A long time ago, during the Pax Sankt, Lufilna would have celebrated the coming of spring in a patchwork, different times in different places, based on the sprouting of the villius flowers, which turned green and bloomed again after their winters’ hibernation all within a five-day period.  Since this would happen at different times in different parts of the continent, each town and village would celebrate the official coming of spring at a different time, based on when their particular villius flowers happened to bloom.  As towns grew larger and developed into cities, they would all keep at least one villius bush planted safe within their walls; it became a sort of symbol of life and prosperity for the city to which it belonged.  Most cities still have their villius bushes, although not the same one after so many centuries.  The Corbs could even trace the ancestry of their bush all the way back to the first bush they had planted when theirs was a city of only a few dozen people, little more than a military outpost.

               Such chaos had been unacceptable to the Blood Empire, which instituted a system of measuring the coming of spring based on the length of the day, in the same fashion as the winter and summer solstices were marked; by decree of their emperor, spring would be marked upon the day that was equal parts day and night.  This was an especially holy day to the Blood Empire, for its very overt expressions of the universe’s balance, and this is likely why the official coming of spring was not marked by any major celebrations amongst the people of the modern Merolate Union, although the practice of marking it upon the equinox did continue.  In a peculiar merging of the two traditions, it is now considered a sign of peculiarly good fortune for the year ahead if the villius bush in the heart of Merolate City happens to bloom on the precise day of the equinox.

               All of this historical significance was unknown to Kiluron, as he had ignored Doil’s most recent recitation of ancient history behind a shield composed of a heady concoction of pleasant daydreams and abject terror, and even if he had known it, any anthropological significance was far, far less immense than the overwrought concern to which he was presently subjecting himself at the prompting of a single world scrawled on a piece of paper.  In a mere matter of the span of this morning, if it had not happened already, Lady Fetrina would be arriving in the city for the express purpose of embarking upon a picnic with him.  It made his decision to fight demons in Heart City look like a conservative one.

               “You really should try to stop fretting,” Doil admonished, snatching a cloth napkin from Kiluron’s unsteady fingers, where it had been in danger of becoming a tragically brilliant knot, and smoothing it back out into crisp folds.  “You’ll be far less likely to make a mistake if you’re relaxed.”

               If anything, Kiluron’s agitation increased.  “This is supposed to be reassuring?  How is this supposed to be reassuring?  Doil, I’m going to mess this up entirely.  I’ll, I’ll, I’ll forget the sandwiches, break the glasses, spill the wine on myself – or worse, her – it’ll be a terrible mess, I just know it.”

               “Just take a deep breath,” Doil suggested.  “You can tell me all about how wonderful it was, doubtless ad nauseum, when you return.”

               “Why would I need to?” Kiluron asked.  “You’ll be there.”  He sighed, and tossed another napkin back into the pile.  “That’s probably my only consolation.  You’ll keep me from making too much of a fool of myself, right?”

               “I’ll what?”  Doil had frozen in the act of turning back to his book, and now turned to look at Kiluron again.

               Kiluron looked at him quizzically.  “You’re chaperoning for Fetrina and I, remember?”

               “Er, since when?” Doil coughed.

               “Since I had this harebrained idea that you somehow failed to talk me out of…” Kiluron hesitated.  “Oh no.  Did I forget to tell you?  I would have sworn I told you.  I definitely told you…”

               Doil shook his head.  “Definitely didn’t tell me.”

               Hesitating, Kiluron opened his mouth, closed it, cocked his head, and opened it again.  “Oh dear.  Uh, you’re supposed to chaperone for Lady Fetrina and I today.  I thought I asked days and days ago…”

               Doil sighed, and placed a cloth bookmark into his book.  It was a thinner one than he often had with him, and it was with some relief that he found it fit in his pocket.  He picked up two other, thicker ones from the pile sitting beside him, and plopped them into the picnic basket that Kiluron had been preparing.  “Fortunately for you,” he grumbled, “I was primarily planning to study today.  But you can carry that basket, not me.”

               “Deal!” Kiluron exclaimed.  Then he put a hand on Doil’s shoulder, his face growing serious.  “Really though, thanks.”

               Offering a half smile, Doil gathered up his cloak and slung it over his shoulders as he headed for the door.  “You’re welcome.  But don’t thank me yet; you haven’t picked up that basket.”

               “What?”  Kiluron tossed in the napkins, double checked that everything else he needed was already present, and flipped down the wicker lids.  Seizing the handles, he went to lift it, frowned, put his other hand on the handles as well, and heaved it up with a groan.  “My goodness, how much do those books of yours weigh?” he asked as he staggered for the door.

               “Knowledge, they say, is a very weighty thing,” Doil remarked, and together they headed for the stables.

               To Kiluron’s relief, he was soon able to pass the basket off to the stable hands, who secured it in his horse’s saddlebags; he thought he could see the horse groan in complaint at the treatment, and he patted its neck in sympathy.  Fastening his cloak at his throat, he glanced at Doil, and then swung himself up into the saddle.  Doil did the same, clamoring up a moment later with rather less agility.  Though his horse was smaller than Kiluron’s, Doil still seemed small perched on its back.  Kiluron nodded to the stable hands, and then flicked the reins, sending the horse trotting out towards the city street.  Then they were on their way towards the city gates.

               Instead of its usual calm, Kiluron’s horse seemed skittish and buzzing, prancing about as much as walking, though Kiluron stroked its neck and murmured to it.  Glancing behind, he caught Doil smirking at him, and frowned.  “What?” he asked.

               “You’re making your horse nervous,” Doil observed.

               “Am not,” Kiluron retorted.  “I don’t know why it’s acting skittish today.”

               Doil snorted.  “I’m sure it has nothing to do with sensing the tension in the rider.  That couldn’t be the case.”

               “What are you implying?” Kiluron demanded.

               “I’m not implying anything,” Doil replied, all innocence.  “I’m merely observing that if even I can tell you’re nervous and agitated, it must be especially obvious to your horse.  And probably everyone else, since I’m notoriously poor at reading emotions.”

               There was a long silence.  “You’re imagining things,” Kiluron declared, looking back suddenly.  Besides, warhorses were trained not to flinch in a bloody, chaotic charge; certainly a ride through the countryside wouldn’t phase the animal.  Then again, Sub-Primes were trained similarly.  Doil just raised his eyebrows.  “Imagining things!” Kiluron insisted.

               “Whatever you say, my lord,” Doil answered blandly.

               Kiluron huffed, but turned his attention to navigating the somewhat crowded streets leading towards the gates.  It was an overcast day, dreary and threatening rain, but it had so far stayed dry, and at least it was relatively warm, so long as one stayed out of the wind.  In his imagination, he had assumed that this would be a beautiful, classic spring day, with bright sunshine and verdant greenery abounding, but of course he was not so lucky.  Maybe, if things were not going well, he could say it smelled like rain and use it as an excuse to end the picnic earlier.

               Just a few hundred paces beyond the city gates, Lady Fetrina was waiting on a dappled grey mare, just off of the main road.  She had her head down, so that at first Kilruon thought she had nodded off for a quick nap, and worried that he had somehow mistaken the time, but then he realized that she was simply bent over a book that she had propped open on her saddle horn.  Squeezing his horse into a canter, Kiluron approached her, Doil riding along behind him.  She looked up as he reined in, bringing his horse up beside her; Doil lingered behind, keeping a discrete distance, and Kiluron appreciated his tact.  Doubtless Doil would grumble about being forced into this chaperone role, especially at the last minute, but he would support Kiluron in the moment.

               “Lord Kiluron, you are looking well,” Lady Fetrina remarked, nodding her head to him from atop her horse.  She snapped her book shut and tucked it into her saddlebags.

               “Uh, thanks,” Kiluron fumbled for words.  “So do you?”  That should not have come out as a question.  “So do you,” he repeated, more firmly.

               Smiling faintly, Fetrina gestured towards Kiluron’s saddlebags.  “I hope you’ve brought food with you, because I’m quite famished.  Do you know how muscularly challenging it is to ride a horse in a ladylike fashion?  I would have worn divided skirts, but my maid assured me in no uncertain terms that doing so would be terribly inappropriate on such an occasion.”  She fluffed out her dress, which was awkwardly puffing out around the saddle.  “Hmph.  I hate riding sidesaddle.”

               Kiluron swallowed.  “Well, uh, there’s a nice hilltop, not too far off the road.  I figured we’d have a bit of a bite there?”  Now why had he gone and said something as ridiculous sounding as ‘bit of a bite’?  He never spoke like that any other time.  “If you’d like?”

               “That sounds lovely,” Fetrina affirmed.  She gestured expansively.  “Lead on, then.”

               For another moment, Kiluron hesitated, wondering if he was doing something wrong or if there was some other, probably obscure protocol he ought to be following, but then he shook himself and squeezed his horse into a walk, heading away from the road.  Soon, they had passed the edge of the forest, and the budding branches went a long way towards relieving the general dreariness of the day.  Although hie kept nagging at himself to come up with something interesting to say, and trying futilely to calm his prancing horse, he found that there was a certain pleasantness about simply riding through the woods with Fetrina, although knowing that she did not enjoy riding this way put something of a damper on his own enjoyment.

               “Not too much further,” he assured her, unprompted.

               “Hm?” Fetrina asked, distracted.  “Oh, that’s good.  Sorry, I was just thinking about…something.”  She seemed like she was going to say more, but she cut herself off and flushed slightly.

               “What were you thinking about?” Kiluron asked, hoping that it was not obvious he dreaded the answer.  Not for the answer’s sake – he enjoyed, at least in small doses, the way Fetrina could go on and on about the topics that she thought at such length and in such detail about – but for having to come up with his own response to that answer, which he knew would never be able to adequately keep pace with the conversation.

               “Nothing important,” Fetrina demurred.  “It was just an idle fancy.”  She trailed off, seeming to have uncharacteristically run out of things to say.

               “Hm,” Kilruon grunted, but did not press the matter, instead urging his horse slightly faster.  They would reach the hilltop soon, and that would be a relief.  At least while they were eating, he could reasonably fill his mouth with food instead of the words that he could never find.  For some reason, Fetrina was not providing her usual, steady flow of conversation, and it worried him.  Perhaps he had somehow offended her.  Before, he had not realized how much he had relied on her ability to fill entire conversations while he simply listened.

               After a bit more riding, the trees thinned, and then faded entirely to an open, grassy hilltop.  The grass was still mostly brown and dormant, and the trees had only the tinniest of leaves, but the sun was struggling valiantly in an attempt to pierce the cloud cover, and it was passably warm on the open hilltop as Kiluron brought his horse to a stop, Fetrina reining in beside him and dismounting with a sigh.  Kiluron did the same, digging out a blanket, and then the basket of food.  “Here we are,” he affirmed.

               “Thank goodness,” Fetrina asserted.  She rubbed her hands together, and settled herself on the blanket Kiluron had spread.  “What have the Merolate servants put together for our little picnic?”

               After Kiluron had pulled out Doil’s heavy books and handed them off – Doil took them with a wry smile, and then retreated to the edge of the woods, found a fallen log, and plopped himself down to read for the duration – he dug out sandwiches, and wine.  There was also cheese, and even fruit, though it was shriveled and dried from its time in the cellars.  He dolled out the provisions, and settled down as Fetrina began to eat slowly and deliberately, her eyes seeming elsewhere.  After a moment of watching her, Kiluron turned to his own food, chewing long and thoughtfully.  Something was off, but he wasn’t sure what to do about it.

               He had almost finished his sandwich when he put it down and looked at Fetrina.  “Did I do something wrong?” he asked, deciding that he might as well be blunt.

               Looking up guiltily, Fetrina frowned.  “What?  No, of course not.  Why would you say that?”

               “Um, you’re not saying anything,” Kiluron noted.  “You haven’t made one comment about the best way to measuring the official start of spring, which Doil swore would be a topic of conversation, never mind that I didn’t do a very good job of listening to his explanations.  You haven’t even remarked upon the food, which you’re eating with about the same gusto as those mechanical devices we examined in the gatehouse during our walk.  And you keep looking like you’re about to burst, and then not saying anything.”

               “Oh.”  Fetrina hesitated, and sighed.  “Is it that obvious?”  At Kiluron’s nod, she sighed again, looking frustrated.  “Sorry.  I’m not good at this, I guess.”

               Kiluron frowned, confused.  “At what?”

               “At being a proper lady!” Fetrina explained.  “I’ve been informed that if I talk too much and read too much, I’ll intimidate you, or bore you, or both, and that I should talk less so that you have time to talk.”

               Kiluron stared at her.  “Talk about what?” he asked.

               Fetrina flung up her hands.  “I don’t know!  Yourself?  Merolate politics?  Hitting things?  Drinking?  I don’t know!”

               This, Kiluron considered, was decidedly not what he had expected.  “I mean, I guess I could try, if that’s really what you want.”  He frowned.  “But I’m really not thinking I have anything interesting to say.  You have so much more interesting things to say.”  He blushed.  “Even if I don’t understand at least half of it.”

               At this, Fetrina blushed.  “I’m sorry.  I guess I’ve already proven I’m not good at this.”

               “What?” Kiluron asked.  “No, that’s not what I meant at all.  All I meant was – “ he broke off, cocking his head, listening.

               “What?” Fetrina asked, but Kiluron shook his head, his eyes darting around the clearing, looking.  “Oh no, you’re having a feeling again,” Fetrina remarked.

               Kiuron managed a short laugh.  “It’s just that I don’t hear the birds anymore,” he explained.  “So no, not just a feeling this time.  I have evidence!  And that evidence gives me a suspicious feeling.”

               Now Fetrina looked around, too, but she saw nothing out of the ordinary.  “Maybe the birds just moved on?  Could be the weather.”

               “No,” Kilruon shook his head absently, preoccupied with trying to take in his surroundings.  The clouds had drifted over the sun again, making it dim and chilly, and it looked even more like rain than it had before.  “It usually means there’s a predator, or a person, moving about.  The woods are too still and silent now.  It’s not natural.”

               Fetrina pursed her lips.  “It could just be the natural ebb and flow of forest sounds,” she proposed.  “I’ve noticed that in a room containing multiple conversations, the total volume tends to fluctuate in what I suspect is a sinusoidal pattern of some fashion, although I’m still not sure why…” she trailed off at Kiluron’s head shaking.

               “Doil,” Kiluron called.  “Would you be a good servant and give the horses some exercise?”

               Reluctantly looking up from his book, Doil paled.  There were a handful of code phrases that Kiluron and Doil maintained for emergencies; taking the horses for exercise while on the road was one of them.  Kiluron just hoped that in this case he was being paranoid..  “Alright,” Doil said, sounding reasonably casual.

               That message delivered, Kiluron turned back to Fetrina.  “When I say ‘Vere’, I want you to pretend to swoon, or faint, or something.  Okay?”  He said it bent towards her, whispering as if they were sharing some secret.

               “Okay…” Fetrina did not look convinced, but she kept her doubts to herself.

               Kiluron nodded, and laughed loudly.  He was trying to sound natural, and failing miserably.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he remarked, still unnaturally loud.  He thought he caught a glimpse of someone crouching in the bushes.  “Of course I’m a better swordsman than Vere!”

               When Fetrina flopped stiffly to the ground, her eyes fixed on Kiluron, he leapt to his feet, his sword coming out of its sheath in the same, smooth motion.  The gleaming, steel blade glinted dully in the overcast light, and he turned slowly, looking around the whole clearing.  Despite his care, he almost missed the first sight of a man rushing from the underbrush.  Kiluron whirled to face him, raising his sword, when a net of black cords that smelled sour tangled over his sword arm and whirled him around.  He reached for his dagger to try to cut himself free, struggling with his captor, as more men rushed in from all around the hilltop.  Then he froze.

               “I’d not resist, if I were you,” a scarred, pockmarked face spoke from behind him.  The hand associated with it was similarly marked, and it held a dirty, iron dagger against Fetrina’s pale throat.  “Unless you’re wanting this pretty little lady to be wearing pink.  If you catch my meaning.”

               For a long moment, Kiluron glared at the man.  In the distance, he heard a horse scream, and then another, both abruptly cut off, and he hung his head, dropping his dagger.  “You win,” he conceded.  The brigands closed in, someone knocked him on the back of the head, and everything went dark.

               Fumbling with the knot holding the horses, Doil tried to keep half an eye on what was happening on the hilltop with Kiluron and Fetrina, but his hands were too unsteady, and he had to turn his concentration to his own actions.  If he could get away, get to the road, then he could ride hard for Merolate and have an entire company of guards chasing down these brigands before evening.  If he pushed the horses hard – his thoughts were interrupted when he noticed a dark figure in the brush not far from him, who had not yet noticed him because he was hidden by the bulk of Kiluron’s warhorse.  Suppressing his fear, Doil slipped his belt knife from its sheath and hacked through the ropes tying the horses in place.  The warhorse stomped, the brigand looked over, and sprang upright, cursing and yelling, upon noticing Doil.

               Panicking, Doil heaved himself awkwardly into Kiluron’s saddle even as he flicked the reins and kicked the horse erratically, spurring it into a canter.  Another brigand had appeared, and they rushed at Doil, but Kiluron’s warhorse lashed out with iron-shod hooves, downing them, and then was racing off into the woods, with Doil clinging desperately to the creature’s back and trying not to be torn off by the low-hanging branches that seemed intended for the purpose.  His own, smaller horse was struggling to keep up.  Two more brigands burst into their path just as Doil thought he’d caught a glimpse of the forest’s edge, and the metallic twang of a crossbow snapped loud in Doil’s ears.  Kiluron’s warhorse reared as Doil’s horse crumpled, pierced straight through.  Another twang sounded as Kiluron’s warhorse tore through the two brigands, knocking them aside; it slowed, took two more steps, and then Doil had to leap away as the massive horse crumpled.  He felt his ankle turn as he landed, and suppressed a curse as he scurried into the underbrush, fighting to keep his breathing even.

               The brigands, knocked aside by the warhorse, were disoriented as they climbed to their feet, giving Doil a few extra moments of confusion in which to make good on his small amount of luck.  The underbrush was not as concealing as it would be later in the season, but it was tight and low to the ground, and Doil did his best not to disturb it as he crawled along on his belly through the stiff, cold mud.  He wasn’t sure how long he crawled, but when he had not heard any signs of pursuit for some time, he dared to come to his feet, finding that his ankle had not been as badly injured as he had thought, and then he ran until he found a tree he could climb that would offer some modicum of both protection and vantage.  Only then did he allow himself to take a deep breath and begin to take stock of his situation, even as his body trembled in reaction to the events of what had been intended to be a peaceful afternoon.  Though he would never have admitted it to Kiluron, he had actually appreciated the excuse to read his books in fresh air and some modicum of sunlight for a change.

               His plan to return to Merolate, gather a company of guards, and charge off in search of Kiluron and Fetrina was ruined, he was forced to admit.  Even under the best circumstances, Doil considered his sense of direction to be questionable, and it was useless after a disorienting flight by horse, followed by hectic crawling and running through a tangled, pre-spring forest where most of the trees still looked damp, dark, and skeletal.  He wasn’t certain he could find his way back to the hilltop, which was probably nearer, much less find his way to the road back towards Merolate.  He would have to rely on the fact that there were guards who knew where they had gone, and that people would come searching when Kiluron failed to return by evening.

               It still seemed unimaginable that there could be such a large force of outlaws so close to Merolate City.  Doil knew that such rough men tended to move closer to the cities in the later days of winter, becoming more brazen as they became hungrier and more desperate, but to be so close to Merolate itself meant they had been notably successful at avoiding the frequent patrols that rode out along the road and consistently patrolled the entire, outlying area.  Since the Pax Sankt hundreds of years ago, every government knew that maintaining safe and well-kempt roads was key to a nation’s economic prosperity, although not all were equally adept at implementing policies to that effect.  It was also terribly audacious of them to have attacked a party bearing the Sub-Prime’s sigil.

               Most likely, there would be a ransom request, but Doil did not trust ransom requests.  It was one thing for a nation-state level adversary, like Rovis, to capture someone of importance during a border skirmish or other incursion and demand a ransom, and quite another for the request to come from outlaws and ruffians.  These were, as had been established, desperate men, and desperate men are dangerous, unpredictable men.  Doil wondered if they would even dare to attempt a ransom request, or if they would determine it to be safer simply to dispose of their prisoners.  No, waiting for and paying a ransom request was unacceptable, at least to Doil’s mind.  So, too, was doing nothing; he would not be content simply to wait for Merolate soldiers to arrive and solve the problem for him, not with Kiluron and Fetrina in danger.

               Running into danger with sword swinging wasn’t in his purview, even if he had been in possession of such a weapon, so Doil tried to apply reason.  He knew that the outlaws had to have some kind of hidden camp or base; just out and about in the forest would be too close to civilization, and they would have long since been noticed and the problem addressed.  They could not have travelled far, since he had not seen evidence of horses, and travel in the winter was difficult, especially without significant supporting resources.  The most likely answer, then, was that they had a cave or other, natural shelter of some kind that would keep them from being easily stumbled upon by patrols or other parties.  As Doil recalled, caves were not uncommon in this part of Merolate.

               In fact, he remembered looking at a geographical map with Borivat, and the older scholar explaining that the porous rock that made the soil outside Merolate so rich for forests and farmland also made it susceptible to caves and caverns and other subterranean formations.  The map had depicted a complex, semi-connected network of underground passages and chambers that had been mapped over the years, as much through hearsay as through direct investigation.  Some of them were probably even the same caves counted twice, but Doil recalled that many of the entrances connected distantly to other outlets.  If the outlaws were truly using a cave or caves as their base of operations, then Doil might be able to find them from an alternate entrance.  Then, he’d just have to free Kiluron and Fetrina, and sneak them back out through the cave-maze.

               Perhaps that last was an optimistic application of the slippery slope fallacy, but he thought that he could handle the first part.  Nature followed patterns, and humans disrupted those patterns.  It wasn’t so obvious in an open space, but in a closed system like a cave network, the effects of prolonged human residence in one part would, in theory, be detectable in another part.  Or at least, that was his supposition, and it seemed better than sitting in a tree waiting for someone to find him, or wandering around the forest in the hopes that he found guardsmen and Merolate, and not more brigands.  Shimmying down from the tree, Doil set out in search of a cave entrance.

               Life would be better, Kiluron reflected, if he could rub the back of his head where someone had hit him with the pommel of a dagger to knock him unconscious.  It would be better not least because that would mean that his hands were no longer bound by thick, rough, dirty ropes, and that he was no longer a prisoner to a band of brigands, half of whom seemed too weak to even pick up their assorted disreputable weapons.  If he’d been by himself, he might have even tried to make a run for it.  There was only one guard watching them at any given time, and the one right now was rather weak and sickly looking.  The others were all sleeping, save one more keeping watch at the entrance to the cave.  But he didn’t know what to do about Fetrina, and he didn’t dare do anything that might put her at further risk.

               They were discouraged from talking in the certain terms of prods with weapons in uncomfortable places, so he couldn’t know what she might have been thinking, beyond what he could glean from her expressions.  For the most part, she looked remarkably composed, although she seemed diminished; he could tell that she was worried, her usual perky enthusiasm quite absent, and her apparent confidence gone.  Kiluron knew he needed to get them both out, somehow.  So far, the outlaws had given no indication of what they intended to do with their new prisoners, although Kiluron had declared his position in no uncertain terms and threatened all kinds of punishments upon them, as was necessary for his role.  It had produced little effect.  For all their earlier violence, there was a listless, directionless quality to these men.

               If he was going to attempt to escape, this was the time to do it, with most of the men asleep and only this one guard to overpower, assuming he could do it quietly.  Glancing towards Fetrina, Kiluron poked her with his bound feet, and her eyes snapped immediately open: not sleeping, then.  He tried his best to communicate his intentions to her with contorted facial expressions, but she just looked at him, her brow furrowed in confusion, so he would just have to hope that she would act when the time came.  The night was not going to get any deeper, and he didn’t want to stay here through another day.  There were doubtless guardsmen out searching for him, if only they could escape and be found.

               “Hey,” Kiluron called softly, making his voice break, and gesturing towards the guard.  “Hey,” he repeated.

               The guard frowned, looking around warily, and came a few steps closer, his sword held defensively.  “Shut it, lordling,” he muttered.

               Kiluron rolled his eyes in overt exasperation.  “Water,” he croaked, pitching his voice too quietly to hear.  “Just need some water.”

               “What?” the guard asked, leaning in by instinct to better hear.  His sourness and surliness had not faded.

               In response, Kiluron smashed his forehead into the guard’s nose, and then snapped his tied wrists over the man’s head, twisting about to get the thick knot right over his windpipe and leaning back, squeezing with all his strength.  The man struggled, but Kiluron was bigger, stronger, and better trained.  To his relief, Fetrina had squirmed forward, and caught the guard’s sword before it could clang on the ground.  Over the snoring of the other outlaws in the cave, the scuffle was nearly inaudible, and though the few people stirring made Kiluron nervous, no one woke, and the guard was soon unconscious.  Releasing him, Kiluron turned to find that Fetrina had already used the man’s sword to free herself of her bonds, and she did the same for Kiluron.

               Taking the sword, but pressing the guard’s belt knife into Fetrina’s hand, Kiluron began to pick his way as quietly as he could towards the cave entrance, Fetrina following in his footsteps.  He thought they were going to make it, as sweat prickled on his forehead despite the cool dampness of the cave, when he saw the guard from the entrance coming back into the cave.  They locked eyes across the dozen sleeping bodies, and Kiluron watched in semi-frozen horror as he saw the guard’s lungs begin to inflate to shout.  He made to charge forward, hoping to get across the room before the rest of the brigands could gather their wits and stop him, when Fetrina tugged on his arm.

               “They’re escaping!” the guard from the cave entrance shouted, and the cave erupted in chaos.  But these were not trained soldiers, and they were bleary, slow, and disorganized as they roused.

               “This way!” Fetrina hissed, grabbing him by the sleeve again and tugging him backwards.  Kiluron hesitated, then followed her.  As far as he knew, they would only end up trapped against the back of the cave, but he decided to trust that Fetrina had noticed something he hadn’t.  At least if he put his back to the wall, he couldn’t be flanked.

               People were shouting, but Kiluron turned away from the noise long enough to see Fetrina disappear behind a boulder that didn’t seem large enough to hide her, much less both of them.  Kiluron blinked, and hesitated, but when a burly man pushed to the front of the awakening brigands, brandishing a huge axe that looked more suited to cutting enormous trees than young men, he followed where she had gone.  To his surprise, he found a dark crevasse in the rock where the cavern wall met the floor, and was able to wriggle his way into it.  His foot slipped on a ledge, he felt the skin on his hands and arms tear against the rough stone, and then he was tumbling down into darkness.

               He landed with a shallow splash, and no amount of blinking made his surroundings any less pitch dark.  Something soft wrapped around his right hand, and he nearly lashed out with the sword he still retained, but Fetrina whispered into his ear, and he forced himself to relax.  Still holding onto his hand, she guided them along a low path that sloped gently downward.  The stone was so close on either side and above that Kiluron kept brushing his shoulders against it; it was damp and faintly dirty.  Soon, the tiny sliver of light from the chamber they had left behind, and the noise of its enraged occupants, had faded.  Kiluron could not tell if any had tried to follow them into the darkness, but he had to assume that some had.  They hadn’t all been too large to fit.  At some point, the ceiling grew even lower, and they were forced to crawl along on hands and knees, their fingers growing numb in cold, running water up to their wrists.

               There was no way to know how long or how far they had crawled, although it felt like an eternity, when Kiluron sensed more than felt Fetrina shuffle-crawl to a stop just ahead of him.  The darkness was so thick it felt like it was physically pressing against his eyeballs, and it took an effort of will to keep himself from just closing his eyes.  Maybe that would have been better.  “Do you think we’ve lost them?” Fetrina whispered.  Her voice was jarring in the cave’s quiet emptiness.

               “I don’t know,” Kiluron admitted.  “I think so.  Don’t know how anyone could track us in the dark down here, and I don’t see any torches or lanterns behind us.”  His voice sounded close, like he was speaking into a thick hood wrapped only around his head.  Actually, it would have been easy enough to track them in the dark – there hadn’t been any branchings – but convincing that lot to do it would be a different matter.

               Fetrina sighed in relief, sitting down against the rough wall despite the dampness that soaked through her dress.  “Good.  I don’t know how much more crawling I could manage.”  Her voice sounded strained, but Kiluron wasn’t sure what comfort he could offer.  He had no idea where they were, or how to get out.  The only thing he could think of was to eventually go back the way they had come, and hope that the outlaws moved on before he and Fetrina starved to death.  It wasn’t much of a hope.  Otherwise, they could only head deeper into the caves, and that was the last thing Kiluron wanted to do.  He thought he’d rather be stabbed by brigands if there weren’t Fetrina to consider.

               “Then let’s rest here,” he decided.  “It’s got to be wee morning, maybe even getting towards dawn.  Things will look better when we’re not so tired.”  Perhaps that had been a poor choice of words – nothing looked like anything in this absolute darkness.  “I’m sorry this has been such a disaster.”

               In the darkness, Fetrina found his hand and squeezed it, startling him so much he hit his head on the ceiling, compounding the knot that was already there.  Once she had smothered the worst of her laughter, she squeezed his hand again, to less dramatic effect.  “I don’t blame you for this,” she promised.  “I just hope we can find a way out.”

               “Me too,” Kiluron agreed.  He found himself already beginning to nod off to sleep.  “Me too…”

               If there had been enough light by which to see, Fetrina might have watched Kiluron sleep.  Not for very long, of course – that would be awkward – but it would have been comforting to see that he was sleeping soundly, despite all of the chaos and danger.  Or maybe because of that – the body released all kinds of signals in the face of danger, and there was significant evidence to suggest that easing down from that peak of awareness could lead to exhaustion and a commensurate lack of awareness.  Whatever the case, Fetrina found herself quite unable to so easily slip into slumber, although she was completely exhausted.  Not just a little exhausted, but a kind of exhausted that she didn’t think she’d ever before experienced.

               Her grip on the dagger Kiluron had pressed into her hands was convulsively tight; the knuckles would be white, if she could see them in the cave’s impenetrable darkness.  She didn’t know what she was going to do with it, but it provided some comfort just to have it, a physical talisman of her ability to exercise some level of control with the world twisted all about and backwards frontwards.  It took a profound effort of will for her to convince her hand to loosen on the weapon, although she was careful not to drop it, even after she realized how terribly her hand was aching from the tightness of her grip.  That seemed a strange thing to focus on, with her wrists and ankles raw from rope, her palms abraded from the stone, several unpleasant lumps on the head, and her dress so soaked with cold cave water that its volume was pressed tight to her, and the slightest breeze set her to shivering uncontrollably.  There had to be a way out, but her mind just kept going in the same, infernal circles of fear.  Any way she jumped was darkness, with no escape.

               At least there was no sign of pursuit.  She had not been entirely sanguine about Kiluron’s determination to escape, rather than waiting for a ransom effort, but there hadn’t exactly been a chance to discuss the matter in a reasoned fashion, and she had to admit that it was a relief to not be tied up and surrounded by such rough men.  Her imagination provided her with all kinds of horrors that could have ensued, and she swallowed, blinking in the cave’s heavy darkness, and forced the images away with cold logic.  Rational philosophy had the potential to explain everything about the world; surely she could use it to understand her present circumstances in a rational light.  She almost chuckled aloud at her mental word choice, there in the complete and utter darkness of the cave, and had to pause, take a deep breath, and pinch the skin of her wrist hard in an attempt to keep herself under control.  The tiny burst of pain helped, but she was so numb with the cold that it was not as satisfying as it usually was.

               There was no retracing their steps, not with the brigands behind them.  It was fortunate that they had not decided to follow her deeper into the cave.  Fetrina had only known it was there because she had felt the breeze stirring forth from the opening while she had been tied up and lying on the floor.  As far as she had been able to tell during their frantic crawling, there had been no branchings to the current tunnel, save for where it extended back past the opening they had first used, going in the other direction.  Both directions had appeared to slope downward, but in the darkness, she knew that was only a very limited view.  So, although they were not precisely lost, she also knew of no viable path by which they could emerge from the cave and back into the sunlight.

               Panic menaced her again, so Fetrina began to make a list of everything she could think of about the caves outside of Merolate.  She knew that the caves were formed because the relatively soft stone was mixed with much harder stones, resulting in irregular erosion and complex cavern networks that typically followed the sedimentary stratum.  She knew that caves did not gain or dissipate heat very effectively; they tended to maintain a steady temperature throughout the year, regardless of the temperature outside.  Whether the dead of winter or the peak of summer, caves would feel like a chilly, spring day.  Except when they served as a vent to the inner furnaces of the planet, but that was a very different kind of cave; she did not think that the caves outside of Merolate went so deep.  All of which was well and good, but did nothing for her efforts to find a way to navigate the cave and find another exit.  She knew that one should exist, at least, but not where, nor how to go about finding it.

               One piece of navigation knowledge she identified was that the new, magnetically based navigation devices that were beginning to proliferate tended not to function properly in caves, pointing in odd and erratic directions instead of steadily north, but that information was less than useless.  They didn’t even have such a device with them.  It wasn’t enough just to choose passages that trended generally up; caves like this were too erratic for such a plan.  Every idea, every fact she managed to remember, seemed either irrelevant or plain useless.  She smacked her first against the ground in frustration, feeling the little splash of water from the subterranean creek of sorts that had been accompanying them through the passage, and paused.  The caves were mostly formed by water…so they should be able to follow the water.  That would, in theory, at least take them to larger passages, and then they might find somewhere more to go.  Only when she had at least that tiny scrap, a fragment of a plan, was she able to drift into a restless sleep.

               Standing on the bank of a raging, subterranean river, Doil held up his makeshift torch as high as he could, casting the light all about in an irregular, distorted hemisphere.  Even so, he could not see the distant ceiling, although he could make out a few places where the stalactites stretched down like massive canine teeth.  A little way upriver, back the way he had come, he could still hear the raging waterfall cascading out of its narrow passage and out into this larger flow.  In places near the stone bank, he thought he could actually see erosion happening, although he knew that was just his imagination.  Even water moving as fast and violently as this would take hundreds and thousands of years to appreciably erode this part of the cave, which seemed to be a tube of hard rock, a granite or similar material.  All of the softer, sedimentary rocks had been long since stripped away by the raging river.

               Looking the other way, downriver, he thought he could squint and make out where the cave began to narrow again, the ceiling lowering and becoming more like the other passages through which Doil had already crawled.  He could see other openings, too, scattered across the walls like the entrances to catacombs, many of them too high for him to reach.  Even when his torch began to sputter, Doil kept it up and kept it lit.  He had been careful to conserve his small supply of makeshift torches while he was in passages without branches and in which he could reasonably make his way by touch, even though the darkness was so intense it felt like it was actually pressing on his eyeballs.  In this larger river valley of sorts, he needed the light to navigate, or at least to choose where he was going to look next.

               It would not have been precisely accurate to say that he was lost.  He was fairly certain he could find his way back the way he had come, retracing his steps to go back to the tiny crack in the forest’s floor that had, after significant wriggling on his part, disgorged him into the cave complex and set him on the path that eventually brought him to this riverbank.  Crawling out of that same entrance would be challenging, but not impossible.  His problem was that going back was not his goal.  He needed to be moving forward, and forward needed to be towards signs of human habitation, as he had determined to do.  The problem was that he had not found any so far, and there were a lot of passages leading to this riverway from which he now had to choose.  Making a choice by random guess was hardly Doil’s style, but he wasn’t sure what other methods he could use.

               His only real criterium was that he should begin moving upstream, but since it seemed that almost every drop of water that he could see was converging on the river by which he stood, that was of little help in narrowing his options.  It took his torch guttering again, and nearly going out, to prompt him into a decision.  He crossed the raging torrent as carefully as he could, managing not to fall in, and clamored into a roundish passage a little wider than he was.  It would mean crawling for awhile, but the force of the water coming out of it suggested it was larger further back.  Doil’s torch was extinguished in the process of his climb, but once he was inside, that didn’t matter; he would navigate by touch.  He returned the torch to the bundle on his back, glanced useless back once the way he had come, and then crawled on across the rough, wet stone.

               Doil didn’t generally consider himself the adventurous type, but he found that there was a certain something exciting about exploring the cave, even if it was for a decidedly concerning purpose – and he still hadn’t figured out exactly what he would do even if he managed to find the brigands who were holding Kiluron and Fetrina captive.  It was like having a window into the colossal forces that helped shape the world, being able to experience an environment that was almost alien.  He had seen a handful of fish swimming in the subterranean river: they had no eyes and were pale to the point of translucence.  There had been a handful of crabs, too, with similar coloring, except they glowed in the darkness with a surprisingly bright, bluish glow.  They were creatures that were, while familiar, also utterly alien, almost more so for their initial resemblance to more common species.  It made Doil wonder if they featured in any of the zoological reference books in the Merolate library, or if these were species not heretofore categorized by scholars.  Had he not been worried about Kiluron, he might have stopped to somehow obtain a specimen or two.

                Something wet and heavy brushed against his hands as he crawled, and Doil yanked away, startled and wondering what strange creature was grabbing at him.  In the total darkness, sensations and emotions seemed amplified, so that he swore he could hear the pounding of his heart as it raced in response to his jolt of fear.  Then he felt the same heavy wetness thump against his legs, and he realized that whatever it was simply moved with the current, and seemed inert.  Perhaps it was plant life of some sort, but Doil found himself curious.  He trapped it against the ground with his boot, and prodded it with his knife.  He considered breaking out and lighting another torch, but that seemed wasteful.

               To his surprise, he realized after a few prods that the object was not a plant or animal at all, but a fragment of rope, with a knot still in it, though it was badly frayed, as if it had been cut with a poorly maintained blade, dull and pitted.  That realization washed away his fear with a wave of excitement: he could not imagine the odds against him having happened to stumble across such an artifact drifting along on the current that was precisely for what he had been searching: a sign of human presence in these caves.  There was no way to know how long it might have been drifting, or if it belonged to the brigands, but it was more of a lead than Doil had possessed before, and it lent him greater speed and conviction as he resumed crawling up the tunnel.  Perhaps his poorly thought-out plan would prove fruitful, after all.

               More than once, Kiluron wanted to simply leave his stolen sword behind as he and Fetrina crawled down an apparently endless, wet, cold tunnel of bumpy stone that seemed determined to stab him.  Tiny stalactites in the ceiling tried to chew at the back of his head, and tiny stalagmites in the ground masticated his palms and knees.  Or was it the other way around – he could never remember which was which.  Fetrina would probably know, but she had been silent since they had woken up and decided they had better get moving, and Kiluron wasn’t sure what to say to her.  She had rather abruptly informed him that they needed to follow the water downstream, to see where it was leading, and thus find larger and more varied passages that could lead them to the surface again, and then gone silent.  Kilruon didn’t know if he had done something wrong or what, but he certainly didn’t know what might help.  Meanwhile, his sword awkwardly smacked against the ground with each movement, and he swore the echo could probably be heard through the entire cave system.

               At least the water seemed mostly clean.  It had not made Kiluron sick yet, anyway, and he had drunk quite a bit of it; he found that a stomach full of water kept him from thinking about how hungry he was.  Fetrina had been more hesitant, but eventually had sipped from the cave stream, as well.  Then more awkwardness had ensued when nature inevitably called.  It would have been awkward if they had been alone, since there was no room to stand up or really assume any position besides crawling or sitting, and it was made twice so by their enforced proximity.  At least the total darkness meant there really could be no privacy concerns, although that did little to make Kiluron feel less embarrassed, and he suspected that Fetrina had taken little comfort from that knowledge, either.

               Some light would have been nice: Kiluron had not realized how much he could miss light.  It had seemed simply an inconvenience at first, and since there were no branches and the tunnel kept gradually narrowing, there was little real need for it, but light would have made a huge difference in his outlook, and not just in being able to have an outlook.  In the total darkness, it felt like they had been crawling for an eternity, without making the slightest progress, like they were just moving through an interminable black tunnel to nowhere, or like the tunnel was moving with them, so that they never got any nearer or farther from either end.  He wanted to shout in frustration, just to prove that he was still alive, and that he still existed, and yet he wanted to let the silence reign, because noise seemed an offense in this part of the world, and there was no way of knowing what might respond.

               There was something ahead of them.  Kiluron could tell, he knew it the way that he knew his own name, but he could not explain it.  When he tugged on Fetrina’s ankle to get her attention, he almost received the attached foot in the face, before she realized it was him, and stopped; he could tell from the rustling of cloth that she had turned to face him.  Glad that he had managed to avoid receiving a broken nose, Kiluron gestured with his head in the direction ahead of them, from whence he thought the noise, or whatever it was that had alerted his instincts, might have come, but then realized that Fetrina would not be able to see such a gesture.

               “I think there’s something ahead of us,” Kiluron hissed as quietly as he could.  Fumbling in the darkness, he found Fetrina’s face and put his lips right by her ear.  If whatever was ahead was hostile, perhaps it had not heard them yet.  No point in taking unnecessary risks.  “I should go first; I have the sword.”  Saying that made him somehow more aware of the crippling darkness.  It was difficult even to express just how complete the darkness was, how oppressive it often felt.

               He felt Fetrina nod against his face, and then they shuffled about, awkwardly crawling over each other, with many half-suppressed grunts and inhalations and much rustling of cloth, until finally they were in their new positions, with Kiluron leading and Fetrina following.  At least this way, Kiluron would not have to worry about accidentally stabbing her with his awkwardly carried sword.  If whatever ahead was hostile, he did not relish his chances of actually being able to apply his sword effectively.

               In the time it took them to switch positions, the tickling of the senses Kiluron had felt had resolved itself into noises echoing up along the tunnel’s length, scraping noises and heavy breathing that ominously filled their ears after the passage’s near total silence.  Kiluron began to crawl forward, and winced when his sword banged loudly against the stone, pausing to lift it up and try to find some better way of carrying it.  Ahead of them, the noises had stopped at the ringing of Kiluron’s sword, as if listening.  The visions in Kiluron’s head provided all kinds of horrors that might be waiting for them, but he swallowed.  Going back wasn’t a good option, either.  Better to press forward.

               “It’s heard us, now,” he warned Fetrina, not bothering to be quiet anymore.  “I’m going to charge ahead as fast as I can, maybe catch it off guard or something.  Maybe you’ll be able to sneak past.”

               It was not a very good plan, with low odds of either of them surviving their encounter with whatever subterranean beast lay ahead.  Somehow, perhaps from some rustling of cloth, Kiluron heard Fetrina hesitate in the darkness, then she leaned in and kissed him.  He wasn’t sure where she had been trying to kiss him, but it ended up being the bottom of his earlobe; he froze, flushing deeply, glad that the darkness hid his embarrassment.  Fetrina had yanked back immediately, and seemed to be torn between giggling and crying.  “Don’t die,” she whispered.

               “Do my best,” Kiluron answered, and set off as fast as he could down the passage, no longer concerned about his sword banging against the stone.  Perhaps if he made enough noise, the creature ahead of him would be frightened and leave.

               Fire erupted out of the darkness, the light sudden and blindingly bright; Kiluron skidded to a stop, throwing up his arms to ward his eyes against the violent illumination, cowed and terrified by this unnatural inferno as if he were nothing more than a wild animal, to be turned back by the fires of mankind.  His sword, dashed against the ceiling, shattered, the hilt clattered from his fingers, and he turned his head away, unable to confront that glaring conflagration.  Doubtless it would come to him soon; perhaps it was a dragon that lived in these caves, or a reclusive witch.

               “Kiluron?” a familiar voice asked from behind the wall of fire.  “I say, is that you, my Lord?”

               Slowly, Kiluron turned his face back towards the conjured flame, squinting through his warding fingers.  “Doil?” he asked, his voice unsteady and wary.  “What foul trick is this?”  But the burning was diminishing, or rather, his eyes were adjusting, and as he continued to squint and peer with great trepidation towards the dragon ahead of him, the raging torrent of fire diminished to a simple, makeshift torch, and a shadowy form beyond it.

               “No trick.”  Doil’s relief was heavy on his voice.  He sounded a little unsteady.  “I can’t believe I actually found you.  The odds against…”

               “Blood and Balance, it is you!” Kiluron exclaimed, barreling down the passage and nearly getting a torch in the face as he swept Doil into an awkward, hunched embrace.  “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see such an ugly face in my life.”  Then he pulled away, embarrassed, and his mind already working ahead.  “Unless…please tell me you’re not lost, too.  What’s going on?  Why are you even here?”

               Doil was beaming, although his face was still pale and grimy in the harsh torchlight.  “Long story, my Lord.  I couldn’t get back to Merolate, so I decided to come and rescue you.  But yes, I do know how to get out of these caves.  Is Fetrina with you?  Oh, good, there she is.”  Fetrina has crawled into view, realizing from the voices that this was not, in fact, a cave dragon ready to consume her and Kiluron.  “Come on, let’s get out of here,” Doil urged.

               “No need to tell me twice,” Kiluron declared, and he followed Doil back down the tunnel, keeping quiet so as to not give away the size of the lump in his throat at Doil’s miraculous rescue.

               Five days later, Kiluron reclined in his rooms, stretching from the day’s exertions.  It had been immensely satisfying to put the last of the brigands to rot in Merolate’s dungeons; he had convinced Vere to allow him to ride out with a company of guardsmen and round them up.  He had written Fetrina as much, and promised her that their next picnic would be a little less adventurous.  Every time he thought of her, his lower earlobe burned from her brief kiss, and he only hoped she wouldn’t decide that seeing him again could be inviting a similar disaster.  It certainly seemed that every time he attempted to advance their courtship, his plans went terribly awry.  First there had been a poisoning, then he’d had to leave her to go see a guy burst into flames, and now they had been captured by brigands and spent at least a day crawling through pitch black caves.  Still, he’d sent her flowers.

               “I would have gotten out, you know,” he remarked to Doil, who was reading in his accustomed chair.  “I was moving in the right direction.”

               Doil looked up, smiling wryly.  “Of course, my lord.  I’ll remember that for next time.”

               Kiluron blanched.  “Oh no, that’s not what I meant.  I’m grateful you came.  I’m just saying.  I would have found a way out, for Fetrina and I.”

               “Of course, my lord,” Doil replied.  He paused, and caught Kiluron’s eye.  “But really, I’m glad that I came in after you.  Those caves were academically fascinating.  In fact, I think I may have found dragon bones in there.”

               Kiluron’s eyes could not have been wider, though he quickly got his expressions under control.  His voice was shakier than he would have preferred, though.  “Dragon bones?” he repeated.  “That’s really not funny.”  When Doil offered no repudiation, Kiluron hesitated.  “Tell me you’re kidding.  Dragon bones?  The dragons are a myth.  Maybe, once upon a time, they existed, but not in modern times…”

               “I mean, I suppose I could have made a mistake.  I’ve never seen dragon bones before, and I was in kind of a hurry to come and rescue you,” Doil considered, “again.”

               Kilruon threw a throw pillow at him – they were called throw pillows, after all; it seemed an appropriate application – and groaned.  Somehow, he doubted he was going to hear the end of this episode from either Doil or Fetrina any time soon.

The end of Blood Magic S1:E10: Blossoming. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: part 1 of the season finale will go live on November 30th, 2020.

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