With the burning lands behind them, the way was clear for their descent onto the narrow coastal plain, and ahead of them they could see the faroff glimmer of the sea. They looked back and let their gazes scour the rugged hills on the other side of the blackened canyonlands, but there was no sign of the Steward’s guards. They had evidently thought their work complete when they lit the barrens on fire, and had retreated back toward the capital.
“Not very well trained,” Kobi muttered darkly. “They left without checking that they had finished us off. I’ll have to have a word with the overseer of their unit when I get back.”
“Well, I for one am glad they’re poorly trained,” Mack laughed. “Now we can get on with our journey without having to worry about them.”
“And maybe today we’ll find the prince!” said Sim.
“Aye, maybe,” Mack replied. “At the very least, today we should be able to find a definite clue of some sort. If he came this way, then someone will have seen him down in the port, even if they didn’t realize who it was.”
“No more talking, then; let’s go!” urged Joe.
They set off in high spirits, marching down from the edge of the canyonlands and into the low coastal forest. It was bright and sunny here; the trees were a mix of low, fruit-bearing varieties, so the sun could stream in over and around their heads as they walked. The air was sweet with a thousand delicious scents, and the children filled their bellies and the saddlebags with wild pears, apples, chestnuts, and berries. With every few steps, a flash of red or yellow feathers would reveal the singing birds hiding among the boughs. After the danger and terror of the wolves, the wildmen, and the fire, it felt as though they had suddenly stumbled into paradise.
As they drew ever nearer the port, the road widened a bit. When the first outlying village came up over a rise and into their sight, Kobi stopped and pointed down to the dust of the road.
“There,” he said. “Do you see it? There’s a clear set of footprints right there—a traveler was walking this way earlier today.”
“Can you tell how long ago it was?” asked Joe.
Kobi shook his head. “My tracking skills are not quite that good.”
“Maybe it’s the prince!” said Lady.
“Maybe,” Mack allowed. “But we’re getting closer to populated areas again; it could have been just someone who came out to the forest to pick fruit.”
As they followed the road down deeper into the plain, there soon came more sets of tracks in the dust, until it was a well-rutted roadway, with other travelers and animals and wagons going alongside them. Every now and then they would stop and ask people if they had seen anyone matching the prince’s description, but most of the replies were too vague to be of any help. So they simply kept plodding on, walking until the walls of Westport came into view.
By that time it was late in the afternoon, and the sunlight streaming down on them from out over the sea had begun to take on a softer tone. It cast the stone walls of the port in a golden hue, so that the city seemed to be glowing as they approached. Westport was not a big city, at least not compared to their own home city of Arrens, but it looked like a sprawling civilization unto itself in comparison with the unpeopled wilderness they had just traveled through.
At the gatehouse, Mack stopped and asked again if they had noticed a traveler like the prince.
“Hmm, a younger adult man, you say?” mused the guard. “With a beard?”
“He was probably wearing a traveling cloak, too,” added Joe, remembering his encounter with the prince, “maybe with the hood up.”
A spark of recognition suddenly flashed in the man’s eyes. He snapped his fingers.
“Yes, now that you say it, I did see someone like that. I know most of the locals around here, so a stranger tends to stand out. Yes, yes… As I recall, he kept to himself—just walked on through and headed down toward the harbor.”
Lady squealed with excitement, and Sim hopped up and down.
“When?” Mack pressed. “When was this?”
“Late morning, just before I had my lunch.”
Without another word, the five travelers set off through the streets, the knights walking briskly and the children running alongside. Down the narrow avenues they strode, straight down to the harbor. There the street opened up into a broad view of the quay, where a series of boats and ships lined the docks. Gulls wheeled and cried out overhead, and the air took on a wild tang of salt and seaweed. The harbor stretched out for some distance on either side of them, and they weren’t quite sure which way to go first.
“Let’s split up,” said Mack. “Joe, you come with me. We’ll go to the left and ask around to see if anyone has seen him. Sir Kobi, you take Sim and Lady and go to the right. We’ll meet back here.”
They all nodded agreement, so they split up and made the rounds of the docks, stopping in with every sailor, fisherman, and wharf-master to ask them the same question. Mack and Joe had no success at all in the southern end of the harbor, where many of the smaller boats were docked. So they returned to the meeting-point to see that the others were already waiting there.
“Any news?” asked Mack.
“A little good news and mostly bad news,” Lady answered glumly.
“Yes,” said Kobi. “We know exactly where the prince is now. He—or at least someone who looks like the man we’re following—is on board a ship.”
“Where? One of those ships?” asked Joe, pointing to the line of masts arranged at the harbor’s north end.
“No,” said Sim. “He’s out there.” And he pointed straight out to the open sea.
Sir Kobi nodded sadly. “It looks like we’re just a few hours too late. They said that he booked passage today on a ship making sail for the Great King’s realm, out over the sea. It’s already well underway.”
The five friends stood in somber silence for a long moment. Just when their hopes were at their highest, it seemed that fate had taken an awful turn. They had survived all the dangers of the road only to get tantalizingly close to the prince. And then, right at the end, they fell short.
“Well,” said Mack, resignation in his voice, “I guess there’s only one thing we can do, then.”
The children nodded, knowing what would come next. They would have to go home, back to Arrens. They had given it their best shot, but it was over now. They hadn’t reached the prince before he left the realm, and so they couldn’t prove to the people that the Steward had been lying. All that was left now was the long road home.
But then Joe looked up into Mack’s face, and it was clear that the old knight had another idea entirely.
“Yes, only one thing left to do,” he said. “We’ve got to find ourselves a ship.”