The workmen paused at the approach of two travelers, straightening to lean momentarily on their hoes and rakes. It was prudent to be cautious of all strangers on the road, particularly these days. The approaching man was huge – too big for any horse. But it was the rider that caught their eye. She was small and wore the purple sash of an Adept.
One of the workers called over his shoulder to his boy. “Kan Lim, run like the wind. Tell everyone an Adept approaches.”
Normally the arrival of an Adept would be cause for celebration. People would come in from far and wide to seek help, be it for finding lost items, lifting a curse, or tending to the sick – either animal or human. Now, with a rogue Adept on the loose, a more cautious attitude was warranted.
As the boy ran off the Adept turned her attention their way and said something to the giant at her side. The big man looked over toward them and shrugged.
“See,” Lia Yong said to Dahan, “they are frightened here too.”
Dahan looked over to the men in the field and shrugged. A boy, no more than ten years old, was running for all he was worth toward the village of Ud Watan. As long as they were not advancing wielding their tools as weapons he was not too concerned. He’d rather not have to hurt anyone.
“He must have been through here,” she said.
A month ago her old herb master dropped in unexpectedly at her apothecary. They chatted amicably about old teachers and friends, he always probing, she always dancing around the subject of Min Lee. She was still furious with Min for stealing her sash, the badge that marked her a proper Adept, and for breaking her heart. She could not explain to herself why she suddenly had a deep urge to protect him. After what he did he deserved nothing from her.
At length Master Yi asked her outright if she had seen Min Lee. Her impulse was to lie, to deny seeing him since leaving school, but she found she could not lie – not to Master Yi. She loved him like a father.
They now approached yet another village that was wary of unknown Adepts. The stories were rampant, though largely exaggerated. Yet someone wearing the sash of an Adept was wreaking havoc on the western roads. Wells went bad. Livestock died without explanation. Two months ago, just a week before Master Yi arrived, a hunting party was found dead in the hills near Simke. They had torn each other limb from limb as if possessed. Each time an unidentified Adept had been reported in the area. She glanced around at the surrounding tree clad hills and prayed it was not Min Lee.
She balked when Master Yi asked her to find Min Lee, to bring him back to Xueshi Shang.
“You think he’s done these terrible things?” Tears flowed freely down her cheeks.
Master Yi laid his hand on hers, held her with his rheumy blind eyes. “I do not. Search your heart, Lia. Do you?”
She shook her head, no.
“Then we must clear his name.”
“I can’t leave my apothecary, the village needs me…”
“I shall tend it.”
“But the roads are full of bandits…”
“I have a companion. He knows Min Lee. They hunted together.”
The men in the hostel gave way when Dahan entered allowing Lia to follow in his wake. The hosteler meekly agreed to let them two adjoining rooms and board the horse, though he shot wary glances Lia’s way. No one in the room was willing to speak with them. They drifted away in ones and twos until the commons were left all but deserted. Finding information in this town would be next to impossible.
A woman rushed in, followed by her husband who admonished her mightily. When the man laid eyes on Lia he fell silent. The woman approached Lia with a look of desperation in her eyes.
“My girl… she’s only three. She has the fevered cramps…”
“I am a healer.”
The woman’s face flickered with hope.
The child slept peacefully, the fever broken.
“Yes,” the father said as they sat round the tiny fire at the center of the mud hut. “A man like that was here not three weeks ago. But he was a huntsman, not an Adept.”
“He carried a bow?” Dahan asked.
“A great bow.” The man nodded. “We were too frightened to turn him away. We gave him water and a crust of bread. He spent the night.” He jerked his chin toward the back of the hut. “The next morning he left, then came back with a brace of quail.” The man smiled at the memory.
“We ate good for a week,” the woman said.
Lia Yong exchanged a look with Dahan. At last, they had a lead on Min Lee.