"What're ye doing, dog?"
With one wipe of a paw, the crude map scratched in the dirt was gone and Calla turned to face the sergeant, who was leaning against a beech tree at the edge of the clearing.
"I knew you were following me."
"That's as may be. What were ye doing? A faithful hound ain't gonna run off by hisself for no reason." The stocky man detached himself from the beech and took a few steps forward. "Were Drakon and Borysko here?"
Relieved to be able to tell the truth, Calla rubbed his muzzle with a paw and gave a canine shrug. "No. They weren't."
"So who was here, dog? Ye ain't telling me everything. I gotta take ye back to my lady Khoreia soon enough, and she ain't gonna be happy. I might be more inclin'd to help...if ye'll tell me what ye was doing."
Quite deliberately, Calla sat down where the map once was and idly wagged his tail a couple of times to dispel all lingering traces of the location spell. He could not take the chance that Esben was magically sensitive; the ability seemed to be popping up all over the place lately.
"A woman was here. And a young Scarlet Guard."
"Scarlet Guard? What're those prancing posies doing this deep in the forest? Are ye sure?"
Calla wrinkled his nose. "The dye they use in their cloaks. It smells...unpleasant. And distinctive. No mistaking that, especially when it's wet."
The sergeant made an impatient motion. "Are ye tellin' me ye came all the way out here just because ye smelled a Scarlet Pansy who'd stepped in a puddle? Pull th' other one, dog."
"No, it wasn't that...but I'm done now. You can take me back to Khoreia."
Esben fixed him with a suspicious, disbelieving eye, then shrugged.
"Ye'd better cringe like a whipped puppy," he threatened. "'Cause else I'll make ye do it for real."
Nyssa da Silva, reflected Mecho, set a more punishing pace than the worst drill sergeant on the training runs. She hadn't let up once since they'd started several hours ago, and it felt like there was a red-hot iron band steadily constricting around his neck. Every breath felt like someone was scraping his throat with a burning file and it was getting very hot.
But he wasn't going to ask to stop. He felt obscurely as though some sort of honour was at stake. So he fixed his gaze firmly on the Madame's back and followed it unhesitatingly, vaguely wondering where it was they were going.
Eventually, she stopped.
"Take a rest," she told him. "You look half dead."
Slight stung by this, Mecho tried to stand up a bit straighter and claim he was at the peak of fitness, but he seemed to have lost his voice. Nyssa smiled in faint amusement and gestured to a clear spring bubbling from moss-covered rocks not far away.
"Drink. But gently. Sip, don't gulp."
Abashed, the erstwhile Scarlet Guard obeyed, and eventually felt his throat begin to loosen enough for speech.
"Madame," he rasped, but politely. "Where are we going?"
She looked at him thoughtfully, then said, "Back to town. You're going to get me into the Mage's School."
"Am I?" Mecho said, rather startled. "How?"
She smiled at him serenely. "You still have your Corporal's stripes, and your uniform. As long as Prince Berengar and Donovan don't see you, the Scarlet Guards already in the town will have no reason to question you. Mage's Town is ruled by Scarlet Guards right now...so it's very useful to have one on my side."
Mecho absorbed this, and looked at the woman sitting in front of him. She was very beautiful, and could undoubtedly turn him into the amphibian of her choice should he displease her, but...
"How do you know I will help you?" he asked, trying to sound tough and threatening; his throat betrayed him, however, and the words came out as a high-pitched rasp. "I should still be loyal to Prince Berengar; I have been trained to be loyal to him alone, and he views you as a wicked sorceress, his enemy."
Madame Nyssa da Silva put her head on one side and regarded the young man, her eyes sharply piercing. He squirmed under her gaze, suddenly uncomfortable.
"I will not force you," she said at last, getting to her feet. "Should you desire to return to your comrades, I will not stop you. But please bear in mind...who it was that tried to kill you, and who it was that healed you."