Chapter Nine: The Shadow has a Tail

Mikey rose early the next morning to find a hot bath prepared for her, and a companion in her bed. She and the king had been drinking before they had retired for the night, and Mikey was suddenly afraid that things had gone too far when she saw the elongated lump of another body beneath the covers beside her. When she nudged the lump, she was rewarded with a low growl that made her jump from the bed.

"Dobb? Is that you?" Mikey said cautiously. Another growl sounded from beneath the covers, and then a chuffing sound. Mikey didn't think the king was able to sound that convincing at pretending to be a dog. She carefully reached down and pulled back the covers, revealing a furry black ear. She sighed and relaxed, and then pulled the covers down farther to reveal the black puppy.

"Sapphire, sweetie," she said with a relieved laugh. "How did you get into my bed?" Sapphire rolled over on her back, clearly wanting her tummy rubbed. It was hard to see any details on her fur, it was all so black. Mikey obliged the oversized puppy for several minutes, leaving the dog delighted. "Now, if you will excuse me, I want to use the bath before it gets cold."

Mikey went in and bathed, trying not to spend much time. When she had finished with the bath, she dried herself and took care of her morning ablutions. She paused in front of the mirror before getting dressed, gazing at her reflection critically. She saw a young woman with a slender, athletic build, medium height, and curves that any man would find pleasing. Her short dark hair above a face that looked hard and cold most of the time carried most of the illusion when she pretended to be a man. Mikey found herself wondering what it would be like to walk freely as a woman. She had been too young to show a woman's shape when her father's murder had sent her into hiding. Maybe someday, she thought, but this quest requires the skills of the Scarlet Rat, not a moonstruck girl.

Mikey set about wrapping the long strips of cloth around her chest that would help to flatten her breasts and leaving the extra wrapped loosely around her middle to compensate for her slender waist somewhat. She had sometimes kept a wad of cloth in the front of her pants, when she wore trousers and a tucked shirt, so that people would think her a moderately equipped young man. She decided to make a concession toward being a woman this time and omitted that part of her disguise. Besides, they would be on horseback, and she wanted to be as comfortable as possible.

Mathilda had left her a pair of soft buckskin pants, a finely made white cotton shirt, and a pair of buckskin boots to match. A blue velvet jacket, cut a little loose for her, finished the outfit. Mikey approved of the look; it would fool almost anyone who looked at her without knowing her secret. It was also out of character for the Scarlet Rat, wearing blue and tan was a weak disguise, but so far the ruffians tracking them hadn't shown a remarkable amount of intellect.

She looked for her weapons belt and found another gift from the head mistress; a beautiful black leather belt with silver fittings now held her daggers. A narrow sword had been added as well, replacing her own worn blade. The sword had silver and gold worked in a floral pattern on the hilt and guard. She drew it from its sheath to admire the blade and test its balance. She swung it a few times, and then worked through a quick exercise to make sure she would be able to move properly in the new clothes. She was grinning in approval when she finished, pleased with her new gear.

"Well? What do you think, Sapphire?" Mikey struck a pose for the dog, who was still lying on the bed but watching the proceedings with obvious approval. The big dog chuffed and lolled her tongue out to show her feelings. Mikey laughed and bowed to the dog. "Come on, let's go see if the king is out of bed yet."

Sapphire chuffed gain and hopped down off the bed to fall in at Mikey's side. They left the suite and wandered down toward the dining room. Mikey was famished and hoping there might be something to eat before they hit the trail. The sun wasn't quite up yet, though the windows were showing some gray light outside. Mikey worried that the household might not be up, but found that groundless when she entered the dining room. A servant came in almost at once and asked her if she was hungry. Mikey was just finishing her order when the king entered.

"I'll have the same as my friend here, thank you," he said to the servant. The girl curtseyed and hurried off to get their food. "Hmm, no longer the Scarlet Rat, I see. And there she is! Mikey, you found our runaway puppy. Where was she?"

"In my bed of all places," Mikey told him with a chuckle.

"Lucky Sapphire," he said to the dog. Mikey blushed. "How did you come to be there, huh?"

"I have no idea," Mikey told him. "She gave me quite a scare when I woke up to find her under the covers, though."

"Seriously, though, this puppy seems rather attached to you," Niall said. "How do you feel about that?"

"I love her," Mikey said simply. "I've never had a dog in my life, so I would have no idea how to deal with her. But as a visitor to your quaint little lodge, I love having her around."

"I would make a gift of her if you had a place to deal with her," he said thoughtfully. "These dogs are not the sort that can escape attention in the city I'm afraid."

"You aren't trying to use Sapphire to bribe me into spending more time with you, are you?"

"No, of course not," he answered, startled at the thought. "Unless it's working, of course. Well I think we need to consider Sapphire your companion whenever you visit the estate. The dogs always stay out here anyway; they would terrify the citizenry if we took them into the city." Sapphire was following the conversation, her head turning this way and that as each person spoke. She chuffed when the king said she would be Mikey's companion when she came to the estate, plainly agreeing with the idea.

They sat at the table just as the servants entered with their food. Sapphire thought that she should have a place at the table too, but Mikey told her to lie down. She was rather surprised when the dog obeyed. The two friends ate in silence for a while, taking the edge off their hunger. Finally they slowed and began to discuss their journey.

"Do you know where to find the Parson's Tower?" Mikey asked the king.

"I'm really not sure," he told her. "I think Thomas might be able to give us some guidance, though. Let's go see if we can find him. If you've finished eating that is."

"Oh so now I'm going to get fat? Let a man into your life ladies and they'll change everything about you in short order," Mikey said, waving a fork in the air.

"You let a man into your life?" Niall said. "Who is he? Someone I know?"

"Obviously he is a complete mystery to us both," Mikey answered crossly.

"I don't think I understand you," he said with a puzzled look. Mikey threw her hands in the air.

"Sapphire, do you think he's being an idiot?" Sapphire chuffed. "Yes, I agree with you. You are such a good girl." Mikey scratched Sapphire's ears and neck. The dog just looked over at the king to see if he was noticing the special care she was getting.

"I think I should take that dog away from you before it's too late for me," Niall said. Sapphire laid back her ears and growled softly at him. "It appears to be too late. But at least she won't be going on our trip; she's too young to be out like that. And we don't even know yet what it is we're doing. I'm not sure I'm old enough to be going on this trip." Mikey smiled at him.

"Niall's right Sapphire, you will be staying here where you will be safe sweetie." Sapphire whined to show her opinion of that idea. Then the big puppy turned and left the dining room, heading out toward the kennel buildings. "Now see what you did?" Mikey said to Niall. "You've offended my dog."

"I'll make sure that she gets an extra steak tonight for dinner," he said with a wry smile. "I hope she will forgive me."

"You should be more worried about whether I will forgive you," Mikey said with a sniff.

"Oh I do worry about that," he said earnestly. "I worry about that all the time."

"Shall we see what we can learn from Thomas?"

"Let's do that," he answered.

They made a nice pair, Mikey thought. They wore matching outfits except for the jackets. The king's jacket was of dark green velvet and had gold stitching around the cuffs, though otherwise they were similar. He, too, had his sword belt strapped on and a pair of daggers also within reach. Mathilda was doing her best to make Mikey look like nobility it seemed. That in itself would serve to confuse Gray's mercenaries. At first glance, anyway, thought Mikey. If she stayed away from wearing scarlet, she might be harder to spot in groups. Apparently Mathilda thought the same thing, since the only outfit she had seen the woman provide so far with any red in it was the dress outfit from the previous evening.

They found Thomas near the kennel building, preparing four horses for their journey. He was just finishing adjusting the last saddle as they approached. They waited until he was done. "Four horses?" Mikey asked the two men.

"Aye, my lord," answered Thomas. "The spares are in case you need to ride hard and will double as pack horses for the supplies."

"Are the supplies all here?" Niall asked him.

"Aye, my liege," Thomas said. "The servants brought them all earlier and I just finished seeing them stowed. All that remains are your weapons and yourselves."

"Excellent, thank you," Niall said with a smile. Thomas bowed his head. "Thomas, are you familiar with a place known as the Parson's Tower?"

"Only from folk tales, my liege," the hunt master told them. "According to the tales, it lies beyond the edge of the world."

"Well, doesn't that sound promising," Mikey muttered.

"Suppose you wanted to get there, where would you go?"

"The stories usually say that the road to the tower is found on the far northeast edge of the kingdom," Thomas said thoughtfully. "I suppose I would leave by the east gate of the estate and cross the Black River. Then I would strike northeast until I came to the Bladed Mountains and look for Speartip Mountain. It's said there is a pass on the northern side of Speartip that will take you beyond the world."

"That sounds straightforward enough," Niall said.

"Are you actually planning to go to the Tower, my liege?"

"Mikey here has been charged with a quest to the Tower and beyond," the king said. "I'm going along to keep Mikey out of trouble."

"I see," Thomas said doubtfully. "Are you planning to take any help? Perhaps one or two of the dogs?"

"I wasn't planning to, no," Niall said. "Although, I would welcome an escort as long as we're within range of the estate."

"I will ride along with you then and bring a few of the dogs," Thomas told them.

"Thank you Thomas," the king said.

"Have you seen any indication that Gray has more men in the area?" Mikey asked him.

"No my lord, I have not," answered Thomas. "But that only means they haven't come within sight of the estate or upwind where the dogs could detect them. I expect they have reported back and received orders by now, however."

"I'm guessing that they would expect us to make for Mardos, downriver, don't you think?" Mikey asked Niall.

"That, or to stay here," the king answered her. "I can't imagine they would think you so intimidated that you would flee into the Bladed Mountains though. We might take them by surprise."

"Or we might have a running fight all the way once they catch our trail," she said sourly. "Still, there's no help for it. Thomas, did those stories say how long the trip would take?"

"That's one of the areas they had trouble agreeing on, my lord. Some say that it takes about four days to ride from the pass to the Tower; other stories say you can expect as little as two days. They also disagree on the direction of travel from the pass, but they do all agree that you just need to follow the road."

"Well, I suppose we will just have to see how true the stories are," Niall said.

"And hope that Melissa provides more guidance if we go wrong somehow," added Mikey.

"Yes, that would help," the king agreed.

They rode at an easy pace until midday, finally approaching the northeastern edge of the royal estate. Mikey saw the Black River running near them as they rode near the eastern gate. She could see Thor waiting for them ahead, sitting on his haunches with his tongue hanging out. The dogs had been ranging around them all day as they rode. Mikey was still amazed that these horses didn't mind the dogs at all. Thomas had explained to her that they bred horses on the estate as well as the dogs, so both grew up in close proximity. The dogs knew each horse that belonged there, and the horses knew that these dogs would not harm them. All morning, she would see the dogs come loping in from one direction or another. They would usually be alone; rarely two would be alongside the riders at a time. Eventually each dog would lope off to range ahead or behind, effectively encircling the party in full time protection. Mikey wished that they were coming along for the trip, but she also agreed with Niall that they would be hard to conceal and care for.

As the party approached the spot where the alpha dog waited patiently, they reined in and began to dismount. Mikey sat on her horse a moment, not understanding why they were stopping. After a minute, Niall explained that they had reached the eastern gate, and that this would be a good place to take a break so they could have a bit of lunch and the horses could drink from the river. She nodded and climbed down from her horse, already stiff and sore from the ride. Thieves didn't often ride horses in the city, and while she was a capable rider, it had been a while since she had been on a horse. I'm going to be plenty sore for a day or two, she thought.

Thomas led the horses down to the river to drink, while Mikey and Niall laid out some lunch that the servants had packed for them. It would be the last decent meal for the two travelers for the foreseeable future, and they planned to enjoy it while they could. Mikey looked around the clearing and could see four of the six dogs that had accompanied them this far. The dogs would be returning with Thomas and they would have to take up the burden of watching for themselves. She sighed and bit into a sandwich that Niall handed her. What am I doing here? Mikey thought. Am I doing the right thing taking Niall away from his duties? Am I leading us to our deaths?

"We'll be fine, you know," Niall said, seeming to read her mind.

"How do you know that?" Mikey asked. "I'm so afraid we're doing the wrong thing, yet at the same time I believe we are doing what must be done. It's just so confusing."

"At least you have faith in Melissa, don't you? I'm confused about that myself, and about… other things," he finished lamely

"You know that you are my truest and dearest friend, right? No matters what happens we will still have that," she told him, trying to reassure him. To her, the friendship was most important right now, and she thought he felt the same. Niall kept smiling at her, but his eyes took on a slightly hurt expression that Mikey didn't understand.

"Of course," he said with another smile. "I will always be your friend." It's just that I want so much more from you, he thought.

Thomas tied the horses in the shade and then joined them. Niall handed him a sandwich and passed the water skin to him. They ate in silence for long minutes, each lost in thought. Finally Thomas broke the silence.

"My liege, will you reconsider taking the dogs with you?"

"I'm torn on that point, my friend," the king answered. "I know they would be helpful but I know not where we will go beyond the Parson's Tower. And I know that we will have other companions from that point on. I think it best to leave them behind."

"And the two of us can travel fast and light," Mikey added. "I don't want to be stopping for hunting very often."

"Very well, I should be heading back then" the Huntsman said. "I'll take the dogs on a circuit down along the southern fences before going home. That should give us the chance to take care of chance intruders." They all three laughed at that. Mikey had no doubt that these dogs could handle a small party of raiders or whatever Gray should happen to send. The worry was what would happen if they encountered that party in the mountains when it was just the two of them.

She pushed the worry to the back of her mind and helped to pack up. Thomas gave their horses another look to make sure everything was as it should be. The animals were in perfect condition and full of energy.

"Fare thee well, my king," said Thomas by way of farewell. "May the gods watch over you both and lead you safely home again."

"Thank you Thomas, and for everything you've done for us," Mikey told him. Niall walked forward and embraced the man roughly.

"Gods go with you as well, my friend," he told Thomas. Then all that was left for them was to mount and continue on their way, their pack horses following obediently behind, they made their way past the clearing and down to the river's edge. The river was low this time of year, and they had no trouble fording. As they reached the midpoint of the river, Mikey had the strangest feeling of being watched. She looked around carefully, but was unable to see anyone or anything that might cause the feeling. Still, her thief's senses were buzzing a constant warning that kept her on edge.

They rode carefully up the far bank and into the grassland beyond. Niall seemed confident that there were no threats around them, but Mikey kept tensing her muscles, imagining an arrow speeding from unseen adversaries. But all was quiet around them, except for the normal sounds of birds and other inhabitants of the grasslands. They rode on, and the feeling of being watched faded from Mikey's awareness.

The land about them was sloping gently upward from where they had crossed the river. Ahead, they could see trees leading to more forest as the hills rose in the near distance. Beyond the hills, the true mountains sprang heavenward; they were sharp and craggy, easily earning the name of Bladed Mountains. They looked like so many knives and swords thrown casually about. One peak in particular stood high above the others. It was more symmetrical than most of the peaks, rising from a dark base to shining snow cap thousands of feet above the hills. That would be Speartip, I wager, thought Mikey. If they were to believe the stories Thomas had mentioned, their path lay along the northern edge of that towering peak.

"How long to reach the pass?" Mikey asked Niall as they rode side by side.

"These meadows go about on for another five hours or so," he said. "I've ridden out to the forest beyond once or twice. We should reach the edge of the forest by nightfall. I'd like to make camp in the trees so we will be harder to spot if anyone is watching."

"I keep sensing someone or something watching us already," Mikey told him.

"Yeah, me too now that you mention it," he said. "Still, I haven't seen any trace of people, have you?"

"None so far," she said. "Maybe we're just expecting things to get harder?"

"Maybe, but I for one wouldn't mind a clean getaway," he said with a laugh.

"Think Gray will have men watching this side of your estate?"

"He should if he's at all intelligent," Niall said.

"We know that he is smart, or at least he has someone smart working for him," Mikey told him.

"Then yes, I think we should assume that they have men out riding this area," he said after a moment. "But the estate is rather large. It would take you several hours to ride each side. I think we have gotten through without being seen, but we should keep moving until we are into the forest."

"And even then we need to keep looking back until we are through the pass," she agreed.

They rode at a brisk trot most of the afternoon with brief gallops periodically; concern for the horses was weighed against the need to clear the grasslands quickly. By the time they came in sight of the forest, their shadows were stretching out before them. They were passing through the first scattered trees, outliers of the true forest, when Mikey felt that growing certainty that they were being watched. She turned in her saddle and looked back the way they had come, but didn't see anyone. That doesn't mean they aren't there, she thought. Then she turned forward once more, scanning the edge of the forest ahead carefully.

She saw no signs of humans: no cut trees, no trails, and no sign of wood smoke. From the looks of the terrain, they were in true wilderness now, where few if any humans ever trod. Mikey shivered. I'm a long way from the places I belong, she thought. She was getting tired of feeling nervous, certain that they were close to being attacked at any moment.

They entered the edge of the forest as the sun was setting beyond Kor Opan. They could just make out the city in distance, the topmost towers and domes were sparkling and backlit by the sunset. This was the time of day Mikey loved the most in her city; merchants would be closing shop and heading either to an inn for a drink or back home again. Their heavy purses would make for a delightful thief's banquet as they passed through the emptying streets to their destinations. Sunset always made Kor Opan seem magical, even without wealthy merchant's purses to investigate. The light played off the buildings and the many colors of the roofs. She sighed, feeling homesick already.

Niall found a comfortable campsite for them not too far inside the tree line; they could still see the sunset, and it provided light for them to gather firewood. The king gathered wood while Mikey settled the horses and unpacked the gear they would need for the night. Before long they had a small well-hidden campfire burning and they were sitting together eating a cold dinner. Mikey couldn't believe how tired she was from sitting on a horse all day. Her legs and back ached from exertion, even though she felt that she hadn't really done anything but sit. That feeling of being watched was back, and stronger. Mikey put her food down, and slid her hand slowly to her sword.

"Just leave those weapons where they are, if you please," said a voice from the darkness beyond the edge of their camp.

"Who's there?" Mikey asked. The speaker chuckled.

"Let's just say, someone who will be very wealthy soon." The man stepped into the firelight as he spoke. Mikey's eyes were drawn immediately to the cocked crossbow pointed at her chest. She carefully held her hands where they could be seen and away from her weapons. "Very good, you seem to understand the situation. Tie their hands," he said to someone behind Mikey and Niall.

Two other men stepped into view from behind them, each had a length of rope. Mikey held her hands together in front of her, hoping they would be dumb enough to tie them where she would still be able to fight. She was disappointed when the ruffian tying her indicated she should put her hands behind her back. She had just done so when a black mass flew across the edge of the clearing in front of them and the man with the crossbow began to scream. Mikey was astounded to see the man struggling with a very large, very black dog that was currently savaging the man's wrists and arms as he tried to fend her off.

"Good girl Sapphire!" Mikey shouted to the dog, for it was indeed her puppy. Mikey knocked against the man who had been trying to tie her hands, sending him off balance. She drew her new sword as the man recovered and drew his own. The growling had stopped, but the man that Sapphire had taken down was still screaming and thrashing around on the ground. Mikey didn't spare him a glance; she was too intent on her own opponent. He was a decent swordsman, Mikey was sad to see. She was too tired to keep this up for very long, and she saw the Niall was also being pressed hard by his opponent. Suddenly, the man she was fighting screamed, twisted away from something on his leg, and fell forward onto Mikey's blade. He died quickly with her blade piercing his throat. Mikey looked to see what had caused him to fall so conveniently and found that Sapphire had ripped open the flesh surrounding his Achilles tendon. That just left the man Niall was fighting. Sapphire was nowhere to be seen, but Mikey had a strong feeling she was still in the fight. The two men were fencing back and forth, neither gaining a clear advantage. Mikey was about to run the man through when Niall said "Don't kill him yet."

At that moment, Sapphire charged at the man from his right side. He flinched away from the big dog, giving Mikey the perfect opening to bang him over the head, knocking him unconscious. She looked at the three men on the ground, one dead, one dying, and one out cold. "Not bad, considering we were tired and they got the drop on us," she said. "Are you OK Niall?"

"Yes, thanks to your furry savior there," he answered with a grin. "These men were much more capable than those at Jane's the other night." He went to kneel beside the man that had held the crossbow. The weapon was lying a short distance away from him, but he had made no effort to recover it. Niall saw why as he got closer. Sapphire had bitten off one hand and mangled the other badly in her attack. The man was futilely trying to stop the blood loss by holding the ravaged limbs against his body. His face was ashen white from shock. Niall figured he had only minutes to live and knelt beside him to question him.

"Well that didn't go as planned, did it?" Niall asked the mercenary.

"It could have been better," the man agreed.

"Gray sent you, I assume?"

"Aye and all the others. Your friend won't escape us, you know." The man's breathing was getting shallower and faster now, his eyes were glassy. "Please…" Niall leaned closer as the man was almost whispering now. "Please don't let that beast eat me." He died. The king was conflicted; on one hand this was an enemy and would have killed them both, or taken them to Gray to be tortured. On the other hand, that was a terrible way to die, and he pitied the man. That left only one to question.

He stood and turned to find Mikey kneeling beside Sapphire, alternating between hugging her and petting her. "You, young puppy, are not supposed to be here," he told Sapphire sternly. The dog just looked at him with a doggy grin that said My mistress thinks I'm welcome, who cares what you think just as plainly as if the dog had spoken.

"Niall is right, Sapphire," Mikey said, trying to be stern with the dog. "You were supposed to stay home where it was safe." Sapphire's ears hung down, and she lay down and rolled onto her back in surrender. Mikey held the glare as long as she could stand it and then began laughing. "Oh, alright," she said, "You did have amazing timing and you certainly proved that you could help." Still laughing, Mikey rubbed the dog's belly making everything alright again in Sapphire's world.

"She was rather impressive, wasn't she?" Niall added with a tired grin. "I'm amazed she handled herself so well at her age."

"Do we take her with us?" Mikey asked. Niall wanted to say no, but the two of them were giving him identical pleading expressions. He threw his hands up in the air and surrendered. "She can come with us," he said.

The remaining mercenary groaned and stirred fitfully near the fire where he'd fallen. Mikey and Niall went over and pulled him to a sitting position against a convenient tree in their camp. They used some of the rope their attackers had intended for them to secure him to the tree. Then they sat down and resumed their meal while they waited for the man to regain consciousness. Mikey shared her meal with Sapphire, which seemed only fair to the thief.

When the mercenary finally came around, he saw them lying at their ease beside the fire. He also saw the remains of his compatriots lying in the dust, apparently neglected as not worth the effort to dispose of. He silently began flexing his wrists, trying to determine if he could escape. He was rewarded with tight knots and a low growl beside him. He jerked away from the sound and looked frantically for the dog. All he could see against the shadows from the firelight was a set of gleaming white fangs and brilliant blue eyes staring back at him.

"Ah, good, our guest is awake," said the Scarlet Rat. The thief arose and came over to squat in front of the prisoner. The captive found himself looking into a pair of silver-gray eyes with the same ferocity displayed by the dog.

"You might as well get it over with, thief," he said as fiercely as his aching head would permit. "Kill me now, I won't tell you anything."

"But you already have," the Rat laughed. "You spilled everything I wanted to know while you were delirious." The prisoner swallowed hard, wondering if that was true. It must be a lie, he thought, everything this man says and does is a lie.

"Now I am just trying to decide how to reward your honesty," said the thief. He held his chin in his hand, apparently thinking deeply as he watched the prisoner. "If only there was a way to let your master know that I am yielding to him and going into exile."

"Exile? You? I don't believe you." The thief looked as though the words hurt his feelings. The prisoner felt a flash of doubt.

"And there lies our dilemma," said the Scarlet Rat. "I can't let you go or you will simply rejoin one of the other patrols and try again. And if I kill you I still have to worry about the others that Gray has sent after me." The mercenary felt the slightest bit of hope then, that they might let him live.

"But the others are far away, either north or south of where we lost your trail. I couldn't link up with them if I wanted to, I'd have to return to Lord Gray."

"If only I could believe you," said the master thief. "I'm curious Dobb," he said to his companion. "How long do you think it will take for the wolves to find him if we just leave him here?"

"Oh at least two or three hours, I should think," said the other man. The mercenary whimpered involuntarily and glanced again at the demon dog to his right. He began to pray silently, thinking his death was upon him.

"Go find their horses; I think we will want to save them from the wolves." Dobb saluted and disappeared into the night. The Scarlet Rat faced him again. "So I never got your name?"

"Mark. It's Mark." He didn't see the harm in telling him his name.

"Mark. Well Mark, I'm going to let you go if you promise to do two things for me."

"What do you want?" Mark asked.

"First, stop trying to kill me," the Scarlet Rat said to him with a smile. "You probably already figured that one out, eh?" Mark tried to smile in response.

"And secondly, I want you to tell your master that I have learned my lesson. I'm sorry for the offense I have given him and that I am leaving."

"I'm not sure that Lord Gray will believe either of us," Mark said, licking his lips anxiously. "But I can try."

The master thief nodded. "Yes, you can only try, I agree." Dobb returned at that moment with three horses and all of the gear the men had left behind when they attacked. The thief drew a dagger and sliced away the ropes that held Mark to the tree. He briefly considered going for his knife, then remembered the demon nearly invisible beside him and thought better of it. Mark found the Scarlet Rat watching him intently and stayed where he was.

"Alright Mark," the thief said at last. "You are free to take your horse and leave. But know this," the master thief leaned in close. "I have demons serving me now. They will tell me if you stray from our agreement. They will eat your soul if you break your word to me. Still want your life?"

"Y…yes my lord, I will remember your words."

"Very well, you may go." The thief stood and backed away, allowing Mark to stand and go to his horse. He mounted without incident; he'd half believed they would kill him as he moved to freedom, but the thieves didn't move. He nodded to the Scarlet Rat and began to move out of the camp toward the grassland. "Summon the demons to speed him on his trail," called the Rat. Mark cried out in fear as a huge barking broke out at his horse's heels. The horse reared, and then ran for its life, forcing Mark to hold on with all his strength. He rode as fast as the horse would carry him, intent on getting away with his life. They never saw Mark again.

"Do you think that will actually work?" Niall asked Mikey once the man was well on his way.

"I don't know," she answered honestly. "I didn't relish the idea of cold blooded murder, and I figured this might confuse Gray enough to put him on the defensive. If it does, it should clear our road for a while, and hopefully things will settle down before we go home."

Sapphire came trotting back into the camp, looking very pleased with herself. "There's my good demon," Mikey exclaimed as she lavished praise and affection on the dog.

"Do you think he was telling the truth that the other patrols are far to the north and south?" Niall asked.

"I'm not sure, but it would make sense," Mikey told him. "Remember we were talking about it being unlikely that we would come this way instead of heading to another city? There's nothing out here but wilderness."

"The edge of the world," said Niall with wry amusement. "Why don't you get some sleep, I'll keep watch."

"Alright, but wake me to take the second half."

"Of course," he said with a smile. We settled back near the fire. Mikey came and lay next to him. She moved her back against his side, using his warmth. Well, at least this will keep me wide awake, he thought. He sighed.

The next morning saw them climbing higher through the forested slopes of the Bladed Mountains. The air was getting noticeably thinner as they climbed. Mikey was alarmed at first, thinking she was becoming ill, until Niall explained the phenomenon to her. It still seemed very strange to her, but then she had spent her life within the walls of Kor Opan, or a short distance outside the city. She had never climbed so high before.

The weather blessed them with continuing sunshine and relatively pleasant temperatures. The sun took quite a bit of the morning to rise above the peaks before them, making the morning ride chill. Mikey was also learning that it got colder as they went higher, something that she found counter-intuitive. As we get closer to the sun, I still think it should get warmer not colder, she thought. They didn't see or hear any signs of pursuit, but then Mikey didn't really expect any so soon. Sapphire was ranging around them as a mobile sentry just as her father and pack mates had done the day before when they left the estate. The dog would no doubt alert them if anyone came near.

They stopped around midday as they crossed a mountain stream. The cold water descended from glaciers high above them yet, and was cold and clear. Mikey thought that she had never tasted better water in her life. They watered the horses and filled their water bottles before moving on. Today they ate as they could whether riding or while standing with the horses by the stream. Mikey was careful to share some of her food with Sapphire, who like any dog, was always glad to receive some tasty tidbit.

Mikey was startled when they crested the shoulder of a tall ridge, actually the last of the foothills and the beginning of the mountains proper, and saw Speartip rising high before them. The mountain's symmetry and reddish rock gave rise to the illusion that a vast spear was thrusting up from the flesh of the world. Its topmost altitudes were coated with snow, looking like the shining white tip of a steel spear point. It was so close now that the peak seemed at times to hang above their heads. Mikey found herself flinching involuntarily as she felt that the peak was about to fall on her.

They wound their way closer to the northern shoulder of the mountain as the sun sank toward the west behind them. It was getting dark faster than Mikey expected, and she turned to look at the sky behind them. She saw bands of cloud covering the sunset. "We may get some weather tonight," she called to Niall. He looked back and nodded his agreement without making any comment.

About an hour later, as the darkness was truly falling, they made camp in a sheltered hollow. They were high enough now that there were few real trees. The few that they did see were stunted and twisted by storms and poor nourishment. It took them both some time to gather sufficient firewood for the night. Niall tried his hand at camp cooking, thinking they could both use something warm to eat. Mikey was very tired, but not as sore as she had been the night before. I guess even I can get used to riding a horse all day, she thought.

Sapphire curled up on the far side of the fire, alternating between watching them and watching the falling night. They heard the howling of wolves in the distance, which caused Sapphire to sit up suddenly and cock her ears. They saw no sign of the wolves, only their songs in the distance that night, which was fine with Mikey. Even they're only normal sized wolves, they would be a real problem for us if they chose to be, she thought. Mikey shivered and felt cold even with the blankets she was using. Niall came and sat beside her, trying to share some warmth. Mikey thought about it for a several minutes, and then shyly moved his arm around her shoulders and cuddled down against him. Niall just gazed down at her in wonder. After a time, they slept.

The next morning came without much of a sunrise. The cloud cover had reached them sometime during the night, and now it blocked most of the light from the early morning. Mikey shuddered and tried to stay under the blankets.

"Come on sleepy head," said Niall with a smile. "Let's try to get through the pass today and hope we don't get worse weather before we do."

"Can't we wait until it warms up?" Mikey asked him.

"This is as warm as it's likely to get today, my Lady."

"Hrmmmph," Mikey muttered. "Where is Sapphire?"

"Probably hunting," he said as he packed his gear. "Don't worry, she can always track us if she isn't back by the time we leave."

Mikey got up, shivering, and started to roll up her share of the blankets. Before she had finished tying her gear in place on the horses, Sapphire came trotting into camp looking very pleased with herself, licking a bit of what looked like blood off her muzzle. Mikey assumed that she had gotten something more substantial to eat and smiled at her furry friend and she ruffled the dog's ears.

"Here, put this on, it will help with the cold." Niall tossed her a big leather coat that was lined with fleece. Mikey happily pulled it on over her velvet jacket. "Keep your head covered, too. And if it gets very cold, wear this scarf wrapped over your mouth. Breathing through it will help keep you warmer." Mikey took the scarf and hat he offered and pulled the hat down over her ears. She felt warmer almost at once. When she saw Sapphire grinning at her she laughed.

"You don't need extra warmth you lucky dog," she said to the dog. "But Mommy gets cold easy."

"I get cold, too you know," said Niall, chuckling. Mikey walked over to him and gave him a quick, light kiss on his lips.

"That should help," she said, dancing away before he could wrap his arms around her. "We better get moving, right?" She smiled wickedly as she turned and walked to her horse, as she heard Niall muttering. They mounted and rode out of camp with their pack horses trailing behind and Sapphire bounding along happily. Mikey realized that while she still wasn't sure if she wanted to permit anything more serious to happen between them, she really did enjoy teasing Niall. The realization kept her smiling even though the weather was quickly deteriorating around them.

Rain began to fall before they reached the top of the ridge leading to the shoulder where the pass was reputed to be. It seemed to Mikey that the sky had lowered, or else they had climbed to meet it. The clouds were so low now she thought she could touch the underside of one if she just stretched out her hand. The rain was light, but they both felt soaked by the time they reached the crest. Even Sapphire was feeling depressed by the weather from the look of her hanging ears and tired steps.

Mikey noticed white shapes in the rain around her, and thought that some great bird must be dropping it's down upon them. The little white shapes looked just like the down she had seen spilled from pillows, floating down slowly through the rain drops. "Niall," she called, "What is this white stuff falling?"

"Haven't you ever seen snow before?" Niall answered, startled.

"This is snow?" Mikey asked. "I've seen snow on mountaintops but never falling from the sky like this." Niall laughed and grinned as she started trying to catch the flakes. He leaned back his head and expertly caught one on his tongue. Mikey saw and then tried to imitate, succeeding in getting several flakes down the front of her shirt and giggling at the cold they inspired.

The novelty soon wore off as the rain changed entirely to snow. Visibility decreased to just a few yards. Sapphire stayed closer to them now, her black fur looking gray as the flakes piled up on her. Mikey felt as though she were moving in a fog, she was colder now that she had ever been before. Her toes and hands were numb, her nose was dripping. She remembered what Niall had said about the scarf and wrapped it around her neck and face, and then breathed through the weave. It really did help her to feel warmer, but did nothing for her hands and feet. Niall looked at her with concern, realizing that she was feeling the cold much more than he did. He knew they needed shelter and soon.

They realized after a time that the sound of the hooves had changed, sounding more like pavement beneath them now. Niall could see that they were on a road of some kind now, black stone peeked through the drifting snow here and there. There were walls along the edge of the road that made it much easier to find their way now, and lessening the chance that they might wander off and get lost. After what seemed like hours, they saw a widening space in the road through the swirling snow. They turned to follow the right hand edge of the road and were startled when a big shape loomed out of the snow.

It appeared to be a cabin made of stacked flat rock and timbers. There was no sign of inhabitants, no smoke or light escaped. There was even a sheltered building attached to the side of the cabin where they could get the horses in out of the weather. They quickly decided to take their chances and led the horses inside the shelter, unpacking them and rubbing them down quickly. They even found some feed they could lay out, almost as if someone were expecting us to shelter here from the storm, Niall thought. Mikey was sitting against the wall, looking like she couldn't move. Niall pulled her up and half carried her out of the barn.

Mikey and Niall went inside the cabin, Sapphire pushing past them as soon as the door was opened. She shook her coat wildly, scattering snow and water everywhere. Mikey felt like doing the same but was too tired and cold. Niall gave her a serious look, showing his concern. He got her settled in a back corner of the cabin and set about making a fire. There was a pile of dry firewood stacked in the rear of the cabin, and a stone hearth with a small chimney rising above. Altogether perfect refuge for them in this storm. Within minutes, he had a small blaze going, spreading light and heat in the room. Sapphire crowded close to Mikey on one side, and Niall took the other.

"Hey," he said loudly. "Don't go to sleep yet, you need to warm up and get dry. Come on, get those wet clothes off."

"Is that the best you can do?" Mikey responded. She was feeling so sleepy she was barely aware when Niall tugged her wet clothes off and wrapped several blankets around her and Sapphire. The dog licked Mikey's face to keep her awake. Then Niall pulled off his own clothes and got into the pile of blankets with them both. After several minutes, they all began to feel warm again.

"Niall?" Mikey said quietly. "Why am I naked? And, good god, why are you naked?" She sounds like herself again, Niall thought, hysterical, but herself.

"I had to get you warm again," he told her calmly. "Thomas taught me long ago that a person can actually die from getting too cold. You looked like you were heading that way quickly, so I did the best I could to get you dry and warm." He noticed that she was looking very uncomfortable.

"I guess now that the danger is passed, we should get dressed." He got out of the blanket nest quickly and began to pull on some dry clothes from his pack. "I think I'll go check on the horses while you get dressed."

"Knock before you come back in," she said firmly. Niall sighed.

Yes, Baroness," he said with a courtly bow. His smile died when he saw the stern looks from Mikey and Sapphire. "Uh, yes. I'll just see about the horses."