A wide road, made of dry, compact mud, made its way through the otherwise densely packed trees of Solmane’s southern forests. It was one of four main roads that led to the capital, and, even though the nearest human settlement was miles away, quite a few people were moving along it at a daily basis. Even now, when dusk was rapidly approaching.
There were families, traveling in carts or small carriages; mercenaries, riding on impressive mounts; drifters, walking by foot. Everyone had different agendas for their journeys, but nearly all of them had the same destination: Fire Isle.
Despite the vast variation of travelers currently on the move, one group still stood out like a pearl among pebbles. Two large carriages – one black with golden details, the other marine blue with silver etchings – were making their way north at a decent pace. Surrounding the two carriages were nearly twenty fair-skinned warriors, all mounted on muscular horses and with well-kept weapons and armor. At the front, a blonde woman with a look of unquestionable authority led the group, holding a spear-tipped standard in her right hand. The group made way for no one, but none along the road dared to complain or block the woman’s path when they saw the emblem on the black flag: two lions – one blue, one red – together trying to swallow a great, big, golden sun. It was the Royal Seal.
Adan sat on the driver’s box of the black carriage, splitting her attention between listening to the prattle of the elderly man next to her and observing her surroundings. The elderly man was, as Adan had gathered since a few hours back, one of the nation’s finest coachmen and was more than happy to enthusiastically describe the differences between steering a carriage pulled by two, four, six or even ten horses – all of which he could do with his eyes closed, of course. Adan had refrained from asking how he would know where to steer the horses if he closed his eyes.
The man’s . . . passion for his work was perhaps a bit tiring in the long run, but when Reverend Mother Amaris had seen Adan entering the carriage with Lynne, the woman had flipped. Rather than argue with her, Adan had agreed to share a seat with the coachman; she didn’t really care where she sat, but Adan had to admit that it was tactically more reasonable for her to sit on the outside. She was supposed to be a bodyguard, after all.
Still, all the sitting – and listening – made her a bit restless. If she had the choice, Adan would have preferred to run next to the carriage, but she figured the others would find it odd if she managed to keep up with the canting horses for hours on end. . . .
Adan surveyed the people around her. After leaving Prayer Village, the King’s priestess had started to journey with them, bringing along an additional seven guards. They had headed towards the capital almost non-stop, only pausing briefly at the few moon convents they passed along the way. It had been nearly seven days since they left Prayer Village, but despite the few stops along the way, the guards remained vigilant.
There had been no further incidents since leaving Prayer Village, and even the captive girl had remained docile, but that only seemed to make the atmosphere within the group all the more tense. Since the attempt on Lynne’s life had been nothing more than an elaborate failure, no one believed that the perpetrator behind it all would give in so easily. While the group was busy contemplating possible future attacks, Adan simply observed. She found the whole situation rather amusing; it didn’t matter if it was the loyal guards or the disloyal ones, everyone was nervous.
“It looks like something will happen before we reach the capital, after all. . . .” Adan mused, only confiding in her A.I.
“An accurate estimate for the time of attack is impossible at the moment, but Sai still feels the probability of an attack is high.”
“Calculates,” the A.I. corrected. “Based on increasing adrenalin levels and pulse rates.”
Adan looked up at the cloud-covered sky. She breathed in and sighed heavily. Just as she was about to reprimand her A.I. for backing down, a row of information flashed by on her status screen that drew her attention.
[Detecting increased levels of H2O, NaCl and SO2 in the atmosphere]
[Altering auditory focus . . . .]
When no new information was gained, Adan only paused for a moment before directly jumping off the carriage.
“Hey!” the coachman called, but Adan ignored him. She bent down and placed her hand on the ground. Suddenly, the distant sound of waves hitting a shore filled Adan’s ears, followed by a low rumbling further away.
“We’re almost there.”
“Correct,” Sai confirmed and presented an updated 3D map in front of Adan’s eyes. A large area was still marked as unclassified, but roughly fourteen kilometers away there was now a marked-out shoreline and cluster of islands. “The distance is an estimate based on the observed metal content in the ground. Large errors may be present.”
“It fits with the maps we have seen.”
The A.I. confirmed Adan’s statement just as an angry voice was heard from above.
Adan looked up, finding Colonel Dallas glaring down at her with unbridled annoyance.
“Having fun?” she asked, and Adan was about to stand up and answer the woman when a new sound was transmitted to her through the vibrations in the ground.
Adan paused, something Dallas naturally took as a sign of further insubordination. “Brat! Who do you think you are!?” Dallas yelled and pointed the standard’s spear tip towards Adan. “Start moving or I’ll be more than happy to leave you behind!”
“How fast do you reckon this caravan of yours could get to the capital from here?”
“Excuse me?” Dallas didn’t quite follow Adan’s sudden change of subject.
“How fast, do you reckon, could we get to the capital?” Adan repeated, adding a graver tone to her voice than usual. “If the horses run as fast as they can without collapsing before we get there, that is.”
“A-an hour, perhaps,” Dallas replied before she could stop herself, but immediately got angry at herself for giving in to Adan’s question. To cover up her embarrassment, the colonel started barking even harder at Adan for not moving.
“Something the matter?”
By now, the entire group had come to a halt – guards and everything – and Duke Kimba had trotted his horse over to Dallas’ side. Noticing the spear pointed towards Adan, a cold glint flashed by in the duke’s eyes, but the colonel was too busy trying to drill military procedures into Adan’s head to notice.
“I suggest we make haste for Fire Isle; we’re about to get company,” Adan warned. “Lots of company. If we start running now, we might make it before they catch up.”
Both Dallas and Kimba where staring at Adan in shock. Adan shrugged; she didn’t really care if they believed her – she had told them more on a whim, anyway – but while Dallas reacted with disbelief, as expected, Kimba’s eyes told a different story.
“You are a tracker?”
He breathed the question before Dallas had the chance to speak, and somehow his words caused the colonel’s expression to stiffen, suddenly showing apprehension.
Adan was not entirely sure what Duke Kimba meant when he referred to her as a ‘tracker’, and she could guess that the word meant something more to him and Dallas than the translation software had yet to pick up on. Still, Adan could guess.
She chose to answer with a non-committal shrug, letting the other two draw their own conclusions. At once, Dallas’ face sobered up, her previous annoyance completely gone. “How many and how far away?” she asked with rare sincerity.
The woman’s sudden trust surprised Adan slightly, but clearly it had something to do with this tracker business. She hesitated for a moment.
“More than us, roughly a kilometer away – but they’re not moving so fast; I don’t think they know how close we are yet,” Adan lied. Truth was, the approaching group was galloping at full speed – clearly with a specific target in mind – but they were five rather than one kilometer away. However, she didn’t want to shock the two people too much, something she only partially succeeded with.
Dallas’ eyes widened in shock, but, without another word to Adan, she spurred her horse around and started barking orders. “Guards! Full speed ahead! Be ready for an ambush!”
Kimba also acted; with a strong grip, he grabbed Adan’s arm and yanked her upwards. Adan anticipated his move and helped kick off from the ground, expertly hiding the fact that her body was significantly heavier than the average person’s. The poor horse, however, groaned slightly under the sudden extra weight, but Kimba didn’t seem to find it odd. He quickly urged his overloaded mount forward, rushing to catch up with the black carriage.
Once they were parallel with it, the duke pulled open the door of the now rapidly moving carriage and quickly tossed Adan inside, once again missing the pained plea from his mount.
“We’ll talk more later – stay inside for now!”
Without further ado, Kimba slammed the door shut behind Adan, causing the fabric strap holding up the curtains to snap in the process. Inside, Adan lay sprawled over the cramped floor on her back, staring up on the ceiling. She might have assisted with the so-called toss into the carriage, but to make sure that the entire thing didn’t topple over because of it, Adan had been forced to distribute her body-weight accordingly. She didn’t need to imagine how comical her entrance must have looked from an viewer’s perspective; her A.I. happily provided her with a simulated re-run of the whole affair.
Lynne leaned forwards, his face slowly drifting into Adan’s line of sight and partially blocking the view of the ceiling. One graceful eyebrow was raised quizzically on the young man’s face as he made no attempts to hide his amusement.
“Oh, shut up,” Adan retorted before Lynne had the chance to say what was on his mind.
“I didn’t say anything!” he complained with faked innocence as Adan got up from the floor. She grunted to mark her lack of faith in his honesty.
Lynne chuckled, his muffled laughter warm to the ears, but his eyes quickly turned serious.
“What’s going on out there?” he asked. “Why the sudden rush?”
“We’re being pursued,” Adan answered and, when she noticed Lynne trying to look out the windows, she added; “they’re a kilometer off, give or take.”
Lynne frowned. “If so, then how come . . .” His sentence trailed off as his eyes widened in shock. “Don’t tell me you told them!”
“You’re a tracker!?” Lynne practically exploded. “Why didn’t you tell me!?”
Adan just shrugged again.
Lynne blinked a few times in disbelief, his pale blue eyes shifting between shock and wonder before finally settling on something akin to envy.
“Man, you’ve seriously got it all, haven’t you!” he exclaimed.
“Sorry?” Now Adan felt truly lost.
“What, you deny it?” Lynne grunted. “Not only do you have the biggest fire mark I’ve ever seen and girls faint at the mere sight of you, but you also have to be a Tribe Tracker, and with a one kilometer range at that!”
“No one has fainted at the mere sight of me here. . . .” Adan corrected, feeling slightly wronged.
“Such reactions have indeed been outstanding . . . on this occasion,” the A.I. commented sarcastically.
Unaware of the inner dialog that had sprung up between Adan and her A.I., Lynne broke out in slightly manic laughter. “Haha, a Tribe Tracker! No wonder you found me in the woods. . . . A kilometer? That’s just sick!”
Adan barely made sense of all the words Lynne was mumbling, and could only breathe a sigh of relief that she hadn’t told the truth about how far off their pursuers actually were. She guessed that these Tribe Trackers would be somewhat akin to people of the Eutierrian Races; the Federations term for beings with human-level intelligence who chose to remain as one with nature, much like the ancient aborigines of Tellus. These beings would be natural hunters and excellent trackers, although perhaps not to the level of feeling twenty galloping horses from a kilometer away.
“You are mad?” Adan asked.
“Mad?” Lynne scoffed and calmed himself down. “Why would I be? A bit annoyed that you didn’t mention it, but no more than that. . . . If you ask me if I’m jealous; now that is something else. . . .”
Adan shook her head. “No, I mean, if I hadn’t said anything, the people following us would have caught up in no time; it would have been a perfect opportunity to fake your death.”
Hearing her explanation, Lynne stilled for a moment, his gaze growing distant. It did, however, not take long before he too shook his head, cleansing his thoughts.
“If I died now, it is likely that the Sun Tribes would be framed for it, perhaps even reigniting the civil war. I do not want so many civilian lives on my hands, simply to save my family.” Lynne straightened his back, his presence brimming with confidence. “We are a family of soldiers, in the end; we should protect others, not condemn them.”
Adan smiled, her gold-rimmed eyes filled with warmth. In her mind, Adan could hear her little sister speaking very similar words; “We are the guardian soldiers of the universe, Adan! Can you think of anything more honorable than living your life for the safety of every other living being?”
The carriage shook from its new high speed and a sudden bump in the road caused Lynne to lose his balance slightly, breaking his posture a bit prematurely. He quickly gathered himself again, but his previous pondus had lessened and he scratched his cheek awkwardly.
‘You’re a good man, Lynne,’ Adan mused quietly to herself as she suppressed a giggle. She didn’t pursue the subject out loud, though. Instead, she leaned back in her seat.
“Well, then we can only hope that we manage to reach the capital before our followers catch up, or we might not have a choice.”
Lynne only nodded. Seeing his determined look, Adan suddenly felt the urge to genuinely help this man. It would be against the rules but . . . well, she’d never been one to follow protocol, anyway.
“Oh, I should add: there are a few traitors among the guards, too.”