Tallus saw the marking stone the moment he crested the nearby hill. Some part of him knew at once what it was, what it meant. He refused to believe it, but it had been erected close to where he had left her, and as he got closer he saw no sign of Maereen or her body. When he had finally reached it he dismounted and led the horses on foot. It was such a simple thing, a block of stone with the unmistakable interlocking ring pattern. He had asked her before what it meant, but she had never told him. Now she never could.
He felt numb. He felt stupid. He’d lost men before, why would this be any different?
Of course it was different. The others had died for their King, their Lords or their land. They’d died years ago, fully aware of the sacrifice they were making. They had met their ends with swords in hand, falling upon the blade of their enemies on a hundred blood-soaked battlefields. Not in the dark as they crept in unknown chambers, surprised and pierced by their own poisoned blades.
He stood in the silence. No words mattered, she was gone. Now all that mattered was what lay before him, the young boy still sat on the back of his horse. The child’s resistance in the wake of the loss of his sister was short-lived, it turned out. Now he seemed to simply accept it.
“You shouldn’t have come back.”
The Mole’s voice took him by surprise. He looked up towards the trees and, sure enough, the mage sat just beyond them. His legs crossed, his hands together and his eyes closed. Around him two dozen orbs of stone revolved, each no thicker than a thumb and shining with the yellow light of Veilic magic. It was a form of magic Tallus rarely saw from the earth mage, but his years of service in Nysilla had left him with a knowledge of magecraft that few common-blood men possessed. Mechamistry, they called it, from what he understood it was a method of storing magical power for later use. Often it was for situations where a lot of magic was needed in a short space of time, which in his personal experience usually meant battle.
“Half a day’s march in the wrong direction.” The Mole continued. “Net’s closing, Tallus. You might have slipped out, now we’re sure to get caught.”
“No point using the roads.” Tallus replied. “And if we’re not using the roads we’re going to need you.”
The Mole opened his eyes and raised his hand. The orbs of light swirled about him and came together. They collected in his open palm and faded back to simple grey and brown stone. He tipped them into a pouch as he stood and fastened it beneath his robes.
“The handover went well, I assume.”
“Would have gone better if you were there.” A dark look passed over Tallus’ face. “They took her, she’ll be deep in the forest by now. Beyond Wetherhall’s reach.”
“That’s half of our task done, at least.” The Mole took a step towards Tallus. “The easier half, I reckon.”
“We’ll head due east, cross into Auniathwaine. Once we’re out of Wetherhall’s realm it should be easier to make our way north.”
“It’s about our only choice. We can’t head back on ourselves.”
“Managed to stay ahead of them, although I think they’ve been keeping their distance from me. Dropped a bridge to be on the safe side, bought me half a day while they tried to cross the river.”
“We can’t rely on their fear, if they know the boy is here they will try to take him.”
“Aye. Which is why we can’t head back. Also why your little rule has to stop.”
Tallus turned to him.
“They’re soldiers, Tallus. Only one language they speak, when they catch us we’re going to have to kill them.”
“They’ll kill us. No sense dying for principle.”
“I gave my word, none would die in this endeavour.”
“Bit late for that.”
Tallus found his hand on the hilt of his sword, grip tightening. He saw the hint of a smile on the Mole’s face. It was far from the first time the mage had tried to provoke him, but it was the closest he had gotten to succeeding. A part of him burned to do it, to give in. He could draw his sword, close the short distance between them perhaps. The Mole wasn’t a healer, a single well-placed blow would do it for him as any mortal man. Of course he would lack the crucial advantage of surprise, it would be a race between his blade and the Mole’s ability to mould his magic. And that didn’t take into account any protective wards the Mole was almost certainly sheathed within. To attempt such a thing was foolish, even with his mind so clouded by grief and anger. Of course, that was the true goal, the few moments they had spent with their eyes locked as he fought back the urge. He had no choice but to back down, and he saw the truth of it in the mage’s eyes, along with the age-old message.
I’m better than you.
“You’re a cold bastard.” Tallus growled as he released the hilt of his blade.
“And you’re an old fool.” The Mole grinned back. “Almost had you there.”
“Get on the damn horse.”
“Good idea. King’s men will be here soon.” He said as he swung himself into the saddle of the horse that had been carrying Alexia Wetherhall. Tallus clambered back onto his own mount and the two men, the boy and three horses took off towards the east.
Harold hid in an alleyway off to one side of the main road leading to the castle. He stood in the embrace of shadows, his head hidden within his hood. He felt apprehensive but, at the same time, at peace. What was about to happen seemed little more than a dance he had rehearsed a thousand times. When one knew the steps, the movement of all involved, there was nothing truly to fear. The moment approached. He could feel it, somewhere inside himself. That alone should have paralysed him, what he was about to do. But it had already happened, in a way. So long as he let himself fall into that moment, everything would proceed as it should.
You just needed to have a little faith.
The moment arrived.
He stepped calmly into the light. He placed one foot in front of the other, walking with a steady determination. He crossed the road and stepped onto the drawbridge that led to the castle. He kept his eyes forward, his head unmoving as he paced across the old wood. He didn’t look around. He didn’t need to.
As he approached the gatehouse he peeled off to one side. He turned and placed his back against the cold rothstone wall. He counted inside his head as his ears picked out the sound of boot-steps from within the courtyard. A group of soldiers marching by, whilst high above him, unseen to his mortal eyes, a guard cast his eye over the now vacant drawbridge.
The moments advanced, one after the other. He stepped out from the wall and around. Calmly he strode through the open gate, past the turned back of another guard. He was silent, placing each foot as carefully as he could. He moved through the courtyard, in the glare of the late morning sun. He moved towards a small servant’s entry on the other side, but his path traced a gentle arc that he could not see but knew was there. One step to his left and a pair of eyes hidden amidst the windows above would spot him. One step to his right and he wouldn’t make it to the door in time.
As he approached he heard the door’s internal latch click. It swung towards him, a small man appearing out of it. Harold continued moving towards the door. As if men were no more than the figures in a shadow play, a woman’s voice called out from deeper within. Just as the door swung to reveal him, the man turned his head away. A handful of exchanged words and his body followed, he moved back inside and the door began to swing closed. Harold stepped boldly forward and slipped his fingers around the door a moment before it shut. He eased it open in a fluid motion and passed through it.
His feet whispered across the stone floor, through a small kitchen and past distracted eyes. He turned and ducked into a narrow passage that led off into darkness. He moved on even as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. The passage, one of countless servants’ runs that snaked their way through the mass of the castle, within and between walls where noble eyes did not see, would take him much deeper into the castle. He passed through a small beam of light cast from a long narrow shaft cut through the wall to the outside. He was momentarily dazzled but kept going anyway. His pace was everything, too fast and he would catch up to a bed-maid wandering somewhere ahead, too slow and he would be caught by a kitchen servant carrying bowls of soup.
The passage curved to the left and opened out where it crossed a larger corridor. He kept his eyes focused on the dark gap in the opposite wall where the passage continued on. As he approached he heard voices, one of which he recognised.
“… any man who goes into that forest is going to do nothing but leave a widow behind…”
Two men walked across the opening to his corridor, but their attention was directed ahead. He stepped out after they had past and scurried quietly across the corridor and into the next section of passageway. He continued on, through the twisting darkness, until he came to a tight knotted staircase. He climbed, passing floor after floor until he came to a larger corridor. The stairs continued upwards, to the very top of the castle, but to follow them would bring him out in full view of a group of scribes. He moved through the corridor and continued on, winding down passages and turning countless corners. It was far from the most direct route, but it was his path, and it would lead him exactly where he needed to go. He stepped between shadows, moving only when and where living eyes had turned away. The deeper into the castle he ventured, the more soldiers, guards and servants he had to slip past, but he followed his unseen thread and slid through the layers of protection as each opened before him. After what felt to him like hours he found himself facing the last obstruction.
Two guards stood either side of the door to Lady Jalice’s bedchamber. He watched them from the corner of his eye as he hid across the corridor from them within another slender passageway. These two would not move, there was no opening for him to slip through.
He had dreamt this too, of course. It felt less like a dream than a rehearsal, but even the knowledge of what he was to do didn’t calm him. He had never been a good fighter, and a part of him refused to believe that would ever change.
Distant words echoed from outside. The call of one of the watchers atop the castle.
“A raven! Messenger raven!”
The two guards’ heads turned toward a window at the end of the corridor. A momentary distraction. A slight crack in this last layer of defence. Barely a whisper of a hope, but somewhere within him he knew it was enough, and it compelled him to move.
He dashed from his hiding place. He covered half the distance before they had chance to react. He tilted his weight backwards, slowing himself slightly as the nearest guard clenched a fist in blind panic. Harold’s right hand curled into a ball. His mind flashed back through sporadic moments of his training as a castle guard. Technically he knew how to fight, but he’d never been any good at it. He had always been clumsy and slow, unable to read an opponent and react in time. It was why he’d been handed a bow and stuffed behind one of the only arrow slits likely never to see a fight.
This time he didn’t need to read eye and body movements.
The guard’s punch swung just short, slipping against his robes. Harold tilted forward, pitching his body weight back into the fight as he raised his fist. The momentum of the guard’s missed swing twisted his body around, pulling the side of his head into the path of Harold’s hand. Harold raised his left hand. Knuckles cracked against skull, the guard’s head tilted away from the blow, Harold’s left hand made contact and sent a forceful shove. The guard toppled into the wall, his head smacking the stone as Harold transferred his momentum and rebounded back, dropping to one knee as he drove his head towards the ground.
The next guard was upon already, a cold iron sword in hand. He was already powering the blade into a decisive stroke at Harold’s chest. If he hadn’t ducked to avoid it a full half-second in advance he would never have made it. As it was, the metal edge sliced through the tips of his loose hair and carried on into the wall. Brittle iron met unyielding rothstone and the blade cracked in two. Harold remained motionless for an instant. He yanked his head to the side, planted his hands below him on the floor and twisted his shoulders back. A fist tore through the air where his head had been. He pushed off from the floor. The guard’s fist slammed into the ground as his head sailed past Harold’s rising shoulder. The sound of snapping knuckles hadn’t reached Harold’s mind before he brought his leg under himself, driving the knee upwards and into the guard’s forehead. Pain blossomed in his leg as the guard flipped backwards and collapsed.
Harold stood. He didn’t have long. He turned and stepped to the door, eased it open and limped through.
This was as far as he knew. He had woken up when he got here, his dream ended. The Farseer had shown him only what he needed to see to get here. Now he was on his own as he stared down the wizard and the knight who stood before him, each standing and ready to protect the Lady that lay in the bed behind them.
Alexia scrambled across the forest floor. She tried to keep to the roots of the trees, thick and strong they formed natural bridges over the dense carpet of growth. Even so, they were uneven and rose and fell sometimes abruptly. She grasped with hands and pulled herself up, sat on her behind and slid down when she needed to. Finding the next root to leap to seemed difficult, and amidst branches and vines movement of any kind was painfully slow. She could not have travelled much distance at all, yet the forest seemed to have swallowed her. All sign of her captors had bled away behind her, and now she was alone, lost and brimming with fear. Every shadow was a monster, every caw, growl and chirp the chorus of hunters stalking her every step.
She remembered the stories, the things she had been told. Her father’s realm bordered the Everliving Forest, she doubted there was a single crone in the realm who didn’t have a dozen stories on their lips of foolish heroes who ventured into the forest and were never heard from again.
And here she was, in the middle of it, alone after having fled from her protectors.
Stupid, stupid girl.
She should go back. They would forgive her, keep her safe. If they were still alive. If she even knew the way. She kept running, nothing else mattered. She just had to keep running. She could feel the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end, a primal seed within her mind flourished and sent renewed energy to her tiring muscles. One by one each of the dozen fears crowding her mind fell away until only a single truth remained.
Something was following her.
She was only dimly aware of it, little more than a noisy shadow behind her. But flight was her only concern, every measure of focus she had was driven towards finding the next patch of safe footing to leap to.
A bolt of agony ripped through her as something sharp punched through the sole of her bare foot. The pain tore the instinctive focus from her mind and her balance failed her. She toppled forwards and to her left, a second and more potent wave of searing pain overcame her as whatever it was ripped free of her foot. She screamed, she fell towards the forest floor. She crashed into a large bush of dark green leaves, a nest of thorns clawed at her skin as she rolled out of it and slumped to the soft ground.
Her skin felt as if it was aflame, every part of it scratched, cut and punctured. Her foot was by far the worst, she dared not look at it as nausea washed over her. She heard the rumble of the approaching beast and looked up as it finally emerged into view.
First she saw claws, two pairs of thick jet-black talons long as daggers dug into the wood as the creature levered itself to peer down to her on six powerful limbs. It was a monstrous thing, easily thrice the size of a horse, a mass of muscle beneath a coat of fur and feathers culminating in an enormous bird-like head, complete with a serrated beak wide enough to devour her whole and two eyes each as large as her head. Thin bands of green encircled gaping black pits, the eyes swivelled slightly as they leered at her, enormous and hungry.
The monster let out a low purring growl as it lowered its body and tensed its legs. She lay there, helpless, as it decided how best to eat her.
Something dropped onto the beast’s back and it collapsed to the ground with a scream. Alexia watched as it writhed beneath the man, his hand gripped a long spear that had plunged through its chest and pinned it to the root below. In a single motion he broke the shaft off just above the creature’s skin and leapt from its back, turned through the air and landed between them with his back to her. He was tall, with the fair skin and pointed ears of an elf, his hair was long, flowing and black as the night. He was muscle from head to toe, and he was completely naked. He turned and glanced back at her with gleaming copper-orange eyes as the stick in his hand glowed green and regrew to its original length, complete with a sharp thorn tip.
The beast lifted itself off the shortened shaft of the spear and reared up on its hind four legs. It let out a screaming roar and lunged towards them. The elf launched himself at the beast with unbelievable speed, the surface of the root beneath his feet cracking as he did so. His spear gripped tightly in his hand, he soared defiantly through the air. In the last moment the creature twisted its neck back to avoid the spear and slashed out with its forelimb. The elf turned mid-air, narrowly missed the extended claws and thrust the spear into his attack. The two met in a sickening thump of limbs. The bloody spear-tip burst out of the creature’s back, its limbs flopped forwards as its body absorbed the impact. But it was by far the heavier, and attacked from above, its leap was barely slowed into a fall. The mass of warring muscle crashed and rolled to a halt in the thorny bush just before Alexia. She watched as the creature screamed, six sets of dagger-claws thrashing chaotically upwards at the man crouched atop its chest. The elf lunged forwards through the forest of black blades, grabbed a tuft of fur with one hand and drove the other fist into its neck with a sickening crunch of bone. The beast screamed anew as all bar one of its legs thrashed outwards. The remaining leg drove at him and raked its claws across his back, slicing the flesh deeply. It fell limp, though it still breathed heavily, and the elf stood, thick scarlet blood coating his back.
Alexia watched in amazement as, before her eyes, the deep slices began to glow with an almost natural green light. Any one of the wounds looked like it could have been made by a sword, and each ought have been mortal, yet as she watched the flesh regrew, wounds knitting themselves back together. Within moments the sheen of fresh blood was the only sign of injury.
He turned towards her and leapt off the creature as it stirred restlessly. She felt numb as powerful arms lifted her over his shoulder and powerful legs carried them both into the air. With his remaining hand and feet he grabbed trunk, branch and vine and climbed, leaving the forest floor below.
The Mole could feel the blood pounding in his veins as his horse strained beneath him, tearing at the road and urging them forwards. Ahead of him Tallus rode, his one arm straining to keep his balance. The boy had been tied into the saddle behind him, the other horse they had left behind when the chase had begun. Grannel had made his move sooner than even he had expected, two score of his fastest riders had descended upon them before they had chance to gain a lead. Their plans to stay away from the road had failed, avoiding Artellathwaine’s Realmsguard would be too slow. So now they ran towards the border, fuelled by the hope they could break through whatever roadblock the Wetherhalls had managed to assemble before they were rode down from behind.
The Mole had dropped back behind Tallus, partly because his horse was the slower and partly because he was the focus of the archers that pursued them.
He cursed himself for the thousandth time, he should have expected Grannel to ignore the laws that forbade magic. Even with their Wizard gone, they seemed well-equipped to deal with him. And here he was, not only with his power significantly depleted but still under Tallus’ damned restrictions.
The archers’ Wardbreaker arrowheads were enchanted stone, thankfully. Sensing and deflecting them whilst riding so fast was almost at the limit of his skill, plus it cost him vital power. They had given up firing those after the first few landed wide of their mark, bursting their disruptive magic harmlessly into the ground. As he urged the beast beneath him on he kept his Veilic senses open and in the forefront of his mind. He had cloaked them both in a thin rider’s warding, though it was an additional drain he couldn’t afford to let the animal fall under his feet. He felt yet another twinge as a bronze arrowhead glanced sharply off his ward. What damage had been done to the sheath of magic that enshrouded them faded after a few seconds. It would take several such arrows striking the same point to break through, but that wasn’t what worried him. The cheap bronze wasn’t meant to hurt him, each flurry merely proved as practice.
His awareness was pricked by another enchantment slicing the air towards him. He could sense no earth, the arrowhead was likely dragonsteel. He strained his Veilic sense to try and track it, his only chance to drive his horse to one side at the last moment. Fractions of a moment passed, the distant pulse of energy drew closer in his mind and split.
He didn’t have time to think. His instinct dictated as he forced his horse to the left. He felt the two arrows as they tore through the rider’s ward. One plunged into the ground where he would have been, the other sliced to his left, barely missing his arm. The Wardbreaking enchantments burned through the rider’s ward like an invisible intangible fire. The riding ward was stretched thin to cover them both, they were little match for enchantments intended for much stronger personal wards, let alone two at once. The magic frayed around him, stopping and repairing the damage would require considerable focus, more than he could afford. His personal ward remained, but his mount was fast becoming vulnerable.
The road beneath him pitched upwards into a climb, the hill ahead was the last before the border. They were close. The horse he could tell was tiring, the height would diminish their range but the next volley of bronze heads was certain to bring it down under him. They’d be on him, likely before he could summon a defence with what power he had remaining. Enchanted arrows meant enchanted blades, and men who knew how to use them. There was nothing for it, something had to give.
He looked to the road ahead and scanned the ground. He was fortunate, the road was loose dirt and gravel. He reached out ahead of himself and sent forth thin strands of terramantic power, a hundred fragile hairs spun from his fingers like a web. Most of the strands faded and died in the air, many of the others struck dirt, of those that embedded themselves in the small stones only a few remained intact long enough for him to seize them and strengthen the link. As he thundered past he swept his hand back and sent two dozen fragments of broken stone slicing the air behind him. He tried to keep the angle low, aiming for the horses rather than the men, but the shouts of surprised men and screams of startled steeds told him he was wide of the mark. He heard the commotion drop back from him as he kicked his heels into the slowing beast and urged it across the crest of the hill.
The sight that greeted him had been as much as he could expect. The road ran straight down the other side of the hill to the small bridge across the river that formed this part of the border. Just beyond, the standing stones marked the true border as the road passed between them. The bridge was guarded, a handful of soldiers and a dozen or so farmers by the looks of it. They wielded spears, but it was obvious that the common men were not trained in their use. Tallus blasted towards them, using the building momentum of the downward slope to his full advantage. The man couldn’t ride fast and wield a sword, so he would have to breach their blockade, such as it was, by speed alone.
Unless the Mole could breach it first.
His eyes already scanned the road ahead of him once more, scouring for something he could use. One side of the road had once been a wall of loose stones that had all but fallen down. The foundation stones remained, but they were far too large. Many of the smaller rocks had been half buried in dirt and vegetation. He spotted one that seemed to be loose enough to work with. He reached out with his hand once more, projecting a single tendril of power into the stone, binding it to his will with a familiarity that bordered on instinct. As he stormed past it he focused his will, let his power flow and shaped it. His arm snapped back and he almost toppled from his horse, he held on with a death-like grip as the rock, wrenched free from its rest, soared into the air behind him. His arm felt as if it had almost been ripped off, but he pushed the pain from his mind and kept his focus on the task at hand. Tallus had pulled further ahead, even from the Mole’s vantage point he was a blur of motion as he drove his horse towards the spears and swords being raised towards them. The men ahead of him wore expressions that ranged from worry to terror. The old knight’s determination alone may have been enough to turn them aside.
The timing had to be perfect, as had the aim. He drew the stone ahead of him and gathered his power. He leant forward and braced himself, allowing his magic to build within him.
He released a pulse of terramancy, the rock blasted forwards and his arm cracked backwards again. The pain doubled as his body lurched backwards. He almost fell from the saddle with the force of it, and between his struggle for balance and the pain he could only trust in his initial aim. After a second or two he managed to turn his eye to the bridge ahead. The boulder flew true, clearing Tallus’ bounding head by a safe margin. It travelled swiftly, not as fast as he could manage but fast enough. The line at the bridge had broken. Men fled at the sight of a mage hurling rocks at them. Those that couldn’t clear the bridge in time dove. The blur of stone struck the wall part-way up the hump of the bridge and both shattered into a cloud of shrapnel. The dust settled, disturbed only by the thunder of Tallus’ horse passing through unopposed.
The Mole switched arms as his own mount careered down the hill towards the bridge. Supporting his weight with his injured arm was an exercise in agony that he could tolerate only because of years of experience. He cupped his free hand and renewed his will. He tapped his reserves of magic once more, he found the flow sluggish. As a mage reached the last of his power the difficulty of drawing upon it increased greatly. It took years of training before one could truly deplete one’s magic, and even then it was not trivially done.
He seized the dregs of his power and pulled with all the strength his will could muster. He forced it to the surface, as if squeezing a part of himself unnaturally dry. He felt uncomfortable as he did so, but he had little choice. He pushed and shaped the magic in his hand, where it coalesced into a glowing yellow orb. It should be enough. It had to be.
As he approached the bridge, his free arm shining with the last of his power, the men who were not cowering flat on the ground were edging further from the road. The beast beneath him powered from the dirt onto the stone and carried him up the bridge’s humped back. As he crossed the midway point he turned his hand and let the magic drop behind him. The orb fell and vanished into the stones that formed the bridge, and he released the bindings around the spell. He felt the thump of the unleashed magic through the air more than he could with his fading Veilic sense. The initial pulse of sound was quickly followed by a sickening groan and cracking. The arch of the bridge dropped and a wave of shattering stone radiated towards each end of the bridge. He kept ahead of the destruction just about, racing back to dry land as tonnes of broken stone plunged into the fast wide waters.
He allowed the beast to slow as a wave of pain washed through his mind and a hollow gaping sensation gripped his gut. Voiding sickness was unpleasant at the best of times, couple with fatigue and the need to keep riding it was nearly intolerable. He could scarcely sense the low rumble of ancient Veilic enchantment that emanated from the standing stones. Somewhere behind him, across the now impassable expanse of the river, the riders came to a disappointed halt.