The night was creeping in again, twilight seeping through the trees. It smothered two camps in greyness; one where Khoreia sat enthroned as a Captain's queen, and Borysko and Drakon sat tied hand and foot, and Calla sat chained and muzzled, and one where confused men still half-drunk, wondering where they were and what was happening. They had long since tired of their bear-hunt and turned for home; but they had come into the forest drunk, and none had marked their path, and this was not their natural habitat. And so, as darkness gathered amongst the trees, they huddled around a fire and nervously supped at the last of the wine they had brought with them, trying to suppress the fear in alcohol.
Alastor sat away from them, watching Donovan, and thinking. His thoughts did not reassure him. He had seen a man like him back home, in the Royal palace, walking in the gardens with Berengar, heads tight together. That had been just before his son had stopped being his son, and become a manipulative, devious fool. It was too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence, and Alastor did not like it, not at all. He did not like being lost in the forest, either; his main hope was that he would come across his son and the brave Warrior who protected him, and they could leave together.
At that moment, however, his son and his brave protector were not free to leave. The Captain of the soldiers, the enchantment still grasping him tightly, had been so appalled at their treatment of his beloved that he had ordered them tied up, and Calla chained. They were fastened tightly to a slender ash tree, their arms pulled back around the trunk so their shoulders felt as though they would be pulled from their sockets; and neither of them liked it. They were forced to watch as Khoreia was treated as a queen, and led to bathe and to a bed in the Captain's tent, while they were fed stale bread and river water and the blood of their capture was left to dry on their skin. Borsyko seethed and longed to be the man he used to be; Drakon shut his eyes and dreamed of his boyhood in the royal palace. Neither of them could tell what Calla was thinking; the dog sat quietly, bright green eyes unwinking and inscrutable.
The nighttime had wrapped them tightly in its black cloak, and their eyes had not yet adjusted, when they heard someone furtively approach. Borysko jerked at his bonds and swore at the unseen stranger, only to have a rough hand clapped over his mouth.
"Hush! Do you wish to be freed or not?"
The warrior subsided at that; Drakon sat up straighter.
"Who are you?" he hissed, still suspicious; there was a low chuckle, largely devoid of amusement.
"Sergeant Esben at your service," was the reply, as rough fingers got to work on the ropes binding his wrists. Drakon blinked.
"The sergeant? Why would you help?"
Esben snorted. "The Captain is a fool. A lovesick fool. I will not help him any more than I possibly can. It is true that our orders to capture you, Borsyko, came from the King; but now I have found you I do not believe you are a kidnapper. You, my Prince, do not behave as one who is kidnapped. So I will let you free, and tell our foolish Captain in the morning that you have escaped; he will come after you, but you will have a head start. There; now go. As quickly as possible."
Stretching his shoulders so the joints cracked, Borysko reached out and briefly clasped the sergeant's hand.
"I thank you, Sergeant. I will not forget this."
"Forget it if you wish. But go! Don't waste time."
He turned and slipped hurriedly off towards the camp; Borsyko, Drakon and Calla slid into the undergrowth, and were away.
They had not gone far before they saw the flicker of firelight between the bushes, and heard the tuneless singing of drunks. Borysko thrust out an arm to stop Drakon.
"Hush. People ahead."
"Who is it?"
"I cannot see...wait here..."
The big warrior, ruthlesly suppressing his weakness, slid forwards to get a better view. But his reactions were not as they were, and he felt clumsy; a dry stick snapped under his hand with the sound of a rapid-fire spell. One figure, sitting alone at the edge of the firelight, swung around; and they locked eyes at the same moment.
And then Drakon's voice, as he ventured forwards, sounding even more stunned than Borysko, and far more relieved.