Authors: Aaron Pogue
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy
Two long, squat chests rested in the luggage area atop the cabin, apparently arranged beforehand and carrying Claighan's possessions. I had my sturdy leather bag inside with us, stuffed full and taking up most of the floorspace. Every now and then I looked at Claighan to see if he was still awake. He always was. He never answered when I spoke to him.
I tried to think, to understand what had happened. Apparently Claighan had not won his race. The king had called him a traitor and conspirator to rebellion. I had heard Claighan speak of the king in less than glowing terms, but it had never seemed beyond the scope of an Academy Master's pride. This was something else.
Rebellion. I closed my eyes and thought of Cooper's commission to join the Guard. I thought of regiments disbanded to be replaced with Academy wizards. The king's army had only one serious engagement at the moment: the constant, quiet threat of rebellion in the Ardain. But if they were taking on new Guards....
I raised my voice across the small cabin. "There's a rebellion, isn't there?" Claighan didn't even seem to hear me. I looked down at my hands. "There's a war."
He gave me no answer, but I didn't need one. I had heard more of the conversation with Edwin. They'd spoken of a wizard tempted by power, going over to the duke. That would be Duke Brant. If he were involved, if he had access to a battle wizard of his own....
I let my head fall back against the wall of the carriage, and felt the same distant, disconnected shock that seemed to have wrapped itself around Claighan. A traitor, Academy-trained. I would have killed him by my own hand. One man, probably some soft nobleman's son swollen on the pride of his own power and lusting for more, and he had cost me whatever future Claighan had been willing to offer me.
I opened my eyes and looked across the cabin. "What was his name?" I asked.
Claighan raised his head. He met my eyes. "Lareth," he said. "And he has cost us everything."
Before I could get another answer from him, he let his head sink down onto his chest again and descended back into his toneless muttering. I tried to draw him out, tried to learn more, but that was as much as he would give me. A name. Lareth. I felt my lips peeling back in a snarl, intended as much for the king's quick temper, for Othin's petty rage, even for Cooper's sneering disdain.
And now...now we would go into hiding. Not in the princely luxury of the capitol, but in some quiet little village across the channel, or perhaps in the hostile halls of the Academy. Claighan would pull strings, and Edwin would do what he could. He seemed to have considerable influence. And while they strove to return to the king's good graces, I would play my part, too. I would study under Claighan. He could teach me, if I could just draw him out of his dark reverie. I would practice the sword. I would be ready next time, to show the king I was worth sponsoring.
It wouldn't be easy, and I knew enough of the treacherous games noblemen played to know it wouldn't be quick. But I could wait. This still offered me greater opportunities than I could have hoped for herding sheep in some quiet Terrailles township. It might be slower, but that could even help me. Things had been moving awfully fast.
The more I thought about it, the calmer I became. My heartbeat slowed, my brow smoothed, and gradually the knots in my shoulders began to relax. At some point during the night I drifted asleep. I slumped back into the corner and let my head fall against the polished wood because the bench was too narrow to stretch out on. The shaking of the carriage wall bruised my head, but I eventually ignored even that, and sank into a shallow sleep. For hours more we rolled on, my dreams constantly tinged with the little sense impressions of the night journey. Finally a coarse, low shout interrupted one of my dreams. The carriage jolted to a stop and I sat up, looking around. A thin gray light suffused the cabin, starlight and some stray beams from the moon cutting in through the curtains. I yawned and stretched, grimacing at the stiffness and pain of half a night's journey.
I heard the same voice growling through the night and realized it was not the voice of a friendly stableman come to help unhitch the carriage. Of course not. We wouldn't make Souport until well after dawn. So why had we stopped? I heard another shouted order and grew cold.
had stopped us? My tension returned. It had to be the King's Guard. I sank quietly down off the bench and darted back to my place at the window, peeking past the curtain.
I expected to see soldiers in uniform, though it would have been difficult to get word here so quickly without the help of another wizard. I did see several shadowy forms in the night outside, gathered at a careful distance and brandishing arms that flashed in the moonlight. They did not wear the uniform of the Guard, though. They wore clothes as ragged as mine had been, and I saw faces smeared with mud. One man stepped forward into the light cast by the carriage's lamps, and as he approached his words became clear.
"Get down from there, old man, or I'll stick you clean through! Lewin, Kent, get the luggage!" I heard a thud as the old driver jumped down from his high perch and landed by the roadside. The sound was followed by the clatter of two men climbing the steps to the top of the carriage. These were not soldiers, but thieves. Brigands had stopped us on the King's Way, on the Isle.
My heart began to pound, my mind racing. Forgetting my caution, I threw myself away from the window to grab for my leather bag in the far corner.
"Claighan," I hissed. I fumbled at the drawstrings for four desperate heartbeats then growled under my breath and tore at them until they broke. Then I reached within and drew the Green Eagle's sword from its sheath. "Claighan, wake up!"
The blade was magnificent, the balance perfect. I barely had room to hold the weapon upright, but I did my best to position myself within the cramped space, facing toward the voice of the bandit leader. He was still croaking orders in that low bark of his. I bumped the wizard with my hip, trying to wake him without making a noise, and he gave a little snort and blinked his eyes in a confused flutter.
But before I could catch his attention I heard a rattle as the leader of the brigands took the handle of the door. His growl turned to a shout as he flung the door open, a battle cry intended to startle us awake and terrify us, but I was waiting.
I fell forward onto my right knee, let my right arm straighten, and in those movements I drove the sword forward and down in a textbook-perfect thrust. Behind me, Claighan cried, "No!" but I could not have stopped myself. I had spent years perfecting that maneuver, practicing under the protection of our silver-penny spell, until my body drove the blade straight and true without any thought from me. But there was no magical pressure and dancing light to stay the sword's sharp tip this time. I caught the thief just below the eye, felt the thin bone crunch on both sides of the skull, and in that instant his cry was silenced. He fell off the blade and landed in the roadside grass with a wet thud. I knelt there, arm still extended and blade glistening, and stared down at the dead man on the sod. I forgot the other bandits in the night, forgot the danger and the fear. I leaned forward and vomited, trembling through my soul at the thing I had just done.
In an instant the wizard was beside me. I lay trembling on the floor of the carriage, but I heard him curse softly above me as he gazed out into the clearing. The other bandits stood in a loose circle, looking bewildered. Claighan spoke mystical words that felt strangely familiar. I felt a flash of blinding light and an instant's searing warmth, and that quickly his spell was done. Everyone was gone, bandits and driver alike transported far away. I lay still on the floor of the carriage, panting and sick, and a terrible silence fell around us.
At last Claighan knelt and put a hand on my shoulder, turning me over to look at him. "Daven, this...." He struggled for something to say. I could only stare at him. He sighed. "This should not have happened."
I shivered, head to toes, and squeezed my eyes tight shut. I realized even now I was filled with panic. I fought for control of myself, I fought to slow my thundering heart. "There were brigands, Claighan. On the king's road. They attacked us. I—"
He smiled at me, his eyes filled with sadness. "You did what you knew, Daven." He looked with regret at the torn cords of my leather pack, at the blood-stained broadsword still in my hand. "You used the only weapon you know." He straightened, then he reached down and caught my hand, pulling me to my feet. I sank limply onto the uncomfortable bench, my mind still reeling.
"I killed him."
"No, Daven, I killed him. This was a terrible mistake." He pressed a hand to his forehead, scrubbed it over his eyes, and nodded. "I have been far too distracted. But you...you need to sleep."
"I couldn't possibly sleep!"
"You will sleep. I will help you. Close your eyes." I sank back into the corner again, pulled my knees up before me and wrapped my arms around them. I was still trembling. When I closed my eyes I saw a man's bloody, lifeless face. The tears felt cold against my skin. I fought to keep my eyes closed as the old wizard chanted, fought to ignore that hideous image, but it leered at me and I felt sick again.
Claighan's hand on my shoulder was no comfort as he chanted in a low, soft voice. I heard him falter once, and I heard great sorrow in his voice, but even as his words washed through my head the gruesome images remained, and finally I jumped to my feet, crying out. Claighan stepped back and let the spell die away, concern in his eyes.
"I am sorry, Claighan. I'm sorry, but the visions...."
"I understand. It is probably for the best. We have far to go." I waited for his direction, but for a long time he stood staring at the wall of the cabin, thinking. Finally he sighed and sank down onto the bench. "There is no easy way out of this. There may be no way at all." He looked up at me, as if suddenly remembering I was there, and then changed his voice. "Daven, we must continue on our way. The king is
pleased with us, and when he hears of this he will be less so."
"He would blame us for the bandits?"
"He would blame me for them. It was my fault. We must move on, but we have no driver now—"
"I can drive." He threw a questioning look at me, but I persisted. "I drove for the nobles when I was a boy. It's how I paid for father's...for father's food. And mine. I drove carriages in the city for almost a year."
He nodded. "You did. Yes, I think I knew that. Well, there is one answer at least. You will drive us to Souport and I will make arrangements from there. Climb up front and sort out the reins." I did as he instructed, trying to ignore the sounds of effort that came from behind me. He was putting the corpse inside the cabin. The corpse was going to Souport with us. I grimaced and turned my attention to the horses. They were a fine team, and the road was an easy one. I counted seconds under my breath. Finally Claighan climbed up onto the seat beside me, panting from the effort. He met my eyes for a moment then quickly looked away. "We are ready, Daven. Just follow this road."
I clucked to the horses and snapped the reins. They started off at a quick but even pace. They knew the way. I sank back against the wall of the car and watched the landscape slide past. The air on my face was fresh and cold. I drove for hours, until the red-gold glow of morning touched the sky over my left shoulder. I watched the sun climb into the sky and let the cold night fade into the darkness of memory.
I thought about the things the wizard had told me on the road to the City. I thought about my father who had died in a dank cell for stealing a loaf of bread. I thought about the man I'd killed, and Claighan's earlier mention of a demonstration on the road to Souport. I thought of his answer earlier, "No, Daven, I killed him." I was lost in these dark thoughts when a soft, dangerous voice spoke from the air between us.
"Claighan, can you hear me? It is
important that I speak with you." I nearly jumped from my seat, but the old wizard merely shook his head and pulled a small, ornate mirror from within his robes.
When he held it up to his face it showed the king's adviser instead of Claighan's reflection. "I am here, Edwin. I expected to hear from you."
There was silence, then, "Claighan, this is grave business. What—"
"Another mistake, that is all. Another in a string of tragedies. I hate what has happened, but—"
happened? I do not understand. I have only the reports from the men you sent me, and they are quite confused."
"I was distracted. I lost myself in concern for what happened at the palace and I forgot about what awaited us. Daven...the boy proved himself a most remarkable warrior. Once more he surprised me with his ability, and this time—"
"This time was one too many! If what they tell me is true, I don't know that I can save you."
"You don't have to save me, Edwin. Do what you must to keep yourself in favor. I am certain we can reach the Academy before his soldiers, and then I can return to set things straight. Until then, distance yourself from my name."
"You have no idea." His voice sounded sad. "Timmon believed I had killed you. He was outraged. For a moment he forgot his anger and...and he nearly cried. That simple trick almost won you free, but I cannot hide this. Too many of the soldiers knew you were involved."
"I know," Claighan said. "I understand the importance of this, but I cannot change the past. I cannot undo what has been made, I can only shape the uncertain. You taught me that."