Jacob jumped at the unexpected voice from behind. Cassidy shoved him sideways, standing and grabbing her pistol off the ground in a quick snap. She aimed into the brightness of the courtyard and her face shifted from startled, to relieved, to annoyed.
“Um... bad timing?” The big lad's cheeks reddened.
Cassidy put her pistol away and wiped her face again, her eyes weren’t streaming anymore, but there was still grit stuck to her cheeks.
“What are you doing here, idiot?”
“Nice to see you too. Ellis didn’t say?”
“Didn’t say what?” She rounded on her brother.
“Ah,” Ellis looked nervous, “I can’t come with you, Cass, you know I can’t leave Fairfield.”
“But,” her jaw clenched, “Firebrand?”
Jacob went back to the horse he had been given, pretending to check the tack. He had ridden before, but not often, and he wouldn’t have had a clue if the gear was on incorrectly. He just wanted to give Cassidy some space.
Ellis put a hand on Cassidy’s shoulder. “You know Hazard isn’t fit for riding anymore, Garth’s taking Firebrand.”
“Why him?” She glanced sideways, “No offence.”
Garth smiled, used to Cassidy’s abruptness, and perhaps he had a little more compassion than Jacob had given him credit for.
“Three girls with one man? Jacob may be built like a bullhorn but that’s just too much temptation to put out there.” He gestured widely: out there, beyond Fairfield, beyond the world they knew.
“I can handle myself.”
“I know, but the less that’s put to the test the better, right?”
Garth reported that the coast was about as clear as it was going to get. In the day that had passed the Grinders seemed to have dried up with the rainwater. There were bound to be people watching, but with the change in numbers, the disguises, it might be the best chance they had. After all, they were just a farmer and his hands going home after trading at the caravan.
Cassidy kept finding little reasons to delay but after a final moment with Ellis, they eventually left. They rode north, to Breckle Forest. The road was baked into hard, crumbling ridges, everything went back to dust far too quickly.
Heading north made Jacob nervous, but he knew they were planning just a few hours ride before they cut west. It was calculated to throw off anyone that might see them leave and then take them around the top of Ironhaven.
Except for a few leercats slinking along parallel to their path they saw little else by way of life until they approached the everpines of the forest. The trees were well-suited to the sandy ground and had a better time of it than most crops. There were bird cries and animal calls in the woodland, but Jacob had never been any good at identifying them.
Protected from the sun there was still a fresh, moist smell to the cool shade of the close trees and the horses’ steps were muted by the carpet of brown needles. Garth slowed them down and peered carefully into the undergrowth to their left before he called them to a halt.
“I can’t believe it’s still here.”
Jacob looked into the forest. He couldn’t see anything.
“It’s an old hunting path. My da brought me here a few times after grabbits and Shy Deer. Never did catch anything.”
Cassidy jumped down, “Be best to lead the horses through, keep a tighter path.”
Garth nodded, “Makes sense. I’ll go last, see if I can’t lay some misleading signs.”
Jacob carefully dismounted, sore already and glad for the change. He tried not to look too obvious as he rubbed his thighs.
“You’ve done this before, Garth.”
He grinned, “Misspent youth.”
A deep voice rang out from the shadows ahead of them, “Must’ve been, to lead you here.”
“Bandits.” Cassidy’s pistol was back in her hand. She must have spent hours practicing that draw.
“No such luck, Miss.”
Another man’s voice, from the right hand side of the track.
“Ironguard. And you’re surrounded. Don’t be stupid.”
Cassidy and Garth cursed. Frida went pale. Nelya bristled, looking quickly left and right.
A man stepped out from behind a wide trunk. Jacob could see the ends of a big crossbow and a quiver of arrows slung on the man’s back. In his hand was a heavy-looking black pistol, an antique about twice the size of Cassidy’s, straight edges, clip loaded, an unusual thing to see, and deeply dangerous. His face was rough, pocked and stubbled, and his dark eyes looked as vicious as his weapon.
“Just be glad we’re not the Grinders. We’re bringing you in alive.”