"Very clever", a voice said.
I looked up. Someone was standing in the opening of the cave, a black silhouette against the bright afternoon sky.
"Thank you", I said.
"You should have cut her throat when you had the chance, though. It would have slowed her down long enough for you to get away."
"I've already shed enough blood for a lifetime", I said, "and I'm sick of it."
"Odd", he said. "I can't get enough of it, myself."
"Why?" I asked him.
"Why can't you get enough of bloodshed? What's our suffering to you?"
He began to laugh. "You are clever."
I shifted my weight, and suddenly I realised the knife was still in my hand. He noticed it, too. "Please don't tell me you're going to try and kill me with that little knife of yours."
I pretended to consider it. "Would I have any chance of succeeding?"
Again he laughed. "No", he said. "I can't die, you know."
"Oh, don't give up that easily. You really ought to give it a try. I'd be happy to help."
"I'm sure you would. I might even take you up on it one day." Then he was gone.
I got up and turned about, my knife ready. The cave was empty. I walked over to the cave's mouth and looked out. Not a sign of him.
I checked my shoulder for signs of injury. Nothing. The stray arrow that had hit me during the ambush had been an illusion, as had everything else. I picked up my clothes and got dressed, and after that I wandered over to the back of the cave. Azeara's bones were still there, neatly laid out on the cave's floor. I noticed her skull and one thighbone were missing, though her tarnished maiden's crown was still there. I wanted to pray for her but all I could think of saying was "I'm sorry". Maybe that wasn't such a bad prayer after all.
I got up and walked into the golden afternoon light. Birds were singing, and the air was still warm. It was wonderful to feel the sun on my face again and for a moment I just stood there, taking it all in. Then I went on my way.
When I was back on the mountain path I headed down to the place where we had been ambushed. When I arrived there I looked for traces of Merran or the guards but found nothing. I looked at the sky. It was only a few hours until sunset and I didn't want to be out here alone in the dark.
I considered my options. If I went back to Stillwater they would probably just lock me up again, and Lowanda, Merran or Raynor would not be there to help me. I could stay the night at the inn and start following the main road past Stillwater to disappear into the east in the morning. For a moment I was tempted, but then I thought of Merran and the guards. They might still be out there, and they might need help. Jarvik was a decent man, and if any of the others were missing he and his men would be able to find them. I turned and headed up the path towards the prison.
I came to the place where Azeara had made her prayers and where I had seen the little girl. I stopped for a moment and closed my eyes. I felt nothing, and moved on. I did the same when I came to the place where the brook crossed the path. Again, nothing. Whatever had caused my feelings of unease earlier seemed to be gone now.
As I made my way further up the mountain my thoughts wandered. Azeara was free now. I had to admit that, after twenty years of despair, what happened that day was giving me hope for the future. I wondered whether hope was a luxury I could afford yet.
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