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Their footsteps were loud in the quiet, dead forest, snapping twigs underfoot like thunder to Bill’s ears.
“We need to change tactics,” the peasant Steven declared.
“Why?” he grunted, pulling himself up over a rotting log blocking their path. “We’re trying to follow the path we think we would have taken. If we split up, she’d be somewhere nearby.”
“We’ve been poking our heads into inns for the past two weeks, and we’re nowhere nearer to finding her,” Steven answered. “I think your parents are on to us, too. Last place we were, I heard a couple men talking.”
“What did they say?”
“Well,” he paused to jump over a pitfall, “I didn’t actually hear enough to know for sure, but it seemed like they’re looking for someone of your description.”
Bill scoffed, “You didn’t hear enough? How can you not hear enough to actually know what was said? We keep looking. If she’s alive, she has to be staying somewhere.”
The apprentice muttered under his breath, too softly for Bill to hear. “What did you say?” he asked.
“I said,” he raised his voice, “‘I liked you better before you were a numbskull.’”
“I can have you executed for that, you know,” he bit back.
Steven laughed. “Oh, you wouldn’t dare.”
Their bickering continued until they reached the next inn, at which point it escalated to a near shouting match that resolved when both decided to glower at the other in silence. Bill pulled open the splintered wood door with more force than was necessary and stomped up to the counter, calling for the proprietor. “What can I do fer ya?” the man peered at him calculatedly.
He cleared his throat. “I’m looking for a girl,” he answered. “A specific one. She’d be about this tall,” he brought a hand up to his shoulder, “brown hair, bare feet, probably called ‘Annette.’ Have you seen her?”
The proprietor tilted his head to the side. “Now, it’s my honor to protect the priv’cy of my guests,” he drawled. “I cain’t just be telling out information like that.”
He drew out a gold coin, tapped it on the counter to prove its genuineness, and slid it toward the man. “I respect that, and I promise utmost discretion with the information,” he said easily.
The man slipped the coin from the counter and rubbed it between his fingers. “Hmm,” he pretended to think, then something in his eyes switched and he looked to be actually thinking. Feeling behind the counter, he drew forth a stained paper with a rustle. “Hey, ain’t you this guy?” he pointed at the flier.
Bill’s eyes skimmed over the paper, and Steven put aside their tension long enough to come forward and read with him. “Wanted,” it read: “Prince William ‘Bill’ Kangraff, young man, brown hair, possibly seeking a girl of similar appearance by the name of ‘Annette.’ Will pay 1,000 gold for his safe return to the castle of Poldar.” He cursed his parents under his breath. It wasn’t enough that he had to look for a girl he couldn’t remember ever seeing in his life, now he had every petty criminal and bounty hunter after him. “Nah, that can’t be me,” he shrugged off the proprietor’s accusation. “Name’s Kevin, not Prince. Well, thank you for your assistance. We’ll be on our way now.”
Trying to keep a casual pace, he turned and stalked out of the inn. Steven’s footsteps behind him assured him the boy was following. “This is not good,” he called once they were out of earshot of the inn.
“Obviously,” Bill bit back. “Come on, pick up the pace. We need to put as much distance as possible between us and here.”
At first, Bill let himself hope. Perhaps they could get away without really drawing any attention. Perhaps he had somehow fooled the proprietor.
But then the sounds of pursuit grew behind them. He threw a glance over his shoulder. Raising a cloud of dust were two horses trotting toward them.
“Run!” Steven shouted. For once, Bill didn’t argue. They broke into a sprint, dodging between trees to make pursuit more difficult for their pursuers. A cramp grew in Bill’s side, and he panted for breath as they ran. “Look!” Steven’s voice drew his attention forward. Green peeked between trees, bright splashes of color cutting through the drab of Poldar.
“That’s Clachan,” Bill called back, veering right.
Beside him, Steven pushed him left. “So go toward it!” he yelled. “We’ll be safe there.”
“I can’t,” he shoved back.
“We have to,” he thrust his shoulder against him.
Then their momentum carried them over the border between kingdoms. Bill skidded to a halt, freezing in place. On the other side of the border, the mounted men drew up their horses, waiting.
How long would it take? Or were the stories of the terror of Clachan on which he grew up simply stories?
Their pursuers must have decided that’s all they were, because they loosened their reins and kicked their horses forward. The beasts crossed over into Clachan, and a heavy whirlwind stirred up. The boys shouted, the horses shied, and the wind swept toward the riders, picking them up out of their saddles and whisking them away.
“What just happened!?” Steven hollered.
“It’s the magician’s blessing,” Bill explained. Careful not to disturb the ground too much, he gingerly pushed himself to his feet. “Clachan hates those who threaten it, especially Poldar and Treakstand.”
“Then why are you okay?”
Before he could answer, something behind Bill barked. He whirled around, greeted by the sight of a grey dog lunging at him. He stumbled backward, tripping over a tree root that he hadn’t seen, and the dog was on him, taking his sleeve in its jaw and tugging him toward a little cottage.
“What’s wrong with it?” Steven asked.
“Get it off of me!” Bill squawked, trying to yank his sleeve free.
The cottage door swung open and a heavyset old man stepped outside. “Good boy,” he called, and the dog released Bill and trotted over to him.
Bill scrambled to his feet. “Your dog is crazy,” he insulted, pointing an accusatory finger at the hound.
The old man frowned. “That’s no way to talk to the man who saved your life,” he rebuked. “I’m astonished at you, Will.”
“What? My name’s Bill.”
His frown deepened. “Indeed. Well, that is a development. Come inside, both of you. I’ll make us some tea and we can figure out what is afoot. I am Trevor the sage, by the way.”
He knew he should run the other way, but something inside made Bill think he should trust Trevor. With a look to Steven that warned him to be alert, they accepted the offer and ducked into a cluttered, single-room hut. The bed in the corner instantly drew his attention. Forgetting manners, he wandered further into the house, stopping beside the bed to peer down at a pale, unconscious girl. The rustle of robes alerted him to their host joining him. Without taking his eyes off the girl, he asked, “Who is she?”
“Your sister,” the man answered. “And unless you can awaken her, she will surely die.”
Thanks for reading! Look for Chapter 19 on Monday.