“This is unconscionable,” said Raphe Faryndon. “I’m a captain of industry. I don’t hike through the wilderness.”
“Plenty of captains of industry are hikers,” said their new guard, who had introduced himself as Rambo but who reminded Wynefrede more of a low-rent Napoleon, with his bicorne hat, tight white pants and navy jacket.
Ranbo and his squad collected the two of them a few hours ago, gagged them, threw them in the back of a wagon, and took them out here in the middle of nowhere. They were now following a narrow trail through the woods. Wynefrede didn’t know what direction they’d gone in, just that, by the position of the sun, it was now somewhere in the middle of the day. At least she now knew if it was day or night. Stretching her legs was also nice.
“Warren Doors climbs mountains,” she said. “Eliza Bin was the first person to climb Mons Huygens on foot.”
“That’s the tallest mountain on the moon,” Rambo told Raphe. “And you’re complaining about a little walk in the country?”
“At least untie my hands,” said Raphe. “What if I trip and fall? I won’t be able to catch myself. I might get a scratch.”
“Oh, no, not a scratch,” said Rambo. “The horror! I’ll untie you right away.” But he continued to push the Raphe along without even slowing down.
“Well, I for one, am just happy to be outside,” said Wynefrede. “And out of that stupid dress. It was starting to stink.”
Their captors made them change into peasant clothing before setting off through the forest. She had been surprised at the shirt, though. It had an “Eat at McMeaty’s” slogan on it. “The McMost McMarvelous McMeats in the McMeataverse.”
She didn’t think that McMeaty’s even had a branch on Krim. She wasn’t a particular fan of the chain but after several days of bean soup, she was starting to get hungry for a burger.
“When is all this going to be over?” said Raphe. “If the ransom was going to be paid soon, shouldn’t we be back in the city, so you can give us back?”
“Stop asking,” said Rambo. “You guys should be grateful that you’re not on a ship to Lamacoln with all the vegetables.”
One of the guards walking behind them hissed.
“What’s Lamacoln?” asked Wynefrede.
“Just an expression,” Rambo immediately responded. “Just another way of saying ship to nowhere.”
“I’ve never heard that phrase before,” she said.
“It’s a Krim thing.”
“I haven’t heard it either,” said Raphe.
“You will if you hang around the grid long enough. Right, guys?” Rambo glanced back at his squad.
“Why not? I say it all the time.”
“See? I told you.” Rambo poked at Raphe’s back to get him to speed up. “We’re almost there.”
Wynefrede could see a break in the woods up ahead and soon enough they walked out onto the bank of a river, with a familiar-looking castle on the other side. “Is that…?”
“Sangeries Castle? I think so,” said Raphe. “We’re just seeing it from the other side.”
Wynefrede looked into the distance. Maybe she could see the outline of hills far behind it, but she couldn’t tell if they were the same ones they’d watched the battle from.
“It could be any castle,” said Rambo. “Most of the castles on Krim was created from the same model, to save money.”
“No, this is good news,” said Raphe. “It means we’re close to the city. They can get the ransom and take us back.”
A voice called out from behind them, and Wynefrede saw a helmeted head poke out from behind a tree.
“Sorry, guys, the cult’s still holding the castle,” the new fighter said. “They rebuffed our attack this morning. And they blew up the bridge on the other side. We had a second group crossing here, but they cut it down right as we were crossing. A dozen men perished.”
Wynefrede walked closer to the bank and looked over. The bank was steep and deep, at least sixty or so feet, with the river far down below. She couldn’t imagine armed fighters trying to climb down, swim across, then climb back up, all while wearing armor.
Rambo jerked her back by the chain around her waist.
“Don’t get too close,” he said. “You might fall in.”
“You’re going to have to keep going,” said the sentry.
“But the next waystation is, what?” Rambo looked back at his squad. “Two weeks away?”
The squad nodded.
“We don’t have the supplies to walk that far.”
“Send back word and have a wagon to meet you up ahead,” the sentry said. “We’ve got a couple of horses here. You can have a messenger take one. Meanwhile, you might want to move out of sight. Our camp is just up ahead.” He pointed back to into the forest, to where the path they’d been on continued to the north.
“Why?” asked Rambo when an arrow shot out from the castle. It whistled past him and through the neck of a guard behind him.
They hurried back into the woods, leaving the shot guard bleeding out on the bank.
The camp was right around a bend in the path and consisted of a fire, a couple of tents, and two horses eating grain from nosebags.
They could see signs of construction in a larger clearing in the woods a little further on. There were piles of boards and tree trunks stripped of bark and branches.
“What’s all that for?” asked Rambo.
“We’re going to build a bridge,” said the sentry. “Starving the cult out is taking too long.”
Rambo led Wynefrede and Raphe to a log by the fire and they both sat down.
Wynefrede immediately took off her boots. They were better than her dress shoes for hiking through the woods, but didn’t fit quite right. And instead of socks, they’d given her square pieces of cloth to wrap around her feet. She unwrapped the fabric squares and draped them over her boots to air out and dry by the fire.
“Maybe we could just stay here,” she said. “When you get word that the ransom is paid, you can take us back to the city.”
“No,” the sentry said. “Rodge wants these folks gone as soon as possible. The guild doesn’t want to be associated with you guys any longer than absolutely necessary.”
“But we had a deal,” said Rambo. “You got the weapons.”
“I don’t know about the weapons, but I think the deal is off,” said the sentry. “In fact, maybe you should start heading out now. We don’t want to be seen with you.”
“Hold on,” said Wynefrede. “Don’t make us go.”
“See? The lady wants to rest her feet.” Rambo settled down on the log next to her. The rest of his squad followed his example and arranged themselves around the fire.
“You can stay for an hour,” said the sentry. “Then the replacement crew gets here. You’ll have to be gone by then. But like I said, I can lend you one of the horses. That’s the most I can do.”
“We don’t have any supplies,” said one of Rambo’s squad members. “We thought we could count on you guys.”
“We’ll feed you now, and give you some food to take with you,” said the sentry. “It’ll get you to the highway, at least. You can have someone meet you there. That’s the best I can do.”
“But we can help,” said Wynefrede. “With the bridge.” She nudged Raphe in the side.
“Right,” he said. “We’re engineers. We can help you build the bridge. I just got my associates degree.”
“And Wynefrede handles aerospace engineering contracts all the time,” he added. “Right? You probably know something.”
“I have three PhDs,” she said. “Structural engineering, materials science, and aerospace. I don’t think the bridge you’re building is going to work. We can help.”