A hazy yellow glow appeared in the darkness ahead of them, which soon resolved itself into the shape of a lantern hanging off a tall pole held by one of the riders. The dim lamp provided only the sketchiest of illumination, and seemed to cast more shadows than light.
"Stop," one of the riders said gruffly, his voice carrying easily to where the four of them waited, "in the name of the king." Jander nudged his horse a bit closer to Andrei's left shoulder, drawing himself up to his full height. His heart was hammering inside his chest, even though he knew that these men were on his side.
Two riders approached from the right-hand side of the road, while yet another materialized almost soundlessly out of the dark behind them. The fourth wasn't readily visible, although Jander could sense the man's presence off to the left some distance ahead of them. The three soldiers he could see were dressed in dark leather armor and black cloaks, with Alluin's crest prominently displayed in silver thread above the smaller insignia of the Night Watch. Jander relaxed slightly; the Night Watch was one of Vallerin's special infantry units, trained especially in night-fighting tactics.
"The road to Vallerin is closed," the first soldier said, resting a hand with unsettling ease on the hilt of the falchion sheathed at his side. He looked guarded, not aggressive, but there was something weathered about his dark-bearded face that set Jander's nerves on edge. This was not a man who suffered fools gladly. "I'm Sergeant Karish, with Vallerin's night patrol. Please state your business here."
Andrei met the man's gaze evenly, folding his hands inside the sleeves of his cloak. "I am Master Andrei Teresh," he said with a slight inclination of his head. "And this is my apprentice, Jander Teregnan. These other two with us are our friends, Boaen and Tanith. My apprentice and I are returning home to Vallerin after being away for the past couple of months on a mission for the king."
The soldier leaned forward in his saddle, peering into Andrei's face with narrowed eyes. A moment later, he drew back in surprise, hissing lightly through his teeth. "Master Teresh," he said. This time, there was a note of deference in his voice. "I didn't recognize you."
Andrei smiled ruefully. "Not surprising; we're hardly at our best at the moment."
Glances were exchanged among the three riders, and then Sergeant Karish turned to face them again. "The king has been waiting anxiously for your return. I know he's eager to speak with you. There have been some disturbing developments during your absence."
"No doubt." Andrei's smile turned grim. "How long has the road to Vallerin been closed?"
"About four days. There have been sightings of dragons in the skies south of Widow's Ridge, and the king doesn't want traffic on the road to draw their attention."
That made Jander's head lift in surprise. "Dragons?" he echoed, frowning. As in dragons, plural? Again, he felt that strange stirring of menace against his thoughts. Now, with this new information, he could recognize it for what it was: he was sensing the thoughts and minds of dragons, distant for now and not directed toward him in any noticeable way, but waiting patiently with a sense of almost breathless anticipation.
Karish's dark gaze flickered over to him. "Nothing close enough to worry about yet, but you never know. There have been enough rumors flying around lately that half the city's up in arms demanding some kind of protection from them. Corporal Keyes' men have had their hands full just keeping order in the streets." His gaze moved to where Gabrielle was curled on top of Jander's shoulder, blinking up at him with her wide, gold eyes. "But I'm sure they'll all rest easier now that you're back home with us again, Apprentice Teregnan."
Jander flushed lightly, making a conscious effort not to look away from the directness of the sergeant's gaze. He had never gotten comfortable with the notoriety he received for being a dragon mage.
"We should keep moving, then," Andrei said with a tone of decisiveness. "We were hoping to reach Vallerin tonight."
Karish nodded. "You'll make it within the hour if you keep a steady pace. There's a man named Banto watching the gate; he'll send an escort with you to the palace."
Andrei nodded briefly in thanks and lifted up his reins again, tightening his fingers around them. "Good night then, Sergeant."
"Fair journey," Karish replied, and turned his horse smoothly away from them. The other riders fell in behind him, and then they were lost from sight in the darkness as swiftly as they had appeared.
Jander shared a long glance with Andrei, but there was really nothing to be said. Their questions would have to wait until they had a chance to speak to Alluin.
Giving the sky overhead an apprehensive glance, he started forward once again.