Chapter twenty six
FAREWELL TO CEN FINDOL
Brant glanced back to see Willbrand looking at him. Glanced back, but only for a moment. With a muttered curse he turned his head away, looking up the ladder he was climbing. He was only about two thirds of the way to the top. He had hoped to get there before the kid saw him.
He scrambled up as fast as he could, using his powerful arms to haul himself up. He heard Willbrand yell his name again but this time he ignored it. By now the fool must have realized his intent. He had to reach the top before the boy reached the bottom.
Recklessly he clambered up the rest of the way until finally he hauled himself up to the top. He turned then, grabbing hold of the ladder and pulling it up. He looked down, just as he hauled it up, and saw Willbrand leap to grab the bottom rung and for a moment he almost thought the boy would succeed. But then the kid fell back, the ladder slipping from his grasp. Brant continued to haul it up, and now it was out of the kid’s reach.
Brant breathed a small sigh of relief at that. If the kid had reached the ladder, if he had started to climb up, Brant would have had no choice but to cut it. That might have been an option. He could have let the ladder remain there, let Willbrand climb most of the way up, then cut it. The fall would almost certainly kill the boy, and with little danger to himself.
Little danger that is, until he had to go back to the fort and explain to the Warden why the ladder to the river was no longer there. He was quite certain the Warden would not be happy at all about that, especially with a convoy would be there tomorrow, and even more certain exactly who the man would expect to retrieve it. It would take him hours to go around the long way, then hours to haul the rope back. Without a large party of men, that would be certain death.
No, it was better this way. Haul the rope up and leave the kid no choice but to go around the long. By himself the kid would stand no chance against the dog beasts and they would have plenty of time to gather their forces. This way the kid was as good as dead and he wouldn’t have to risk the Warden’s wrath.
Not that this plan was perfect either, of course. It had a couple of flaws. The most glaringly obvious one being that Willbrand was not dead. He was depending on the dog men to kill the boy, and if the kid happened to survive, happened to make it back to the fort somehow, well, there would be hell to pay for that now wouldn’t there? It was a calculated risk, but no plan was perfect. Trying to kill the boy outright was not without its risks as well. It seemed to him that this was the course of action that offered the best chance of success.
He hauled the last of the ladder up to the top, then dropped it in a heap beside the tree it was attached to. He had succeeded in trapping Willbrand below, leaving the boy at the mercy of the dog men, but now he had to overcome the second flaw in his plan. He was alone now too, and thus easy prey for a group of dog men. He had to make it back to the fort alive himself.
The difference between his and the kid’s predicament, of course, was that he was at the top of the cliff, and didn’t have very far to go to reach the fort. A short sprint up the slope would do it for him, and then he would be safe.
After one last glance down at his handiwork, sprinting up the hill was exactly what he did.
Brant wasn’t really built for running. His spindly legs looked barely strong enough to support his weight, much less run, the result of a serious illness when he had been but a small child that had left the muscles in his legs withered. He had built his arms up to compensate for that, but that didn’t prevent others from mocking him when he had been growing up, or even in adulthood. Perhaps as a result of that he had grown up bitter and short tempered, and had gotten into more than his share of fights. It was the killing of two men with his bare hands, as it happened, that had landed him in Cen Findol in the first place.
It might not be very far back to the fort, but it was all uphill. Before long Brant found himself winded and breathing heavily. He didn’t stop, however, nor even slow down, especially not after he noticed one of the dog men following along behind him.
Cursing to himself and his weak legs he raced up the hill as best he could. His plan had worked perfectly. He had left Willbrand behind to die. It would be a shame to fall to the dog men when the fruits of his victory were so close at hand.
The Warden had promised him he could do as he wished with the young girl as a reward for getting rid of the boy. His deformity not only left him mocked by men, but shunned by women as well. Now his mind salivated in anticipation of his promised reward.
He wasn’t going to let the dog men stop him.
He crested a low rise and then saw it, the fort not far up the slope. He put on a last burst of speed, feeling his knees wobble at the effort. Glancing back he could see the dog men giving chase. There were three of them back there now, and as he looked ahead he saw two emerge from a stand of trees and come running toward him as well. They were up the slope and to the left, racing not at him but toward the fort, trying to cut him off.
He wasn’t sure if he could reach safety before them and was certain he couldn’t kill them all.
He lifted his head, looking toward the compound in front of him. They always had men stationed by the gate keeping a look out. By now they had certainly seen him but that was little comfort. The Warden had never risked sending men out to rescue someone who was outside. No matter how valuable he was, Brant was under no illusions that the man would make an exception in his case. He was on his own. He would get no help from the men in the fort.
Even from this short sprint Brant felt as if he would collapse at any moment. He could barely keep his legs under him at this point but the fort was very close now. One of the beasts that was coming at him from the side was the closest and was nearly upon him now, even as he reached the gate. They still had to throw it open; he still had to get inside before he was overwhelmed. He turned and swung his axe in a vicious arc just as the dog man leaped at him. With a cry it fell to the ground, torn open from shoulder to waist. The other beasts howled and charged at him as well, but even as they did so he heard the lifting of the latches from inside the gate. A moment later it swung open and he slipped through, to have it slam shut a moment later, right in the faces of the dog men who had been chasing him.
Merigan looked up at the sound of the men’s cries from their positions above the gate. She was standing not far from them. A rope was strung between two of the buildings in front of her, and some of the ragged blankets the men used to sleep on hung from the rope. She had been beating them clean most of the day, or as clean as she could get them. Water was a precious commodity here, used for drinking only. Though she had pleaded otherwise, the Warden had forbidden her to use any of it for cleaning purposes. The men’s clothing was filthy, not to mention the men themselves, but the blankets they huddled in at night were the worst. She had implored the Warden to at to least let her clean them this way. Though far from the preferred method, this would at least improve things a little bit. The rags the men slept in were disgustingly filthy, worse than any she had ever seen. Dirty and bug infested, it was a miracle the men weren’t all ill from sleeping under such conditions. Eventually she had convinced the Warden to reluctantly agree to her spending some time doing this. He was hesitant, of course, because it took her away from her duties in the mine itself.
So now here she stood, the old handle of a shovel in her hands, beating the dirt out of the blankets as best she could, half choking herself on the dust and grime that was thrown into the air around her by her actions. She was filthy herself by now, and there was no more water to clean herself off here than to clean anything else.
Now she turned her attention to the men by the gate, who, though she could not hear what they were saying, were talking animatedly among themselves and pointing over the wall.
One good thing at least came from her doing this job. She was out here in the compound, not underground in the mine. She was as much troubled by Willbrand’s excursion down to the river as he had been himself. It had seemed very suspicious to her that the Warden would send just Willbrand and Brant and she was fearful something might happen to her companion. It was one of the reasons she had pressed her case for cleaning to the Warden so forcefully. Up here she could see what was going on, would know when Willbrand got back to the fort, would know he was safe.
She couldn’t see what the men on the rampart were seeing, of course. She couldn’t see over the stockade. She heard one of the men quite clearly call that they were coming back, obviously meaning the people outside, meaning Willbrand and Brant. It was also obvious from the cries and howls she was hearing that the dog men were out there as well.
Much as she wanted to, she couldn’t run up on the rampart herself. The Warden wouldn’t allow that. Even as she thought that he appeared, quickly coming out of the door of one of the buildings and stalking toward the gate. She stopped her beating and turned to follow him with her gaze.
She could hear the howls of the beasts outside clearly. Whatever was happening, it was happening close by. The men up on the ramparts just seemed to be watching. They took no action; just as they hadn’t the day she and Willbrand had arrived. The Warden was striding purposefully toward the gate but seemed to be in no particular hurry. It seemed as if he could care less what happened to those outside, as if it didn’t matter to him whether he opened the gate on time of they perished.
She felt so nervous she could barely stand it. The cries of the dog men sounded like they were right outside now and her mind was screaming at her to do something, anything. Perhaps she should have moved sooner, perhaps she should have gone up on the ramparts as soon as she heard the commotion but she realized it was too late now. The Warden was almost at the gate; he would have it open before she could get very far.
He stopped in front of the gate and unlatched it. It swung open and Merigan felt a surge of relief as Brant scrambled in. The relief faded as quickly as it appeared a moment later, however, when the Warden slammed the gate shut again.
Suddenly Merigan felt as if she couldn’t breathe.
The shovel handle she had been using to beat the blankest fell unnoticed from her hand. She walked slowly over to the two men; not thinking about what she was doing, not really even realizing she was moving. Brant gave her a sidelong glance as she approached, but otherwise ignored her. The men on the ramparts were looking down at them. No one said a word.
Her heart in the throat, nearly choking off her voice, Merigan spoke.
For a moment Brant continued to ignore her, as if he didn’t want to face her, but then lifted his head suddenly and looked her right in the eye.
That was it. Just like that. Just two simple words, spoken harshly, no effort made to shield her from their blunt truth.
Merigan felt as if someone had thrust a knife into her stomach. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be!
“He put up a fight, I’ll give him that,” Brant went on, but now he was looking at the Warden instead of her. “He took out a few of them before they got him, but there were just too many of them.”
Brant fell silent, as if that were all there were to say. And indeed, it had happened to these men so many times before that they didn’t have much else to say about it. They were used to it. Willbrand wasn’t even one of them. He had only been here about three weeks. They hardly knew him. These men didn’t give a damn about anything, about anyone. All they cared about was their own personal survival. Even the men they had know, the men who had been here with them, even their deaths had seemed to be shrugged off, taken lightly, even joked about. The men who had been killed fetching the water, she had heard the others calling them dog food. That was all they were to each other, that was all Willbrand was to them.
But that wasn’t how she felt.
“No...” she said softly. He couldn’t be dead. That was too horrible a fate, too horrible a fate for both of them. God couldn’t be that cruel.
She saw both the Warden and Brant turn to look at her, but they said nothing.
“No!’ she cried out, then turned and ran, ran up the rampart, not caring what anyone else thought, what anyone else did. She ran to the top and looked out over the stockade. Feeling tears stinging her eyes she stared out into the forest that surrounded them, as if by doing so she could somehow spot him, somehow bring him back, somehow deny that he was gone.
The day they had met, she had seen something there, seen something in his eyes, that day she had turned to find him standing behind her in the garden in Crotasia. She couldn’t say exactly what it was. It was just the way he looked at her, sort of a questioning look, but there was something else there as well. Kindness? Compassion? She wasn’t sure. All she knew was, she had never seen anyone look at her in quite that way. He had tried to be so kind, and she had repaid him with treachery, lying to him and throwing him down. It had rankled him, she knew, but she could tell he had never really held it against her. He was proud and had a noble bearing but the thing that had struck her the most about him was his sense of honor. All the time they had been together he had always tried to do the right thing. Though he and Ktan had been worlds apart, in that sense she thought they were both very similar. She had thought that eventually the two would become close friends. After being alone for so long, well, not really alone, she had Ktan and Jenya and Saramis with her but it wasn’t the same. They were much older than she was, and though they shared a common purpose it still wasn’t the same as having someone around your own age to be with, to talk to, to tell things the other person would understand, things they could only say to each other. Willbrand had been the one person in the group she could really talk to, could really open up to.
She had thought Willbrand would be around for a long time. She had been happy to have him with them. She had thought they would grow to be close, to be more than friends. She had thought…
He was gone, and with it, her thoughts, hopes and dreams were no more. It didn’t matter what she thought now.
She heard Brant’s voice float up from below.
“There’s no point in looking for him. There must be nothing left but bones by now.”
With those callous words the sickening feeling inside of her was caught up and momentarily swept away by another emotion, anger. It was his fault. Brant had been with Willbrand. Her friend had died but Brant was alive. How did Brant managed to live when Willbrand, the more experience fighter, perished? Did Brant fight at all, had he tried to help his companion, or had he run away at the first sign of trouble, leaving Willbrand to fend for himself? Or was there an even darker treachery here? The Warden had sent just the two of them out. He had never done anything like that before. His excuse that the dog men were cowed didn’t hold any water with her. No, it seemed much more likely this was set up deliberately, that the intent had been to get rid of her companion, for whatever reason. She was well aware of Brant’s animosity for Willbrand, and she could tell the Warden had no love for him either. Had this all been planned? Had the dog men even been involved, or had it been Brant’s hand that had slain her friend?
“You did it!” she cried out, staring straight at Brant.
He just stood there looking at her.
“You killed him,” she shouted. “This was all a plot wasn’t it?” she continued, looking back and forth between the two men below her. “You did this deliberately. You had Willbrand killed. You let the dog men take him, I’ll bet without lifting a finger to help, that is if you didn’t do it with you own hand!”
Brant just stared at her for a moment, then his face broke into a foul grin.
“What nonsense are you spouting, missy?” he questioned. “No need to be accusing me of anything. You’ve obviously lost your senses with grief. You know how the dog men are; you know how dangerous they can be. The boy was always taking on the difficult jobs, unnecessary risks. Everyone knows that. It’s a wonder he lasted as long as he did.”
“He was taking risks because you told him to!” she exclaimed, turning her gaze to the Warden. She wasn’t thinking about herself anymore, didn’t care if she raised her voice, didn’t care what the Warden thought of what she said. “You knew how dangerous it was yet you only sent two people out. You meant to do this all along! You murdered Will!”
The Warden’s face registered only a momentary surprise before it darkened with anger.
“You’d be wise to listen to what Brant says and shut your mouth you foolish girl,” he snapped. “Your friend’s death is unfortunate but there wasn’t anything anyone could do. The dog men have taken dozens of my men over the years. I don’t like it but it happens. You know as well as I do this could have happened at any time.”
His voice dropped, taking on a more menacing tone.
“I’ll let it go this time because your friend died, but if I hear another word about any plot or murder from you I will lose my patience. Am I making myself clear?”
Merigan did fall silent there, not because of the Warden’s demand, but instead because the anger left her and was replaced by an upwelling of despair so intense that she could no longer find her voice. Willrbrand was gone. He wasn’t coming back. Ktan, Jenya, Saramis were all far far away. She was alone. She prided herself on being mature, being able to take care of herself, but even so there had always been someone there for her, someone she could depend on if she really needed it. That wasn’t the case now. For the first time in her life she was truly and utterly alone.
She hated the Warden and Brant. She hated it here. She wished they had never come here. She wished they had starved out in the wilderness. At least then they would have died together, and she wouldn’t be alone.
The Warden, Brant, none of the miners gave a damn about her. None of them cared whether she lived or died. All they were thinking about was themselves. The were all treacherous, false, criminals. Willbrand was gone, she was in the middle of nowhere surrounded by snakes, with the dog men waiting outside should she try to escape.
They were all standing there looking at her and suddenly she wanting nothing more than to get away. She didn’t want them looking at her, she didn’t want them to see her grief and despair. There was no one here who could offer her any comfort.
Without thinking about it she found herself running again, back down the rampart, not sure where to go, just knowing she wanted to get away, didn’t want anyone’s eyes on her any more. She ran into the nearest building, slipping through the door and slamming it behind her.
It was the sleeping quarters. The ragged blankets lay strewn across the floor, the one’s she hadn’t cleaned yet and those she had. There was no one in here. The other men were all working in the mine. It would be hours before they came out, when the sun was setting. That was fine with her. She didn’t want to see any of them, didn’t want to see any of them ever again.
She walked slowly over to her own bedroll, laid out in the corner, right next to Willbrand’s. She stopped then, looking down at the two bedrolls in front of her, side-by-side, empty now. She looked at Willbrand’s and knew it would never be filled again.
She fell to her knees, sobbing. He was gone. He would never return. Anger, fear for herself, they fell away at that moment, leaving only a hollowness inside her, an aching emptiness that she thought would never leave her again. He was gone. Gone.
She jumped, startled, as the door to the building opened. She lifted her head, wiping the tears from her eyes, to see Brant standing in the entranceway. What was he doing in here? He was the last person she wanted to see. Hadn’t she made it obvious she wanted to be alone?
“Go away,” she said thickly.
Brant didn’t go away. Instead he stepped inside, closing the door behind him. He didn’t say anything at all, just walked slowly over to her until he stood right in front of her.
“You’re not the one who gives the orders around here,” he said to her.
She glared at him in a way that she hoped made it plain he was unwelcome, but he was unfazed.
“Why don’t you leave me alone?’ she questioned, barely able to get the words out. Why was he here? Had he come to watch her misery? Was he that sadistic? It wouldn’t surprise her at all. Nothing he did would surprise her now. Or so she thought. “Haven’t you done enough?”
He seemed to feel no urgency to reply, instead continued to look at her, his lips slowly turning up into a grin, a look that made him appear more grotesque to her than ever.
“Oh no missy,” he replied evenly. “I haven’t done enough. I haven’t done nearly enough. In fact, I haven’t even begun.”
He took a step forward, and Merigan’s eyes widened, finally beginning to understand that perhaps Brant was here for something more than just to watch her misery, that he had something worse in mind. Much worse.
Whatever would have happened then was interrupted, however, as the door to the building opened once again. Brant spun around, his face darkening with anger that someone would have the gall to interrupt him, which changed quickly to a puzzled frown as he saw the Warden there.
No one said anything. Merigan felt relief at the interruption, relief tempered by the fact that she was as suspicious of the Warden as she was of Brant. For a moment Brant could not hide the look of open hostility at his boss’ entrance. What did the Warden want now, now when he was about to receive the reward he so fervently desired? Hadn’t he been promised this?
The Warden stalked over to them and looked down at them both, for he towered over the two of them. Then he turned to Brant.
“Get out of here.”
Brant just stared at him. What was the meaning of this? The Warden had told him he could have the girl. Had promised. Was he going back on his word?
For a moment the two men glared at each other. Then the Warden spoke again, gruffly.
“Get out I told ya. Don’t worry; you’ll get your turn with her. Soon as I’m done.”
For a moment more Brant did not respond. For a moment he felt anger well up within him, but then he let it fade. It didn’t matter to him what happened to the girl, he didn’t care what condition she was in. What difference did it make to him if she pure or not? As long as he got what he wanted, as long as he got his turn, it didn’t make any difference.
The malicious grin slowly reforming on his face he turned to look at Merigan again.
“We’ll finish our business in a little while,” he told her, then stalked out the door.
Merigan felt some relief at this reprieve but not much. She turned to cast a wary eye on the Warden. From what he had said to Brant she didn’t think she was any safer with him than with the other man.
The Warden glared at her.
“You’ll be staying with us,” he pronounced.
She looked at him.
“What do you mean?” she questioned.
“Just what I said,” he replied. “You’ll be staying here, not leaving with the convoy. You’re useful. The men like your… cooking.”
The way he said it made it obvious that wasn’t all he had in mind for her.
“No…” she stammered.
“Yes!” he snapped. “You’ll stay. You’re good for the men’s morale. They like having a pretty face here. You’ll help me keep them in line. I can use you as a reward for the men who do as they’re told.”
“No,’ she said again. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t make her. She would rather die. “You can’t make me stay!”
She raised her voice at that, something the Warden didn’t care for at all. It was about time the girl learned just who was in charge around here. He stepped forward suddenly, his hand darting forward, slapping her across the face with such force she was thrown to the ground. She screamed, her head spinning at the force of the blow, not even able to think, too shocked and hurt by his sudden attack to do anything at all. No one had ever hit her like that before.
“You’ll do as you’re told!” the Warden shouted. “You’re in a hellhole in the middle of nowhere. There’s no one here who will come to your aid, no one to help you. You’re no different from the men here. I run this place, I tell them all what to do. I’ll tell you what to do and you better damn obey! Your little boyfriend is dead. He ain’t coming back to rescue you. No one can. You’ll do what you’re told and you’ll like it.”
He was standing over her as she lay on the ground, shouting as if the words themselves could wound her, and in fact they did. He was right. She was alone. More alone than she had ever been. She felt her despair rising up inside her once again.
The Warden looked down at her, lying abjectly on the floor and was pleased with his handiwork. The poor fool had no idea what was in store for her, but she was getting an inkling now. Just a bit more of a push and he would break her entirely.
And he knew just how to provide that.
“Now come here,” he growled. “It’s time for you to get a hard lesson about life.”
He grabbed her by the shoulder, a handful of her dress in his grip and pulled her toward him so roughly it made her cry out again. She knew now what she had suspected before was true, the Warden was no better than Brant, than any of the men here. It was plain to her now what they wanted, what they were going to do to her.
She lowered her head, but this time not in despair. It was too late for that. The Warden was right about one thing. No one was going to help her. If she was going to get out of this she had to do it herself. She lowered her head this time not in despair, but instead to concentrate her will.
He saw it out of the corner of his eye. Something moving in the shadows behind the girl. He lifted his head, and his eyes widened in shock.
A snake. A huge snake slithered on the floor behind Merigan. Its skin was black as the night. Its head was upright, merely an arms length away. Its eyes were golden slits, staring right at him. In its mouth its forked tongue flicked out with a venomous hiss. Its fangs gleamed below, long, deadly, a drop of green venom hanging suspended from the tip of one. For just a moment they remained there, eye to eye, before the beast suddenly lunged forward.
With a strangled cry he threw himself backwards, twisting desperately to try to avoid the creature’s attack. His machinations went for naught, however. The snake struck as quick as lightening, impossible to avoid. He felt it ripping into his neck, felt white hot pain shoot through him as the fangs drove into his soft tissues, pumping their deadly venom deep into his body.
A moment later he found himself on his back, staring up at the ceiling. All was suddenly deathly quiet. The pain, so terrible a moment ago, faded away. For a moment a thought flashed through his mind. So this was what it felt like to die.
He lay there waiting, waiting for the end to come.
But it never did.
He was aware of movement. He was aware, suddenly, that he felt no pain at all. He could not see the snake anymore, could see nothing but the ceiling above his head and a bit of the walls, and Merigan. She was doing something, moving, running?
He lifted his head, the shock finally wearing off. He looked around slowly. Merigan was by the door, had pulled it open. He didn’t feel that concerned about her at the moment. Where was it? Where was the snake?
He pulled himself up to a sitting position, looking around wildly, trying to find it, wondering why he was even alive, why he felt no pain.
There was no sign of a snake. It wasn’t there. He jerked his head back and forth, looking for a place where it could have gone, where it could be hiding.
There was none. A frown creased his brow. His hand came up to feel his neck, to feel where the creature had struck.
His skin was unbroken. There was no wound, no injury. It was as if it had never happened.
He pulled himself to his feet, finally getting a grip on himself, realizing that something extraordinary had happened, something he couldn’t explain. He lifted his head to look at the now open door, the door Merigan had disappeared through a moment before.
He wasn’t sure what had happened, didn’t know what was going on, but he was certain now of at least one thing.
Somehow it had been her doing. She had tricked him, bewitched him. She had made a fool of him and that filled him with rage. He brooked no one doing such a thing to him, man or woman. He didn’t know what she did or how she had done it, but one thing was certain, she was going to pay for it, she was going to pay dearly.
Brant stood outside the sleeping quarters, pacing impatiently. He could live with what the Warden was doing but that didn’t mean he was happy about it. How long was the man going to take?
As it turned out, it wasn’t very long at all, far sooner that Brant would have anticipated, before the door to the building was flung open, but to Brant’s surprise, it wasn’t’ the Warden who emerged, but Merigan.
She stopped short when she saw him. She was only a few paces away. If he would have lunged for her, he might have been able to grab her. But he was so surprised to see her that before he could collect his wits she had bolted off in the other direction.
Still, he only hesitated a moment before he raced after her. He wasn’t sure what had happened but it was obvious she had somehow eluded the Warden, somehow escaped him. For a moment he felt a perverse pleasure in that. Serve the man right for making him wait. But then his mind turned to stopping the girl. He raced after her; confident that even with his spindly legs he could catch up with a mere girl. She ran around the corner of the building. He turned the corner himself a moment later, then stopped dead in his tracks.
She was gone.
He stared around wildly in all directions. She had only been out of his sight for an instant, had turned the corner moments before him. There was nothing here, no place for her to hide. She couldn’t have made it to the next corner of the building in that short a time. It was impossible.
He stood there, his mouth open, looking around, not believing his own eyes. Impossible it might have been, but nevertheless she was not there.
He twisted around as the Warden suddenly appeared behind him.
“Where did she go?” he snarled.
Brant just shook his head, still hardly able to believe she vanished.
“Where?” the warden shouted.
“I don’t know!” Brant snapped. “She was here a moment ago. I chased her but she ran around the corner of the building. When I came around myself she was gone. I was only a moment behind her. There is nowhere for her to hide. She just… vanished.”
Brant looked at the Warden, not sure what the man would think, whether he would believe him. There really was no place for her to hide. What he was saying was impossible.
To his surprise, however, the Warden seemed to accept this with little question. He stood there, looking around slowly. Brant couldn’t help but wonder exactly what had happened inside the building.
It was obvious to the Warden by now that there was much more to this girl than any of them had suspected. Somehow she had conjured a snake up before, and now had vanished into thin air. What kind of witchcraft was this?
Perhaps it would be best to get rid of her just like they had the boy. If she could do things like this, if she was some sort of witch, she was too dangerous to have around.
“Find her,” the Warden growled. “I don’t care what it takes. She can’t go far. She can’t leave the fort. She has to be here somewhere. Search every corner of the place. I don’t care if you have to take the men out of the mines to help, but find her!”
Merigan was not far away. As soon as she had turned the corner with Brant chasing her she had stopped, concentrating once more, this time on making herself not seen. Like all of her talents, she wasn’t quite sure how she did it. Conjuring false images out of the air seemed to be one thing, but making things that were really there vanish, well, that seemed like a whole different problem to her. Saramis, not one to be at a loss for a theory, had told her that wasn’t really true however, that in fact, the two were quite similar. After all, when she created an illusion she was planting an image in a person’s mind. If she could do that, why couldn’t she reach into a person mind and remove an image as well? Like all of Saramis’ theories, she wasn’t sure how close to the truth it was, but at least it did sound plausible to her, and she had no better theory of her own.
Right now, however, just how she did what she did was not much of a concern; she just thanked the stars that she could do it at all. Moving slowly and carefully, for that was all she could do while maintaining her illusion; she had walked around behind the building until she was out of sight again, even as Brant stood at the corner wondering what had become of her.
Once hidden from view she let her concentration lapse. She stood there for a moment, feeling slightly dizzy. Two illusions in so short a time was difficult, had taken a lot out of her. Not a good thing, since she was still in the middle of the fort, with no idea what to do or where to go and the possibility of one of the men spotting her an ever present danger. She needed to find a place to hide for real, a place where she wouldn’t need to use her powers, or she would quickly tire and lose what little ability she had left.
But where? Where could she go? The compound wasn’t very large. There were few places to hide outside, and only half a dozen buildings to choose from. No matter where she went, it wouldn’t take a concerted search very long to find her.
One thing was for sure, she couldn’t stay here. It wouldn’t take long for Brant or the Warden to get over their initial surprise. They might come around the corner at any moment.
She ran across the compound, trying to keep the sleeping quarters between herself and her pursuers, as well as the men on the ramparts by the front gate. She reached another building and ran around behind it. She was near the back of the compound now. The stockade fence was but a few paces away from her, and the mountain rising up behind it. To her left was the mine entrance.
She stopped there, trying to catch her breath. She had to find someplace to rest soon, someplace reasonably safe, if possible.
Leaving the fort seemed the obvious solution. The compound was too small for her to hide in for very long. The men wouldn’t dare leave the fort to go out into the forest to search for her. She would be safe from them out there.
Safe from the miners, but of course, not the dog men. They were still out there. She didn’t even have to use her abilities to know this, for she could still hear their cries. Not right outside the gates anymore but not that far away either.
She edged over to the side of the building. There was an old broken wheelbarrow lying at the corner that she used for cover as she peered around the corner. She was scared. She could feel here arms trembling as she moved. Her heart was still in her throat from the narrow escape with the Warden. She couldn’t see either of the men, couldn’t see anyone. She was safe for the moment though she knew she couldn’t stay here for long, out in the open. She had to make up her mind what she was going to do and she would have to do it soon.
A movement caught her eye. She turned her head to see Brant running out from behind one of the buildings. She ducked down, but he wasn’t looking in her direction. Instead he ran into the mine.
Why was he going in there? The other men were in there. Surely he didn’t think she would hide in there?
No, that didn’t seem likely. He had to be going in there for the other men. Why would he want them? Were they going to search for her too?
She couldn’t hide from all of them. If she had two dozen people looking for her, they would find her in minutes.
She turned toward the fence. There was no ramp on this side, no way up. She had to go out through the gate, which she couldn’t open without being spotted, or over the wall in the front, from the ramparts where the lookouts stood. She could probably use her powers to make them not see her, to get over the wall, though she wasn’t sure if she could maintain her concentration while climbing over and dropping down.
Worse still, she was already fatigued. She had already used her powers twice now and she didn’t think she could use them again without getting some rest first.
She looked back at the mine. No one emerged, but that didn’t mean much. The mine was deep. It would take Brant a while to reach the others, quite some time, in fact, for him to reach them and come back. She had some time, but she wasn’t sure if it would be enough.
She was shivering with fright, deathly afraid the Warden would come upon her, would spot her. She kept twisting her head around, looking behind her, hoping he wouldn’t come upon her from that direction. She couldn’t see him, didn’t know where he was, whether he was searching himself or waiting for the others.
It was just him and the two men up on the ramparts here now. Were the lookouts searching for her too or had the Warden not even told them what was going on? She thought it would be foolish to leave the gate unguarded but what did she know? The Warden was sure to be furious with her eluding him. The dog men couldn’t get over the stockade, so far as she knew. He might not think twice about taking the men off the walls.
In any case, there were only three men up in the compound right now. Before too long there would be dozens. If she was going to move, now would be the time.
On her hands and knees she backed up, until she was safely behind the building again, then she stood up and ran to the other side, peeking around the corner. From there she could see the front gate, though one building blocked her view of a part of it. She could see one of the lookouts from here as well. He was still at his position. From that she could only assume the other man was as well, which meant only the Warden was actually hunting for her at the moment.
The question was, where was he?
And then she saw him, making his way toward one of the buildings off to her left. She crouched down, quivering in fear as he glanced over in her direction. He obviously didn’t see her, however, for he continued toward the other building, pulling open the door and disappearing inside.
She didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know where to hide. She couldn’t stay here. He would be bound to find her.
She looked around desperately. There was no place to hide in the compound itself, and only six buildings to choose from. How could she hide from even one man here?
And then something occurred to her. The least likely place for him to look for her was a place he had already been.
She stared the building the Warden had entered. It was the mess hall. It consisted of two rooms, a large dining area where the men ate, and the kitchen in the back. It would take him some time to search.
She lifted her head, looking at the man she could see on the ramparts, but to her relief he was looking over the wall and not inside the fort. It seemed the Warden had not clued them in on what he was doing.
Her heart in her throat, staring at the dining hall the whole time, scared to death the Warden would emerge again before she made it, she ran back toward the sleeping quarters. Crossing the distance she was right out in the open. If the Warden came back out before she made it, she would be in plain sight.
It only took her a few seconds, but her heart was thudding in her chest when she reached the building. She rounded the corner, no longer in view of the dining hall, safe for the moment, and suddenly found she could breathe again. Not wasting any time she slipped back into the sleeping quarters.
Quietly she closed the door behind her. The room was empty of course. She was safe here, for a little while. She was fairly certain the Warden wouldn’t come back here before he searched every place else first. It would be a while before the other men came up from the cave. She had a little time now, but they would come back here eventually, if they couldn’t find her anyplace else.
She could rest now at least. Hopefully by the time they thought to look back here again, by the time the other men started looking, she could be rested and ready to escape.
There was no furniture in the room. The men slept on the floor, on their ragged blankets, their meager personal possessions in a small rucksack beside them. The only other objects in the room were a couple of barrels filled with old mining equipment. She wedged herself in behind these, sitting on the floor, her legs scrunched up against her so she could not be seen by someone entering the door.
It was all she could do. There was nothing left now but to wait.
For a long time she sat there, unmoving, still shivering in fear. Until now she had been concerned with getting away, getting to someplace at least temporarily safe. Now that she had achieved that she had time to think about other things, had time to reflect on just what a dire situation she now found herself in. And with that she felt her despair returning.
What was she going to do? Willbrand was gone, he couldn’t help her anymore, no one could, she thought bleakly. The miners were after her, she knew she couldn’t trust any of them, trust any of them to help her, to not give her away to the Warden. She had no place to go except out into the forest and what awaited her there? She was lost, she didn’t know how to get to Zalan, didn’t know how to get back to civilization. And the dog men were out there still, waiting. Even if she got by them she didn’t think she could survive for very long in the wilderness by herself. It was hopeless.
She felt her tears falling again, silently, for she dared not make a sound for fear of being heard. Everything had gone horribly wrong and now there was no way out. It was all over. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t see any solution to this situation, save death. The only way to survive was to remain here, to submit to the Warden’s will, to give them all what they wanted.
She couldn’t do that, could she? She would rather die. She would rather take her chances with the dog men, at least then the end would be swift.
She wanted to die, and yet she didn’t. She wished Willbrand were here. She wished this had all never happened. She cursed the day they had found this place. All it had given them was misery and death. She wished she could somehow make herself invisible permanently, wished she could use her powers somehow to make the whole world go away. She wished she had never been born.
Filled with misery and despair, she eventually cried herself to sleep.
She hadn’t intended to do that, of course. When she sat down, sleep had been the last thing on her mind. But she was exhausted from the trauma and having to use her powers. Her body had to rejuvenate itself, whether she willed it or no, and sleep was the only way it could do that.
She awoke with a start, her head jerking up, at first not knowing where she was, but a moment later all that had happened flooded back to her. She looked around wildly, realizing how foolish she had been, that if someone would have come in while she was asleep, she would have been helpless.
Fortunately the room was empty. She forced herself to calm down. However foolish it might have been, she had needed it, and no harm had come of it. She had not been found and now she felt refreshed. If she needed to she could use her powers again, and she had a feeling that’s exactly what she would have to do.
She walked over to one of the windows, wondering just how long she had been asleep. The room was darker now; she could tell it was much later, near dusk. The shutters were closed, but like everything else here were in poor condition and had cracks between the slats large enough for her to peer out.
Two men walked by the window just as she looked . She ducked back down behind the wall. They were out there. The men had been brought up out of the mine, were undoubtedly searching for her. It was a miracle they hadn’t found her while she was sleeping.
There was no more time to waste. She was ready to make her escape. Her mind was made up. She’d take her chances with the dog men, with the wilderness outside rather than remain here. She walked over to her bedroll, gathering it and the rest of her belongings up. She didn’t have much. She stepped over to Willbrand’s spot, hesitated a moment, then reached down and opened his pack, taking out anything she thought she might find useful, including the Book of Redemption. She had almost forgotten they still had it. She hadn’t felt the urge to open it in a long time. She picked up a few other things, certain Willbrand wouldn’t mind her taking anything of his.
She felt tears forming in her eyes again at that thought.
She brushed them away, chiding herself. She didn’t have time to mourn right now. He would want her to get away, would want her to be safe. Besides she was only borrowing it for a little while. She had a feeling she wouldn’t be needing it for long, that she’d be joining him soon anyway. She didn’t have any hope left. The dog men were almost certain to get her, once she left the safety of the fort. It was only a matter of time. Even if she did manage to elude them the best she could foresee was slowly starving to death, lost in the forest, leaving her bleached bones as the only clue she had ever been there. Ktan, the others, would never even know what fate befell her. They would search for her… forever.
Right now Ktan, Jenya, Irissa, her entire quest seemed another lifetime ago. But that wasn’t true. In spite of her present situation she couldn’t let herself forget what she had been struggling for her whole life.
The Queen was up to something, something evil. She was as certain of that as she was of anything. And she was just as certain that she was the only one who had a chance of stopping it. There was more than herself involved here. More at stake than just her life. Much more. She couldn’t afford to die like this, out here in the middle of nowhere. She had an obligation to the others, to Mandaria, to somehow survive.
Gritting her teeth she pulled her pack over her shoulders. She would do what she could. If she had no hope, she would just have to go on without it.
She walked over to the door, opening it just a crack, and looked out. The front gate was perhaps fifty or so paces away, but it seemed much farther. She could see the men out there, a lot of them, wandering around the compound. Once she stepped outside she would be in plain sight until she got over the wall. She would have to depend on her abilities to keep her hidden while she walked across the compound, up the ramp and over the stockade. It was hard enough to maintain her concentration when she was motionless, harder still when she was moving. It would tax her to the limit to do this successfully.
Still, there was nothing for it. She couldn’t stay here. She took a deep breath, concentrated, then stepped out the door.
The men were searching everywhere. As soon as she stepped out of the door she could see them all around. She walked across the open space, toward the ramp. She moved slowly, trying to keep her mind on what she was doing. If her concentration wavered for even a moment, she could be seen.
One of the hardest things to adjust to when she used this particular talent was the fact that she didn’t FEEL like she couldn’t be seen. She could see herself plainly enough. There was no clue that the others couldn’t, no indicator to her that her illusion was working. She had done this many times in the past, and though she thought she should be used to it by now, her heart still beat faster in her chest every time one of the men looked in her direction.
She knew her powers weren’t absolute. She knew that some people were immune to them. It was rare but it did happen. If one of the miners was like that, if her spell didn’t work on one of them, he would see her immediately.
It was only about fifty paces from the building she had been in to the ramp near the gates, but it seemed to take forever to cross it.
Eventually she did, however, and started up the ramp to the top. She was close to her goal now but not out of the woods yet. None of the men had seen her; obviously, none seemed to be impervious to her abilities. A good thing of course, but there were other ways to break the spell besides immunity. Like everything else in the fort the ramp was old and worn. She had to be careful where she stepped now for the sound of the creaking of the wood beneath her feet would give her away. She couldn’t conceal that. And also, she would be only a few paces away from the lookout once she reached the top of the ramp. If he moved, if he happened to walk into her, that would break the spell as well. She had to use the utmost care in order to remain concealed.
The last vestiges of light were just fading when she reached the top of the ramp. This did not concern her much. Darkness was probably a good thing. It would help conceal her from the men in the fort, and she knew the dog men were less active at night. She had thought she’d heard their cries earlier, but now all was silent. She didn’t have time to look and see if there were any out there, she was too busy concentrating on herself. For the same reason, she couldn’t use her powers to try to detect their presence. She had to get over the wall first, once that was done, then she would worry about what was out there.
She was almost there now, but this last part would be the hardest. She had to climb over the fence while still concentrating on her spell. The act of climbing was a lot more complicated than walking and it was hard enough to maintain her concentration while doing that. It wasn’t going to be an easy task.
The rampart was designed so a grown man could look out over the top of it with just his head and upper shoulder showing. Standing on her toes she could just see over it. The stockade itself was made to stout round timbers that came to a point on top. Fortunately they were roughly hewn and the points were blunt. Even so it wouldn’t be an easy task for her to climb over.
Carefully she hauled herself up. She knew the guard stood only a few paces from her but she didn’t see him. Barely saw the wall in front of her, in fact. Most of her mind was focused inward, concentrating on keeping herself from being seen. It was an incredibly difficult thing to do and eventually it became too much for her.
She was just pulling herself up to the pinnacle when her hand slipped. She started to fall, but desperately reaching out she caught herself. Her arm, however, had slid down along the top of the fence, scraping along the rough hewn wood, ripping her skin and tearing a gash in her arm. She didn’t cry out at the pain that suddenly shot through her, but her concentration was broken.
“Here she is!” she heard the guard cry out.
And he would have had her right there. He was only standing a few paces away. He could have easily run over and grabbed hold of her before she made it over the stockade. Fortunately for her, he was too stunned by the shock of seeing her there, seeing her climbing over the wall almost within arms reach when a moment ago he had seen nothing at all, to react quickly. It was impossible for her to have gotten so close to him without him seeing her sooner.
Merigan did not hesitate. Adrenaline coursed through her body at the sound of his shout, giving her a strength she hardly knew she possessed. No longer having to worry about concentrating on remaining concealed she desperately pulled herself up the rest of the way, up and over the top of the fence, to plunge down suddenly on the other side.
She had intended to go over the stockade carefully, had intended to hang from the top by her hands before dropping down, leaving her closer to the ground, but she didn’t have time for that now. She fell the entire distance, a distance more than twice her height, and hit the ground hard. She collapsed into the dirt, crying out as she felt pain shoot through her left leg.
Ignoring the pain as best she could she pulled herself to her feet. She had been seen, she was out of the fort but they were sure to follow. She glanced up for a moment to see the man she had eluded standing at the top of the stockade just looking at her. He hadn’t moved. Not wasting anymore time she ran.
It was nearly dark now. The sun had already dropped below the horizon, and a few stars now glimmered in the sky above her, not that she noticed. She looked ahead, at the forest in front of her, and saw it was even darker there, under the trees. If she could make it, if she could get that far, she might just get away yet.
The sound of the gate being thrown open behind her made her turn her head to look back again. She saw figures emerging from the fort. One she recognized immediately. Brant.
She ran on, trying to eke out as much speed from her tired and aching body as she could. She glanced back again and saw that Brant was gaining, gaining much too fast. With a sinking feeling she realized it was a losing proposition. Once again the use of her powers had exhausted her, leaving her little in reserve for running. On top of that her leg had been twisted when she had fallen, and the pain was almost unbearable with every step she took. She looked desperately ahead once again. The forest was tantalizingly close now, but might as well be a hundred leagues away. She could hear the thumping of Brant’s feet behind her, hear his ragged breath. Even if she made it to the shelter of the trees now, he was too close, she couldn’t elude him.
Panic stricken she tried to put on one last burst of speed. So close. She couldn’t come so close and fail. She just couldn’t.
She tried to think, tried to concentrate, but it was impossible. She couldn’t use her powers again. Not in the condition she was in.
And a moment later, she felt Brant’s hand slam against her back. She cried out, yet again, and fell stumbling to the ground.
Sick to her stomach, once again feeling misery and despair overwhelming her, she turned to see Brant’s grinning face above her.
“Not so fast missy,” he growled. “We have some unfinished business.”
He reached down and grabbed hold of her. She shied away, tried to clamber out of his reach, but it was to no avail. His hand clamped on her arm like a vice. She stared up at him, trying to muster her will, but she knew in her heart she didn’t have the strength to try another illusion.
“Get your filthy hands off her!”
The world froze in place for Merigan at the sound of that voice, a voice she thought was gone forever, a voice she never thought she would hear again.
Merigan wasn’t the only one frozen. Brant too was stuck by a sudden paralysis. His body remained stock still. Only his head moved, lifting up slowly, his eyes widening, the malicious grin on his face vanishing.
Merigan looked up as well. A figure stood there, not far away, under the shadows of the trees. A man. She couldn’t make out any of his features in the ever increasing darkness but she didn’t need to. Even if she hadn’t heard his voice she would have known. She knew that outline, knew the set of his shoulders, the steadfastness of his stance. She had seen that before, seen it many times. She felt she knew him so well, she would have recognized him in the pitch darkness.
She lunged to her feet, pulling her arm out of Brant’s now slack grasp, then ran over to Willbrand, not caring anymore about the pain and exhaustion she had felt a moment before. It was gone now. It was all gone. He was alive. Alive!
And then she threw herself into his arms.
One of his arms came around to pull her in. The other held his sword. For a moment, however, it was as if no one else was there, as if they were alone, no one else in the world than just the two of them. Merigan buried her face in his chest, tears falling from her eyes again, but this time they were tears of joy.
“I thought I had lost you,” she sobbed. “They told me you were dead. They told me…”
No more words came out. She was too overcome to continue. Willbrand said nothing, but the arm he held her with, pulling her so tightly too him, the look in his eyes when she lifted her head to gaze into them, all spoke volumes.
“Are you all right?” he questioned softly.
She looked at him for a moment. He had been worried about her, of course Must have been sick with worry.
“Yes,” she replied. “Except for some bumps and bruises, I’m unhurt.”
He looked at her a moment more, then nodded.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I knew you’d be worried. I knew they’d tell you I was dead…”
He stopped, lifting his head, looking past her. Merigan let him go then, loath as she was to do so. There would be a time for this later. Right now they had other things to attend to.
Brant stood there, not far away. He hadn’t moved at all. Behind him she could see the other men, slowly approaching, and behind them, the grim towering figure of the Warden.
The master of Cen Findol strode past the other men, walking forward until he stood right next to Brant, who looked up to see the Warden glaring at him. Brant shuddered inwardly. His plan had failed. The damn boy, against all odds, had managed to survive, managed to make it back to the fort. He had told the Warden the boy was dead. Had said he had taken care of the problem.
Brant looked from the Warden to the kid and back. Whatever happened now the fact remained that he had failed. The Warden had told him to kill the boy and he hadn’t. It was only a matter of time before the Warden would make him pay for that.
Hefting his axe in his hand he started forward.
It might be too late, but if he killed the kid now, he might at least mitigate the circumstances a little. Perhaps it would temper the Warden’s wrath. Perhaps he could even keep his station as the Warden’s top man. He didn’t care anymore how good a fighter Willbrand was. If it came down to a choice between the kid’s sword and the Wareden’s fury, he’d take the sword every time.
“So you made it back,” he said slowly as he walked. “You’re a bigger fool than I thought. You should have run off when you had the chance. Just can’t take the hint that you’re not wanted here eh? Well, I guess I’ll just have to make it crystal clear to you here with my axe.”
Willbrand said nothing. He took a step forward until he stood in front of Merigan, his sword ready in his hand.
A low growl from the darkness behind Willbrand made Brant freeze once again.
Slowly more forms began to take shape behind Willbrand. A lot of them.
For just a second Brant thought the dog men were upon them, thought they might get Willbrand after all. They were right behind the boy now, practically right next to him. He was easily within striking distance. He would have laughed at that, laughed at the boy’s bravado, at his lack of caution, to make it all the way back to the fort only to have the dog beasts strike him down right at its very doorstep.
Only they didn’t strike him down. One of them stood right next to the boy now, right by his side, but it was not attacking him, was not even looking at him, but instead at the other men in front of him, at Brant.
Whatever humor Brant might have felt about the situation died a quick death when Willbrand suddenly reached out and laid his hand on the dog beast’s head.
If anyone had reason to laugh, it was Willbrand, as he stood there seeing the shocked looks on the faces of the miners that this simple act produced.
He didn’t laugh, however. He had wanted to kill both Brant and the Warden for what they had done, but looking at them now he didn’t feel that way anymore. He had done something worse to them, he had rendered them powerless. The Warden ruled by fear but Willbrand knew now he had nothing to fear from the man. None of them did anymore. For men like the Warden and Brant, those who craved power above all else, the loss of power was truly a fate worse than death.
“Merigan and I are leaving now,” Willbrand announced. “I wouldn’t advise anyone trying to stop us.”
It was a challenge in a way, a dare. A final proof that the Warden no longer had any hold over him.
For a moment it looked as if Brant would take up the challenge. The boy had humiliated him, had made him look bad in front of the Warden. In spite of the odds he took a step forward, lifting his axe, but then stopped as the Warden laid a hand on his shoulder.
He looked up. The Warden just stood there looking at Willbrand.
“Let them go,” he said finally.
It was obvious to the Warden by now that the two who stood in front of him were much more than they seemed. He hadn’t forgotten the snake the girl had somehow conjured, or how she had seemed to vanish and reappear out of thin air. And the boy, he had been left alone to die in the woods, at the mercy of the dog men who had killed so many of his men in the past and what had come of it? The boy had not only survived but somehow managed to make the dog men his allies in the bargain. He didn’t know what kind of sorcery they possessed but, loath as he was to admit it, it was more than he could stand against. He hadn’t had to face defeat often in his life, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t recognize it when he saw it.
“Let them go,” he repeated.
Brant stood there gaping for the longest time, but then, eventually, he lowered his axe.
The Warden turned away, but Willbrand looked toward the rest of the miners and spoke again.
“I don’t know how this all began. I don’t know if anyone at all knows how the killing between you and the dog men started, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The dog men are no more viscous or cruel than most men. All they want to do is be left in peace. If you leave them alone, they won’t bother you. You don’t have to be afraid of them anymore.”
The Warden turned around toward him again.
“All right, you’ve said enough,” he snapped. “You want to leave, go ahead. I hope you both rot in the wilderness. It would serve you right.”
With that he turned toward the other men.
“The rest of you lot, get back in the fort. Back to your business. The supply convoy will be here tomorrow and we’ve got work to do. So quit your slouching and get back to it!”
Willbrand looked at the other men with interest at this. He had already shown them the Warden wasn’t as strong as they had thought, and this was obviously an attempt on his part to reassert his authority over them. After what they had seen, after what Willbrand and Merigan had done, would they listen to him?
To his great surprise, every single one of them turned and started back toward the fort. Willbrand had shown them the dog men were no longer a threat. Without the beasts to act as guards, there was little to prevent the men from turning around and walking into the forest themselves. The Warden couldn’t stop them all. Willbrand had thought at least a few of them would realize this.
With one last glare at Willbrand, the Warden turned away as well, then he and Brant followed the other men back into the fort. The gate slammed behind them and Willbrand found himself left only in the company of Merigan and the dog people.
“I really thought a few of them would stand up to him,” Willbrand muttered.
Merigan gazed at him thoughtfully.
“They’ve been under his yoke for a long time,” she replied. “Perhaps they just need some time.”
Willbrand thought about that, but not for very long. No matter how long he lived, he didn’t think he’d ever really understand human nature.
“Perhaps,” he replied.
He turned to look at her. He sheathed his sword, so as better to take her into his arms again. She was more than happy to oblige.
Willbrand looked down at her arm.
“You’re hurt,” he observed.
She followed his glance.
“Its just a scratch,” she replied. “I’m so glad…”
He waited for her to continue, but no words came out.
“So glad of what?”
“That you’re alive, of course,” he said, hardly a whisper. “I was so afraid.”
He pulled her closer to him.
“Well you don’t have to be anymore,” he replied.
She smiled, then disengaged once more to turn toward the dog man that was standing right beside them, the one who seemed so protective of her companion.
“I’d certainly like to hear how you managed this one,” she commented, looking thoughtfully at the creature.
“And so you shall, but not here. Let’s get away from this place, at least. I don’t want to spend another minute more in the shadow of Cen Findol than I have to.”
She could hardily agree with that, and willingly followed as he led her away. They made their way down the mountainside, not going very far, for it was now full night and getting hard to see. He led her toward a small grove of trees, tall oaks if Merigan wasn’t mistaken, that sort of stood out among the pines trees that covered most of the slopes. There they took shelter, sitting down underneath the largest of the trees.
Some of the dog men followed them. One, the one who had been so close to Willbrand the entire way, curled up on the ground right beside him.
Merigan didn’t fail to notice this.
“I think you’ve made a friend,” she observed with a smile.
Willbrand nodded and patted the dog creatures head.
“She’s my bodyguard,” he replied.
That rose one of Merigan’s eyebrows.
“Yes, or I think so anyway. She’s a little smaller than the males. That’s my guess at least. Remember when we went on the raid. In the cave, there was one of the dog beasts that I couldn’t bring myself to kill, that wasn’t trying to fight me, and I just let it go.”
“Yes I remember,” Merigan replied slowly.
“I think this is her,” he replied. “She saved my life.”
Merigan tilted her head, giving him a curious glance that said, go on.
“The dog men had me surrounded. There were too many of them. I couldn’t kill them all. I decided to try to take your advice.”
“My advice?” she said with surprise.
“Yes yours,” he said. “You were the one who suggested they might be reasoned with. I put away my sword, making it plain I wasn’t going to hurt them. One of them wanted my blood anyway, he lunged at me, but she intervened. She sprang forward and stopped him, knocked him away from me, protected me. Just in time too. If it hadn’t been for her I’d be dead.”
Merigan gave this a bit of thought before replying.
“One good turn deserves another eh?”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I don’t see why she would have done such a thing, unless she was the one I spared. It’s the only explanation I can come up with.”
She had to agree it made sense.
“So you came back with an army to rescue me,” she said slowly.
“Well sort of,” he replied with a grin. “With some waving and coaxing I convinced most of them to follow me back to the fort. I don’t know what they are thinking. I can’t really communicate with them. I don’t know, if it had come to a fight, what they would have done, whether they would have fought for me, against me, or just stood there wondering what the stupid humans were doing.”
“It didn’t matter I guess,” Merigan stated. “Just seeing you with them was enough to convince the Warden to leave you alone.”
“Yes, but what of you. How did you fare while I was gone. It must have been hard for you. I’m sorry.”
“Its all right,” she answered “There wasn’t anything you could have done about it.”
She paused for a moment, not sure how much to say, how many details she should include. How would Willbrand feel about what had happened to her, what she had been threatened with? She didn’t want him running back there now, trying to uphold her honor. In spite of the threats, nothing had happened, after all.
“They told me you were dead, of course. I believe them and I… I despaired. I couldn’t imagine your not being with me anymore…”
She fell silent for a moment. He reached out a hand to comfort her. She gave him a rueful smile.
“It’s all right. That’s over now, like a bad dream, and now I have woken up. The Warden wanted me to stay, told me I couldn’t leave, that I had to remain there as their cook. I said I wouldn’t do it and he came at me. He wanted to leave an impression, wanted to let me know who was boss.”
“What did he do to you?” Willbrand questioned darkly.
“Nothing,” she replied, her hand involuntarily coming up to her face, to touch the cheek he had slapped. It was still sore to the touch and she suspected Willbrand would see a bruise there in the light of day. “I cast one of my illusions and ran away. Then I hid in the fort and waited for a chance to escape. I tried to climb over the fence but slipped and hurt myself and the men saw me. I jumped over the fence and tried to get away but Brant caught up with me. And then you came…”
She fell silent. Willbrand nodded slowly, but gave her a curious look when he saw the expression on her face. It seemed she had more she wanted to say.
Seeing the look he was giving her she spoke again.
“It was strange…”’
“What was?” he queried.
For a moment she said nothing.
“I created the illusion of a snake,” she said finally. “When the Warden came at me. That was nothing new. I’ve created all kinds of creatures on occasions. But… this time it was different.”
“How so?” he prodded.
She didn’t seem quite sure how to go on.
“I’ve practiced with my illusions. Ktan told me that would make me better at it. Its funny, he seems to think practicing my illusions is a good thing, yet at the same time he tells me not to use my powers unless absolutely necessary. Sometimes I don’t know what he wants.”
Willbrand gave her a look, and she realized she was wandering off on a tangent.
“At any rate,” she continued. “I’ve experimented sometimes with my illusions, trying to see how real I can make them. If I created the image of, oh I don’t know, say, an apple, over there on the ground. It might appear as real as anything else but if you walked over to it and tried to pick it up, as soon as your hand reached it you would feel nothing and the spell would be broken. Just as when I’m making someone not see me, if they happen to walk into me they will feel me and again the illusion will be broken. In other words, my illusions have a visual quality but no tactile quality. You can see them, but you can’t touch them. You follow me so far?”
“Of course,” he replied.
“Well, when I created the snake, I was so wound up, I was so upset, so wanted to hurt him, that I made it strike him and…”
Willbrand waited patiently for her to continue.
“And he felt it,” she finished.
“Felt it?” he repeated.
“Yes, felt it. I made the snake strike, made it sink its fangs into him, and he felt it, he reacted as if that was exactly what happened. I could see it.”
She stopped, looking at him. She seemed to want his opinion on the matter but what could he say? Her illusionary powers were far beyond anything he had ever seen or could explain. If she didn’t know how she did what she did, surely he couldn’t expect him to.
Yet even so, there seemed at least one obvious conclusion that even he could make.
“It appears your powers are getting stronger,” he submitted.
She pondered that for a moment then nodded.
“I suppose,” she replied. “But still I have to wonder…”
She took a deep breath.
“I have to wonder what would have happened had I held the spell. As soon as the Warden fell to the floor, as soon as I had a chance, I turned and ran, and of course that broke the spell. But what if I had stood there, what if I had continued to hold the spell. I had him believing the snake was deadly poisonous, that it would kill him in minutes. I have to wonder if…”
It was plain to Willbrand where she was going with this.
“Would he have really died?”
Merigan just looked at him.
“I don’t know.”
Willbrand had to admit this was something that had never occurred to him. Merigan’s powers were useful; she had proved that time and time again. In fact, her talents might have been the most valuable of all of them, more useful than Saramis’s magic or even Ktan’s sword. Her talents were unique, but even so he had always thought of them as diversionary and confusing but he had never really thought of them as particularly dangerous. Could it be true, could she become strong enough to kill someone with just her will? If someone believed they were dead, would they really die? He had heard somewhere, some old wives tale, that if you died in a dream you would really die. He couldn’t see how anyone would know the truth of this, for if you really died having such a dream you couldn’t very well be able to tell anyone now could you? Still, it did bring into question the power of belief. Belief could be a powerful thing, could move mountains. Who was to say it couldn’t be used to slay someone?
If so, if that were really true, then Merigan’s abilities were much darker and much more powerful than he had ever imagined.
And with that thought came another. Merigan was untrained, a novice. Irissa, the Queen, had been the head of the Maidens, the most powerful one of them. If Merigan could do something like this, what kind of power did the Queen hold?
He didn’t know. There was no way to know, of course. Just one more thing to file in the back of his mind, to remember should they ever eventually come face to face with Irisssa.
Now though, the Queen was far away, and even with her powers he didn’t think she could reach out across time and space and find there out here, in the middle of nowhere, much less slay them. For now the Queen was not a concern.
“I don’t know what to make of it,” he said quite honestly. “We’ll just have to see what comes of it, if anything. You still have a lot to learn about your powers, and maybe when we get back to the others they will be able to tell you more, or perhaps we will learn something from the book. But it’s nothing we need to worry about now. It’s late, get some rest. You look exhausted, and I’m not exactly spry myself right now. We’ve had a long and hard day. Tomorrow we can go down to the wharf, we can meet the men bringing the supplies and return with them to civilization. Much as I prefer the company of the dog men to those of the miners I have to admit I’m sick and tired of the wilderness. Tomorrow we can put all this behind us.”
She nodded, smiling at him again. She knew his words were meant to comfort her. Though she felt safer now than she had in a long time they weren’t, literally, out of the woods yet. There was no guarantee that the men who brought the supplies would agree to let the two of them go with them. For all they knew, the Warden’s backing down was just a ploy, a delaying tactic until he thought of a new plan to get rid of them before they left. He knew they planned on getting out with the men from the supply convoy. He could still hatch up another plot.
Her thoughts on these and other far more unlikely scenarios, she quickly drifted off to sleep.