The men that faded from the trees were tall, strong, and brutish, completely unlike the average willowy Forellian. Although these men wore common Forellian garb to blend in, they wielded heavy weapons typical of a Korelian—axes, broadswords, meteor hammers. Still, they managed to be surprisingly quiet, which one wouldn’t expect from such men with such weapons. The Korelians were trained to be both strong and sly. This was one reason why no one trusted them and the two bordering countries of Forellia and Korelia had been unable to agree to a treaty for the last hundred years.
It took only seconds for the Korelians to slink from their shadows and surround the prone forms of Joshua and Celeste. On their leader’s orders they were not to kill the sleeping figures, only capture. The horses whinnied and stomped, fear of these men with metal making them prance away from the figures. The horses’ neighs awakened Joshua, who saw the tall shadows surrounding him and leaped to his feet, only semi-conscious, reaching for his bow as he tried to separate dream from reality.
“No, no,” said the Korelian quietly nearest him as he leveled a broadsword at Joshua’s neck. Joshua slowly released his bow, silently cursing himself for being so careless. He had thought they were safe so close to Juroosh, and he had been so caught up in his thoughts during the day that he hadn’t noticed he and Celerest were being followed.
Celeste awoke at the man’s muttered words and had a reaction similar to Joshua’s. Scowling, she dropped the dagger she had drawn as she took in the ten men with heavy weapons that were angled at them.
Joshua, having seen Korelians more times than he would have liked in his excursions into their country, recognized them immediately for who they were. “What is this?” he growled. A man strode from the trees. He wore better clothes than the others and had lanky black hair to his shoulders. He was large and squarish and held himself with authority. This man was obviously the leader. Joshua repeated his question to him.
“Let us first start, shall we, with introductions,” said the man. His voice was deep and quiet. He seemed like the type who usually got what he wanted, perhaps leaving a few corpses in his wake to acquire it. “I should like to know the name of the one,” he continued, “who sneaked into our country undetected, infiltrated a highly secure treasury, stole a stone belonging to the king, and escaped without being caught.”
Joshua paled in the dim fire’s light. Somehow they had found him. He always thought deep down that this would eventually happen, but he never suspected he would be captured on his way back home! The Korelian’s words, as fearful as they were, did provide him with a bit of hope, though. The man had said “a stone belonging to the king” as if he didn’t know its purpose. Perhaps he did not know what Celeste was. “So,” Joshua replied, “you managed to find me. How did you do that?”
“Ah, you are good at hiding your tracks, but we are better at tracking them. I found your trail and followed it into this cold county. Of course, once we reached town there was no way of knowing who you were so we spread out and become part of Juroosh, easily fooling your people into thinking we were just as they,” the man bragged. “Then the night you and the girl,” he flicked his hand at Celeste, “began talking of a ‘package,’ Alexius” he clapped one of his lackeys on the back, “was there and heard the whole conversation up to the two of you walking out the door of the inn. He then, of course, came to find me.”
Joshua’s mind flitted back to that night and remembered the few drunkards at the bar. Examining ‘Alexius,’ Joshua recalled the brutish man there, sitting in a corner on a stool, glancing back at them when their voices had become raised. Joshua could kick himself for letting this happen.
“I see,” Joshua said. “Very clever of you.”
With a tilt of his head as acknowledgment, the man said, “Now, what is your name?”
“Joshua Reed. And yours?”
“I am called Kailak.”
Joshua nodded, “Nice name, especially if you like kale. So what happens now?”
“Now you give me the stone.”
“And if I do, what happens to us?”
“Why,” Kailak replied, “we let you go, of course.”
Without doubt, this was a lie; however, Joshua thought it may play in their favor if he acted the fool. “And you won’t hurt us? We can take our horses and go?”
Celeste stared at him. “You can’t believe him, surely.”
“Why not? If we give him the Stone, he has no reason to keep us.” He cut off Celeste as he looked back at Kailak. “Ok, I’ll give you the Stone.” Celeste stared in confusion. Hadn’t Joshua told her over and again that the stone was incredibly important? Then Joshua took a pouch from his pocket, a pouch identical to the one around Celeste’s neck hidden under her blouse. Joshua was gambling with their lives. He knew Kailak wouldn’t release them, but would he kill them or take them back to Korelia? This, Joshua did not know. Korelians didn’t like to kill women (although they would if they needed to) so there was a chance Celeste would be safe either way. Joshua was the one who stole the Stone, and if he was right, these men had been told to retrieve a valuable gem without being told what it looked like or what its purpose was. If he could convince them the large opal he had in this pouch was the stone they were looking for, perhaps Celeste would have better odds of getting away with her life.
Joshua held the pouch in his hand a moment, looking at it, then reluctantly tossed it to Kailak. Kailak emptied the pouch’s contents onto his palm, revealing a rainbow colored oval opal, roughly the color and size of the Prophecy Stone. The opal was a flashy jewel that was very expensive. Joshua had brought it, along with several other gems, with him when he had left Forellia to travel to Juroosh. The other stones he had already traded for valuable items or information or had used for bribery, but he had kept the opal in case he needed it for an emergency such as this. As a smug smile spread on Kailak’s face, Joshua was glad he had kept it.
Now was the moment of truth. What would Kailak do with the two of them?
“Tie their hands,” Kailak ordered. “We’ll drag them behind the horses.”
“Please,” Joshua said, “you said you’d let us go. At least let Celeste go! She had nothing to do with any of this. She’s no threat to you!” Kailak didn’t bother replying. He turned and disappeared into the woods. The other Korelians grabbed Joshua and Celeste before they could try to escape. The Korelians searched them for any hidden weapons and tied their hands together so tightly that Celeste cried out as the rope bit into her wrists. She bit her lip to keep from making any other sounds.
The men bridled Nutmeg and Amos and, after one of the ten retrieved the Korelians’ horses from the trees, tied Nutmeg and Amos to their own horses. Then, taking the other end of the ropes tied to Joshua and Celeste, they attached them to the horses so the two of them were forced to walk behind the horses, pulled by their wrists after them.
The Korelians began on a southern path through the woods. Joshua and Celeste trudged behind and tried not to trip as they were pulled after them through the darkness.
“What are we going to do? For what purpose could they possibly want us?” Celeste whispered to Joshua in between breaths.
“I’m not sure yet,” Joshua replied. “They probably want to publicly execute me for trespassing into their country and stealing from the king. This, of course will be their excuse to start war with Forellia. I don’t know why they want you. It may be because you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Celeste yelped as the horse they were tied to jumped over a log, yanking her forward. There was blood on the rope binding her.
“I don’t suppose you feel any magic you can blast these brutes with, do you?” Joshua whispered to Celeste once they could walk at a normal pace again. Celeste just gave him a look. “Yeah,” he said, “I didn’t think so.” He glanced at her fearful expression. “It’ll be ok, Celeste,” he told her. “I’ll think of something. We’ll be ok.” Her eyes glistening, she gave a curt nod, and the two of them focused on keeping up with the horses.