Tana took the special paper developed especially for messenger birds. It was very lightweight but surprisingly strong. She wrote out the two messages she intended to send to Baron Vell Stark, her brother. Then she duplicated them, intending to send four of the messenger birds, two for each message.
Vell had provided her with a dozen of his best birds. The extra two birds were simply to make sure that the message got through. The first part of the message was brief. It simply told Vell that she and her companions had found Kinon, that they were on the Moddy D and were on the way home.
The second part of the message went into more detail, telling Vell that as expected Kinon had been a slave and had been Considus's catamite. However, it also told him that Considus by buying Kinon had put himself in danger.
Tana also told her brother about Hider, his band and the help they had given. Knowing her brother, she felt that he would take care of the children. However, even if he didn't she would provide the required funds out of her own inheritance. After releasing the last of the messenger birds, she turned and found her nephew Kinon watching her.
She had brought a couple pairs of short trousers for him to wear and she was surprised to find that he was still naked. Tana asked him, "Why aren't you wearing your clothing?"
Kinon said with a solemn look on his small face, "Hider doesn't want to dress the other kids, even the ones who are old enough. He says you're going to arrange for them to be adopted. He wants people to see them as they are, not trying to hide what they've been."
He gave a grin then, saying, "I told him that if that's the way he wanted it, I'd stay naked as well until then."
She ruffled Kinon's hair. She loved him as a family member but knowing how much of a spoiled brat he had once been, she hadn't been sure that she would like him.
She held out her hand, Kinon took it and they walked towards the bow of the ship. They stood there at the railing watching the dolphins playing in the bow wave. Kinon asked a bit hesitantly, "Did you tell father what I've been for the last six months. I mean, that I've been a slave and a catamite."
Tana told the boy, talking in a gentle voice, "We expected that you would end up as a slave and as good-looking as you are would probably end up in a man's bed. He told me that he was sorry that your sexuality has been awakened much too early, but he has no less love of you because of that. Certainly, he won't try to stop you from having sexual relations. He simply wants to make sure that you won't be hurt."
Kinon let out a sigh of relief. He admitted to her, "I was a bit worried. Mast... Um Considus says that the Prince is very unstable." He touched the tattoo on his right shoulder and then said, "The Prince regards everything he signs as a royal decree. Since Prince Diam had to give written permission for me to be sold, Considus felt that he had to treat me as a slave and a catamite or the Prince might be insulted or might choose to be insulted."
They talked about Considus, Kinon's sudden freedom and simply about their home and Camron. After a few minutes, their conversation began to wind down. Tana reached out and fingered the necklace around Kinon's neck, which held a small copper ball about a half inch in diameter, asking, "Did Considus give this to you?"
Kinon nodded with a solemn look on his small face, saying, "I probably won't need it anymore, but I'll keep it to remember what I went through. It's my last resort." A shudder went through his small naked body, before he continued in a somewhat subdued voice, "It contains a fast acting poison, just in case everything went wrong and Marrko got a hold of me."
Tana pulled him close and began to stroke his bare back comfortingly.
One fine evening a few days later the Moddy D sailed into the port off Sothra. The galley, that had accompanying them from Scart, left them at the entrance of the harbor heading for their own home base one hundred miles to the south in Pinchon.
While Pinchon was the southernmost city in Camron, Sothra was the largest and richest, of the port cities and the Barony of Stark was only thirty miles away, two days by wagon or on foot, or a short day on a fast horse.
Baron Stark's agent Hunten Garmen arrived a few minutes after they docked at the wharf with messages for Tana. After reading the messages, she asked Garmen to arrange for a couple of wagons to transport the children to the Stark barony.
Kinon looked up at the man who had owned him for the last six months. There were tears in his large brown eyes. He said to Considus and the tears in his eyes echoed in his voice, "I will miss you, Mas... Sir!"
Considus stroked his hair affectionately, telling the boy in a kind voice, "And I will miss you as well, little one. Not simply as my slave boy, though I certainly enjoyed my time with you." He gave a little sigh of regret, "If things had been different and you didn't already have a family, you would have made the perfect heir."
Considus pulled Kinon into a fond embrace, caressing the bare skin of the boy's back and bottom, one last time. The man saw Tana heading towards them and reluctantly he broke off the embrace, putting his right arm affectionately around Kinon's small shoulder.
Kinon said in a somewhat subdued voice, "Hi Aunt Tana." Considus nodded to the woman respectfully.
As she spoke to him with the equal respect, she felt for this man who had saved her nephew's life, "Are you sure you won't come with us, Considus? I'm sure my brother would like to meet you."
Considus shook his head; with a bit of a grin on his face, saying, "I'm not quite as sure as you are that he would welcome me with open arms. However, with your mission complete, the captain of the Moddy D spent last night looking for cargo going to Camara. He was able to find a small but valuable cargo."
Considus waved at the Moddy D with the sailors loading her, before saying, "Since it's small they'll be finished loading her in a couple of hours. I must get to Emcara and talk to my factor. Anything that I own now going into Scart will be confiscated, so I must stop all shipments."
Tana nodded in understanding. She told him, "I sent my report to Prince Tamen by courier. I'm sure he will appreciate what you risked for my nephew as much as my brother and I do. You will be welcomed at court." He nodded in thanks.
Tana was a bit hesitant to ask the question that came to her mind. However, she had found him an interesting conversationalist with no topic out of bounds. She decided to plunge right in and asked a little hesitantly, "I just wondered, Considus, how you were able to leave Scart so easily? You strike me as the kind of noble who would never leave his people in any danger."
He had a serious look on his face as he said, "In actual fact with me leaving, they're safer than if I had fallen out of favor with Prince Diam. If that had happened, the first thing the Prince would have done would be to impose a huge initial fine on me."
Considus voice was somber as he told her, "It would have been of such magnitude I would have been unable to pay it. He would then confiscate my estates. However, he wouldn't have let my people off. The Prince would insist that they pay the fine and he would've gouged every last copper out of them. It would have taken my people years if not decades to recover from such a monumental loss of revenues."
Considus gave a rueful grin as he said, "By leaving without his permission I've abandoned my people. Or at least that's the way the Prince has treated those who have left in the past."
"By apparently abandoning my people, the Prince will treat it as if I died and since I have no heirs he will inherit my estate. Under those circumstances he can't force them to pay a fine. Therefore my people will retain their present prosperity."
Considus gave a grin then and this one was of admiration, "Prince Diam has no wife, but he has a mistress. Her name is Rashin and she was a minor member of the nobility. Her father died when she was sixteen and Prince Diam took her to his bed. She had a child by him, but the boy died in a boating accident several years ago."
His face reflected Considus's sympathy for her loss as he continued, "She was devastated by her son's loss, not that the Prince was. He disliked the boy intensely for some reason. Of course, the boy, since he was born out of wedlock, was illegitimate and Diam certainly wasn't going to recognize him. But he found that her sorrow got on his nerves and to distract her he handed over the management of a couple of his estates."
He told them, "Rashin turned out to be an outstanding manager and the estates prospered. Gradually over the last few years, as the Prince has gotten more and more unstable, she has taken over more and more of his duties." Considus said with regret, "She has to be very careful, but it's only because of her that Scart has prospered and she was the only reason that I stayed."
Tana nodded, respect for this man in her heart.
It was a strange sight that greeted the citizens of Sothra in the early morning when two wagonloads of naked children moved along the street heading for the city gates. It was surrounded by a platoon of soldiers and five men and women dressed in the uniform of King's Messengers.
Tana was riding beside the lead wagon when her nephew called out to her, "Tana, we've lost Hider."
Tana moved up beside the wagon and took a quick look at the children there. With Kinon, there were a total of eleven. Hider had divided them up in a mixture of older and younger children in each wagon. However, in this wagon there should have been twelve children. Hider was indeed missing. She looked at Tres, who shrugged his shoulders. The oldest of the children at just a little over twelve, he was one of the few who actually knew when his birthday was.
"Okay, Tres, where did he go?" Tana demanded.
The boy shrugged his shoulders, then grinned, saying, "We was passing through one of the City Squares when he began staring at a couple of men who was watching us real intent. He told us that he would find us, went into Concealment and jumped off the wagon. I saw a little puff of dust when he hit the street."
"Damn, why would he do that, he's a complete stranger here?" she demanded with annoyance.
Tres shrugged for the third time and said with complete confidence, "Dunno, he does what he thinks is right. But don’t worry, he said he'd find us and he will."
Tana asked him, "Do all of you trust him as much as you do, Tres?"
He nibbled on his lower lip for a moment, then nodded, "Yus. All of us. I bin with the band since I was five and I was seven when he showed up, he was about the same age I'd been, five or so. We didn't have no leaders in those days. Oh some of the older kids pretended to act like leaders, but they was all bullies. The band, it changed a lot in those days, kids would be found dead, or worse, would just disappear."
A shudder went through his naked body, as he continued, "But then one day the City Guard and the Hunters showed up in our area and the older kids panicked and abandoned the rest of us. But worse than that, one of them tumbled a pile of stones into one of our exits blocking it." The last sentence said with a snarl of anger. "With the likes of us the Hunters killed first and were never concerned whether we were Magic Users or not. Hider wasn't the oldest, but he took over and began giving the orders and we got out of that scrape without losing anyone."
Tres continued with a glow of satisfaction on his face, "The older kids they came back and tried to take over again, but we knew we had a real leader and we just ignored them. A couple of them tried to take over physically, as they had in the past. We didn't want them back and half a dozen of us swarmed over each of them and beat them into the ground and they slunk away with their tails between their legs." He gave a grin at that comment. "Since Hider became leader only one of us kids died. We hadn't arranged it like it was when you found us. One of the kids, Shena, went off with a noble; she was only nine and he killed her."
Tres shook his head and a little shiver went through his body, "Oh, was Hider angry! Though some of us were two, three years older than him, we didn't dare to go near him, he was that mad. Then a couple of days later Hider disappeared for two full days and when he showed up again, he was like a cat that had eaten his fill. He never said nothing, but we heard on the streets that the noble who killed Shena was found in his bedroom, throat slit ear to ear."
Tres said solemnly, "After that Hider made sure that none of us went with nobody he hadn't checked out personally with his Empathic ability, or someone we had been with before. No one has died since. When we were low on food and there wasn't enough to go around, Hider divided it starting with the youngest. He always took his share last and if there wasn't enough to go round, he didn't eat. So yus, we trust him total."
Tana nodded, not surprised one little bit. Hider was a true leader, putting those he led before himself.
While Tana had overall command, since she had the rank, she trusted and depended on the sergeant. He was in his mid-forties and had been soldiering since his late teens. Stationed in this area for the last ten years or so, he was more up on local information than she was, since she had spent most of the same period first at the Academy at Camara and then as a King's Messenger. She'd only returned six months before, when Kinon had disappeared.
It was her investigation, with the help of the sergeant and her team that had determined that Yersine's people hadn't kidnapped Kinon. Tana pulled to the side of the road, let the wagons pass and then joined the sergeant, who was at the head of the following contingent of troops.
"Tarn," she said to the sergeant, a little ruefully, but like Tres not alarmed, she had great confidence in Hider's ability to take care of himself, "we've lost one of our children."
He gave a grin and a nod, saying, "Aye, that would be Hider, their leader. I saw him looking intently at someone. I turned away and when I turned back, I couldn't see him anymore. Didn't realize he'd left us, but don't worry. He's the kind that can survive anywhere," he said consolingly.
"Actually I'm not worried about him," Tana admitted with a grin of amusement on her face, "I just thought we should stop early. Around two or so would be a good time, I think. That'll let Hider catch up to us and also give the children a chance to play some games. They can get rid of some of the excess energy that they've gathered over the last few days aboard ship. Otherwise, we'll never get them to sleep tonight. Now, I'm not a very maternal person, I have to admit that I'm not particularly worried about their sleep. But if they don't sleep, I have the awful, awful feeling that we won't sleep either."
The sergeant spat to the side, saying, "We've got mostly veteran soldiers." he grinned at her, "They could sleep anytime, anywhere. For street children they're surprisingly well behaved, but I saw on the ship that they were fair curious about everything. I don't know if my men would be safe if these kids were awake and my men were asleep. So I'm certainly in favor of the idea of tiring them out before bedtime comes."
Looking at the wagon a little in front of her, she lowered her voice. "You realize that many of these children were prostitutes, don't you Sarge? They won't change their ways overnight and maybe not at all. How do you feel about your soldiers ending up sharing their beds?"
The sergeant not at all concerned by the subject matter gave another grin, before he said, "We always get camp followers when we go to war. I long since made it a policy not to interfere with what the men get up to as long as they aren't on duty, or who they take to their bed. However, while most of them are veterans, I only know a few of them. I don't know them well enough to know if they can all be trusted."
Tana grinned back, like him, undisturbed by the subject matter. She said, "Don't worry, they can all be trusted. Hider vetted all of them over the last few days, on the ship. He picked out those who like boys and those who like girls and those who have no sexual interest in children at all, but just like kids. Since the younger kids are accustomed to being close to other warm bodies in the night I think you'll find some of the latter men will end up with a couple of the younger ones each. They'll end up with rather crowded bedrolls, I'm afraid.
Tana gave a wave of her hand at the man saying, "Since you're one of the latter, Sarge, don't be surprised if you end up with a couple of small bodies in your bedroll before morning. Since I know you'll be setting up a guard rotation, the kids will shift beds when the guards change."
The expression on her face became more serious, as she said, "Also tell your men not to treat Kinon any different from the other children. Even more than they, his sexuality has been awakened, they only shared a bed occasionally, he was a slave boy, he's shared one every night for almost the last six months. From what Kinon says, Considus was very sexually active and sex occurred every night and quite often during the day as well. I've been in contact with my brother. He sent a messenger bird to his agent in Sothra who gave me the message last night. Vell was somewhat saddened that Kinon's sexuality was awakened so early. He agrees with me that there's no going back and he will not try to prevent Kinon from engaging in sexual activity. Like Hider with his band, he just wants to make sure that his sexual partners can be trusted not to hurt him."
Meanwhile, Hider was following the two men who had watched the wagons go through the square. The fact that they had been so intent on the wagon and especially one particular boy on that wagon, Kinon, who at the time had been sitting beside the driver on the driver's seat, had alarmed him and awakened his instincts. While Kinon wasn't one of his band, after their time on the ship, Hider had come to regard the younger boy as part of his responsibility.
Hider began to creep up on them. They hadn't spoken since they left the square, but they might begin at any time and he wanted to hear what they had to say. However, before they began to talk they stopped at an open-air inn. Normally the server would be a girl or a woman, or in many places, a young boy. Since it was so early, the server who came out of the inn was a boy in his middle teens.
He took their order, going into the inn to get it and returned quickly with a bottle of wine and two glasses. It wasn't until the boy had gone back inside that the younger man began to talk. He reminded Hider of Tana and as soon as he began to talk, he realized why. In a low but very angry voice, he said, "You were hired to get rid of my cousin Kinon, not to sell him into slavery!!!" He paused and then in a threatening voice, "You had better make it right, or I'll make sure that your Guildmaster knows about your failure!!"
The man with him, a dangerous looking man, with a scar down the left side of his face, said in a low deadly, voice, "Krin, don't try to threaten me. The Guildmaster already knows about this debacle. He demands loyalty and truth. He doesn't punish just on a whim. The man I chose had always been reliable in the past. I had no way of knowing that he would double cross me. The Guildmaster took that into account, he gave me the task of making sure that our unreliable agent would never have the opportunity to betray us again. The man and his two adult sons, have long since ended up floating in the Tenve harbor."
He paused and then said, emphatically, "However we didn't dare go after the boy. The Prince is as crooked as they come and is the leader of the underworld in Scart. As a courtesy, I had to check in with him. He gave me permission to deal with the traitors, but told us we were not to touch the boy. He expected Considus to do something he could not ignore and to fall out of favor. A rival named Marrko would then have taken care of Considus and since he had no heirs the Prince would have inherited his estate and the boy would have ended up back on the auction block. If he was unlucky the boy might have survived a week in Marrko's care."
Hider made a mental note of the fact that the Prince was the leader of Scart's underworld. While there had been rumors to that fact, this was the first time he had ever heard the rumors confirmed.
The man asked with curiosity, "Why is the boy so important? I would have thought that Stark's sister would be just as important. After all, this southern province is one of the few where woman have equal rights of inheritance. I would think you would want to get her out of the way as well."
Krin snorted, saying angrily, "That's what my mother always kept saying when she was still alive. She was the first-born and under the province’s inheritance laws, she should have inherited. However, beginning about two hundred years ago there were four Baronesses in a row. The first three almost ruined Stark and the last brought it back to prosperity. She changed the law in Stark, so that females couldn't inherit unless they were the only members of the family left alive and went to the King to get it ratified."
He said, "He probably would have agreed, even if it had been a man asking for the change, he didn't have a very good opinion of women, but since it was a woman asking for the change, he passed it at once. So if the boy dies, I become heir and if Stark dies, I become Baron." Krin gloated.
The man gave a nod of understanding, before saying, "All right, we did make a deal and now that the boy is back in our reach, we will deal with him as you wanted in the first place. The wagons should take two days to make it to Stark; they have to pass by a small village called Orson's Hole, which is just off the main road. And a hole it is, but it's an ideal place for an ambush. We've got fifty men, mostly former mercenaries to go against twenty-eight. With the advantage of surprise we should be able to take them out without too much of a problem."
He paused and then said emphatically, with an intent look on his dark dangerous face, "As I said we'll abide by our deal, but this is costing the Guildmaster. He said that he would consider favorable opportunities in the Stark Barony a nice reward once it's in your hands!!" Krin just waved his hand in agreement and dismissal.
When a tired Hider reached the spot where the wagons had camped it was about ten, he was surprised that it wasn't farther from Sothra. He could have just used Concealment and gone into the camp. Not wanting to get the guards in any trouble, he very carefully hid behind a tree, where no weapons could hit him accidentally. He was impressed with the guard. With his Empathy, Hider could feel that the man was alert and he was facing away from the camp, so the firelight wouldn't ruin his night vision. Hider recognized him as one of the half dozen soldiers who had been aboard the Moddy D.
Hider coughed a couple of times to get the guard's attention. He realized that he had been wise to put a tree between himself and the guard, as the man's short sword, came out of its sheath with the speed of a striking snake.
Speaking in a normal voice the guard asked, "Who's there?"
"It's me, Hider," the boy told him.
"We're glad to have you back, the Sarge and Tana missed your company," the guard said dryly. "Did they ever miss your company! We stopped early, because Tana thought that your group could use a little exercise to get rid of the extra energy they've been gathering while aboard ship, or they’d never get to sleep. Well they wore themselves out finally, but not before they wore out most of the adults."
Hider giggled, picturing the scene. He said with amusement, "It's all that good food we got on the ship. Oh! I can feel you don't agree with me about the food, but after what we were used to eating, to us it was great!"
The guard said, as he re-sheathed his sword. He said, "Go on in. You should find a second guard in closer to the fire, with the King's Messengers, there's enough for eight guards per shift, so the Sarge established four in an outer picket and another four in an inner picket."
As he had said, Hider came upon a second guard much closer to the fire. He too was alert and not looking at the fire, but it was much brighter and he could see who approached. He only put his hand on the hilt of his sword, rather than drawing it.
He informed Hider with a grin on his face, "The Sarge and Tana stayed up to wait for you. They also saved you something to eat, though how they managed to keep some out when your mob descended on the food, I don't know."
Hider giggled again, saying, "You're just lucky that you managed to get some of it."
The man gave the boy a little pat on his bare bottom as Hider passed by him. The boy smiled over his shoulder, then made his way to the fire, noticing as he did so that all of the bedrolls he passed had at least one additional small body.
He sat down on a log beside Tana, who handed him some food and a mug of milk. He concentrated on the food until it was gone and he tolerated and maybe secretly enjoyed it, when Tana wiped his face, mainly to get rid of his milk moustache. The sergeant looked at Tana, saying dryly, "And you said you don't have any maternal instincts."
Tana smiled at Hider and shrugged, "Well, maybe just a little. And I must admit that the Kinon I've gotten to know over the last few days is much different from the picture that Vell's letters gave of him."
"A spoiled brat, was he?" asked the sergeant.
"Very spoiled." Tana sighed, "After Kinon’s mother died, Vell let the boy run wild, which was a mistake in my opinion." She lowered her voice, "I hate to think how close he came to a horrible death, but slavery has changed him for the better. I think it will, in the long run, make him a much better Baron." Turning to Hider, she asked, "Now what have you been up to, little one?"
Hider gave a quick recap of all he had learned and he watched their faces tighten as he told them about the ambush. The sergeant for the first time addressed Tana formally, "I hate to say it M'Lady, but we simply don't have enough men. We'll have to go back to Sothra in the morning and head back to Stark with a larger company."
Tana said, "I agree, unfortunately that'll mean they'll be able to try again in the future," biting her lip with annoyance.
Tarn told her with a serious expression on his weathered face, "Sorry, M'Lady, but with the children in my care I wouldn't go up against them unless I was forced to, even if the odds were one to one."
Hider asked with curiosity, "How far is this Orson's Hole from Stark?"
Tana thought for a second and then answered, "It's about six miles from Stark itself and three miles this side of the Barony border, which means it's outside of my brother's jurisdiction. My brother is a High Justice, but most of Orson's inhabitants manage to stay just on the right side of the law, at least publicly. Nobody's ever been able to pin anything on the village as a whole that will stick."
"How many men could Stark raise?" Hider inquired.
She mused, "I should have brought a messenger bird, but so close to home; I never thought I would need one, so I left them with Vell's agent." Tana shrugged and gave a little grimace at her lack of forethought, before she said, "With the border war winding down in the southeast and Stark's guard and some of those serving as mercenaries returning, we can raise about two hundred experienced, fighting men."
The sergeant gave low whistle of surprise, before saying, "As much as that, Tana. It's too bad we weren't on that side of Orson's Hole."
Hider smiled devilishly in the light of the fire, "No, we can't get on that side, but what if Stark's men came up from behind them once they were in position. It would be impossible to justify being there. They would have no choice but to fight."
The sergeant looked at Hider speculatively, "You've got an idea?"
With a child's fascination for fire, Hider had taken a branch and stirred up the flames. He said, "They're not likely to have more than lookouts out for tonight. When they realize that we stopped so early the first day, they're not going to expect us until the day after tomorrow, sometime in the morning. Tana has a good horse and it's not that far for a fast horse. I'm good enough at Concealment that I can hide a horse for a few minutes at a time. And with my Empathy I should be able to feel their lookouts before they see us."
Hider looked at them, a serious look on his small face. He said quietly, "There's no guarantee that we won't get caught, but I think it would need a lot of bad luck for that to happen. However in Tenve, I heard a lot of sailors talk and it seems that bad luck turns up, just when you don't need it. Spend an extra day here; the kids wouldn't mind another day of play. If we don't show up back here in twenty-four hours from say ten o'clock tomorrow morning, go back to Sothra."
Hider looked at Tana, with a grim determined look on his face. She gave him a nod of agreement, saying ominously, "I agree with Hider on this one, sergeant. If we catch them in ambush and with Hider's testimony, we've got my cousin. He won't be alive to try again."
As Tana had told Kinon, she had brought him a couple of pairs of short trousers. Hider was only a little bigger than Kinon was, but that would have left his thighs completely unprotected. Instead, she produced a pair of her spare short trousers for Hider. He felt and looked ridiculous, since they were miles too big, but, with the belt cinched tight, they stayed on. It would give his rump and certain other areas some protection. Since they hung down his thighs, they would give his legs more protection than a pair of Kinon's short trousers would. He was still going to be one sore little boy by the end of this ride.
Tana mounted and the sergeant put Hider up behind her. The boy grasped her around the waist with a death grip. "Now hold on tight, Hider," she gasped out, pretending to be out of breath.
He got her point and loosened his grip a little. But not much, this was his first time on a horse and he felt very far off of the ground. Tana gave the sergeant a brief wave. Hider ignored him; he was too intent with hanging on to worry about pleasantries.
After riding for about three hours, Hider felt a little more comfortable about being on a horse and had loosened his grip somewhat. His bottom and legs were however anything but comfortable, having been scraped raw despite the protection of the short trousers. Luckily, the road was easy to see now, under the light of a full moon.
That was when Tana slowed down and stopped. "We're getting close to Orson's Hole," she said, "from now on we better be careful about making noise. I'll put padded booties on the horse and we'll ride slower. Please give me a double squeeze when you sense something and we'll slow right down while you do your magic. OK?"
"OK, I'm ready," Hider told her.
Shortly afterwards, Hider could feel a very angry someone up ahead. He gave Tana a double nudge in the back and when she looked over her shoulder at him, he whispered, "Slow down, we're coming up on the first lookout. He's really pissed, or I wouldn't be able to feel him this far."
Just before they got into sight of the guard, Hider invoked Concealment and quickly the horse and its riders disappeared. Tana looked down somewhat disconcerted, like Hider having his first ride on a horse; this was her first time being in Concealment.
They passed by the first lookout without any trouble. Hider released the Concealment after they passed the danger from the first guard. It took a little longer for Hider to feel the second lookout, because he was much calmer. The boy invoked Concealment again and they got by him just as successfully.
Hider was starting to feel the strain on his magical resources as he released Concealment again. As they came upon a third and thankfully the last of the lookouts, Hider invoked Concealment again. They bypassed the third successfully and when they had traveled out of his sight, Hider released his Concealment.
He was limp with tiredness. While he could have invoked Concealment an additional time or two, he would have been completely exhausted. Tana stopped for a moment and pulled the boy around in front of her and he leaned back against her gratefully, quickly falling asleep.
Hider woke up when he heard her yell, "Sergeant of the Guard!" He could see the gate itself well lit with a couple of lanterns and he could just make out a couple of archers on the wall, with drawn bows. He felt impressed by their alertness. According to what Tana had told him, no one had attacked the Castle in over two hundred years, yet they were taking no chances. Perhaps their proximity to Orson's Hole, explained some of their alertness.
The drawbridge was down. The portcullis was up, but it could have come thundering down, with a swift slash of a rope. The sergeant of the guard came forward, sheathing his sword, one of his men drawing his sword and taking his place.
The sergeant looked around and after making sure that Tana and Hider were alone, he yelled, "Take it easy, it's M'Lady Tana."
Taking hold of the horses bridle, he led the horse through the gate and turning it toward the stable; he took the reins from Tana and tied the horse. Tana said, "Here Quin, please take Hider." and handed the small boy down. The sergeant took him and set the boy on his feet, but had to hold him up as his legs began to crumple under him. Hider began to mutter under his breath.
Tana, accustomed to long rides, swung down easily from the saddle. She stretched and asked the sergeant, "What's he saying?"
The sergeant bent down so he could hear what Hider was muttering. In fascination, he continued to listen for almost a minute, only to be jerked up, when Tana asked impatiently, "Well, Quin, what's he saying?"
The sergeant straightened with a jerk and gave a little grin of embarrassment, "M'Lady, I've known you since you were a little girl and I wouldn't feel right repeating what he said in front of you. I can tell you that I learned several new words and phrases I've never heard before," he said of Hider's tirade, with great respect. He released the boy, ready to catch him if he lost his balance again, but Hider had gotten his land legs again and was quite steady.
Hider unbuckled his belt and let the short trousers slide down his legs, stepping out of them. With a groan, he began rubbing his bare bottom and thighs vigorously. He glared at the horse saying venomously, "If this hadn't been my idea, I'd find a crossbow and shoot him!!"
Tana carefully picked him up around the waist and stared into his large green eyes. Choking back her laughter, she told him, "I'm sorry Hider, really, horseback riding can be enjoyable, but starting off having to make a trip of twenty-five miles in a few hours is not the way to begin riding."
Hider nodded graciously saying to her, "All right, I forgive your beast this time, but tell him he better not let it happen again; or else." She set him back on his feet and he turned his eyes on the sergeant, suddenly serious. Hider asked, "Do you have anybody with good night vision among your men?"
The sergeant perplexed, nodded, "We've got a couple of Elves and of course they have good night sight."
Hider looked back at Tana, telling her, "Something I just thought of. If I planned an ambush on the wagons, I'd have the castle watched as well. Probably by a couple of kids right now and then someone more responsible the closer the time gets; just to make sure that they don't suddenly get squeezed by a counter-ambush like we planned."
The Elves Quin sent out didn't find anyone, as they reported to Baron Vell Stark, already awakened and the sergeant, Hider and Tana. The Baron grunted, "Careless of them." and the three others nodded with agreement. He thought it over, saying, "Well, I don't think they'll stay careless." Looking at the Elves, he said, "Pick three others with good night sight, though it's unlikely that they would send lookouts this late in the morning. It's more likely they'll place lookouts either later in the day or after it gets dark, so be prepared for a long wait."
The Elves left passing the Captain of the Guard and one of his two lieutenants, who were just coming in. The Baron had sent a page to awaken them. The other lieutenant was ill and Quin was taking his place for the time being.
They had heard his last comment to the Elves and the Captain said, "That gives us a chance to gather the men together, M'Lord. Hope the ambushers include half the men from Orson, that'll give us a reason to finally shut the village down and get rid of three-quarters of the crimes committed in this area.
Stark nodded, saying, "I agree, but right now the important thing is Kinon and the other children. I don't like it, but Tana is right. If we don't take the opportunity to take out my cousin now, then Kinon and I are still in danger. While our lives aren't that important in the overall scheme of things, I would hate to think of what would happen to the Barony if Krin got a hold of it."
After the meeting, the Baron huddled with Tana for a few minutes, anxious to hear the news about his son. Tana was able to reassure him as she said, putting her hand on his arm, she told him, "Kinon is in great shape physically and more importantly, mentally. If he had to be a slave, he probably couldn't have had a better owner then Considus." and she was glad to see the look of relief on her brother's face.
Hider was up with a dozen forward soldiers. All foresters and archers, they were to take out any guards and allow the following soldiers to get close. There was the same number on the other side of the road. There were four guards and the foresters managed to catch them off guard and take them alive. Two of the foresters moved back as messengers to summon the main body forward.
Since there were no shouts from the opposite side of the road, obviously the foresters on that side had been as successful.
Hider drifted forward, a stout branch in his hand. A city boy, he shouldn't have been able to move as silently in the woods as he did in the city, but by being very careful, he managed it. He hoped the one he was looking for would be here and hopefully on this side of the road. He moved silently among the ambushers and when he reached the sixth one, he looked at him with satisfaction. It was the dangerous looking scar-faced man who had been talking to Krin in Sothra. After failing the Guildmaster once, even though it wasn't his fault, he would want to make sure this time, or his death would be as inevitable as the setting sun.
Hider invoked Concealment. He could manage it for a short period of time, even as tired as it was. The man looked around uneasily but seeing nothing wrong, he settled down with the crossbow again.
As patient as a spider waiting for its prey and as still, Hider waited and waited and then the horn sounding the attack rang out and he bounded forward. If the scar-faced man had been wearing his helmet, as he should have, the blow that Hider aimed at the back of his head wouldn't have been possible. But because he wasn't, the blow took him just in the right spot, taking his consciousness instantly.
Hider abandoned Concealment, glad that there would be no more need of it for the time being. Taking the rope, which he had wrapped around his bare waist, Hider tied the man's arms behind his back and then pulling his legs up he tied his arms and legs together.
Just in case he might need it, Hider took the crossbow that the man had intended to use. Anybody coming on them was likely to be a Stark soldier and indeed, the man who suddenly appeared was Sergeant Quin. He looked quizzically at Hider holding the heavy crossbow and the trussed up man. Hider said simply, "We want this one alive. He was the one Krin was talking to in Sothra. I just thought an extra witness wouldn't hurt."
Kinon hung back, feeling shy and uncertain. When the Baron went to one knee and opened his arms the boy rushed into them, happy tears flowing down his face. Someone moved up and cast a shadow over the two. Kinon looked up and saw Gannon Wilkes looking down at them, a relieved look on his face.
Suspecting how the man would feel when someone he was protecting was kidnapped, Kinon reached out with his left hand to take Gammon's large hand in his small one. Kinon was glad when he saw the man smile in acceptance. Kinon was back and he was safe.
It was a week since Krin and the scar-faced man had been executed. Unfortunately, only a couple of the men captured had been from Orson, so the hope they'd be able to deal with the village once and for all had not materialized.
The keep of the castle was a crowded place. The notice that Hider's band was up for adoption, and, like a girl getting married, would come with a dowry, had attracted a lot of people from Baron Stark's lands.
Tana was looking down from her room and she was puzzled when she noticed that children would approach a couple and then look over to the side. Sometimes they stayed and other times they moved on.
Curious, she headed down to the courtyard. She saw Hider leaning back against the wall and when a boy or girl would look at him, he would nod or shake his head. She joined him.
He answered her unspoken question, "All of Baron Stark's people are aware of what my children have been. Of course, that's what I wanted, it's best the truth is up front. The ones that came, well they think they're the liberal ones. Not all of them are as liberal as they like to think. With the smaller kids it doesn't matter, but the bigger ones have been having sexual encounters for years. They need to go with those that will accept that part of them, even though they're still only children."
Surprisingly Tana realized that there was no sadness in Hider's voice, he was genuinely happy for the children who had been member's of his band. The boy said, "This will be the last time they will be children of mine. Oh, they'll always be my friends, but soon they will be part of families and they will be their children."
Tana watched with him over the next hour as the children ended up with the appropriate families. The first thing the child would do was bring his new parents and siblings to meet Hider. Then there would be a hug and kiss and a goodbye. But there were no sad goodbyes. Hider had too much joy on his face and in his eyes for that to happen, not today at any rate.
Tres, the oldest, was the last and after watching the boy walk away with his new family, open satisfaction on his face, Hider turned to her and said to Tana, "Well, how would you like to take a leave of absence and go help topple a Prince? Your brother has promised me any money I might need and he's provided six men. He gave some of the mercenaries a choice, hard labor or go into danger as my men. More than a dozen offered themselves. With my Empathy, I was able to choose half a dozen who actually meant it. All we need are a few Magic Users and hopefully a Lesser or Great Mage"
Tana looked down into those bright green eyes, as he flicked a stray lock of his red hair out of them and heard herself say, "I'll see what I can arrange with Prince Tamen."