The smaller Rebel – he was taller than she was, but looked like a shrimp next to Hans – nodded to him. The big man vanished into the night. “Come,” he said, and led the way across the summit to a deeper shadow towards the other side.
It was a wood, Wystaria found when they got closer, a wood on top of a mountain once said to be a volcano. Life was full of surprises. Between the trunks, firelight glimmered, a promise of others wakeful at the early hour. They were making for it. As they approached, she could see a man, sitting on a thick log on the opposite side of the fire with his elbows on his knees, gazing into it. He didn’t look up.
“Well done, Rupurt,” he said. “I will call for you if I need you.”
Wystaria glanced at the Rebel, saw him raise an eyebrow briefly, shake his head, and then he too vanished. She was alone with this new man.
“Have a seat.” He looked up for the first time and gestured to another log beside the fire. “We have much to speak of before the dawn.”
Wystaria sat stiffly on the log, not daring to relax even a touch. “Why me? What do you want with me?”
He angled away from the fire to face her, looking amused. “I see you like to jump right in. You didn’t even bother with a ‘who’.”
“I knew who you are,” she retorted.
The man raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
“You’re the Rebels, anyone can tell you that.” Nervousness was trying to surface in her, and she fought it back, doing her best to appear calm and unruffled.
He laughed. “Yes, Rebels, of course. My name is Johann. I would have been surprised if you had known that.”
Wystaria could feel heat rising in her cheeks, but she hoped he couldn’t tell in the poor light of the fire. “I’m Wystaria.” Was it her imagination, or did Johann give an almost imperceptible start at the word? It was gone in a breath, and his words absorbed her entire attention.
“You wish to know why we have brought you here. Well, it’s complicated. To put it simply, we see and hear many things, and someone like you could hardly pass unnoticed.”
“What do you mean?” Wystaria asked.
Johann shifted and rested his hands on the log on either side of him. “Take the fact that in two days you fought off two groups of bandits and almost beat off more than a score of trained soldiers. You were alone and untrained –”
“How do you know that?” Wystaria interrupted.
Johann smiled slightly. “Wystaria, we Rebels are not wholly inexperienced with fighting ourselves, and for those thoroughly trained, especially those with a unique gift, it is easy to spot the difference in raw talent and training. You have skill, your unconventional fighting methods are Rebel worthy, but you have little experience or training. We can change that.”
She felt something like nausea tickle her stomach. “What are you suggesting?”
“I am offering you the chance to join us and become a Rebel.”
It was out in the open now, and it was easier for Wystaria to handle it this way. Reacting instinctively, she straightened. A veil seemed drawn between them. She was cold, withdrawn. “I am a loyal Kolite. I do not doubt, with everything else you seem able to learn, that you have some knowledge of how things lie with me and the steward. It is true that I do not trust him, but that does not change me. I will stand by my kingdom though it crumbles around me. I refuse to become a vagabond or bandit simply because I have no other hope. I’d rather die a Kolite than turn against my rightful King. Now let me go seek what life I can find in the kingdom that thirsts for my blood.”
Johann stared at her for a long moment. Whether he was angry, or sizing her up, or about to kill her, Wystaria couldn’t tell. She waited, holding the veil before her like a shield, shutting off all feeling within from finding an outlet. Slowly, quietly, he began to laugh.
“Such unswayable loyalty is a rare thing. You are an honor to the kingdom, Wystaria. Our kingdom. I ought to have explained the heart of the Rebel purpose more fully.”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Wystaria said as coldly as possible. “You shan’t shake me. Any rogue chieftain would think his band is noble – different.”
“True, no doubt.” Johann straightened and leaned forward slightly. “But let me speak of the rightful King – the one I very much wish to find. His life is in danger, and the Rebels are working overtime to find him and thwart the enemies that would take his life.” He had Wystaria’s full attention now, and he looked straight into her eyes. “The chief of his enemies is Klondel, the steward.”
Wystaria could believe that. He was the sort that could easily play both ends against the middle to get power, and do it with both hands tied behind his back, no doubt. She rolled through her memories of everything she had ever heard about the royal family. There had been something… abnormal about the succession, she thought, but what was it? That’s it! The ruling King now was the cousin of the late King, dead twenty years now, and the Queen had vanished with her ten-year-old son, the heir apparent. That was why Chirith inherited the throne. Johann couldn’t mean…
“But don’t they say that the Prince was murdered?” Wystaria asked.
Johann flicked his hand as if to brush the question aside. “I’m sure all those who want him dead say that. It was the Queen who was murdered. No trace of the son has yet been found. But we Rebels know something more than most. We know that the Prince…” He paused, as if deciding how much to say.
“Didn’t die,” Wystaria finished. She shifted, looking past the Rebel into memories of her life in a castle, of things overheard and knowledge she was never meant to have. “He escaped. He is hiding out somewhere, hunted down by his enemies, the steward’s men, and possibly his friends, if he even knows it and if you Rebels are all above board and on his side.”
“And you,” Johann said quietly, “served his mother’s murderer.”
Something clicked in her mind, and Wystaria understood. “Lady Alice. Of course. Lord Ceric said she had murdered before. Then, do you know who I am – I mean, why everybody wants to kill me?”
“We tried to find out. All we know is there is a notice out for you, or for your twin sister. We actually traced you right back the fenlands, a bear of a job I might say since we couldn’t dig up your name and those fenlanders are tough nuts to crack. All we could get from them was that you, or someone of your description at least, turned up as a baby and was raised by a woman who is now dead.”
“That’s true,” Wystaria said with a sigh. “I’m surprised they told you that much. I don’t think they knew much more, not even my name, as you said.”
“They clammed up after that, anyway.” Johann shrugged. “We couldn’t get anything more, but babies don’t turn up mysteriously every day, and the steward himself doesn’t take such a vested interest in their death every day, either. There’s something about you that he doesn’t like, possibly makes him feel threatened or something, who knows. Anyway, you should be careful of how and when you return to Kole. You are in danger every minute you are exposed there. I wish I could tell you why he wants you dead, but I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Wystaria drew a long breath. She sensed his openness with her, and she thought she was beginning to trust him, but she was a little wary. There were some things she wanted to know.
“What is your ultimate goal – as Rebels, I mean?”
“To find the true heir and place him on the throne,” Johann answered. “That was one of the reasons we formed in the first place. We’ve only been around for eleven years, you know.”
“Really?” Wystaria was surprised that anyone could form such a fearful reputation in so short a time. These people could be very interesting indeed. Johann was for sure. “And when the King is in his rightful place, what then?”
“We will serve him,” Johann said quietly. “We will be Rebels in service to a King.”
Wystaria was analyzing Johann and everything she knew about Rebels and Kole. She was ready to commit. “So if I believe you now, believe in your purpose, but later I find you departing from what I thought I committed to, will I be free to go my own way?”
“Probably. Of course, you must understand we have many secrets, and once you learned them, to go your own way, as you say, you would inherit a certain amount of watching. We wouldn’t want any leaks, after all.” He shrugged and smiled. “But yes, I think I can say you would be free to go.”
“Then I’m ready,” Wystaria told him, and her heart raced. “I’m ready to be a Rebel for my King.”