Justin nodded. "So she told me when I got in last night. I know she trusts me," He grinned at his father-in-law, "I think the problem is that she's bored, and wants to help."
"Oh, no. You stand up to her, boy." The General chuckled, "Not that I didn't call her a little hoyden and threaten to send her to the nuns when she was running around after this young lord. Turned out she had good tastes after all."
"Thank you, sir. However. My prisoner has answered all the questions we can think of, and unfortunately it all agrees with the other information you have. They've got a wizard spotting targets for them and hiding them under some spells. I'm going up to the palace this afternoon to talk to Honeerius, see if he can tell me how to track someone with magical assistance."
"Good luck. I think the old man gets by on his reputation, these days."
Justin took his leave of his father-in-law and rode back through the fifth army camp. It was thinly populated, having been designed as the winter camp for a larger and very much needed defensive force a century before. With unification came peace, and a much reduced army now policed the roads and assisted the tax collectors if needed. Nothing past a show of force had been needed for decades. The General's troops had been working harder the last few months trying to catch these bandits than they had for the previous five years.
It was ten miles back to town, and nearly as far across town to the King's palace.
King Naton was wisely content to administer and tend to his country, and send taxes twice a year across the continent to the distant Emperor. His aunt the Empress was said to be influential in the larger court, and the West prospered.
Enough to be frivolous and extravagant in dress and fashions, and of course, to have a court wizard. Honeerius was as necessary to appearances as the court bard, but nearly as ignored by the king as the royal symphony.
Justin found the old man looking lonely, despite his attempts at aloof and mysterious, in a room full of tittering men and women listening to Radley Beaumont plucking his lute and singing some precious song involving a virgin knight and a female unicorn, all innuendo, and no doubt to have an ending both suggestive and amusing. Catching the old man's eye and jerking his head to invite him out, Justin fled, just as he'd fled this society five years ago when he'd married a common General's daughter.
"Taking pity on an old man, Justin?" Honeerius put his hands behind his back and walked with slow dignity, nodding wisely to an older gentleman they passed in the hall.
Justin didn't rush him. He knew the speed was designed to conceal a limp, and had played at cards with the man too many times to believe the expression on his face had anything to do with his thoughts or feelings. Now that he thought about it, he wasn't sure but that Honeerius hadn't taught him most of those card games.
In the wizard's chambers, the 'maid' that did for the old man cheerfully brewed a pot of tea and produced a light luncheon suitable for the old man's appetite, and a visitor with a wife who expected him home for dinner. Retty was approaching middle age and had been the wizard's 'servant' for decades. Wizards, of course, did not marry, and any resemblance Retty's two children bore for the wizard was ignored by most. Both boys had joined the army, and were currently serving across the mountains in an Imperial Brigade. Justin still missed his old friends, even though he sympathized with their wish to see more of the world.
"Now, for what fell purpose did you rescue an old man from that cad's latest atrocity?"
"I've got a bunch of bandits that think they have a wizard that can magically hide them from detection and find easy targets for them to hit. The last they've certainly been doing. I've only just finally taken out a small group, eight men, when they claim to have a camp of several hundred back in the mountains, even they don't know where, because the wizard changes the ground around it every full moon."
"So you took at least one alive, for questioning?"
"Yes, and General Fletcher has some intelligence – second hand bragging in taverns, mostly – that matches it. Do you have any ideas?"
"Either the wizard is uneducated, working by feel, or perhaps has a bit of knowledge, enough for illusions, or a charlatan is taking them in. A truly competent wizard would never have let you track any of his people. Only another wizard could have cancelled his covering illusions. Tell me the whole story, in detail please."
As expected, Honeerius was delighted by his being snubbed by a twelve year old. Justin ruefully realized that he'd be hearing variations of the story for the rest of his life. The old man was thoughtful about the rest of the tale, though.
"The bandits just tangled the mare, and turned around and headed south? I'm surprised your trackers didn't find what looked exactly like their hoofprints across the stream and off through the northern woods until they were really safe away to the south. _If_ they had a real wizard." he sipped slowly at his cup. "Can you tell me more about these boys? As you say, they seem to be walking head on into the bandits every time they turn around."
"You think the boys are working with the bandits?"
"No, I was wondering something else entirely. Twelve, thirteen years old, that's when magical talent start to awaken. If one of them has a talent, they could have unwittingly have erased a false trail, and then been drawn to the bandits because of the magic that clings to them."
Justin considered the boys. The dark one that looked like he was going to be very large rather soon, and the pretty blond. The pretty one had been more articulate, with a refined city accent, the but the big lad had piped up enough to show he had his wits about him, old western country accent or not. Magic? Had they not been joking when they spoke of the wizard's tower?
"Young wizards get quite odd, as their powers first manifest. They can see . . . not thoughts, but intensions. They feel human predators. Most of us run away from home. Even a small village has too many people in it for a wizard's comfort." he smiled at Justin's skeptical lift of eyebrow and glance around, "Once we learn how to shield, we get sociable again. But youngsters seek out solitude, and then other magic users, witches, mages, wizards, each other." He topped off his cup and sipped slowly. "Both of them. If it was just one, they wouldn't be sticking together. I could come out and meet them, but . . ." the old wizard gazed into the depths of his cup, an unhappy frown on his face. "If you want to find your bandit fortress, if the bandits really do have a strong magic user, those boys will be drawn to him."