Tomorrow Man – Part XXIII

Alexia awoke to the warmth of the afternoon sun as it danced across her face. She opened her eyes and saw raw daylight filtered through a thick web of branches and leaves. She tried to sit but whatever she lay on moved as she tried to rise. She tried again and sat unsteadily as the net of vines beneath her stretched and swung. She sat near the centre of what she could only describe as a giant nest. A squashed oval shell of intertwining branches that appeared at once both natural and created. Natural as each branch found its base in a nearby tree, but split and twisted so much that, in addition to the lack of leaves, they were certainly not a natural growth. The gaps in the wooden web were small but numerous, most she would struggle to fit a hand through, but she could see out of the nest enough to know it was suspended high above the forest floor. The height made her feel nauseous and pricked a deep instinctive fear within her, but the entire construction appeared solid enough, thickly supported as it was between three towering trees. Still, she didn’t want to move from where she sat.

She could hear birdsong from somewhere beyond the walls of her cage. A pair of insects flew into the nest and danced around each other, their iridescent wings slicing the light into flashes of colour. It felt peaceful, almost serene, compared to what she had experienced below. The memory flooded back to her, the panic, the running, the monster and the pain.

She couldn’t feel the pain.

She turned her attention to herself. Her skin that ought have been covered in scrapes and scratches was undamaged. The injury to her foot had similarly vanished. She was filthy, though. Her feet and hands were blackened with dirt, and she still wore her night dress, though it was speckled with blood and so tattered and torn she may as well have been naked. The least her kidnappers could do was let her bring some clothing befitting a lady. She ran her fingers across the stone bracelets she still wore, remembering the man who had forged them, the smell of him. She thought further back, to her home, her mother and father. She shuddered to think that, in only a few days, it had all been taken from her and seemed so far away.

Part of her wanted to weep. Another part of her cursed the thought.

You should be dead. And you want to sit and cry because you miss your parents?

That part of her felt stupid, even ashamed. She should be dead, she was small and weak and, for some reason, that fact had never bothered her before.

The sound of tearing wood shook her from her thoughts. She glanced across as powerful fingers gripped and tore a section of the woven wall away. It dropped towards the forest floor below as the imposing figure swung himself through the gap. She recognised the elf immediately as the one who had saved her. He stood for a moment, his burning amber eyes regarding her. She felt very aware of herself and what she must look like to him. Indeed, his gaze seemed focused on her body more than anything else. She was barely clothed, and that fact flourished in her mind and she instinctively tried to cover herself with her arms.

She couldn’t help looking at him though. Even with the encapsulating gaze of his almost glowing eyes she found herself glancing at his manhood on full display. She’d never seen a naked man before, let alone an elf. She supposed she wouldn’t expect to until her wedding night, she honestly hadn’t given it much thought.

He removed a woven vine net he had slung over his shoulder and tore it open. He reached inside and grabbed one of a dozen large purple fruit. He tossed one to her and she caught it without thinking. He held up another.

“Yagul!” He said as he pointed at the fruit.

She looked at him, then at the fruit, and back to him again. He shrugged his shoulders and made an overtly demonstrative movement, taking a large bite out of his fruit and chewing on it.

She put her fruit to her lips. It smelled strange, yet inviting. She bit into soft flesh, and as her teeth crushed down on it juice gushed and dribbled down her chin. It tasted sour at first, she pulled the fruit away and almost spat it out as her face knotted. The sourness faded after a few seconds and she swallowed. She looked across at the elf again and…

Was he laughing?

She struggled against her own laughter as it rose out of her.

I suppose I must look ridiculous.

A consuming hunger came over her, kindled by the first taste of food in what felt to her like days. Her self-consciousness dropped away as she tore chunks of flesh from the fruit. The elf sat across from her and said something, from a couple of the words she guessed it was Elvish.

“I’m sorry.” She replied with barely more than a whisper. “I don’t understand.”

A warm smile flashed across his face, before his brow dropped a fraction as he focused. He touched his pointed ear with on finger.

“No… elf?” He asked.

She puzzled for a moment over what he meant.

“No, I’m not an elf.” She guessed. “I’m human, from Artella.”

A blank expression.

“Asamor?”

Recognition.

“Asamor!” He replied. “Man Feld!”

What?

“You home…” He made a sweeping gesture with his hand. “Out forest.”

“Yes!” She said after a moment of deciphering. She made to point towards Artella, forgetting she had no idea which way it was.

“You far home. Yes?”

“Yes.” She agreed. How far was she from home? She couldn’t begin to guess.

“You… others. Me…” He pointed at his eyes.

She wasn’t sure what he was trying to say. He responded to her blank expression by shrugging his shoulders. He placed his hand on his chest.

“Oaikyn.”

He gestured to her and waited for a few seconds. He placed his hand back on his chest.

“Oaikyn.”

Oh, that’s his name.

When he gestured towards her again she placed her hand on her chest.

“Alexia.”

Oaikyn nodded and smiled. “Alexia.” He repeated slowly. He leapt to his feet and spun slowly, extending his hands as if to embrace the world. “This… home.”

She glanced around at the nest, the hole he had torn had gone, knitted back together by fresh growth.

“This is your home?”

He dipped his head forward and flicked it back with a slight twist to the side. His beaming smile suggested it meant yes. He reached into his net and tossed her another fruit. She bit into it eagerly as he sat once more, and she glanced up as the afternoon sun danced through the tree tops.

***

Ever faithful, the old horse placed each hoof on the next patch of road in turn and, slowly, pulled the caravan along behind. Athaleon sat behind it, drawing warm smoke from his long pipe. Ahead of them the street ran straight as an arrow to Artella’s north gate, a tunnel painstakingly carved through the once impassable block of rothstone to permit passage to the Godsroad beyond.

Micharus had clambered up to the driver’s bench from within the caravan and sat next to him. The boy’s eyes darted from building to building, finding new facets of discovery with every step of their gradually changing perspective.

It was to be expected, Athaleon supposed. The boy had grown up within these walls, the city a backdrop to his entire life. He would, of course, notice every difference. Passers by stopped to look at the man who was not a wizard, and the boy who accompanied him, but their gaze moved on after moments without a breath of interest.

They did not recognise the once heir to their city. Most of them hadn’t been born the day he vanished. It was such a simple trick that Athaleon always found himself amused by the fact common-blood men were so easily duped by it. It only served to remind him how great the distance was between men and magi, that he could manage the most flawless escape without leaving the city walls.

They had searched for him, there was no doubt. Men had scoured the city, day and night, for how long exactly he could only guess. Their desperation spread throughout the realm, news of it further through the entire kingdom. But history rolled on, as it inevitably did. Men returned with empty hands and empty hearts, a realm was wounded and healed, those who turned the city over grew old and died, and their children grew up with stories of Micharus Wetherhall, the heir to the realm, who simply vanished on a day they had never known.

And now they rolled through the great open gate, hidden beyond his family’s reach, beyond their very comprehension.

He wasn’t sure Micharus fully understood it. But the child stared up in wonder at the towering archway, the gargantuan iron doors, and the wide stone road that raced away from it, its edges coming together at the horizon pointing the way to Morjia, the city of the Gods.

Perhaps there is still hope. Athaleon thought to himself. The boy is still capable of a child’s wonder.

They travelled for hours beneath the summer sun, stopping only occasionally for water and rest. By the evening they had caught up to a merchant’s convoy, carts and wagons bound for Morjia and the cities beyond. They had pulled off the road and made a camp, gathered around the fire as Knights of Banthos patrolled the perimeter beneath the fading twilight sky.

Athaleon had pulled his caravan to a halt towards the edge of the camp and made his own fire with a couple of firestones. As a half-hog he had bartered from one of the merchants roasted over it he sat with his new apprentice and considered Micharus’ first lesson in magic. The boy was almost motionless as he stared vacantly into the dancing fire. He had not spoken a word since they had left the castle, and his expression even now was impossible to read. Not for the first time in his life Athaleon wished he had been gifted the powers of a psychic so that he may peer into the child’s mind, to better understand what he must be feeling.

“You’re like me, aren’t you?” Micharus asked. The interruption of the fire’s low crackle took him by surprise at first. He wondered for a moment if the child possessed psychic magic as well, but shook the thought off. Wise Christen would certainly have determined such a thing, and it didn’t fit anyway. Still, the chance at conversation was a morsel he didn’t want to reject.

“How did you know?” He replied.

“I can feel it. Like what I have, but coming from you.”

Athaleon silently raised an eyebrow. Every mage had the ability to perceive the shards with which they were naturally attuned, but the Mage Sense was, in almost every case, a skill that had to be learned.

“How long have you known?” He asked. “That you were not like the others?”

“I don’t know. A little while I guess.” He turned his face towards him. “How about you?”

“Oh, since I was a boy. A few years older than you are now, but it feels a lifetime ago.”

“What am I?”

Such a simple question, in concept. Yet within those three words Athaleon knew all too well the most fundamental struggle of a life burdened by power. Every mage asked themselves the same question at one point or another, yet to hear it from one so young…

“We are magi.” The answer, so simple yet so complex, a perfect mirror of the question.

“What does that mean?”

“That we are different. We know another world to those of common blood. We are gifted, burdened, we are what we are.”

“Are there others like us?”

“Oh yes. Thousands, right across the kingdom, right across the world.”

“Do they hurt people?”

Athaleon paused at the question. “Some, perhaps. No more or less than any man, I suppose.”

“My father always said that magic was evil.”

“Your father… is not entirely wrong. Has he told you of the Mage War?”

“Yes. He said it was a long time ago.”

“It was.” Athaleon shifted into a more comfortable position. “Hundreds of years ago, our kind used to rule over the common-blood.”

“Under the Mage King.”

“Yes, the Mage King was the ruler of the old kingdom, and the blood of the Nobility and magi were one and the same.”

“But the Mage King was cruel.” Micharus interjected with his own understanding of the story. “He hurt people, people who didn’t have magic.”

“And one day, as you know, those people rose up against him. Your father’s ancestor was one of them, your family fought to rid themselves of magi rule. Your family, this entire land, paid a heavy price for it. The worst blows of the war landed here, in Artellathwaine, and your ancestors, your father’s ancestors, suffered more than most at the hands of magi.”

“Like my uncle.”

Athaleon paused again as the subject strayed near that most dangerous of topics where magi were concerned. He was, perhaps, the only man who knew Micharus’ ultimate fate. The right word now, or the wrong one, could change that fate’s course in unseen directions.

“Your father fears magi, as many common-blood do. They always have, they always shall, and in the hearts of men fear inevitably grows into hatred.”

The boy did not answer, instead he turned back to the camp fire and looked once again into the flames. The burdens of magic were rarely easy to carry, and most had the fortune of coming into their power during their adolescence, much closer to emotional maturity. Those who manifested during childhood tended to have greater potential, but their minds were all the more likely to fracture. The Orders of Wizardry existed, in part, to find and shepherd them, and in this case they had most assuredly failed.

Athaleon sniffed the air, the smell of cooked meat awakening his hunger as if he were a child again. He reached into one of the many pockets hidden amongst his robes and brought out an iron fork with which he jabbed the half-hog and lifted it carefully towards them. He produced a steel knife in his other hand and carved cuts of meat for the two of them. Micharus ate with the ravenous abandon of a child who had not yet had the etiquette of nobility drilled into him. Athaleon ate his own meat carefully, trying to retain an air of quiet discretion in contrast. As they sat in the warm glow of the dying fire, the daylight a fading burned amber around them, the sound of music rose up from the centre of the camp. Voices rang out in song, carrying an alien joy through the darkening air.

Lessons could wait for the light of a new day, he decided as he watched the child yawn and stretch.

He stood and turned towards his caravan.

“Come, young Micharus. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow, a good rest will not go amiss.”

The boy scrambled wearily to his feet and followed. Athaleon silently tapped into his power and let it blossom into his mind. He became aware of the intricately folded enchantments weaved about his wheeled home. A twist and flick of mental gymnastics ensued, pushing and pulling on the threads of magic as if turning a key in an inconceivable lock, though in such a manner so familiar to him that it barely required thought at all. By the time he reached out and grasped the handle the exercise was done.

“Now.” He spoke back to the boy. “I think it is time I showed you my true home.”

He pushed the door inwards and stepped through. The boy followed and stepped past him as he held the door. By the time he had swung it closed the child was frozen in place, his eyes wide with waking wonder.

This was true magic, the thought perhaps travelled through the boy’s mind. The man could only guess, of course. The cavernous space stretched out before them, much greater than could be squeezed within the caravan’s frame. A canvas roof hung above them, suspended between timber ribs that bore simple shining crystal lanterns that lit the wood and tile floor below. The entire space was circular, as though it were one of the great tents in which travelling performers demonstrated their art. In the centre a low-burning cluster of firestones glowed, whilst around a ring of simple wooden benches sat. Around these sat eight areas each separated by wooden walls, and all about the place, pushed towards the walls so as to keep the main space clear, rickety wooden shelves stacked with scrolls, books and all manner of trinkets. Dusty cabinets and solid chests sat tucked away, shielding their contents from prying eyes. His eye flitted instinctively to the automaton, an interlocking mass of dragon-steel plates engraved with lines and symbols giving the outward appearance of a large suit of armour. It stood in its eternal vigil at the edge of the large room, but already its head had turned towards them, dark empty eyes regarding the newcomer. It watched with cold indifference as the he led the young mage to a newly and, rather poorly, made bed in a small patch, relatively free of clutter, he would now call home. The boy’s eyes dropped closed quickly and Athaleon moved quietly across the room to the automaton.

The gift of an overly eager and grateful alchemist from the furthest of his travels, the machine, if such a name did the infernal thing justice, always kept him a little on edge.

“The boy is Micharus.” He spoke just above a whisper to the metal man as he gestured overtly towards the sleeping child. “He is my apprentice. He is welcome here.”

Even though he lacked any ability to read them, he swore he could feel the methodical clanking of its thoughts, or whatever it possessed that passed for thought. It was motionless for a few seconds before it nodded its head once. It didn’t speak, it never spoke, but it did listen and was, for the most part, obedient.

Athaleon shuffled over to one of the desks tucked away in a corner and read one of the hundreds of scrolls by lantern light. Then he, too, turned in, letting himself drift away as the automaton watched over them both.

***

Harold felt the fear grip his limbs like a terminal icy cold. He had moved beyond the reassuring certainty of the Sight and now faced not only a skilled and respected knight, but a wizard as well. Sir Allian already had his weapon drawn, the look of a seasoned warrior in his eye, a man detached from the raw emotion of killing. The wizard, adorned in his pointed hat and purple robes, was a stranger, he held no weapon but struck no less a bolt of fear into him. To the eye little more than an ageing man, yet somehow instinct demanded he fulfilled a greater and more commanding presence. The knight, blade already in hand, moved without hesitation to strike against him.

“Justin.” The wizard spoke softly and the knight held the blade steady, still pointed at Harold. “He means no harm.”

“Are you certain?” The knight asked, not once breaking his iron gaze.

“I would state your purpose rather swiftly, Harold Baywater.” The wizard addressed him directly. “Before you are run through.”

“I came… came to speak with the lady. I have… a message for her.” He managed to stammer in reply.

“A message?” Sir Allian repeated. “From whom?”

“With all respects, Sir,” Harold wavered. “It’s best if you don’t be askin’.”

A glare of contempt swept through the knight’s face. He glanced at the wizard. “What’s he hiding?”

“I believe he is a Seer, Justin.”

The sword dropped an inch. “So you speak for the Farseer?”

“In a manner of speaking, Sir.”

“Then speak.”

“Well, Sir, that is… I…” Harold struggled for the words.

“I believe he wishes to speak to her alone.” The wizard translated.

“I don’t leave her side, Wise one.”

“Matters of the Sight are seldom simple, Justin. The wrong word caught by the wrong ear can spell disaster. If the message is for the Lady, it is for her ears alone. We can wait outside, if she needs us I will know.”

It was spoken as both a reassurance and a threat, though the words themselves were in the same soft voice. The knight relented and gently woke his Lady, and the two of them shuffled out of the room.

“Who are you?” Lady Jalice Wetherhall asked through a thinning haze of sleep.

“H… Harold, m’Lady.” He fought to keep his voice steady. “Just… just a guard… at least… at least I was. I… I need to tell you something.”

“Yes, yes, I think I do recognise you. You left with my husband?”

“I did, y.. yes m’Lady. But… I don’t… don’t know how to… you have to leave.”

“What?”

“You need to leave Artella. T… today.”

“Why ever would I…?”

“He’s going to kill you!” He blurted before he could stop himself. A stunned silence followed, which he filled with a hastily assembled explanation. “Lord Wetherhall is… is going to kill you.”

“My husband?” She looked away. “He would never do such a thing. How dare you even suggest it!”

“I’ve seen it, m’Lady. I can’t… can’t explain how but… I know it will happen, unless you leave.”

“Get out!” Her voice was heavy with agitation. He knew before he heard them throwing the door open. The wizard’s presence preceded his physical form, but in the moment it was the knight that occupied his attention. Powerful hands locked around him and dragged him away from the Lady.

“Please remove him.” She commanded as Sir Allian gripped Harold even harder and forced him from the room. He tried to walk out under his own power, but he was clearly not moving fast enough for the knight. As he was led down the corridor the man whispered into his ear.

“I don’t know what your game is, but if you even think about coming near Lady Jalice again I will take your damned head off your shoulders.”

“I’m sorry.” Harold pleaded. “I only meant to protect her.”

“She doesn’t need your protection.”

“You don’t understand. You can’t protect her. Not from what’s coming.”

Sir Allian threw him into the wall and slammed into him, pressing him against the stone with his considerable weight.

“And what is coming? You claim to know what is to be, then tell me how I die, or tell me how harm can befall her while I still draw breath.”

“I don’t know how you die. I haven’t seen it, I’ve only seen her death.”

“If what you say is true, name her killer. Tell me who it is, and I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen.”

“You don’t understand, you can’t protect her.”

“I exist to protect her. Give me his name.”

Harold gasped for air as his mind tried in vain to weigh up options. “His Lordship.”

“What?” Sir Allian lifted him. “You mean Lord Wetherhall?”

“Yes! His Lordship gives the order himself.”

“Impossible.”

“He returns tonight. If her Ladyship is still here…”

“You are certain?”

“I am, Sir. I’ve… I’ve seen it enough times to be sure.”

The knight did not speak. Instead he dropped Harold to the floor and dragged him further on, pulling him ungracefully down stairs and inelegantly through corridors. He thrust Harold through a doorway into a tight dark space before pulling a heavy wooden door shut, sealing both himself, the only light and the world at large from Harold.

Harold scrambled to his feet and fumbled in the dark at the door handle.

Locked.

***

Tallus felt the icy bite of his armour as it stole the heat from his skin and bled it into the winter morning. Every part of it felt heavy on him, his arms, chest and shoulders most of all. The sword in his right hand, the shield on his left arm. His silver cloak billowed as it was caught by the early mist as the wind shepherded it from the bay. Before him stood Rathgar’s Keep, a monolith of stone that had stood since before the Mage War, its crooked towers teetering on the edge of the cliff that time had mercilessly carved beneath it. Behind him stood his King, his armour and crown, lined with Scalesilver, gleaming despite the dreary morning weather. Beside him stood his mentor, his master, the man he would one day replace. Sir Osryn Kelrad had commanded the King’s guard for more than half a century, and even in his old age he towered over all around him. In his armour he was as much a mountain as he was a man, and he had the strength to match. Even with mere common blood, he had stood against and felled magi and even killed a Dark Wizard who had made the mistake of threatening his King. He wore a dark expression. He had advised against this action, but the King had insisted. Mercenaries from Sau had somehow secured the keep and the Realm’s guard had failed to oust them. Now the King had arrived, to show his people he protected them, and to coax the Wizardry into committing their wary hand.

Wise Rellard the Mountainforger, the Terramaster himself, was the one they had sent. A Wizengard no less, one didn’t need a mage’s blood to sense the power coursing within him. The way it reinforced his mind and body, and the two thousand figures of stone that stood around him ready for battle, given life and will by his power. The man had spent the morning conjuring them, a hundred at a time, willing their forms to rise from the very ground beneath his feet. Alongside them, the reformed remnants of the Realm’s guard and the King’s regiment made a force of near ten thousand.

The Saudans numbered a thousand at most, yet they had secured the Keep. Their reinforcements had been destroyed at sea, mercifully, but still he was wary. Men who fought for silver were not known for fighting honourably, and they had magi in their ranks.

The Stone Legion moved out as if they were merely parts of a single being. They moved swiftly, carried as they were on strong legs and powerful magic. At their heart Wise Rellard dashed across the ground. The plan was simple, the earthen warriors would storm the castle first, impervious to physical attack they would find and target the defences. Their mind and master would get to the outer wall and get to work on countering the ancient wards and creating a passage through which the bulk of the army could attack. The alarm was sounded within moments, and within minutes gouts of flame rained down on the advancing force. From what he could see they had two fire magi launching their blazing projectiles from two of the outer towers. A well-formed blast of fire could fell two dozen mortal men, but the figures of rock and soil tore through them without slowing. When they closed in on the walls, a hail of arrows and rocks fell towards them. The arrows either rebounded or pierced to no avail. The rocks were launched back at the defenders with incredible force.

He glimpsed a distant flash of green, a twinkling star barely visible amidst the old stone towers. In the same instant a pulse of the same green light burst in their midst. Even before the magic had faded a powerful fist erupted from within it, too fast for him. It struck him square in his chest and the next he knew he was tumbling, armour and all, through the air. He felt the clink throughout his armour as the hundred plates snapped together. The metal skin took the brunt of the impact as he slammed into the ground. He rolled to his feet, his armour no longer dragging at him with its weight but now moving with him, giving him strength. Their attacker bordered on inhuman in stature, a broad-shouldered giant with tough skin and thick muscles that bulged with unnatural vitality. The distance he had launched Tallus, armour and all, coupled with the simple fact the man could stand at all revealed his nature as a life mage powering his body with an aura of strength. Osryn had already moved to block the brute’s run at the King and engaged with a blow directed at the neck. The brute blocked the blade with one arm, spraying blood, as he brought his other hand to deliver a blow that nearly toppled the old knight where he stood.

Recollection dawned on Tallus, as if he awoke from the dream whilst still dreaming it. This battle he had relived a thousand times. He stalled in his run to his master’s, his king’s, aid.

“Do you always dream of war?”

The woman’s voice, as much as her appearance, could not be more out of place here. She dressed elegantly, and carried the grace of age without any of the weakness. One could tell from merely the way she carried herself that she had nobility in her blood, though her Psychic affinity denied her the title and prestige. Harrietta Sloane regarded their surroundings with the same distaste she often expressed at his memories.

“Only when I’m not fighting in one.” He replied as he watched events unfold before them, dispassionate and disconnected as, once again, the great Sir Osryn locked with his final foe. His sword through the brute’s heart, the brute’s hand around his neck. The warrior’s embrace. In mere moments the inhumanly strong fingers would overpower his armour, crushing metal, flesh and bone.

“You have managed to extract the children, I understand.”

“We have. The girl will be half-way to the Elven kingdom by now.”

“And the boy?”

“We still have him. We’re making our way to Tetsa to deliver him. Though if you could call off Grannel it would sure help.”

“I’m afraid that will be difficult. He carries the King’s banner, after all. Perhaps you should consider handing the boy over to him.”

“I never leave a job half done. Let alone trust the other half to an oaf like him.”

“Well, one cannot argue the former point. The crown owes you a great debt.”

“As long as I serve my King.”

“And the tidy sum helps as well, I suppose.”

“Why don’t you just get to the point.” He turned away as, Sir Osryn dead at his feet, his sword pulled from a rapidly-healing chest, and without Tallus playing his part, the brute ran at the King and his remaining guards. “You’re here for a reason, and I doubt it’s one I’m going to like.”

“There’s been a change of plan. Certain… developments.”

“Such as?”

“A contingent has been organised from within House Stonnegarth, they will meet you at the border of Tetsathwaine and take the boy from there.”

“I thought we were delivering to them in Tetsa itself?”

“That was before…”

“Before what?”

“You were seen, Tallus, and worse, identified. Word has reached Nysilla, and it will likely spread throughout the kingdom within days. House Wetherhall has placed a bounty on your head. A sizeable one. Every hero and adventurer will be after your head.”

“I’ve had people after me before.”

“Not like this. You may have been a renowned fighter in your prime, Tallus, but those days are long behind you. Still, you remain close to the King’s heart, so it is for his sake I have sought you out.”

“So have him absolve the bounty. He’s done it before.”

“That’s not an option, Tallus. This was an act against a noble house, the King cannot be seen to side with a rogue operative acting, supposedly, without his sanction.”

“Then I suppose I shall have to discuss it with him when I return.”

“You cannot return to Nysilla, Tallus. The order has gone out, if you come within sight of the city, of any city, the Realm’s Guard will hunt you down. You’ll be executed as a traitor to the realm if you are fortunate. The Court will demand no less.”

“And what will the King have to say about that?”

It was an empty threat and he knew it. The King’s power wasn’t absolute, and it balanced on the allegiance of the Court. Worse still was her silence, which said more than even a Psychic’s words could convey.

“He doesn’t know, does he.”

“We serve the King, Tallus.” She replied, even as that same King lay crushed by brutish hands behind her. “Our duty is to him and to the realm. We do what he can’t, what must be done to protect that realm. Part of that duty is to shield him from such things.”

“And the shield must sometimes be sacrificed for the good of the bearer.” Tallus stood straight. “I spoke similar words when I took my oath, and heard you say similar when you set me on this path. I understand duty. If mine is to die for the sake of the King then I do so gladly.”

“You’re a fool. No better than that gargantuan oaf whom you replaced.” She gestured at Osryn as he lay motionless in a pool of remembered blood. “Always so eager to die for the King. Do you even consider what such a death would be? To die a traitor? You would shame yourself, and worse, shame your King.”

The air stopped dead in his throat. Whether she had learned it from his years in her service or pulled it from his sleeping soul with arcane powers in that moment, she sure knew how to strike at him.

“So you need me gone. Out of the scene.”

“Exactly. As it stands, the accusations against you are little more than that. The people will not be likely to believe it, the King will outright refuse to. It will be a lot easier to defend your name in your absence than your person in the flesh.”

“So what do I do? Where do I go?”

“Why not spread your wings? Go beyond Asamor’s borders for the first time in your life? The wizards make such a fuss about travelling, maybe there’s something in it? I hear Sau is beautiful this time of year.”

Even in the privacy of a dream she felt the need to fold information beneath a farce of subtlety.

“I’d imagine it is.” He played along. “And how would you recommend getting to that enchanted island?”

***

Shadows ruled the chamber this night. Light, encamped as it was in the torches on the distant walls, fought in vain against the darkness. Justin supposed the ruling chamber was always like this at night, in truth, yet this night seemed all the darker. Lord Miteus’ party had returned a few hours ago, and whilst he had been occupied with the matters of war, the forces gathering within and around the city, Lady Jalice had spent her time between calmly preparing herself and fits of anxiety. She had decided in the end to meet him here, in the same room where they had first exchanged their vows. He wished he could calm her, that he knew what to say, or had the place to say it. Miteus was, beneath it all, a good man, and where love and hate clashed within love would surely win through.

Wouldn’t it?

The words of the self-proclaimed priest of the Farseer crawled inside his mind, leaving in their tiny footprints seeds of doubt. He had tried to push the thought away, but it had remained, and he hadn’t the courage to speak to the Seer again. It made no difference. No matter what happened, he was stood beside her.

The doors opened and Lord Miteus strode in. He looked weary from days of hard travel, and perhaps, Justin suspected, his own form of worry. Still, despite his apparent exhaustion, the distance between himself and his wife seemed to melt away as he made his way towards her.

“My love,” He said through their embrace. “I am so, so sorry for what I have done to us.”

He released her gently. “I promise you, with every beat of my heart, that I will return our children. The King assures me they will be safe.”

“I know, husband.” Justin wondered if the terror was truly as obvious to others’ ears. “I trust our King that they will be cared for, but…”

“They will be. The Stonnegarths are honourable men, Hadnar is of my blood. They will do no harm by our boy.”

“And what of our Alexia?” She almost sobbed. “Can the elves be trusted?”

“The King claims they can be. But if they harm a single hair on her head, by all the Gods I swear I’ll burn their forest to the ground!”

“Please, Miteus, there is already so much talk of war!” Justin could almost hear her heart on the verge of breaking.

“Let’s not speak of it.” He pulled her close and comforted her. “I’ve been away from you for too long, and the kingdom be damned if I am kept from you a moment longer. I refuse to hear another word of war until I have awoken with my wife asleep at my side.”

“Oh, Miteus! Why have they done this to us?”

“The fault is mine, but I will set it right. Take me to Micharus, my love, I would see my son.”

There could not have been time for more than a breath or two in the silence, but it was as if time had frozen still. Justin felt the air turn to ice in his lungs.

“My love…”

“What?” He asked. “What is it?”

“It’s… it’s Mich…”

“Mich? What about him?”

“He’s… gone…”

The comfort bled away from his eyes in that instant. Justin could see it, he hoped she couldn’t.

“What do you mean, gone?” He took a step away from her.

“The wizards have taken him, my love.”

The warmth that had vacated his eyes now fled his face, replaced by an incredulity possessed only by the nobility.

“The w…” The word died in his mouth as the first flicker of anger awoke in his gaze. “The King made no mention of this. If this is true then it is against his word and my oath as Lord of the Realm. If they have taken our child then he will side with us. Every Lord will side with us. We will force them to give him back.”

He turned away. “Sir Laywood!” He bellowed. “Get me Sir Laywood at once!”

“Wait, husband!” She cried. “You don’t understand!”

“Every Lord of the Realm was vowed never to cower before the Wizards, Jal. We are all bound by honour, duty and law to uphold that vow. Our outrage will be theirs…”

“He’s one of them!” She wailed. Miteus stopped and turned slowly. Justin saw the look in his eye, the precursor to expression that he had trained hard to spot. There was a moment in every man where the spark of anger caught aflame, a fire that got hotter the longer it burned. Already Justin’s hand was on his sword, sliding the blade slowly from its sheath as his legs tensed.

“I beg your pardon, my love?”

“Micharus… he’s one of them. He’s mageblood.”

The eyes are the key to the heart. It is in the eyes where a man betrays himself, that was what Justin had always been taught. It was true, there was a terrible anger that began in the heart, where it burned ever more fiercely until it charred its way through a man’s mind. In combat such rage made a man dangerous, and spotting it in the eyes gave you time to prepare for it. It was in Miteus’ eyes, at that moment, the battle between love and hatred had been fought.

And lost.

“That’s impossible. It is not true!” The furnace was burning now. Civility was a mask fast coming free.

“I’m sorry, my love!”

He moved back towards her, still clinging to apparent serenity. She was unaware. Justin’s mind was already flaring, forcing open the seldom-used reflexes and intuition.

“There has been no mageblood in my family for generations.” All softness was gone. Even the illusion of kindness had fled.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”

“You.” The anger had taken his voice now. “I should have known. Your Gods-be-damned uncle, that bastard cousin. Did my father bond me to a tainted bloodline?”

“Please, don’t call my…” There was a hint of anger in her voice now, the barest whisper, but he heard it.

“And you. Are you one of them? Did you bewitch him? Did you twist my father’s mind? Did you bewitch me?” The last words spoken with bile.

“No, I didn’t…” Her flicker of anger collapsed beneath the weight of his. “I couldn’t… husband… I love you!”

He stepped right to her and held his face inches from hers. The anger almost filled him now. Somewhere in Justin’s mind he felt the impulse to intervene. He suppressed it.

“Is this what you call love? Wait until I am brought to my knees only to poison my one hope?”

In the silence Justin only heard her whisper. “I’m sorry.”

Justin’s hesitation was overpowered. He moved in the same instant as Miteus, covering the short distance in a mere moment. The Lord’s gauntlet smashed across her face and she fell.

Conscious thought had no role to play. Justin’s sword was bared and his limbs moved without command. Miteus reacted to his impending attack with surprising speed.

It was over in a moment. Justin swore he heard the scream of a child, but it hadn’t had time to register. Miteus had been distracted by it as well, a momentary fault in his counter that let Justin block his fist with the flat of the blade and land his own blow against Miteus’ face.

His mind raced to regain control as Miteus fell and Justin turned, stood over him, the blade raised over his head. The reality of the moment hit him like a splash of cold water, driving back reflex and letting him regain control.

“Do it!” Miteus croaked. “Kill me and complete your treachery!”

By the Gods. This was a Lord of the Realm.

A breath of hesitation. Something struck him in the back of the head, hard. He felt himself topple to the floor, and the guards were on him, locking him in place with their body weight. He fought to turn his head to the side as another guard helped Miteus to his feet.

“Are you hurt, my Lord?”

“Hardly.” Miteus replied as he placed a boot next to Justin’s face.

“What should we do with him, my Lord?”

“The dungeon.” He walked away.

“Shall I take the Lady to the apothecary, my Lord?”

He stopped and turned back to her. “No. Take her to the dungeon as well.”

She cried in protest but silenced herself quickly. As men lifted him from the floor Justin heard Lord Miteus Wetherhall utter one last thing as he left the chamber.

“To the pit with you both.”


Part XXII | Contents