Authors: Aaron Pogue
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy
She pulled back and sat up very straight. Her chin came up, proud, as I had seen Themmichus's do. "I am fighting them," she snapped. I looked at her hands, unbound, and checked her ankles for some shackles. She had none. When I met her eyes again they flashed with fierce contempt.
"They underestimate me," she said. "Do not make the same mistake."
"I never would," I said. "But what are you doing here?"
"These are my lands," she said, full of righteous fury still. I frowned at her, and she waved toward the back of the tent. "We are at Teelevon. The seat of my father's lands. He is the only loyal servant left in all the south Ardain, so Lareth made his camp around our town. He holds us under siege—"
"Your town is just out there?" I asked, hope flaring, but she spotted it and shook her head.
"We're on the brink of ruin," she said. "Our fighting men are gone, our weapons confiscated, our food stores plundered."
I felt my shoulders sink. She sighed. "I know," she said. "
why I am here. We had no other hope. I slipped away in the night and tried to pass their lines to find some help."
"That was brave," I said.
I saw the twitch of muscles as she set her jaw. Her eyes flicked to the tent's opening, then back to mine. "I'm not done," she said in a little whisper. She moved closer to me. "You saw I have no bonds. I'll give it until sundown and then run. If you think you can keep up—"
"No," I said. "I know this Lareth. He's a careful man and a monster when pushed. Do not assume he's underestimated you just because your hands are free."
She scowled down at me. "Then what should I do? Just hide? Just wait? Just see what Lareth's men might want from me?" Her voice quavered at the end of that, and I felt a stab of sympathetic pain. I closed my eyes.
"I see," I said. I nodded. "But we must be smart. Even if you have to run...we should at least coordinate our efforts. He'll come for me at even bell. I'll make you some distraction—"
"Why?" she said. "What does he want from you?"
I met her eyes for a heartbeat, but I could not hold the gaze. I dropped my eyes and sighed. "To...to kill me, I suppose. To have my answer."
I felt her eyes on me, measuring. A long time passed in silence. At last she asked, "What has he asked of you?"
I sighed. "He wants me to kill the king," I said. "He's offered me a place among his men, if I will just...." She gasped in horror and I nodded. "He would send me there tonight."
"To the king?" she said. "To Cara?"
"Tirah," I said. "The king relocated today."
She gripped my shoulder with an almost painful intensity. That drew my eyes at last, and I found her staring down at me with a fire. "You must go," she said.
"I cannot kill the king."
A frown bent her lips, and then she shook her head. "You are a hero," she said. "To be here at all. And you will take the rebel's offer."
I blinked at her. I shook my head. "I won't," I said.
She stopped me with a finger on my lips. "You will," she said. "You will go to Tirah. And you will warn the king. You will tell him the wizard lays siege outside my town. He has been waiting for an opportunity like this, to find them all gathered in one place. He'll come to wipe them out—"
"And save us both," I said. She nodded, serious. Hope flared in my chest and then died in the same heartbeat. I shook my head. "I think you underestimate the wizard. He must expect some attempt at betrayal."
"Then you must convince him," she said. "But I think he is not as smart as you suspect. Madness sometimes looks like genius."
I considered her for a long time. Her eyes burned with hope and angry passion. Perspiration touched her sun-dark skin. I remembered the pretty, confident girl who had flirted with me in the palace, but here before me was a warrior. "You have an uncommon courage," I told her. "How can you be so sure that I have the same? That I will be your hero?"
"I know it from Themm's letters. And from the fire in your eyes from the moment I met you. And from the quiet little rage that trembles in your voice even now." She smiled, and I saw a touch of tears in her eyes. "I'd almost lost all hope until I saw your face."
I swallowed and shook my head, but she held my gaze. I took a deep breath. "I will do everything I can to save you, Lady Eliade."
"Isabelle," she said. "Always just Isabelle."
"Isabelle," I said. I swallowed again and thought back on our pleasant encounter in the halls of the palace. I licked my lips and forced a laugh. "Did you... did you find your prince?"
Her eyes were hot on mine. After a long moment she gave me a little smile. "Half a dozen," she said. She moved a little closer. "But not a one to my liking. Too proud, too soft, too quiet. I think I could make good use of a shepherd though." Her eyes glittered.
I felt a heat burn in my cheeks and dropped my eyes. "I only hope to serve you," I said. She came closer still and I felt her warmth. I met her eyes and said quietly, "We are not safe here."
"I know," she said. Her voice came very soft. "And I am so afraid. But what is there to gain from letting that show?"
I nodded at that. "I'm thinking about the night," I said. "About our plan. I think it would be best if you didn't run."
She arched an eyebrow at me. "You don't imagine
so proud and soft and quiet, do you? I can be a hero, too."
I shook my head and tried not to think how soft she might be. "No," I said. "I know your courage and it gives me fear. We have a plan. But if you run...these are not all careful men. Even if Lareth doesn't have some trick in place, if you run and they chase you...they will not be kind in capturing you."
She held my gaze for some time before she said, in that same quiet voice, "They were not kind before."
I felt the blood drain from my face. I looked away, and she placed a comforting hand on my shoulder. "I am strong enough to do what must be done, Daven."
I nodded. "And that has changed," I said. I met her eyes. "
is what I'm telling you. You don't have to run. I will bring back the king with his army. Let them rescue you." She opened her mouth to argue, but I leaned closer and held her eyes. "Please, Isabelle. I intend to bring deadly men to do battle in this camp. Promise me you won't step out into that."
"But what if you fail?" she asked.
"I will not fail. For you, I will not fail."
She chewed her lower lip again, eyes on something far away. At last she said, "If they discover you've betrayed them, I could lose my chance."
"And if you run before I can bring you help," I said, "you could lose your life. Trust in me. Stay here."
She took a deep breath and held it. And then she nodded, once. "I will trust you," she said at last. And then more quietly still, "Everything rests on you."
I swallowed again, and met her eyes, and tried to match her courage.
We had little more time after that. She told me what little she knew of Tirah and of the king, and she assured me Themm was safe and well. She shared a bottle of stale water with me and half a loaf of bread. She was trying her hand at the thick knots that bound my wrists behind my back when a heavy footstep outside the tent stopped her. She drew away.
The ones who came for me were two big guards, and from the looks in their eyes they knew about the role I'd played at their little ambush. They were none too gentle as they dragged me from the tent, but they let me keep my feet. I walked between them across the camp, learning everything I could of it.
There were campfires everywhere. Dusk still hung in the air, but I could see the glow of campfires holding back the night in all directions. There must have been hundreds of tents. There could have been thousands. Straining my gaze into the distance, I could see a faint curve as the smaller clusters of tents bent toward the north, encircling the distant town.
My escorts led me to Lareth's tent. It was huge—easily three or four times the size of the dusty brown tents the soldiers used. This one was nearly a pavilion and stained a deep black that gave it a powerful presence at the heart of the camp. A guard outside the tent ducked in first, spoke briefly, then came back out and waved me on ahead. My escort stayed behind. I cast one last look around, trying to memorize every aspect of the camp's layout, and then ducked on in with my wrists still bound behind me.
I expected some kind of luxury. Instead I recognized the same tent I'd been prisoner in before. The chair had been righted and beyond it—in a corner I hadn't been able to see before—a simple bedroll lay in disarray. An open bottle of wine stood beside it, and a pile of leather-bound books. The wizard held another in his hand.
Now, too, there was a cold green flame hanging in the air off to one side. I felt my eyes drawn to it, and I saw Lareth turn to face it, too. He nodded slowly. "Impressive, is it not?" he said. "Or perhaps you do not know. So take my word, it's an impressive thing. A thing of my own making, even more."
He shook his head. "But you cannot see even a fraction of the thing." He stepped closer and waved a careless hand. As he did, a pressure I hadn't known was there eased in my head. "Go on," he said. "Look with the wizard's eye, and see what I have wrought."
I hesitated, the memory of pain still far too clear. He smiled at that and shook his head. "I mean to send you north to kill my foe," he said. He waved again, a slicing gesture, and I felt the bonds on my wrists fall away. I massaged life back into my hands. He nodded. "You'd do me little good without your power. Now try."
I hesitated a heartbeat longer, but if he only wanted to hurt me he had plenty of other ways to do that. I closed my eyes and stepped through the exercises Antinus had taught me so long ago. They drew my focus from the pain and fear. They helped me press those things down, to push them back, until I was nothing but my concentrated will. I breathed once, in and out, and opened my eyes to the world of energies and powers.
The tent held none. I realized for the first time there was no flame in here, no light but the cold green glow of Lareth's artificial fire. The air was still, the earth was out of reach. The only energy I could see in the entire tent was Lareth's—the strength of life that made him glow like a star, and the tiny reflection of that flame in his mystic fire.
Out of curiosity I reached out to that fire with my senses, but I could not grip it. My will passed right through. I could see the shape of it, though, could sense the purpose behind the working. It pulsed with the energy of a traveling, all bound up and hovering on the brink of realization.
I dropped my second sight and found Lareth watching my eyes. Too late he put on a careless grin, but I had seen the calculation, the measurement. I waved to the flame. "It's just a way to save a working?"
"It's...something on those lines," the wizard said. "It binds my will in place and time, unfolding without thought when I intend."
"And this one is for me?"
He showed his teeth. "This one's for you," he said. "This is your traveling toward Tirah. It opens when the sun is set."
I nodded slowly, mostly for his pride. "Quite impressive," I said. "I've never seen its like."
He snorted and shook his head. "Come," he said. He stepped across and took my arm, his thin fingers hard around my biceps. "We have some moments left before it shall unfold." He steered me toward the tent's entrance. As we stepped out into the falling night I saw again the myriad glowing campfires, and for a heartbeat I considered reaching for them.
Lareth stopped me with a slight pressure on my arm before he stretched an arm toward the tent where Isabelle was waiting. I saw another cold green flame above its peak. I felt a pit of ice in my stomach, and from the corner of my eye I saw Lareth slowly nod. He said nothing.
"And what is that one?" I asked.
"A simple thing," he said. "A ball of fire. Not...." He chuckled, amused. "Not the cold green sort, I should say. But hot. White hot. And larger than a house."
"And what...." I had to lick dry lips. "What trigger unfolds that one?"
"You," he said, and at last he played no games. He turned to me, cold and serious. "You, and her. If she should run—"
"She will not run," I said.
He grinned again. "She won't," he said. "And so already you have earned your keep. You did an admirable job of that. I think she quite believes that you will handle everything."
I swallowed. His eyes danced with a deadly light, and he nodded slowly.
"It was a ruse, of course," he said. "Betray me to the king? You're far too sharp to go through with that plan." His eyes flashed and his voice turned cold. "Do as you're told. Do only as you're told. And come back once it's done—before the dawn—and you can
the girl. I'll make her yours, to do with as you will."
I had to fight for a breath. I couldn't tear my eyes from the cold green flame. "Before the dawn?" I asked.
"By dawn," he said again. "The king is dead by dawn, or Isabelle instead."
I spun on him. "I can't guarantee that," I said. "I don't know Tirah. I don't know the king's disposition. I don't have any access to him—"