Oriana and Zane rounded on Wrench, who was slumped against her tree with the sleepy, smiling expression of someone who had just eaten a very satisfying meal.
“…are you going to be okay to walk?” Oriana asked, cocking an eyebrow.
Wrenched looked up at her with a hooded eye. “Yeeeesss,” she slurred. She leaned forward with a grunt and waggled her arms in front of herself. When she failed to shift her weight, she offered her hands to Oriana and grunted.
Oriana rolled her eyes and grabbed Wrench’s hands, pulling her to her feet. Wrench groaned and stretched and wiggled and slapped her face, then took the huge wrench Zane was struggling to offer her.
“Okay, I’m good. Let’s get goin’.”
The trio made their way out of the clearing, Oriana on point and Zane bringing up the rear.
“Perhaps we should make camp for the evening as soon as we’ve reached relative safety,” Zane suggested. “We’ve all had an exciting day.”
“I don’t think I’d call riding around in a barrel exciting,” Oriana said, the stiffness and soreness of the ordeal not yet faded. She was grateful to be upright and walking, even if the going would be slower than on a cart.
“Dat reminds me,” Wrench said. “What are ya even doin’ here? Dat wasn’t da plan.”
“Well, the plan was ridiculous,” Oriana retorted.
“Pretty effective, d'ough. Maybe ya should trust Zane a little more on his plans. Dey’re pretty good!”
“Maybe Zane should share enough of them with me that I feel comfortable trusting him,” Oriana muttered, side-eyeing Zane.
“Did we not just reach an agreement on this?” Zane protested.
“Yes, we did. So why don’t you tell me more about how we’re going to save my mom?”
Zane reached forward to hold aside a branch Wrench had pushed out of the way, but as he opened his mouth to speak she handed it off to him and he proved to not be able to restrain it on his own. A mouth freshly smashed full of leaves prematurely ended his speech.
Wrench apologized and tried not to laugh. Oriana pretended not to notice.
“Well…” Zane tried again, plucking a leaf stuck to his tongue. “Your mother is being incarcerated under the surveillance not of the village guard, but of specialized Crown soldiers in a cell newly built into the mayor’s manor. Due to this, his manor is entirely off limits and under heavy guard. The mayor is not particularly pleased about this. Largely because he’s aware the motivation behind the increased security, and doesn’t want the ‘two eyed-demon’ storming his home.”
Oriana halted and jerked her head back toward him.
“Those were his wor–” Zane began, hands raised defensively. But Oriana shushed him and poked toward the ground with pointed ferocity. Then she crept away from him and Wrench.
“That means we should remain here,” he whispered to Wrench.
“I know dat, silly.”
“Oh, you’ve previously planned your surreptitious signals?”
“Naw, it was just kinda obvious.”
Zane pouted at a tree, carefully out of Wrench’s eyesight.
The two of them sat waiting in silence for Oriana’s return. The forest seemed unusually still in her absence, like everything was on pause until she returned. Wrench’s eye had just began to droop again when Oriana finally reappeared.
“Crown patrol,” Oriana explained. “Either they’re done with that John guy or they left someone behind. They’re gone now, but we should be careful crossing the road. There’s a hunting trail hidden on the other side we should be able to take out of this area.”
She looked Zane directly in the eye. “Be. Quiet. Follow my lead if you’re not sure, but try to avoid dead leaves and dry branches. Saplings can cushion your steps if they’re small enough to bend instead of snapping. When we get to the road, wait for my signal. Lift your feet so you don’t scuff on the dirt, but be quick. Got it?”
“I will do my utmost to remain silent,” Zane assured her.
She finally broke eye contact to make sure Wrench understood her instructions as well.
“All over it!” Wrench confirmed.
They crept their way through the forest in quiet—following the 'path of least resistance’ that Oriana had scouted—until they reached the side of the road and were given the signal to stop. Tree cover was scarce near the road, so Oriana had found a bush big enough to conceal all three of them. The road was straight here, but it curved out of sight behind the trees in both directions.
“They’re patrolling back and forth,” Oriana breathed. “If we go right after they pass, it’s less likely we’ll run into another group or the first one turning around. But we have to be quiet.”
Once more they sat in silence to wait for a patrol, Oriana occasionally poking Wrench to keep her awake. But with the stillness, the gentle warm breeze, and the excitement behind them, Oriana found herself with heavy eyes as well. She even thought Zane seemed to be drooping a little, though she could tell he was trying very hard to hide it.
Oriana began to consider just crossing and getting it over with, but she kept the urge reined in despite her exhausted impatience. She knew the minute they showed themselves the patrol would come around the corner and spot them. That was just how these things worked.
A short while later (conveniently soon enough to convince herself she had been right to not cross before) she made out the faint sounds of a horse’s hooves and clinking armour. She snapped to attention and listened to the direction the sound was coming from—to her right.
That meant it was probably the same patrol she’d run into earlier, turning around and coming back.
“Hey, get ready.”
Zane shook the fog from his head and cocked it toward the oncoming sound. Wrench stirred and blinked her eye.
Oriana watched through the foliage as a soldier mounted on a horse trotted into view, four others on foot flanking it. They scanned the trees intently, uncharacteristically quiet for soldiers as they listened for anything unusual.
Before long, the soldiers drew up alongside the bush Oriana was hiding behind, and all three of the fugitives found themselves holding their breath in their attempt at absolute silence. After what felt like an eternity of waiting for the moment to pass, it did, and the time it took for the patrol to round the opposite corner flew by.
Oriana listened for the last trace of the soldiers to disappear and then counted to five in her head.
“Okay, let’s go.”
She crossed the road at just shy of a run, flinching as she heard Wrench’s boots hitting the ground behind her. It wasn’t really that loud, she tried to tell herself, it was just that she was extra sensitive to the noise they were making. At least Zane had managed to remain silent. She had half expected him to immediately pratfall, but she knew she was being unfair.
Reaching the underbrush between the trees on the other side, Oriana found a suitable place to hide and watched as the others caught up. Wrench was practically right beside her, but Zane…
Zane was crouched where they had come from, half obscured by the bush. He was turning his head back and forth, watching the road like a hawk. Oriana had a moment of panic where she worried someome had come along and seen them crossing, but taking a look of her own confirmed they were still safe.
“Zane!” she half-whispered, half-shouted. “What are you doing? Get over here!”
Across the road, Zane took a step from behind the bush and stopped again, staring intently in the direction the patrol had went. Oriana confirmed no one was there and frowned.
She took a deep breath and closed her right eye. Immediately, she could tell why Zane was hesitant. It was too hard to see in either direction. Someone could come around the corner at any moment and see them. In fact, they were probably already watching. She could almost feel them hiding in wait right around the bend. Was that the shadow of a man on horseback, or just a tree?
Snapping her other eye back open before she could unsettle herself even more, Oriana took another look to reassure herself and told Wrench to stay put. Then she dashed back across the road.
Zane averted his eye when she rejoined him. “My apologies, but it doesn’t seem particularly safe at the moment.”
“I noticed. It’s kind of easy to forget what you’re dealing with sometimes,” she said with a sympathetic smile. “I’ll help. Come on.”
She offered her hand to Zane, who hesitated only for a moment before taking it. Then she looked carefully in either direction, listening for any sign of approaching soldiers breaking through the sounds of the forest. When she was satisfied, she tugged on Zane’s hand.
“You just focus on staying quiet. I’ll make sure nobody sees us.”
“I will do my best,” Zane said, staring at his feet as though expecting his boots to betray him.
Oriana laughed and started leading him across the road. “Just make sure you still watch where you’re going.”
“Where I’m going is frightening. I’d really rather not,” he said. Nonetheless, he glanced up from his feet to check out the road just long enough to miss the loose stone in his path.
“Oooh?” came his breath uninvited, as he pitched forward.
Oriana, catching half of his weight as his body tugged the arm she was clutching toward the ground, spun around and lifted her hand above her head instinctively when she saw him falling. Rather than stopping his progress, one side of his body kept falling and the other side stayed where it was, spinning Zane under Oriana’s arm as though they were dancing.
Zane pulled his free arm to his chest before it could drag on the ground and looked sideways at Oriana. She was easily holding his weight from the ground, and probably could have caught him outright had she had a grip somewhere more solid.
“For a fancy guy, you’re not very graceful,” she said, attempting to lift Zane from his tilted position by reaching her arm over her head on tiptoes. The height difference made this ineffective, but Zane pulled himself upright instead and dusted off the absolutely nothing that was soiling his clothes.
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re referring to. That was a gracefully executed underarm turn,” he said, eyes closed and nose turned up. The expression didn’t hold for long before turning into a smile, and then a slight frown. Oriana’s emotions vaguely mirrored both expressions in turn.
“Oh yeah. I guess we should get out of the road,” she suggested, noticing where his attention had gone.
They rejoined Wrench without incident, only to find her keeled over in a fit of the giggles that she was valiantly attempting to mute with both hands.
Sighing but smiling, Oriana reached over to help her friend up. With a great deal more difficulty, she pulled Wrench to her feet even as the giggling refused to stop.
“Ya looked like ya were doin’ some kinda fancy person dance,” she managed with some difficulty, miming Zane’s spin with generous poise.
Zane gave Oriana a look that said 'I told you so’ better than words ever could.
“It was a Genuvan courtship dance, very fashionable with the Crown’s elite of late,” he improvved.
“So that’s your idea of courtship?” Oriana grinned, like a shark that had found blood.
Zane balked. “Well, no–”
“Good!” Oriana laughed. “Maybe there’s hope for your love life after all.”
Zane pursed his lips and wobbled unconcerned as Wrench poked him in the ribs and made oohing noises.
“Could we please just proceed.”
“Why? Got a lady in da village ya want ta fall on?” Wrench hooted, high-fiving Oriana.
Zane started walking.