Authors: Aaron Pogue
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy
But even as I thought it, some treacherous corner of my spirit reminded me I'd done just that the night before when I was surrounded by hostile locals, weak and tired and afraid. They had threatened me, and I'd used their own fire to drive them back.
I hadn't hurt anyone. Not either time. I couldn't imagine the dragon showing such restraint. But why would I have saved it?
I remembered the trace of red that danced within the dragon's darkness. It was my blood. I knew that now. The mark of my power within the beast. A part of me. Could it have been as simple as that? I'd felt just as threatened here as the night before? I'd chased them away to preserve that piece of me?
I remembered the blinding agony of the dragon's acid blood against my wound. I remembered the dragon raging that I had done something to stop it killing me. I wondered if I might look the same to another wizard's second sight—all flare of light and life, but with one thin strand of black as dark as nothingness.
It made sense.
had kept my broken body breathing.
had given me inhuman strength to survive. For that matter,
had given me the gift of chaos magic—a kind of sorcery most wizards didn't dare attempt.
I could feel it in me, then: the thread of ancient, terrible strength, and the core of power that drove me. I tapped into it, beneath the light of the rising moon, and while Vechernyvetr soared north to his acts of violence and blood, I ran toward Tirah to stop one.
I made perhaps a dozen miles, flitting like a ghost through villages long since gone to sleep. I stopped to drink from a township's well, I snatched a pear from a roadside orchard, but mostly I just ran.
I passed another sleepy town with four hours still till dawn, and then fences fell away until rolling plains stretched wide in all directions. I slowed beneath the stars in the heart of the wide open plains and felt the immensity of it. And then I yawned, until I feared I would crack my jaw, and I missed a step and barely caught myself short of falling.
Dragon blood or not, I needed to get some sleep. I left the road, hoping to find a spot with fresh water to rest an hour or two. I'd seen the glint of moonlight on an oxbowed river once or twice along the way, off to the west beneath the shadows of the hills. So I bent my path in that direction, hoping the river had followed me this far.
I found it, not a mile from the road. Low and wide and slow, the river snaked across the verdant plain and made a great peninsula before me where one tree grew. An ancient oak spread its mighty branches over a little spit of land.
Where embers glowed beneath a cooking pot.
I stopped in my tracks, weariness and dragon's strength alike forgotten in a sudden fit of fear. I fell to my hands and knees, crouching in the too-short grass, and strained my eyes to see.
A dozen men sat close around the dying fire's coals. They held tin cups or bowls, and I smelled the faint aroma of a stew. My stomach rumbled, but they were too far away to hear it. I saw swords and knives on their belts, and a crossbow leaned against the trunk of the proud oak. There were sturdy boots and light chain shirts, but not a scrap of uniform among them.
Rebel soldiers. Or brigands. Either way, these men were trouble. And as I watched one of them snatched the cookpot and dunked it in the river. He brought it back and dumped water on the coals, barking orders as he did. I heard groans and complaints, but the men around the fire began to rise, to gather their things together.
That was the sign that it was time for me to go. I had no desire to meet these men alone beneath the moon. I turned to slip away, skulking low as a hunting fox, and I was almost lost to sight when I heard a word that stopped me dead.
I strained to hear above the sudden pounding of my heart. The man who spoke assisted me when he raised his voice in sharp objection. "There's no way! We'll never beat the king there. It's more than forty miles—"
"We don't have to," another voice growled back. "The wizard has made arrangements. We only need make it to Nathan's farm." I scampered back, peering past a little bush, and saw the man who'd doused the fire. "Still a long night's walk, but do you really want to sit this one out?"
He didn't get an answer right away, and I crept closer trying to get a better look at the expressions of the men in the circle. "Cowards," the leader growled. "Every man of you! Don't you understand what this represents? The king and, what, a couple dozen Green Eagles? We'll have three hundred men. We'll step out of empty air and win the war in the space of an hour."
I saw them shuffle, saw them exchange glances that never quite met the leader's eyes. The one who'd objected earlier spoke up again. "It's a little frightening, though, isn't it? Trusting the wizard?"
The leader drew himself up tall. He stared down his nose at the men around him, then shook his head in disappointment. He turned on his heel and snatched up his crossbow. "Stay, the lot of you," he said. "There's glory to be had. There's victory. And you'd do well to consider how the wizard treats men who let him down. He'll remember, mark my words. He'll remember who was there. And who wasn't."
With that he left, stomping south along the river's edge. The others stared after him for a heartbeat, then exchanged a quick, quiet conversation. Then they, too, hurried off after the leader.
I watched them go. My mouth was dry, my arms were weak. Twelve deadly men, and I was unarmed. I thought of the miserable old sword I'd left by the path at Drew Gail's farm, and of the magnificent blade I'd lost before when I first tangled with the dragon.
Of course, I wasn't entirely powerless. I raised a hand and felt the breeze playing between my fingers. I stretched my senses out to the patient, rolling depths of the river and felt the weight of it. Oh, I was far from helpless.
It didn't matter, though. If I'd been barely a day out of my sickbed and half-blind, I still would have followed them. This was it. This was the rebel wizard's plan. I'd expected it in Tirah, but this made so much more sense. He had an ambush planned on the Cara Road.
I slipped after them, lagging far behind, but never far enough to lose sight of them. All he'd need was a portal to bring them through, just as the Masters had sent us to hunt the dragon in a forest half a day's ride away. Claighan said such things were dangerous, but Lareth had shown no hesitation to work travelings. If he could bring three hundred men into the heart of the king's contingent—if he could drop them right on top of the king himself—the wizard could do just as he'd threatened.
I tracked them through the night, across a ford and into rolling hills, then up to higher ground beneath the shadows of true mountains. By dawn the ground we crossed was steep and treacherous, more rock than earth, but the soldiers that I followed made more noise than I could have hoped for and hid my presence as much as anything I could have done. They were jittery, anxious and excited for the day ahead.
And as they moved they joined another party of ten, then later fifty men who rose up from the earth like morning dew. I fell farther and farther back, wary, but no one ever looked my way. Their eyes were fixed on their destination. The sun was not yet risen, but it tinted the sky when the army I followed angled back down out of the hills, toward the plains, and I could see beyond them the neat lines of tended fields.
A ripple of excitement passed among them, and they moved faster. Despite my best efforts I fell behind. Just before dawn I lost them, though I knew the general direction they'd been headed. As the sun rose on the far horizon I crept up a little, long-forgotten footpath to the top of a gully and almost stumbled into their midst. They had stopped running at last, and as I came to the top of the hill I could see why.
They stood in an unfenced yard around a whitewashed farmhouse alone on the verge of a sprawling pasture. A ball of hazy green flame the size of my fist hung in the air, dancing with an eerie flicker, and more than a hundred men gathered around it. They kept their distance, leaving a circle nearly ten paces across at the center of their crowd, but every man among them stood attentive and stared at the flame.
From my place outside the gathering I could only barely hear the voice, but I had no doubt it came from the flame. "...timing is crucial," it was saying, and thin as it was I still knew it for Lareth's. I felt a knot of fury in my stomach. "Be ready."
I slipped into my second sight, considering my options. They carried no torches or I'd have dispersed them as I'd done the townsfolk of Ammerton. But here I saw no fire anywhere among them. Even the green flame that carried Lareth's voice seemed to be an entirely artificial construct. I could see the light of the energy that drove it, but it had no substance, no thread for me to bend to my will. The wind had died down low again, too. The power bound into their weapons and armor called to me, but even when I tried I could no more touch the metal than I could the green flame of Lareth's will.
Still, I could do something with the earth. While I was considering my options, though, I heard Lareth's voice hiss, "Now!" In an instant the ball of flame unfolded, attenuated, and flashed out into a rectangular window taller than a man and ten paces wide. A portal.
And the soldiers washed into it. I saw fear on some faces, saw shifting feet in the furthest rows, but still they moved. From both sides they poured into the traveling like sand rushing into the gap of an hour glass, and a hundred men disappeared from Nathan's farm before I could so much as slow them.
A cold, sickening fear flashed through me. I'd just watched them go to kill the king! I heaved myself up over the edge of the gully even as the last of the rebels moved through the portal. I sprinted as hard as I could across the trampled grass. I caught a glimpse through the gateway of a steep rocky slope, spotted with scrubby trees, and far below was the wide path of the Cara Road.
My feet pounded, as did my heart. My breath seared in my throat. My vision blurred as I turned all my focus to desperate haste, and I flashed through the portal a heartbeat before I felt the whispering pulse of the wizard's will stretching out to close it.
I made it through, though. I made it through, and burst out at a full sprint above a steep fall. I heard the little sounds of surprise among the soldiers around me. I sensed them, vague shadows among the trees, spread out all along the slope, as thick as the trees themselves. I might have heard the rasp of a sword, or even a softly barked order.
I could scarce respond to it. I was falling. My first step through the gate stretched too far before it hit the earth, and it hit loose soil that gave beneath it. My second step found no purchase at all, and then I was falling forward. I reached out my arms to catch myself, still in my second sight, and instead of hitting the earth I seized the elements with my mind and bent them to my need.
I caught the air, weak and still but strong enough to slow my fall. I shaped the earth beneath me, slamming my will down the slope ahead of me, changing a rough and rocky slope into a path as smooth as the flat of a blade. I snapped it in my mind, like a housewife snapping a bedsheet, and trees and boulders danced aside to clear my way. Even wrapped in air I nearly faltered when my foot struck the path I'd made, but my next step hit true and then I was running down the mountainside as easily as a paved street.
Far below I saw figures on the king's road. These wore uniforms—the deep green of the king's personal bodyguard, and the soldiers' red and blue. There were more than I'd hoped, but not enough. Not enough by far. They moved easily, unafraid, swords sheathed and eyes fixed lazy on the distant horizon instead of the hills around them. Of course. The advance scouts had already checked these hills for an ambush. They'd come and gone before Lareth opened the way.
Terror nearly overwhelmed me then. I felt it batter at the control that had let me remake the mountainside. I tried to push it away, but I saw an arm reach out at me as I passed. It missed, dirty fingers closing inches from the end of my sleeve. I heard another cry behind me, still muted but sharper now, and knew I was in trouble.
My second sight failed me then. My strength went with it, and if not for my momentum I probably would have fallen where I stood. Instead I sprinted on down the hillside, helpless to do anything else. I forced the deadly men around me from my mind, and focused all my attention on the cavalcade below. I threw myself toward them with great leaping strides.
As soon as I thought they might hear I bellowed, "Look to the hills!" I heard complaints from the rebels around me but I fought to ignore them. "Look to the hills!" I screamed. "Ambush! Ambush by the rebel's men!"
I'm not sure if the soldiers on the road below me heard any of the words, but they responded with merciful haste. Pikes and swords flashed into hands and the loose spread of soldiers fell into a tighter formation. The Green Eagles were faster, falling back against the carriage that must have carried the king and drawing crossbows while their eyes searched the hill. And even as they responded, I heard an order pass along their lines and every man among them spurred his horse faster. They flashed through the pass with surprising speed.
Still hoping to take some advantage of their surprise, the rebels came boiling down out of the hills to fall upon the king's men. I saw the woods ripple like an anthill opposite me. The same must have been happening all around me, too. Arrows flew in both directions, and the first charge of the rebels even got close enough to swing their swords, but superior arms and training threw them back and the king's mounted party slipped away.