The collapse of the tunnel cut away the ground beneath Khenet. Sanura and Celeres jumped up, but there was little they could do while the dirt slid. Sanura called out, hoping against hope that Khenet might somehow escape.

            Through the dust, they could see an unnatural shape scrambling up out of the newly formed pit. It bounded and leapt, passing over the lip of the hole like a frog fleeing a snake. The form crossed out of the cloud toward them, resolving itself as the familiar form of Khenet, unscathed except for even more dirt on her ragged robe. Celeres beamed with relief while Sanura wondered exactly what they had seen.

            “Perhaps we should move on a bit,” Khenet said reasonably.

            The lovers were already exhausted, but neither felt it wise to argue the point this close to the collapsed tunnel. The exit was on a small hill in the forest northwest of Tagerden, far from the roads that led to the capital of the Zonne Empire. The forest was dark, but the light of the moon snuck its way past the branches and leaves, allowing her children to find their way through the undergrowth.

            Khenet led them for maybe fifteen minutes before calling a halt. Grateful, the lovers settled to the ground. Sanura was already asleep by the time Celeres cuddled up next to her and pulled his blanket over them both. Khenet stayed just long enough to make sure they slept then flew off to perform some of her own duties.

            The growl of his stomach and the pressure of his bladder woke Celeres. He slid out from the blanket into the dew covered weeds and tucked it firmly around Sanura. He rose and noted with some concern that Khenet was missing. After a moment’s consideration, he decided that mystery could safely wait a few more minutes and went off a bit to empty his bladder.

            When he returned, he could see Khenet approaching from another direction. Her rags had been replaced by a fine brown robe with intricate green embroidery. She carried a bundle of sticks under one arm, two dead rabbits under the other, and a satchel on her back. She smiled as she approached him.

            “Morning, boy,” she called softly.

            “Morning,” he answered. “Nice robe.”

            “One should look the part one is to play,” she said.

            “Should I wake Sanura?”

            Khenet glanced at the form cocooned in the blanket. “Let her sleep,” she said. “Traveling through the tunnels was harder on her than she’d probably be willing to admit.”

            Celeres relieved her of the wood and set it on the ground. Khenet took a gourd from her satchel and handed it to him. Removing a stopper from the gourd, he was delighted to find it filled with fresh water. When he finished, she gave him instructions. “Make a bare patch,” she told him. “We’ll need it for the fire.”

            While he tore up weeds with his rusty knife, Khenet took out a shiny one and preceded to clean the rabbits. Celeres cut vigorously at the plant life, eventually resorting to digging at the ground with his blade to clear the ground to his satisfaction.

            When a large enough spot had been razed, Khenet came over and arranged the wood for the fire. Celeres watched her work with a certain professional interest; cooking fires were very important in his line of work. Keeping the temperature of a wood-burning oven constant and even was an art that he had been taught at the cost of many half-baked and burned rolls. The fire Khenet built was different, intended to survive the vagrancies of the weather in the wild. Using it to cook yeasted bread might be difficult, but it was more than sufficient for searing the meat of Khenet’s prizes. While they cooked, Celeres rummaged through the sack and pulled out the fruits and bread his sister had given them. He had been careful to tuck them inside the curved plates of Sanura’s armor, but even so they had bruised during the trip along the groundlings’ tunnels. Celeres set aside those with the fewest bruises for later.

            The smell of cooking meat and the rattle of her armor finally woke Sanura. She woke slowly, still tired from fighting the panic of last night. Khenet greeted her awakening cheerfully. Celeres kissed her cheek and offered her water from the gourd as she rose.

            The group ate slowly, the stiffness of yesterday’s labors tempered as they stretched. Even the slowest meal ends eventually, and as this one did, Khenet turned their attention to the road ahead.

            “I ran some errands while you two slept,” she said. “Couldn’t get enough for a trek across Tiran, but we’ll be able to get along for a few days. Celeres, I brought you some clothes, so you won’t look quite as much like a townsman. Sanura, I’ve got a tabard to go over your armor. I don’t think wearing Tagerden colors is entirely appropriate anymore.”

            The tunic and pants she handed Celeres were rougher than the ones he wore now. He guessed they were tougher as well, resistant to the elements to a degree that the finer clothes of the city could never be. With the slightest reluctance, Celeres exchanged his old clothes for the new.

            Sanura took a bit longer to change, and Celeres helped her after he finished. The metal of the armor had stood up well, despite its rattling journey. The yellow tabard was thrown into the fire and replaced by Khenet’s gift. It was a deep, dark brown with embroidery much like Khenet’s robe. Green vines twined their way through long leaves creating a jungle of plant life along the edge of the cloth. Sanura was especially pleased with its intricacy. If the hirudin had made note of her, they would undoubtedly be searching for her dressed in the yellow or just in her armor. A lowly city guard on the run could never afford to replace her colors with so fine a design.

            “I’ve made other arrangements as well,” Khenet said. “I have some friends looking for caravans headed west. A big enough bribe should keep a caravan master from turning you over to the gold masks if Prince Emhyr sends them after you, and the guards of the caravan should of enough to hold off any hirudin-sponsored attacks. You should be able to stay with them until Kugiri, where the rode splits off to Mt. Clero. Once you reach the college there, the Cheldarns will easily be able to protect you.”

            “You’re not coming with us?” Sanura asked.

            “No. I’ll set you up with the caravan, and then I have other things that need taken care of. I’ll try to check in on you from time to time, but mostly you’ll be on your own.”

            “Thanks,” Celeres said dryly.

            Khenet raised an eyebrow at him. “Thacker wasn’t completely wrong, youngling. There are larger things going on in the world that require my participation. The basic plan to reach the Cheldarns is solid. You and your fiancée will just have to be up to the task of executing it.”

            “You’ve done a great deal for us already, Khenet,” Sanura said smoothly. “We’re grateful for that.”

            The old woman grunted noncommittally and handed the satchel over to Celeres. “This is for you. There’s fire starting equipment in it, some fruit, and some roots. No cooking utensils, I’m afraid. My people don’t use them much.”

            “Thank you.” Celeres took the satchel and placed the sack inside of it.

            Sanura folded the blanket and threw it over her lover’s shoulder. “There. Now you look like a porter. If you work hard enough, maybe someday I’ll let you carry my litter,” she teased.

            Celeres grunted in disdain.

            Khenet shoveled dirt onto the fire, dusted off her hands, and stood up. “I’ll travel with you a few days more, until we can get you settled with a caravan. We’ll move down near the eastern road, then hike parallel to it. Let’s go.”

            The morning was cool under the shade of the trees. They pushed their way through the underbrush until Khenet lead them to the first of many deer paths. They followed the meandering paths for hours, stopping only briefly to eat. Celeres split his attention between worrying about his family and watching for roots that threatened to trip him up. Sanura took in their surroundings with interest. Only occasionally had she been outside of Tagerden, and every new leaf and fresh birdsong was a delight. Khenet paid vigilant attention to the underbrush, pausing occasionally to gather small patches of a red-green weed. She directed the lovers onward while she worked, catching up to them after a few minutes. After four or five such stops, she was carrying a bulging purse at her waist filled with the little plants.

            In the late afternoon, Khenet called a stop by the edge of a stream and left them to gather a few things from the woods. Sanura and Celeres collected wood while they waited for her return. Celeres tried to set up a fire as Khenet had that morning. The result was not as steady as the earlier fire, but Celeres was confident that practice would improve his technique.

            Khenet made no comment on it when she returned. Celeres felt annoyed by this for a minute, then realized the old woman probably just thought of it as a basic skill and hardly worthy of praise.

            Her assumption of his competency seemed to extend to other things, as she handed him two squirrels and a chipmunk to clean for supper with her knife. Khenet sat herself down near him, crushing her red-green weeds and placing the remains back into the bag. The leaves released a strong, pungent odor as she worked. She finished while Celeres was searing the critters over the fire and wandered over to the small stream to clean the remaining muck off of her hands.

            Left without any chores, Sanura pulled out her sword and practiced her forms, dodging and cutting at imaginary opponents. “What are the weeds for?” she grunted at Khenet between strikes.

            “They’re called nachtunkraut. They’re for protection against the hirudin. They’re less than fond of the smell of them.”

            Celeres called them to dinner, and Sanura put away her sword. The soldier quizzed Khenet about their surroundings while they ate. Celeres followed the women’s conversation casually, perking up only when they discussed edible plants or their medicinal values.

            They turned in as the sun went down, reassured by Khenet’s conviction that nothing in the woods would bother them. Sanura and Celeres held each other close under the blanket to keep warm. Khenet simply curled up on the ground in her robe, apparently unconcerned by the chill of the air or earth.

            An uneventful day followed an uneventful night as they continued their trek through the forest. Khenet left them for a bit as she pursued whatever sources she was getting her information from. Celeres asked her about them, but the old woman firmly told him to mind his own matters. In the evening, Sanura added some instruction for Celeres on fighting with his rusty knife. Then they slept again, unmolested by the wild.

            The woods were clearer the next day, and they made better time as they approached the road. Celeres wondered later if it was their proximity to the road that allowed the hirudin to find them.

            An eagle warned them of the approaching danger. The mighty bird swept down from the air and drew the gaze of even the inattentive Celeres. Khenet listened to its cries for a few moments and looked around, frowning.

            “What is it?” Sanura asked.

            “Trouble. Some riders are making their way straight towards us. We’re going to have to find a place to stand them off.”

            Grimly, Sanura drew her sword. Reluctantly, Celeres followed suit with his dagger. “Isn’t there somewhere we can hide?”

            “Not really, and if they are hirudin, they’d find you anyway. We’re going to have to convince them that your skin is not worth the price.”

            Celeres shivered a bit at the grim reminder of his mark.

            Khenet lead them away from the path they had been following and further into the forest. The eagle launched itself back into the air to keep an eye on the pursuers.

            The travelers crashed through the trees, looking for a place to defend themselves. Khenet finally settled on a small clearing in the woods, a small patch of pure sun among the shade of the trees.

            “I though you said hirudin drew their strength from light,” Celeres protested when the old woman announced her intention to make their stand there.

            “Boy, it wouldn’t be much of a trap if they didn’t feel confident about facing us.” With that Khenet dusted a large circle in the grass with the red-green plants she had crushed. “Don’t wander too far. Make sure you’re inside the circle when our visitors get here. In the meantime, you might want to get some rest.” With that, the old woman settled down on the ground, closed her eyes, and began to snore lightly.

            The lovers gaped at their guide’s behavior and exchanged incredulous looks. Sanura finally shrugged and sat down in the grass, careful to settle within Khenet’s circle. Celeres shook his head at the recklessness of the plan, then joined Sanura in the sun.

            They waited impatiently, twitching at every birdcall and rustling leaf. Soon, the heat from the sun had them drenched in sweat. Flies gathered and bit at them, adding to their misery.

            By the time the unknown riders reached the clearing, the lovers were itchy and almost as tired as they would have been marching. Khenet slept through it all, awakening only when the eagle flew overhead, its cry announcing the imminent arrival of their guests.

            Sanura stood when the old woman woke, but Khenet waved her back down. “Let them think we’re enjoying a rest. I want them to assume they got lucky.”

            “What if they attack as soon as they see us?” Sanura asked.

            “Then we’ll probably die,” Khenet said serenely.

            Sanura glared at her, then drew her sword in hand and faced the direction they had come from. Khenet snorted in amusement. Celeres looked uneasily between the two of them then, holding his dagger nervously at his side, joined Sanura.

            Khenet sighed and stood up. “Children,” she muttered in annoyance.

            They waited for a tense few minutes, as the thud of hooves became audible and gradually increased. Celeres glance nervously at Khenet, but the old woman seemed as calm as ever. He suddenly worried that their lack of trust might prompt their guide to betray them, but the intruders arrived before he could apologize.

            There were three of them, riding on some of the most stunning antelopes Celeres had ever seen. Sanura, more used to seeing mounts than her love, immediately guessed that they came from the lines the imperial house maintained. Two were the hulking brutes preferred by gold masks and other warriors, beasts bred to carry a human in full armor. Their riders suitably matched their mounts, with their impressive stature and ornate steel armor. One wore the full gold helmet and mask of a colonel of the Imperial Guard. The other was not a gold mask, although his armor was even more elaborate than the Colonel’s. A simple gold circlet kept the hair away from his handsome golden-skinned features. The third traveler rode a beautiful antelope as lithe as herself. The cherry red fringe of her gray robe matched her bright red skin. Sanura wondered if the woman was from the islands to the north where the color was common. How did a primitive islander end up with such well attired company?

            To Sanura’s chagrin, the riders did not swoop down upon them. Instead, the antelope stepped into the clearing and stopped. The others flanked the man with the gold circlet, who pulled out slightly ahead of his people. Celeres’ stomach dropped as he realized who the man must be. This was Prince Emhyr, heir to the imperial throne and close companion to the hirudin that had attacked him.

            The Prince looked up at the sun, then turned a radiant smile upon them. “Lovely day, isn’t it?” he asked.

            “Break it. Let’s get on with this,” Sanura said, gesturing with her sword while keeping a wary eye on the steel sheathed horns of the antelopes.

            The smile dropped from the Prince’s face. “Now, now-there’s no real hurry,” he admonished. “It’s not everyday you meet people who have survived two hirudin in a single day.”

            “We’re talented,” Sanura retorted.

            “Indeed. Although not quite enough to keep us from catching up with you.”

            “You must be pretty mad at us,” Celeres said quietly.

            “You’ve killed two nobles of the Zonne Empire. Even if the throne chose to excuse it under unusual circumstances, their houses would hound you until your death.”

            “Only if they knew who did it,” Sanura challenged, “and the only proof of that is the mark Braen placed on him. Only other hirudin can detect it. You couldn’t reveal their killer without revealing yourself as one.”

            The Prince chuckled at that. “Or we could come after you in a half dozen other ways. All this bother caused by a soldier, a boy, and an old woman. Well, we really have more important things to attend to than you. Colonel Rafe-kill them.”

            The man in the gold mask urged his mount forward a few steps, thought better of it, and dismounted. “It’d be a long walk back if they hurt Bings,” he explained to his liege.

            The Prince snorted in amusement. “Get on with it.”

            The Colonel, judging Sanura to be the strongest threat, approached her steadily. From her age, he guessed that she had caught the Prince’s companions by surprise rather than taking them by technique, but there was no point in taking reckless chances with her.

            Sanura herself assumed a fighting stance and firmly held her ground.

            They were almost close enough to touch swords when Khenet’s circle of dust started to bother him. Sanura watched as he twitched from the stink, then struck. As she leapt forward, Colonel Rafe was blinded by a lung-searing sneeze. Still, he managed to bring his shield far enough across to deflect the blow from his heart. Instead, the sword pierced his armor and went straight through a lung. He gasped for breath while Sanura compounded the damage by thrashing the weapon within him. His own sword slipped from his weakening grasp. Feebly, the gold mask beat at the lowly soldier with his shield to drive his inferior away.

            Unable to free her sword from her opponent’s body, Sanura set a foot on the Colonel’s chest and yanked. With a welling of blood and a shriek of steel against steel, the sword came free. Colonel Rafe collapsed to the ground. He tried to gather himself to strike back but was bitterly frustrated to find his body sluggish and cold. He forced his head up and was unsurprised to see Sanura standing over him, sword raised high. Curses over his weakness fought with a prayer to Zonneshin as the final thoughts of his life.

            He was rather surprised when the blow never came.

            Sanura was surprised as well. Her body had frozen as she began the killing stroke. Every muscle was rigid, gripped by some outside force. In her peripheral vision, she could see the red woman accompanying the Prince waving her four arms in a graceful and hypnotic dance. Idly, Sanura wondered where those other two arms had come from.

            Behind her, she heard Khenet bark a harsh, guttural sound. The red woman flew from her saddle and crashed into a tree behind her. Released from the woman’s proxy, Sanura fell to the ground, her body confused by the sudden lack of support.

            “Want to try that on someone your own style, Cheldarn?” Khenet challenged. Even while boasting, the old woman’s hand darted out, deftly catching a dagger thrown at her by the Prince. “Lose something?” she asked him dryly.

            “Ah, that would explain it. You are a wise one of the wood folk,” Prince Emhyr said, bowing slightly in acknowledgement.

            Celeres used the lull in attacks to help Sanura to her feet. Nearby, Colonel Rafe shuddered with each rasping breath and watched them carefully. He had somehow recovered his sword and gripped it unsteadily before him.

            “Why do you interfere in imperial business, old one?” asked Prince Emhyr.

            “We have a treaty, hirudin. Your friends shouldn’t have been hunting humans,” Khenet answered.

            The red woman picked herself off the ground and limped over to the Colonel while glaring at Khenet. Sanura, more than a little leery of a woman who paralyzed by twitching her fingers, placed herself in the Cheldarn’s path. The woman glared at her but made no further move to her injured companion. To Sanura’s disconcertment, the woman now had only two arms.

            “Leaving a human marked is hardly fair to him. I’ll concede that my companions should not have been hunting humans, but we cannot leave him as he is,” said the Prince.

            “So your proposal is to kill me?” Celeres sneered.

            Prince Emhyr examined him for a moment. “Didn’t she explain it to you?” he asked.

            “Explain what?”

            “What happens to a recipient of a hirudin bite.”

            “Everyone knows that,” Celeres snorted. “Unless a hirudin intends to make another hirudin, the victim of a bite is permanently marked. Other members of the hirudin’s pack will be able to track him down anywhere on Tiran. Unrelated hirudin can feel him nearby, leaving him vulnerable to attacks for as long as he lives.”

            Prince Emhyr nodded. “True enough, as far as it goes. What about the rest of it?”

            “Isn’t that enough?” Celeres asked.

            “She didn’t tell you,” Prince Emhyr said sadly.

            A wretched hack from the Colonel as he coughed up a wad of blood interrupted the Prince for a moment.

            “The bite marks, certainly,” Prince Emhyr continued, “but it does more than that. It slowly drains the strength from the victim. I have watched helplessly as a giant of a man was slowly consumed by illness after illness, leaving a husk that couldn’t even leave his bed to piss in a chamber pot. Bound by a ruling of the elders of our pack, we could do nothing but watch that man die an unnecessarily painful death.

            “This is what you have to look forward to, youngling. A slow death instead of a quick. One that kills you slowly, in wave after wave of sickness. Death is the closet thing to mercy I can offer you.”

            “I think I’ll take my chances,” Celeres said dryly. “Now, why don’t you go take care of your other duties. Didn’t the Emperor tell you to recover the Isole?”

            At this, the Prince narrowed his eyes. “Actually, yes. And the timing of this is awfully convenient. Covering for Braen and Saith is one of the few things that could have distracted us.”

            His Highness considered them for a moment. “You probably aren’t the masterminds. Most likely, you’re just pawns. There’s even a chance this is totally unrelated. In any case, you’re a loose end. Inconvenient.”

            The Colonel forced himself to his feet, ready to fight. Sanura shifted position to keep an eye on both the Cheldarn and the gold mask. To her alarm, the gold mask’s breath was labored, but not longer the ragged gasps of someone dying.

            “I’m sorry,” the Prince said, “But sometimes the thread of the lives of little people are cut short by the sickle of great events.”

            The howl from the woods that followed that speech nearly made Celeres jump from his skin. A second and third came from other sides of the clearing. Two coyotes padded out of the trees, forcing the antelopes to prance into a defensive circle. The humans could see other furry shapes dodging through the underbrush at the edge of the woods.

            Khenet grinned viciously. “Do you really want to continue on this course, Your Highness? I’m not sure it would end as well as you hoped.”

            The Prince and his people grimly surveyed the landscape, calculating the new odds. “Colonel Rafe, Katchen-mount up. We’re leaving.”

            “I thought you might see it that way,” Khenet said.

            “Pray we don’t meet again, old woman. Next time won’t go well for you,” Prince Emhyr said.

            “A bit of advice while you pursue that piece of glitter your father sent you after, Your Highness. I’ve found the Firstborn to be unreliable in the deals they make with mortals. If you meet any while looking for that bit of their treasure, I suggest you not trust them overmuch,” Khenet said.

            The Prince clucked his tongue, and his mount leapt out of the clearing. The others followed him.

            Celeres let out a long sigh of relief while Sanura thoughtfully put away her sword. “Is what he said true?” she asked Khenet.

            “Mostly,” Khenet said sadly. “We’ve never found a way to cure it. The Cheldarns know far more than I do, though.

            “Let’s get moving. The light won’t last forever.”

            They gathered their belongings and left the clearing behind. Their march was subdued as the lovers considered the impact of this new truth.