“Let’s get on the rocks and head back. If we can hit the road well below the fork, we won’t mess up Ecksey’s trick with the whirlwind.”
They stayed on hard rock as long as possible, dropping down toward the river . . . and stopped behind a stand of pines to listen to a large body of mounted troops uphill of them and moving toward the village. They hustled after that, reaching the road half a mile from the ford.
Jason leaned and studied the road in the failing light. “Four riders down, four back up. They checked the ford. There’s no way Ecksey could have covered up that many wet horses climbing the far bank. Let’s go.”
They pushed the tired horses ahead. No sign of King Raynold’s men waiting at the ford. The horses splashed in reaching to drink as they walked.
“There.” Gerald pointed upstream. A waving figure at the river’s edge, well up past the road, leaning out between the trees to catch their attention. “It’s Franz.”
They turned the horses upstream, watching the ripples in the water to judge the depth and footing. They were belly deep but still walking, not swimming when they got to the narrow steep path up the river bank.
Franz was grinning in relief. “I was getting a bit worried.” He stepped out of the way so the horses could scramble up the bank. Jason looked back to see Franz maneuvering a cut sapling to lay over the trail.
Dammit. I don’t believe in demons, angels, sprites or, or, anything. But that kid sure knows what he’s doing.
It was easy to follow the trampled path another mile into the forest.
Count William had a tidy camp set up along a small stream. Not really a clearing, but the trees thinned out and the grass was thick under them.
The horses were staked out to graze, and the three grooms hustled up to take theirs.
"Is that black horse behaving?" Jason asked.
Alfred rolled his eyes. "Which one? I mean, the monster horse is turning out to be a pussy cat, but that boy's horse is scary in a whole different way."
Jason stepped out and peered down a wobbly line of horses. How the hell are we going to feed all these beasts? We'll have to cross the mountains . . .
He spotted the giant horse . . . and beyond, a second black horse. Smaller, with a finer head and no feathering on his legs.
"That's Darkness. My old friend." The boy's high voice broke into giggles. "Come and eat. Count William allowed the Ladies one small fire, so there's tea. I have cooked meat and bread."
"Good, we'll have to take inventory." Jason looked down on the child's shaggy red hair. "Ecksey . . . I owe you a lot, for getting us this far. Do you need to return home now . . . or can I appeal to your parents for assistance?"
The boy glanced up indignantly. "This is my adventure. And anyhow, Mom and Dad would just wish you luck and haul me home to go to school."
"You've run away from home?"
"No. I'm having an adventure. I'll go home and do school during the winter. Surely three months a year is enough!" He nodded confidently. "Anyhow. Yes. Logistics. Umm, it's not cheating on an adventure to use magic, is it?"
"I'm not sure about adventures, but an uncrowned king escaping to claim his throne is definitely allowed to use magic. If, by any chance a magician just happened to come along for the adventure."
The boy nodded. "That sounds about right. Especially since there's an evil wizard with a dead warrior out to get the king."
"Yes." Jason swallowed. Well, I knew King Raynold's Monster was . . . monstrous. I just . . . Urk! Would have preferred that he was dead in the normal way of things.
And the Evil Wizard . . .
"I always thought wizards were over rated. I mean, everyone's supposed to have one . . . but my father's were just . . . well, they were fake. Very good at reading people, and fooling them. Vurnom Bramble . . . I thought he was just another fake, acting the part."
The boy wrinkled his nose. "Possession is . . . very hard. And that dead thing . . . I dunno how that would work. I mean . . . dead doesn't happen all at once, the cells take hours to die . . ." His voice sounded uncertain. "Maybe the, the, person is dead, but the body is still alive and the wizard can use it? I'm going to have to think about this."
"What about the Evil Wizard?" Jason hoped his voice sounded steady.
"Well . . . I haven't actually met him, but he was pretty scary, even from a distance. But I'll bet Nil could take him." The boy nodded decisively and led the way over to a small fire.
Where a small sturdy table was being used to slice a nice big juicy roast. Lady Fern sliced a roll and stuffed a couple of slices of meat into it.
She smiled wryly as she handed it to Jason. "Your little demon didn't pack any plates or silverware."
The boy nodded glummly. "I've got a big pot for making soup or stew . . . and no bowls or spoons. I may be able to trade for some, or make some, if we visit any villages."
Jason looked around . . . and failed to see anything resembling a big pot, or a pack bulging with . . . anything.
Franz snorted. "Invisible packs! I'd whip his lying arse . . . if he'd just stop pulling things out of thin air."
Jason took a bite. Fresh bread, rare beef, with a hint of spices. He chewed and swallowed. "Well, I hope it nourishes as well as tastes. This is good."
The Count nodded as he walked over. "The boy's done a credible job of getting ready for us, but we need to do a bit of planning and laying in supplies of our own. Lord Ecksey's preparations have a few holes, and I suspect are not limitless."
"And we've very little money." Ramon nodded toward the women. "The ladies brought all they had on hand. But that won't feed nineteen people and twenty-five horses for long."
"And hunting will slow us down." Jason looked back at the horses. "We could sell some . . . but they'll be branded."
"Oh! I can change the brands!" Ecksey bounced out to wave . . . and his horse trotted up.
Bigger than I thought—the size of the monster horse threw me off!
"See? People thought they could take Darkness because he was a slick—with no brand. So I made the hair fall out and not grow again."
The horse nodded.
No halter, no lead rope . . . well, Gods forfend a baby magician ride an ordinary horse.
Jason eyed the brand. "XZ? Oh, a play on your name. I see . . . How do you actually spell your name? It's unusual. Initials, perhaps?"
"No, well sort of. My Mom's people do weird names, so I'm E, X, Z, Y. Those are the initials of some of my ancestors. Parents can choose any they want, to honor them, or just get something that can be pronounced."