“This is pointless!” Behfa shouted. “We could crawl up and down this river for weeks and never find them.”
“And yet we must look,” said the wizard. He was crouched by the riverbed, rooting around in the loose dirt and rocks.
“I don’t think there are any soldiers in the dirt,” she sneered.
The wizard sighed at that. “I fear there are far too many soldiers in the dirt.”
“You know what I mean! What are you doing?”
“Looking for our friends.”
Behfa snorted. “Friends? You really think any of them would be out here if I wasn’t my father’s daughter?”
The wizard hummed as he rooted. “I couldn’t say.”
“Well I can.” She stood north up the river. The new day was chasing off the dark of night, but a large, sharp shadow struck west from where Behfa stood. “Junior officers, second sons,” She snorted again. “They’re only here because they smell an opportunity.”
“Isn’t that why we’re here too? Oh look, a minnow. There must be more. Would you be kind enough to catch one for me, Captain?”
The wizard held his hands over his head. They were orange with clay and pebbled with little puffs of dirt and mud. “With these great instruments. This is a ford, the Ghrana Ford, if I’m not mistaken. The water is very shallow here; it won’t go past your thighs. Just strut on out, wait, and snap!”
“We should be looking for the troops.”
“I thought you said that was pointless.”
Behfa grimaced, but not knowing what else to do, she strode out into the water. It was cold, but not freezing, and so clear she could see the large, smooth stones that ran along its bottom. The water seemed to twinkle in the sunlight, and every so often a tiny flash of green or red would catch her eye. Minnows, flying downstream faster than birds. One slipped between her legs, and another winked by right next to the wizard. “They’re too fast!”
“You have an unusual philosophy for catching fish, Captain,” the wizard said. He seemed to be delicately picking through leaf shreddings, pebbles, tiny stray bones, and what looked suspiciously like deer droppings. “You haven’t even tried to catch one, and yet already you’ve determined it cannot be done.”
She crossed her arms. “In battle, you have to assess the situation before acting. It’s called strategy.”
“Ahh,” the wizard answered, enlightened. “And this is your strategy for catching fish?”
“Yes,” she said stubbornly.
“Then why haven’t you caught a fish?”
She ignored that and turned back to the river. Minnows were everywhere, but when she blinked each one would vanish. She crouched and readied her hand, but when she thought she had spied a good one, it was already gone.
“You really think they’re out there looking for us?” she said. “If they’re not drowned, they’re probably marching back to the border right now. That or to East Gate, to try and convince the Yenese I kidnapped them or something.”
“Do you know how those children managed to sneak up on you last night?”
“They didn’t sneak up on me!”
“Oh, so you were just playing with them. In the middle of a covert military action? Hm.”
She did not have an answer for that.
“They snuck up on you because they were silent. They took the time to observe and understand the situation, they waited for their moment, and then,” the wizard suddenly struck his orange hands into the water. When he pulled it out, a tiny green and red fish was in his hands. “Then they struck. Whoops!” The minnow had slipped out of his fingers and back into the river. He shrugged and returned to the mud.
Behfa groaned. “We used to eat quail and roast pig, with salads of apple and dates, and now we’re supposed to grub in the dirt for fish?
“I didn’t say anything about eating the fish.”
She stared at him for a moment. “What are you doing?”
“I still have some lesser fire with me, but it’s raw. I’ve found most of what I need here, but I still need a fish’s scale. Any fish will do.”
“For another glowstone?”
“Something like that. Say, since you’re already out there, maybe you could catch a fish for me. It’s simple, just wait and watch, and then snap!”
Behfa looked upriver. There was a mild bend a few hundred feet away, probably the bend that bashed their ribs the previous evening. The minnows glittered brightest just as they came around the bend, so she looked there, waiting for her chance. She let her eyes relax, trying to take in as much of the river as she could.
As she did, her attention was drawn to something closer, only a dozen feet away or so. At the bottom of the crystal river, nestled amongst the smooth stones, was a small yellow rock. She stepped toward it, slowly, trying to betray nothing. The little rock sat between three larger stones that had arrested its movement as it flowed down the Big Bolt. Behfa took another step toward it.
As if to frustrate her prayers, a minnow leapt out of the river and plunged back in, knocking against the little yellow rock and disturbing it from its place. It began to flow downriver, not as fast as a fish, but fast enough. Behfa’s entire body tensed. It was coming. She allowed herself a single breath, relaxed, readied. And struck.
“Did you catch one?” the wizard asked.
Behfa’s left hand was at her pouch, but her right hand was empty. “Not yet,” she said.
“Not yet,” the wizard repeated. “You know, that might be one of my favorite sentences in the Yenai language. Not yet.”
A razor sharp smile cut Behfa’s face. She looked into the river again, breathed out, waited, and struck.
“Excellent!” the wizard cried. “On only your second try. You are a prodigy, Captain Behfa.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” she jested, tossing the minnow to the wizard. His eyes flew wide, but he managed to keep the fish in his grip as he fell backwards onto the grass. Quickly, he pulled out a tiny knife and held it to the flapping, gasping fish.
“I pray you will forgive me,” he murmured, “but I have friends who need your help.” Using the knife, he pried a single tiny scale from the minnow, replaced his knife, and carried the fish back to the river. “We thank you,” he said, dropping it into the water.
“We thank you,” Behfa repeated automatically.
A few minutes later, the wizard had a tiny purple crystal smeared with filth from the river, coated in some powder he must have brought with him. He held the crystal in a cupped hand and exhaled onto it. They waited.
“What’s it supposed to—”
“Wait…” the crystal was turning from purple to brown. No, not brown, to orange, and then yellow. The wizard reared down and threw the crystal far up into the wide blue sky.
The lesser fire exploded with a deep, though not deafening, boom. Multi-colored sparks shot out in every direction, hanging in the air impossibly.
“Are you deranged!” Behfa yelled. “You can see that for miles in any direction! Now the Yenese will know exactly where we are!”
“But so will our friends.”
“And how do we know they’ll get here first?”
“This is the Ghrana Ford,” said the wizard. “We’re halfway to East Gate. It’s a hundred miles in either direction. No one’s looking for us here.”
“And what if it isn’t the Ghrana Ford?”
The wizard paused. “Well… I suppose there’s a chance it could be the Alwah Ford, in which case Shafinah is about twenty miles in that direction, and we could be in a lot of trouble.”
Behfa was only four inches taller than the wizard, but she made every inch count as she glowered down at him.
“But we were in the river for quite a while,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it’s the Ghrana Ford.”
Two hours later, they were still hiding in a patch of bushes on the other side of the river when two horses approached. Behfa pulled her sword and shushed the wizard, but they soon realized the horses had no riders. They were saddled and bridled, and there were no signs of battle, yet there they were, riderless. Both of the horses slowed at the river bed and looked up where the sparkling lights had long since faded, then bent down to take a drink from the water. The chestnut plow horse had a shaggy white mane. The other, a gelding, was grey all over.
“It’s not our friends,” the wizard hedged, “but it seems Satar is on our side all the same.”
“A gelding,” Behfa sneered. “Geldings are for little girls.”
“You’re welcome to the plow horse, if you want.”
Both animals were raised to be docile, and Behfa was well experienced handling far fiercer beasts. It was easy enough to feed them some of the still-soggy bread from their supplies and get in the saddles.
“So,” said the wizard, “do we follow the river northwest back to Shafinah, or do we risk riding to East Gate?”
“Neither,” said Behfa. “We cut across the plains and take the Great Bariad north to Musmahwa.” She did not look at him. “Shafinah knows we’re here. They’ll have already sent a dispatch to East Gate, which means they’ve already slipped past us somehow, or they’re riding in force at this very moment. And even if we got to East Gate before them, we’d never be able to sneak into the temple of their capitol city. We can’t stay on the Big Bolt.”
“And your soldiers?”
“They’re soldiers. They know it too.”
The wizard rubbed his beard. “We’ll have to come back to Shafinah eventually.”
“No. There are eight great temples in Yena. We only need six.”
“Are you sure? Six is sacred to our people, not to the Yenese.”
“I’m doing this for us,” Behfa answered. “I’m doing this for Zalja.”
He nodded at that. “That means we can’t afford to make any more mistakes.”
Behfa turned her new mount east. “I know.” She heeled its flanks and started off across the plains.
The wizard looked down at the river, then up to the brilliant blue sky. “All-Mother, please, look after our friends.”
The wizard said they were passing through the Plains of Inish Aiva: grassy fields dotted with tiny forests every few miles. Herds of black-horned antelope leapt and frolicked across the plains, and strange silvery deer Behfa had never seen before. She half wanted to ride up and see them more closely, but she knew they would flee, as deer always did. Besides, they were in a hurry. They camped late in the night and woke before sunrise, the wizard’s new glowstone providing a little heat in the chilly nights. On the second day of their ride, Behfa saw a small flock of peach-colored birds flying overhead, which she took as a good sign.
On the third day they reached the Great Bariad, just north of a huge turn in the river that the wizard called the Mighty Bend.
“We can take this northeast all the way to Musmahwa,” he said, “but perhaps we should ride farther from the river. There will be fishing villages along the way. If they see us—”
“Let them see us,” she said. “fishermen can’t do anything to stop us.”
“Captain, are we going to barge into Musmahwa the same way we did Shafinah? That did not work out well.”
Behfa grumbled. “It’s these uniforms. We need disguises. You’re right: if we march into the town wearing the peach and black, they’ll stand in our way. We need peasants’ clothes.” She rubbed her jaw. “We’ll find them at one of your fishing villages.” There may have been a sinister note in her voice, but she heeled her mount and sped off before the wizard could say anything.
The first village they found was not a village at all. It was a fortress, small but new, and well built. Its curtain wall was solid, and the watchtower at its pinnacle was pristine. They had been planning to ride around it, but as they got closer, they realized it was unmanned.
“It’s full of children!” Behfa said in disgust. A flock of five little girls was running out of the fortress and down to the river. As if in answer to their prayers, they were carrying loads of dirty laundry with them.
“It’s full of people,” the wizard corrected her. “Yena set up these fortresses all along the Great Bariad during the Crusade. I should have remembered.”
“We both should have.” She shook her head. “I heard my father talking about them often enough.”
“He was the only man to get past one,” he nodded. “Far to the north, yes. It was on the Bridge of Prian Al. He broke through and brought his company south. To Musmahwa.” He and Behfa locked eyes. “He burned down their Mother’s House.”
Her face turned hard, and she looked away. “I know. The Khan said it was our greatest victory. He told my father he had made the Crusade worthwhile, despite our losses.”
The wizard grunted at that.
“I can’t let him down. Either of them.”
Behfa dismounted and threw her reigns to the wizard. She approached the little girls, who were dunking their laundry in the shallows and drawing them across a washboard. Behfa’s hand rested on the pommel of her blade.
“Hey! Who’s that!?” one of the girls shouted, pointing at her. She had a white ghast-mark above her right eyebrow.
“Are you a soldier?” asked another one, wearing a blue skirt and an indigo wrap.
“Can I hold your sword?” asked a third, the only one in pants. She had her brown hair in tails and stood up to face against Behfa as she approached, but her smile was bright.
The girls all stared at her. She grabbed her sword handle.
“Greetings!” The wizard came up beside her, leading both the horses down to the shallows and the laundry. “My name is Dalsam. I am a traveling magician, and this is my assistant, Booboo.”
The girls all giggled at that. Behfa shot him a milk-curdling glare.
“We were doing a little show down the river this morning, but Booboo tripped and knocked us both into the water. Our costumes are quite ruined. I don’t suppose you girls have any old clothes you’re looking to get rid of, are you?”
“Can we trade you for the sword?” asked the girl in pants.
“How come your assistant has a sword anyway?” asked the girl in the blue skirt.
“Oh, she is a sword-juggler,” the wizard said.
“Shouldn’t she have more than one, then?”
He shrugged. “I’m afraid she isn’t very good.”
They giggled some more.
“Tell me,” the wizard asked, “I thought this was a great fortress. Are the soldiers out marching?”
The girl with the ghast-mark pointed north. “They all went home after the war. The fort was just sitting here. There was a bad winter after that, so our mommies all moved us up here.”
“They said it was safer,” added the girl in pants.
Behfa put her fists on her hips and tried to look friendly. “What did your daddies have to say about that?”
They all grew silent.
The wizard pulled another crystal from his pocket, this one white. It looked like a big salt granule, nearly the size of his thumb. “Please,” he said, “allow me to demonstrate one of my tricks. Perhaps you will consider it worth a few old rags of clothes.”
He pulled some powder from his pouch and sprinkled a pinch onto the crystal, then he set it on the ground and gently pressed it into the earth. The children all sat watching, wide-eyed in wonder.
After a few seconds, a single green stalk began to grow from the ground. As it extended, it flushed fuchsia, and three tiny buds appeared on it. In less than a minute, the buds had grown and opened into three gorgeous purple flowers, each with a mane of five petals and a sort of tongue extending out beneath them.
The girls all went “Ooooooh.” Behfa rolled her eyes.
“This flower is called an Orckid bloom,” the wizard said, glancing at the girl with the ghast-mark. “It is found in the grasslands of Orckid, far to the north of here, though with the right care and attention, they can thrive in Yena as well.”
A girl with a green vest over her blouse knelt down for a closer look. “What kind of magic is that?” she asked.
“Lesser earth, one of the six elemental magics, and my personal favorite.”
“I thought there was only four elements,” she said, still transfixed by the bloom.
“There are four elements, yes,” he said sagely, “but six magics. Greater and lesser earth, greater and lesser fire, and water and air magics.”
“Can we see them too?”
The wizard chuckled at that. “Isn’t this enough? I’ll bet you an Orckid bloom has never grown on the Great Bariad before, except maybe in the Gardens of East Gate.”
“We have to ask our mothers first,” said the girl in pants.
“Of course. Perhaps we can set up camp in the shadow of this proud fortress while we wait.”
“We can’t stay here,” Behfa insisted. “There’s a good three hours’ more light, and another two hours riding after that.”
“I think we’re making good pace,” the wizard said. “It might be good to enjoy some company for a night. Perhaps someone can tell us if there is any news from Musmahwa.”
Behfa shook her head, grabbing a fistful of her ruined shirt. “Someone here will recognize us.”
The wizard nodded at that, crestfallen. “Ahh. Of course. Ladies, if you agree to hand us a few castoffs now, I will show you one more trick.”
“Show us the fire!” the girl in pants said, her concern for their mothers quickly forgotten.
After a moment’s pause, he pulled his glowstone from his pouch and held it up for all to see. “Behold, this perfectly normal, unassuming purple rock.”
“Just do it already!” the girl shouted.
After a brief moment of shock, the wizard tossed the lesser fire from hand to hand, kissed it, then held it tight in his palms for a moment. When he opened his hands, a little gout of flame shot up into the air.
“Whoa!” the girl in pants screamed. The others were impressed as well.
“Girls!” came a voice from within the curtain wall. “What’s going on out there?”
Behfa hurried over to the laundry. “We have to go. Just give us some clothes.”
“Can I have your sword?”
“Come on,” the wizard said. “What will we need a sword for, once we’re peasants?”
“We’ll need the sword,” she said darkly.
Sunset found them riding along the north side of the Great Bariad. The wizard was wearing a long brown tunic of cambric, with short sleeves, lined in yellow, with a white shirt underneath, and baggy white pants, belted with an undyed rope; all of it one size too large, worn thin in several places, and of course unwashed. Behfa had pulled a shirt of deep green that was probably too valuable to take, along with a leather jack that was old and worn, but still of great worth; the girls would likely pay for that. Her white pantaloons cuffed at the knees, so she still wore her own black stocks and her Zaljan boots, confident those alone would not awake suspicion. Her hair was bound up in an undyed scarf that had been washed already, and the moisture was welcome during their ride. The wizard eschewed any headgear, and his dark grey hair swept out as if windblown from the riding.
They began to slow slightly as the golden sky went dark, and it became easier to talk. “I think I’m getting saddle sores,” the wizard moaned. “How embarrassing.”
“It’s these peasants’ clothes,” Behfa said. “They’re so thin. Everything in this country is garbage!” She could feel the beginning of sores as well, but kept that to herself.
They had passed two villages that day, both of them abandoned. “I suppose we’ll cross another fortress tomorrow,” the wizard said when they finally started making camp. He was digging a small fire pit, having exhausted his glowstone entertaining the children earlier. “Perhaps they’ll have friendly villagers in them too. We may finally get some news about Musmahwa.”
“Are you worried?” asked Behfa. She was sharpening her sword with a chunk of bone gem the wizard had lent her; the chalky substance was powdering off onto her hands as much as the blade, but it would only make them both harder. Stronger.
“No, no,” he answered. “We’ve been making great time. They’d need a company of Yaalkese unicorns to outpace us. Besides, I think they’ll go to East Gate first.”
Behfa kept watching her sword. “Do you think they’ve made it to East Gate?”
“Definitely. The Big Bolt is wild in some places, but I’m sure Shafinah has plenty of experienced pole boaters. They probably sent a courier down the river the next morning.”
They both worked in silence for a while after that. “What’ll they do?” she asked.
The wizard shrugged. “The senator from Shafinah called us criminals. So they probably don’t think this is an invasion or anything.” He finished bordering the pit with rocks, and pulled another raw piece of lesser fire out. “May I borrow your sword, Captain?”
“This is an instrument of war, not a fire-starter.”
“More’s the pity,” he said, then drew a second piece of lesser fire out and began striking them together delicately.
Behfa looked up from her sword and watched him work. Tiny pieces of gem chipped off as the two magics struck together, but it was not long before they sparked and started a warm, merry flame. She tossed the bone gem over near the fire pit, and the wizard put all his magics back into his pouch. Behfa’s fingers strayed to her own pouch briefly, and the oily yellow rock that sat within it. “Why did you even come with me?” she asked.
“Behfa, I’ve been teaching you since you were seven years old. I couldn’t let you just run off to Yena by yourself.” From his bags, the wizard produced a smelly mackerel that had already been scaled, impaled it on a nearby stick, and held it over the fire. “I am sure your friends felt the same way.”
“Where did you get that fish?” asked Behfa.
“That girl gave it to us, the one who wanted your sword.”
She shoved her blade back into its wooden scabbard with a satisfying snick. “Oh? Did you give her something in return? You’re awfully free with the magics lately, considering how far we are from any mines.”
“I taught her a few magic words.”
She rolled her eyes at that. “How many more days ‘til Musmahwa?”
“Four, if we keep our pace.”
“Four days!?” She buried her face in her hands. “And you say they’ve already reached East Gate? They’ll put out searches in all directions! They’ll send an ambassador to Tsen Ikha! The Khan’s going hear about this! My father’s going to hear about this!”
The wizard put a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged him off. “They will,” he agreed, “but unless the Yenai have discovered the secret of flight, they cannot be traveling much faster than we are. Probably slower, armored and in formation. We will reach Musmahwa before them, no question.”
“And then what?”
“Then it’s north along the Lesser Bariad, and west to Gharqah.” He smiled and waggled his fingers. “The Town of Wizards!” he laughed. “I can’t wait to shop around and compare notes. Did you know the Yenai have only one magic mine? Yet it contains all six magics in its veins. What luck.”
Behfa groaned and lied down on some grass she had already flattened. “What about after Gharqah?”
“West to Mu May!” he answered, unruffled. “The Red Forest is supposedly home to vulpeys, spirit foxes that try to deceive unwary peasants. I hear some appear in the guise of beautiful women. Sounds exciting, eh?”
Behfa pounded her fist against the ground and tore up some of the grass. “Won’t they catch up to us by then?”
The wizard sniffed at his fish. “Yes. By Mu May, yes. They will send out searchers in all directions, and we cannot hope to complete our journey before they have visited all the major towns.”
She held the grasses up in her hands. Six long stalks of pale green were wavering lightly in her grip. “So what’ll we do at Mu May?”
“Mu May is ages away,” he shrugged. “Would you like to share my fish, Captain?” When she didn’t answer, he tore it roughly in half and handed a piece to her. “We thank you,” he said.
“We thank you,” she muttered automatically.
“Let’s worry about Musmahwa for now,” he said after a hearty first bite. “Then we can worry about Gharqah. Then Mu May.”
Behfa grunted while chewing, spitting a pair of split bones out into the dark. She sat up, the wave-grass still in her hand. “But what will we do at Mu May?”
The wizard took another full bite before saying, “I suppose our disguises will get their first real test.” He finished his fish, licked his fingers, and lied down to rest.
Behfa was still eating, fish in one hand and grass in the other. She tossed the grass into the flames. As she finished her last bite and threw the bones out into the evening, she looked down at the wizard, eyes closed, already dead to the world. She could feel words rising up her gullet and into her mouth, but in the end she merely swallowed her fish and lied down. “We thank you,” she muttered quietly.
“We thank you,” the wizard echoed, smiling.