Poison Study Page 34

My southern route was an obvious direction, but I didn’t plan to maintain it for long. I hoped the soldiers would assume I was headed straight for the border. The castle complex was in Military District 6 and quite close to the southern lands, wedged between MD–7 to the west and MD–5 to the east. The dead King, who had built the complex, had preferred the milder weather.

Alternating between jogging and walking, it wasn’t long before I entered Snake Forest, avoiding Castletown. While studying some of Valek’s maps the previous night, I had noticed that the forest surrounded Castletown on three sides. The northern district of the town faced the castle. Snake Forest also spread out to the east and west like a thin belt of green.

At the official southern border, Commander Ambrose’s soldiers had cleared a hundred-foot-wide swath from the Soul Mountains in the east all the way to the Sunset Ocean in the west. Since the takeover it was a crime for anyone, Ixian or Sitian, to cross this line.

I jogged through the forest, making a conspicuous trail. Breaking branches and stomping footprints in the dirt, I remained southbound until I reached a small stream. My hour head start was almost up. I knelt by the stream’s bank and reached into the water. Pulling out a handful of mud, I let the water drain through my fingers. I hunched over the stream and smeared the wet sediment on my face and neck. Since I had pulled my hair into a bun, I rubbed mud on my ears and the back of my neck. I hoped the men would guess I had knelt here for a drink. After stamping footprints near the stream’s bank to mislead my pursuers into thinking I had walked into the water, I traced my route back until I found a perfect tree.

About six feet from my path, a Velvatt’s smooth trunk rose high into the air. The first sturdy branch off the main trunk stretched fifteen feet above my head. Trying not to disturb the ground surrounding my scent path, I removed my backpack and pulled out one of the items I had borrowed from the blacksmiths. It was a small metal grappling hook. I tied it to the end of a long thin rope coiled inside my bag.

With my head start gone, a sudden image of guards and dogs exploding from the castle flashed through my mind. Hastily I threw the hook up to the branch. It missed. I caught it on the way down. Frantic, I threw the hook again. Missed. I calmed my raging pulse and focused on the task. The hook snagged the branch. Confident the hook was secure, I tied the extra line around my waist so it wouldn’t drag and put on my backpack. Grabbing the rope with both hands, I pulled my weight off the ground and wrapped my legs around the slack.

It had been a long time since I had climbed this way. All the way up the rope, my arm, shoulder and back muscles complained over my year-long inactivity. Once I reached the top, I straddled the branch and repacked the rope and hook in my backpack.

A strong breeze blew from the west. Wanting to stay down-wind of the dogs, I spent the next half hour climbing east through the trees until I was well away from my original path. For once, my small size and acrobatic abilities proved a benefit.

When I came across a Cheketo tree, I found a secure nook near the trunk and unslung my backpack. The Cheketo’s leaf was the biggest that grew in the Snake Forest. Its circular-shaped green leaf, spotted with brown, was perfect for my needs. I sat still for a minute, listening for sounds of pursuit. Birds chirped and insects buzzed; I heard the quick rustling of leaves as a deer moved. I detected the faint baying of dogs, but it might have been just my imagination. There was no sign of Valek. But knowing him, he had to be close behind.

Taking Rand’s glue from my pack, I stripped leaves off the tree. When I had enough, I removed my shirt and glued the leaves onto it. Feeling self-conscious in just my sleeveless undershirt, I worked fast.

I covered the shirt, then my pants, boots and backpack with leaves. Finally, I glued a large leaf onto my hair and two smaller ones onto the backs of my hands, leaving my fingers free to move. Rand’s warning that the glue only held for a week passed through my mind, and I smiled as I envisioned his reaction when he saw me walking around the castle with leaves attached to my head and hands.

I didn’t have a mirror, but I hoped I had camouflaged my entire body in green and brown. I wasn’t concerned with the small black patches that might show through; it was the bright red of my uniform shirt that would immediately give me away.

Too nervous to stay in one place for long, I continued to climb east as fast and quiet as I could. My eastern direction wandered. Since I was unwilling to let my scent touch the ground, I had to detour either north or south on occasion. My grappling hook and rope were employed many times as I used them to bring branches within reach, or to swing from tree to tree. My muscles protested the abuse, but I ignored them. Laughing to myself whenever I overcame a difficult hurdle, I enjoyed the pure freedom of traveling above the ground. I grinned as I sweated through the entire morning. Eventually I knew I would have to head south again because that was the only place a fugitive could find safety and asylum.

Sitia welcomed the refugees from Ixia. Their government had had an open relationship with the King, trading exotic spices, fabrics and foods for metals, precious stones and coal. When the Commander ceased trade, Ixia lost mainly luxury items while Sitia’s resources became limited. Worry that Sitia would try to conquer the north for needed resources had dissipated when the Sitian geologists discovered that their Emerald Mountains, a continuation of the northern Soul Mountains, were rich in ores and minerals. Now, it seemed, Sitia was content to keep a wary eye on the north.

Soon my climb through the trees intersected a well-used path in the forest. I saw deep wagon ruts in the hard-packed dirt. The road was probably a part of the main east-west trading route, which turned north for a few miles to detour around Lake Keyra before resuming its easterly direction. The lake was just over the border of MD–5.

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