THE SHADOW ON THE MOUNTAIN
"Tell the Admiral I need to see him in the reception room at once."
"Yes sir. Right away, sir."
Variman paid the man no more mind as he walked off. Instead he strode down the hallway in the opposite direction. He had been in Pantaglia often enough to know his way around without an escort.
The palace in Pantaglia was built high on a hill overlooking the harbor. Varman entered the reception room, which stood near the top of the highest tower. Being in this position, the room had an almost unmatched view of the town and harbor below. It was precisely because of this impressive view that the room had been selected as a reception area. Large double doors at the back led out onto a stone balcony that overlooked the entire town. The intended effect was to give the impression of opulence, of grandeur, to perhaps intimidate a visiting head of state or rich merchant just a bit. For it was well known that, when it came to politics, impression could be much more important than substance.
The doors were closed now, barred from the inside. Variman walked over to them and unbarred them, though he did not open the doors.
A large table stood in the middle of the room, but he ignored it. He didn't bother to sit down. Instead he paced impatiently back and forth.
It wasn't really that long before the door opened and Dason Walcroft stepped in. At least the man knew better than to keep him waiting.
Variman hadn't told Dason what this was all about, hadn't even told him he was coming in fact. Still, it wouldn't take a genius to figure out this had something to do with his little expedition down to the southern islands, and what had occurred there. Variman didn't see much point in beating around the bush.
"What happened?" he questioned.
Dason didn't reply right away. He might be somewhat certain as to what this was about, but he couldn't be completely sure. Variman was curious as to how forthcoming the Admiral would be.
"I went to the southern islands with some trade goods. I do it all the time. The trips can be quite lucrative. While I was there my ship was boarded."
Variman waited patiently for Dason to continue, but for some reason it suddenly seemed like the Admiral was reluctant to tell any more.
"And?" he prodded.
Dason didn't answer for a moment. Variman could picture him going over the possibilities in his head. He probably had no idea how much Variman knew, which would make it difficult for him to lie. How much of a gambler was he?
"It was Ktan Hammerlane," Dsaon finally admitted. "He and a few others. They got on board and stole the book."
He didn't have to mention which book.
"How do you know it was Hammerlane?" Variman questioned.
"They didn't kill one of the Imperial Knights who I left behind as a sentry. He said the man fit the description, and at least one of the others had called him by name."
Variman nodded slowly.
"And where were you during all this?" he questioned.
"I was on shore," Dason replied. "I had... some business to attend to."
Variman didn't reply, but the look he gave Dason was not at all kind.
"I got wind that something was up and returned to my ship and found most of the crew that I had left on board dead," Dason went on quickly. "There was another ship in the harbor, the Lady of the Night. The ship Ktan had come on. It left the harbor right after this happened. I gave chase. The ship was fast, but not as fast as the Red Eagle. I caught up with it just north of Donelan. They saw they couldn't outrun us and ran the ship aground. We captured or killed most of the crew but a few escaped."
He paused for a moment.
"There was no sign of Ktan or the book on the ship," he finished.
Varimen was silent for quite some time. He walked over to the table and sat down, facing the double doors in the back.
"Have a seat Dason," he said, indicating the chair opposite him.
The Admiral hesitated a moment, then took a seat in the chair indicated.
"How do you know Ktan was on the ship?" Variman asked.
"Well... I... where else could he have gone?"
"Maybe he was still on the island?"
"Why would he be there? Why would the ship leave without him?"
"Because he was betrayed," Variman replied. "Ktan wasn't on the ship, but you did right by chasing it, for the book was on it, in the hands of a girl, Merigan Maniore, one of the witches of Donelan."
"One of the witches?" Dason said. "But they were all killed."
"No, not quite. One survived. A baby at the time, Ktan found her and raised her. You didn't find a young girl amongst those you captured or killed, did you?"
"No," Dason replied after a moment.
"Too bad," Variman replied. "That might have made things much simpler. Because of your blundering the Queen got wind of the book. You were supposed to keep it hidden. That was why I gave it to you for in the first place, now wasn't it?"
"Hey, don't try and lay all the blame on this on me," Dason retorted. "Don't forget that you're the one who gave me the book in the first place."
"I gave it to you for safekeeping, not to let it get stolen," Variman replied.
"And I did keep it safe, for how many years now?" Dason shot back. "It would have been simple to destroy it, as I suggested, but no, you were the one who wanted to keep it, you were the one who thought we could use it someday. What did you want me to do? There was no place that was perfectly safe. No matter where I put it there was a risk it could be found. Well, now it has and there's nothing we can do about that but we still have to come up with a solution. Don't forget we're in this together!"
Variman didn't reply, but it wasn't hard to discern the Admiral's meaning. If Dason went down, he had more than enough on Variman to see they went down together.
Behind Dason, one of the double doors that led out onto the balcony opened silently. A figure slipped through it and entered the room.
"I have just one question for you Dason. Just what am I supposed to do now? What am I supposed to tell the Queen when I go back to Galias? How do I explain the book being in your hands?"
Varimen fell silent, staring at the Admiral. Dason just looked at him. Finally he shrugged and shook his head.
"I don't know Variman. I don't know what to tell her. I don't suppose you have any suggestions?"
Variman looked Dason over for a moment.
"The simplest solution," he replied. "Would be to get rid of you."
Variman had to admit he was deeply amused by the shocked look this produced on the Admiral's face. The length of the table separated the two of them, and Variman made no move to get up, nor draw his sword. He took great care to keep his face neutral, so as to not give away whether he was serious or had spoken just in jest.
Before Dason could recover, Variman leaned forward slowly.
"Don't worry my dear friend," he stated. "I have no intention of killing you."
Dason was staring at him, his body tense, as if he expected Variman to suddenly leap up across the table to deal a death blow, yet at the same time not being able to make up his mind as to what was going on, as to just what kind of game Varimen was playing. Well, he would find out for himself soon enough, Variman thought.
"You shouldn't say things like that Variman, not even in jest," Dason finally said.
"Oh, there was no jest involved, believe me," the Imperial Knight replied. "I have no intention of killing you because...
He let the words hang in the air for a moment. A frown began to form on Dason's face.
"Because I'm leaving it for someone else."
A hand suddenly shot out from behind Dason, grabbing his forehead and pulling his head back. The Admiral felt something white hot slash across his throat. He tried to cry out, tried to scream, but no sound was heard. Suddenly he couldn't breath, and there was blood. There was blood everywhere.
Varian did stand up now. He strolled leisurely around the table, coming up beside Dason, who still sat in the chair, gagging for breath, a gaping slash across his throat, looking at Variman with pleading eyes that were somehow filled with hatred at the same time.
"I haven't got all day," Variman told him. "I have important business to attend to. Now be a good fellow and hurry up and die."
He lifted his foot and pushed over the chair. Dason toppled to the ground; his hand's clinging feebly to his throat. For a moment more his eyes darted wildly around the room, before he finally became still.
Variman walked up to Dason and prodded the body with his foot. Convinced the man was dead he turned to the man who had done the deed, a thin narrow faced man, dressed all in black and holding a bloody dagger in his hand.
"Well done," Variman said, sliding his sword out of its sheath. "And as promised, here is your reward."
The man was taken aback for a moment when he saw the sword being drawn, but for a moment only. Seeing that, he didn't have to have spelled out to him exactly what Variman's intentions were.
"Bastard!" he snarled, lunging forward with his dagger just as Variamn's drove his sword forward.
The two men struck each other in the chest at almost the same time. The assassin let out a groan as the sword pierced his body. Variman on the other hand, just laughed as the dagger struck harmlessly against his armor.
"You're fast but your aim could be a bit truer," the Imperial Knight taunted as he pulled his sword from the man who staggered forward, arm waving feebly in the air in an attempt to get another thrust at Variman, before he collapsed to the floor in a heap.
Variman waited a moment for the man to join the Admiral in the great beyond, then he sheathed his sword and walked over to the door. Pulling it open he yelled in a loud voice.
"Guards! Come here at once! The Admiral has been assassinated!"
"We're lost aren't we?"
"We're not lost."
"There's a trail marked on the map. I don't see any sign of a trail here."
"There's a line on the map, you mean. It tells us where to go. It doesn't mean there's a trail."
"There was a trail earlier. Why didn't we just stay on it?"
"It went in the wrong direction."
"Are you sure?"
"You don't sound all that sure."
"Well... I am!"
"When we were in town they said it was easy. They said to just follow the trail."
He stopped and looked at her.
"What do you suggest we do? Do you want to go back and try to find the trail we left?"
She didn't reply for a moment. They had left the trail quite a while ago. It would take them some time to get back. They would lose a lot of time.
Then again, if they were going in the wrong direction, the sooner they turned back the better.
"I don't know," she said finally. "I guess we should keep going, as long as you're sure."
"Well, I'm pretty sure."
"Yeah, well, some of the markings on this map are pretty hard to read."
"So we are lost."
"I wouldn't go that far. We're going up. We know Zalan is up in the mountains."
"Yes, up. Up is good."
"Right, so how far off could we be?"
Merigan shrugged. There was no point in arguing about it. It didn't make sense to go back, not without some clear sign that they were going in the wrong direction. From what she remembered Zalan was a pretty big city. Not near the size of Pantaglia, but large enough that they should be able to spot it from some distance. Hopefully, even if they weren't exactly on track, they'd come close enough to see it.
Still, it would be much more reassuring to know for certain they were going the right way. Perhaps somewhere up ahead they would come to an unambiguous landmark that would tell them if they were on the right track. Until then, there wasn't much point in discussing it.
They continued on their way. The slope had steadily risen the last two days, as they climbed higher into the mountains and was now quite steep. They had started out surrounded by tall slender pine trees, but the forest had thinned out as the elevation rose, and now the trees grew mostly in scattered clumps with large open areas covered with coarse wind blown grass in between. The land was tumbled and barren, with large boulders strewn across the landscape. The ground was rough, going mostly up, but often they came across jagged gullies or ravines, some of them quite large, that forced them to climb down their steep slopes and up again the other side to cross them, or, if they didn't extend too far, to go around them. The going was rough, and looking up, it didn't seem to get any easier. The higher up on the slopes they traveled the more frequent stops they had to make to rest. The going was slow, which didn't please Willbrand all that much, but there wasn't much he could do about it.
He looked back, down the slope. They were high up in the mountains now. The trees blocked most of his view of the slopes below, but farther down he could see the land flatten out, the greenery of the landscape fading off into the distance. He wasn't sure, but the thought he could catch just a glimmer of blue of the far off ocean to the south, before the view merged with the pale azure sky, but he wasn't completely sure. He had to admit the view was impressive and unlike anything he'd ever seen back in Crotasia.
Still, impressive as the view was, he wasn't looking back to admire it. They had seen no sign of pursuit in days, not since they had left Donelan but he still kept a wary eye behind them just in case. They didn't have anyone else with them; they had only themselves to depend on. They had to be careful.
The last few days had given Willbrand a new found respect for Ktan. He hadn't really realized just how difficult it was to remain vigilante for an extended period of time. Even though he knew he should be on the lookout for any sign of pursuit from behind, or any danger ahead for that matter, there were still dozens of times when he found his mind wandering, looking at the scenery or thinking about when they were going to rest or what they had to eat, and more than once, that, instead of scanning the way ahead he found his eyes lingering upon the girl beside him.
He hadn't given himself much time to think about that night in Winsor. They had more important things to worry about, but it was there in the back of his mind and it wasn't going to go away. It seemed pretty obvious now that Merigan wanted to be more than just friends, and he had to admit he felt the same way. The fact of the matter was, he could barely stop thinking about her. He didn't know what it all meant. They hadn't known each other that long, not nearly long enough to fall in love had they? He didn't know. He wasn't sure if it even was love. Things had been going so fast, and he hadn't had a chance to sit down and think about it. He wasn't sure what he was feeling. All he knew was that he couldn't get that night out of his mind and that was a bad thing. They had more important things to think about right now. He had to be aware of the reality and the danger of the situation they were in. He couldn't afford to be addle brained about this, he couldn't afford to let himself think about Merigan and let down his guard. They could sort it all out when they were safe and reunited with the others.
They plodded on, all through the rest of the day, slowly working themselves farther up the mountain slopes, resting frequently but making slow but steady progress. When darkness started to fall Willbrand began looking around for someplace to camp for the night. The mountainside was steep and treacherous. No matter how much they might want to press on it wasn't safe to continue in the dark.
It didn't take them too long to find a suitable area, in a bowl shaped depression sheltered from the wind. A steep grassy slope plunged downward to the south, a tumble that Willbrand was not anxious to risk, but they were far enough from the edge that it wouldn't cause a problem. It was already dark by the time they had completed setting up camp, placing their bedrolls up against the slope, in the most sheltered area. Willbrand had eschewed purchasing a tent, thinking to save some coin considering the fact that it was summer and the nights were quite warm this time of year. What he hadn't counted on, however, was the fact that the air got colder the higher up the mountain they climbed. Each night had been colder than the last, and though he had to admit that sleeping beside Merigan to keep warm was pleasant in its own right, he had been cold enough in spite of that fact last night to sleep restlessly.
Faced with the prospect of cold food and another cold night, he turned to face Merigan.
"What do you think about starting a fire?"
They had avoided that so far on the trip. Both of them were well aware how easily a fire would give away their position to prying eyes at night.
Merigan looked dubious.
"I don't know. What do you think?"
Willbrand walked over to the ledge. He looked down for a moment. All he could see was the tips of the trees below before the slope quickly faded into darkness. All seemed calm.
"We can make the fire here by the slope, away from the edge," he said finally. "As you can see the ground dips down here. I don't think it can be seen from below."
"They may be able to see the glow of it off the trees, if not the fire itself," Merigan replied.
"So what are you saying, it's a bad idea?"
Merigan hesitated. She had to admit the thought of some hot food and a little warmth to sleep by was very appealing right now.
"I'm not sure," she answered. Willbrand gave her a look and she realized her answers weren't being very helpful.
"We haven't seen anyone since we left Donelan right?" she questioned.
She paused again.
"I want to say go ahead," she said finally. "But I'm not sure if that's wise or just my brain telling me its sick of being cold."
"Well, if it's any consolation, my brain is telling me the same thing," Willbrand replied.
"So you think we should?"
Willbrand just stood there for a moment.
"You know what Ktan would say."
"Yes," she replied, making a face. "That it's much too dangerous, but he's not with us, now is he?"
"So you think we should do it?"
"How many times are you going to ask me that?"
"Until you answer."
"What, so if something goes wrong, you can blame it on me?" she questioned, the tone of her voice making it obvious she wasn't serious.
"Drat, she's on to my plan," Willbrand muttered. He took a deep breath. "All right, let's just do it."
"You're really going to?"
"Yes! That is... unless you think we shouldn't."
"Would you stop that!"
"Maybe we should flip a coin," he suggested.
"Go ahead," she replied.
He hadn't really been serious, but seeing as she said that he took out a coin.
"All right, heads we light a fire, tails we don't."
"Ktan would be glad to know we put such rational thought behind this decision," Merigan commented
"Oh be quiet," Willbrand retorted. "All right, ready?"
"Yes, yes, get on with it," she said with mock impatience.
He flipped the coin and caught it. He opened his hand and looked.
They both stood there for a moment.
"Two out of three?" Willbrand suggested.
"Oh just light the fire."
"You really want to?"
"Yes! Yes! There I said it. Are you happy now?"
It wasn't long before Willbrand had a small fire crackling on the ground in front of them. By now the sun was long gone, and the stars sparkled over their heads. Already it was colder than they'd have liked. They both sat together in front of the fire, wrapped in blankets while they ate a hot meal.
When they were done Willbrand sighed with contentment.
"Well, that was good at least," he said. "I feel a lot better now."
"Me too," Merigan stated.
"Should we keep the fire going?" Willbrand asked.
"Umm... I don't know," Merigan said tentatively.
"Oh no, let's not start that again!" Willbrand said with a laugh.
"All right," she replied. "Yes, let it burn. It's... comforting, even though I doubt if its going to keep us very warm out in the open like this."
Willbrand had to agree. The night was cold and dark, and the light that the fire provided was comforting.
"Well, then, I better gather some more fuel for it before it goes out," he said.
He got up and walked away, not very far. Though the country was mostly open, there were still plenty enough trees around that he didn't have any problem at all finding sticks and dead branches to add to the fire. By the time he got back Merigan was already curled up in her bedroll.
He added some fuel to the fire, leaving the rest nearby to add later, then sat down besides her, pulling his blanket around him.
"I take it I have the first watch?" he asked.
Merigan smiled at him.
"How'd you guess?"
He just nodded without saying anything. She sat up.
"And wake me up when you get tired this time," she told him. "The last two nights you've practically stayed up all night by yourself. You need to get your rest too you know."
"Yes ma'am," he replied.
"I'm serious," she warned.
"Yes, I can see that," he replied.
She looked at him a moment more, not all that convinced of his sincerity, but then lay back again, apparently appeased.
For a long time he sat there, staring off into the dark and adding fuel to the fire every once in a while to keep it going. He soon realized it wasn't the most efficient spot to keep watch. The lip of the bowl they were camping in prevented anyone from seeing them from below, but by the same token it prevented him from seeing anyone who might be coming up the slope. If someone were there, Willbrand wouldn't spot him until he came over the lip of the ledge right in front of him. No, it would be much better to place himself nearer the edge, where he could see the slope below. That would give him much more warning if someone were coming up that way. However logical that might be, he wasn’t anxious to move from where he now sat. Moving to the edge would put him far from what little warmth the fire might provide, and more importantly, put him farther away from Merigan's warmth as well. It was bad enough he had to stay awake; he didn't want to do it in the cold and dark as well.
He looked down at Merigan, the light from the fire flickering on her face. Her eyes were closed and the slow rise and fall of her chest made it apparent she was sleeping peacefully. He couldn't help but just sit there and look at her. He felt like he could do that all night long. What kind of spell had she put on him?
That suddenly struck him as being funny. Most people who learned of Merigan's abilities called her a witch. He didn't believe that, not really, but here he was, thinking she had cast some kind of spell on him, that she had bewitched him somehow.
Nonsense of course. He had already seen that her powers were limited to casting illusions.
He really didn't know that much about her. Sure, she could cast illusions, she had made that plain, but how did he know for sure that was the total extent of her powers? How did he know for sure there weren't other things she could do, things she hadn't bothered to mention. It wasn't all that implausible. After all, it had been like pulling teeth to get her to admit even to the ability to cast illusions, now hadn't it?
He looked at her again. She was beautiful, more beautiful than any girl he had ever seen. He could honestly say that. Had she always been that way? She was pretty of course, he had noticed that the first time he had seen her, but he didn't remember her being that beautiful.
Did that mean anything? Didn't people tend to grow on you once you got to know them? Shellana hadn't struck him as all that pretty when he had first met her, but he remembered thinking of her as the prettiest girl in Crotasia when he got to know her better. Isn't that the way it worked sometimes? Or had Shellana grown on him because she'd grown up? When they'd first met they'd both been children. Had it been the fact that she was turning into a woman that had made her look better, or just that he'd known her better, or a combination of both?
He wasn't sure. It just seemed odd how quickly he had fallen for Merigan, how beautiful she was.
The wind stirred the branches of a nearby tree, causing him to look up.
Okay, so what was he saying here, that Merigan had some other powers, that she had enchanted him somehow? He had to admit there was a certain logic to it. Perhaps she could make herself look better in his eyes. The one thing he knew about her for a fact was that she could cast illusions, right? So what was to prevent her from doing that?
But she couldn't. He had seen her use her abilities; he knew how much effort it took. Just keeping them invisible in Norvell Wood for a few minutes had exhausted her so that she nearly passed out. Was he trying to say that she could keep up an illusion of beauty all the time she was with him, even while she was sleeping? It was impossible.
Unless it was all an act. Unless she could sustain an illusion a lot easier than she let on. Unless her being exhausted was a ploy.
All right, supposing all that was true, what was her purpose?
Surprisingly an answer came to him readily. She needed him. All her friends were gone. He was the only one she had to depend on. What better way to make him stay with her than to make him think he was in love with her, that she was in love with him?
He frowned. He couldn't believe he was actually thinking this. When did he become so cynical? He looked at her again; her face framed in the light of the flame, and couldn't believe he could think such things about someone who looked so innocent, looked like she would never lie to him about anything.
And that was just it, wasn't it? They had gotten off on the wrong foot, that day that seemed so long ago now back in Crotasia. She had lied to him then, and he would have bet his life she had been telling the truth.
So how could be possibly be sure she was being truthful now?
An owl hooted far off in the darkness, bringing his head up again. The fire was starting to die down. He added some more fuel.
It was nonsense. He obviously had too much time to sit and think. Merigan didn't need to bewitch him. The simple truth of the situation was he needed her as much as she needed him. He would be as lost without her. She was the one who had contacts, who knew people. She was the one who had experience running from the authorities. Whether he loved her or not didn't enter into it. They couldn't leave each other no matter what they thought of each other, even if they hated each other. Neither of them could survive this without the other. She didn't need any spells to keep him here.
It was ridiculous anyway. If she could cast illusions like that, she could do pretty much whatever she pleased. If she had that kind of power, if she could keep up an illusion even while she was sleeping, she wouldn't need his help.
No, there was no magic here, except the normal kind of magic that could be found between any man and woman.
Merigan stirred. He heard her mumble something and she shifted under her blanket. Her hand reached out, seeking out his. He let her fingers slip between his. She reached out with her other hand, wrapping her arm around his own and pulling him closer.
"I'm trying to keep watch," he told her gently.
She tugged him more insistently.
"I'm cold," she muttered.
He hesitated a moment more, before giving in and lying down beside her. It was dark just a few feet from the fire. He couldn't see much farther sitting up than he could lying down.
He turned to look at her once more as she snuggled up against him, her face only a few inches from his now. He was being crazy, thinking the things he had. A person could come up with selfish reasons for anything someone else did if he was cynical enough. Yes, Merigan had lied to him when they first met, but he had to admit she'd had good reason. She could hardly have told him the truth, now could she? Besides that, she and Ktan had come back for him after he had gotten in trouble, and if they hadn't Swordmaster Garrik would almost certainly have killed him. She hadn't needed him then, now had she? And as far as he could tell, she had been perfectly honest with him since.
No, he was being foolish. He was letting the darkness or his own insecurities get to him. He just couldn't get himself to believe that what he was feeling wasn't real, or that Merigan didn't feel the same way. He didn't want to. If this was bewitchment, then call him bewitched, because he wouldn't have it any other way.
Merigan shuddered and woke with a start. She looked around wildly for a moment not realizing where she was. Her heart was thudding in her chest.
The stars shone brightly in the sky above her. Nearby the trees swayed softly in a gentle wind. She looked around slowly, feeling her heartbeat returning to normal. She had been having a bad dream. A nightmare. She remembered being chased, and blood, but little else.
The fire had died down, so that now only a few red embers remained. Willbrand was lying on his bedroll right beside her. He was fast asleep.
She sat up, blinking. She wondered how late it was. The moon must have risen, but the mountain was blocking her view of it, and all she could see was the soft glow of it reflecting off the trees farther up the slope. She looked to the east but saw no sign of the sky being lighter there. Dawn must still be far off.
She looked at Willbrand, sleeping peacefully beside her, wondering how long ago he had fallen asleep. He was supposed to be on watch, or at least woken her up to take his place if he became tired, but she really couldn't blame him. He had taken the bulk of the watches since they had started this journey. He must be exhausted. Besides, she vaguely remembered prodding him to lie down beside her to provide some warmth. She felt no desire to admonish him, and besides, no harm had been done.
She looked around. Her eyes had adjusted, and what little moonlight filtered over the mountains was more than enough for her to see quite clearly, at least, as far as the edge of the hollow they had made camp in. Nothing moved around them. All was peaceful and quiet.
Even at night the forest was alive with activity. Humans might sleep after dark but that was not all animals did. Earlier she had heard the sounds of birds chirping, owls hooting, small animals making their way through the brush, the sounds of creatures on the prowl, looking for a meal or to avoid becoming one. The cycle of life didn't stop just because the sun went down.
Yet now, all was silent. Nothing seemed to be stirring in the forest around them. It was as if everything had stopped, watching, waiting.
Merigan sat there, staring off into the darkness around them, waiting for some sound to reassure her that nothing was wrong, that she was just letting her imagination get carried away.
Then she did hear something, off to the left, barely audible. If she hadn't been straining her ears she would never have heard it. What had that sound been, the sound of an animal going about its business in the dark, or the crunch of a twig underfoot?
Slowly she forced herself to relax. Concentrating her thoughts, she let her mind fall into the receptive state where she felt more than saw her surroundings. As she had many times before she reached out with her mind, searching for that spark that told her someone else was near.
And almost immediately she felt a presence.
"Willbrand, wake up!" she said urgently, grabbing hold of the young warriors arm and shaking it violently.
"Huh, what?" Willbrand muttered, sitting up suddenly.
"There's someone out there."
To his credit, Willbrand seemed to snap fully awake almost instantly at that.
"What, where?" he said. He grabbed his sword from beside him and stood up, unsheathing the weapon with a soft hiss.
"I'm not sure," Merigan replied. "Nearby. I can feel him."
Willbrand stood there, sword ready, staring off into the darkness, straining his ears, but he heard and saw nothing.
"I thought I heard a sound, off in that direction," Merigan said after a moment, pointing toward the stand of trees.
Willbrand stared in the direction indicated, but the darkness under the trees foiled him. He could see nothing.
"Light the fire," Merigan said.
"If I light the fire now, whoever's out there is sure to see it," Willbrand protested.
"It doesn't matter, he knows we're here," she replied.
Not sure why he was doing it, Willbrand obeyed. The fire hadn't been out completely, a few smoldering embers remained. Dry pine needles littering the ground around them made fine tinder. In a few moments he had the fire blazing once again.
"There, does that made you feel..."
He stopped when he heard the sharp intake of her breath. Her eyes were wide and she was staring off at the trees. He turned in that direction once again and a frown formed on his face, for at first he could see nothing in the darkness, but then, gradually, a form slowly took shape there, something under the trees. It was hard to make out, and he had to strain his eyes to see anything at all. Was that the form of a man, standing there in the darkness?
He wasn't completely sure. The form was so vague, so hard to make out, that he wasn't really sure if he was seeing anything more than a shadow. Was it just his eyes playing tricks on him?
He was tempted to yell out a challenge, but that seemed rather pointless. If someone was there, he doubted they would answer.
For a long time they just stood there, staring into the dark. If it was someone, he didn't seem to be moving. If someone was there, what was he waiting for?
Realizing that standing there was just increasing the tension he screwed up his courage and took a step forward, determined to find out for certain exactly what, or who, was there. As soon as he did so, however, he felt Merigan's hands wrap around his arm.
"Don't leave me!"
He glanced at her, annoyance flickering in his eyes, but it faded quickly. If someone was there the sooner they confronted him the better. Standing here was just an opportunity for their imaginations to run wild, to let their fear of the unknown get the better of them. If there really was someone there, that might be exactly what he was hoping for.
"C'mon," he said, taking hold of her hand. Whatever it was, they would face it together.
He turned to look at the stand of trees once again. There was a man there. The shadow had moved, as if knowing that his stillness was no longer a ploy he could use to increase their fear. He approached the fire, his step slow, deliberate. Slowly a face resolved itself in the flickering firelight. A face pale as death itself, eyes pits of blackness in the lesser darkness. As he stepped out into the light they could see he was swathed in a cape the color of blood.
Willbrand lifted his sword, ready to dart forward to the attack. It was the man who had been following them, and it was obvious he wasn't there to exchange pleasantries, but even as Willbrand prepared himself to strike, a sudden movement caught his eye. He turned his head, surprised, for another figure had entered the fray. A silver haired man, leaping out of the shadows from behind them.
Willbrand's heart leaped. How had their friends found them? The man's timing could not have been more fortuitous.
Ktan raced directly at the man, sword raised, yet their adversary made no move to defend himself, didn't even seem to notice the man bearing down on him at all, in fact.
Merigan was standing right beside Willbrand, and the young man suddenly noticed that her face was screwed up in concentration, and he could see the far away look in her eyes that he had seen so often before.
Willbrand faced their opponent again. He had only averted his eyes for a moment, but now there was no sign of Ktan. The apparition was gone.
"He didn't see it!" Merigan hissed.
The man was only a few steps from them. Willbrand didn't have time to ponder the consequences of what Merigan had just told him. Even without the help of Merigan's illusions he still had his sword. The man in front of them appeared unarmed. They still seemed to have an advantage.
Willbrand lunged forward, thrusting his sword straight at the man's chest.
With snakelike speed the man twisted to the side, and the sword struck nothing but air. At the same time the man's leg lashed out, his foot slamming against Willbrand's arm. A moment later the young man's sword was flying through the air, to land on the ground a dozen yards away.
For a split second Willbrand just stood there, looking at his sword on the ground, only one thought coming to his mind.
This is not good.
The man's leg kicked out again, catching Willbrand full in the stomach and sending him tumbling backwards to the ground.
Willbrand lay on the ground, grasping for air. The man turned and walked over to Merigan, grabbing hold of her arm. Crying out she tried to jerk her arm away but his grip was like a vise. She tried to kick him, but he twisted to the side, deftly avoiding the blow, then slapped her so hard across the face she cried out again and fell to the ground.
Willband, hearing Merigan's cry, forced himself to his feet in spite of the fact that he couldn't seem to get enough air in his lungs. Seeing his sword lying on the ground nearby he lunged for it, but again the man's foot shot out, catching him in the side and sending him tumbling away once more. It hurt, but it didn't knock the wind out of him this time. He pulled himself to his feet immediately. Merigan was on the ground behind the man, who was coming toward him.
"Merigan, run!" Willbrand shouted.
Willbrand raised his fists in front of him. He had had some training in hand-to-hand combat. It was part of the lesson he had learned as a cadet back in Crotasia. He had done pretty well for himself against the other cadets, but was certainly no expert, having spent more time honing his skills with a sword. The man he was facing was obviously skilled in unarmed combat. In fact, Willbrand had never seen someone use his legs as weapons the way this man did. He had a feeling he had a slim chance of beating his opponent without a weapon. In fact, considering how easily the man had disarmed him, he might have had trouble beating his adversary even with a weapon. Nevertheless, he didn't have to beat his opponent, he only had to distract the man long enough to give Merigan enough time to get away.
Willbrand stepped forward, aiming a punch at the man's face. Again the man's leg shot out, kicking him in the stomach before his own blow had a chance to land. He stumbled backwards again. The man pressed forward, kicking him again, this time in his leg just above the knee, sending a wave of pain shooting through him, almost causing him to cry out. He stumbled, turning to the side as the man grabbed hold of his arm, quickly twisting it and sending Willbrand to the ground once more.
The man still had him by the arm, and was now right on top of him. Wilbrand tried to get at the man, to punch him, but every blow seemed to be blocked somehow. He had never seen anyone who fought like this. He hadn't been able to connect with even one blow!
Struggling mightily Willbrand tried to pull free, but to no avail. The man countered his every attempt at escape. Willbrand was on his back now, the man on top of him, bringing back his hand, his fingers extended, and aimed right at Willbrand's throat.
Merigan was on her knees not far away, her head still spinning from the blow the man had given her. She saw that Willbrand was down, and that the man was getting the better of him. He had heard Willbrand's cry for her to run, but she had no intention of abandoning him. She staggered to her feet, determined to help Willbrand any way she could. She was no fighter; she had always depended on her illusionary abilities to help out when it came to battle. They seemed to be useless now however. Without that, how could she help? Just from when the man had grabbed her she could tell he was much stronger than she was, and she had a feeling any blows she might give him would be shrugged off as if they were nothing. Nevertheless, she had to try.
She was just about to leap back into the fray when she spotted Willbrand's sword on the ground nearby.
Instantly she bent down and grabbed hold of it. She started to pick it up and nearly dropped it. It was much heaver than she had expected. Using two hands she lifted it up, then ran over toward the others. She brought the sword back as she ran, then, using all her strength, swung it through the air in a murderous arc.
Whether he heard her behind him, through some sixth sense, or just by dumb luck, the man dropped down just as the sword whistled over his head, missing him by a hairs breath. Merigan stumbled to the side, staggered by the momentum of the blow.
Though the blow had not landed, it had thrown the man off balance, and Willbrand felt his grip loosen for a moment. That was all the young warrior needed. With all his strength he tore his arms free, grabbing hold of the man on top of him and flipping him up, over his head, and right over the top of the ledge they were now fighting beside.
Willbrand pulled himself to his feet. Merigan dropped the sword. The both of them scrambled over to the edge and looked down.
The slope below them was steep and covered with brush. In the darkness they couldn't see very far. They could no longer see the man, but they could hear him, tumbling down the slope, the brush crunching below him as he fell. It went on for a long time before it finally fell silent.
Neither of them moved, staring down the slope, straining their ears for any sign of movement, any hint that the man had survived the fall.
They heard nothing.
"Do you think he's dead?" Merigan finally asked.
"I don't know," Willbrand said eventually. And then he was a flurry of motion, running back to the encampment, scooping up all their belongings.
"I don't know if he's alive or not," he said. "But we can't take a chance. We have to get out of here, right now. If he's alive it will take him a while to get back up that slope, and with a little luck he may even be hurt. In any case, I don't want to wait around for him to show up. Whoever he is, I don't want to have to fight him again!"