Chapter 14
Tripping the Snare

Ziph, Arma

"The life of the hunted is bitter and brief. There is no peace during his days. Around every corner lurks the hunter. He is everywhere, laughing at his prey's desperate attempts to elude him. The hunted is doomed to die, but occasionally he takes the hunter with him."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

When the group arrived in Ziph, the guards at the gate stared in awe at the head of their tormentor, the dreaded Wilde, dangling from Edward's gauntlet. Josiah met them as they entered the town.
Scarcely believing what he saw, the rabbi said, "Truly you are blessed by Amonai to find such victory." He quickly took notice of at Mark, who was still relying on Sonia to help him walk, and gave him a concerned look. "But you are injured. I will call our physicians immediately."
"I appreciate your kindness," Mark said, "but I'll be fine."
Josiah did not accept his answer. "I insist. You have done a great thing for my people by slaying the beast. You will have the best care we can offer." He then glanced at the Princess in Adrienne's arms. "Is the young woman alive?"
"Yes," Mark replied, "but she needs the attention of my companion."
"I will take you to her at once," Josiah said, "and I will bring the physicians after that."
They were led to a house near the one where Roque was being held. Teresa was blending some herbs when the group entered the house. Rising to greet them, she saw how Sonia was having hold up Mark and hurried up to him.
"You've been hurt," she said, tentatively reaching out to him. "Take off your armor and let me take a look."
Mark raised his hand.
"The Princess first. Treat the Princess first."
Teresa looked at him with some reservation, but deferred to his request. Adrienne laid the Princess down in front of the novice and closed the door to the room. After several minutes, the door opened and Teresa led the bewildered Princess out to meet the others.
"She has some minor cuts and bruises," Teresa reported, "but she's fine otherwise. It was probably for the best that she was unconscious for so long. Now it's your turn, Mark."
Mark followed her into the room and tried to remove his armor, but the pain was too much for him to do it on his own. Without even being asked, Teresa helped him, taking off his armor and stripping him from the waist up with professional efficiency and the care not to aggravate his injuries. She then ran her fingers all around his torso, carefully inspecting him for signs of damage. Though her touch was gentle, it nevertheless caused him to wince several times. When she was done examining him, she handed him a couple vials from her pouch.
"Back when you were recovering in Eagle, you reacted so badly to the medicine I brought from the abbey that I made a new mixture. Hopefully this will agree with your constitution." The novice sighed. "Several of your ribs have cracked again. They hadn't been healed that long and now this happens. Remember, it takes a long time to mend, so don't push yourself."
"I'll do what I can," Mark replied with a smile.
Teresa insisted on examining everyone, only now she was assisted by two Ziphite physicians. Once she was finished, they made their preparations to leave, but Josiah would not hear of it.
"You have fought hard," he said. "No doubt you have traveled far. If even for just one night, stay here and enjoy what little comfort we can offer."
Not wanting to shun the Ziphites' hospitality, Mark agreed, partially because he could use a little extra time to recuperate before hitting the road again. He was not the only one. The Princess had been through a lot was most likely unused to traveling long distances on foot. She would need to recover all the strength she could.
That evening, the Ziphites held a small feast to celebrate the slaying of Wilde. Three lambs and a fattened calf were all roasted on spits and served with a variety of fruits and vegetables harvested from local gardens. Traditional songs and music accompanied the meal. Because the stringed instrument they used resembled a lute, Jasper took the opportunity to impress them by expertly adapting his own instrument to their melody. The feat arguable impressed the musicians more than the victory over Wilde.
The feast lasted for several hours, and once the locals were ready to settle down for the night, extra beds were brought into the house where the group was staying so no one had to sleep on the floor. For the first time in a long while, the group allowed itself the luxury of letting down their guard and sleeping through the night without worrying about watch shifts or enemy attacks. It was a welcome change, but it would not last beyond that night.
By the time they woke up around dawn, Mark learned that the Princess did not sleep well, waking up in the dead of the night in a panic. Being in unfamiliar surroundings and in the company of strangers, especially considering her ordeal, it was little wonder she reacted that way. Thankfully, Teresa was close at hand and managed to calm her down somewhat, but even after that the Princess slept fitfully, prompting the novice to stay up the rest of the night, holding a vigil over her.
When the group was assembled, Mark introduced everyone to the Princess and assured her that she would be back with her father soon, but the timid girl said nothing in reply and only hid behind Teresa. Mark could only imagine what it must feel like to be in her situation, all alone amidst a party of foreign warriors. For her sake, he intended to get back to Scotia as quickly as possible.
As they left the house, they found Josiah was waiting for them, offering fresh provisions from the grateful Ziphites. The group received their generosity with all due grace. At the gate, the rabbi delivered some parting words for the warriors who had saved his people.
"We will never forget what you have done. Farewell and may Amonai's grace shine upon you. Shalom aleichem."
"Aleichem shalom," Mark replied with a bow. His imperfect pronunciation was apparently tolerable enough.
It appeared as if every person in town had gathered behind Josiah to see them off. A few scattered individuals began to chant praises in their native tongue and were soon joined by their fellows in a loud roar of adulation. Mark and several of the others smiled and waved to the Ziphites as they walked away. Even the most jaded of their number could not help being moved by the display, even if they would never dare to admit it.

* * *

Instead of following Roque's irregular path, the group opted to stick to the road, which would make the return trip longer. Though they would rarely engage in idle chatter while traveling, the Princess was particularly quiet and had not spoken a word the entire time. It was no surprise that she did not adapt readily to the company of heavily armed strangers. The poor girl found an unexpected protector in Teresa, who overcame her own timidity to keep the others from bothering their charge, namely the resident minstrel-thief.
Jasper walked alongside the Princess, strumming his lute and grinning widely. She simply looked away as he leaned toward her.
With restraint a wholly alien concept to him, he asked her, "Moi' miledy beh plees'd tah 'eah a meledi o' moin?"
Teresa put herself between Jasper and the Princess. In defense of the younger woman, the meek novice took on the stern bearing of a veteran mother superior.
"Please leave the Princess alone."
Her tone was not particularly harsh, but there was a severe edge that did not go unnoticed. More amused than threatened, Jasper looked at her with an affected pout.
"Awww... Kin' a bloke shew 'is r'spek' tah a ledy? Ye noo moi 'aht b'lon's tah ye, luv."
The look Teresa gave him was enough to make him to capitulate. The thief held up his hands in surrender.
"Owlroit, owlroit. Ye win this un, luv."
Jasper began to lag behind the others, hanging his head and muttering to himself in a gloom that was certain to be more of a ploy to get attention rather than actual depression. If he thought he could instill any guilt in Teresa and bask in her sympathy, he failed miserably. Mark could only scratch his head and sigh. Thankfully, the rest of the day passed without incident.
The next day they cleared the forest and continued at a fairly decent pace considering Mark's injuries and the Princess' frailty. With the absence of any immediate threat and a general lack of conversation, Mark's thoughts turned inward. There was a thought he had put aside during the pursuit of Roque and it returned to him. If Adrienne was even half as powerful as he guessed, could she not have stopped the bandit before he even reached the first gate? The question gnawed at him. He had to know.
He convinced the others to let him take one of the later watches that night. While the others slept, it would give him the chance to learn the truth. He ventured out a short distance from the camp, just enough to avoid any eavesdropping.
"Adrienne," he said in a low voice, "come out. I know you're around here somewhere."
Adrienne soundlessly appeared beside him. It was too dark to see her face under the hood, only the unnatural glow of her eyes.
"What is it?" she asked. "Getting lonely, are we? I haven't fed on you for a long time."
Mark was already harboring suspicions about her and it was galling to see her acting so a blasé. "Be serious. I have something I want to ask you."
"Ask away."
"Back in Scotia, when Roque kidnapped the Princess, you saw it coming, didn't you?"
Adrienne tapped her nose with her finger. "I could smell him a mile away."
Then his suspicions were right all along. He struggled to suppress his outrage. How could she have let it happen?
"You could've stopped him," Mark said, a little anger seeping into his voice.
"Easily," she replied. No attempt to dodge the truth.
"Then why didn't you?" the swordsman demanded. "Why did you let all those people get killed?"
Adrienne shrugged. "It got you into the castle, didn't it? You won the King's favor and now we can get a ship to take us to Gladius. Nothing wrong with that, is there?"
"Of course there is! No one had to die!"
"But it got the job done quicker. We'll be back in Gladius all the sooner for it."
Her utter lack of remorse made it very difficult for Mark to keep his anger in check. Nevertheless, his self-control managed to hold.
Mark looked square in her glowing eyes. "'The ends justify the means', is it?"
"That's right," the dhampir replied, not with any malice but ironclad conviction. "I've got business with Darkwall and I'll do whatever it takes to get it done. That includes teaming up with your merry little band."
Everything unraveled from that point. Mark's mind filled with possibilities, all the things that might have been avoided if Adrienne used her powers to the fullest.
"In that case, you probably could've saved Felix, warned us about the Amazons coming to cut down the bridge or the Ice Golem, or who knows what else, but you saw some profit in it and let all these things happen. How much are you not telling us? Are you even on our side?"
Unsurprisingly, Adrienne was completely unaffected by his accusations. "You give me too much credit. It took me a while to regain my powers, but maybe you have a point. Maybe I could've saved the old man and all that other stuff, but the second I did, my secret would be out and at least half of that lot over there would be trying to kill me.
"You people are my best shot at getting my revenge. I don't plan on wasting that. I'll tell you what I think you need to know when I think you need to know it. Other than that, you're more or less safe as long as you're still useful to me."
It was too much. Adrienne had never displayed any real concern for anyone else. He was all too aware of this, but even so...
"I can't believe you. You're such a--"
Adrienne moved in closer, eager to finish the sentence for him. "A beast? Or maybe a monster? Yes, I am a beast, I am a monster. More than any of the others, you should understand that."
"Just because you're a dhampir doesn't mean--"
For the first time, Mark hit a nerve, cracking Adrienne's nonchalant façade. "What do you know about what it means to be a dhampir!?" she snapped, grabbing him by the collar. "Do you have any idea what I've been put through? All because I'm a dhampir, a precious specimen for that damned warlock's experiments. And not just that. I'm a rebel who defied the will of the great King Randwulf." Her words roiled with anger. "You know what they do to prisoners down in the dungeons? It's a living hell, especially if you're a woman, and when you can't die, it never ends."
Fixated as he was on Adrienne's offenses, Mark did not stop to think of the horrific environment she came from. It made him relent. For a predator like Adrienne, a retreat is nothing but an excuse to press the advantage.
"Don't like thinking about that, do you?" she taunted. "Afraid of what they did to your dear old mother?"
The dhampir went too far. All the anger Mark had built up came rushing back, magnified tenfold by mocking the memory of his mother. The fire spread too quickly for him to stop it. Like the time with Publius Juvenal and with Mar Kurin, the rage overcame him.
"You--!!" he howled, throwing all his weight into tackling the dhampir.
The swordsman would have done just as well to run into a brick wall. Adrienne was on a completely different level from the Inkari chieftain. She did not give an inch when he collided with her. She even let him land a few punches before using her superior strength to restrain him. She grabbed both of his hands, twisting his arms and forcing him to his knees. Mark was still too far gone to understand what she was saying, but that did not stop Adrienne from appreciating the change in him.
"Ooh, I haven't seen this side of you before." A wicked grin crossed her lips. "A killer. I like it." She twisted his arms a little more. "But, fun as this is, you're only going to make your injuries worse. Settle down."
The pain eventually became enough to snap Mark out of his rage. It took a moment for him to realize what had happened. As Adrienne let him go, he was filled with shame and horror for losing control once again. Had the opponent been anyone other than Adrienne, there would be a new terrible image to haunt his nightmares, one to accompany the ruined face of Mar Kurin.
In spite of her role in freeing Mark from the rage, she actually seemed a little disappointed by how quickly the anger evaporated.
"Aw, just when it was getting good. Oh well..."
Mark did not say anything. It was one thing to kill an aggressor in battle, but only one thing came from surrendering to rage and taking leave of one's senses: murder. Even Felix's distinction between justified and unjustified killing would not excuse him. To think that he nearly crossed that line again...
Once again, the retreat by Mark prompted Adrienne to drive forward. This time she intended to put an end to the argument. She grabbed him by the cuirass and lifted him up to leave no doubts about the disparity of power between them.
"Look, I'm going to do things my way. And because I know threatening you personally won't do any good, let me put it like this: If you want your little friends to live long enough to get killed by the Marauders, you'll leave me be." She nodded to where the rest of the group was sleeping. "Go back to them. I'm going to take a walk."
The dhampir let him go and vanished. Stumbling back to the camp, it did not look like anyone was woken up by with altercation with Adrienne. In an effort to settle his nerves after what happened, he took refuge in his journal.
Because there was no threat of them being followed, the group was able to safely enjoy the ample light and warmth of a campfire. It made Mark's work a lot easier and more comfortable as well. Looking up from his writing, he noticed the Princess was still sleeping rather fitfully. A welcome distraction from what had just happened, he wondered if she was having nightmares about her abduction and whether she would regain her peace of mind once she was returned to her kin and countrymen. Preoccupied with these thoughts, he never heard the light footsteps approach him from behind.
He was completely unprepared when a hempen noose wrapped around his neck. He could feel the foot of his attacker press against his back, using his weight to draw the rope taut. Mark grasped the noose, desperately trying to wedge his fingers between the rope and his neck before his windpipe closed shut, but to no avail. The attacker's foot slipped, shifting the pressure to one of Mark's broken ribs. He opened his mouth to cry out in pain, but no sound escaped from his throat. The noose continued to tighten and Mark's eyes began to fail him. He would not be able to stay conscious much longer and if he lost consciousness, his life would be forfeit as well.
Thinking quickly, he rolled forward and kicked behind him halfway into the roll, catching the attacker in the abdomen with his boot. Since the attacker did not release his grip on the rope, he was lifted into the air by Mark's outstretched leg and brought down on the campfire. The attacker's screams revealed his identity. 'He' was a woman.
Regaining her self-control, the attacker sprang to her feet and hastily tossed her burning cloak aside. The campfire provided just enough light for Mark to get a good look at her. She was a lean woman clad in ragged, threadbare garb that clung tightly to her body. Tousled hair fell upon the gaunt and scarred features of her face, not quite masking the patch over her right eye. The attacker drew a menacing black knife from her belt and stabbed at Mark. Raising his arm to block the attack, sparks flew off his vambrace as it deflected the blade.
The attacker quickly recovered her balance and took stock of the situation before attempting another attack. The element of surprise had been lost and now the others were awake. Snarling in frustration, she clearly did not have any plans of challenging everyone at once. Narrowly dodging an arrow from Jill, she vanished into the night, but she was not alone. Mark barely caught a glimpse of Adrienne running past him in hot pursuit. With the relentless dhampir on her tail, the attacker's death or capture was a foregone conclusion.
Mark pulled the noose off his neck and tossed it aside when a sudden jolt of pain nearly brought him to his knees. He held his aching ribs, finally realizing how much the attack had aggravated his injuries. Sonia saw the state Mark was in and hurried to his side.
"Are you okay?"
"I'll live..." Mark replied with a weak smile.
Edward had his sword drawn, but seemed lost without a clear objective in sight.
"What do we do know?" he asked.
"We can't stay here," Giles insisted. "If Mark's attacker has any confederates, they'll know where to attack us."
"It's too dangerous to be out on the road in the dark," Sonia countered, looking suspiciously at every shadow. "We won't be able to see the enemy coming."
Both of them had valid points. Mark decided to advocate the middle ground, hoping a compromise would be enough to satisfy them.
"Then we move the camp a ways and have two or more people on watch."
Giles nodded in approval. "It should be enough. We can't afford a fire, though."
"What are you waiting for?" Stefan asked impatiently, already tying up a bedroll.
Tapping his sword on his pauldron, Edward looked around warily. "Where's the monster?"
"What?"
"That devil woman," he grunted.
"Right here," Adrienne replied, appearing suddenly behind the Prince.
Edward would have jumped out of his skin if his tremendous pride did not rein in his reaction. The rush of shock quickly sublimed into anger as he remembered when she abandoned him and Giles only a couple days earlier.
"You've got a bad habit of disappearing on us," he growled. "Who's side are you on anyway?"
It was ironic that Edward asked the same question Mark had asked her only a short while earlier. She could have easily responded with some menacing comment, but Adrienne did not answer him. Instead, she went to pack up some of the gear lying around, a rare display of helpfulness. It went without saying that Edward did not appreciate being ignored.
"Don't walk away from me!"
"Enough," Mark interrupted. "This isn't the time for that. We need to move."
Unexpectedly, Edward simply turned away and put away his sword. He was being less argumentative than usual, probably because of the uncertain threat warranted more of his attention. Maybe he did not want to put himself in direct confrontation with Mark after what had happened last time. Whatever the reason, it kept the conflict from escalating.
They hastily packed and set up a new camp a few furlongs from the old site. With six hours until daybreak, they agreed to split the time into two three-hour shifts with four people on watch. The attack left everyone on edge and the tense moments passed at a snail's pace, but if there were any enemies out there, they opted to bide their time. Other than a false alarm involving a stray deer, they were spared any further incidents until morning.
Setting out at the crack of dawn, the group had not walked far when they found Mark's attacker. She was pinned to a tree along the roadside by her own knife. Her flesh was wholly drained of its color, more so than any of them had ever seen in a fresh corpse. Giles seemed to recognize her and moved in for a closer look. Brushing a shock of hair away from her face, he turned to Mark.
"Is this the one who attacked you?"
Mark nodded. "Yes, that's her."
"This is Marcella the Nightstalker," Giles said, "one of Randwulf's best assassins. I'm surprised you're still alive." The pikeman shook his head. "I wonder who did this to her."
Adrienne stood behind Mark and whispered in his ear.
"I've had rats that tasted better than her, but a meal's a meal. I don't usually suck them dry, but now I shouldn't have to feed again for couple days."
Mark did not like leaving a body out in the open like that, even if it was someone who had tried to kill him, but Teresa was the only one who shared his view. It was a rare occasion, but the others overrode him and so they pressed on. Six days later, they finally reached Scotia, passing through the outer gates early in the afternoon. Another leg of their journey was coming to an end, and now they were one step closer to returning to Gladius.