Gregory was modestly relieved the next morning when it became clear that his new captors were actually intending for him to be treated as a guest, though one lacking total freedom. They didn’t force him to travel with them, but they also didn’t offer him a chance to leave.
They actually didn’t seem to care much about him at all; they had the Prince of Comer, and that was all that mattered. Gregory was just extra baggage. Not that freedom would have mattered either way to Gregory at this point. Within a day of marching through the forest he was totally lost, unsure even which direction led back to the road where they had been attacked. As far as he could tell, they seemed to be meandering, with no clear destination, but he knew better.
Even the fanfare that they had captured a Prince died almost as soon as it built up. At first everyone was watching Bryce in mixed awe and disbelief, but when they saw that this mythical enemy was a tired and scared boy who seemed resigned, they paid him no more mind.
Even his guards were disinterested, forcing him to walk behind them and dragging him by a rope. The Prince, too, soon became no more than extra baggage for the soldiers.
Gregory knew who their captors were; he had been confident in his guess when they were taken, but now that he could see them in full daylight his guess was confirmed. A rival nation to the East called Otagin. Years earlier, this land had belonged to them, but the Comerians had forced their way into the territory. The Comerians had won a bloody war years earlier and signed a peace accord.
It looked like peace had just ended.
They camped in a wooded clearing for the night. They light a few fires, but too few for everyone to be warm, so he was left out in the cold. He considered leaving at one point, but the posted guards gave him a few glances and he decided it was a bad idea. It looked like Mahkinson didn’t quite trust him yet.
They started early the next morning and set a quick pace. Gregory was growing more and more disparaged by the fact that they were heading east, the opposite direction from where he wanted to go. There was nothing he could do to change course.
He thought of searching out Mahkinson to try and converse with him, but the leader disappeared early that morning with no explanation. They offered Gregory food and water, but no one would converse with him in the common language.
As the day dragged on, he wondered what would happen if he just turned and walked the other direction. Would they stop him? Would they kill him? He didn’t know, and wasn’t willing to risk it yet. By the third day of hiking, he broke down and decided to try and find someone to talk to. He made his way up the line of marching soldiers and occasionally asked someone if they spoke his language.
Few of them made eye contact, and of those none offered any response. The most frequent expression he saw was annoyance, with anger a close second. He was an outsider, not worth their time.
When he reached the front of the line he saw Bryce. The pPrince’s uniform was bloody and ripped from the hike. Two soldiers flanked him, and he looked miserable and uncomfortable, but more dignified now.
Bryce was the only person Gregory might be able to talk to, but he might jeopardize himself if he tried to communicate with a prisoner. After all, he had allied himself, in word alone, to the Otagin.
Then again, it was Mahkinson who Gregory had spoken with. Maybe the guards wouldn’t care if Gregory spoke to Bryce. At the very least, he had no way of knowing without trying, and trying to communicate with someone seemed less likely to cause problems than trying to escape.
Gregory thought about it and decided, for better or worse, to talk to the Prince. He didn’t want to wait around for the Otagin to decide his fate, and worst case scenario they would force him away from the prisoner. He closed the last twenty feet between him and the Prince slowly, lest he look suspicious.
When he finally fell into step beside Bryce, he stared at the forest in front of him and tried to keep his voice low.
“Hello,” he said. One of the guards walking in front of him glanced over his shoulder, but only for a second. He didn’t seem interested. “I’m not an assassin,” he explained, wondering if this was a wasted venture.
“I know,” Bryce replied. “If you were an assassin, Farin wouldn’t have risked keeping you alive. You were to be hanged as an example, if Farin had his way.”
“Farin was your Captain?”
“He was the leader of the Guardsmen in Comer. One of my father’s personal bodyguards.”
“He wanted to kill me as an example for you.”
Bryce spared a glance to the side, a slight smile on the edges of his lips. “Don’t worry. Farin wouldn’t have had his way. Not once we arrived in Mulrich. I would have persuaded by father to release you, and Farin couldn’t object. He is much too protective of me.”
“With good reason,” Gregory said, nodding his head toward the guards in front of them. “He wanted to protect you from this.”
Bryce didn’t immediately respond, and they walked in silence for several minutes.
“They intend to sacrifice me,” Bryce said, with only a trace of despair.
“You are worth more to them than as a sacrificial lamb,” Gregory offered. Even to him, the levity seemed misplaced. “I’m sure they will end up killing me, too.”
“Then leave. They won’t stop you, and I can create a distraction if you think it’s necessary.”
Gregory thought for a moment then shook his head. “I couldn’t make you risk yourself and then leave you here to die. Besides, I could never find my way out of this forest anyway. I’m a terrible navigator.”
A slight smile curled at the edges of Bryce’s lips. “I hoped you wouldn’t take me up on that offer.”
“So we both die here anyway?” Gregory asked
“I myself am an excellent navigator.”
It took Gregory a minute to catch on, and another minute to realize that his mind was already working on a plan to escape. Or maybe he had one all along, and it was only now coming from his subconscious to conscious mind.
They walked in silence. Gregory noticed that the guards were paying more attention to them now, and he knew that he wouldn’t have much more time to speak to the prince before they forced him away.
“One guard stays awake to watch you at all times. When I motion to you tonight, lead him into the forest as far as possible to relieve yourself.”
“And then what?”
“By then I’ll have a plan,” Gregory replied, and slipped away from Bryce, falling in line with another pair of guards. They ignored him and now that the foreigners weren’t communicating everyone relaxed again.
His mind was jumbled with information, and he tried to figure out what to do. If he disappeared in the night, alone, they probably wouldn’t follow him. Or they might decide to kill him just to make sure he didn’t warn anyone about the captured Prince.
If he tried to get Bryce free and escape with him, he would have a better chance of making it to civilization; but they would definitely chase him, and then summarily kill him if he was caught.
And what if Bryce was lying, and was only using the navigation excuse as reasoning for Gregory to risk his life? His third option was to do nothing, but then he would be entirely at the mercy of the Otagin with no idea of what lay in store.
Once he made the decision to help Bryce, he realized that his mind had already pieced together some of the details of a plan. He needed something that was quick and efficient with only minimal supplies if he was to break Bryce free.
If only he had taken the dagger…but no, he had no intention of killing anyone either way. After all, Bryce was the only other person who spoke his language, and Gregory wasn’t willing to brave the wilderness alone.
Sentries were posted in the woodland around the outside of the camp that night, but they were only interested in guarding the exterior. They were more worried about being attacked than a prisoner trying to escape, and the only people that had Bryce’s attention were his immediate guards. Everyone else went about their duties in a methodical and practiced manner. This lax attitude would play into Gregory’s favor.
The first guard lay down to sleep as the other kept watch on Bryce. On the first night with the Otagin, Gregory learned the watch rotation: in the woods, and it was exactly the same as the Comerians: they traded every four hours, and the guards watching Bryce traded after six.
Exhausted with hiking all day, everyone trusted completely in the sentries keeping lookout. After only an hour, the only people still awake were Gregory, the guard watching Bryce, and the three patrolmen walking the exterior of the camp. Even the pattern of their walk was predictable, and Gregory knew that he would have no trouble slipping into the woods without them noticing.
Gregory waited until around three hours had passed before he stopped pretending to sleep. He yawned, stretched, and slipped to the outside of camp to urinate, then looked into the forest around him. On schedule, one of the sentries cast him a glance—the man looked exhausted, Gregory saw—then continued walking. Gregory might as well have been alone.
He searched the sleeping guards around his feet. Most of them were carrying rope, so he just needed to find one that didn’t store his rope too close at hand. It didn’t take long, and after a moment of finagling he managed to procure a twenty foot length of rope out of a sleeper’s haversack. This rope was thick and strong, but pliable. It would do what he needed with perfect precision.
Easy enough, he thought, but knew that was a lie. He was terrified, worried that at any second he would be caught and killed. His legs felt like lead and he couldn’t hold a coherent thought in his mind for longer than a few seconds. Everything felt and sounded surreal.
No turning back now. He held the rope tight to his side and made his way to Bryce’s position. He started manipulating the rope into a lasso, making sure to form the knot exactly as his father had taught him. It took another ten minutes to catch the prince’s eye.
Bryce nodded, then stretched and motioned to the guard with his manacled hands. The man seemed annoyed, but didn’t object when Bryce stood and started walking into the forest. They disappeared into the foliage, and Gregory thought again of how arrogant these men were.
If he were in charge of this camp, he wouldn’t allow a prisoner to step to the edge of the camp, manacles or no. No sense cursing good luck. Gregory waited, and then silently followed them.
He ducked behind a tree and waited as a sentry passed. The sentry glanced at the escorting guard, yawned, and was on his way again. Gregory moved closer to the pair, his newly fashioned lasso at the ready. He would have to be quick, getting the lasso tight before the guard could shout.
He had very little slack in the line, and was afraid the circle wouldn’t even fit over the man’s head. So many things that could go wrong, and yet now he was too deep in to change his mind. He dispelled his doubts and worries. They were far enough that a struggle might not reach the camp, for which Gregory would have to thank Bryce, but a scream for help would be more than enough to ruin any escape.
Gregory heard the sound of his breathing, seeming loud enough to wake the entire forest. He was less than a dozen feet away. The guard sat facing away from Bryce, and seemed on the verge of dozing off. The rope connected to Bryce was tied around his wrist, keeping Bryce nearby and unable to slip away.
Gregory took a deep breath and wiped the sweat from his palms: now or never.
He rushed forward and slid the lasso tightly over the surprised guard’s head, down to his neck, and yanked it tight. He put his knee into the man’s back and pulled as hard as he could. The guard reached for his neck, gagging and sputtering, and tried to hook his fingers under the rope. Bryce was there in an instant, using the manacles to hook the man’s arms and force his hands down.
The struggle seemed to last an eternity, but doubtless it was less than thirty seconds before the man stopped sputtering and twitching and fell limp.
Gregory laid him down gently on the ground and slid the lasso off. His arms were shaking as he untied the rope from the guard’s wrists, and he handed the now free end to the prince. The only sounds of breathing came from him and Bryce. They exchanged a glance, and then started moving silently into the woods away from the camp.
Gregory felt lightheaded and dizzy. The guard wasn’t breathing.
Sure, they were free, but he hadn’t intended to kill anyone. He shuddered and forced himself to keep walking. Just walk. Stop torturing yourself, just walk. There was no sense worrying about what was past, and now he worried that the sentries would discover something amiss and catch up to them.
Bryce seemed to have the same fear and maintained a rapid pace. Once they were a few hundred feet away they started jogging, avoiding trees in the night. Gregory’s eyes adjusted, but he still stumbled as he tried to keep pace.
“What now?” he asked once they were about a half mile away. He was still only willing to whisper.
“I thought this was your plan.”
“Mine ended at killing the guard.”
“He isn’t dead. You didn’t hold the rope long enough. He might even have woken up by now to warn someone.”
“Then we better hurry.”
Bryce nodded and kept moving. They came to a shallow river and looked both up and downstream. After contemplation Bryce jumped into the water and started wading to the middle. Gregory climbed in after him, and to his surprise watched as Gregory started trekking upstream.
“We aren’t crossing?” he asked.
Bryce didn’t answer, and Gregory reluctantly followed him. They waded in the river for miles, and by the time Bryce exited on the far bank it was near morning. Gregory was exhausted and collapsed to the ground.
“We need to keep moving,” Bryce said.
“I need a minute, at least,” Gregory said, panting. Adrenaline had long since worn off and now he wanted nothing more than to sleep. Bryce hesitated, and then sat next to Gregory on the ground.
“I appreciate what you did for me, risking yourself.”
Gregory hesitated. “I almost killed him.”
Bryce shook his head. “If anything, we almost killed him. But he isn’t dead.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because neither of us wanted him dead. It takes a different kind of person to actually finish the job.”
Gregory winced, but didn’t speak. His memory raced and he felt his heart thudding into his chest. He had killed someone before, accident or not. That was the reason he was in Comer to begin with. Gregory was a murderer.
He forced the thought away. Maybe he was a murderer, and maybe not. He honestly didn’t know. But he did know that this was neither the time nor the place to have an internal debate. This moment was about survival. Neither spoke for a few minutes, and both felt the oppression of silence. They didn’t like being alone with their thoughts.
“We hear stories, you know,” Bryce said, forcibly breaking the silence, “about brave heroes that fight for justice, slaughtering almost everyone they meet. But think about it: imagine if every time you found a criminal, you killed him. And every time you met someone not your same race, you assume he’s a criminal and kill him. You have to be a psychopath to do that.”
Gregory chuckled. “What about during war?”
“War is a special case,” Bryce replied, “where everyone gets to pretend to be a psychopath.”
After the words were spoken, he fell silent, brooding. Something Bryce said ended the conversation. Bryce stood and started walking away from the river, and Gregory wordlessly followed him. They walked in silence, listening to nature until they were certain there was no pursuit.
“When we reach Mulrich I will remain outside while you procure food and supplies. We can’t risk anyone recognizing me,” Bryce said. Gregory didn’t reply. “Once we arrive at the Capital City I will slip in unnoticed and clean up before speaking to my father. I know a blacksmith who will remove these manacles, and he will be discreet.”
“Why? What’s the point in remaining hidden?”
“This will end in bloodshed, if anyone finds out I was captured by the Otagin. My grandfather told me about the wars when he was a child. He was never scared of the enemy; he was scared of his own people. They slaughtered the Otagin without mercy. I won’t let that happen again.”
“Someone will find the caravan,” Gregory noted.
“By that time, I can have any story ready that I want.”
Gregory was surprised by Bryce’s attitude. He had heard great things about the young and intuitive prince, but to actually see him ready to defend the people who planned to kill him was altogether different.
“You want to protect the tribes from being slaughtered by your people.”
“Partly,” Bryce replied. “More importantly, this isn’t a war I believe we can win.”
They spoke only sparingly for the next few days as they traveled. Bryce knew a lot about the forest, and he foraged for enough food that they were able to stay healthy on the road. If there was pursuit, it never came close enough to cause them worry.
They slept little, determined to make it to Mulrich as fast as possible. In two days, they merged with the major roadway heading west, and without a caravan to slow them they made the five day trip to Mulrich in three days.
They arrived just in time to watch the city burn.