Chapter 3
Darkling Fire

Near the Death Marsh, Gladius

"Some people never change and some people never stay the same. I can't say one way is better than the other. You need to adapt to new surroundings and situation, but if you're too inconstant, you'll lose your identity."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The sun was just beginning to rise in the horizon when Teresa regained consciousness. Everyone in the group was huddled in Hildy's side of the hut since none of them were willing to have Lucius for company. The faint noises Teresa made as she was stirring was enough to wake up Mark, who was dozing nearby.
"Yer aweyk!" Jasper exclaimed gleefully, clasping the novice's hand.
Mark noticed that the thief had not moved even an inch from his place by Teresa's side. It did not seem that he had slept either, and yet he still looked as alert as ever.
Teresa looked around the unfamiliar surroundings in muted bewilderment. "Where am I?" she asked groggily.
"We're at the hut of the herbalist who cured you," Mark replied. "How are you feeling?"
"A little better..."
"Rest for now," Mark said. "We'll head out once you feel up to it."
Teresa did not any prompting to fall back asleep and was out as soon as she closed her eyes. As Mark reclined a bit, he looked at Jasper.
"Do you want to get some sleep? I could watch her."
Without moving his eyes from Teresa, he answered, "Oi'm foin. Doan' wurry yersel' 'bow' meh. Oi'll wotch 'er."
Mark did not bother arguing with him. It was late in the afternoon when Teresa had recovered enough to travel. The group had already made all the necessary preparations to leave, so there was no need to wait. Teresa was taken a little aback upon discovering that the one responsible for saving her life was the dreaded swamp witch, but was polite nevertheless.
"Thank you for saving me," the novice said with a bow.
"Think not of it," Hildy replied. "But do say hello to my sister the next time you see her."
Teresa cocked her head. "Your sister?"
"Kleantha she calls herself these days, turned her back on her roots and took up with you Wayfarers back when maids we were."
It was hard to believe Teresa's mentor was blood kin to the swamp witch, but it explained Hildy's skills as an herbalist. Or was it the other way around?
The witch took Teresa's hand. "A pupil of hers you are, hm? Plain as day it is. While you slept, took a peek at your medicines, I did. Gerdy's hand is easy to see. Much skill you have, young one. If ever you tire of life as a nun, always use an apprentice, I could."
"I will remember it," Teresa said politely. "And I will give Sister Kleantha your regards."
The group took their leave of Hildy and set out. Mark looked at the tired and worn horses they had stolen from the Gladian Guard. He could not help feeling sympathy for the poor beasts, particularly after having driven them so hard to get this far. Mark turned to the others.
"They couldn't possibly carry us much farther," he said. "I think they've done enough."
"You don't mean you want to turn them loose?" Edward asked critically.
"We can't expect any more of them," Sonia interposed. "Another hard ride would wreck them."
"Then it's a few dozen miles on their hooves instead of my feet," Edward said.
Completely ignoring him, Mark was already removing he bridles and saddles from the horses. Following his example, Sonia and Jill joined in. Edward had barely finished his complaint by the time the three of them were shooing the horses away. His face red with anger, he could not even think of anything to say as the others busily rifled through the saddlebags for anything that could be of use to them.
They continued their journey on foot. Edward was grumbling under his breath the entire time, but no one paid him any heed. When Edward had his fill of complaining, he came to realize that they had not yet been introduced to the newest member of the group.
"So, old man, who are you and why are you with us?" he asked.
"I am Felix the Crusader," the old knight said casually, "an Elemental Knight like Mark and Sonia. I have offered to train you all in the arts of war and Mark accepted."
Edward snorted. "What can you possibly teach me? I'm already a master of combat!"
"There is little I could teach you," Felix replied bluntly. "Your ability is far too limited. I am chiefly interested in these two fellow Elemental Knights. It is unfortunate they were unable to receive firsthand training from their predecessors. I will do what I can in their stead."
Edward snorted again, but no one cared about his disapproval.
"Where are we going then?" the Prince asked.
Felix pointed to the northwest. "Our first stop is the ruins of Sandstone. We will see what happens from there."
Edward was no more satisfied by this answer than anything else Felix had said. Realizing that all his questions were likely to be answered in a similar manner, the Prince gave up further efforts to converse with him.
"What route do we take?" Mark asked.
"The Gladian Guard will be patrolling the roads closely," Felix replied. "The more distance we keep, the better. We will head due north, crossing the Wolf Creek and using the western edge of the forest for cover until we reach the bridge near Stormtree. We then head for the coastline and make our way to Sandstone."
Mark was not an expert in Gladius' geography, but he knew enough to be concerned by Felix's decision. He had to speak up, lest the group be put in unnecessary danger.
"Doesn't that bring us a little too close to Darkwall?"
"Besides," Sonia added, "if we're going around the forest, we'll have to cross the Crimson Field. It's several miles across at its narrowest point with no cover at all. Anyone going back and forth from the castle is bound to see us."
Although Edward had been discouraged from talking only a few moments ago, he jumped at the opportunity to criticize the old knight.
"And what if they have roving patrols making the round outside Stormtree? They're probably guarding the bridge, too."
"Those are problems we will deal with when and if they emerge," Felix replied, showing not even the slightest signs of doubt. "I will cede to the judgment of one of you natives if you can devise a safer path. Anyone?"
There were no takers. No one could think of a better alternative, but Felix gave them a considerable amount of time to think on it. When it had become clear there was no reasonable counter-proposal, Felix's voice seemed to take a tone of even more confidence than before.
"It is decided then."
The group continued on its path and reached Wolf Creek two days later. A manmade tributary of the Glass River, it was dug by forced labor to feed Darkwall's moat. Though there were no bridges, its deepest point was only about chest-high to a normal man and the current was fairly weak, so crossing on foot did not pose any great challenge, except for one critical detail. It was the middle of winter and the water was bitterly cold. It was not cold enough for the creek to be frozen over, but it was close.
"You can't expect us to cross that creek in this weather," Edward said.
"I hate to say it," Sonia added, "but I'm with the drunkard on this. I didn't mind it when we forded the Crystal because we were on horses and Teresa's life was in danger." She glanced at Felix. "Unless you want to use that trick from Stormtree where you make the ground rise up."
"It is too dangerous to use our powers so close to Darkwall," Felix said. "We do not need to draw the attention of the warlock unnecessarily."
"Well then," Edward said, "we should cross at Watercress."
"That's quite a ways to backtrack," Mark said.
"And the bridge would be an excellent place for the Guard to have a checkpoint," Felix pointed out.
Sonia punched her open palm. "Then we kill them. A few less Guardsmen in the world never hurt anybody."
"On the contrary," Felix countered, "the locals are likely to suffer quite a lot if Randwulf's men are killed. They will reinforce the garrison and the abuses will only increase. As much as you want to kill the enemy, do you want your countrymen to suffer as well? You need to learn to pick your battles." The old knight pointed to the other side of the creek. "See there? The forest is close to the bank. It will be easy to gather enough wood for a fire once we get to the other side. It cannot be more than a hundred yards across. Surely you can bear with it that long."
"'Can' and 'want to' are two different things, old man," the fencer said, "but you've made your point."
"What about Teresa?" Mark asked. "She's barely recovered from the poison. Wading around in cold water can't be good for her."
"Then have her ride on someone's shoulders," Felix replied. He nodded to Edward. "The Prince over there is the tallest and those pauldrons would make a fine perch."
Neither Edward nor Teresa seemed to like the idea very much (and Jasper did not look too pleased either), but as there did not seem to be any getting around it, everyone was eager to get the crossing over with. Edward got down on one knee, the only concession he was willing to make. Because Edward was making no other effort to cooperate, Teresa was having a hard time climbing up to her perch, so Sonia helped the novice up on one of the Prince's broad pauldrons.
"Hang on tight," Edward grumbled, "because I'm not going to hold you."
Without any further ado, the group went forward to cross the creek. 'Cold' was an altogether inadequate description of the water. 'Mind-numbingly cold' had a more accurate ring to it. The riverbed was a little slick, so they had to walk slowly lest they slip and fall. It was by no means a fun experience, but they eventually made it to the other side.
Although their limbs were nearly frozen solid, they moved rather quickly to the forest to gather wood. Thanks to her expertise in the woodsman's craft, Jill had a fire started in no time. The fire was built up to about twice the size of a normal campfire and although there was a risk of giving away their position, it was more important for them to get warm.
They were sorely in want of an extra set of dry clothes. Instead they had to settle for hanging up their wet things and wrapping up in rain cloaks or bedrolls until they dried. Teresa was the only one spared this discomfort, but after what she had been through, she earned the reprieve.
It took a couple hours for their clothes to dry. That they were able to stay put for so long with an open fire emphasized the fact that there had been no traces of pursuit since the group left Stormtree. It did not look like the Road Patrol ventured out this way either. The total absence of the enemy was enough to make their guard slip, if just a little.
Jill, who seemed to be the least affected by the cold, was the first to don her gear and go out scouting. The rest of them geared up a short while after. After dousing the fire, they were on the move again. Traveling along the forest's edge for cover, there was nothing to see beyond the wall of trees that blocked their view of the east and stretched out well into the distance. A local saying came to mind. 'Nothing to see, nothing to fear.' If only it were true...
They had been walking along the treeline for about an hour, Jill running on ahead of them as usual, when the archer suddenly stopped dead in her tracks. Staring into the forest, she did not move a muscle. Seeing this unusual behavior, Sonia quickened her pace, breaking into a jog to catch up. Concerned, Mark followed after her. He was close enough to hear what the two sisters were saying to each other.
"What is it?" Sonia asked.
"Something's coming," Jill whispered, reaching into her quiver to draw out an arrow.
The archer notched her arrow and crouched low as she drew back the bowstring. Sonia stood ready to draw her blade if necessary, prompting Mark to do the same. He could hear it now, the sound of something rustling through the underbrush, but the forest was too overgrown to get a clear view of it. Jill kept the arrowhead trained on the target as its direction changed. Her bowstring tensed, but she did not loose the arrow just yet. Rowanites were too exacting to shoot blind.
A figure burst out of the treeline a few fathoms ahead of them, taking a few awkward steps before collapsing. Although Jill was still ready to shoot at the slightest provocation, there did not seem to be any threat. The mysterious figure was a man dressed in a soiled and tattered smock with an oversized bag slung over his shoulder. He was severely thin, so much that his skin practically clung to the bones. His hair was a mass of unruly red tangles and he had a scraggly beard to match.
Lowering his guard, Mark approached the man, knelt beside him and carefully turned him over. It took him a moment to regain consciousness. His eyes opened slowly, eyes with a bewildered, maniac look. Mark knew that look. Could it really be him?
"Ignatko?" the swordsman asked in disbelief.
The man was equally bewildered at the sight of the Guardian, but he responded almost immediately.
Mark did not even get a chance to reply. The man could only be Ignatiy and he was already certain that he knew who he was looking at. His gaunt, grimy features brightened with new vitality and he wrapped his skinny arms around Mark in a warm embrace, squeezing with every ounce of his feeble might.
"It's been so many years!" he exclaimed. He paused for a moment as his mind seemed to wander. "How many...?"
"It's been ten years," Mark replied. "What happened to you?"
"You know me," he said with a chuckle, "a slave to the glory of the flame. I was giving life to some beauties in the borderlands a few years ago when some soldiers caught me and threw me in prison."
His expression darkened and he shuddered visibly. "It was a hard, miserable time... They took my love away, my dear, precious flame... They left me in the cold dark for weeks at a time. But..." A wily light returned to his eyes. "Thanks to them, I found a way to better serve its glory."
"There was a man from the Eastland caught when he shipwrecked on the coast. You see, the Eastlanders are really an ingenious lot. They came up with this magnificent way to give fire a new all-consuming form. I call them 'bombs', from the sound they make, a roar like thunder." Ignatiy got up on his knees and opened his sack with a grin. "Watch this."
From his sack, he pulled out a small pouch. He opened it and poured some black powder on the ground. He then closed the pouch and put it back in his sack. He opened his mouth and stuck his finger under his tongue. Grasping a gold chain, he began to retch as he pulled something out of his throat, the Fire Pendant he had acquired in Ban Gorge all those years ago. He wiped the gem with his smock and clutched it in his hand. He focused his energy into creating a small flame, like one that would top a candle. He carefully guided it down to the black powder and when the flame touched the powder, there was a burst of fire and smoke and a loud pop. Ignatiy chuckled gleefully as Mark and everyone else jumped in surprise.
"Now," he said as he pulled a head-sized ceramic ball out of the bag, "imagine what one of these bombs can do. What you saw was only a few spoonfuls. One of these beauties has nearly five pounds of the black powder. In fact, it's thanks to them that I got out of that wretched prison."
"You were kept in the castle?" Mark asked.
"Under it, actually..." Ignatiy replied with another shudder. "Cold, dark, wet... Filled with the screams of the other prisoners and the howls of those wretched beasts."
"Big, scary monsters, all red with these big horns." The firebug put his hands to his head to mimic their appearance. "The guards'd toss prisoners to 'em just for a laugh."
Thinking of hapless prisoners being thrown to those beasts, Mark clenched his jaw. "Randwulf has to be stopped..."
Ignatiy's eyes suddenly lit up. "You want to save this kingdom, too? Great! It'll be just like old times!"
Mark arched his eyebrow. "You weren't so enthusiastic last time."
"Yeah, but I was afraid of dying back then," he said with a shrug. "I've been too close for too long to care anymore. If I'm going to die, I might as well be having fun."
"I had misgivings the first time," Mark said, "and now I think you're madder than ever." Before Ignatiy's face could drop, Mark put his hand on the shoulder of his old friend and added, "Nevertheless, I'd be glad to have your help."
Mark was helping Ignatiy to his feet when something lashed out from the treeline and coiled around the swordsman's neck. Mark grabbed at the dark cord just in time for two hooks to catch the leather of his gloves instead of his throat. A forceful jerk on the cord swept Mark off his feet and dragged him into the forest. The others, who had been standing by while Mark and Ignatiy conversed, drew their weapons and rushed into the forest.
A pale blonde woman with cold, steel-grey eyes pulled her black whip taut with one hand and held a narrow silver knife at Mark's throat with the other. Like Ignatiy, she was covered in filth and dressed in a ragged smock, another escaped prisoner. The grime was not enough to hide the long scar running up her right cheek. She gritted her teeth and glared at the unwelcome company.
"Put down your weapons and back away if you want him to live," she hissed.
"We're not your enemies," Mark choked through the constricting coils of the whip. "If you're against Randwulf..."
"Shut up!" she snapped. "What if I wasn't?" She rolled her eyes. "Though it makes my skin crawl to say such a thing..."
Mark continued his struggle to speak. "We're fighting against Randwulf. We can help you."
"You can help me?" she sneered. "They caught me and I just caught you, so that means they'd get you easily."
"You think so?" Sonia retorted angrily. "We've already killed scores of their men and we're just getting warmed up."
"Those weaklings of the Gladian Guard?" the woman scoffed. "They're nothing." Her eyes narrowed. "Wait till the Marauders return. You won't have such an easy time then."
"That man you have is Mark the Guardian," Edward declared. "As the heir to the throne of the Mountain King, I demand you release him."
His words surprised her, shaking her composure. "Prince Edward?" Her look of surprise twisted into a disdainful glower. "You damned drunkard... You've got a lot of nerve showing your face here. How many people have died for you? How many still suffer for you? Do you even know? I wasted my youth on your worthless carcass." She pointed her knife at Edward. "I should kill you where you stand."
"What the devil do you mean?" Edward demanded.
The woman was obviously insulted and her anger increased. "Don't tell me you've forgotten! Twelve years ago... The Crimson Revolt... All those faithful fools that flocked to your banner... hiding in holes... living in the shadows... For what? To be betrayed? To be killed on the spot or left to rot in the dungeons of Darkwall? And what have you done? Those drunken charges at the gates broke more spirits than anything the torturers could come up with." She spat on the ground. "The Guardian, you say? The last one couldn't save this kingdom, so what can this one do?"
She was so absorbed with her rant that she was no longer paying full attention to her captive. Mark took advantage of the opportunity and jerked his head back, hitting her in the face. He was able to break free of her and ran to the others. As he was unwinding the whip, the woman suddenly, impossibly, appeared in front of him. Blood trickling down from her nose, she scowled at him. She grabbed Mark by the throat with one hand and held him up in the air with unnatural ease. The others closed in to help but stopped short when she pointed her knife at them.
"Stay back!" she shouted. "I'll crush his windpipe without a second thought!" She ran her tongue over the blood, wiping it clean, and glared at Mark. "Give me one reason not to kill you."
Mark words were strained by the strength of the woman's grip. "You want to fight... to avenge the ones you've lost... I also fight... for the ones I've lost... and for all who have lost..."
She loosened her grip on Mark and allowed him to fall to the ground. Not wanting to provoke her, the swordsman rose to his feet slowly and cautiously. No longer glaring with seething hatred, she gave him a contemptuous look.
"Brave and idealistic... Aren't you a little old to be so simple-minded?" With the faint trace of a smile on her face, she extended her hand. "Call me Adrienne. Shall we be comrades?"
"Don't trust her!" Edward shouted. "It's a trick! She'll kill us in our sleep!"
Adrienne looked at him and her smile twisted into something more malicious. "Stay awake then, young Prince."
She turned back to Mark for an answer. There was no doubt she was dangerous, but he deemed it better to have such danger on his side. He grasped her hand and shook it. The faint smile she gave was the closest thing she had to a pleasant expression.
"On to matters of practicality," she said in a businesslike tone, "do you have a cloak I can use? I've been underground for too long. The sun is... unpleasant to me."
Mark went over the group's supplies in his head. "I think we have something that will suffice for the time being. I suppose we need to get clothes for you and Ignatiy. We'll have to try to get into town to buy some."
"Did you say 'buy'?" a voice asked.
Everyone's attention, and their weapons, turned to the source of the voice. A nearby bush transformed into an old man as if by magic. However, it was not magic but a rather remarkable gift for camouflage. Putting away many of the trappings that had kept him hidden, they could see that his face was the only thing that betrayed his age, his frame and posture easily belonging to someone decades younger.
Seeing all the armed warriors with weapons trained on him, he held up his hands defensively, but did not seem to be particularly scared. "My, what dangerous toys you have there. As you can see, I am unarmed. I am not an enemy either, so would you be so kind as to point those blades elsewhere so we can talk like civilized people?" When they lowered the weapons, the old man bowed gratefully. "Ah, thank you," he said. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Perry, a traveling merchant. As you have no doubt guessed, I am also a master of disguise. I just happened to be passing by when I heard you. No matter where you are, just say the magic word and I'm sure to be nearby."
"What's the magic word?" Mark asked, rubbing his throat from Adrienne's earlier treatment.
"'Buy', of course," he replied matter-of-factly. "Not 'sell', mind you. I work for a profit."
"Why the disguise?" Sonia asked. "Is it normal for merchants to hide out in the bushes like that?"
Perry rubbed his bald pate. "I had a bit of a bad turn at the castle over yonder," he said. "I was trying to sell my wares and I got ran out by the Palace Guard. Threatened to throw me into the dungeon. You can never tell with people like that, so I was simply being prudent until I found my way to friendlier company. Does that answer your question, miss?"
His reason was plausible enough, but that was no reason to throw all caution to the wind. Perry's trustworthiness remained dubious at best. Although there were obvious advantages to getting the supplies they needed here and now rather than risk entering a town, traveling merchants were notorious for being nothing but thinly disguised swindlers and Mark was not about to fall victim to a common criminal.
"What are your prices like?" the swordsman asked.
Although the merchant surely must have noted Mark's suspicious tone, he did not allow it to affect him. His voice remained smooth and steady, clearly experienced in dealing with all manner of customers.
"Oh, I'm very fair," the merchant said. "I'll be sure to work within your budget."
Glancing at Ignatiy and Adrienne, Mark said, "We need some clothes."
Perry pulled out a few bundles from his pack and opened them. "I have a wide selection. Take your pick."
Mark gestured to the piles. "Ignatiy, Adrienne, pick out what you want."
The two walked up to the piles and began to dig for the clothes they wanted. Ignatiy chose a red jerkin, white stockings and felt shoes with pointed toes. Adrienne chose a blue hooded mantle, a long-sleeved white shirt, grey trousers, knee-high rider's boots, and black leather gloves. Perry tallied up the cost and showed it to Mark, who paid the required sum out of his own money.
"Is that all?" Perry asked.
Mark looked at his recently healed forearm. "What do you have in armor?"
Perry looked at Mark incredulously and held up his hands. "None of my merchandise could possibly match what you have!"
Mark laughed. "I'm sure. Actually, I want vambraces, knee cops and elbow cops; in steel if you have them."
Perry produced the requested items, saying, "They design is different, but I suppose they're better than nothing, yes?"
Mark tried them on. They bore no adornment beyond some simple engraving, but they looked like they would serve their purpose. When he saw that they fit well, he paid for them and looked to the others.
"Is there anything the rest of you need?"
"What sort of spirits do you carry?" Edward asked.
"You don't need any!" Sonia shouted.
"I'll do what I want with my own money!" he retorted.
Perry produced various bottle and flasks, scratching his head as he looked at them.
"I don't have many liquors," he said. "Mostly wines, beers and ales. However," he picked up a flask, "this is a rather strong variety of mead I acquired in my travels to Wyrd."
Taking the flask and a few others, Edward handed him a few coins.
"This'll do."
Perry did not look like he had received enough, but did not voice any complaints. Jill stooped near his pack.
"I need special arrows," she said, "kinds used by the army."
"These are illegal, you know," Perry commented as he pulled out more bundles from his pack, "so it'll be a little extra."
Jill looked at Sonia, who nodded in approval. She then chose a dozen armor-piercing arrows, a half dozen fire arrows (not lit, of course), and a couple signal arrows. When she was done, Sonia handed the fee to the merchant.
While Perry was pocketing the coins, a faint rustling betrayed the presence of Jasper near the merchant's pack. Before he could get away, Sonia had grabbed his cloak, dragged him towards her and put him in headlock.
"What did you take?" she demanded.
"Nuffin'! Nuffin'! Oi di'n' gi' a chanz t' gi' nuffin'!"
Sonia tightened the headlock. "Is that so?"
"'Tis so! 'Tis so! Noo lemme gew!"
Sonia released Jasper and stepped on his back.
"Stay put until we're done here."
Jasper whimpered in protest but did not attempt to move around. Teresa looked around uncertainly before speaking.
"Do you carry medicines and dressings?" she asked.
"But of course," Perry replied, quickly spreading out a display of numerous vials, jars and small packages.
As she was gleaning through his stock, she selected a few items but looked rather critical.
Holding up a vial, she asked, "What's this?"
"Dragon's blood," Perry answered. "The contents of that vial will add ten years to your life. It burns with the fires of vitality." He held up a fang on a leather thong. "See this? A genuine dragon tooth, proof that I have access to the real thing. You still don't believe me? Take a taste."
Teresa did just that, unstopping the vial and delicately placing her finger inside. Putting a drop to her tongue, she quickly spit it out and returned the stopper.
"You should be ashamed of yourself," she scolded. "This is just a cheap distillate colored with berry juice. How many of these fakes have you sold to people?"
"Now, now, now, there's no reason to get upset," Perry said hastily. "I tell you what, you can have that stuff for free. Let's just keep this thing between the two of us. No need to ruin my reputation over one bad acquisition, now is there?"
"Do you promise to stop selling these fake medicines?"
The merchant nodded vigorously. "Of course, of course. I'll have an apothecary examine the entire stock once I get into town."
Teresa looked at him dubiously, but accepted his promise, claiming a handful of choice items. Ignatiy was next.
"I'm looking for alchemy reagents," the firebug said.
"What are you looking for?"
"Charcoal, brimstone and saltpeter," Ignatiy replied. "As much as you have."
"The charcoal is common enough," Perry said, "but brimstone and saltpeter aren't so easy to come by. I do have a little though."
Rummaging through his pack, the merchant handed over three bags to Ignatiy, two particularly smaller than the other.
"What do you need those for?" Mark asked.
"They're the ingredients of the black powder in my bombs," Ignatiy replied as he examined the contents of the pouches. Looking into the smallest one, he sighed softly. "I wish he had more saltpeter..."
Mark paid Perry for the reagents and looked around one more time to see if anyone else wanted anything. No one else made any requests, so Perry began to put his wares back in his pack. The group's coin pouches were much lighter, but they felt like they had made a good exchange. Perry bowed to them and gave his words of parting.
"This is goodbye until you're ready to make another good buy!"
The merchant disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. Mark looked at the stack of new clothes and then to Ignatiy and Adrienne, both covered in all manner of dirt and grime from their long imprisonment.
"Would you like to wash up before changing?" the swordsman asked. "We're not far from the creek."
"But it's so cold!" Ignatiy exclaimed. "I'll freeze!"
"We crossed the river ourselves not but a few hours ago," Mark said. "Don't worry. We'll have a fire waiting for you when you're done."
Ignatiy looked at the women suspiciously and then to Mark. "They won't look, will they?"
"Relax, Stick," Sonia said. "You've got nothing that interests me."
"What she means to say is there's nothing to worry about," Mark said. To Adrienne, he added, "We'll do what we can to protect your modesty."
"I'm not shy," Adrienne said bluntly, "but I'm not in a bathing mood either. I was on the crews that dug that trench and I'll be damned if set foot in it again."
Mark had no intention of compelling Adrienne, not that he thought he could even if he wanted to. That only left Ignatiy.
Taking ahold of Mark's sleeve, Teresa said, "He's too weak and too thin to go into that water. His body can't take that kind of stress."
"What if we brought water from the creek and heated it with the fire?" Mark asked.
Teresa nodded. "That should be okay. I ought to examine both of them while we're here. Who knows what the dungeon has done to them?"
"I'll pass on that one, too," Adrienne said.
"You mustn't be like that," Teresa said. Acting in her role as a healer had a way of making her more assertive than usual. "You could be sick or have an infection. If you're not treated as soon as possible, you could die."
Adrienne rolled her eyes. "After twelve years of rotting in that damn dungeon, I should be so lucky," she growled. "I don't need your help, nor do I want it." Dropping her hostility, Adrienne slickly shifted into a vaguely seductive posture, standing contrapposto while she slowly ran her hands down her sides. "As eager as you are to get your hands all over me, I'm afraid I'm going to have to turn you down, precious."
Teresa's cheeks flushed and she turned away in embarrassment. Adrienne laughed, and not in a kind sort of way. Mark would have upbraided her for tormenting the novice, but he doubted it would do any good. Leaving her alone seemed to be the best course.
The group did not have anything convenient for carrying water, so Mark acquired everyone's waterskins and heated them up to be used for Ignatiy's bath. In keeping with the firebug's request, the women sat a short distance away while he bathed. Because he was too frail to clean himself all on his own, Mark had to help him (as no one else would). He sincerely wished Ignatiy would let Teresa assist. As a professional nurse, she was very efficient, something Mark knew personally from his days of recovery in Eagle.
While he was warming himself by the fire, Ignatiy shaved off his beard, which made him look even gaunter than before. Before he got dressed, Teresa came forward to examine him. With only a simple wrap around his waist, the skittish firebug resisted, relenting only after Mark's tireless entreaties to cooperate. In her healer mode, Teresa was both swift and thorough. Mark did what he could to help, even if that involved nothing more than making sure Ignatiy sat still.
"How is he?" Mark asked.
"He's terribly malnourished," the novice replied. "I've never seen anything this bad before. I thought 'skin and bones' was just an expression. I'll have to monitor his diet closely for the next few weeks. You need to help me make sure he doesn't eat anything besides that. As hungry as he may be, his body can't handle very much right now."
"But I'm so hungry," Ignatiy whined.
"You'll get food," Mark assured him. "She just wants to be careful. Listen to what she says and you'll be better before you know it."
While Teresa was looking at the undersides of Ignatiy's feet, she continued, "There are some minor cuts and scrapes, but nothing too bad. I see some old scars, but nothing too recent. I'm surprised it isn't worse than this."
"They never wanted to play with me," the firebug said in grim humor. "There was always someone else to keep 'em busy. I think they forgot about me."
"That's a blessing, I'd say," Mark replied.
After Teresa treated his minor injuries, Ignatiy was free to get dressed. His clothes, which would have comfortably fit a normal man his height, were hopelessly baggy on his skeletal frame. Mark had to cut a new notch in the firebug's belt just so it would fit snugly around his tiny waist.
It was already getting late by the time everything was said and done. Given Ignatiy's delicate condition, and quite possibly Adrienne's as well, they decided to simply set up camp for the evening. The next morning, the group resumed its journey. With new allies and fresh supplies, they were ready to meet the challenges to come. Their new destination was Sandstone, the lost port of Gladius.