The road to Blossom Town was not an easy one. Once, there had been a plank road wide enough for two wagons to pass without any danger of either ending up with a wheel wandering onto the treacherous earth of the cloud forest, which grew close by, the tall, slim trees hung thick with the vines of chemise that swayed like veils. It had always been Iviradelle’s most beautiful passage. Now the timbers of the road had been left untended for so long that they had rotted – everything rotted faster in the damp, warm forest – and the remains had sunk into the soft, hungry earth beneath the mists.
Gray preferred his own feet to horses, so he did not have a beast to worry about, but it was too easy to loose sight of the grayed and broken planks beneath the mist and almost impossible to tell by feel alone if you were on the path, still, or had wandered off where you might tumble into one of the still, green pools or fall into one of the many pockets dug out from beneath the surface by the thin roots of the trees. Even on the right path, the earth would sometimes shift or turn, trapping a boot or twisting an ankle if a traveler was not on guard.
Once he was moving up along the slow sweep of Terradass, the highest of the tall hills around Blossom Town, he began to hear an occasional rustling in the leaves of the trees or the shaking of bushes, as though small animals were trailing along behind him, but he knew it wasn’t a wild animal at all. Once or twice, he heard the scrape of a boot on tree roots, as though his new friend had not yet grown used to the odd terrain. Gray didn’t worry much about the brigands which had claimed this area; he knew their captain. But he did not enjoy being followed by someone he couldn’t identify, certainly not someone who’d just begun learning to navigate the forest; beginners could be a bit too quick to use a blade or an arrow.
The road took a sharp turn and two banks grew up high, like the prows of two ships. Once, the plank road had spanned what they called the cleft, leaving the low, narrow gully beneath in darkness. Now the broken boards of the road had been removed, leaving the path to run between the banks.
Gray swiftly climbed one of the banks, his fingers finding purchase in the soft soil easily. He slipped behind a bush and crouched there, waiting. A slim figure, no larger than a young boy, appeared. The thief was wearing an old, gray cloak, tattered and torn along the edges. There was a dark scarf wrapped over the lower half of the face and the clothes were shapeless and loose. There was a familiar swagger to the thief’s walk, one that tried too hard to be manly. Gray smiled and pursed his lips, making a trilling whistle.
The thief stopped. “I do believe I hear a songbird,” she called out, tossing her hood back. Sandy brown hair, caught in a thick braid, fell down her back. She pulled her scarf down. “It sounds like it’s choking on a frog. Where are you, then, old friend?”
Gray stepped out and sat down on the bank. “Why are you following me, Angelica?”
The woman smiled sweetly. “Because I wasn’t sure it was you. I only knew by your whistle. Do you know the calls of any birds that aren’t dying slow and painful deaths?”
“Ah, you’ve deafened yourself, I see. No surprise in that; you made so much noise, a herd of cattle stampeding wouldn’t have covered you.”
“I wasn’t trying to be quiet,” she said. “I only sneak when I’m after a throat to slash.”
Gray laughed and dropped down. The woman ran to give him a fierce hug. “By the gods it is good to see you,” she said. “Even if you have grown into a crotchety old man.”
Gray shrugged. “Dearest Angelica, I am aging like fine wine.”
“Molding like cheese, more like,” she said. Then her face grew serious. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, but longer still since you’ve walked the road to Blossom Town. Why are you here, Gray?”
“I’m going to the city, as a matter of fact. I was hoping to find you along the way, though. I thought you might know a better way in than strolling up to the gates and knocking.”
Angelica made a face. “Not me. You couldn’t drag me through those gates with a team of oxen and my weight in silver waiting on the other side. I haven’t been back since the night we escaped. But my boys will know. They have a secret entrance Papa made for them. They sometimes go in after food. And orphans.”
“I thought you’d have stopped letting them,” Gray said. “I heard about your father.”
Angelica looked away. “Well, he’d have said it himself. No point in quitting because someone lost their life. Everyone knew the risk was there. Those children need saving and we all know the danger.” She gave him a sad smile. “After your sister, he just couldn’t bear it any longer. I guess he passed that on to me; I won’t stop trying to save them, so long as I’ve got men willing to take the risk.” She began to walk and he fell into step beside her. Once, he’d thought he might be in love with Angelica. In the end, they had only been friends, but he still cared enough to give her a few moments of silence. “She haunted him, you know. He used to say it nearly every day. One moment is all it takes. You turn away because you’re afraid, because you are trying to protect your own, and that’s all it takes for evil to win.”
Gray looked down at the scar on his palm. “Evil didn’t win. Not that day.”
“Didn’t it?” Angelica asked. “Papa knew that, if he’d opened the door, Jezzie would still be alive.”
“Or the Enforcers would have cornered us all, taken both Jezzie and you, then burned your father and me alive. You know how often that happened.” He stopped and smiled down at her. “Jezzie would be happy to know you’re saving orphans in her name. Even if you are turning them into thieves and brigands.” Angelica laughed, a bright, merry sound. “Now, would you like to tell your boys that they don’t need to smack me on the head or shall we have a little fight to test their skills?”
Angelica grinned. “Keep ‘em looking behind.”
“So they aren’t looking ahead,” Gray said. “I taught you that one, Angel Face.”
She gave him a mock scowl. “Call me that again and I’ll let them truss you up like a pig.” Then she laughed again. “I didn’t know it was you when I sent them out, did I? Anyone else would have fallen for it. They always do.” She gave a soft, low whistle. Three shadows appeared where the banks ended, each one holding a sword and all of them wrapped in the moss green cloaks that helped them vanish into the close grown forest. Angelica motioned to one of them. “Ty, come here. I’ve something to ask of you.”