The Key of Amatahns
Copyright 2015 by Elisabeth Wheatley
All rights reserved
Published by Inkspelled Faery
To the Glorious Matriarch, Harold Reynolds,
Dragonborn, and Cuddle Monkey.
Table of Contents
Janir didn’t move. That was the secret to staying hidden—she mustn’t move.
Her brother’s footsteps came nearer and nearer. Heart racing, she pressed her hands over her mouth to keep from crying. Blood trickled from her nose and dampened her fingers, but she tried to ignore the warm stickiness even as it stained her new frock.
“Janir…” Lucan’s voice was sing-song. He came closer, always closer. Sometimes it felt like he had a sixth sense to tell him where she was. “I know you came in here. There’s nowhere else you could have run.”
Huddling in the shelter of the heavy tapestry, Janir held her breath and hoped that her eight year old frame was fully hidden. She was a slim, small girl, perhaps she had been made for hiding.
“Got you!” Grubby fingers seized her hair from behind.
Janir whimpered and cried and tried to wrench out of his grip, but he yanked with all of his childlike strength and hauled her into the light. For as long as she could remember, Lucan had been the bigger one, the stronger one. Janir was reminded of that as he towered over her, still holding a fistful of hair.
“You’re not going to fight back?” Lucan tilted his head to the side.
Janir didn’t answer. She curled into the tightest ball she could manage as his small boots rammed into her back. Covering her head, she determined to lay as still as possible. Fighting only made it worse and goaded him on. At least this way it would be over soon.
The doors at the far end of the hall swung open and Lucan froze mid-kick. He took a step away from his sister and Janir twisted around to see what had frightened him.
Instantly, she half wished Lucan were still kicking her as their father marched into the hall with a retinue of warriors in armor. His black cloak with chain mail beneath it showed that he had just returned from riding about his outposts. Boots covered with dust that was almost white, signified he had been to the western front—again. Upon his entry, the Lord Argetallam surveyed the scene, grey eyes flickering above a short beard trimmed into severe uniformity.
Janir was struck with the desire to race back behind the tapestry or one of the many white pillars that lined the wall, but that would be wrong. She scrambled to her feet, dusting herself off as best she could. Straightening her long girl’s tunic, Janir offered a bow just as Lucan did.
“Lord Father,” they said in unison. Since the day they turned seven they had been expected to address him in the proper fashion.
Janir wiped a large drop of blood from her nose before it fell to the floor, keeping her head down. She could almost feel Lucan’s fear as he tried to edge away, but she was too frightened herself to enjoy the discomfort of her rival.
“Lucan, my son.” Without taking his eyes off the boy, the Lord Argetallam handed his cloak to an attendant.
Lucan raised his face to their father in the manner of a puppet fighting the strings of his puppeteer. “Yes, Lord Father?”
“Ernic,” the Lord Argetallam barked to a bystanding page. “Fetch the girl’s mother.” The Lord Argetallam’s attendants slowly drifted back out the way they had come. Janir often felt she was not the only one who preferred to be far, far away when her father was angry. Even when it was with someone else.
She wondered if she could leave, but her father had sent for her mother, so she was probably supposed to stay. To be safe, Janir folded her hands before her and kept her head down as the Lord Argetallam moved toward Lucan.
“While I am away, working to assure you and your sister’s future, you are here preparing for that future. It would appear that you have been fighting your sister for practice. But, judging by her many bruises and the blood on her face, she is not your equal. Come, let us spar for a moment so that you may face a true challenge.”
Janir’s mother entered after the young page and went immediately to her daughter. She knelt beside the girl and gently brushed away tears, taking gentle stock of the bruises and blood. “Hush, it’s alright,” she whispered, smoothing Janir’s cheek. “You’re alright.”
The Lord Argetallam caught Lucan in an iron grasp and struck him, sending the boy rolling across the floor. Lucan was struggling to keep himself composed, but couldn’t.
“I’m sorry,” Lucan sobbed.
Janir’s mother rose from her knees and Janir clutched at her sleeve. “Mother, please. No!” But it was already too late.
“My lord,” her mother interrupted, far calmer than Janir would ever have been.
The Lord Argetallam paused, roughly gripping the collar of Lucan’s tunic. Ever so slowly, he turned. “You know I will punish my offspring as I see fit, Aryana.”
Janir recognized that tone and it made her want to crawl down a hole. Terror for her mother gripped her chest and she kept her head angled toward the floor, afraid of angering her father further.
“Yes.” Janir’s mother was clearly afraid, but she had the air of a negotiating empress as she replied. “But…I implore of you…”
“And you know that I allow for no insubordination. Either between future heir and future subject, or myself and those in my possession.” The Lord Argetallam’s tone became flat, almost emotionless. That was even worse.
Aryana faltered. “The boy’s mother…encourages his actions. This is more her doing than his.”
When the Lord Argetallam replied, Janir thought his tone was cold as the snow from her mother’s stories. “Your point is?”
Lucan whimpered quietly, unable to help it. Janir found it very hard to truly feel sorry for him, but she understood full well what it was to have that angry gray stare fixed on her.
“You should not punish…” Aryana was cut off when the Lord Argetallam dropped Lucan and clamped a hand on her throat.
Janir wanted to be anywhere but in that room. Her heart raced and she glanced between them in terror, dreading what would happen now. She had never actually seen her mother struck, but fear that it could happen was never far from her mind.
Aryana didn’t look at the Lord Argetallam directly. He pulled her closer. She offered no resistance as he glared toward her downcast eyes. Janir’s mother trembled slightly. Those few moments seemed to drag on forever.
He tilted back her head, forcing her to look at him. “Continue.”
Janir wished that her mother would just apologize and ask forgiveness, but Aryana did not hesitate. “The child is obeying his mother. It is she who should be reprimanded.”
The next few moments of quiet were like torture. The Lord Argetallam probably knew it and used it to his advantage. “Regardless, he should not behave so toward his future ruler. What say you to that?”
“I know you intend the best, my lord.” Aryana finally took caution’s side. “But this is not the way to settle the matter.”
“What if I deem it suiting that you be punished for such rebellion? In front of our daughter, no less?”
“You know I shall accept your will, my lord. I always have,” Aryana quietly replied.
It was true. Janir could not recall a single instance in which her mother had directly defied her father. But by Aryana’s even tone, it was clear that she stood by her earlier words.
“He beats our daughter, yet you risk my wrath to spare him.” For some reason, the Lord Argetallam was no longer quite so angry.
No one said anything. Aryana obediently faced Janir’s father with a wearied fear.
“Strength such as you have is rare,” he said at length. Janir breathed a little easier. “I chose the mother of my eldest child well.”
He drew her even closer and whispered something in her ear. Aryana’s expression changed from one of fear to something else, something Janir had seen before, but didn’t quite understand.
Pushing her back several steps, the Lord Argetallam surveyed Aryana silently. Janir thought she saw something proud in the way he looked at her, but couldn’t be sure.
“Summon Bricen to tend my son,” the Lord Argetallam shouted to the doors at the opposite end of the hall. The servants and attendants must still be outside. “See to our daughter,” he added dismissively to Aryana.
Aryana nodded stiffly and watched him file out of the room with his retinue. As he disappeared, taking his stifling presence with him, Janir was finally able to let out a sigh of relief.
Not long after, in her mother’s chambers, Janir sat on the soft bed with a poultice over her eye while her mother bathed a bruise on her arm. This chamber was the place Janir felt safest, the place she always came when afraid or upset. Even though the girl was supposed to have her own chambers now, she spent more time here than anywhere else. The silk curtains over the balcony were blowing in the wind behind them, while Janir traced patterns on the carpet with her bare foot. Although it seemed a happy, homey place to Janir, the girl had always thought her mother was sad here. It was like the sparkling walls and colorful tapestries were a prison.
All children thought their mothers pretty, but Janir knew hers to be striking. With rich golden hair that tumbled to her waist, ruby lips, fair skin with long, dark eyelashes, and a slender, willowy figure, there were not many women to compare with her. Others had their own kind of beauty, but Janir still considered her mother to be without equal.
“My poor child,” Aryana sighed, kneeling before her daughter. “Your brother has given you another lashing.”
“We’re the same age—almost—but he’s been taller than me since we were two,” Janir mumbled, glancing at her battered reflection in the mirror across the room.
“Oh, but he is little, Janir,” her mother contradicted. “Or at least, that is how he feels. He feels your father favors you. That is why he does this.”
Janir couldn’t imagine why anyone would envy her. She could barely remember a time when the Lord Argetallam had looked at her kindly. Her brother had no right to be jealous. “I hate Lucan.”
“Never say that.” Aryana assumed her scolding demeanor.
“But he has done nothing but hurt me our whole lives. Why shouldn’t I hate him?”
Her mother sighed, features softening. “Bricen can’t seem to understand the concept of affection. No one cares for him the same way I care for you. Besides, I have foreseen a life of hardship and tragedy for that boy. You should pity him.”
Glancing at the bruises on her arms, Janir couldn’t help but think that if Lucan was bound for tragedy, he deserved it. “I never did anything to hurt him. I never do anything, but he doesn’t care. He…” Her words dissolved into sniffles and she took deep breaths to regain composure.
“Oh, my child,” her mother sighed, blotting the dried blood from her nose. “Do not hate him. When the day comes, favor me and show him what compassion is.”
“The day he is at your mercy.”
Janir didn’t ask for an explanation as her father swept into the room.
“My lord.” Her mother bowed deeply, with submission, as she always did when he entered a room.
Janir offered an awkward bow, holding the poultice to her face, more to escape those piercing eyes than anything.
“You are leaving,” the Lord Argetallam said simply.
“What?” Janir instantly wished that she had kept her mouth shut.
His gaze slid to her. He looked calm, but so did a volcano before it erupted. “You know better than to question me, Janir.”
“Yes, Lord Father.” She ducked her head submissively, but he wasn’t done.
“You may be my firstborn, and heir to my kingdom by our laws, but you have the weakest powers of any of my children, and are therefore potentially dispensable,” he added the last detail in a dangerously neutral voice.
Forcing herself to keep a straight face, Janir bowed deeper, as much as she could while still looking at him.
Intervening, Janir’s mother rose and stood beside her daughter, placing a protective hand on her shoulder. Janir didn’t look up at Aryana, but she was certain that if she had she would have seen a pleading and beseeching look in the woman’s countenance.
The Lord Argetallam shot a glance to Aryana and then fixed his attention on Janir once more. “You and your mother are going to the villa in Sanreal. Adasha is not safe as long as Lucan holds this loathing for you and his mother encourages it.
“Mortahn Haverlas is making the arrangements. You will depart in ten days and go through the Norwin Pass, through the Brevian outlands, and from there on to Sanreal.” The Lord Argetallam paused as if waiting, but he had not asked a question and neither Janir nor her mother ventured to speak. “Perhaps some time away will help you grow a backbone.”
Janir ducked her head ever so slightly lower.
“Bricen’s cousin will be visiting soon,” Aryana said demurely. “It is possible that will distract her from fostering this rivalry.”
“I do not believe that any more than you do,” the Lord Argetallam drily answered. “If anything, the Stlavish envoys will only embolden her and I would rather not deal with their protests at her absence—no.”
Aryana did not argue. She inclined her head as if she had expected and agreed with his answer.
“Do you foresee any ill coming about?”
Aryana strode to a bureau against the wall. Opening a small drawer, she reached inside and raised a glowing golden orb. She faced the Lord Argetallam, glancing at him briefly before staring down into the depths of the sphere. Cradled in her hands, the orb made soft warbling sounds. Like a ball of liquid sunlight, it swirled and throbbed with a living glow.
Janir’s mother was silent for several moments. Her gaze seemed to shift beyond what she could see with her eyes. Accustomed to that look, Janir watched her mother patiently, knowing that she would be back to normal in a moment.
“Answer me, woman,” the Lord Argetallam clipped.
Almost reluctantly drawing her gaze away from the orb, Janir’s mother replied. “Our child will be safe.”
“Then you will depart as planned.” Her father spoke efficiently, hardly pausing for breath. And without another word, he moved to leave.
But Janir’s mother stopped him. “My lord.” The Lord Argetallam looked impatiently back at Janir’s mother. “I just wanted to thank you.”
“For what?” The Lord Argetallam raised one eyebrow in suspicion.
“For giving me that which I love most in the world.” Her mother stroked Janir’s hair, the same rich gold as her own.
“I will miss you, Aryana,” the Lord Argetallam brusquely stated. It was possibly the closest to a display of affection Janir had ever seen between them.
Without another word, the Lord Argetallam spun on one heel and marched out of the room. The door slammed after him and Janir could breathe easy again.
Nothing in all the land was quite as mind numbing as the Norwin Pass, Janir decided. It was not beautiful enough to be soothing nor ugly enough to be interesting. It was so normal that it was unearthly.
It had been more than a week now since they had left the white spires and turrets of Adasha, rising from the sands like towers of ivory. On the day they set out, the Lord Argetallam himself had come to see them off.
He had been in a better mood then and handed her a mahogany box polished to a shine. He told her to open it when she reached Sanreal, that it might help her figure out a way to deal with her brother when she came back. Now it was stashed in her pony’s saddlebags, safely tucked away.
Janir was big enough now to ride on her own, a fact of which she was very proud. She looked forward to arriving in Sanreal, where there were many open fields and training pens, perfect for practicing.
Who knew? Maybe she would even be better than Lucan when she got back.
“I love you, Janir. Very much.” Her mother interrupted her thoughts, leaning across from her own horse and squeezing Janir’s small hand. “Never forget that, my child.”
“I love you, too.” Janir wasn’t sure why her mother would say it right now, but it was not unlike her to say things like that for no apparent reason.
No sooner had Janir spoken than an arrow zipped past her ear and buried itself in the neck of one of their guards. Janir never remembered much of what happened that day, just blood and screaming, voices shouting orders and other voices calling for help. She fell off her pony, but beyond that she only remembered still images and sounds.
Janir did recall feeling something painful slice the side of her neck, screaming, and falling to the ground in a heap.
She awakened to the glare of the afternoon sun. Her vision began to focus, revealing she was in a camp, a busy camp with men and dogs, horses and pigs, sweat and dirt. She could smell the cook fires and whatever they were roasting. Dogs barked pointlessly at whinnying horses. A pair of knights rode by, armor clanking.
One side of her neck stung and she remembered she had been cut in the skirmish. A strange smelling substance was held against the wound by a white linen bandage. With panic, she realized that her hands were behind her back and tied together.
A tent flap rustled, then a young male voice shouted, but the tent dulled the sound. Someone was shushing the lad to be quiet, then the same voice spoke in a low tone. She tried to twist around to see, but couldn’t. A man’s shadow loomed from behind, then a strong hand gripped the collar of her tunic and dragged her into the tent. It was dark inside and took a moment for her eyes to adjust.
The stranger untied her only to bind her hands around a brace in the middle of the tent. The person was rough, as heartless and callous as Lucan ever was. Janir panicked, realizing that she couldn’t move.
She thrashed wildly in spite of how much it smarted the cut on her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of something, anything that might give even the smallest explanation for all of this. She was afraid to ask what was happening. What if asking only made these people more angry, as it did the Lord Argetallam?
Standing to her right was a man who towered nearly a head above the handful of soldiers in the tent. He was pale and in the dim light his long hair gave off a silvery glow. What surprised her more than almost anything were his ears. Like lilies, they tapered to delicate and subtle points that would have been hard to notice if she hadn’t been watching him so closely.
Her mother had told her stories of elves and their magic, but she had never actually met one. Certainly not like this, having her tied up and glaring at her as if he would like to rip her to ribbons. She thought that strange, in all the stories, the elves were good.
Finally, she dared speak. “Where’s my mother?”
Janir’s heart raced. Her gaze darted from one side of the tent to another, taking in the glowering face of the elf the others addressed simply as “sir” and the several soldiers standing by.
“What is a full retinue of Argetallams doing, so close to Brevia?” the elf demanded, his slight accent adding flourish.
Janir was confused. “Lord Father was sending me and Mother to Sanreal.” She forced herself to speak levelly without stammering.
“And why would you go there?” he pressed.
Janir didn’t understand why he was asking her. She was still too young to be told anything the grown Argetallams weren’t. It was like he thought she’d done something bad and was waiting for her to admit it.
Without warning or reason, a wave of pain swept over Janir. It was as if her heart was being ripped out of her chest by a bear’s claw. The sensation burned, stung, and chilled at once. Her sight blurred and sweat beaded on her forehead. She realized she was screaming. When it was finally over, Janir coughed and let her small head hang.
The elf looked about to say something when a stately man stepped in from outside. His entire appearance spoke of nobility even though he was dressed in the rugged clothes of a soldier. At first glance, Janir thought that he looked similar to her father. She tended to compare all men she met with her father.
But his face was different. It held a warmer and more forgiving glow. This man held himself with an air of dignity, not of controlled hostility.
“Unbind the child, Daric,” the stately one commanded. It seemed to Janir’s child intuition that he had been crying not too long ago, but no one else seemed to have noticed. Immediately, the soldier who had been standing behind her stepped forward.
“Armandius…” the elf protested. “She may be a child, but she is an Argetallam. I’ve seen them kill not much older than this.”
The stately one froze with a pain filled expression, as if those words had pierced his very soul. But again, no one else seemed to notice.
“No one here has enough magic for her to use it against us. Unbind her, Daric,” Armandius numbly repeated. He stared at the soldier and didn’t even look at the elf.
“You cannot trust them.”
Torn between the elf and the overall superior, the soldier hesitated for a moment and then obeyed. Janir hadn’t realized that her wrists had gone numb until the ropes fell away.
This was too much. She had been beaten and cursed countless times at home by Lucan, her father, and even other Argetallam relatives. But she had always known what would set them off and what would abate their rage. Here, it was impossible for her to know anything.
Janir clumsily leapt up and scrambled into the shadows. She ducked under a rough wooden table at the back of the tent, covered in papers and pens. No sooner had she scrunched in a ball between two large trunks, tucking her legs as close to her chin as they would go, than the ringing of swords echoed in the air. She couldn’t help the whimper of fear that escaped her lips. From where she was, Janir had only a view of their boots under the cloth draping the table.
“Put those away!” The stately one sounded irritated.
“But…” the elf began to protest.
“Can’t you see she’s afraid?” demanded Armandius, keeping his voice down.
The elf made an annoyed sound that signified the start of another protest, when the stately one continued.
“If she were capable of doing anything to us, why would she need to hide in the first place?”
There was a reluctant scraping as swords were replaced in their scabbards. A pair of large and weathered boots came closer to where Janir had sought refuge. Armandius knelt before her, his silhouette blocking the light. One hand reached under the tablecloth and grasped the frayed edge. Slowly, he lifted it so they could see each other.
He reached toward her. Janir knew what that meant. She hunched her shoulders in expectation of the blow and squeaked in fear. Then she realized he would strike her for that too, so she should have kept steady. To her surprise, he retracted his hand instead.
“Come here, little one,” he coaxed.
Janir tried to squeeze farther between the chests, but there was no more room to do that. The canvas of the tent was pressing against her back.
“Come, Janir,” Armandius encouraged. “That is your name, isn’t it?”
Janir stared with terror, not speaking, barely moving save for her rapid breathing and unstoppable trembling.
“No one will hurt you,” he promised with a cursory and threatening glance at the guards and the elf. Armandius held out his hand to her again. With as much caution as a hunted animal, Janir let him grasp her hand. Gingerly, he tried to guide her back into the open space.
Glancing at the hateful expressions on the guards’ faces, Janir was suddenly even more afraid. She sprang from under the table and entwined her little arms around the stately one’s neck, clinging to the only source of reassurance in sight.
He seemed surprised, but after a second’s hesitation, he wrapped his arms around her and rose to his feet, letting her cling to him for protection. All the same, her sudden movement had caused the guards to flick out their swords again.
“Stop it!” he snarled. “Leave us.”
Like a toddler just denied a whim, the elf looked about to protest, but when the guards began obediently filing out of the tent, he clamped his mouth shut and stalked after them.
Janir buried her face in the stately one’s shoulder. He smelled of horses, dust, pine trees, and worn leather.
“Did they hurt you?” He seemed concerned, carefully touching the bandage on the side of her neck.
“No.” It seemed rude not to address him by his title, but Janir didn’t know what his was, so she said the first thing that came to mind, “My lord.”
“You needn’t call me that,” he said, almost roughly.
Janir was worried she had upset him. “What then?” she carefully asked.
There was a scraping sound as he pulled a chair away from one of the tables and eased into it. He sat with Janir in his lap while she continued clutching his neck as if it were a solid place in a storm.
“Who are you?” she mumbled. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
“Because I promised your mother that I would look after you.” The stately one hesitated, then gently brushed her sweaty hair behind one of her ears. “You’re safe now,” he halfheartedly added, as if he couldn’t help what he was doing.
Worn out by the pain that had swept over her, Janir only had strength for one more question, hardly able to keep her words from blending into a single noise. “Is Mother alright?”
Uncertain of how to respond, the stately one paused for a moment. “I am sorry, Janir.” His voice became strained, as if he were on the brink of tears. “I too, loved her very much.”
The evening fire had already been lit, though the sun was still well above the horizon. Janir took in her reflection, hoping she looked presentable.
It had been nearly seven years since she had first met Armandius. At times she couldn’t remember what Adasha had been like at all, sometimes it seemed she had been born in this castle. The ancient walls greyed by age, the rolling wheat fields, and sloping hills beyond were more home than the Citadel of the Argetallams had ever been.
A smallish, round woman in a matron’s wimple peered over her shoulder. “Don’t you dare move yet,” she said with mock severity, wielding a comb through Janir’s hair with a practiced efficiency. “You might dash about like a hooligan on most days, but tonight… There you are, sweetheart.”
The matron affectionately patted Janir’s head. Setting down the boar’s hair brush, she stood and admired her work.
“Thank you.” Janir was a little surprised at the transformation—she saw a young noblewoman in that mirror, a proper lady.
“No charge of mine shall go about looking as if you romp in the fields all day,” the old lady added proudly. “Even if you do. See? I told you getting dressed up for these kinds of guests wouldn’t be so horrible.”
“You’ve done wonderfully, Dame Selila.” Janir fought the urge to touch her carefully arranged locks. She didn’t want to muss them. “Would you mind telling His Lordship that I will be down soon?”
Dame Selila nodded and scurried away to inform Armandius. Her pattering steps faded down the hall and Janir was alone.
Thankfully, Janir had taken after her mother. She could easily be taken for Brevian. Snatching up a necklace from the dresser, Janir fastened it in place. A silver medallion hung several inches below her throat. It was a seven point star with a solid emerald in the center. The points were formed by the interlocking pattern of seven tiny swords—the emblem of the Caersynn house.
Armandius had given her the medallion on the day he had brought her here to his castle. She had been frightened and timid, a motherless and defenseless child. Armandius had hung the chain around her neck and said: “You are a part of my family now.”
Janir bit her lip. She knew she was not Armandius’ daughter. But how she wished she was.
Wedged the mirror and the wall, where it had stayed for months, sat a polished mahogany box. Armandius had given it to her just last year. He’d said it had been in her pony’s saddlebags when he found her and she might want it someday, but should keep it hidden. He’d offered no further explanation and she still didn’t know what was inside. Never had she found the courage to look.
There were times, like right now, she felt a tremor in the air, a pull toward the box. She lightly touched the side of the shiny lid, just enough to stir the dust that had settled since the maids’ last visit. Those girls dusted around the box thinking it was part of the mirror, clueless as Janir as to what might be inside. Armandius had once told her that hiding things in plain sight was the best…
It was hardly there, a hazy concept of thought that her mind translated into words. The moment the familiar beckoning voice came, Janir jerked her hand away as if the box were poisonous.
“No,” she snapped out loud.
It was a constant reminder of her Argetallam blood. Janir hated the very sight of it, yet something deep within her, some innate instinct perhaps, was loath to throw it out. Therefore, it had remained in its current location for nearly a year.
Smoothing the front of her blue silk dress, Janir realized that she could no longer stall. The man she called “Father” had guests tonight and it would be unseemly to delay any longer. Turning on her heel, Janir strode to the oaken door and slipped into the long corridor lit by flickering torches.
She made her way along the hall, shoes clacking against the stone. It was not long before Janir arrived at a pair of imposing double doors at the end of a corridor. After briefly making sure that everything on her was in order, she placed a hand on the door and swung it open.
The interior scene was unusual for this castle, though it might have been considered normal in any other. Armandius stood with a polite but strained expression as a thin, powdered, and perfumed young woman giggled and tittered. The woman had enough lace around her neck to have been a milk weed and a skirt to house a family of martens.
Beside her was a bored looking man only slightly older. The man appeared to be unremarkable in every way, except for his slit mouth. He kept contorting and pursing his lips as if he were waiting for something that was behind schedule.
Janir did not spend an excessive amount of time surveying the two mortal guests. Her gaze was immediately drawn to the elf standing slightly to one side and staring at her. Janir almost gulped when she spotted Velaskas. She suspected that his frequent visits which, according to the older staff, previously occurred only every few years or so, were planned to check on her.
The servants know and tell all, was a proverb that Armandius had once quoted. Janir could only hope and pray that none of them suspected her secret.
Janir always felt that she was on trial when Velaskas came, like there was some forgotten evil she had committed and he was just waiting for the perfect moment to expose her crime. However, it was hard to wholly dread Velaskas’ visits when that was the only time she saw his son, Saoven.
To her disappointment, Saoven was nowhere to be seen. She’d heard he might return from an errand for his father early tonight, but it was unlikely. Still, she was sure Saoven would make time to visit with her and Armandius at some point. He usually did. As one of a very small number of people she had truly managed to befriend, he was always a welcome sight.
Velaskas did not so much as nod when their gazes met, he stared at her with a blank expression that spoke more than a thousand words.
If it were not for Armandius, Velaskas would have killed her at the Norwin Pass, the mountain road where they had found her. Janir’s hand conscientiously went up to the left side her neck, where all that remained of the wound was a faint scar. She admitted to herself that Velaskas saved her life that day. Still, he had only done it to keep her alive long enough for questioning—there had been no other survivors.
Armandius heard the doors and whirled around, visibly elated at an excuse not to look at the prattling woman behind him. “Jenny,” Armandius smiled, using his pet name for her. “You’re late, child.” His tone was chastising, but Janir knew that it was more for abandoning him with the giggling little doxy than for her tardiness.
“Forgive me, Father.” Janir tried to block the girlish grin that threatened to spread across her face.
Father. That was what she had called him ever since the Norwin Pass. It had been a rather abrupt choice, made when they’d stopped at another lord’s manor on the way to Castle Caersynn. Armandius made a split second decision to introduce her as his illegitimate daughter and the story had stuck ever since.
Not even Dame Selila knew the truth.
Armandius clasped Janir’s hands and kissed her forehead. “Duke Ronan, Lady Rowella,” Armandius addressed his guests. “Would you kindly allow me to present my natural daughter, Lady Janir Caersynn.”
The woman, Lady Rowella, smiled her artificial smile and curtsied in the most sumptuous fashion. Duke Ronan made a bored gesture.
“Why do you not curtsy, child?” Lady Rowella inquired in her high pitched squeak of a voice.
“I never learned, milady,” Janir said uncomfortably.
“But you have been raised by Lord Armandius Caersynn, one of the finest lords in all Brevia! Surely he taught you manners,” the noblewoman trilled.
“Does my father strike you as the kind of man who knows how to curtsy?” It was out before Janir could stop it.
Armandius allowed a strangled smile before assuming a rebuking frown. Duke Ronan remained unbearably expressionless while Lady Rowella stood looking baffled.
“Forgive Janir,” Armandius apologized, “it is not often that we have guests.”
From the wall behind Armandius, a door creaked open and a demure boy of about ten peered out into the foyer. “Excuse me, my lord,” the page interrupted. “Dinner is served.”
Armandius acknowledged the boy perfunctorily. “Thank you.”
The five of them filed into Armandius’ banquet hall. It was well lit and spacious, like most of Castle Caersynn. Simple tapestries adorned the walls and the table was of a rather plain design. Janir knew that theirs was not the most ornate banquet hall, but she treasured it along with the rest of the castle’s furnishings for one reason.
“Oh, my.” Lady Rowella was quite obviously displeased with the hall. “How quaint.” She feigned a smile. “But…when was the last time you redecorated?”
“Twenty-two years ago,” Armandius answered simply.
Janir seethed with possessive jealousy when Lady Rowella took her usual place next to Armandius and she found herself seated directly across from Velaskas. The girl looked down at her plate to avoid his unnerving stare.
From the head of the table, Armandius tried to engage Duke Ronan in conversation out of courtesy. Nonetheless, the duke’s sister talked enough for the both of them and Armandius soon realized that the duke wished to remain silent.
“Really, Lord Caersynn,” Lady Rowella lamented. “This place looks rather dreary, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Janir demanded.
Armandius shot her a look across the table and she realized she had spoken out of turn. He might let her speak freely when it was just them, but any proper lord’s daughter—even an illegitimate one—would have known better. Janir ducked in embarrassment, but…was this woman trying to get Armandius to let her help with the castle decoration? If so, Janir wouldn’t stand for such a thing. But everyone ignored her.
“Are you certain that the castle isn’t lacking…” Janir noticed Lady Rowella’s hand inching across the table to Armandius’. “…a feminine touch, perhaps?” Lady Rowella completed in a breathy voice, laying her hand over his in a disconcerting gesture. Janir nearly gagged on her piece of wild boar.
“There are females all around me,” Armandius deftly replied. “Janir, my late steward’s widow…”
“Servants and children,” Lady Rowella countered. “Not at all the companionship a man, such as yourself…” Rowella leaned closer to Armandius. Armandius leaned away from Rowella.
“Tell me, Lord Caersynn…” Rowella was speaking in a tone Janir had never heard a noblewoman use before, not that she had met many of those.
Velaskas looked almost bemused, while Duke Ronan seemed to be thoroughly absorbed in his slice of venison. Armandius stared at Rowella with a displeased expression he had sometimes used when chastising Janir. Without a word, he pulled his hand from beneath Rowella’s and returned to his plate.
Janir stared at the gold band with an intricate weave pattern he always wore on his left hand. All that time living as a widower and he still wore it.
“You say you last decorated twenty-two years ago?” Rowella tried to strike up a conversation she could follow. “What was the occasion?”
Armandius turned a stiff gaze to Rowella. “Aryana Meliard was brought here as my newlywed wife.”
Janir grew even more uncomfortable, if that was possible. Her mother was a nearly forbidden subject even with her. What would Armandius make of a relative stranger causing her to be brought up, so frivolously, too?
“Well,” Rowella seemed to take no notice, “that was quite awhile ago. Have you ever considered…remarrying?”
Janir felt sick. Was this actually happening? At dinner of all places? She whispered a prayer, pleading that this was a nightmare and she would wake up.
“I admit I have,” Armandius quietly replied, speaking more to himself than to the chattering little twit at his left. He glanced to Janir for a moment before continuing. “But all the women deemed suitable for marital purposes would be either too old to bear heirs to the house of Caersynn or too young to be tolerable.” Armandius stared hard at Rowella as he uttered the final sentence.
While Janir hoped he didn’t find all young women to be as abrasive as Rowella, the noblewoman herself apparently had no sense of subtlety.
“But perhaps there could be one…who you would find tolerable, maybe even enjoyable.” Rowella had taken on that same disturbing tone in her last few words.
Armandius was clearly not enjoying Rowella’s advances. Still, the wench seemed not to notice.
That night’s dinner was proving to be one of the most awkward meals Janir had had her lifetime. Listening to Rowella’s nauseating talk while pretending to still hold an interest for food was its own challenge.
By the second course, Janir was longing for Rowella to choke on something, maybe the piece of lamb she was sliding around her plate. But no, Rowella took such small bites that a rat couldn’t have choked if it tried.
After dinner, Janir and Armandius would normally go up to his study and play a game of chess. Armandius always won indisputably, but Janir still enjoyed trying to defeat the veteran knight. Besides, she was getting better. Just a bit more practice and she was sure she would manage victory eventually.
That would not be happening this evening because they had guests. Instead, Janir found herself in Armandius’ study beside the fireplace, seated on a floor cushion with a pair of deerhounds. Being with the dogs was not a problem itself. What had driven her off the couch was. Rowella still seemed clueless as to Armandius’ rejection of her. Better to be in the company of a four-legged brachet than a two-legged one.
Janir fondled the ears of the nearest hound, Rani. Rani was a seasoned hunting dog and one of many in Armandius’ kennel that hadn’t had a name until Janir came to the castle. Rani yawned and rested his flecked muzzle between his front paws. Even the animals were tiring of their guests.
Velaskas leaned against one side of the fireplace, staring into the flames contemplatively. He had hardly spoken to anyone all evening, Janir was wondering what point there was in him being here at all. Perhaps he simply wanted to make sure no one suspected what Janir was. After keeping her secret for seven years, he was more or less implicit.
Janir often wondered why he had elected not to expose her. She thought it must be a sense of debt to an old friend—he and Armandius had known one another for decades. Why else would he have endured her existence?
Struggling to maintain a gracious outer appearance, Armandius continued to tolerate their guests. Duke Ronan still held that impatient air. Words drizzled into silence, or rather, everyone else’s words fell to silence. Rowella was perfectly happy to keep talking on her own.
“Would anyone like some wine?” Armandius cast a longing gaze in the direction of the cabinets.
“That would be lovely,” Rowella trilled.
“Yes,” Duke Ronan blandly added.
“And I think I will be needing some,” Armandius muttered to himself.
“Call the servants to get it,” Rowella suggested.
“No,” Armandius protested. “I can manage myself.” He leapt up from his seat as if it were on fire, exploiting the opportunity to put space between them.
“Well, are you not sweet,” she chirped.
Briefly locking stares with Janir, Armandius rolled his eyes dramatically and she had to stifle a giggle. He probably had the worst of it—at least she didn’t have to personally contend with that woman’s ill contrived efforts at husband hunting.
Armandius made his way to the wine cabinet across the room. Once his back was turned, Duke Ronan seemed to spring to life. The duke stopped staring off into space and snapped around to Armandius.
Janir’s back straightened. It felt wrong.
Rowella was talking about something insipid. Ronan moved to follow Armandius. Janir clambered to her feet. A niggling voice in the back of her skull said something was amiss.
From behind Armandius, Ronan drew a gleaming dagger from the folds of his doublet. The blade flashed in the firelight as it rose above his head.
Armandius’ back was turned. Velaskas didn’t see.
“No!” Janir screamed.
That distracted the duke from plunging the dagger into Armandius’ back just long enough for Janir to fling herself at Ronan. What she planned to do, she couldn’t be sure. She lunged for the duke’s upraised hand, foolishly trying to wrest the blade from his fist. Instead of using the dagger on Janir, Ronan struck her with the back of his hand and made a lunge to stab Armandius.
Something shook Janir from the inside. A bright green light went over her eyes and her efforts to fight it were useless. A…force commandeered her actions. She was no longer in control.
Janir felt anger—blinding and powerful such as she’d never felt before, untainted and uncontrollable ire. Letting out a mad cry, she sprang at Duke Ronan with an inhuman fury.
Snatching his head with both hands, she snapped his head to one side. She felt his spine twist and crack like dried twigs. The dagger fell to the ground and his limp body followed.
The power settled back into inaction and the green glow left her sight. Suddenly weak, Janir staggered into Armandius. He caught her and she leaned helplessly into his arms, shaking and confused.
It had all happened in a mere moment.
Rani and the other dog barked and trotted to Duke Ronan’s motionless body. The sniffed it and wagged their tails in bewilderment.
Popping up like a frightened pigeon, Rowella fled from the room screaming. It was unclear exactly what she was saying, but it sounded as if it had something to do with magic.
The woman’s voice receded down the hall while Janir leaned feebly against Armandius and Velaskas stood with a bearing of mild surprise. The elf remained by the fireplace, staring with an unidentifiable expression.
“That gave me quite a turn,” Velaskas said with unfitting composure. “It would seem your powers are more manifested than we thought.”
“Stop Rowella!” Armandius snapped to the elf.
“What am I to do?” Velaskas folded his arms across his chest. “Chase her down and drive a knife into her heart?”
“Just stop her!” Armandius shouted.
Shaking his head, Velaskas darted from the room with the speed of a woodland deer and disappeared into the darkness of the hall without a sound. Once he committed to a task, he tended not to waste any more time.
Janir would have slid to the ground had not Armandius pulled her up. “What was that?” she whispered. “What did I just do?”
He rubbed her back and said nothing.
The sight of Ronan’s sightless gaze was more harrowing than she could have expected. She had killed a man with her bare hands and she hadn’t even decided to do it.
Were these her powers awakening? Was it possible to control it? Of course it could be controlled, she realized. The Lord Argetallam didn’t go about killing everyone who drew a knife. But then, nearly everyone with a weapon in the Staspin Waste, was an Argetallam. Could that affect it? Janir buried her face against Armandius’ chest.
“What have I done?” she shuddered. “I’m sorry.” She was becoming like one of the monsters the people of Brevia loathed and feared.
Firesides were rife with countless stories of murder, abduction, enslavement, and torture—all wrought by the race of the man who sired her. Any milkmaid or hall boy could regale the dastardly wrongs committed over the ages. She’d thought she was different—had she been wrong? Was her course set? Did she not have a choice?
Her tears soaked Armandius’ chest, but he pulled her tighter against him. “You saved my life. What is there to forgive? I should have been more wary.”
He didn’t rebuke her for being weak. Janir knew that he had killed people in wars and it was nothing new to him. But still, he was sympathetic the horror she experienced at ending another’s life, no matter how much that life may have deserved it.
There came a clatter of hooves from below the window, in the courtyard. With impressive speed, Lady Rowella galloped away atop her palfrey without consideration for any of her normal extensive traveling arrangements.
“Too late,” Janir gasped. Rowella was gone.
Without a word, Armandius helped Janir to the couch farthest from Ronan’s corpse. He moved in between his foster daughter and the body, blocking her view.
“Janir, are you alright? He didn’t cut you or anything?”
Managing a weak shake of her head, Janir slumped against the couch. She felt deflated, emptied.
Velaskas came jogging back a few moments later. “The noblewoman has gone,” he dourly reported. “I have sent men to bring her back, but for one with such an affinity for lace, she handles horses surprisingly well—”
“Not here,” Armandius interrupted. He rang the bell and instructed a hall boy to summon his chief steward, Broffy. Leaving Janir on the couch, he commanded the man to take Duke Ronan’s body somewhere until he could think of what to do. The faithful old steward had served Armandius’ family since the days of his father, and he could be trusted to keep quiet.
The steward took one look “My lord, with all due respect, I believe that now is the time to discuss the rather pressing issue of the—”
“Not now, Broffy.” Armandius cut him off, but not angrily. “Tell me in my office.”
Janir watched weakly as Armandius and Broffy hefted Duke Ronan’s mortal remains out of the room and into another part of the castle. Velaskas opened the doors.
It was a relief when the duke’s body was moved to where she could no longer see it. Not only was she horrified by what she had done, the sight of the corpse brought back the memory of the power that had possessed and held her in its grasp.
At a loss, Rani went to Janir and licked the girl’s hand. Janir clumsily petted his ears out of habit, too tired to keep crying.
For several minutes she was alone. Why had the duke tried to kill Armandius? Why had he waited until now? Wouldn’t dinner have done just as well? The duke was seated beside Armandius at that time. Then she realized this was the first instance she could recall when Velaskas and all the servants loyal to Armandius had been too far away to intervene.
And Armandius’s back had been turned.
There was still the why of what had happened and Janir’s startling show of power—she hadn’t even known how to break a man’s neck, she had just—
Janir focused on deep breaths, trying to clear her head. One thing she could control, the one thing she could master, was her breathing. Slowly, her head leveled out and the weariness began to pass. She was still weak, but at least she didn’t feel as if she would topple over.
Once the body was moved, Broffy and Velaskas returned and filed into Armandius’ private office off the study, where his letters and correspondences with the other six ruling lords of Brevia and writings of exceptional importance were kept.
Armandius was distressed. His face held a weary, exhausted look and his brow was troubled. “Stay here, my child.”
“Yes, Father.” Janir felt better, but she leaned back against the couch. If Armandius wanted to speak to the other men in his study, if he didn’t even dare venture out of this chamber or summon Dame Selila to tend her, it only confirmed how very serious this was. A hard weight of dread settled in Janir’s belly.
Armandius laid a hand on her head for a moment before striding off to his office. No sooner had the door closed than the heated sounds of argument could be heard.
Velaskas and Broffy were trying to persuade Armandius, judging by their tones. Armandius wasn’t changing his mind. The word “pigheaded” was shouted by Velaskas. Armandius snapped something in reply. The confrontation grew louder, Janir began to discern more and more words with each passing sentence. Broffy cried “Argetallam” furiously and Armandius shouted back a phrase with “Janir” in it.
Abruptly, Broffy interjected and their voices dropped. They were still arguing, but now they were making an effort at discretion.
She had been taught that eavesdropping was unacceptable. Armandius had scolded her for that several times, but not for years. She hated disobeying him, hated that rare look of quiet disappointment. But they were talking about her and what she had done. She couldn’t see what else it could be.
Without thinking, Janir found herself holding her breath. If she was very quiet and strained to hear, she could just make out their impassioned words.
“She is an Argetallam, you imbecillus!” Velaskas could be heard knocking over something, using the Elvish word for “idiot.”
“She is the closest thing I have to kin. In all but blood she is my daughter—” Armandius was cut off by Broffy.
“Aryana’s child should have been yours, my lord. We are all fond of her, I agree with that. But it does not change where she came from.”
“A child has no choice in their origins, only their actions, and Janir’s actions show she rejects the Argetallam way.”
“Why didn’t you kill her?” demanded Velaskas. “If your place were reversed with the Lord Argetallam, it is what he would do!”
“I am not him!” Armandius’ voice boomed through the door. “Do not ever compare me with him, either of you! And Janir did what she did to save me, how can I condemn her for that? How can you condemn her for that?”
“We have no way of knowing how strong she is or even what she might be capable of,” Velaskas persisted. “She is of the ruling line—they have abilities beyond our knowledge.”
Velaskas must have known better than to argue.
Clenching her fingers into the couch cushion, Janir tried to push away the needle of fear worrying at her heart. Neither Broffy nor Velaskas said it, but they wanted banishment. They wanted to punish her for something she couldn’t control, something she didn’t understand. Argetallams might have earned their hate, but she had always tried to be Brevian, to be good—
“Be calm, my lord,” Broffy placated. “Still, you must admit, over the years you have surely questioned yourself? Have you ever doubted that sparing her was the correct decision?”
Janir felt fear prickling her spine. Would Armandius turn on her? No. Never.
There was a moment of hesitation. “Once, early on, I even decided to kill her,” Armandius admitted.
Confusion, doubt, and consternation filled Janir’s heart. It couldn’t be, not Armandius. Overflowing with a jumble of emotions, Janir forced herself to listen. Armandius, the man she trusted like no one else in the world, had come close to killing her?
“I told myself that Aryana must have been broken by the Lord Argetallam and that sparing his child may not have been what she would truly want.”
“Why did you not?” Velaskas’ tone was cautious for once, trying not to ignite another storm in the room.
“I knew Aryana. I know she would never ask a child be punished for what she could not control.” His words were heavy with double meaning. “I also know she was not broken by what she said to me before her death.”
Armandius had spoken to her mother before she died? Janir had never heard that. She supposed it must have happened, since he had known her name, but she’d never heard him say it or given it much thought.
Armandius tried to speak flatly, without inflection, but there was still so much emotion in his words. “That and…” He broke off, hesitating. “That and every time Janir looked at me…I could see how much she trusted me. In time I saw that she had come to love me.”
Velaskas was probably trying to think of something to counter this, since there was silence.
“It’s an intoxicating feeling,” Armandius murmured.
“What is?” Broffy also practiced caution in his tone and word choice.
“A child’s love,” Armandius said. “As you know, I have no kin left.”
Janir began to relax.
“Then along came Janir. She was alone, she needed me. And now I realize I needed her.”
Neither Broffy nor Velaskas offered a retort to challenge his words.
“She is everything to me. I would die for her in a heartbeat if it came to that.”
The elf and steward seemed to be searching for something to say in reply. It was a long space of silence before either could answer.
“I understand, my lord,” Broffy carefully started. “But surely, there are other things that must…”
“Nothing is more important,” Armandius said. “Not to me.”
“I understand that, my lord,” conciliated Broffy. “But what about Green Haven? What about the people here you swore to protect? Are they safe?”
“Janir couldn’t bring herself to kill a deer before this and you ask if they are safe?”
“Not just from her, my lord.” Broffy was calm, like one reasoning with an angry bull.
“I doubt Rowella will get far,” Velaskas conceded. “But when the soldiers catch her and bring her back to the castle, she will tell everyone what she saw. Rumors will spread through this castle and the countryside. How long do you think it will take your steward in Virida, when he hears this story, to realize that there is an Argetallam in your midst?”
No reply from Armandius.
“Short of killing everyone who hears, there is no way to stop him learning of it. He will alert Lord Meliard and Lord Kecim and they will come here with swords drawn and blades sharpened. Then what will you do?” Velaskas let those words hang for an agonizing moment. “Will you fight them for the girl?”
“I swore to protect her.”
“You took another oath,” Velaskas reminded him, “an oath to protect the people of Green Haven. If you continue to harbor this creature, you are endangering them. Would you ask them to shed their blood for her?”
“How could you?” Armandius asked simply, an edge of betrayal in his voice. “You knew Aryana. She was your friend.”
Velaskas did not answer right away. “Aryana was my friend, yes, and it is my wish that I not lose any more.”
Janir was afraid, but she didn’t want people to die for her.
“My lord, the elf speaks true. Something must be done. There must not be a breathing Argetallam here when they arrive or else there will be bloodshed. And if they do not kill you outright, you will certainly be arrested for treason!”
Armandius said nothing. Janir’s inward trembling spread to shake her very bones.
“As Broffy said,” Velaskas agreed, “something must be done. For the sake of Green Haven, for the sake of your people…something must be done.”
In the ensuing pause, Armandius must have considered every word of their argument. “You’re right,” he agreed. “Something must be done.”
The next moment, Armandius opened the door and came into view. It took one look at her face for him to know that his study was not quite as solid as he had thought.
It was not fear she felt, not quite. She still didn’t believe he would hurt her, but…
She was confused, her head ached with all these questions, her world was sliding away like melting snow. Behind Armandius, she could see Broffy and Velaskas. Broffy had been the one to watch over her when Armandius was away from the castle, she’d thought he was fond of her. Now, just like the elf, he wanted to cast her out, but was he wrong?
Her Argetallam powers had awakened. She’d killed a man. For all she knew, she would do it again. Were they right to fear her? Maybe even despise her?
It was too much. Too much. She whirled around and ran as fast as she could out of the study.
“Janir! Wait!” Armandius shouted. But she ignored him.
Fleeing down the poorly lit corridors, Janir raced through the home she knew so well. Hardly needing light to show her the way, she whipped through the castle by forgotten and unused passages. She’d spent the past seven years exploring this maze, she knew how to disappear into it.
By the time Janir found her way to a side door, she was sobbing again. She slammed her weight into it several times before it gave and swung on creaky hinges. It opened into a bramble thicket that caught and tore at her dress.
After beating the door shut and wiping her tears away, she charged through the scratching thorns. With a backward glance at the castle, she confirmed there was no one stirring on the battlements. No one had seen her leave.
Slowing to catch her breath, Janir slogged her way through the knee high grasses, head awhirl with a thousand fears and nightmares. The Caersynn crest flopped against her breastbone in rhythm with her fleeing steps.
Slumped on a low rock wall, Janir stared at the moonlit monument before her. She was on a rise overlooking the lush vale below the castle. Mounds and stone pillars lined the hillside to mark the generations of Caersynns and their wives who had lived and died over the centuries. Behind the hill, far in the distance, were the mountains. Their powerful silhouettes blocked the stars and their white peaks gleamed like gemstones.
Some might have considered the hill a frightening place, particularly at night. More superstitious people believed it to be haunted. Even if it was haunted, Armandius had guaranteed her that the ghosts would be friendly. He once asked her, if there was nothing but trust and love in life, why should that change just because a person was dead? If there were any of his deceased family members lurking about the mounds, they wouldn’t harm her because she was precious to Armandius and they would respect his judgment.
All the same, Janir had often wondered if they would despise her as Velaskas and Broffy did. Had not several of them died in wars against Argetallams?
It had taken her at least an hour to trudge her way through the brambles and briars of the woods that lay around the castle and the cultivated fields of crops. Janir was crying again, tears streaming down her face. Rocking silently back and forth, she felt very alone.
The seven point medallion was cold and solid in her fingers, the symbol of Armandius’ protection, his acceptance. Janir clung to that as tightly as she could.
“I wish you were still here,” she whispered to the wind.
The sound of a horse’s hooves came from behind her. Janir recognized the murmured command from the rider. The horse eased to a halt and the rider swung off, habitually patting the beast’s neck.
There didn’t seem to be anything to say. She stayed as she was.
Armandius came up from behind and wrapped his arms around her. Janir flung her arms about his neck like she used to do as a child. Neither of them said anything for a while.
“You ran quite far,” Armandius remarked at length, releasing her from his embrace. “Nearly a mile. No one saw you go.”
“Then how did you know where to find me?” Janir sniffled.
Armandius shrugged. “You have always come here after you and I had an argument or when you were upset. Always.”
Janir nodded and motioned vaguely to the youngest of the solemn tombs. “When I was little, I used to think she could hear me.”
Armandius stared absently at the stone pillar. “Sometimes I still do.”
Janir often thought common loss had been part of what had drawn her and Armandius so closely together. “What am I to do?” she asked, voice quavering. “I know I can’t be here at dawn.”
Armandius didn’t answer straight away. He continued gazing vacantly at the monument. “You must leave.”
Janir was dumbstruck. Leave? She had never left Green Haven since arriving there. Where could she possibly go? The world seemed to once again begin spinning beneath her, whirling wildly without any apparent direction.
“But Father…what will I…how will I…” she stammered.
“Only for a while,” Armandius assured her. “Until I can work some things out.”
“Where will I go?” she managed to mumble.
“To the mountains. Higher up they are relatively uninhabited and rather mild this time of year.”
“What? With the werewargs and the griffins and the snow?” Janir hesitated.
“My girl,” Armandius lifted her chin, “you know I would come with you if I could, but I cannot. I must be here when the men from Virida arrive. If for nothing else, to convince them that we are not under attack.”
Janir said nothing. Of course he couldn’t send anyone else with her, no one but Velaskas and Broffy knew.
The shock of the situation left her dizzy and disoriented. It seemed she should have seen this was coming. What else had she expected? Attempting to pull herself together, she covered her face with her hands and tried to think of something, anything except what was happening.
“We’ve hunted in the mountains before. We both know you can manage long enough. Now you must go, Jenny,” Armandius prompted. He rested a hand on her shoulder and tugged her off the stone wall.
“Right.” Janir was stunned, but rose to her feet. She was having trouble thinking clearly, but she managed, “Can we go back to Green Haven Castle so I can grab a few things?”
“No,” he replied. “I have everything you will need here.”
Glancing past his shoulder, Janir saw her bay stallion, Kalbo, beside Armandius’ dappled gray steed. Kalbo looked confused and uncertain, but ready. Sadly, she noticed that his saddlebags had been fully packed for a stay in the mountains. Kalbo’s coat gleamed in the moonlight and his intelligent eyes watched her with expectation. Sensing the impending departure, he snorted and pawed the ground.
“But how will I know when to come back?” Janir asked, gathering her wits enough to think of that question.
“I will send either Velaskas or Saoven for you.” Taking her hand in a firm grasp, Armandius led her to stand beside Kalbo. “Goodbye, my child.”
“Don’t say that.” Janir was crying again.
“It’s not forever,” he assured her. “Just for now.”
Guiding her to Kalbo’s saddle, he boosted her onto the stallion’s back. Seated astride the horse, Janir began to wonder if she would ever return.
“There most likely aren’t enough provisions in those saddlebags, so you’ll have to hunt at some point.”
“Fine.” Janir was only half listening.
Just for a moment, his determination softened. “Whatever blood may say, you are my daughter, Janir Caersynn.”
“You need to go,” he interrupted. “Before the captain of the guard starts looking for us both.”
There were at least a dozen things she should ask him before she left, but in that instant Janir was too dazed and distressed to think of them all. “What about wild animals?” She wasn’t sure why that of all things came to mind.
“You can deal with them,” he replied. “You are a capable huntress. They are in greater danger than you.”
“You say that in spite of my previous hunting record?” The last time they had gone hunting, she had refused to bring down their quarry—a ten-point stag. He had just been too harmless and beautiful. It frustrated the huntsmaster to no end.
“If it came to Kalbo’s or your life against the beast’s, I believe you would not hesitate to destroy the creature.” Armandius paused. “Be safe.” Slapping Kalbo’s hindquarter, Armandius stood back as the horse charged past the mounds and up the hill.
Doing her best to guide Kalbo through the dense brush of Green Haven, Janir tried to keep tears from clouding her vision. But it was no use and soon Kalbo’s mane was damp with salty drops.
The world was still. No sound but the gentle thumping of Kalbo’s hooves on the grass. Restlessly, Janir shifted in the saddle.
At least Armandius had sent a change of clothes with her to replace the blue silk dress. These past three days and nights would have rendered it to rags. She wore her moss green riding habit, one of the ones Dame Selila had ordered sewn for her last autumn. Necessarily, the long sleeves would keep her warm in the chilly mountains and the black leggings underneath her split skirt would as well. The skilled seamstresses who worked for Armandius knew how to make something both comfortable and functional.
Janir still had the crest of the Caersynn house, the chain wrapped around her wrist into a bracelet. Something about it reassured her, anchored her hope.
In Kalbo’s saddlebags were a blanket for the horse and a few of the girl’s mostly unused hunting tools. Not long after setting out she had found the mahogany box—Armandius had packed it, though she didn’t know why.
The Lord Argetallam had sent her away, too. And she had never seen him since. Though she wouldn’t mind horribly if she died never seeing the Lord Argetallam again, Armandius was another matter. He’d protected her, guarded her, embraced her, been everything a father should have been.
Since leaving him on that hillside, she and Kalbo had been riding. After moving through the daylight, they would stop for a short rest before riding on into the early evening and breaking camp. Janir pressed her stallion for long hours, but they kept an easy speed, never faster than a trot.
They were getting deeper and deeper into the foothills, reaching the actual mountains themselves. Janir wondered if she shouldn’t stop and set up a permanent camp soon. She didn’t want to venture too far, just far enough not to be found by accident.
Before she knew it, they were making their way through the winding path of a narrow mountain gorge. Like curtains, the clouds hung in a gray sheet against the sky, a fitting accompaniment to her mood.
As they reached foothills, the land became cold and uninviting. The harsher wind was blocked by the mountains, but soon could be heard wailing at their peaks. Once or twice the stallion balked at an unusually loud cry from above their heads. But always he settled, trusting Janir that it was nothing to concern himself with.
Kalbo’s ears twitched and soon Janir heard a voice being carried on the steady breeze. Curious, if a bit apprehensive, she turned Kalbo and continued in a southeasterly direction through the pines. As she drew closer, she could hear the rushing of a river and words from formerly indistinct moaning.
The horse and rider emerged from the trees and Janir reined in Kalbo to behold a rather odd little person. He looked to be a few years her junior with spiky red hair that stood on end. His freckled face was contorted into a look of self pity. A pale stare gaped blankly into the distance, too busy daydreaming to notice the bay stallion and his incredulous rider.
The complainer was shorter than Janir, with no muscles to speak of and skinnier than a willow branch. He was wearing a shapeless robe of indistinguishable color—Janir couldn’t tell if it was a faded brown or a dirty gray. The odd clothing was much too big for him and resembled a huge sea creature swallowing him alive. He was suspended by the back of the shapeless garment from the branch of a leaning pine, dangling precariously above the ground.
“Woe to me, I am out here all alone, away from the warm kitchens and bright banquet halls of home,” he moaned pathetically.
Kalbo snorted and the boy snapped to attention. He surveyed the girl and horse for a moment, then asked, “Have you any rolls or cheese?”
Janir shook her head. “What are you doing here?” It came out a bit sharper than she had intended.
“Have you any food at all?”
“I believe you have larger problems than food,” Janir pointed out. She glanced around, but could see no signs of anyone else nearby.
“Yes, but at the moment I am rather hungry.”
“What are you doing here?” Janir repeated.
“Hmm? How do you mean?”
“Here. In the mountains. What are you doing?”
“At the moment, I have been strung up by my robe and am dangling from a tree, so I’m not doing much of anything,” he explained, pointing to where his robe was caught on the pine.
“Why are you here?” She tried to make the question easier.
“Because I can’t move.”
Taking a deep breath, Janir attempted a different angle. “Why are you here instead of wherever it is you came from?”
“I left,” the boy bluntly stated, staring at her in a way that said he considered her to be stupid.
“Why did you leave?”
“I wanted to be somewhere else.” He blinked disgustedly at her lack of understanding.
Before he could fail to explain himself any longer, the suspensory branch snapped and the boy landed in a jumbled heap of robe and white legs. Kalbo shied and Janir held his reins until he steadied. The boy shuffled and clambered to his feet.
“Karile Kerwyn, Enchanter of the Ninth Degree,” the boy declared with a sweeping bow made less impressive by the pine needles in his hair.
“Ninth Degree?” Janir scoffed. “You couldn’t even save yourself up there and you expect me to believe that?”
“Well, I am very close to the Ninth Degree,” Karile protested.
“Well, I do have a few Degrees to go before I am of the Ninth,” he sheepishly admitted.
Prone to exaggeration though he might be, Janir deemed that this boy was harmless and alone, whoever or whatever he was. Swinging down from the saddle, she held Kalbo’s reins and politely announced her own name.
“Janir Caersynn.” No sooner had the words crossed her lips than she realized she should have at least withheld the anomalous last name. But hopefully the lad wouldn’t notice.
“Caersynn?” So he had noticed. “Janir Caersynn?” He was looking at her strangely. She thought he might even be excited, but it was gone a moment later.
“What about it?” Janir shrugged, hoping to brush it off as irrelevant.
“Pleased to meet you, Janir.” He grinned and offered a clumsy bow. “Do you have any food?”
“Don’t you have somewhere to go?”
“Oh, no. I think I’ll keep you company for a while.”
“Lucky me,” she muttered. Janir took a deep breath and wondered if perhaps she shouldn’t ride off and leave him while she had the chance.
Janir sat by the fire Karile had made. Even an Enchanter of the First Degree could start a fire and for that Janir was thankful. Through some stroke of luck, she’d caught a rabbit with a snare like the ones Armandius had taught her to make. While she still had qualms about killing things, she found using snares mostly bearable.
Of course she had to clean the rabbit. Karile claimed a terror of blood.
He whined the entire time she was skinning and cooking the rabbit, then ate more than his share, but pity kept her from abandoning him. He was alone out here with nothing but his robe and would probably starve if she were to leave him. All the same, she was fast learning that it was possible to pity someone while wanting to slap him at the same time.
He didn’t seem to care she was a girl or that any decent boy would have offered to do the work for her. The imp was probably too selfish to lift a finger for anyone. Her pity faltered just a little.
Janir stared in disbelief as the skinny boy consumed more than two thirds of her catch. He would have eaten the whole thing, bones, hair, and all, had she not stood her ground.
“I caught it. I cleaned it. I cooked it. I eat it!” she shouted angrily, tearing off a back leg.
“No need to be selfish,” protested Karile.
Janir was beginning to loathe this annoying little troublemaker. She suddenly understood why someone would leave him hanging from his robe. Perhaps she should have asked more questions, but she was not used to meeting many strangers, much less sizing them up.
“Who put you up in the tree, Karile?”
“A very unpleasant fellow,” the enchanter mumbled through a mouthful of rabbit.
“I’m not so sure.”
“I was out here riding when I met this man on a horse. Well, we start chatting and he can’t give me a good excuse for why he’s out here and he won’t answer any of my questions.”
Karile had not, Janir noted, demanded an explanation for her presence.
“Then, next thing you know, the atrocious little goblin has strung me up on the tree.” Karile jammed a piece of rabbit in his mouth. “My pony’s probably halfway home by now, little traitor.”
“Is that the whole of it?”
“Well, yes! Do you call me a liar?” Karile righteously exclaimed through a mouthful of rabbit’s flesh.
“I think you have more of an explanation there,” Janir countered.
“Well, I don’t, and it’s too bad for you!”
Janir rolled her eyes. If nothing else, being annoyed with him was a good distraction to her current predicament.
“You know,” Karile remarked between mouthfuls of Janir’s rabbit, “you should take me seriously. I was on very important business.”
“Of course you were.”
Karile didn’t seem to hear her. “I was going to find the Key of Amatahns.”
Janir had heard of Amatahns, just as any respectable child who attended temple. The enchanter who had saved all the lands from a horde of scaled monsters—mazag—was often a central statue in religious sites and a character in epics and ballads. But she had stopped taking Karile seriously several hours ago and didn’t give it much thought.
Janir leaned against the trunk of a tree. Little sleep these past days had taken their toll and she was exhausted.
She could only hope that she wouldn’t dream of Ronan’s corpse or the feel of his spine snapping in her hands. A shudder shivered down her back, but Karile seemed not to notice. Janir tried to push the memory as far from her mind as possible, letting sleep catch up with her.
As she was drifting off, she heard “…infinite power to the one who holds it…” If there was one person in creation who shouldn’t have infinite power, it just might be Karile.
“What gives infinite power?”
“Haven’t you been listening?” Karile demanded.
“No, I haven’t.” Janir found the small measure of concern was fast slipping away. She didn’t think she cared anymore and just wanted to sleep.
“Why are you so irritable?” Karile complained.
“I’ll tell you why I am so irritable you little thistle thorn,” she whispered in a dangerously quiet voice. Annoyance and weariness made her temper short. “I am alone in this wretched wasteland with an Enchanter of the First Degree who…” Karile swam out of focus. Janir whipped a hand to her face to wipe away the tears before he could see. The other things that were wrong, she couldn’t tell him.
“Well, if that’s all, why are you complaining like a child?”
Janir hissed wordlessly and leaned against the tree again. He hadn’t even asked why she was out here. He must not care.
“Do you have any idea what the Key is?”
“No.” She wanted to sink into the dream world where anything was possible and she might escape the nightmare her life had become, even if only for a few hours. But with his selfishness, Karile was forcing her to keep a grip on reality.
“We’ve got to get that Key before they do,” Karile resolutely announced. “Look, I’ve been finding out things. Putting pieces together.” His voice dropped to a whisper.
Janir might have been interested if he had explained what exactly this “Key” was. But he had, she reminded herself, and she didn’t care.
He kept talking, but she still didn’t care. Every so often she would catch snatches of words whether she liked it or not.
“…and my father told me to stop looking for clues, that I was babbling nonsense and should pay more attention to swordplay. But, of course, I wouldn’t listen.”
Janir huffed and rolled over, but caught his last few words.
“…it is so powerful, it can control entire races. Can you imagine?”
It was hard to tell if she was awakened by her nightmare or Karile—he snored like a drunken sailor.
In fulfillment of her fear, she had dreamt about killing Duke Ronan. The appall of the act was still vividly fresh. Even though she had done it to save Armandius, she abhorred everything about what had happened. She had been so furious, so mad with rage when she had killed. The sheer unbridled anger Janir had felt in her heart frightened her to the core. What if it came back?
Though it was still dark, she didn’t want to go try getting back to sleep just yet. She stood and dusted herself off, taking deep breaths and looking for something to do.
Janir found the nearly empty leather waterskin that had been included in her pack. The river was a short walk through the woods since she had been more or less following the water source since leaving Green Haven.
Everything appeared in order around their meager campsite. Kalbo was hobbled in the trees, Karile was a nondescript mound of grunting robe. There was not much else to consider.
Satisfied, she entered the dense trees. The previous year’s pine needles lay on the forest floor in an earthy blanket, squishing with each step.
She had not gone far when she stopped. She thought she had heard an echo to her footsteps. Janir spun around but saw no one. It was mostly dark, someone or something could still be watching from behind one of the trees.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” She took in her surroundings suspiciously. “Karile, if that’s you, I’ll break your nose.”
Not a sound. After waiting a few more moments, Janir went on to the river bank. It was flowing gently, the bulk of the spring flood shouldn’t be coming for a while yet.
Janir knelt by the riverside to fill the waterskin. A twig snapped. Setting the waterskin down quickly, she surveyed every inch of visible forest. When she spotted nothing, Janir resorted to the tree line of the opposite bank. There was a flicker of motion, but it could have been only a bird. Janir listened intently, trying to hear over the constant murmur of the river.
Once again, there didn’t seem to be anything abnormal. Perhaps it was her nerves manifesting her fears.
She stooped again to fill the waterskin. Chills shot up her spine as a hand touched her shoulder.
Like a startled animal, she swung around to slap the intruder in the head with the only weapon she had. Water splashed over both of them as the waterskin struck the intruder. In a panic, she smacked a right cross in the middle of the stranger’s face. His hand went to his nose and he mumbled something in protest.
Janir was frightened and didn’t stop to think who it might be. She grabbed a branch lying near the base of a tree and clubbed him. His arms flew up defensively and he retreated.
“Janir!” he shouted, jumping out of reach.
It took a moment for her to recognize him and only then did she lower her improvised weapon. “Saoven?”
The elf offered a shrug. “If this is how you greet your friends, I’m glad we’re not on worse terms.”
Janir swallowed. She was lucky they were friends. If he wanted, he could probably run her through with a sword faster than she could blink.
“How—why are you here?” She wasn’t sure how she felt about his presence. Armandius had said either Saoven or Velaskas would be coming and normally she would be happy to see him, but if he had heard about what happened at Castle Caersynn…
“I was passing through in my search for you and heard someone wandering by,” Saoven explained. “Armandius asked me to protect you, though I wonder if you need it.” He smiled teasingly, water dripping off his nose. Janir’s stomach did somersaults. “I followed you here and you know the rest.”
Janir dropped the branch. “It’s…good to see you.”
Saoven opened his mouth, but a rock hit the elf in the side of the head before he knew it was there. Like a skinny, freckled demon, Karile flew out of the shadows, falling upon Saoven with bony fists.
“Enchanter, leave him alone!” Janir ordered.
“You!” Saoven shouted, blocking the enchanter’s attack and flexing his arm back for a blow.
“I will tear your liver out through your eyeballs!” Karile shrieked in a deranged voice. “I’ll teach you to leave me strung up in a tree!”
“Stop!” Janir grabbed the collar of Karile’s robe. Luckily for him, the enchanter weighed little more than a sack of potatoes and she was able to drag him off before Saoven started defending himself. “Stop! He’s a friend!”
Karile kept fighting for a moment, then cast her a confused look before fixing Saoven in a hard glare. “He has to go.”
“I don’t like him.”
“He isn’t leaving because you don’t like him.”
“He’s the goblin who left me in that tree!”
Janir shot a quick glance to Saoven. He did not deny it. “Well, I’m sure he had a good reason.”
“What are you doing here?” Saoven suspiciously glowered at the enchanter.
Karile ignored him to thrust an accusing finger at Janir. “Traitor!”
“He and I are old friends,” she snapped. To her ears, it seemed strange for one so young to claim the friendship of an elf, but Saoven did not correct her.
“Really, then why did he attack you?” Karile argued.
“It was a misunderstanding!” Janir made an irritated noise.
“Are you still following me?” Saoven glared at Karile, towering a full head and shoulders taller.
“I have as much right to be in this forest as you do!” the enchanter yelled belligerently.
“Alright!” Janir wedged herself between them. “You two got off to a bad start, but we don’t have to fight.”
Saoven looked willing to hear her words. Karile didn’t.
Janir cleared her throat as she found herself with both of them intimately close on either side. Being around Saoven made her feel odd, but it was a good kind of odd. Janir didn’t quite have a name for it, clearing her throat a second time. “I take it you have met?”
“He’s the one that strung me up the tree!” Karile must have thought that worth repeating as an emphatic screech. “Nincompoop goblin that he is.”
“You would not stop following me,” Saoven snapped. “I told you my business was none of yours.”
Janir wished she’d been strong enough to hang Karile in a tree herself. It would have made things so much simpler. “Stop it, both of you.” She wasn’t sure what they were going to do with Karile, but she didn’t want him to stay.
“I’ll wager the goblin’s planning something diabolical. Look at that—he’s scowling at me!” Karile’s finger jabbed toward the elf.
“Perhaps it has something to do with the fact you bashed him in the head with a very large rock,” Janir suggested.
“A very hard rock,” added Saoven.
“So you do concede he’s a goblin?” Karile just wouldn’t give up.
Janir closed her eyes and silently counted backwards from ten.
“Let it go,” the elf grumbled. “Enough of this.”
“You attacked my friend and strung me up a tree,” Karile snapped.
Saoven mumbled something in Elvish to the effect of “I should have thrown you in the river.”
“Who said we were friends?” Janir demanded, regretting that she hadn’t left Karile when she had the chance.
She would have liked to talk to Saoven without another set of ears. She wanted to know what was happening back in Green Haven and Karile shouldn’t. But the enchanter had to turn up to smack him in the head with rocks and be a general nuisance.
“I said we’re friends and that means you are my friend whether you like it or not,” Karile said flatly.
Janir turned to Saoven. “He’s insane.”
“I have noticed.”
“I am not vain!” screamed Karile.
With resignation, Janir covered her face with her hands. She wasn’t quite sure how she had gone from Lord Caersynn’s daughter to mediator for a mad boy in the course of three—or was it four?—days. “I feel like I’m talking to a stump.”
“Well, that’s not surprising. Goblins aren’t known for being smart,” Karile quipped.
Janir bit her tongue in frustration. “You are the…oh, never mind.”
“What will we do with the stump while we look for the Key?”
“I don’t know. What will we do with him?” Janir wondered if any of these trees could hold Karile’s weight.
Saoven’s glanced between them. “What are you talking about?”
Janir shook her head. The only good thing about this madness was it kept her from thinking about Duke Ronan nearly. “I don’t know. He keeps going on about the Key of—”
“Amatahns,” Karile interjected.
Janir had never heard of the relic, but Saoven straightened just a little and cast a hard look at the enchanter. “Do you even know what that is?”
“Yes, I know what that is.” Karile tried mimicking the elf’s lilting accent.
“What exactly do you know of it?”
“Well, I know the Argetallams can’t get it.”
At that name, Janir froze. It was as if she was outside of time, her thoughts racing like rapids while everything else stood still. She had fervently hoped so many times over the years that she would never have to see the Lord Argetallam or any other Argetallam ever again.
The mere mention of them brought gooseflesh to her skin. It was unlikely that Karile knew who she was. He couldn’t know, she told herself. No one but Armandius, Velaskas, and Broffy had known less than a week ago. Surely three days wasn’t enough time for someone to learn about it and send a spy to hunt her down…
As Saoven began interrogating Karile, his words sliced through her inner thoughts like a knife through paper. “And how would you know about this?”
Karile folded his arms across his chest. “Da hears things, which means I hear things.”
“And who is your father, exactly?” Saoven was taking this very seriously. He looked as if he might start shaking Karile if the enchanter didn’t offer good answers.
“Sir Marserian Kerwyn.”
It took a moment, but Saoven seemed to recognize the name. “Captain of the border garrison at the Norwin Pass?”
Janir wanted to hide in a very deep and dark hole. It felt wrong, this boy coming from the very province that bordered the Staspin Waste, the very region where she had been found by Armandius.
“Yes. He didn’t take it seriously when a few of his spies reported it. I skipped off to the library and learned to take it seriously.”
Saoven was watching Karile intently. It was said that elves could see in a person’s heart if they were lying and Janir believed it. No one was better at sifting the truth than a child of the Sylvan Forests. Luckily for Janir, as far as she knew, Saoven had never tried reading her. If he had, he would have known her secret.
“Your father lets you listen in on reports from spies?” Saoven said it as if that was the singular most unbelievable thing he had heard in a very long time.
Karile shrugged. “Let’s just say the southern wall isn’t as thick as he likes to think.”
“Then why not tell your father of what you learned?”
“I tried, but he wouldn’t believe me.” Karile must be taking this as a challenge, proving that he wasn’t lying. He looked Saoven square in the face and hardly even blinked.
Janir felt even more uncomfortable as their staring contest stretched on. If only she could turn the conversation to anything not involving Argetallams. She had been able to avoid even speaking the name for years.
“How about we go back to the camp and relight the fire?” Janir suggested. “It’s cold out here.” The night was actually quite mild, but she had her hopes it would work.
The other two ignored her save for a brief gesture from Saoven that meant “momentarily.” The girl was left to stand awkwardly as their battle of the wills raged on.
Finally, Saoven broke the silence. “Argetallams cannot be harmed by magic, but nor can they use it themselves. It seems rather pointless for them to go on an ancient treasure hunt.”
“If an enchanter absorbed it, they could claim the enchanter,” Karile pointed out. For one who was an enchanter, he said it with admirable detachment. Most of his kind only spoke of Argetallams in whispers with sidelong glances, as one did one’s worst nightmares. “Or maybe an ally of theirs wants it.”
Janir thought that the more likely possibility. The Argetallams had all the silks, gold, spices, and slaves they could trade, but that was dependent on their alliance with the Stlavish sultanates.
Saoven stared very hard at the young enchanter. “What else do you know?”
Karile looked away and shrugged. “Aside from the basic lore about where it was buried and so on and so forth…nothing.”
Basic lore? How much was there? She had never heard of any of it and she’d always thought her education was of the highest caliber.
It was several more moments of uncomfortably intense staring before Saoven spoke again. “Was a report made on the matter to the High Lords?”
“I told you. Da didn’t take it seriously.”
The elf breathed a deep sigh. “I often wonder if the world would be any more peaceful if we had wiped out the Argetallams when they were weak.”
Karile shot her a furtive look, but didn’t say anything.
Janir’s skin prickled and the color drained from her face. Saoven didn’t know what she was—worse, he must hate what she was. Had Velaskas kept that from him? She had known Saoven for years. Armandius trusted him enough to call him a friend. Still, not enough to let him know her secret?
“Why didn’t you?” Janir was surprised she found her voice.
“The Diviner at the time told us that we should show them mercy.” Saoven probably thought that a foolish thing.
The Diviner—Janir had heard stories about him. He was a blind boy born once a generation to the world of mortals. It was said he was robbed of sight in the present for the sake of endless visions into the future.
Karile seemed to think he should pipe up. “So instead you thought you’d corral them in the Staspin Waste?”
“It seemed the wisest choice at the time. We have had ample time to regret it since.”
Seeming to consider it a fact of life, Karile shrugged. He gave Janir an odd look, lingering on her for a little longer than normal, like he was expecting a response.
“Are you well, Janir?” Saoven asked.
Janir was staring at nothing in particular with a blank expression, not certain what to think or do.
“What? Yes, I’m fine.” She dismissed his concerns with a forced smile. “I was just…thinking.”
Saoven didn’t look convinced, but he let it pass. “If we are sorted here, I believe that you two must get some sleep—or what little there is left to be had.”
He gestured for them to head back to the camp. Unerringly, he angled in the right direction. He must have scouted them quite well before making his presence known.
Janir followed him and Karile let loose the first half of a protest, then let it drop. He trotted after the other two and joined them where the big bay stallion waited, watching intently as they emerged from the trees into the small clearing.
Saoven’s face was styling a large bruise over a bloodshot eye. He had a collection of other bruises and scratches on his face and arms, and Janir realized with a slight pang of guilt that she had given him at least a few of them.
“I am going to fetch my horse, she’s not far from here. I shall be back in a moment, but there is no reason for you two to wait for me. You should rest.”
For all his adversity with the elf, Karile obeyed immediately. As if he was suddenly exhausted, the boy curled up next to the log he had been using as a pillow before and was settled within heartbeats.
“You as well, Janir,” Saoven added.
“What about you?” Janir seated herself on the ground, hugging her knees to her chest.
“I will keep watch,” he replied.
“Keep watch? Do you really think there is danger?” Janir had supposed this high in the foothills there was nothing to fear. The fire would repel the wild animals and all humans should be far, far away.
“It is best to be safe,” he vaguely answered.
Janir wondered what he thought might be after them, what Armandius and Velaskas had told him. They must have offered some explanation as to why she needed protecting, but Janir hadn’t had the chance to ask. With Karile mere paces away, she was afraid to. Not only that, but she didn’t want to rouse any suspicions. The wrong question, the wrong look might give Saoven the clue or the suspicion that she had not been wholly honest with him.
Saoven had not mentioned anything about why she was here in the mountains and not back home in Green Haven. That probably meant it was best to leave the matter for now.
“Elves don’t sleep?” Janir wondered, reaching for her blankets.
“Of course we sleep,” Saoven said. “But we do not need nearly as much as your kind.” He disappeared into the foliage, but she didn’t doubt he would be back as he had said.
Janir curled up near the base of a pine, listened to the forest sounds, and tried to hear the lullaby that had lulled her to sleep these past few nights—the soft murmur of the river, the hooting of the night owl, the wind dancing in the trees’ leaves.
She felt herself drifting off into the dream world, sliding away slowly.
Janir jolted awake in the middle of the forest for the second time that night with another nightmare. A horrible, gut wrenching nightmare. The Lord Argetallam had been in it, looking much as she remembered him from her younger years. There had been a screaming man on the ground, blood, and the shriek of something inhuman…
Janir shook her head free of the memory, trying to let it fade. The fire had been put out and the world was silent, far too silent. Saoven was several paces off, alert. He heard her and glanced in her direction just long enough to convey that she was to be quiet, then continued staring into the trees.
A moment later, she heard the soft snapping and bending of greenery as someone moved through the woods. With care, Janir rose into a crouch, ready to run or hide, whichever became necessary. Her heart was pounding in her ears like a drum, her breathing sped. The old feeling of fear brimmed over in her heart.
It was a long time before the sound of bodies moving through the forest died down. Could it have been animals? Hunters? Bandits?
Kalbo whickered quietly as did the white mare tied to the tree beside him. The elf said something in his native tongue and the animals quieted.
Saoven made a calming gesture after several moments, indicating that whatever it was had gone. Still cautious, Janir lowered herself to the ground again, but knew that she would not be sleeping.
The moments ticked away. Saoven didn’t move. Janir closed her eyes, but she couldn’t seem to relax. The noise of the disturbance had faded well away and there was only the soft snores of Karile. Stealing a peek at the enchanter, Janir made sure he was indeed asleep before she ventured the question that burned on the tip of her tongue.
“Saoven?” she whispered, speaking so quietly she wasn’t sure he could hear her.
Janir inhaled. “What happened to Father?”
Saoven didn’t pull his gaze from the darkened forest, but she felt his sympathy. “I am not certain.”
She wasn’t sure she wanted to keep prodding him. It wasn’t clear how much he knew. “Is he alright?”
The elf hesitated for a moment. “Why would he not be?”
Janir was suddenly very uncomfortable.
“When I returned to Castle Caersynn, I found Armandius and my father waiting for me. They told me…” Saoven paused, probably trying to think of something tactful. “They told me of what you did, Janir, or the summary of events.”
She was afraid to speak. He couldn’t know everything, but he might know far more than was safe.
“It was defense of your family, I do not doubt that the High Lords will forgive you for this.” Saoven cocked his head to the side ever so slightly. “Indeed, very little of it makes sense to me.” He pulled his gaze from the trees and allowed it to settle on her.
It was then that Janir realized he thought she was on the run because of killing Duke Ronan. Armandius and Velaskas had not told him the details of how she had been able to do it.
Saoven watched her for a moment, then let out a long exhale. Whatever he might suspect, he wasn’t going to press her. He wasn’t that kind of man. “Try to get some sleep, Janir.”
At dawn, Saoven announced that they needed to leave the region. Janir obediently saddled her bay stallion, but Karile whined and complained. “What about breakfast?”
Saoven and Karile argued about breakfast and the necessity of it while Janir saddled her horse. Several minutes later, Janir had mounted her steed.
Karile stubbornly refused to ride. “I tell you, I won’t get on that thing,” he resolved. “That’s not a horse, that’s a hooved siege tower.”
“You’ll get on it or you’re staying here,” Janir snapped.
“Horses are smelly and sweaty.”
“And you aren’t?” Janir longed so badly to hit the enchanter. “And I thought you just said Kalbo wasn’t a horse.”
Karile had opened his mouth to retort, when Saoven suddenly picked him up and set him arguing and whining on the saddle behind Janir. Kalbo balked for a moment, then begrudgingly settled.
“I don’t like it either,” Janir mumbled to the horse, patting his neck.
“Under normal circumstances I would leave you, enchanter,” Saoven growled. “But I have a strange suspicion that you would point them in our direction if you saw those soldiers.”
“Soldiers?” Janir gulped.
“Scouts, I think. I don’t know what they were doing this close to Brevia, but I think they were Stlavish.”
Janir’s spine prickled uncomfortably. First mention of the Argetallams, now their closest allies—neither of which had ever been on particularly friendly terms with her mother’s country.
“Where are we going?” Karile asked.
“Higher into the mountains,” Saoven replied, swinging up into his white mare’s saddle.
His brief elaboration would have to suffice. Now that the enchanter was on the horse with her, Karile gripped Janir’s waist like a lifeline. Undoubtedly, she would be bruised by the end of the day. Knowing that this was no time for complaining, Janir resigned herself to the situation and tried to pretend that Karile didn’t exist.
She should have left when Karile was still hanging from the tree. That was all Janir could think about as the day wore on and on.
As if the world owed him something, he complained at every opportunity. He claimed the sun was too bright, riding the horse was too bumpy, the birds were too loud, the hills too steep, for a time he even fixated on Saoven being too ugly to accompany them.
That was where Janir took the most offense. Though she’d never told a soul, she’d long thought Saoven quite handsome.
The midday sun was beating down on them and the wooded hills had long since grown into mountains. The trees were scrunched close together on either side of the little group, almost forming a wall to enclose them. The path they followed was narrow, probably made by deer and other game. Grass grew so close to the path that the horses’ legs brushed it with each step.
“Can we stop?” Karile whined.
“No,” Janir retorted.
“My bottom hurts from this saddle and I think I’m getting blisters in some rather unseemly places.”
For several strides of the horse, Karile was silent.
Janir lost control of her temper and elbowed him as hard as she could.
“Ouch!” Karile screamed.
“Karile,” Saoven called back from his place in front of them, “if you refuse to cease antagonizing the lady, you will be forced to walk.”
“Lady?” Karile mockingly asked. “What lady? I don’t see any lady, just this…thing.”
Janir growled unintelligibly.
“A lady would apologize for elbowing me,” Karile whined.
Gritting her teeth, Janir decided it was the fastest way to silence him. “I apologize for hitting you, Karile.”
“Well at last she apologizes! You know that’s the first—”
“Silence!” Saoven hissed abruptly.
“Oh, no. Not you, too!”
Saoven turned a menacing glare in the direction of Karile and the young enchanter decided to obey.
They halted in a small clearing, no more than three sword lengths wide. The elf sat perched on his mare, listening intently. Silent as an owl landing in a tree, Saoven swung off his horse and briefly motioned that they were to stay where they were. He slipped between two saplings and vanished into the greenery. Janir could feel Kalbo tensing. Whatever it was, the stallion sensed it, too.
Once Saoven was presumably out of earshot, Karile could barely contain his excitement. “What do you think it is?” His voice had a childlike eagerness to it.
“Saoven will tell us when he returns.” Janir was quite content to let Saoven do the scouting.
Karile fidgeted, but must have decided that he would rather not risk a fall from Kalbo’s towering height. He held onto Janir’s waist and contented himself with humming and squirming like a child.
In front of them, Saoven’s mare swished her tail calmly. Small white ears flicked, listening for the return of her master. Eventually, the mare dropped her head and tore up a mouthful of tender shoots, but not once did she move to stray from the path.
After a few moments, Janir had to resist the urge to squirm along with Karile. She looked up at the sky, counting the fluffy white outlines of clouds.
A flash of motion caught her eye as Saoven slid from the trees. The elf held a finger to his lips and sprang almost silently for his mount. He swung up into the saddle and led them onwards along the game trail.
The look on the elf’s face was enough to inspire quiet, even from Karile. They continued on in silence save for the clop of the horses’ hooves on the beaten dirt.
Saoven urged them onwards into a trot and they stepped up the pace, wending their way through the trees along the narrow path. A sense of foreboding settled over them. Janir didn’t dare speak until she knew what was happening, what Saoven had found. Fear locked her jaw, making the thought of words preposterous.
The land began to rise at a steeper and steeper slant. Eventually, it became clear that they were scaling the sides of one of the great colossuses that made up the Gideon Mountains.
The horses came onto a narrow track that leveled out suddenly. The trees gave way on one side, offering a plain view to the foot of the mountain.
Shivers shot through her when she internalized how far down it was. Or how high up they had gone. Rocks slid underneath Kalbo’s hooves, skipping down the mountainside, as if to show her just how far one could fall.
It took an uneasy amount of time for them to leave the gravel and reach the other side of the mountain, where it was grassier. The horses clopped deeper into the mountains, traversing at an angle along the steep slope.
Saoven led the way to a meadow with wiry, dead grass, reining in his steed beside them. “We can slow a little from here,” he said. “We should be alright for now.”
“What did you find?” Janir found her voice at last.
Saoven shook his head. “A camp, from the look of it. Very odd. Soldiers from Stlaven, if I had to guess.”
A hard lump formed in Janir’s throat. “Soldiers?”
“Try not to worry,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about it right now.”
Janir wished it was that simple. There were so many questions and so many fears swirling around her skull.
Not only were Brevia’s age old rivals toeing the border for the first time in nearly two decades, but there was the matter of the Argetallams, Karile’s Key of Amatahns, her killing Duke Ronan, and Armandius…
Armandius was probably the one she feared for the most. As far as she knew, no word had come on what the other High Lords had decided to do with him. One half of her said that they would not harm the last remaining member of the Third House. The pact of the Seven Swords had stood for millennia, surely they wouldn’t break it now.
The other half of her said that Armandius had hidden an Argetallam. Even his peers would not look favorably upon that transgression.
Kalbo and Loristi walked side by side for a few hours after that. They carried their riders out of the meadow and ventured into the trees, continuing higher up into the mountains. The steep slopes with their tall grasses and treeless landscapes blended into a single image in Janir’s mind as the air grew cooler.
At least twenty miles from where Saoven had gone to scout, he announced that they should stop for the night. The horses were tired and so were their riders. They made their camp near an outcrop of trees at the top of a slope overlooking the valley below. Although they could see for leagues, there was no sign of anyone chasing them.
Janir pulled her sleeves just a little farther over her arms. The elf chose this spot because of the view they had on three out of four sides. Janir protested that it merely meant other people could see their fire from three sides, but Saoven told her they would have ample warning if anyone did try to approach them. All the same, he seemed quite certain that none of the Stlavish soldiers even knew they had passed.
Saoven was distracted, thinking deep inside himself. Janir didn’t question him again as they unsaddled the horses.
They cleaned a brace of leverets Saoven had caught and built a fire, all the while the trio barely exchanged a word. Karile was content to keep quiet for once, observing the other pair and ogling the cooking meat.
At length, the three of them sat waiting for supper. Karile fixated on the roasting young rabbits. Saoven stared meditatively into the flames and Janir waited for someone to say something.
“I am going to have to leave you, Janir,” Saoven said with reluctance.
“Why?” was all she could manage to reply. Fear and a sudden wave of clinginess surged through her, far more than just the usual disappointment she felt whenever he left Castle Caersynn with his father.
“You are in the mountains now and I must inform the Brevians of the Stlavish band that is here.” He took a deep breath. “Also, I must tell my people of the Argetallams’ search for the Key of Amatahns .”
“You believe him?” Janir couldn’t wholly keep the incredulity out of her voice as she gestured to Karile.
The enchanter pouted indignantly and folded his arms across his chest. “Your display of confidence is overwhelming.”
“He has not lied,” Saoven said, ignoring the enchanter altogether. “And he is only slightly mad. If the Argetallams are indeed after the relic, then they must be stopped.”
Janir bit her lip. Saoven and Karile hated what she was so much. It could become dangerous or even fatal for her if they found out. She honestly wasn’t sure what they would do.
Misinterpreting her expression, he offered consolation. “I am certain Armandius has worked things out and that you will be able to return to Green Haven soon.”
Smiling faintly, Janir wanted to change the subject, but couldn’t think of anything. He was under the impression her exile was because she had killed a nobleman. When he returned to the lowlands, he would almost certainly learn better.
“What am I to do?” Janir choked. “Where am I suppose to go?”
“Stay in the mountains,” Saoven replied. “I will return for you as soon as I can, Janir. I swear.” He cast her a long, meaningful look.
Janir didn’t want his promises, she wanted him to stay. All the same, she did her best not to show how upset she truly was.
“Keep a low profile and avoid all other travelers when possible. You should be alone in these parts.” Saoven hesitated. He was probably thinking about the Stlavish band he had seen earlier today.
“I will return within a day, a day and a half at most.” He shot a glance to his slim white mare, probably deciding how fast he could press her. “Watch for werewargs. If you move every other night or so, they should not find you. If they do, remember that they fear water. And stay away from cliffs. Griffins may be nesting there.”
Janir nodded, storing away his advice. Not that he needed to tell her half of it. As inept as she was at the actual sport, she had learned a great deal from hunting with Armandius.
“Will you know where to find me?” she ventured.
He gave her a sideways glance. “I am an elf,” was his simple reply. “I can usually find anything and anyone in creation, as long as I know what or who I am searching for.”
She had forgotten that. Stress was probably prioritizing memories.
“Though,” Saoven’s brow crinkled, “I did have a slight bit of trouble finding you this time. I could not feel you at all. I must be getting lax.” The elf seemed to genuinely believe it was his own mistake or so she hoped. “Hardly matters. If I happen to err again, I can do what I did this time and search for Kalbo.”
If only he knew. Janir couldn’t look him in the eye for a moment.
“I’ll stay with her,” Karile volunteered. “We can’t leave her alone, now can we?”
Saoven watched Karile carefully, but didn’t protest. Whatever the case, he must see something in the boy to make him trust he wasn’t a threat to Janir.
She just hoped Saoven would be back soon. The last thing she wanted was to be alone in these mountains with hostile soldiers…and Karile.
Saoven left them the next morning. “May the sun, moon, and stars guide you until we meet again,” he said as he turned his white mount toward the lowlands.
Unmoving, Janir watched him gallop into the trees while Karile chattered about something she wasn’t listening to. Even though Karile’s voice was running in the background, she felt suddenly alone, naked on the hillside. Everything she had come to depend on for safety and protection was gone. She wondered if this was how fledgling birds felt when left on their own for the first time.
Bracing herself to face the enchanter, Janir turned in the direction of Karile and Kalbo. Karile was beside Kalbo on his tiptoes, trying to heft the horse’s saddle onto his withers.
“What are you doing?” Janir demanded.
“Why? We can let him rest for another hour or so. Now get away from my horse.”
Karile grunted as the saddle finally reached its desired altitude. “Because if we’re going to find the Key of Amatahns before those blasted Argetallams, we had better start moving. And I don’t want to carry the saddle, do you?”
“Who said we were going?” Janir demanded, moving to stop him. “Why don’t we just stay here and let people much more qualified than us deal with it, whatever it is?”
“You don’t understand, do you Janir?” Karile sighed and sounded remotely sane for a change. He even took a step back from Kalbo. “By the time Saoven reaches the lowlands, tells the story, assembles a group to go after the Key, the group is ready to move…the Argetallams could have found it a dozen times over. They have a head start on us.”
Karile looked suddenly more serious than she had seen him in the few days of their acquaintance. It was very unnerving.
“Why should I care?” demanded Janir. “You and Saoven kept talking about ‘nearly unlimited power,’ but you never explained yourselves.”
Karile sighed. “Do you remember the story of Amatahns, the great savior of the world?”
Janir blinked at him. “Amatahns the Enchanter?”
“Yes, do you remember it?”
“Of course! Everyone knows the story of the beasts he defeated and the war and so on and so forth,” she shortly replied. The tale had been dismantled and reassembled by so many artists, bards, and poets, it was hard to keep track of them all. One thing she was sure of, though. “There is nothing in the stories about any Key.”
“Not many people know the whole of the story,” explained Karile. “The knowledge of his defeated foes, the enchanter contained in an orb and kept for himself. It was lost to our realms when he sailed across the sea.”
“And the point is?” Janir wasn’t so sure she believed any of this, but Saoven had seemed to trust at least part of it.
“I haven’t told you what he did with the other thing he took from this race,” Karile qualified, impatient at her impatience. “Their magic.” The enchanter paused, probably for dramatic effect.
Janir raised one eyebrow. “What about their magic?”
“He sealed it in a crystal chamber and if anyone can stand inside the chamber, they can absorb the power of an entire race!” Karile was either horrified or enthused, it was hard to tell which.
Janir was still not impressed. “And what does this Key have to do with anything?”
Karile sighed and made a frustrated grunt. “You need the key to open the chamber!”
Instant suspicion came over Janir. “What exactly would you want with this Key if you had it?”
“Hide it from the Argetallams. I would never use it,” he assured her.
“How would you keep it from the fiercest band of warriors ever to walk the earth?” Janir demanded. “You’re one boy and even if you had all the magic in the world, it would be useless against Argetallams. They’re called Invulnerables for a reason.”
The enchanter was quiet for sometime before admitting, “I don’t know.”
Janir huffed and folded her arms across her chest.
“But that’s not important right now. We just need to keep it from them until we can hide it again.”
“No,” was her firm response.
“Come on, Janir,” Karile pleaded.
“Please. It’s just outside the province of Ivy Down, not three day’s ride away.”
“Conveniently, the province which happens to border with the Staspin Waste,” Janir muttered to herself.
“Listen.” Karile sounded almost desperate. “I can’t do this alone. I need you, Janir. Terrible things will happen if the Argetallams get this Key first.”
“I want nothing to do with Argetallams,” Janir snapped. “If there really are Invulnerables on the loose, then Saoven will know how to deal with them. We wait until he returns.”
“We’ll be there and gone before they ever arrive,” Karile assured her.
“You said they had a head start.”
“True, but they don’t know where the Key is. I do.”
“How could you possibly know?” Janir marched around to where her bedroll was lying and began lashing it up. If nothing else, perhaps being on the move would keep the enchanter quiet.
Kalbo’s ears twitched. He turned his head in the direction of the woods.
Janir followed his stare, remembering something Armandius had once told her about heeding Kalbo’s reactions. At first she saw nothing, but then she caught the flash of harness and a flicker of motion as a saddled horse moved by.
“Karile…” Janir was lucky that they didn’t have many supplies. She grabbed everything in sight and crammed it haphazardly into the saddlebags.
“What’s wrong?” Karile stared with confusion as she lashed the bags shut and nearly threw them at him.
“Shh!” Janir waved indistinctly as she shoved him in the direction of Kalbo. “Just…”
For once, the enchanter had done something useful. Karile had mostly tacked up Kalbo and Janir just had to tighten a few buckles. She slipped the bridle in place over the stallion’s head, moving with fevered speed.
“Finish packing!” she hissed.
“What’s—” Karile followed her anxious gaze. “Oh, fewmets.” He raced to obey her as the first signs of the riders appeared from the trees. “Bloody Stlavish found us.”
The girl and the enchanter slung the saddlebags up behind the saddle just as the first horsemen emerged from the greenery. By the time they had been spotted, Janir was already vaulting onto the stallion’s back and hauling Karile up after her.
As the riders shouted and made to chase them, Janir froze. Saoven had been wrong, these were not Stlavish at all. It had been years, but she could recognize one when she saw one, could feel that indescribable knowing.
These were Argetallams.
Panic gripped Janir and for a moment she couldn’t think, couldn’t react.
They’d come for her. They were here. After all this time hoping it would never happen, they were here.
“What are you doing?” Karile shrieked. He drove his skinny heels into Kalbo’s sides just as the lead riders took off after them.
Janir recovered enough of her senses to steer Kalbo in the opposite direction. The stallion gave a burst of speed, moving like a bolt of lightning despite carrying an extra rider.
As they galloped through the trees, the thunder of pursuit on their heels, Janir tried to steer Kalbo in the direction Saoven had gone. If they could just get back to him…
But there were at least five Argetallams after them and the warriors closed in, keeping them from doubling back. Abandoning all hope of meeting up with Saoven, Janir dug her heels into Kalbo’s sides and spurred him deeper into the mountains.
Speed was their only chance.
One thing about Green Haven horses, they were fast. Within a few miles, Kalbo had outpaced the Argetallam mounts and lost them in the forest.
Unfortunately, Janir found that they had also lost themselves. They were deep in the thick of the woods, a press of trees boxing them in on all sides. Resolving to keep calm, Janir steered Kalbo into an easterly heading. That should keep them from getting too far into the mountains.
Karile took up talking again, criticizing her every decision. “Shouldn’t we head up higher? You know…where the soldiers can’t follow us?”
Janir clenched her jaw. “Those were no soldiers. At least not from Stlaven.”
Karile was actually quiet for a moment. “What makes you say that?”
A shrug was all he got in response. Janir urged Kalbo into a jog and they pressed onwards. Even if they hadn’t heard any signs of pursuit for a while now, she didn’t want to risk it.
They found a stream shortly after midday, but she didn’t let them stop for more than a few moments. Kalbo couldn’t travel too far too fast, but every time they broke for a bit of recuperation, she kept thinking she heard the Argetallams on their trail again.
Karile argued with everything from the riding arrangement to their current direction, but he did not once protest when she said they should keep moving. Eventually, Janir steered Kalbo where he wanted just to shut him up. He tried not to let her notice, but he kept shooting anxious glances over his shoulder.
Of all the people in Brevia, they might just be the two who should fear Argetallams the most. Enchanters past a certain Degree were untouchable to ordinary mortals, even elves, but the weakest of Argetallams could walk through spells as if they were air.
Janir had never really thought about what would happen to her if she was caught, but it would be wretched, that much was certain. She had no understanding of how to be an Argetallam. With only a small amount of power and seven years’ worth of Brevian ideals pounded into her head, she would surely be seen as a traitor and an enemy. They would kill her, she had no doubts of that.
Even if she was the Lord Argetallam’s firstborn.
By the time the sun set, Janir had no idea where they were. They had been riding all day and though she was plagued by a desire to keep moving, it wouldn’t be fair to Kalbo. Karile was quiet as she selected their stopping place. He peered critically up at the stars, but his usual commentary was forgone at present.
It was a cold, hungry night on the ground. Janir wouldn’t agree to a fire and they had no provisions save for the waterskin. She left Kalbo tied to a thicket where he could at least find a little forage. Meanwhile, she and the enchanter hunkered down in the shelter of the branches. Karile suggested they huddle together to share heat, but Janir would rather freeze.
What had become of Saoven? Had he gotten past the Argetallams? Did he even know where they were?
She shivered and drew the cloak tighter about her shoulders. Armandius, Saoven—the people she cared about were fast being put in jeopardy because of her.
Janir’s mother had been killed by the very men who should have rescued her. They were so terrified by Argetallams in the borderlands that they hadn’t stopped to question if everyone there was a warrior. Aryana had never hurt anyone, but they hadn’t even considered she might be innocent.
As for Janir, she hadn’t so much as left Castle Caersynn’s lands since arriving, yet trouble had found her anyway. Now her world was crumbling because she’d stopped a murder. Why did this have to happen to her?
A rustling startled her from behind and she whipped her head around in terror, but realized it was just Kalbo nuzzling through the thicket. He nosed her hair, lipping affectionately at her braid.
She felt a stab of guilt at the thought of how hard she was being on him. He was fit, but even he shouldn’t be pressed like he had been today.
“I’m sorry,” Janir whispered, petting his velvety nose.
The stallion snorted, nosing the top of her head.
Janir snapped awake to find Kalbo nipping at her nose. She swatted him away, but he whickered and stomped uneasily, scraping one hoof against the ground.
It was just light enough she could make out Karile lying in the fetal position. In his grungy robe, he blended in well with the moist earth and dead bracken. He wasn’t snoring, an anomaly that was a little unsettling in and of itself.
She was still cold and her gut twisted with sharp pangs, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten since the day before yesterday. Kalbo nosed her again, flicking his tail insistently.
Low whispers came from the side. Janir straightened, alarm raising the hairs on the back of her neck. Pushing aside the branches of the thicket, she peered out, hardly daring to breathe.
Farther down the slope of the hill, she spotted the lumpy outlines of horses and their riders. A few of the humans were on the ground, crouching and examining the earth.
Trackers, Janir realized with terror.
The Argetallams must have followed them through the night. Her first instinct was to stay still, keep them from noticing her, but if they had been followed for all these leagues, she had no doubts the Argetallams could track them the last few hundred paces.
Janir meant to reach over and shake Karile, but she found herself slapping him madly. “Get up!” she hissed. “Get up!”
She clamped a hand over his mouth. “Shh! We need to move. Right now.”
Understanding dawned on Karile and he was suddenly very much awake. There was something about the prospect of gruesome torture and death that got the blood flowing.
The Argetallams still couldn’t see the pair, but they had to hurry if they didn’t want to be heard. Janir backed slowly out of the thicket, hoping it was still dark enough none of their hunters would notice the rustling of the shrubs. Karile crawled after her, for once doing as he was told.
Where was Saoven? Janir wanted him here to tell her how to survive this, what she should do to escape.
That thought reminded her of Armandius and she was struck with the acute sense of missing them both. She could only hope they were alright and she would manage to find a way out of this on her own.
She couldn’t let the Argetallams catch her. It would destroy Armandius if she disappeared and he never knew what had happened. He would probably blame himself for sending her away, even though it had been his only option.
The saddlebags were lying in a pile and Janir slung them over her shoulder. She couldn’t carry the saddle and they didn’t have time to put it on Kalbo, so she had to leave it. Once they got far enough away, Janir would mount Kalbo and see if it was possible to ride double without a saddle and with Karile.
She hastily untethered her stallion and led him in the opposite direction of the Argetallams, certain they were leaving a trail. Branches and twigs snapped beneath her feet and Kalbo’s hooves and the early morning dew made the ground malleable. They might as well have left markers. Voices rose from behind them.
Terror shivered the length of her spine as she forced herself to stop. She hastily gathered Kalbo’s reins and swung onto his back. Fortunately, she had ridden saddleless often enough that she had practice. Now she was glad for all those times she had forgone propriety in spite of Dame Selila’s protests.
“Up!” she hissed to Karile.
“If there weren’t Argetallams after us—”
“Now!” Janir thrust down a hand for Karile. As tempting as the idea was, she had too much of a conscience to abandon him.
The enchanter grabbed her hand and tried to haul himself into the saddle. He nearly yanked her to the ground and Janir had to seize a fistful of Kalbo’s mane to keep herself on board. Between the two of them, they hauled Karile up behind her.
“Hold this!” Janir shouted, shoving the saddlebags at Karile and kicking Kalbo as hard as she could.
The enchanter let off a yelp of surprise and clung tightly to her waist. He was just light enough that she was able to counterbalance his weight. Though, if he was even a pound heavier, Janir was fairly certain she would be lying in the dirt by now.
There were shouts behind them, the Argetallams were giving chase. Janir squeezed Kalbo’s sides with her knees, clinging to his back for dear life. The stallion seemed to know that they were being pursued. Even with an extra rider and all those days of past travel, Kalbo’s massive strides ate up the ground beneath them with fierce speed. His ears laid flat against his skull and he stretched out his neck, thundering into the dark of the trees without hesitation.
Janir let him have his head and choose their path. She could barely see and yet the horse found his way. The pounding of his hooves and the roar of the cold wind filled her ears, but even that couldn’t block out the sounds of the pursuing Argetallams.
These warriors were determined to capture her and the enchanter and she shivered to think why. They would have had no way of knowing who she was, would they? Even though logic told her it was probably because she and Karile could alert the Brevians to the Argetallam presence, she couldn’t shake the sense that they were somehow coming to reclaim her, to drag her off to whatever wretched fate awaited one of their infidel kin.
The enchanter was nearly suffocating her now, but at least it meant she didn’t have to concern herself with whether or not he was going to fall off. She knotted her fingers into Kalbo’s mane and kicked him on faster.
“Go that way!” Karile shouted in her ear, pointing to the side.
Janir was too frightened and too caught up in the moment to argue. It might have been habit or some need for a confident voice, but she swerved Kalbo sharply to the left as Karile indicated. The Argetallams shouted in surprise and swerved to follow. Twisting around to get a better view, she espied at least a half dozen horses and riders, maybe more. It felt like more.
“Come on,” Janir urged her horse. Kalbo had never once let her down in the four years she had owned him. She didn’t believe he would fail her now.
With a snort, Kalbo loped on just a little bit faster, heaving in time with his strides. He chose his path through the woods carefully, but still managed to stay ahead of their hunters.
Janir realized they were ascending a slope again. The ground rose and rose. Kalbo stumbled and nearly threw his riders off, but they managed to cling on until he regained his footing.
Someone shouted and two of the horsemen broke off to swing around the outside. Janir’s heart pattered in terror and she was struck with a profound sympathy for the stags nobles liked to hunt with dogs.
They bolted through the forests ahead of the warriors, but it never seemed to be fast enough. Kalbo kept an impressive pace, but no matter how far they went, the Argetallams never fell any farther behind.
“Janir, I don’t mean to be critical, but—”
“Shut up!” She nearly screamed.
“Over there!” Karile hollered, pointing to a pile of crumbling rocks off to the side. “There should be a cleft over there!”
She was a little suspicious of the sudden exact directions, but the enchanter’s instructions hadn’t been harmful before. Janir steered Kalbo in that direction. As they bore down on the rocks, she saw that they were indeed before a narrow cleft that would keep the Argetallams from chasing after them as a group.
The lead rider shouted again and that steeled Janir’s resolve. She couldn’t tell where the cleft led, but there appeared to be light showing through the other side. Something about the threat of imminent capture gave her the strength to be brash.
Kalbo charged the narrow fault, barely wide enough for a single horse. He was breathing heavy, tiring. They needed to find their escape and soon.
“Come on, boy,” Janir whispered, patting his neck. “You can do it, I know you can.” You have to, she thought to herself. Please.
Just a few hundred more paces. Pines and junipers flashed by, a few of the lower branches slapping at Janir’s face and arms.
Karile said something loud and panicked.
The three of them barreled relentlessly onwards, but the Argetallams were just as relentless. There were shouts and cries and the leader was ordering his warriors to keep their prey away from the cleft. Arrows whizzed past ineffectively. Argetallams were supposed to be infallible in all things martial, yet she supposed it was lucky for her and Karile that the stories were wrong.
Just as they reached the cleft in the rocks, Kalbo slammed to a stop. Unprepared and without a saddle, Janir found herself tumbling over his neck and rolling into the gravel. Karile and the saddlebags tangled up behind her and for a moment she couldn’t tell which way was up.
The terror of the chase lent her such resilience that for a moment she didn’t even feel the blood soaking her skinned knees through the tear in her leggings. The next moment, she was scrambling to her feet.
“No!” She made to grab for Kalbo, but he snorted in fear and reeled back, shying from the cleft.
The Argetallam horses were almost on top of them, so close. Janir could see their rider’s faces now and everything was happening so fast and she didn’t know what to do—
The Argetallam horses jerked back on their haunches and threw their heads into the air, snorting and pawing and squealing in protest. Their riders tried to urge them on, but the animals were having none of it. Kalbo whickered and paced from side to side, staring at Janir anxiously.
Before Janir could question what was happening, the Argetallams began dismounting their steeds. Fear clutched at Janir’s heart when she realized they were still coming.
“Janir!” Karile grabbed her sleeve and jerked her into the cleft. “We have to hurry!”
With the saddlebags in one hand and Janir’s wrist in the other, Karile began pelting in the opposite direction. Though she was loathe to leave Kalbo behind, she was even more loathe to the thought of being captured. She snatched the saddlebags from Karile and took off running down the cleft.
“Not very far!” Karile cried.
“What do you mean?” Janir shot a glance over her shoulder to see the Argetallams coming after them at a breakneck run. They were fast and advancing so quickly—Janir didn’t know how much longer she and the enchanter could keep ahead of them.
Karile skidded to a stop and spun around.
“What are you doing?” Janir screamed, grabbing his arm and trying to drag him on. “They’ll catch us!”
Karile ripped his arm free and took several steps toward their hunters. “Don’t touch me!”
“What are you—?”
The small enchanter raised his hands up as if in prayer and shouted something indistinct. Without reason or warning, the rocks before them fell in a tumbling cascade. The deafening crash of stones filled the narrow cleft.
Janir clamped her hands over her ears and dropped to the ground as the air swirled with pebbles and dust. The Argetallams were cut off, blocked by the cave-in.
Rising hesitantly to her feet, Janir could hardly believe it. She held on tight to the saddlebags, too shocked to feel anything at the moment.
“Are they…dead?” Janir hesitantly asked, not sure what she wanted the answer to be.
“I doubt it.” Karile straightened his robe and wiped a sheen of sweat off his brow. He was a little out of breath and unsteady when he asked, “Shall we go on?”
Janir swallowed, then realized that the light she had seen up ahead was slowly fading, shifting away. It was a reflection of sunlight off crystals farther down the corridor. They were in a cave and they were trapped.
For a moment, fresh panic set in. “Karile…this is a cave.”
He seemed to be taking the situation rather well. They were trapped underground with nothing but their saddlebags, but he didn’t seem to care. Their world went dark as the last of the small avalanche settled into place, entombing them within the mountain.
Fear swelled in Janir’s chest. The temporary relief of outpacing the Argetallams was replaced with the realization that they were buried and in the dark. Janir’s mouth opened and closed in speechless fear, but whether she wanted to speak or scream she didn’t know.
Karile muttered something that sounded like gibberish and clapped his hands. Lights glowed along both sides of the cave straightaway. Torches, left behind by someone or something, flared into being.
“What is this?” Janir demanded, finding her voice.
Karile shrugged. “Welcome to the final resting place of the Key of Amatahns.”
“Somewhere.” Karile made a vague gesture into the darkness.
“How…” Janir whipped her gaze around the rugged rock cavern. As far as she could tell, this was a tunnel delving onwards and deeper into the mountains. Whatever it was, this place was not natural. “Who…what!”
“I know you must have a lot of questions—”
“What is happening?!” Her voice rose to a shrill pitch. “What are you talking about?”
Karile took a deep breath. He was looking serious again, which was in itself unsettling. “I might have bent the facts a bit when I talked about the Key last.”
Janir felt she should be accusing him of something, but there were so many options she was having trouble picking the order.
“Truth is, I’ve known the general region for a few months, but there’s a catch to getting inside.”
Shaking her head, Janir tried to gather her wits. She wasn’t sure what game Karile was playing, but she wanted none of it. She was going to find a way out of this mountain and away from the Argetallams. Then she would find Saoven, make sure he was alright, and warn him that what they were up against was so, so much worse than mere Stlavish soldiers.
“I need an Argetallam to retrieve the Key—something about ‘an Invulnerable alone may conquer the trials within’—so I came looking for you.”
For a moment, Janir thought she must have heard wrong. He couldn’t know. They had met only three days after the incident, he couldn’t possibly know.
His face was perfectly serious. “My father is part of Lord Kecim’s inner circle. He received a carrier bird about it the next morning, that Lord Caersynn had an Argetallam foster daughter and he’d sent her into the mountains.” The enchanter shrugged. “So I came out looking for you and eventually our paths crossed. Just be glad it was me and Goblin that found you. I hear there’s entire battalions out there.”
Janir took a step back. “Who are you?”
“Karile Kerwyn. I told you.”
“No, no, no.” Janir shook her head in terror. “No, you can’t know. No one knows!”
“Janir.” Karile’s voice dropped and he tried to sound reassuring. “I understand that this is a very emotional time for you, but we need to get that Key, alright? Once we have it, we can turn tail and run and—”
“No!” Janir took a step back. “Find it on your own! I want out of here, I want away from here, I want…!” She broke off, shaking her head and choking back tears of frustration. “This isn’t happening.” She was so confused, so muddled, so tangled up in dozens of thoughts at once.
There were at least a half dozen Argetallams on the other side of the rocks at her back. She was trapped in some sort of spelled cavern with a mad enchanter and no chance of rescue from the outside. Exiled, cast out, clinging to any shred of hope she could find…
And now Karile was telling her she had to help him recover an arcane relic and he had tricked her here in the first place.
Karile waited a moment while she hyperventilated and tried to keep from crying. “Well, no matter what, there’s only one way to go.” He pointed ahead down the rugged tunnel. “Forwards. So why don’t we head that way and talk some more about this in a little bit, alright?”
Janir wanted to hit him or throw a rock at him or maybe both. At the moment, it seemed like he was the root of all her troubles.
Nonetheless, she found herself grabbing one of the torches from the wall and marching into the darkness, the saddlebags slung over her shoulder and Karile trotting behind.
The stone corridor stretched on and on, sometimes twisting at odd angles, cluttered by jagged crystals that grew from the ceiling. Now Janir saw that riding Kalbo down here would have been a death trap. She felt a pang of loss at the thought of the stallion. He’d been a gift from Armandius.
Janir and Karile reached a broader section of tunnel with a sandy floor, stones strewn about as if from a giant’s tantrum. A dark shape flickered out of the corner of her eye, but when she looked, there was nothing. The flames of the torches stirred, but then all was still.
Karile didn’t seem to have noticed. He was staring at an antediluvian piece of paper, trying to keep it from rolling back into a scroll. While he pored over it, Janir was nervously glancing at every odd shape and shadow. Her imagination said that any one of them could be hiding some fearsome horror.
“Where did you have that?” Janir asked sharply.
“In my robe,” Karile quickly replied. “Just a little map I drew for us.”
He said it as if he expected thanks for the foresight. Janir did not oblige him.
The cave grew wider the farther it went on. The torches stopped just ahead and the ground sank. Janir didn’t know what this place was and she feared what might lie ahead, but she more feared the answer Karile might give if she asked. If she could just find a way out soon, she would be able to put this all behind her without having to discover whatever fearsome things lurked out of sight.
Red soil was sticking to the hem of her dress and her boots. The smoky smell of burning pitch wafted about them along with another smell, a musty, scaly odor that prodded at some cramped corner of her mind.
With a little shout of triumph, Karile finally unrolled the scroll and began to decipher it. He muttered incomprehensible words of a dozen syllables or more, doing nothing to reassure her.
“Straight ahead,” Karile announced.
“I told you. I don’t want anything to do with your Key. Now just tell me the way out of here!”
“Look, the fastest way out is if we work together.”
“I owe you nothing and you’re going to tell me the way out right now.”
“Janir, losing our heads will gain us nothing.”
“Give me the map.”
Karile protectively shoved it behind his back. “You wouldn’t be able to read it anyway.”
“Give me the map!” Janir dove for him.
Karile scrambled out of reach. “You don’t understand the significance—”
The two of them stopped instantly. Frozen by fear, they stared with wide eyes into the dark.
The young enchanter hid behind Janir as a red shadow, shapeless and almost soundless, swooped in front of them. It had gone as quickly as it had come, there and away in half the time it took for a heart to beat.
“What was that?” Karile whispered at length.
Janir’s skin felt like a blanket of ice had been laid over it. She was acutely aware of everything about her—the soft drip of cave water, the chatter of Karile’s teeth, each individual shadow cast by the torch.
They had reached the edge of the dirt tunnel, and now beheld stone flat and smooth as glass walled in all four sides as far as the torch cast its glow. Janir waved the torch from side to side. Nothing was there. They stood completely motionless for several minutes, afraid of what would happen if they stayed put, but just as afraid of what would happen if they moved.
Janir’s knees were shaking, knocking together like branches in a wind, but she tried to conceal it from Karile. She would not let him see her fear.
There seemed to only be one way out of here, so she decided to take the chance. Tentatively, Janir stepped forward. As soon as her foot pressed down on the stone, they heard a rumbling, as if the whole mountain was groaning.
On cue, the torches closest to the cave mouth winked out in rows simultaneously until the only one still lit was in Janir’s trembling fist. Karile was too scared even to blame her and she was too frightened to blame him.
Deciding that they had no where else to go, Janir took another step. She waited. Nothing happened. She began slowly advancing into the perfectly square stone tunnel with the enchanter clinging to her for dear life. Her footsteps and Karile’s shuffling echoed softly. They deliberately inched forward, barely taking full strides at a time. It seemed to go on for hours—step and look, step and look.
As the pair crawled along at a turtle’s pace, the tunnel’s ceiling abruptly became much higher. Janir realized that they were walking toward a ledge that led two sword lengths lower into the mountain, made of solid granite glistening in the torch’s glow.
Recalling what had happened the last time she stepped on a strange surface, Janir hesitated a very long moment before deciding to climb down. Taking a deep breath, Janir dropped onto the ledge and hopped into the next chamber. Karile, not to be left behind, jumped after her.
The young enchanter had barely clambered to his feet when they heard the rumbling again. When Janir glanced up, three heavy slabs of stone had already sealed the path behind them.
Magic. It had to be.
That frightened her, even though she knew magic couldn’t harm her. One thing her Argetallam blood was good for.
Resisting the urge to try pounding on the granite slab and screaming for help, Janir held the torch up as high as she could. They were inside a huge domed room with mosaics on the walls. Colorful mosaics that told of mortals, elves, dwarves, beasts, and birds.
Karile muttered meaningless words again and the room was instantly illuminated by a glow which seemed to come from all directions. The torch winked out immediately. Janir tossed it aside, skin crawling at the prospect of unknown powers at work. Consciously, she understood magic couldn’t hurt her, but the idea still made her intensely uncomfortable.
Karile was standing before one of the walls, almost leaving nose prints on the mosaic he was so close. “They tell a story.”
“What does?” Janir was not actually paying attention. “How do we get out of here?” She was barely keeping her fear in check.
She paced the circular room, about twenty sword lengths in diameter, searching for an exit—any exit. Every crease in the stone seemed solid, every crack sealed. Janir noticed what appeared to be the remains of a human skeleton lying at one end, but it was so old it had mostly turned to dust and she couldn’t tell for sure what it had been. Perhaps hundreds of years old? The discovery motivated her to keep searching. Karile’s ramblings interrupted her frantic quest.
“The mosaics, they tell the story of Amatahns.” Janir thought the enchanter needed to get his priorities straightened. “See?” He pointed to a piece on the wall.
Janir knew that the pictures were vivid, but she wasn’t paying attention. She examined a set of four pillars erected in the very center of the room. The pillars were unadorned, simply blue granite towers to support the ceiling. Karile’s voice was running in the background like a river’s murmur, but Janir wasn’t listening.
“Oh, look Janir!” Karile exclaimed in delight. “Look at this mosaic of a mazag, isn’t it amazing?”
Janir spared a moment barely long enough to glance at the mosaic Karile that made so enthusiastic. Her first impression was that the artisans must have been striving for life size, the piece took up the space of a bullock.
It was of a mazag, that much was certain. She recognized it from drawings in books, books of old legends about the days before Argetallams and the Seven Swords.
The creature had a thick, rectangular body with stocky, muscular legs, webbed toes, and black claws that were digging into a rock. Its body was an orange red, like the flames of the torch that had just been extinguished, blood colored spikes running along the spine from the back of its head to the end of its whip like tail. The creature’s eyes were yellow with tiny slits for irises, a wild, hungry look in them.
It had two mandibles on top and two on bottom. The jaws were spread apart to reveal a forked tongue, coiled as if ready to strike. Its short, muscular neck was twisting around to glare at an unknown foe.
Janir was amazed by the detail of the piece. She could almost see the individual scales on the beast’s body, hear its heavy breathing. Again, she smelled that musty, scaly scent. Such great attention had been given to the beast’s eye, she thought she could see it moving.
The eye flicked from side to side a moment before the creature flexed.
“Karile, get down!” Janir screamed. She tackled the enchanter to the floor just as the beast pounced. It missed and overshot, skidding to the other side of the dome.
The mazag spread its mandibles to reveal two rows of needlepoint teeth along each jaw. An ear shattering roar of anger shook the dome as the beast spun to renew its attack. Janir shoved Karile to one side and she jumped to the other. Not certain which one of them to take, the beast hesitated a split second before batting at Janir with an iron claw. She felt the beast’s powerful muscles ripple as it tossed her like a toy. For several agonizing seconds, she couldn’t breathe, her chest wouldn’t expand enough to inhale.
The saddlebags slung over her shoulder had offered some protection from the claws, but their contents were in a wild scatter. Lying just out of reach was the mahogany box.
It seemed to be calling her, beckoning her to open the polished lid. Strangely, it hadn’t been damaged when it had flown out of the pack.
Open me, open me, the box called.
She heard the words like whispers in the wind. It could have just as easily been her imagination gone rampant, but this time, she had to open it. She needed whatever was inside.
Janir pushed herself off the granite floor. Almost of their own volition, her hands snatched up the box and ripped it open. Even though it had stayed closed for years, the lid gave easily.
Inside, placed side by side, laid out on a velvet cushion were two black rods. They were each about as long as the distance from Janir’s elbow to the tip of her longest finger. They had a texture to them, some sort of unspeakably elaborate design of twisting patterns. There was a curved shape to one end of each rod so that a hilt was formed and Janir found herself aching to snatch them up and hold onto them as tight as she could.
Touch us…touch us…
Janir had to. She couldn’t stop herself. Gingerly, she wrapped her fingers around one of the rods. A wave of excitement washed over her the same instant. Janir had to pick up the other one. Gripping the rods felt…right. Like this was how things belonged, were supposed to be.
For now, the beast’s attention was on Karile. The enchanter was in between the four pillars, trying to avoid the snapping jaws.
Janir rose, clenching a rod in each hand. These were weapons of some kind, she was sure of that. She wasn’t certain how exactly they worked, but Karile was going to be dead soon if she didn’t act quickly. She didn’t think as she sprang to one of the beast’s powerful hind legs. Driving the rods down with uncharacteristic strength, she struck the beast in two places at once.
She became aware of a droning, wail coming from the rods, and a high pitched scream of distress from the monster. The beast flopped on its side, shaking on the ground, yelping like a beaten pup. Flipping out of reach, it wobbled to its feet and clacked its mandibles together in warning. In her head, Janir wondered what in the name of sanity she was doing. That thing could eat her, for pity’s sake.
The beast struck out with its powerful forelimbs again, but she bit her lip and didn’t move. Maybe, just maybe if she bluffed well enough…
The creature staggered away from the girl. As it turned, Janir spotted two black, blistering marks where she had jabbed it on the thigh.
The monster wobbled toward the wall, whimpering pitifully. The stone parted into another tunnel, allowing the monster to escape. The doors closed behind it immediately, again sealing the two companions in the chamber.
Janir no longer felt the need to grasp the rods, but she held onto them anyway. Lying on his back, Karile was still shouting with terror.
“Trials! Trials indeed! That thing’s alive!” he shrieked.
“Yes, it is Karile.” Janir felt strangely calm, quite the opposite of what she had expected and very different from a few minutes ago.
“What did you do? How did you scare it off?”
Before Janir answered, a rumbling began in the earth again, the sound of a mountain groaning. A third tunnel opened. A crease in the stone that Janir had thought solid was now parting.
She barely had time to seize the enchanter before the doors began to shut. Frantically, she shoved Karile through and clambered after him.
She dropped what felt like three sword lengths to the floor. Karile was moaning at the bottom and she missed crushing him by inches. The ground was soft and her landing was cushioned by the loose earth. Still, she didn’t move for several seconds after the jarring fall.
They were in total darkness. She blinked and a small point of bluish light shone ahead, but it was so tiny or so far off it didn’t light their way. She groped for Karile in the darkness.
To her surprise, she was still clenching a rod in each hand. She hadn’t had time to grab any of the other objects that had been in her pack, but she’d hung onto the rods without evening noticing. Janir cautiously probed the darkness with one of the rods, in case they had landed next to another monster. The rod softly scraped along the loose soil and the cave floor gave way to what seemed to be a channel of some sort. A channel meant to conduct water, perhaps? Water could show them the way out, so Janir experimentally pushed the rod into the channel.
An ear shattering shriek split the air, so loud Janir could feel the vibrations. A huge spark lit the cave and embers rained, stinging her cheeks. Then came a whooshing as fire spread through the channel. Janir recoiled as fast as she could. A moan of protest came from Karile as she slammed into him.
The rod in her hand had somehow set off a spark, lighting whatever it was, most likely oil, that flowed in the channels. Flames advanced around them in an arc, illuminating a huge room. This chamber was rectangular and more of a massive corridor than a room, with two rows of thick pillars running its length. The fire spread in a semicircle at one end of the corridor, partially lighting the darkness. This part of the caves felt as if it had been made when people were just learning about art. Instead of mosaics, clay had been used to color the vivid shapes and faces. Strange characters, meaningless scratches drawn by claws in a random pattern, decorated the ceiling.
“Hmm,” Karile mused. “It seems you found the lights.”
Ignoring him, Janir clambered to her feet and gripped the rods tighter. Karile popped upright beside her.
“Look Janir! This room has drawings too!” he whispered with delight.
They were just scratches to her eyes and even if they hadn’t been, Janir was too upset to care. “You tricked me! You manipulated and led me into a den of monsters!”
“Yes, well I assumed they would have all died out, but it seems I was wrong, doesn’t it?” Karile offered a look that could have been mistaken for apologetic. “But at least we know where they will be because the last one came from the mosaic.”
“Well, do you see any more mosaics of monsters?” Janir snapped, her back to the enchanter as she surveyed the shadows for movement.
“No, but look here!” Karile giddily exclaimed, pointing to a place on the ceiling with wild scratches. ‘War to end war, the father’s love a sacrifice.’ Some kind of prophecy, wouldn’t you agree?”
Janir was too distracted to pay attention. She thought she saw something moving—again. In the orange glow of the flames, it was hard to tell if she had seen a red scaled body or just a shadow.
“Get behind me, Karile.”
“Why? So you can see everything first? Not a chance!”
Faintly, a pair of yellow eyes flickered in the darkness. Chills shot down her spine.
“Get. Behind. Me.” Janir repeated each word slowly so he’d be sure to understand. As the fire at the far end of the caves died down, darkness was slowly reclaiming the chamber. The eyes blinked and reappeared, closer this time. Again she smelled that musty, scaly scent.
Karile followed her gaze. It was easy for Janir to know the exact moment he spotted the eyes. He suddenly tensed like a bowstring and hugged her from behind. He gasped and Janir’s disgust was enough to take her mind off her terror for a moment.
The yellow eyes drew closer. Karile gripped Janir tighter. Holding the rods in front of her, she stepped to one side and Karile quickly followed.
“Tck, tck, tck…” The beast smacked its four jaws together, teeth clicking. Now the only usable light burned behind them, casting eerie shadows of the pair far along the corridor.
Then they saw it. This creature was much bigger than the first, towering above them at twice the height of a man. No fireside stories or drawings could quite do it justice.
The monster craned its neck to survey them closer, watching patiently. “It has been many freezes since my sight was last sullied by your kind.”
To Janir, the words were like untempered thought shared through sound. Fear countered any shock or disbelief she might have felt and she didn’t question why she could understand it.
“We don’t want any trouble,” Janir said, not sure what else she could say.
“Then don’t start any, Invulnerable.”
Shivers shot up and down Janir’s back as the beast unerringly identified her as an Argetallam. She was beginning to feel as if there was a sign plastered to her forehead—first Karile, now this talking monster.
“Please, we just want out,” Janir reasoned.
“Why are you talking to it?” Karile whispered. Could he not hear? Not having time to argue with the enchanter, Janir returned her attention to the monster standing over them.
“The bane of my race was the creation of your forefather. Drell was the pinnacle of power for men, and the downfall of my kind. Tell me, soft skin, what is your name?”
Surprised that the beast would care, but feeling it would be unwise not to reply, she answered. “Janir.”
“She-hawk. Not a very fitting name for one so timid.”
The beast kept on with the clacking and began flicking out its tongue experimentally, testing its limits. “It has been a long time since I have tasted the flesh of Drell’s wretched spawn. You still hold his scent, even though it has been, what? Five hundred odd generations? Your short mortal lifespans can be difficult to calculate.” The clacking was growing hungry, hateful. The brief courtesy, however small, was gone.
“Karile,” Janir quivered, “be ready to run.”
The enchanter was too frightened to argue with her or question her motives. A squeak was all she received by way of acknowledgment.
They waited. Janir wanted the beast to make the first move. She stood still, waiting to see if it would come within reach of her rods. Time ticked away slower than ever. The beast was cautious of Janir, it knew about the rods. She didn’t think she would have had the courage to stand up and speak so calmly to the creature without them. Whatever they were, they sparked courage in her and fear in the mazag.
The creature again craned its short neck, surveying Janir intently, auditing her capabilities as an adversary with a practiced eye. “You trust your karkaton, I see,” the beast sneered. “My people have fought against karkaton for eons. Do you think I would not know their weaknesses?”
The beast lunged. Janir ran and Karile followed close behind. The monster made to claw at her and she held out her rods defensively. They briefly connected with scales and dragged along the beast’s foreleg, marking it with black streaks.
Screeching an ear splitting cry, the beast leapt out of the way and flopped to one side, yelping as Janir had hoped. Not easily defeated, the monster lashed its tail after them, falling short several inches and smashing a solid stone pillar instead. Recoiling its tail, the beast roared and clacked with rage. It sent its tail after them again, this time tripping Janir with the tip, bringing her to the ground. The rods flew out of her hands.
The beast snarled and lunged for her with clacking jaws. Janir tried to scramble to her feet and run, but the monster was quicker. It dove in for the kill like a swooping bird of prey.
For once horrible moment, Janir was sure that she was going to die. The next thing she knew, a stone smashed into the mazag’s head. The beast groaned weakly and staggered sideways.
Karile stood with a second stone cradled in one hand while the other hovered over it as he chanted a spell. The rock leapt up seemingly on its own and collided with the mazag’s head just like the first. It would appear the enchanter had a very useful spells in his repertoire.
Janir leapt to her feet without a second’s hesitation, snatched up the rods, and pointed frantically toward the blue light ahead. Karile understood the cue and took off running. Janir had to scramble to catch up with him. The pair raced blindly toward the glow at the end of the hall, their only chance at survival.
With her knees beginning to ache and her breath coming in gasps, Janir wondered if the light was an optical illusion. Perhaps this hall went on forever, she thought in terror. No, of course it didn’t go on forever. Those kinds of things were in stories. But so were monsters with forked tongues and whip tails, she realized. Forcing herself not to think, she sped on faster as the thunderous lope of the beast boomed in her ears.
“Run faster, Karile!” Janir panted, screaming over the beast’s angry clicking.
“Do I look like I want to be eaten?” the enchanter shouted back.
Closer—they had to be getting closer to the light, of that she was certain. Janir rushed frantically toward the glow, outpacing Karile, streaking past him.
As she drew nearer, she realized with despair that the point of light they had staked all their hopes on was nothing but a small crack in the ragged stone wall before them. Janir skidded to a stop, hurriedly trying to concoct a new plan. There was no sign of another tunnel or any other escape. Racking her brains for an idea, she drew a blank.
Karile went charging straight at her, arms flailing wildly at his sides, eyes the size of dinner plates. The beast was directly behind him.
Janir raised the rods, ready to ward off another attack when Karile slammed into her like a load of bricks. The enchanter had been running too fast to stop, too terrified to care that he was headed straight for a stone wall. He collided with Janir, shoving her against the rock like a battering ram.
He drove her through it with a force she would never have suspected to be within his power. The wall let them through easily, as if it had been waiting to crumble. Janir realized with astonishment that they were rolling down a slope of red sand, bumping into rocks every few turns.
The frustrated clacking of the monster fast became distant. There was only the unhappy shouts of Karile as he did somersaults down the slope. Red sand was everywhere, in her hair, up her nose, in her mouth. She tried to grab onto something, anything to slow her down, but she couldn’t find purchase.
Finally, they rocked to a halt at the bottom of the hill.
The world still felt as if it was tilting, spinning around her. Janir coughed out sand, smearing it off her face. It was stuck to her like a multitude of tiny, aggravating burs.
“I hate sand,” Karile whined. “Scratchy, sticky, and grainy. What’s not to hate?”
Her companion looked as if someone had powdered him with red. Janir was sure she did, too.
The beast clacked furiously from the top of the hill, able to fit one clawed paw out the hole they had made, but unable to force the rest of its hulk through. Then it occurred to her, she could see it.
Above them hung a huge orb, bathing the whole chamber in a gentle, bluish glow—it had to be magic. They were inside a soaring, massive cavern with sheer, jagged walls. The ceiling was impossibly far overhead, it felt as if they were within a hollow mountain and for all she knew, they were.
Cutting down the middle, a river flowed through the subterranean landscape. It was large enough that it must be a tributary of the Zebulun or another one of the great rivers in the lowlands.
The world had stopped spinning and Janir could see clearly again. She staggered to her feet. Karile was still complaining on the ground behind her. This whole business was his fault, of that she was certain. It brought her a perverse sense of satisfaction to see him miserable.
Surveying the opposite bank, she spotted what appeared to be a wooden door—drastically out of place in the jagged cavern wall. Under their current circumstances, she wasn’t going to question it overmuch. She dragged Karile to his feet roughly.
“Help me find a way to cross this river,” Janir commanded. She retrieved her rods from where they had rolled and stuffed them in her boots. After the events of the past hour, she supposed she should have been a great deal less calm than she was, but she was finding it much easier to keep herself together now. Maybe it was still the rods or that she had a focus or perhaps a combination of the two.
“Oh, it’s shallow,” Karile said, wobbling like a newborn colt. “We can wade across.”
Janir stared down at the lazily flowing water. It was so clear that she could make out the white pebbles on the bottom and silvery fish swimming about their feet.
“Come on then,” Janir urged. “We need to cross before that thing breaks through.”
She dragged Karile to the water’s edge. Not wanting the rods to get wet, she drew them out of her boots and tossed them to the other side of the river.
“Can you walk now?” she asked, more than a little irritably.
The enchanter gave a nod and they stepped into the water. It was over their heads an instant later, pushing them along at a frightening pace. Janir thrashed frantically to the surface and Karile flopped up alongside her. She shoved him out of the water on the opposite bank and came up gasping after him—a good fifty paces farther downstream from where they had stepped in.
“As I was saying,” Karile panted, “it must have been an optical illusion.”
“I hate you.”
Karile shrugged and clambered to his feet. “Where to now?” He was asking her for directions, even though this whole idiotic quest had been his idea.
“That way.” Janir pointed toward the wooden door she had spotted earlier.
“But there’s no mention of a door on my map!” Karile protested.
“Double check it,” Janir suggested, her patience wearing thin.
“I seemed to have…er…lost it,” Karile sheepishly admitted after searching his pockets.
Tired of arguing, Janir just repeated herself. “Go that way!”
With a shrug, the enchanter obeyed.
She snatched up the rods, again stored them in her sloshing boots, and led the way onwards, circling back to make up the distance the river had carried them. The door swung open easily enough when she pulled the handle. Karile obediently plod through, too tired to question their route.
They stood in a gray stone hall so much like one inside Castle Caersynn, she could have imagined herself there. It sent a stab of homesickness through her chest. Wresting the door closed, they latched it from the inside, whatever good it might do.
As a precautionary measure, she brandished her rods from their place in her boots. Janir had no inkling what these rods might be nor why the Lord Argetallam had given them to her in the first place, but they could be used against the monsters and that was all she needed to know for now.
With renewed enthusiasm, Karile took the lead down the hall and toward an orange glow ahead. This place seemed built on the principle of following lights for direction. Janir trailed after the enchanter, giving a second glance to every shadow and odd shape in sight.
The hall wasn’t nearly as long as it appeared at first. The two of them entered a cramped, domed room within a few moments.
Arches around the edge of the dome were etched with more meaningless scrawls. The orange glow came from between the arches lacing the inside of the dome and the wall itself.
Everything was stone—the ceiling, the arches, the floor and the walls, all made of gray rock that was beguilingly normal. Janir noted another hall leading away from the chamber. That could be a way out of this subterranean purgatory or so she hoped.
Karile was standing in the middle of the room, staring at a slender pillar with a glass box resting precariously on its top. “This is it!” Karile squeaked with delight. “I found it! I, Karile Kerwyn! I did!”
Janir felt uncertain what to say now and decided that when in doubt with Karile, argue. “We,” she corrected. “We found it.”
The enchanter ignored her. “Look at this, Janir!” he beamed. “The Key of Amatahns!”
Despite everything, she couldn’t deny her curiosity. Janir peered over his shoulder to behold a silver object the size and shape of a large goose egg resting on a tiny stand inside the glass. The egg was engraved with twisting runes and scrolls of exquisite craftsmanship, but Janir couldn’t see why it would be worth guarding, or how it could lead to almost limitless power. She was not sure what she had been expecting when she envisioned Karile’s prize, but certainly not this dainty gilt affair.
Janir was about to say as much to Karile when pounding on the wooden door interrupted her thoughts. The beast had broken free and was trying to break in. Its furious clacking echoed through the passage.
“We need to run!” she screamed
Karile nodded fearfully and began surveying the glass box from different angles. “Now, there is a trick to opening this,” he hurriedly explained, fumbling for another scroll in his soaked robe.
Even after all this, it felt wrong to leave Karile and he wouldn’t leave without the Key. Janir smashed one of her rods into the glass and it shattered into a multitude of shards.
Karile jumped a good three feet and gave a shout of surprise. “I suppose…” He cleared his throat. “I suppose that would work, too.”
Not waiting for him to pick it up, Janir dashed for the next corridor. Karile squawked for her to wait, but she had no intention of waiting for anything.
That monster was coming and she didn’t want to be around when it did. She tore through the darkness, making her way by touch as much as sight, hoping that there was nothing blocking the way. The tunnel twisted and turned like a serpent through the mountain, changing direction every few strides.
She was closely followed by Karile’s frantic footsteps and the loud clicking of the beast as it tried to wriggle its massive hulk into the tunnel. All this running was taking its toll and there was a stich in her side, but she kept going, through the black depths of mountain, onto whatever awaited them at the end.
Janir spotted light growing ahead. With renewed purpose, she charged toward the faint glow. Around every turn the lights grew brighter, stronger. She had to keep going, she just had to or she would die at the hands—or claws—of that beast behind them. As she reached the end of the hall and the source of the light, Janir halted suddenly. They had apparently run upward, because now she was overlooking the same river they had forded earlier.
How deep had it been? Three sword lengths? Perhaps more?
Karile panted up beside her, followed closely by a clacking echo. “What do we do?” he shrieked.
“Jump!” was the first word out her mouth. She shoved Karile, tossed her rods across the river to the bank, and leapt. As the water rushed to meet her, she was struck with a moment of terror. What if it wasn’t deep as she remembered?
With a splash, the water was up her nose and in her mouth. Janir paddled evenly, reminding herself that she always rose to the surface after diving. She burst out of the current gasping and Karile popped up next to her. They floundered and battled to reach the red sand shore before the river slammed them into the rocky cavern wall where it drained.
They slogged onto solid ground, having safely escaped the monster one more time, but who knew how long it would last? Janir stumbled to gather up her rods. They were her one hope of defense and she didn’t dare lose them.
“Well, we—” Karile didn’t finish his sentence because at that moment he noticed several scaled bodies floating in the river. The monsters raised their heads and hissed with rage. Janir brandished her rods again and Karile took up his battle station behind her.
“Just stay calm,” Janir whispered, even though her heart was beating like a wardrum.
The beasts rose out of the water like ghouls, snorting and clacking their displeasure. The monsters came deliberately closer and the pair of companions retreated. Two more beasts leapt down from overhead, surrounding them on all sides.
The clacking grew louder, more furious. The large mazag they had hoped to have lost burst out of the rock and bounded to join the smaller monsters, crossing the river in a single leap. It flicked its tongue and purred as if already tasting their flesh.
“I am impressed, Invulnerable,” the biggest mazag clicked. “Cunning hatchling. But not cunning enough. Give us back the egg. It is ours. Return it and we will spare your life and the life of the enchanter.”
Tempting as the offer was, she had a feeling there was nothing holding the creatures to their word. “Stay back!” she ordered. “Stay back or we’ll crush it!”
“You would be hard pressed to achieve that,” the mazag hissed, but its gaze flickered to the egg. It was worried.
Karile gulped and hovered close against her back.
The mazag hissed and clicked unintelligibly. “Although it is a grim business to destroy hatchlings, you have chosen death.”
The pair was trapped with the river to their right, the cavern at their backs, and the beasts of nightmares hemming them in.
Karile whispered, “I have a plan.”
Considering where following his directions had gotten her last time, she would have dismissed the idea of Karile having a plan, but was out of ideas herself. There was no better option.
“What is it?”
“We could jump in the river,” he suggested.
“Why? Would you rather be eaten in the water? If so, I’ll watch from here.”
“Because, the river must flow under the mountain and back out into the valley,” Karile meekly explained.
Janir hadn’t thought of that. “But you saw what good swimmers they are—not to mention we don’t know how far that river flows underground. We wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“Do we stand a chance now?” Karile bluntly put it. “Anyway, I’d rather be drowned than ripped to pieces.
Come to think of it, drowning did have a certain appeal when compared to the alternative. “On the count of three,” she whispered. “One—”
Karile threw himself at the water. Janir shouted angrily, took a quick gulp of air, and dove after him.
They were swept under by the current, dragged down like river debris. Janir clenched her rods tightly, determined not to lose them.
Her head scraped against the top of the rocks, as they were shoved along by the powerful current. The stones had barely grazed her, but she was certain she was bleeding.
Her head hurt, but she forced herself to keep from screaming and losing air. Her chest burned, she wanted to breathe so badly. A sharp ache spread through her whole body. She needed to breathe. She needed air now.
The water surged, flowing under the jagged rocks, whisking her on. Faster, faster, they went, swirling in circles as they knocked into submerged boulders that spun them off balance. After what seemed like an eternity, the mountain ended and Janir was propelled into a rushing open river. She was dragged back under by the current almost immediately. Several pounding heartbeats later, she was shot over a waterfall and landed in a pool of water under a cloudy sky. The river branched off and flowed in what she presumed was the direction of the lowlands, moving at a much less brutal pace.
Janir came up gasping desperately for air. She didn’t remember Karile until she had flopped onto the bank, breathing like a beached fish.
Realizing that the enchanter could very well be drowning, Janir struggled to rise. It seemed to take a superhuman effort, but she forced herself to release her grip on the rods. Staggering back into the water, she fished out the bobbing mass of robe that was Karile. Once on the bank, Janir shoved roughly on the enchanter’s chest.
“Karile!” she shouted. “Can you hear me? Are you dead?”
The boy coughed, a hard, racking cough. She rolled him onto his side as he gasped and gagged. “It hurt, it hurt so much.” The enchanter was still gripping the Key, much the same way Janir had gripped her rods.
Clacking came from above the waterfall.
“Karile, we have to go, now!” Cramming her rods into her boots, Janir slung one of Karile’s arms around her shoulders and stumbled into the forest with the enchanter sagging beside her.
“It hurt, it hurt so much,” Karile whispered again. Apparently, his journey through the water had been even more unpleasant than hers.
Janir ignored him and continued their flight into the trees, tripping over stones and roots. The mountainous terrain was even harder on foot than it had been on horseback. She thought about Kalbo, wondering if he would hear her if she were to call him. When she would shout to him in the pastures, he would usually come galloping.
But it was wishful thinking. Nothing about this area looked familiar. They were probably miles away from where they had started, but she had more immediate problems. The monster could still be heard, crashing through the trees after them, clicking its anger.
Glancing down, Janir confirmed that Karile was still gripping the egg-shaped Key in his other hand. After all this trouble, she thought, they had better not lose it. She stumbled on, dragging Karile through the tangled greenery.
Now she could hear the beast coming closer, ever closer as they blundered through the gnarled forest. Janir lost her balance, tripped, and sprawled on the ground.
The beast was upon them. It flicked out its tongue, hissing spitefully. “You are the embodiment of all we loved and loathed in the soft skins—their stubbornness and strong will. Return the Egg to my people and this will be the end of it.”
The creature extended its tongue to receive the egg. Janir defiantly whipped out one of her rods and struck the tongue. There was a droning shriek and the yellow eyes went wide with pain. The monster screeched its ear splitting scream and recoiled.
“Come on!” Janir cried, grabbing Karile and charging off. To her surprise, he was still holding the egg.
The musky stench of the beast seemed to waken Karile. He stumbled groggily beside Janir, deeper into the forest. The creature writhed in pain behind them, screaming its displeasure as loudly as possible. Did the rods really hurt it that much?
Janir wasn’t sure where they were going, but they couldn’t stop. Her feet slid on rocks and tangled in brambles. Her chest wasn’t expanding as it should, but she pressed on, towing Karile like a wagon. The pair burst into another clearing just as the beast caught up with them and flicked its tail to trip them both.
They tumbled to the ground. Janir landed flat on her stomach, losing hold of her rods. Karile landed on his back, staring at the Key contemplatively. Was it really worth all this to him?
The monster reared its ugly head above them, roaring angrily. “I tried to show you mercy. I tried to show you reason. But you spit upon my offers and now you will die!” This time, the beast raised a clawed, webbed foot above them, about to crush these little pests once and for all.
Then Janir heard something she remembered quite well—the hiss of arrows ripping through the air.
The arrows whizzed toward the beast and buried themselves in its seemingly impenetrable hide. The monster yelped and staggered sideways. A shout rose from someone hidden in the trees and another volley ensued.
Janir couldn’t help feeling sorry for the creature as it cried out and squealed in pain. The beast stumbled and fell to the ground, twitching and whimpering. Arrows bristled from it like the quills of a hedgehog.
Janir glanced up to see warriors in dark leather armor step from the trees. Their chainmail clinked softly as they advanced upon the two companions. Several of the men marched past the pair of intrepid survivors to checked that the beast was finished.
“Is it dead?” the leader called, surprisingly young to be commanding men.
In response to his question, the monster struggled to raise its head, groaning. Quick as a flash, it wrapped its tongue around one of the soldiers and dragged him toward its gaping maw. Janir looked away, not wanting to watch. She heard shouts and a shrieking wail like that of her rods as the creature was set upon by Argetallams.
This final act of defiance ended quickly with a particularly loud shriek and then silence. Satisfied that his orders were carried out, the commander turned his steely gaze to Janir and Karile. He was well tanned and muscled, bearing the signs of long and strenuous hours spent outdoors.
It had been seven years since Janir and the leader had last seen one another, but she still recognized him. There was something about his presence, an indescribable essence that undeniably declared him—she couldn’t understand or explain it.
“Oh…dear,” Karile said woodenly, as if he wanted to say other words, but didn’t feel that they would be appropriate.
“Karile, no matter what happens, don’t—”
“Silence!” The Argetallam surveyed them for several seconds as if he were heating their fear, the same way one might warm a drink on a cold day.
“Where is the Key, boy?” It was strange to hear him addressing Karile as ‘boy’ when he could hardly be a year or two older.
Karile shook his head, pursing his lips nervously. “Key? What Key?”
“Don’t play games with me, enchanter. We know you found where it is.”
Those few words were equivalent to a vivid description of torture methods to Janir. She knew she was trembling, staring up at the leader slack jawed. She also knew from what she remembered of him that her reaction was giving him great pleasure.
So they had escaped the mazag and run straight to the awaiting arms of the Argetallams. There was irony in that somewhere, but Janir would let someone else laugh at it.
“I am sure the tender touch of a karkaton can loosen your tongue,” the young Argetallam said.
Karile gulped and didn’t reply.
Inside, Janir was thinking frantically, hoping in vain that maybe if she thought the words hard enough, Karile would hear them. Please don’t use my name. Please don’t use my name.
“Alright,” Karile hesitantly began, his voice shaking like a leaf in a storm. “I have it and I will help you find the crystal chamber if…” he hesitated for a very long time, while the Argetallam commander seemed terribly amused by the whole spectacle.
“Just let Janir go and I’ll help you with whatever you want,” Karile bravely offered.
Angry that he had used her name and confessed to having the Key, but very much impressed with his bravery, Janir stared at Karile. She felt like she suddenly owed him something and it made her even more uncomfortable.
Contrary to her fervent hopes, the young Argetallam did recognize the name. Like a whiplash, his gaze instantly switched from the enchanter to her.
“Janir?” he repeated. “What a very…uncommon name.” There was almost a threat in his tone.
She swallowed hard and looked to the ground. Maybe if she just didn’t make eye contact…
“My lord Lucan,” called one of the Argetallams. “Shall I deal with the prisoners?” The warrior held a black rod, just like Janir’s, in a loose, casual grip.
Lucan raised a hand to decline, irritation creasing his forehead. “What are you doing here, girl?” he sharply demanded.
“Oh, she’s just a friend,” Karile interjected. “She’s along for the ride, really. Bit of a liability. Asks lots of stupid questions. More trouble than she’s worth. If you ask—”
“Silence!” Lucan lashed out a kick that clipped Karile in the chin.
The enchanter’s head snapped back and he whimpered, clutching at his mouth.
“Karile!” Janir reached for him, but Lucan stomped on her hand.
“Who are you, girl? You’re not an enchantress, there is nothing of magic about you. You’ve never been spotted before, you’ve simply appeared since we tracked the enchanter to the mountains.” He twisted his heel into the top of her hand and it was all she could do not to cry out. “But it’s him we want. Now be a good girl, answer me honestly, and we might let you go—who are you?”
Janir kept her head down. Karile might know what she was, but he did not know who she was. If Lucan learned who she was, this would be so, so much worse.
“My lord.” One of the Argetallams toed something in the grass.
Lucan removed his boot from Janir’s hand, abandoning her as if she were a broken toy. He searched where the other Argetallam had indicated, frowning in confusion. “What’s this?”
He picked up her black rod, wincing. A low, distant drone sounded from the rod and a faint black bruise formed on his hand. The young Argetallam glared at Janir, the wheels in his mind turning hastily.
Striding swiftly to her, he held the rod in front of her face, mere inches away. “Where did you get this?” he demanded. He seized her arm and shook her violently. “Where did you get this?!”
Janir was terrified. She could risk his wrath or guarantee her death. Perhaps if she pretended to be stupid…
She wanted her karkaton back, for whatever good it would do her. Some innate possessiveness itched inside her mind, aching to reclaim what was hers.
“Let me tell you something you may not know about karkaton,” Lucan purred. “They are made with several things, one of which is the blood of the Argetallam they are to serve.”
Janir kept her head down as she had done for so many years of her childhood. It was like she was reliving every bad memory of Adasha in a moment.
“Because of that, with very few exceptions, only the Argetallam they were made for and their close kin can wield them safely.” He brought the rod just a little closer to her face. Janir wanted to pull away, but was trapped.
It was like Lucan saw that she was ignorant of her heritage and meant to flaunt it in her face. “Now, a karkaton will not harm the one they were made for unless the presiding Argetallam or the first heir is wielding it.” He leaned down, close enough to whisper without his other warriors hearing. “For your sake, you’d best hope this hurts.”
He pressed the rod against her cheek. A shriek filled the air and Lucan let off a yelp, leaping backwards and throwing the karkaton as far as he could out of reflex. He stumbled, cursing and shaking out his hand while the other Argetallams pointed their karkaton at Janir and one went to help his prince.
They asked what was wrong and seemed ready to attack Janir at any second, but he didn’t give the order. He didn’t speak for a long moment, not even blinking as he nursed his hand and gaped at Janir in disbelief.
“It’s you,” was all Lucan could manage. “The Lord Argetallam used your blood to make them.”
“Used my blood?”
Her brother quickly recovered himself or he was excellent at hiding surprise. Not for one more second did he question it. Perhaps he could recognize her as she did him. Perhaps he saw no point in denying what was plain to them both.
“Yes. You don’t recall him cutting you and soaking something with your blood?” Lucan’s ridicule and mockery were as clear as words.
Her memories from her time in Adasha were hazy, especially close to the time she left. The Lord Argetallam might have done that, for all she knew.
“My lord, what do you mean?” asked the head Argetallam, the one who had offered to deal with them earlier. “Who is the traitor?”
Lucan’s surprise had worn off, but he still ignored his warrior. “I can use the enchanter to help me find the crystal chamber for our father’s client. As for you,” he turned a malicious look in Janir’s direction, “it will be nice to again have a playmate.”
He seemed to be accepting this gracefully and without question. She reappeared after eight years and he wasn’t even batting an eye. Even if he could recognize her as she did him, it made Janir certain that something else must be at work here, something she didn’t understand. If anything, Lucan seemed pleased.
“My lord, who is this?” the strange Argetallam asked once again.
“This?” Lucan motioned to the girl at his feet with disdain. “It would seem this is Janir Caersynn Argetallam, my elder sister—well…” He made an offhand gesture. “If being born three hours earlier qualifies as elder.”
That was one thing that had always upset Janir—four hours younger, three and a half hours younger, and she would never have been faced with the sibling rivalry that had plagued her early years.
“Weakling,” Lucan spat. “And traitor.”
With that, he picked her karkaton back up and marched over to Karile. “Now, enchanter. You have the Key. Where do we take it?”
Karile sheltered the silver egg protectively under his chest. The Argetallam prince seemed perfectly content to let him hang onto it for now. After all, he could take it away with a flick of his wrist.
“Answer me, enchanter,” Lucan snapped.
“My lord, perhaps someone more experienced should—”
“Stay out of it, Mortahn Camak,” Lucan growled, raising Janir’s karkaton threateningly. She wondered why he didn’t use his own. Did he not have his own? “Have the men break camp and hunt for some supper, but leave two of them with me.”
At a first glance, Janir thought she must be mistaken, but a second look revealed that Camak had the pale complexion and sandy hair of a Brevian. In some ways, it was strange to see an Argetallam who had her same coloring, but that was where the similarities ended. Camak wore a hard expression like a plate of armor and there was something about the way he moved and spoke that made Janir feel she would not want to cross him.
Lucan never once took his attention off Karile. As Camak repeated the order and the men moved to obey, Lucan crouched before the prone enchanter.
“Tell me, or this will become very, very painful.”
“Just leave him—” A booted foot jabbed into Janir’s side before she could finish. The Argetallam standing over her sneered contemptuously as she struggled to breathe.
“You.” Lucan jabbed a karkaton in her direction. “I don’t know what role you play in this and I don’t care. The enchanter is the one with the knowledge I want and you will save your words for explaining to the Lord Argetallam. He will want to deal with you himself and I will not deny him the pleasure, understood?” Without waiting for a response, Lucan returned to Karile.
Janir made a weak effort at speaking, but she still couldn’t draw breath.
Lucan paid her absolutely no heed. It made her feel insignificant like nothing else. “Where do we take the Key?” Lucan punctuated each word with a clear, measured tone.
Karile gulped. “I don’t know.”
Lucan did not believe him. He jabbed the karkaton into Karile’s shoulder.
A scream ripped from Karile’s mouth and he thrashed on the ground in agony. It was worse than the cries of the mazag, worse than any scream Janir had ever heard.
“Stop!” she cried, scrambling for him. “Please, stop!”
A heavy foot slammed between her shoulder blades, pinning her to the ground. She tried to shove it off, but it was pointless.
Lucan released Karile and fixed him in a cold stare. “Now I shall ask again. Where is the crystal chamber?”
Karile coughed and shivered on the ground, clutching at his shoulder and whimpering. “I don’t know,” he moaned.
With a sigh of annoyance, Lucan jabbed the rod against his neck, just below his ear. “Where is it?!” Lucan demanded over the karkaton’s wails and Karile’s shrieks.
Janir tried to writhe out from under the foot holding her down, but to no avail. “You’ll kill him!” she cried. “Stop!”
Lucan did, but not because she had asked him. “This is the last time I shall ask you,” Lucan growled. “You had best answer me honestly or I will hand you over to one of my mortahns.” He motioned threateningly to the other Argetallam warriors. “Where is the crystal chamber?” Each word was clear and concise, articulate and calm.
“I don’t know,” Karile whimpered. “I don’t know!”
Lucan raised the karkaton and Karile shrank back.
“I don’t know!” he screamed. “I swear I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know…once we got there, I could probably piece things together, but…” Tears were trickling down Karile’s cheeks and Janir felt a pang of empathy.
He was just a boy, he shouldn’t have to go through this. For all that he had lied and deceived her, he didn’t deserve this.
“Lucan, please,” Janir pleaded. “He doesn’t know, you have to believe—” The boot in her back twisted and she was forced into silence.
Lucan shot her a hard glare at the mention of his name. She had a feeling she was lucky he couldn’t use her karkaton on her. He returned to the enchanter at his feet, contemplating Karile’s tears and desperate clutching at the egg.
“Perhaps you don’t know,” he decided.
Karile gave no response. He lay prone and vulnerable on the ground, whimpering.
“No matter, I know where we can find someone who does.” Lucan snapped his chin to the Argetallams standing over them. “Bind the prisoners. Secure them and then help set up to the camp.” He snatched the egg from Karile and marched away without another word.
The Argetallams stiffly inclined their heads before doing as they were told. One grabbed Karile and the other grabbed Janir and they marched them to a pair of thick saplings near where the campfire was being built.
“Karile!” Janir tried to reach for him, but her wrists were yanked back and lashed around the tree. “Karile, are you alright?”
He shook his head weakly. “The Key…” he mumbled. “They have the Key…”
“This is not good,” Karile surmised. It had taken him an hour to regain his senses after Lucan’s beating. “Not good, not good. Not good. So very not good.”
Janir agreed, but she was getting tired of hearing him say it.
“If you don’t stop talking, I will cut your tongue out myself,” Lucan threatened, glowering from a log beside the fire.
Lucan was a little apart from the others by the flames, eating something that had once been a deer while watching the prisoners bicker. The crescent moon hung high above them, a solemn face among the twinkling stars so bright that they silhouetted the towering mountains against their sparkling display.
Karile glanced at Lucan, wondering whether or not he would make good on the threat. After staring for a spell, the enchanter must have decided that it was wise not to upset him.
With a deep sigh, Janir leaned against the sapling at her back. Lucan was holding the silver egg, tilting it this way and that to reflect the firelight, examining the intricately carved runes with curiosity. He sat just a few paces away, taunting them.
The Argetallams had brought their horses to the campsite and, with dismay, Janir saw that they had Kalbo as well. He was tethered with the other steeds and treated the same as one of them. Janir wasn’t surprised—he was a well bred animal. He had a great deal of value, but money couldn’t buy what he meant to her. She would have to find a way to take him with her when she escaped—and she was determined that she would.
In the distance a cougar roared after its prey. The distressed bleating from a mountain goat followed the triumphant snarl. The fire crackled contentedly, feasting on deadwood. An owl hooted from somewhere nearby.
“Beautiful. Isn’t it, Janir?” Lucan murmured, not even glancing in her direction.
She wasn’t certain if he was referring to the animals or the egg, so she said nothing.
“All but unlimited power,” Lucan absently mused. He held up the Key. “Imagine what it would be like if we could use this?”
Janir was very grateful that they couldn’t.
The other Argetallams kept mostly to themselves, which seemed a bit odd. They did a fair amount of whispering and chattering when Lucan wasn’t looking in their direction. She noticed that they usually glanced to their young leader as they gossiped. Janir wasn’t sure what to make of that.
Lucan took to examining her karkaton. He didn’t touch them, just let Janir wonder what he was doing as he studied them cryptically.
Janir found that she itched to have them back. They were Argetallam, yes, made by the Lord Argetallam, but Armandius had put them in her saddlebags for a reason. He must have known what they were for and that they could help her—more importantly, he meant for her to use them.
Janir wondered if he had known all these years what was in the mahogany box. Had he assumed she did, too?
Lucan said in a quieter tone, “As your brother, they resent me, but I can still use them if I am willing to endure the pain.”
He held up the silver chain dangling the crest of Caersynn—he’d taken it off her when he’d tied her to the sapling. Janir wasn’t sure he recognized it or if he was flaunting that he was now in possession of everything that had been theirs, but he examined it carefully just as he had the Key and her karkaton.
After a few moments, he tucked the medallion away, stashing it in an inside pocket of his jerkin. “Sleep well you two,” he said, almost scornfully. “We have a long trek tomorrow.”
“Faster.” It was the third time Lucan had said it in the past half hour.
Karile flopped his head toward Janir. “I am beginning to think that is his favorite word.”
The two of them were partially led, partially dragged behind the horse of Camak, the one who appeared to be Lucan’s second in command and the one who had the look of a Brevian. He kept the prisoners on a close tether and seemed to be on constant guard against any tricks. A man like him was probably hoping they would do something and give him the excuse to beat them.
Roots and long grasses tangled and tripped the prisoners. If they didn’t get to their feet fast enough, the horse would drag them until they did. Argetallams were not known for their mercy and these warriors certainly seemed to be living up to their reputation. Janir was dressed appropriately for the mountains, but with all this moving, sweat was trickling down her temples and along her limbs, leaving icy tracts in its wake.
Where they were headed in such a hurry, Janir didn’t know. Nor did Karile have the audacity to ask. He had ugly black blisters where Lucan had struck him with her karkaton and he tried to pretend they didn’t hurt, but he was fooling no one.
Kalbo’s reins were held by one of the other Argetallams. The big stallion snorted and watched Janir in confusion, as if asking why she didn’t ride him.
They were heading north, following the line of the mountains, into the colder regions. A few more days and they would reach Snow Dale, which, true to its name, was the last province in Brevia to thaw each year.
“Faster!” Lucan shouted again.
The warriors nudged their horses on, though there was no lack of resentment in their faces. Lucan seemed to be everything Argetallams were expected to be, yet Janir was beginning to see some sort of dissention between the young commander and his soldiers—or mortahns, as Argetallam warriors were called.
Blisters were forming on Janir’s feet, rubbing them raw, and her lips were parched with thirst. Karile did not appear much better, if anything, he was worse. Black oozed through his robe from the welts on his shoulder and neck like spots of ink on his clothes.
Janir wanted to help him, but she didn’t have any idea how. She didn’t even understand exactly what the rods had done to him.
Wherever it was they were going, Lucan seemed extremely eager to push on. Merciless as the terrain they traveled, it was only after a glance back at his tired warriors and exhausted captives that Lucan called for a halt. The sun sank steadily behind them, barely leaving enough light to see as they set up camp.
Janir thought she might have fallen over soon if Lucan hadn’t ordered them to stop. Probably deciding that she and Karile would be no trouble, Camak dismounted and manhandled them both to the nearest tree without the help of the other mortahns. He encountered no resistance as he lashed their hands behind their backs and left them bound to sturdy shrubs. They were both too tired and too sore.
Camak lingered over Janir, eyeing her critically. “So it seems you are the long dead whelp from the Lord Argetallam’s Brevian brachet.”
Janir turned her head to the side. She wanted to be anywhere but here so very badly.
“Such a delicate thing you are.” He touched her temple, callused fingers roughly stroking down her cheek. “And so vulnerable.”
“Leave her alone!” Karile snapped.
Camak chuckled at the enchanter’s protest. “You’re just lucky I have work to do.”
Janir watched him go to make sure that he left. She needed to get out of here and away from them as soon as possible. The memory of Camak touching her skin sent a hundred revulsive images through her skull.
Janir and Karile didn’t speak, even though the Argetallams were out of earshot if they whispered. Camak and Lucan were ignoring the pair for the moment. They turned away and appeared to argue in hushed voices before Lucan stormed off angrily.
As he slumped beside her, Janir noticed Karile’s lips were cracked and he had a vapid expression she associated with sickness. She wondered if she looked as awful as he did. She certainly felt it.
Lucan commanded the Argetallams as they went about setting up the camp. He posted sentries and assigned hunters all the while being received with stiff obedience.
One of those designated as hunter caught some game within an hour or so. It appeared to be a rodent of some sort, but Janir was so hungry that she would have eaten almost anything. The Argetallam sat on a large stone and began skinning and cleaning the carcass with a curved blade. They had rations in their saddlebags, but fresh meat was always better.
Spontaneously, Lucan snapped a quick command. An Argetallam responded shortly, untying Karile and dragging the enchanter toward Lucan.
“Show me,” Lucan ordered, pointing to a map of the entire continent—Brevia, the Staspin Waste, Ralissia, Silverwood, Stlaven, and Tathansia beyond—spread out over a large rock. “Show me where the crystal chamber is.”
Camak looked on with arms folded across his chest as Karile stood wobbly and bruised before Lucan.
The enchanter made an effort at standing straight. “I said I don’t know. Didn’t you hear me the first time?”
Janir gulped. Was he mad? Did he not remember what had happened yesterday?
Lucan raised his chin and made a comprehending sound, drawing one of Janir’s karkaton from his belt. Again, Janir wondered why he didn’t have his own when every other man there did, but there was no rhyme or reason that would get her to ask.
There was a subtle tightening of the skin around Lucan’s mouth as he touched the rod, but he remained calm and collected. “I am not one for playing games, enchanter,” Lucan replied in a hostile tone. “I thought we had established that.”
The Argetallam who had caught the rodent set the knife on the rock and carried the naked carcass to the fire. He began skewering it on a spit for roasting, paying no heed to his prince and the captive enchanter.
“Pity, you should play more games. It would do wonders for your people skills,” Karile suggested. He talked a good fight, but he eyed the ominous black rods nervously. “I thought you said you already knew where to find the chamber.”
“I know where to find someone who does know,” Lucan corrected. “But after thinking today,” he shot a quick, almost imperceptible glance to Camak, “I’ve decided I would much rather save myself a week’s ride.”
Janir had been left to her own devices, lying out of the way some two or three paces off. Now she fumbled frantically with the knots on her wrists. She locked onto the blade lying on the stone left by the hunter, just out of her reach.
Someone else might notice his carelessness at any moment, she didn’t have much time.
Lucan’s short fuse reached its limit and he seized Karile by the back of his neck, dropping the karkaton. “Show me now, enchanter.” Lucan shoved Karile’s face near a section of the map marked Gideon Mountains.
The Argetallams watched, unimpressed. Janir was sure she saw haughtiness every time one of them looked at her brother and now was no exception.
“I told you that I don’t feel like it,” Karile said, just a little less confidently. The wounds on his neck and shoulder were still oozing black, he must be incredibly brave to be talking like that right now.
Janir noticed the muscles rippling in Lucan’s arms as he gripped Karile in fury. It escaped her understanding how someone who was actually younger than her could seem so much older. Weren’t girls supposed to grow up faster?
Carefully, Janir edged her foot toward the knife. None of the other Argetallams noticed and Lucan was busy shouting in Karile’s ear. They must all think her too weak and timid to do anything dangerous.
“Do you have any idea at all what I can do to you?” Lucan hissed.
“I don’t know. Why don’t you enlighten me?” Karile’s voice had gone soft and he was fast losing the bravado of a few moments ago.
Lucan began spewing torture techniques the Lord Argetallam had taught him and Janir was very glad she had been raised by Armandius these past seven years.
“Then I drive another blade into your side, right here and…” Lucan was soon shouting louder than ever, but Janir ignored him to concentrate on reaching the blade lying before her. Inch by inch, she slowly reached the rock.
Camak said something to one of the other mortahns and the two of them drifted off to the side, seemingly bored. The rest followed their example, shaking their heads, murmuring to each other, and pretending to hide it from Lucan.
She happened to glance at Karile and saw the enchanter had gone white as Lucan extended his knowledge of Argetallam skill.
Seeing the lack of regard from his men, Lucan’s voice rose and he smashed Karile harder against the map. “After that, I twist the blade at a precise thirty-degree angle here…” He jabbed Karile and continued his elaboration.
Her karkaton lay on the ground. Janir wondered if using them wasn’t just a little more uncomfortable for Lucan than he wanted to admit.
Janir’s toe made contact with the rock. Carefully, she eased the knife off the stone and shuffled it in her direction. Bit by torturous bit, she drew it in closer, taking her time so as not to draw attention with sudden moves.
Finally, she was able to get the hilt where she could reach it with one finger—two, her whole hand. It was sharper than she expected and sliced neatly through the ropes, but nicked her wrist. Stifling a yelp of pain, the girl pulled her arms free of the ropes and glanced around for her next move. She was loose. Now what?
Kalbo was across the campsite, out of reach. For now everyone was ignoring her, but it would take just one incongruous move to change that.
Lucan was close enough and his back was to her. She could kill him if she wanted. There had been enough hunting trips and expeditions in her life that she knew where to stab the blade.
Lucan was caught up in his tirade. “Once it has pierced the second layer of flesh here, I insert another blade…”
The image of Duke Ronan’s soulless face flashed across her mind’s eye. She vividly recalled how it had felt to kill. Recollections of the horror of slaying a man and having no choice in it flooded back. Now that she did have the choice, even though she knew it might very well be the best one, Janir couldn’t bring herself to kill again. The idea was sickening.
Besides, what would the other Argetallams do if she killed her brother? That would probably mean Camak would be in charge. Despite everything, so far Lucan hadn’t looked at her like a thing he wanted to devour.
Janir laid the knife down. She could always destroy Lucan another day, if it became necessary. If she were to kill him now, it would be irreversible. Instead she snatched up the stone the knife had been resting on.
With speed inspired by desperation, she jumped up and brought the rock down on the back of Lucan’s head. Like a dead bird, Lucan crumpled to the ground in a heap.
The Argetallams snapped to attention. It took a moment for them to realize what had happened and by that time, Janir was already making for the trees.
Karile spun in surprise as his captor collapsed.
“Run! Run! Run!” Janir shouted urgently.
The Argetallams were already after them as the pair dashed for the pines. Karile darted past the Argetallams and made for the trees with his robe spread out like a sail. For such a gangly figure, he had incredible speed. He outpaced Janir and she raced after him, cramped muscles and stiff joints somehow finding the strength to run.
Into the darkness they went, fleeing blindly. The Argetallams were already chasing them and, when he came to, Lucan would be raging mad. If they were caught, she was sure he would make them pay dearly for this.
However, there was no time to think about Lucan, she needed to think about escaping him. With dismay, she realized that she and Karile were running north, away from the lowlands and Brevia. Too bad. They would have to circle back later.
Lucan still had the Key—and Kalbo. As much as she might hate leaving her oldest friend behind, that was another “too bad” and would also have to wait.
Keep running—there was nothing else she could do. Karile made so much noise he could easily have been a horde of fleeing enchanters. Janir’s heart pounded in rhythm with her foot falls, thudding to the same beat. Shadows flitted under the pines as small wildlife parted for the bolting pairs of feet.
The Argetallams were close, gaining ground with every step. It was dark and they were in a forest and that was Janir and Karile’s only advantage. Propelling herself faster, she caught Karile by his robe and jerked him behind a line of blackberry bushes.
They were breathing so hard Janir wondered that their pursuers couldn’t hear them right away. They backed several feet from the line of shrubs, feet squelching in moist earth.
The pair edged carefully from the trees as the stomping strides of their pursuers filled the forest. They were lucky they had been able to get this far. Janir wasn’t so sure they would make it to freedom. What had she been thinking?
That was just it—she hadn’t thought anything. She had simply acted without any real planning.
Karile was gripping her just as he had in the caves, trembling like a leaf in the wind. His teeth started chattering and Janir jabbed his jaw to make him stop. Although he gave her a glare that could have incinerated stone, even Karile knew that this was not the time for arguing.
Indistinct shouts from the Argetallams and inaudible commands from Lucan met their ears. Her brother was livid, that much they could tell.
“We must be very quiet,” Janir whispered. Karile gave her a look that showed he had been thinking of telling her the same thing.
The shouts began to fade and the pair breathed a little easier. Janir made to take a cautious step forward. But her feet wouldn’t move. Frustrated, Janir glanced down to see that mud covered her ankles.
Panicking, she tried to jerk her boots free, but her struggling only made her sink deeper. Glancing at Karile, she saw that the mud was almost to his knees.
“Quagmire! We’re caught in quagmire!” Karile squeaked.
“A bog,” Janir whimpered. “I didn’t know the Gideon Mountains had bogs.”
“The melting snows farther north must have made them, now find some way out of this!” Karile glanced around frantically.
Janir searched for anything that she could grab. Spotting branch from an oak dangling nearby, she stretched out to reach it. Straining, she wrapped her fingers around it and pulled. There was a snap and the next thing Janir knew, she was holding the branch, detached from its tree, and was several inches deeper in mud. There came a pop and mud showered into the air. An instant later, they began sinking at an alarmingly faster rate.
“This is the worst day of my life!” Karile struggled vainly to free himself. “I am being eaten alive by dirt!”
“Don’t move,” Janir ordered, struggling to maintain her composure. “Moving seems to make you sink faster.”
“What do we do?” Karile wailed.
Janir had no clue. No options were within reach. All their gear had been taken away or lost or else Janir could have swung something around that branch there and pulled them out…but it was useless thinking about it.
Sensing her helplessness, Karile seemed to grow suddenly very angry. “This is all your fault!”
“My fault?” Janir was nearly up to her waist in mud.
“It’s your fault we escaped from Lucan!”
“Karile, he was going to do all those things he was talking about if you didn’t tell him where the chamber was!”
“So? I would have made something up if he wanted to know that badly,” Karile snapped back. “Maybe led him straight to the heart of Saaradan itself. The throne room, even!”
“You really think he would be stupid enough go to the Brevian capital?”
Karile gave her a long, measured look. “Weren’t you paying attention to what Lucan was saying? The Lord Argetallam is extremely creative. And I would rather not experience his genius, if you don’t mind!”
There were no real words that would describe what Janir wanted to say, so she shouted meaninglessly up at the sky. All was silent for several seconds as the pair sank deeper into the earth. Karile tilted his head sideways, expecting her to say something.
“Our only hope is for Lucan and his men to find us,” Janir said glumly. The mud was now over her waist.
“So the same people we just escaped from are our only hope?”
“Yes.” Her tone was monotone to match the flat resignation inside.
Karile didn’t seem to hold as much disdain for the thought as she did, because he immediately began calling for them. “Scary knife boy, we’re this way!”
Janir couldn’t bring herself to call out to Lucan.
“Do you think they can hear us, this far away? Karile wondered.
“It hardly matters if they can. We’re dead either way.” Janir looked up at the stars, trying not to cry.
“Why? Why are we dead?”
“Once they find the chamber, they’ll kill us because we’ll no longer be valuable.” If what she had seen and half of what she had heard of Argetallams was true, they might actually be better off dying here.
Either way, Lucan was highly, highly unlikely to let her live for much longer. Really, it was a wonder she had survived this long as his captive. Why wouldn’t he take the chance to eliminate his one possible—if however unlikely—obstacle to becoming the presiding Argetallam?
“You don’t know that.” Karile was apparently attempting to find the sliver of hope, despite having been tortured yesterday.
“You don’t know them,” Janir glumly replied.
Karile seemed to consider this for a moment, then resumed his cry for help. “Scary knife boy! Scary knife boy!”
The mud was beginning to come over her shoulders. She reached her arms upwards with the slim hope that anything useful might land in them. “Karile,” Janir morosely tried to spot him above the sand, “it’s been an honor and all that. We’re probably about to die.”
She thought she should be panicking, but of all the ways she could have met her end over the past few days, this was one of the less horrible. And she was tired, so tired.
“Oh, don’t say that.” Karile nervously attempted to brush off her statement. “I think that my toes are touching the bottom. No, wait, it’s rolling. Bugger, it has a rough side. I think it’s a skull.”
Mud began covering her mouth. Karile said something that sounded like “Umph oomph.” He too was sinking beneath the bog.
Soon all that was above the mud was her hands. She couldn’t breathe at all. This was much worse than riding the river out of the caverns, because she knew for certain that she would never reach the other side. She struggled to breathe, but the muck filled her nostrils. She tried to gasp for air, but only mud came in her mouth. Perhaps she fainted, because everything went black.
She awoke lying on solid ground with grass poking her stomach and something snuffling her hair. A voice was enraged and indistinct in the background. A hard fist slammed into her back, making her rack and cough. Janir spat out mud and gasped for air.
It was Lucan’s voice in the background. “If she was here, then the enchanter can’t be far off, find him! I need him!”
Raising a hand above her head, her fingers brushed a soft nose. “Kalbo.”
The stallion nuzzled her hair with concern. He’d always had a knack for finding her. The horse must have been how Lucan was able to locate her and…with a jolt she remembered Karile.
Janir tried to twist around to see, but she was too weak to do much of anything. Still, she managed to swivel her head enough to spot Lucan standing by the edge of the bog with his warriors leaning out over it holding branches, trying to find Karile. They brushed their sticks along the surface, searching for any trace of the enchanter.
Let him be alright, please, please, please. Janir silently pleaded.
“Here,” shouted one of the Argetallams excitedly, as excited as any of them ever became.
There was a flurry of action as they hauled Karile out against the pull of the quagmire. The enchanter was unceremoniously deposited beside Janir on solid ground. With a hard blow to his chest, he coughed as she had and rolled over to behold Lucan staring down at him with crossed arms and a vicious expression.
The Argetallam prince did not say a word. Casually, he stepped between Janir and Kalbo. Then he maliciously drove the toe of his boot into her back, as he used to do when they were little. The impact was far stronger and this time it drove her breath out of her lungs. She couldn’t breathe for a time that seemed to last forever. Just as before, she stifled a scream.
“There, you see, sister?” Lucan stooped, slipped his fingers under her chin, and pulled her closer so he could whisper in her ear. “Let that remind you why you never fought back.” He shoved her back to the ground.
Sparing him had been a huge mistake. She should have driven the knife into his spine. Why had she not?
The two were dragged back to camp and tied to the trees more securely than ever. Lucan and the Argetallams fed on the rodents and didn’t share any of the meat.
Karile’s stomach growled so loudly, Janir began to wonder if there was something alive in there. Lucan did let them have water, for which Janir was grateful. It had become clear that he wanted them to be as uncomfortable as possible, but not dead.
Lucan and Camak consulted a map spread over a flat rock, charting their route to heavens knew where. They kept their voices down and their motions discreet. It was anyone’s guess where they were headed.
For many days and nights they pressed onward into the Gideon Mountains. Janir’s brother took every opportunity to make their lives miserable. He never failed to exploit even the simplest things, such as gorse bushes to use for binding them at night. When they camped, she and Karile were tied well away from the fire. During the day, they were dragged behind the horses, while Lucan shrieked for everyone to move faster. He did let Janir and Karile eat eventually and soon learned that it was unwise to let a hungry enchanter have free access to a cooked animal meant to be shared between nine people.
Their company wound between the steep mountains, crawling amidst the bases of the colossal titans. Often, they could not see the sun at all. Snow still blanketed these obscure corners of the world and where it didn’t there was icy slush, even though spring had come months ago to Green Haven. Lucan and the Argetallams seemed to be suffering more than she and Karile. Brevia received snow every winter, but the temperate Staspin Waste seldom saw hail, let alone a freeze. Irritation at the weather seemed to make her brother more spiteful.
Gelid mud lubricated their path almost constantly. Janir worried about Kalbo more and more. All the horses slipped on the soggy terrain, but always staggered to their hooves and plodded on.
At least Camak and the others left her and Karile alone for the most part. A few nights ago, Camak had come over to leer and ogle her, but a quiet glare from Lucan had reined him in. It had been brief, no more than a glance. Janir had often wondered since if she had imagined it.
After several days of short rations and cold nights, they came to a place that peaked over a level pocket between two mountains. No more than a hundred yards in diameter, it was strewn with large boulders and scraggly, leafless trees.
Here a path became clear. Trails the right size for mice led off from their own route. It was so narrow it might be mistaken for a game trail, but Janir noted all the curiously angled trees and strangely formed stones. Several rocks stood in a hodgepodge fashion, but when a double of the nondescript pile came into view on the other side of the path, Janir realized with a shiver that it was not natural.
There was a whisper, a chitter, to their right. A flicker of pale blue motion to the side and then nothing. No one but Janir seemed to notice.
The chilled group of travelers came out of the stark trees and were blocked by a stream running across the shadowed pathway. A moderate waterfall poured down to their left, spitting foam into the frigid water.
After a moment’s hesitation, Lucan dismounted. Taking nothing but his cloak and Janir’s karkaton, he strode toward the waterfall. Not even waiting for a command, two of the Argetallams stayed to guard the horses while the others followed after their leader with Janir and Karile in tow.
Rounded rocks lay like stepping stones to the waterfall, leading underneath the flowing curtain itself. With an impatient glance back at his companions, Lucan ventured gingerly onto one of the stones. He swayed precariously, but wobbled straight to the waterfall, braced himself for the cold, and dove into the pounding veil. The Argetallams shoved Janir and Karile across the stones without a single misstep and thrust them after him into the icy waterfall.
At the other side, Janir shivered and brushed water off her face. The enchanter said something about “bloody cold water.” Concealing the entrance to a craggy passageway, the waterfall rumbled at their backs. Before them, Lucan sputtered and cursed the engineer who had designed the entrance. With an impatient snap, Lucan marched deeper into the earth.
The tunnel continued at about the same level, arching to the left in a sinuous curve. Stones reminiscent of cobbles lined the floor of the passage, but were more natural in shape and texture.
At first, Janir wondered why her brother had not ordered torches to be lit. But no sooner had the light from their backs faded than the light from the other side shone through. They continued on until they came to the end of the tunnel and reentered the cloudy day.
Janir poked her head out, then ducked back in. Ahead lay a winding ledge that seemed to have been fashioned into some sort of a road. Below was the province of Snow Dale, far, far below. Lucan’s mortahns caught her and dragged her onto the ledge. Trying to attain control of her fear, Janir stiffly followed her brother, constantly reminding herself not to look down. Thankfully, it was not long before they came to a door, if it could be called a door. At first glance, Janir mistook it for a fault in the cliff. It was a subtle, sketchy outline in the rock.
Lucan stepped up to the center of the vague shape and dusted earth off a section. Once it was cleaned, he revealed a set of five cylinders. Small, narrow pieces of metal faced sideways and spun with a series of clicks. As her brother absently spun the top one with his forefinger, Janir noted that each one had five odd symbols marking its sides.
“What was the order of the symbols?” Lucan mumbled to himself. He spun the cogs contemplatively, as if trying to refresh a forgotten memory.
Camak made to take a step forward. “My lord—”
“It was a rhetorical question!” Lucan snarled. “Elf,” he said to himself, spinning the top cylinder so that a particular rune was facing out. “Followed by…Mortal, Dwarf, Mazag, and Troll,” he answered himself, spinning each cylinder into place as he cited its proper symbol.
Something behind the earth moved and realigned itself. Then the soil seemed to shimmer like a curtain and slowly the veil of earth parted to show the strangest place Janir had ever seen.
It appeared to be some sort of underground exchange, a subterranean market. The expected sounds of a market were there—gruff voices protesting prices, vendors calling out their wares’ superiority to the other vendors who screamed the same message with as much conviction. Children ran about playing, beggars occupied the street corners, and scavenging animals prowled about, the only things remotely normal about this place.
The ground, the ceiling and the sides of narrow walkways were all made of bright red dirt. A reddish tinge had settled over the cavern in a fog of light.
Two wrinkled trolls with pointed ears and seminude bodies argued over the price of a strange little animal in a cage. The animal had a young eagle’s wings covering its head, with a lion’s muscular tail nervously twitching from side to side, a griffin.
Vendors were selling things such as “invisibility amulets,” “sleeping potions,” “scent eraser,” and a variety of other wares that were foreign to Janir. Several children, normal in appearance aside from being no taller than chickens and purple, loped underfoot, laughing while chasing an animal that greatly resembled a rat with yellow scales all over. A willowy, long limbed creature in rags sat on the corner of a narrow street, holding out a wooden mug for alms.
White rabbits, or animals that appeared to be rabbits, foraged the leftovers and scraps of the marketplace. Janir realized they weren’t rabbits when one of them spotted a piece of pastry that had fallen off a baker’s cart. The small rabbit-creature hunched its. Then, to Janir’s amazement, it shot out a long red tongue, just like a frog’s, revealing two rows of needlepoint teeth, and gulped down the crumb.
Lucan dragged them into the crowd with unhidden impatience. No one even looked up from their business as the abnormal band of travelers melted into the crowd of unusual market goers.
“I didn’t realize that portal was still working,” said someone off to the side, but no one else paid them any heed. If anyone was aware that Argetallams had just walked into their midst, they did not care.
“Welcome to the Vermilion Market,” Lucan said patronizingly. “Where the underhand dealings of the magical world take place.
Jostled by the strange pedestrians, Janir tried to stay close to her brother and his mortahns. Somehow being of the same race felt unifying. Every so often, Janir would catch a glimpse of an elf appraising something expensive. One or two dwarves bartered for a piece of especially rare metal and thrice she spotted mortal enchanters and an enchantress mingling with the throng. But for the most part the scene was populated by the strange beings of secrecy, the ones many these days dismissed as myths.
Even though she and her mortal counterparts were misfits amidst the others, no one even gave them a second glance. Lucan stopped to ask a troll selling mushrooms where a seeress might be. Janir’s eyes wandered about the market. Her gaze fell on an angry father troll scolding his son. They were too far away for her to hear their words, but she could see the boy apologizing. The father sighed and stared wordlessly for several moments, shook his head, and wrapped the boy in a forgiving embrace. Janir glanced back to Lucan and the mortahns.
Where was Lucan?
A frantic search of everyone in sight only revealed that he was not in sight. He must have neglected to check she was with him when he and his men moved on. Like Lucan had said, Karile was important. He had information, she did not.
Perhaps she should have been glad she had escaped, but she was alone in a strange place and Karile was still captive.
Janir stepped too close to the mob of market-goers. Suddenly, she was being shoved along between a pair of reeking trolls. Fighting against the current of the crowd, Janir forced her way free. When shoved, the huge mountain dwellers protested loudly and called her Trollish words that she had never heard before and doubtless did not want translated. For a second, the crowd thinned between waves and she was able to whip a frantic gaze around the intersection of narrow streets.
Her brother and Karile were nowhere to be seen. Panic mounting in her breast, Janir pushed through the mass of unhurried bodies, battling to reach a spot where she could have a view to watch the ever mingling crowds and spot Lucan or Karile.
It occurred to her that this might be her chance at escape, but first she needed to find Karile. She wasn’t going to leave without him—despite everything.
As she cast a searching glance behind her, she spotted a cloaked figure who seemed to be moving against the flow of the crowds. At first she thought him no more than another one of the strange clientele of the odd market. But with each step she became more and more nervous. Deciding to test her paranoid conclusion, Janir broke into a frantic gallop, tearing through the placid crowd. She dodged a swinging basket of pears that hung from a large troll woman’s arm, swerved around a cart full of pigeon feathers, ducked under the arms of some creatures, and leapt over the heads of others. Taking a sharp turn to her right, Janir rounded a corner in the narrow street. Pausing for breath by a rat-on-a-stick stand, Janir glanced back.
With consternation, she spotted the cloaked one forcing his way through the crowd with as much haste as she had. A stocky dwarf stood in his path and didn’t move fast enough to get out of the way. Her pursuer bumped into the little person, cowl slipping off his head and his cloak becoming disarranged at his sides. Slender swords gleamed on the left and the right of his waist and his raven hair was tucked behind the subtly pointed ears of an elf.
Their stares met for a moment as the dwarf sputtered and cursed the elf in Dwarvish. The elf stepped around the furious little man and stared at her calmly.
There was an agelessness about him that seemed to be about all elves, but he lacked the knowing, wise essence of one who had lived for eons. In several ways he was like the other two elves she had met. His face had the same angular shape, his midnight hair had that same slight sheen to it. But in others he was nothing like Saoven or even Velaskas.
This elf’s bright blue eyes held a cold darkness. Shadows and ice immediately came to mind—anger and fury at an unspoken injustice.
Janir thought him the epitome of “deadly beauty.”
He held out his hand in a commanding gesture and Janir faintly heard him speak in a tongue that definitely was not Elvish. Something translucent shot from his outstretched hand, something that made her think of a watery spider’s web. It hurtled toward her so quickly that she barely had time to react at all. Janir ducked, but was struck anyway.
It was a strange feeling—a feeling of something colliding with her body, but something that wasn’t solid, just wispy force, almost like mist. The next thing Janir knew, it had knocked her off her feet and she was sprawled on her back, lying in the red soil. She sensed, rather than saw, the pieces of magic lying about her, shattered like an earthen vase.
Enchanter—undoubtedly, this elf was an enchanter. She was guessing that because his magic had effected her—even if not in the way he had meant—that he was of a much higher Degree than First. Leaping to her feet, Janir heard the elf cursing in his native tongue.
A surge of the crowd came between them and Janir wasted no time. She sprang to her feet and bolted through the wiggling mass of bodies, trying to put as much space as she could between herself and her hunter.
Nothing came to mind when she tried to think of a reason for why he would be chasing her. It occurred to her that he could have been sent to protect her now that Saoven couldn’t at the moment. But then why would he be shooting magic at her? Perhaps it was a mistake. What if he knew what she was, but would help her anyway because Velaskas or Armandius had asked it? That was not too far fetched, she thought.
Just as she began to believe it was a misunderstanding, she remembered his eyes and the distilled fury behind them. Even if he were to claim he was here to protect her, she couldn’t believe it. She would be better off trying to rescue Karile on her own.
Ducking under a line of hanging goods, Janir emerged on the other side with what seemed to be pond scum clinging to her hair. Glancing left and right, she made for an intersection of paths up ahead.
Apparently, people here did not appreciate pushy little girls. By the time she reached a stout fountain in the middle of the crowded junction, she had been cursed in languages ranging from the common tongue to Trollish to Dwarvish.
Bubbling as if it was doing the world an immense favor, the fountain consisted of three gray, unadorned stone basins with the two smaller basins rising above. The largest was the right size for a horse to wade in. Bright red, glowing fish resembling koi swam placidly under the water. Janir tried to spot a better place to hide, but nothing was close enough to be useful by the time the elf arrived.
With resolve, she clambered onto the fountain rim and splashed into the basin, praying that the elf wouldn’t hear. In an instant, the water was over her head and she couldn’t touch the bottom. Grabbing the edge of the basin and pulling herself just high enough to see over the edge, Janir peered left and right. Nobody questioned her when she dove into the water, they just continued about their business. Not seeing her pursuer, Janir carefully lowered herself deeper into the water and under the inward curving rim of the fountain.
It seemed an eternity that she remained in the cool basin with fish nibbling at her exposed skin and fishy water seeping into her mouth. At least she was getting some of the mud and filth washed off her, she thought.
For a while, she didn’t move. After what she thought was a reasonable amount of time, she eased out from beneath the curved lip to check if the coast was clear.
Cautiously, she looked to her left. Not spotting her pursuer, Janir glanced to the right. The crowds were moving at their usual pace, everyone mostly ignoring everyone else except to curse at someone they considered particularly rude.
So quickly that she didn’t even realize until it was too late, a hand swooped down and snatched her up by the back of her collar. With consternation, Janir found herself staring into the icy blue eyes of the elf.
The elf jerked her out of the water with astonishing strength and proceeded to drag her toward a narrow back alleyway. No one came to aid Janir’s screams of distress. Struggling gained her nothing. The elf ignored her rebellious kicking and frantic punching.
“What are you doing to that girl?” demanded a hefty troll, passing by. He had warts over most of his body and black hairs growing out his ears. Rotting teeth were falling out of his jawline, but at that moment he was the most gorgeous creature Janir could have seen.
The elf snapped to attention. “Nothing inappropriate, I assure you.” He spoke with a refined, cold voice. If frozen silver cold speak, it would have sounded like him.
“He’s—” The elf clamped a hand over her mouth and the troll seemed not to notice.
“The girl owes me money,” the elf explained.
The troll grunted in understanding, made some remark about lazy borrowers, and shuffled off about his business.
Having handled the inquiry, the elf whirled around and strode with confident, masterful steps toward their destination. They reached the alley and after the elf dragged her several paces into the narrow space, he raised her off the ground and slammed her into the earthen wall. Groaning, Janir tried to remain calm. There had to be a misunderstanding, there had to be.
He held her firmly by her throat with a claw like grip and stared at her with a penetrating gaze. “How interesting,” he mused, “you must be at least fifteen, but you still have not learned how to create a veil in your mind.”
“There must be some mistake here…” Janir hesitantly began, but he glared at her so hard she decided to hold her comments.
Suddenly, she felt something inside her head—a hazy idea or image. With horror, she recognized the presence of the elf—he was in her mind! Panicking, she tried to get him out of her thoughts. Imagining a battering ram, Janir flung her consciousness at his presence with all the force she could muster.
The elf let out a stifled hiss of pain, tightening his grasp on her neck. Janir sensed his mind withdraw from hers with the rapidity of one bitten by a viper in a box. Ramming her head into the wall, he muttered in his native tongue, regularly repeating one word that she did know in Elvish—“Stupid, stupid. Stupid of me.”
Janir glanced from side to side, trying to find a way out.
“Where is it?” he demanded.
“Where is what?”
“Do not jest with me, mortal!” the elf snapped, “Where is it?” he repeated. “I know you had it. I learned that much from you, in spite of you throwing me out of your head.”
With a driven air, the elf groped through her pockets and felt her over perfunctorily.
Janir kicked his shins. “Get your hands off me!” She struggled in vain.
“Where is it?” the elf repeated after thoroughly frisking her body.
“Let me go!” Janir shouted, kicking wildly.
The elf leaned so close that she smelled nighttime. Even though she had never thought of a time of day having a scent before, she couldn’t think of how else to describe it. She would have found it appealing under any other circumstance.
“Where is the Key?” he demanded.
“I don’t know!” Janir shrieked, fighting to pry his fingers off her throat.
“You will tell me,” the elf growled, tightening his grip even more.
Someone smacked the elf on the back of the head with a shovel. He dropped Janir, drew one sword, and whirled around, holding the back of his head. It was the dwarf he had bumped into earlier, along with a good number of others, all of them carrying shovels, jeering at the elf.
“Ye think that just because ye’ve got pointy ears and longer legs, ye can shove us around?”
The elf said something haughty in Elvish, something Janir didn’t catch. It was likely something that enraged the dwarves, because all at once the one who appeared to be their leader angrily cried out.
“Get him, lads!”
Dwarves were masters in shovel combat, Janir quickly discovered. With a fierce battle cry, they expertly wrenched his sword away from him and set to taking out his legs. The elf was quickly brought to the ground by several well placed shovel strikes to the back of his knees and then the dwarves set upon him mercilessly, hitting and kicking him with their heavily built fists and stocky legs. Two of them started head butting him like miniature bulls. One grabbed the elf’s flailing hand and crunched his fingers between rows of stout teeth.
Janir stood frozen for a moment. She needed to run, to get away from here, but which way should she—
Seemingly from nowhere, a dark, lithe woman, appeared from the crowd and laid a hand on Janir’s arm. “Come with me, Janir,” the woman beckoned in a voice like wind in a tree, thick with a foreign accent that seemed somehow familiar.
Surprised into obedience, Janir followed her back through the market. Just as a wave of the crowd swept between them and the elf, she spotted him snap to his feet with a shouted incantation as all the dwarves flew away from him. One hand went angrily to a cut on his temple, and the other snatched up his sword. Then he began searching the crowd for her.
“How do you know me?” Janir wondered, stooping low to avoid a dead hanging animal by a vending stand.
“What other Argetallam maiden would have been without karkaton and lost in the Vermilion Market?”
“How did you know—?” Janir almost fled in alarm, expecting some sort of trick, but the memory of the elf drove her after the stranger. The woman didn’t strike her as threatening and at least this way she should be able to escape her pursuer.
“In good time,” the woman said.
The woman led Janir to a quieter street, far away from the busy part of the market. This was a residential area with flowers growing from the upper stories of the homes and potted plants in front. The woman guided Janir up the steps of a terracotta abode and ducked inside, rustling the wooden beads and ragged cloth flap that hung in place of a door.
Inside the cozy cottage, herbs and flowers hung from the ceiling and lay in disorganized piles on the floor. A loom was set up near the small fireplace with fresh flax lying beside it. The furniture was fitting for the surroundings, roughly made and natural in appearance. Another low doorway led to the rest of the house, the kitchen and a bedroom. What caught Janir’s attention was the golden orb set upon a small round table in one corner.
“You are a seeress.” It was not a question.
“Who else keeps such an orb?” the woman replied. “My name is Zeerla. I am the one your brother is searching for.”
“But how could you know that? I didn’t know that…you know about Lucan? You know about…?” Janir gulped. How much had this woman learned and how had she learned?
“I see much.” Zeerla stepped to her small wooden table and laid her wispy fingers over the orb like a tired mother stroking her baby’s head. “So much.”
“Then why are you still here?” Janir demanded. “My brother will not be good to you when he finds you.”
“No,” Zeerla agreed, “he will not.”
Janir waited several moments for a response. “Well?”
Zeerla sighed. “Today will be a dark day, but this is the only course that has a chance of keeping what I love. All others are guaranteed to ruin.”
“What—your powers? Lucan will not hesitate to take them if he has the chance!”
“I have had visions of my death, Janir. I believe I will have my powers when I die. Not your brother nor any other Argetallam will take them from me now or ever.”
“He could still kill you without claiming you!” Janir shouted impatiently.
“No, I do not die by the hand of an Argetallam nor do I die here,” Zeerla sighed, casting a loving gaze about her small home. “These visions are oft a curse,” Zeerla softly murmured. “All of us learn that, including your mother.”
“My mother?” Janir balked, feeling the acute sense of bitter loss that still accompanied any reminder of her.
“She is how I learned your name. Before she even saw your father she had a vision. In that vision she glimpsed a young woman, her unborn daughter, and showed me the girl’s face—your face.” Zeerla silently indicated Janir. “She was overjoyed. After years of waiting, she wanted a child so very badly.”
Zeerla didn’t say it, but Janir could see in the woman’s face that Aryana had thought she would have her child with Armandius. Tears came to her eyes when she thought about it. Her mother had been in love with a man, had been that man’s wife. Yet Aryana’s only child was the offspring of her abductor. How could her mother have loved the spawn of a murderer?
And Janir didn’t want to think about what must have happened for her to exist. She couldn’t believe her mother had gone to the Lord Argetallam of her own free will.
“Why couldn’t I have been born Armandius’ daughter!” Janir cried, breaking a long space of silence.
“You would not be yourself, if that had been,” Zeerla calmly replied. “You were born as you were meant to be.”
“But I hate being an Argetallam,” Janir whimpered, shaking her head. “I never wanted this or anything that’s come with it.” She thought about her brother, the hatred that awaited her back in Brevia, the legacy of brutality and cruelty that was the Lord Argetallam’s.
“You think I enjoy being a seeress?” Zeerla retorted. “Seeing people’s deaths, people I love, knowing all the painful and horrible things that are going to happen to myself and them before death…you think I relish that?”
For a while Janir couldn’t find words. It made her seem childish and insignificant. “It can’t all be bad,” she hesitantly replied.
“No, it is not. I do see joyful things, happy visions. Like everything, it is two sided, as is being an Invulnerable.” Zeerla calmly removed her hands from the orb and folded them in her lap. Every word and motion this woman made was calm.
“I just…” Janir eased herself into the small chair opposite Zeerla across the table. It creaked slightly. “I don’t want to be this. Argetallams are the cruelest and most brutal people to live.” And I’m afraid I’ll become like them. She had killed, what if that was the beginning?
“Take care when using superlatives to describe someone you do not know well,” Zeerla chided.
“Don’t know them? I am one of them!”
“Very well.” Zeerla dismissively gestured in the air. “We will assume being one gives you the knowledge. But it still does not make you an authority on all the other people in the world. And you must know everyone ever in existence to know who truly are the worst and best.”
Zeerla waited a moment and went on when Janir didn’t reply. “Your power is not a good thing, child, but nor is it evil, it simply is. The sword is not evil, nor the arrow or the bow. They are whatever their wielder bids them be.”
Janir had never thought of it that way.
“Your power is whatever you choose for it.”
Janir knotted her fingers into her filthy skirt, looking down at her knees. It was…a different perspective.
“Do not flee.” A soothing tone crept into the seeress’ voice for the first time.
“Flee from what?” Janir looked up from her fingers.
“Yourself. Do not flee from yourself.” Zeerla laid a thin, long fingered hand on Janir’s arm.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Do not flee from who you are. You will never get away. Take it from someone who knows. It is impossible to escape.”
Janir felt as if there was a great deal to consider. Armandius had never told her she was evil, but he had never denied what a wretched thing her people were. Velaskas—he was probably best left out of her train of thought and no one else besides Armandius’ steward knew. Everyone at Castle Caersynn that she could think of adored her or were at least kind to her. But none of them knew what she was.
It was perhaps the first time someone had spoken to her so openly about her power. She would have to think more on it later.
Clearing her throat, Janir changed the subject as she remembered more immediate problems. “Who was the elf in the market, do you know?”
“That was Malkalar,” Zeerla said flatly.
“I take it you know him?”
Realizing that Zeerla did not enjoy giving information freely, Janir reconstructed her query. “Who is the elf? Why is he chasing me?”
“He is a very dangerous man. As to who he is, I am not to tell you. Ask your friend, Saoven.”
A stab went through Janir’s chest at the thought of Saoven. She still held some hope that he would come for her, but it had been so very long now. Perhaps he had learned what she was and washed his hands of her. Perhaps something had happened to him—her chest tightened at that.
Zeerla laid her hands on the orb again. “Malkalar is chasing you and he searched you for the same reason. You had something that he wants.”
Janir stared blankly at Zeerla. The seeress had replied to all her questions honestly without giving any explanation whatsoever. “Is it so secret?”
“Why be secretive, unless it is a secret?”
She wanted to be angry at the woman’s distinctive lack of straight answers, but after her encouraging speech on Janir’s unusual struggle, it seemed ungrateful. Janir sat back in the wicker chair and stared at the other woman, trying to think of what to say.
The seeress went back to stroking the orb, absorbed by its presence. Behind Janir, the jangling of wooden beads pierced her thoughts.
A young mortal girl stooped into the house. She had the look of a foreigner, as did Zeerla—eyes like onyx and copper skin. Earth tone clothes hung raggedly from her slim shoulders and draped down to the ground. At first she wore a joyful smile, until her gaze fell on Janir. With a start, the foreign girl glanced sharply at Zeerla.
“Argetallam!” she exclaimed in a heavily accented voice, reaching behind her with a swift motion. In less time than Janir could react, the other girl had a short stone dagger in her hand and looked ready to charge like any one of the fiercest warriors on earth.
Not sure how to react, Janir tried to leap backwards, but forgot that she was still seated. The result was that she flipped the chair and hit her already sore head on the wall.
“Peace, my child,” Zeerla placated, smoothly and swiftly rising to calm the girl. “Florete, I have warned you about jumping to conclusions from partial thought,” the seeress chided.
Janir straightened awkwardly and watched the other girl’s very sharp stone blade. She could probably overpower the child if she had to, but she didn’t want to hurt the girl or get cut.
“But she is an Argetallam,” Florete protested. The girl spoke clearly, carefully, never letting two words slur together. “I saw it…in your mind…”
Florete was a reader? Janir was definitely afraid of hurting her.
“And a friend,” Zeerla added.
“The Argetallam is a friend?” Florete’s eyes narrowed at Janir, but she cautiously lowered the stone knife.
“Yes, and the daughter of Aryana Caersynn,” Zeerla explained.
Florete’s face showed she was still apprehensive. All the same, she offered a slight incline of her head, even if she remained quiet.
Janir tried to look nonthreatening and racked her brains. She had heard that accent before, long, long ago. Both Florete and Zeerla spoke with it and so did someone else from Janir’s distant memory. Catching herself in time to return courtesy, Janir bowed to Florete.
Florete slipped the stone knife back into its place. It was either meant for cutting herbs or something else benign or this market was one of the most dangerous places in the world. “Do you want me to leave, Mother?”
Zeerla shook her head with what Janir thought was an edge of sadness, but she didn’t know the woman that well. “No, my dear, stay.”
Florete entered the house as Zeerla bade, but she never took her eyes off their guest.
“Mother?” Janir glanced between them, taking in the similarities.
“I was a slave girl in Stlaven when I bore her,” Zeerla explained. “I was allowed to bring her with me once I discovered that she had the Gift.”
Florete neatly settled herself in another chair near the small table. “I am an enchantress,” she said carefully, watching Janir with distrust.
That explained the accent. Janir must have heard people in Adasha speak with the same inflection, though it did make Janir wonder why the girl had an Old Brevian name.
“Enchantress? But then, how could you read a person’s thoughts?” Janir had heard of clairvoyants being able to peer into thought, but enchanters weren’t supposed to be able to do that without touching a person. She shuddered at the memory of Malkalar.
“It is a hereditary trait occasionally passed onto the children of seers and seeresses,” Zeerla explained.
“But I don’t have it,” Janir protested.
“Being an Argetallam cancels out any gifts you might have received from the other parent.” Zeerla sounded tired.
Florete watched Janir and the Argetallam felt her heart filling with dread. Even if Zeerla was meant to get through this with her powers intact, did that mean Florete would, too?
“Florete, my child, would you see to the fire, please?” Zeerla asked in a very maternal tone.
Janir immediately felt a pang in that sore place where her mother had once been. Florete rose with all Zeerla’s grace and stood before the fireplace. With exaggerated motions and clear words, she raised several logs into the air from beside the hearth and arranged them in a perfect pyramid. As Florete practiced her skill with great concentration, the young Argetallam’s mind had already moved to other things.
“My brother is coming,” Janir whispered to Zeerla. “As is the elf from the market, I’m sure. They will be here any minute. We should go.”
The seeress took on a very sad expression and stared mournfully toward young Florete. A little winded from the work of using magic, the girl sat cross legged in front of the fire, watching the leaping flames with a heart wrenching ignorance.
Janir had an odd sense of protectiveness for the young girl and Zeerla. Florete might be suspicious of her, but these days Janir was sometimes suspicious of herself. The two of them were like living reflections of her mother, seen through textured glass. Inexplicably, Janir felt that they were like her mother in some way, crafted of the same material as Aryana. The idea of them meeting their fate at the hands of Lucan was unbearable.
“Oh, child,” Zeerla sighed, shaking her head despondently. “They are already here.”
Janir bolted upright just in time to see Lucan force his way through the low doorway of Zeerla’s house. Behind him followed his mortahns dragging Karile.
“Janir! I was worried about you!” Karile cried.
Lucan cast a poisonous glare in the enchanter’s direction. Her brother surveyed everything with a painfully familiar, quick, and decisive glance. Irritation was apparent when he spotted Janir standing between him and Zeerla and her daughter.
“Rushing ahead of me, were you, sister?”
“Please, Lucan,” Janir pleaded. “Don’t claim them.”
At her supplication, Lucan’s eyebrows rose. “So they both have powers, do they? But only one is the seeress, so then the girl is what? An enchantress?”
Her brother noticed Florete by the fireplace. His look when he caught sight of the girl made Janir’s gut clench.
“What do you want with us, son of Drell?” Zeerla asked with the authority of a queen. She beckoned and Florete rushed to stand behind her mother. It was the only sign of unease the seeress showed.
“I want to know the location of the Temple of Amatahns from you, but I may want something else from your young companion.” Lucan had not taken his eyes off Florete.
The other Argetallams joined him in casting hungry stares toward the girl. Janir knew full well from stories what happened to enchanters or enchantresses who were claimed by Argetallams and she had no desire to see that happen to this child.
Florete met their leers bravely, even though Janir herself was terrified. The girl’s courage was admirable and Janir wished that she could do more to protect them both.
“That I cannot tell you.” There was a note of sadness in Zeerla’s voice, as if she knew that he would not be satisfied with that reply.
“I think you can,” Lucan icily countered.
“Do you know what will happen if you succeed and deliver the power of Amatahns to him?” Now Janir could see the seeress was afraid. The woman shifted to place herself more firmly between the Argetallams and her daughter, offering the only protection she could.
“How is that relevant? Tell me where the temple is!”
“I have seen him wreaking mayhem upon all the races…”
“No one can control our race,” Lucan snapped. “As for the others, we could not care less.”
“He will destroy the Argetallams!” Zeerla cried. “Even before the others are dealt with, his armies will march against you. Even the Children of the Karkaton cannot stand for long against such a force!”
“I’ll leave that for the Lord Argetallam to decide,” Lucan retorted.
“This world will become a wasteland and soon even his race will perish.”
It was in vain that she beseeched Lucan. He was not one to be reasoned with. Letting off an irritated sound, he drew one of Janir’s karkaton from his belt, made a determined grimace as it stung him, and strode toward the seeress and her child. Janir tried to block her brother’s path, but he shoved her into a pile of rosemary next to the wall.
Before Janir could clamber to her feet, an Argetallam warrior had seized Zeerla and Lucan dragged Florete from her mother. The small girl cried out in terror and Zeerla tried to keep hold of her, but it was useless.
Janir rushed to intervene, but at a sharp command from her brother, Camak snatched her up and took her to stand beside Karile. The enchanter looked sadly at Janir and then pityingly at the young girl.
Struggling, Florete reached for her knife. She yanked it free before Lucan saw and slashed him across the arm, just a scratch, but enough to draw blood. The Argetallam hissed in anger and wrested it out of her grip.
“Little brachet,” Lucan snarled.
Zeerla cried out in protest as his fist struck the child’s cheek. Whimpering, Florete clutched her face.
“Is the child too much for you?” Camak sneered.
Lucan glared at him. “My father will ask for an accounting when we return. If this does not change, I shall have to give an unfavorable report of you, mortahn.”
Camak was unimpressed. “As will I of you, prince. In truth, my report is quite disappointing thus far.” He passed Janir to one of the other mortahns with as much care as if she were soiled laundry.
Glowering, Lucan ignored the jab and dragged Florete to the middle of the room. He forced her to her knees, now in a more vicious mood than ever. “This girl is very dear to you, is she not?” Lucan snapped to Zeerla.
The other Argetallams looked on silently for now. Janir had a feeling they would be doing something to assist had it been the Lord Argetallam holding Florete, but they didn’t seem to care for helping Lucan.
“Please,” Zeerla whispered, showing the first hints of desperation. “She’s just a child, she has nothing to do with this.”
“Perhaps not, but you do.” Lucan seized the girl’s hair, making her whimper in pain.
Zeerla wrenched against the Argetallam gripping her wrists, but it was no use. “Just let her go.” There was already a dead hopelessness to her as she morosely shook her head. “I’ll do whatever you want, just…please…”
“So you can lie to me as soon as she’s run off? Not good enough.” Lucan drove one of the karkaton into the back of Florete’s neck, right at the base of her skull. She screamed and like a mocking refrain, the karkaton wailed with her, a droning shriek.
Zeerla cried out and fought against the warrior restraining her, but to no avail. She was forced to watch as her child was tortured.
Having made his point, Lucan released Florete from the karkaton’s touch. The girl gasped and coughed weakly. Where the karkaton had been, a blistering, black mark appeared.
“Will you tell me now?” Lucan demanded, stiffly bracing himself against the burn the karkaton inflicted on him.
“Just…let her go,” Zeerla repeated, less resolutely this time. “Please, please, just let her—”
With a slight sigh and shake of his head, Lucan drove the karkaton into Florete’s back. Janir hated being so helpless, so powerless to stop him.
“Tell me,” he snapped
“Lucan, please—” Janir was cut off as a hard fist cuffed her in the back of the head.
Already the light was gone from Florete and her mother faltered. “If I tell you, she is doomed.” There was a tremor in her voice, but not a shred of doubt. The seeress must have foreseen this moment or some version of it.
Shaking, Florete lowered her head. Janir didn’t think she could have been so brave under the same circumstances. Again she opened her mouth to reason with her brother, but the Argetallam at her back caught the motion and again silenced her with his fist.
“Well then, how about this—you have my word that if you tell me what I want to know, I will let her live. If not—” Lucan savagely ground the karkaton against Florete’s flesh. The small girl screamed helplessly and flailed ineffectively against her tormentor. “Tell me!”
“No.” Zeerla had tears streaming down her face. Janir thought she heard something below the demands of Lucan and the screams of Florete, but she couldn’t be certain.
Lucan pulled the karkaton from Florete’s skin, panting in frustration. Determination steeled his features and he clenched the rod tighter.
A low, throaty laugh escaped Camak. The mortahn chuckled unabashedly, shaking his head and folding his arms across his chest. He said nothing, but he didn’t have to.
Nostrils flaring, Lucan shoved the karkaton back into his belt. He jerked Florete around to face him and caught her throat. “If she means so little to you, then I see no reason not to claim her as my own,” he jeered, turning to the whimpering Florete.
“No! Please!” Zeerla wailed.
Florete weakly tried to struggle with Janir’s brother. Her futile resistance only served to annoy him.
“Then, and this is the last time I will offer you this chance, tell me!” Lucan shouted, clenching Florete’s throat harder.
Zeerla hesitated for several seconds before she gave in. Lucan seemed to know that she would and waited.
“According to my visions, the Temple of Amatahns is on the tip of the Rivellis Peninsula. In the forest.”
“Thank you.” Lucan said it in a way that seemed more of a mockery.
“You said you would let her go.” Zeerla twisted against her captor, but he held her fast. “I’m begging you, please.”
“No,” Lucan growled. “I said I would let her live.” Janir’s brother turned to Florete. It was difficult to explain, but it was as though Lucan was seeping into Florete’s mind through her eyes. Or perhaps drawing her out of hers. Vaguely, Zeerla screamed in the back ground.
Janir felt a deafening silence, a noiseless void, pound over her ears in a single pulse of mute thunder. The seeress screamed again and Florete slumped limply to the ground.
Zeerla fought against her Argetallam captor and this time she broke free. Rushing to the side of her daughter, the seeress sobbed openly.
“This is my fault.” Karile was beginning to weep.
Although she had just been blaming him for this in her mind, Janir touched his arm in a sympathy. Lucan straightened and focused on his hands with hard interest. He grimaced in concentration until orbs of flowing light appeared in his upraised palms. Florete gasped as her strength was taken.
“It never ceases to amaze me,” Lucan mused, extinguishing the orbs.
This time Janir was certain that she heard something—faint whooshing. Glancing to her right, there was nothing. Checking her left—with a start, Janir beheld the elf Malkalar, standing before the low doorway that led to the rest of the house.
He seemed to have simply appeared, materialized out of thin air. His dual wield swords were drawn. Despite having proved he was an enchanter, he showed no fear toward the Argetallams.
“Holy fewmets!” Karile gasped. Janir felt much the same way.
Several Argetallams drew their karkaton, looking to Camak for direction. He motioned for them to stand down. “One of you go outside and make sure the elf is alone,” Camak ordered quietly. “Otherwise, I see no reason not to let the prince deal with this himself.”
“No, no, no, no,” Zeerla moaned, cradling Florete and bowing over her as if she could protect her. “No, no, no, not this, please not this…” She pressed her face against the top of her daughter’s head and the child clung to her in terror.
“Who are you?” Lucan demanded. If he was surprised or unsettled by the elf’s soundless and unseen arrival, he gave no sign.
“I will be taking the seeress with me,” Malkalar said, sounding remarkably casual for the circumstances.
Zeerla did not turn away from her daughter. She did not act as if she had heard at all.
“Who are you?” Lucan repeated in a deliberate tone, separating each word clearly to express that he was by no means impressed.
“Someone who demands your compliance, mortal.” The elf spat out the name of the race as if it were poison. At a command from Malkalar’s lips, a loose piece of clay in the wall sprang up and darted for Lucan.
Raising his hand, Lucan stopped the potentially deadly missile midair. It hovered for a moment, and retraced its course back toward the enchanter.
Malkalar ducked to one side and uttered something that sounded like: “Damn Argetallams.”
“An enchanter, are you?” Lucan asked, despite the obvious answer.
“An Argetallam, are you?” Malkalar clipped sarcastically.
Out of the corner of Janir’s vision, the scout returned and whispered in Camak’s ear. He nodded and once again waved for the other Argetallams to stand down. Somewhere beneath her terror and anguish over Florete, she wondered if Camak wanted her brother dead—he seemed to act like it.
Malkalar caught the brief exchange between the men and his head cocked to one side slightly as he contemplated the chain of command. Methodically, he surveyed everyone in that room. Janir shuddered as his gaze raked over her.
In that moment, Lucan and Malkalar seemed so alike. Both were so cold, so calculative. They might have been two versions of the same man. Wearied with the conversation, Lucan bent his fingers in a practiced pose and a tongue of flame appeared on his fingertips, grew stronger, then roared toward Malkalar.
The Argetallams were remarkably calm given the circumstances. It was like they were watching a show, not a confrontation. But they had no reason to fear enchanters, they could deflect spells like gnats.
In a motion almost too quick to be seen, Malkalar held his swords out before him and traced the top of an invisible shield.
As the fire collided with it, the outline shimmered in a luminescent curtain. The flames died as if they had struck water, having no effect on the elven enchanter.
Florete moaned weakly as Lucan used so much of her power at once. When Zeerla cried out in anguish, Janir knew her brother had killed the girl.
A grimace creased Lucan’s mouth as he glanced furtively at the girl’s lifeless form before turning again to the enchanter.
Realizing that the victor could not be decided by magic, the elf and Argetallam prince were both still unwilling to fight the other. Lucan must have noticed the assured and confident air about Malkalar that spoke of lifetimes’ in training and experience. As for the elf, he was doubtless uneager to risk his powers, which appeared to be substantial, in a tussle with this sturdy Argetallam youth and his mortahns.
“Where is the Key of Amatahns?” Malkalar spoke with the air of one who is accustomed to swift and truthful replies.
“Go to hell!” Lucan snarled.
Janir didn’t pay attention to the rest of what Lucan and the elf said, though it was certainly a string of inquiries and insults flying both directions. She stared at Zeerla and Florete, wishing she could have done something to change what happened, wracking her brain for what she could have done differently.
Leaping sideways, the elf sheathed his swords, snatched Zeerla’s arm, and in less than the time it took for a heart to be beat, dragged her from the body of her child. With a few hasty words from Malkalar, Zeerla’s glowing golden orb flew up from the table and rested in his other hand.
Lucan clenched Janir’s karkaton and made to advance, but he already had what he wanted from Zeerla. He didn’t order the elf to return her.
Janir couldn’t help see Zeerla’s devastation as she watched the body of Florete—the seeress’ raw sorrow would doubtless be imprinted on her memory for a lifetime. The girl lay motionless—a perfect, empty, hollowed shell. Not a mark on her and yet so far beyond saving. When Janir glanced up again, the elf and seeress were gone.
Lucan shrugged. “We got what we wanted anyway. He can have the seeress for all I care.” He crammed the karkaton back into his belt. “Come along, we have a temple to find.” He refused to look anywhere near the body of the child he had killed and couldn’t leave that hut fast enough. He marched out the door and disappeared.
Janir didn’t know what she would do, but pulling against one of the Argetallams, she reached for Florete.
The girl lay there, just a husk of the very alive child that had been breathing moments before. Florete’s death to left such a heavy and painful weight in Janir’s chest it was hard to breathe.
The Argetallams grappled with Janir for several seconds and then dragged her after Lucan, away from the lifeless girl and the seeress’ cottage.
The city was placed squarely at the water’s edge, a boxy giant just dipping his toes in the quiet bay. It was built against the side of a cliff overlooking the narrow straits of the harbor and beyond lay the vast nothingness of water that was the sea.
Soaring watchtowers and stern soldiers faced out from every wall, daring an enemy to try and take the massive city. Officially, the port was a principality of the High King in Brevia. Realistically, they did business with whoever paid for a place in their harbor.
Lucan had decided that the fastest way to the Rivellis Peninsula would be to charter a vessel here in Avenport and sail. Janir was not looking forward to sailing, but didn’t have any choice in the matter.
She and Karile were shackled together in wrist irons that had been obtained in Snow Dale. It was amazing how questions of blacksmiths could be quelled by a few well worded threats. At least now Lucan allowed her and Karile to ride double on Kalbo—while Camak held the horse’s reins, of course.
It was more out of precaution, she suspected. Slavery was technically illegal in Brevia and one of the few human trades the elves actively interfered with. Dragging two people in chains behind one’s horses did look rather suspicious, especially this close to the Sylvan Forests.
At the thought of the Sylvan Forests, Janir was reminded of Saoven. How she prayed he was alright.
They had been traveling with Lucan and his men for two or three weeks now. Janir had stopped counting the days some time ago. She’d had no chance for news, no chance to hear even from gossips what might have happened with Armandius. All this time her brother had been a cruel task master, forcing them to keep pace with him even though he never seemed to tire.
Any efforts at seeking help from people they passed on the roads or in the towns were met with beatings and death threats against those hapless strangers. Janir didn’t want innocent people to be killed because of them, especially after seeing what had happened to Florete. For all his faults, at least Karile shared her conscience on that.
They neared the gates at what seemed to be a continent’s pace, but at last they were beneath the brooding stone archway that spanned the entrance to the city. A guard stopped them and pulled them to the side.
“Name?” he asked in a disinterested, matter of fact tone.
Janir’s eyes widened. He was using his mother’s surname, the surname of the current Stlavish ruling house. She was certain the guard would catch it, shouldn’t it be suspicious this far north?
“Business?” The guard must ask these questions a hundred times a day, paying as little attention to the answers as the people who gave them.
“Seeking passage to Arness.” Apparently, Lucan had thought seeking passage to a deserted wilderness was more suspicious than claiming kinship to the current sultan.
Lucan arched one eyebrow. “Arness.”
Lucan must have expected this question as he didn’t even blink. “Merchant.”
With six men in leather armor and two prisoners in chains, Janir wasn’t sure exactly what kind of merchant he could be. Either her and Karile’s shackles were unnoticeable or this guard was used to looking the other way. Probably the latter. She wondered if Lucan could have dragged the two of them in behind the horses after all.
Her brother’s answers seemed to satisfy the guard and the man moved aside, motioning for them to continue.
Their strange group entered the city. The inside was just as crowded as the outside. They forced their way through the outer courtyard and ultimately through the second gate, into the actual city.
Lined with street vendors and barking dogs, the place was noisy and chaotic. Shouting fish mongers promised the lowest prices. Assorted vendors on the side of the streets tried to attract customers any way they could.
Janir and Karile weren’t given much time for sightseeing as Lucan made an almost straight line through the chaos toward the shipyards. Not that they needed to see, Janir could guess just by the smell. She was certain all the fishmongers were lying about the fish being caught that morning.
It wasn’t long before Lucan had hastily arranged a full charter on a small ship called the Sea Beast.
“Sea Beast?” Karile scoffed. “It looks more like a Sea Rodent.”
Indeed it was little more than a skiff, but Lucan gauged that it was all they would need for the three day voyage to the tip of the Rivellis Peninsula. He paid the grungy captain half of what he was to receive in all, then told him they would depart in the morning and to be ready.
When it came to his personal relaxation, Lucan didn’t concern himself overmuch, but he did concern himself all the same. He chose a comfortable, but aged inn for them to spend the night.
The inn was one of many buildings lining the street. They were all flat in front and their owners tried to make up for it with colorful banners and hanging shade cloths. The inn was at the end of the avenue, within sight of the well guarded shipyards, and had a stable around back. It was cleaner than most of the establishments surrounding it and wasn’t too disreputable in appearance.
Contrary to Janir’s expectations, the sight of nine nearly disparate people and their horses did not raise an alarm. They were given only a cursory once over by the innkeeper’s stern wife before being told where their rooms would be and pointed in the direction of the stable.
Janir and Karile were pulled down from Kalbo and Lucan freed Janir from her shackles. Being allowed to take care of her horse had become a kind of reward for good behavior.
“Need I remind you that if you run off, I will be killing the enchanter?” Lucan said it with all the emotion of an ice block.
Janir shook her head, avoiding eye contact.
“At this point, I can use anyone who’s not an Argetallam. I will not hesitate to slit his throat.”
Janir didn’t know what that first part meant, but she knew better than to ask. She submissively nodded and took Kalbo’s reins.
Though they said nothing, it was obvious the other Argetallams disapproved of Lucan allowing her these moments of freedom. She’d seen Lucan and Camak arguing more than once, though they tried to keep their conversations secret from everyone else, at least from the prisoners. Janir had heard Camak grumbling to the other warriors when Lucan’s back was turned.
Apparently, her brother was a “milk-lipped, cotton-willed mouse.” Lucan couldn’t have overheard that because she was sure someone would be dead if he had.
Lucan disappeared into the inn with one of the Argetallams dragging Karile and two others carrying their gear. The enchanter mouthed something in her direction, but she didn’t make it out. Realizing she had fallen behind the other Argetallams with the horses, Janir led Kalbo just a little faster to catch up.
The stable’s thatched roof seemed a direct defiance of the brick and mortar of the rest of the city. Nondescript timbers lined all sides and rough juniper logs divided stalls for the animals.
The sounds of people milling about on the outside faintly spilled into the relative peace of the barn. The afternoon sunlight filtered through the timbers, flashing frequently as people moved on the other side. Inside, a few donkeys and oxen chewed their cud peacefully while a barn cat cleaned itself from atop a post.
This place was quiet and serene, as Janir had come to expect stables to be. The sweet scent of hay and manure mixed with animal sweat and worn leather.
Kalbo followed Janir without argument, obedient and placid at her side. She chose a stall near the middle of the stable, so none of the Argetallams would think she was trying to set herself up for escape.
Camak and two others were seeing to the horses around her. They worked busily, but she couldn’t help feel that each one of them was secretly staring at her.
Janir unsaddled Kalbo and tended to the little cuts on his legs best she could. Trustingly, the stallion stood without protest as she dug stones from under his loosening shoes and eased a thorn out of the soft part of his hoof.
All in all, he was far from irreparable condition, but she still cringed every time she found a new scratch. He’d been traveling for too long without proper rest. She twisted a handful of straw into a short cord and rubbed him down, avoiding the bruises and abrasions where she could.
“I’m sorry,” Janir whispered. “I know I’m the one who got you into this.”
The stallion naturally didn’t understand, but probably wouldn’t have held a grudge in the first place. He shook his mane and continued munching on the hay in front of him.
Janir took her time with Kalbo as much out of concern for him as the desire to enjoy every moment without shackles. A small part of her felt guilty for leaving Karile in his, but she could hardly free him herself.
After a while, she finger combed Kalbo’s tail, waiting for Camak and the others to finish. She heard them speaking in low voices, checking over and hanging up the tack. The purpled rings around her wrists were difficult to ignore, but she tried her best. They were constant, sore reminders of her bondage, of her helplessness.
“Come out,” Camak gruffly ordered after about a half hour.
In all that time, Janir had not left the stallion’s stall. Reluctantly, she patted Kalbo’s shoulder and slipped out under the logs.
She straightened to find Camak blocking her path. Over his shoulder, the other two Argetallams were disappearing into the inn.
Janir swallowed a hard lump in her throat. She was suddenly very uncomfortable. She tried to slip past him, but he moved, shifting into her path once again.
“You’re…you’re blocking my way.” Janir kept her head down, not giving him even the slightest excuse to read defiance in her actions.
“That’s right,” Camak flatly replied. He had a perfunctory, cold way of saying it that unsettled her even more.
He fixed her in that look again, the one of a hungry beast. A deep and frightened instinct told her to get away from him as quickly as possible.
“Lucan wants me to come back,” Janir said hesitantly.
“And you will.” Camak took a step closer. “In an hour or so. Depending on how this plays out.” He appraised her figure up and down like a butcher inspecting an animal for slaughter.
Even Janir, having lived sheltered under Armandius’ care, read the intention in Camak’s leer. She tried to dash past him, only to meet a hard punch to her gut. Janir doubled over and he seized a fistful of her hair, jerking her up.
Crying out, she tried to wrestle his hands away, but it was no use. “Let me go!” she screamed.
“In good time,” he growled.
Janir kicked at his shins and clawed at anything in sight. He grunted in irritation as her fingernails raked over his cheek.
“So you have some fight in you after all.” He grabbed her hair tighter and dragged her toward the pile of hay near the back of the stable.
“Let me go!” Janir shrieked frantically. She thrashed and kicked and struggled in every way she could possibly think of, but Camak had done this before. He knew how to keep a hold on her and stop her clawing out his eyes.
“I am the Lord Argetallam’s daughter!” Janir screamed in desperation. “Let me go!”
“You are not Argetallam,” Camak sneered in disgust. He jerked her up, bringing her to eye level. “You are weak, you are pitiful. You are everything we despise in Brevians.”
Janir didn’t think it would be wise to remind him that he had to have a great deal of Brevian blood in his own veins. She grappled futilely to extricate his hands from her hair, thrashed and fought, but it hardly had any effect.
“Now I’m going to show you your place.” Camak threw her on the ground and grabbed a hold of her arm. He twisted up at a sharp angle, making her joints crack. “I’m going to show you what it means to be a feeble, defenseless, Brevian woman.”
Janir cried out, certain he was about to dislocate her arm, and tried to wriggle free, but to no avail. He stomped a boot between her shoulder blades. It seemed to crush the very beat of her heart and for a moment she couldn’t see or hear.
Camak dropped down so his knee was pressing against her spine. He yanked at the tangled laces on the back of her bodice and she shrieked in desperation.
A wet rip split the air and Camak was thrown off her. The next thing she knew, his body was being kicked to the side and her rescuer was kneeling between them with a bloodied sword.
She was so glad to see him, so relieved for so many reasons. Tears wet her cheeks as she leapt up and wrapped her arms around his neck. Even in the city, he smelled of pine needles and rushing rivers—a soothing, comforting scent. He slid his free arm around her like a shield.
“I have you,” Saoven whispered. “I have you.” He let her cry into his shoulder for a moment, blocking her from the sight of Camak’s body and the rest of the world.
Janir clung to him tightly, sheltering in his arms. There was a warmth and safety to his embrace, something she couldn’t quite name. It gentled her into calmness, eased away her terror.
Once she had quieted, he pushed just enough space between them that he could see her face. “Janir, are you alright? Can you walk?”
She nodded, wiping away her tears. “Yes, I’m alright. You got here before he—” She couldn’t say it.
“You are safe now,” he promised. “Come, we have to get far from here.” The elf stood, tugging her after him. “Armandius has spoken with the High Lords and they have agreed to allow you a chance.”
Janir almost didn’t believe it. It was hard not to be happy, despite everything that had happened. Then she remembered. “We can’t leave Karile,” she said, twisting away from Saoven.
“What do you mean?” he asked sharply. “The enchanter is here as well?”
Janir nodded. “They have Karile and they’re going to kill him if I—look out!”
Saoven spun around to find Lucan and three of the Argetallams blocking the stable exit. The elf shoved her behind him without a second’s hesitation, sword held out defensively.
With a cursory look, Lucan took in the dead body of Camak. “I see you finished off my second,” he drily remarked. “May I ask why?”
“I am sworn to protect the girl. Any who seeks to harm her shall meet the same fate, Argetallam,” Saoven flatly answered.
Saoven knew Lucan was an Argetallam? What else did he know?
There was no other way out of this stable but past her brother and his mortahns. Janir swallowed, going rigid behind the elf. Fear and hope mingled in her chest until she felt as if they would stop her heart.
Lucan nodded contemplatively. “Then I suppose I owe you thanks.”
“Thanks, my lord?” one of the other warriors repeated with offense.
“Yes. He saved me the trouble of hacking off the man’s head for disobedience.” Lucan sized up Saoven, considering. He all but ignored Janir.
“Seize him,” Lucan ordered.
The way the Argetallams advanced, Janir didn’t think they meant to take Saoven alive. Her chest clenched with fear and she fought the urge to cling to him.
“Stay back and behind me,” Saoven ordered.
Raising his sword, Saoven met the attack of the trio. Within seconds, one of the Argetallams jerked his arm back with a curse, clutching at a slash over his wrist.
Realizing his warriors might not be an easy match against the elven warrior, Lucan wasted no time. He swiftly drew Janir’s karkaton from his belt and held them an arm’s length apart before driving them together with all his might.
A high pitched screaming, screeching wail shook the air and sent tremors through the very stones. Janir doubled on the ground and clamped her hands over her ears.
The sharp noise was hurtful to Janir, but she couldn’t imagine what it must have felt like to Saoven. His fine tuned senses were used to Lucan’s advantage as the karkaton’s wail grew even louder.
Dropping his sword reflexively, Saoven fell to his knees, gasping in pain. Without a second’s hesitation, Lucan strode across the short distance and jabbed Saoven in the neck with a karkaton. The elf slumped limply to the ground. Where the karkaton had struck, a blistering black mark appeared.
Lucan stood over the elf like a young boy who had just brought down a boar. “Put him in chains with the others,” he commanded his warriors. “I may have use for him.”
“Saoven!” Janir scrambled to his side. “Saoven, no!” He was breathing, but it was shallow and uneven. His blister was already oozing black. Janir had seen so many people die in the past month and the thought of seeing anything happen to—
“Oh, shut up, he’s alive,” Lucan snapped. “Friend of yours?”
“You know he is.”
“Hmm. Then you should be glad of his company.” Lucan spun on the Argetallams. “Why are you just standing there? Take him upstairs and chain him with the enchanter.”
One of the Argetallams, the one who had spoken earlier, glared at Saoven with a clenched jaw. “He slew Camak,” the warrior protested. “He should die.”
“Camak disobeyed me,” Lucan lowly hissed. “As you’ll recall, I made it very clear how I felt about anyone touching the girl. Just as I am making it very clear what I want done with this elf.”
Despite being a “milk-lipped, cotton-willed reed,” Lucan managed a hard, intimidating glare that would have struck terror in lesser men. The defiant Argetallam only held his stare for a few moments before he and his compatriots moved to do as they were told.
Lucan dragged Janir after them by her arm. She didn’t fight back. If she ran now, not only would she be alone in a strange city, but she would be abandoning two of her friends, right now perhaps her only two friends in the world.
They were taken upstairs, just as Lucan had commanded. The Argetallams went by the outer staircase to avoid the prying of the innkeeper and the other patrons Janir overheard in the tavern proper.
When the door to their room opened and Karile saw who was hanging between the two warriors, he gasped. “Goblin! What happened?”
Janir opened her mouth to speak, but Lucan jerked on her arm. “No talking!”
Janir was returned to her shackles and shoved between Saoven and Karile. She tried to help Saoven, but she still didn’t know the first thing about karkaton burns.
“Is he alright?” Karile whispered.
Janir shook her head. “I hope so.”
A short while later, Lucan sent out two of his men to deal with the dead Camak. She didn’t know what they did with the body and she didn’t ask, but neither of the warriors seemed pleased by their orders. That evening when she was allowed to see to Kalbo again, there was no sign the corpse had ever been there.
Early morning mist had settled over the harbor. The city was just waking up in the predawn light, yawning before a reluctant rising. A few ships, from massive brigantines to fishermen’s sloops, were slowly leaving and entering the bay, their crews probably only partly awake.
Janir had not slept well, but that was no change since becoming Lucan’s prisoner. Well before dawn, Lucan had awakened them, paid the innkeeper to house the horses until their return, and then dragged his captives out into the sleepy city. Janir was beginning to wonder where the Argetallams carried all this money.
Saoven was awake and appeared to be fine. Yet asking him how he was proved futile. Lucan was stricter than ever when it came to talking. He’d become lenient over the past few days, but since last night he was treating Janir as if Camak’s attack had been her fault.
The Argetallams followed Lucan without a word as he marched to the shipyards. They had been unusually quiet since Lucan’s nonchalant treatment of Camak’s death. They moved a little more carefully around him now, like they weren’t quite certain if he should be feared or not.
Fisherman were on the beach, spreading their nets in preparation for the day’s work, while the rhythmic clanging of a blacksmith’s hammer tolled through the salty air. Squawking gulls soared overhead, eager to steal what they could when the fishermen brought their wriggling catches back.
The skiff was waiting for them at the docks. The “captain” welcomed them onto the deck and showed Lucan a place by the prow of the vessel where he could deposit his prisoners—no questions asked.
The Argetallam girl, elf, and enchanter were dumped just behind the prow on the hard oaken planks. With cool efficiency, the Argetallam warriors secured Janir and Karile’s chains to rings, conveniently located in the front of the ship. Janir wondered if this crew was in the habit of flaunting Brevia’s slave boycott.
Burly and filthy sailors heaved the oars up and down, throttling the small skiff onward. Lucan and the others marched about the deck, making sure their gear was properly stored.
Saoven cast her a meager smile before Lucan noticed. The elf was trying to reassure her and somehow that made it worse.
Their small craft stopped at the mouth of the harbor to load supplies for the brief, but nonstop voyage. The skiff pulled close to the docks and a series of barrels were dragged out of the warehouses to below deck by the hefty sailors.
The harbor warehouses were an almost ramshackle collection of large wooden buildings, weathered by years of facing the harsh sea air and salt water. They were built up on stilts to hold them out of the tide, resting against the jagged cliffs of the harbor mouth with ramps that went down to the ships. Merchants and sailors moved about the warehouses, each one to his duty without any concern for his surroundings.
Karile, Saoven, and Janir slumped behind the prow, watching the proceedings, helpless to do anything but wait. At this early morning hour, there were hardly any other vessels coming for supplies, so things appeared to be running quickly.
“Where are we going?” Saoven whispered. He kept his eyes straight ahead, pretending to ignore the other two captives.
“The Rivellis Peninsula,” Janir softly answered. “For the…crystal something.”
“Crystal chamber!” Karile hastily corrected. “The holding cell of the greatest source of power in—”
Janir landed a hard elbow to his ribs. “Quietly!”
“Oh.” Karile cleared his throat. “Right. Let me explain—no, let me summarize—the Argetallams have the Key of Amatahns and they want to use it to get to the crystal chamber. We don’t know exactly what they plan for after that. They’ve dragged us along because I know some things that might be helpful and apparently Janir is that lovely gentleman’s sister.” The enchanter then did the great service of pointing out Lucan.
Janir couldn’t look at Saoven then. She wasn’t sure which she feared more—him already knowing the truth or him learning it now.
“Your Argetallam brother?”
Surprise rippled down her spine. “You knew?”
Saoven offered a discreet shrug that reminded her of Karile. “As of a week or so ago. My father and Armandius explained it.”
“Forgive me,” Janir said reflexively.
“Just…” There were a great many things. She was sorry for having been born with the blood of the Lord Argetallam in her veins. She was sorry for being the reason they were all here, she was sorry for not thinking of a way to free them. “All of it.”
“There is nothing to forgive.” Saoven said it without inflection, as if it should be a readily accepted fact.
“You…you hate Argetallams,” Janir whispered, almost afraid to say it.
“I do not hate you,” Saoven softly answered. “I could never hate you, even if I so wished it.”
Janir experienced that familiar fluttering in her belly. He didn’t hate her—and he couldn’t. Warmth spread through her chest and for just a moment, she didn’t see the morning as so terrible.
“I realize that in the past I have said,” Saoven cleared his throat, “things that were hateful. Things that must have upset you greatly. For that, I am sorry.”
With a deep breath, Janir tried to think of what to say. “That…means a great deal.”
Saoven risked looking at her sideways to cast her a brief smile of gratitude.
Karile’s face screwed up in a disgusted pose and mimed vomiting. Janir and Saoven elected to ignore him, though Saoven seemed more irritated by it.
Lucan and the Argetallams brooded as they waited for the supplies to be loaded. The warriors stood a little apart from their leader. Janir could only imagine what sort of things they must be saying about Lucan now. None of them were watching the captives at the moment, leaving the trio free to speak to one another.
Saoven took advantage of it. “Janir, listen. Duke Ronan was given a substantial sum from Stlaven to kill Armandius. We believe their aristocracy might be planning another invasion.”
Seventeen years ago, Brevia had been invaded by the Stlavish armies. The invasion had been largely successful in the beginning, reaching all the way into the heart of Brevia to seize the capital of Saaradan, but their forces were spread too thin by that point.
The High Lords had rallied their men together and attacked them at their weakest, cutting off the army from their supply routes and destroying them. The ultimate result was that the then sultanate was replaced by a ruler from the house of Vanmar, made strong through unparalleled politicking and an alliance with the Argetallams.
Janir herself wouldn’t have existed without that war. Aryana Caersynn had been carried off in the fall of Saaradan. If Janir’s memory served her correctly, her mother had been a gift to the Lord Argetallam from one of the Stlavish generals in an effort to smooth over some dispute.
“Whatever these Argetallams want with the Key, it cannot be a coincidence,” Saoven surmised. “They must be trying to collect it for their allies. They cannot use the magic themselves.”
Lucan came back along the deck, casually sauntering like a panther in the early morning sunlight. It occurred to Janir that many girls would probably think her brother handsome. He had the fit build and artful bone structure envied by many.
“We should be loaded soon.” Lucan leaned against the railing, just out of reach in case one of them thought to try something. “Then we’ll be on our way.”
“Thank you for the update,” Karile said with mock appreciation.
“I was not addressing you, enchanter,” Lucan snapped. He must have been in a forgiving mood as he didn’t strike anyone. “You may speak when spoken to. Is that not right?”
Janir realized he was singling her out. “Whatever you say.”
“Hmm.” Lucan straightened, surveying the early morning ocean. “The sea is different this far north,” he said contemplatively. “More frigid and less alive.”
Janir didn’t believe he was actually trying to illicit a conversation, so decided to keep quiet. Her karkaton were still tucked in his belt and while she couldn’t be hurt with them, it had been proven that both Saoven and Karile could.
“I’ll be glad when this is done with and we can return to Adasha. Then you can disappoint all those unpleasable wretches.” His lip curled as he brushed his hand over the railing, flicking away imaginary dust. “I assume you have not forgotten home?”
Janir felt like he expected a response. “You…you mean to take me back to Adasha?”
“Of course. Why else would I be dragging you over creation?” He sounded suddenly irritable. “Once I have contained the power from the crystal chamber, we will be going back.”
Janir peered discreetly at Karile and Saoven, but neither one of them seemed to have any clue as to what he was talking about. “What…” She cleared her throat hesitantly.
Saoven shot her a cautioning look and shook his head almost imperceptibly. But if Lucan was in a chatty mood…
“Are you going to take the power for yourself?” Janir’s mind flashed with images of Florete’s small body on the ground.
“The magic in that chamber is strong enough to kill an Argetallam. No, I am going to use either the elf or the enchanter or both to contain the magic.”
“Kill an Argetallam? But—”
“No, that makes no difference,” Lucan impatiently corrected. “This magic was taken from the mazag—even you remember them?—and distilled in pure form. It can effect us in its raw state. Once contained in another life form, however…” Lucan stared out across the water pensively. He looked so harmless when he stood like that. No one would guess he had murdered a little girl just a few weeks ago. “It will be tainted by their blood and then it will be useless against our kind.”
“Who is it for?” Janir pressed, pushing her luck.
Lucan glanced to her sideways with suspicion. “I don’t kiss and tell.”
The sailors finished loading the few barrels into the bottom of the ship. They separated the skiff from the ramp and pushed off into the open sea. Waves rocked the vessel and the sail idly lolled in the breeze. There was the creaking of wood as the oars twisted in their sockets, rising above the sound of distant gulls.
Lucan seemed to lose interest in his sister. He meandered to the other side of the ship to speak with his Argetallams.
Karile leaned over, keeping his voice down as much as possible. “Is it just me or was nothing about that chat reassuring?”
“We must escape,” Saoven flatly stated. “Whatever happens, we must not be prisoners when we reach the peninsula.”
They sailed, if it could be called that, well into the day and the evening. Janir was beginning to wonder why the term “sailing” was associated with a smooth and uninterrupted ride. Sailing involved swells and waves and ornery winds.
Karile had turned several shades of green, and fed the fish his meager breakfast by midday, while Janir was no better. The only comfort she received was that several of the Argetallams were almost the same color—except Lucan. Lucan showed as much adaptability to the sea as any of the sailors.
It wasn’t long before both Janir and Saoven were sunburned. Karile resembled a pouting green and red lobster.
Apparently, below deck was very cramped and crowded and it was more convenient to leave the captives up top. Besides, it left them in full view of the entire crew, leaving little chance they would have the opportunity to try anything devious.
Janir began considering herself and the others slaves, but Lucan had his warriors put forth a little more effort to look after them. Their fundamental needs were attended, even if it was not in the most gracious fashion. She nearly broke a tooth on the hard biscuits they were fed for supper.
Toward the deep of the night, when a crescent moon hung like a sickle in the sky, when the Brevian coast was just a dark sliver on the horizon and all other ships were out of sight, Lucan watched from the back of the skiff. The sea had grown calmer and the eerie dip of the oars in the water was one of the few sounds in the crisp sea air.
“What does he see?” Karile whispered.
“How would I know?” was Janir’s clipped response.
Lucan waved over one of his Argetallams and exchanged several brief sentences. The warriors surveyed the sea in their wake, speaking in low tones.
“What is he saying?” Karile wondered.
“How would I know?” Janir snapped a second time.
“Quiet!” Saoven scolded. “I am trying to listen.”
Lucan pursed his lips, then spun around and made for the front of the ship. He went immediately to his prisoners and produced the keys from their place around his neck. Without a word, Lucan undid the chains binding them to the prow of the skiff.
“Come with me,” he commanded.
It occurred to Janir that there were three of them and their bonds were being held by a single boy. The covert looks from Saoven and Karile said they had seen it the same way, but the other Argetallams were only a few paces off. The three of them let him lead past the heaving oarsmen to the back of the ship.
Karile bumped into Janir, standing on his tiptoes for a better view. “What is it?”
Lucan gave the enchanter a harsh glare and hissed for silence. He pointed to the shadowy horizon, in the direction of the mainland. “What do you see there, elf?” he demanded.
Saoven stared across the water, peering into the dark. Janir strained to see what it was, but she could only make out several shapes in the moonlight that might have been swells. Briefly, she thought she saw one of them rise out of the water, but it might have been her imagination.
“I see trouble,” Saoven said coldly. “A group of four mazag, swimming toward us.”
A moment of silence descended upon the deck. Lucan brandished a karkaton and held it in front of the elf’s face. “If you are lying to me…”
“It is no lie.” Saoven was calm and factual, though Janir felt a panic coming on.
“How would you even know what one looks like?” Lucan snapped. “You can’t be that old.”
“The memories of my people live on long after we die,” Saoven vaguely answered. “Wait a few hours and the truth of it will be proven. The creatures may not be gaining fast, but they will catch us eventually.”
For just a few moments, fear of the monsters outweighed her fear of her brother. “Give the Key back, Lucan!” Janir pleaded.
“Not a chance,” Lucan hissed back.
Karile was shaking his head. “Oh…dear,” he mumbled. “This is not…good. Not good at all.”
“Don’t you see they’re relentless?” Even as she said it, Janir knew she’d never talk reason into her brother. “They’re going to kill us all if we don’t give it back!” She remembered the great mazag that had followed her and Karile out of the cavern. It had been willing to negotiate for peace, perhaps these would as well.
Despite the fate of the great mazag, she was not so certain their small group could stand against four beasts. Four beasts that must have tracked them for weeks and were doubtless angered by the death of their companion.
“It was stolen from them,” Janir said. “They just want it back. Just give it back!”
“Correct me if I am wrong, but I seem to recall that you were the one to steal it. True?” Lucan countered.
“Don’t you see? You killed one of them!”
The small crew was comprised of about ten oarsmen in all. Every one of them and the captain was staring at the brother and sister with bewilderment.
One of the Argetallams, the one who seemed to have taken up Camak’s habit of questioning Lucan’s authority, made to step forward. “My lord, we should let them come. We slew the last beast, there is nothing to say we cannot slay more.”
All around the ship, eyes and ears were fixed on their conversation. A sense of dread and doom befell the skiff in almost an instant, settling in everyone familiar with the mazag, even those who thought they stood a chance fighting. Their fear infected the sailors like a disease, becoming an almost palpable thing in moments.
Abruptly, the skiff’s captain stepped forward. “Someone want to explain?”
“You will do as I tell you,” Lucan growled. “You will take this ship straight for the Rivellis Peninsula and that will be the end of it.”
“I don’t know what’s happening here and we’re not moving until I do.”
“Don’t make me open your veins.” Lucan’s tone was low, threatening, and enough to frighten Janir. Yet the sailor was unimpressed.
“You think I am afraid of you, boy?” The captain puffed himself up to his full height. “What are you going to do?”
Lucan gave an angry cry and slashed the captain’s throat with a concealed dagger and a swift motion.
“I will not tolerate insubordination!” Lucan screamed. “Row! Ahead!” Glancing down at the still gasping body of the captain, her brother added, as if an afterthought, “Toss this in the sea.”
For once, the Argetallams looked something other than unimpressed. Lucan cast them a glare to say he had no problem dealing with any of them the same way. This time they moved to obey his order without question and the sailors did the same. After all, if the boy was that bloodthirsty and cold, what must the men be like? Now even the Argetallams gave him a wide berth.
That was the second time Janir had seen her brother kill. She looked determinedly away from the body, but she didn’t stop trying to talk reason into him. “You’ve fought one and you don’t think we should try negotiating?”
“Firstly, I seem to recall that creature lost the last round. Secondly, how far away do they look to you?” Lucan demanded. “Two, three miles?”
“One,” Saoven blandly interjected.
“It hardly matters, onward!” Lucan snapped, seizing Janir’s chains with fury and yanking her and the others after him.
Jerking their shackles mercilessly at every opportunity, Lucan dragged them to the front. After roughly securing all three of them near the prow again, Lucan strode back to tend to the ordering of the sailors.
The mazag were relentless in their pursuit, but Lucan was just as relentless in his flight. By dawn, there was no sign of the irregular shapes and sulking scales. Still, Janir had no doubt that they would be back and soon.
The clicks and clacks of the one who had spoken to her at the caverns echoed in her mind. That creature had been sentient, that creature had been determined, willing to die, even. She couldn’t help but believe that these would be the same.
But a new threat loomed on the horizon. Clouds the color of coal lined the sky in the direction they were headed. Nature itself might have been steering them from the Rivellis Peninsula, but Lucan did not heed such warnings. The skiff jolted along on the wind, a wind that seemed dangerously strong to Janir, but she had never been out to sea before. Perhaps it was normal?
She caught the flicker of lightning bolts in the dark clouds. Those were not normal, even she knew that. In spite of foul weather, Lucan did not let the crew rest. Two more sailors had rebelled against him since the captain and they had both been swiftly done away with. The remainder had learned from the mistakes of their compatriots and deemed it best for their health not to question the temperamental Argetallam.
Lucan stared at the stormy horizon with a set jaw and a stubborn outlook. He would keep going until he succeeded or it killed him. Or killed all of them, for that matter.
As they drew nearer to the storm, the sea became quieter and quieter. Janir twisted to see over the prow of the ship. The storm was coming at them, closer, ever closer, advancing like a host of furious warriors.
Lucan didn’t let them stop. He pushed them on despite protests from the sailors and a few from his men. By now, even the Argetallams seemed afraid of him. No one was quite sure what he would do anymore and it appeared no one was quite brave enough to attempt mutiny.
In the distance, there was a sharp wailing, the screaming of the wind. Thunder rumbled like the stomach of a hungry beast, lightning split the sky. Pitch black clouds masked the sun and swept in for the kill.
The wall of rain, wind, and thunder hit them like a wave of bricks. The unnatural wind snapped the mast in two as if it were fashioned of twigs and the rain pinned Janir to the deck. Lucan was bellowing commands, the waves splashed over the ship, the sailors were shouting and two of them were swept overboard.
Exactly what happened next, she couldn’t tell for the heavy torrents of rain. She could hardly breathe without taking in water, couldn’t open her eyes without having them flooded with rain.
“Hold onto each other!” Saoven yelled.
Karile clung to her in the near darkness and Saoven was somewhere to her left with an arm behind her back, gripping Karile. A fresh wave swept over the deck and Janir was suddenly grateful that she was chained down as the force threatened to drag her over the other side.
She thought her wrists would snap off, but the wave receded into the sea and she found she was still in one piece. The three captives coughed and spat out sea water—fishy, salty, and slimy all at the same time and cold, icy cold.
The ship heaved, rising upon a wave and then smashing downward with a terrific splash. As the ship went into the air, Janir lifted above the ship, connected to it only by the chains on her wrists. As it went down, she and the other two slammed into the hardened wood.
Rain blinded her. She tried to bat the water away, but no sooner had she done that then more poured from the sky to replace it.
“This rots!” Karile screamed, and she only heard that because her ear had ended up in front of his mouth.
She jerked away from his shrieking and slammed into Saoven’s lip with the back of her head. “Sorry!”
There was a muffled sound of acknowledgement from the elf and then another wave hit. Again it tried to drag them into the sea, drown them in its frigid embrace.
Karile was whining, but she didn’t care. There was something wet and slimy on her neck, probably seaweed, but she couldn’t help fear it was some poisonous ocean creature.
She’d lost sight of Lucan and the others. They could be struggling to keep the skiff upright, swept overboard, or huddling below deck for all she knew.
The skiff reared, jumbling her and the other two in a frantic pile before smashing into the water. Janir thought perhaps she had landed with her cheek on Saoven’s chest, but they were launched upwards again a moment later.
The cold water had numbed her sore wrists, but she hated not being able to feel Karile clenching her arm. She had to open her eyes in the downpour and look for him. He was still there, a blurry pile of robe and legs hunched beside her. Each of them kept clinging to the others, as if they could save themselves if they just stayed together.
How long had this been going on? A few minutes? An hour? Days? She lost track of time as they fought to keep a grip on one another. That was her only focus—holding onto the elf and the enchanter. A creaking, scraping, tearing pierced above the roar of the storm.
“That can’t be good!” Karile shouted.
The skiff was flung like rubble out of a catapult, higher and higher. It was going to be very painful when they came down, Janir thought.
It was very painful. The craft struck the water and they were flung across the deck, their chains ripped free, and Janir was being thrown from the ship, into the tossing waves. She struggled against the current and felt Saoven thrashing beside her. Blindly, Janir groped in the wet darkness for Karile, but she couldn’t find him. Saoven and Janir managed to get their heads above water, but something pulled them back into a wave.
In spite of her struggling, the salt water was over her head, choking her very existence. The thought crossed her mind of how devastated Armandius would be. How she hoped he would be alright, that he would—why did Saoven have to come for her? Why did he have to be captured, too? And Karile—
The current pulled at the wrist Karile had been chained to. She struggled, trying to get him out of the current. What was that? Were her feet touching something? With a start, Janir realized her feet were hitting rocks. Was she dreaming? Was this some pre-mortem hallucination?
The rain gradually began to thin, and between waves Janir saw she was stumbling after a short figure in a wildly flapping robe. Karile had dragged them into the waves to get them to shore. As if an invisible hand had just shoved back a curtain, they were out of the brutal rain.
One last wave rose out of the water and charged after the bedraggled castaways. It struck Janir’s back, driving her onto a beach. She crashed into sand and felt the individual grains grinding into her cheek.
A soft, comforting rain trickled from the sky. It felt like a dream. It couldn’t be real—they had been dying.
Saoven crashed onto the sand beside her, gasping for air. Thunder crackled in the distance, and then the world went black.
A breeze holding the scent of salt brushed her face. Sleepy sea birds cawed overhead. A few lizards crawled among nearby logs. Scuttling sideways, a crab scooted past her on his way to the water. The sand stuck to her cheek as she lifted her head with what seemed to be an incredible amount of effort.
A crimson sun was setting behind them, sinking slowly into the water. They were on a beach, at dusk. Where?
Still as stone, Saoven was lying at her side and to her relief, he was breathing. Karile was on his stomach, propped on his elbows, staring at the sand. No, not at the sand, she realized. He was focused on his wrists, bound by shackles. The enchanter was muttering incomprehensible words, staring at his chains intently, as if he were trying to melt them with his gaze. Abruptly, they popped open and released him.
“Ahh,” Karile sighed, rubbing his wrists.
“Mine next,” Janir piped up.
“In a minute.” Karile scrambled to his feet and disappeared into the line of cedar trees and marsh grass.
“Do you really need to do that now?” Janir shouted, shaking her chains.
“Yes!” Karile chirped back.
Janir sighed and glanced at Saoven. Deliberately, he blinked in the fading light. He had bled where she accidentally rammed him with the back of her skull and sand covered his face. Still, even with all that he was rather…
“Much better,” Karile happily announced, trotting back across the sand.
“Good,” Janir clipped, turning from Saoven to glower up at the enchanter, “get me out of these.”
“Pushy, pushy, pushy,” Karile chided.
“Now!” Janir shouted.
“Alright, alright.” The enchanter knelt and began repeating the incantations over her shackles. After what seemed to be a very long time, the wrist irons snapped open.
“Do you know where we are?” Janir surveyed the beach, the sparse marsh grass, and the cedar trees.
Karile was about to giggle. “The Rivellis Peninsula.”
“But that was supposed to be still a day off,” Janir countered.
“Interesting things, storms,” Karile mused, “they move you in the water a lot faster than you expect.” Taking on an imitative air, Karile made his voice go much deeper. “Ride the worst storm in history, half drown, and save a day on travel. It’s that easy!”
“How cute,” Janir muttered. “Now take off Saoven’s,” She rubbed the raw skin where the irons had chafed red rings. Karile seemed about to protest, but a harsh glare silenced him and sent him back to work.
Saoven dreamily shook his head and massaged his wrists. “What happened?” the elf wondered, blinking in rapid succession.
“Just a little incantation I learned in Grimoire of the Ninth Era—how to find and get to shore in a storm.” Karile was proud to burst.
“From a forbidden library, no doubt,” Janir mumbled.
“Enchanter,” Saoven rose to his feet, pulling Janir up after him, “thank you.” Saoven ground out the words as if they had caused him pain.
Karile was practically preening. It had a way of lessening Janir’s gratitude.
She looked down to her toes, wiggling them in the sand. Unfortunately, her boots had been ripped off in the storm and now she was barefoot. Not that it was a total loss, they had become damaged and full of holes over the past weeks. A glance at her dress and leggings confirmed her suspicions. The skirt was in tatters and hung down in strips. As for the leggings, they had gaping holes all over. Her long sleeves were in ribbons, her bodice was clinging to her skin with damage here and there. Self consciously, she hugged her arms over her chest. She didn’t think she’d been this exposed in public before. Dame Selila would be scandalized.
Saoven and Karile seemed to have faired no better. They reminded her of something in one of the stories Armandius used to tell her about pirates. Only Karile’s shapeless, grungy garment was unscathed. Even though it had been violently washed in the sea, Janir still couldn’t tell whether the huge piece of clothing was a dirty gray or a faded brown.
“Why, you’re welcome, Goblin. You are much more appreciative than some people.” Karile glared suggestively at Janir.
“Thanks, Karile,” she amended.
The young enchanter rolled his eyes in disgust. “What is the world coming to?” he sighed, spreading his stick like arms for dramatic effect.
“We should be going,” Saoven interrupted.
“Why?” Karile squinted toward the sea, clueless.
Janir followed Saoven’s gaze back out across the water. At first she spotted nothing, then as she looked closer…several red shapes bobbed on the horizon.
Silent agreement passed between her and Saoven. They each grabbed an arm and dragged Karile into the trees. The enchanter protested, but they ignored him.
How had the beasts gotten through the storm? Perhaps they had swum around it or maybe they had just swum through it. Their stamina was astounding.
As the trees thickened behind them, Janir looked back. To her alarm, one was rising out of the waves not a hundred sword lengths offshore, clacking and hissing its fury. Its speech was barely audible above the splashing of waves and thudding of feet, but still she managed to make out a very distinct phrase in the jumble of noise.
“Come back, soft skins!”
Needless to say, none of them listened to it.
Cedar boughs whipped Janir’s face and snagged her dress, but she refused to slow. Thorns, stones, and sharp grasses tormented her bare feet with each step, but she pressed on. Saoven led the way, gripping one of Karile’s arms and dragging him through the dense brush.
If the elf had been alone, he could have melted into the trees without a sound and barely a motion. With these two, he had to charge through the forest like a warhorse, bending branches and leaving footprints. Janir had noticed that their path would be painfully clear to the trained senses of the mazag, so they had best flee as quickly as possible.
A crash met her ears as heavy limbs forced their way through the trees and the beasts roared. Karile had realized why they grabbed him and ran on his own, struggling to keep pace behind Saoven. Janir galloped after the enchanter and glanced over her shoulder in time to glimpse a red foreleg tearing aside a cedar. With a shudder, she did her best to run faster.
Her skirt tore on a stray branch and another scratched her face. The forest seemed to be holding her back, trying to catch her in a living snare.
Ahead, Saoven halted. An instant later, Janir realized the trees stopped and there was sunken ground below. Could there have been a gorge at any worse place?
Janir slowed behind Karile, but the clacking of the mazag conquered her reason. She bolted, flight instincts taking over completely. The enchanter, elf, and Argetallam collided with angry shouting and screams of terror as Janir realized how high up it was.
The trio tumbled down the steep and rocky slope, rolling head over heels. Karile said something that sounded similar to a last rites prayer. Saoven let off an indistinct shout. Janir was preoccupied trying to keep the loose rocks away from her head.
At the bottom, they lay there for a few moments. The world was spinning and doing cartwheels. Up was down and down was up.
Then Janir realized the loud clacking of a beast was directly overhead, that one of the huge creatures had already descended to their level and loomed above. It drew its head back, calculating. It sniffed the air contemplatively, then clacked a loud and clear message.
“You do not have the Key. All the better. I shall feast on your flesh!”
The mazag traced invisible patterns in the air with its whip tail, considering which one of them to eat first.
Why wasn’t Saoven doing something besides just lying there, staring at the beast? But at the same time, what else could he do?
The monster flicked its tongue at Karile, then Janir, then Saoven, sampling the air around them. Following Saoven’s led, Janir concentrated on remaining as still as she possibly could. The beast sniffed experimentally. For several agonizing moments, there was only the sinuous swish of the mazag’s tail and the thud of Janir’s heart in her ears.
Interrupting the agonizing stretch of silence, the faint hum of a flying insect wafted from the general direction of Karile. It buzzed around the enchanter’s head several times and then landed casually on his arm. Every fiber of Janir’s being tangled in that one insect’s movement. Karile jumped and swatted the fly as it bit him.
With a hiss and a final clack, the mazag eagerly snapped up Karile.
“No!” Janir cried, but it was too late. The mazag was already stuffing Karile head first between its four mandibles. Janir couldn’t bear to watch. She scrambled to Saoven and he pulled her to his side.
He gripped her hand and whispered, “There’s nothing we can do.”
Janir felt tears coming, but nodded. They were unarmed and there were three more of those creatures. Karile was lost.
Saoven scrambled to his feet and dragged her to the other side and out of the gorge, but another mazag blocked the way with its massive hulk. Then another and another. They were surrounded on all four sides by the beasts. No escape. Saoven positioned Janir behind him, which was the chivalrous thing, but wouldn’t do much good considering that there was one on each side. Sensing that their victory was nigh, the mazag clacked and clicked triumphantly.
“We will make your deaths slow…agonizing. For what you did to the Queen…to the Egg…”
Janir was certain this was the end when there came a suffocated wheezing from behind them. Janir glanced at the mazag with Karile’s flailing legs still visible from between its mandibles. The beast’s yellow eyes were bulging from its head, the inside flesh on its mandibles was purple.
“What is awry, Mazag Skeris?” one of the beasts clacked.
A straggled wheezing was the only response.
“The enchanter’s second skin seems to be blocking her throat!” clicked another.
The three mazag rushed to the side of their compatriot. Saoven gripped Janir’s hand again and hauled her quickly out of the draw into the line of trees. They crouched side by side behind a spiny bush to see if Karile might still have a chance.
“Spit it out, Mazag Skeris!”
“Use your tongue!”
“Breathe through your nostrils!”
The mazag, the one called Skeris, toppled sideways and began convulsing.
“I shall rip it out!” exclaimed one, leaning toward Karile’s kicking legs with open jaws.
“No! If you tear its legs off, we shall never remove it!” protested another.
“Then what shall I do?” demanded the rebuked mazag.
Obediently, the mazag who had been just standing there during this conversation, raised a webbed claw and struck Karile, driving him deeper into Mazag Skeris’ throat. Mazag Skeris’ eyes bulged even wider and its twitching became more rapid.
“You said to hit him!” the bystander protested.
“I meant Mazag Skeris, you imbecilic reptile! Hit her!” the leader clacked.
“Very well.” The second, the one who had threatened to rip off Karile’s legs, raised its claw above Mazag Skeris’ twitching head and slammed down.
By now Janir had begun to pity Mazag Skeris. It convulsed right before it went stiff with its legs sticking out at grotesque angles.
“Were both your eggs dropped down a waterfall?” the lead mazag demanded.
“Well, there was this one time…when I was still in my egg and—”
“Shut up! Hit him on the back!” the lead mazag clacked, pounding on Mazag Skeris with a vigor that could break bones and shatter skulls.
Even as she cringed at the sheer force of their poundings, Janir was thoroughly confused. Was Mazag Skeris a he or a she? Not even his—her—its kind seemed to have made up their minds.
Karile shot out of Mazag Skeris’ throat. He came back into the fading light of day with yellow slime coating his face and arms. He crashed in a moderately large collection of gorse shrubs, flopping into the greenery. Janir and Saoven rushed to the shrubs just as Karile landed with a thunk onto the ground and lay motionless as a dead rat.
Mazag Skeris desperately gasped for air with a pitiful wheezing. The other mazag fussed over their companion with concern, clicking and clacking in a crooning way.
“Karile!” Janir cried, shaking the enchanter’s shoulders desperately.
“Being digested…being digested…” he coughed.
“He’s still alive,” Saoven tersely announced, slinging the enchanter over one shoulder like the load of mostly useless luggage that he was.
With the beasts brooding over Mazag Skeris, the elf and Argetallam made their way through the forest as quickly as was possible when toting a limp enchanter. Janir didn’t know how long they ran. Soon all the forest looked the same, the scratches on her arms and face hardly felt any different. Rocks and sharp twigs stopped bothering her feet so much. The sound of the mazag faded into the distance and all she could hear was her and Saoven fleeing through the forest.
She raced ahead at Saoven’s instruction, turning where he told her to, but besides that she might just as well have been alone. The forest was a gnarled and knotted trap unto itself and Janir began to imagine it was trying to isolate and smother them in its maze.
Saoven motioned frantically. Janir looked ahead just in time to collide with a figure in chain mail. Lucan shoved her in the chest, sending her flat on her back into the coarse marsh grass.
“Did you actually think that you could escape me?” Lucan had several cuts, a black eye, and his tunic was ripped in places, but he still held that air of authority and command.
Four of the five remaining Argetallams were beside him. They also showed signs of wear and tear, but it seemed to have only made them more irritable than ever.
“I had my hopes,” Janir confessed.
“If you wanted to escape, you should have screamed less.” Lucan’s voice dripped contemptuous disregard. “Frankly, I am surprised you survived that.” He probably thought it could only be a feat of great mercy from the heavens. “I lost all the crew and one of my warriors.”
An Argetallam had hoisted Karile onto his shoulder, while two others stood on either side of Saoven.
“Is the enchanter alive?” Lucan demanded.
“Yes, my lord,” the warrior confirmed.
“Good, I shall need him.” Lucan glanced down at Janir with a malicious look she was all too familiar with. “Now,” Lucan grabbed her by the back of her collar, “let’s go treasure hunting.”
It had taken a few hours, but Lucan and his warriors found the Temple of Amatahns. Personally, Janir was beginning to think this Amatahns character rather pompous. Who would name both a Key to nearly limitless power and the temple holding that power after himself?
Tucked away amid the cedar and spruce, the temple was an imposing square pyramid with smaller levels receding to the top. It had been out of view from the beach, but now it loomed above them like a force of nature unto itself.
Lucan kicked away the cobwebs at the door and marched inside, leading the way with a torch provided by one of his men. Inside, the temple was stark and flat and achingly empty. Lucan kept his chin up, acting as if he were fearless, but Janir didn’t see how that was possible. There was something about the sheer emptiness of the place that sent pinpricks along her spine.
Shuffled along by the Argetallam warriors, Janir and the others followed for an untold time within the walls. The enchanter awakened after a while and Lucan kept on demanding information of him. It seemed the young enchanter had a great deal more pertinent knowledge than Janir had realized.
Karile would tell Lucan whatever it was the Argetallam wanted to know after a bit of prompting. As they passed a curious mosaic of a flaxen haired girl for the third time, Lucan had become suspicious and threatened to use the karkaton on Karile if he didn’t stop stalling. For all his bravado, Karile did not take much convincing after that.
One of Lucan’s warriors shoved Janir forward as Lucan again commanded them to press on. Into the temple they went with Saoven under careful watch from two of the Argetallams while the fourth trailed behind, guarding their flank from who knew what.
At first Janir thought she was imagining it, but the deeper they went, more greenish white lights glowed from between the cracks in the stone. It was a sickly green, like the color of a pond’s floor.
Janir remembered all too well what had been inside the last cavern she blundered into and her imagination was hard at work, seeming to conjure a thousand new ideas with every step.
Maybe there was nothing bad in this cave, she told herself. Perhaps she had just been unlucky that day and entered the only cave in all of Brevia that had monsters in it. Perhaps today they would be more fortunate.
Then she glanced toward the front of their little column and her brother rigidly holding a karkaton just below Karile’s ear. On second thought, the luckiest thing that could happen right then and there would have been for a fiend with huge teeth to spring from the stone and gobble down Lucan and the other Argetallams.
As they rounded yet another bend, they came to a place where the ground dropped into a shallow staircase. No lights glowed from the passage and even Lucan hesitated a moment before striding into the shadows with Karile still in his grasp. The stairs were so long that Janir had to take several steps before she arrived at the next drop. The Argetallams marched wordlessly behind her. Saoven wore a grim face.
“What’s wrong? I mean, besides the obvious,” Janir whispered in an undertone.
“I know what this place is.” His sober nature was doing nothing to improve her morale.
The Argetallams scowled and one of them shoved her shoulder. “No talking.”
Saoven graciously caught and steadied her again. “It is a fortress,” he said as their heads came closer together.
Janir swallowed. “Then what happened the guards?” She remembered the mazag caverns all too well. What if a horror such as that lurked in these halls?
Lucan stopped abruptly and Janir plowed into him. He shoved her to the floor, but she scrambled up as quickly as she could without remark. Truth be told, she was embarrassed at how often Saoven kept helping her.
Lucan stood still as the stone walls around them, staring straight ahead. With the caution earned by the past few weeks, Janir carefully peered around Lucan’s shoulder.
“Damn it,” muttered one of the Argetallams and several others added more profane words to the mix.
They had reached a place where the shallow stairs finally stopped and gave way to a flat surface of stone. Before them, a shaft of white light had penetrated the darkness and was shining on the most alarming sight Janir had seen since entering the temple.
Standing just behind a rounded arch without moving, was a knight, fully armored in the obsolete style of overlarge, massive pieces. Rather than make use of chainmail for better mobility, the armor was all plates and buckles. Not even the slightest trace of a surcoat or leather jerkin was to be seen—just steel and iron.
His visor was sealed shut like the gate to a forbidden realm. Looking closely, Janir couldn’t discern even the slightest trace of eye slits on the helm. That wasn’t likely, she must have missed them.
A lone sentinel, the knight stood with his legs spread apart in battle position and a huge halberd clenched in his gauntlets. The axe was nearly the same size as its wielder and styled a wicked spike on the back that reminded Janir of a giant steel thorn. Like the knight’s armor, it glittered with polishing, waiting thirstily for its next victim’s blood.
Lucan stared at the knight with as much bewilderment as she did. “Who are you?” Lucan demanded in his haughtiest tone.
Not a word. Even the slight draft that had been in the stairway seemed to have frozen.
Viciously, Lucan shoved Karile in the direction of one of the warriors. The Argetallam caught Karile in an iron grasp, eyeing the suit of armor with as much suspicion as the rest of them.
Lucan carefully approached the motionless knight. Flicking out the other karkaton from his belt, her brother did not let his guard down for a second. The knight didn’t move as Lucan eased up to his right side, the side opposite the huge axe blade. Standing so close that he could have heard the knight breathing, Lucan gingerly raised one of the karkaton and tapped on the helmet.
The echo was hollow, empty. Just a suit of armor with no knight inside.
Lucan malignantly kicked one of the massive greaves and the whole suit went crashing to the ground. Smaller pieces clattered away and the larger ones just lay there in a miniature cloud of dust, still as they had been before.
One by one, their company stepped around the heap of armor, into the passage that the empty armor knight had been so faithfully guarding. Down they went into the stuffy shadows—deeper and deeper into wherever the passages took them—the heart of a mountain? Under the sea by now?
They were lost. There was no doubt about it. Lucan hadn’t cursed for the space of several minutes and was glancing around each part in the tunnels with a desperation he was trying very hard to hide.
Finally, Lucan noticed everyone else’s dragging feet. Or maybe he felt that his point was made and he could let them rest. Whatever the case, when the tunnels widened out a little, he ordered a halt.
They lit a fire in the middle of the corridor. It seemed that the Argetallams had brought the tools and fuel to make bright, slow burning blazes with them.
Starting a fire that far underground might not have been Lucan’s most brilliant idea, but no one questioned him. The Argetallams held their tongues because after the skiff they knew better than to do otherwise and the others because they were afraid of losing theirs.
Janir curled on the stone, leaning against the wall with Karile on one side and Saoven on the other. It was becoming their usual arrangement. The fire danced and played with shadows on the stone. These walls probably hadn’t seen such light for ages and now seemed to make the most of it.
Lucan posted a sentinel at either end of their makeshift camp, one to guard each opening into the tunnels. For the first time, Lucan seemed confused and lost from his place on the other side of the fire. Things must not be going quite as planned.
Clattering echoed from the passages where they had come from. Every head snapped in that direction as the sound faded and the tunnels fell silent.
“It’s nothing,” Lucan snapped, when he spotted the uneasy expressions of his companions. “It’s just a draft rattling that suit of armor.” If he was unsettled by the noise, he gave no sign. By all appearances, he couldn’t have cared less as he lounged easily on the ground. For all his cruelty, Janir’s brother had nerves of steel.
Janir stared into the soothing fire and huddled closer between Saoven and Karile. Out of the corner of her eye, the patterns of the fire glinted off Lucan’s dagger—the one he had used to cut the sailor’s throat. It was actually quite pretty in the firelight. The light also glinted off several odds and ends lying about—the buckles on Lucan’s boots, the knives at the belt of an Argetallam, the armor of one of the posted guards.
But…the guards didn’t have that kind of armor.
Janir wanted to scream as she spotted the knight, or rather the supposedly empty suit of armor, standing there before them where the guard had been only two seconds ago. Now the Argetallam lay in a red heap, soundlessly murdered. The axe was bloody and the knight or whatever it was, seemed to be staring at Lucan.
“Son of a…” Lucan sprang to his feet like a startled wolf and his warriors leapt to attention.
Before Janir and the enchanter could jump up, Saoven caught them and pulled them back down, holding a finger to his lips. She didn’t realize she’d clutched Saoven’s shoulder until the cloth of his tunic was digging into her hand.
Now she fully understood the phrase “frozen in terror.” She couldn’t move, couldn’t even squeak. Lucan jutted out his jaw with a defiant air.
“You were a fool to come alone.” Lucan flicked out one of Janir’s karkaton, jaw tightening with menace. He truly did seem unable to show anything but confidence and anger. “Not only for coming, but for annoying me. I am going to take immense pleasure in killing you.”
A voice emitted from the helmet. A low, tortured voice, a voice of ages, a voice of war, of suffering. “Unfortunately for you,” the voice said. “I died eons ago.”
“Wh—” Lucan never got to finish his question.
“Many have entered, none shall leave!” that horrible voice passionately shouted. He—it—charged the Argetallams.
There was shouting, the shriek of karkaton, and the clash as karkaton met axe and axe struck stone. Saoven grabbed Janir and Karile, pulling them toward him and shielding them as best he could.
Everything was chaos and confusion and then there was a deafening wail and everything went silent.
Lucan had managed somehow to cram one of the karkaton between the creature’s visor and helmet. As the creature collapsed, there was no scream, no flash of light, no roar of earsplitting sound. The suit of armor simply crumpled to the ground and fell apart as it had before, a soft golden glow emitting from the scattered parts.
The golden glow grew brighter and wafted up from the heap of armor like smoke from a fire. Expecting something horrible to happen, Janir braced herself for the inevitable. Her imagination said it might possess all of them and turn them into suits of armor like itself or something along those lines, but it just drifted into the air and dissipated.
Lucan checked his three remaining warriors. With brusque efficiency, he had them cover the body of their fallen comrade.
Janir threw her gaze away from the gore of the fourth. Even though she could feel Lucan’s disapproval at her squeamishness, she couldn’t bring herself to care what he thought. Though he might have been her enemy and one of her captors, she couldn’t believe the mortahn had deserved to die like that.
Lucan must have been unnerved by the empty suit of armor incident as he commanded them to get up and march on—doubtless to get it over with. Apparently, he would not consider turning around and leaving this wretched place as a solution.
Invigorated by fear, Janir no longer felt weary. Karile had taken to whipping his head around to stare at anything even the least bit incongruous. Lucan now walked with both karkaton in his hands and his every motion was made cautiously. After seeing their friend bloodily murdered, the Argetallam warriors were no better, herding Janir and Saoven on with karkaton unsheathed and at the ready.
No one could say how far they trudged through the shadows. None could remember how many times Karile stubbed his toe on stone steps or Lucan urged them to move faster. They might have marched through the empty halls for hours or minutes. Several times, Lucan halted their party and listened intently, then, deciding it had been nothing, continued on. It hardly mattered. If there were more of those things about, if there was an army, Janir preferred not to think of it.
The tunnels gave way to a simple arch, a sudden change taking into account the boxy design so far. Light bled from the other side, well lit, but not blinding.
Janir stumbled out of the tunnels into the largest room she had ever imagined possible. A kind of bridge spanned the colossus. Straight ahead, on the other side, Janir spotted a distant iron gate barring the way onwards into the earth. She wasn’t sure how Lucan intended to get past that, but her attention was quickly drawn elsewhere.
Knights, or suits of armor, just like the one Lucan had fought, legions upon legions of them, lined the inside of the huge room. They stood on shelf like crevices staggered back from the ceiling, seeming to rise into eternity. All around them, these scores of silent sentinels stared off into space with weapons at the ready, helmets facing straight ahead. Some of them were so far away, Janir could barely make out their shapes.
Leaves in a forest of iron and stone, they covered the walls of the gigantic chamber. Glancing about made Janir dizzy. It made her feel her own sheer smallness.
“You asked where the guards were, Janir,” Saoven whispered. “I think we just found the barracks.”
It did appear to be a barracks of sorts, one in which each soldier took up no more space than he did standing. Again, she was swept away by the sheer number of them, there must have been at least tens of thousands!
“Do you think they’re going to attack?” Janir nervously asked.
“No. Not likely. They probably have not moved for entire eras.” Saoven surveyed the seemingly endless number of knights.
“There was that one who just tried to kill us,” Karile indignantly pointed out. “How long since he last moved?”
“Stop talking!” Lucan hissed, marching on toward the end of the bridge and the next tunnel. “According to you, enchanter, the chamber is somewhere around here, and we are going to find it!”
For all their fierce reputation, Janir noticed the Argetallams shooting anxious glances up at the scores of soldiers. They were probably thinking what she was—that if those things did attack, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
It seemed to take forever to reach the other end of the bridge. It never looked to be getting any closer. About halfway out, Janir happened to glance behind her.
“Saoven?” Janir choked. “Were those knights there before?”
“I said no talking!” Lucan whirled around to behold three of the suits of armor, or whatever they were, standing by the mouth of the last tunnel. For the first time since they had been eight years old, Janir saw fear, unmistakable fear, in Lucan’s eyes.
Lucan thought for a moment. He didn’t contemplate long. “Bloody nuisance, that’s what they are,” he growled. “Be gone! The chamber is mine and nothing will keep me from it!”
At first nothing happened. Lucan stood there, glaring defiantly toward the suits of armor, refusing to be intimidated. The Argetallams clenched their karkaton and eyed the suits with suspicion. Karile moved closer to Janir. Janir moved closer to Saoven.
No one spoke. They hardly even breathed.
Then, like the shuffling of a multitude of scales, there came a clanking as all of the knights became animated as one.
“What’s happening?” Janir gasped.
The knights were turning sideways and mobilizing. The deafening noise of countless pairs of metal feet clanging on stone filled the massive cavern. They marched in segregated units, perfectly together, heading double file for cramped entrances at each level, doors so narrow they had been unnoticeable before. Even the triad at the mouth of the tunnel began advancing in rhythm to the steps of the others. Not a word was whispered among them, there was just dutiful, wordless marching.
It was very different to the silent movements they had displayed before—perhaps it was because they no longer had need for stealth. Anyone with eyes knew full well that the intruders were trapped.
“What’s happening?” Janir repeated, now scared out of her wits.
“I think…” Karile shouted above the clamor, barely audible. “I think that your brother just declared war on a whole bunch of empty suits of armor. Should we be running?”
Lucan and his remaining warriors shoved the gate at the far end of the bridge. After wrestling it open, they were now struggling to close it again. ‘Closed’ might have been the wrong word, they more dragged, grappled, and fought with it. Time was running out. The thousands of heavily armed shades were headed straight for them.
As the nearest line of empty armor knights neared, the heavy iron door began to eek shut. Janir joined the others in shoving it along as quickly as they could. It had to have been at least a sword length of solid metal fixed on hinges the size of saddles.
“Slab of Dwarvish scrap!” Saoven grunted, shoving as hard as he could.
So dwarves had made the huge wall of metal that was their only hope, Janir mused with mild interest. Perhaps that meant it would hold against the oncoming horde.
She drove her shoulder into it, straining with every ounce of her body to make it move. She braced her bare feet on the stone floor and threw her back against the iron, staring up at the top just to be sure it was moving.
With all of them fighting to close the enormous hulk, it swung shut at an agonizingly slow pace. Karile stood to the side, encouraging them like a spectator at a tournament.
“You’re moving! You’re moving! Just a few more sword lengths to go before it’s shut!” he cheered.
They wrested the gate closed just as the first axe struck. The pounding of dozens of blades on the massive iron door thudded rhythmically, like drums before an execution. The creatures on the other side would bring it down if it took years. Something told her they were not the kind of creatures that gave up or backed down.
It was a very thick gate, Janir reminded herself. It would take them days to dent their way through or so she fervently hoped. Karile pointed and pretended to give instructions while Saoven and the others were shoving bolts in place. As for Janir, she mostly just got in the way.
Funny how everyone was suddenly friends—however briefly—under pain of gory death. They were all panting from the run across the bridge, which had seemed like it would never end. Lucan was doubled over, leaning against the door and looking just a little frightened.
They were in a hall crafted of limestone. Lights seeped from under the cracks in the stone and around the pillars. Their source wasn’t clear. The pillars went on for about six rows and then a rectangular doorway led into what appeared to be a copy of this chamber.
Strange markings—hieroglyphs and characters of an antique language—decorated the stone of the pillars and walls. The tiny pictures must have had meaning, if anyone had cared to stop and contemplate them.
“Come,” Lucan snapped, straightening his back. “We must move on.” As an Argetallam grabbed each of the captives and followed after Lucan, he marched without any apparent fears or concerns. Yet he must have been afraid. He would know as well as her that they most likely had no other escape from this underground labyrinth. How did he keep it so well hidden?
On they went, past the rows of pillars and to the end of the broad passage. Within a few moments they had stopped behind Lucan as he paused to take in the spectacle before them—Janir had been wrong, this room was very different from the first.
Low pillars lined the inside of the rounded chamber, supporting the bottom edges of a soaring dome above them. The smaller, lower ring around the outskirts of the ceiling were lined with drawings and small columns plastered with mosaics. In the center of the dome, on a slightly raised terrace, stood the prize of this whole quest.
The chamber—constructed of the purest, clearest crystal, about the height of a man and just big enough for one to stand inside. It sparkled like a lake in the moonlight, glistened like the sea under stars. Inside the thin walls, the pale outline of delicate crystal cogs shimmered faintly.
Even Lucan stared in awe at the perfect, pristine sight. The chamber was flawlessly and seamlessly crafted from a single piece of quartz to contain the greatest power known to man. On the side that faced them, there was an empty space, just the right size for the Key of Amatahns.
Instead of stepping up the terrace and inserting the Key where it was meant to go, Lucan barked a quick command to his warriors. They scattered to opposite ends of the circular chamber and reported back to him with exactly the same words. “No way out, my lord.”
Now what were they going to do? Locked in a room with only one way out and empty armor knights blocking them in, what could they do?
Lucan seemed to consider it a minor obstacle. He glanced to the gate they had sealed. He sat nonchalantly on the edge of the crystal chamber’s terrace. Drawing his dagger, he began running a smooth stone over the edge to sharpen the blade.
“My lord.” The Argetallams looked confusedly to one another. “My lord, what would you have us do?”
Lucan calmly ran the whetstone over his dagger. The blade rasped to almost the same cadence as the pounding at the gate. “Watch and wait, men. Watch and wait.”
His tone said he knew what he was doing. The Argetallams seemed to believe it, though Janir was not so convinced.
She decided not to question him, as she suspected the drawn dagger was a warning, and retreated to Karile and Saoven. The two of them had been left unguarded since coming through the iron gate. What would they do? Argetallams were the only ones who seemed able to kill the empty armor knights and the two of them had no weapons to fight their captors anyway.
“What are you doing?” Janir asked.
Karile was tracing his fingers over the small pictures and Saoven was peering curiously at a section not far from her. They all stayed close together, distancing themselves as much as they could from the Argetallams, though they were still under watch. Janir could feel the stern gazes of the mortahns on her back.
“Reading them,” Karile replied.
“Learning what the empty suits of armor are,” Saoven murmured absently.
Janir was silent for several seconds. Neither the enchanter nor the elf offered explanation, so she interrupted them again. “What are they?”
“It’s complicated,” Karile weakly answered after a space of hesitation. Both of them went on reading.
“We have time,” Janir said, folding her arms across her chest.
Karile shrugged. “They’re ghosts. Does that answer your question?”
“Do you know the story of Amatahns?” Saoven asked.
Janir shook her head. “I thought I did.”
The tales she had heard involved a great enchanter who saved the world from eternal damnation. People said that a dark army had arisen from the sands of Stlaven and come to engulf all the lands in shadows and from there it depended on the version. Some stories turned the enchanter into a romantic hero in love with a predictably beautiful young woman whose name and origin changed as often as not. Others said he was the celibate epitome of goodness, born free of evil and pure of heart.
Then there was a whole plethora of versions that fell somewhere in between. She had heard him described as a scholar, warrior, enchanter, king, shepherd, and nearly every combination of the lot.
It all depended greatly on who was telling the story—a poet in the employ of an unhappily married noblewoman, a bard singing for his supper in a tavern, or a monk in one of the Enchanter Temples. Nonetheless, there had been nothing about Keys or empty armor knights in any of the versions Janir had heard.
“It’s like this,” Karile began, making it sound as if he was doing her a huge favor. Then he went into an explanation that Saoven often corrected.
As far as Janir could discern, the empty suits of armor had once been real knights, they were an entire army in fact. The soldiers who fought in the wars against the mazag all those years ago—which explained the outdated style. The mazag had been wiser then, great philosophers and scholars. They had possessed kinds of magic that had been lost since their collapse, for their entire existence relied on magic.
Janir found it hard to imagine the beasts from the caverns as architects or teachers, but for the sake of the story, she didn’t argue. She’d never heard this particular version of history, but she was in an open minded humor after the past months.
According to her friends, the mazag had inhabited most of what she knew as Brevia and Stlaven, built magnificent cities and temples and lived with the other three races in peace for eons.
They were the Father Creator’s guardian race. It was their duty to be spiritual and moral authorities, to lead and guide the other races. Then came the Bane Wars. No one could quite agree why, but the mazag and most the other chief races (“Dwarves, mortals, and elves,” Saoven interjected. “Trolls have seldom concerned themselves with wars.” ) fought for supremacy over the lands.
During the times of peace, the mazag had taught much of their arts to a young mortal named Amatahns. Amatahns naturally sided with his people when the war broke out, a series of conflicts that lasted for a decade before it happened. With his former teachers inflicting great damages in battle, the enchanter feared for the future of his race.
So Amatahns decided to negate the mazag’s greatest weapon—their magic. He and several enchanters from the three allied races, took a number of children from among their people. At Amatahns’ instruction, they conducted terrible and forbidden spells on these children, using instruments since destroyed (“The Creon,” Saoven supplied) to change them. Many died, but one—a mortal boy by the name of Drell—survived.
For years, the enchanters relentlessly altered Drell until the process was completed. They used the magic of the allied races to create a being that would be invincible against magic, what they called “the Invulnerable.” Or in their ancient tongue, “Argetallam.” Brought into existence to be savior to a mostly defeated army, he was both their champion and slave.
Using Drell’s memories of intense torture and pain, they constructed weapons for him. These they called the “karkaton,” made from Drell’s blood, the scales of a werewarg, and the tears of a griffin, melted down into rods.
“This appears to be some manner of record,” Saoven decided. “Highly detailed. This might even be the birthplace of the Invulnerables. It would have been a city in the Bane Wars.” He looked pensive, touching a string of symbols at eye level. “It’s common knowledge amongst most enchanters and elves that Amatahns and the other enchanters created the first Argetallam, but we have never been certain where…”
“I never heard this story.” Whether it was common knowledge or not, Janir’s tutor—who had left several years ago—had never made mention of these particular tales and he had been a notably thorough teacher, Armandius had seen to it that she had the best learning there was to be had.
Karile wasn’t interested in discussing the tale’s obscurity. He plowed on with the story.
Dismayed at the mazag’s behavior toward those they were supposed to protect, the Father Creator allowed Drell and Amatahns to take away the mazag’s knowledge and wisdom and seal their magic in the chamber. After that, the mazag were chased out of Brevia and into the caves and mountains to live as beasts. Knowing that they had once had knowledge, that it had been taken from them, and remembering that their own student’s creation had been their downfall, they were to live in regret and shame for eternity.
Realizing that someone would need to protect the chamber, Amatahns imprisoned the souls of the warriors who had fought in the Bane Wars into their suits of armor and set them up in a grand temple, where they would stay bound to protect it until the end of time, when the stars rained from the heavens. Amatahns then disappeared. Some said he sailed across the sea where he felt that he was needed, but either way, he vanished from history.
“Then what happened?” Janir pressed.
“What do you mean? I’ve told you.” Karile was on the defensive for whatever reason.
“What happened to Drell?”
“That is rather simple,” Saoven interjected. “The generals and kings had no use for him after the war and cast him out. He returned to the farmlands of his home, raised an impressive family of thirteen children, and died in obscurity.”
“You mean…everyone just forgot him?”
“Until two or three generations later, when it was discovered that all his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren had his same abilities, yes,” Saoven confirmed.
“Why did that happen? Did Amatahns intend for the…trait to be hereditary?”
“I believe it was just a quirk in the magic and that he didn’t even consider it,” Saoven replied. “Drell’s children seem to have simply gained a version of his powers that was more potent and powerful than anything mankind had caused prior.”
“You have so much to learn,” Lucan muttered from his place on the terrace. “Ignorant little thing that you are,” he scoffed. Janir hadn’t realized he could hear them and from their quick glances, Saoven and Karile hadn’t either.
Janir found that the thought of facing inevitable death at the blades of empty armor knights granted her an undue amount of courage. “And I will live to learn it, will I?” she snapped.
“Of course.” Lucan slid his dagger back into its sheath. “And you will learn the rest of what was left lacking in your education, sister dear.” With that cryptic statement, Lucan pushed off the terrace and went to converse with his men, leaving Janir confused and far from reassured.
Lucan and his Argetallams ate something unrecognizable, the color of dirt with black flecks. It must have been bread. None of the other three were offered any and none of them asked. Their group settled on the floor around the crystal chamber for an effort at rest. It seemed no one knew for sure what they should do now, despite Lucan’s display of certainty.
The stone was dusty with countless years of residue and Karile sneezed like a cat in a flour mill. Saoven was across from her, sound asleep by appearances. But she suspected that he was just pretending to make her and Karile feel better. He looked more peaceful when he was truly asleep.
The enchanter was undoubtedly deep in slumber, his usual porcine sounds caused Lucan to glare groggily at him from the terrace steps. She feared Lucan might do something such as throw that dagger, so she kicked the enchanter until he stopped.
Janir couldn’t close her eyes even though they were heavy as bricks. The sound of the empty armor knights pounding on the gate kept her sharply awake. It was also uncomfortably luminous, for better or for worse, the lights never faded or changed though it must still be dark above ground.
A piercing, sharp noise rattled the air and shook the ground. Janir bolted upright along with everyone else to behold in terror a blade sticking through the iron door. Soon countless axes and swords were shoving their way through, making the hole in the door bigger and bigger. They cut through the iron as if it were tough leather or wood—what manner of magic endowed those weapons?
Within seconds, the hole was widened enough to let a body through. A knight clattered to the ground, lay still for a moment, then rose forebodingly to his feet and began marching toward them. The opening was still not large enough to let more than one through at a time and the others were preoccupied trying to shove past one another, but that wasn’t going to last.
“On me,” Lucan said calmly, drawing Janir’s karkaton and motioning for his warriors to take up positions at his sides. Leaving his sister and the others behind, he strode decisively toward the shade.
Saoven gathered Janir and Karile to the side of the room and edged them behind him. Janir peered over his shoulder nervously, afraid to watch and yet at the same time unable to look away.
The knight seemed locked on her brother, holding a giant spear expertly with both hands. Lucan made straight for the creature and feinted to the right to draw the knight’s attention. It worked. The huge hulk veered to the left to jab in Lucan’s direction.
As a distraction, one of the Argetallams rushed the knight, aiming for the back of its neck with his karkaton. It took one swipe with a spear and the man was lying on the ground gasping for air. It hadn’t even struck with the end, but the creature was strong enough to take the proud warrior down all the same.
A disgusted sound escaped Janir’s brother as he dodged the spear head again. Holding his side, the downed Argetallam staggered to his feet to rejoin his comrades as they tried to find an opening with the creature.
Like a harpoon toward a fish, the spear stabbed in Lucan’s direction again. He knocked it off course with his karkaton and it embedded its tip in the stone. The knight spun around faster than he should have and jabbed another Argetallam in the middle of the chest with the butt of the spear.
That Argetallam went down without ever landing a strike and laid still on the ground. Janir gasped in shock and horror, realizing that the fiend had just struck hard enough to stop the man’s heart.
Choking on fear, Janir watched Lucan repeatedly feint from side to side, dodging the head of the spear with a practiced precision. He was a good fighter, that much was clear.
At the far end of the hall, more knights began trying to force their way through the cleft in the gate. Saoven edged her and Karile back farther, as if it would do any good when the fiends came. Even if Lucan and his warriors managed to best the one that had already broken through, there were legions beyond that door.
One of Lucan’s mortahns dove at the knight this time to be met with a heavily armored elbow in the face. The force of the blow left him supine on the floor, staring up at the vaulted ceiling of the temple.
Argetallams were great warriors, Janir knew that. They were feared and revered and famed—yet this creature managed to keep four of them at bay on its own. She was beginning to wonder how Lucan had managed to kill the first.
Janir pulled her gaze from the shapes clamoring at the door to see Lucan make a slight error and stumble. Frantically, he tried to rise but was too late. The spear found its mark this time and buried itself in Lucan’s side. He cried out and clenched the shaft whilst the knight ruthlessly rammed him against the pillar, driving the spear deeper.
Resolving not to fail this time, Lucan’s Argetallams dove at the knight again. With his back exposed, they made short work of cramming the tips of four karkaton deep between the plates of his armor. He shuddered, and crumpled to the ground in shambles, various pieces clattering this way and that.
With the knight at last defeated, his warriors knelt beside Lucan. His face was contorted into an expression of agony and he gripped the part of the spear that was still outside him. Janir wondered if that was what Drell had looked like, all those years ago, when he had been undergoing the transformation from farm boy to Argetallam—a small child in huge pain.
“Elf!” snarled one of his warriors. “Elf!”
Saoven reluctantly strode toward the wounded Argetallam prince. Though he tried to keep her back, Janir stayed right on his heels. Her instincts refused to let her become separated from him again.
In spite of a thousand reasons to the contrary, it bothered her to see Lucan suffering. She hovered over Saoven’s shoulder as he knelt by the boy’s side.
“It has gone deep,” Saoven surmised, carefully examining the wound. “But I think it missed the main arteries and organs.”
“Pull it out,” Lucan pleaded, sounding for the first time desperate and weak. He was pale and blood leeched slowly down his side in small rivulets.
Saoven shook his head. “If I do—”
“Pull it out!” Lucan cried. With a stifled whimper, he leaned back against the pillar.
“You will bleed out. There is no way of stopping the blood—”
“Janir!” Lucan shoved a karkaton in her direction. “Get over here, girl.”
Hesitantly, Janir took the black rod. Lucan let go of it the instant her fingers made contact.
“You can stop the bleeding.”
Realization dawned over Saoven, but the girl still didn’t understand.
Janir shook her head. “I don’t—”
“Pull it out,” Lucan repeated, clamping a hand on Janir’s shoulder. “In this state, anyone else’s rod would kill me. Hurry!”
A loud clatter alerted them to the advance of more empty armor knights and Saoven made the decision. With a hard yank, he tore the spearhead free. For a moment Janir saw the white of bones before blood welled over the wound. Lucan gasped and cried out, his hand tightening like a vice on her shoulder.
He squeezed her so hard Janir wanted to scream herself. Saoven grabbed her wrist and drove the karkaton deep into Lucan’s wound, at least three inches.
A shrieking wail split the hall along with the screams of Lucan. His Argetallam warriors leapt to hold him down as the harrowing wails rang through the hall. The sharp stench of burning flesh sliced into her nostrils.
Janir wanted to stop, she ached to stop. The look of pure torment on Lucan’s face was too much to bear, but Saoven held her hand in place. When she was finally allowed to pull away, Lucan was pale and breathing heavily, all but two steps from the grave.
Janir shuddered and shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Ignoring her, Lucan staggered to his feet with the help of his Argetallams. He had remarkable resilience. Another knight was already fitting through the opening in the door and Lucan was scrambling not to be near when it came through.
Although he instinctively tried to shove her away, Lucan had to submit to letting Janir support his shoulder as he slowly trudged back to the other end of the crystal chamber. Perhaps it was guilt that drove her to help him, it felt like guilt.
One of the other Argetallams supported Lucan as he picked up her second rod—which he had dropped when he was stabbed. She felt a flicker of resentment as he claimed it and thrust it into his belt.
“Karkaton,” her brother hoarsely barked. “Now.”
The scorching glares of the other Argetallams warned what would happen if she didn’t comply. Janir dropped the rod she held into his open hand. He snatched it and stuffed it in alongside its twin, tanned face turning a sickly shade of white. Janir found herself with the powerful urge to take the karkaton back, but she waited for now.
“Elf, help him to the terrace,” ordered the Argetallam warrior who seemed to have taken Camak’s place.
Saoven obeyed, thought probably more for Janir’s sake than her brother’s or the other Argetallam’s. As soon as Saoven was supporting Lucan’s weakened frame, the Argetallam rushed to join his last remaining counterpart in meeting the oncoming wave of empty armor knights. They did not even need the command.
Janir and Saoven reached the lower terrace of the crystal chamber and they laid Lucan down gently, far gentler than he deserved. Karile and Saoven looked on with a kind of quiet disapproval.
In the back of her mind, Janir remembered the things he had done to her and other people. She remembered how cruel and ruthless he could be, yet she couldn’t stand to see him suffer.
Lucan submitted to her help with weakened resolve, still making sure he glared at her whenever he got the chance.
Janir looked back at the empty armor knights. Six of them had broken through now and they were marching uniformly toward the Argetallams. They met with the shriek of karkaton and the clang of metal. Within seconds, blood had been drawn. Drastically outnumbered, they didn’t stand a chance.
“Ideas—quickly!” Karile squeaked. “Climb the walls or play dead or—something!”
“The chamber,” Saoven said. “There must be some way to subdue them, yes?”
“Lucan!” Janir gripped his shoulder. “What do we do?”
“I have failed,” Lucan moaned. “I failed Lord Father. I failed my people.”
“What are we going to do?” Janir cast about in vain, trying to think of anything even remotely useful.
“I failed,” Lucan murmured.
Janir glanced again to the increasing number of empty armor knights nearing them at a steady pace. Only one Argetallam remained on his feet and he wasn’t going to last long. Despite everything, his courage was undeniable as he faced certain death. His companions already lay in sickening piles of blood and limbs on the ground. Janir couldn’t look and she couldn’t watch.
“What are we to do?” she demanded, spinning on Karile. She expected him to have answers or perhaps she was just looking for someone to blame. The enchanter had gotten them here, in a fair world, he should get them out. If only they lived in a fair world.
“I don’t know,” Karile said, shrinking back as panic bled into his words. “I don’t know, I—”
“I failed,” Lucan whispered again. Then a hard iciness filled him, a determination. “But I will not die in vain.”
Fighting to reach it, Lucan grabbed his pack from its place at the edge of the terrace. He rummaged through it for a moment and pulled out the Key of Amatahns, which Janir had not seen since the mountains.
With an admirable amount of will, Lucan staggered up the terrace steps to the crystal chamber. Janir, Saoven, and Karile lingered close by, not sure if they should trust him but having few other options.
“What are you doing?” Saoven tensed, ready to attack Lucan with his bare hands if need be.
Lucan didn’t answer and the last Argetallam mortahn let off a ferocious battle cry that was abruptly silenced. Janir didn’t have to look to know the man was dead and the empty armor knights were closing in. She swallowed bile in her throat along with an odd feeling of guilt.
“What are you going to do?” Janir panted, casting a fearful look to the advancing horde. Her brother ignored her.
As Lucan brought the Key closer to its place in the chamber’s side, an excited silvery light shone from the chamber and there was a faint whirring. The chamber sensed its missing piece was close. Lucan unceremoniously crammed the Key into the slot.
There was a flurry of light inside the chamber and a thrill of sound. The chamber door swung open. Mist swirled and seeped out the bottom.
Even after all the death around her and being faced with it herself in the near future, Janir was struck by the beauty of the sight. The crystal glistened like a lake in the moonlight or the fog of early dawn. Forgetting that the power inside could kill her or that the empty armor knights were about to, she just stood there staring.
Lucan seized her arm. “I may have failed to bring back the magic contained herein, but I will not fail to see that no one will ever be able to use it. And I will not fail to make certain that you die with me.”
Before Janir realized what happened, Lucan shoved her into the chamber, slammed the crystal door shut, and removed the Key. To make sure that neither Saoven or Karile could rescue her, Lucan tossed the Key into the oncoming horde. Within moments, it was trampled under the heavy armored feet of the dozens of empty arms knights swarming into the hall.
Janir fruitlessly pounded on the door. She kicked all four sides of the chamber and threw her weight into each in turn. As delicate and dainty as the walls appeared, they held firmly as folded steel.
Saoven and Karile shoved Lucan aside as the knights drew closer, thinking only of freeing their friend. They clawed and kicked at the door, trying to pry it open.
Janir fought to break out, but it was useless. She was trapped, she was going to die, and Saoven and Karile were, too. She couldn’t do anything but stare wide eyed at the steadily advancing line of empty armor knights, so utterly helpless she hated herself.
Saoven laid a hand on the chamber, panic written over every line of his face. No sound came through the crystal, but she made out her name on his lips. “Janir!”
Then it started.
Pain, agony, torture—those three words rang through her head as the wisps of blue mist descended from the top of the chamber to pierce her body.
Something hard and sharp drove through her ears, her eyes, her belly, neck, and back. Rods forced through her head down to her legs and from every other angle imaginable. From above and sideways they rammed their way into her flesh like sharp, iron worms.
No matter how she fought to claw and grab, she couldn’t pull the rods out or even touch them. They weren’t tangible, they were magic—the worst and most wretched kind of magic.
Janir screamed, but no sound came, or if it did it was drowned out by the horrible ringing that stabbed at her ears. She was sure something was in her chest, a hand or a claw, and it was crushing—not her heart, but something else.
Blinded with pain, Janir doubled over and pressed against the glass. In a vain attempt to shut out that terrible ringing, she clamped her hands over her ears. The ringing continued and she pressed harder in vain. Light flooded her vision and she clenched her eyelids shut, but that did no good either.
There was a wetness on her face—tears. She was sobbing as the magic tore her apart, slowly. Perhaps she screamed again, but she couldn’t be sure. Her head throbbed as every beat of her heart shot a red hot pulse through every vein.
Thrashing from side to side, Janir tried to shake off the rods of magic, the claws, the ringing, and the lights. There was the sensation of her head hitting the chamber, but those new bruises and all her old ones were nothing compared to the relentless agony of the raw magic. In desperation, she slammed her body into the sides of the chamber, trying to break the crystal walls.
Death—she wanted to die. She begged the magic to let her die. Nothing could be worse than this. It hurt more than she had ever imagined anything to hurt. Not much longer now, she didn’t think she could survive this for more than a few moments. It was too much, she wasn’t strong enough. Every kind of pain imaginable, tearing, slicing, burning, freezing, stabbing—purified and condensed.
With a mounting sense of futility, she curled into a ball at the bottom of the chamber, screaming and struggling, begging the magic to leave her alone or finish this. It went on stabbing at her like an eagle pecking at a stranded fish. She hoped that she would at least faint, but she retained consciousness for every last torturous moment.
Running out of options, she crammed her knees up to her face and pressed her hands as hard as she could over her ears. She rocked to and fro, willing to do anything, if only the excruciation would stop.
Then it was over. There was no other way to put it—the pain ended. She lay there for a moment as the ringing subsided and the lights dimmed.
Shudders racked her body—the uncontrollable convulsions she had felt once before. A viridescent sheen went over her eyes. Something was forcing its mastery over her, assuming command of her actions.
Before, she would have been screaming in pain. But after the chamber, this felt like a pinprick. Groaning, Janir arched her back and just as quickly curled back into a ball. Fighting against the magic, she flipped sideways and writhed on the ground as the fury took possession.
There was rage and anger—fire. Screeching shook the air and sent a tremor through the earth.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Saoven and Karile doubling over with their hands pressed over their ears. Lucan rolled off the steps, collapsing in the fetal position. The empty armor knights stopped without warning.
This was even more powerful than when she had killed Duke Ronan. There was a snapping and cracking inside her. A deep and buried part of her being was shifting and rearranging, becoming something new. It came alive, manifesting itself to unimaginable power, a tidal wave rearing into the clouds.
Awareness flared into Janir’s mind—she could feel the quiet glow of Karile like a candle on a window sill. Saoven was there, too, but with a deeper, more natural glow that reminded her of sunlight dappling a forest floor. Lucan was a black star sapphire, dark and deep yet with a strange glint within his depths.
The empty armor knights nearly blinded her to all else. Shining gold threads laced through every inch of their forms. Tangles of golden light centered over their empty chests, filling the space where their hearts had once been.
Janir explored the golden tangles, reaching without realizing it until she felt the first one snap. There was a sound in her head like a choked cry of relief and then the glowing threads dissipated and the knight crumpled to the ground.
Not quite understanding how she was doing it, Janir reached for the others. She pulled at the delicate lines of enchantment, tearing away the threads of the spells to a wordless chorus of liberated voices.
The crystal chamber trembled precariously, cracked, and shattered into countless shards. Rushing away like a released river, Janir’s power swept over the empty armor knights.
The wave of magic ripped them to pieces. Each individual thread of light was torn from the others and flickered into oblivion. The antiquated suits of armor fell like houses of sticks. They scattered like chaff in the wind.
The green glow in her eyes dimmed until it was in natural light again. Janir felt stretched, thinned into frailty. Slowly, Janir’s—power, mind, soul, whatever it was—returned, draining back into her bones and blood agonizingly slow.
When she looked up, she was lying on the ground powdered in crystal shards. No longer did she feel the magic around her. For a moment, she felt blind. Strong hands gathered her up from the stone, brushing away the broken bits of crystal.
Someone was speaking, sounding far away and panicked. “Janir!”
“Saoven?” Sweat beaded her forehead and she was finding it hard to hold her eyes open.
Karile was talking at ninety words a minute using terms she didn’t understand or care to. Gently, Saoven helped her sit and steadied her against his side.
Janir didn’t want to move, she didn’t want to speak. Exhausted, she only wished to curl up and sleep. Taking a shuddering breath, she let her eyelids slide shut.
“Impossible!” Lucan gasped.
“It’s obviously not impossible, because it’s happening, you idiot,” Karile quipped. “What’s impossible?” he added as an afterthought.
“You…” Lucan made to scramble away as if she were a venomous serpent, but his wound kept him from moving more than a few inches. “You absorbed it!” Lucan gasped. “You took in the power…of an entire race!”
Following this thought to its logical reasoning required far more effort than she would have liked. “What is your point?” Janir forced her lips to move.
Saoven guarded her anxiously. He said nothing, but his concern was almost a palpable thing. Janir would have appreciated his care far better if her mind had been working properly.
Lucan now seemed to be speaking to himself more than to anyone else. “Of course,” he growled, “the magic takes on the likeness of the vessel.” Soon he was speaking so fast that Janir’s weary mind could barely keep track of the words. “It became a part of you because it was raw, unaffected by the presence of a wielder. We were created with magic and that must have been how—”
A tremor shook the temple. A rumbling deep in the heart of the earth rattled their surroundings and made the armor plates dance upon the stone.
“We need to get out of here,” Janir reasoned, clambering to her feet. Karile and Saoven reached out to help her, but she waved them both away so as not to offend Karile. She felt much better than just a few seconds ago, perhaps the threat of danger had something to do with it.
“Stay close and do not become separated,” Saoven ordered.
He made to run and Janir was about to dash after him when she remembered Lucan. He was lying on his side, glowering as if daring her to just try and pity him.
“Wait!” Janir shouted, not looking at her brother. “We can’t just leave him.”
Karile huffed. “Janir—”
“Saoven, please.” Janir looked to the elf beseechingly. In a lower voice she added, “He’s hurt.”
“He tried to kill you.”
“He’ll die down here if we leave him.”
Saoven opened his mouth to protest, but a rumble shook the ground and a large chunk of the dome fell close to their exit. “For you!” he shouted.
Janir snatched her karkaton back, just a little more aggressively than she had intended, and stuffed them into what was left of her bodice cincher. After making sure Lucan had no more weapons, Saoven slung his arm over his shoulders and all but carried him back toward the bridge. Lucan limped along without so much as a wince of pain, though he went deathly pale.
Janir beckoned for Karile…where was that little cur? She glanced back to see him gingerly sifting through the plates of armor.
“Come on!” Janir bounded to grab him by the collar and drag him along. “What are you thinking?”
He shouted something indistinct and indignant. Janir set him up on his feet and took Lucan’s other arm as they charged onward.
She couldn’t bring herself to look at the bodies of the mutilated Argetallams. She stumbled past them as quickly as she could, certain their gruesome and brutal deaths would soon join Duke Ronan in her nightmares.
It was far more hazardous crossing the great stone bridge the second time. Countless metal plates lay as thick as fall leaves on a forest floor. The earth was groaning, shifting, and disassembling itself, crumpling now that the enchantments of the temple had been destroyed.
The long run back through the maze of tunnels felt even longer carrying Lucan and with rubble and stray rock raining from the ceiling. Confusion and chaos reigned like cruel kings. Dirt and dust that had been settled for ages was thick in the air and the whole temple shuddered. The massive stone colossus, which had seemed so strong and immovable before, was surrendering to the earth.
Janir was certain that they was going to die more than once. In the smog of dust, so thick it made her choke, Saoven’s voice and Lucan’s heavy weight against her side were the only way she knew she was not alone.
The grit of the temple was in her eyes, even her teeth were coated in the grime. At one point she tripped on a stray brick and fell to the ground, nearly dragging Lucan down with her.
Her head struck something in the viridescent dust cloud and her fingertips came away with blood. Dirt caked around the wound, drawn like moths to light at dusk. She had no idea how Karile knew where she was in the smog, nonetheless, his bony fists caught her collar and hauled her upright.
Just when Janir was beginning to wonder if they would ever be able to get out, the light of early dawn, not the sickly lights of the temple, shone ahead. Karile let off a squeak of joy and dashed in front, only to jerked to a halt with a cry of surprise.
The others nearly ran into him as they broke out of the dust to the least welcome sight in that moment—four red scaled faces looming overhead, jaws clicking threateningly. The beasts hung back, not venturing to enter the temple itself.
Saoven shoved Lucan and Janir behind him—though she expected it was less out of concern for Lucan. Her brother was so pale and weakened by now that he didn’t even spare a scowl.
Despite Saoven’s efforts, Janir stepped past the others to stand beside the elf and face the four mazag. They couldn’t go back, the temple was collapsing even as they stood there. Soon even this part would doubtless be crumbling. A quick evaluation of the circumstances revealed that they could not best four angry hissing mazag with only her karkaton. Fighting their way out of this was not an option. Their only hope was to reason with the beasts.
“The Egg. Return the egg, soft skins,” growled the larger, cleverer of the group.
“We need to get out,” Janir said as calmly as she could, which was less than impressive. “Please let us pass.”
“Give us the Egg.”
“Please,” Janir pleaded with mounting desperation. “We don’t have it anymore. If you don’t let us out…we’ll die.”
It was a ridiculously weak argument, even to her own ears. But it was true and she could think of no negative outcome for the mazag. Saoven and Karile stared at her sideways.
“You really think they’re going to listen to begging?” Lucan sneered.
Janir didn’t think he was striking the right tone considering they had just saved his life, but she ignored him. “If we have wronged you, we will do everything we can do make it right…please just let us out.”
“I told you,” Lucan scoffed. Did he not care whether he lived or died?
The lead mazag pawed at the empty entrance with frustration, hissing and jerking back as soon as it touched the threshold. “The spells of this place are still strong, even after an eon. You must fetch the Egg for us.”
Saoven and Karile watched for a moment. She could see the cogs turning in their heads as they pieced together what was happening.
“You can understand them?” Saoven asked.
Janir blinked. “I…thought you could, too.”
“What do they want?” Karile cut to the chase as he usually did when death was on the line.
“Egg. The Egg. We will have it.”
“They want the Key of Amatahns.” Which happened to be buried under thousands upon thousands of tons of stone and earth at that moment.
Behind her, Karile raised a tentative hand. “I…er…have it,” he sheepishly admitted. At a sharp look from Saoven, he continued. “That’s what I was grabbing, you see. When I was shoveling through all that armor.”
Lucan rolled his eyes as if the enchanter had claimed that fireflies eat stars.
It didn’t take long for Saoven to reach a conclusion. “If we return it to them, will they swear not to harm us?”
The lead mazag clacked. “Upon the blood of our den mothers and the blood of our hatchlings, we so swear.”
Janir relayed the message or the general gist of it.
Saoven made up his mind quickly, hurried by the ever closer crashing and collapse of the temple around them. “If the Key is what they want, then we have no choice but to give it to them.”
“Enchanter, the temple is collapsing about our ears and you ask if we must try it? Yes!” Saoven shouted the last word with unrestrained irritance.
Karile gave a reluctant sigh and drew the shining silver egg out of his robe.
“What is the point of stealing, if you’re just going to give it back?” he muttered. “Getting some recognition would have been nice.”
“You said you were protecting—”
“Don’t tell me what I said!” Karile cut her off. “Besides, I could have done both.”
“Stop your bickering and hand the Essences-damned thing over!” Lucan winced and clutched at his wounded side, looking away lest they see his pain.
Cradling the egg in both hands, the enchanter knelt by the threshold of the doorway. Carefully placing it on the very edge, he tapped it, letting it roll to the mazag’s side.
The lead mazag snatched it up in its jaws and swallowed in the bat of an eye.
“All that, just to eat it!” Karile indignantly screamed.
“It is the safest way to transport a Queen,” the beast replied. Janir relayed the sentence.
Karile blinked for a moment. “Wait, you’re saying that thing is your next nest mother or what have you, but the outer shell was made to unlock the chamber and that’s been around since who knows when…how old are you?”
“Alright.” Saoven steered them back on topic and stepped just to the edge of the threshold. “We have given you what you want. Now will you keep your bargain?”
The mazag swished their tails contemplatively. For an agonizingly long moment, they didn’t budge. Janir found herself with an impulse to draw her karkaton, but just when she was certain the beasts would renege on their agreement, they took several steps back.
Janir and her bedraggled little group stumbled out of the temple without a moment to spare. They staggered to the edge of the clearing with the mazag trailing placidly after them. By the time they reached an arrow shot from the temple, it was being swallowed by the earth.
Soon nothing remained of the great Temple of Amatahns save for a dusty sinkhole filled with broken stones.
If it was possible, the mazag seemed to have no hard feelings over this whole mess. Saoven led the way back to the beach where, after some brief discussion, they planned to signal a passing ship. The giant red creatures followed them at an easy distance, making all four of the humans very uncomfortable, even if Lucan pretended it didn’t.
As they set up a makeshift camp on the sand, the beasts lurked at a moderate distance before slinking up to the travelers and lounging beside their signal fire like cats at a hearth. They didn’t seem to mean harm and as the beasts would win any confrontation anyway, Janir and the others tolerated them with as much grace and generosity as possible. Nonetheless, it seemed a bit incredible that the creatures could go from trying to eat them to keeping company with them over the course of a day, but it was better than the alternative.
She played absently with her karkaton. Handling them calmed her and not even the mazag seemed to mind. Janir hesitantly leaned against the warm sides of one as the large signal fire roared in the center of their circle.
The enchanter was a shapeless mass of snoring robe. He’d stared fearfully at the large reptiles in the beginning, never letting them out of his sight as he’d helped gather wood for the fire and collected herbs Saoven needed for Lucan. All the same, exhaustion had won out in the end.
The elf gravely contemplating the flames, not having spoken for the past hour. Janir suspected they were thinking the same thing—what to do with the fourth figure who sat cowering to the side.
Bitterly, Lucan glared at his sister. Elves had an earned reputation for being skilled in the ways of healing and although Saoven followed the path of a warrior, he had patched Lucan together rather well. Lucan had been sullen about being tended, but realized that he needed help and submitted resentfully to the elf’s treatments. Now the young Argetallam had a clean bandage wrapped about his ribs—taken from strips of his undershirt—and wild ribwort plantain leaves pressed against the wound.
At length, Saoven rose to his feet and motioned for Janir to follow. She tucked her karkaton safely in her cincher before trotting after him. They threaded between the sleeping mazags’ tails and carefully stepped past Karile onto the beach. They walked side by side away from the others until they were just under a hundred sword lengths away. Janir could still make out Karile’s hog like nocturnal vocalizations, her means of knowing that things were still fine in their meager camp.
The waves glinted silver with reflections of the stars to the rhythm of the pounding surf. Janir and Saoven took their time, moving at an easy stroll. When they were just far enough to be out of an earshot of the others, Saoven turned to her and held her gaze for a very long moment. Several times, he seemed about to say something, then stopped.
“What are we going to do with Lucan?” Saoven asked at length, a dark note in his voice.
“I don’t know,” Janir admitted. She’d just known it felt wrong to leave him to die alone under tons of rock and earth.
“We should kill him,” Saoven unenthusiastically replied with untempered honesty. “We should have left him in the temple.”
Janir swallowed. She knew that. She’d known that at the time.
Saoven heaved a deep sigh. “I know he is your brother and that might lead to a sense of…attachment—”
“This isn’t about him being my brother, Saoven.” Janir shook her head. “We were born only three hours apart, but I was first. Lucan was always jealous of that, he abused me—even when we were children. There was never any love lost between us.”
It was odd to speak of that part of her childhood—the part before Armandius. She’d spent nearly half her life treating it as a deep and dirty secret.
“He tried to kill you.”
And he had killed Florete. It was hard not to cringe at the memory.
“I know all that, but—” Janir hesitated as she thought how to best put words to her thoughts.
“Because…he’s…it’s hard to explain, but…” She bit her lip, struggling to put it into words. “He’s afraid, I saw it. So afraid of what we’ll do to him…”
“With good reason,” the elf drily answered. “What will we do, Janir? Take him prisoner back to Saaradan? Turn him loose?”
Janir honestly didn’t know what she wanted to do with Lucan. If they took him back to Saaradan, he would either be used as leverage against the Lord Argetallam or sent straight to the headsman’s block. If they let him loose, that plan was riddled with more holes than a fisherman’s nets. He would likely die in his condition—which defied the point—and even if he didn’t, he would go back to Adasha. The Lord Argetallam would learn Janir was still alive and that sent shivers down her spine just thinking about it. Still, she couldn’t stomach the thought of executing a defenseless captive, after they had tended his wounds, no less.
“I don’t want to kill him, Saoven. Not like this.” She shook her head. “So many people have died, I’ve seen so many people die. These past months…” There wasn’t really much more to say. She had no logical argument for sparing her brother and wasn’t even sure she wanted to.
Saoven was quiet for a long time. When he did speak, it was in a quiet, reserved tone. “We must decide what to do with him before a ship arrives, but I shan’t do anything without your agreement.”
Janir nodded, smiling even though she wanted to cry—for Florete, for the suffering Lucan had caused and was enduring, even for Duke Ronan and the Argetallams. Some of them deserved it, but she kept thinking about how much it had hurt them or if they had been afraid.
The elf exhaled a long breath. “You have a gentle soul, Janir. No matter what anyone says, that is a precious thing.”
Feeling a sudden desire to change the subject, Janir cleared her throat. “I was told to ask you who that was in the Vermilion Market, when that elf tried to get the Key from me.”
Saoven’s eyebrow rose. “The Vermilion Market exists?”
“Yes, but there was an elf. The seeress told me he was called …” It took her a moment. “Malkalar.”
Saoven was quiet. He tilted his head into a shadow so it was hard to read his expression.
“He’s dark.” She almost added “beautiful,” but stopped herself. “He carried a pair of sabers and was an enchanter.” Janir would have to recapitulate the past weeks’ events in more detail after this, she realized.
“Searching for the Key of Amatahns? Are you certain?” Saoven was abruptly concerned.
Saoven seemed suddenly very preoccupied. He spoke lowly in Elvish, brow pinched in consideration.
“Who is he?” The elf’s reaction unsettled her anew. There was something here she did not understand.
“He is supposed to be a secret.” Saoven’s hands flew to his face and he covered his eyes in a tired gesture that Armandius sometimes used.
“Not anymore, apparently.” Janir might have been discomforted by his response, but these days she had learned to be undeterred by the unusual. “So who is he?”
“I cannot reveal that,” Saoven stiffly replied, obviously unhappy with the fact, but determined to stand by it. His hands dropped to his sides.
“Saoven, he attacked me with magic in the market. He threw me up against a wall and questioned me and he knew what I was.”
“He attacked you?” Saoven’s brow furrowed and he shifted closer. “Did he hurt you?”
“No,” Janir hastily assured him. “No, Saoven. I just…” She took a deep breath. It was as much to compose herself as to gather her thoughts. Malkalar wasn’t here or anywhere near here, she reminded herself. A long exhale escaped her lips. If Saoven wasn’t going to tell, he wasn’t going to tell.
There was conflict carved across his forehead as he spoke hesitantly. “It has been many generations since there has been such a powerful enchanter among elves, mortals, or any of the other races.”
Janir swallowed. There was something about the way Saoven spoke, something that forewarned of bad news. “So why keep him a secret?”
“Because he is the son of our king.” Saoven’s tone nearly dropped to a whisper.
After a moment’s consideration, it still didn’t make very much sense. “I don’t…understand.”
Saoven glanced about the beach as if he feared eavesdroppers. “It was his will that none of the other races know of his existence. He refuses to allow anyone outside of the elves know.”
“How can you keep someone like that secret?”
Saoven made a vague gesture in the air. “We have our ways. Our kingdom is not like that of mortals, but that is not important at the moment. No one is meant to know his name.”
Janir shook her head, not understanding.
“There is power in a name, Janir,” the elf whispered, “a power that can both create and destroy. The right name can raise mountains and cast down kings.”
When another blank stare was her only reply, he continued.
“A name gives a title to who we are, an identity. They are tied into our very being. To know a person’s name is the first step to binding their soul.”
“But I met a seeress who knows his name.” In hindsight, that did seem rather anomalous according to what Saoven was telling her now.
“Seers and seeresses know most of what goes on in the world and they are not generous with their information in any event. You are possibly the only one outside my race and the Seers who knows of him, Janir. I implore that you take that burden responsibly,” Saoven pleaded. “My people must not learn I revealed such knowledge to an—” He noticed her flinch. “No, I did not mean it that way. They do not know you as I do. They would not…understand.”
Janir nodded, swallowing whatever hurt had welled up at the thought of what she was, but her mind was still wandering. Why had Malkalar needed a seeress? Had he simply been rescuing Zeerla? Not likely. While dwelling on unanswered questions, why had the Argetallams been trying to capture the Key and the power in the first place? Perhaps she would never know.
Saoven watched her carefully as silence filled the space between them. “You said you met the prince in the Vermilion Market. What exactly—?”
Suddenly, there was a commotion from their small encampment—the hiss of a mazag and a scream of pain from a mortal mouth.
Janir and Saoven charged back across the sand. They had wandered much farther than Janir had thought and it was a breathless run back to the mazag and the other “soft skins.”
Saoven was faster than Janir and arrived some twenty paces ahead of her. She came on the scene to find the mazag called Mazag Teris, whimpering over a slice on its upper foreleg. Karile was on the ground, clutching at a bruised eye, and Lucan was scrambling for the trees.
“The wretched scion of the Staspin Waste!” shrieked Mazag Teris, fussing over the torn flesh. It was a shallow wound, but it looked as if Lucan had sliced across a main muscle. It would be painful for Teris to walk for a while.
“Karile!” Janir dove for him. “Are you alright?”
Saoven grabbed Lucan’s arm, wresting the knife out of his hand. With his wound, Lucan too weak to free himself as the elf pinned his arms behind his back.
“He hit me!” Karile whined. “Look, I’m going to have a black eye!”
“Be grateful,” Lucan growled, not even bothering to resist Saoven’s hold. “I wanted to knife you.”
Speaking of which, the blade lay exposed on the sand. Janir snatched it up, facing Lucan. How had he gotten it past their notice? He must have had an extra one stashed in his boot or somewhere to that effect.
Lucan cast her a defiant glare. “You didn’t think I was just going to let you tote me off like a pig for slaughter, did you?”
“We shall make him suffer!” one of the mazag hissed, making to advance.
Janir had stuck out an arm to stop them before she knew what she was doing. “No.”
To her surprise, the mazag obeyed. They eased onto their haunches, glaring murderous desires toward the Argetallam prince.
Saoven release Lucan and he slumped into the sand, more weakened by his wound than he let show. The elf took a step away, taking up a post a little in front of Janir.
Clutching his wounded side, Lucan lifted himself onto his knees. “What do you want with me?” he groaned, a surprising amount of neutrality in his words. “Drag me before your High Lords? Parade me before your people as a prisoner of war?” His dark eyes settled on Janir—devoid of hate, devoid of fear. There was nothing but empty contempt, like a broken animal facing down his captor.
Janir didn’t answer. She didn’t yet have one.
“Let me go,” Lucan said, the hints of a plea creeping into his voice. “You owe me that much.”
“She owes you?” Saoven demanded, taking an aggressive step toward the Argetallam. “You have held her captive for weeks, abused her, beaten her, and you dare say that she owes you anything?”
Lucan did not so much as glance at the elf. “I held your life in my hands,” he said. “And I spared it.”
“You tried to kill me!” Janir could hardly believe his pretention.
“Right!” Karile shouted, fists on his hips as he planted himself at her side. “What they said!”
Lucan still ignored the others. “I thought we were all going to die,” he countered. “Admit it, we should have.”
“And that justifies it?” Whatever compassion or pity Saoven had found for the Argetallam prince was fading fast.
“No,” Lucan shortly replied, still showing not the slightest trace of shame. “I suppose it doesn’t. Yet this is the way out for all of us.” He clambered upright stiffly, one hand settled protectively over his wound.
“I think you are simply trying to save yourself,” Saoven growled. “You know we shall force you to face punishment for your crimes and fear the consequences.”
Janir laid a hand on Saoven’s shoulder, stopping him from advancing on her brother. The elf could have shook her off like a butterfly, but he held back, shooting her a questioning look.
“Let me go,” Lucan said. It came out as more of a suggestion than a request. “It’s at least a week on foot to the mainland and another two weeks to the Staspin Waste. We all know that in my state I’m more likely to die on the way.”
“Then why would you want to go?” Janir asked quietly. She wasn’t sure what she felt about this or even what the right thing would be. She was deciding as she went along.
“I would rather die on my own terms,” Lucan said simply. “I would rather die with my life in my own hands than at the headsman’s block, the hangman’s rope, or the torturer’s wheel.”
Janir swallowed. She could sense that Saoven, Karile, and even the mazag were deferring to her, letting her be the one to decide, but she couldn’t imagine why.
“You don’t want my blood on your hands. I know you don’t, sister.” There was just enough sarcasm in the last word to make it clear he wasn’t going to make any apologies or beg for his life. “This way, we both have what we want.”
Janir didn’t speak. Her mouth wouldn’t work and she didn’t know what she could say even if it did.
Though he was pale and slightly hunched over, Lucan raised his chin. “I will have my honorable death and you will have your clear conscience.”
Without waiting for a response, Lucan turned and stumbled toward the trees. The mazag hissed and made to chase him, Karile let off a shout of protest, and Saoven took a quick step after Lucan.
“No!” Janir cried. She grabbed Saoven’s sleeve and motioned frantically for the mazag to stop. She looked to Saoven before saying, “Let him go.”
Already, Lucan was gone from sight. He had chosen to brave the wild, perhaps because that was the only way he could take control again. It wasn’t as if he stood a chance of circling back and attacking them. Letting him go was merciful—far more merciful than he deserved, but then again, that was the point of mercy. It always went to the undeserving.
He might die anyway, but his was a better chance than she had in that chamber. His life was no longer in her hands and at present he was no longer a threat.
“You would allow him to go free?” the lead mazag hissed. “After he has so wronged us all?”
Janir shook her head. “It is done.” She released Saoven’s sleeve and included the mazag and Karile as she said, “He won’t come back. Just let him go.”
The mazag flicked their tails resentfully, but didn’t disobey. “He is a hatchling,” one of them clicked to the others.
“He killed Mazag Kedris.”
“He will die in the wilderness without den fellows.”
The beasts seemed to decide that they could let Lucan go. They settled on the ground and Mazag Teris set to licking its wounds.
Janir turned to Saoven, ignoring the questioning stare of the enchanter on the back of her head.
Saoven was silent for a long moment. It was hard to read his expression—creased brow, hardened mouth, and rigid jaw. For a moment, she thought he was going to chase after Lucan anyway, but a muscle flexed in his cheek and he nodded once. “It is up to fate, then.”
Reflected sunlight danced on the white stone walls of the fountain house. In Brevia, they would be experiencing the first gusts of cold, but here it was a perpetual summer. The second crop of pomegranates would be ripening soon.
By the brink of the water, staring absently into the ripples, stood a middle aged man with a dark countenance to match his inky beard and tanned skin. His large leather boots were coated in a film of dust from the surrounding outposts, though the rest of his clothes were fresh. Semiconsciously, one hand fingered a silver trinket he had been examining for days now.
At a sound behind him, he spun around with the swiftness of a mountain cat. Inside of a heartbeat, he had struck the newcomer with the speed and accuracy of a viper. A shriek rang through the fountain house, echoing off the walls for one deafening moment.
Groveling on the tile and clutching the blistering welt where the karkaton had struck, the servant silently struggled against the bite of the rod, gaining control of himself before speaking. “Did I startle you, my lord?” The trespasser humbly backed out of reach and bowed to the ground.
“You should know better than to approach me in such a manner.” The first man made no apology, replacing his weapon at his side.
“Forgive me, my lord.” The servant rose to his feet, but kept his head bowed to show respect. “I often forget that as the Lord Argetallam, you must be wary of assassins.”
“No,” the Lord Argetallam flatly corrected, “they should be wary of me.” There was no hint of arrogance, nor boastful vanity in the statement, merely one man relaying a fact he believed to be true.
“Indeed, they should be,” Ernic agreed with a smile. Ernic was young, barely past two decades with a youthful, almost annoying energy to match.
The branded crest on his shoulder marked him as the property of the royal family. Discolored marks, faded over time, yet permanently scarring his skin, were all that outwardly remained of the torture he’d experienced as an adolescent.
As a child, after watching the slaughter of his family, Ernic had been taken from his home in Brevia and made to serve the Argetallams. When he had come of age and began thinking treacherous thoughts, they had been purged from his mind. Now he was the most relied upon servant of the Lord Argetallam, trusted with tasks and secrets that anyone else might be slain for overhearing.
“I must know, Ernic.” The Lord Argetallam paced along the edge of the fountain, the silver trinket clenched tightly in his fist. “I must know if the rumors are true.”
Ernic nodded attentively.
“I must know if she is still alive.” The Lord Argetallam turned his back Ernic. It was a subtle way of reminding the slave how insignificant he truly was, not that those like Ernic oft needed reminding. “In the months since my son’s return, the rumors have grown more frequent. They say that she was taken in by the Lord Caersynn and from there on the story varies. Some say she was killed months ago, others claim she still lives.” The Lord Argetallam whirled on Ernic suddenly and commanded, “Go, find this Caersynn and learn if he knows anything of my daughter.”
“I would go to into the very Lake of Fire, if you so wished it, my lord.” Ernic bowed slightly. “I still wonder, do you not know? She is your daughter. Would you not have felt it if she died?”
It was true that Argetallams formed bonds, lifelong magical bonds, to those they loved. Those bonds were what sent them into Riangar—a state of bloodlust in which an Argetallam’s very eyes glowed with power—to protect their loved ones. Another less fortunate side effect of such bonds was that when they were severed, the Argetallam’s pain was often debilitating.
Either way, it was not something the Lord Argetallam wished to discuss. “You question me?”
“Not at all, my lord,” Ernic placated. “I merely thought…can you not sense her as you do your other servants?”
The Lord Argetallam would have most likely reprimanded anyone else who dared to question him this far. However, with Ernic he simply glared hostility at the youth and moved on, the silver trinket pressed firmly into his palm. “Find her. My other spies cannot be trusted with this.”
“I had five children two years ago. Six, if Janir lives.”
“I remember, my lord. It is most regrettable.”
“And coincidental, would you not say? Now only Lucan, Kestrell, and possibly my daughter remain. I do not believe it to be mere ill luck and I know not who else I can trust with this.”
Ernic’s head bobbed emphatically. “No one, not even Mortana Emilla, could torture your commands from my lips.”
The Lord Argetallam scoffed at the idea. “She broke your mind once.”
“But only to make sure that I would never betray Argetallam kind. The thought she placed in my mind is still strong, and I will do anything to obey it.” Ernic assured his master heartily, face aglow with zealous passion.
Satisfied, the Lord Argetallam saw his niece’s hold over Ernic was unchanged after all these years. Under her uncle’s tutelage, Emilla had never tortured a man she could not break.
“But I must say,” Ernic added, “that it is unlikely the princess survived the massacre at the Norwin Pass. Even if she did, the Brevians likely killed her as soon as she was discovered.”
“Of that I am aware,” the Lord Argetallam replied. “But if I understand Caersynn as I believe I do, he has a reason for keeping my daughter alive. He could wish to use her as a weapon or he may have other motivations.”
“Forgive me, my lord, but what other reason could a Brevian possibly have?” Ernic ventured, then ducked his head, realizing that it may have been too probing a question.
The Lord Argetallam blinked at him. “My daughter is not mine alone.”
“She had a mother, you know,” the Lord Argetallam carelessly pointed out. “‘Caersynn’ was Aryana’s name. Fascinating, do you not agree, that a man with the same is rumored to be aiding an Argetallam?”
“Aryana?” Ernic’s brow wrinkled.
“Yes, that was the name of my firstborn’s mother.”
“I know, my lord,” Ernic bowed. “But if you’ll forgive me for saying so, you seldom use the names of any of your other concubines—”
“Your point is?”
“Forgive me, my lord.” Ernic knelt and touched his forehead to the stone, sensing that the conversation was entering dangerous territory.
“It is no concern of yours,” the Lord Argetallam snapped, clubbing Ernic over the back of the head.
“True, true. I ask your forgiveness, my lord.” Ernic groveled—it was the one thing broken slaves did better than serve.
“Your apology is noted. Now you will prepare for the journey to Brevia to learn if this maiden is indeed my daughter.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Be gone.”
As Ernic bowed, scraped, and scurried from sight, the Lord Argetallam opened his fist to examine the silver trinket. It had been on his son’s person when the boy had been found half alive at their northern borders. The servants who tended him might have thought nothing of it had not one of them noticed it was engraved on the back with a flowing, rich script that read “Caersynn: The Third.”
Lucan had seemed surprised he still had it and refused to admit where it had come from, but anyone could see it was no marketplace trinket. The solid emerald alone marked it as a token of nobility.
Perhaps he was clinging to false hope. As Ernic had said, it was almost impossible for her to have survived, as a child, too. Yet Lucan’s unexplained failure, this medallion, and now these rumors—it was only natural that a father have hope.
If Janir was alive, he would reclaim her at whatever cost. He didn’t care what he had to do or who he had to hurt to have his firstborn at his side, even if it meant breaking Janir herself, he would have her back.
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About the Author
Elisabeth Wheatley began what would be her first novel at eleven and hasn’t stopped writing since. When she’s not daydreaming of elves, vampires, and/or handsome princes in need of rescuing, she can be found wasting time on the internet, fangirling over her latest obsession, and pretending to be a functional citizen.
Where to find her:
Other works by the author
Current titles in the
The Key of Amatahns (Argetallam Saga, #1)
The Secrets of the Vanmars (Argetallam Saga, #2)
The Chalice of Malvron (Argetallam Saga, #3)
The Temple of Tarkoth (Argetallam Saga, #4)
Current titles in the
Fanged (Fanged, #1)
Fanged Outcast (Fanged, #2)
Fanged Kindred (Fanged, #3)
Fanged Rebel (Fanged, #4)
In a land where those with magic are esteemed and revered, Janir guards a secret that would send her to the headsman's block at a word. As one of the reviled Argetallams, she has the power to destroy enchantments and steal others' magic—an ability that has caused bloodshed for generations. Raised as the illegitimate daughter of an influential lord, she was determined to turn her back on her heritage, but when her power manifests, leaving a nobleman dead, she has no choice but to flee her adoptive home. In exile with the help of a fearless young enchanter and an elf sworn to protect her, she finds herself entangled in a quest to hide an ancient artifact from the kingdom’s enemies. But they are not the only ones after the relic and soon their paths cross with a rival from Janir's distant childhood. With no hope of help or rescue, the fate of nations will depend on a fifteen year old girl and her mastery of powers she doesn't understand.