alive.

The river we had crossed the previous day had now turned and was running along beside the path. We were pleased to have such immediate access to a source of fresh water. The river gurgled along next to us, cheerfully, and despite the trials of the night, the spirits of the crew seemed to lift. Even Michael forgot his anger for a moment to whistle an old ballad.

As we journeyed along, my anxiety somewhat calmed by the spirit of hope in the group, I caught sight of something silver glistening in the reeds along the riverbank. Though I knew I’d have to run to catch up, curiosity got the better of me. And besides, it could be something useful I could scavenge. I hurried down the bank towards what appeared to be something metal. As I approached, I stopped. My stomach did a somersault inside my rib cage and I swallowed my breakfast for the second time. There snagged by some plants floated one of the girls from The Band. Her face appeared to have been clawed by some giant creature, her midsection rent open, bloody entrails hanging outside of her body. In her hand she still gripped her silver bow and her beautiful silver braid floated just below the surface of the water. I looked upstream to see a leg floating by with a black boot. I thought it might be Jack’s, but I couldn’t be sure. I hadn’t seen all their boots.

I called out to the captain, who made his way to the riverbank. Shaking his head sadly, he halted the crew to perform a quick burial. The sight of the girl had snuffed out the cheerfulness of the morning. Michael’s tune had died on his lips and his scowl returned. Even Gwyneth’s face was pale, her hands shook, and she did not even utter one small protestation at the delay. The job was beginning to wear away at the edges of her unflappable calm.

She turned to me as we gathered round the small grave.

“How much farther is it?”

“Looks like three days. But it could be five.”

She nodded. She didn’t bother berating me for my uncertainty.

As we neared our objective, the landscape began to change. The forest thinned to arid steppes, dotted with scraggly shrubberies and large boulders, which were home to deadly and glittering copper colored snakes sunning themselves on their smooth warm surfaces. I consulted the map again. We were close, a day away at most. As I consulted with the captain regarding our position, the advance guard returned with news. They had spotted the stronghold and made notes on their defenses.

It appeared that the Children of the Liberation’s flag no longer flew at the castle; the black and white flag of the Brotherhood of Truth now whipped menacingly above its parapets. The hardliners had been attacked by the ultra-hardliners. Was Christophe even still alive? The scout team believed him to still be incarcerated in a western-facing tower with a couple other high value captives. In the far West, ransom money bought lead, and lead bought power, no matter what your politics, so chances were good that at that very moment in the metropolis, Christophe’s ransom was being renegotiated with Eversley and Eversley and their insurers via the rebel ambassador over a very nice bottle of scotch. After all, Captain Frelingham’s motto had always been a plan without a backup plan, is no plan at all, and the board of Eversley and Eversley were no fools.

As we made camp for the night, the crew were silent and pensive. Each thought of the task ahead. It had been a long job and though we had not lost anyone yet, things had not gone as smoothly as they could have. The captain decided to take advantage of the moment to address the group regarding the plan for the morrow.

“It’s been a long journey, but we’ve finally reached our target. I know many of you are ready to finish this job and be done. I’d like everyone to remember that all we need do is extract Mr. Eversley from the custody of the rebels. It is not our task to do anything else. Now, on the day, I hope you will remember this and show restraint when selecting targets. Mr. Eversley’s safety is paramount, as is the safety of our crew. We cannot get sloppy; we must maintain our standard of work on which we pride ourselves. Mr. Uhlenberg has volunteered his services so I will assign him to a post where he will do whatever he can to help. He will follow the orders of whoever is the head of that department. Are there any questions?”

The captain fielded some questions regarding expectations for weather, defenses of the fortress, and cannon positions. I watched Gwyneth’s face during the speech, wondering what she must be feeling as we prepared to shell the structure holding her husband. Surely, while the rebels believed they could redeem him for coin, he was valuable. Once they realized they had been duped, how long would it take for them to eliminate him. The rebels were used to being attacked, however. It could take them some time to realize the motivation behind our guns. Our strategy must be to break through their defenses quickly, secure Mr. Eversley, and decimate enough of the rebel force to discourage them following our retreat. If Gwyneth was afraid, her face betrayed nothing. Her icy resolve had redoubled, her eyes looked like chips of flint as she stared unseeing into the fire. Michael on the other hand sat moodily on the other side of the fire, frowning into the flames, and glancing now at Gwyneth, now at the captain, and now back at the fire. For a fraction of a second, I saw Gwyneth flick her eyes toward him, but he was looking down in thought.

That night as I lay in my tent, counting to 100, with the best intentions of falling asleep as soon as possible, I found that nature called with great insistence. Sighing, I slid from my bedroll and eased out of my tent quietly so as not to wake anyone. As I passed, I heard a muffled sob coming from Gwyneth’s tent and whispered solace and I knew the lovers had sought each other’s arms at least once more to steady themselves for the trial of the next day. Only an excellent marriage counselor would be able to repair the damage already done to Eversley and Eversley et al. Unwittingly, the rebels had accomplished more than they could have hoped.

The day dawned with our crew already in position, guns primed and aimed, waiting for enough light to find our targets. A salty breeze began to tug at our clothes and hair as the sky lightened to a cornflower blue. The girls had silenced the castle’s night sentries had with their arrows in the predawn, and the morning shift change was imminent. We saw the first morning sentry stumble over the body of his fallen comrade and we fired.

The air was thick with smoke and I stationed myself near the captain to hear any new orders. There was little for me to do at this point. My skills with a bow and arrow were adequate, but not so good as to be worth exposing myself. I would be needed soon enough to guide us home.

Gwyneth in addition to her usual boots and jumpsuit had donned a helmet produced a rifle of her own from nowhere. She hovered behind the cannons, waiting for the right moment to enter the fray. While the board would never forgive her if she foolishly allowed herself to be incapacitated during this attack, Gwyneth was a hard woman to gainsay. I pitied the rebels in her sights.

Through the smoke I heard shouting from our crew, and a rallying cry. The rebel stronghold had been breached and the crew were rushing in with guns blazing, Michael at the head.

Those of us who remained with the cannons waited tensely. The smoke had cleared but we could see and hear little of what passed inside the castle. Finally after what seemed an eternity, we saw figures emerging, and heard the chirrup calls of our crew to the operators stationed at the guns. Several crewmembers were carrying Michael who was unconscious and bleeding from a head wound, but it looked slight. Behind them I finally caught sight of Christophe, limping, his arm on Gwyneth’s shoulder. As he neared I heard him murmuring the something about stocks and bonds over and over. His eyes were wild and looked right through me. The captain looked grave as he watched him pass.

We made camp at the base of the castle for the night. The remaining rebels had fled in a small sailboat. The leadership had decided to put the critical members of the group, including themselves, into an escape vessel and make for a nearby island to regroup.

In the first aid tent, the medics looked after the wounded, of which, mercifully, there were few. Gwyneth sat by Christophe’s side holding his hand as they tended his scarred and bloody appendages. I shuddered as I noticed how few toenails remained intact. On the other side of Christophe, Michael lay in an induced unconsciousness, while the medic stitched up his head wound.

“He’s concussed and these head wounds bleed like the dickens, but he’ll be alright.” The head medic reported to Gwyneth as she looked anxiously from Christophe to Michael. Christophe was still muttering to himself, without fixing his gaze on anything in particular. “When I’m finished with this, I’ll give him something to help him rest.” The medic pinched his lips together to prevent sharing any of his concerns about Christophe’s condition.

Gwyneth nodded gratefully, averting her gaze as an assistant medic flushed a putrefying wound on Christophe’s leg with saline. He didn’t even respond to the pain.

We camped at the castle for three more days to allow the wounded a little time to heal and the crew to rest. The current situation on the ground had become a bit of a dilemma. We established an uneasy peace with the local villagers who lived in a small fishing community around the foot of the castle, attempting to resume their normal lives for the third, fourth, or probably fifth time. Who knows? Maybe some of them sympathized with the Brotherhood of Truth, or perhaps some of them favored the Children of the Liberation. Probably, what they most wanted was the time to repair their fishing nets and set to sea without the risk of cannonballs overhead. The problem was that as an entity employed by Eversley and Eversley, Statute 524 of the New Order of the Metropolis declared we couldn’t leave a strategic defensive position abandoned without leaving the firm vulnerable to potential litigation. In essence, the metropolis considered it a “you break it, you buy it” sort of situation. Were the surrounding villagers to organize into the Fishermen’s Guild of Death, which had been known to happen in some of the more northwestern reaches, any raids perpetrated by said fishermen would be the financial responsibility of Eversley and Eversley. Death taxes had become outrageously expensive in the last 10 years.

After some tense talks between the local fishermen and Gwyneth and Eli, a stopgap solution was at last brokered to free us from this unlooked for complication. I watched the burly fisherman with feathery black hair, who happened to be carrying a very un-fisherman-like mace, walk in front of two other fisherman dragging a cart brimming with goods into the gate of the castle, while behind them crept two women dragging sullen children by the arms. As this procession took up residence in the stronghold, one of the women raised a new flag, sewn together crudely from dirty rags. The democratically elected mayor of the village of Fenbottom-on-Brine had taken possession of his rightful dwelling. We were free to move on, our liability and consciences cleared.

On the morning of our departure, Christophe had eaten his whole breakfast and he had begun to respond to simple yes and no questions. Michael was up and walking, and Gwyneth’s imperturbable calm had returned.

I was consulting with the captain regarding the map, when Gwyneth approached, eager to put some distance between us and her nightmare-filled past.

She bestowed her civility with an uncharacteristic largesse. “I apologize for my ill-humor before, Miss Tate. Surely you must be relieved now that we simply have to retrace our steps to return.”

“If only it were simple, Madam.” I looked at her solemnly and her eyes widened in surprise.

“But I thought once we reached Christophe…” She trailed off, realizing how many day of trekking the forest lay ahead and how much could happen.

“I’m sorry Mrs. Eversley, but the difficult part of the journey has only just begun,” Eli apologized.

“Now we must try to get home.” I added gently. “That’s always the difficult part.”

All photos are my own unless otherwise captioned.