Caroline stood the second watch with her back to the camp fire, so that her night vision wouldn’t suffer too much.
During her vigil, she took the opportunity to learn about magic. She already knew a number of spells – these came to her as naturally as if she had spent most of her adulthood memorising them – but beyond that, she also had an affinity with the world around her.
It required some concentration to really bring this sense into focus. Even then, Caroline had to be mindful that such magical perception could overwhelm her. She believed that when she divined Irena’s location, she blacked out because she wasn’t ready to have the entire scene crammed into her mind at once. So she patiently learned to control the ability, to better aid in their quest.
Her first exercise was simple – to filter out the sounds, the smells, and the cool caress of the night air as she saw beyond the campsite. These unwanted perceptions faded away with practice, leaving her with just what her mundane senses could tell her, but she was free to alter the viewpoint of her unseen magical self, drifting between the trees to scout the perimeter.
Of course, she needed to break her concentration periodically and recover – it seemed that even her magical sight needed a rest.
In the last hour of her watch, after making several thorough sweeps around the camp, Caroline practised remote listening as well. The sound of the forest at night was a lot to take in, but she tuned out much of it – as she would with her own ears. It was quite an effort, however, and she felt a bit drained when she finally pushed the magical sense to the back of her mind. It was a relief to turn over the watch to Levine.
“If I may say so, Caroline, you look exhausted,” Levine remarked. She seemed quite refreshed when she roused.
“I feel how I look, then. Wake me when we’re ready to move out, will you?”
Levine smiled and nodded. “Of course. Rest well, wizard.”
Caroline was asleep moments after her head met the bedroll. Her slumber was not entirely forgettable, though. As she dreamed, the image of Princess Irena drifted into her mind. If this was indeed another vision, then the haziness of dreams allowed Caroline to see it without the overwhelming vibrance.
She was convinced that it was a vision when Irena told her, “Do not take the mountain pass. It may seem the swiftest route, but it is guarded.”
“How do you know that it is guarded?” Caroline tried to ask, but Irena’s image had faded already. There was no reply.
When she was eventually roused by Levine, then, she blurted out Irena’s warning to the others. They were somewhat skeptical at first. So then she explained to them that she had been practising her powers of divination, and asked them to delay for a little while so that she could put those skills to use.
“Very well,” Levine said in acquiesence. Dawn and Rhona shrugged and tended to the horses and loading their supplies, while Caroline pulled the magical sense to the fore of her mind.
Then she was flying over the mountain, her eagle eyes searching for the peril that supposedly awaited them.
At first, she couldn’t see anything amiss, and she felt foolish for providing a warning where none was warranted. But as she descended, hovering just a short way above the snow-covered peaks, she saw tracks. And not just that, but a series of dark crevices along the winding path. Within those, she felt a lurking malice and lust for violence which left her feeling queasy. And eyes watching from the darkness.
She withdrew her sight from the treacherous gorge a little quicker than she’d intended, swaying with dizziness. Levine steadied her with a firm pair of hands at her shoulders.
“What did you see?” she asked.
“Ambush.” Caroline sucked in a breath nervously, realising that she was shaken by what she had seen and felt. “Irena was right. Whatever they are, they’re waiting for us, or someone like us.”
“Then shall we will make our way around, and frustrate our enemy’s snare?” Levine suggested.
“Sounds like a plan to me.”
The party mounted up and set out, detouring east and north to skirt around the mountains and attempt to avoid trouble. They made good time during the day, and stopped just after midday to rest the horses, stretch their legs and eat a brief meal.
With the dread from earlier still in the pit of her stomach, Caroline didn’t feel like eating, but did so anyway. She knew that she might need her strength later on.
As she was about to take the last bite of her meal, an arrow whistled past her head and embedded itself in the ground far from its mark. She instinctively hit the deck.
“Down!” hissed Levine, although the others were already taking cover. She strung her bow, nocked an arrow, and fired a return shot. There was a yell of pain as it found its target.
Following that, there was a bellowing roar as a group of brigands charged forward into the camp. Dawn was already up and ready for battle, Rhona was springing into action with her blades drawn, and Levine was already taking aim again.
Caroline didn’t have a chance to ready a spell of her own, though she was on her feet and ready as a woman wearing a tarnished iron breastplate lunged at her with a sword.
Taking a half-step aside, Caroline used her attacker’s momentum against her, catching the toe of her boot with her foot and sending her stumbling past. It set her up to cast her first truly offensive spell. With her hand extended down towards the feet of the attacking brigands, she chanted a few words of magical power, causing the very ground to tremble.
The brigands stumbled to their knees, not expecting to have to contend with a wizard. Rather than flee in panic, however, it made them more determined to push past Rhona and Dawn to engage Caroline.
Caroline turned her attention back to rusty breastplate woman, hoping to avoid fighting on two fronts. Rusty was picking herself up and getting ready to return to the fight.
Thinking quickly, Caroline cast a minor spell at Rusty’s sword, making it spark with electricity. Rusty cursed and dropped the weapon, clutching at her hand. Caroline followed up with a sweep to her legs, sending her back to the ground.
Behind her, the brigands were kept firmly at bay by Rhona and Dawn, while Levine spent arrow after arrow to wound and demoralise their foes.
Caroline took this opportunity to raise her voice and shout, “You cannot even begin to contend with our might. Begone!” To emphasise just how outmatched the brigands were, she cast a fire spell just wide of those who were still standing, as a warning shot.
It had the desired effect. The brigands fled, some of them gracious enough to stop and haul their wounded comrades to their feet.
Rusty was about to pick herself up off the ground and follow suit. “Not so fast,” Caroline said. Nearby, Rhona had her blades ready in case the woman tried anything.
“I don’t know who you and your friends are,” Caroline continued, “but we have a mission to complete. Tell me how I can bypass your encampment. Then you can go.”
“They’re not my friends. They put this weapon in my hand and told me to attack you, else they’d cut my throat.”
“A likely story,” Levine muttered.
Rusty sighed. “Look, I’ll gladly help you avoid those thugs, but not if you leave me behind to be a meat shield for their next raid.”
“You’re in no position-” Rhona started.
Caroline interrupted, “It’s fine, Rhona, let her up. We’ll soon find out if she’s as good as her word.” Then she asked the woman, “Do you have a name?”
“Well then, Rose, lead the way.”
Caroline knew that the others had misgivings about Rose attacking and then claiming to have nothing to do with the attackers. But she didn’t get the impression that Rose was being duplicitous.
The other brigands that had charged had been in better-kept armour. Rose had been easy to deal with because she was unused to wearing a heavy breastplate, unable to keep her centre of gravity. Even now, as she trudged ahead, she was stooping over a bit.
“Oh, and Rose, you can ditch that ridiculous armour, if you like,” Caroline called ahead.
Rose paused to unclip the breastplate at the sides and slipped it off. “I thought it might be good for stopping an arrow,” she said.
“Not if you’re a slow-moving target, it won’t.”
They continued on foot for a while, leading the horses while Rose guided them past the danger. It was slow going the rest of that day. But detouring around the brigand encampment saved them time and energy that they would need later.
When night fell and they made camp, there was one matter still to be resolved.
“We have only four horses. If we take her with us, she’ll slow us down,” Levine said.
Rose snorted. “You’re talking about me as if I’m not even here.”
“She can ride with me,” Rhona suggested. “I’m the lightest burden of all.”
Levine wouldn’t let it go. “Then I hope she proves to be of some use on this mission of ours,” she said.
“Rose,” Caroline said eventually, cutting through the tension diplomatically, “you don’t need to come along if you don’t want to.”
“I’ll come along. The way I see it, you may find yourself in need a spare pair of hands and a sharp pair of eyes to watch out for danger.”
With that matter settled, the order of watches was decided, and they settled down to sleep. Still distrustful of Rose, Levine did not sleep easily.