— Chapter 5 —
Outside the North Gate of the city, the road skirted the east side of a large wood for a few miles before turning sharply to the west for no apparent reason. It was as if there had once been an obstacle preventing the road builder from continuing and nobody could remember exactly why the road suddenly plunged into the middle of the trees.
Alesha shivered as they approached the bend, her eyes automatically looking for the invisible obstruction that forced the road to the left. But there was nothing but fields, with the silhouettes of farm buildings on the horizons, grey cameos against the evening sky. The air was still dusty, the night was going to be dry and warm – ideal weather for the crops, but the pale corn was almost indistinguishable from the yellowed grass in places and sometimes it didn’t seem like it would ever rain again.
Her companions had been silent for most of the journey so far; Falconer was avoiding her and Jereth seemed to be the kind of man who only spoke when he had something worth saying. Which was perhaps a good thing as Alesha wasn’t in any mood for idle chatter; she was still trying to come to terms with the bombshell Jereth had dropped on her. And the biggest question on her mind right now was whether Haran had known that he wasn’t her father. Had her mother ever told him the truth?
She’d been eleven when her mother had been killed. Just a child and too young to understand the complexities of adult relationships. Certainly there’d never been any indication that either of them knew he wasn’t her biological father. Yet she could remember her mother’s laugh, her often-irreverent outlook on life and the way her father would get irritated by the way she behaved. You’re my wife, Alesha remembered hearing him say, not some peasant girl. Try to act like it, Elene. You’re embarrassing me. Her mother had refused to be tied down by convention and yet that was why he loved her so much – she’d been a breath of fresh air into the life of a newly-promoted Captain. And she’d loved him too, Alesha knew she had. Or were they both trying too hard to atone for something past? Seeing her childhood with adult eyes, she could see the signs now but was still unsure as to their meaning. It didn’t mean her mother had had an affair? Did it?
She wondered why she was going along with this madness. Had they kidnapped her, or was she there of her own free will? She liked to think it was the latter, but Alesha had the feeling that if she suddenly announced an intention to return to Ariathen and expose Falconer for the traitor he evidently was, she would discover her status had suddenly changed from fellow-traveller to prisoner. Besides, she wanted to know more about this man – Cala? – they said was her real father, find out the truth of it. For the first time in her life, there was an element of uncertainty, an unknown quantity. For the first time there was a chance to make something of her life, step off the tracks, be someone. And despite the uncertainty and possible danger of what she was doing, there was no way she was going back now. Even if she had the choice.
True to Falconer’s word, there had been three horses waiting for them when he’d gone to speak to the gate-keeper at the North Gate, leaving her and Jereth sharing an uneasy silence in the inner courtyard. Alesha realised why Falconer had been so shocked to find her in the Starlight the other night – the place was obviously the local haunt of the city sympathisers and she wondered exactly how many people were involved. Roselle’s personal guard seemed to know a great many more people than he should.
Jereth looked nervous; the bravado and irritation masking deeper feelings and his eyes seemed to be trying to watch the door of the gatehouse, the North Gate and Alesha herself all at the same time. He wasn’t making a very good job of it and yet she had the distinct impression that if she made a run for freedom, he’d stop her any way he could. He really is desperate, she realised and it made her curious. For the first time in her life she was important to someone – really important, although she had no idea why.
Falconer’s visit to her room the other night had been premeditated. He hadn’t just been there to scold her for putting herself in danger, but he’d evidently been through her wardrobe as well, if the small bag of clothing he’d handed her in the yard was anything to go by. A light grey skirt, green blouse and soft knee-length boots were stuffed inside in the way that only men pack bags, and although she recognised the skirt and blouse as her own, the boots were new.
So she’d changed her clothes, leaving the white ball gown behind with a touch of regret. It would be the first thing Haran would find when he came after them as he inevitably would. She’d heard him in the kitchens earlier. If her father had already lost his wife to the Cala – and his reaction to Falconer’s news certainly seemed to back it up – she doubted he would give up his daughter too. Not without a fight.
It was dusk now and the woods were looking more forbidding by the minute. Alesha wasn’t scared of the dark, but on top of everything else that had happened that day, she wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about riding in any further that night. But as they followed the road to the left and into the trees, Jereth reined in his horse abruptly just inside the curtain of foliage and the other two had to turn their mounts away to avoid a collision.
Jereth slid from the saddle and threw the reins over a tree stump. He looked up at the other two. “You may as well dismount. I don’t know how long we’ll be here.”
“What are we waiting for?” Falconer jumped down, taking hold of Alesha’s mount’s bridle.
“I was supposed to meet my contact three days ago. I dare say he’s still around somewhere.” Jereth peered along the path and Alesha got the distinct impression he was seeing more than just trees. The gloom didn’t seem to affect his eyesight at all and he turned and strolled deeper into the woods.
She stretched in the saddle, grimacing at the thought of the way her muscles would be complaining tomorrow. They’d only come about six or seven miles and not even at much of a pace, but she wasn’t used to it, not in the fading light of the evening. She’d ridden before, of course, but never much more than an easy canter round the palace grounds with Roselle. And these beasts which Falconer had obtained for them weren’t exactly out of the royal stables.
Then she stopped mid-stretch as a movement up ahead caught her eye. The road had petered out into a track now and it was overhung by branches on either side. Ariathen was the most northerly city of any size and most trade stopped within the city walls before heading back down to the more prosperous south of the land. Consequently this road was little used, badly maintained and even said to be haunted. There were rumours – stories mostly, she hoped – of travellers who’d never emerged from the forest, or if they had returned to the city, they’d been changed somehow, lost their minds. Or their souls. Alesha shivered. Now was most definitely not the time for such thoughts.
She strained her eyes as from out of the undergrowth stepped a man. At least, she thought it was a man, though from the length of his hair and his slender build, it was difficult to tell. Outside of the city, without all its associations, it was easy to tell him for Cala, even before she saw the high cheekbones and fey look in his eyes. Dressed in greens and browns, he wore his long brown hair loose and it rippled down his back like chocolate.
“Jereth. When will you ever learn to keep an appointment?” His voice was light, almost musical.
“One or two small problems, but nothing I couldn’t handle.” Jereth turned back to the others. “This is Jale. Jale, meet Alesha. She’s the daughter of Ariathen’s Watch Captain.”
“You do like to live dangerously, don’t you?” Jale sauntered towards her and held out his hand. “May I help you dismount?”
She couldn’t tell if he was making fun of her. His voice was mocking and his eyes sparkled as he stood there, weight balanced on one foot and with all the lean athleticism of a fighter. He held her gaze, his face totally devoid of any expression save for the look in his eyes. And he looked bored, as if he could think of a hundred better ways of spending his time than on the edge of a forest on a summer night. She felt the same odd feather-touch on her mind as when she’d first met Jereth and she frowned.
“So,” Jale said at length, casually ignoring Alesha’s rejection, “this is what we’ve risked our lives for, is it? The daughter of our greatest enemy.” He turned back to Jereth. “Does she know anything?”
“A little. The rest can wait until we get to Calleagh.” Jereth ran a hand through his hair and a flicker of surprise crossed his face.
Jale laughed suddenly. “Not got used to it yet, have you? I did warn you, but you went ahead with it anyway.” The unwitting pun made him smile again and Jereth scowled.
“If you’d done anything useful over the past few days, you’d know Ariathen men don’t generally wear their hair long. I’d have been just a bit noticeable.”
“So why are you so late?” Jale saw the look in his eyes. “You got caught, didn’t you? That’s why you’re behind schedule. No wonder you look so ill.”
Jereth unhooked the reins of his horse. “And I wish I knew who was responsible. I’d take great delight in removing his limbs one at a time. Haran knew who I was,” he added, by way of explanation.
Jale grinned. “Then aren’t we lucky Falconer was there?” He looked sideways at the man, pursed his lips as if he were about to continue and then turned away, walking back into the undergrowth. He returned a few moments later leading his own horse, glanced around the group again, his gaze lingering on Falconer, then he shook his head impatiently, scrambling into the saddle.
Alesha hadn’t dismounted throughout the exchange, so she followed him as he rode off, looking behind as the other two caught up. She noticed that Jereth hadn’t introduced Falconer to Jale, so presumably Falconer’s involvement went deeper than just being the Cala’s eyes and ears in the palace. Five years, he’d said he’d been working for them. Five years of treachery and deception. And she’d thought she loved him. It just went to show how little you could ever really know about a person.
From the back, Jale looked like something out of a story-book, with his long brown hair matching the colour of his horse. Alesha racked her brains to remember the old tales from her childhood; stories of the Cala as they used to be, before the riots of forty years earlier, when Haran’s father – her grandfather – had led the final assault and driven them out of Ariathen and up into the Northern mountains. Ariathen had it the hardest, too; for some reason it had been the stronghold of the Cala and refugees from all over the country had collected there. And then Haran’s father, being something of a diplomat as well as a swordsman, had called together the Cala leaders and the City Councillors from across the land and instigated the treaty. That had been the end of it – or so she’d thought.
They crossed the woods in about an hour and emerged out into the open again. The road became more substantial here although it was still little-used, judging by the rough weeds growing in the ruts. As far as she knew there was nothing other than one or two villages and small-holdings between here and the mountains.
Jale had dropped back to ride alongside her and he was watching her curiously – rudely, she thought.
“Can you mindtouch?” he asked abruptly.
“What?” She was startled by his sudden speech and didn’t know what he was talking about, but Jale shook his head briefly. It was near fully dark now, and she could see moonlight reflected in his eyes.
“No matter.” He glanced behind them, but Falconer and Jereth were out of earshot. “You have a look of us about you, you know?”
“Do I?” Was he trying to make conversation? Alesha didn’t know quite what to make of him. He didn’t fit into the moulds of any people she knew and she got the distinct impression that he never would. Jale did exactly as he pleased, regardless of the consequences.
“Your eyes betray you,” he continued. “I’m surprised nobody’s noticed before.”
“I’ve never met any of you before.”
“Hardly surprising, is it,” said Jale, “with the Watch Captain for a father?”
“But he isn’t, is he?” replied Alesha bitterly. She knew she’d never see her father in the same light again and she didn’t like the way her viewpoint was shifting all by itself. Fatherhood wasn’t necessarily biological, so why did she feel cheated somehow? Haran had been everything a father could be – she’d had the perfect childhood; even after her mother’s death, he’d always been there for her and they’d become closer then. So why didn’t he tell me? she wanted to know. Did he think I’d love him any the less for knowing?
“No, he’s not.” Jale was still watching her. “Your real father was one of our leaders. Until he was caught by the Watch and murdered. Hanged in your City Square like some common thief. Oh he was stupid, I grant you – having an affair with a human woman was idiocy itself – and we were even more stupid not to see what was happening, but he was no criminal. Falling in love is foolish, but it’s hardly a crime.”
“You’ve never been in love, then?” Alesha asked coldly. She was beginning to dislike this enigmatic, but self-opinionated creature.
Jale swung round in his saddle. “Have you?” He laughed suddenly, as if trying to diffuse the sudden tension. “When you’ve lived as long as I have, Alesha, then you may be entitled to ask me questions like that.”
How long is that, then? But Alesha didn’t reply, wondering what Jale had to hide. She didn’t really want to continue the conversation, but she didn’t know when there would be another chance to find out what she wanted to know. If her real father had been killed by the Watch, the chances were it was by Haran’s hand. Although the occasional Cala had been caught in the city before, she’d never paid much attention and Haran had never allowed her to go down to City Square to watch the hangings; it was only in the last couple of years that he’d acknowledged her judgement and given her more freedom.
So the man who had brought her up as his own child had maybe killed her natural father. Without even knowing it. “So what was he like, then? My father?”
“Andry?” Jale stared straight ahead now, his voice distant and cool. “He was – different, I suppose. It’s difficult to know how to describe him. He had your colouring.” He paused. “We didn’t know about you until recently.”
Alesha hesitated. “My mother died eight years ago. She fell from her horse.”
“Did she? That explains a great deal.” Jale seemed about to continue when the other two caught up with them.
“We’ve got company,” said Jereth tersely. “Behind us – just inside the tree line.”
Jale twisted in the saddle and glanced back the way they’d come. There was a fair distance of open ground between them and the edge of the forest; the light was gone and Alesha wondered how they could possibly see anything that far away. The trees were no more than a dark blur across the horizon.
“I see them.” Jale squinted for a moment and turned back. “Popular, aren’t you?”
Jereth ignored the sarcasm. “How many do you make?”
“Four at my count. There could be more further in.”
“That’s what I thought,” Jereth agreed. “Watch Guard at a guess.” He looked at Jale. “Can you handle them?”
Jale’s eyes narrowed. “My pleasure.”
“Keep it simple. We’re trying to prevent a war, not start one.”
“You take all the fun out of things.” Jale nudged the sides of his mount. “Wait here.”
“What’s he doing?” Falconer pulled up alongside Jereth, a puzzled look on his face.”
“Buying us some time, I hope. We could do without a showdown right now.” He hesitated for a moment, pursing his lips. “Falconer, keep an eye on him, would you? He’s a bit unpredictable, is Jale.”
“Then why bring him along? Don’t we have enough to contend with?”
“Because when he’s on form, he’s good.” Jereth shrugged. “I trust him, and let me tell you there are precious few people I’d trust with my life right now, let alone Alesha’s.” He paused again, as if considering how much to say. “But mostly because of Andry.”
Alesha frowned. What did Jale have to do with Andry? And why was she so important to them? So Andry might have been her father and Andry was dead. So what? Even if it was true, and she hadn’t seen or heard enough yet to be convinced. But the tone of Jereth’s voice suggested he didn’t intend to elaborate and his attention was fixed on the figures at the edge of the woods.
Jale cut a strange figure, a black shape in the darkness, riding unhurriedly back towards the trees. He didn’t seem particularly bothered by Jereth’s request and Alesha wondered just what, exactly, these people were capable of doing. If Jale could handle a group of the Watch with such ease, then how come Jereth had been so close to standing trial tomorrow morning?
“Under Haran’s guard is a very safe place to be when everyone else thinks you’re a demon incarnate.”
Alesha’s eyes widened as Jereth spoke. Had she actually voiced the question? She didn’t think so and yet Jereth had just answered it. It was unnerving to say the least, but she supposed he did have a point. Haran – my father; he’s still my father – was scrupulously fair, if nothing else, and would have ensured that Jereth stayed safe until the trial.
It was all getting to be too much for one evening. She sighed and pulled her dark cloak around her shoulders, wondering how long it would be before she could sleep tonight.
There was no point in pretending he was anything other than Cala. Jereth’s discovery and subsequent escape would have alerted Ariathen – if not the entire human population of the land – to the fact that something was happening. And anyway, Jale had made himself a promise not to hide any more. So he rode casually towards the small party of men at the edge of the forest and deliberately didn’t erect any of the illusionary disguises he could call up at will. Distracting such a small number would be easy, but what was the point? What was the point in pretending, when it was obvious that Alesha had left with Falconer and Jereth? What’s the point in anything any more?
Jale shook his head, blocking out the negative thoughts before they had a chance to germinate. He couldn’t afford to screw up any more, not if Andry’s death was to count for anything. Part of him knew that Jereth was testing him, trying to see if he had finally shaken off the water from the black well in which he’d come so close to drowning. He thought he’d succeeded, although sometimes it all came flooding back with alarming potency – like when Jereth had announced that he was going to find Andry’s child. But he was getting over it now, seeing Alesha had proved that and he’d managed to keep his emotions under tight control. Although how long he could do it for, Jale didn’t know, especially if she kept at him with questions. Couldn’t she see that if he started to talk, he’d never be able to stop? There weren’t enough words to convey what had happened.
Jale halted his mount within speaking distance of the group, but far enough away to protect himself, should the need arise. He didn’t want to fight, not if he could possibly avoid it, but years of self-preservation had him assessing the men at the edge of the tree-line, almost as soon as he came to a standstill.
“Leave us alone.” His voice was clear and calm, carrying easily in the night air. One of the horses tossed its head impatiently and its rider cursed softly. There were four of them – Militia rather than Watch Guard, which only made them all the more dangerous – and they were standing just close enough to the undergrowth to make it difficult to tell if there were reinforcements behind.
“You have Alesha?” It was not so much a question as a challenge and Jale nodded, then realised that human eyesight wouldn’t see the movement.
“Yes. Don’t follow us. We could make you wish you’d not left the city.”
“Are you threatening us, Cala?” The man spat out the last word accusingly. “I could have half the Militia out here.”
“In time to catch us up?” Jale smiled thinly. “I doubt it. And if you do follow us, remember that the place of conflict will be of our choosing.” He hesitated. “We don’t want trouble with you.” We never have. Not that it made a difference.
“I tell you what,” he continued after a moment. “I’ll make a bargain with you. Why don’t we ask Alesha what she wants? If she wants to return with you, then we won’t stop her.”
“I don’t make deals with scum.”
“Suit yourself.” Jale turned his horse away and was about to leave when the leader of the small group spoke again.
“All right,” said Jale agreeably, hiding a smile. They really are scared of me.
Reaching out with his mind, he found Jereth easily and sent him a picture of what he wanted. The looks on the faces of the Militia were almost enough to make him laugh as Alesha came trotting over to join him. What did they think he was, telepathic? Probably. That and more.
“Do you want to go back with them,” he asked her, keeping his voice as flat as possible and wondering what he’d do if she actually said yes. Still, if they hadn’t got her halfway on their side by now, there was no chance anyway. Why had they kept Andry out of Ariathen for so long? Keeping him away from Elene was supposed to have kept him alive, but it hadn’t worked, had it? And they’d kept him away from Alesha too, even the knowledge of her existence. But there had to be a point to Andry’s death – it had to count for something if his daughter would help them now.
The look of her frightened him. She was so like Andry, the depth in her eyes, even the way she sat on her horse, defiantly proud and refusing to give in. Her mind was like his too, Jale had sensed that straight away, but she didn’t believe in herself. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps they could convince her in Calleagh. If not, they’d have a war on their hands.
Alesha sat up straight on her horse. “Say to Haran,” she said after a moment, “that I’ll be back. Soon. Tell him I’ve gone to find out about my father.”
“What?” The man looked puzzled.
“He’ll understand.” She hesitated. “And if he doesn’t, tell him I’ll explain it when I come home.”
“My lady?” He didn’t seem to know what to make of her attitude. “Are you hurt? Your father is concerned for your safety.”
“Is he?” Her voice sounded bitter. “Or is he more concerned that I might learn things he’d rather kept secret?”
“I don’t understand what you’re implying.”
“Neither do I, yet. But I’ll find out. I’m all right, Reyne – it is Reyne, isn’t it?” He nodded. “Honestly. I’ll be home in a few days, I promise. There’s no point in following us.”
“See?” Jale smiled brightly. “Now go and report that to your Captain. Come, Alesha.”
To his amazement, she gave him a dazzling smile and turned her horse away back to Jereth and Falconer. What was it with this girl? They were supposed to have snatched her from Ariathen, to take her back to Calleagh, where they would try and show her what would happen if something wasn’t done to reunite the two races. And yet here she was, acting for all the world as if the whole thing had been her idea in the first place.
Jale followed Alesha back to where Jereth and Falconer were waiting. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the small group of Militia had gone and he realised that getting Alesha to talk to them was possibly the best move he could have made. Alesha seemed to be a girl who knew her own mind. She was Andry’s daughter all right. Perhaps he should tell her about her father. Perhaps if he did, it might do as much for him as it would for her.