Tomas pulled on the reins, stopping his horse.
Everything had been going so well, and then…disaster.
As he spurred his horse down the hill he remembered.
“How are you today?”
“Good. And you?”
The two had reached a sort of understanding. They would be civil with each other, would not shout, and would not argue.
Tomas would let Juniper do her own thing for the most part as he tried to put on muscle, training with her brothers.
At the same time she would no longer insist that he leave the castle. However, in order to be sure of not seeing him she had started shutting herself away in her room all day.
Which suited Tomas just fine. Unfortunately they still ran into each other on occasion, such as now.
“Good thank you. I was just practising with your brothers. Going riding?”
She was in a dress divided for riding with a picnic basket at her side.
“Yes. I figured I would take a few of them out for a spin. I’ll be going with a few of my handmaids and some soldiers for protection”
“That seems a good idea. Would you like me to escort you?”
He knew the answer would be no, but being polite demanded he ask.
“Thank you for the offer, but I would not wish to be a bother. No, I shall be quite alright without”
“Excellent. Good day then Juniper. Enjoy your ride”
With that she had walked off, heading down to the stables.
Tomas had cleaned himself up a bit, changed, and gone to discuss politics with Carian and Anwen. It was early morning on the fourth day of his stay at the castle.
It was not until that evening at dinner that anybody noticed anything was wrong.
“Drake, where is Juniper?”
“I don’t know Mistress Anwen. I went looking for her in her room, and she was not there”
“I saw her earlier getting ready to go riding. Has she not returned yet?”
“Apparently not. My sister doesn’t usually do this. I hope nothing is wrong”
Luc and Jac were as friendly as Juniper was cold and as alike as only siblings can be. They both looked like taller younger versions of their father, and both had ready smiles.
Each wore a sword at their hip at all times, and was always ready for a bout. They had taken a liking to Tomas for some reason and had become determined to get him into shape for their sister.
“No, she’s usually not. Should we go look for her father?”
Jac pushed his chair back from the table and was halfway to his feet before Carian waved him down again.
“No. I don’t think that will do much good. She will return when she wants to, and not before then I am sure. But, if she has not returned by nightfall then yes, you may go search for her. Tomas, you as well”
They had waited until nightfall and had been about to go out when one of her maids had come downstairs holding a letter addressed to “My Lord and Lady parents and scarface”
It had been to the point and short.
Tell the ugly fool the engagement is off. I’m going to go to the dinners held for the Prince and win his love.
When I return to the castle so that you may meet him I expect the fool to be gone.
Carian had wanted to set out after her immediately, but Tomas had said differently.
“My lord. You need to stay here and govern the land. Perhaps send some of your knights and guards, led by Jac, Luc, or I?”
“I can’t send any knights or guards. The three of you will have to find her. There are three routes that she can take to Castle Destria’s next landing point. If you catch her on the trail, so much the better, you can put an end to this business before it starts. If not, perhaps you can get to her at the Castle before the Prince has made any hasty decisions. I’ll write three copies of a letter explaining the situation.
“Prepare your horses; you leave as soon as possible”
They had hoped to catch her quickly since it was also discovered that she had had her maids take a wagon with supplies.
Carian had told Tomas one more thing before he left.
Though their house was an old one, it was and always had been, poor.
They could not afford to pay any ransom given to them by bandits, nor could the land. It was too poor. The friends that he knew whose son’s he had hired as door guards were villagers in the nearest town, and the castle was so gloomy and dark because they could ill afford torches to light the entire cavernous interior.
So, if Juniper was captured it was up to whoever found the bandits first to rescue her. And if they did catch up to her they would have to make sure that she was not captured, for their would be no rescue coming.
Tomas had vowed to make sure that she remained safe and free to be escorted back to the castle.
Which brought him here, a day’s hard ride from the castle. Eager to make up the lost distance he had ridden hard, allowing his horse to walk often, and occasionally getting off and running alongside it to help it rest.
He had kept going through the night, although at a slower pace. And apparently, somewhere along the way, he had gotten lost. fording a shallow stream at the wrong place.
He was now on the wrong side of a river. A quite large river that was rushing by quickly.
Tomas was not a confident enough horseman to try and ford it at this point, or possibly at any.
But he couldn’t double back. He could not lose any time lest this be the trail Juniper had taken. If he couldn’t catch her before the dinner then it would mean disaster, for everything.
And so he could not stop, could not delay, could not rest.
He had to keep going forwards and hope that he could cross the river before it took him too far out of his way.
He nudged the horse and it sped up into a trot again.
The trail curved away to the right and he sighed.
He had followed the river until it had begun to meander away from his course.
Looking for a way to cross it he had instead spotted that further ahead it cut through a ravine. That ravine was spanned by a bridge, which currently had a wagon crossing it.
While it might have just been a farmer going to market or a part of a merchant train it also might have been Juniper.
Tomas had quickly doubled back to look for an easy path up to the top.
The path he had found had been long, slow, meandering, and ultimately had likely cost him more time than it had gained.
And now it was turning off and going in the entirely wrong direction.
Getting off his horse he looked into the brush on either side.
It was dense. There would be no getting his horse through it, and he had a feeling that if he left the horse behind he would regret it later.
So he could double back again, or he could follow the trail further.
It was not much of a choice really; the trail had to go somewhere and maybe there would be a turnoff. He had seen no other way up onto the ravine, and so this was his only option at the moment.
He had just remounted and gotten his horse going again when a scream echoed over the tops of the trees.
It was hard to say, but he was pretty sure it was coming from near the bridge.
When the sounds of battle joined the screams we was sure it was coming from there, but that was still no help in telling him who.
Not that he needed any help.
He kicked his horse forwards, cursing the curving trail and the flagging strength of the beast. He himself was running on endurance inspired by a Sigil scrawled five hours back.
If he should leave the State now, or if someone should Sketch the Mirror, he would likely collapse in the saddle, fast asleep.
He just had to make sure that he didn’t leave the State.
With the possibility of battle seeming more and more likely that was looking harder and harder.
Although first he needed to find the battle.
As his horse rounded the bend and continued onto another relatively straight part Tomas fumbled for the sword strapped to his saddlebags. He wanted to have it at hand should he need to block a cut or something.
Since he was looking at his saddle bags and not the trail he almost missed the narrower trail that curved back to the left.
By the time he had slowed his horse down and gotten it back onto the trail the sounds of battle had faded and the screams were coming less frequently.
The fact that there were still screams meant that the attackers had won, the defenders either killed or incapacitated. Those who were doing the screaming would likely be carried off either for ransom or as part of the prize.
Neither option was promising for the captives.
The large question that Tomas had now was whether or not they were Juniper and her party.
Because if so then he would have to free them.
But if not he could not afford to waste time on those who were not his goal.
He would have to make sure though. He would have to follow the attackers back to their hideout and see who it was who they had kidnapped, if only to make sure that it wasn’t Juniper.
And the waste of time made him fume.
He had a mission, a goal, and a country to save. He could not afford to waste time on those who didn’t matter!
Still fuming he didn’t notice the snare trap until his horse’s leg found it.
As it fell and flung him forwards into the undergrowth the sudden jolt flung him from the State.
As he rolled down a hill and through a patch of some foul smelling plants his last thoughts were about how much more time he would be wasting.
Tomas awoke with a pain in his neck, his lower back, and his upper back, and both legs.
His left arm was numb from where he had been lying on it, and his right arm felt like it had been stepped on a horse, likely because it had. Or maybe it had been something else like the small tree that had fallen on it and was now lying against his cheek.
His stomach had something uncomfortable jabbing into it which resolved itself into the hilt of his sword. The rest of his sword was tangled in his legs and pressing up between them in a very painful way.
In fact, all of him hurt, stung, or was bruised.
It was not a pleasant sensation to wake up to, but it was better than waking up to being tied up in the back of a wagon, or not waking up at all.
With a bit of effort he moved the tree of his arm and then managed to get into a kneeling position.
With an effort he entered the State and began to Sketch. Two quick Sketches to heal his wounds, and then he would Complete. If he couldn’t find his horse he’d need to be able to run fast and long enough to catch up to the bandits.
And now he would need to steal a horse.
It looked like he had ended up getting involved with the bandits whether Juniper was there or not.
He wondered how Jac and Luc were doing as he strapped his sword across his back, straightened the rest of his gear, made sure the clasp on his cloak was tight and took off down the trail.
He was past the next three snares before they could trip him, his legs lifting too high too fast. And then he was gone down the trail, racing to save a woman he hated from a fate she might not have.