Sleep clung to Alexia Wetherhall like a thick mist. Waking seemed a struggle, but as she slowly rose from her slumber the sensations of the world returned to her. Cold air rested on her skin, occasionally meandering as a gentle wind caressed her.
“Close the window, Vigard, I’m cold.” She murmured, unsure how much of the sentence made it to her lips intact. Her back lay on soft, damp earth. Her clothing was damp also, and she felt a scratchy material over her skin. She heard birdsong around her, along with the sound of horses. She was outside.
She jerked into a sitting position, but found her sleep-addled efforts thwarted when her feet wouldn’t move. She opened her eyes and saw only daylight crudely filtered through a thick, scratchy material. She gasped, able to taste straw and dust. She let out a short cry laboured by a cough and tried to sit again. She couldn’t move her feet at all, they felt as if they had been buried.
“Vigard!” She cried out. “Mich! What have you done?”
She heard a quiet clink of metal somewhere behind her. Footsteps, heavy boots approaching. She was no longer in the castle, and she wasn’t alone. She cried out and grasped at the sack over her head. She tried to slide it off but it was tied around her neck. She pulled at the rope when she felt a hand placed on her shoulder. She jerked and cried.
“Calm down.” A deep male voice said. “You’re in no danger.”
She froze as the hand moved to the back of her neck where she felt thick, rough fingers fumbling clumsily at the knot. The hand pulled away and a few moments later she felt the icy touch of steel. Her muscles tensed as the blade moved away from her skin, cutting awkwardly through the rope. The bag loosened and lifted off her head in a single, rapid motion. Light flooded into her eyes and the mild headache she had woken with became a heavy mass of pain that gripped her skull.
She lay in a clearing surrounded on one side by trees and another by hills. A road, she noted, ran around the base of the hills and a small camp had been erected beside it. Her younger brother lay beside her unperturbed by her distress, a sack over his head and his feet buried in the ground like hers. Their captor stepped around her and lowered himself to one knee as she managed to orient herself into a sitting position. He was old, dressed in leather and steel with only one arm. He stared at her, and she at him, for what felt like a long while before he spoke.
“No need to look so petrified, your ladyship.”
“What are you going to do to us?”
“Now that is the question, isn’t it?” He replied as he scratched his stubble. “You know, time was when even noble lords and ladies could be set upon by bandits the thugs, held for a good, hefty ransom. Of course, there were always noble knights ready to ride to their rescue.”
“What would you know of knights?”
“More than you. There’ll probably be knights riding to your rescue even as we speak. But they won’t catch us. They won’t save you. Your best chance now is to cooperate, for your sake as well as your brother’s.”
“And if we don’t?”
“Then we’ll just put you back to sleep and carry you like sacks of potatoes. Your choice.”
“We could run away.”
He looked down at her feet. “Not going to get very far, are you?”
She wrapped her arms around her knees. “Where are you taking us?”
“We’re taking you south, to the forest. You’re being handed over to the elves.”
“Don’t know, didn’t ask. Give me your word that you’ll do as you’re told, and make sure your brother does the same.”
“Release him and I will go with you.”
“Can’t do that, I’m afraid. He’s part of the deal. What I can do is promise you that no harm will come to either of you whilst you travel with us.”
“What worth is your word?”
He frowned. “I suppose none, to you at least. But since you don’t really have much of a choice anyway, I’d suggest you find some worth in it.”
She looked into his eyes, there was a hint of honesty there, she thought. “I give you my word.”
“Good!” He said as he stood up. “Your brother should come around shortly, I’d imagine. You’ll need to calm him, explain what’s going on. Make sure he doesn’t get any ideas about running off.”
He opened his mouth to speak further but turned his head towards the trees. She glanced over to where he was looking and saw a woman leaning against a trunk watching them. She had slightly darker skin than Alexia had seen before, and she wore strange black clothing. He walked over and talked to the woman. Alexia strained her ears to hear the conversation, but after a few minutes realised they were talking in a language she had never heard before. The woman was slightly hunched over, as if in pain, she noted. The sound of the horses caught her attention and she tried to turn to look directly behind her. Her feet still refused to move, she resorted to tilting her head back. The horses grazed not far from her, tied to a tree and stood next to a short man wearing dirty brown robes and sat on a stone, his eyes closed and his hands pressed together with interlocked fingers. She snapped her head back when she heard the other two walking towards her, still talking in the foreign tongue. The woman knelt down awkwardly next to Vigard whilst the man continued on towards the horses.
Alexia watched the woman examine her brother.
“Is he going to be okay?” She asked.
“Yes, he is just sleeping.” The woman replied in a heavy accent. “He is small, that is why he still sleeps.”
“Who are you?”
“Did Tallus not say?”
“Tallus?” She asked. The name sounded familiar to her. The woman gestured to the one-armed man now talking with the smaller man. The image of the single arm connected with the name in her mind, one of thousands of names she had been forced to memorise. Sir Tallus Theroden, a Knight of the Kingdom and Commander of the King’s personal guard. She had been told once of his bravery, sacrificing himself in his duty and losing an arm to the curse of a deathmage. Of course, they had just been words, one tale from a thousand she had been told, and she had paid them little more attention than such words deserved. She couldn’t bring herself to believe that the man who had taken her from her home was the same selfless knight she had been told about.
“I’m Maereen.” The woman said as she extended an open palm.
“You’re not Asamorian, are you?” Alexia asked. The woman closed her hand.
“I was raised on Sau.” She said matter-of-factly as she stood. Alexia caught the slightest glimpse of pain in her expression.
The man called Tallus strode into view, three horses led by his one hand.
“We need to make a move.” He called out. “We’ve wasted enough daylight as it is.”
He wandered past her brother and brought the horses to a halt. She became aware of a musty smell of soil as one rough hand planted itself between her shoulders and pushed her forwards. Another grabbed her wrists and held them together over cold stone. She winced as she felt the icy sensation on her skin shift as the hard rock became soft. It felt unnatural as the semi-liquid crept around her wrists before hardening again. Her hands were released and she was lifted to her feet, which rose slowly out of the suddenly molten ground. No sooner had her feet been freed when she was forcibly turned to face the small robed man.
Now stood next to her, she could see every scar and defect of his face in excruciating detail. He spoke with a voice equally scarred as he raised her hands.
“Just in case you get any ideas about running off.” He growled as he took a step back. She looked at the simple bands of stone that now adorned her wrists. He raised his hand and the bracelets moved. They twisted with unrelenting force, and within moments she was on the ground, her arms raised behind her. She gasped from the pain for several long seconds before whatever force had gripped them released her.
“I trust we have an understanding, girl?” The man said flatly.
She nodded, one word racing around inside her mind.
Another collection of meaningless words told to her countless times. She recalled the times when she idly wished she could see it, a great wizard conjuring powers from beyond the mortal realm. Once again, the reality did not measure up. The mage knelt down next to her brother and lifted his feet out of the ground. Tallus placed his hand on her shoulder.
“You know how to ride, I trust?”
“Yes.” She replied meekly.
“Good. You’ll be with me. Maereen, you take the boy. Let me know when he wakes.”
She called out something in the foreign language and moved towards Vigard. Tallus lent Alexia a hand and she clambered ungracefully onto the large black beast. Within minutes the entire group were moving away from the camp.
“We should make the edge of the forest by nightfall. The elves will most likely be waiting.” Tallus announced.
“And what will become of us then?” Alexia asked.
“I told you, m’lady, I do not know.”
Christen drifted aimlessly inside his own mind. As his body slept in the waking world he floated amid his own thoughts in the dreamscape. Around him the void basked in its own absence, the simplest dream of all. Beyond its obscuring depths he felt the two minds that shared the chapel with him in the world above. To a man used to sleeping with the minds of hundreds buzzing around him it was surprisingly lonely. One of the minds was fine, sharp and focused. Sir Justin Allian stood watch, fatigued yet alert. His mental training had waned in recent years, the walls around his mind in need of repair. Christen was thankful, it meant he did not need to devote too much effort to prying within. The knight served as his window on the world above, he would alert him to any disturbance requiring his attention. He doubted he would even need to wake in any circumstance, the common-blood guards in Artella had precious little training in the art of mental resistance.
His primary focus was currently his niece. Her mind lay in a deep and restful state of sleep, one to which he had painstakingly drawn her. The poor girl was almost at her wits’ end, her last night of decent rest had fallen from her memory it was so long ago. He was surprised her mind hadn’t broken already with the strain, he had waited far too long.
The process of stewarding a dream was simple enough to his mind, he had first tackled her emotional state. Grasping her fear and anxiety, he had shifted them from her conscious mind and encouraged tranquillity and contentment to flow in their place. The shifting and caressing of emotions was the most basic level of Psychic magic, shepherding her thoughts was more of a challenge. Even now, in her current state of calm, he stood a silent vigil at the edges of her mind. The emotions and thoughts he had sent from her conscious mind still lurked just below the surface, waiting to crash through the walls of her dreams and transform them to nightmares. Unperturbed by their destructive influence, she was able to finally restore her mental strength when she doubtless needed it most.
Dream stewardship was best conducted from within the dream itself, but he had elected to take up the task from outside. He would only serve as a reminder, a conduit through which her nightmares could return. Sifting through her thoughts had conferred a window into her life with Lord Miteus Wetherhall, one which did little to change his opinion of the man. His hatred of magic seemed so intense, so unyielding. One man’s opinion left an entire realm bereft of its blessing, it hardly seemed fair. Perhaps it was the will of Fate that his own son be born with magic in his blood.
Yet in spite of that, even when Jalice honestly believed her son’s life to be in danger of it, she still loved him, and she felt loved by him. To touch upon such a connection, to experience it in the mind of another, was the closest he had ever come to falling in love himself. It was precious, delicate and unique, as all bonds of love were. He held his own views closely to his own mind, lest he accidentally push the notion into her mind and risk destroying such a thing.
“Wise one, can you hear me?” He felt the thought inside Sir Allian’s mind.
“I can.” He sent into the knight’s mind.
Justin sat at one side of the small chapel, where he could see both the door and where the wizard and his lady slept. He felt his own desire to join them, but he remained vigilant. They had been hidden within the stone room for so long he wasn’t sure if it were night or day, the constant lantern light had been the only illumination. He watched Lady Wetherhall, her smooth and steady breathing. She seemed calm, more so than she had been in weeks.
“Is she okay?” He thought.
“She has been in much need of rest, it is fortunate we arrived when we did.” The wizard spoke within his mind.
“I have never seen such worry in her.”
“It is natural. Concern for one’s young is often a most powerful instinct, more so than concern for one’s own life.”
“Will the boy be safe? Can you promise her that?”
“There is rarely such a thing as safe in these matters. However Athaleon is one of the greatest Nexic magi I have ever known. I doubt there are any better suited to guide young Micharus through what lies ahead.”
“So he will leave.”
“It cannot be any other way. Even if his father could see past his nature, the boy cannot be raised as a lord’s son. The lure of inheritance would be too great, and he will have much to learn of his power.”
“He will become a wizard then?”
“He shall, the Towers will teach him what he must learn.”
“If there was only some way that she could know he would be safe, I am sure it would ease her soul.”
“Perhaps, in time, she will find that assurance. Until then it will be our duty, your duty, to look after her.”
“So long as you are here you can sooth her dreams.”
“I cannot remain, Justin.”
“Why can you not?”
“The practice of magic is forbidden here. I have already violated those laws, the King’s laws, and worse the pledge by which all wizards are bound.”
“These walls will hide you, they need not find out.” Sir Allian thought. The realisation had dawned on him, the Orders of Wizardry were the arbitrators and enforcers of magi across the kingdom. Their own members were held to the highest of moral standards, with pledges and doctrines guiding their every choice and action. Individual wizards seldom turned from those self-imposed rules, but each one that did left a story that was both well-known and tragically short.
“They already know.” Christen admitted. “It is almost certain they will act against me, they cannot afford not to. If I remain it will only bring them here. If House Artella is attacked by the Wizards, even for unknowingly harbouring me, the consequence is unthinkable. The kingdom will suffer, and I will not allow that.”
“What will you do?”
“Once these affairs are concluded I will leave. I will flee, there is little other option for me. It is either that or turn myself in to be made example of.”
“They will pursue you, hunt you down.”
“That is their sworn duty. I will not hold it against them, for it is something I would do myself. However, perhaps I will be able to elude them long enough to die in my sleep.”
He felt a shiver run down his spine. An invasion of magi into the realm would only flare tensions between Artellathwaine and the rest of the kingdom. The Wizards were the strongest and most skilled of all magi. Even for a man who had grown and lived amongst them in Ganiathwaine, the nature of magic was an ever-elusive mystery. The true power of Otzia was a secret no living man knew, nor wished to find out.
Alexia chewed on the small hunk of dried bread that Tallus had given her. She failed to hide her disgust as she gulped down another mouthful. The one-armed knight sat and ate his own ration, a wide grin on his face.
“A little too used to castle food, are we?” He said through a mouthful of bread.
“A little too used to food.” She replied.
“Careful, Tallus.” Maereen said. “She’s got a wit, this one.”
The five of them had stopped on a river bank, they sat and ate whilst the horses drank. Vigard had woken up and now sat against her, pecking at his own ration in silence. The mage sat a small distance from the group, lost in deep thought as far as she could tell.
“So you really are Sir Tallus the True?” She asked. The man shifted awkwardly.
“Read about me in your books, have you?”
“I’ve heard of you. You protected the King himself.”
“What of it?”
“I’ve always wanted to go to court. I must have asked my father a thousand times, but he always refused.”
“A wise man, then.”
“What’s it like? At court, I mean.”
“Little more than a herd of powder-nosed brats like you, who’ve never known a hard day’s work in your lives.”
Maereen laughed. “He doesn’t have too high an opinion of nobles like yourself.”
“I find that surprising, I had always thought of you as a man of honour.” Alexia said.
“Honour?” Tallus replied. “What does a little whelp like you know of honour?”
“I apologise. I did not mean to demean your name, Sir.”
She felt exposed as Tallus glared at her. She was almost thankful when the mage hobbled up behind him.
“You need to get moving, now.” The small man said as he gestured towards the horses.
“We’re being followed?” Tallus asked.
“A mage, most likely a wizard. He’s a way off but approaching fast, an aeromancer.”
“Probably Grannel’s scout.” Maereen said.
“Let’s hope.” The mage replied. “If he has ground forces to protect then I should be able to get his attention.”
“We’ll go on ahead.” Tallus grasped Alexia by the shoulder. “You know our destination, catch us up when you’re done.”
“I don’t intend our meeting to last long. He is moving fast, you had best make a good pace.”
“Remember our orders.”
“I remember them fine. Get moving, you should stay ahead of the rest of them at least.”
Tallus took Alexia to their horse and helped her up as Maereen led Vigard to hers. They coaxed their steeds into a gallop and raced on down the side of the river. Alexia looked over her shoulder just in time to see the lone mage vanish from view. She glanced up into the sky and hoped for rescue.