The party had been well soused in wine before setting out; they sang loud songs of bravery, and drunkenly proposed to capture the bear single-handed. King Alastor was in the middle, adding his loud voice to the songs and the boasting; he felt light-headed and giddy, more so than the wine should have made him. But only a small part of his mind was aware; the rest was awash with alcohol and Vagari potion.
Donovan, where he sat up a tree that shuddered and swayed under the impact of Marron's head and claws, heard them enter the forest and gave a sour smile. A drunken group venturing into the forest could only be doing one thing; retrieving the bear that menaced him. This would be a good thing, if they were not so noisy that Marron would likely flee before they came within a hundred yards of him, and if his shoulder was not so stiff and sore that effecting an escape through the treetops would be impossible. He would have to wait until they had passed him by-which would leave the cub far too much time to escape him.
Inside Marron's big bear head, strange thoughts were moving. He felt happier and freer than he had felt since he was a tiny cub, born free in the forest. There was no-one forcing him to dance or to fight without fighting. But familiar smells and familiar voices were coming towards him, along with unfamiliar smells and unfamiliar voices, and he knew in the back of his mind that they would take him back to captivity; and so he abandoned the cub-thief he had stranded up a tree and lumbered away into the undergrowth just before the drunken group stumbled into the clearing.
Still up the tree, Donovan waited impatiently for them to move on; but they instead engaged in a slurred argument, and then one man happened to look up.
"There's a man up that tree," he stated with intoxicated certainty. Donovan cursed, and wished he had the energy for another illusion, or the willpower to make his change in the daylight; but by then the rest of the group were staring up at him. The man who had spotted him stepped forward.
"Come down, stranger," he called up. Knowing that there was little choice but to obey, the Vagari man slipped down, and tilted his head with a smile. The man leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner; Domovan leaned back, repulsed by the reek of wine on his breath, and...something else? Something that smelled of Vagari muddling potion-not a poison, but a strange liquid that pulled a mist down over the mind. Where had this man run into a Vagari potion-brewer? Surely he hadn't met Khoreia.
"We're hunting a bear," the man confided, and Donovan couldn't help noticing how rounded and cultured his voice was; no dropped letters or blurred syllables. He looked closer-and had to suppress a triumphant smirk.
What was the King doing in the forest, dressed as a humble tradesman?
"Have you seen a bear go past?"
"A bear? Why, yes; that was why I was up the tree. I can show you where it went, if you wish?"
There was a general mutter of agreement from the group, and so Donovan led them away, towards Marron-and hopefully the cub.
At that time, not so far away, his sister was likewise being saved from a bear who wished to kill her.
But she was still a prisoner, even once the beast they called Urska had been persuaded to let her live. She rankled at that, but at the same time felt coldly scornful of her captors; they wished for her knowledge, but they did not have the guts to torture her.
Cowards, thought Khoreia, and smiled.