Mage's Town was silent.
Although it was still but early evening, with the setting sun still staining the darkening sky with reds and oranges to promise a warm, clear day tomorrow, there was no-one about. Where the streets should have been filled with people going home, or to the boisterous conviviality of the Pig and Bee for those who felt their homes to be a cold berth that night, they were deserted; save, of course, for figures garbed in scarlet cloaks.
The Scarlet Guard had imposed a curfew. They were taking no chances, after so many of the students had escaped from their attempted clearance of the Mage's School. Even the circus, camped outside the town's walls, had come under the Prince's guard's authority; as much as they may protest, they were kept exactly where they were, banned from packing up and continuing their travels. No-one could travel; the Scarlets had blocked the only road.
Some of the town's residents, disliking the restrictions, had packed up and fled to the outskirts of the forest, which was and would always be under the command of no-one; most, however, preferred to stay and sit it out, trusting that it would go no further. The forest, the subject of many a tale to frighten the children, seemed to be the greater evil.
At the edge of the trees, two figures crouched in the undergrowth and observed the silent little town. It had taken them several days to reach this point, and those days had been occupied by a great deal of thinking on the part of one of the figures.
"All right, I'll do it," said Mecho, at last. "If you think we can get away with it."
His voice was much improved, no longer a painful rasp; but it remained quiet and husky, and probably always would. While not enough to kill him, his botched execution had certainly done some damage to his throat.
Madame da Silva bestowed upon him a smile that made his heart turn a somersault. The smiles that she infrequently indulged in had, although he would not like to admit it, played a large part in his decision.
"Thank you, Mecho," she murmured. "I am glad you decided to help."
Mecho cleared his throat awkwardly, wincing as some residual soreness caught at him, and looked down at his mud-spattered sandals and leggings.
"Well, as y'said, they tried to kill me and you saved me..."
Her eyes betrayed a flicker of amusement. "Correct. Remember what I asked you to do?"
Mecho nodded, and looked down again at his uniform. It showed many a sign of their journey through the forest, but was still largely intact.
So he took a handful of his cloak and gave it a few extra gaping tears, then got to his feet. Madame da Silva reached up and took his hand, giving it a light squeeze that made him swallow.
"I know you can do it," she said. "Go."
Bouyed by her quiet confidence, Mecho lifted his chin and started down the slope to the town.
Halfway down, a rabbit skittered past him, white bobtail flashing in the gathering gloom. He paid it no heed, beyond a muttered curse for startling him.
To say the Scarlets guarding the gate into town were surprised to see him was quite an understatement. He staggered up to their post, looking for all the world like someone who had been pursued through the forest by all the hounds of Hell. They stared at him as though they had seen a ghost, their faces pale in the darkness.
"...Mecho?" ventured one, a man he vaguely remembered from training. "I thought y'were with Prince Berengar's troop?"
"Aye," rasped Mecho, leaning against the wall as though bone-weary. "I was...not any more..."
He dragged a tattered and dirty sleeve across his face, wiping away sweat that was more to do with sick nervousness than anything else. He saw the others' faces fill with trepidation, and wondered what they thought had gone wrong.
"Why not?" asked the man he knew vaguely. Mecho let out a sigh.
"The witch," he said, pitching his ruined voice low and regretful and darting an anxious glance over his shoulder. "She attacked us...she took the Prince, she hunted us Guards down and killed us...I don't know if anyone else survived...I just ran..."
He slumped as he spoke, and the other Guards crowded round, offering supporting arms and nips of whisky from flasks hidden under their cloaks to ward off the night's chill. And, still questioning him urgently about what had happened, and where the Prince now was, and the whereabouts of the witch-woman, they ushered him through the gates of the town and bore him off to their Commander, in his office in what had been the Mage's School.