One of the three surviving guards specialized in knowing the mountains. It was the very reason he’d been sent with them. After making certain they weren’t being followed or hunted down by Adam’s friends, he headed them for the nearest group of people he knew of, a Chemwanitz tribe in their regular winter camp. Tajor lagged behind, loudly proclaiming, “This isn’t a good idea.” “Neither was leaving that interpreter alive,” the hitter said. “You think his friends would have stopped following us if they’d found him dead?” Tajor asked. The hitter wouldn’t turn to look at Tajor while he spoke. “How did you know to ask all those questions anyway?” “How do I ever know to ask any question?” Tajor pulled his customary evasion. “How do you know it’s a good idea to go to this winter village?” The hitter stomped his feet as he walked. “What else do you know about those people?” “The villagers? Not much,” Tajor said. He pointed to the guard who had become their guide. “Shouldn’t you ask him what he knows about them?” “Not the Chemwanee!” The hitter swept a hand over his shoulder back behind them. “Those men back there. You were asking questions none of us could have. What more do you know about them?” “Why do you get to ask all the questions?” Tajor frowned at him. He nodded to Jerryck. “He doesn’t even know where we are or how we got here. Don’t you think he should get to ask question?” “How did we get up here anyway?” Jerryck asked as they skirted around a clump of sedge. “The last thing I clearly remember is Andreno attacking me in his tent.” “You and I were transported in a wagon under guard,” Tajor said. “How many guards?” Jerryck asked. “Why would you ask that? There were enough that it would’ve been difficult for these three—” Tajor waved to the men wearing tattered crimson and gold elite uniforms— “to extract us with you in a drugged state.” “We would have tried anyway,” the hitter said. “If we’d caught up before they reached that second camp.” “You see?” Tajor said to Jerryck. “They did the best they could. You shouldn’t ask how many guards there were.” “I asked because you’re strong enough to overwhelm people,” Jerryck said. “Were there too many for you?” “Back to your previous question,” Tajor evaded again. “When you were in Andreno’s tent, I knew something had gone wrong when the raider started waking up. I tried to get Sinchet to leave with more of the escort guards. Only these first three we sent when you left made it.” “Sinchet didn’t make it?” Jerryck’s foot slipped on another patch of shale where the ground rose again. “He refused to go,” Tajor said. “Andreno’s men killed him.” The hitter also slipped on the treacherous ground. He screwed up his face into a snarl. “And they left you alive.” Tajor’s feet didn’t slip at all. “They took me outside first. I thought maybe I could talk them down. Until they went inside and started killing everyone.” “Except you and the raider,” the hitter said. Tajor shook his head. “They killed the raider too.” “Why would they keep you alive and no one else?” the hitter asked. “They kept Jerryck alive.” Even though Tajor didn’t lose his footing on the rocky slope, he still lagged behind. He asked Jerryck, “Did you tell Andreno you can only work with another magician if I approve?” “Yes,” Jerryck said. The slope was growing steeper and he was getting short of breath. “Why?” Tajor wasn’t running out of breath. “Because that means Andreno believes these foreigners want something from you. That could be the reason they’re here. They’re looking for magic. And someone rogue enough to teach them to wield it.” “You asked about resources.” The hitter was short of breath too. “Not magic.” “And he didn’t answer,” Jerryck muttered. “That doesn’t mean what you might think,” Tajor said. “If he was told they’re here for resources and he found out differently, he might not say a thing to the contrary no matter how much you beat him. Where he comes from the truth can get you killed. And your family killed. And your pets killed. And your house razed to the ground as if none of you ever existed.” “And we’re back to you knowing too much about them.” The hitter picked up a sliver of shale and chucked it in Tajor’s general direction. “How can you possibly know all this?” “I still would like to know why you didn’t escape before today,” Jerryck said. “You’re strong enough. How many of them could you have killed? How many were there?” “Don’t believe all rumors about his strength.” The guide had stopped in front of them at the top of the incline. He panned the landscape, his gaze roving over the peaks and valleys. “Most of the rumors run toward the ridiculous,” the hitter said. Jerryck leaned his hands on his knees, desperate to catch his breath. “He can break a man’s jaw with just a slap.” The hitter jutted out his own jaw. “As I said, ridiculous.” “I watched it happen,” Jerryck said. All three of the guards turned and stared at Tajor. The hitter crossed his arms. “Tell us why you didn’t escape before we caught up. And don’t give us the excuse about the magician being drugged.” Tajor shuddered at the direct command. He stepped past them all, looking out across the landscape. “You’re sure we’re going in the right direction? I still don’t think we should go to any group of people in this area.” The hitter clenched his fists. “Explain!” Tajor shuddered again and glanced back over his shoulder. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” “Are you in league with these people?” the hitter asked. “No,” Tajor said. “Are you from the same place?” “No.” “Then how do you know so much about them?” “I explained to the king and princess.” Tajor turned fully around to face them all. “That should be enough for you.” “They’re not here.” The hitter tipped his chin down, deepening his glower. “We are. And we are risking our lives here. What else can you tell us that could keep us out of danger?” “Besides telling you to avoid any villages in this area?” Tajor cocked his head at the man. “You won’t listen to that. Why would you listen to anything else?” “What more do you know that kept you from trying to escape?” “I did try!” Tajor threw his hands up in the air. “Jerryck set fire to their tents in the process!” “So that’s how that fire started,” their guide mumbled. “I thought I was drugged,” Jerryck said. “You had magic on you,” Tajor told him. “I can only assume you cast a spell right before you lost consciousness. The magic was set to keep you awake, but it was fighting with the drugs. You weren’t really coherent. Just standing with your eyes open and moving your lips enough to cast the fire spell that set everything to blaze.” “That was in Andreno’s camp.” The hitter put his fisted hands on his hips. “That doesn’t explain why you didn’t try to escape while you were transported up here. Does it have something to do with real reason you wouldn’t let us kill that interpreter?” “He’s valuable,” Tajor said. “We can communicate through him. He speaks both our language and theirs.” “So do you,” Jerryck blurted out. All three of the guards frowned at Tajor. His shoulders slumped and he gave Jerryck a dirty look. The hitter said, “Tell us the real reason why.” This time when Tajor shuddered, a whiff of his aura brushed up against Jerryck’s. The buzzing of a thousand hornets vibrated. Whether it was the close proximity, or the build up through continued resistance that caused the contact, Jerryck didn’t care. “Stop it!” Jerryck stepped back, hoping more distance would help. “Please don’t resist. Just tell the real reason why.” “He has a veiled guardian,” Tajor said. The buzzing stopped. “A what?” Jerryck asked. “I told you you wouldn’t believe me,” Tajor said. “It’s not disbelief,” Jerryck said. “It’s lack of understanding. What’s a veiled guardian? I didn’t see anyone else there.” “That’s what the veil is for. The veil was dropped just long enough for me to see. Adam likely doesn’t even know he has one.” Tajor turned back to look across the landscape spread in front of them. “Are we pushing forward or not? Which way are we going?” The guide sat down on a rock. The hitter said, “You gave us a reason for not killing him, whether we understand it or not. That still doesn’t explain how you know so much.” “I know a lot because I’ve studied,” Tajor said. “Tell us where you studied,” Jerryck ordered. Tajor glared at him. “I studied at the place I come from.” “Tell us where that is,” Jerryck said. “It’s everywhere around you, like the next step up in a fractal,” Tajor said. “You can’t see it because it’s too big. It touches this place, encompasses the entire world and many others besides. Including the world those foreigners came from. As I explained to the interpreter. Some events are large and they splash across world boundaries. Those are the kinds of events I studied.” The hitter finally unclenched his fists, only to rub his fingertips on both sides of his head. “Now you’re talking complete gibberish.” “If that man has a guardian we can’t see,” the guide said, “then why did you have him beaten?” “There are many kinds of assignments for guardians,” Tajor said. “One of them is to encourage a certain level of violence for the individual they’re guarding to go through. It tempers them. Prepares them for something worse.” “Why would you think that’s the kind of guardian that man has?” Jerryck asked. “Because he hit Adam,” Tajor said. “In Andreno’s camp. Just as you were igniting the place. Adam probably thinks I did it. But I didn’t touch him. Guardians are really good at making things look like a coincidence, or like someone else did it.” The hitter shook his head. “You’re still not making any sense. And the less sense you make, the less reason we have to listen to you telling us not to go to any village in this area.” “Agreed.” The guide started down the other side of the slope, pointing between two of the peaks. “This way.” Going downhill was much easier than going up. The slippery ground actually aided their progress instead of impeding it. And Tajor still lagged behind. The guard who hadn’t said anything finally spoke up. “Do you think these are the same group of foreigners?” “Same group as what?” Jerryck asked. “I tried to check out a group of foreigners at that abandoned castle between Larksen and Shana,” the quiet guard said. They passed beneath a copse of trees that blotted out the sky. “The nearest villagers were… less than cooperative.” “Are they still there?” the hitter asked. “As far as I know,” the quiet one said. “They might have split up,” the guide said. “Keep a force there to maintain their foothold base. Send the rest up here to spearhead an invasion. Then Andreno can bring in his main army to occupy once the dirty work is done.” “Gerhardt, their leader,” Tajor said. “He’s none too pleased about the situation from what I could tell.” “Because you overheard him talking when he didn’t know you can speak his language?” The hitter sounded bitter for some reason. “Because he let us go,” Tajor said. “And told the interpreter to ask us to find someone to threaten them so they could have an excuse to leave.” The hitter glowered. “I don’t remember the interpreter saying that.” “Things didn’t quite go according to plan,” Tajor said. “I guess he just didn’t get around to it, what with us kidnapping, interrogating, and beating him and all.” “And it’s all the more reason to go to the nearest group of people,” the guide said. “So we can tell them to send threats to those men so they can leave.” Tajor sighed and shook his head.